Monday, March 28, 2016

Spy Killer - Chapter 8 - A Spy, A Killer

For a story about spies, there hasn't been a whole lot of spycraft in this book.  Reid's not a spy, he's a hitman, a dupe being juggled between various actors, a lummox who decides the best way to uncover a spy is to ask about him by name.  Savischna is one of Japan's most valuable agents, but doesn't have a specific mission she's supposed to follow, and her spywork seems to consist of lounging around in well-furnished homes while letting her lackeys (such as Reid) do all the heavy lifting.

Well, that will finally change - at the very end of the story - once we get our first action scene out of the way.

Reid steadies his rifle by sticking it through a "loophole," I'm assuming a firing port built into that ruined tower they're at, but the text doesn't make this clear.  Savischna does the same from beside him, and tells him to shoot at the oncoming car's driver while she blows out the tires.  While Reid doesn't quite understand the reasoning behind this order, he's "quite ready to fix up any number of Japanese," and as soon as the car comes close enough for Savischna to take her shot, our hero joins her, targeting the base of the windshield.  The car "seemed to trip over itself," as wheeled vehicles are wont to do, and tumbles into a ditch, ejecting its occupants.

Turns out there were five people in the car - well, five Japanese and a "man-mountain" Reid is very surprised to see.  Yes, it's our friend Captain Yang, who spots Reid, yells, and fumbles for his (semi)automatic.

Reid shoots him.  Yang roars and charges up the slope toward Reid, waving his gun instead of firing it.  Reid shoots again, and Yang continues to charge, glaring hatefully instead of shooting his gun.  Reid shoots a third, fourth and fifth round into Yang, but the "towering hulk" does not stop, or shoot his gun.  It's only when Yang closes to one yard from Reid, and after Reid counter-charges and swings his empty rifle like a club, that the captain of the Death Squad finally fires his weapon, managing a near-miss that scorches Reid with its muzzle flash.

Kurt dodged.  He was off balance and falling.  Yang, with a loud cry, depressed the muzzle of the automatic for the coup de grâce.  Kurt cried out and rolled away, but there was no escaping that muzzle.

Suddenly Yang folded into himself.  His tremendous body plunged rigid into the dust, sending up a swirling cloud.  His fingers clawed at the ground.  A look of surprise came over his face.

Yeah, each one of Reid's shots landed, it's just that "the great vitality of the Chinese captain had scorned the mailed fist of death until the last," most dramatic, bullet hit.  And had time to sink in.  Maybe it was lag?

So that's our second-most-wanted bad guy dealt with.  Savischna has the three surviving Japanese at gunpoint, Reid ties them up, and they're set up next to their wrecked car, where I'm sure someone will be along to rescue them eventually.  Hopefully all of them made a bathroom visit before starting their ill-fated trip.

Savischna tells Reid to put on Yang's boots, cloak and cap, an order he obeys "without question" because at this point it's best to go along with wherever the story's going than try to fight back.  The White Russian reveals that one of her other men brought her a telegraph - Lin Wang is waiting to meet them.  This gives Reid "some vague idea of what this was all about," but we'll have to wait until the author tries to explain things for us.

And here comes the spy stuff: after they drive along a bit, Savischna has Reid pull over so she can apply some vials of dye she was carrying on her belt, for Reid's face and hands.  She also fixes "a band behind his ears which pulled his eyes up at the corners, giving them a slant."  In other words, one of the characters in this story just put on a disguise.  It's kinda silly and racist, but it's a start.

So they drive on through the day, past downtrodden Chinese and Mongols, with Reid disguised as a Japanese officer and Savischna as his captive.  Reid doesn't much like it because the tape hurts his eyes... wait, it's tape now?  Would that be better or worse than a rubber band?  Anyway, at dusk they finally reach the meeting spot, an abandoned monastery.

Reid's mission is straightforward: kill Lin Wang.  Reid is to go to Wang's headquarters, dressed as a Japanese officer, and tell the leprous lizard-man that Captain Yang wants to parley at this monastery.  Wang will at most bring a few bodyguards for this secret meeting, which will be easier to deal with than trying to kill the guy in his seat of power.  As for why Lin Wang needs to die, besides the fact that he's trying to blackmail our hero, Savischna reveals that he's actually sold out to the Japanese, and she in fact works for the loyalist Chinese.

This is the sort of plot twist that in most cases would be accompanied by an exclamation point, but I'm just not feeling it.  'slike wowzers, the inscrutable foreign lady who hired on a a freelance spy and proceeded to loaf around various townhouses isn't fully on the level?  And the slimy leader of a paramilitary group turns out to be self-serving instead of loyal to his country?

There is a legitimate surprise twist coming up, but be patient.

Kurt shook her hand and found that it trembled a little. She weaved close to him and he kissed her. She pushed him away toward Lin Wang's headquarters.

Which means Reid deliberately takes his time walking there, so he'll arrive after dinner and give time for Savischna to set up her trap.  Along the way he does hear "a furtive movement behind him" at some point, but since he doesn't see anything in the dusklight, Reid thinks nothing of it, for the same reason the Japanese posted no sentries outside their headquarters in the previous chapter.

Now, the Chinese are a bit smarter, because when Reid arrives at the "ancient fort" Lin Wang lurks inside, there's two whole guards standing out front.  Reid spends an hour watching from concealment to make sure they're the only two sentries he'll have to deal with in case things go badly, but then another two Chinese show up, dragging a captive with them.  But since they came from the opposite direction that Reid took to get here, they can't have nabbed Savischna, so Reid relaxes.  It's not like she or they could have used some sort of automatic, mobile vehicle to move around at greater speed than Reid's swagger.

So Reid strides out of the shadows, introduces himself as our friend Taichō Shimazu, and says he has business with General Wang.  The guards bow and say he's expected, and once he's inside Reid, "for some reason," feels the need to quietly chain the door behind him.  I wish the author could find even flimsy motivations for these characters to do things instead of just shrugging at us.  No sooner does Reid do this than he hears a vehicle screeching to a halt outside, but there's no time to investigate, let's have our showdown with the bad guy.  Reid marches down a long, echoing hallway, opens a door, and finds

Lin Wang sat in a puddle of yellow light, flanked by two sentries.  The rest of the room was dim.  Great shadows flickered along the walls like crawling monsters about to pounce.  Lin Wang was looking through candle flame at two soldiers and a prisoner.

Kurt was unnoticed.  Something was familiar about the prisoner.  Brown hair, slender shoulders.  A military cape drooped down from her throat.  The hair was disheveled.

Kurt almost cried out.  He swallowed the sound and sagged against the door.  The prisoner was Anne Carsten!

So now all three of our main central characters have been held captive at some point during the story.  Reid's just the best at it.

The diabolical Wang is taunting Ms. Carsten, "a small shower of scales" falling onto his desk as he talks... eww.  How's this guy even have a face left at this point?  Anyway, it's the "I've got you now my pretty" speech, and Wang talks about how he's had his eye on her ever since he saw Carsten leave a ball one night, and though she's obviously repulsed by him, now he's about to leave China after he gets a certain message and he evidently doesn't want to go without saying goodbye.  Carsten is defiant, and says if Wang tries anything, she'll poison herself with the little vial she wears around her neck at all times.

One of the guards immediately yanks it out of her hand.  Welp.  I think we all learned something from this - don't taunt someone about your trump card unless you have it firmly in your grasp... man, the word "trump" has been pretty much ruined by the current presidential campaign, hasn't it?

In this commotion, Wang finally notices "Shimazu," and asks where "the money" is.  Reid offers to lead Wang there, but the lizard wants the messenger to sit down and enjoy some sake with him... and since this woman will probably try to kill herself before he returns, Wang ought to make the most of things.

So we get about four paragraphs of Wang making creepy advances on Ms. Carsten, stroking her cheek and hair while the soldiers grin and Reid agonizes over whether to intervene to save her or stick to the Savischna's plan.

Rifles and soldiers. Guards outside. Kurt sat very still. The liquor gagged him. He was looking at Anne again. She was not standing in very good light and he could not clearly see her face. Something was oddly wrong about her, something Kurt could not understand.

