Fonglan Island, China
November 1981

        No one paid any attention to the woman as she shuffled along the dirt path that was no

more a street than the collection of shacks on the nearby waterfront could be termed a village.

Yet it was a village, home to a few dozen fishermen and their families. The men were

weather-beaten but plucky as they plied the nearby waters in their junks to scrape out a living.

Their women were equally hard working as they struggled to raise their few children in some

semblance of a home. By comparison, the People’s Liberation Army base was huge and luxuriant.

Helicopters buzzed overhead constantly, back and forth to the mainland some twenty kilometers

away, or out over the sea to keep watch on the British and Americans who sortied their gray ships

out from Hong Kong. The villagers had heard of that wondrous place, tales of fabulous riches and

food beyond belief, and while the men knew how close it actually was from a physical sense,

they also knew that in a practical sense it might as well be on the moon.

    Carrying a basket in one hand and a steel cooking pot in the other, the woman shuffled along,

her head down, hair covered by a shawl, a heavy cloth coat protecting her against the biting

November wind that never ceased its scouring of the island. Shapeless gray trousers covered her

legs and her stockinged feet were shod with sandals. In one coat pocket she carried her identity

papers, and in the other a well-worn copy of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. The cover of the cooking pot couldn’t prevent the spicy aroma of the fish and rice from escaping, and the cloth over the basket was likewise helpless against the fresh-baked bread.
    She approached the gate with caution. The base was ringed with a chain-link fence topped with razor wire, and this was one of three entrances. The gate was barely large enough to accommodate a vehicle, and the road leading to it from the village was not the main road. Vehicles almost always used the main gate farther east. Soldiers still guarded this one around the clock, though, and she saw two of them inside the wooden guard shack.
    Dutifully, she stopped when she got within two meters of the shack, and one of the guards came out, his automatic rifle held loosely at port arms. She catalogued the weapon automatically as a Type 56, the Chinese copy of the venerable Soviet-made Kalashnikov AK-47. “Who are you?” he barked.
    “I bring food, as instructed by Sergeant Lu,” she said, eyes lowered.
    The guard stepped closer, then tilted her head up by the chin, none too gently. “I don’t know you,” he said. “What happened to the old woman?”
    Keeping her eyes averted, she said, “Madame Zhi is ill tonight. I am her niece. My papers are in my pocket.”
    The guard released her chin and used the barrel of his weapon to pull the cloth away from the bread. “Smells good,” he said. “You come give me some later, eh?”
    “There may be none left,” she said.
    “Then make sure you save something, eh?” The guard laughed. “Go on, you know where it is?”
    “Yes, sir,” she said, “I do. Thank you.” Wasting no time, she shuffled past him. The other guard was holding the gate open for her. He eyed her hungrily as she went by.
    Jo Ann Geary allowed herself to exhale deeply when she was safely inside, but she never let up her pace. Raising her head slightly, she took in her surroundings. The layout was familiar, thanks to the reconnaissance photos she’d carefully studied. There was a concrete landing pad about three hundred meters away, and a helicopter was coming in for a landing. She recognized it as an SA 321H Super Frelon, manufactured in France by Aerospatiale, and used by the PLA primarily for personnel transport. Two soldiers ran to a side door of the chopper, heads low to avoid the slowing rotors. Three officers emerged from the Super Frelon; at this distance Jo couldn’t recognize faces or insignia, but the deference shown by the troops told her much. She knew she didn’t have a lot of time.
    Her destination was the stockade, a brick building in the midst of six smaller buildings, about two hundred meters from the gate. Two more soldiers, looking decidedly more alert than those at the gate, flanked the doorway. One of them barked an order. “Papers!”
    She carefully set down her basket and pot and produced her identity booklet. The guard tilted her face up to compare it with the photograph in the book, then issued a grunt. His partner looked inside the basket and the pot, then nodded to the other. “Okay,” the first one said.
    Inside, she passed a bored private sitting at a desk and clacking away on an ancient typewriter, continued down a hallway and stopped at a closed door. She had memorized the simple routine always used by her “aunt,” and rapped twice on the wooden door. “Come in,” a voice said in response.
