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Cassandra Conspiracy – Chap. 2, Part 2

Cassandra Conspiracy

CHAPTER 2 (continued)

Two hours later, Payton had completed his survey of Lexis’s applicable case law and shut down his computer. He was about to call it a night when the fouled up E‑mail message pierced his conscious. Curiosity got the better of him. Payton picked up the phone and dialed the number of his computer mentor. Matt Evanston answered on the second ring.

“Matt, it’s Steve,” Payton said.

“What can I do for Baltimore’s answer to Clarence Darrow?” Matt Evanston answered, his voice thick with sarcasm.

“Very funny. There’s something weird going on with my E‑mail, and I thought that you, being the city’s foremost expert in computers and software, might be able to shed some light on it.” Two could play the game.

“For you, I’ll be glad to give it a try,” Evanston replied.

Payton summarized his actions, and then explained how the first message had come through crystal clear while the second one was garbled beyond recognition.

“Download the file over to me,” Evanston suggested. “I’ll give it a quick look and get back to you.”

“Thanks, Matt. I’ll send it over as soon as we hang up.”

Payton returned the phone to its cradle, then, using his modem’s auto-dial feature he called Matt Evanston back on his modem line. After downloading the E‑mail message, Payton returned to his homework. A half hour later, his phone rang.

“Steve, it’s Matt. I’ve been over this several times, and I’m not sure what you’ve got there. Could be anything. Most likely it’s system garbage that somehow ended up in your mailbox instead of the trashcan. If it’s really bothering you, I’d suggest you give Janet Phillips a call.”

“Who?” Payton asked.

“Janet Phillips. She used to be with the government, testing their classified computer systems. After fifteen years, she decided to go it alone and started her own consulting company. She handles all kinds of computer security problems–both hardware and software. It sounds like this is right up her alley. Besides, she’s like a bloodhound on a scent. Once she gets going, nothing–no hardware or software problem–stands in her way.”

It sounded exactly like what Payton needed. Evanston gave him Janet Phillips’ telephone number, and wished him luck.

Payton punched in the phone number Evanston had given him. In spite of the hour, Janet’s voice was fresh and cheery. After introducing himself, he quickly explained his problem.

“Matt Evanston said that if anyone can figure out what happened, it’s you so here I am.”

“Well, Mr. Payton…”

“Please, call me Steve.”

“Most likely Matt’s right, and this monstrosity of a computer database dumped some system overhead stuff right into your mailbox. But I’ve got some time, and it certainly won’t hurt to take a quick look at it. Call me back on my modem line, and you can transfer the file right over to my computer. I’ll look it over and give you a call back as soon as I can.”

“Thanks. Mysteries always bother me. I appreciate your help.”

For the second time that evening, Payton sent the garbled E-mail message from his MacBook, across the phone lines, to someone who just might be able to make heads or tails out of it. Once Payton’s computer received the acknowledgment from Janet’s machine, Steve shut down the MacBook.

Having decided that he’d done enough damage for one day, Payton put all of his paperwork aside, turned off the lights, and headed for his bedroom.

.   .   .   .   .   .


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Cassandra Conspiracy – Chap. 2, Part 1

Cassandra Conspiracy

CHAPTER 2

September 26th

Steven Payton dragged his weary body down the hall toward the condo that had been his home since his separation from Cynthia. Somewhere in those few short steps, he decided there had to be a better way to live. The question was could he find it.

For the past six months his law practice had been in a flurry of activity, cutting into all his free time. He used to manage an occasional tennis game with an up‑and‑coming member of the district attorney’s office, but no longer. He had too many motions to file, depositions to take, and meetings to attend. Tomorrow would be a rehash of today, the same the day after.

At thirty-six, Payton had a face that belied his age. His hair had begun to show the ravages of time, with more and more alien gray intermixed with its dark brown. Some might consider his hair predominately gray, but he liked brown better. Worse, his schedule had prevented him from taking his usual workouts–with a direct impact on Payton’s waistline. He swore he’d take off the few pounds he had put on. The question was how.

As the door clicked shut behind him, Payton glanced around. When he moved in, he figured that he’d only need the basics: a place to sack out, a chest of drawers, a couch, one decent easy chair, and a dining room table that doubled as a place to work when the office drudgery spilled over. That was three years ago, and he hadn’t added a single piece of furniture since. There were still no pictures on the walls, nor any signs that the condo was anything other than a place to sleep or eat an occasional meal when he was too tired to go out.

Marriage breakups were difficult and often dirty things. Until recently when the sister of one of Payton’s closest friends needed help, he had successfully navigated the legal waters without stepping into any divorce cases. Cornered, Payton couldn’t deny her request. She and her estranged husband haggled over terms for months; each negotiating session served to remind Payton why he hated handling divorces so much. Finally, they reached a fair settlement. Now both parties could get on with their lives.

