Higher Cause, Installment #5

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Installments will be posted on Wednesdays.

For a full list of chapters, see the table of contents.

In Recent Installments…

Petur Bjarnasson’s team is building scientific and engineering facilities on a remote Pacific Island and recruiting a group of brilliant inventors and entrepreneurs whose mission is to create massive, utterly massive, wealth. Several mysterious men, sitting around their bowl of oranges, plot to stop the plan’s progress. Jeff Baddori weakened Juan Marcos’s drug operations in Mexico a year ago and now he finds himself falling in love with Petur’s sister, Sophia.

Chapter 10. Conspiracy

The new red Jeep Grand Cherokee rolled along the dry dirt road, leaving a powdery cloud of dust behind. Even for Mexico, this road was narrow — wide enough for only one car at a time. On either side, the rough underbrush continuously assaulted the tires, wheels, and paint on the car doors. The constant bumps irritated the driver, but it was the high-pitched crack and scratch of the occasional branch slashing across the side of his car that caused him to swear again and again.

Juan Marcos had purchased the Jeep just a few weeks earlier, and he was very proud of it. His other cars were a source of embarrassment. He knew people laughed as he climbed into the driver’s seat and his massive weight compressed the springs and shocks of his smaller vehicles. Those cars would drive down the road at a decided slant. The Jeep, on the contrary, resisted gravity’s pull and rode relatively flat despite the extra mass behind the steering wheel. Unfortunately, since the branches had covered it with scratches now, he would need to get it repainted. He wished he had never agreed to this meeting.

It had been a three-hour drive so far, and it was a hot day. Salingas’s estate was far off the beaten path, and the little route that Marcos now drove on was the only access. He had driven over ten miles on this so-called road, which was little more than a cow path, and it was getting tiresome. Despite the springs and the shocks and the well-padded luxury-leather seats, he was feeling every bump and divot in the road. Sweat trickled down his forehead and the salt stung his eye. He rubbed it and turned up the air conditioner a notch.

Several ramshackle villages lay along the route. Perhaps ten houses were in each, if the metal-roofed, concrete block buildings could be called houses. Many of Salingas’ farm workers lived in these buildings. They spent their days planting and harvesting avocados and tomatoes and their nights drowning in cheap tequila. That was their life’s purpose.

Marcos was coming up to one of the villages now. A flatbed truck pulled out from between two buildings onto the road and turned his way. Marcos honked his horn repeatedly. The driver of the truck stopped and rapidly backed out of the way of the oncoming vehicle, an action that any worker had better do when a guest of Señor Salingas was expected.

Marcos stopped in front of the truck and rolled down his window. The hot air hit him in the face. The driver of the truck stuck his head out his own window when Marcos called loudly to him.

“How much farther to the main house?”

The man pointed up the road.

Marcos shouted again, angrily, “How much farther?”

The driver shook his head and called back, “Just a little ways.”

That was helpful, thought Marcos, sarcastically, as he sneered. He rolled the window back up, turned the air conditioner on to maximum, and continued on the incessant trip. It occurred to him only now that he might not even be on the right road.

“A little ways” turned into ten minutes, and then ten more. Expletives flew out of Marcos’s mouth with great vigor. He swore at the road, and the car, but mostly at Salingas. The anger only served to make him perspire more. Just when he was beginning to exhaust his supply of choice insults, he drove over the top of a small hillock and there in front of him, nestled in a small valley, stood the main house.

This place was much grander than Juan Marcos’s formidable manor. It was in the style of classical Spanish estates. Several one-story adobe wings interconnected and enclosed the main house forming a well-secured home for Salingas. Two armed guards stood near a large gated archway, through which the recently paved road led. Marcos could see another guard perched in a lookout post on top of the main building, standing professionally behind a fix-mounted fifty-caliber machine gun.

The Jeep approached the gate, and a guard, dressed in farm workers’ attire — dungarees, a short cotton shirt, and boots — held up his hand commandingly.

“Hola, Señor Marcos. Señor Salingas has been anticipating your arrival.” Marcos could not recall ever seeing the guard, who nonetheless recognized him on sight. Salingas’ men were good.

Marcos nodded as the man waved to his partner, who typed a number into a keypad to open the electronic gate.

