Clancy, Tom – Op Center 01 – Op Center

Tom Clancy – OP Center 1


Tuesday, 4: 10 P. M., Seoul

Gregory Donald took a sip of scotch and looked across the crowded bar.

“Do you ever find yourself thinking back, Kim? I don’t mean to this morning or last week, but-way back?”

Kim Hwan, Deputy Director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, used a red stirring straw to poke at the slice of lemon floating in his Diet Coke. “To me, Greg, this morning is way back. Especially on days like these. What I wouldn’t give to be on a fishing boat with my uncle Pak in Yangyang.”

Donald laughed. “Is he still as feisty as he used to be?”

“Feistier. Remember how he used to have two fishing boats? Well, he got rid of one. Said he couldn’t stand having a partner. But sometimes I’d rather be fighting fish and storms than bureaucrats. You remember what it was like.” From the corner of his eye, Hwan watched as two men sitting beside him paid their tab and left.

Donald nodded. “I remember. That’s why I got out.”

Hwan leaned closer, looked around. His eyes narrowed, and his clean-cut features took on a conspiratorial edge. “I didn’t want to say anything while the Seoul Press editors were sitting here, but do you realize they’ve actually grounded my helicopters for today?”

Donald’s brow arched with surprise. “Are they crazy?”

“Worse. Reckless. The press monkeys said choppers crisscrossing overhead would make too much noise and ruin the sound bites. So if anything happens, there’s no aerial recon.”

Donald finished his scotch, then reached into the side pocket of his tweed jacket. “It’s upsetting, but it’s like everywhere else, Kim. The marketers have taken over from the talent. It’s that way in intelligence work, government, even at the Friendship Society. No one just jumps in the pool anymore. Everything’s got to be studied and evaluated until your initiative is colder than Custer.”

Hwan shook his head slowly. “I was disappointed when you quit to join the dip corps, but you were smart. Forget about improving the way the agency does business: I spend most of my time fighting just to maintain the status quo.”

“But no one does it better.”

Hwan smiled. “Because I love the agency, right?”

Donald nodded. He had withdrawn his Block meerschaum pipe and a packet of Balkan Sobranie tobacco. “Tell me-are you expecting any trouble today?”

“We’ve had warnings from the usual list of radicals, revolutionaries, and lunatics, but we know who and where they are and are watching them. They’re like the kooks who call in to Howard Stern show after show. Same cant, different day. But they’re mostly talk.”

Donald’s brow arched again as he tapped in a pinch of tobacco. “You get Howard Stern?”

Hwan finished his soda. “No. I heard bootleg tapes when we cracked a pirate ring last week. Come on, Greg, you know this country. The government thinks Oprah is too risque most of the time.”

Donald laughed, and as Hwan turned and said something to the bartender, his blue eyes once again moved slowly across the dark room.

There were a few South Koreans, but as it always was in the bars around the government building, it was mostly international press: Heather Jackson from CBS, Barry Berk from The New York Times, Gil Vanderwald from The Pacific Spectator, and others whom he didn’t care to think about or talk to. Which was why he’d come here early and tucked himself in a far, dark corner of the bar, and why his wife Soonji hadn’t joined them. Like Donald, she felt the press had never given him a fair shake-not when he was Ambassador to Korea twenty years ago, and not when he became the adviser on Korean affairs for Op-Center just three months before. Unlike her husband, though, Soonji got angry about negative press. Gregory had long ago learned to lose himself in his vintage meerschaum, a comforting reminder that, like a puff of pipe smoke, a headline is just for the moment.

The bartender came and went and Hwan turned from the bar, his dark eyes on Donald, his right forearm lying flat and stiff on the counter.

“So what did you mean by your question?” Hwan asked. “About thinking back?”

Donald put in the last of the tobacco. “Do you remember a fellow named Yunghil Oh?”

“Vaguely, ” Hwan said. “He used to teach at the agency.”