Counterbalancing the divorce case was a complicated corporate acquisition Payton was handling for his old college buddy Mark Albright, executive vice President of Worldwide Agricultural Products. Albright’s father was grooming his son to take over the company’s helm. This acquisition was the first of several the younger Albright would be making. If everything went as planned, there would be more deals in the future, and Payton would be handling them.

Payton settled at the dining room table. From his attaché case, he removed his Apple MacBook portable computer and plugged it in. Like most attorneys, he had resisted buying a computer. But his good friend and computer guru Matt Evanston had hung tough. Payton finally acquiesced. Now he had no idea how he’d ever managed before.

In addition to the usual stuff–word processing, spreadsheets, and accounting–Payton used the MacBook to tap into the mammoth databases that were only a phone call away. His heaviest usage was on the Lexis network, which provided him with all the legal case references an attorney would ever need. He accessed Lexis through UniNet’s main computer.

Payton clicked on the modem, initiated the dial‑up process, and waited for the UniNet host computer to finish its handshake. Seconds later, the screen in front of Payton blanked. Another second, and it filled with a menu listing his available options.

He intended to research the case law for a new client, but decided to first check his E‑mail for any messages. Since the MacBook had become part of his life, Payton had even come over to using UniNet’s E‑mail service. Although it was not state of the art, Payton felt that sending and receiving messages by computer had a certain appeal. Besides, it dramatically cut down on the amount of paper his practice consumed as well as the number of faxes he sent.

When the E‑mail screen appeared, Payton deftly typed in his mailbox number, and watched as the computer went through its gyrations. The tally on the screen showed that two messages waited patiently for Payton’s review. He called up the first.

It was from Mark Albright, about the merger agreement Payton had prepared for Worldwide Agricultural Products. Apparently the last draft he had furnished Albright was acceptable, and would serve as the final agreement.

Throughout the lengthy negotiations, Albright and Payton had kept each other posted using UniNet’s E‑mail. Albright had outlined the basic tenets of the agreement, which Payton then translated into legalese and sent to Albright’s E‑mail address.

The executive made any needed changes then transferred the file back to Payton. Using the computer network streamlined the entire process. Payton saved the message to his hard disk, and then called up the second.

Unlike the typical E‑mail message, this one did not show the header listing the addressee, mailbox number, and the message details. Instead, the MacBook’s screen filled with groupings of five digit numbers–each in perfect symmetry as if it were a product of nature and not the byproduct of some mass of wires, silicon chips, and plastic.

Payton blinked, wondering if he had somehow made a mistake. But he had done nothing unusual. The number sequence on the screen stared passively back at him as if to ask what was next.

Payton’s hand started toward the sequence of keys that would result in the errant message’s deletion and expulsion to the most distant ether or wherever such digital garbage ended up. In midstream, he stopped, shrugged, and then saved the garble‑gram to his hard disk.

.   .   .   .   .   .


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Cassandra Conspiracy – Chap. 1, Part 3

Cassandra Conspiracy

CHAPTER 1 (continued)

The Ettleberg family fortune had come from the banks that once carried the family name. Lawrence’s great-grandfather had started a small bank in the Midwest. Over the years, under careful tutelage, the enterprise grew. With the inherent stability that a larger bank brings to the region it services came increased deposits. In the early nineteen hundreds, the First Union Bank was poised to become a major participant in financing the food belt, at exactly the right time.

Under Ettleberg’s father, the bank’s stewardship had remained in capable hands. The elder Ettleberg led the bank and its many branches through the Great Depression, bringing it out of  those impossible years damaged, but not down for the count. He continued guiding it through the expansionist times preceding World War II, and then through the war years.

All the while, he was carefully grooming his son to succeed him. Before the younger Ettleberg knew anything about the intricacies of commercial banking, he was enrolled in the finest preparatory schools. He then attended Harvard for his undergraduate education. Only after he received his advanced degree from the Wharton School of Finance was he allowed to enter the hallowed halls of the First Union Bank. Even then, it wasn’t until after his son’s apprenticeship that his father exposed him to the larger mercantile operations section of the business.

“I think we’ll be more comfortable in front of the fireplace.” Wingate led his guest over to where four high‑backed chairs stood in a semicircle facing the mammoth hearth. A roaring fire spilled heat out into the room. “Please, make yourself comfortable,” Wingate said. “By the way, how’s business?”

“All in all, pretty good. We’ve written off most of our bad debt and strengthened the balance sheet. We’re lending to farmers, now that the administration has kicked the international wheat market in the tail. I expect a good year, not only for the bank, but also for its customers.”

“Glad to hear it,” Wingate replied. He knew that First Union had some money tied up in bad real estate loans. Obviously Ettleberg had taken steps to write down the problem accounts.

“I must say that this is the most impressive private library I’ve ever seen,” Ettleberg said, surveying Wingate’s library. It was obvious that no expense had been spared during the library’s construction and subsequent furnishing. Ettelberg estimated the room to be sixty feet long and forty wide.