Marcos drove through the gate and around a small circle to the front door where another man appeared immediately by his side. The man opened his door as the car rolled to a stop. As Marcos climbed out, the side of the Jeep bounced upward, just a little.

The inside of the compound was a bounty of lush vegetation. Flowery tropical plants, lemon trees, a tiny orange grove, flourishing green grass — all carefully maintained and meticulously landscaped.

The man led Marcos up the steps to the front entrance of the main house, through the door and down a long hallway to a room. The hallway was well lit from the sunlight that shined through the glass in the ceiling. The room he now entered was darker inside, and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust. When they did, he could see several men sitting on two couches, and several others standing about. Some were smoking cigars. All had drinks. Salingas came over to him directly.

“Ah, Juan Marcos. It is good to see you, my friend!” The man approached him with arms spread widely, and hugged him. “I hope your trip was not too miserable.”

“Not at all,” Marcos lied. “It is good to get away from Tijuana now and again.”

Salingas kept an arm on Marcos’s shoulder and led him to the center of the group of men. Those sitting all stood to meet the new arrival.

“Juan Marcos, I would like you to meet Jose Esperanza. He is the chairman of the board of Banco Nationale de Mexico.” The two men shook hands. “And this is Ricardo Cruz, principal owner of Mexicali Petroleum.” The two men nodded to each other. “And Mr. Robert Tobias, founder of Energon, the large American semiconductor manufacturer. And Señor Ernesto Bolle. publisher of six major newspapers, including Tijuana’s.”

The introductions continued like this. There were four more men; the first three were prominent businessman. The last, dressed in a casual sweater, Marcos recognized immediately. He was the vice president of Mexico, Alberto Jiménez.

Juan Marcos, drug producer and cartel head, was surrounded by purportedly honest and upstanding citizens. What was Salingas up to?

“Gentlemen,” began their host, “please sit down.” They all did, but Salingas remained standing and began walking about the room. “Some of you know why I have asked you to come today. Others have no idea.”

Many of the men nodded as if they knew what it was about. Marcos, confused, sat quietly. Vice President Jimenez seemed less calm than the other men.

“Gathered today in this room are the seven most wealthy and influential people in Mexico. Also here is the vice president — the man who I believe plays a most-pivotal role in my plan. There is also a representative of the single biggest business in Mexico — the drug trade. That would be Señor Marcos.”

Marcos now was completely bewildered, though not fearful. His host walked to his side and placed his hand on Marcos’ shoulder.

He continued. “Juan Marcos has been very quiet and subdued for the past twelve months, for reasons that I understand well. His business is, shall we say, intentionally slow. The fact that he has been laying low is of great value to us, for the Americans think that he will not be a threat to them for some time from a drug trafficking standpoint. They have almost completely relaxed their surveillance.

“Yet Marcos still has his full organization intact, temporarily mothballed. He is not using it now. The Americans think it is dismantled, or in disarray. But that is not the case, is it, Señor Marcos?”

Marcos said nothing. He looked up at Salingas, confused.

“Do not worry, my friend.” Salingas slapped Marcos’ beefy shoulder. “I know you can have your whole expansive team up and operational in no time — at least, whenever you so decide.” He moved away and continued to circle the room, slowly, as he talked. The men had to turn their heads constantly to track him.

“I have met with each one of you over the past several years. We have shared concerns, and shared philosophies.” He paused for a moment. “Mexico is a wealthy land. We have outstanding natural resources. We have large reserves of oil. We have untapped, but proven, sources of enormous quantities of precious metals. The western coastal areas including Baja California are the epitome of perfect climate, yet they have been developed only to a minimal extent for tourism. Mexico has an impressive history of culture and artistry. We have adequate port cities and a more than adequate supply of workers. We have been provided many gifts — as many, indeed, as the country to our north.”

Salingas was tall and handsome. He was darker than the typical wealthy Mexican, with black hair on his head and above his lip. Something was different about his appearance and his manner of speech that Marcos could not identify precisely. He came from a different gene pool. The man stood now in the center of the room. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes for effect. “My question has been, and remains, with all our resources, what keeps our country from being an international power? Why have we not succeeded?”

Most of the men were looking around the room now, as if they expected someone else to respond first, or perhaps they knew that the question was rhetorical. No one said a word.