While he fails to understand, Reid's eye falls upon a satchel by the door.  And in the middle of groping his prisoner, Wang sees Reid see this, and decides to break off and investigate what turns out to be the bag Carsten was carrying, which is unexpectedly filled with yen.

Lin Wang stared into the satchel and, then, with a roar wheeled about and, glared at Kurt.

This is like looking at a target at a firing range that's been shot at by a nearsighted drunk, except the bullet holes are commas.

The money was there - and yet an officer had come to take him to a conference to give him the money.  Lin Wang's wits worked well on one theme - treachery.

The characters are cheating.  It's suspicious that a Japanese messenger arrived to take Wang to a location to be given some yen, right after a woman was captured carrying a bag of yen, but it's a bit of a leap to deduce that this is the same bag.  It is the same bag, but the only way any of these people would know that for sure would be if they read ahead a page or two.

Reid decides its time to go loud, yells at Carsten to duck, and whips out his pistol... um.  I didn't mean for that to be innuendo, but...

The .45 came through a slit of his cloak.  Flame stabbed from the jerking muzzle.  Lead screamed from the walls only half stopped.

A .45 is well and all, but what the ladies really want is a man with a fifty-cal, if you know what I mean.

Lin Wang took two shots through his stomach.  His clawing fingers contracted as he collapsed, twisting to one side.  Screaming orders, he fell to the floor, instantly swallowed up by the flame and smoke and turmoil.

Aaaand that's it, the book's primary bad guy goes down in three sentences.  Bit of an anticlimax, but I guess it's more feasible than some sort of drawn-out swordfight on the battlements of the castle during an intense thunderstorm.  Even if Captain Yang got like a page-long encounter with Reid before dying.

There's no time to bask in the afterglow, there's mooks in the room that need killing.  Short story shorter, Reid kills them.  Carsten's staring down at Lin Wang's corpse, "smiling bitterly" until Reid yanks her along, but she refuses to leave without taking that satchel of foreign currency with them.  They run down the hall to where there's a squad of men trying to batter down the chained door, and it sure is a good thing Reid had the sudden impulse to do that, isn't it?

Then again, maybe it wouldn't have mattered - Reid unchains the door and yells, in Chinese, about traitors and Lin Wang needing their help, and off the soldiers rush, too terrified of their (late) master to stick around and ask questions.  So Reid and Carsten run right outside, where surprisingly the touring car Reid left with Savischna is sitting out front next to a truck.  After grabbing a gas can, off they drive, Carsten hugging her bag of money while the Chinese suckers take some pot-shots at them in the darkness.

Maybe it wouldn't have been that hard to send Reid in to murder Wang in the middle of his base.

"Thank you..." said Kurt,

Please note that this comes immediately after the sentence describing the Chinese shooting at them in the darkness, and Carsten has done nothing but carry the money bag while Reid took the initiative and got them both out.  It's unclear why he's thanking her, is what I'm saying.

Oh yeah, our legitimate plot twist:

"then you are both Anne Carsten and Varinka Savischna.  But how..."

Good question.

"Hollow capsules flatten the nose, pads raise the cheekbones.  A yellow wig hides brown hair.  Pads broaden shoulders.  Heels can be high or low.  A voice and accent are nothing to be changed."  She laughed and leaned against him.  "I was good.  I even had you fooled.  You didn't know what to think when Anne Carsten asked you about Varinka and Varinka asked you about Anne.  They are both the same.

Yeeeaaaaah.  So all those times Reid got intimately close with Savischna or Carsten to get his kissy on, he never noticed they had the same brown eyes, never saw past the nose and cheekbones and hair.  I went back and checked, and sure enough, when Reid met Savischna in Chapter 1, there's no description of her eye color, only that there's a slight slant to them.  But Reid also is able to read the fear in her eyes when they meet again in Chapter 5, so he did make eye contact at some point, just again, he never made the connection.  Even though when he reunited with Carsten as Carsten, he made a point about how he remembers how beautiful her eyes were that night they first met.

As for why Savischna/Carsten kept up this deception even after hiring Reid as a lackey... well, she never explains her actions, but if I had to guess, she probably thought it was funny.

Carsten/Savischna goes on for nearly a page explaining how she was expecting the Chinese - or maybe the Japanese - to catch on to her game sooner, but "they are very dull, those fellows."  Dull or not, some soldiers evidently saw her and Reid set up shop at the monastery, and she got jumped from behind while he was gone.  But while she was taking a dark car ride, she was able to switch disguises to become Anne Carsten, who wouldn't be in as much trouble as Varinka Savischna.  Even though she also reveals that Lin Wang knew that Carsten was Savischna.  Huh.  So "Carsten" getting nabbed by Wang should have been exactly as bad as "Savischna" ending up in his scaly clutches... but if she hadn't switched personas, then there wouldn't be this reveal, got it.

But that's that, mission accomplished.  Carsten has done her job killing Lin Wang, whom she warned Chinese officials was a traitor, and the Japanese never figured out that their Takeki was the same woman as Chinese operative Anne Carsten.  Except she says she isn't working for the Chinese anymore - apparently foreigners are able to hire onto a country's intelligence service and just leave whenever they feel like, with no repercussions.  Oh, and she's keeping Lin Wang's bribe money, because

We've earned it. We're free, and at peace with the world. The Japanese will never know that Varinka is Anne Carsten."

"Free?" said Kurt. "Free? Good God, I still face a murder charge in Shanghai!"

So leave through Japanese territory, sheesh.  Or borrow some spy goodies from Carvischna and become Vladimir Generikrusski.  Or don't wash your face for the next couple of days until you leave China.  Or do what you originally intended and disguise yourself as a native thanks to your dark eyes and hair and pale skin and mastery of the local languages.

Also, I think Savsten is overlooking the amount of Chinese and Japanese soldiers she and Reid have gotten killed over the course of their adventure when declaring they're "at peace with the world."  If nothing else Reid should be wanted for that shootout and jailbreak in Zhangjiakou.  But the author insists it's a happy ending because it turns out Carvastena got the confession exonerating Reid "out of Lin Wang's jacket while you were busy thinking about target practice in the room."  I guess she was picking his pocket while he was groping her?

So that's it, our hero and love interest have a "good, solid, brutal kiss" while driving very fast along a bumpy road in the dark through enemy territory.  And thus ends our spy thriller.  There was in fact one spy in the story who was good at their job, it just wasn't our hero, and her ability to pull off this deception is a bit unlikely.  And her motivations for becoming a spy remain unexplained.  And her spywork was mostly about sticking things up her nose and putting on a wig and somehow convincing the Japanese to treat her as a secret agent.  Though that isn't much of a stretch since those same skills somehow convinced the Chinese to treat her as their agent.

And where are they going to go from here?  A double agent who says she's quit the game is unlikely to be very welcome in either country she worked with.  And they are still in Chinese territory after killing what were technically Chinese soldiers - no mention of them being Death Battalion or anything.  And what, after duping and fighting them, are our heroes going to try to spend that sack of yen in Japanese territory?

I guess it's hard to appreciate pulp "classics" if you think about them like, at all, or ask any questions.  Better to just sit back and let things happen in front of you like a big, dumb Hollywood blockbuster.  Goodness knows some of the Bond flicks weren't much better than this.

Back to Chapter 7

Friday, March 25, 2016

Spy Killer - Chapter 7 - Car Driver

I think I overestimated the Death Squad's intrusion skills.  Yeah, one of their not-ninja-because-those-are-Japanese was able to sneak into where the invaders were keeping Reid, but when our big dumb hero returns to the Japanese headquarters in Zhangjiakou, he's able to stroll right up to a window.  No mention of any patrolling sentries to slip past, no fence to climb, not even a "Do Not Enter" sign to somehow circumvent.  And it's not like we can just assume there was some sort of obstacle that Reid got past in the space between chapters, because the author takes the time to discuss a truck parked outside with its driver sleeping slumped over the steering wheel, just not any, y'know, guards.

But hey, why would they need any?  We're just talking about the forward command post in an occupied city that will serve as a launching point for the Japanese invasion of China proper, on a night when there's been an attack on a prisoner in this very same "secure" facility, threats and doubts have been raised around one of Japan's top spies, and there's been a running battle on the city streets whose perpetrator is still at large.

