Cassandra Conspiracy – Prologue Part 2

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Outside the estancia, Manuel Ortega waited for his driver to open the door to the Rolls Royce. Although born and raised in Colombia, Ortega still found the heat and humidity oppressive. The cool, dry air from inside the car dried the sweat from his jowls as he eased his bulk onto the rear seat.

His driver quickly shut the door. The last man to offend the drug lord’s sensitivities found himself barefoot, slogging coca leaves in a vat of sulfuric acid–and he was lucky to be alive. The driver got into the car and checked to make certain that the thermostatically controlled air conditioning was set exactly at seventy degrees, right where Señor Ortega liked it.

The drive from Ortega’s estanza outside Cali to his offices in the city took approximately twenty minutes. Although none of his patrón’s bodyguards rode in the limousine, the eight men spread out in two cars were always nearby. One car led the way down the expansive drive toward the estanza’s main gate while the other took up position in the rear of the motorcade. The men chosen to guard Ortega had been hand‑picked from the sicarios, the paid assassins, he commanded. Each was armed with his sidearm of choice, usually a high capacity nine-millimeter semiautomatic pistol. In addition, two men in each car carried Uzi submachine guns while another cradled a sawed‑off twelve-gauge shotgun. On the rear seats of both vehicles, fragmentation grenades hung from metal clips. All told the firepower, which Ortega’s bodyguards could bring to bear against any aggressor, was staggering. Ortega paid his sicarios well. He was not going to have them bought out from under him by one of the rival gangs, or worse by the Norte Americanos. The longer Ortega lived, the more each man made.

The drug lord glanced around the Rolls Royce’s interior, marveling at the car’s beauty. Ortega breathed in the aroma of well‑oiled leather, and then ran his fingers over the polished mahogany panels. As they had with the rest of his personal vehicles, Rolls Royce had shipped the car directly from their factory in England to a company in Florida. The Miami firm had stripped away the interiors of each car, swaddling the vehicle in a cocoon of bulletproof Lexan and Kevlar panels. Bulletproof glass capable of stopping everything short of artillery round replaced each window, and the tires were all puncture‑proof. Ortega’s jefe of security had overseen the installation of an elaborate two‑way communications system for all three vehicles, with each voice‑scrambled transceiver tuned to a dedicated frequency.

Ortega banged on the glass partition. “What are we waiting for? Do you think I’ve got all day, fool?” Startled, the driver sounded the horn, signaling the lead car to move out.

Slowly, the entourage snaked its way onto the main road into Cali. Each day, they varied the time they left the estanza, as well as the route taken into the city. Ortega’s driver knew what had happened to ex‑President Somoza, whose bulletproof car had been hit by an antitank rocket that ripped off the car’s roof, leaving the occupants to the mercy of the hit squad. Those who had survived the initial onslaught perished when the assassins strafed the car. The chauffeur was highly motivated to make sure that didn’t happen to the patrón–or to him.

The driver pressed down harder on the accelerator, narrowing the gap between the Rolls and the lead car. He had been told numerous times that keeping close was very important, so that anyone trying to separate the Rolls from the other two cars would not be able to do so. He had no doubts that whatever evil befell Ortega would descend upon him and his family tenfold. Since he had assumed his role, there had been four attempts on Ortega’s life. None had been successful.

As they neared the city, the uniformed traffic police passed the motorcade through the busy intersections. Behind smoked glass, Ortega smiled as the officer raised his white-gloved hand in salute. The patrón was a man to be reckoned with, a man to be respected by all who came in contact with him, someone to be feared.

When the cars pulled up in front of the office building housing the far‑flung cocaine empire, Ortega’s bodyguards threw open their doors and began their routine check of the area. Armed with Uzis, they scanned the tops of the surrounding buildings and the windows overlooking the busy thoroughfare searching for snipers while Ortega remained safely in the limousine until his chief of security signaled the “all clear”. Only then would the drug lord exit the Rolls and walk, flanked by his security men, into the lobby of the building. Each man covered his assigned area ready to react to any threat aimed at Ortega.