    A man sat behind a desk inside the small office. He wore the same baggy PLA uniform as the other soldiers, but Jo saw the sergeant’s insignia. She’d seen his photo during the briefing, and through a cloud of cigarette haze she recognized the face: Sergeant Lu. “I bring food, as requested, honorable sir,” she said, eyes lowered. She’d only needed a quick glance to take in everything.
    The sergeant grunted, then rose from his creaking chair and come around the desk toward her. “Where is Madame Zhi?”
    Jo gave her standard answer. Lu was not very much taller than her, and she knew he was in his late thirties. Non-coms in the Chinese Army were not nearly as professional as those in the Western services, one reason why the PLA was not very highly regarded as a fighting force. What they lacked in efficiency, though, they more than made up for with numbers. And brutality, when necessary. She took note of the pistol holstered on his right hip.
    Lu tilted her chin upward. “I haven’t seen you before,” he said.
    “I just arrived for a visit to my aunt and uncle,” she said. It was an effort to keep her eyes averted and shoulders hunched. She named a village on the mainland, hoping Lu wasn’t that familiar with it. The briefing hadn’t told her much about him.
    “Ah. Well, you come with me.”
    She followed him down a short hallway to a barred metal door. An armed guard stood a little straighter as Lu approached, then unlocked the door in response to the sergeant’s order. Lu and Jo Ann entered the cellblock.
    Just as her briefing had anticipated, the block was small, about ten meters long. Four cells lined the wall to her right. The first was empty. The next contained a Chinese man wearing an unmarked PLA uniform. He looked to be about eighteen years old and quickly averted his eyes from Lu as they passed. An older Chinese man in civilian clothes was in the next cell, lying on a blanket on the stark cement floor, staring at the ceiling.
    They stopped in front of the final cell. “Dinner time!” Lu announced.
    The man inside was sitting in a corner, head between his knees, but when he looked up, Jo immediately recognized the face, despite its bruises and cuts. One eye was almost swollen shut. Two fingers of his left hand were tied together with a piece of rag, doubtless a makeshift splint applied by the prisoner. He was wearing a gray shirt and pants, nondescript and baggy, and his feet were bare and bruised.
    He was Brian Jamison, a colonel in the British Royal Air Force, and one of the most valuable operatives of MI6, the U.K.’s foreign intelligence service, and he was a dead man unless Jo could get him out of there. She estimated she had only an hour to accomplish that task. Maybe less, depending on how quickly the men from the helicopter arrived.
    Lu unclipped a ring of keys from his belt and used one to unlock the cell door. Jo made a careful mental note of the key’s position on the ring. Fourth from the end, around five o’clock. The sergeant swung the door open and gestured for Jo to take the food inside.
    This was the most critical phase of the entire operation. If Jamison did not recognize her signal, valuable time would be lost later when she came back for him. Worse, if he had already been compromised, she might be moments from being captured herself. She had been carefully briefed on the interrogation methods used by the Chinese and had no desire to experience them first hand. By the look of Jamison, he was only in the early rounds of what would be a long fight that he would inevitably lose. Lu had only gotten the show started here. The men from the helicopter would be taking the agent back to the mainland for the main event.
    She got to the middle of the cell and stopped when Lu barked, “No farther!” Gently, she set the pot and the basket on the floor. Jamison was staring at her with his good eye. Carefully, Jo extended her tongue, flicked it off her upper lip first, then her bottom, then twice more off the top.
    “Thank you,” Jamison said in a croaking voice. Jo suppressed a smile of relief. He had gotten the message. Each flick of her tongue had sent a different signal. I am here to help you. Be ready to move. Twenty minutes maximum.
    She bowed to the prisoner and then shuffled backward out of the cell. Jamison made no move for the food. Jo noticed that Lu’s hand was on the butt of his sidearm. With his left hand, he closed the cell door firmly. Only after it locked did Jamison reach out for the basket and cook pot.
    “Eat well,” Lu said in Chinese. “You’re going on a trip tonight.” Jamison made no reply, although Jo knew he was fluent in the language, as was she.
    “Come with me,” Lu said, taking her by the arm and hustling her back toward the cellblock entrance.
