6—Looking In, Looking Out
In many ways operating in Japan was highly difficult. There was the racial part of it, of course. Japan was not strictly speaking a homogeneous society; the Ainu people were the original inhabitants of the islands but they mainly lived on Hokkaido, the northernmost of the Home Islands. Still called an aboriginal people, they were also quite isolated from mainstream Japanese society in an explicitly racist way. Similarly Japan had an ethnic-Korean minority whose antecedents had been imported at the turn of the century as cheap labor, much as America had brought in immigrants on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. But unlike America, Japan denied citizenship rights to its immigrants unless they adopted a fully Japanese identity, a fact made all the more odd in that the Japanese people were themselves a mere offshoot of the Korean, a fact proven by DNA research but which was conveniently and somewhat indignantly denied by the better sections of Japanese society. All foreigners were gaijin, a word which like most words in the local language had many flavors. Usually translated benignly as meaning just "foreigners," the word had other connotations—like "barbarian," Chet Nomuri thought, with all of the implicit invective that the word had carried when first coined by the Greeks. The irony was that as an American citizen he was gaijin himself, despite 100 percent Japanese ethnicity, and while he had grown up quietly resenting the racist policies of the U.S. government that had once caused genuine harm to his family, it had required only a week in the land of his ancestors for him to yearn for a return to Southern California, where the living was smooth and easy.
It was for Chester Nomuri a strange experience, living and "working" here. He'd been carefully screened and interviewed before being assigned to Operation SANOALWOOD. Having joined the Agency soon after graduating UCLA, not quite remembering why he'd done so except for a vague desire for adventure mixed with a family tradition of government service, he'd found somewhat to his surprise that he enjoyed the life. It was remarkably like police work, and Nomuri was a fan of police TV and novels. More than that, it was so damned interesting. He learned new things every day. It was like being in a living history classroom. Perhaps the most important lesson he'd learned, however, was that his great-grandfather had been a wise and insightful man. Nomuri wasn't blind to America's faults, but he preferred life there to life in any of the countries he'd visited, and with that knowledge had come pride in what he was doing, even though he still wasn't quite sure what the hell he was really up to. Of course, neither did his Agency, but Nomuri had never quite understood that, even when they'd told him so at the Farm. How could it be possible, after all? It must have been an inside-the-institution joke.
At the same time, in a dualism he was too young and inexperienced to appreciate fully, Japan could be an easy place in which to operate. That was especially true on the commuter train.
The degree of crowding here was enough to make his skin crawl. He had not been prepared for a country in which population density compelled close contact with all manner of strangers, and, indeed, he'd soon realized that the cultural mania with fastidious personal hygiene and mannerly behavior was simply a by-product of it. People so often rubbed, bumped, or otherwise crushed into contact with others that the absence of politeness would have resulted in street killings to shame the most violent neighborhood in America. A combination of smiling embarrassment at the touches and icy personal isolation made it tolerable to the local citizens, though it was something that still gave Nomuri trouble. "Give the guy some space" had been a catch-phrase at UCLA. Clearly it wasn't here, because there simply wasn't the space to give.
Then there was the way they treated women. Here, on the crowded trains, the standing and sitting salarymen read comic books, called manga, the local versions of novels, which were genuinely disturbing. Recently, a favorite of the eighties had been revived, called Rin-Tin-Tin. Not the friendly dog from 1950's American television, but a dog with a female mistress, to whom he talked, and with whom he had…sexual relations. It was not an idea that appealed to him, but there, sitting on his bench seat, was a middle-aged executive, eyes locked on the pages with rapt attention, while a Japanese woman stood right next to him and stared out the train's windows, maybe noticing, maybe not. The war between the sexes in this country certainly had rules different from the ones with which he'd been raised, Nomuri thought. He set it aside. It was not part of his mission, after all—an idea he would soon find to be wrong.
He never saw the cutout. As he stood there in the third car of the train, close to the rear door, hanging on to an overhead bar and reading a paper, he didn't even notice the insertion of the envelope into the pocket of his overcoat. It was always that way—at the usual place the coat got just a touch heavier. He'd turned once to look and seen nothing. Damn, he'd joined the right outfit.
Eighteen minutes later the train entered the terminal, and the people emerged from it like a horizontal avalanche, exploding outward into the capacious station. The salaryman ten feet away tucked his "illustrated novel" into his briefcase and walked off to his job, wearing his customarily impassive mien, doubtless concealing thoughts of his own. Nomuri headed his own way, buttoning his coat and wondering what his new instructions were.
"Does the President know?"
Ryan shook his head. "Not yet."
"You think maybe he ought to?" Mary Pat Foley asked.
"At the proper time."
"I don't like putting officers at risk for—"
"At risk?" Jack asked. "I want him to develop information, not to make a contact, and not to expose himself. I gather from the case notes I've seen so far that all he has to do is make a follow-up question, and unless their locker rooms are different from ours, it shouldn't expose him at all."
