The Consultant: Chapter 18

As Barry walked, he looked for non-Asians. 

It seemed vaguely racist to look for non-Asian or European people, but Barry knew that he had to play the odds a bit if he hoped to find anyone who might be able to talk to him. 

Everyone here seemed to be from somewhere in Asia. And none of them were speaking English. There were many conversations going on around him. All of them were incomprehensible.

His tray and cup of tea in hand, Barry proceeded out into the rows of long tables. 

Then he saw the thin, tall blonde woman. Like Barry, she was wearing the unisex gray of the Yang Suk Foreign Friends Camp. 

The blonde woman stood near one of the tables. She was engaged in a conversation with a short, squarish Korean woman. The Korean woman wore a white, full-body apron. She appeared to be one of the camp’s kitchen workers. 

As Barry drew closer, he caught bits of their conversation, and he got another surprise. The blonde woman was speaking to the Korean woman in Korean.

Barry was no linguist. While in Japan, however, he had met several Americans who spoke Japanese fluently, and many more who made bad attempts at speaking it. He was usually able to distinguish between the dabblers and the truly proficient. 

This blonde woman spoke fluently. Her speed, accent, and inflection sounded authentic. There was no awkwardness or diffidence in her use of the language. 

The kitchen worker walked away. The blonde woman sat back down at the nearby table. 

Seated across the table from her was an Asian man. He was about Barry’s age, give or take a few years. 

“Anyway—” the blonde woman began, in English now.

English, Barry thought. Bingo.

Barry saw that there was an open space next to the blonde woman on the bench. Barry was in no mood to stand on pretense. Not under these circumstances.

As Barry approached, the Asian man across the table noticed him first. The blonde woman saw her companion’s attention distracted, and looked up at Barry.

She appeared to be in her mid-thirties, give or take a few years. Barry noticed now that she was actually quite pretty.

No one had to tell him, of course, that noticing a pretty woman had landed him here in the first place.

That damn Mi-kyung, he thought. He wondered if he would ever see her again. 

But the blonde woman was different. She obviously wasn’t here to entrap him. On the contrary: There was something in her expression that was guarded. Emotional baggage, perhaps. 

But who wouldn’t have emotional baggage, living in a place like this against their will?

“Excuse me,” Barry said. “I’m new here, and I wondered if I might sit down.”

“Sure,” she said. Her English was definitely native, and American-accented.

Barry took a seat beside the woman. He was careful not to sit too close. 

The man across the table smiled at him. He was trying, at least, to make Barry feel welcome in what was an awkward situation for all three of them.

Barry knew that this was no time to play shy, so he introduced himself.

“I’m Barry Lawson.”

“Shoji Tanaka,” the Asian man said. 

“Hajimemashite, Tanaka-san.”

“Ah, you speak Japanese?”

Sukoshi dake. Only a little. They took me while I was in Japan. The North Koreans, I mean.”

“They took me in Japan, too.” Tanaka said.

“How long have you been here?” 

Tanaka sighed. “Too long. Five and a half years, to be exact.”

“I just got here. It already feels like too long.”

Barry turned to the blonde woman.

“And you are…?”

“Anne Henry.”

“You’re an American.”

“Yes. From Wisconsin.”

“Where did you learn Korean?”

“In Wisconsin. At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, to be specific.”

“How did you get here?”

“Same as you, probably,” she said. “I didn’t come here voluntarily. I was an English teacher in South Korea. They abducted me.”

“How long ago was that?”

“I’ve been in Korea for nine years,” Anne said. “Four years in the South. Five years here.”

“I’ve already been told that this is a place for foreigners who they put to work. What kind of work are you doing for them?”

“I teach English at a school in Pyongyang,” she said. “A school for the sons and daughters of the WPK.”

“WPK?” Barry asked.

“The Workers’ Party of Korea. That is technically the organization that runs the country. In reality, though, the country is a run by the Kim Dynasty. As you’re probably aware.”

Barry looked across the table to Tanaka. 

“I was a production manager at a Toyota plant in Hokkaido,” he explained. “In northern Japan. That was where they took me from.”

“And what do they have you doing here?”

“The same thing I did for Toyota,” Tanaka said. “I work at a Pyeonghwa Motors plant. One of the state-owned automobile plants. Only they call me a ‘production advisor’. I work alongside a Korean WPK official, of course, who is the official manager.”

Barry looked around at the big room, at the cafeteria tables. “There must be several hundred people here—at least. All of these people are abductees, I take it?”

“Yes,” Anne said. “This has been going on for years, for what it’s worth. The outside world knows about it. It’s no secret.”

“You’re kidding me.” Barry had certainly never heard of it.

Anne gestured to their surroundings. “Does any of this look like a joke?” 

“I’m just saying, I’d never heard about it.”

Anne ignored his attempt at conciliation. “In the nineteen seventies,” she said, “Kim Jong-il, who would become the ruler of the country in nineteen ninety-four, was focused on developing North Korea’s film industry. So he ordered the kidnapping of a famous South Korean actress and her husband, a director. The two of them escaped after years in captivity, in nineteen eighty-six.”

“They did escape, then,” Barry said thoughtfully.

He picked up his chopsticks, and plunged them into his pile of rice and stew. He didn’t want to know what the meat might be. 

He took a bite of the stew. Tanaka looked at him questioningly from the other side of the table. 

“It’s edible,” Barry said. And it was, if a trifle bland. “Anyway, about the movie director and the actress. You were saying…”

“Yes, the movie director and the actress escaped” Anne said. “But don’t let that get your hopes up. They escaped only after they had spent years cultivating the trust of Kim Jong-il. And they didn’t escape from here. They escaped while in Europe. Kim allowed them to go on a trip to Austria in connection with a film project. With guards and handlers, of course. But they managed to get away from the North Koreans. They sought, and were granted, refuge in the American embassy in Vienna.”

Barry had no intention of being here for years.

“How do we get out of here?” he said, getting right to the point.

Anne frowned at him. She looked across the table at Tanaka.

“Quit talking like that,” she said, in a low voice. “Don’t ever say anything like that again.”

“Why?” Barry said, matching her low tone. 

“Because things can get much, much worse. All of this that we have here—all this food. It’s luxurious by North Korean standards.”

“I’ve figured as much,” Barry said. “They want to keep us happy—or just happy enough—so that we don’t lose all incentive to work for them. But they hold the threat of terror over our heads.”

“It’s no mere idle threat,” Anne said. “If you step out of line, here, you end up against a wall.”

“I know,” Barry said. “I’ve seen one of their walls.”

He briefly told them both about his initial experience in North Korea, the killing line in the little muddy compound. 

He omitted the part about him breaking down, begging for his life.

“You do know, then,” Anne said. “These people are not to be trifled with.”

Chapter 19

Table of contents

The Consultant: Chapter 17

Once outside, Barry got his first good look at the Yang Suk Foreign Friends Camp. When they had brought him in, he had been far too disoriented to think about anything other than what was immediately in front of him. 

There were many buildings throughout the camp. From where he stood, it was impossible to tell what their functions might be, but Barry suspected that many of them were used for housing.

How many people do the North Koreans have imprisoned here? he wondered.

I may never find out. And do I even want to? 

Barry reminded himself that his only real goal was to get out of here.

The canteen was a former warehouse, or perhaps a small airplane hangar. It looked very old—pre-communist era. Perhaps this building, too, was another bit of architecture left over from Korea’s long-ago period of Japanese occupation.

The long, brown canteen building was in the middle of the compound; and like Jung-Ho had suggested, you couldn’t miss it. 

Barry wasn’t the only one heading to dinner. He saw some other inmates (foreign friends!) clad in the same gray uniforms. They were going inside the canteen, through the single front entrance.

I’d better fall into line, Barry thought. 

He tried not to think about where he was, about what he was doing.

One step at a time, he told himself.

Inside, the canteen was a vast, cavernous space, filled with the smells of food and mildew.

Just beyond the main entrance, Barry stepped into a crowd of his fellow inmates. There were mostly men—a few women. Barry guessed them to be Chinese, possibly Thai. They were speaking a tonal language. When he looked in their direction, they immediately looked away.

No help there. 

