The Sheraton Hotel was located a little more than half a mile from the airport. It was a huge building about twenty stories tall with a great, although empty lobby at our late hour of arrival. Before departure while still near the gate awaiting the call for economy boarding, Herbert showed up, wearing a big smile and holding out a folder of paperwork.

“Here’s all you need, the ticket to Seoul, for Monday afternoon, the identity stuff you need to check into your new office with Banker’s Life of Iowa, the car stuff, and a few dollars for expenses.”

“I have my passport,” I said, accepting the file but looking around. “What name, though, will I be traveling under?”

“You think this is a movie set or something?” Herbert asked with a funny look on his face, “Oh, you haven’t been to be training yet, where you’d learn all that stuff. You are a businessman, which you really are. This is the electronic age, so we try to keep you yourself whenever possible. Only special circumstances will require a change of identity. It’s hard to establish and maintain artificial circumstance and identity in these times.”

Herbert reached into his pocket and pulled out a small stack of cards and handed them to me. I took them with my free hand, looking at the writing in beautiful scripted and embossed black letters. I was now the General Manager of the Albuquerque office of the Banker’s Life of Iowa located in Des Moines, Iowa.

“I haven’t ever been to Des Moines,” I said, trying to figure out where in my memory banks I might place the city somewhere in the middle of that midwestern state.

“No matter, they’ll be at the office on Monday morning to greet you and get you going,”

My wife walked over to us, carrying Michael with Julie close behind her.

“What kind of room do we have when we get there?” she asked.

“Two rooms adjoining. The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta is going on starting tomorrow, so all the suites were already taken,” Herbert replied, his expression showing some discomfort at having to give her any details at all.

Mary’s opinion of Herbert was high on looks and background but not at all when it came to high intellect.

“Godspeed,” Herbert said, holding out his right hand.

I shook the hand with a firm grip and a sincere smile. I knew this out-of-the-blue mission was part of a test and also partly important to someone back at Langley. I also knew it was none of Herbert’s doing. I read it in his eyes. There had to be a danger to going out in the world with no training, no tools, and no partner, much less intelligence reports and even satellite stuff. I felt that he knew that. He eased out a package he’d kept folded up inside his overcoat and handed the soft, thick thing to me. Whatever was in had been placed in a grocery bag and folded up. I took it with a question in my expression.

“From Matt, and I have no idea,” Herbert said before turning and walking back down the long hall and back toward the escalators.

“What’s that?” Mary asked.

“I have no idea,” I replied, unwrapping whatever it was in wonder.

What could Matt be giving me that he might see as helping me, which I knew intrinsically that he meant to do?

I unfolded the material and set the bag on the floor and stared at what was in my hands. The object was Matt’s Banana Republic vest. I had to smile. I did love the vest I’d made fun of and now it was mine. I wondered if anyone else would think it was a fisherman’s vest if I wore it, which I was certainly going to do. My only carry-on was a worn briefcase, which needed replacing as it didn’t even have a lock. The vest wouldn’t fit inside. I removed my sport coat I’d chosen to wear, to appear a bit upscale to the crew and fit in as an insurance businessman. I put the vest on in its place. I’d fold the coat up and put it in the overhead. I might look out of place on the flight, but the vest made me feel like I wasn’t alone and also that I shouldn’t lose my sense of humor.

The flight and arrival in Albuquerque went down without incident, and nobody asked whether I was going fishing or not. The twin rooms at the Sheraton were perfect, better than a suite would have been and there was a free shuttle from the airport. Only waking up in the morning was different, very different.
It was still dark when I awakened, having heard a powerful whooshing noise that penetrated right through the closed glass doors leading to the small balcony just beyond. Our room was on the north-facing side of the 14th floor. I couldn’t imagine such a sound penetrating up from ground level. I moved to the drapes covering the windows and threw them open, recoiling backward as I did.

A huge lit orb floated just beyond the railing of the balcony, the fire shooting up into it making a strange, near-overwhelming sound.

“You’ve got to see this,” I yelled to my wife, just getting out of bed.

I stared, as she came up to stand beside me. It was a balloon. A hot air balloon and the basket wasn’t more than twenty feet from the side of the hotel as

It slowly made its way upward. The gas was shut off and the huge and brilliant light bulb of its envelope went dark. It was early dawn, so it was still light enough to see about twenty other balloons not that far off in the distance. We both stood transfixed for minutes.

“The balloon fiesta Tony Herbert told us about,” Mary breathed out.

“Good God,” I whispered back. “I had no idea. I’ve heard of these but never seen anything like them, except maybe at a great distance. They’re magnificent. I’ve got to go up in one, or even get one.”