"You know what I mean," the Deputy Director (Operations) observed, rubbing her eyes. It had been a long day, and she worried about her field officers. Every good DDO did, and she was a mother who'd once been picked up by the KGB's Second Chief Directorate herself.
Operation SANDALWOOD had started innocently enough, if an intelligence operation on foreign soil could ever be called innocent. The preceding operation had been a joint FBI/CIA show, and had gone very badly indeed: an American citizen had been apprehended by the Japanese police with burglar tools in his possession—along with a diplomatic passport, which in this particular case had been more of a hindrance than a help. It had made the papers in a small way. Fortunately the media hadn't quite grasped what the story was all about. People were buying information. People were selling information. It was often information with "secret" or higher classifications scrawled across the folders, and the net effect was to hurt American interests, such as they were.
"How good is he?" Jack asked.
Mary Pat's face relaxed at little. "Very. The kid's a natural. He's learning to fit in, developing a base of people he can hit for background information. We've set him up with his own office. He's even turning us a nice profit. His orders are to be very careful," Mrs. Foley pointed out yet again.
"I hear you, MP," Ryan said tiredly. "But if this is for-real—"
"I know, Jack. I didn't like what Murray sent over either."
"You believe it?" Ryan asked, wondering about the reaction he'd get.
"Yes, I do, and so does Murray." She paused. "If we develop information on this, then what?"
"Then I go to the President, and probably we extract anyone who wants to be extracted."
"I will not risk Nomuri that way!" the DDO insisted, a little too loudly.
"Jesus, Mary Pat, I never expected that you would. Hey, I'm tired, too, okay?"
"So you want me to send in another team, let him just bird-dog it for them?" she asked.
"It's your operation to run, okay? I'll tell you what to do, but not how. Lighten up, MP." That statement earned the National Security Advisor a crooked smile and a semi-apology.
"Sorry, Jack. I keep forgetting you're the new guy on this block."
"The chemicals have various industrial uses," the Russian colonel explained to the American colonel.
"Good for you. All we can do is burn ours, and the smoke'll kill you."
The rocket exhaust from the liquid propellants wasn't exactly the Breath of Spring either, of course, but when you got down to it, they were industrial chemicals with a variety of other uses.
As they watched, technicians snaked a hose from the standpipe next to the missile puskatel, the Russian word for "silo," to a truck that would transport the last of the nitrogen tetroxide to a chemical plant. Below, another fitting on the missile body took another hose that pumped pressurized gas into the top of the oxidizer tank, the better to drive the corrosive chemical out. The top of the missile was blunt. The Americans could see where the warhead "bus" had been attached, but it had already been removed, and was now on another truck, preceded by a pair of BTR-20 infantry fighting vehicles and trailed by three more, on its way to a place where the warheads could be disarmed preparatory to complete disassembly. America was buying the plutonium. The tritium in the warheads would stay in Russia, probably to be sold eventually on the open market to end up on watch and instrument faces. Tritium had a market value of about $50,000 per gram, and the sale of it would turn a tidy profit for the Russians. Perhaps, the American thought, that was the reason that his Russian colleagues were moving so expeditiously.
This was the first SS-19 silo to be deactivated for the 53rd Strategic Rocket Regiment. It was both like and unlike the American silos being deactivated under Russian inspection. The same mass of reinforced concrete for both, though this one was sited in woods, and the American silos were all on open ground, reflecting different ideas about site security. The climate wasn't all that different. Windier in North Dakota, because of the open spaces. The base temperature was marginally colder in Russia, which balanced out the wind-chill factor on the prairie. In due course the valve wheel on the pipe was turned, the hose removed, and the truck started up.
"Mind if I look?" the USAF colonel asked.
"Please." The Russian colonel of Strategic Rocket Forces waved to the open hole. He even handed over a large flashlight. Then it was his turn to laugh.
You son of a bitch, Colonel Andrew Malcolm wanted to exclaim. There was a pool of icy water at the bottom of the puskatel. The intelligence estimate had been wrong again. Who would have believed it?
"Backup?" Ding asked.
"You might end up just doing sightseeing," Mrs. Foley told them, almost believing it.
"Fill us in on the mission?" John Clark asked, getting down to business.
It was his own fault, after all, since he and Ding had turned into one of the Agency's best field teams. He looked over at Chavez. The kid had come a long way in five years. He had his college degree, and was close to his master's, in international relations no less. Ding's job would probably have put his instructors into cardiac arrest, since their idea of transnational intercourse didn't involve fucking other nations—a joke Domingo Chavez himself had coined on the dusty plains of Africa while reading a history book for one of his seminar groups. He still needed to learn about concealing his emotions. Chavez still retained some of the fiery nature of his background, though Clark wondered how much of it was for show around the Farm and elsewhere. In every organization the individual practitioners had to have a "service reputation." John had his. People spoke about him in whispers, thinking, stupidly, that the nicknames and rumors would never get back to him. And Ding wanted one, too. Well, that was normal.