Even though the windows are open wide enough so that they "sprayed yellow jets into the street," Reid can still situate himself to look in without being spotted.  Savischna is standing before a bunch of seated officers with red armbands, their faces displaying "a merciless arrogance which was heightened by the effect of their black, bristly hair."  I guess that was a hairstyle during the Imperial years or something.  There's guards in there, "posted about the room" with bayonets at the ready, just nobody preventing, say, a Chinese assassin from entering the premises.

The bad guys are "questioning" Savsichna in a way that shows "her guilt was a foregone conclusion," except they don't actually ask any questions.  They accuse her of lying to them in her reports, as corroborated by some men of hers that they've tor- performed enhanced interrogation techniques upon.  And they've also recovered the (semi)automatic she gave Reid from, which proves that she slipped a weapon to a known Chinese agent.  Savischna counters that they just think she has "too much power" and are angry that she refuses their slimy advances, but it's an unconvincing argument, and she's sentenced to death by firing squad at the Great Wall.

The only thing interesting about the whole two-page conversation, aside from the fact that it's supposedly being translated from Japanese but the author keeps using untranslated ranks like taishō to show off his vocabulary, is that there's little indication that the great spy Takeki was actually given a mission.  Instead it's mentioned that Savischna discussed "some sort of intrigue [she was] planning" in a report to her employers, not that she failed at some specific task.  So what, the Japanese encountered this Russian chick, decided to hire her, and then let her lounge about in Shanghai while writing occasional reports?  And this made her one of their top agents and a priority target for the Chinese?

Savischna is fearless and defiant, "a lioness pulled down by jackals," and doesn't look back when soldiers come in from outside and march her out to a waiting car.  A sergeant named Shimazu tells... oh hey, that's the clan I won Shogun II with.  Yeah, I know, easy mode, but it's hard to turn down improved katana samurai and a start location right next to half the game's trade routes.  I was doing fairly well with the Ikko-Ikki on my next campaign, but then Realm Divide kicked my ass and face in simultaneously so-

Anyway, Taichō Shimazu tells "the silhouette of the driver" to get going, and since our hero has disappeared for the past few pages, it's little surprise when Shimazu complains that they're going too fast and the wrong way, and the car driver turns out to be Reid, who knocked out and replaced the vehicle's operator while the narration was focused on Savischna.  And I guess he did that before those guards came in from outside to grab her, otherwise they would have seen him, right?  But then how did he know to disguise himself as the car driver so he could rescue Savischna before she was executed at the Great Wall?  Also, that's a big car to seat four people without any of them being in the passenger's chair where they might be able to get a glimpse of their non-Japanese driver.

Whatever, guess it's an SUV and Reid moved very fast in the sentence-long window between Savischna's sentence being voiced and the guards coming in from outside the headquarters.  He dramatically reveals himself, swiveling in his seat and aiming a pistol back at his passengers, ordering them to "Tabi-dasu!  Jump out!  All of you!"  And it's a wasted effort because the two normal soldiers lunge forward with their bayoneted rifles while the squad leader draws his (semi)automatic, and even though he's got the bad guys flat-footed Reid knows that he can't gun down all three of them at once, even with a (semi)automatic pistol.

Luckily the author gives Savischna a chance to do something, and she shoves the riflemen's weapons up so Reid can shoot the officer and again politely asks the other two soldiers to drop their weapons and disembark.  They're compliant this time, but there's a truck full of soldiers following the car to the execution site, and soon there's a few bullets coming the good guys' way to punch a hole in the windshield and hit the... tonneau?  Well, learned a word today.

I guess it's a chase scene, even if it's pretty brief.  Savischna tells Reid to head south, which takes them right through a gated checkpoint, which Reid gets through in all of a paragraph by swerving so that its two guards have to jump aside or get squished.  There's no mention of whether he went around or smashed through that gate, which is odd, but I guess that gives the reader liberty to decide how the obstacle was surmounted.  Make the book a more interactive experience or something.

But that's it for excitement in this chapter.  Reid and Savischna are roaring along at sixty milers-per-hour, running carts and camels off the road as they head into China proper.  The pursuing truck is no longer a threat, "lost in dust, much too slow to keep pace with Kurt's masterful driving and the touring car's Western engine."  Could this be symbolic of how other nations cannot hope to surpass the West despite aping its mannerisms and stealing its technology?  Or would that be a more thoughtful, dedicated bigotry than the kind of casual racism Hubbard usually works into his stories? 

Savischna crawls into the passenger seat next to Reid, and the two have a little chat.  She talks about Anne Carsten not being able to do something like that, Reid rightfully asks why Savischna brought her up, and we go through the old "I thought that you loved her" song and dance.  Reid says "Hell, no," and Savischna looks disappointed that the story's main character is interested in her instead of her friend.

Nothing about how he had gotten there, nothing, about what they would do or where they would go.  Kurt snorted.  Varinka sat there baiting him about love.

This is a weird relationship.  They meet in a teahouse, where Reid impulsively decides to rescue her from the Chinese, and later she reveals that she had him freed in a fit of whimsy for use as her own agent, then she gets mad when she learns he's been hired to kill her, but she still risks her life to save his, and then he gets to return the favor when her employers find out.  And Reid is convinced that Savischna is in love with him even while she keeps asking if he's interested in Ms. Carsten.

Maybe it'll make sense in the final chapter.  Half an hour into the drive, Savischna has Reid change course and head

"East? That'll take us back into Japanese territory."

"You must head east," said Varinka. "I have business."

"Say, listen, haven't you had enough?"

"Oh, no. I must never leave unfinished business. Head east."

Grudgingly, Kurt turned down the road which was far worse than the one he left. He was beginning to think that Varinka was crazy.

But not as crazy as the Japanese, who until recently employed her as one of their top spies, or Reid, who has the hots for her, and who follows her crazy orders.  The drives them to a crossroads marked with a stone tower, where Savischna orders him to stop and hide the car behind cover.  She suspects some eastbound Japanese will be along shortly, and asks if "my Kurt" is any good with a rifle.  Time to set up an ambush.

Kurt knew that it would be useless to argue with her.  He parked the car, took one of the bayoneted rifles and got out.  Dust was already rolling up along the other road.

"They come," said Varinka with a cat smile.


This lady's weird.  But it looks like we're all set up for a climactic grand finale, a shootout at an abandoned tower in China's hinterlands.  So tune in next time as we... well, we haven't dealt with Lin Wang or Captain Yang yet, so presumably they'll show up to get killed.  And maybe we'll find out where Ms. Carsten went off too and what the hell Savischna's deal is, and I guess get Reid's legal situation figured out.

Back to Chapter 6

Monday, March 21, 2016

Spy Killer - Chapter 6 - Mook Killer

Last chapter was pretty boring, wasn't it?  Sure, there was some "plot" and "exposition" and such nonsense, but the only action was when someone threw a note through a window and Savischna fake-hit Reid to slip him a weapon.  So let's up the body count in an attempt to keep hold of the reader's interest.

Reid has just been kicked out of his Russian kinda-girlfriend's safehouse, after learning that she was the Japanese spy he was supposed to assassinate, and she found out that he was hired by the Chinese to murder her.  Said Chinese will undoubtedly try to kill Reid as punishment for his failure to do so, so the scene is heavy with mood - the post-midnight streets of Zhangjiakou have "the appearance of a tomb," the clammy mountain air is "like waiting death," the rows of walled residences are "black scowls along the street," and so on.  In a story like this, it's pretty easy to tell when someone is after you, just pay attention to the weather.

As Reid walks along, expecting at any moment to be blown away by "the stab of thunder and sparks around the next wall," he reflects upon how he got into this sorry situation, where he's become as the chapter is titled "Any Man's Prey."  His Chinese handlers "undoubtedly felt" that Reid is the one who screwed up their operation, and "in Yang's eyes" he failed his mission to kill Takeki.  It's hard to feel that Yang is being unreasonable in this conclusion.

Kurt had a feeling of fatalistic helplessness.  The gods of China were against him

Please don't let this be like when Gris was worrying that the Greek pantheon was teaming up with Allah to kick his ass.

and he could do nothing to extricate himself.  Perhaps he would be able to fight his way out, but knowing that the Japanese would get him if Yang did not, anything he did was futile.

