Jack Beldon was on the run. He had watched as the cops ran up the stairs to the bath house. They were hot on his heels...Oh God...wanted for murder...dead prostitute...he an American diplomat, now panting like a dog in the street, running for his life in a strange city in China. He had run for a city block and was beginning to slow down, sides heaving, heart pounding in his throat like a jackhammer. He dodged a bicyclist and sprinted past an old lady carrying a large basket of green onions, then cut over on to a smaller street. He was getting desperate now, looking for any kind of escape hatch, sucking and gasping for air.
He rounded another corner and saw a small huddle of people outside a tiny restaurant getting breakfast. Jack pulled his cap down low and forced himself to control his breathing. He took a boiled egg, a bowl of tofu custard and a small dish of pickled radish, paid the three yuan and slid discreetly behind a small table. Through the small window he saw the cop car speed past. "God..." he moaned. "Fourteen days ago..." As he slowly ate his breakfast his mind reeled backward. Jack knew exactly how he got here.
KABOOM! BOOM! BOOM! POP! POP! POP! Jack Beldon ducked and wove through thin swirls of gray gunpowder smoke, and snaked through a milling crowd outside the Beijing Grand Hotel. As car alarms screamed at the blasts, Jack bounded up granite steps with a big grin, noticing the magenta confetti and a pair of lively shaggy lion dancers at the front entrance. There was always something about a Chinese wedding that puts a smile on your face, he thought. Jack waited for a lion dancer to whirl away from the doorway then slipped through. The fireworks were dying down outside as he made his way slowly through wedding guests being entertained in the vast wood and marble lobby by an all-female string ensemble dressed in sheer white silk dresses. At the other end of the lobby he found the Starbucks. Entering, he walked past a long mural of a beautiful lake and colorful small boats and people beneath umbrellas drinking coffee. He ordered, "Two small Americanos, please. Black. No milk, no sugar." He took the scalding brews to a small nook holding a table for two and privacy.
Something was up. Maybe something big. His boss, chief of staff to the American ambassador to China in Beijing, had asked him to meet at 11 o'clock a.m., "off campus" -- away from the Embassy. Yes, something was up and it looked like he would be in on it. He was five minutes early, time to reflect on his recent state of affairs.
It had been quite a morning already. He had just seen his wife, Susan and their twelve-year old twins, Timmy and Tommy, off at the Beijing International Airport at 9:00 a.m. They would be flying home to Portland, Oregon within the hour. He had a giddy, almost sick feeling -- they were gone, and there would be no one waiting when he got back to his flat in the Embassy compound. They had done China together as a family. God -- had it really been ten years? Guangzhou, Chengdu and Beijing.
He and Susan had gotten on each other's nerves the past few months -- and it carried right on to the ride to the airport. "If I never eat another roast duck it will be too soon," she said as their taxi dodged a truck hauling wood pallets. She had mentioned air quality, education, cultural isolation all in a single breath as reasons she and the twins were through with China, as the Beijing skyline flashed by out the window. Jack held his tongue, but wondered, as the kids shifted in their seats, why she would continue to hammer him, since they had decided a month ago that she would take the kids back to Portland and that Jack would ride it out for another 18 months in Beijing before retiring. They had all hugged goodbye. There were tears. Then, a last kiss and they were gone through the security gates.
What was up? He looked at his iPhone: 10:59. The boss, Colonel Roscoe, would walk in at 11:00 sharp, his style, ramrod straight. Gray, grizzled good looks. A career army man, selected into the Foreign Service by friend-of-the-family John Foster Dulles.
A tall, distinguished form, clothed in dark slacks and white shirt, appeared in the entrance. Jack waved him over and stood up to shake hands. "Your coffee, sir. Black."
"Thanks." The colonel smiled. "The family...all seen off ok?"
"Just fine. God, that airport is gargantuan, but Susan knows her way around. They are scheduled to take off in ... um....45 minutes."
"Big change for you."
"It hasn't sunk in yet, I'm afraid."
"We're going to miss that beautiful wife of yours -- at embassy parties and all."
"I don't know Colonel. She has solid reasons for leaving now. The twins' education...and frankly, I think Susan got a little weary of the trailing spouse routine, following my State Department career all over the world. She is young enough to get back into her wildlife research. Close to grandmas and grandpas in Portland. They will be fine. I can stick it out for another 18 months in Beijing. Meanwhile there is e-mail. Susan likes e-mail."
Jack grew silent, staring at the table.
"How is your energy level? Health?"
Jack smiled. "Just fine, sir. Ready for an assignment."
Colonel Roscoe leaned back and drew the coffee to his lips, sipping. The Colonel leaned over and picked up Jack's iPhone. He deliberately turned it over, took out the chip and removed the battery, then placed it face down on the table. An air of secrecy hung over the two men.
"OK. Here it is," the Colonel finally spoke. He looked Jack squarely and earnestly in the face. "Islands. Offshore islands. We'll get to that in a moment. It's obvious that the Pivot to Asia is really a pivot to China. The Secretary has a new initiative: Soft Power. Can you believe it? Yes, the State Department wants to fight against China using Soft Power -- steal a page out of their book. Turn their own weapons against them."
"What does that mean?"
"OK. The Secretary has this idea about digging deep into the Chinese psyche, history, culture. What makes the Chinese tick? He's got a new scenario, that's for sure. He's been doing his reading. What jumped out at him is the 100 year old Shandong Question. You're the Chinese history expert -- heard of it?"
