Marvin Hayes, now well into middle age, would not be playing basketball. As the guest of honor, his role was to sit beside Kim Jong-un in a reviewing stand at the front of the vast room.
Before sitting down, the two men exchanged a ceremonial handshake, and then a brief embrace. Marvin Hayes towered over Kim Jong-un. While the two men shook hands, they were flanked by four North Korean generals, all of whom beamed at the their leader.
Kim Jong Un looked harmless enough, as he smiled an embraced Marvin Hayes. Barry could not forget for an instant, however, that he was the head of the whole terrible North Korean state.
Barry remembered hearing that Kim had even ordered the assassination of his own half brother, Kim Jong-nam. Jong-nam, an international playboy who had fallen out of favor with the senior North Korean leadership, had been vacationing in Kuala Lumpur when two female assassins had sprayed him with VX nerve gas.
A wonderful man this Marvin Hayes has befriended, Barry thought.
For a movement he felt a twinge of resentment—outright anger—at the retired basketball player. He knew, however, that this was self-indulgent.
For better or for worse, he needed Marvin Hayes.
If he could get to him.
At length, the basketball exhibition began. Barry was surprised to see that the North Korean state actually maintained a troupe resembling a basketball team. From an entrance on the far side of the auditorium, a group of men dressed in blue and red basketball uniforms filed onto the hardwood.
The North Korean version of the Harlem Globetrotters, Barry thought.
There were about twenty of them, altogether. They were all tall, though none of them was quite as broad-shouldered and physically imposing at Sgt. Park.
They didn’t play a game of basketball. Much like the Harlem Globetrotters whom they seem to be imitating, the North Korean athletes engaged in acts of acrobatic dribbling, passing, and dunking the ball into the two basketball hoops at either end of the room.
Barry glanced over at Jung-Ho and noticed that he was distracted. Jung-Ho was staring intently at the screen of a smartphone. He was typing a text message.
Barry knew that some of the staff at the tour agency possessed cell phones. But this was the first time he had seen Jung-Ho with one of the devices.
I could stand up and walk out of here, Barry thought, and he wouldn’t even notice.
That might be true. Barry knew, however, that he wouldn’t get far, even if he managed to escape the walls of the sports complex—which was unlikely enough.
“Are you learning anything?” Jung-Ho said, without looking up from the screen of his phone.
“Yes,” Barry said, without hesitation.
“That’s progress, I suppose.” Jung-Ho still didn’t look up from his phone.
Barry looked up at the reviewing stand, where Marvin Hayes was still chatting with Kim Jong-un. Sort of. A young woman—obviously an interpreter—sat directly behind them.
But the conversation seemed to be proceeding smoothly enough. Both men were smiling and laughing, and Kim pointed proudly at the North Korean players. Hayes, for his part, nodded appreciatively.
It occurred to Barry that he had seen both men on television numerous times. He never would have imagined seeing either man in person—and certainly not under these circumstances.
Barry had a handwritten note in his pocket. He had scrawled the note with a pen and a scrap of paper he had pilfered from the tour agency. The note was another version of the message he had sent to his family.
To simply possess the note—to have written it—was to risk death.
The note might get him killed; and it might set him free.
This might turn out to be the most important night of his life.
At present, though, there was a major obstacle to the only plan he had.