Hey, remember back in the first chapter when Reid was pulling himself out of the river, and he was confident that with the right clothes and disguise, he could pass himself off as Chinese and slip to safety that way?  'cause the author doesn't.

Also, remember when I promised action in this chapter?  It takes awhile for anything exciting to happen, there's three full pages of Reid strolling along, gazing at his navel.

After reflecting on how the Chinese, for some mysterious reason, consider him a screw-up, and thinking about how doomed he is, Reid's thoughts turn toward Savischna, that "brave kid" who might have risked her standing with the Japanese to spare his life (if only temporarily).  Then he's hit with the terrible knowledge that the Japanese might be less suspicious towards Savischna if they find Reid's corpse in the morning, or in other words it's a reversal of the situation where Reid's life depends upon Savischna's death.  Cue silent, wry laughter.

Then Reid wonders what Ms. Carsten would think about this situation, and how she's actually hotter than Savischna, and it's not like you could marry a White Russian in China these days, and then he has to laugh at himself again for getting distracted by women troubles when he has bigger Chinese troubles.  And then Reid thinks about how much he'd like to kill Lin Wang, how the scaly bastard obviously didn't know who Takeki was and, in his "warped cruelty," could never anticipate that Reid would gallantly refuse to kill a hot dame even to save his own life.  And then Reid realizes that he was probably going to handed over to the Japanese even if he had killed Takeki, so that promise of a vindicating signed confession was meaningless.   So he shouldn't have trusted to guy who executed a prisoner right after promising to spare his life, go figure.

And I can't help but notice that Reid has probably done more productive introspection in the process of walking down the street during this chapter than he has in the rest of the book.  And yet, maybe it isn't the best idea to do this when an enemy kill team is out to get you.

As it is, Reid pausing to ruefully chuckle against a shadowy wall is the only thing that saves his pondering ass.  There's a "whisper of slippers around the corner," and then a "black dot" creeps out from concealment under the next building on the street to come towards Reid.  The Chinese agent has his gun out, but he's literally groping along the wall because he doesn't know where Reid is, because he couldn't be bothered to wait another minute until the clueless sap blundered right into his sights.

This is a member of the elite "Death Squad" that is known and feared throughout China, by the way.

Reid draws the pistol Savischna gave him and decides to risk a shot, and while "the sound of Kurt's automatic slide sounded like a sledgehammer blow" that the Chinese picks up on, the assassin doesn't take cover after hearing a gun being readied, but stops in the open, staring into the shadows "with narrow, killer's eyes."  So our hero plugs him, the bad guy throws his hands up, then clutches his chest, then falls over with his arms and legs splayed.

Now, this highly-trained, lethal commando's buddies were smart enough to wait in concealment until now, but at the sound of the gunshot they come charging out from around the corner.  Reid, who just made an easy kill from the shadows, inexplicably decides to run away from this new "threat," then realizes that he'll be an obvious target if he leaves his cover, and so instead impulsively jumps up and hauls himself over the wall he's up against.  Said wall has broken glass at the top to discourage burglars, so Reid's "hands were gashed into a slippery mess," but he heroically (or anti-heroically as the case may be) ignores the pain and sprints through the garden he finds himself in.

The two Death Squad goons batter their way through the residence's gateway while Reid sprints past decorative storks and turtles amid the pools of the garden, but our hero's escape plan is thwarted when he finds himself up against the home itself rather than another wall to climb over (and grievously injure his hands on).

No, he can't break into some guy's home and escape that way, that'd be rude.

The Chinese loomed hugely against the lighter gray of the far wall.  But they did not seem to have faces or hands, only arms.  They were great shadows come to life without wits, with only the will to slaughter.  They knew that they had to be fast.  The Japanese guard would be coming soon to locate the firing.

Weird that the guys whose country is being invaded by an aggressive empire are dehumanized like this, while the Japanese imperialists get to spend a few paragraphs making the case for Manchukuo.  Anyway, as he watches those great shadows advancing in front of a gray wall, Reid realizes something he didn't pick up on when he was on the street earlier - he's in the shadows right now, so they can't see him, but they're really obvious against that far wall.

So Reid's able to plug one Death Squad goon as he advances, then blasts another at point-blank range when he tries to jump on him.  The last is able to get into a good page-long tussle with our protagonist, stabbing Reid in the shoulder, which every assassin knows is the fastest and easiest way to kill someone with a knife.

They went down into shrubbery with a crash, the Chinese on top.  Kurt, anger setting red balls dancing before his face,

I have no idea either.  Maybe I've just never been angry enough.

felt that he had embraced a clawing tiger. Kurt kicked hard with both feet. Fingers were locating his throat.

Another case of Hubbard's "technically correct but wrong for the scene" grasp of vocabulary.

Kurt's gun was gone.

Not that he needs one, he has a knife embedded in his shoulder.  Reid manfully yanks the weapon out of his own flesh and plunges it into the mook's back once, twice.  It gets stuck, but the Chinese thug's grip on Reid's throat soon slackens, and Reid no longer has the problem of being throttled by a murderous paramilitary operative, but the problem of being pinned to the ground by a heavy dead guy.

Well, that was exciting, wasn't it?  I mean, four people died!  That makes this chapter like four times as thrilling as Chapter Four.  I'm not sure how much more interesting it is than Chapter One, though, since I think the two bad guys in that chapter were merely bludgeoned into unconsciousness.  Maybe each unconscious guy is only equal half a dead guy, so this is eight times- 

Anyway, after catching his breath, Reid goes around inspecting the bodies, but none of them are Captain Yang.  He helps himself to one mook's pistol and then flees the scene before the Japanese authorities arrive, which isn't to say that he then tries to keep a low profile.  Nope, our hero's blood is up (and escaping through his ruined hands and wounded shoulder), and he feels like he could lick the entire Japanese army by himself, or blow away Lin Wang and his whole bodyguard.

He took the middle of the street with a swagger.  His face, usually so handsome, was twisted up into a hard-boiled scowl.  His gait was a sea roll and he carried the automatic in plain sight.  He was insane and he knew it and didn't care. 

And he's promptly shot in the face by a military policeman, the end.

Can't blame me for hoping.  No, our hero "knew it without thinking" that his beloved Savischna is in danger, and so heads back to her safehouse to repay her for saving his life with that automatic... Hubbard keeps using that word while referring to things like a Colt .45, which is properly a semiautomatic pistol, not something like an Uzi.  The story describes Reid taking single shots, not hosing the bad guys down with a quick burst of bullets.  But I guess guns that weren't muzzle-loaded were new back when Hubbard was writing this, so we can't be too hard on him.

Anyway, when Reid arrives at Savischna's house he finds the place deserted, save for a sobbing servant woman who reveals that the Japanese took the Russian girl prisoner.  Reid knows that those Japanese don't take long with their interrogations, and so leaves the safehouse (after spending only a moment gripped by a "helpless nausea") and "walked swiftly" towards the Japanese base.

So take heart, fair damsel, your knight in bleeding armor is power-walking to the rescue.

Back to Chapter 5

Monday, March 14, 2016

Spy Killer - Chapter 5 - At Least Someone Is Amused

So my working theory now is that the Chinese and Japanese and the White Russians are all cooperating to make this story happen.  They all sat down at the table one day, putting aside all these concerns of war both civil and interstate, and decided that what they really needed was to have a good laugh.  So what if, the Chinese representative said, we got some clueless American to run around pretending to be a secret agent?  We could take turns capturing and releasing him, the Japanese representative said.  And lets make sure he's good-looking, the White Russian representative said, so the women on different sides can toy with him.

Yes, it's ridiculous, but no less so than what's happening in the story.

Reid can only stare in silence after the revelation that the Takeki guy he's supposed to kill is actually that hot Russian chick, but nobody notices.  Savischna expresses her hopes that "these compatriots of mine did not cause you any inconvenience," and asks if Reid has any news from the south.  After all, he had to have some reason to come all the way up to the Great Wall.  Reid at first stammers a negative, then mumbles something about Lin Wang and asks if he can share this information in private.  Luckily Savischna has a car nearby that will take them to a place where Reid can get a bite and talk shop.

Kurt felt the leaden silence of the room. He felt very uncomfortable. He could feel the thoughts of the Japanese.

Friggin' psychic Hubbard heroes.

