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. Next week Asia Times will publish the concluding installment of this gripping thriller, so timely it’s positively eerie. Full-length print and digital copies available. Now read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 Part 6, Part 7 and Part 8.
Chapter 20: What if it Were Today?
Saying grace the next morning, Reverend Bob asked God to “bless this food to the nourishment of our earthly bodies on this uniquely special day.” Then he left hastily, once again carrying his breakfast in a takeout box.
Sable, making the day’s announcements, explained that he was closeting himself somewhere outside the campus for the day to put the finishing touches on his sermon. “Of course you’ll all see him at the service.”
She sat down at our table and Darley Scratch spoke to her. “I want to pass along one more idea to Dr. Posey for tonight’s sermon.”
“Sorry, but I have no idea where he is, Darley.” She smiled. “If he told us, it wouldn’t be a hideout, would it?”
My plan was to make my own escape only after leading the singing at the service as scheduled. The evening’s event would be my chance not only to talk with Reverend Bob but also to warn Shin-il and Joung-ah about Kim’s intention to send them and others to the gulag. Then they could get the word out. The students and their families could respond accordingly. I didn’t dare go over to see them in broad daylight, especially after what had happened the night before.
I devoted the day’s class time to preparing the music. That required an effort intense enough to provide a welcome distraction from stress that more than once threatened to get the better of me.
The special service’s program of worship called for us to lead off with the Posey organization’s trademark hymn:
Lo, He comes with clouds descending
Once for favored sinners slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending
Swell the triumph of His train:
God appears on earth to reign.
Then, just before the sermon, the congregation would sing another hymn with a closely related theme:
Jesus is coming to earth again.
What if it were today?
Coming in power and love to reign,
What if it were today?
“What If It Were Today?” had been published in 1912 but it was new to the students. We ran through it several times to get it down.
I’d always had a thing about the need to understand lyrics’ meaning in order to sing with the appropriate attitude. Yeah, it’s disappointing that not only The Who and Moody Blues but even true greats Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin performed Coca-Cola jingles. But to my ear, the superstars when singing about a sweet fizzy drink didn’t invest their performances with the totality of the sacred power of their artistry.
I was pondering that second hymn when it occurred to me to say to the students, “Here’s a mental exercise. How would you feel if the End Times were upon us? What if it really were today.”
There was silence, at first. But my students’ shyness had dwindled during the time I’d been teaching them. Some of them had started to volunteer observations during class – usually slipping into Korean when they had complex sentiments to express, which I thought was OK at that stage of their English training. So it was that, before the silence could become uncomfortable, one especially articulate woman spoke up to critique the second hymn’s focus: “I hope it isn’t today, or tomorrow, or even in this century. I don’t think many among us are ready for that. We have it pretty good here, for the first time since we were born, and a lot of us are in no hurry to give up our earthly lives.”
“Anybody else want to talk about that?”
A male student in his twenties chimed in. “Dr. Posey keeps preaching about the Great Tribulation he tells us will precede the Second Coming of Jesus. Most of us are old enough to have experienced the DPRK’s national March of Tribulation. After coming out of that horrible period only to slip back into something not much better, we volunteered to move here because we looked forward to living in peace and getting enough to eat. If entering the End Times means that all of us – or at least those among us who aren’t quite as repentant, or faithful to Jesus, as we should be – have to suffer even worse, I say put it off for as long as possible.”
Some others spoke up to agree. Only one student – Ms. Namkung, the campus’s serial public penitent – proclaimed that Jesus couldn’t come back too soon to suit her.
Next, we ran through the night’s invitation hymn, which the congregation would sing after Reverend Bob had warned that those who were not right with God had better accept salvation. And that means you, Heck Davis.
OK, I knew it wasn’t Reverend Bob’s style to single me out by name. But I sensed that giving me another chance at salvation could have been one reason he’d made sure, by asking me to lead the music, that I would attend services. He wanted to cancel out that debit in his ledger with a new credit if possible. I found it affecting to think he still cared.
The students were almost as familiar as I was with “Just As I Am,” but to be on the safe side we sang it one time, all the way through verse six:
Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Yea, all I need in Thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!
* * *
I dismissed most of the students early but kept back a small group, basically the ensemble I’d taken to the villa, and we practiced “Saints” for the rest of the allotted time. Then, in the afternoon, I phoned Lang.
“We’ve got problems, Heck. Your draft doesn’t sufficiently explain the motivation for Nodding to participate in the scam. Is he personally making enough money out of it to justify the risks he’s taking? More importantly, the story blames two huge, powerful organizations and our lawyers want more evidence. Those guys you’re writing about have deep pockets. They can pay their lawyers to sue us for libel till kingdom come. Meanwhile, we go bankrupt.”
“I knew I needed to give you more. I’m still working the story but I wanted to file last night to let you have something to work with, then fill all holes later.”
“That might have worked out, under other circumstances, but the really bad news is the new publisher, a Hong Kong Chinese bean counter. Ever since his appointment a few weeks ago, he’s been complaining on a daily basis that this story or that story would offend Beijing. The lawyers’ red flag made the publisher happy for reasons of his own. He keeps quoting Mao as having said China and North Korea are ‘as close as lips and teeth.’ He wants me to spike your story.”
“Yeah. It’s the last straw for me with this publisher. I’m about ready to resign. But before I do, is there any way we can nail the story down tighter so the lawyers can pass it and the publisher won’t have their objections to hide behind? If you can do that, I’ll put it up on the site regardless of his instructions and take the heat after the rest of the media pick up the news.”
“I’m positive I know the answer to your first big question, on motivation, and I expect to have enough evidence to plug that hole by the end of the day.”
“OK, but what about the reverend’s place in the story? Robert Posey is the association’s president and has his family name on it, yet we don’t have a comment from him. Of course, we need to give him a chance to respond, make sure we don’t tar him with guilt by association. Looks to me like the conspiracy could boil down to the dealings of a rogue banker who happens to be on Posey’s board and is using the association for logistics and cover, taking advantage of Posey’s trust.”
