Almanac Short Stories: Spymaster Tiger



John Green turns his hand to the short story genre:



So why does a so-called ‘spymaster’ go to the footy on his own?


It’s something I’ve done for years. I’m a Richmond member but have never taken out a reserved seat. I like to sit in different places at home games to ensure that I have my own space, even if I end up in the highest row of the Northern Stand. I never interact with other supporters. It’s not that I’m anti-social. Far from it. I just prefer it that way. I don’t cheer, clap or remonstrate with umpires. For all that, I enjoy the game immensely, whether the Tigers win or lose. I feel mentally refreshed. It’s therapeutic for me to concentrate on something other than my work responsibilities. If I’m home in Melbourne, I’m there every week. I suppose I’m one of the ‘innocent monsters’, in the immortal words of poet Bruce Dawe:


… hearts shrapnelled with rapture, they break surface and are forever lost, their minds rippling out like streamers in the pure flood of sound…


 It’s the opportunity for me to absorb myself in the spectacle and allow my mind to roam.


And sometimes the game provides moments of clarity for me.





The girl I eventually married dutifully attended matches with me when we were courting. It never worked. Try as I might, I just couldn’t communicate with her during the action on the field. She had no interest in the game itself and took to bringing Danielle Steel novels to the footy. After a while she accepted my strange solitary habit and stopped coming with me. I compromised by accompanying her to a plethora of weekend markets throughout Melbourne and in various country towns at all times of the year. Our arrangement worked well.


I told her before we married that I worked for the Federal Attorney-General’s Department. That I was just a boring public servant and that it was a much less pressured job than attempting to become a partner one day in a commercial law firm in the city. Yes, I occasionally had to travel interstate and overseas, but I was merely an assistant to the attorney-general herself or some high-ranking boffin within the department.


I think she believed me, despite the fact that she sometimes asked whether I had packed my shoe phone in my luggage.


In truth I was part of a small, top-secret ASIO cell involved in operations in the Pacific region. Why I was recruited at university by one of my tutors in the law school I will never know. I remained answerable only to her as I received my training at the old army base in Broadmeadows. I then became responsible for tutoring a small contingent of young agents in espionage, surveillance and clandestine operations.


Sometimes I was sent on my own to places like North Korea.





I seemed to live a charmed life whenever I found myself in the hermit kingdom. Recently I was in Pyongyang on my fifth group tour of Kim Jong-un’s North Korea under the guidance of our hosts, the Korea International Travel Company. For each visit I used slightly different passports with slightly different photographs, aided by the use of some minor prosthetics that were not too difficult to apply or remove. I had friends there; secret opponents of the regime. My regular guides were Mr Li and Hyang. Mr Li was harmless once he had drunk enough rice wine to declare his undying love for the Dear Leader and his countrymen before falling off his bar stool and being carried to his hotel room. Hyang was a girl in her early twenties from a privileged family. She was engaged to a middle-ranking officer in the military but was no friend of the Kim dynasty, placing both herself and her family at great risk by regularly assisting us. Our touring party was staying at the bland, cavernous and modern Koryo Hotel. It consisted of two wings of 42 storeys each with the North Korean distinctive of hosting virtually nobody, apart from one other tour group and a handful of Chinese businessmen. Over the previous ten days, we had visited the usual attractions such as the Juche Tower, Kim Il-Sung Square and the model cooperative farm outside Kaesong, near the Demilitarised Zone by the border with South Korea.


The tour groups always celebrate the end of their time together with karaoke on the last night. On my previous visit I butchered Elvis Presley’s The Wonder Of You. This time I acquitted myself quite well with Thin Lizzy’s The Boys Are Back In Town.  Mr Li drank too much rice wine and staggered to the lifts. We all joined him and ascended to the eighth floor. After a round of cheery goodnights I pretended to fumble through my pockets for my plastic entry card, allowing my fellow travellers to enter their rooms and close the doors. Hyung remained in the passage and gave me a barely perceptible nod before quietly stepping into her own room. The way was open. I paused for a few moments before walking to the fire escape door at the end of the passage. The door was unlocked. Down the stairs to the door on the ground floor, which was wedged open with a strip of cardboard. Down the dark, deserted streets and past the block of flats to the footpath along the Taedong River.