"Photos?" Chavez asked calmly, then took them from Mrs. Foley's hand. There were six of them. Ding examined each, handing them over one by one to his senior. The junior officer kept his voice even but allowed his face to show his distaste.
"So if Nomuri turns up a face and a location, then what?" Ding asked.
"You two make contact with her and ask if she would like a free plane ticket home," the DDO replied without adding that there would be an extensive debriefing process. The CIA didn't give out free anythings, really.
"Cover?" John asked.
"We haven't decided yet. Before you head over, we need to work on your language skills."
"Monterey?" Chavez smiled. It was about the most pleasant piece of country in America, especially this time of year.
"Two weeks, total immersion. You fly out this evening. Your teacher will be a guy named Lyalin, Oleg Yurievich. KGB major who came over a while back. He actually ran a network over there, called THISTLE. He's the guy who turned the information that you and Ding used to bug the airliner—"
"Whoa!" Chavez observed. "Without him…"
Mrs. Foley nodded, pleased that Ding had made the complete connection that rapidly. "That's right. He's got a very nice house overlooking the water. It turns out he's one hell of a good language teacher, I guess because he had to learn it himself." It had turned into a fine bargain for CIA. After the debriefing process, he'd taken a productive job at the Armed Forces Language School, where his salary was paid by DOD. "Anyway, by the time you're able to order lunch and find the bathroom in the native tongue, we'll have your cover IDs figured out."
Clark smiled and rose, taking the signal that it was time to leave. "Back to work, then."
"Defending America," Ding observed with a smile, leaving the photos on Mrs. Foley's desk and sure that actually having to defend his country was a thing of the past. Clark heard the remark and thought it a joke too, until memories came back that erased the look from his face.
It wasn't their fault. It was just a matter of objective conditions. With four times the population of the United States, and only one third the living space, they had to do something, The people needed jobs, products, a chance to have what everyone else in the world wanted. They could see it on the television sets that seemed to exist even in places where there were no jobs, and, seeing it, demanded a chance to have it. It was that simple. You couldn't say "no" to nine hundred million people.
Certainly not if you were one of them. Vice Admiral V. K. Chandraskatta sat on his leather chair on the flag bridge of the carrier Viraat. His obligation, as expressed in his oath of office, was to carry out the orders of his government, but more than that, his duty was to his people. He had to look no further than his own flag bridge to see that: staff officers and ratings, especially the latter, the best his country could produce. They were mainly signalmen and yeomen who'd left whatever life they'd had on the subcontinent to take on this new one, and tried hard to be good at it, because as meager as the pay was, it was preferable to the economic chances they took in a country whose unemployment rate hovered between 20 and 25 percent. Just for his country to be self-sufficient in food had taken—how long? Twenty-five years. And that had come only as charity of sorts, the result of Western agroscience whose success still grated on many minds, as though his country, ancient and learned, couldn't make its own destiny. Even successful charity could be a burden on the national soul.
And now what? His country's economy was bouncing back, finally, but it was also hitting limits. India needed additional resources, but most of all needed space, of which there was little to he had. To his country's north was the world's most forbidding mountain range. East was Bangladesh, which had even more problems than India did. West was Pakistan, also overcrowded, and an ancient religious enemy, war with whom could well have the unwanted effect of cutting off his country's oil supply to the Muslim states of the Persian Gulf.
Such bad luck, the Admiral thought, picking up his glasses and surveying his fleet because he had nothing else to do at the moment. If they did nothing, the best his country might hope for was something little better than stagnation. If they turned outward, actively seeking room…But the "new world order" said that his country could not. India was denied entry into the race to greatness by those very nations that had run the race and then shut it down lest others catch up.
The proof was right here. His navy was one of the world's most powerful, built and manned and trained at ruinous expense, sailing on one of the world's seven oceans, the only one named for a country, and even here it was second-best, subordinate to a fraction of the United States Navy. That grated even more. America was the one telling his country what it could and could not do. America, with a history of—what?—scarcely two hundred years. Upstarts. Had they fought Alexaner of Macedon or the great Khan?
The European "discovery" voyages had been aimed at reaching his country, and that land mass discovered by accident was now denying greatness and power and justice to the Admiral's ancient land. It was, all in all, a lot to hide behind a face of professional detachment while the rest of his flag staff bustled about.
"Radar contact, bearing one-three-five, range two hundred kilometers," a talker announced. "Inbound course, speed five hundred knots."
The Admiral turned to his fleet-operations officer and nodded. Captain Mehta lifted a phone and spoke. His fleet was off the normal commercial sea and air routes, and the timing told him what the inbound track would be. Four American fighters, F-18E Hornet attack fighters off one of the American carriers to his southeast. Every day they came, morning and afternoon, and sometimes in the middle of the night to show that they could do that, too, to let him know that the Americans knew his location, and to remind him that he didn't, couldn't know theirs.