Salingas answered his question. “The answer is: leadership. We have been floating around the outskirts of a democratic system for decades, pretending to be a republic but never getting the benefits of a free society. The people at the top have attempted and succeeded to keep just enough control and just enough wealth out of the hands of everyone else. This allows them a life of comfort but prevents Mexico as a whole from advancing. The greedy leaders use the power of government to maintain their wealth. The power of the people in the democracy has never been enough to overcome the government’s monopoly on the legal use of force.”

The banker interrupted to add to the explanation. “And we in this room are the people who need to be overcome.”

“That is right,” agreed Salingas. “It is we, and those like us, who prevent Mexico from ascending to prominence in the international community. I believe that the men in this room are some of the few who are willing to recognize the simple fact that we are at fault.”

Vice President Jiménez looked at Salingas. “Are you asking these men to give up their wealth and positions of power? Because if you are a socialist, I have no need to listen further.”

There was muffled laughter throughout the room. Jiménez looked puzzled.

“Not at all, Señor Jiménez,” Salingas replied. “I said we are at fault, but not because of our greed. Greed is natural. Greed is real. Greed is one thing we all have in common. Attempting to overcome it is a battle Don Quixote would attempt, not I.”

Ernesto Bolle, a publisher, added, “we are the leaders of this country, yet we have not taken charge except insomuch as it immediately benefits us and our own.”

Salingas nodded vigorously. “Let me paraphrase what Bolle has just said. We are the leaders, but we have not been leading!” He said this with such intensity that his face reddened. “It is time for us to lead Mexico. We need to get out and do our jobs — the jobs that God and Nature gave us.”

Jiménez again: “Just what are you saying?”

“I am saying that democracy has failed miserably in Mexico. Miserably!” He pounded his fist on the table in front of him. “Leadership by committee is no leadership at all. We need leadership again! And we, here in this room, should be the leaders. Only we can pull Mexico out of its economic morass. We have the skills, finances, power, and leadership qualities necessary. We need to use them! It is our duty.”

There was a stirring in the room. These were people who Salingas knew already agreed with him, and the feeling in the room therefore was one of complete consonance. Several conversations began among the men. For a moment, the lecture paused.

Jiménez sat quietly in his armchair. He looked deep in thought. Marcos, on the other hand, rose with effort and moved to Salingas for a quiet conversation.

“Just what are you going to ask me to do, Salingas?” he asked suspiciously.

His host laughed. “I am going to ask you to get rich! That is all.”

“I am already rich.”

“Yes, but not as rich as you were before. And your money is going to run out someday. Besides, you are a power-hungry man, dictatorial by nature. You want power. Is that not correct, Juan?”

Marcos chose to avoid the question and asked again, “What do you want from me?”

“You, my friend, are going to get back into the business of growing and smuggling.”

“Not now, I’m not.” Marcos was adamant. “I am taking a few years of vacation. I like to live, and preferably not in jail. I am still under scrutiny.”

Salingas smiled. “Did I say what it was that you would be growing and smuggling?”

“It doesn’t matter. Marijuana, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine. I have no plans at the moment to do anything! No growing, no manufacturing, no smuggling.”

“Señor Marcos, my friend, you have not heard me out! I said nothing of heroin. Nothing of marijuana! No, we would like you to traffic in more effective and powerful entities. Something a thousand times more lucrative.”

Marcos was getting impatient, and he perceived that his time was being wasted. “I’m tired of the drama and games. Tell me!”

“Marcos, we would like you to grow malcontents. We want you to smuggle distrust. From town to town throughout Baja and the North, you will surreptitiously convey our message. We want your sizable influence in Tijuana to be put to a worthwhile purpose.”

“And what is this worthwhile purpose?”

Salingas looked sternly at Marcos. “We are going to — subtly and calmly, silently and gradually — overthrow the democratic government of Mexico. And then, just as covertly, we are going to take over. The leaders will then do what we should have done all along. We will lead! We will build Mexico into a strong and wealthy nation. It will have direction and purpose. We need you to assist us. We need you to join us.”

Marcos considered, briefly. “And what’s in it for me?”

“In the end, you will be the regional governor of northern Mexico. Under some constraints, but quite free and powerful. And impossible to extradite!”

Marcos shook his head in disbelief.

