Cassandra Conspiracy – Chapter 1, Part 1
The chauffeur‑driven Cadillac limousine slowed almost to a stop outside the tall, black wrought-iron gate. A complex steel framework, hidden underground, firmly secured three motorized retractable steel pylons in such a manner that anyone attempting to ram their way through the gate in anything short of a tractor trailer would never make it. After terrorists ran the security gauntlet at the Beirut Marine barracks in a truck laden with explosives, security became an issue in the nation’s capital. To protect against such an attack, large concrete “planters” stood along the entrances to key government installations. The White House Complex was no exception.
Originally, the Secret Service’s Technical Security Division’s plan for enhanced security had excluded vehicle barriers. But right after the new intrusion detection system went operational, a borderline paranoid schizophrenic, cloaked in a dynamite‑laden vest, crashed through the gates. Luckily, then‑President Ford was not there at the time of the incident. Not faced with an imminent threat to the life of the President, the Secret Service brought in skilled hostage negotiators. As a result, the would‑be assassin lived. He was subsequently arrested and given a lengthy vacation at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Washington’s leading mental institution. Nonetheless, the need for sophisticated vehicle barriers had become apparent.
As the Cadillac drew to a stop, two members of the United States Secret Service’s Uniformed Division approached the car. The vehicle and its occupants had reached the first of two concentric circles protecting the President of the United States. The most visible are the men and women of the Uniformed Division; the plainclothes agents who surround the President make up the second, inner circle.
“Sir, may I see your pass?” the officer requested politely. Looking beyond the driver and into the rear seat, he recognized the distinguished visitor from previous visits. Still, there was no guarantee that the well‑dressed man in the back of the limousine still possessed valid access to the Complex. The passenger pressed the “down” button, lowering his window. Through it, he handed the Uniformed Division officer his White House pass.
The Complex had recently upgraded its electronic access control system. Until recently, the uniformed security personnel had to match the wearer to the photograph on the ID card, an approach with a few too many holes. There was always the chance that someone could counterfeit a badge or substitute a picture on the genuine article. The old system had been tested by the Secret Service and failed once too often. The new system was based on computer verification, and unlike people, the computers weren’t subject to a bad day.
The UD officer took the pass and gave it a quick once over, checking the tamper seal. Then he compared the face of the man in rear seat against the computer‑generated color photo on the front of the credential. Same silver gray hair professionally coiffured, dark eyes, and patrician nose, sculptured face, all packaged in what had to be a two thousand dollar suit.
Satisfied of its apparent authenticity, he inserted the badge into the credential verifier. A computer elsewhere in the Complex compared the credential’s ID number to a list stored in its memory. In milliseconds a match was obtained, and a verification signal was sent to the gatehouse. The man in the back of the limousine had passed the first stage of the screening process.
The officer handed the passenger a wireless keypad similar to the ones used on telephones. The visitor to the Oval Office punched in several digits, his personal identification number. When he hit the “enter” button, a small transmitter in the base of the unit transmitted the data to a special radio receiver in the gatehouse. From there, the PIN was sent electronically by hardwire to the host computer for comparison. Only after obtaining a match would the computer allow the next stage of the identification process to begin.
Finally, software operating the Workers and Visitors Enrollment System, WAVES, automatically cross‑checked the President’s appointment schedule. The link verified that the visitor was scheduled to meet with the President today. When the automated system finished its three checks, a green light flashed on in the security cubicle. The system then displayed the visitor’s name and agency affiliation–in this case “CIV” for an unaffiliated civilian–on a small computer display in front of the officer at the West Executive Avenue entrance. The whole process took less than ten seconds.
The security officer glanced at the display and then turned to the President’s guest. “Have a good day, Mr. Wingate,” the officer said, handing the pass back to its owner. Nothing was said in response. Charles Wingate didn’t appreciate anything short of instant recognition–not even at the White House.
Since the driver would also be entering the grounds, the officers checked his driver’s license against the information provided by the Secret Service’s Pass and ID Section. Once they verified the information, the UD officer directed him to park six spaces from the West Wing entrance, on the left side of the road.
Before he returned to his post, the officer spoke again to the chauffeur. “Please remain with your vehicle. We have to check the car for explosives.” The driver nodded, acknowledging the request. Within minutes, a canine patrol consisting of the dog and his handler would go over the car. At all other entrances to the Complex, packages were checked for concealed weapons and explosives. On West Executive Avenue, where access was limited to high-level staff, members of the Cabinet, and VIPs, the Secret Service relied on canine patrols to screen for hidden explosives.
A command from the gatehouse lowered the three pylons into the ground. Once they were flush with the road surface, the gates were opened and the limousine allowed to enter. The Cadillac pulled into the Complex past some tourists who peered at the limousine, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever dignitary was in the car.
Charles Wingate III didn’t wait for his driver to come around to open his door, but got out of the car and made his way quickly under the green awning portico and over to the West Wing’s lower level entrance. Wingate knew his way around the White House. Since his friend Daniel Varrick had been elected to the presidency, he had been there on many occasions, some business, others social.
