Take the Bai Road by Erika Mitchell (Champagne Books July 5, 2017)
Please do not copy and/or distribute without permission from author.
I will not be at all surprised to someday learn there’s a Starbucks in the Marianas Trench. And like every other Starbucks on Earth, there will be a perpetual line to order. A long line full of bored people with nothing to do but stand around looking at artsy photographs of coffee beans and yet, when at long last they make it to the front of the line, I bet you there will still be people who don’t know what they want. It’s even like that here at the Starbucks in CIA Headquarters at Langley; why not underwater, too?
At any other Starbucks, I’d wonder what those indecisive people were thinking about while they waited in line, but at Store Number 1, as the receipts say, it’s safer if I don’t know. You won’t find people scrolling through Facebook feeds or texting their friends in the line at this Starbucks because, one, the people who work at the CIA are, in general, too busy to have friends and two, employees are required to leave their phones in their cars for security purposes. So instead of zoning out in line like most red-blooded American adults, these ambitious, stress-addicted workaholics are left alone with their thoughts in the never-ending line that often snakes out the door and down the hallway.
That’s not to say nothing ever gets done down here. You’ll often see people practicing foreign languages together at the tables, or with their heads down discussing potential placements or projects over stacks of paper. It’s not uncommon to recognize someone in line and realize you’ve been working in the same building as someone you’ve known for years and that neither of you knew it because neither of you was allowed to talk about it. I’ve even been here at midnight before to find scads of people hard at work on defusing potential coups on the opposite side of the world.
And me? What was I doing at work at midnight that one time? Nothing important. No, seriously, I’m not being coy. I’d been at work because I realized during my afterhours workout that I’d forgotten to file a timecard and, if I didn’t get it timestamped prior to midnight, was going to have to face the wrath of the She Dragon over in HR. When you picture joining the CIA so you can travel the world with a phone in your shoe, naturally you also imagine having to file things on time for HR. It’s the stuff spy dreams are made of, right?
Nope. Not quite. Swing and a miss.
Why had I joined the CIA? What made a Chinese-American overachiever with a law degree from Stanford and a third-degree black belt in Tai Kwon Do who grew up in Berkeley with nice, normal parents seek out a career where he was essentially paid to deceive, sabotage, and imperil his way through life? According to my mental health screening at officer intake, I have an inborn moral deviancy with a predisposition toward justice and thrill-seeking. Essentially, I had one hell of a moral gray area and I wasn’t afraid of much. I would’ve been surprised if the CIA hadn’t hired me. My service record up until now has been pretty good, too, because, believe it or not, my life wasn’t always this boring.
My first post at the U.S. Embassy in London was an unqualified success, if a bit boring until it wasn’t. If your definition of an interesting assignment begins with getting shot in the leg, then the CIA might just be for you.
My second assignment, however, was trickier to define. Depending on who you asked, it was either a success, a black eye, or “a colossal fuckup the likes of which should never have happened on American soil,” according to one pissed-off parent. If you ask me, I did the best I could with a shitty situation and nearly lost my toes for it. Because of me, Pyongyang wasn’t a smoking crater in the ground, although I’m sure Hell would freeze over before Kim Jong Un thanked me for destroying his nuclear weapons arsenal for him. But the pissed-off parent only knew that a student was kidnapped on my watch, and that I had to chase her down in an armored school bus, so, with his limited understanding of what was happening at the time, I guess he wasn’t wrong. He was just an asshole, and the main reason I was stuck doing desk work when what I should have been doing was working in the field.
To be fair, I’d needed some time to recover from the torture and second-stage frostbite I’d sustained at the hands of the North Koreans when they captured me on arrival in their country anyway. It had taken six months of rigorous physical therapy, but I was finally recovered enough to return to the field. I knew it, my sparring partners knew it, the Agency physician knew it. The only person who knew it and didn’t care? My boss, who had yet to recommend me back to field work because his department was short-staffed and he liked having me around.
Things might have been about to change, however, because the reason I was fidgeting in the Starbucks line this particular Tuesday afternoon in June was because Sören Faro, the Staff Operations Officer for the Mexico field offices, had requested a meeting with me. His email had come through yesterday and been brief and to the point:
Possible new field assignment meeting, Starbucks, noon, tomorrow. Order drip for me, I’ll meet you in the chairs in the corner.