Barry could see the main dinner line. It was a setup similar to any institutional feeding center. Each inmate had a tray, and the food was dispensed by women behind a counter. 

In the center of the big room, there were tables, rapidly filling up with inmates. The tables were institutional, too: dark green, mounted into the floor with bolted or welded-on benches. 

Barry stepped into line, and picked up an empty metal tray from a nearby stack.

That was when he noticed the murals that decorated the considerable wall space of the canteen. The canteen was not only a dining area, it was also a miniature exhibition hall of North Korean art. 

Not just any random art. All of the murals had some political purpose. Most were hagiographic portraits of the three Kims. The painting directly above the food line conveyed an almost spiritual message. In the foreground, smiling Korean farmers and workers were joyously engaged in their labors. In the background, the two deceased Kims—Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung—stood silhouetted against a sunrise. 

On the other side of the room, a mural showed the chubby Kim Jong-un—the nation’s present ruler—surrounded by a group of happy, cherubic Korean children. 

But some of the portraits took direct aim at the United States. In the mural across the room, the figure of Uncle Sam, with green skin and vampire teeth, was attempting to throw an armful of nuclear missiles down on the Korean Peninsula. 

Another, more realistically painted—and particularly ghoulish—mural caught Barry’s attention. In this one, American soldiers wearing military uniforms of the Korean War era were using a pair of pliers to extract a tooth from a bound Korean female captive. 

The Americans obviously weren’t practicing dentistry. They were carrying out a bizarre and pointlessly creative form of torture. 

In a similar portrait directly beside it, an American solider was dangling a Korean infant over a well, while his comrades restrained the infant’s distraught mother.

Why? Because in the narrative of the North Korean regime, obviously, that was what Americans just did. This was the story of the Korean War that the regime told its people, and probably even itself.

Did anyone in this country have an objective grasp on reality? Doubtful. 

Barry took a step forward in line. The Asian-looking man directly in front of him seemed to be alone. 

Barry decided to attempt communication. Sooner or later, he would have to talk to someone here—other than Jung-Ho

“I’m Barry Lawson,” he said. “I just got here.”

The man looked embarrassed—or frightened—possibly both. He pointed to his mouth, and shook his head. The message was clear: No English. 

Then he turned away from Barry, so that Barry could not make another conversational gambit, neither in English, nor in any other language.

Finally his turn in the dinner line arrived. Following the lead of the inmates in front of him, Barry held up his tray to the nearest woman behind the counter. Without making eye contact with Barry, she took the tray and filled it with a scoop of rice, and a stew that contained a substance that resembled meat. 

The next woman in line gave him a cup of lukewarm tea.

The next woman gave him a pair of chopsticks.

Dinnertime in North Korea, he thought sourly. Bon appetit

His food (such as it was) now in hand, Barry stepped out of the line and faced the dining room. All of the tables were now filled with people—all of them wearing grey. 

I’ll have to sit somewhere, he thought. Whether my mealtime companions want my company or not. 

This was a bit like the first day of school: Where to sit in the cafeteria?

Chapter 18

Table of contents

The Consultant: Chapter 16

And it might every well come down to dying while trying. Barry had already made that decision.

But in the meantime, he supposed there was no point in denying himself what few pleasures the North Koreans did offer. 

And he had to eat, after all. 

As the six o’clock hour neared, Barry had to admit to himself that he was very hungry and very thirsty. The rice, vegetables, and water they had given him hadn’t been nearly enough. Barry had never been a glutton, but he had always been used to eating three meals per day. And now he was in a country where starvation was almost the norm.

Barry stood up from his cot. He had been trying to come up with a neat, perfectly arranged plan for getting out of here.

There were none. So he had might as well eat dinner, he figured.

He opened the door of his new quarters, and stepped out into the hallway. In many ways, the hall did resemble the hallway of a college dorm, if constructed along cruder, late Soviet Bloc lines. The floor was bare concrete, and there was only one small bulb to light the entire hallway. 

Barry closed the door of his room. He noticed that it didn’t lock. The North Koreans might have given him his own private quarters, but they certainly didn’t intend to give him a locking door by which he might shut them out.

It was all about appearances, wasn’t it?

Something else that seemed odd (even within the context of a situation that was completely odd): Barry was alone in in the hallway.

Barry had expected that now, right before the dinnertime rush, the hallway would be filled with other inmates. In North Korea, Barry figured, everyone would want to get a meal while the getting was good.

The hallway, however, was empty. When Barry had seen the rows of rooms, he had assumed that the building was filled with other foreigners.

Maybe that wasn’t the case.

He stood there for a few moments, waiting for some of the other doors to open.

They didn’t. 

Barry continued to stare at an empty hallway.

And so he headed for the stairs, and the canteen.

When Barry reached the bottom of the stairs, and turned right for the exit, he got another little surprise. 

Immediately to his left he saw Jung-Ho, sitting behind a desk. 

Both Jung-Ho and the desk were inside a small room. The room was not much larger than a storage closet; but it was big enough for the desk, a chair for visitors, and some bookshelves.

This was Jung-Ho’s office, apparently. 

The desk had a door, but Jung-Ho had left the door wide-open.

Maybe that was another reason why the North Koreans had chosen to house him here, in this building. 

The size of the camp suggested that there had to be other dorms. This building might be a facility where they placed new arrivals during their “transitional” period. 

He would be living right above the office of Jung-Ho, where his North Korean handler could keep an eye on him, apparently. 

We’ll see about that, Jung-Ho, Barry thought. Because all the while, I’m going to be keeping an eye on you, too.

Chapter 17

Table of contents

Amazon’s dominant publishing model won’t work for every writer

I have not read any of her novels, but I have long been a fan of Lindsay Buroker for her work as a commentator in the field of independent publishing. (I was sadly disappointed when she and her cohosts discontinued the Science Fiction & Fantasy Marketing Podcast earlier this year.)

In several episodes of the podcast, Buroker recounted her early discouragement with the literary choices that were incentivized by the traditional publishing industry in the 1990s and 2000s. Specifically, Buroker recalled how publishers’ submission guidelines were prejudiced against Tolkien-esque sword-and-sorcery fantasy fiction.

Buroker wasn’t making this up. I recall seeing similar guidelines myself in the 1980s. (I’m about a decade older than Lindsay Buroker, I think.) I recall one science fiction and fantasy publisher stating that it was probably a waste of time to submit sword-and-sorcery fantasy fiction over their transom. In the publisher’s words, “Extreme originality in this area will be required for consideration.” 

This demonstrates how little traditional publishers knew about the tastes of actual readers in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Since the advent of self-publishing as a viable option in roughly 2010, scores of indie writers have made respectable incomes publishing Tolkien-esque sword-and-sorcery novels. (Buroker, of course, is one of these writers, based on her catalogue.) 

While I’m sure that many of these books are well-written, with compelling plots and sympathetic characters, they don’t seem to manifest the “extreme originality” that the traditional publishers of pre-2010 were demanding. The tropes seem very similar from book to book, in fact. Nevertheless, readers are snapping them up. Based on what I’ve been able to discern, the indie sword-and-sorcery scene has become oversaturated in recent years. Clearly, though, traditional publishers were underestimating the demand in previous decades. 

History, as they say, repeats itself. Ten years into the “indie publishing revolution”, both the honeymoon and the gold rush are over. Amazon, still the overwhelmingly dominant player in the book retailing space, has changed the game to suit its larger business priorities. As a result, the heady euphoria of indie publishing, circa 2013 or 2014, is now a thing of the past.

Specifically, Amazon’s algorithms strongly favor fiction titles that are enrolled in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program. Since a “free” borrow counts as a sale in sales rank terms, a Kindle Unlimited title can theoretically reach the top of the Amazon charts without a single paid sale or a single page read. 

Kindle Unlimited requires authors to a.) make their titles exclusive to Amazon and b.) forgo sales in exchange for Spotify-style payments for unitary page reads. This can cut into writers’ bottom lines. It also makes them more dependent on the Amazon platform. 

Amazon has also learned that it can make more money charging low-selling authors for advertising than it can make from commissions on their book sales. In the past two years, Amazon has increasingly replaced “also-bought” sections of its website with paid advertising space. This accords with the company’s larger objective of vying with Google and Facebook for the multi-billion dollar, global online advertising market. 