A moment later he heard the start-up noise from two of his Harriers. Good aircraft, expensive aircraft, but not a match for the inbound Americans. He'd put four up today, two from Viraat and two from Vikrant, to intercept the four, probably four, American Hornets, and the pilots would wave and nod in a show of good humor, but it would be a bilateral lie.
"We could light off our SAM systems, show them that we tire of this game," Captain Mehta suggested quietly. The Admiral shook his head.
"No. They know little about our SAM systems, and we will volunteer them nothing." The Indians' precise radar frequencies, pulse width, and repetition rates were not open information, and the American intelligence services had probably never troubled itself to find them out. That meant that the Americans might not be able to jam or spoof his systems—probably they could, but they wouldn't be certain of it, and it was the lack of certainty that would worry them. It wasn't much of a card, but it was the best in Chandraskatta's current hand. The Admiral sipped at his tea, making a show of his imperturbable nature."No, we will take notice of their approach, meet them in a friendly manner, and let them go on their way."
Mehta nodded and went off without a word to express his building rage. It was to be expected. He was the fleet-operations officer, and his was the task of divining a plan to defeat the American fleet, should that necessity present itself. That such a task was virtually impossible did not relieve Mehta of the duty to carry it out, and it was hardly surprising that the man was showing the strain of his position. Chandraskatta set his cup down, watching the Harriers leap off the ski-jump deck and into the air.
"How are the pilots bearing up?" the Admiral asked his air officer.
"They grow frustrated, but performance thus far is excellent." The answer was delivered with pride, as well it might be. His pilots were superb. The Admiral ate with them often, drawing courage from the proud faces in the ready rooms. They were fine young men, the equal, man for man, of any fighter pilots in all the world. More to the point, they were eager to show it. But the entire Indian Navy had only forty-three Harrier FRS 51 fighters. He had but thirty at sea on both Viraat and Vikrant, and that did not equal the numbers or capability aboard a single American carrier. All because they had entered the race first, won it, and then declared the games closed, Chandraskatta told himself, listening to the chatter of his airmen over an open-voice channel. It simply wasn't fair.
"So, what are you telling me?" Jack asked.
"It was a scam," Robby answered. "Those birds were maintenance-intensive. Guess what? The maintenance hasn't been done in the past couple of years. Andy Malcolm called in on his satellite brick this evening. There was water at the bottom of the hole he looked at today."
"I keep forgetting you're a city boy." Robby grinned sheepishly, or rather like the wolf under a fleece coat. "You make a hole in the ground, sooner or later it fills with water, okay? If you have something valuable in the hole, you better keep it pumped out. Water in the bottom of the silo means that they weren't always doing that. It means water vapor, humidity in the hole. And corrosion."
The light bulb went off. "You telling me the birds—"
"Probably wouldn't fly even if they wanted them to. Corrosion is like that. Probably dead birds, because fixing them once they're broke is a very iffy proposition. Anyway"—Jackson tossed the thin file folder at Ryan's desk—"that's the J-3 assessment."
"What about J-2?" Jack asked, referring to the intelligence directorate of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"They never believed it, but I expect they will now if we open enough holes and see the same thing. Me?" Admiral Jackson shrugged. "I figure if Ivan let us see it in number one, we'll find pretty much the same thing everywhere else. They just don't give a good fuck anymore."
Intelligence information comes from many sources, and an "operator" like Jackson was often the best source of all. Unlike intelligence officers whose job it was to evaluate the capabilities of the other side, almost always in a theoretical sense, Jackson was a man whose interest in weapons was making them work, and he'd learned from hard experience that using them was far more demanding than looking at them.
"Remember when we thought they were ten feet tall?"
"I never did, but a little bastard with a gun can still ruin your whole day," Robby reminded his friend. "So how much money have they hustled out of us?"
"Five big ones."
"Good deal, our federal tax money at work. We just paid the Russkies five thousand million dollars to 'deactivate' missiles that couldn't leave the silos unless they set the nukes off first. Fabulous call, Dr. Ryan."
"They need the money, Rob."
"So do I, man. Hey, boy, I'm scratching the bottom to get enough JP to keep our planes in the air." It was not often understood that every ship in the fleet and every battalion of tanks in the Army had to live on a budget. Though the commanding officers didn't keep a checkbook per se, each drew on a fixed supply of consumable stores—fuel, weapons, spare parts, even food in the case of warships—that had to last a whole year. It was by no means unknown for a man-of-war to sit several weeks alongside her pier at the end of the fiscal year because there was nothing left to make her run. Such an event meant that somewhere a job was not getting done, a crew was not being trained. The Pentagon was fairly unique as a federal agency, in that it was expected to live on a fixed, often diminishing budget.
"How much thinner do you expect us to be spread?"
"I tell him, Rob, okay? The Chairman—"
"Just between you and me, the Chairman thinks operations are something that surgeons do in hospitals. And if you quote me on that, no more golf lessons."
"What is it worth to have the Russians out of the game?" Jack asked, wondering if Robby would calm down a little.