Floor‑to‑ceiling bookshelves had been built into one of the rich mahogany paneled walls. A second set ran the entire length of the left wall. It was on these shelves that the estate’s master placed his most prized possessions, for this was the library of a well‑read man.

Besides the classics, works by the better American, British, and French authors were included in the prodigious collection. There was also a complete set of law books, bound in leather with gold‑foil imprint. Another section housed modern works of fiction, while yet another was dedicated to nonfiction. Treatises on technical and other esoteric matters also found their way on to the library’s shelves. The room contained numerous texts on the owner’s favorite, or even sometimes past, hobbies, and each volume in its own unique position.

“Thank you. My late wife’s hand can be easily seen in every room of this house except this one. The library’s design I reserved all to myself.” Wingate paused. “I suppose you don’t have any idea why your father set up this meeting?”

Ettleberg shook his head.

“What I am about to tell you must never leave this room. Is that understood?”

The banker was used to handling all kinds of confidential information. He knew how to keep such matters sub rosa, and wasn’t at all concerned about whatever Wingate was about to impart to him. “You have my word.”

“I don’t mean to dwell unnecessarily on this point, Lawrence, but should you ever breach this confidence, it will have the direst of consequences for you and your family. Is that understood?”

Ettleberg couldn’t fathom the significance of what Charles Wingate was telling him. His father had instructed him to agree to the older man’s restrictions.

The younger Ettleberg nodded in acceptance.

“Since before he was your age, your father has belonged to a secret organization, which we call the Committee.” Wingate paused long enough to let the significance of what he said sink in.

“Over five generations ago, the original members, all scions of wealthy American families, banded together at a time when this great country was entering the Industrial Revolution. The membership scepter has, just as in your case, been handed down from generation to generation.

If you agree to become one of us, no word of any business we conduct here tonight or any other night may be passed to anyone outside the group, including your father. He has distinguished himself in service to the Committee, and must be allowed to enjoy the fruits of his labors.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“Allow me to continue,” Charles Wingate said pensively. “For decades, we, as well as our predecessors, have seen the horrible failures of world governments. First in this country, where waste is everywhere, and later in Europe, South America, and Asia.

Our elected representatives…” Wingate spat out the word, “… spend more time lining their pockets or worrying about their share of the pork barrel than in accomplishing anything worthwhile. Even the once-emerging commercial leaders, such as Germany and Japan, have followed the same course; the litany of waste and self‑indulgence is endless.

“Of course, we tried to turn things around here, but our efforts were of no avail. Getting our designated candidates elected was easy. It only took money. In each case, our little group either directly or indirectly controlled the donor corporation. Once elected, the representative or senator had no choice but to honor their obligations. But the slothful ways of big government were too ingrained in the system.

Compromises had to be made; amendments were added to support high‑powered constituents. The entire political process was mired in compromise, to the point where the best solution to a given problem was often lost in the rhetoric.”

“In order for a group, any group, to play such a powerful role, it must have highly diversified interests,” Lawrence Ettleberg said.

“The Committee does. We have significant interests in banking, electronics, publishing, agricultural products, clothing, and oil exploration. Any business that we’re interested in, we acquire. If the target enterprise doesn’t fit into one of the convenient categories, then the Wingate Trust moves in to make the acquisition or handle the investment. Through an intricate network of contacts and cut‑outs, we’ve been able to move effortlessly into any area that strengthened our long‑term goals.”

The implications of what Wingate said were staggering. Any group capable of such commercial piracy must control untold billions of dollars. “Then the Committee’s assets must total…”

“Billions of dollars, and these assets, as you put it, are arrayed throughout the world. We have extensive holdings in oil, land, publishing, gold, and technology. People employed by our companies number in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands. If we attempted to simultaneously liquidate everything we own, the effect would be to drive down the collective financial markets of every major country in the world.”

“And with that goes unbridled political power,” Ettleberg deduced.

“Exactly. The Committee’s influence and power do not stop at the doorways to Capitol Hill either, but extend throughout the branches of government. Even if the bureaucrats and politicians involved don’t see the influence’s source, they feel its power. At the Pentagon, we control who wins and who loses the critical megadollar contracts. At the Department of Justice, our control extends over government investigations into companies and organizations controlled and owned by the Committee. Of course, special attention is paid to those firms who intentionally or inadvertently oppose our interests.”

Ettleberg saw the fire in older man’s eyes and felt the heat of his words.

“Everything we do, every election we control, every position we carefully fill, every investment we judicially make, is done with the utmost secrecy. In fact, the organization’s operations are more like the highly compartmentalized workings of the major international intelligence agencies than those of a private company. No one ever suspects that we’re behind a given takeover or investment. That’s absolutely crucial to our success.”

As Wingate’s steely stare caught Ettleberg’s glance, the latter nodded again.

“The Committee’s power base extends into the very governments of the countries we operate in. Factions supported by us changed South Africa’s prime minister from one who deeply supported apartheid to a more moderate one, only months before certain gold leases were up for renewal.

