A month had passed since Dragon’s departure from China. He’d taken a train across China into Europe, then switched to a car driven by one of his colleagues. They were always accompanied by at least two security agents. He wished they could just fly to their destination, but the risk was too great. They knew the Americans had uncovered some data about their mission, so it was better to just slowly make their way across the world and hide their trail.
They eventually reached Spain, where they boarded a Chinese merchant vessel. After enduring a stormy voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, Dragon now stood in the city of Freeport, Bahamas, only 65 miles off the coast of Florida.
The processing station in Freeport was owned and operated by the Chinese government, so Dragon merely flashed his ID badge as he passed through customs, and no one asked him about the briefcase handcuffed to his wrist. He was now clear to enter the United States without further inspection.
He was happy to be on dry land again, and he enjoyed a large lunch with a colleague who gave him an update on the status of the assignment, including the location in the United States where he would meet three other team members.
Within an hour he was aboard a large yacht that had been awaiting his arrival. By nightfall he set foot in Miami, Florida, where a bulletproof Chevy Tahoe whisked him to the West Palm Beach Marriott Hotel, where the others would meet him the next morning.
Once he was checked into his room under an assumed name, Dragon finally unlocked the handcuff that had chained him to the briefcase ever since he left Beijing. He had become so accustomed to it that he actually felt troubled not having it attached to him, but he slipped it under the bed and said quietly, “Just one more day and this burden won’t be mine alone.”
The next morning Dragon checked his watch. His partners were scheduled to arrive separately between 8 a.m. and 8:15 a.m. He was excited to see them again. Ten months earlier they had rehearsed this part of the plan—minus his deadly cargo. Last year’s practice run had gone smoothly, but now the pressure was on.
Dragon didn’t even know the actual names of the others—only their nicknames. This helped protect them if one of them happened to be captured. Even if they were tortured in an effort to extract information, they didn’t have enough details about each other to derail the overall mission.
There was a long, unique knock on the door, and Dragon went to answer it. Through the eyehole he saw a clean-cut red-headed man.
“What’s the capital of Florida?” Dragon asked loudly through the door.
Dragon nodded to himself. The answer itself was wrong, but the password—the man’s nickname—was right. He unlocked the door and let the man enter. Within five minutes a Hispanic man known as Wind entered, and finally an African-American woman called Rain joined them.
“Dragon, it’s good to see you again,” Rain said. “You’ve got the cargo with you, right?”
“Yes, the scientists have made great improvements on the toxin’s mixture, and we should have great success.”
Dragon pulled the briefcase out from under the bed, then placed it on the room’s small table. As he popped it open and revealed the four containers, the others watched silently.
“They don’t look too threatening,” Wind said. “I can’t imagine anyone stopping us to inspect them.”
“I agree,” Dragon said, “but just in case, I went down the street to the 7-Eleven store and got Big Gulp cups—along with lids and straws—that we can hide them in.”
“Good idea,” Fire said.
After handing each partner a cup, Dragon carefully lifted each thermos container and placed it in a cup. Then he stuck the straw through the lid, ran it alongside the container and fastened the lid down on each one. The four partners paused and looked at each other, trying to fathom what their actions were going to unleash.
“I guess this is good-bye,” Rain said.
Dragon nodded. “Our vehicles are waiting in the parking lot. Everything you need is in the trunk of your car, including plenty of cash for gas. I wish you success, so we can all enjoy the fruits of our mission.”
The man known as Fire cleared his throat. “Speaking of that, you’re sure the payment will be in my account at the end of the mission?”
“Yes,” Dragon told him. “Once you fulfill your assignment, you’ll each be financially set for the rest of your lives.”
“Sounds good to me,” Rain said. “Let’s get the show on the road.”
They carried their Big Gulp cups through the hotel lobby toward a row of Mazda sedans. Rain was heading north to New York City, while Wind had the most challenging assignment. He was on his way to Los Angeles to infiltrate the hospitals in the earthquake recovery zone and add to the troubles that were piling up in southern California.
Fire was also traveling to California, heading to San Francisco, but he’d be traveling along a different route as a security precaution.
Dragon waved as each of them pulled out of the parking lot and disappeared into traffic. Then he turned to signal his colleague who had been keeping watch on the cars. The others hadn’t even noticed him.
“We’re on our way,” Dragon said as the man approached. “Please go retrieve the empty briefcase from the room and check me out of the hotel.”
“Yes, sir,” the man said. “Drive safely.”
Dragon climbed into the Mazda, put the Big Gulp cup in the car’s beverage holder, then exited the parking lot onto the road. Just as it had been strange to not have the briefcase handcuffed to his wrist, it was also peculiar to not have a bodyguard with him. This was the final stage now. Success or failure rested completely on the four partners.
Dragon sighed, feeling the weight of the assignment. It would be a long drive, but soon enough he would reach his destination—Salt Lake City, the so-called “Crossroads of the West.”