At the top of the steps, he encountered two plainclothes Secret Service agents. He knew the closer he got to the hallowed office, the heavier security would be. Wingate walked through a wooden portico that housed special weapon detection equipment, and toward the agents, smiling as the agents’ eyes scrutinized the annunciator panel built into the desk. Everyone, despite position or rank, who sought an audience with the President of the United States, was surreptitiously screened before being allowed to enter the Oval Office.
“The President will be with you in a minute, sir.” He recognized Wingate-code name “Stockman”-as one of the President’s oldest and most trusted friends and advisors. Wingate exuded an aura of power that seemed to equalize, if not dwarf, that of the Oval Office.
His ego mollified, Wingate smiled. “Thank you.” A few minutes later, the President’s secretary came out to escort him into the Oval Office. Wingate followed the woman down the hall. He approached the door to the Oval Office and had started to knock, when it opened. Daniel Varrick stood there, a wide smile on his face.
At slightly over six feet in height, Varrick wasn’t exceptionally tall. In spite of the Oval Office’s hectic schedule, Varrick had put on a few pounds, most likely the result of too many state dinners. At his first inauguration, Varrick’s hair had been peppered with gray. Now, well into his second term, the gray was winning the battle. The President wore a charcoal-colored Armani suit, pale blue shirt, and dark gray tie accented by light blue stripes.
President Varrick clasped Wingate’s hand in his. The warmth of his handshake and the glint of his hazel eyes signaled his joy at seeing his old friend again. “Charles, it’s been too long since we’ve had a chance to sit down and shoot the bull. Oops, probably shouldn’t have said that out here,” Daniel Varrick said looking around to see who might be within earshot. “I could find myself being quoted on the seven o’clock news. Come in.” The President of the United States stood aside allowing his guest to precede him.
Wingate thought the Oval Office always seemed smaller in real life than on television. Maybe it was the slightly domed ceiling with the bas‑relief Presidential seal that made the room look larger when captured by the television cameras. To the right of the door stood the President’s desk, chair, and credenza. Like many of his predecessors, Daniel Varrick elected to use the historic Resolute desk. A gift from Queen Victoria, the desk had been presented to President Franklin Pierce by the British monarch.
As far as he could tell, Daniel Varrick really hadn’t made many changes in the furnishing of his office since his election. The gold draperies and white carpeting were still there. Of course the two flags were in their positions alongside the credenza. The American flag was on the credenza’s right side while the flag of the President of the United States stood on the left.
An eerie feeling came over Wingate as he looked out the green laminate bullet-resistant windows behind the credenza and across the White House lawn. The green tint served as a constant reminder of the perils that went with the job Daniel Varrick had sworn to perform to the best of his ability.
Wingate started toward one of the chairs next to the President’s desk until Varrick motioned him toward the office’s sitting area–the latter consisting of two facing couches separated by a small oval coffee table. After the men sat, the President asked, “How about some coffee? Or something stronger?”
“Coffee would be fine, thanks. But no decaf,” Wingate added as an afterthought. “The last thing I need is to fall asleep here.”
The President laughed. “That’s right you’ve wanted a fair number of jobs, but never this one. Can’t blame you. William H. Taft called the Oval Office “The loneliest place in the World”. I guess it is, unless you include the Kremlin.” The President reached under the end table to the right of the couch. He uncradled the telephone handset, punched a button on the comm console, and then spoke briefly.
Over the years, each man had found his road to success. Wingate had inherited a small but respectable fortune from his late father. He had taken the money, and done exactly what his father had told him to do-he invested it wisely. Slowly the fortune grew.
First it increased from astute investments in the stock market. Later his investments earned an even greater return as the budding young companies, which grew as a result of Wingate seed money, went public. Each public offering repaid the firm’s initial investors at least fifty times over. As always, the Wingate Trust was at the head of the line.
In spite of Wingate’s financial success, fate had dealt the man a tough hand. First, his only son had died in Vietnam in the latter days of the war. The President saw first hand the toll that the boy’s death had taken on his chief supporter. Yet he was powerless to ease his friend’s pain.
The death of their only child had a profound effect on Wingate’s wife, Joanna. After the funeral, she relinquished her right to live, even withdrawing from the various charities that she had so fervently supported. Instead, she spent more and more time at the estate–a virtual recluse. Before her son’s death, she had been a vibrant woman, eager to take on new challenges. Afterward she became visibly older and paler. Within two years, Charles Wingate suffered another body blow: the loss of his beloved wife to a heart attack.
Both politically and financially, Charles Wingate was a very powerful and extremely wealthy man. In spite of it all, he could not bring back his son or stop Joanna’s downhill slide. He could influence the nation’s choice for the presidency, and his financial empire allowed him to make charitable donations of a million dollars without a second thought. Yet feelings of frustration tormented him at every turn. It was the irony of life–fate gave you so many material things, then it took the two people away who meant everything to you–swiftly and without recourse.
