It’s like being in a state of nonexistence. A vacuum. Darkness and light at the same time, and no sense of gravity. There’s no air, but I know I’m breathing. Certainly no sounds are present. I see and feel nothing. There are no dreams.
That’s what sleep is like for me. I’m blessed, I suppose. I can will myself to sleep anywhere, anytime. I didn’t train to do it. It’s always been that way, ever since I was a kid. I simply tell myself, “It’s time to sleep now.” And I do it. I’m sure a lot of people in the world would envy this talent. I don’t take it for granted because in my business I have to catch sleep in the strangest places and at the oddest times.
I feel the pulsating pressure on my wrist. It gently pulls me out of this dimensionless world, and I slowly regain the use of my senses. I feel the warm metal against my face. I hear far-off nondescript echoes.
The OPSAT attached to my wrist continues to wake me. There’s a little T-shaped rod that protrudes from the flexible band when the silent “alarm” goes off. The rod rocks back and forth, nudging my pulse, telling my body that it’s time to rouse. When I first saw it demonstrated, it reminded me of a James Coburn spy movie from the sixties in which he played a secret agent who could stop his heart on command. This apparently put him in some kind of hibernation. He had a wristwatch with the same kind of T-shaped rod that poked him until he woke up. I remember laughing in the movie theater when I saw that. It was too ridiculous to take seriously. Now look at me.
I take a few deep breaths. The air is stale and dry inside the ventilation shaft where I spent the last six hours. I flex my hands to get the blood circulating once again. I stretch my feet, even though they’re enclosed snugly in my boots.
Then I open my eyes.
There’s no more light in the shaft than there was when I first climbed into it.
The OPSAT finishes its duty and the little T-shaped rod retracts. I bring my left hand to my face and press the button to illuminate the OPSAT’s screen. There are no new messages from Lambert. No incoming e-mail. All’s quiet in the world. The OPSAT is a handy little device that Third Echelon dreamed up for its agents. It’s really called an Operational Satellite Uplink. Primarily a tool for communication, it has many other uses as well. I particularly like the camera capabilities that allow me to snap digital pics of anything I want.
I’m suddenly aware of how hot it is and I remember where I am. The ventilation shaft of the Tropical Casino in Macau. I’m lying horizontally in a space slightly smaller than a phone booth. It’s a good thing I’m not claustrophobic or I’d be a basket case by now. Since I had to wait for the right time to make my move, I set the alarm to wake me at four in the morning. I figured that’s when activity inside the casino would be at its most muted. It’s a twenty-four–hour joint, so there’s always going to be someone here.
I’m sweating like a pig inside my custom-made uniform. I forgot to adjust the temperature control before going to sleep. I quickly turn the knob at my belt to make it cooler. Immediately I can feel the cold water flowing through the vessels embedded within the uniform’s lining. The military calls it an “Objective Force Warrior” uniform. It’s like an astronaut’s suit, only sleeker and tighter. I can make it cold or hot, depending on what kind of environment I’m in. It’s made of a heavy material with Kevlar sewn into it, yet it’s flexible enough for me to perform any gymnastic feat I wish to attempt. I wouldn’t call it bulletproof, but it’s close. The tough outer hide feels like elephant skin to the touch, and it goes a long way toward deflecting stuff. I suppose if I were shot at point blank I’d be dead, but bullets fired from a range of fifteen feet or more might penetrate the suit but not me. The Kevlar acts as a braking mechanism. Pretty cool stuff. Another interesting feature is that it’s got photosensitive threading that reacts when a targeting laser strikes the material. The suit sends a signal to my OPSAT, alerting me that I’m in a sniper’s gun sight.
My only beef with the uniform is that it’s so tight fitting and neat that it makes me look like a comic book superhero. Even my special headpiece looks like a mask when I have the goggles down.
I pull the straw from the tube in the collar and suck refreshing cold water from the supply stored in the bladders distributed evenly throughout the suit. There’s enough water in there to last twelve hours as long as I use it sparingly. It’s an odd concept, but I have to “fill up my uniform” every so often.
