The Guys Who Spied For China
“…We should thoroughly learn the written and spoken languages of all countries so as to translate Western books and newspapers, in order to know what other countries are doing all around us, and also to train men of ability as diplomats. We should send people to travel to all countries in order to enlarge their points of view and enrich their store of information, to observe the strengths and weaknesses, the rise and fall of other countries; to adopt all the good points of other nations and to avoid the bad points from the start. As a result there will be none of the ships and weapons of any nation, which we shall not
be able to make, and none of the machines or implements which we shall not be all to improve.”
---T’an Ssu-T’uang, 1897
It was winter in Van Nuys. Winter in Southern California could never evoke the frosty bleakness of the northern states, but on the right night it was still capable of creating an ambience of urban drear and desolation. The streets were empty; traffic was sparse. Gusts of wind blew leaves and trash. I was sitting in the shadows inside Noah Brown’s ancient Chevy El Camino, sipping bad coffee from a Styrofoam cup, my eyes cast toward a dumpster ridden alleyway that divided the tacky shops on Van Nuys Boulevard from the tacky apartments two and three stories above the street.
“That’s it.” Noah pointed to one ugly apartment building that was nearly indistinguishable from the next. “He lives in the back.”
I nodded and studied the dark windows in the second floor rear. A creepy feeling swept over me as I focused on the older, cheaper vehicles parked in the carport on the street level just underneath the building.
“You sure he’s not there?” It was less a question and more a plea for reassurance.
Noah gestured. “See the empty space, the last space on the last row? That’s where he parks his car.”
I nodded, catching the sounds of blue-collar din—a dish clattering in some unknown kitchen, violence from an overloud TV. The smell of a hundred microwave dinners mingled with the garbage odor spiraling from a couple dozen dumpsters. It was bleak and banal, and it stood in sharp contrast to the pre-conceived glamour of cloak-and-dagger romance. But, in fact, it was the banality itself that heightened the danger that lay just a few yards away.
“He may be a contract player, working for Louie’s friends. He may be here on his own, it’s too early to tell.”
I nodded, turning to look at my companion. Noah Brown. Noah was a one of a kind, a government spook with a social and scientific pedigree. Having traveled with Noah for more than a year, I knew all too well about the many times and many places Noah had sat waiting in the darkness. Waiting for his prey. Noah’s gray hair and angular face were appropriately noirish in the shadows of his faded beige El Camino. Despite his age, Noah remained the ever-faithful adventure junkie, seeking his own peculiar gratifications, which he sometimes cloaked in the guise of patriotic ideology. The El Camino, like the aging and seemingly fragile Noah, was deceptively virile, filled with spy gear, weapons and a powerhouse engine.
“Either way, I don’t want him around causing a ruckus,” Noah went on. “The last thing I need is to go chasing him all over the country. Not with all this other business on my plate.”
“How did he get into the country?” I asked.
“Slipped in,” Noah shrugged matter-of-factly. “Happens all the time. They’re in and out of here. Sometimes we catch them, sometimes we don’t. But Yomiya, he’s one of their big chief muckety mucks. He gets loose and…” Noah let his voice trail off.
I nodded in understanding. I looked to the apartment where Dennis Yomiya was living. Yomiya, a native Japanese, was a high-ranking member of the old Red Brigade who was rumored to be selling his skills to the highest bidder. Surely, he was worth his price. Yomiya was a solid professional who reportedly specialized in terrorist bombings and political assassinations. For years he had eluded law enforcement and intelligence agencies, in Europe, especially. He was a former college professor who had embraced the radical vision a little too tightly, and now he was stuck with the habit of killing and mayhem. Yomiya was a rogue without legitimacy, and without a country to call his own.
“So what do you want me to do?” I asked.
“Find his mailbox,” Noah said, handing me a key. “And take whatever mail’s inside. It’ll help us establish his current network. Remember, he’s going under the name Katayama.”
“This key will work?” I asked, holding up the key he had given me. “You’re sure?”
Noah barely smiled. I knew that miserly smile was all the assurance I was getting.
“And be careful. This guy is a pro. I mean he’s marquee material. He spooks easily, and he can put a knife through your eye at twenty yards.”
“Any other words of encouragement?”
“Look around. But don’t dawdle up there.”
I got out of the car hoping I was ready for the unthinkable and the unexpected. I was frightened. I knew I was no match for a renowned terrorist, and my youthful sense of immortality had, a few precious years before, left for parts unknown. I made my way through the rear walkway and into the spare and modest courtyard where the tenants entered their apartments. There were several doors facing the spare concrete courtyard, with a stairwell leading to the second floor of apartments. Yellow lamplight from inside the apartments slipped out through the cheap drapes and aluminum frame windows,b casting shadows against the lone banana tree on the weathered stucco wall. I found the mailbox marked Katayama, Yomiya’s cover name, and slipped the key into the lock. I opened the mailbox just as I heard a car pull up in the driveway.