“Reverend Bob’s been unavailable for comment, but I’ll see him tonight for sure. Stand by for his statement and the rest of what we need to fill those holes.”
* * *
I met with Yu to check signals. The visiting Middle Eastern delegation and Nodding had left for Dandong early that morning in the van – the old driver’s last trip. Nodding had wanted to get back to Hong Kong that same night. Ri had left in a separate car, for Pyongyang. Yu asked if I had any experience operating motorcycles.
“Then your escape vehicle is a two-wheeler. To get a start on Ri’s new assassin, we’ll need to leave right after you’ve finished essential business here and at the family compound. We need to have you out of the country before he can catch up with you.”
Otherwise, I was dead meat, as I knew but didn’t say.
* * *
The students formed up to hike over to the faculty compound. I thought about how close I’d gotten to quite a few of them — and how precarious their futures looked now that I had learned of Kim Jong-un’s intentions.
My story — assuming I could do enough additional reporting tonight to finish documenting it, and assuming Lang could upload it to the site despite the publisher’s objections — might prompt Kim to speed up his plans. He might decide to truck the students and their families off right away to the living hell of the labor camps.
On the other hand, American bombs could start falling on the factory compound if everything didn’t go according to either my scenario or Kim’s. The students might be staying with their parents and siblings by then. Even running into the deeper factory and church tunnels might not save them if the Americans used smart bombs.
I gritted my teeth as we faculty members boarded buses to take us from the university parking lot via an outside road. Tonight was the key.
The factory compound’s front gate proved to be as tightly guarded as our own. Alighting from the buses and reaching the church tunnel, we joined the students and walked down a steep, spiraling ramp for ten minutes or so.
Knowing this could be my last night alive, I wanted to savor each moment. Darley Scratch was beside me. In manic fashion – no doubt inspired by my conversation with Yu – I observed, “It’s OK walking down, but coming back up wouldn’t you rather have two wheels and a big V-twin under you?” That got a wide, toothy grin out of the coach.
At several points, we passed through doorways where massive double doors – obviously constructed to provide tight seals – had been left open for us. As we got closer we could hear the organist playing the processional, an arrangement of “Onward Christian Soldiers” that was even more martial than usual. By the time we entered the sanctuary, the sound was deafening. The organist surely was pulling out all the stops; you could have closed your eyes and imagined yourself in the midst of a stupendous cosmic battle.
And what a sight the cathedral was: a commodious chamber hewn out of solid rock, its walls and high ceiling covered with huge slogans and pictures exhorting the faithful to prepare for the final struggle with Satan and for Christ’s return – all painted in the garish style of North Korean propaganda posters. The painter must have enjoyed a previous career as a socialist-realist artist working for the regime.
I imagined the cathedral decor might represent a consciously ironic turning of tables. After all, the North Korean regime’s visual propaganda style, as I’d read somewhere, owed much to the Christian Sunday school literature that Kim Il-sung had studied as a boy.
My student choristers filed into the choir loft, which overlooked the pulpit and the gigantic pipe organ. Behind them was a glass-fronted baptismal pool. It was full. The water looked clear and fresh. Apparently, Reverend Bob planned to dunk any converts without delay.
On the stone wall behind the pool was painted a giant cross on which Jesus was depicted as a determined-looking, square-jawed worker straight out of a poster designed to whip the masses into a frenzy of overproduction. With the exception of the pipe organ, the fittings and furniture – including pews and pulpit – were simple and didn’t appear to have cost a huge amount. Still, the effect was spectacular.
I was relieved to spot Shin-il sitting at the center aisle end of a pew, Joung-ah next to him. He and his pals must have succeeded in hiding Comrade Ja’s body. We pretended not to know each other.
I led the congregation in the first hymn, singing into a microphone and backed by the choir. Reverend Bob prayed for blessings on this very special, momentous occasion. Then, putting on his reading glasses, he read – as Darley had done during his turn in the campus pulpit – from Ezekiel’s prophecy about a great attack on God’s chosen people by combined forces of enemy countries, with Magog and Persia in the lead.
This was going just as I’d expected based on my reading of Gird Up Your Loins the night before.
“ ‘And thou shalt come from thy place out of the north parts. And thou shalt come up against my people of Israel, as a cloud to cover the land,’ ” Reverend Bob intoned, quoting the prophet’s channeling of Jehovah’s warning to Prince Gog of Magog. “ ‘Surely in that day, there shall be a great shaking.’ ”
“Amen!” Darley Scratch shouted.
“ ‘And I will plead against him with pestilence and with blood; and I will rain upon him, and upon his bands, and upon the many people that are with him, an overflowing rain, and great hailstones, fire and brimstone.’ ”
“Amen,” shouted Darley, along with two or three other congregants seated near him in the front of the room and to my left.
“ ‘I will give thee unto the ravenous birds of every sort, and to the beasts of the field to be devoured. Thou shalt fall upon the open field, for I have spoken it, saith the Lord God. And I will send a fire on Magog and they shall know that I am the Lord. So will I make my holy name known.’ ”
More amens followed, and the singing of the second hymn. Then Reverend Bob launched into his sermon. “What if it really is today?” he began — just as I had anticipated. “There are vital reasons why we must ponder this question, right now, today, and that’s why I asked you all to come here.” He paused, as he had done while reading the scripture, to let a Korean interpreter translate. When she had finished, he coughed and resumed speaking.
“Sending his only begotten Son to the earth, the almighty God offered his kingdom to any and all who would accept it. It has been two thousand years since the Lord made that offer, and still most of mankind has been too stubborn to accept it.”
“Tell ’em, brother!” Darley shouted.
