Tag Archives: spy

What the Donkey Saw

FF 208 J Hardy Carroll

copyright J Hardy Carroll

What the Donkey Saw

The blindfolded child tottered towards the two-dimensional donkey, another victim of her uncle’s over-enthusiastic spinning.

The point of the pin swayed. Then, with a deft thrust, she skewered the animal’s eye.

In a bunker near Pyongyang, technicians watched the screen turn to static.

“Sir, camera destroyed.”

“Clearly,” the captain said. “Well, Operation Birthday Party was yielding less intelligence than anticipated.”

“Sir, I was wondering—”

“For the last time, no bouncy castle!” the captain shouted. Twelve faces drooped. “Well, maybe for the Dear Leader’s birthday. Now, switch to Operation Chucky Cheese. That mouse has some dark secrets. I guarantee it.”

Interview with a Traitor

This is a story that I promised to do for Nightlake for winning my Story Premise Challenge that I held back in May. I apologize that it’s been so long. This story is similar to what she had asked for, although not exactly, so I hope it will be acceptable.

North Korean flags

Interview with a Traitor

It wasn’t easy, but I finally got it: an interview with the UK’s most notorious defector, Steven T. Blacker, in his new home in Wonsan, North Korea. I had been to North Korea once before but had not been able to track him down. This time, I was told through government channels that he would agree to an interview. I flew to Pyongyang through Beijing and met my guides: the soft-spoken but sharp-eyed Miss Kang and the frequently-smiling, quiet Mr. Ryu. We drove to Wonsan the next day along a country highway sparsely filled with trucks, military vehicles and the occasional passenger car.

Steven Blacker’s apartment was on the tenth floor of one of the taller apartment buildings in the city and his living room window looked out over Wonsan harbor. He was a slim, red-haired man with an easy smile and a friendly nature. He introduced me to his wife, a North Korean woman named Kim Sun-Nam who bowed, but did not smile at me.

Wonsan, North Korea

Wonsan, North Korea [*]

I had been hoping to interview Mr. Blacker in private, in order to get at some of the motivations he had for defecting, as well as some of the actual living conditions in North Korea—something he might not be comfortable talking about in front of government minders. I soon realized that privacy was going to be impossible. My guides not only insisted on staying during the interview, but also recording the conversation.

So, with their tape recorder and my digital recorder sitting on the table, we began. Mr. Blacker’s wife brought us beer and snacks but I was anxious to begin.

“Thank you for allowing me to meet with you,” I said, trying to get the formalities out of the way. He merely nodded. “So, how is life here?”

“It’s good,” he said. “Really good.” When I pressed him to elaborate, he said, “Life is much simpler here. I teach English to government officials and help them as they need it and besides that, I’m left alone to just live my life. I do some writing, photography. I have a car and we can travel more or less freely in the area. It’s a good life.”

I thought of the high price that good life had cost, but I decided to get into that later.

“I’ve heard bits and pieces of your story, Mr. Blacker—how you came here originally undercover and eventually defected. Do you mind telling me again, in your own words?”

“Not at all,” he said, taking a swig of beer. “As you probably know, I worked for MI-6 for ten years. I came here posing as a photojournalist. The idea was to pretend to make a documentary about rural North Korean life but actually try to recruit local contacts and slowly try to build a network of informants. I was here for about a month.”

“So what made you want to defect?” I asked.

“A lot of things, I guess,” he said. “For one thing, The DPRK is nothing like we’ve been told. We’ve been force-fed a diet of propaganda about the ‘Axis of Evil’. If you ask anyone in the West who the evilest people in the world are, they will probably say North Koreans. We have this mental image of a whole country working towards the downfall of the rest of the world.

“But when I got here, I saw through that in a second. They’re just people, like anyone else, and some of the kindest, most generous people I’ve ever met. I have known people back in the West with more money and possessions than some people here could even dream of, and yet they hoard it all for themselves. I learned true generosity here.”