"Not as much as we've lost in cuts. In case you haven't noticed, my Navy is still stretched from hell to breakfast, and we're doing business with forty percent less ships. The ocean didn't get any smaller, okay? The Army's better off, I grant that, but the Air Force isn't, and the Marines are still sucking hind tit, and they're still our primary response team for the next time the boys and girls at Foggy Bottom fuck up."
"Preaching to the choir, Rob."
"More to it than just that, Jack. We're stretching the people, too. The fewer the ships, the longer they have to stay out. The longer they stay out, the worse the maintenance bills. It's like the bad old days in the late seventies. We're starting to lose people. Hard to make a man stay away from his wife and kids that long. In flying, we call it the coffin corner. When you lose experienced people, your training bills go up. You lose combat effectiveness no matter which way you go," Robby went on, talking like an admiral now.
"Look, Rob, I gave the same speech a while back on the other side of the building. I'm doing my best for you," Jack replied, talking like a senior government official. At that point both old friends shared a look.
"We're both old farts."
"It's a long time since we were on the faculty of Canoe U," Ryan allowed. His voice went on almost in a whisper. "Me teaching history, and you prostrating yourself to God every night to heal your leg."
"I should've done more of that. Arthritis in the knee," Robby said. "I have a flight physical in nine months. Guess what?"
"The big one." Jackson nodded matter-of-factly. Ryan knew what it really meant. To a man who'd flown fighter planes off carriers for over twenty years, it was the hard realization that age had come. He couldn't play with the boys anymore. You could explain away gray in the hair by citing adverse genes, but a down-check would mean taking off the flight suit, hanging up the helmet, and admitting that he was no longer good enough to do the one thing he'd yearned for since the age of ten, and at which he'd excelled for nearly all of his adult life. The bitterest part would be the memories of the things he'd said as a lieutenant, j.g., about the older pilots of his youth, the hidden smirks, the knowing looks shared with his fellow youngsters, none of whom had ever expected it would come to them.
"Rob, a lot of good guys never get the chance to screen for command of a squadron. They take the twenty-year out at commander's rank and end up flying the night shift for Federal Express."
"And make good money at it, too."
"Have you picked out the casket yet?" That broke the mood. Jackson looked up and grinned.
"Shit. If I can't dance, I can still watch. I'm telling you, pal, you want us to run all these pretty operations we plan in my cubicle, we need help from this side of the river. Mike Dubro is doing a great job hanging paper with one hand, but he and his troops have limits, y'dig?"
"Well, Admiral, I promise you this: when the time comes for you to get your battle group, there will be one for you to drive." It wasn't much of a pledge, but both men knew it was the best he could offer.
She was number five. The remarkable part was—hell, Murray thought in the office six blocks from the White House, it was all remarkable. It was the profile of the investigation that was the most disquieting. He and his team had interviewed several women who had admitted, some shamefacedly, some without overt emotional involvement, and some with pride and humor, at having bedded Ed Kealty, but there were five for whom the act had not been entirely voluntary. With this woman, the latest, drugs had been an additional factor, and she felt the lonely personal shame, the sense that she alone had fallen into the trap.
"So?" Bill Shaw asked after what had been a long day for him, too.
"So it's a solid case. We now have five known victims, four of whom are living. Two would stand up as rapes in any courtroom I've ever been in. That does not count Lisa Beringer. The other two demonstrate the use of drugs on federal property. Those two are virtually word-for-word, they identify the label on the brandy bottle, the effects, everything."
"Good witnesses?" the FBI Director asked.
"As good as can be expected in this sort of case. It's time to move with it," Murray added. Shaw nodded in understanding. Word would soon begin to leak out. You simply couldn't run a covert investigation for very long, even under the best of circumstances. Some of the people you interviewed would be loyal to the target of the inquiry, and no matter how carefully you phrased the opening questions, they would make the not overly great leap of imagination required to discern the nature of the probe, often because they suspected it themselves. Then those non-witnesses would worry about getting back to the target to warn him, whether from conviction in his innocence or hope of deriving a personal profit. Criminal or not, the Vice President was a man with considerable political power, still able to dole out large and powerful tokens to those who won his favor. In another age, the Bureau might not have gotten this far. The President himself, or even the Attorney General, would have conveyed a quiet warning, and senior staff members would themselves have sought out the victims and offered to make amends of one sort or another, and in many cases it would have worked. The only reason they'd gotten this far, after all, was that the FBI had the permission of the President, the cooperation of the AG, and a different legal and moral climate in which to work.
"As soon as you go to talk to the Chairman…"
Murray nodded. "Yeah, might as well have a press conference and lay out our evidence in an organized way." But they couldn't do that, of course. Once the substance of their evidence was given over to political figures—in his case the chairman and ranking minority member of the House Committee on the Judiciary—it would leak immediately. The only real control Murray and his team would possess would be in selecting the time of day. Late enough, and the news would miss the morning papers, incurring the wrath of the editors of The Washington Post and The New York Times. The Bureau had to play strictly by the rules. It couldn't leak anything because this was a criminal proceeding and the rights of the target had to be guarded as closely as—actually even closer than—those of the victims, lest the eventual trial be tainted.
