Sunday, January 8, 2017

Excerpt from The Zhongguo Orchestra - Chapter 6, Section 1

(Ayala Center/Greenbelt Area Makati. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

     Ryder walked into the foyer and opened the mini refrigerator standing against the recessed wall. He stared at the cold beverages. Choosing between Avian and Heineken seemed like a hard decision to make. He picked the Dutch beer to calm down his nerves. His thirst was evident when he drank the contents in two gulps.
     He went back to the bed while his hands pressed hard against his head. The ringing-like sound inside his ears made him winced. While lying down on his stomach, his thoughts went back to the Manila Hotel. It was a near-death experience for him, and although he’d been in similar situations before, the one at the hotel had topped everything. This kind of near-miss incident always made him think of life after death.
     Ryder wasn’t a religious person, and he laughed off the idea of divine intervention. If there were such things as miracles, should he consider his survival from the bombing as one? He didn’t think so because this type of encounter only happened to spiritual people. He wasn’t even close to being one, and he knew it without pretense. So, he thought, Is God telling me something?
     Well, miracle or not, it was undeniably an experience he would never forget for the rest of his life. If not for the backup car and the two security details that shielded him from the direct blast, he could’ve been one of the victims on the ground. For a moment, he laid motionless next to the damaged vehicle with blood all over his shirt and pants.
     Ryder was so lucky because he only got minor cuts. Luck? Those people in front of him weren’t fortunate at all. The scattered bodies in the driveway, which looked like some ripped rag dolls, were testaments of the unlucky night for many.
     So, after spending another hour at Rizal Park after the carnage, he took some more pictures of the mayhem, then decided to call it a night.
     It was a crunching day for Ryder, and he went back to Somerset hotel dead tired. His body pains were bearable. But not the irritating sound in his ears. He pressed his head harder, hoping the pulsating tone would go away. It had stopped earlier, but the ringing came back much louder. While reaching for a pillow on the headboard, he saw the hotel phone’s crystal button blinking nonstop. So, the ringing was real after all. He grabbed the phone from the bedside stand, then answered the call.
     “Is this Ryder?” asked the caller, his deep voice sounded so authoritative.
     “Who wants to know?”
     “This is Smith.”
     “Smith from the company.”
     “Doug Smith?” Ryder said.
     “Douglas Smith, the pushy copyeditor?”
     “That’s me, Bud. Thanks for the compliment.”
     “Not expecting a phone call from you.” He supported Smith two years ago, while on a special assignment in Europe. “I’m waiting for Jerry to call me.”
     “Jerry is on emergency leave.”
     “Say what?”
     “He went back to the States to attend to his mother. I heard she’s gravely ill.”
     “Montana?” Ryder asked.
     “When is he coming back to work?”
     “In two weeks. He’ll call you when he’s back in town.”
     “I’m sorry about Jerry. Anyway, it’s good to hear from you.”
     “Say again?”
     “Nice to hear you’re okay.”
     “Same here.”
     “Well, it was a long time.”
     “I saw you last in Kosovo. Yeah, it was three years ago.”
     “Bosnia. Two years ago. At Ali-Baba’s.”
     Ryder smiled. It was a correct answer. Bona fides exchanged, authentication made. Ryder knew Smith couldn’t stay long on the hotel phone.
     “What’s up calling me on the public line?”
     “You’re not answering your sat-phone!”
     “Okay, call me,” Ryder said.
     Ryder pressed the green button when his satellite phone rang. “All right, tell me, why it’s you and not someone else?”
     “Urgent matters!”
     “Why are you shouting at me?”
     “You’re the one shouting at me!”
     Ryder realized how bad the bomb explosion did to his ears. “Sorry, I can’t hear you well. Why did you call, not someone from the company?”
     “Pictures and first-hand info. I’m working on a special report for tomorrow’s issue.”
     “I’ll e-mail the photos,” Ryder said. “That’s the arrangement I have all the time. I don’t intend to change it. It’s safer that way.”
     “No, the procedure has been modified. You’ll deliver the memory stick to me in person. Tonight. There’s a deadline to beat. We got a big story that could change the world.”
     Ryder became suspicious about the emergency meeting. The fastest way to send the pictures was through his secure laptop. It would save the company’s support team some precious time. But Smith insisted on seeing him in person. Why?
     “I need time to prepare myself and the goodies.”
     “Thirty minutes.”
     “I need an hour, Smith.”
     “Forty-five minutes.”
     “All right.”
     Smith gave Ryder the directions on how to meet him near Shangri-La Hotel Manila.
     “We’ll follow the same security protocols we used in Bosnia. Clear?”
     “Got it,” Ryder replied.
     “See you later, Bud.”
     Ryder turned off his sat-phone and laid immobile on the bed. His mind raced back again to the Manila Hotel. He analyzed what went wrong on the grounds—how the terrorists penetrated the DSS security rings—and what he’d missed before the bombings.
     He thought the bombers had chosen their kill zone perfectly. Berzowski was most vulnerable near the Press Pen. Clearly, they studied how the State Secretary conducted his business outside the confines of his office. They plotted his movements in a precise manner to diagram a pattern. No doubt the bombers conducted an elaborate intelligence gathering on him. It could be weeks or months of probing and plotting. It was an indicator on what kind of terrorist group the US government was up against, and the members weren’t amateurs for sure.
     After screening the pictures on his computer, Ryder undressed and went to the bathroom. The pain on his back and legs made him grind his teeth, but the hot shower soothed his aching body. After drying himself, he applied some Neosporin ointment on his wounds and covered them with Band-Aids. Two 500mg Tylenol tablets would ease the discomfort for the next four hours. He dressed up, left the hotel, and hailed a taxicab on the street.
     Shangri-La Hotel Manila wasn’t far from the hotel where he was billeted. It took him about fifteen minutes to reach the meeting area. He tweaked the directions that Smith had given him and told the cabbie to drop him off near the InterContinental. From the hotel parking lot, he walked down on Ayala Avenue and proceeded westward towards Rustan’s. A shortcut around the upscale supermarket led him to the pick-up point.

