Red Mist, Chapter 6
Updated: Apr 18
It took Max Koga all of fifteen minutes to fully describe the events of the Aqarib ambush in Topolobampo, Mexico.
“I’m sorry to hear what you went through. I had no idea,” Stockton remarked after Koga had finished.
Rawlings patted Max’s shoulder. “Nothing worse than losing a team member, much less your entire team.”
Verdy explained that Nasim al-Ahmed and his number two, Ramin Madani, had escaped from their hideout, an abandoned hospital in Navolato, Mexico, minutes before the SEALs came knocking on their door. The hideout was evidently discovered after a local resident recognized al-Ahmed and notified the local police.
Koga then recounted the incident earlier that day outside of Starbucks with a man claiming to be Nasim al-Ahmed’s cousin, Abdul Hassan. Reaching into his Oakley carrier bag, he produced the folder Hassan had left in Koga's RX-7, spreading out its contents on the conference room table.
Raj Singh, Argon’s chief computer specialist, took particular interest in the photos, donning a pair of cotton gloves and inspecting each one up close.
“I’ll try to see if I can find out where these were taken, Maybe I can find some hidden faces in the reflections. By the way, what type of car is this?” Singh asked, holding up the photo of al-Ahmed seated in an automobile.
Taking a long hard look at the image, Stockton Clay shook his head. “I wish I could see more of it, but it’s no model I’ve ever seen before.”
"I’ll run a recognition program to see if the A-pillar shape and door opening matches any car on the internet,” Singh said. He then collected the photos and carried them to his cubicle.
Meanwhile, Denise took Hassan’s letter and read its content as Rawlings peered over her shoulder.
“I would like to search this for matrix points,” she said. “We need to see if this guy is on the level or not. It’s already obvious that he’s versed in intelligence. He found you pretty quickly Max, and asking you to mark the electrical box is classic tradecraft.”
“Or he picked it up from watching The Americans,” Koga said with a wink.
“I wonder why he wants you to bring fifty dollars?” Denise asked.
“Maybe because it’ll save him a trip to the ATM,” Rawlings said half-jokingly.
Verdy clapped his hands loudly. “Let’s worry about all that later. While our priority is still with Song Motors, it can’t hurt to vet this Hassan character. If everything checks out, we’ll discuss how to move forward; he has the potential to be a very valuable asset if he’s for real. In the meantime, Max, tell me what you find at the dock. If anything seems irregular, contact me immediately.”
“Roger that. By the way, do we actually do any writing or test driving for the magazine?” Koga asked.
“Dude, you know I hate to write,” Rawlings said.
“And Raj is a terrible driver,” Denise smirked.
“We have freelancers who do all that for you, so you guys can focus on your real jobs,” Stockton answered. “Their articles will have your pennames attached to them. That way, if anyone looked you up, you would be legit.”
“If you see anything written by Maurice D. Hightower, that’s me,” Rawlings said. "And check out my column, 'Auto Rhythms.'"
“And,” Stockton said, returning the attention back onto him, “I’ve told everyone at AD that you’re all part of a new team working on a special secret issue. We have many different outlets in our organization so no one will have the slightest notice of your presence here. Oh, and I have something for you, Max.”
Stockton reached down and opened a stainless-steel Rimowa briefcase that rested next to his feet. He took out a large envelop and slid it across the table to Koga, who immediately spilled out its contents onto the tabletop. They consisted of a Motor Press Guild card, a company ID, and a hundred or so business cards, all with the name Mack Katana printed on them.
“Mack Katana?” Koga asked.
Verdy grinned. “I came up with that myself. You like it?”
“Yeah, sure. I mean, I guess, sir,” Koga replied, putting on his worst poker face.
“Well, get used to it,” Verdy ordered.
With a nod to his new boss, Koga rose from his seat, anxious to get on with his first assignment when Rawlings stopped him.
“Hey bro, before you go, I need to provide you with our standard field gear. Follow me,” he said.
“And,” Denise added, “when you’re done there, you need to fill out paperwork. There are employment forms and insurance stuff on your desk. Don’t leave the building until you get those back to me. I’ll forward them to HR.”
An hour later, as an official member of Argon Securities, equipped with a secure new smartphone, a compact SIG Sauer P290RS handgun and a couple of pen-size canisters of a prototype knock-out drug, Koga was heading north toward Port Hueneme in the Lexus RC F. He peeled off Pacific Coast Highway at Exit 109, and after entering the port parking lot off Dock Drive, he parked the blue sports car in a secluded spot away from the lights, next to a rotting Volkswagen Bus.
The harbor was well-lit with wharf lights attached to a dozen or so square metal buildings lined against the perimeter fences. The Navy grounds were on an adjacent piece of property, separated from the main dock, but the sailors and the dock workers periodically worked together during the Navy’s drills and exercises.
After stepping out of the car, Koga briskly made his way to a small gate that marked the entry to the marina. A security guard—a large blond-haired Caucasian man in a black and gray uniform—emerged from a wooden booth and walked along a chain-link fence, stretching his arm and yawning. Taking a pack of Marlboro Reds out of his pocket, he placed a cigarette into his mouth and took a satisfying drag. Judging by the sluggish way he moved, he was bored out of his wits.
“Hello there,” Koga called out.
Looking up, the guard walked back towards his shack. “Can I help you?” he asked.
“How are things tonight?” Koga asked.
The heavy-set guard had a pink sunburnt face; the skin around his eyes were two shades whiter than the rest. “Oh, it’s pretty quiet like always,” he replied.
“I’m a journalist with Automobile Digest, and I have an interview with a person who came in on that boat over there,” Koga said, handing the security guard his new AD business card. “Is it okay to go inside?”
“Mack Katana,” the guard said, before returning the business card. “Cool name. Sure, be my guest, but be careful because those crew members are a little off, if you know what I mean.”
“Actually, I don’t,” Koga said.
“Well for starters, the captain was getting chewed out by his own crew right after they moored. I mean, it’s usually the captain doing the yelling, right? But his crew, who didn’t look like a friendly bunch at all, were slapping him around. I mean it looked like a full-on mutiny.”
“Could you hear what they were saying?”
“Nah, they were talking Spanish or something.”
“Thanks for the tip. I’ll try to keep clear of them,” Koga said, walking through the gateway onto the dock.
The Mucho Gusto was a private single-hull tanker, painted white with a blue hull. As far as cargo ships that crossed the Pacific went, it was on the small side, with a length of about one hundred-and-fifty feet and a breadth of about thirty. On board was a central superstructure with dim lights hanging near the bridge that illuminated the fore and aft decks.
As Koga approached the gangway of the ship, he noticed that it was chained off with a “Do Not Enter” sign hanging from its links. He called out in a loud voice: “Is there anyone there? Hello?”
The only response was the sound of seawater slapping the ship’s hull, so he tried again with a louder voice: “I’m with Automobile Digest magazine, and I’m doing a story on sports cars. May I speak with the captain?”
He waited a few seconds, but still nothing. Koga weighed his options: The smart thing to do was to wait until someone showed up, ask a few questions and get out of there, but there was an overwhelming feeling that he needed to sneak aboard...he couldn't quite explain it, but it was as if someone or something was encouraging him to take a quick look inside.
“I hope I don’t regret this,” Koga said to himself as he ducked under the chain and quietly made his way up the gangway.