The net result is that Amazon is now a pay-to-play venue. If you want your books to sell on Amazon, you are going to have to allocate a significant advertising budget. Everyone—from the most successful authors, to the lowest-ranking indies who sell a few copies per month—agrees on this. 

In a pay-to-play Amazon ecosystem based on progressive page reads in Kindle Unlimited, the formula for success is now more or less set in stone: Write a long series of books that appeals to the tastes of Kindle Unlimited readers (who are a relatively small subset of the Amazon customer base), and invest heavily in Amazon’s AMS (Amazon Marketing Services) platform. 

More than a few indies have cried foul: This is not what they signed up for! The “indie publishing revolution” was supposed to be about spontaneous, organic, and wholly democratic success, not fitting into the turnkey formula of a large corporation. 

The new Amazon paradigm has created winners and losers—just as the traditional publishing paradigm created winners and losers. 

It has also provoked a fierce debate: Is Amazon good or evil? Is the Amazon publishing paradigm now a rigged game? 

A decade ago, writers were divided between those who favored the traditional publishing paradigm (with its imperious “gatekeepers”), and those who embraced the new indie publishing “revolution”. Today, the division is between those writers who fully conform to the Amazon system, and those who sell “wide”—not just on Amazon, but also on AppleBooks, Google Play, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and elsewhere. 

Selling “wide” has benefits, but also costs. If you sell “wide”, you accept that your titles will face even more of an uphill fight within the Amazon site, because you won’t get the artificial sales-rank benefits of free Kindle Unlimited downloads. 

Though many writers may be introverts, they are seldom prone to suffering in silence. On various online writer forums, the comparative losers in the new Amazon paradigm have been venting of late.

Most recently, an author on KBoards produced a list of 40-odd complaints against the new Amazon paradigm, under the leading heading, “If Amazon is not our enemy..” 

 I read through the list of complaints. Almost all of them had at least some basis in reality—and there were a few accurate ones that had not yet occurred to me. For example, the author pointed out that, “Amazon gets tens of millions of visits a year (and likely many hundreds of thousands of sales and uncounted billions in revenue) that we pay for.” This refers to traffic that authors (and many other Amazon sellers) send to the store via paid advertising on Facebook and other platforms. 

The disgruntled author mentioned one issue in particular that has long bugged me:

“Indie authors have to write an entire series of full length novels to have any chance at profitability, which makes them unique among all authors throughout history.”

At present, indie authors are obsessed with writing in series. This has become a catechism in indie publishing, in fact: that one shouldn’t even bother to write standalone novels. The only way to succeed (thanks to the predominance of the Amazon Kindle Unlimited system) is to structure every story you write as part of a long series, preferably with the fantasy, science fiction, or romance tropes that Kindle Unlimited readers are known to prefer. 

I have nothing against series, or authors who write in them, mind you. But the series structure isn’t suited to the types of stories I tend to prefer (and prefer to write)—suspenseful tales about ordinary people in extraordinary situations. 

A monolithic preference for series, moreover, pretty much discounts the bodies of work of Stephen King, John Grisham, Ken Follett, Joyce Carol Oates, Frederick Forsyth, and many, many others. Imagine trying to structure Stephen King’s Carrie as part of a series, or John Grisham’s The Firm. A lot of great stories are self-contained, and require self-containment. Are those off the table now? 

No, of course they aren’t….Remember the old traditional publishers’ dismissal of sword-and-sorcery novels, which are now (more than a little ironically) thriving under the constraints of the new Amazon Kindle Unlimited paradigm. 

Here’s the lesson: Just as the traditional publishing model didn’t work for every author, the Amazon Kindle Unlimited model isn’t going to work for every author, either. 

Is there a conspiracy? The answer depends on what you call a conspiracy…how loose is your definition of that term. It is true to say that a.) Amazon wants to keep as much content as possible exclusive to its ecosystem, and b.) Amazon has decided to extract more money from sellers in the form of advertising fees. And it’s true to say that the best way to succeed in Kindle Unlimited is to write a ten-book series with science fiction or fantasy tropes. 

Maybe it’s a conspiracy, and maybe its just the way things have evolved.

For roughly twenty years, the Internet has given us all so much at-our-fingertips choice and customization, that we often forget how many constraints there were in the pre-Internet era. (Or if you’re under 35, you probably don’t even remember.) There have always been institutional constraints, and market forces that created winners and losers. The individual has always been charged with the task of deciding how to make those constraints and market forces work to his or her advantage. 

If you’re a creator nowadays, there are many online platforms that you can use. These include (but are not limited to): Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. 

They all have their quirks, and these need to be taken into account. For example, YouTube used to be a great forum for discussing controversial subject matter. Not so much anymore. Nowadays, a misinterpreted phrase or statement in a video can easily get  your channel demonetized or banned. It is what it is. I’ve responded by putting only vanilla content on YouTube. If I want to discuss anything controversial at all, I do it here, on my own website—where I make the rules regarding acceptable speech and subject matter. (Discussing politics on any social media platform is a losing game for now—especially if your political views don’t lean fashionably leftwing.)

Likewise, Facebook has recently changed its algorithms to reduce organic discovery for creators on the site. They want everyone to buy ads for visibility—just like Amazon does. I’ve responded by putting very little content on Facebook, and I write zero original content for Facebook.

And Twitter? I can’t see where Twitter offers me anything at all. I’ve deactivated my Twitter account. 

I still consider Amazon to be very much worth my time. But Amazon’s current policies incentivize a certain kind of writing, a very specific method of distribution, and heavy spending on the AMS ads. 

That doesn’t wholly match my writing style and commercial preferences. So I’m making plans to sell books at other retailers (in addition to Amazon). I’m also taking efforts to turn Edward Trimnell Books into a more effective marketing platform. 

There is nothing wrong (or whiny) about analyzing the impact of Amazon’s latest policies—which are subject to change at any moment, and without warning. No one who sells online can afford to ignore Amazon. That’s a fact.

But railing at Amazon because the retailer’s policies don’t conform to your own plans is futile. 

At the end of the day, every writer (and every other Amazon seller) has to look at Amazon’s offerings and ask: How does what Amazon offers work for me? And where the Amazon system doesn’t work for me, what else can I do?

Don’t be shocked if you are occasionally frustrated in this process. Amazon’s dominant publishing model is not going to work for every writer. We should never forget, though, that the pre-Amazon publishing models didn’t work for every writer, either

Where to find web fiction

Not just here, of course. 

There are numerous places on the Internet where you’ll find web fiction. (I’ll be discussing some of them shortly.) But the web fiction at Edward Trimnell Books is unique in two aspects: 

1.) It’s written in an Internet-friendly, serialized, pulp format, and

2.) The web fiction at Edward Trimnell Books is written with an adult readership in mind (very important). 

That’s the short explanation of what this site is all about.

Now, here’s the longer one…

Static site to web fiction site

In late March 2019 I carried out a major renovation on Edward Trimnell Books.

The site had been a run-of-the-mill, static author website.

You’ve seen those. “Here are my books!” “Check them out on Amazon!” “Buy now!”

Boring! Those websites are little more than online billboards. I was never happy with that. 

Also, I’m a blogger at heart. I love putting out regular doses of online content. 

But I mostly write fiction nowadays. 

So I decided to combine fiction with blogging. I converted Edward Trimnell Books to a serial web fiction site. 

Since then, I’ve been serializing novels, short stories, nonfiction books, and essays here. 

But this whole web fiction thing is much bigger than just me, and what I do. There’s a history behind it…

Web fiction and pre-World War II serial fiction

Web fiction may be less than 20 years old, but it’s cousin, serial fiction, has a much longer track record. Many of the novels that we now regard as classics were originally delivered in serial format. These include:

The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins)

The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas) 

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriett Beecher Stowe)

Madame Bovary (Gustave Flaubert)

The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens)

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne)

The War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells)

Middlemarch (George Eliot)

The Jungle (Upton Sinclair)

Tender is the Night (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)

A Farewell to Arms (Ernest Hemingway)

David Copperfield (Charles Dickens)

Why were so many of these novels—published between the Victorian Age and World War II—serialized first? 