“Why do you shake your head so? Do you doubt us?” Salingas accused.

“Not at all. I just must take a moment to absorb. It has been a few generations since my family has been involved in a revolution.” The fat man laughed. But then he stopped suddenly, and a frown formed.

Juan Marcos, almost humbly, began to explain his sour mood. “You said that my organization was still intact. That is not entirely untrue. But its leader has changed. A year has passed; but still, things are not comfortable for me. I am not the confident man I once was. Nor am I as ambitious. I had trust in people — people who had worked for me for years. I trust no more. I may not be the man you want.” His honesty surprised even him.

Salingas puffed a freshly lit cigar. “Juan. Let me tell you something.” A few pleasant-smelling puffs through smiling lips. “You were set up.”

“Yes, I know. My banker. Cruzon, has been, shall I say, replaced.”

“No, my friend. I am not talking about Cruzon. I am speaking of another man who was working for you. I believe you know him as Jeff.”

Marcos’ was taken aback.

“Where is your friend Jeff these days, Juan Marcos?”

Marcos squinted his eyes slightly, suspiciously. “He went back to the States. He said his mother was terminally ill.”

“His mother was ill! My God, Marcos. You believe that? That is absurd.”

“It did not seem absurd at the time. And it still seems plausible now, at least until I hear something to back up what you are saying.” Marcos was fond of Jeff. Jeff could get things done. He could be relied on.

“The man you knew as Jeff is named Jeff Baddori. He is American DEA Has been for years. Never left.” Salingas let that sit for a minute.

Marcos shook his head and laughed. “That is not news to me. It was so easy for him to obtain information. I figured he was either an ex- or current government man. So what? People on the inside give the most reliable information. It’s why he was so valuable working for me, I suppose.”

“No, Marcos. He was working for the DEA — not you.” He called loudly across the room, “Señor Esperanza!” When the banker turned away from his conversation, Salingas waved him on over. “Señor Esperanza, please tell Señor Marcos about his former banker Cruzon’s less-than-admirable qualities.”

“Yes, please do,” Marcos encouraged, with a sneer.

Esperanza, handsome and fit and in his late fifties, had been unaware of the conversation but nonetheless declared concisely as he approached, “Cruzon was stealing from you.”

“Please tell me something new. I am well aware of this.” Marcos said this even more obnoxiously than he had intended, but he was beginning to get angry.

“I know you are aware of this. I heard you determined that he was using the daily fluctuations in exchange rates to take a little profit off the top. This is completely accurate. You were understandably upset by this.” He paused. “Where is Señor Cruzon now?”

Marcos said truthfully, “I have not heard from him in almost a year.”

Esperanza nodded. “I assumed so. I have not heard from him either. We used to have fairly regular contact, as each of us was the head of a bank.”

Marcos wanted to get back on the subject. “Why don’t you get to your point?”

“My point is that Cruzon was a gambling man. He loved to gamble. But he gambled in stocks and other financial assets. Señor Marcos, he used your money for his high risk gambles. But, Señor Marcos, he was very successful.”

“Well, I always thought he was talented.”

“Yes, he was. But he was also very loyal. Señor Marcos, every peso he had taken from you he returned soon after, along with the profits he had made. And he kept his records well. You see, he wanted to show you he could add something to your organization — something more than just moving money around. He wanted to show you that he could make more money than even your drug trade could bring in. But in the end, he learned that his honest efforts — successful though they were — could not outperform your business. And indeed, by the time of our last contact, he had stopped trying to prove that it was. And he had stopped playing with the money. As far as I can tell, he never kept any for himself.”

Marcos became startled and defensive. Cruzon had been his longtime friend and ally, and he had killed him with his own hands, as an embezzler. He had not even given the man a chance to explain. Could he have made a mistake?”

“How do you know this?” Marcos asked, hoping he could find a flaw in their reasoning. But Esperanza’s response didn’t help.

“I am a banker. He was a banker. There is a network. I won’t say more.” The banker then, in an apparent effort at compassion, patted Marcos gently on the back.