In a hotel room, three stories up and across the Calle San Cristobal from where Ortega sat in air conditioned comfort, the Norte Americano also waited for the all clear signal. In his hand he held a small radio transmitter. Unlike the unit he had used earlier that morning, this masterpiece of electronic technology did not communicate with a sophisticated computer. It had one function, and one function alone:  vermin extermination. A small yellow light on the control panel blinked on and off, signaling that Ortega was within range. From where the American sat, he had a clear view of the building across the street and its entrance. He was careful not to move the curtains that shielded him from Ortega’s bodyguards. If the sicarios spooked, he’d be back to square one.

Señor Ortega’s cocaine empire had finally garnered the full attention of the Committee. While the United States government spent billions to stanch the flow of the cartel’s cocaine, the Committee decided to take more drastic action. The American was the first, possibly not the last, but definitely the most crucial, step in putting Ortega out of business.

With the coast was clear, Ortega’s chief of security gestured to the driver, who hurried to open the rear door. Quickly he stepped aside, allowing his patrón to leave the vehicle. At the same time, two bodyguards rushed to open the twin glass doors leading into the lobby. Inside, on either side of the main entrance, Ortega had posted two men who provided for his security and complemented his personal detachment during the day. As it did every morning, the security ballet was going as planned.

Ortega had spent a million dollars on one of the most elaborate electronic security systems in the world. State-of-the-art sensors protected the building’s entire perimeter along with key areas such as Ortega’s office suite. Balanced magnetic switches secured each exterior door so that anyone opening any of these doors would immediately trigger the alarm. The system was so advanced that even sophisticated attempts at defeating it would alert the guards. Only the system computer could disarm zones in the building, and Ortega’s people were in total control of it. Ortega thought it somewhat ironic that the product of an American firm should protect the one man the United States government wanted to get its hands on so badly. Asi’ es la vida, such is life.

His path secure, Ortega entered the lobby, catching his receptionist’s broad smile. Like most of the people working for Ortega, the young woman held him in both awe and fear. The size of his empire, all constructed on a foundation of la merca–cocaine–staggered the imagination. She knew Ortega owned houses throughout Colombia and in other South American countries where he was safe from extradition. Private planes exclusively for his use waited at various airports, and a fleet of fancy foreign cars were at his beck and call. She had heard of wild all-night parties thrown on his hundred-and-fifty-foot oceangoing yacht. Orgies where beautiful women, caviar, the best champagne, and of course the ubiquitous white powder were served up to Ortega’s guests.

Across the street, the American finished counting and pressed the pushbutton. The remote transmitter sent a coded signal to the steel box hidden in the confines of the reception desk. The receiver’s microprocessor decoded the signal, matched it to the code stored in its memory, and released the solenoid. Once free, the spring‑loaded hammer detonated the primer of the twelve-gauge shotgun shell sending fifteen pieces of buckshot on their deadly journey.

The girl was about to wish the patrón a good morning when a deafening roar permeated the lobby. First she thought it was a bomb, but she felt no pain and neither smoke nor debris filled the room. Then she knew–it was a gunshot.

Ortega caught the deadly blast square in the chest. He staggered, clutching his paunch. Blood spurted from several holes, some low, others in his chest. His white dress shirt sprouted crimson flowers as blood seeped through the material.

As Ortega crumbled to the floor, his bodyguards, unsure of where the shot came from, split off, covering all directions. Those in the lobby pointed their weapons at the receptionist, as she sat in stunned silence. They were sure the shot came from behind the desk, yet the girl sat there apparently too shaken to move. Her hands were empty; the bodyguards held their fire.

Out on the street, Ortega’s guards searched the rooftops of the surrounding buildings, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. No one ran down the street, and there were no movements in any of the windows over the Calle San Cristobal. Inside his headquarters, a spreading pool of blood started underneath Ortega’s lifeless body and dribbled across the Italian marble floor.

The American released his finger from the transmitter, and snatched up his pouch. Quickly, he glanced around the room, making sure that he had not left any trace of his presence. Then he checked the hall. So far Ortega’s henchmen hadn’t put it together, but it wouldn’t be long before they did. He left the room and went down the back stairs, heading for the rear entrance. His phantomlike movements would draw no attention to his departure. He would be well on his way back to the States before a real search for Ortega’s executioner began.