    “I must go tend to my aunt,” Jo said, forcing her voice up an octave to show fear.
    The guard quickly let them through the door, but not so quickly that Jo couldn’t catch the position of the key on his ring. First one on the right. Good, that would save a second or two. Still gripping her upper arm, Lu moved her down the hallway and toward another room. He opened the door and pushed her inside.
    Her many years of instruction allowed her to think and react instinctively. Know your environment. A bare bulb hanging overhead illuminated the room. It was a storeroom of some sort. Along the wall to her right, shelves held a few piles of papers and files, some books, cleaning supplies. To her left, a mop and broom leaned against the wall, next to a sink. Ahead of her was a rickety cot, canvas supported by metal legs. A rumpled blanket lay on top of it. She heard the door shut behind her, and the lock clicked. Program for engagement. Anticipating Lu’s movements, Jo planned her own. She concentrated on bringing her breathing under control, reaching deep within herself for her kokoro, her indomitable spirit, knowing that the next few minutes would determine whether she lived or died.
    “Undress and lie down,” Lu ordered.
    “Please, honorable sir, I beg you not to hurt me.” Her back was still toward the sergeant, so he could not see her slip the dart from the hem of her left sleeve. She moved effortlessly into a relaxed but intense focus upon her life force, her ki.
    “Do as you are told,” he said. She could hear the slap of leather; he was unbuckling his belt. Keeping the dart concealed in her right hand, she began unbuttoning her coat. Behind her, she heard the clump of the belt being dropped on the floor.
    Pulling off her coat, she turned to face Lu. This time she stood up straight, and noted the glint in his eyes as he saw that she was nearly as tall as him. Instead of averting her own eyes, she stared directly into his, bringing her inner spirit into a state of aiki. The words of one of her past masters came back, quoting an early Japanese jujitsu sensei: “Aiki is the art of defeating your opponent with a single glance.” She saw uncertainty, and perhaps a touch of fear, enter Lu’s eyes.
    Still, he was arrogant. “I am going to enjoy this,” he said huskily, reaching for Jo’s scarf. He had no idea she was already feeling haragei, an intuitive sense focused on her abdomen, the center of all movement. She had entered a state of mushin, a sense of mind/no mind, allowing her to react and move almost literally without thought.
    “I doubt it,” Jo said as Lu’s right hand grasped the edge of her scarf. She reached up with her left hand, covering Lu’s and pinning it down onto her head. With her right, still protecting the dart, she pushed up into his right elbow, thumb finding the nerve and squeezing, pushing up as she moved her body fluidly underneath Lu’s arm, stepping behind him and then bringing his arm up into a gooseneck hold. Lu gasped in pain and surprise, from the pain in his arm and then in his neck as Jo released his elbow long enough to drive the dart into the right side of his throat. Her entire movement took less than one and a half seconds. The drug carried by the dart began flowing through the sergeant’s neck, reaching the carotid artery in moments. Lu tried to yell, but the rapid closure of his windpipe only allowed a near-silent rasp. Two seconds later, the drug reached his brain and his eyes rolled backward.
    Jo caught him as he collapsed and moved him quickly to the cot, laying the unconscious body out carefully. It took her only two minutes to strip off the uniform and shoes. Probably too small for Jamison, but they’d have to do. She turned the sergeant onto his left side, facing the wall, and covered him with the blanket.
    She removed Lu’s pistol and key ring from the gun belt, then hid the belt and shoes in a nearby bucket, stuffing the uniform on top of them. Putting her coat back on, she tucked the gun into the waistband of her trousers at the small of her back. The keys went into a coat pocket. She checked her right sleeve; the second dart was still in place. Grabbing the mop, she went quickly to the doorway, surveyed the room one last time, and switched off the light.
    She had just shut the door behind her when the private from the front desk came down the hall. “Where is Sergeant Lu?”
    Back in her servant’s posture, Jo Ann bowed to the soldier, no more than a boy himself. “The sergeant is...resting,” she said.
    “Ah, so,” the man said.
    “He asked me to clean the empty cell before I leave.”
    “Very well,” the private said, with a last knowing glance at the closed door of the storeroom. Then he turned and walked back to his desk.
