The darkness was nearly complete. Clouds covered what moon there was and a slight drizzle seems to encompass everything else. In a generic cargo van, four men were crowded around a single monitor. On it, there was an increasingly scratchy video feed. A women was there. Asian. She was looking into the camera. She kept repeating the same sentence, her desperation growing as the signal grew fainter.
“Help us. You said you’d help us.”
Eventually, the signal died.
The four men still sat there. They were somber – and crushed by their own impotence.
Six hours earlier, the woman had walked into the FBI field office in San Francisco. She identified herself as Xui Li Huang. She was a small Chinese woman. Maybe 5’2″. Her hair was black and her face was flawless. The desk clerk had asked her for identification and she provided her US Passport.
When they ran it, it came up as a fake.
She’d seemed surprised.
Agent Shaun Matthews hadn’t had a terribly full calender, and so they pulled him in to interview her. She didn’t resist or put up any sort of struggle. She was waiting to be arrested.
They placed her into an interrogation room and watched her for a few minutes. She was clearly agitated. On more than a few occasions, in highly accented English, she’d asked for somebody to talk to her.
Finally, when she looked about as agitated as she’d get, Agent Matthews went in.
The Agent wasn’t a young rogue. He was 52, disciplined and careful. His face, as per regulations, was clean-shaven. His black hair was close-cropped. His face seemed young in its absence of wrinkles. He was not a man who smiled, or frowned, a great deal. He was a man who had many friends in many places. In 30 years, he’d never used a single favor. His bank vault of reciprocation had a massive balance.
When he sat down in front of Xui Li Huang, he had no idea he was about to blow the entire thing.
“Ma’am,” he said politely, “You presented a fake passport to our desk clerk. I can’t say that was a terribly smart thing to do.”
She replied, her Chinese accent as strong as ever, “I need to talk to you.”
“What about?” he asked, humoring her. He already knew her story. She was an illegal immigrant looking for help. He’d seen the type before.
“My husband,” she said, urgently. “He’s in trouble.”
“Is your husband also here on an illegal passport?” The practiced disdain dripped out of his mouth. Of course, that’d be the reason she’d come here. He’d been trapped by the human traffickers.
“I would assume so,” she said, “If mine isn’t real, his is probably also a fake.” He hadn’t really expected her to be that honest.
“What’s his name?” asked Agent Matthews.
“We don’t have time for this!” she said, “They’ll kill him.”
“Who?” asked the Matthews.
“Can you protect us?” she asked.
“Not unless you tell me something really juicy, now.”
She grimaced. Thought for a moment. And then she spoke again.
What she said and how she said it blew him away.
“We’re Chinese spies,” she answered, in a perfect American accent. She’d gone from nervous to perfectly cool in an instant.
He would have written off her words as the desperate call of a woman caught by traffickers, but her delivery was something else again.
“What?” he asked.
They hadn’t officially arrested her so she still had her things. She reached into her purse and pulled out her phone. She laid it on the the table and a video feed came up. It was black and white, and far from perfectly clear. On it, Chinese men were talked. They were animated.
“What is it?” asked Agent Matthews.
“My husband is a spy,” she said, retaining her American accent, “His job is easy, he’s low on the totem pole. He works as a temp all over the Bay Area. He wears a watch with a camera in it. He makes sure he can see plenty of people logging into computers. Government hackers use his videos to crack your best company’s systems – and take everything they can get away with.”
It was plausible.
“How long have you been doing this?” asked the Agent.
“Five years,”‘ she said, “We are the best team. My husband’s English is perfect, his Office skills top-notch. He has a reputation as a fantastic temp and he’s the first name on a whole lot of lists. People know and love his work.”
“And as spies?”
“As spies, we’re also excellent. We get occasional reports. We’ve provided 1500 logins at 300 area companies. There’s a great deal of ‘knowledge transfer’ going on.”
The Agent thought for a moment, this might need to be kicked upstairs. He decided it did. He pushed his chair back and began to stand up.
But the woman stopped him. “This is a live feed,” she said.
“‘So?” he asked.
“So, this are our handlers.”
He sat down again.
“Why are you filming your handlers?”
“My husband began to hate his work. He saw how much effort people put into their creations, and he hated stealing them. We wanted to defect. But we had nothing to offer. We wanted some evidence – some documentation – to show you. So we took apart his watch and put the camera in his belt buckle. And then we pretended to lose the watch. We requested another. They called my husband in, just like we planned. But he’s not trained as a high-pressure agent. They realized something was wrong.”
“How do you know?” asked Matthews.
“This is a live feed,” Ms. Huang repeated, “I saw them begin to question him. And I realized, without your help, he’s never leaving.”
Matthews looked at the woman’s face. She wasn’t lying, not unless she was damned good at it. Her eyes were desperate, and hopeful. She loved the man she was with – and she wanted a better life with him.
And, in Matthews opinion, she had the goods.
It was time to call in favors.
“Give me a moment,” he said, pushing back from the table, “I need to see what I can do.”
He left the room, picked up a phone in the monitoring room and dialed a friend in the State Department. He told her the news, flat and unembellished.
She forbade him to act. It was a poor time. There were delicate interactions going on with the Chinese government and a spy ring would undermine those.
He hung up.
As he watched, the woman answered her cell phone. She nodded her head as she spoke, her words totally hidden to Agent Matthews.
He walked bank in to listen to the conversation. It was in Chinese.
As soon as she hung up, he asked her, “What was that about.”
“He called me,” she said.
“A good thing?” he asked.
“No,” she said, “They asked him to call me. I’m supposed to meet them in Oakland. Just for a chat. But they’re going to take us away.”
He had more favors to use.
“Go,” he said, “I’ve got some more contacts to hit. I’ll get you out of there one way or another.”
“You sure?” she asked.
“Absolutely.” And he was.
She got up and went. She left her phone so he could monitor it.
He sat for a minute, his head between his hands, thinking. And then he had a plan. He might not be able to wrap up the spy ring, but he could arrest the Huang’s. They were on illegal passports and if he could detain them, he could keep them safe.
He called his boss. The man answered. He heard the summary. And then he forbade him to act. There was a network here – and work to be done to uncover it. A single rescue and this light would go dead. Agent Matthews screamed and ranted – but to no effect. The orders were clear.
He had one more call – a Federal Judge. Maybe he could get a warrant. Again, he was denied. The judge wouldn’t play games with a dummy warrant.
He called contact after contact and begged, cajoled and fought for help.
But nobody listened.
Fundamentally, nobody was ready to act this quickly on something this big.
He’d promised Xui Li safety, and he was failing.
He took a team to the Port of Oakland. Just in case somebody called.
They plugged the phone into the van’t audio/visual system. And they watched.
They watched Zhi Peng Huang being placed in a dark shipping container. They saw Xui Li Huang follow shortly. They heard as she walked up to him in the dark and whispered, “Don’t worry, they’ll save us.”
Agent Matthews wanted to cry.
As time dragged on, Xui Li got more agitated. She began to ask Agent Matthews for help.
But there was nothing he could do.
Nothing but watch they were taken away – all of his favors having come to naught.
With his head in hands, he watched the signal fail.
And then he said a prayer for the Huang family.
And a prayer for himself.