Marcos nodded his head as if out of gratitude to Esperanza. Inside he was fuming. It had nauseated him when the banker tried to console him. Esperanza was a self-inflated bastard. Perhaps he would have him killed someday, just for kicks. But first he had to think about Jeff Baddori. He had trusted that man. Marcos even had always looked forward to the occasional phone calls from Jeff. He had lost trust in most others he knew, including his own son, but not Jeff. That is why he had gone into temporary retirement. He had lost confidence in his own family and in the people in the organization he had built from the ground up. The enjoyment and rewards were gone. Now, perhaps, he was learning that his trust, and his distrust, had been misplaced.

Salingas interrupted Marcos’s contemplation. “So you see, you were set up by Jeff Baddori, working for the DEA, on a DEA mission. He was never on your side.”

Marcos nodded his head. Perhaps, too, it was Baddori who had killed his younger son. And yet he still hoped these men were wrong. And he still hoped Jeff was as trustworthy as he had seemed. Marcos held tightly to that hope, for other than Jeff he truly did trust no one. But even that last bit of hope was dashed in the next moment.

“Would you be interested in knowing where Mr. Baddori is right now?” asked Salingas.

Marcos nodded.

Salingas walked away and said over his shoulder, “He is in Russia on another errand for the DEA Moscow, actually. He is staying in a hotel there, under the name of one Juan Marcos of Tijuana.”

Chapter 11. Fatal Shot

How she had been able to contact him was a complete mystery. There had to be a breach of security somewhere in the organization. Why should that surprise him?

Sophia had somehow managed to locate him at his hotel. She had left a message to phone her as soon as possible. Fortunately she left neither her whole name nor her phone number. If she had, she would probably be dead by tomorrow.

Jeff rushed out past the concierge when an irritating little man called to him. “Mr. Marcos, I have an important message for you!”

The concierge handed him a piece of white paper which was just a bit too wrinkled. It had clearly been opened and refolded several times. Indeed there was even a smudged greasy fingerprint upon one corner that had no business being there. These people whom he battled against were clumsy and foolish. But they were also quite deadly.

The note was worded simply. “Please call me right away. Sophia.” Jeff wondered what this could possibly mean. It was obviously very important, for he knew that she would have needed to overcome many barricades to find him and get him a message.

Unfortunately, it was simply not the time to answer the message. He was already late for the next chapter of his deployment. He crinkled the note into a ball and pretended to place it in the trashcan near the door to the hotel. Actually though, he stuffed it into his pocket. He stepped through the revolving glass doors of the luxurious downtown Moscow hotel and into the less than luxurious street. He stopped on the stairs to look around.

It was evening. The city was gray. Moscow had deteriorated during, and in the years since, Perestroika. The streets were in disrepair, as were the public buildings scattered throughout the city. There were certainly many fewer public buildings than there had been in the past — many had been sold to private enterprises — but the city was still dominated by government. Red Square was always kept immaculate, and this served to demonstrate the contrast between the permanent aristocracy and ordinary people.

Jeff walked down the stairs and turned right onto Oolitse Gorykava — Gorky Street. This was a broad avenue, well-trafficked, where many of the tourist hotels were. The wet and icy street was marred with potholes; the cars usually took care to avoid them, as they swerved rapidly from side to side. Jeff remembered his first walk along the road. Most pedestrians had stayed far from the curb, and this had left Jeff abundant space to walk. It was only when one of the potholes was right beside him at the wrong moment that he had understood why the remainder of the pedestrians stayed so far from the curb. His left pant leg and the bottom left portion of his overcoat had in an instant become completely sodden with the muddy and partially frozen water expelled from the hole suddenly by the worn tire of an old Mercedes as it sped by. He swore under his breath as he remembered that day, and, like everyone else he kept himself close to the buildings far from the curb.

Within a few blocks, he came to the cross street he was looking for: Marx Prospekt. The entrance to the metro, was on the far side of the road. He hurried down the slippery stairs, paid his fare, and waited for the next train.

The subway was like every most other subway he had ridden over the years. It was moderately filthy, poorly lit, and permanently fouled by the odor of urine. The walls were littered with advertisements, both planned and some spontaneously applied. There was nearly a complete lack of graffiti in the place, but this was more than compensated for by an abundance of mass-printed leaflets that were plastered over every available surface.