Reverend Bob smiled thinly and continued. “Jesus knew rejection. In fact, he expected it. He knew that even many who thought they were listening to his words did not really listen. They didn’t pay attention when he said, as recounted in Matthew 10:34, that he had not come to bring peace to the world — he had come with a sword.”
A chorus of loud amens issued from Darley, Sable and Ezra, all of whom were nodding in emphatic agreement. Shirley, who was seated with them, wearing light makeup for the occasion, failed to match her parents’ enthusiasm. In fact, she looked downright bored. Goodness and Mercy hadn’t followed them down to the cathedral — they must be upstairs in the family tunnel with the other young children.
“But didn’t Isaiah say the coming messiah would be called ‘Prince of Peace’? Yes, he did, but you have to read carefully what the prophet says in that verse, Isaiah 9:6. ‘For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder. And his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.’ ”
When he paused, I heard more amens and saw more heads bobbing.
“Only the first of those conditions has been fulfilled. The child Jesus was born on earth; the son was given. Jesus won’t be called Prince of Peace until the government is on his shoulder. Only then, as we learn in chapters 19 and 20 of the book of Revelation, will Jesus rule the earth. Then shall his name be called Prince of Peace!”
Reverend Bob’s pause this time was longer than required for a translator to render his words in Korean. He dabbed at his mouth with a handkerchief before resuming. The amen corner was quiet — maybe out of concern for the preacher, who looked unwell.
“Bible prophecy foretells two great battles for control of the earth. Those will be the battle of Gog and Magog and the final battle of Armageddon. The two great battles will be at or near the beginning and the end, respectively, of the seven years of Tribulation.” He paused again for more mouth dabbing.
“The signs that the prophets pointed to are now all in place. The Temple in Jerusalem is being rebuilt as we speak. Red heifers are being born in Israel. There is nothing left but for Israel’s enemies — Gog and Magog, Persia and so on — to do their part.”
“Yes, Lord!” cried Lindsey Harrold. The normally staid old theologian was starting to get into the spirit of the occasion.
“What does this mean?” Reverend Bob asked rhetorically. “The scriptures are clear that it means the patience of Almighty God is exhausted and he is ready to judge the sinful of the earth and show his glory to all human beings, the saved and the unsaved alike.”
“Amen!” Darley Scratch shouted louder than before. Ezra Pugmire seconded the motion.
“Reading the descriptions in the Bible,” Reverend Bob preached, “we see that the coming warfare will employ horrific weapons of mass destruction.”
A chill went down my spine. Here it comes. I reached into a jacket pocket and felt to make sure the recorder was still switched on.
Reverend Bob dabbed his mouth again before continuing. “The book of Revelation says, ‘The fourth angel poured out his vial upon the sun, and power was given unto him to scorch men with fire. By these three was the third part of men killed — by the fire, and by the smoke, and by the brimstone.’”
“We trust in thy wisdom, Lord!” Darley Scratch shouted.
“The prophet Zechariah tells us that Armageddon ‘shall be the plague wherewith the Lord will smite all the people that have fought against Jerusalem; their flesh shall consume away while they stand upon their feet, and their eyes shall consume away in their holes, and their tongue shall consume away in their mouth.’ ”
Reverend Bob’s face consumed away into a scary mask.
“The prophets who foresaw that future for us had never heard of today’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, but they described with perfect accuracy the effects of such weapons.”
Ms. Namkung got into sync with Darley and company by shouting “Yes, Lord!” in Korean from the choir loft. No other Koreans appeared really pumped. Reverend Bob didn’t seem to notice. He just continued on, coughing more often, his voice becoming raw.
“Ezekiel tells us that enemies of Israel involved in the first battle will include the land of Magog ruled by the prince called Gog. We know that those are code words for what is now Russia and its ruler. President Ronald Reagan knew that biblical truth. Ezekiel tells us that Persia is also involved. Persia is the old name of Iran. Surely you all know that for quite a while a huge argument has raged over how much time will pass before that country turns itself into a nuclear weapons state, with or without international agreements, sanctions and so on. I have prayed over this. Today I can tell you that the matter is no longer subject to dispute. Persia is within a few days of playing its prophesied role, using Russian-designed nuclear missiles.”
I glanced behind me at Yu with a questioning look. I wanted backup. She nodded toward her handbag, a signal that her own recorder was running.
“Israel already has its own nukes,” Reverend Bob said. “God’s will be done. By the end of the two battles, all the works of man will be destroyed. Will the world end then? No. Rather, as Peter tells us in his second epistle, it will be remade by holy fire.”
He turned to me and nodded. Playing guitar, I sang about the saints who’d go marching in when the sun refused to shine and the moon turned to blood. The students of the ensemble did me proud — particularly Yu on harmonica. It was a shame I wouldn’t be able to work with them after that night.
Reverend Bob resumed preaching, launching into his altar call: “Sin and human failure have horribly tainted the world as it is now. The earth must be returned to the pristine state that Adam and Eve found when God created them in his image and placed them in the Garden of Eden. Then Christ will reign over human beings, who will lead sin-free lives for a thousand years under his perfect system of government.”
“Come, precious Lord,” Darley interjected.
“His return will be a great comfort to true Christians. Nonbelievers make fun of us. In the final judgment the tables will be turned; we believers will be vindicated. The nonbelievers will choke on their laughter in the face of the horrible wrath of God.”
I looked at Reverend Bob’s face during the translation. Although his preaching was not especially powerful – to tell the truth, it was on the tedious side – he looked mighty pleased with himself. His eyes wide and unfocused, he gazed out over the congregation, toward the invisible hills and mountains beyond, in a fair approximation of the look for which his far more eloquent and charismatic father had been famous in his preaching days.
At the same time I had to note that he appeared more than slightly unhinged. His mouth was twisted. Spittle had formed around his lips, but he didn’t wipe it away with his handkerchief.