    Letting out her breath carefully, Jo shuffled down the hall and found the cellblock entrance. The guard didn’t come to attention this time, but she noticed his grip tighten ever so slightly on his rifle. Jo would have to time this carefully. She bowed to the guard. “Honorable sir, Sergeant Lu ordered me to clean the empty cell.”
    The guard was older than the private, and smarter. He took out his keys, but then leaned over slightly and looked in the bucket. Jo had shoved the uniform down as far as she could, but it wasn’t a very deep bucket, and the guard’s eyes widened as he realized there was no water inside. He dropped the key ring and took a quick step back, bringing his rifle around as he moved.
    Jo was quicker. The dart from her right sleeve was out and moving fast, but instead of embedding itself in the guard’s neck it merely grazed the skin. The guard yelped at the bite of the dart, but he was experienced enough to keep moving backward, allowing room to bring his rifle to bear.
    The broom handle became Jo’s best weapon now, and in one swift motion she used it, knowing that split seconds counted now. Her first target was the guard’s right arm, the one holding the rifle, and her hard strike was right on the money, impacting on the area containing the nerve. Her survival, and Jamison’s, now depended on her not allowing the guard to fire a shot, even as a reflex action. The nerve strike worked; the guard cried out, but his hand suddenly became useless, the fingers unable to find the trigger.
    The gun was falling to the floor as Jo struck again, whipping the end of the broom handle around with her body in a 360-degree turn, then thrusting the blunt end of the handle deeply into the guard’s abdomen. The air whooshed out of him with a guttural gasp as he bent over nearly double. Now she brought the broom up with both hands, cracking the wood solidly into his chin and snapping his head back, where it thudded against the cement wall with a crack that sounded like the world’s biggest eggshell being broken open. He slumped to the floor, unconscious, bleeding from the nose and mouth.
    She hadn’t intended to kill him, and indeed he might survive with at least a concussion and perhaps a skull fracture, but he was out. Jo pulled out the sergeant’s sidearm and reached for the guard’s keys, but another movement from down the hall caught her eye and she brought the gun up quickly.
    It was the private from the front desk, drawn by the commotion. “What is this?”
    “Don’t move,” she said. The pistol was pointed directly at his face, and even ten feet away the business end of the weapon must’ve looked very large to him. “Cooperate and you live. Make one sound and you die.”
    Panting, the private nodded a yes. “Over here,” Jo said, motioning with the pistol. The private obediently stood next to the downed guard. Jo had already taken the rifle; the guard had no sidearm. She tossed the key ring to the private. “Open the cellblock door,” she said. Stepping back, she gestured again with the gun just to add a little incentive. “No, the one on the other end,” she said as the private fumbled with the keys. “Be quick about it.”
    The soldier found the right key and unlocked the door. “You first,” Jo said. Keeping the pistol trained on the private, she tucked the rifle under her other arm and picked up the bucket.
    The Chinese prisoners looked at them wide-eyed as they entered the cellblock. A stern look from Jo convinced them to keep quiet, but she knew they’d have to be bound and gagged before they left. That would take up more valuable time, but it couldn’t be helped.
    They reached the end of the block. Jamison was ready, standing near the door. “Good show,” he said in English.
    Jo tossed him the sergeant’s keys and told him which one to use. Reaching through the bars, Jamison struggled but managed to unlock his cell door. “There’s a uniform in the bucket,” she said. “Probably too small but it’ll have to do.”
    Twenty agonizingly long seconds later, Jamison was pulling down Lu’s coat, barely reaching his waist. The shoes were way too small. “I’d prefer not to go barefoot,” he said. He looked at the private. “You have some big dogs, there, son,” he said in Chinese. “Off with them.”
    Sitting on the floor of Jamison’s cell, the private pulled off his shoes and handed them over. “Stockings, too.” The plain gray socks went on easily, but Jamison had a hard time fitting the shoes. “I can put up with a little foot discomfort,” he said finally.
    “We don’t have much time,” Jo said in English. “I saw a helicopter coming in with some officers.”
    “Probably from their Central Investigative Department,” Jamison said. That was one possibility, Jo Ann knew, but they might also be from the PLA’s Second Department, which handled military intelligence. Jamison took the sergeant’s sidearm from Jo and put it in the holster. “Or perhaps from the Central Security Regiment,” he added.