“So you made the decision after only a month?” I asked.

“No, although by the time the month was up and I returned home, the idea had been planted in my mind. It was a tiny seed of discontent with my life and the crazy, audacious idea of changing it. Haven’t you ever wanted to just leave it all behind? Forget the daily grind and bustle and stress and find a simpler life?”

“But you could have done that anywhere. Why didn’t you just retire honorably and move to Fiji or somewhere?”

He shrugged. “I fell in love with the culture and the people here. If you’ve never lived here, you think of the DPRK as a government, or an ideology, or a threat. I saw the people and the rich culture they have. It hooked me.”

“Do you ever regret the decision?” I asked.

For a moment, I thought I had caught him off guard. He hesitated and I could tell that he was debating what to say. So, he did have some regrets. After a few seconds, he said, “No. No, I don’t regret it. I might have done some things differently though, if I had to do it all again.” I asked what he meant, but he refused to elaborate.

“It was reported that you defected in Beijing, at the North Korean embassy. Why didn’t you do it here, when you in the country?”

“I came here with a team—if I had declared my intention to defect here, my teammates would have been imprisoned. It was just easier out of the country.”

I thought it was time to get into some of the deeper issues, or at least poke at them and see how Mr. Blacker would respond. “How would you respond to people who call you a traitor?”

He leaned forward and set his beer bottle down heavily on the table. “Look,” he said, pointing a finger at me. “I didn’t come here to sell out my country. This was a personal choice, and it reflected a change I wanted to make in my own life. That’s all.”

I thought his use of the phrase “personal choice” was highly ironic, considering we were in a country where personal freedom was severely limited. “Did you give top secret intelligence to North Korea?” I asked.

He looked annoyed and I thought he was going to refuse to answer, but then he just glanced off to the side and shrugged slightly. “I didn’t bring intelligence with me, if that’s what you mean. I answered their questions—that’s all.”

“But surely, you must have given them classified information—”

“Do you have any other questions?” he asked, cutting me off.

Hundreds, I thought. “What do you think of North Korea’s human rights abuses?”

“Western propaganda,” he said, although I thought I saw his gaze flick momentarily to my guides. “You want to talk about human rights abuses? What about the US? You’re an American, right? Sure, they imprison people here for plotting against the government, but what country doesn’t? The DPRK has never attacked another country ever. Can you say that about the US or the UK? The US is currently engaged in conflicts in over seventy countries, either officially or unofficially. A lot of them were ones they started.”

“That’s debatable,” I said, “but what about the Korean War?” I asked. “The North invaded South Korea first.”

“That was a civil war though,” Mr. Black countered. “Even today, both the North and South consider Korea to be one, temporarily divided country. During the war, the North was not invading a foreign country; it was merely attempting to put down rebellious factions in its own country. No one asked any other country to get involved.”

“Still, do you deny that there are concentration camps here where they torture political prisoners and their families?” I glanced over at the government officials. I could tell they were getting a little restless and Miss Kang looked on the edge of jumping in to stop the interview.

“What about Guantanamo Bay, or the other secret prisons the US and NATO have scattered around the world? The public doesn’t know about all of them, but trust me, they’re there. Is that any worse?”

“So you don’t deny the North has concentration camps?” I asked. Miss Kang stood up but I waved for her to sit back down. “Fine, fine. I take back the question.” I sensed that the interview was going to end soon, but if I asked any of the tough questions I wanted to, I feared that Miss Kang would step in. “Is there anything you miss from back home?”

“Of course,” Mr. Blacker said. “Life is never perfect. I miss my family and I miss the foods I grew up with. I miss Christmas.”

“One last question,” I said. “How do you see yourself, Mr. Blacker? What do you see when you look in the mirror?”

“I see an ordinary man who was brave enough to follow his convictions,” he said. “I wouldn’t expect anyone else to do what I did, or at least not many. As for myself, I think I did the right thing.”

“Even though you betrayed the trust of your country to do it?”