They were not at all sure of him, those fellows, and he knew they were telling themselves that they would keep their eye on him.  He felt a chill run up and down his spine when a soldier clattered his rifle against the wall.  The brown eyes stabbed him.  Death and danger were heavy in the room.

And after spending a good paragraph to establish the danger, we promptly walk out of it.  Reid and Savischna hop into the car, while some soldiers cling to its running boards as an armed escort.  There's some environmental symbolism as a cold night breeze blows over the "dead brown hills" of northern China, and then the car is passing through a clanging gate into a compound of three stone buildings that remind Reid of a prison.  Even when he follows Savischna into what turns out to be a finely-decorated home with silks on the walls, an inviting fireplace and sweet Russian incense in the air, he can still hear patrolling guards on stone paths outside.

Or in other words, we're five-for-five when it comes to chapters where Reid spends some time held against his will.

A servant brings in food before disappearing, and Reid and the Russian have an awkward meal.

Kurt ate slowly, watching Varinka, and listening to the footsteps of the guard.  Finally he said, "This is rotten business."

Varinka shrugged.  "One has to live."

"You mean you're a spy for these yellow devils?  You mean you're willing to help them take over China.  Not that I care what happens to China, but after all the Japanese..."

"One has to live," said Varinka.

It sure is interesting when a character justifies their actions and choice of vocation with a shrug of "It's a living."

We're meant to be sympathetic, though, because Savischna explains the guards' presence with that adage "A spy can never tell who his friends and enemies are" with a brief flash of fear in her eyes.  But she shoves it aside, and asks what happened to Reid after he was scooped up by the Death Squad back in Shanghai.  Reid gets as far as mentioning that Lin Wang has promised to give him a confession in exchange for a service, but then he abruptly chokes on his food because "He realized then that this Takeki and Varinka were one and the same person."

He realized then.  Not last chapter, when he was introduced to Takeki and saw Varinka.  It's a delayed reaction that hit him five pages later.

Savischna notices Reid turning white and asks what's wrong, Reid stalls and hides his face by taking a big drink before explaining that Lin Wang sent him north, and "told me to leave China."  Savischna notes that this is an awfully strange thing for someone like Lin Wang to do, but Reid can't just tell her the truth because "You can't tell a person that you have been sent to kill them."  No, the best thing to do in this delicate situation is to be ambiguous and evasive, and hope that nothing happens in a page or two that would make someone want to shoot you.

So Reid asks how Savischna got out of that business in Shanghai.  The Russian explains that she had a hidden staircase and secret door to escape through, and also reveals that yes, she was the one who sent a man on a sampan to the river near the Rangoon, because she just so happened to know that Reid was going to be "set loose" from the ship's brig, and had someone follow Reid all the way to the teahouse.  All of this because she needed "a good, strong man I could trust," and also that Lin Wang was after Reid too.

And I'm pretty sure the story is going to have to take a turn into fantasy or sci-fi territory soon, and Reid is going to revealed as a Jedi or wizard or something, because how else can the author justify all of this nonsense?  Why does everyone fighting over China want this clueless, blundering American in their camp?  What qualities could Reid possibly possess to justify all these machinations and manipulations?  I mean, Reid himself can't begin to guess what makes him so special.

"What did you want me for?"

"I don't trust Chinese, much less Japanese. I thought you would be able to help me and I knew I could help you. I had an idea that I could prove you innocent, and you had such a reputation as a fighter and as a linguist, I thought it a shame to let some material run around loose.

Oh come on.  There's got to be hundreds of better candidates who speak both Chinese and Japanese and could blend in with the local population.  Also, what does fighting ability have to do with spywork?  When you want to kill someone, that's what soldiers are for.

And maybe... maybe, I was just being kind. I don't know. It amused me."

My hypothesis that this is all happening for gits and shiggles just gained some credibility.

You know what would distract us from the questionable motives of everyone involved in the story?  A love triangle.  Savischna asks if Reid saw Ms. Carsten at Shanghai, and when he flushes, she remarks on what a "fine woman" she is and how she probably fell for Reid, since she has a thing for sailors.  And Reid can only stammer that he thinks she's "a swell kid" but denies being in love with her, much like how he denied feeling anything for Savischna when he was with Carsten.  Savischna reveals that Carsten's father was killed by Lin Wang after getting "far too interested in Chinese politics," which explains why she was working against the Death Squad.

But this mention of Lin Wang sets Reid off again, and he dwells on how the reptilian halfbreed "held liberty in his shaking hands," and all Reid has to do to claim it is kill Savischna.  She picks up on this and again asks what's up, and because this chapter was getting kind of boring, a gunshot rings out.

Reid is a crap spy (not to be confused with a spy crab), but he has some decent bodyguard instincts.  As feet scuffle outside, he flings Savischna against the wall and knocks over the room's lamp, which doesn't start a fire but plunges the room into darkness... even though, yes, there was a crackling fireplace mentioned four pages back.  Must've gone out.  Oh, and while he's got the woman safely pinned between him and the wall, he has to shudder at "the treacherous thought that he could kill her easily now."  Icky.

The window breaks as something arcs through it to thump onto the floor, and Reid gropes for something that "felt like a grenade," then fails to throw it to safety or heroically jump on top of it, and so he's really lucky that it turns out to be a rock with a note tied to it.  Rocks and grenades feel pretty much the same, right?  And oh, the author did remember there's a fireplace in the room, because it "flickered up for a moment" to conveniently provide enough light for Reid to... read the note: "We are waiting.  Death there will cancel death here."

It's from the Death Squad.  They still want him to kill Takeki, even after trying to kill him for failing to kill Takeki.  So they tracked Reid as he was moved through Japanese custody, eluded the invaders' security, and threw this note through the window of Takeki's safehouse.

Why.  The hell.  Did they throw.  A note.  Instead of a.  Real.  Grenade.

The Death Squad can sneak into Japanese-occupied China.  The Death Squad can infiltrate a secure facility to try to assassinate someone held in Japanese custody.  The Death Squad can attack a safehouse and throw something confused for a grenade through a window into a room with the spy they're targeting.  But they desperately need Reid's help to kill this spy.

So yes, Mao killed tens of millions of people through his incompetent efforts at agricultural reform, and killed even more through various purges and whatnot as a result of his tyrannical rule.  But just imagine the disaster that could've unfolded if someone like Lin Wang had gotten control of the country.

We spend two pages on Reid trying to hide the note from Savischna, a Japanese soldier spotting the note but not being able to read it because it's in English, and then an officer coming in who can read the note.  Savischna gets quite upset that Reid was sent in to murder her, but when the Japanese officer draws his gun to execute this quote spy unquote, the Russian declares that "We need not stain our hands with such as he" and sends Reid out to meet the waiting Captain Yang, who will no doubt be happy that Reid once again utterly failed at his mission.

Just before he can leave, though, Savischna gets up to smack him while shouting "You filthy beast!  Get out!  Get out!"  The Japanese love that, and Reid numbly walks out the compound door toward the gate leading onto the dark streets of Zhangjiakou and the waiting Death Squad.  And once again, it takes him a while to realize something important, in this case that Savischna slipped an automatic pistol into his pocket while beating on him.

He knew, standing there, already expecting the numbing shots of bullets through his back, that Varinka loved him and that he loved her.

Yeah.  Met her what, a couple weeks ago?  And Reid was immediately struck by her beauty, then got swept into a stupid, stupid world of spies and assassins, where he was repeatedly captured and recruited and sent on missions and threatened to be killed if he failed and failed but wasn't killed because good God these people are incompetent.  And now that he's met her a total of two times, Reid knows the truth - it's love, twue love.

Back to Chapter 4 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Spy Killer - Chapter 4 - To Kill a Super Spy, Send an Anti-Spy

Fast-forward an indeterminate number of days later to Kurt Reid arriving by train in the north Chinese city of Zhangjiakou, called Kalgan by honkies.  He's shaved and strutting his stuff in a classy black suit and gray hat, looking "as much unlike the bucko mate as had the prisoner of Lin Yang."  Or in other words, he once again looks different from how he did in the previous chapter, but he still has no hope of blending in with the local population.  A bit of a disadvantage if you're expected to do some spy work.