"We'll do it here, Dan," Shaw said, reaching his decision. "I'll have the A.G. make the phone call and set the meet. Maybe that'll put the information on close-hold for a little while. What exactly did the President say the other day?"
"He's a standup guy," the Deputy Assistant Director reported, using a form of praise popular in the FBI. "He said, 'A crime's a crime.' " The President had also said to handle the affair in as "black" a way as possible, but that was to be expected.
"Fair enough. I'll let him know what we're doing personally."
Typically, Nomuri went right to work. It was his regular night at this bathhouse with this group of salarymen—he probably had the cleanest job in the Agency. It was also one of the slickest ways of getting information he'd ever stumbled across, and he made it slicker still by standing for a large bottle of sake that now sat, half empty, on the edge of the wooden tub.
"I wish you hadn't told me about that round-eye," Nomuri said with his own eyes closed, sitting in his usual corner and allowing his body to take in the enveloping heat of the water. At one hundred eight degrees, it was hot enough to lower blood pressure and induce euphoria. Added to it was the effect of the alcohol. Many Japanese have a genetic abnormality called "Oriental Flush" in the West, or with greater ethnic sensitivity,"pathological intoxication." It is actually an enzyme disorder, and means that for a relatively low quantity of alcoholic intake, there is a high degree of result. It was, fortunately, a trait which Nomuri's family did not share.
"Why is that?" Kazuo Taoka asked from the opposite corner.
"Because now I cannot get the gaijin witch out of my mind!" Nomuri replied good-naturedly. One of the other effects of the bathhouse was an intimate bonhomie. The man next to the CIA officer rubbed his head roughly and laughed, as did the rest of the group.
"Ah, and now you want to hear more, is it?" Nomuri didn't have to look. The man whose body rubbed on his leaned forward. Surely the rest would do it as well. "You were right, you know. Their feet are too big, and their bosoms also, but their manners…well, that they can learn after a fashion."
"You make us wait?" another member of the group asked, feigning a blustery anger.
"Do you not appreciate drama?" There was a merry chorus of laughs.
"Well, yes, it is true that her bosoms are too big for real beauty, but there are sacrifices we all must make in life, and truly I have seen worse deformities…"
Such a good raconteur, Nomuri thought. He did have a gift for it. In a moment he heard the sound of a cork being pulled, as another man refilled the little cups. Drink was actually prohibited in the bathhouse for health reasons, but, rarely for this country, it was a rule largely ignored. Nomuri reached for his cup, his eyes still closed, and made a great show of forming a mental picture masked by a blissful smile, as additional details slid across the steaming surface of the water. The description became more specific, fitting ever closer to the photograph and to other details he'd been passed on his early-morning train. It was hardly conclusive yet. Any of thousands of girls could fit the description, and Nomuri wasn't particularly outraged by the event. She'd taken her chances one way or another, but she was an American citizen, and if it were possible to help her, then he would. It seemed a trivial sidebar to his overall assignment, but if nothing else it had caused him to ask a question that would make him appear even more a member of this group of men. It made it more likely, therefore, to get important information out of them at a later date.
"We have no choice," a man said in another, similar bathhouse, not so far away. "We need your help."
It wasn't unexpected, the other five men thought. It was just a matter of who would hit the wall first. Fate had made it this man and his company. That did not lessen his personal disgrace at being forced to ask for help, and the other men felt his pain while outwardly displaying only dispassionate good manners. Indeed, those men who listened felt something else as well: fear. Now that it had happened once, it would be far easier for it to happen again. Who would be next?
Generally there could be no safer form of investment than real estate, real fixed property with physical reality, something you could touch and feel, build, and live on, that others could see and measure. Although there were continuing efforts in Japan to make new fill land, to build new airports, for example, the general rule was as true here as it was elsewhere: it made sense to buy land because the supply of real land was fixed, and because of that the price was not going to drop.
But in Japan that truth had been distorted by unique local conditions.
Land-use policy in the country was skewed by the inordinate power of the small holders of farmland, and it was not unusual to see a small patch of land in the midst of a suburban setting allocated to the growing of a quarter hectare of vegetables. Small already—the entire nation was about the size of California, and populated with roughly half the people of the United States—their country was further crowded by the fact that little of the land was arable, and since arable land also tended to be land on which people could more easily live, the major part of the population was further concentrated into a handful of large, dense cities, where real-estate prices became more precious still. The remarkable result of these seemingly ordinary facts was that the commercial real estate in the city of Tokyo alone had a higher "book" value than that of all the land in America's forty-eight contiguous states. More remarkably still, this absurd fiction was accepted by everyone as though it made sense, when in fact it was every bit as madly artificial as the Dutch Tulip Mania of the seventeenth century.