“You have to be true to yourself first,” he said.

“Even when you have to break oaths that you have sworn?”

“People break their oaths all the time when they get divorced,” he said. “It’s painful, but sometimes it’s necessary. My situation is not ideal, but we each have to live life as we see best.”

After we left the Blackers’ apartment, my guides and I had dinner in Wonsan and then drove back to Pyongyang as it was getting dark.

“Are you satisfied with your interview?” Miss Kang asked.

“I think it went okay,” I said. I had not gotten what I’d expected, but now, looking back, I wasn’t entirely sure what I had been expecting.

“He is a good man,” she said. “He has a strong spirit.”

“Would you think that of someone who betrayed your country and gave its secrets to your enemies?” I asked. She did not answer.

I thought about Steven Blacker all the way back to New York. He had made some good points, but I still could not make myself agree with him. In my mind, he was still a traitor—someone who had betrayed the trust of his country. Still, he had made me think. The world is not as black and white as we might believe, or wish it to be.

Forrest and the Amulet of Doom

This is the chapter that I wrote for the Baker’s Dozen collaborative story that Joe Owens has been moderating. Mine is the second-last chapter, so if you want, go read the other chapters.

But, if you are short on time, or just can’t muster the energy to click the link, here’s a synopsis.


Synopsis: Forrest is an average guy with an average job. Except he’s not. You find that out when he gets a mysterious message telling him to get out of the building and then just as he does, the building blows up. Tanks and aircraft start roaring around; it’s a sudden war zone. He escapes with Angie, a co-worker. They meet her father, who says he’s NSA and helps them escape.

Ah, but did they really escape?

The whole thing revolves around a medallion that Forrest’s father gave him before he killed himself. Forrest is really Jewish and his father was a former Mossad agent. Ross finally takes the medallion from Forrest, who gives it to him because it apparently has powers and he wants to keep it out of the wrong hands. Then things seem to be heating up with Angie, until later, when she seems to betray him and he ends up in a prison next to Christina, his former girlfriend. Then they get out and Angie burst in on them and fights Christina until another Angie comes in and shoots the first Angie and Christina with a crossbow. He’s confused. What’s up with these girls?

The point is, it’s very complicated, and you’re asking a lot to make me sum up the previously written 10,000 words in a short synopsis. The last chapter ended with Forrest and the second Angie escaping and finding Forrest’s brother and sister and an old Asian man. The man pours hot water on his brother and sister’s shoulders and a symbol appears, like that on the amulet.

Chapter 12: The Ultimate Penultimate

“This must be a lot to take in all at once,” Forrest’s sister Anna said. She laid her hand on his arm. “Still, it’s good to see you again, Ananiah. I haven’t seen you since just after David died.”

“My name’s Forrest now,” he said, stiffening at the mention of his older brother. “None of this makes any sense. What are you doing here, Anna, and with Benjamin too?” He turned from his younger brother and sister to the elderly Asian man. “I don’t know who you are and you, Angie—I sure as hell don’t know who you are anymore.” His furious glare was locked on Angie’s face. She merely nodded.

“I won’t ask what you’ve been told over the last few days,” she said. “I know parts of it, but it doesn’t matter. I am the one who you’ve gotten to know over the last few months at work, but I’m not the one you’ve been with for the last few days. That was my twin sister. Up until today, we both worked for the CIA. Twins are of immense value in the intelligence business—misdirection, confusion, chaos. Neither of our names is really Angie, but you can still think of me that way, if you want.”

“You killed her,” Forrest said. “You killed your sister, and Christina too. I suppose she was a spy too—probably never really loved me, right? I suppose everyone I know is a spy.” He suddenly felt very tired, as if another revelation would send him to his knees.

“I didn’t want to kill them,” Angie said. “I loved my sister, at one time, but I was desperate. It was probably a mistake. As for Christina, I don’t know how she felt about you, but she was a spy. Not with us though. Another group.”

“Who? The Chinese?”