Our hero is a bit unhappy, though not because he's a lousy spy.  He tried to find Ms. Carsten before leaving Shanghai, but never managed it.  Guess he couldn't remember the directions to that house.  He's also pessimistic that this mission to kill a Japanese agent in the middle of Japanese-occupied territory can even be accomplished, but he's stuck doing it in hopes of getting that pardon.  Also, he has Yang and the rest of the Death Squad along to nudge him when he stops to take in the sights.

So Reid and his minders walk the streets of Kalgan, surrounded by Japanese soldiers in mustard-yellow uniforms bearing bayoneted rifles, and head for a hotel.  But on the way Reid sees something that makes him gasp in surprise, immediately drawing Yang's attention.

Kurt walked on calmly enough

Oh yeah, sure, play it cool.  I'm sure Yang will just forget the whole incident.

although he was certain that he had seen a familiar face in the crowd.  Maybe all White Russians looked alike,

Huh, can you be racist against your own ethnic group?

and maybe there was more than one fur hat and coat like that in China, but something more than sight had given him his information.

Oh no, Hubbard characters are going to start knowing things for mysterious reasons again.

Varinka Savischna was here! He had seen her entering a shop.

So Reid saw her enter a building, but still thinks "something more than sight" let him know she was there.  Oy.  Also, can you... well, if I ask the question, that might... you know, let's just move on.

On the one hand, Reid hates to see that hot chick he met at a teahouse that one night in a Japanese-occupied town, but on the other he takes her presence as "an omen of good luck" (because only good things have happened since he met her), so maybe he'll be able to find this Takeki person after all.  It's "with springier stride" that he marches into a hotel and rents a room, and while Reid "briefly fondled the idea of getting out and away" ...right, technically Hubbard isn't using the word wrong, but he isn't choosing the best word to convey his intent, either.

Anyway, Reid's caressed hopes of escape are dashed when he sees one of his minders nonchalantly smoking by the hotel entrance, arousing no attention, blending in so well that we must ask why this Death Squad commando hasn't been given Reid's mission.  So our hero decides to get down to business and root out that Takeki spy fellow.

So when a hotel worker enters his room to fluff Reid's pillow, and mentions that he's a good guide, Reid asks "Where can I find this one known as Takeki?"

Now, before you groan and facepalm, understand that Reid told him before to "promise to forget the question immediately."  Not that he waited for the man to make this promise, but still.  And hey, his back-up plan is to make sure that Takeki comes to him, so attracting attention through blunt intelligence-gathering is a valid tactic in that regard.  And it's not like James Bond signed into hotels under a fake name, huh?  So there.

Well, the guy fluffing Reid's pillow turns out not to know the local super-spy, so Reid ends up stretching out on his bed to rest and wonder what Savischna is doing here.  Then there's a knock on the door.  "Without knowing quite why he did so" ...dammit, Hubbard... Reid glances out his window to find that yes, his Death Squad minder has disappeared, which is explained when Reid opens the door and is confronted with a Japanese officer and squad of men, who inform him that he's under arrest.


In the first chapter, Reid had just escaped from the ship's brig.  In the second chapter, he was led to a safehouse and locked inside of it, becoming more or less a prisoner.  Then he was arrested by the Chinese and spent the third chapter in a prison.  And here he is, captured again, dragged off to another prison.

I did mention there's only eight chapters in the book, right?  And while they're not all the same size, and we're not really halfway through the story yet, still - good grief.

For once the hotheaded, impulsive Reid doesn't fling himself into a losing battle, and is led out of his room by the Japanese.  At this point Yang bursts out of his room, musters up some tears, and plays Reid's sobbing friend, embracing him to whisper "Keep your mouth shut, fool.  Killing will be too good for you."  Then Yang's pushed away and Reid is led through town while children jeer and people whisper, and Reid can only stare at the ground and the feet marching alongside his, "unable to account for this sudden turn of events."

Unable to... okay, now you can facepalm.

So Reid's led into the Japanese headquarters and brought before a clerk with vertical "pig-bristle brush" hair and glasses so thick they "made him look like a submarine monster," and the guy from the hotel is there to confirm that this is the idiot who brazenly asked about a notorious spy.  Reid tries to present himself as a Mr. Smith, but it's a wasted effort and they already know who he is, so he insists that he has some information he needs to give Takeki in person.  The Japanese are nice enough to send Reid to a cell with word that if Takeki comes by, maybe Reid can pass along this information, and if not, shrug.

Well I say "cell," but its description puts it as something like an animal cage, and I guess it's outside?  That would explain what happens shortly.  Anyway, first Reid is angry, stomping around and kicking at the bars as if it's their fault he's a terrible spy, but then he mumbles to himself that he's been in "One jail after another" and he really "should have let them hang me the first time," which makes him grin and lifts his spirits enough so that he's able to stretch out and nap for six hours.  Huh.

But then he's awakened by "the slither of rope into the enclosure," sits up, rubs his eyes, but is instantly alert because he "had the feeling that something was wrong."  After hearing that rope.  And then when he sees the rope, that "long snakelike thing," he jumps in surprise.  After hearing that rope.

Also, despite spending some time pacing around his cell-enclosure, and after stretching out on a bench to take a nap, he just now notices that it doesn't have a proper roof, just bars bent inward at the top to prevent escape.  Which, combined with its probable location outside a secure building, enabled someone to climb into Reid's cell, draw a knife, and step toward Reid, who is able to tell somehow that the newcomer is Chinese.

"Captain Yang," said the guard in a low voice, "has passed the sentence upon you.  You have failed Lin Wang, you are no further use to him.  I am a member of the Death Squad."

Deep breaths... deep breaths... so.  The Death Squad can make it to a Japanese-occupied city and not attract attention.  They can sneak an assassin into a Japanese prison.  But they can't kill this Takeki spy without a dumbass American's help?

Groan.  Fight scene.  Not a Hubbard Action Sequence but close, most paragraphs are two sentences long, but not exclaimed.  Reid is shocked at first, but catches the Chinese's knife hand and grapples with him, getting blasted by his assailant's "garlic-reeking mouth."  He almost loses when the Chinese feints and slips out of his grasp, but Reid deflects the blow with his shoulder and takes the knife hit broadside, then leaps on and bears the assassin down.

On top of the Chinese, Kurt secured the dagger hand with his knee and then with both hands, Kurt raised the close-shaven head and slammed it back to the concrete. Once, twice, the third time the head did not bounce. The man's eyes rolled far up into his head. A sticky smear of blood stained the concrete black in the starlight.

Wow, that's fairly brutal for... whenever this was published, I'm actually not sure and Wikipedia doesn't seem to know.

Once Reid pulls himself together, he realizes that the rest of the Death Squad might be after him, and yells for the guards.  When they ask why there's a dead assassin in his pen, Reid insists that it's some "man who thought I had wronged him," and the Japanese guards nod their agreement, reasoning that someone would really have to hate Reid to break into this prison(?).

And so Reid's able to convince his captors to relocate him into the guard room, where he sits politely while the Japanese talk about him for a bit, remarking on his size, skin tone and probable thievery, since "all foreign devils were great thieves."  Reid is able to keep up a poker face until he asks for a glass of water in fluent Japanese, which makes the other men jump, and I guess it's humor.  Feels a bit weird coming a page after our hero bashed another man's brains out on the concrete, but whatever.

Conversationally, our hero asks why it's such a crime to ask about Takeki, and a scholarly-looking guard asks if that's why Reid's here.

"I merely wanted to see Takeki.  I had some information for him."

"For him?" said the soldiers all together.

The officer had said that.  Kurt thought it queer.  He decided not to talk about Takeki.

In a moment, in a moment.  The Japanese start to bond with their prisoner over how good a job he did breaking open that Chinese guy's skull, and give their side of the whole "invasion of another country" thing.  The Japanese say that they just wanted to leave their neighbors alone, even though the Chinese tried to invade them twice (wasn't that the Mongols?).  So after the Chinese tried to take away their country, now the Japanese "merely want to police theirs and wipe out some of their so-called warlords such as Lin Wang," and can't understand why the rest of the international community is so upset.