Excerpt from The Zhongguo Orchestra - Chapter 6, Section 2

(Verde Island Passage, Balayan Bay. Courtesy of Wikemedia Commons)

     Hans Jürgen smiled as he read the message on his cell phone. Enjoying my vacation. Hope to stay until Monday if the weather permits. – M. It wasn’t like he just saw his friend’s text for the first time. He’d seen the coded notice a dozen times, but every time he read the text, the more he became delighted with the message.
     All his brothers relished their trip in the Philippines. Except for some setbacks, which Jürgen thought was part of the job, their activities in the country progressed as planned.
     Jürgen glanced at the men riding in another dive boat bearing the name Blue Marlin on its hull. All three men were in scuba gear, just like him and his brothers. He noticed the smiles on their faces. Their grins became visible when the full bright moon peeked out behind the drapes of December clouds. He turned to the men in his boat, raised his beer, and shouted a toast.
     “To a productive vacation!”
     All at once, the four men in Kingfisher raised their bottles and responded, “Cheers!”
     Jürgen shouted, “One Way!”
     “No turning back!” the men in scuba gear responded.
     The man with a Hulk-like appearance took a mouthful of his beer and spat it out. “Awww! What’s this?”
     Jürgen laughed at his mate’s facial reaction. He said, “That’s San Miguel for you.”
     “Awww. I can’t handle this bitter taste.”
     “Why do you have to try? You don’t even drink beer,” the pilot shouted, the one with a long beard. “Just the sight of it makes you sick.”
     It had been two weeks since Jürgen and his mates arrived in Mabini—a small coastal town in Batangas province. The group stayed in a mansion located on Bagalangit Point.  It was at the tip of the Calumpan Peninsula, off the Verde Island Passage in Balayan Bay.
     It was a common sight to see groups of foreigners milling around Calumpan. The beautiful place was a popular area for divers and snorkelers alike. It was understandable why the local folks were proud of their town because their water boasted the best natural coral reef in Asia.
     Since their arrival, Jürgen and his brothers spent most of their time at the Cathedral and Mapating Rock, which were considered two of the world-famous dive sites.
     It was Thursday night, and Jürgen’s information indicated that weekenders in the peninsula were daytime scuba divers. Not everyone had the guts to go out in deep darkness, unlike his group. So, at around eight o’ clock, they headed off once again to Mapating Rock, which was their sixth night trip to the reef. Mapating in Tagalog meant many sharks because the reef abounds with Whitetip and Grey Reef. Perhaps it was the reason no one dared to dive in that part of the bay.
     Jürgen checked his map and compass, then shouted at the pilot, “Keep going straight! We’ll reach the place in about five minutes. Be careful, this is a commercial sea lane. Container ships just pop up left and right on this side of the bay.”
     “You think it’s a good spot?” the pilot shouted back.
     “Like I told you, it’s a perfect spot. Mapating Rock is only twelve meters deep. Incredibly shallow. Our concern is to stay away from drop-offs, which descend to about forty meters or more.”
     “I hope we get a slow current on the actual run,” the pilot said.
     “I hope so, too,” Jürgen said. He drank the last content of San Miguel beer, then threw the empty bottle in the bay. “Get ready everyone, we’re getting closer to the dive spot!”