When the long‑standing feuds between the Palestinians and Israelis threatened to spill over into another war, we flexed our political muscle, managing to bring a moderate leader into the Tel Aviv government, while at the same time reining in the Palestinians. If you remember, during the Gulf War in 1991, it was rumored that Jordan’s ruling family pressured Saddam Hussein. Just goes to show that you can’t believe everything you hear.” Wingate sneered.

“The Committee was behind that?”

Wingate nodded. “We avoided a fight to the finish, and put the region back on the path toward stabilization. When the final accounting was completed, the Gulf War brought untold millions of petro‑dollars into our coffers without jeopardizing our long term holdings in the region, another resounding success.”

Ettleberg was staggered. Beneath the fabric of daily global business was a group so secret that he hadn’t known about his own father’s membership–something that had been going on for decades. Wheels within wheels.

Wingate continued. “There are two things you must know before you decide whether you’re going to join our ranks. First, legal means are always our preferred approach to resolving problems. But each member knows there are limits as to what we can accomplish using only licit remedies.”

“I understand,” Ettleberg said.

“Second,” the chairman said, “in front of you is a portfolio containing biographical information on the rest of our members. If you break the seal, you signify your unflinching commitment to our organization and its objectives. If you elect not to read the contents, and the seal stays intact, you may leave the estate; however, you remain bound by your oath of secrecy never to divulge anything you learned tonight. Doing so will precipitate the gravest consequences. Do you understand?”

“I do.”

“Then I will leave you to your decision,” Wingate said as he strode toward the library doors.

Minutes ticked by as  Ettleberg stared at the leather‑bound portfolio on the conference table. Several times he picked it up only to replace it. Handling the file as if it were a rare Ming vase, Ettelberg finally broke the seal and began to read.

Anthony Crofton

Corporate Affiliation:  Crofton Publishing

Background:

West Coast-based publishing empire that started out printing a small local paper. Expansion through reinvestment of corporate profits, which were later used to acquire competing companies. Currently owns several newspapers throughout California, Washington, and Oregon.

Introduced West Coast Today, a magazine targeted at the growing population centers in California, Oregon, and Washington. Magazine slowly adding readership in other areas. The magazine’s op‑ed section is highly regarded from the beaches of California to the hallowed halls of Congress. Annual revenue from all sources in excess of $1 billion.

West Coast Today is read and respected by members of Congress. It thus provides a unique forum from which to extol the Committee’s position on various topics.

Committee Membership:  2 generations

Grover Albright

Corporate Affiliation: Worldwide Agricultural Products

Background:

Chairman and CEO of this multinational manufacturer of farming and construction equipment. WAP provides early-generation agricultural equipment to Third World countries. Sales and service outlets widely placed in most South American, African, and Middle Eastern nations. Construction equipment manufactured in seven overseas factories and shipped around the world. Service and sales organizations in place.

Committee Membership: 3 generations

Annual Sales: over $3 Billion

Helene Rochambeau

Corporate Affiliation:  Aigrette Habiller

Background:

Holding dual French and U.S. citizenship, Helene Rochambeau was born in the States while her French parents were on vacation. She earned her seat in the group by her intensive expansion of Aigrette Habiller, a company her father had started to make men’s clothes. Her family had made a respectable living from the Paris company. But when her father died suddenly, Helene at the young age of twenty‑four took over the company that had been in her family for decades.

Fresh out of an exclusive Swiss finishing school, Helen Rochambeau set about to learn all there was to know about men’s fashions, and then expand Aigrette Habiller. It didn’t take her long to realize that the company, albeit quite well positioned with respect to men’s suits, wasn’t paying an ounce of attention to women’s fashions. Against the advice of the company’s stodgy senior management team, she recruited some of the emerging designers on the continent, paying them handsomely, but also demanding their best designs. She promised each of them that regardless of how bold or outrageous their designs were, Aigrette Habiller would develop the designs and manufacture the apparel. The promise of unbridled designs was worth more to most of the newly hired designers than the potential increase in their respective incomes. Her design studios became a bustle of activity, each effort focused on producing the best possible design be it for a new suit, gown, skirt or blouse. Soon Aigrette Habiller became a major contender in the women’s fashion marketplace rivaling the likes of Chanel and the other long‑established French fashion houses.

Not content to rest on her laurels, she immediately moved toward adding her retail establishments, and reducing her dependence on a middle‑man to get her designs to the public. She also increased her profitability. To date, Aigrette Habiller had successfully started over a hundred retail stores worldwide, with the company’s sales approaching the $1 billion mark. Ten years ago, without warning, she moved the corporate headquarters of Aigrette Habiller to New York; abandoning Paris, the acknowledged fashion Mecca. The move effectively cut Aigrette Habiller’s import duties at a time when the tariffs kept the firm from garnering a larger portion of the U.S. market. It also coincided with the introduction of new lines of men’s and women’s casual clothes. Designed in Paris, but produced in the United States, both lines took off immediately. Aigrette Habiller showed higher than expected profits that year, and significantly higher projected profits each year thereafter.