We got ready to go out. I went down to the lobby to see if I could convince the hotel to deliver us in the hotel van but then had a thought. I didn’t want to call for a taxi so I had the front desk look up the number and dealership and called the people there. It was too early, so I left a message about who we were and where we were, and that we needed a ride from the Sheraton to the dealership. I asked the answering machine to call us back at the hotel and, with Mary and the kids coming out of the elevator, went to breakfast at the restaurant.

After breakfast, all of us were excited to see more balloons flying over and around the hotel in full daylight, Mary was excited to get to the new house and I was excited to drive the Mercedes, we went back to the room to wait. When we got there Mary and the kids immediately went out on the balcony, the best place of all to view the wide expanse of floating balloons while I went to the room phone because the message light was blinking.

“We will arrive with your new Mercedes Benz at nine a.m. If you are not there to receive it then the papers and keys will be trusted to the hotel front desk personnel until it’s convenient for you to accept delivery.” The line went dead.

I went out to the balcony to fill my wife in about the car.

“New Mexico is different, not just in having balloons but at having a pretty classy Mercedes dealership,” I said, sitting in a deck chair to take in the balloons.

I didn’t have to check my watch a bit later as I was able to see the bright green and shiny Mercedes pull into the driveway leading to the lobby canopy.

The car was a delight as we headed home. Solid as a bank vault and, except for the diesel clatter on acceleration, quiet as a church, although reaching a top speed on Tramway Boulevard, which was pretty level, it would only reach eighty-eight miles per hour, and it took a good deal of time to get there. I felt like it was ‘given’ to me to keep me out of trouble, which it probably would, at least on the roads of high-altitude New Mexico. With an average elevation of 5700 feet and the nation’s highest capital city, it was high enough to pull eggs boiled in water from that water with a bare hand and not get burned. It also, unfortunately, meant that reciprocating engines without turbochargers or superchargers had about thirty to forty percent less power than at sea level where all car performance specifications were measured. Turning on the glow plugs and waiting, even for a few seconds, was also a bit of a bother. I just hoped that the payments required, in the folder on the floor in front of the passenger seat, were low enough to justify the downsides. Finally, however,

Mary and the kids loved the thing at first sight even more than they had the Caprice, so it was a keeper.

The house was wide open with neither of the two doors locked, which meant to me that my ‘realtor’ had been there and prepared the place for our arrival and then split for whatever strange reasons that he and Matt and even Herbert conducted so much of what they did in secret. It was like a habit, instead of in any way required.

Two days flew by, running around to see where everything of any interest or importance was in the area, visiting restaurants, and even driving by the office structure, which wasn’t impressive at all, but then it didn’t have to be. The car payment was three hundred a month with a ninety-day grace period, which was more than generous, even if it was for four years. On Monday morning I drove Mary, Julie, and Michael to the airport and then went to the office, which was located on Juan Tabo. The Spanish names seemed a bit much but after a while, I knew I’d get used to them.

My secretary and the two agents left working out of the office, were hired by the last manager. They were very accommodating. My office was small and, in the back, while the rest of the huge space was taken up mostly by two big rooms filled with desks for agents and clerks who were nowhere to be seen. I knew I was expected to do whatever it took to build an agency there, although I’d never done something before, and it was daunting to think about the amount of work it would have to take. Meanwhile, I was supposed to start and probably build and run a couple of other companies invented overseas but grounded in the U.S.

I met with all three of my employees and they were polite and nice. At the end of the meeting, I informed them that I would be gone for a week and then return to go to work. They did have some uncomfortable questions that I steered clear of answering directly.

“Who hired you?” Pat asked, out of the blue.

I looked back at her quizzically and asked, “Banker’s Life of Iowa.”

I knew that didn’t go over but I wasn’t ready yet to go into verbal combat with anyone there.

Bill asked about the money, as none of them were making almost anything in compensation.

I said I’d look into it.

“By the way Bill, I need you to follow me home so I can leave the garage in my house and then take me to the airport.”

“Pat will do that sort of thing, I’ve got a call I’ve got to make,” he replied and then walked out of our little meeting. “Nice vest,” he said, over his shoulder, making me sorry I’d worn it for the first visit to the office.

I’d already decided that I’d wear a suit for appointments, formal meetings, and whatever other functions might require it but I would remain informal while working at the office and traveling to and from it.

I sighed. I sure as hell wasn’t back in the Marine Corps, but I wasn’t ready to call anybody out on anything, especially one of my only two agents until I was able to find out more after getting my mind off of and back from Korea.

I waved the other two out of the office, closed the door, and called Herbert.