There are no neon lights in this showpiece city, and there are frequent blackouts as well. There she was, the old lady in the padded jacket, the ‘biscuit seller’ from the black market that can be found operating on most days under the Yanggak Bridge. As carefully as she could with her very limited English, she told me a certain date before disappearing into the gloom in the direction of the bridge.


That was it. Nothing glamorous about it. As long as I could get back to Australia my mission was accomplished.


There was nothing in the press about the launch of a new tactical guided weapon that was test-fired from the Hamhung region three days after I returned home. Only a brief report online from the South Korean media of a ‘failed launch’. But we had known when the test flight was going to occur.  The South Koreans certainly knew as well, but didn’t announce the reason as to why the rocket blew up on the launch pad. It was due to a computer malfunction activated by our hackers operating from a converted warehouse next to the railway line in Abbotsford. A job, I might add, that the South Koreans were happy to leave with us on the strength of our previous involvement with them.


I celebrated the victory with the members of my team with donuts and milkshakes. They toasted “the international man of mystery” and I lapped it up. Perhaps uncharitably, we laughed about the fate that would befall the launch technicians after the Dear Leader had witnessed the destruction of his precious hardware.


But something happened after that to deflate my confidence. This is what occupied my mind two days after I returned home from my next visit to the Democratic People’s Republic. As I walked through the carpet of autumn leaves in Yarra Park on a Saturday afternoon to see the Tigers take on Collingwood, I had some serious thinking to do.


The biscuit seller in Pyongyang had provided me with some other information. She told me that a North Korean associate, Chun Ki-Won, had been betrayed by a work colleague and been imprisoned in the notorious Camp 12, a hellish establishment in the Onsong region in the far north of the country. Chun worked in counter intelligence for the North Korean government and possessed a wealth of information which the west could use. Someone had to get him out before he either died or revealed his contacts under torture. I received the authorisation from my supervisor. This time I planned to make a clandestine entry into North Korea with the aid of our people on the Chinese side of the border.


There was another complication.


We have a training facility in the forested hills in a remote part of the Kinglake National Park where I regularly put my charges through their paces. Ewan, the eccentric I.T. graduate who helped organise the annual Begonia Festival in Ballarat every year with the help of his girlfriend. Jiwoo, the boisterous, larger-than-life prankster who was born in South Korea before migrating to Australia with his family as an infant. Gabriel, born in Hong Kong and part of a family that had been driven out of China during the Cultural Revolution and was therefore deeply anti-communist. Liam, the most athletic of the group and a proud product of the cadet system at his exclusive private school. A huge heavy metal fan and of Judas Priest in particular. Oscar, perhaps the least gifted of them all, but determined, disciplined and earnest in his desire to “take on the bad dudes”, as he called them, to make the world a safer place.


I had absolute trust in them.


As arrangements were made for my return to North Korea I was biding my time in the farmhouse by the national park boundary while the team members conducted individual night time GPS runs through the forest. They weren’t due back for several hours. I admit it. I was bored, free at the moment of administrative responsibilities and decided in a moment of self-indulgence to conduct some online research on my laptop into the junior career of Jayden Short at the Bundoora Football Club. I typed ‘short’ and ‘shortwave radio online tuner’ came up on the screen. People still used shortwave radio? It had been widely utilised in the twentieth century, but had essentially been replaced by the internet. A lot of countries had closed down their shortwave services altogether. And yet it was still used in some international broadcasting for independent news services and religious programs. Shortwave can relay communications over vast distances internationally, especially at night.


Intrigued, I downloaded the online tuner and listened in. Static at first and then the unmistakable sound of someone speaking Korean. I could tell that it wasn’t a native speaker. It was a voice that sounded somewhat familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. If there was a little bit of English, I may have been able to do so, but it was all in Korean. I knew that speaking in a foreign language causes voices to change in tone; a sort of ‘vocal fatigue’. The words were difficult to understand and there were a lot of numbers. I wrote down the odd words that I could discern, but they appeared quite random. And then, at what seemed to be the end of the transmission, “isang-gwa iha”. Korean for over and under. It wasn’t a familiar phrase and so what could it mean? Why would anyone say that?