The platform was filled with the rush hour crowd — women and men heading home from work to see family and friends. The end of the workday did not seem such a pleasurable experience for the Russian workers however, for they did not appear particularly excited. Indeed, they seemed withdrawn and quiet as they awaited the train. Jeff knew intellectually that Russians were simply more reserved than Americans in certain public places. Their reservation was instilled by eighty years of rule by the communist totalitarian government. In contrast, he knew that the Russian people were anything but subdued when it came to their true personalities. Russians loved to dance and party.

The light from the approaching train reflected off the black wall of the curved tunnel on the left. The noise from the track and the engine increased rapidly. A rush of air almost blew Jeff’s cap from his head as the train pushed out through the tunnel entrance.

After boarding the train, Jeff stood in the rear corner of one of the middle cars and leaned on a pole. As the train started to move, Jeff tried to anticipate what might occur this evening, an evening that was to be the culmination of a year of preparation. He had spent six months learning the Russian language, and developed an excellent understanding of the spoken and written word, yet he had pretended to know very little of the language. He spent six more months insinuating himself into a small faction of the Russian mafia. He soon became a valued member of the broader criminal community; he was their international contact — their tie to the Mexican and Colombian cartels. He was well-trusted.

Actually, he thought, he was well-trusted for a Mafia member. These people really did not trust anybody. They watched everyone in the organization carefully, and they made little effort to keep that secret. As in the former Soviet Union, fear was often used as a motivator. They had no expectation of loyalty such as one found in the Italian and American Mafia, so instead, families and friends were virtually held hostage. Deviation from a superior’s plan could very well result in death of not only the man responsible for the failure but anyone whom he had associated with as well. Because they very likely now knew of Sophia, the Russians might have leverage against Jeff.

Jeff had planned a scenario that he had played out several times in the past — get close, become a trusted member, and acquire the evidence needed to bring the criminals to justice. In this case, however, he never had any intention of pursuing a criminal prosecution. The Russian legal system was in enough disarray, and prone enough to bribery, that no legal intervention into the Mafia’s activity would be remotely effective. Jeff had become convinced that the many members of the Moscow police force were beholden to the Mafia.

The Russian Mafia was mostly mythical. The criminal entities here were more like gangs than an organized network. The danger was their large number and the very real chance that someone would indeed organize them into a functional structure that might become a powerful influence in the international arena.

Much of the so-called criminal activity with which they were involved was animated by an entrepreneurial spirit: trading gasoline for clothes and automobiles for houses, for instance. Jeff did not want to interfere with these productive pursuits. But the Mafia went beyond these ventures and into racketeering — running protection schemes and trafficking in drugs and prostitutes. Drugs had always flowed into the United States from organizations in Latin America and Asia. The DEA was accustomed to dealing with those organizations. But the Russians were new to the game — and getting aggressive. They had begun by developing a market for their product within their own country, but although the demand was there, the money was not, and so prices were too low. Unlike the founders of most fledgling businesses, the drug lords of Russia quickly learned the value of marketing internationally and sought access to the seemingly unlimited American market. They had started small, but their ideas became progressively more grandiose. They traded what they had an abundant supply of — Russian guns — for drugs produced in a variety of regions. In the process they had developed a robust relationship with the Latin American cartels. Jeff Baddori had inserted himself into this developing relationship, and brought with him the combined Russian Task Force of the CIA, FBI, and DEA.

Their mission was simple. Shut down this immature Russian drug industry before it could blossom while eliminating the flow of Russian weaponry to the cartels. The Russian government knew nothing of Jeff’s activities, but had they known, they may have even assisted him in his efforts — for the money the Russian Mafia earned from the drugs would no doubt be channeled into efforts to obtain increased power within the struggling Russian Federation. The presence or absence of tacit approval of the government was immaterial, however. The truth was that if the government knew what Jeff was up to, then the Mafia would soon learn, and he would be dead.

They were the most violent group Jeff had ever worked with, for neither personal integrity nor civil law had power to enforce contracts of any kind here. Only fear was used to enforce contracts, and these people were becoming masters at using fear outside their organizations, as well as within.

The train haltingly traversed the underground maze that was the city’s subway transit system. Finally, at the second to last stop, Jeff walked out. He strolled up the stairs of the dimly lit station, slowed by the several dozen people who had exited the cars ahead of him. On the street level, he turned to the right and walked quickly down the street. This part of the city was in complete disrepair, the low buildings tightly packed and poorly kept. The people who slowly strolled along the cracked sidewalks seemed likewise in disrepair. This area was depressed psychologically as much as it was economically.