“I’m here in my office and I need two favors,” I said, no longer being the quiet and compliant manager I’d been with my Bankers people.

“Shoot,” Herbert said.

“What’s happening to the deuce and a half?” I asked, not yet making a demand.

“Well, it was written off government inventory so it’s probably sitting in the forest outside of tech area fifty-five where it’ll be left to rust down to nothing.”

“What if it was mine?” I asked.

“First of all, where would you keep it?”

“Hell, I’d find a place if it’s possible,” I replied.

I’d gone to bed for the last two nights thinking about hot air ballooning. I knew that the balloons, tanks, fans, baskets, and all the other junk had to be heavy, so a truck was needed. The truck could also be the ideal chase vehicle since it was six-wheel drive and could carry a balloon crew or whatever the helpers in ballooning were called.

“To register it in New Mexico you’d have to take it to a junkyard and get it deemed to be salvage. For a price the people there, if you want to call them that, would likely give you a salvage title, and then you’re off and running. Probably never be able to sell the thing with one of those titles though and you’d also have to make sure the thing conforms to New Mexico vehicular law.”

“Then I’ll go back and get it when I get back,” I said, before going on. “I want you to pay Banker’s Life of Iowa six thousand dollars and have them send two thousand dollar bonus checks to all three of my rather cold and taciturn employees. Make sure the company lets them know the bonuses are from the new manager as an incentive. I expect my welcome on coming back from Korea will be a lot warmer than this introduction was.”

“I’m not comfortable with that, really,” Herbert replied.

“Do you think I’m comfortable with trekking off to Korea while our stuff is being moved next week and my wife has to be there without me with two kids and a jumbled mess to make sense of?”

“Don’t be difficult,” Herbert replied, but I read a certain softness in his tone.

I decided to use the Thorkelson/Bartok training and say nothing until he talked again.

Minutes seemed to pass until he finally spoke.

“This silent treatment isn’t going to work on me,” Herbert said.

I still said nothing.

“Okay, but this has to be a one-off or there sure as hell will be trouble for both of us,” Herbert finally relented. “I don’t even know who to call over there or where I’m supposed to go for the funding.”

I smiled broadly to myself.

“Thanks, Tony,” was all I replied and hung up. Tony might not be the brightest bulb in the pack, but I knew he’d figure it out.

Pat followed me to 4416 Magnolia where I left the Benz in the garage and locked up the place, leaving the keys to the house under an obvious large stone near the front gates that stood out, Spanish style, from the front doors.

The short trip down the Tramway and then onto the freeway heading north took no time at all, Pat driving silently but with surprising acumen and high-speed control. I decided that she might be okay, after all. She dropped me in front of the main airport lobby and then took off without saying anything. At the house, I’d changed out of the vest and wore one of my old Western White House blue suits. The trip aboard first a 737 to L.A. then a 747 to Tokyo’s Narita and finally changing planes to I didn’t know what for the last leg into Seoul was going to take almost twenty hours. Surprisingly, I was nervous. I was going a long way out of my comfort area. I didn’t speak one word of Korean and knew nothing of the culture at all. I’d learned about automobile drivers in Seoul, so I’d packed my Marine Corps cotton white gloves as I wanted to have a rental vehicle and learn my way around the city. I also knew nothing about Korean foods and my digestive system still hadn’t fully returned to normal following all the surgeries.

The 737 was right on time, as was the United 747 in getting out of L.A. Good fortune had smiled on me since my economy seat was halfway back in the plane but once airborne with the seat belt sign off I went to the very back of the aisle and found five open seats with nobody in them in the last row at the center of the widebody aircraft. I grabbed two blankets and lay down. Normally, I couldn’t sleep on airplanes but after laying down and sucking in supposedly filtered air that was filled with thick tobacco smoke, I covered up and fell nearly instantly to sleep.

I arrived in Japan and got off the plane somewhat revitalized, only to quickly discover that the layover period between flights would not be held in a regular airport assembly area as I’d been used to in all airports I’d been in before. One big concrete room with no amenities held all passengers from all flights awaiting transfers. Four hours without any amenities except restrooms was more difficult to endure than the entire flight from Los Angeles. When that was over and my new flight to Seoul was loaded airline life returned to normal like the ‘imprisoned’ period had never taken place.

The arrival in Seoul was without incident, except for timing. Local time was six-fifteen in the morning and, according to my calculations, it was the day before I’d left. Even at that hour, the airport was busy. I cleared customs and immigration without incident, although having my new passport examined did cause me some concern since I’d not received it through normal channels, and in fact, had no idea how all the data had been assembled to put it together. The photo was an adjusted clone of my California driver’s license picture, as I’d not yet changed those privileges to New Mexico.