The two men had always shared a close friendship. After Joanna’s death, however their relationship had grown stronger. In spite of his political commitments, Daniel Varrick was there to offer support to his old friend. Wingate often thought that without Varrick’s friendship he would never have made it through the loss of his family. They made it a point to meet at least once a month informally no matter what else was happening. Even after Varrick reached the White House, they continued their monthly get togethers.
A knock on the door signaled the arrival of their coffee. The steward from the White House mess came in and placed a silver tray on the dark wood table. The tray held a carafe of coffee, spoons, and two cups with the Presidential seal, sweetener and cream. “Should I serve the coffee, Mr. President?” the steward asked.
“No, thank you. We’ll be fine,” Daniel Varrick replied. Even the White House mess personnel were treated with uncommon respect. As the man left the room, the President reached for the carafe.
Charles Wingate chuckled over the President of the United States pouring his coffee. Daniel Varrick would never consider letting the trappings of the Oval Office get in the way of their relationship.
As the President sipped his coffee, Wingate asked, “So what urgent matter of state made you decide to drag me in here on a moment’s notice?”
The lightheartedness evaporated from Daniel Varrick’s face. “There’s something going on, and I want your input.” The President placed his cup on the table, and then removed a stack of documents from a leather briefcase next to the couch. Each report was spiral bound, and topped with a red cover with the words “Top Secret” prominently displayed. Red hash marks flashed around the outer edges.
“These were generated by various federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies–FBI, CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, NSA, you name it. Most deal with on‑going investigations. For instance, this is from the Bureau,” the President said selecting one document from the pile, “is a summation of an investigation in which certain members of Congress are believed to be pressuring the Air Force to award the new multiforce fighter contract to a specific supplier.”
“Business as usual.” Wingate interjected. “Every time there’s a major procurement, every senator and congressman lobbies to make certain that his state gets the contract.”
“Exactly. But this time, the Bureau thinks that money–large amounts of it– has changed hands,” Varrick said as he dropped the report back on to the stack.
“If you think federal laws have been violated, have the FBI arrest the guilty parties,” Wingate said unsure why this case would warrant different handling from so many others.
“If it were as easy as that, I’d be happy. But it’s not. There’s more going on here than a couple of elected representatives with their money‑grabbing hands out. It’s much bigger than that. You see that’s not the only extent of the problem,” the President said, picking up the sheaf of reports.
“Okay, here’s the kickback case.” The President dropped the report on the coffee table. “Then there’s the CIA. They think that some shadow organization, international in scope, is in the process of rigging the South African elections.” Another top-secret report dropped on to the stack.
“Then there’s Treasury’s Office of Intelligence Support. One of their investigations in concert with the Germans points to a massive conspiracy to control the Deutschemark.” A third report was added to the growing stack.
“The Mossad is almost certain that some group, whose origin is outside of Israel, has somehow put pressure on their government ostensibly to ease the tensions between the Arabs and Israelis.”
Wingate gently placed his cup on the table. “That kind of political maneuvering’s been going on since the beginning of time. Foreign elections have been rigged, and currency exchange rates fixed. Nothing’s changed.”
“I don’t agree. There’s a common thread throughout these reports, not to mention the ones I haven’t shown you.”
“And that is?” Wingate asked biting his lip.
“Don’t get me wrong, Charles. I’m not paranoid. But in each investigation, there’s mention of, or some indication of, a powerful covert group operating behind a thick veil of secrecy.”
Wingate caught his breath.
The President went on. “You’ve got operations in more cities than I can name, and substantial business dealings in every major country and most third world ones from Brunei to Timbuktu. Have you ever run across anything like this?”
Charles Wingate thought for a few minutes before answering. “No, Daniel, I haven’t. Sure, we’ve seen influence peddling, kickbacks, and the like from time to time, but nothing of the magnitude you’re alluding to. If such an organization exists, it’s certainly news to me.”
“I had hoped that you might be able to shed some light on my little mystery. I guess I’ll get out my own flashlight,” the President said nodding toward where the classified documents that lay on the table.
“What are you going to do?” Wingate asked.
“For now, nothing. I’ve got to get my new economic program ready for Congress. And this time, I want to eclipse Capitol Hill and tell the American people about the plan before every pundit, demagogue, and lobbyist tears it apart. That should take several weeks. Once that’s out of the way, I intend to put every intelligence agency from the Pentagon to the Library of Congress’s Federal Research Division on this. If there is a sub rosa group operating either here or abroad, I’m going to find it. And when I do, I’ll focus enough light on them to give them a sunburn!”
The communications console beneath the end table chirped, interrupting their discussion. The President reached down to pick up the phone. “Yes, Linda, I didn’t forget the meeting with the senators, just the time,” the President said looking at his watch. “We’re wrapping it up now. Please ask the gentlemen from the Hill to wait.”
As Daniel Varrick hung up the phone, Charles Wingate rose. Extending his hand toward Wingate, Daniel Varrick said, “Thanks for coming in. Given the gravity of this situation, I really didn’t want to have this discussion over the phone.”
As they walked out of the Oval Office, the President put his arm around Wingate’s shoulders. “Let’s get together again soon. You’re sorely missed around here.”
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