Reid surmises that everyone thinks the Japanese are trying to conquer China, and the Japanese conclude that it'd be good for someone to take over China and "make a nation of it and cut down this killing and made the people behave," so why not them?  Really, the world is just afraid of Japan growing stronger by absorbing China's manpower.  And Reid just doesn't give a penguin fart, he's apolitical and distracted by more pressing matters than international affairs.

Now, there's no mention of anything like the Rape of Nanking that might explain why people are upset with Japan's actions, and I think this helps to establish when exactly this story is taking place (because the author doesn't flat-out tell us).  Japan's in north China, around the Great Wall, which means they've formed an "autonomous province" in the region following the annexation of Manchuria in 1931.  So we're probably in early 1937, just before the invasion of China begins in earnest in June.

Anyway, someone opens a door and tells Reid that Takeki is ready to see him, and it turns out to be Varinka Savischna.  Hence why all the Japanese were reacting to Reid calling the spy "him," and avoided ascribing pronouns to this agent.  Looking back on the previous chapter, it looks like even Wang was careful with his pronouns, and never explicitly described Takeki as a male - he specifically asks for "its scalp" when using the hunting metaphor, not "his scalp."

So did Wang know that Takeki was a woman, particularly a conspicuous Russian woman?  And didn't bother to tell Reid this before sending him after her?  And still can't manage to kill her with his own agents?

Tune in next time as we continue to search for a character who is actually competent at their job.  Well, that's not fair, that Japanese informant who snitched on Reid did a bang-up job.  So there's a start.

Back to Chapter 3

Monday, March 7, 2016

Spy Killer - Chapter 3 - A Scaly, Wrinkly Wang

Fast forward to one month later, where we find our hero pacing in a dismal cell.  For the first week Reid grew increasingly worried, since nobody came to talk about why he was arrested, or even ask him any questions.  In week two someone slipped a note from Ms. Carsten through his cell window, explaining that she tried to bribe Lin Wang to release him, but he refused on the ground that Reid was "an enemy of China."  This confused Reid, since if Wang wanted to get rid of him, the easiest way to do it would be to hand him over to the Shanghai authorities, not stick him in a dungeon.
On the upside, Carsten did promise that if she ever sees him again, "our next meeting will be far better than the last."  So there's something for Reid to look forward to, a meeting with a pretty lady that doesn't end with him getting beaten and dragged off by the local Death Squad.

At any rate, when the cell door suddenly opens and guards come for our hero, Reid is more curious than afraid, and walks with his shaggy, unshaven head held high as he's led into a hut and tied to a chair against the wall.  He's given an hour to stew, and then Lin Wang makes his entrance.

Reid doesn't know a whole lot about Wang, other than that he's a celebrated general who shouts about freedom and leads the Death Squad to persecute any traitors.  And he also "called down ancient curses upon the head of invading Japan."  We might be up against a wizard, folks.  Or perhaps a warlock, because when Wang shows up...

One glance at the man sent a shudder of repulsion

Your mean revulsion.  Reid's tied to a chair, he can't be "repulsed" in any direction without tipping over.

through Kurt.  Lin Wang was small, hunched to one side, with a twisted back.  He did not seem to have any neck muscles; his head sat rigidly on his shoulders, pulled to one side.  His face was deeply pocked, covered with yellowish scales which might come from some leprosy.  Several great wrinkles lay like old scars against the cruel visage like ravines in a relief map.

I'm pretty sure it's illegal to use two similes on the same subject in a single sentence.  At the very least it goes against the spirit of wartime rationing.

The wrinkles were filled with ancient poisonous dirt.

All this to say, Lin Wang might be evil, guys.  Just a hunch... oh wait, there's more?  Wow.  I hope this guy is a major recurring character, because other members of the cast are lucky if they get a full paragraph to describe them.

Ling Wang's hands were held up from his body as though he could not drop them.

That's... yeah, it is kind of hard to drop one's hands, you're absolutely right.

The fingers dangled limply, fleshless and thin, clattering nervelessly when Lin Wang moved.

But the eyes were the worst.  They were not black, they were an unhealthy, mud blue color,

I've seen some mud in my time, and can associate more than the color brown with the stuff, but "mud blue" is a first for me.

like bichloride of mercury.

I'm going to give Hubbard the benefit of a doubt and assume that at the time he wrote this, such an allusion wouldn't require the reader to put down the book and do some research to figure out what the hell he's talking about.  So, mercury(II) chloride is a poisonous substance that was also, back in the Dumb Ages, used as a medicine.  Hubbard is trying to say that Wang's eyes are blue like this poison, to evoke some extra symbolism and further establish the character's evilness, except as best I can tell, the substance he's referencing is actually a white crystalline solid.  On the other hand, a lot of the images of this stuff I find suggest that it was sold in distinct blue bottles, so maybe that's the reference that Hubbard is trying to make.

The lids were half lowered over the protruding pupils.

Yeah, yeah, evil with a capital E and red font and little black spikes growing out of each letter, got it.

Wang, in a rattling voice, asks his prisoner to confirm that he is Kurt Reid, but our hero is too busy recoiling from the leper lizard before him to answer.  Wang admits that no one likes to look at him, but also says that "for all my looks, women sometimes smile," so there you go, no matter how much you look like a poisonous raisin, you're someone's type  Then Wang asks if this "bucko mate" would smile at a headsman's sword, pops three opium pills, and muses that "it might give me pleasure to spoil those handsome features of yours."

If Reid feels any fear from the threat of facial mutilation the book doesn't tell us, and he demands to know what Wang wants with him.  Wang reveals that he knows all about what happened on the Rangoon, the crime Reid is accused of, and also of Reid's parentage - his father was a renowned soldier who also spoke several dialects of Japanese and Chinese, and since all skills are hereditary I guess this is important.  When Reid confirms this, Wang has our friend Captain Yang bring in another prisoner.

The newcomer is Bonner, a small-headed but beefy fellow who served aboard the Rangoon with Reid.  He's surprised to see Reid and asks what Lin Wang wants with him, which as you might have noticed is a recurring theme in this prison hut.

Lin Wang smiled and the chasms in his face opened.  A thin scale dropped from his face and he picked it up from the desk, breaking it with his finger nails.

Crossing the line from "evil" to just "gross" now.

Lin Wang declares that he thinks it was Bonner who murdered the Rangoon's captain and robbed the ship's safe, and if the sailor can give a written confession to that effect, he'll get to live.  Bonner expresses his hopes that, upon his death, Wang will be denied the blessings of heaven and instead subjugated to the torments of perdition.  Wang asks Yang for some pliers.

Yang spread the man's hand flat against the arm of the seat.  Lin Wang's smile broadened.  The muddy blue eyes lighted up.  A desire for cruelty, heightened by the fact that he was a crossbreed between some unknown race and Chinese, made Lin Wang chuckle.

Well... okay, this is kind of positive.  Like, Hubbard isn't saying that Lin Wang's cruel streak comes from his Chinese heritage, it's because of miscegenation.  So the author doesn't have a problem with Chinese people so much as he does with the notion of Chinese people breeding with non-Chinese.  Like someone not having any problem with black people so long as they stay in their own dedicated neighborhoods and seating areas.

The pliers swept down with a click and fastened upon Bonner's index fingernail.  The pliers jerked back, blood spouted.  Lin Wang dropped the nail to the floor.

Bonner writhed and turned white, moaning through set lips.  Ling Wang ripped out another fingernail.  Bonner screamed.

Oh, and Reid is just sitting there watching "with wide open eyes," kinda like the audience at a Saw movie or Game of Thrones episode.

It takes a total of three removed fingernails for Bonner to break and agree to sign a confession, and he's given a pencil and paper to write what Wang dictates, admitting to killing Captain Randolph and stealing his loot to be sent to a certain shop on Nanking Road.  Guess Wang is hitting too birds here, implicating some other place he wants to move against.  When Bonner finishes, Wang draws a pistol from his desk, asks if his prisoner has any prayers to say, and shoots him twice.

What?  He lied.  He's evil, it's what he does.

So now Wang has a confession that would exonerate Reid, buuut he isn't handing it over just yet.

"What's your game?" demanded Kurt.

"Game?  That suggests hunting, doesn't it?  Then, Kurt Reid you are going hunting."

"You're insane!"

"Of course," said Lin Wang.  "I find it most pleasant.

Yeah, I'm with Reid.