But as with America, what was a national economy, after all, but a collective belief? Or so everyone had thought for a generation. The frugal Japanese citizens saved a high proportion of their earnings. Those savings went into banks, in such vast quantities that the supply of capital for lending was similarly huge, as a result of which the interest rates for those loans were correspondingly low, which allowed businesses to purchase land and build on it despite prices that anywhere else in the world would have been somewhere between ruinous and impossible. As with any artificial boom, the process had dangerous corollaries. The inflated book value of owned real estate was used as collateral for other loans, and as security for stock portfolios bought on margin, and in the process supposedly intelligent and far-seeing businessmen had in fact constructed an elaborate house of cards whose foundation was the belief that metropolitan Tokyo had more intrinsic value than all of America between Bangor and San Diego. (An additional consequence of this was a view of real-estate value that more than any other factor had persuaded Japanese businessmen that American real-estate, which, after all, looked pretty much the same as that in their own country, had to be worth more than what the foolish Americans charged for it.) By the early 1990's had come disquieting thoughts. The precipitous decline of the Japanese stock market had threatened to put calls on the large margin accounts, and made some businessmen think about selling their land holdings to cover their exposures. With that had come the stunning but unsurprising realization that nobody wanted to pay book value for a parcel of land; that although everyone accepted book value in the abstract, actually paying the assumed price was, well, not terribly realistic. The result was that the single card supporting the rest of the house had been quietly removed from the bottom of the structure and awaited only a puff of breeze to cause the entire edifice to collapse—a possibility studiously ignored in the discourse between senior executives.
The men sitting in the tub were friends and associates of many years' standing, and with Kozo Matsuda's quiet and dignified announcement of his company's current cash-flow difficulties, all of them saw collective disaster on a horizon that was suddenly far closer than they had expected only two hours earlier. The bankers present could offer loans, but interest rates were higher now. The industrialists could offer favors, but those would affect the bottom-line profits of their operations, with adverse effects on already-staggering stock prices. Yes, they could save their friend from ruin, along with which, in their society, came personal disgrace that would forever remove him from this intimate group. If they didn't, he would have to take his "best" chance, to put some of his office buildings, quietly, on the market, hoping, quietly, that someone would purchase them at something akin to the assumed value. But that was most unlikely—this they knew; they themselves would not be willing to do it—and if it became known that "book value" was as fictional as the writings of Jules Verne, then they would suffer, too. The bankers would have to admit that the security of their loans, and consequently the security of their depositors' money, was also a hollow fiction. A quantity of "real" money so massive as to be comprehended only as a number would be seen to have vanished as though by some sort of evil magic. For all these reasons, they would do what had to be done, they would help Matsuda and his company, receiving concessions in return, of course, but fronting the money he and his operations needed.
The problem was that although they could do it once, probably twice, and maybe even a third time, events would soon cascade, finding their own precipitous momentum, and there would soon come a time when they could not do what was necessary to support the house of cards. The consequences were not easily contemplated.
All six of the men looked down at the water, unable to meet the eyes of the others, because their society did not easily allow men to communicate fear, and fear is what they all felt. They were responsible, after all. Their corporations were in their own hands, ruled as autocratically as the holdings of a J. P. Morgan. With their control came a lavish lifestyle, immense personal power, and, ultimately, total personal accountability. All the decisions had been theirs, after all, and if those decisions had been faulty, then the responsibility was theirs in a society where public failure was as painful as death.
"Yamata-san is right," one of the bankers said quietly, without moving his body. "I was in error to dispute his view."
Marveling at his courage, and as though in one voice, the others nodded and whispered, "Hai."
Then another man spoke. "We need to seek his counsel on this matter."
The factory worked two hectic shifts, so popular was what it turned out. Set in the hills of Kentucky, the single building occupied over a hundred acres and was surrounded in turn by a parking lot for its workers and another for its products, with an area for loading trucks, and another for loading trains, run into the facility by CSX.
The premier new car on American and Japanese markets, the Cresta was named for the toboggan run at St. Moritz, in Switzerland, where a senior Japanese auto executive, somewhat in his cups, had taken up a challenge to try his luck on one of the deceptively simple sleds. He'd rocketed down the track, only to lose control at the treacherous Shuttlecock curve, turned himself into a ballistic object and dislocated his hip in the process. To honor the course that had given him a needed lesson in humility, he'd decided in the local casualty hospital to enshrine his experience in a new car, at that time merely a set of drawings and specifications.
As with nearly everything generated by the Japanese auto industry, the Cresta was a masterpiece of engineering. Popularly priced, its front-wheel drive attached to a sporty and fuel-efficient four-cylinder, sixteen-valve engine, it sat two adults in the front and two or three children quite comfortably in the back, and had become overnight both the Motor Trend Car of the Year and the savior of a Japanese manufacturer that had suffered three straight years of declining sales because of Detroit's rebounding efforts to take back the American market. The single most popular car for young adults with families, it came "loaded" with options and was manufactured on both sides of the Pacific to meet a global demand.