"A little. Treaty of Versailles, right?"
"Right. You're warm. The Secretary wants a quick and dirty dossier on the East Shandong Islands. Historical significance. Present conditions. The State Department has gone bonkers over soft power, soft power. Of course this whole thing has been brought to a head over the territorial dispute between Japan and China over some God-forsaken islands in the East China Sea. And neither side is backing down. And we're caught in the middle. And, Hell, Jack, nothing looms larger on the international stage than this. Iran, Russia and the Middle East will suck us dry, but this is the next big one. This is the tail-end of the Obama years, and he wants to make a mark." The colonel took a sip of coffee. "There's something about the islands. All these off-shore islands that loom so large on the geo-political stage." Another pause, then, "Nixon and Kennedy had their famous debate on Quemoy and Matsu. Then there's Taiwan, and now the Diaoyu islands. And always, the wars and the 100 years of humiliation lies in the background. What happened out here? Kerry is in an incredible hurry to get deep intelligence on these Shandong islands. Current Situation. Historical Context. Cultural Significance. He wants some eye-witness reportage. How are the people doing? Food? Industry? Agriculture?"
"With all due respect, sir, isn't the assignment a little open-ended? I mean, you know, vague?" Jack gulped at the coffee, and waited for the Colonel's reply.
"Jack, it's right up your alley. You are this Embassy's best Chinese history and language expert. I'm under the gun, Jack. The Secretary wants a report on his desk in three weeks. Soft espionage -- that's what the State Department calls it. You get the assignment, Jack. I'll go into more details shortly. You need to be ready to go this afternoon by 4:00 p.m."The Colonel slowly rubbed his hands together.
"Think of our diplomatic Corps. Put yourself in Kerry's shoes, or any Secretary's. They need every trick in the book, a quiver full of arrows. This kind of work is subtle, yet vital. The bloody truth is the Chinese know way more about us than we know about them. That's a weakness on our part. The State Department wants to close that gap. Part of the strategy is to document; discover historical and cultural references that have deep meaning to the Chinese. These islands off the coast of East Shandong have special meaning and significance. There is ancient myth and history. And this was where the foreign powers, including the United States, dismembered China. This is where they cut the tail off the Chinese Dragon. Go there and absorb this history lesson. So far so good?"
"I think so, sir," Jack replied, still a little unsure.
"OK. You have 16 days to go into the field, and 4 more days to draft the report. Jack, you are going underground, but you will be in plain sight. You need a good cover story, and here it is: You will have 2 weeks off for summer holiday. You're just another American tourist in China -- that pose will allow you to carry out your soft espionage. So, you are going to the Eastern tip of Shandong. The islands. Qingdao, the city Germany lost and Japan gained in The Shandong Question, and home port for the Chinese nuclear navy." The Colonel paused momentarily, rubbed his chin thoughtfully, then continued, "and, Weihai, where the Sino-Japanese war of 1895 kicked off the whole last century of war and revolution. And Yantai, the old 'Smoke Platform', where the dark smoke signaled the arrival of Japanese pirates. Yantai will be your home base while you check out the islands. Still with me?"
"Yes sir, very clear sir."
"Good. Now to continue. Go and gauge the local attitudes; observe the newspaper headlines. TV broadcasts. Live it; feel it; absorb it. Remember it but, do NOT take notes. Keep your cell phone disabled. You're by all appearances a common, ordinary American tourist. Don't spoil the illusion by showing off your Chinese." They both grinned; the Colonel went on: "Spend some money on cheap mementos, and a few pieces of jade. Shoot some touristy photos with your iPad. For God's sake, don't point it anywhere near a military establishment, or ships or airplanes. Got that?"
"Yes sir, I know the Chinese can be touchy about such things."
"OK, let's wind this up. Here is your itinerary, and your tickets and reservations -- all paid for by our agents here in Beijing, and," the Colonel reached into his coat pocket and handed a thick envelope to Jack, "a pocketful of renminbi -- the people's money. 30,000 Yuan. That's $5,000! In 16 days! Xi Jinping would not approve," he said with a slight grin. "I don't think you will be deprived of anything."
The Colonel drained the last of his cup, and Jack did likewise.
"You will like this part, Jack. To amplify your cover story you are first going to the hometowns of Mao and Confucius. Then on to the Shanghai nightlife, and on to the beaches of Qingdao. That should establish your tourist creds. And then, and then, (the Colonel put his finger to his lips) on to the islands!"
"I'm amazed," Jack blurted.
"Don't be. This gambit has been planned out by a first-rate embassy team -- some of the last of the 'Old China Hands' got together on this one. And hell Jack, James Bond couldn't ask for a cooler assignment." The Colonel paused again to collect his thoughts, then continued. "When you register at the hotels the big software in the sky will check you out. And your diplomatic passport will stand out. Don't be surprised if you get a visitor -- I mean, from the Party. If you are approached, just play it straight. You're on holiday," he whispered loudly, looking around at other customers, who, much as they, huddled, drinking coffee, playing with iPhones -- oblivious to their conversation. "No notes, no photos, and again don't go near their military shit," he repeated. "And keep your cell phone off -- disabled. You are an eavesdropper, a sponge. Soak it up. Get to the bottom of the god-damned 'Shandong Question'."