I didn’t mention it to the team when they returned to the farmhouse later that night. Nor did I discuss it with them on the following day as we studied counter-terrorism protocols. But it was the same when they completed a second round of night time GPS runs that evening. The same obscure communication and the same parting phrase of “isang-gwa iha”, over and under.


Over I could understand. But under? Undercover? Why would anyone use an old-fashioned shortwave radio? I guess if I was up to no good I might use such a medium to avoid detection. After all, who listens to shortwave radio anymore and who bothers to monitor it?


I activated the scanner at home but couldn’t pick up any Korean. And then a distressing thought came to me. Were the signals coming from the forest? Had one of my boys concealed a shortwave radio to send secret messages? Each one of them, especially Jiwoo, knew enough Korean to get by.   Surely not.


In the meantime, it was imperative that my rescue mission proceed as quickly as possible. I made the decision not to take the matter of the shortwave broadcasts to my supervisor.


On this occasion I needed to make contact with a Korean I knew by the English name of ‘Fox’. The plan was to utilise GPS and meet him at a point in the pine forest a few kilometres from the fence line of the labour camp. Fox would have the newly liberated Chun with him and I would take him across the Yalu River to a waiting car on the Chinese side. Despite the fact that it was late in the northern hemisphere spring it was a bitterly cold afternoon and the forest had a dusting of snow. The plan had proceeded well and I was early for our rendezvous.


I sighted a group of men at the meeting place and observed, with a growing sense of panic, that Fox wasn’t amongst them and quite a few were in uniform. I wasn’t armed when I obviously should have been. Then I was spotted. I turned on my heels and ran back through the forest. There was a cry of “Stop!” and shouts in rapid Korean. Shots were fired and I heard the fizz of bullets and the phut of projectiles striking trees.


I don’t know how long I ran for. If I couldn’t fight, at least I could scurry away and I was fortunate indeed that the snow wasn’t deeper, making flight impossible or leaving a trail for my pursuers to follow. It took a few days of hiking through those barren hills before I made the attempt to cross the narrow river into China. I had no food at all and had survived on mouthfuls of gritty snow. Even though I was fairly confident that there were no border sentry posts or army patrols along this section of the river, I hid in the thickets by the bank for hours until nightfall. I waded across as soon as it was dark. No-one fired at me. Naturally, there was no car waiting for me and for Chun Ki-Won, my absent companion.


Exhausted, cold and wet, I continued on through the night past dimly-lit farm houses and empty fields to the outskirts of the frontier town of Shengli. It was nearly dawn. As a foreigner, who simply shouldn’t be there, I had to avoid the police and suspicious locals. With my beanie pulled down low and my scarf covering my mouth, I made my way to Madam Wang’s noodle restaurant on Shifu Road along the muddy streets that were beginning to fill with buses, trucks, bicycles and the odd private car.


Madam Wang’s establishment was already open. She was stirring her steaming pot behind the counter when she looked up with considerable surprise. I was a little worse for wear. She motioned me to the kitchen at the back of the restaurant. The other cooks gave me a quick glance before resuming their labours. I sat down by some sacks of flour on a pallet. I think I slept for a while before enduring an uncomfortable three-day trip lying low in the backseat of a battered old Hyundai all the way back to Beijing, where my misadventure had begun a week before.


I was convinced that the assailants in the forest had been waiting for me and that if I had approached them at the appointed time I would have been ambushed. Not killed, but captured, with all the horrors that would entail.


What had happened to Fox, and what would now become of the unfortunate Chun Ki-Won? The only people, apart from Fox, who knew the plan, as well as the GPS coordinates, were the members of my training squad.


It was while we drove past endless rice fields and electricity pylons that I remembered another Korean word I heard a number of times on the shortwave broadcasts. ”Youe”, meaning ‘fox’.


For this latest instalment of the century-plus rivalry between Richmond and Collingwood, I was seated high in the Shane Warne stand. Being a Richmond home game, most of the support was for the Tigers. Richmond were coming off a 109-point demolition of West Coast in Perth and the Woods were armed with wins over Essendon and Gold Coast from their last two outings. The football world revelled in the possibilities surrounding Dustin Martin’s return from his six-week period of personal leave. I sat in silence, immersed myself in the light, colour and sound and released my mind to explore, just as I always did when watching the football.