By the time I had our coffees in hand, Faro was seated in one of two leather armchairs in the corner beneath an abstract painting of an out-of-focus revolver and flick-scrolling through something on his tablet. He was tall and thin in a Nordish way, with sparse blond hair he wore mussed and a narrow, hawkish nose flanked by deep furrows to either side of his mouth. His was a face unaccustomed to smiling, and it made no exception for me when I took the other chair.
“Hsu, thanks for coming.” He pronounced my name so that it sounded like “shoe,” which was how most Americans thought it was said. Technically, my last name was pronounced sheh, with a short e sound, so that it rhymed with meh, but I never corrected anyone. It wasn’t even the name I was born with. Bai Hsu was my official cover identity, the name I assumed when I graduated from The Farm, earmarked for field service. Official cover identities kept the friends and family from our civilian lives safe, if somewhat perplexed, when we dropped off the map and never visited.
“Didn’t think it was an invitation, sir,” I said as I handed him his coffee. “Felt more like a summons.”
“It was.” He took a long pull of his coffee and didn’t seem to notice its temperature was a few degrees shy of boiling. Former military types never do. “Tired of Headquarters yet?”
“More than. Why? Do you have something else in mind for me?”
“You familiar with what I do here?”
“Of course,” I replied. I’d looked into Faro as soon as I’d received his email. He was a former Navy intelligence officer currently working as the Staff Operations Officer for the Mexico field offices. It was his job to liaise between the field operatives in Mexico and the decision-makers at Headquarters. He compiled briefs for the higher-ups and apprised the Directors of any prospective or existing situations they needed to be aware of. He was up to date on every asset in play south of the border, knew all of their secrets, and, perhaps most importantly, told his field operatives what, if anything, to do with those secrets. He had a reputation for being good at his job and stingy with his praise.
He jabbed some icons on his tablet. “We’ve been getting field reports from officers undercover in Narco organizations. You familiar with the cartels?”
“We’re getting rumors from all over northern Mexico, low-level foot soldiers talking about a new cartel moving product. The weird thing is, there’s no increased bloodshed so far. New cartels are always baptized by corpses but neither us nor the Federales are tracking any more cartel deaths than usual.”
“Interesting,” I said, following him so far.
“When I pinged the DEA for intel about a new drug supplier coming through any of the usual routes, I got stonewalled. I was about to move onto other problems when my operative in Michoacán sent me this.” He found the picture he was looking for on his tablet and handed it to me.
It was an infrared image of four men wearing black ski masks carrying a wooden shipping crate. The stenciled words on the side of the shipping crate were too blurry to read, but the crate itself was so similar to the one I rode into Dalian, China the year before that I had to look twice at it.
“Who are they?” I asked.
“Maybe members of what I’ve been calling the Ghost Cartel,” he replied. “This was taken by case officer Mendoza at the port of Lázaro Cárdenas in southwest Mexico five days ago. A shipment came in on a freighter from China, and the port crew offloaded this crate and left it outside the gate behind some bushes. The guys in this picture came in the middle of the night, loaded the crate into a black SUV, and drove off with it.”
“Did Mendoza get a picture of the SUV?”
“If he did, he didn’t have time to send it to me. Someone caught him after he uploaded this file from the field. The station chief found his body yesterday. My guess is some cartel members captured him after he snapped this picture, tortured him for information, and then killed him. Looks like they tied him to the back of a vehicle and dragged his body through the desert before dumping it at the station chief’s door. He opened his front door to go to work and found it on his doorstep.”
There was no point in hoping the cartel had had the decency to kill him before dragging him through the desert. I was far from an expert on Mexico’s drug cartels, but even I knew better than to look for mercy in Narco culture.
“I’m sorry to hear that, sir.” I meant it, too. Everyone who ships out for field work does so knowing there’s a risk they might never get to come home. When you’re a field operative, the best you can do is to cross your fingers and hope the statistics won’t apply to you. “Mendoza and I did some field training together. He was a good guy.”
“Yes.” He drank some more coffee and took his tablet back. “What I need is for someone to investigate this on the ground. Your experience in North Korea makes you uniquely qualified, and we both know you’re not doing anything else right now. You up for it?”
“Hell yes. What do I need to know?”
He opened a satellite image of southwestern Mexico on his tablet, with cartel trade routes marked in red. “Lázaro Cárdenas,” he said, pointing to a port a little more than halfway down Mexico’s western coast, “is controlled by the Knights Templar cartel. They own the state of Michoacán and the territory around it. They’ve been working with the Chinese to export iron from the mines they own, making a profit all the way down the line from the miners to the port inspectors. Part of their arrangement is paid in ephedrine, which the Chinese manufacture. They ship it through Cárdenas, where the Knights turn it into meth.”