As always, Jeff carefully examined his surroundings. He could see on this street the effects of the Mafia, for set amongst the rundown buildings, every few hundred feet, was a business that seemed to be thriving — clean and well-painted. These enterprises were either part of, or receiving special protection from, a local segment of Moscow’s underworld. For a business to thrive anywhere in this city, the local Mafia, as well as the equally aggressive local bureaucrats, had to be paid off frequently. Although bribery and protection payments might deter a budding business venture in most developed countries, the Russians were undaunted. They were used to this, having become experts at the art of bartering, manipulating, and bribing just to stay alive during the long years of State control.

Dusk was over, and it was now night. He worried briefly about Sophia’s note, and he was eager to answer it, but he could not risk losing his concentration now. He turned down a side street toward the back parking lot of a small factory.

Many of the windows of the building were broken, seemingly used for target practice by the local rock-throwing urchins. Much of the glass had managed to fall outward onto the sidewalk, however, and it crunched under his feet as he strode briskly toward a black and darkened door, behind which, he knew, were several people who suffered from a nearly complete lack of moral structure. In the dark parking lot were several automobiles — shiny, new, and foreign — which belied the beaten and dreary nature of the building he was about to enter.

Boris Jadovovic opened the door when he knocked. He was a large and rotund man for whom the passage of time had been unkind, for he looked to be nearly twice his thirty years. There was no lightness in his eyes, no youth, no vigor. He said not a word to Jeff as he ushered him down the short corridor toward the factory floor. The corridor smelled dingy, and the air was stifled with the scent of old cigar smoke. There was little ventilation here.

They walked out onto the floor and a welcome rush of cool fresh air from the broken windows greeted him. In this place, the air felt as if he were still outside. Several men sat at a table in the far corner — the area of the factory that was still reasonably well lit. Much of the remainder of the large room suffered from the failing of short-lived Russian light bulbs, and the large but tired metal press machinery cast dark shadows that created an eerie resemblance to a moonlit graveyard. There were several doors that might or might not serve as easy egresses. The men at the table had yet to look up. Jeff noted a faint sensation in his stomach — a warning signal.

As he approached the group, he rapidly studied each man. The wafer-thin old man on the right was Andrei Tomolov — the most powerful of the group. His power resided primarily in people’s respect for the position that he had held in the old government: a deputy in the KGB. None of the other men stood out as particularly noteworthy in their former or current pursuits, so this respect given to his former position carried weight.

The other three men at the table were younger, and they wore the outlandish attire that was stock in trade for the Moscow underworld: bright purples, heinous yellows, and shiny materials. One wore red Hi-Top American sneakers, which he had resting on the table in front of him. The Mafia members were proud of their position and one of the ways they flaunted it was by dressing in these gaudy outfits.

Each had an entrepreneurial knack that would have made him wealthy in the black market, had the black market not been at least partially replaced by the free market. These men had come to wealth by taking advantage of government subsidies of a variety of goods. They would buy the goods at the low subsidized price, ship it across the border into Western Europe, and reap huge profits, all at the expense of the central government. They had done well in this trade, but they had risen to positions of power in the Mafia hierarchy not by their talents, but by the forced abdications of those above them. Andrei was the man who forced the abdications, frequently with a bullet.

Andrei had become Jeff’s primary target, for it was this man who was making the most effective effort at banding Moscow’s various criminal factions together into a coherent and functional organization. Indeed, Andrei had several times visited Palermo, and he received financial backing, as well as advice, from the famed mafiosi there.

Jeff had always felt an inexplicable feeling of sympathy for the American and Italian Mafia. The men and women in those organizations seemed to possess some respectable features. He rarely liked the men whom he had helped to arrest, kill, or destroy, but he usually found something worthy of respect in each of the malignant swine whom he pursued, even the ones not in Mafia syndicates: loyalty, honor, charity, love of family.

However, Jeff had recognized some time ago that none of the men in front of him now deserved any respect. These men, despite being the core personnel in the fledgling Russian Mafia, possessed none of those values that made leaders effective — no loyalty, trust, or charity. The only character trait that any had in abundance was overconfidence. Their livelihood was based on fear as a tool to take advantage of the weaker members of society. And they did not even do well at that. Despite the large numbers, there was not yet much intelligent competition in the criminal society, so these poor excuses for men were the top dogs.