The game worked its beneficent effect on me. It was a tight first quarter. The emerging Magpies had based their game on Richmond’s blueprint though the influence of Craig McRae and Justin Leppitsch, both having served under Damien Hardwick at Punt Road. It was a strategy based on fierce tackling and pressure where they attempt to win the ball from turnovers and charge up the field with handball chains into a wide open forward zone. Prestia, Baker and Nankervis excelled for the Tigers. Crisp, De Goey and Pendlebury bolstered the Magpies. Tom Lynch was like a blonde buccaneer. He was leaping all over opponent Darcy Moore and threatening to tear the game apart.


The Tigers led by a goal at the first break and I stood to stretch my legs, calmly surveying the tribal colours displayed around the crowded stadium.


In the second quarter the Woods enjoyed a period of ascendency, but failed to capitalise. Then Maurice Rioli Junior went hunting. He energised the Tiger faithful with a lightning-quick combination of relentless pursuit, disabling take-downs and the sowing of panic in the ranks of the opposition defenders. He set up three goals for Tom Lynch, making it five in the first half for the Tiger spearhead as a sequel to the seven he kicked against the Eagles on the previous weekend. Shai from WA was boltin’ and dodgin’ past flat-footed opponents who were clueless as to what he was going to do next. The Tigers were starting to win the centre bounce clearances and they ramped up their attacks on the Collingwood ball carriers.


Against all my instincts, I was being swept along by a tidal surge of excitement. There was something exhilarating about getting on top of a fierce inner-city rival that had taken it right up to us in recent encounters.


Then Dusty! He marked the ball over a flailing Isaac Quaynor, ducked under the leading arm of Jeremy Howe and drilled it home with one of his brutally aggressive charges on goal. I couldn’t help myself. I leapt to my feet along with thousands of watchers who were just as deranged as I was.


“Dusteee!” I yelled. “Dusty’s back! Sing to me Dusty! Talk to me! Over and under, did you see that?”


I soon became aware that our hero had been pinged for a supposed in-the-back infringement to Quaynor and that a 50-metre penalty had been imposed when Dusty failed to hear the umpire and kicked his stunning goal. No matter. Dusty would strike again, as he did when Riewoldt located him in the teeth of goal in the third term with a perfect pass. He opened up the angle and slammed it home to the unbridled joy of the Tiger Army. He was mobbed by teammates like he was a youngster scoring his first major.


Dusty had his goal, the Tigers had the match in their keeping and I had my strategy for exposing the mole. Over and under. Let them talk to me.


As I shuffled along with the other satisfied barrackers down the ramp to the platform at Jolimont Station, I knew what I had to do. Dusty had spoken to me.




I informed my squad that we were going to conduct a radio communications exercise in an urban setting. I had purchased some Motorola Talkabout T800s for the purpose.


“Walkie talkies? That’s old school!” was the predictable response from a grinning Jiwoo, and the others laughed and nodded in agreement.


“Old school or not,” I replied, “Let’s give it a go. You never know what you might need to use when you’re in the field. Split up, walk through the streets for 20 minutes and then give me a call. I’ll be waiting here.”


Still chuckling, all five filed out of the room with their new Motorolas and descended the stairs.


Around a half an hour later, we had established communications. The Motorolas worked fine. I interrupted their banter and told them they could sign out and walk back to the warehouse.






“Over and under!”


“OK and out!”




I sighed deeply. So we’re really “the bad dudes”? I opened the bottom right-hand drawer of my desk and pulled out my Glock 19. I placed it in front of me and called my supervisor on speed dial.






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  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    This got me in almost instantly. Well played John. More please.

    I have a close relative who I reckon was in a similar game to the bloke depicted here.

  2. John Green says

    Thanks Swish. I’m glad you enjoyed the story.

  3. Rulebook says

    Fascinating read John / thank you

  4. John Green says

    Thanks Rulebook.

  5. A ripping yarn, John.

    Real Boys Own Annual stuff.

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