“What about you?” he inevitably asked. “Where do you stand? When the trumpet sounds its call when the new world is revealed, will you be one of the saints privileged to march in?”
Some people were fidgeting. The message was so overpowering, so challenging to the worldly hopes and dreams of even the most faithful, that it was sorely testing Reverend Bob’s delivery capabilities. It seemed he had actually begun to bore people, if not turn them off.
“You won’t be in that number if you haven’t accepted God’s offer, if you haven’t confessed your faith in Jesus Christ, letting him wash you clean. You won’t be in that number if you were once right with God but fell from grace and fail to get right with him again before it’s too late.”
Damned if he didn’t look briefly over at me as he said that. Then, without pausing for translation, he thundered on to the climax.
“Do you really want to be left behind, left outside? Revelation tells us, ‘Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying.’ ”
A student just behind me in the choir loft whispered to her companion, “Coach’s preaching is better.” Reverend Bob didn’t hear the remark. I couldn’t tell whether he sensed that he wasn’t getting through.
“I can’t make the choice for you. God won’t make it for you. If you have not made that choice, make it now. Come down the aisle and throw yourself on the mercy of the Lord as we sing the invitation hymn.”
He nodded at me, my cue to be ready to start “Just As I Am” at the conclusion of the translation.
* * *
I turned on my microphone. When the time came I stood. Instead of singing, I spoke: “Reverend Bob, I always admired and loved you, and I deeply appreciate your concern for all our souls, so it pains me to have to point out that you are perpetrating a fraud.”
I stopped for the translator and saw that my first words had shocked the English speakers in the congregation. Darley Scratch, looking somewhere between outraged and confused, spoke up. “Where are you headed with this, Heck?”
I couldn’t come out and explain, at that point, that I needed more details to be confirmed in the preacher’s voice while Yu and I recorded, so I continued speaking to Reverend Bob: “Russian-designed, Russian-marked nuclear weapons are on the way to ‘Persia.’ But it was not through communing with God, as you implied, that you learned about that. You and your organization are the ones who are sending them, and those nukes are in fact put together from the ‘tractor subassemblies’ that you’ve had these good people manufacturing in the next tunnel. You not only look forward to the Tribulation, the final battles and the Second Coming; you can’t wait. You’re determined to make them happen right now.”
The Koreans in the congregation were listening carefully to the translation coming through their earphones, and the expressions on some of their faces suggested they understood what I was saying.
“You and Zack Nodding are helping the North Korean ruler make huge profits so he’ll play his part in your scheme.”
Lindsey Harrold pulled himself up straight. “Sit down, Heck. We all thought you had a good mind, but it turns out there’s nothing in the attic but cobwebs.”
“Zack is brokering a fraud scheme that involves investing through his bank in financial instruments called credit default swaps.”
“Can you prove that?”
Reverend Bob marched over and tried to wrest the microphone from my grip. No longer the man he’d once been, he was no match for me. Desperate, he spun around to face the choir. “Sing!”
Dumbfounded, the choir remained silent, as if the lamb had opened the seventh seal.
“I said SING!”
Only Ms. Namkung obeyed: She didn’t have much of a voice, and faltered and stopped after a couple of bars of “Just As I Am.”
I kept talking, addressing Harrold and Scratch. “I have a recording of the meeting in Dr. Posey’s private dining room last night with Iranian generals, a Lebanese arms merchant middle man and General Ri of the DPRK People’s Army. The scheme is laid out there.” I turned to Reverend Bob. “I can play it back for you if you want.”
He shook his head, as the translator did her work.
“You and Nodding planned for the North Koreans to supply the weapons that ‘Persia,’ allied with other Islamic forces, would deploy to attack Israel and start the battle of Gog and Magog. Meanwhile, you would pass those weapons off as Russian so you could implicate the country you identify as Magog as the aggressive facilitator.”
Sable Pugmire spoke up from her front pew. “Heck has made some extremely serious allegations, Dr. Posey. I’m sure you have a response and I think we all need to hear it.”
“Yes, please answer the charges, Bob,” Lindsey Harrold said.
Reverend Bob returned to his pulpit and used his own microphone to answer. “I — we — did those things, for God,” he croaked. “It’s altogether right and proper for the Lord’s people to help his plan along. The Lord helps those who help themselves.”
Lindsey Harrold looked stunned. “There’s nothing in the pages of the Bible to justify such actions, Bob. You’re presuming to decide God’s timing, and Matthew tells us that Jesus specifically warned against that. ‘But of that day and hour knoweth no man; no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.’ ”
“I have not violated Christ’s admonition by presuming to specify the precise time.”
Darley Scratch was uncharacteristically silent, seemingly struggling to make sense of things. Meanwhile, Bartow Toombs smiled his thin smile as his clever mind sorted through what he had heard.
Toombs spoke. “You’re talking like a lawyer, not a pastor, Dr. Posey. Sooner or later somebody — whether mortal intelligence agents working for the CIA or the angelic operatives of a heavenly spy network — would have figured out your trick. You must have realized it would be clear then that if any country fit the role of Magog, enemy of God’s chosen people, that would be North Korea.”
Harrold picked up the attack. “Yes. If I understand correctly you’ve shipped those weapons – in Ezekiel’s words – ‘from the north parts.’ It’s impossible that you would fail to realize you risk bringing down terrible retaliation upon this country – not by the almighty God, who wouldn’t be fooled about the origin for an instant, but by the mighty enough United States. Were you really willing to sacrifice the lives of untold numbers of North Koreans, starting with the people here who made the weapons, and their children studying in your university? I’m deeply grieved to have to say that, from what I’ve heard, it seems that way.”