“No, the US military,” Angie said.

“But you’re on the same team!” Forrest said. “Aren’t you?”

“Let me try to explain,” the elderly man said, stepping forward. “The situation is, uh . . . complex.” He had a gentle, soothing voice with just a hint of a British accent. He sat down at the table nearby and motioned for Forrest to sit. Angie, Anna, and Benjamin all sat down as well.

“My name is Mr. Xia,” the man said. He pronounced it like sha. “I am the leader of this group, which we call Mechilah. It is a Hebrew word, just like its founder, your mother.”

“My mother,” Forrest repeated. Benjamin nodded; Anna smiled encouragingly.

“The medallion you carried around for most of your life; do you know what it does?” Xia asked. “Has it ever shown any, uh, unusual properties?”

“I don’t know what it does but it seems to be immensely important to everyone but me,” Forrest said. “It has gotten suddenly warm before, but that’s it.”

“Your father was understandably quiet about its nature, but let me give you a quick history lesson,” Xia said. “It is said—in legend, mind you—that during the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, a group of priests was trapped inside the temple. One prayed for a miracle, laying the only thing he had on him, a revolt shekel, on the altar. The legend says that that one priest gained great powers when he was holding the coin and through those powers, he saved himself and his fellow priests from the pillaging Romans. The coin was made into a medallion and handed down from father to son, although the knowledge of its powers was lost to time.”

revolt shekel

“What sorts of powers?” Forrest asked.

“The ability to pass through walls and walk unseen,” the old man said. “It was your father who rediscovered them and put them to good use—or not so good use.”

“Our father was a hero,” Forrest said. He looked unconsciously to his sister and brother for support.

“He was,” Xia said. “He is responsible for a great deal of Israel’s success in the wars of the 60s and 70s, both through intelligence gathering and, well, elimination of key enemies. He once told me that he had killed 1,482 people. Mostly men—mostly soldiers, but not all. The covert medals and commendations did nothing for his conscience and that is why he ultimately killed himself.”

“But then why didn’t he just destroy the medal, if he hated it so much?” Forrest asked.

“He did not hate the medallion; he hated himself for how he had used it. He saved his country, but he could not save himself. Still, he was too much of a traditionalist to destroy such an heirloom. That is why he passed it on to you, but did not explain its power.”

“So what is happening now?”

“Even allies spy on each other,” Xia said. “Israel could not keep its secret weapon totally secret and soon the rest of the covert world got wind of it, both allies and enemies. The vultures began to circle around you, looking for evidence that you were using the medallion and how you used it. An international covert coalition was formed to keep this technology out of the hands of ‘enemies.’”

“But who is the enemy?” Forrest asked. Xia merely smiled and nodded, as if Forrest had hit on the crux of the matter.

“Sometimes people form alliances even when they know that there can only be one winner,” Angie said, breaking in. “The alliance exists only to the point where one individual can betray his allies and seize victory alone. The Israelis may have been the first to respond to the attack on your office building, but Ross—my father—made sure the Americans grabbed you first. Now that we are in America, even national unity is breaking down as each group tries to grab the power for themselves: the military, the CIA, even political parties. This kind of power is divisive. People would kill without hesitation for it.”

“So whose side are you on, your little Mechilah group here?”

“We’re not on anyone’s side,” Benjamin said. “Mother knew all about the medallion and she formed this group to keep the power safe from people who would misuse it. Mechilah means “cave” because we want to bury the medallion, to keep it safe. But the word can also mean “forgiveness.” I do not know if the power of the medallion can ever be used for peace and forgiveness, but it is our hope. Until then, we need to keep it safe.”


Forrest gave a bitter laugh. “Well, that’s admirable, but it doesn’t change the fact that you failed. The medallion is gone. Ross has it now, although he says it’s a fake.”

“It’s not a fake,” Xia said. “You see, the medallion is only a key.”

“To what?”