When I got into the airport proper with my bag, which hadn’t even been examined in customs, I was greeted by about forty people standing in a semi-circle with a hole in its center, sort of like a strange gauntlet. All the people held up similar signs as if there was some production facility that produced such seemingly identical products. The signs contained hand-written names. I searched for my name and finally found it. Only my last name was printed using some sort of felt tip pen. A boy held the sign.

“Follow me,” the boy said, discarding the sign into a nearby bin, obviously placed there for such use.

I followed him through a surrounding crowd and then out the main entrance to the surprisingly huge airport. I was surprised. I knew that Seoul’s metro area was about the same size, population-wise, as Los Angeles but for some reason had been expecting something more indigenously backward. Once outside I was confronted by wind-blown rain and a temperature that had to be under forty degrees.

“I need to rent a car,” I said to the kid, who I realized now that I was closer, that he was no kid at all, just a rather diminutive young-looking man. I pulled my white gloves from my breast pocket where I’d stored them.

“What are those for?” the young man asked me.

“I want to drive my car and I read that drivers in Korea wear white gloves.”

The young man laughed out loud and once again appeared to be little more than a boy.

“Hired drivers wear white gloves, not people of substance who hire them. You’ll have a car while you’re here but you’ll also have a driver for that car. They tell me you haven’t been to Korea before so you have to know that the road signs are not in English and the rules are really strange compared to what you’re used to back in the States. Here it is.”

I felt like an utter fool, quickly sticking my gloves back into my coat pocket.

A maroon car pulled to the curb and a local driver wearing white gloves stepped out, walked over, and bowed before me.

“Yoboseo,” he said.

I nodded my head, not understanding the word he spoke at all, but assuming it had something to do with saying hello.

The rain was coming down harder, enough to stain the leather of my briefcase which I hadn’t thought to apply shoe polish to. I was tired, and a bit off-kilter being in such a strange place. The car was a little four-door sedan, model I’d never seen before. I walked around the rear of it and checked the trunk lid to see what it was. Small chrome letters told me it was a Pony, which seemed about as odd as everything else I had experienced since landing in Tokyo and then arriving in Seoul.

“I’ll accompany you to the hotel where you’ll be contacted by the parties, my young man said.

Once inside the small car, the driver looked back at us with a big smile and took off. The car had a manual transmission. For whatever reason, he shifted the gears upon the engine reaching a thousand RPM, or so. We drove in short abrupt jerks.

“Why does he shift so often,” I whispered to the young man.

“So he won’t wear out the engine and transmission,” he replied, looking over at me like that made perfect sense.

After a long drive to get a short distance, the traffic was almost uncontrolled, ignoring traffic control devices and numerous backups due to that fact, we pulled into another world.

A cobbled drive stood ahead of the car, with a giant fountain at its center. Beyond that was a giant canopy extending out from what appeared to be a glass wall. The front of the hotel lobby was made of great slabs of unbroken thick glass, I realized. It was a stunning sight to stay in.

“Who are you?” I asked the young man, absently.

“I’m Roger Starbuck, attaché to the U.S. embassy, sent to help guide you through.”

“Like the Navy quarterback?” I asked, not thinking, while taking in the magnificence of the hotel lobby we’d pulled up to the front of.

“No, not the football player, the character from the movie,” Roger answered.

“I didn’t expect to stay in such a great hotel,” I uttered, as one of the doormen opened my door.

“No, this isn’t your hotel. It’s the ambassador’s hotel for the meeting.”

“What’s an attache?” I asked, getting out of the car, glad to be under the portico and out of the rain.

“You know,” Roger answered as if I should know, although I didn’t,

“And, if I’m not staying here then why are they taking my suitcase into the lobby?

“That’s undetermined at this time,” Roger replied walking up to the doorman standing before a thick handle screwed into one of the giant glass slabs.

“You sound like a fortune ball,” I whispered, finally beginning to realize just how far I was from home or anything I might be able to grasp that was at all familiar.

My mission was going to be a lot more complex and difficult than I’d figured, and I wondered why whoever sent me on it might fail to understand that.

“I’ll wait expectantly for your commands,” the driver said, before getting into the car and driving it only a few yards away.

He didn’t get back out. How long would he wait was anybody’s guess, but even that thought worried me.

I went to the front entrance doorman. The uncommonly tall and skinny Korrean leaned forward slightly and smiled a deadly smile.

“Welcome home, sir,” he said, sending an A Shau Valley shiver up and down my back.

<<<<<< The Beginning |

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