* * *
I couldn’t help reflecting – not for the first time – that Reverend Bob’s plan for the evening clearly had been to save as many souls as he could before the fires came. It was possible to see that as a kindness, of the sort that had contributed to making him an admirable man and teacher. On the other hand, I couldn’t help feeling that such sincere concern for the smaller picture, when set off against the enormity of the overall catastrophe he planned, called his sanity into question. Was he simply an example of the extent to which religion can drive a certain type of believer to extreme behavior? Or was the man stark, raving mad? Hard for me to decide; I was too close to the situation.
Either way, I would have preferred to think that this was a recent phenomenon – that, late in his life, he had somehow slipped over the edge. But I couldn’t be sure he hadn’t been that way all along and managed to hide it, from me and from others. Incidents from the past, especially the reported self-crucifixion I’d heard about from Father Paul, came back to my mind.
Regardless, I realized that I was feeling in my gut an ineffable sense of personal loss. As Fatback Hawkins had once remarked, “Nothin’ worse than a preacher gone bad.”
I kept those thoughts to myself as Reverend Bob put on his reading glasses and bent over to consult his Bible.
Darley, whose own preaching suggested he wasn’t always able to distinguish between pious and loony, found his voice and stood to defend Reverend Bob. “Let’s not be too quick to draw conclusions. ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged.’ ”
Reverend Bob continued poring over the printed scriptures.
The confrontation between us wasn’t over. I had more to say: “What you didn’t know, Reverend Bob, is that the missiles are duds, and the North Korean authorities planned it that way. Let me ask the people who work in the factory: What have your supervisors been telling you about the ‘tractors’ you’re supposed to be helping to assemble?”
Shin-il listened to the translation, then shouted, “The ‘tractors’ run backward. They’re no good!” Several men seated near Shin-il, and then Koreans from other parts of the congregation, joined the chorus: “That’s right! They don’t work.”
I spoke again. “General Ri and his boss, Kim Jong-un, have double-crossed you, Reverend Bob. They want money, all right, and they get it – from the missile sales and even more so from that financial markets scam your right-hand man Nodding is helping them carry out. But even though they proclaim that North Korea is a ‘nuclear power’ they know they’re not ready for the United States to come after them with everything it has.”
Reverend Bob looked up from his Bible, his eyes wild, as I continued speaking.
“Meanwhile, I have learned from an impeccable source that they plan in due course to shut down Posey Korea University and send all of this flock to rot in prison camps. You provided the bait that lured these refugees back into the country. Whether you knew it or not, their fate is to be sent to the gulag. That’s what Kim Jong-un had in mind all along.”
I had needed to get that said, to warn the Koreans.
Startled, Reverend Bob grasped both sides of the pulpit. A buzzing erupted in the congregation as the translator relayed my remarks to the shocked and frightened Koreans.
At that moment, a Korean man in people’s clothing rushed through the tunnel door and ran down the cathedral’s center aisle, pointing a handgun in my direction. Of course, the plainclothes security detail, up in the guard house with a listening device, would have sent someone down when I started talking about nuclear weapons being made at the site. And by the time he got down that long passage he and his colleagues were able to hear me commit a far worse North Korean sin, taking the ruler’s name in vain. No doubt reinforcements were assembling upstairs.
I reached for my pocketed revolver. Before I could extract it, Shin-il and some other Korean men seated on the aisle grabbed the security man and wrestled him for his weapon. It discharged into the cop’s belly. He fell.
Just then the entire cathedral began to sway as if it were a porch swing. “Jesus Christ!” My irreverent cry was lost in the general hubbub. The lights went out. One by one, the students switched on their flashlights. Turning, I saw the illuminated organ. Its pipes vibrated; some bent as I watched. Waves formed in the baptismal pool, sloshing over the edge. People who had been leaning forward slid off their pews onto the floor.
The swaying continued, left and right, increasing in intensity. It turned into lurching, and then things got out of control. Ms. Namkung screamed, in Korean, “Come, Lord Jesus!” Others panicked and joined her in yelling. Some attempted to maintain calm.
As the shaking started to subside, parents including the Paks and the Pugmires moved stumblingly toward the exit to check on the young children they’d left under adult supervision in the residential tunnel. I signaled Yu to go in the same direction to phone in her recording, which contained everything Lang would need for filling the holes in the story.
The microphones were dead but I raised my voice. In English and then Korean I said it appeared we had experienced an earthquake. I advised those with no urgent business above to stay. Since we were in what had been built as a bomb shelter, we should be relatively safe below. Ezra and Sable conferred at the tunnel entrance; she turned back while he headed up. Shin-il, along with a co-worker who carried the dead security man’s pistol, continued upstairs while Joung-ah remained behind. Before reclaiming her seat she covered the security man’s body with her coat.
I reached down and, by feel, released the safety on my revolver, to be prepared if more security men should come down. Then I checked to make sure my recorder, in a different pocket, was still running in case Reverend Bob might say anything else of importance. For the moment he was silent as he stood at the pulpit, leafing through his Bible.
The upstairs contingent had been gone for just a few minutes, and small groups of congregants were standing around talking excitedly when the earth moved again – an aftershock almost as strong as the first shock.
“You see!” Reverend Bob exulted. “As prophesied, the sin-cursed earth is screaming. ‘The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain.’ Romans 8:22. The great war is starting!” Even without a microphone, his husky voice carried. The three Korean interpreters who’d taken turns translating the proceedings were no longer in their booth. The two who hadn’t rushed upstairs translated Reverend Bob’s words for knots of congregants.
“Not likely,” I said. “If this isn’t a standard earthquake, maybe Mount Paektu has erupted on account of the nuclear testing”
Reverend Bob started reading aloud from Psalm 59. “ ‘The mighty are gathered against me, not for my transgression nor for my sin, O Lord.’ ” He coughed and wiped his mouth. “ ‘Visit all the heathen; be not merciful to any wicked transgressors.’ ”
People stopped their conversations and turned to look at him as he raised his voice to a scream. “ ‘They return at evening; they make a noise like a dog and go round about the city! Behold, they belch out with their mouth; swords are in their lips. For who, say they, doth hear? But thou, O Lord, shalt laugh at them; thou shalt have all the heathen in derision.’ ”
He looked over at me. There was hatred in his eyes and in his twisted mouth. “ ‘God shall let me see my desire upon mine enemies. Slay them now, lest my people forget; scatter them by thy power and bring them down, O Lord our shield. For the sin of their mouth and the words of their lips’ . . .”