It was one of those moments frozen in time, when you realize you just committed to a single foolish action that could actually end your life. I stifled the shakes, pulled the single letter out of the mailbox and stuffed it inside my jacket. Reaching into my pocket, I felt for the .25 automatic I had stashed there. It was a cheapo Saturday night special, the kind the anti-gun lobbyists vilify for its predominance in gang marauding and drunken shootouts. If anything, at that particular moment, the .25 was puny and inadequate, more of an ornament than decent protection. I remembered how old gun nuts I knew used to joke that shooting someone with a .25 caliber would only piss him off. I hoped I wouldn’t have to disprove that theory.
Yomiya appeared in the mouth of the courtyard, blocking my exit. He was momentarily startled by my presence, but since I made no move toward him, he feigned indifference, barely looking up as I started past him on my way out of the courtyard. He was wearing wire rim glasses, a short leather jacket and his trademark woolen newsboy’s cap. At first glance he wasn’t threatening at all, more like the college professor of old, lost in his thoughts. But looking closer, there was no denying his wary movement and the deadly aura he projected from deep within.
Either my sixth sense was in tune that night, or I actually did hear his rubber sole sliding every so slightly on the courtyard’s surface grit. I’m still not sure. I turned suddenly, drawing my gun, and found him facing me, his hand inside his jacket pocket. Before I dared think about it, I fired twice. The first bullet caught him flush in the cheekbone, just under the eye, and the other skimmed the side of his face.
Instinctively, he grabbed at his face, grumbling what I was sure was “Shit,” in English, before muttering and cursing in what sounded like Japanese. He staggered like a drunk, desperately reaching into his jacket. I sensed it was no knife he was going for, but his gun. Sheer fear compelled me to step in to point blank range and fire three times in rapid succession, putting small, bloody holes in his temple. It was like a dream. Echoes and flashes in the tiny courtyard. He was gasping for breath, still weaving and muttering, making vain attempts to pull his gun. The blood pooled in his ear and ran down his neck. He dropped hard to his knees, like his feet had been chopped out from under him. I nearly shit when his nine-millimeter pistol spilled out of his jacket and clattered on the concrete. Yomiya muttered something again, in a softer, barely audible tone and then pitched forward on his face. I shot him one more time through the back of his head.
As I walked quickly toward the car, I thought my heart would leap out of my chest. My knees were locked and buckling; my legs were rubber. Somehow I found the presence of mind to stash the hot and smoking pistol into my jacket. When I reached the end of the driveway, I found Noah hobbling toward me on his semi-crippled legs. From the look on his face, he had been afraid for me, and now the creased and worried brow was showing visible signs of relief that I was the one still walking.
“Better get the fuck out of here,” I uttered through clenched teeth.
He nodded and started back to the car, moving remarkably fast for a guy with legs the width of cue sticks. As I climbed inside, Noah pulled away slowly. He turned up Van Nuys Boulevard at traffic speed, and a few blocks later he entered the freeway. Moving north on the 101, Noah picked up speed, maneuvering discretely in and out of lanes, checking to see if we were being followed.
“No one on our tail,” he said with a fair degree of relief and satisfaction.
I didn’t respond.
“You were only supposed to get the mail,” he admonished. The fear and concern were still in his voice. It was his way of covering up for sticking me in a dangerous situation.
“Well, what the fuck,” I gritted. “There was a sudden change in plans.”
“I know,” he relented. “Is he dead?”
I stared. “I sure fucking hope so.”
“You did good then,” Noah acknowledged, lighting up a cigarette. Just what I needed, second hand smoke.
I sat in silence while Noah covered miles on the freeways, making sure we weren’t being followed. When he was satisfied we were safe, he drove to his house, where Noah, the scientist, prepared a glass vat of sulfuric acid and tossed in the gun. We watched in meditative silence while the .25 caliber pistol dissolved like an Alka Seltzer, providing us both with a bit of relief. Dissolve the evidence. Clearly, Noah was used to the drill.
I had a lot on my mind. I had just killed somebody, and I realized it wasn’t enough to rationalize he intended to kill me. I was so scared I acted first, and by acting first I got lucky. In the flash of understanding I realized two significant precepts. The first was fear could be the overwhelming guiding force in a time of crisis, and it could produce better results than professional skills. The second was that, to my good fortune, when people hear gunshots, they do not run outside to see what’s going on.
In my head I replayed my shooting of Yomiya, my watching him die awkwardly and ugly, like a puppet cut suddenly from its strings. Killing him was not an act to be taken lightly, and any show of nonchalance would be pure bravado, denying the feelings I grappled with inside. Killing was wrong for the usual reasons. I knew that. A momentary wave of nausea overcame me as I wrestled my conscience. I recognized Yomiya was the terrorist sonofabitch responsible for the murders of a number of innocent people and that the planet wouldn’t be missing him. I glanced at Noah; he was already whispering to someone on the telephone, making sure Yomiya’s body vanished without a trace, like some dead alley cat swept up by the animal regulations people and dumped in an unmarked grave.