The reasons can be traced to the economics of the publishing industry.

The cheap, mass-market paperback is a relatively new innovation. Paperback books technically existed in the early 20th century. But they didn’t become common until the 1950s. 

Prior to World War II, if a book was published as a single volume (regardless of when it was originally published) it almost always appeared in hardcover.

Then, as now, hardcover books were expensive. In the 19th century (when Dickens was publishing), only a small segment of society could afford them. The market for hardcover, bound books was therefore very limited.

But ordinary wage-earners could afford newspapers and periodicals, which were cheaper to print, and did not have expensive bindings. Publishers therefore adopted the custom of serializing novels in weekly or monthly publications. 

In some cases, the writers owned the periodicals. Many of Charles Dickens’s novels were first published—in serialized format—in his magazine All the Year Round. (I suppose it would therefore be correct to say that Dickens was a self-publisher…Imagine that.)

By 1960 or so, paperback books were common; and modern printing and binding techniques enabled publishers to manufacture and distribute hardcover books more economically. 

The serialized novel therefore died out.

Magazines still serialize novels on occasion. But the practice is mostly a novelty nowadays. (No pun intended.)

Web fiction = serial fiction

But the Internet changed what is possible in publishing yet again. Online fiction, or web fiction, offers the opportunity to deliver long stories (novels) in a serialized format. 

Just like Dickens did it.

But not exactly like Dickens did it. 

Serial installments in magazines typically consisted of four or five thousand words (or more) at a time. 

That’s a lot of words on a web page. Too many, really. The serial format that was appropriate for magazine publishing in 1850 or 1920 isn’t suited to the Internet. 

Web fiction written for the Internet, to be read on a laptop screen (or, more commonly, on smart phones and tablets) should be presented in a more concise format.  This means writing in bite-sized, self-contained chunks of about 800~2000 words. 

A story chapter as a blog post, in other words.

On Edward Trimnell Books, I am serializing some early novels of mine that were originally written in traditional, longer chapters. But I’m writing all the new stuff with short, snappy chapters that can be read while waiting in line at the bank. 

Now, as in Dickens’s time, the format must fit the delivery system. 

Web fiction and the short story

Another thing at changed during the twentieth century: the status of the short story. Print magazines stopped running short stories. Writers stopped writing them, and readers stopped looking for them.

Today many writers disdain short fiction. This is because every writer is dreaming of seeing her paperback or hardcover novel on the shelf at Walmart. 

The opposite used to be true. While he was alive, F. Scott Fitzgerald made most of his money selling short fiction to magazines. His novels were his long-shot “passion projects”.

You might remember reading Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”, “Winter Dreams” or “The Ice Palace” in your high school English class. (I certainly read them; my junior English lit teacher was a Fitzgerald fanatic.) Fitzgerald wrote these short stories for weekly publications like The Saturday Evening Post. The weeklies needed a constant infusion of new material. Once a writer was included among a magazine’s stable of trusted writers, the writer could produce a predictable, steady income stream by churning out short stories for the publication.

In the 1920s (when Fitzgerald wrote most of his “Jazz Age” stories), a novel was a far more speculative undertaking—both for writers and for publishers. 

This is why Fitzgerald wrote so many short stories. He wasn’t thinking about future generations of high school students. Fitzgerald was thinking about paying his bills. 

Another writer who made his mark in the early 20th-century magazine market was H.P. Lovecraft, author of the Cthulhu mythos. Lovecraft, needless to say, didn’t publish much in The Saturday Evening Post. Instead, he published stories in niche magazines like Weird Tales

It is no wonder that Lovecraft’s entire oeuvre consists of short fiction. Lovecraft never wrote much of anything that could be considered a novel, by current standards. His few long pieces that technically meet the minimal novel word count (like At the Mountains of Madness) are better described as novellas—short novels.

(Oh—and Lovecraft had a hard time finding a home for At the Mountains of Madness, because the periodical publishers felt that it was too long. Weird Tales rejected the story in 1931. This 40,000-word horror tale was eventually serialized in Astounding Stories in 1936.

But the magazine-based market for short fiction changed, too. Most of the general-audience magazines (like The Saturday Evening Post) that published fiction either folded or went into severe decline by 1970. Much had changed. Fiction now had to compete with electronic forms of entertainment…notably television.

A vibrant, paying market for genre fiction persisted for a few more years. The horror stories in Stephen King’s first short story collection, Night Shift, were ones that he sold to men’s magazines during the early 1970s. 

By the turn of the new century, though, short fiction had become a boutique undertaking. In many cases (literary short fiction, especially) short fiction outlets were supported solely by authors and aspiring authors.

That isn’t exactly a formula for success…Imagine if HBO’s Game of Thrones were only patronized by people in the film industry. George R.R. Martin would be working at McDonald’s today in order to make ends meet. 

But the fact remains: For about fifty years, the publishing industry has mostly pushed novels (with the exception of the occasional Stephen King short story collection, of course). And so novels are what most readers are looking for. 

And herein lies an irony. (The publishing industry produces many of them.) In 1931, H.P. Lovecraft had trouble selling At the Mountains of Madness because the  story was too long. Today, a traditional publisher would consider it far too short!

Enter web fiction, and online publishing. 

The Internet is the perfect venue for short stories, too. I’ve long been a fan of the short fiction of Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and others. I’ve only recently gotten serious about writing it, though, because short fiction collections are difficult to market (even in the Amazon Kindle format). 

But a short story of 3,000 to 8,000 words, broken up into multiple, easily digestible sections, is perfect for the Internet…Once again, going with the rule of “chapter as blog post”.

How is this site different from Wattpad, Web Fiction Guide, etc?

I don’t mean to suggest, by any of the above paragraphs, that I’ve invented the concept of the web novel, or the online short story collection.

When you Google “web fiction” at present, you’re likely to come up with two results: Wattpad (which everyone knows about), and Web Fiction Guide (which slightly fewer people know about).

These sites are great. The people who run them seem quite well-intentioned. The sites also attract some very dedicated readers and writers. 


Check out the stories on Wattpad sometime. Almost all of them are written for a 13- to 18-year old audience. 

Web Fiction Guide is a little different, but it is similarly slanted. Go to the front page of the site, and you’ll see that the front listings are dominated by Harry Potter-, and Hunger Games-esque stories about teens performing magic, teens with superpowers, teens piloting spaceships, etc. 

Other web fiction guides on the Internet that I’ve found are similarly slanted toward YA romance and/or YA fantasy/superhero/scifi mashups.

And just so we’re clear: There’s nothing wrong with any of that!


It naturally appeals to a very limited readership, in a very specific age range.

Teenage readers are welcome here, of course, but adult readers are my primary focus. 

I write suspense, thriller, and supernatural fiction for mature readers. Before I started seriously writing fiction (about ten years ago), these were my favorite authors:

Stephen King

John Grisham

Ken Follett

Frederick Forsyth

Michael Connelly

Joseph Finder

Clive Cussler

Lee Child

Peter Straub

James Patterson

David Baldacci

Vince Flynn

Brad Thor

Elmore Leonard

Robert Crais

W.E.B. Griffin

Harlan Coben

Daniel Silva

Jeffrey Deaver

Notice that you don’t see J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, or Suzanne Collins in the above list? That’s why you won’t find any Harry Potter, Twilight, or Hunger Games knock-offs on Edward Trimnell Books

What you will find here are fast-moving suspense tales written for adults. 

For example, Blood Flats, my first novel, is a story about an ex-marine and Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran who is framed for a drug-related double homicide.

The Eavesdropper is the story of a corporate employee who learns, by eavesdropping on a conversation, that three of his coworkers are planning a murder. One of these coworkers is his boss. 

I don’t mind horror (Eleven Miles of Night), and I’m not opposed to youthful characters per se. (12 Hours of Halloween, Eleven Miles of Night, and Revolutionary Ghosts are all supernatural tales with protagonists under the age of twenty-four.) But I don’t do the tropes, tone, and style that you find in young adult and juvenile-oriented fiction nowadays…much of which strikes me as rather silly. 