Annual Sales: $1 Billion

Committee Membership: 1 generation

Carlton Steiner

Corporate Affiliation: Steiner Aeronautics, Steiner Systems

Background:

A major first‑tier contractor to commercial aviation, providing most of the airborne radar, radio, and positioning equipment to the airframe giants. In the early eighties, the company, while making itself recession‑proof, expanded its market by providing similar equipment to the military airframe manufacturers. Through the combination of commercial sector and DOD business, matched with carefully controlled overhead costs, the firm has weathered most of the economic storms that have wreaked havoc on its competitors.

With a solid financial base supplying the airframe manufacturers, Steiner Aeronautics began a wholly owned subsidiary called Steiner Systems, tasked with taking state‑of‑the‑art technology and applying it to system applications in both the commercial and military sectors. Steiner Systems quickly assimilated the technological advances that resulted from the company’s work for such high-powered DOD clients as the Advanced Research Project Agency. ARPA was on the cutting edge of defense technology. Under a contract with the agency, Steiner Systems developed high-resolution displays for use on a multitude of DOD applications.

Annual Sales: $6 Billion

Committee Membership: 2 generations

Thomas Ward

Corporate Affiliation: Ward Petroleum Products

Background:

First, the Ward family was the major stockholder in one of the nation’s largest oil companies, the shares having been in the family since Ward’s great‑great grandfather entered into a partnership with the oil company’s founder. Over the years, stock splits and dividends increased the family’s holding in the company to the point that the board of directors listened carefully to their suggestions. Given his stewardship of the family’s regional oil company, his wealth was a foregone conclusion. Nonetheless, Ward’s entry into the day-to-day operation of the business started out slowly. Ward’s company is now the dominant player, providing gas to over three hundred family-owned stations throughout the middle south. The company’s home‑heating oil clients number in the thousands.

Annual Sales: $2.7 Billion

Committee Membership: 4 generations

Ettleberg had no sooner finished reading than the door opened and Charles Wingate stepped back into the room. “Congratulations,” Wingate said, extending his hand. “I see you’ve decided to join our group. We’re proud to have you.”

Ettleberg rose, and then grasped Wingate’s hand. “I’m honored to have been selected,” he replied.

“Please, sit down. I’ve scheduled a meeting for this evening, which of course will be your first opportunity to meet the others.”

Anthony Crofton’s arrival interrupted their conversation. Wingate introduced Crofton to the Committee’s newest member, after which Crofton took a seat across from Ettleberg. The three men talked about business and the state of the economy. They did so until Grover Albright and Helene Rochambeau arrived. Again, the chairman made the introductions.

In appearance, Albright was a diminutive man with thinning hair, at best described as nondescript. The man had no vices and was not given to any form of excess. Albright sat at the far end of the table, farthest from Wingate’s position of power.

The other men rose as Helene walked into the room. She greeted each man separately. Mlle Rochambeau was wearing, as usual, one of her suits, tailored to reflect the exquisite taste of its owner, while conveying a businesslike appearance. She took the chair to the right of the Chairman, and waited for the meeting to begin.

It was now a few minutes past eight, and the remaining two members of the Committee had yet to appear. A stickler for punctuality, Wingate sat at the head of the table, glancing furtively at his watch and tapping his Cross pen like a metronome on the writing tablet in front of him.

With an air of alacrity, Carlton Steiner, entered the room, followed by Thomas Ward. After introducing Lawrence Ettleberg to the late arrivals, Charles Wingate called the meeting to order.

“I’m glad to see that each of you could attend tonight. I regret that I had to call this meeting on such short notice. Before we address the business at hand, I want to be certain that each of you has not been having any trouble with your mail.”

Wingate didn’t trust the telephones to handle his communications. Too many agencies were adept at tapping the lines. Instead, he relied on a simple computer‑based electronic mail system. All communications between the Wingate’s computer in the library and the members’ satellite stations were also encrypted. For short messages, the system functioned in a way that assured Wingate his security integrity was maintained. Once the message was encrypted, a modem link sent it to the recipient’s computer, where the communication was decoded.

Up to now, the Committee had been using an effective but not overly sophisticated encryption scheme. It had been more than sufficient to discourage anyone who might have come across any Committee‑oriented E‑mail. Now, anything less than state‑of‑the‑art wouldn’t do, and Wingate had had a new encryption system developed by Steiner Aeronautics.

Unlike their existing system, which used a relatively simple encryption algorithm with messages transmitted over a huge commercial network, where the sheer volume of traffic made it impossible to tell one message from another, the revamped encryption system used the government-approved Data Encryption Standard, or DES.