He stopped reading, looked at me again and shouted, “Who are you, Heck Davis, to question the motives of a man of God? You’re worse than a heathen. You’re a heretic. Worse still, you’re an apostate!”
I couldn’t help reflecting that, for better or worse, he no longer saw me as a pleaser. “You didn’t finish reading that last verse, Reverend Bob. I happen to recall the line that follows and I’ll recite it for you: ‘Let them even be taken in their pride.’ ”
Lindsey Harrold, who had remained seated, nodded thoughtfully as he asked, “Is that what it’s all about, Bob? Your pride?”
Reverend Bob frowned. Ignoring the professor’s question, he bellowed at me: “Look to your sins. There’s not much time left before it’s too late.”
I realized I’d done, that evening, what I had to do. Not wanting to kick a man when he was down, I let his last remark go unanswered. Bartow Toombs glanced at me with what I took to be a sympathetic expression. Reverend Bob sputtered, looking frantically to the rest of the congregation for support. No rescuer appeared.
Instead, Lindsey Harrold directed a question to me: “What do you imagine are the chances that Bob’s blasphemous dream — the world’s nightmare — will be fulfilled?”
I didn’t know whether Yu had managed to phone in the new material — or, if she had, whether the AsiaIntel publisher would persist in blocking publication. I needed to give an honest answer, but one that wouldn’t discourage them to the point of inaction.
“Much of my working experience is as a newsman, as Reverend Bob and some of the rest of you know, and I’ve done my best to see to it that what you’ve heard here tonight will go out tomorrow to everybody on earth who cares to know. If that effort succeeds, I hope international society will put the quietus on the various schemes. But that’s a best-case scenario. All of us ought to be prepared for sudden changes, which I can’t predict.”
Most of those remaining in the congregation looked at Reverend Bob, some whispering among themselves. As they waited for his response, a fit of coughing seized him. Maybe it was a result of the movements of the earth; maybe it was his late-stage cancer’s delayed reaction to the pressure that all that preaching had put on his throat and vocal cords. Then again, hearing that his grand scheme might be going for naught could have been the signal for his body to follow.
Blood spewed from his mouth. He collapsed into his chair behind the pulpit. He was losing consciousness.
Sable rushed to attend to him. She removed the white pulpit cloth and dipped it in the baptismal pool, whose water continued to sway slightly. “Here, let’s get you cleaned up,” she said gently as she began dabbing at him.
Congregation members who had gone up to ground level had yet to return and I worried that, with the subsidence of the earth’s movements, security men would appear momentarily in the tunnel. I decided the appropriate thing for me to do, while keeping one hand on the pocketed pistol, was to start singing — not “Just As I Am” but a much prettier invitation hymn, its message more closely keyed to Reverend Bob’s immediate needs. The choir and then the congregation joined in. Korean and English lyrics blended together into a mixture that would have been incomprehensible to a listener who didn’t know the words.
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
Calling for you and for me;
See, on the portals, He’s waiting and watching,
Watching for you and for me.
Come home, come home,
You who are weary, come home;
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, O sinner, come home!
Some of the faculty members who’d been particularly close to Reverend Bob joined Sable in a vigil at the pulpit. Grieving the hardest, judging by the tears streaming down his face, was Darley Scratch. I empathized with the coach. Both of us were losing a key figure in our lives and it was going to take time and thought — and in Darley’s case, certainly, prayer — to come to terms with the way that was happening.
As we began the third verse, Reverend Bob’s breathing grew shallow.
Time is now fleeting, the moments are passing,
Passing from you and from me;
Shadows are gathering, deathbeds are coming,
Coming for you and for me.
He slipped away as we sang the last lines of the fourth verse:
Though we have sinned, He has mercy and pardon,
Pardon for you and for me.
The expression on his face could have been a standard-issue rictus but I hoped it was a smile of peace, understanding and contentment.
Chapter 21: Exodus
Yu returned. Whatever the disturbance had been — ordinary earthquake or volcanic eruption — it had caused much more damage on the surface than in the cathedral. The only aboveground structure in the factory camp, the camouflaged guard house, had fallen down. All the uniformed and plainclothes security men found inside had been crushed; perhaps others had fled. Broken rocks and other debris partially clogged the entrances to the tunnels.
Yu had managed to get a cellular signal after the first wave and had succeeded in sending the new recording to Lang Meyer. Then the aftershock had cut her off while she was talking to Mi-song, but not before she’d learned that her boss had crossed into China.
Ezra Pugmire, the second to return, reported that it had proved possible to get through the debris to the residential tunnel. The room serving as a nursery had held up well, even though some of that tunnel’s other rooms had caved in. Some children were asleep again already and others were nodding off.
A couple of the university buses had survived intact. So had some factory trucks parked out in the open but under camouflage tarps. That came as good news to the Koreans. Shin-il proposed making a run for it back across the river to China. The others agreed. By now, the Koreans all realized, they knew too much to be of any further use to the Kim regime.
They’d leave before the inevitable arrival of security heavies. If they stayed, some would face a firing squad; the rest, prison camp. There was no reason to assume Kim Jong-un and General Ri would delay in dispatching new security forces tasked with their capture, even if doing so interrupted disaster relief efforts.