Ortega had been a careful man. His only mistake had been the acquisition of his ultramodern Steiner Aeronautics security system–and the Committee controlled Steiner Aeronautics.

.   .   .   .

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Prologue – Cassandra Conspiracy

One-Year Ago

His eyes were those of the hunting hawk. Scanning the deserted street they missed nothing–not the buildings, dark and empty, the newspapers stacked on the corner awaiting pickup and distribution, or the dog that furtively shot down the alley. The temperature that day had peaked at over ninety degrees, and had not cooled much even at this hour. Before crossing over to the building he stopped, allowing his eyes to become accustomed to the light. He sniffed the air, detecting the smell of garbage ripened with age. Other than the distant wail of a lonely tomcat, it was quiet. At three o’clock in the morning, Cali was sleeping soundly. Everything was exactly as it should be.

Clad in the Colombian national uniform–soiled khaki pants, sandals, and an equally dirty khaki shirt torn along the sleeve–his clothes had no labels that could identify him or where he was from. He wore no jewelry, carried no identification papers. What little money he carried had been issued by the Colombian government. Even his dental work would mislead, most of that having been done in Europe. Nothing that he wore, nothing that he had, was traceable back to the United States. He had meticulously applied stain to his already well‑tanned face, neck, hands, and arms until even his skin color wouldn’t give him away. The only hint that he was not what he seemed was the set of brown contact lenses that concealed the ice blue color of his eyes.

On one shoulder he carried a pouch with the tools of his trade. As he neared the entrance to the building across the street from his hotel, he removed a small black anodized aluminum box from the pouch. In the darkness of the entrance, he extended its small whip antenna until it locked in place, and then shifted the box until the light from the nearest street lamp reflected off its control panel. He could have risked using a flashlight, but there was no sense taking any chances. Once he could make out the front panel controls, he flipped the rocker switch at the bottom of the box to “on”.

The box had two columns of lights and toggle switches. The column on the left was titled simply “door”, the one on the right, “TV”. Underneath each inscription was a single red LED denoting its status. With the power on, both LEDs glowed red.

He glanced again at his watch; its luminescent hands pointed to three‑twenty. With the odds already in his favor, there was no sense in rushing things. He checked the street again; it remained clear. He felt for the left toggle, and then flipped it on. Immediately, the leftmost red status light went out and the green LED came on. One floor below, a similar transceiver connected to the building’s security system computer received the coded radio signal sent by the black aluminum box. It recognized the digital ‘handshake’, decoded the instruction, and immediately processed the command.

An hour earlier, the guards had placed the entire building into its secured mode. All doors were electronically monitored for intrusion, all windows protected against breakage or cutting. Halls were scanned for unwanted incursions, and the sensors backed up by strategically placed closed circuit television cameras. The status panel in front of the two security officers never flickered; all zones reported in as “normal”. The complex was secure.

He had had the building under surveillance for over a week, and had the timing of the security patrols down pat. Every thirty‑five minutes one of the guards would leave the basement control center and begin checking the building perimeter. He’d have less than twenty‑five minutes to complete his task. Of course that assumed the guard held to his original tour of the building. If the guard deviated from his established routine in any way, the game would be up.

He placed the box down in the corner of the doorway, and then focused his attention on the front doors. From the looks of the standard pin tumbler lock, the building’s owner relied heavily on the security system. The would‑be burglar placed his torsion wrench in the lower portion of the keyway, and then applied pressure to see which direction the core would turn. It moved only slightly counterclockwise.

Using a feeler pick, he started at the back of the core, pushing the bottom pin up while straining to hear the telltale click that indicated the pin he was working on was above the shear line. As he moved forward from the back of the lock, he maintained the pressure on the keyway, lifting each successive pin. It was painstaking work, with each pin being moved anywhere from a hundredth to a sixteenth of an inch. It took him less than two minutes to shift the five tumblers above the shear line and thereby releasing the lock mechanism. It always looked easier on television.

Again he glanced down at the black box. The green door status light and the red TV light stared back at him. Before opening the door, the man picked up the box and flicked the switch under “TV” to its “on” position.