I soon dispelled the nausea, and I found the struggle with my conscience was inexplicably transplanted by a life confirming rush. I had faced death and I had survived. I wondered if I would ever be forced to kill again. And could I ever get so used to killing that my conscience no longer affected me? Like Noah. I sensed in the darker, more manipulative recesses of Noah’s brain, he certainly hoped I’d become more like him. I looked over to where he was sitting, puffing on his cigarette, working out our next set of moves. I smiled the secret smile of irony and watched the last bits of gunmetal dissolve in the acid. And in the silence of the canyons, punctuated briefly by howling coyotes and the occasional rustle of sage, I wondered how in the hell I had ended up here.
AND LATER ON UP THE ROAD...
Noah drove his Corvette up Beverly Glen and along Mulholland Drive, until he found a vacant parking spot overlooking the city. Down below, the lights of the city shimmered before us, aglow in the allure and promise of a different world and better times. Small wonder this part of Mulholland Drive had served for years as lover’s lane. Only now, with all the wanton construction, the remaining vacant spaces were rapidly disappearing. Instead of teenagers parked in their cars, looking for romance, estate size monstrosities had taken their place. No more love on lover’s lane. Just excess. And Noah and I.
“You said with the Chinese woman he sat with his head bowed and didn’t say a word?”
“Pretty unsettling. Especially with all the others in the room.”
“Do you believe Louie’s stories? About killing people?”
I nodded. “At first I thought he was full of shit, but I had a serious change of mind. Something about him, and the way he tells the same stories over and over. They never vary the way they would if all of it was fantasy.”
Noah paused, lighting a cigarette. As a show of courtesy he cracked his window, exhaling a long, steady stream into the cool night air. The look on his face made me believe he had reached a major decision. He had.
“I’ve been keeping a file on Louie since the day he first moved into that house. I tracked him and watched him, observed his friends and, like he said, I bugged his house and the telephone lines.”
Noah squinted at me, openly gauging my reaction. Satisfied I wasn’t preparing to leap from the car, he went on.
“The reason I didn’t go to the party? I had met with my peers, and they decided I better stay away. We weren’t really sure what the gun nuts had in mind; only that the party was a setup for someone to meet me. Now it is obvious. Louie had promised to deliver me to the Chinese woman, so she could have a crack at persuading me to roll over and work for their side.”
I felt the unmistakable chill of truth running up my spine.
“Like I said, I’ve been tracking this for years now. From time to time I had other federal agents come to the house and establish surveillance. They’d take a look at Louie and friends for a couple of days and then pass them off as fantasy dwellers. Harmless gun nuts.”
Noah laughed in recollection and took another drag on his cigarette. For sure as hell, I wasn’t going anywhere. He could take all the time he wanted.
“My own credibility was being questioned. One time they had me in for psychological tests. They thought I was maybe losing it over Louie.”
“The night of the party we had surveillance all over the house. Somehow we missed the Chinese woman. I don’t know how she got in or how she got out without being detected. But you saw her, that’s the important thing.”
“She was hard to miss.”
“She was the piece we’ve been looking for. I always suspected Louie was up to something, but I couldn’t tell whom he was tied in with. That woman you saw? A dollar to a soggy doughnut, she’s an agent for the People’s Republic of China. And that’s the giveaway. She was giving him hell because Louie failed to get me to come to the party. He had failed in his mission, and she was all pissed off.”
“So what are you saying?” I asked.
“Louie is a Chinese mole. He’s probably been active for many years.”
He took a final drag on his cigarette and flicked it out the window. Fire hazards were the least of his concerns.
“Louie. Lindermann. The others. Most are part of a network. How big it is, it’s hard to say. But we’ll find out. That I can promise you.”
“Well,” I said. “Talk about a fucking punchline. There’s a reason you’re telling me all this.”
Noah smiled. “Let’s face it, you love this kind of thing. You’ve been flirting with it in one way or another your entire life.
“You’re smart, so you got away with things. Things that maybe you shouldn’t have been doing. But now it’s time to contribute. It’s time you did something for your country, don’t you think? You know these people almost as well as I do. And you know they’re dangerous. They’re traitors.”
“You want me to stay close to Louie? Is that it?”
“Not quite. There are things I could teach you. Things I’ll guarantee you’ll never learn from anyone else. Let’s face it; I’m nearly crippled. I need a good pair of legs. I could use your help, if you are willing to give it.”
“And if not?”
His scowl belied his answer. “Then that’s up to you.”
I sighed and looked out over Los Angeles. I remembered all the movies I’d watched as a kid that were filmed not far from this very same spot. I remembered, as a young man, yearning to come to California and take in this view. I remembered driving up alone, staring out at the lights, the grids, the airplanes flashing overhead, and relishing the aura of promise offered by the city below. I loved it up there. It was a holy place. An open temple. It was a fitting site for this defining moment. If I were embarking on the E-ticket ride into the shadow world of spying and intrigue, then it was appropriate that this would be my point of departure.