To have a decent chance of getting through, the Koreans needed weapons in addition to Comrade Ja’s rifle and the slain plainclothesman’s pistol. Shin-il and his pals sifted through the ruins of the guardhouse, accumulating a sizable pile of weapons and ammunition. A military veteran in their group distributed the pieces, instructing the non-veterans in their use. Then a half dozen of the newly armed fellows acted as bodyguards for Sable and a few faculty colleagues who went over to check conditions on the university campus.
Another group removed Reverend Bob’s body and carried it over for temporary burial at the university. Yet another group left to retrieve the body of Comrade Ja from a little used storeroom at the end of the residential tunnel, where she’d been temporarily stashed, and bury her, as well as the security man from the cathedral, in an unmarked grave well away from the path that led to the campus. At Yu’s suggestion, that work detail cleaned the blood off the cathedral floor so that the next cops to arrive would not immediately realize there’d been shooting and killing.
* * *
Our migrant caravan formed up as we received a tearful sendoff from the foreign faculty members, who had decided not to cross the border illegally. They would wait, hoping I could manage to reach China and alert the U.S. government to the need for an official evacuation. That seemed to make sense for them, although we who were fleeing lacked the luxury of choice.
The teachers would bide their time in a couple of campus buildings that still stood. The campus’s security men, like those attached to the family compound, were dead or missing, their weaponry added to our stock. Plenty of canned foods and dry staples that had spilled out of the pantry were still edible, and some of the water tanks and fuel tanks remained full.
I made it a point to speak to Bartow Toombs. “You seem to have nailed it with your psychological analysis.”
“Lucky guess, but it does seem to have been on target. My current theory –— Shakespeare and Freud would approve — is that Robert Posey wanted to make sure prophecy was fulfilled while his father was still alive. That way the old man could participate, as the End Times unfolded according to the son’s version of the biblical plan. Johnny Posey would realize, finally, that Bob was as big a man as he was.”
The Koreans who once again were refugees piled their portable belongings into the buses and trucks.
Yu, the day before, had stashed nearby a pair of North Korean highway patrol motorcycles. Darley Scratch looked them over with a connoisseur’s eye — “Chinese-made?”
“Wish we had an extra one to offer you, Darley,” I said. “You’d be a good man to have along on this expedition.”
Over our regular clothing, Yu and I put on uniforms bearing the insignia of the Ministry of Public Security. My costume was tight. Hers was loose enough that it didn’t reveal her feminine figure. Her helmet provided enough extra space to hide her hair, which she was tying up as I explained to her puzzled fellow Koreans that she brought some training and experience to what we were attempting.
“Westward ho!” I said as she and I mounted up.
She looked at me quizzically. “It will be a minute or two before everyone is settled into the large vehicles, and that gives me a chance to ask you something. Judging from the assured, direct and efficient way you drew that confession out of him, I am guessing that you had arrived at the service believing that Dr. Posey was in the thick of the plot. You didn’t look surprised at all when he started preaching about weapons of mass destruction – which is the point at which I began to realize where the sermon was heading. Dr. Posey hadn’t stayed to talk with the arms buyers. He had left his private dining room before Nodding and General Ri and the Middle Easterners made incriminating remarks. How could you be sure that Nodding hadn’t kept Dr. Posey out of all the nastiness? Or were you bluffing, to draw him out?”
“I wasn’t bluffing. I knew. Reverend Bob hosted those visitors for dinner after telling me they were prospective contributors to Posey Korea University’s God-given mission.”
“That mission as he saw it was Christian. Of course, there are Christians among the Lebanese and Iranian populations. But when Reverend Bob announced that dinner was served he didn’t say grace.”
“Oh, I get it. Even I dined with him often enough to know how out of character that was. He never neglected to say grace.”
“We didn’t have to listen for very long before the visitors made clear they weren’t by any stretch of the imagination Christians. Reverend Bob already knew who those men were and what they had come for. I could see he must be up to his neck in the whole rotten mess.”
“Even the efforts to kill first your friend and then you?”
“Killing’s all in a day’s work for General Ri, but murder wouldn’t have been Reverend Bob’s first instinct. Still, as time went on, he’d have had to work hard to push aside the suspicion that Ri — and, I imagine, Nodding, as well — had wanted Joe and me dead.”
I actually choked up a bit at that point and paused to compose myself before continuing. “Maybe it’s better for me if I never know for sure whether, at some point, Reverend Bob confronted his dilemma. Did he come to see that his priority was not observing the commandment against killing but fulfilling the End Times prophecies? To him, after all, those prophecies meant raining death on humanity.”
“You look sad. I know it must hurt you to find that someone you admired so much was pursuing an evil scheme.”
“Well, I had some preparation. ‘Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption, and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.’ ” After reciting the words in English I translated them.
“Is that from the Bible?”
“Pretty close. It’s from a novel, All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren.”
“In any case,” Yu said, changing the subject as we chugged over to join the rest of the motorcade, “I hope the earthquake, or whatever it was, has put a crimp in the travel plans of the university’s new driver. We have enough to worry about, trying to get past what lies between us and the other side of the river.”
“Tell you what. This is your turf. You lead and I’ll bring up the rear.”
* * *
For the first several hours of our journey, we remained, both figuratively and literally, in the dark about whether Mount Paektu had erupted. Meanwhile, though, we could easily determine that the movement of the earth had been widespread and devastating.
A town we passed through came as close to hell on earth as anything I’d ever seen. As we drove in pitch darkness we saw that everything our headlights illuminated had been flattened. It was such a ghastly sight that hardly anyone noticed at first as a gang of little boys and teenagers, filthy, stunted, ragged and emaciated, approached us from off to our left. Before we knew it they were climbing on the running boards and beds of the trucks, hanging onto the window frames of the buses, attacking like Somali pirates, yelling and pounding, demanding food.
In the darkness, they had missed seeing Yu’s cop uniform. When she fired a couple of warning shots, the marauding youngsters turned to look at her. She ordered them to climb down, but sweetened the demand by telling them we’d share our supplies with them. They complied and Shin-il handed over three bags of food.