Wingate knew that any attempt at penetrating the Committee’s security would come from private-sector sources; his position as the President’s best friend and high‑level advisor would deter any of the government agencies from even thinking about trying to intercept his communications. But for reasons known only to him, Wingate had decided to upgrade the system’s security.

Once the new system had been designed, Wingate directed Steiner Aeronautics’ engineers and computer programmers to try and decrypt a test message. When the company’s huge IBM mainframe computers were unable to come up with the clear text message, Wingate was satisfied they had reached an acceptable level of security.

“Our new data security system uses the best possible encryption scheme. In front of each of you is a floppy disk. Guard it well. Without it, your computers are useless. Lose it, and anyone getting their hands on it will be able to read our communications as if they were sent unencrypted. You’ll find the procedure for using the new algorithm in an encrypted file on the disk. All you have to do is to follow the normal procedure when you decrypt the instructions. Forty‑eight hours from now, all communications will be encrypted using the new system. Any questions?” he asked, looking around the table.

There were none. “Carlton, how are things going with our new ventures in the old Soviet Union?” Wingate asked.

“Fine. We’re buying Soviet military arms and support equipment at pennies on the dollar. Every base commander has gone into business for himself, calling what he’s doing biznesmeny. More like theft on a grand scale.”

“I assume that we’re buying the right stuff, no MiG fighters, and nothing that we can’t sell through our middlemen in Africa or the Middle East?” Wingate asked his protégé.

“So far, every deal we’ve done has been for light arms, grenades, and the like, you know, the stuff that every self‑respecting freedom fighter should have in his arsenal,” Steiner responded.

“Any problems getting sufficient quantities of matériel?”

“No. These ex‑Soviet military types make more on a single deal than they used to earn in two years. Our profits on the Moscow Project will probably total close to a hundred million dollars this year alone, and the nice part about it is that everything’s in cash. The Liechtenstein operation is going to have to hire another full‑time financial officer to invest the proceeds if things keep going the way they are. Ain’t capitalism great? ”

“I’m sure that’s an expense we can easily handle.” Wingate had spent months working out the details that enabled the Committee to become a major player in the disarmament of the old Soviet Union, and everyone around the table knew it. Satisfied with their progress, he paused before proceeding.

“I called this meeting because I have come across information of the utmost importance to us all. For the first time since this group was originally formed, our very existence is threatened.”

A murmur arose, but was silenced by the chairman’s upraised hand. “Today I met with the esteemed Daniel Varrick. His call–one that I might point out, was not made by the omnipotent White House switchboard or for that matter even by a personal secretary, but by the President himself–requested my attendance at a private meeting. Varrick indicated that the business he wished to speak with me about could not be discussed over the telephone. Obviously, I went.”

Total silence permeated the library. As Wingate spoke, every eye was on him, each ear attuned to his every word.

“The President has uncovered trace evidence that he believes will support his theory that a secret cabal exists, intent upon exercising control over commerce, industry, and governments on a worldwide scale. In short, the Committee.”

Wingate’s bomb caused an immediate upheaval around the conference table. “How is that possible?” from one member. “That’s impossible,” another spoke up.

“Please, madam and gentlemen. We’ve made no serious blunders. We do, however, operate in a modern world, one with high-speed computers linked through large networks. With the Iron Curtain rusting, U.S. intelligence agencies have had the time to refocus their attention on domestic problems and niggling little things that wouldn’t have seen the light of day when the KGB and GRU were active. The NSA’s been actively monitoring all kinds of communications in their effort to control the flow of contraband drugs. The FBI, freed of its counterintelligence duties, now spends time investigating all kinds of white‑collar crime. Somehow, we’ve gotten ourselves caught up in this gigantic sieve.”

“Are we in any immediate danger?” Thomas Ward interrupted.

“No, but I fear that too won’t last for long. Right now Varrick’s revamping his economic program. Until that’s completed, we’re safe. Once he’s got a plan laid out to deal with the economy, Varrick intends to launch a major investigation, one in which we’ll be the focal point.”

Helene Rochambeau joined the discussion. “Is Varrick certain that we exist?”

Wingate stroked his chin. “I’m not sure. Apparently a number of independently run investigations point to the possible existence of a group such as ours. The reports that aroused the President’s curiosity come from a variety of agencies, all with active projects in our sphere of influence.”

“What can we do?” Grover Albright asked, his voice almost pleading.

“You know the old adage, Grover.” A look of bewilderment spread across Albright’s face.

“They say that curiosity killed the cat.”

Lawrence Ettleberg was the first to react. “You’re talking about assassinating the President of the United States!”

Charles Wingate let his proposal lie on the table like some horribly distasteful, yet needed, medicinal elixir.

“Please, let me speak,” the Chairman said after a few moments. “We really don’t have any choice. This is not a case where we stand to lose a few million dollars, or suffer some sort of political setback. Our very existence is threatened. We must fight back with every weapon available to us. Once Varrick completes this economic proposal,” Wingate said, “he will have all the time he needs to direct the IRS, FBI, NSA, CIA, you name it, to investigate those cases where our scent can be picked up. The Committee will never withstand such an onslaught.