No sexy vampires. No pseudo-anime stuff. No LitRPG. 

And no Harry Potter rip-offs.

Not here. 

Web fiction and the bottom line

Some of you will no doubt wonder: What about the bottom line? Everything should have a profit center, right?

Edward Trimnell Books operates on the freemium model. Everything posted online is free for you to read and enjoy here on the site. No questions asked. 

Not everyone is going to want to read a complete story online, though. For those readers, the stories will also be available in ebook, paperback and audiobook.

I also believe that where publishing is concerned, free to the reader need not mean unpaid to the author. I unapologetically run ads on this site. If done correctly and within reasonable limits, advertising and affiliate links (Amazon, etc.) represent a perfectly legitimate way of subsidizing an online publishing venture.

There is nothing wrong with advertising. It’s been a key component of publishing economics since time immemorial. 

What about the P-word? Patreon.

Another online fiction site, Strange Horizons, uses Patreon. (The site solicits donations through other channels, too.) Strange Horizons has actually acquired tax-exempt status as a charitable organization. In exchange, according to the verbiage on their website, they remain free of “advertisers or corporate interests”. 

That’s their thing, and they’re free to do it. In my humble opinion, however, an online fiction site is not even remotely comparable to cancer research, or feeding children in Africa. (By the same logic, any small business would qualify as a charitable organization.)

Edward Trimnell Books is a business, not a literary panhandling scheme. I don’t mind exposing readers to a few “advertisers or corporate interests”. CBS does that every time I watch Hawaii Five-0 or Magnum P.I.

If you see a book or audiobook (or something else on sale here), that you want, then your purchase is greatly appreciated.

If you want to spread the word about this site, that would be even more appreciated!

Want to send money to a charity, though? Send it to cancer research or to hungry children in Africa. Don’t send it to me, or to any other writer.

Disclaimer: I understand that my position on Patreon (and other forms of donation-solicitation) goes against the grain of what many creative types are doing on the Internet nowadays. 

It’s just my opinion. And opinions are like noses: Everybody has one.

Web novels, web short stories, and more…

Anyway, such is the philosophy of Edward Trimnell Books and the web fiction presented on this site. 

To round out the offerings here, I’ll also be publishing some editorials and serial nonfiction; but the heart of his site will always be, “pulp fiction…hot off the keyboard!”…just like the tagline says. 

The Consultant: Chapter 15

“I think you’ve had excitement enough for today,” Jung-Ho said. “Let’s get on to more mundane matters.”

There was the slightest smirk on Jung-Ho’s face. Although Barry did not appear to be under any direct threat for the moment, today he had awakened in a prison cell in the worst country on earth. He had been beaten, threatened with death, and forced to witness the executions of innocent people. 

Surely this little pipsqueak doesn’t think that what I’ve gone through today is funny, Barry wondered. 

“What mundane matters?” Barry asked.

“I’m talking about your living accommodations, of course. Follow me.”

Jung-Ho stood, and exited the little meeting room. Barry followed, Sgt. Park glaring at him the whole time. They made two right turns, and came to a corridor that had a long row of closed wooden doors on both sides. 

There were numbers on the doors.

These are like, apartments, Barry thought. Or dorm rooms.

Jung-Ho walked down to the approximate middle of the hall. He indicated the door to his right.

“This is yours Barry. Room number two-two-six.”

Barry followed Jung-Ho. (There was nothing else for him to do, after all.) He stood in the hallway, Sgt. Park scowling, as Jung-Ho turned the doorknob and pushed the door open. 

“Have a look,” Jung-Ho said, walking in ahead of Barry. 

Barry did. The room was lit by the gray North Korean sunlight, coming in through one uncovered window. The room looked like the North Koreans’ best attempt at reproducing an American college dorm room. 

The room was much smaller than the master bedroom of Barry’s condo in Schaumburg, Illinois. But it was about the same size as the bedroom he had made due with as a kid, in his parents’ home in their Chicago neighborhood of Franklin Park. 

There was a bed—a cot, really—in one corner. It was covered with several blankets, with a small, thin pillow at the top. 

There was no bureau or chest of drawers. But there were three built-in shelves on one wall. The shelves had been loaded with what looked like about a week’s worth of clothes, all copies of the drab clothing he had been given in the prison, after the forced washing. At the near end of the middle shelf Barry could see toiletries: a toothbrush and soap, and a men’s shaving kit. 

Jung-Ho walked across the room, and opened a door that Barry had only just now noticed. A bathroom.

“You will have your own lavatory and shower, too, Barry. The commode and the sink both work. The water may not be hot enough for your liking, but it’s not ice-cold, either, most of the time.”

Jung-Ho walked over to the room’s only window. 

“From here you have a view of much of the camp. On a good day, you can see all the way to the Taedong River.”

“My vacation in North Korea,” Barry said.

“I think you will find, Barry, that your life will go much better here if you try to make the best of things. I know this isn’t what you had planned. But you are here now, you are not leaving, and your only real option is to work with us. In return, you will be treated fairly, and given an opportunity to contribute to the development of the DPRK.”

“What choice do I have?” Barry said.

But of course, Jung-Ho ignored the question.

“There is an older woman who will take care of your laundry once per week, and do some light cleaning. Her name is Ha-yoon. She does not speak any English, but you should have little need to talk to her.”

“I’m sure that will be the least of my problems.”

“You will eat your meals in the canteen. To get there, you exit this building the way we came in, and take a right. The canteen is the big building in the center of the adjacent compound. You can’t miss it.”

Jung-Ho pointed to the clock, an old mechanical type, above the door.

“Dinner is served between six o’clock and six-thirty. Would you like me to come back at dinnertime to show you the way?” 

“I think I can find it,” Barry said. He had had enough of Jung-Ho’s company for one day. “Like you said, I can’t miss it.”

“Very well. You are permitted to move more or less freely within the main area of the camp that has been allocated for our foreign friends. There are only a few rules and restrictions. You are to stay away from the fences, and you are not permitted to enter the dorm room of another foreign guest.”

In other words, Barry realized, they don’t want anyone here trying to escape, or gathering privately to plot an escape plan.

“I think I can abide by those rules,” Barry said. 

“All right. You don’t have to worry about alarm clocks here. Everyone is awakened by loudspeaker at five a.m. A light breakfast is served in the canteen between five-thirty and six. At six-thirty tomorrow morning I will be here to pick you up, and take you to your first day of work at the DPRK Tour Agency.”

Jung-Ho left him after that, and he mercifully took Sgt. Park with him. 

Barry sat on his cot and assessed his surroundings. 

It was all pretty spartan, by North American, Western European, or Japanese standards. But it was livable. Barry had never been in the U.S. Army; but he imagined that these conditions were not far removed from what a new enlistee might encounter in boot camp. Probably no worse. 

These accommodations, moreover, were no doubt better than what the average citizen of this country had. Jung-Ho had been truthful about that much.

They wanted to keep him cowed, but they were also perceptive enough to realize that a native of the U.S.—of any normal country, really—would only do so much under conditions of constant abject terror and extreme privation. At a certain point, an American or a Japanese would simply break down and stop functioning. 

They wanted him to perform at a high level. So they would provide him with conditions of relative comfort. At the same time, they made clear that any sign of defiance on his part would be met with immediate, brutal retribution on their part. 

The carrot and the stick. 

The carrot was a combination of food and housing that most North Koreans would kill for. 

And the stick?

Well, that was obvious, wasn’t it? They had shown him the stick back in the courtyard of that repurposed Japanese prison. 

And someday, they would be done with him. Then he would meet the same fate as those prisoners on the firing line. 

They would put a bullet in his head, and bury him in a pit somewhere. Or toss his corpse in an incinerator. Barry knew that North Korea was a desperately poor country that had virtually no conventional economy. But the one thing the country made in abundance was corpses. 

Barry thought about his plans to eat lunch with Tessa and Ryan this Saturday. It was safe to say that given his current circumstances, that lunch date wasn’t going to happen.

What would his family think when they realized that he hadn’t returned from Japan? Because he had screwed up his marriage, he had already been a far from ideal father for Ryan and Tessa. 

And now this.