“Kotchebi,” Shin-il said. “Homeless. The disaster last night did not make them the way they are. It started during the March of Tribulation. Later, in 2013, Kim Jong-un had them rounded up and put into orphanages. The orphanages turned out to be sweatshop workhouses where they didn’t get enough to eat. A lot of them have run away and resumed hanging around stations begging and stealing, sometimes robbing.”
When we left them, the young beggars were divvying up our donated provisions. We headed out of town and soon began to cross steep mountains. The going was tough — but it beat trying to traverse the sea of molten lava below, the glow of which confirmed that the volcano had spewed.
As dawn broke we were navigating a stretch of mountain road, poor to begin with, that had partially collapsed at one point. We stopped, took the precaution of emptying the passengers from the vehicles and had them walk ahead while the drivers picked their way slowly along what remained of the road, constantly within inches of tumbling into a gorge on their right. It would have been a long tumble. We were getting enough early morning light for me to estimate that the gorge dropped straight down a thousand feet or so.
About fifty feet farther, just past the place where the landslide damage ended, the drivers stopped to let the passengers back in. Then, from behind us, I heard the roar of an engine and the crackle of gunfire. An olive-green Jeep-like vehicle sped up the road after us, its driver with his free hand holding a rifle — automatic or semi-automatic, judging by the volume of bullets being expelled. I was the closest to him and saw him swing his weapon in my direction.
I pulled out my pistol and fired twice. One bullet hit him in the head or neck, I couldn’t tell which. Blood splattered on the shattered windshield. But he kept coming, shooting as he drove.
Everybody else was diving for cover except Yu. She took aim and blew out his right front tire just as he was negotiating the washout. Seeing him and his car spinning in mid-air over the abyss, the whole bunch of us clapped our hands and cheered.
“Nice shooting, Ms. Yu. An appropriate welcome for General Ri’s new man on campus.”
I’d relaxed too soon. As we neared the bottom of another mountain, the last on our route, Yu halted the column. She had spotted a roadblock, set up between us and the river border. The uniformed guards remained standing in position, their lack of agitated movement indicating they didn’t realize their quarry had arrived.
Shin-il gathered the factory workers and university students for a conference. We considered waiting all day and trying to sneak around the roadblock after nightfall to get to the river. Refugees typically crossed at night, after all. But because General Ri might send backup forces swiftly, we figured our better chance lay in pressing ahead in what was rapidly becoming broad daylight.
Even that was going to be a highly risky operation. We’d be foolish to assume that the guards, before arresting or shooting us, would be conscientious enough to take any time eliminating the possibility we were innocent evacuees from the disaster area. A few of our men, whose expressions of interest in Christianity had come late in life, had previously served in the army. An ex-sergeant drew up a battle plan. We left the children and most of the women — Namkung and two female factory workers chose to bear arms — to wait there out of the guards’ sight.
Yu and I in our police disguises, our goggles fixed, rumbled ahead, rounding a bend in the road. When we arrived at the roadblock, the leader of the guards gestured for us to stop. As we had anticipated, he demanded our police credentials. At that moment, from around the same bend where the larger force was waiting, our former sergeant fired a grenade launcher. The explosion of the grenade off to the side of the roadblock created a diversion.
As the armed men blocking our way turned around to look toward where the explosion occurred, Yu and I pulled our pistols. One of the guards swiveled back and started to aim at me. I fired and missed. Yu dispatched him with a single bullet. I fired at another guard and watched him fall to the ground. Yu and I gunned our motors and drove on past the checkpoint while our larger vehicles, buses in the lead, plowed through with rifles and pistols blazing. I had used up my ammunition.
Surprise and superior numbers won the day for us. All the guards were dead. Our side had quite a few wounded. Fortunately, we’d brought along first aid supplies from the campus infirmary. We’d lost one fighter. A former military man who was the father of the student body president had been firing a semi-automatic weapon from a standing position in the lead bus’s doorway, where he’d made a big target. Attended by his sobbing wife and children, he lay dying of multiple wounds. His last words: “I’m glad I finally had a chance to stand up against the Kims.”
Copyright: Bradley K. Martin, Nuclear Blues
Next week: Part 10 – Heaven’s Revenge
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.
“It’s been said, perhaps apocryphally, that when Leo Tolstoy showed a friend the manuscript of his monumental 1,225-page masterpiece War and Peace, the friend read it and remarked that the book had everything but a horse race. Bradley K. Martin has stuffed an amazing series of coincidental and accidental relationships and bizarre events into his rambunctious, rollicking, dystopian novel Nuclear Blues — so many that he didn’t need a horse race. This is a book that might cause Cubby Broccoli to abandon James Bond. It is a murderous, chaotic romp through a near-future North Korea by a Korean-American guitar picker, Bible thumper, bourbon drinker and burned out photojournalist from Mississippi now plying his musical trade in Japanese night clubs. Festus Park (Heck) Davis, born of a union between a South Korean woman and a Deep Southerner, is catapulted into an adventure that includes the obligatory pneumatic North Korean spy; a fundamentalist Christian university in North Korea operated by a dead ringer for Oral Roberts/Jimmy Swaggart/Billy James Hargis/Billy Graham/Pat Robertson; Iranian agents seeking a bomb; the noxious family of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung and his descendants; a behemoth investment bank that could be mistaken for Goldman Sachs. The book contains some of the clearest explanations of what credit default swaps are, and how they are used, outside of a financial textbook. It is an endlessly entertaining novel that also manages to impart, outside of the main narrative, a sense of what North Korea is about. It is not a pretty place. The book owes considerable to the reporting, research and news analysis that formed a major part of Martin’s career as a Pyongyang-watcher. A Georgia boy himself, he has obviously heard enough gospel music and down-home preaching to add more veracity.” – John Berthelsen, Asia Sentinel