A week earlier, the security system’s time/date generator, or TDG, had failed inexplicably. The TDG superimposed on each video image the number of the camera taping the shot along with the time and date the video was taken. In spite of the failure, all other security system functions remained fully operational. The problem had been duly reported to the manufacturer’s factory representative. A service call was scheduled, but not for another week.

In the security center a floor away, the computer instructed the recorder to rewind and index the lobby footage recorded precisely twenty‑four hours earlier. The system computer kept an accurate count of each inch of videotape, matching the section of tape against any security alarms. Seconds later, the video tape recorder cabled to the lobby camera spun up to speed. When the recorder reached the right point on the tape, the computer issued a playback command, switching the video from the recorder to the appropriate television monitor. At the same time, it switched out the live video coming from the camera in the lobby. Unaware that they were watching yesterday’s videotape, the guards remained blissfully ignorant of the switch.

After completing its tasks, the computer sent an “all clear” signal to the radio transceiver secreted in the security console. The transceiver sent another low‑power transmission back to the intruder’s black anodized box. The red LED flashed off, the green one on. He was in the clear.

With his countdown stopwatch set to thirty minutes, the stranger opened the door. He waited to see if he could trust his life to modern electronics, or whether the sounds of sirens and bells would accompany his entrance. The building remained quiet. No alarm gongs sounded; there was no flurry of activity by the night security staff.

Directly in line with the main entrance were the custom‑made teak reception desk, easily twelve feet long, and his target. A modesty screen consisting of blue fabric stretched over a teak panel in front kept visitors from eyeing the receptionist’s shapely legs. Though cocaine was their biggest export product, Colombia still was a very Catholic country. Before moving the receptionist’s chair from behind the desk, the stranger placed two strips of masking tape on the floor denoting the chair’s original position.

Once he was satisfied that he could replace the chair in the exact position he had found it, the intruder knelt down behind the desk and used his flashlight to illuminate the panel behind the modesty screen. He needed to locate the compartment behind the portion of the desk directly in line with the front door. Finding it, he carefully removed the two screws holding the panel to the desk. No longer secured to the front of the desk, the panel came away in his hand. Satisfied with the position, he drilled an inch and a half hole in the front of the desk near the top. He was careful not to tear the blue fabric. Twenty‑two minutes left.

Before hefting the steel box out of his pouch, the stranger wiped the sweat from his brow. Already ten minutes had elapsed. It was going to be close. The box was heavy, and dropping it on the floor directly over the security center would most likely get him killed. Approximately six inches deep, it had four mounting ears for fastening to the desk. From the front, a short length of steel pipe protruded, while a small wire hung out from the bottom.

He fitted the pipe into the hole that he had drilled, sliding it forward until he could barely feel the pipe’s front edge behind the blue material. It was snug, a perfect fit. He took four inch‑long wood screws from his pocket, and fastened the assembly to the desk. Then he replaced the back panel, and cleaned up the sawdust left from his drilling, and put it in his pocket. Before removing the masking tape from the floor, he carefully replaced the receptionist’s chair. He checked his watch again; less than five minutes remained before the guard would reach the lobby.

The last thing left to do was the easiest. The American walked half the distance between the reception desk and the front glass doors, stopping at that point and facing the main entrance. As he paced the distance to the door, the American counted silently to himself, “One thousand‑one, one thousand‑two, one thousand‑three . . .” When he reached the door, he made a mental note of the count and turned to see if he had left anything in the lobby. Satisfied that there were no traces of his visit, he gently closed the door. Another few minutes were spent resetting the door lock. With that done, the man turned off the two switches on his handheld controller. Both status lights burned red. He’d made it.

A floor below, the security computer received the signal from the handheld unit. Immediately, it re-secured the front door, while activating another command that switched the video displayed on the lobby monitor back to the lobby camera. The computer stopped, and then indexed the security system’s video tape recorder. If anyone checked the recording equipment, they would find that the machine had mysteriously failed to record the entire evening’s operations. But no one would bother doing that until after tomorrow, and by then it wouldn’t matter.

……..

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