Nor, I must add, have we ever been subjected to a sustained investigation by organizations with unlimited resources. If we decide not to take any overt action, we will, of course, make every attempt to stymie their efforts. But in the end, we will lose. And I don’t think that I need to take the time to explain to each of you what that means.”

Around the table, heads nodded in unison. None of them could envision themselves brought in handcuffs before a legal tribunal, and the inevitable incarceration that would result.

“With Varrick out of the way, Vice President Darby, a man cut from our bolt of cloth, will be the anointed one and inherit the Oval Office. A few carefully chosen words, and he’ll shred the reports I saw today, and the matter will be closed, permanently.”

Wingate allowed them time to absorb the irrefutable logic that he had woven, like an ornate tapestry, before them.

“I propose that we initiate a special project, under my personal direction, to eliminate this threat to the Committee. Any questions?” Wingate asked the assemblage.

No one spoke up. Not a hand was raised indicating any desire for further discussion.

The Chairman continued, “Very well, then we’ll proceed to the formal vote. Ms. Rochambeau?”

Mlle Rochambeau nodded her head. “Aye, Mr. Chairman.”

“Mr. Ward?”

“Aye.”

“Mr. Steiner?”

The industrialist reflected for a minute on the course they were about to take, and then said, “Aye, I vote that we proceed as planned.”

The Chairman turned to Grover Albright and queried, “Mr. Albright?”

Albright sat in his chair, seemingly oblivious to the question put to him.

“Mr. Albright?” the Chairman exclaimed.

“Aye, Charles, we go ahead with it,” Albright’s eyes remained fixed on his hands, folded on the table in front of him.

Wingate solicited the votes of the two remaining members of the Committee, Lawrence Ettleberg and Anthony Crofton. In succession, each man gave his affirmation.

Wingate summarized the members’ position. “It’s unanimous. We’ll need to bolster our financial position and make arrangements to handle that financing. Our operating account’s current position shows a balance of one point six million dollars. I intend to seek out, and then hire, the best person for this job. Whoever accepts this contract will have to retire immediately upon its execution. My initial foray into the area indicates that to finance the operation, we’ll need resources totaling five million dollars on deposit in Liechtenstein. I suggest, therefore madam and gentlemen that we agree to make available the entire amount to be taken from our stateside investment portfolio. Any objections?”

Wingate looked at each member of the Committee in turn. No one said a word.

With no objections to the proposed amount, Wingate continued. “We’ll move the funds through Mr. Ettleberg’s First Union Bank, as we’ve done in the past. Lawrence, once the required funds are on deposit, shift them to your affiliated bank in Liechtenstein so that we can make them available without the usual attentiveness of the Federal Reserve, Treasury, or DEA.”

Federal law enforcement agencies had been monitoring the flow of cash out of the United States in their latest efforts to crack down on the drug cartels. The transfer amount was not significant by international standards, but there was no sense in raising anyone’s curiosity.

Committee funds provided the bulwark for one of Liechtenstein’s largest operating banks. For decades, savings and loan magnates as well as the drug cartels had found Switzerland, with its bank secrecy laws, the place to funnel their ill‑gotten gains. When U.S. government attention became focused on the Swiss banking system, the banking secrecy laws were eased. Aware of the pending changes, the Committee had quickly established an entirely new and larger financial operation in nearby Liechtenstein, where stringent laws protected the ownership and control of bank accounts. There, the government was more attuned to collecting the fees and taxes that had previously been paid to the Swiss.

“Is there any other business to be transacted tonight?” Charles Wingate scanned the faces of the membership. All eyes were on him. “Then this meeting’s adjourned,” he said. “I would be honored if you would join me for dinner. For those of you who wish to stay the night, we have ample accommodations,” he offered magnanimously.

The members began to file out of the library and over to the formal dining room; all except Grover Albright who remained seated until the others in the group had left the room.

“I’m not sure we’re doing what’s best for the country.”

“Grover, I don’t know what more I can say,” Wingate said impatiently. “You voted that we proceed with the project. We’re going forward.” Albright, in spite of his position with the multinational farm implement manufacturer, was totally ineffectual in business. He remained the chairman only because of the tremendous support he sustained from the highly compensated management team reporting to him. In fact, all the key strategic decisions were made not at his level, but at more functional levels of general management. By the time that the limited number of problems made their way to the chairman’s office, the course of action was well defined and clear, even to Albright. That he had managed to retain his position, as chairman was more the result of the large block of common stock he controlled through the family trust than of the expertise he provided to the firm’s management. Since his installation on the Committee, his lack of resolve had caused many problems. The Committee was used to decisiveness on the part of its fellow members. They got none of that from Grover Albright, who could not, for obvious reasons, attend the Committee’s meeting with his staff.

“I think I’d better skip dinner tonight. I’m going to head back to town.”