I want to kill them, Barry thought, picturing Jung-Ho’s smug smirks, and Sgt. Park’s boorish grimaces. 

I’m going to escape from here, he silently assured himself. I don’t know how yet. But I’m going to get out of here. If I have to die trying.

Chapter 16

Table of contents

The Consultant: Chapter 14

Barry sat there, looking at Jung-Ho incredulously. 

“Why?” he asked. “You don’t even have a market economy here. Everything in North Korea is done on a command-and-control basis. Like the USSR or China used to be, about thirty or forty years ago. What could you people possibly want with a marketing consultant? You don’t even do any marketing.”

“You are partially right,” Jung-Ho said, with a tone that approximated patience. “Internally, our country is free of the wasteful competition that characterizes capitalist economies. But the rest of the world is not as developed or enlightened as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. We are therefore forced to deal with the outside world on its own terms. This imposes hardships on our people. Most of all, we suffer from a lack of hard currency.”

“But you have nothing to sell,” Barry said, sounding harsh—and not caring. “You don’t even make enough food and goods for your own people. And you think you’re going to somehow compete in the international marketplace? With what? That shoddy SUV we rode here in?”  

“That,” Jung-Ho said, “is still in the future. We are aware of our present limitations. As I said, our country has been set back by the aggressions of the American imperialists and their running dog lackeys.”

Barry grunted impatiently. He was sick of this game. He felt a sudden urge to lunge across the table, and strangle Jung-Ho with his bare hands. 

And then Sgt. Park would shoot him. No—for now, at least, he had to keep this man talking—had to figure out what they wanted from him.

“I still don’t understand what you want from me, Jung-Ho. Please go on.”

“We cannot yet sell cars and computers and refrigerators on the international market,” Jung-Ho said. “But even the Americans have not taken our beautiful country away from us. One of the sectors that the Supreme Leader is most interested in developing is tourism. And that, Barry Lawson, is why you are here. You are going to create a plan for marketing the DPRK as the world’s premier tourist destination!”

Despite the already overwhelming nature of the present circumstances, Barry found himself, well…flabbergasted. 

Was this guy kidding? Barry wondered. In the back of his mind, he dared to hope that all of this might be some grand practical joke, perhaps staged by Nagase and Sato, or some of his buddies back home in Chicago. 

But he knew with certainty that this was all deadly real. The firing line in the courtyard had proven that.

Nevertheless, this man’s entire argument struck Barry as pure fantasy. 

“Jung-Ho,” Barry said, as gently as he could. That will never work. Your country is an international pariah—an outcast. Americans can’t even come here.”

Jung-Ho made a short, bitter laugh in reply. “You Americans always assume that your country is the center of the world. Many people from many different countries visit the DPRK every year. We want more foreign visitors. And we understand that in order to achieve this, we must learn how to market our country abroad. This is where you come in, Barry Lawson.”

“Even I can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear,” Barry said.

The idiom apparently went over Jung-Ho’s head. He gave Barry a puzzled look. 

“That might be difficult, Jung-Ho,” Barry said. “That’s what I’m saying.” Then he added: “Even if I was inclined to help you.”

Jung-Ho shook his head. “Not so difficult. Our country has an abundance of natural resources. On the border between China and the DPRK is a crater lake called Heaven Lake. It is one of the most beautiful places in the world, Barry. Have you ever heard of it?”

“No,” Barry admitted. “I haven’t.” Barry knew nothing of the geography of North Korea—save that it was north of South Korea, and that the capital city was Pyongyang. 

“You haven’t heard of it because we haven’t yet succeeded in telling the people of the world about all that we have to share: Not just our natural treasures, but also the glorious national buildings and monuments that have been constructed under the leadership of our Eternal Leader, our Great Leader, and our Supreme Leader.”

Barry shook his head. They had kidnapped him from Japan—for this?

Barry knew better than to protest further. In his mind, he was already playing the long game. These people wanted something from him. For the time being, that was keeping him alive. 

“In exchange for your cooperation,” Jung-Ho said, “you will live a comfortable life here. Much better than almost all of the North Korea population.”

I was living just fine before I came here, Barry thought, but did not say. He knew that little could be gained by appealing to standards of civilized behavior. Those had no currency in North Korea. 

“There are other foreigners here,” Jung-Ho continued. His tone suggested that he really did want to sell this whole idea to Barry. “You will be able to mix freely with them at certain times. There are rules here, but this is not a prison camp.  This is a camp for foreign friends of the DPRK, who are here voluntarily.”

“‘Voluntarily’?” Barry said. “And if I walked out the front gate?”

“You cannot walk out the front gate,” Jung-Ho said. “As you saw when we entered, it is locked, and there is a guard there—for your safety.”

“Suppose I find a way.”

“In that case, Barry, you would be subject to punishment. As I said, there are rules here.”

Chapter 15

Table of contents

The Consultant: Chapter 13

Finally they reached the top of the stairs. They walked Barry down a concrete hallway. Jung-Ho told Barry to turn left into an open doorway. He did.

The room looked much like a meeting room in Japan. There was a window with translucent glass that admitted light, but the window did not permit any real view of the outside. 

There were no pictures on the wall, save one small portrait of Kim Jong-un, the current dictator of the country.

There was a small table with four chairs. Jung-Ho gestured for Barry to sit. Jung-Ho sat across the table from him. 

Sgt. Park remained standing in the doorway. The big man looked anxious to administer another beating. 

“You don’t like Sgt. Park very much, do you?” Jung-Ho asked.

“I don’t like any of you,” Barry said honestly. “You’ve kidnapped me and brought me here unlawfully. I’m cooperating only under duress. But to answer your question: No, I don’t care for men who beat me with clubs. Would you?”

Jung-Ho ignored all of the questions in what Barry had just said—both implied and explicit. Instead, he posed another question. 

“Are you familiar with Panmunjom?” Jung-Ho asked.

“No,” Barry said. “I must have missed that section of the tour book.”

Once again, Jung-Ho let the sarcasm pass.

“Panmunjom is located on the DMZ. The Demilitarized Zone, the so-called JSA, Joint Security Area, or Truce Village. Surely you’ve seen photos of it.”

“I suppose so,” Barry allowed. He had, indeed, seen photos of the Truce Village at the DMZ. It was a narrow conglomeration of buildings, where small numbers of lightly armed soldiers from North Korea stood only yards apart from soldiers of South Korea and the United States. 

Barry also knew that this was a remnant from the still unsettled Korean conflict. It was here that the two technically-still-at-war sides carried out negotiations—as they had been since the early 1950s. 

“Park was stationed at Panmunjom for a number of years,” Jung-Ho went on. “We always send our largest men there. So do the American imperialists and their lackeys in the South. I believe the rule for the American side is that soldiers have to be at least six feet tall. We try to match the same standards. But while it isn’t hard to find a six-feet tall American, it is much more difficult here. As you probably know, foreign aggression and trade embargoes have made food scarce, and lowered nutritional standards. That means that people in the DPRK are shorter, as a rule. Sergeant Park, therefore, was a natural choice for an assignment at Panmunjom. But he’s been here at the Yang-Suk Foreign Friends Camp for two years.”

Barry was struck by the surreal nature of all this. Less than an hour ago, he had been in the horrible courtyard, moments away from execution. Now Jung-Ho was having a civil, if ideologically tainted, conversation with him. As if he really was a foreign friend. 

This is all staged, Barry reminded himself.

Barry heard the sound of someone pushing a wheeled cart in the hallway outside. Sgt. Park stepped aside. An older woman, wearing plain civilian dress, entered with a cart bearing a plate full of rice, and what looked like pickled vegetables. There was also a glass pitcher full of water, and a drinking glass. 

Barry’s stomach growled at the sight of the food. He suddenly wanted the water very badly, too.

“You must be hungry,” Jung-Ho said. “And thirsty.”

Barry knew that he was both famished and dehydrated. He wanted to tell Jung-Ho to go to hell, and to take his food and water with him. He wanted to refuse even this modest nourishment from the North Korean regime. The acceptance of food was another form of cooperation, however subtle. 