Excerpt from The Zhongguo Orchestra - Chapter 6, Section 3

(US Embassy, Manila. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

     “There he is,” Smith alerted his driver. “Right there on the street corner, the blonde guy with a shoulder bag.”
     The driver initiated the prearranged signal. He flicked the stick under the steering wheel one time. The wiper blades moved from right to left, then back to their original positions. He flicked the stick one more time to make sure their contact got his signal.
     Smith saw Ryder put on a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap. He told the driver, “He’s clean. Go pick him up. Now!”
     The driver drove the Toyota HiAce slowly up on the street, and when he was close to Ryder, he lit up a cigarette. Ryder saw the safe signal and approached the vehicle from the right side. Smith opened the passenger door. Ryder hopped inside the van, sat next to his former controller, and the rolling-car meeting commenced according to the plan.
     “Nice to see you again, Ryder,” Smith said. “It’s been a while my dear friend.”
     “Nice to see you too, Durham. I never knew you’re now in the travel business,” Ryder said, referring to the magnetic signs outside the van that read, The Grey Dolphin Tours.
     “You know we have to be imaginative. Ingenuity keeps us all alive in our job,” Durham replied.
     “I hear you.”
     “What’s up with your beard and flowing hair? You look like Brad Pitt.”
     “Hey, you said ingenuity keeps us alive. This cover works well for me.”
     “Well said.” Durham motioned to his companion in the backseat. “Ryder, meet Sam Atkinson. He wants to hear it from you in person.”
     “Samuel Atkinson, the Deputy Chief of Mission?” The look on Ryder’s face was more of disapproval than a surprise. He turned to Durham and said, “You didn’t tell me you’ll bring a guest.”
     “I’m pleased to meet you, Ryder. Your accomplishments are well-known in the company,” Atkinson said.
     “Well, thanks for the compliment, Mr. Ambassador,” Ryder said sarcastically. “It appears to me that everyone knows me now.”
     Durham scowled at the terse response from Ryder, but Atkinson just smiled.
     “They only know the story, not the messenger. Your cover is secure with me.”
     “It’s very reassuring you got my back.”
     “Listen, Ryder. The attacks tonight change the way we do our business. We’re deviating from the standard security protocols,” Atkinson said.
     “Last thing I want to hear is a lecture on security matters.”
     “The timetable given to us is too short.”
     “Us?” Ryder asked. “What do you mean us?”
     “You are now on TDY with me.”
     “What? Have you cleared this with Langley?”
     “Yes. HQS okayed the temporary duty assignment,” Atkinson said. “By the way, your Chief has endorsed you for this job.”
     “He didn’t notify me about this crossover,” Ryder said.
     “Putting the request through regular channels would mean lots of paperwork,” Atkinson replied.      
     “And by meeting you here tonight, I am also putting my deep cover in danger.”
     “What deep cover are you talking about?”
     “Tell him, Rob.”
     “Ryder, you’re not on TDY with USDOS. You’re on loan to the CIA Manila Station.” Durham slid back on his seat and said, “Sam is the Station Chief.”
     The revelation took Ryder by surprise. If Atkinson was the Manila Chief of Station, then he could also be the CIA head in Southeast Asia. CIA transferred its regional headquarters from Singapore to the Philippines.