“To you, Mr. Ananiah Yedidya, or Forrest Graham, if you prefer. You and your brother and sister. Only descendants of that original priest can use it.”

“Then there is no problem,” Forrest said. “They can’t use it and they think it is a fake. Can’t we just forget about it?”

“We could, for now,” Xia said. “But it may not always be that way. It may be that one day they will find a way to use it, even in ways we cannot anticipate. It is not safe with anyone but us.”

“Then what do you propose we do?”

“I want you to go back and get it.”

Forrest jumped up. “Are you crazy? I’m not a spy. I was a prisoner in that place and now you want me to walk up the front door and ask for the medallion back?”

Mr. Xia stood up and gave a slow, almost ceremonious nod. “That, son of my dear friend, is exactly what I want you to do.”

*         *         *

Ross Hammerstein sat behind his desk with his legs propped up and slowly turned the medallion between his fingers. It was not fake, he knew, but still they could not figure out how to use it. He had acquired it thanks to luck and ingenuity, just ahead of a clamoring mob of other interested parties. Now he needed to find out how to use it, quickly and before the winds of fortune changed direction yet again.

The phone rang and he grabbed it. “Ross here.”

“This is the front gate, sir. We have Forrest Graham here. He just walked out of the darkness and asked for you.”

Ross sat up. “Is he alone? Armed?”

“Totally alone and unarmed. We searched him thoroughly. Should I let him in?”

“Bring him, captain, but under guard.” He hung up and smiled to himself. This was a wind he hadn’t anticipated. He sensed unseen stratagems at work. A trap? Possibly, but this was his base and he was in control.

A moment later, Forrest Graham walked in, surrounded by four armed guards. “What do you want, Forrest?” Ross asked. “You got balls, coming back here like this.”

“I want to help you,” Forrest said.

“Sure you do,” Ross said with a leonine smile. “And how are you going to do that?”

“The medallion you have isn’t a fake but only I can use it. Just like my father.”

“You know what it does?”

“It increases the user’s strength a hundred times,” Forrest said. “That’s where the Jewish legend of the golem comes from. You didn’t know?”

Ross said nothing. That was not what he had been told, although it seemed plausible. He gazed at Forrest, looking for signs of lying, but the younger man’s face was impassive.

“Fine, show us,” he said at last. It was a risk, but it had to come to it sometime. “Not here, though.” He turned to the captain in charge. “Vault B.”

secret base

*         *         *

Forrest was stripped and dressed in a white cotton jumpsuit and slippers. Then he was led into a steel chamber with windows high up on all sides. The medallion was lying in the middle of the chamber.

Ross’ voice came through a speaker. “Pick up the medallion and demonstrate its use. You are currently being covered by a wide variety of powerful ordinance, so don’t try anything.”

Forrest picked up the medallion and held it in his fist, trying to stop himself from trembling. Mr. Xia’s plan seemed insane now. He closed his eyes, trying to remember how he had felt when it had gotten hot before. He thought of his father, willing himself to do this for him, willing the medallion to show its power.

He felt it, a growing heat in the palm of his hand. He opened his eyes in time to see the steel wall in front of him fade slightly. He could still see it, but he saw the room beyond it as well, as if he were looking through thin tissue paper.

There was an exclamation from the speaker. “You faded from sight for a moment. How did you do it? Tell me, quickly.”

Forrest did not answer. He was breathing hard; the mental effort he had needed to exert was staggering. He heard a hiss and saw that gas was pouring into the room from overhead vents. It was now or never. He stared at the wall in front of him until it faded again and then he lunged through, running as fast as he could in those ridiculous slippers.

He tripped and lost concentration, sprawling to the floor of an empty corridor. Then he was up again, desperately trying to make the medallion work again. It was easier this time, but already exhaustion was creeping in.

He ran again and suddenly found himself outside. The outer fence was only a hundred feet away. Behind him, alarms were going off. Shucking the slippers and gritting his teeth, he sprinted towards the fence just as gunfire erupted behind him.

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