“We’ll miss your company. Have a good trip. I’ll have one of my people drive you,” Wingate said, his tone carefully devoid of any hint of menace. The two men did not shake hands as they parted in the foyer outside the library.

.   .   .   .   .   .

Early the next morning, Wingate entered his study. Closing the double doors, he engaged the lock, checking to make sure it was secure. Wingate had carefully evaluated the Committee’s communication needs and decided that one of the larger commercial networks, in this case, UniNet, could best handle their messages. Nonetheless, each message, no matter how insignificant, was encrypted.

Wingate paused while his desktop computer loaded the comm program, the latter also protected by a unique password known only to him. Once the computer was up and running, the CRT screen in front of him requested that he enter his password. Wingate typed his personal password, and then pressed the Return key.

With the computer up and running, Wingate typed in Grant’s E‑mail address followed by the message that was the Committee’s opening gambit.

.   .   .   .   .   .


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Cassandra Conspiracy – Chap. 1, Part 2

Cassandra Conspiracy

CHAPTER 1 (continued)

Wingate left the West Wing and headed back to his Cadillac. As he neared the car, he glanced quickly at his gold Patek Phillip watch. Leaving downtown Washington at this hour meant he’d probably hit the afternoon rush hour. The trip back to the estate would take longer than he had originally planned. Wingate’s driver was already out of the car, holding open the rear door. As the chauffeur got behind the wheel, he pressed a button lowering the glass window between the front and rear compartments.

“Where to, sir?”

“Back to the estate, please, Arthur.”

“Yes sir.” He backed the car out of the parking space and drove slowly up West Executive Avenue until he was at the north gate. The Uniformed Division officer in the small white security building nodded as he initiated the opening sequence for exit onto Pennsylvania Avenue.

The anti‑vehicle barriers lowered slowly into the road surface, and the gates opened, allowing the limousine to enter the stream of traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue. As they made the left turn and headed back to the Parkway, Charles Wingate raised the partition. He had a great deal of thinking to do.

In medieval times, a large moat with at least one well-placed drawbridge would have surrounded the estate. Today, however, ancient fortifications had given way to electrically controlled gates, elaborate intrusion sensors, and  closed-circuit television cameras that continuously swept the roads leading onto the property.

The centerpiece of Wingate’s estate was the mansion house, which had a commanding view of the hills and valleys making up the five-hundred-acre estate. Wingate had built the mansion on top of the largest hill on the property, set back from, and out of sight of, the main road. The two-story U‑shaped edifice dominated the estate. Two large wings, one to the left and one to the right of the house’s main section, ran perpendicular to the front of the mansion; the left wing housed Wingate’s personal library.

Other smaller houses, used for the infrequent guest and for those staff members whose presence was required around the clock, as well as maintenance buildings, stood farther back, and out of sight of the main house. A small network of private drives connected the various buildings on the estate to the surrounding country roads, which in turn linked up with the access roads leading out to the rest of the world.

The black stretch limousine took a circuitous route through a small grove of evergreens before stopping at the main entrance. Charles Wingate III got out of the car and bounded up the marble steps running the length of the mansion.

The mansion’s entrance was over twelve feet wide and consisted of a pair of double doors with fixed sections, one to the left and one to the right. Thick leaded glass with a Tudor design of interconnected circles and diamonds chilled the normally warm appearance of the medium‑oak doors. As Charles Wingate walked through the door, Cedric, his majordomo, met him.

“The plans are complete for this evening, sir. The staff is prepared to serve dinner at nine o’clock, if that’s satisfactory.”

“That’ll be fine,” he said, dismissing him.

Of all the rooms in the stately dwelling, Wingate felt most at ease in the library. It was and always would be “his” room. He walked through the double doors leading into the expansive room.

Wingate’s credenza was directly in front of the picture window that looked out over the broad expanse of lawn. Like its matching desk, the credenza was handmade out of the best rosewood; its finish reflecting the care expended on it. Sitting on the credenza, in a position that reflected its importance, was a silver‑framed photograph of a young soldier in full battlefield dress. Wingate’s son had sent the photograph, and it had come a long way, from Vietnam. The likeness had originally consisted of three soldiers; Wingate, however, lacking any real interest in anyone other than the man in the middle, had had the photo cropped so that only his son’s image remained.

Directly in front of the credenza, Charles Wingate’s chair sat facing the double wood doors leading into the library. Some people thought the placement of the desk and chair had to do with being able to immediately greet whoever walked through the door. Others were equally certain that Wingate felt safer facing the door.

A well‑dressed man in his early forties rose from behind the large, oval cherry conference table as Wingate entered the room.

“Lawrence, how good to see you,” Wingate said clasping the younger man’s manicured hand.

“Good to see you again, sir,” Lawrence Ettleberg replied.

“Congratulations on your appointment as chairman. Having known your father for years, I can attest to his confidence in your ability.”

“Thank you.”

.   .   .   .   .   .


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