The name Michoacán rang a bell. “Is this the place where the citizen militia overturned the police because the corruption was so bad?”
“Yes. I had my case officers ask around. Everyone has heard rumors of a new cartel, but no one knows who they are. Very weird, because Narco is all about making a scene and a name for yourself, and yet here they are operating undercover right in the middle of Templar country. A situation like this usually announces itself in the form of mutilated corpses all across the disputed territory, but all we have are rumors. I have a case officer in Juárez who has an agent in the Sinaloa cartel. The agent says someone’s been running something through Sinaloa territory, but the foot soldiers are under orders to ignore it. So now we have vague intel involving product being moved through two different cartels’ territory, but no bloodshed, no confirmed contact, and no idea what said product is.”
“And that’s weird? That kind of thing doesn’t just happen all the time?”
“Cooperation between cartels does happen on occasion, yes, and the Knights and Sinaloans have worked together in the past, but neither cartel would allow a third cartel to move in on their trade routes. The Sinaloans are notorious for shooting first, asking questions later with that sort of thing. They won’t decapitate or burn you alive like the Zetas will, but they won’t hesitate to send a message if they feel it’s called for.”
“So let me get this straight,” I said, putting my thoughts together out loud. “You think there’s a new cartel with Chinese connections operating under an arrangement with the Sinaloans and Knights Templar. Moving what, though, no one knows. Do you suspect Ghost Cartel influence in our government?”
His gray-blue eyes focused hard at that. “Why would you ask that?”
“Because you said you got stonewalled by the DEA. There’s no reason to stonewall if there’s nothing to cover up. They’d just assign some new agent to an investigation bound to go nowhere and call it a job well done.”
He nodded, pleased. “Exactly. What I need is someone on the ground tracing this from A to B, all the way to Z. I want to put you on a freighter bound for Lázaro Cárdenas. The freighter is run by the same company that brought the crate in the picture into the country, and I’m hoping there’s another shipment on board. Once you’re in country, shadow that shipment and report back on every set of hands it passes through.”
“Sounds simple enough.”
“It’s not. You’ll be NOC for this assignment, and there will be no official record of the operation. It’s the only way I see this working if there’s a leak on our side of the fence. You’ll communicate with me as often as you can, but the reality of this assignment is that your resources will be limited, maybe even nonexistent. You’ll be undercover as a deck hand on the freighter, with all the luxuries that entails, and tracking that shipment through Mexico is going to be dangerous as hell.” He leaned forward, his face grave. “This assignment is going to be difficult, and if it doesn’t go well you’re not coming home. Do you understand the risks?”
I considered my answer for a moment. A NOC (pronounced “knock”) mission, or Non-Official Cover for the uninitiated, meant I’d be operating without the official approval of my government. If I was caught, I’d be disavowed by the United States, tortured for information, and then executed. Even if I wasn’t caught, I’d be tracking a cartel-affiliated shipment along cartel-patrolled roads through the middle of Mexico. If I took this assignment, I’d be volunteering for weeks without sleep, quality time with a ship full of bored, unshowered men, and the potential for a messy and very painful death, all for the slight possibility that we might find out more about an organization we weren’t even sure existed.
Faro was right. This was going to be dangerous. It was going to be dangerous, unpleasant, and maybe not even worth it. It should tell you how tired I was of working at Headquarters that I couldn’t wait to get going on it.
“I understand the risks, sir. When do I leave?”
“Three days. I’m going to push through your field re-eval as an SOP skills assessment so it’ll look like I’m recertifying you for fieldwork just in case we need you, not because I have anything specific in mind for you. I hope you’ve kept up with your field craft.”
I thought of the locks I practiced picking at home for fun and the hours I spent at the gym sparring with people who tried their best to beat the crap out of me. I pictured the dozens of ten-rings I’d shot full of holes at the range, remembered the lies I’d told for no reason other than to keep myself sharp and smiled. “Yes, sir. I think you could definitely say that.”
He grunted and started typing something into his tablet. “Better get going, then,” he said without looking at me. “Looks like you’ve got a busy afternoon ahead of you.”
Pick up a copy of Take the Bai Road in July to find out what happens next…