The reason for all this, for hauling Reid into prison, for torturing Bon- oh, excuse me, using enhanced interrogation techniques upon Bonner, was all to put Reid in a situation where he has to do a mission for Wang. See, there's a Japanese spy called Takeki ("the Courageous," italics necessary) who is causing the Chinese a lot of trouble. If Reid can make it to the town of Kalgan up near the Great Wall, kill Takeki, and bring back his scalp as proof of the deed, Wang will give him Bonner's confession and Reid can go free.  And we all know Wang can be trusted, right?

As for why Reid in particular has to be the one to do this instead of any member of Wang's death squad... well, Wang explains that "My own men could not approach him at all, but you, as a white man, speaking their language, should be able to do it and escape."  Yes, this is not a job for someone trained in subterfuge and wetwork who could blend in with the local population, this is a job for a towering, conspicuous, hot-headed foreigner who happens to speak the language.  This is a job for... a white guy.

The kicker is that Yang and some other members of the Death Squad will be accompanying Reid to Zhangjiakou to make sure he stays on his mission.  So they can go that far, but aren't able to finish the job and kill Takeki themselves.  Good grief.

Wang reminds Reid that "something of the fate of China rests on your shoulders," Reid grumbles that "You went far enough around to put it there" before agreeing, and Yang rumbles that "I think we will have a very enjoyable trip, bucko mate."  End chapter.

At least this answers the question of why the story has its particular title.

Back to Chapter 2

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Spy Killer - Chapter 2 - Lose a Dame, Gain a Dame, Lose a Dame Again

So Shanghai, the famous trade hub of the Far East?  Kind of a dump.

Varinka Savischna took Kurt Reid through the back streets of Shanghai's native city to another garden.  They entered through a small door and walked across meandering paths, past pools where stone storks stood in one-legged sorrow.  Paper lanterns cast their gay reflection in the water and lit up well-tended beds of flowers.  This was a spot of beauty in a squalid settlement, as unexpected as a warm house in the Arctic circle.

Man, foreign cities are just wasted on the natives.  Good thing white people are available to go out and show the rest of the world how to properly clean and decorate a home, eh?

These two white people step into a well-furnished room, and Savsichna has Reid sit down until a mysterious "she" returns.  When Reid repeats the pronoun as a question, Savischna doesn't answer, but blabbers on about the American's hotheaded reputation, how he needs to stay hidden until he's needed or else "whack - off goes your head."  Reid doesn't like this evasive treatment and points out that he put his trust in her (well, blind obedience but same thing) so the least she can do is reciprocate.  Savischna replies that "my secrets are not my own," hinting that larger forces are at work and that she belongs to some sort of group.  She does try to reassure Reid that this isn't some Commie plot, and that she's a White Russian, but she still ends up leaving quite abruptly.  Savischna tells Reid to wait until "she" comes for him, gives him a sudden smooch on the mouth, and disappears.

That is to say, Savsichna goes out through a door.  But dramatically.  And mysteriously.  Reid, despite being told to wait, immediately tries to follow her, only to find the door locked, along with every other possible exit from the room - even the windows are barred.  And then Reid realizes a slight downside to following a complete stranger into an unknown situation after promising to do her dirty work.

Something like panic came over him.

So that'd be what, alarm?  Unease?  Dissatisfaction?  Indigestion?

He was a prisoner again, and although his captor was fair, and although he had no definite reasons for alarm, the late brig sentence had given him a taste for freedom he never again would forget.

Oh yeah, it's belatedly revealed that Reid spent some time in the Rangoon's brig before escaping into the river.  This is worth noting because, well, just wait a moment.

Reid berates himself for being taken in by some "Russki spy" so she can call the Chinese police down on him, pours himself a drink to steady his nerves, but decides he doesn't trust the decanter left in the room for him.  He concludes that Savischna's charisma was able to overwhelm his good sense, and after being used as this woman's toy, well, "He felt angry at that.  It didn't make him feel strong or masculine."  No fun being weak and feminine, huh?  Makes you wonder how women put up with it.

But then Reid reconsiders.  Maybe it isn't a trap, maybe this unexpected bit of espionage work is legit.  Because see, Reid wasn't just put in the brig, he was put there but was able to escape but his cell door just happened to open for him.  Something so extraordinary that you'd think it'd be worth mentioning earlier.  Also, it had been convenient for Reid to bump into that sampan last chapter, right?  So maybe someone's looking out for him after all.

He sat down in the chair again.  Grinned, recovering his sense of humor.  Here he was, and he didn't exactly mind after all.  Hadn't the girl kissed him?  Women didn't kiss you and then go find a guy who would cut off your head.

Or did they?

So what's the more likely scenario?  That Savischna and her nebulous organization pulled a lot of strings and arranged events so some impulsive beefcake would end up bumping into her at a teahouse and whimsically decide to become her troubleshooter?  Or that Savischna and her nebulous organization pulled a lot of strings and arranged events so some impulsive beefcake would end up bumping into her at a teahouse and whimsically decide to become her troubleshooter, allowing her to lead him to a somewhere to chop off his head?

You know what, let's put this riddle aside, a new character chooses this moment to enter the room, an aristocratic-looking woman with kind eyes and a satin gown.  It's Anne Carsten, the daughter of a powerful merchant, and she and Reid have history - they last met two years ago during some social event in Shanghai and ended up hitting it off so well that their romantic encounter trailed off into ellipses.  But they ultimately parted on bad terms, since Reid "didn't want to be known as Anne Carsten's husband.  I wanted to be Mr. Reid, not Mr. Carsten."  So he threw away a future as a "king of captains" to preserve his masculinity.

Is... is this whole "spy drama" story going to be Reid working out his issues with women and finding a healthy way to preserve his identity?

There's still a romantic spark between the two - Reid likes Carsten's eyes, Carsten thinks Reid's handsome and rugged - but Carsten is able to figure out he's already met Savischna since he unknowingly still has her lipstick smeared on his face.  And that really sets the tone for the next two pages, as Carsten drops some exposition while accusing Reid of having a thing for the Russian girl, and Reid tries to insist that she "doesn't mean anything to me."  I mean yes, he did jump headfirst into a world of subterfuge and secrecy after meeting her in a teahouse, and he did try to sign himself on as her lackey, but other than that there's nothing between them.

We learn a very little bit, that Carsten considers Savischna her friend even though the Russian is mysterious and likes to come and go at odd hours, and that her family's fortunes have taken a turn.  This last fact prompts the two to embrace for what I guess is a romantic moment that's enough to give Reid a "troubled stirring within him."  But before it goes anywhere somewhere tries to kick in the door and demands that they hand over the Russian woman.

It's our good friends the Death Squad, and even though Carsten protests that Savischna isn't here, a half-dozen towering Northern Chinese soon break into the room and find Reid even though he tries to hide in a... "clothes press?"  I'll go with "closet."  He tries to fight back-

Kurt, knowing that fighting was useless, nevertheless threw himself at them before they could set themselves.  He rolled one back and sent the other reeling.  He plunged out through the door and tried to get across the larger room.

-but it's not a real Hubbard Action Sequence, especially since the protagonist gets mobbed and taken down.  Carsten's only contribution is to scream just before someone clubs Reid's face in with an automatic, so they tie him up instead.  Their leader, a 350-pound mountain of muscle named Yang, already knows who Reid is, what he's accused of, and vows to take him to the Death Squad's leader, Lin Wang, who "sees over all and allows no evil to escape."  He's polite enough to apologize for disturbing Ms. Carsten, at least, before hauling our hero away.

Anne Carsten looked beseechingly at Yang, and finding no hope there, stared down at Kurt.  She touched his face lightly with her fingers.

"I... I hoped..." she whispered, "to see you... again."  She was crying now.  Kurt turned his face away.

The Death Squad carried their burden through the garden and through the wall, toward the headquarters of Lin Wang...

And that's chapter two.  There's only six more chapters in the story, so hopefully at some point we'll know more about what's going on beyond "Reid is wanted for a crime he didn't commit and may or may not be a pawn in some international spy game."  And maybe Reid will show more agency than being led or dragged from location to location.

On the other hand, the only times he's done stuff of his own volition it's gotten him in trouble, so maybe he'd work better on a leash.

Back to Chapter 1