“He was one of the founding fathers of the psychology division, ” Donald said. “A fascinating old gentleman from Taegu. When I first came here in 1952, Oh was just leaving. Being booted out, really. The KCIA was trying hard to establish itself as a U. S.-style, state-of-the-art intelligence group and, when he wasn’t lecturing on psychological warfare, Oh was busy introducing aspects of Chondokyo.”

“Religion in the KCIA? Faith and espionage?”

“Not exactly. It was a kind of spiritual, heavenly way approach to deduction and investigation he had developed. He taught that the shadows of the past and future are all around us. He believed that through meditation, by reflecting on people and events that were and will be, we could touch them.”


“And they would help us see today more clearly.” Hwan snickered. “No wonder they dismissed him.”

“He wasn’t for us, ” Donald agreed, “and frankly, I don’t think Oh had all ten toes on the ground. But it’s funny. More and more I find myself thinking he was on to something-that he was in the neighborhood, if not knocking on the door.”

Donald reached into his pocket for matches. Hwan watched his one-time mentor closely. “Anything you can put your finger on?”

“No, ” Gregory admitted. “Just a feeling.” Hwan scratched his right forearm slowly. “You always did have an interest in unusual people.”

“Why not? There’s always a chance you can learn something from them.”

“Like that old tae kwon do master. The one you brought in to teach us naginata.”

Donald struck a wooden match and, cupping the bowl of the pipe in his left hand, he put the flame to the tobacco. “That was a good program, one they should have expanded. You never know when you’ll be unarmed and have to defend yourself with a tightly rolled newspaper or a-”

The steak knife flew swiftly from under Hwan’s right forearm as he slid from the bar stool.

In the same instant Donald arched back and, still holding the bowl of the pipe, his wrist twisted and swung the straight stem of the meerschaum toward Hwan. He parried the lightning thrust of the knife and, bringing the pipe around it counterclockwise, so the stem was pointing straight down, a counterparry of quarte, he knocked the blade to the left.

Hwan pulled the knife back and thrust forward; Donald flicked his wrist and batted it left again, and then a third time. His young opponent went low this time, slashing toward the right; Donald’s elbow cocked to the side, brought the stem down to meet the knife, and parried the thrust again.

The delicate clack-click-clack of their sparring drew the attention of the people nearest them. Heads turned as the men dueled, forearms moving in and out like pistons, wrists pivoting with precision and finesse.

“Is this for real?” asked a techie with a CNN T-shirt.

Neither man said anything. They seemed oblivious to everyone as they fought, their eyes locked together, expressions flat, bodies motionless save for their left arms. They were breathing fast through their noses, their lips pressed tightly together.

The weapons continued to flash as the crowd closed around the combatants in a thick semicircle. Finally, there was a blinding series as Hwan lunged, Donald caught the knife in octave, bound it up to sixte, and then used a prise-de-fer move to roll Hwan’s hand slightly. Donald followed up by releasing the blade briefly, then giving it a hard spank in septime, sending the blade to the floor.

His eyes remained fixed on those of Hwan; with a slight move of his right hand, Donald extinguished the match that was still burning there.

The crowd burst into applause and whoops, and several people moved in to pat Donald on the back. Hwan grinned and extended his hand and, smiling, Donald clasped it between both of his.

“You’re still amazing, ” Hwan said.

“You were holding back-”

“Only on the first move, in case you were slow. But you weren’t. You move like a ghost yourself.”

“Like a ghost?” said a sweet voice from behind Donald.

Donald turned as his wife made her way through the disbursing spectators. Her youthful beauty drew stares from the men of the press.

“That was a shameless display, ” she said to her husband. “It was like watching Inspector Clouseau and his manservant.”

Hwan bowed at the waist as Donald hooked his arm around his wife’s waist. He pulled her close and kissed her.

“That wasn’t meant for your eyes, ” Donald said, striking a new match and finally lighting his pipe. He glanced at the neon clock above the bar. “I thought I was supposed to meet you at the grandstand in fifteen minutes.”

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