    “The 8341 Unit?” Jo asked. She’d been told that particularly notorious branch, which had served as Mao Tse-tung’s personal security service and thus as China’s secret police, had been disbanded following Mao’s death five years ago.
    “Still around, yes,” Jamison said, hefting the guard’s rifle. “Nasty blokes. Let’s get moving.”
    “We have to secure the prisoners,” she said.
    “Right. I’ll take care of this fellow.” The MI6 agent began stripping his prisoner’s tunic apart. Jo took the sergeant’s keys and went to the next cell.
    The older of the two Chinese prisoners looked at her strangely as she unlocked the door and entered. Jo realized she should’ve kept the pistol, but she couldn’t waste time to get it now. “Take your shirt off,” she ordered. The man dutifully complied, and in seconds Jo had used the filthy garment to bind the prisoner’s hands behind his head and also as a blindfold and gag, a nifty technique she’d learned from an intelligence officer who’d defected from North Vietnam.
    She was worried about the younger prisoner, who’d appeared fairly excitable. She found him holding onto the bars of his cell door. As soon as she came into view, he began jabbering. “Who are you? What did you do to the sergeant?”
    “Stay back,” she said, inserting the key in the door’s lock.
    The boy’s voice got higher. “I did nothing wrong! The other man, he told me what he wanted—”
    From next to her, Jo Ann heard a metallic click and the prisoner stopped in mid-sentence. “That’s good, son, now do as the lady says.” Jamison had the sergeant’s pistol out and carefully targeted.
    It took only moments for Jo to bind and gag the boy. “Thanks,” she said. “I owe you one.”
    “We’ll down a few in Hong Kong tonight,” he said. “Assuming, of course, that we can get out of here.”
    “There’s a boat waiting,” she said. “Two klicks past the village on the coast. I have transport in the village.” Madame Zhi, her cover now blown, would be evacuated with them. She’d managed to borrow one of the village’s few vehicles, a dilapidated truck, in exchange for three cartons of American cigarettes. If their luck held, now that darkness was approaching, they could get past the base perimeter, down the road to the village and then hop aboard for the two-kilometer ride to the rendezvous point. The extraction team would meet them there with a Zodiac boat.
    “There are two guards outside the building,” Jo said. “Can you imitate the sergeant’s voice?”
    “I’ll try,” he said. “Lord knows I’ve heard it often enough the past few days.”
    “Good. When I go past them, I’ll get their attention. Then you order them to avert their eyes somehow.”
    “That will be hard for them to do,” he said, and even from his battered face the smile looked appreciative.
    Jo went out first. The guards stiffened automatically as they heard the door open, then relaxed as they recognized her. Back into her peasant shuffle, Jo went down the two wooden steps and scuttled off, stopping ten feet from the guards. She turned and smiled at them. “Hello, boys,” she said in perfect Cantonese. “Are you as big as your sergeant?”
    One guard laughed. “Bigger,” he said.
    “Private!” Jamison barked from the doorway. “I heard that!” The guards shot to ramrod straight attention. “One hundred push-ups! Both of you!”
    Like automatons, the guards set their rifles on the ground and assumed the universal push-up position. The guard who’d spoken started quickly, followed by his comrade a second later. “Count them off!” Jamison said.
    “One, two, three, four…”
    Without saying another word, Jamison strode past them to Jo Ann. They began walking toward the same gate Jo had used only a short time before, although it seemed like hours to her.
    “Very clever,” she whispered to the agent.
    “By the time they finish we’ll be far enough away so they won’t recognize me,” Jamison said. “How many guards at the gate?”
    “Our dog and pony show won’t work there.”
    “We’ll have to be more direct. I’ll take the pistol.” Jamison handed her the sidearm and she tucked it inside her sleeve.
    Dusk was upon them, and the base’s usual high level of activity was slacking off. A half-dozen or so soldiers passed Jo Ann and the British agent, but none came within ten yards. They had another hundred meters to go to the gate, and Jo began praying that no other soldiers would choose to use it right now. She knew that most of them were probably in the mess hall for dinner, but give them another half hour and some might be off duty and ready to head to town. The officers from the helicopter were probably dining with the base commander right now, but they’d soon finish and head over to the lockup. Jo estimated they had thirty minutes, tops, before an alarm was raised. They’d be cutting it close.



The White Vixen - Chapter One