Time for a little energy. I raise my body enough so I can reach into the Osprey strapped to my back and pull out a ration. The food in those things tastes a lot like the MREs the army gets, so there’s a variety of stuff—from Cajun-style rice and beans to spaghetti to grilled chicken breast. Maybe some of that stuff is actually in the recipes. The one I happen to pick resembles trail mix. As I munch on the delicacy, I recall how I got here and what the hell I’m supposed to be doing.
I had entered the casino during the early evening, just as the big crowds were beginning to populate the place. I wore street clothes and figured I’d be less noticeable when a lot of people were here. Casinos in Macau are different from other ones around the world. The Chinese take their gambling very seriously. There’s never any shouting of “Jackpot,” much less any hint of smiles from these people. They look as if they’d just as soon shoot you as deal you a card. It’s par for the course, I guess. Triads hang out in Macau casinos, and I’ve never seen a cheerful Triad. Given the fact that since 1999 Macau was no longer a Portuguese colony and was now one of the Special Administrative Regions of China, I could imagine that the inhabitants were not very happy. Like Hong Kong, Macau was now part of Communist China, even though the Chinese government promised that things would remain relatively the same for the next fifty years. It was still unclear what the colony’s underworld was doing about the hand-over. During the twentieth century, Macau had developed a reputation as a hotbed of spies, vice, and intrigue.
I played a few games, lost a little money, gained some of it back, and then went to the washroom across from the broom closet I needed. I had memorized the building plans before the mission commenced. I could make my way around the casino blindfolded if I had to.
I slipped out of the washroom when I sensed no one was in the hallway and moved to the broom closet door. I had to use a lock pick to open it. Luckily, it wasn’t a high-tech lock. After all, it really was just a broom closet.
Once I was inside, I locked the door and proceeded to remove the street clothes, revealing my funky superhero uniform underneath. I folded the clothes and tucked them neatly in the Osprey backpack. I donned the headpiece and was set to go. The change from Clark Kent to Superman had taken me about forty seconds.
I climbed a tool shelf to reach the ventilation shaft opening, gently pried off the grill cover, and hung it on a nail on the wall. I tested the strength of the structure to make sure it would hold my weight and then pulled myself in. I could just barely turn myself around to reach out, grab the grill cover, and fasten it back on the shaft from the inside. I did another about-face and crawled silently through the shaft until I came to a spot that was sufficient for a nap. And here I am.
I finish my meal and eat the digestible wrapper so I won’t leave any trace of my being here. I doubt anyone is going to look inside the ventilation shaft, but one never knows. Time to act.
I crawl farther along the shaft, make the left turn I know is coming, go about twenty yards, hook a right, and then shimmy down a vertical drop for ten feet. On the next level the shaft goes in three directions. I tap the OPSAT for the compass mode just to confirm that the tunnel on my left is the westerly direction, and then I crawl that way. One more right turn and I can see the grill at the end of the shaft. The casino president’s office.
I peer through the grill to make sure the office is dark and uninhabited. I carefully push the grill off but hold on to it. I don’t want a loud clang when I drop it. I worm my upper body out of the shaft and gently place the grill behind a sofa directly beneath me. I then clutch the bottom of the shaft opening, roll my lower back and hips out, and somersault onto the carpeted floor. So far, so good.
I push the goggles over my eyes and switch on the night-vision mode. No need to turn on any lights and attract attention. Being quiet and invisible are the two main rules in my profession. Get the job done without being seen or noticed. If I’m caught, the U.S. government will deny any knowledge of my existence. I’d be on my own, in the hands of a foreign agency with no legal recourse or means of escape except with what I can manage to achieve with my body and mind. It’s a test I don’t particularly want to take, even though I’ve studied for it for years. There are always trick questions in that kind of test.
I go straight for the computer on the president’s expansive mahogany desk, power it up, and tap my fingers impatiently while I wait for the system to load. When it asks for the password, I type in the one that Carly assured me would work—and sure enough, it does. Carly St. John is a wizard when it comes to technical shit. She can hack into any system, anywhere. And she can do it from her desk in Washington, D.C.
Using the Search function, I quickly find the folders I want. They contain files of payo...