This plant, set thirty miles outside Lexington, Kentucky, was state-of-the-art in all respects. The employees earned union wages without having had to join the UAW, and on both attempts to create a union shop, supervised by the National Labor Relations Board, the powerful organization had failed to get even as much as 40 percent of the vote and gone away grumbling at the unaccustomed stupidity of the workers.
As with any such operation, there was an element of unreality to it. Auto parts entered the building at one end, and finished automobiles exited at the other. Some of the parts were even American made, though not as many as the U.S. government would have wished. Indeed, the factory manager would have preferred more domestic content as well, especially in the winter, when adverse weather on the Pacific could interfere with the delivery of parts—even a one-day delay in arrival time of a single ship could bring some inventories dangerously low, since the plant ran on minimal overhead—and the demand for his Crestas was greater than his ability to manufacture them. The parts arrived mostly by train-loaded containers from ports on both American coasts, were separated by type, and stored in stockrooms adjacent to the portion of the assembly line at which they would be joined with the automobiles. Much of the work was done by robots, but there was no substitute for the skilled hands of a worker with eyes and a brain, and in truth the automated functions were mainly things that people didn't enjoy anyway. The very efficiency of the plant made for the affordable cost of the Cresta, and the busy schedule, with plenty of overtime, made for workers who, with this region's first taste of really well-paying manufacturing jobs, applied themselves as diligently as their Japanese counterparts, and, their Japanese supervisors admitted quietly both to themselves and in internal company memoranda, rather more creatively. Fully a dozen major innovations suggested by workers on this line, just in this year, had been adopted at once in similar factories six thousand miles away. The supervisory personnel themselves greatly enjoyed living in Middle America. The price of their homes and the expanse of land that came with them both came as startling revelations, and after the initial discomfort of being in an alien land, they all began the process of succumbing to local hospitality, joining the local lawyers on the golf links, stopping off at McDonald's for a burger, watching their children play T-Ball with the local kids, often amazed at their welcome after what they'd expected. (The local TV cable system had even added NHK to its service, for the two hundred families who wanted the flavor of something from home.) In the process they also generated a tidy profit for their parent corporation, which, unfortunately, was now trapped into barely breaking even on the Crestas produced in Japan due to the unexpectedly high productivity of the Kentucky plant and the continuing decline of the dollar against the yen. For that reason, additional land was being bought this very week to increase the capacity of the plant by 60 percent. A third shift, while a possibility, would have reduced line maintenance, with a consequent adverse effect on quality control, which was a risk the company was unwilling to run, considering the renewed competition from Detroit.
Early in the line, two workers attached the gasoline tanks to the frames. One, off the line, removed the tank from its shipping carton and set it on a moving track that carried it to the second worker, whose job was to manhandle the light but bulky artifact into place. Plastic hangers held the tank briefly until the worker made the attachment permanent, and the plastic hangers were then removed before the chassis moved on to the next station.
The cardboard was soggy, the woman in the storage room noted. She held her hand to her nose and smelled sea salt. The container that had held this shipment of gas tanks had been improperly closed, and a stormy sea had invaded it. A good thing, she thought, that the tanks were all weather-sealed and galvanized. Perhaps fifteen or twenty of the tanks had been exposed to seawater. She considered mentioning it to the supervisor, but on looking around she couldn't see him. She had the authority on her own to stop the line—traditionally a very rare power for an auto-assembly worker—until the question of the gas tanks was cleared up. Every worker in the plant had that theoretical power, but she was new here, and really needed her supervisor to make the call. Looking around more, she almost stopped the line by her inaction, which caused an abrupt whistle from the line worker. Well, it couldn't be that big a deal, could it? She slid the tank on the track, and, opening the next box. forgot about it. She would never know that she was part of a chain of events that would soon kill one family and wound two others.
Two minutes later the tank was attached to a Cresta chassis, and the not-yet-a-car moved on down the seemingly endless line toward an open door that could not even be seen from this station. In due course the rest of the automobile would be assembled on the steel frame, finally rolling out of the plant as a candy-apple-red car already ordered by a family in Greeneville, Tennessee. The color had been chosen in honor of the wife, Candace Denton, who had just given her husband, Pierce, his first son after two twin daughters three years earlier. It would be the first new car the young couple had ever owned, and was his way of showing her how pleased he was with her love. They really couldn't afford it, but it was about love, not money, and he knew that somehow he'd find a way to make it work. The following day the car was driven onto a semi-trailer transporter for the short drive to the dealer in Knoxville. A telex from the assembly plant told the salesman that it was on the way, and he wasted no time calling Mr. Denton to let him know the good news.
They'd need a day for dealer prep, but the car would be delivered, a week late due to the demand for the Cresta, fully inspected, with temporary tags and insurance. And a full tank of gas, sealing a fate already decided by a multiplicity of factors.