He knew, though, that he was dramatically weakened, and that a hunger strike wasn’t going to get him out of here. North Korea wasn’t the kind of place where hunger strikes were effective. The regime had already imposed an involuntary hunger strike on most of the country. 

The woman placed the food and water before Barry, along with a pair of chopsticks. 

The water was cloudy—not completely clear. It also appeared to be room temperature. No ice cubes, of course. But if the water didn’t kill him or give him dysentery, it would quench the aching thirst that now tormented him—a thirst that he had mostly ignored until now, having been shocked and awed by so much else. 

Barry took a closer look at the items before him. The food was rice and pickled vegetables, just as he had thought. Plain, with perhaps a minimal dash of spice. A far cry from the fare served at the Ichiryu Hotel Restaurant. 

“Can you use chopsticks?” Jung-Ho asked. “If not—”

“Chopsticks are fine,” Barry said, picking up the two wooden sticks. He positioned them in his right hand, which was suddenly shaking. 

Jung-Ho said something to the woman. She left with her cart.

“Don’t eat too fast,” Jung-Ho told Barry. “Or you’ll be sick. You haven’t eaten since your dinner in Osaka.”

“How much time has passed since I was in Osaka?” Barry asked.

“About forty-eight hours.”

Forty-eight hours. He had missed his flight, of course. By now, Tessa and Ryan were probably wondering about him. Nagase and Sato were anxiously looking for those emails he’d promised.

Barry knew that right now he needed to get this food and water inside him. 

He ate and drank, barely tasting any of it. All the while, he tried to figure a way out of this mess.

He couldn’t think of any—not yet, at least. 

“How is the food?” Jung-Ho asked. 

“The food is fine,” Barry said.

“Would you like anything else? We don’t have much—but I could order some tea for you, if you’d like.”

Now it was Barry’s turn to selectively ignore what was said. He was tired of this game. He swallowed the last bite of rice, and drank the last of the water in his glass. Then he spoke. 

“I want some answers,” he said. “I want to know why I’m here, what you people want from me, and when I’m going home.”

At first Jung-Ho said nothing, so Barry rephrased and qualified the question. 

“What do you people want from me? I have some money, but it’s all back in the United States. And it isn’t very much money—at least it wouldn’t be much to a national government—not even yours. You people probably spent more money getting me here than I could possibly give you. I suppose you could pressure the American government for some concessions in return for my release, but the current American administration isn’t exactly known for its love of compromise.”

“I already told you, Barry, we don’t want money from you. Nor do we want to use you as a…bargaining chip.”

“I’m confused then,” Barry said. “Very confused.”

“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is surrounded by enemies. There are many nations on  earth that want to see our downfall. Nevertheless, our Supreme Leader works tirelessly for our peaceful development.”

Barry was tempted to interrupt and contradict. He knew, however, that the North Koreans took their national propaganda as a kind of catechism. They were worse than religious fanatics. 

Let him get to the point, Barry thought. He will eventually.

“Our country therefore liberates the labor of certain foreigners with specialized skills,” Jung-Ho said, “to use for a higher purpose.”

Now Barry sensed a connection to his presence here—sort of. 

“You mean that you kidnap foreigners and force them to work for your government?”

“We don’t kidnap them, Barry. We liberate them. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is the most perfect, most wonderful nation on earth. For seventy years, we have been blessed to receive the guidance of the Kims. Kim Il-sung, our Eternal Leader, Kim Jong-il, our Great Leader, and Kim Jung-un, our present, Supreme Leader.”

“All fine and good,” Barry said. “But what could you people possibly want from me? I’m not a nuclear physicist or a germ warfare biologist. I have no knowledge of high-precision machine tools. I’ve never been in the military. Hell, I wasn’t even in the Boy Scouts.”

“We didn’t liberate you to work on our weapons systems, Barry. You’re here because of your work as a marketing consultant.”

“You’re kidding me.” Barry said.

“Oh, I assure you, Barry: This is no joke. That much, at least, we should be able to agree on.”

Chapter 14

Table of contents

The Consultant: Chapter 12

Sgt. Park took charge of him from there. To Barry’s minor relief, they did not go back the way they had come. Barry was spared another glimpse of that horrific courtyard—the execution ground. 

Sgt. Park jostled him down a series of hallways. They came to another door. There was another guard there who let them pass.

Then they were out in the harsh gray daylight of North Korea again. Beneath his feet was hard-packed earth and gravel. In the distance rose a craggy mountain covered with coniferous Asian trees. Barry knew that the trees were alternately called Japanese pines in Japan, and Korean pines in Korea. 

Immediately in front of him, a black SUV was idling, a uniformed guard behind the wheel. Barry didn’t recognize the brand of the SUV. The engine was running; but something didn’t sound quite right about it. There was a metallic clattering that wouldn’t have been present in a car made by Toyota, General Motors—or any vehicle manufactured and sold in the West. 

Did they make motor vehicles in North Korea? He had no idea.

Sgt. Park opened the back passenger side door.

“Get in,” Jung-Ho said, matter-of-factly.

He hadn’t noticed Jung-Ho until now. Jung-Ho was standing there, finishing up a cigarette. He had been waiting here, apparently, while Sgt. Park and the other guard were giving Barry the cold water treatment. 

“Where are we going?”

“Just get into the vehicle,” Jung-Ho said. “I’ll explain along the way. There is nothing to worry about. If we were going to simply kill you, we would have done so by now.”

There was a certain logic to that. Barry had no idea where they might be taking him in the SUV. He was willing to bet that their destination would be no worse than this prison, though. 

He got in, and Sgt. Kim squeezed in beside him. The big man had a pungent odor in the space of the back seat. Jung-Ho ground out his cigarette and slipped into the front seat beside the driver.

They passed through a high gate, rolled open by guards toting AK-47s. Barry wondered about the other prisoners in the courtyard. Probably all of them were dead by now.

As that horrible place receded in the distance, Barry risked a look back. The building complex behind them was large and blocky. It looked very old.

Jung-Ho saw him looking, and said. “That place we’ve just left: It’s a state correctional facility.”

“Really?” Barry fired back. “It seemed more like a death camp to me.”

Jung-Ho ignored Barry’s comment. “Originally it was a prison built by the Japanese. They occupied our country for thirty-five years, from nineteen-ten to nineteen forty-five. Did you know that?”

“Yes.” Barry was vaguely aware of Korea’s history of Japanese colonization, and how the country had been divided at the end of World War II, into a Soviet-influenced zone in the North, and an American-influenced zone in the South. He knew that North Korea had invaded South Korea in 1950, prompting the intervention of United Nations forces on South Korea’s behalf. 

Communist China later sent troops to fight for the North. The Soviet Union sent the North pilots and material aid. 

After a bloody, three-year conflict, the war ended with a stalemate and an armistice, which paused active hostilities. But no peace treaty was ever signed. North and South Korea were still technically at war.

“That is mostly what the Japanese left behind,” Jung-Ho said. “Prisons.”

They were out on a two-lane highway now, and Barry got his first real look at North Korea. The country was barren. Barry had read somewhere that much of the Korean Peninsula had been effectively defoliated by the Korean War. But that had been nearly seventy years ago. 

Barry also recalled news reports about the North Korean famine of more recent years. South Korea was a prosperous country where few people went hungry. But here, in North Korea, where the regime mismanaged what it did not expropriate, there was never enough food. Barry vaguely remembered hearing that ordinary North Koreans sometimes stripped the bark off trees, scouring the landscape for anything that might provide a few extra calories. 

As the SUV carried them down the two-lane highway, Barry noted that there were no other vehicles on the road. 

Another thing about North Korea, he supposed: Few people here owned cars.

About twenty minutes later, they rounded another bend, and entered a flat plain. In the distance to one side, Barry could make out a large river. 

“That is the Taedong River,” Jung-Ho said. “It runs through the capital city of Pyongyang.”

This is like a guided tour through hell, Barry thought. 

Shortly after that, they came upon another facility that might have been a prison, might have been something else. The SUV began to slow down. 

This must be their destination.

This facility did not look quite as ominous as the repurposed Japanese prison from which they had just come. It was, however, far from welcoming. The entire place was surrounded by a high chain-link fence, topped with coiled concertina wire. Inside the fence barrier, Barry could make out numerous buildings. Most of them appeared to be no more than two stories in height. 

As the SUV approached the main gate, Barry could also see guard towers placed at regular intervals. In the tower closest to the road, a uniformed North Korean guard stood watching them. He had an AK-47 slung over one shoulder.

“What—what is this place?” Barry asked.

“This is the Yang-suk Foreign Friends Camp,” Jung-Ho said. 

“A ‘friends camp’,” Barry repeated. In this country words had no connection to reality. North Korea was the most oppressive dictatorship on earth, and yet the country was called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. A barbed wire facility with armed guards was a “foreign friends camp”.

But why were they taking him here?

Beside the main entrance, there was a North Korean flag atop a flagpole. As if Barry needed to dispel any lingering doubts that he really was in North Korea. 

There was an armed guard at ground-level, manning the gate. When the SUV approached the gate, recognition registered on the guard’s face. Jung-Ho and Sgt. Park were well known here, obviously.

The gate slid open, and the SUV rolled inside. Jung-Ho turned around and looked at Barry.

“This,” Jung-Ho said, “is your new home.”

The SUV carried them to a concrete slab building not far inside the camp. The building looked like something out of East Germany or the former Soviet Union: drab, gray, and blocklike, without style or ornamentation. 

The driver brought the vehicle to a halt. Jung-Ho and Sgt. Park exited the vehicle. Barry got out when Sgt. Park grunted at him and made an imperious hand gesture. 

Following Jung-Ho’s instructions, while ever-aware of Sgt. Park’s presence, Barry passed through a doorway. There was a flight of stairs immediately to their left. 

Sgt. Park hustled him up the stairs, poking him with the tip of his truncheon all the way. Jung-Ho followed behind. The stairwell was dimly lit and filled with the smells of dust and mildew. 

Barry was going up the stairs as fast as he could. But Park kept jabbing him from behind.

Barry whirled and faced the big Korean. Then he spoke to Jung-Ho.

“Tell that big bastard that I’m doing what you want. I’m cooperating. So he can quick poking me with that club of his, already.”

In another second, Barry thought, this big bastard is going to thrash me. 

Jung-Ho looked at Barry, then at Sgt. Park. He seemed to be weighing a decision. Finally, Jung-Ho spoke to Park in Korean. Park snarled at Barry, but he put the truncheon back on his belt. 

“I admire your courage, Barry,” Jung-Ho said. “But if I had not been here to intervene, Sergeant Park would have beaten you senseless—possibly even to death. This is not America, where ordinary people can challenge public officials. Now, please continue up the stairs.”

Barry continued to climb the stairs without further comment. 

Barry understood that what was going on here was a kind of good-cop, bad-cop routine. They were brutalizing him, but in measured doses, with some ultimate objective in mind.

Clearly, they had not kidnapped him in Osaka and brought him here just to kill him, or even just to “beat him senseless”—to use Jung-Ho’s words.

They had some purpose in mind.

The question was: What was that purpose?

Chapter 13

Table of contents

The Consultant: Chapter 11

Sgt. Park and the young guard grabbed Barry by the arms.

“Wait! Where are you taking me?”

He turned and saw Jung-Ho disappear through the doorway to the prison facility. Although he despised the younger man with the glasses, Barry was acutely aware that Jung-Ho was the only human being here whom he could communicate with. Without Jung-Ho, he was both deaf and speechless in this horrible place.

There were shouts from Sgt. Park and the young guard. Hard shoves. Barry allowed himself to be shoved back into the doorway of the prison facility. 

They pushed him roughly along. His hands were still bound, and he nearly tripped. He felt like a pinball, tossed between the two men. 

He heard another shot from the courtyard. Another life snuffed out.

“Where are we going?” Barry said. He stopped abruptly, planting his feet on the concrete floor. 

There was no answer; and there could not have been. Neither Sgt. Park nor the young guard spoke English. How could he have forgotten so quickly?

Sgt. Park paused and laid a hand on his truncheon. Another beating was only seconds away.

“All right, all right!” Barry said. “I’ll go!”

They rounded a corner. Then there was another short hallway, another turn. Barry was shoved into a big room. He noticed drains on the floor.

The young guard shoved him into the center of the room. He produced a little utility knife, and cut the plastic tie that bound Barry’s hands. 

Then the guard walked back to the wide, open doorway of the room. He pantomimed disrobing. The instructions were obvious: Barry was to undress. 

Barry started to protest. Sgt. Park reached for the truncheon on his belt again. 

“Okay!” Barry shouted. He began to undress. As he did, he became aware once again of his body odor. It wasn’t just the usual stench of going without a shower for an extended period. Nor was it merely the smell of the rancid mud that he had picked up from the courtyard.

It was also the smell of fear. In his forty-seven years, Barry had experienced mild bouts of anxiety and low-grade depression, like almost everyone. Before his business took off, he had worried over finances. 

But never before had he had to fear for his life. What he was experiencing right now was mortal fear; and it was coming out of his pores. 

Once again, he loathed himself. He had been in North Korea for only a matter of hours, and already they had turned him into a Pavlovian response machine. All they had to do was threaten him with physical violence, and he did whatever they wanted.

We wonder why people living in tyrannical regimes don’t rebel, he thought. Now I know why. 

Barry stood there, naked. They wanted him to bathe in here, obviously. Barry looked around for shower nozzles. He couldn’t see any.

Outside the room, the young guard stepped out of view. Barry heard something clattering around. Sgt. Park watched him, the big man’s stern expression never wavering. 

Barry saw the young Korean guard reappear with a firehose in hand.

Barry had seen the old newsreel footage of policemen in Alabama using firehoses against civil rights protesters during the 1950s and 1960s. It was said that water from a high-pressure hose could knock a grown man to his feet, could peel the skin off an adult’s body. 

“No!” Barry said, having realized what was coming.

The guard pointed the nozzle of the hose at Barry, and reached for the nozzle’s little metal release value.

There was a rumbling in the hose. Then a fast whooshing and gurgling sound. 

Suddenly he was aware of nothing but water, as the blast of liquid filled his eyes, his mouth, his nostrils. The water was ice-cold, and it carried the force of an NFL linebacker.

Barry fell to the floor, his feet taken out from under him. He had no control over the water. The young guard was aiming it at him. Barry alternatively tried to cover his eyes and genitals—his most vulnerable parts. It was no use. The force of the water pushed him into one corner of the room.

The young guard had stepped into the room now. With Barry balled-up in the corner, he continued to direct the freezing water from the high-pressure hose. Barry was aware that he was screaming. The water was both cold, and delivered at a pressure that was never intended to be used on the human body.

Barry caught a glimpse of the young guard’s face.

He was smiling. This was a rare diversion in his otherwise monotonous day.

Finally it was done. The guard shut off the release value, and walked out with the hose. 

Barry lay on his back, shivering. He was technically clean now, but his skin was bright red, and stinging all over.

He heard Sgt. Park shout something. Barry looked up: Park had drawn his truncheon. He was using it to gesture for Barry to get up.

Barry saw his clothes in the opposite corner of the room. His clothes had been top-tier business attire only hours ago. Now his garments were wet and muddy, a ruined mess.

“What am I supposed to do for clothing?” Barry said. 

The answer came a few seconds later, when the young guard returned with an armful of clothing, including what looked like a pair of shoes. 

The guard dropped the clothes near the entrance to the little room. 

He and Sgt. Park both shouted at Barry. They wanted him to hurry up and get dressed.

As was now the established pattern, Barry had no practical option but to obey. And besides, he felt vulnerable in his nakedness. 

With a supreme effort, he stood. Then he walked over, and picked up the items they had brought for him.

They had given him a pair of underwear that was stiff and oddly made—but at least it appeared to be clean. The socks were similarly clean but shoddily manufactured. They had correctly guessed his shoe size (men’s 12, more or less). He was able to get his feet into both shoes. The shoes were far from comfortable, though. 

The uniform was a bit like the tunic and trousers that Jung-Ho was wearing—only not nearly as nice. 

As he was buttoning up the front of his blue-grey tunic, he thought: I look like one of them now.

Chapter 12

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