The four men at the table were the heads of the four most significant Mafia groups. He had finally gotten them all together. Each of the three younger men stared down at the table. Not one pair of eyes focused on Jeff.

From a dark recess in the corner a woman appeared. Jeff had seen this woman, Tanya, several times before, often in the company of the lead enforcer, a man named Dmitri. Dmitri was not present tonight, or at least he was not making his presence known. The woman was very attractive, but she seemed to lack intelligence. She appeared detached from the activities around her — not uninterested, but oblivious. Jeff had concluded that she was simply unaware and lacked the intellectual capacity to make moral distinctions of any kind. She spoke Russian with a faint accent that he could not place, and efforts at obtaining background information had been mostly unrewarding. The limited information he had on her was a threadbare story of failing out of the Grozny School of Ballet in her mid-teens, after which she had worked at several factories in several capacities before turning to prostitution. Now she was a Mafia girl.

Jeff was aware that something had gone far astray with his plans. The men around him all seemed ill at ease. This was not a talkative group, but they usually exchanged brief pleasantries. Such pleasantries were entirely absent tonight. Andrei appeared angry. Jeff glanced about the room as subtly as he could, and with the mental agility of a veteran chess player readily identified his most suitable escape route. He also noted that none of the men had any bodyguards, which was probably one of the preconditions of this group’s congregating.

Andrei placed his hands on the table and pushed himself up from his seat. His neck was scrawny and his mostly-bald head was tiny. The area of his right temple was depressed, as if he had had part of his cranium removed, or perhaps beaten in. Jeff had never asked, and he had found nothing in the files to explain it. Jeff’s handlers in Washington had warned him that the dearth of information regarding the main players in this mission would make this the riskiest of his escapades to date. Jeff had not worried too much, relying on those instincts that had functioned so well for him in the past. But he had been mildly disturbed throughout the last few months. He had essentially no background information on any of these men except for Tomolov, and even that intelligence was clearly inadequate. This had hindered Jeff’s abilities to get inside their heads, to learn their weakness, and to press the right buttons. It would cost him now.

“Mr. Marcos,” said Andrei, staring intently at Jeff, “I have been looking forward to this visit for some time. However I had hoped that you would be a man whom I could trust. This does not seem to be the case.” There was to be no mincing words tonight.

Jeff noted the impersonal use of his last name, or rather the last name of his current alias. In Russia, use of either the first or the whole name was standard.

“To what do you refer, Andrei?” Jeff shuffled his pants as if attempting to pull his shorts out of his crotch, but in fact he was maneuvering the gun under his coat to a more accessible position.

“You need pretend no more. What is your real name, by the way?”

Jeff knew this was not a bluff, but he had nothing to lose by playing it out. He said in halting, heavily accented, and poorly enunciated Russian, “I do not know what you say. You know who I am. My name is Juan Marcos, and I have shown my value to you. Is this a test? Because I dislike it and will not submit to it!”

Andrei’s face had turned bright red, and he shouted loudly, “Stop! Enough! I will hear no more of that. This is no game. You have lied to us from the beginning, and it is time for the truth. Tell us now who you are!” Jeff felt the metal tip of Boris Jadovovic’s pistol against his neck. He noted that it was warm, as it had absorbed the heat from the fat man’s blubbery belly.

Receiving no response from Jeff, Andrei continued. “Juan Marcos is an enormously overweight man whose description is nothing like you. Lie no more!” With that, the thin man struck Jeff across the face with the back of his ringed hand, and the blood poured forth so rapidly from Jeff’s lip that it soaked the offending hand before it had finished its impact.

Jeff was stunned by the surprising strength of the older man and slightly distracted by the blood pulsating out from his lip. Boris Jadovovic took the opportunity to search him, and extracted his weapon from his belt.

Jeff considered his position for a moment, wiped his bloody mouth with a handkerchief extracted from his coat pocket, stood tall, then began. “Well, Andrei Tomolov. What a man you have become! The head of a puny criminal community. What happened to your commitment to the Party, your devotion to the State? You have become a decrepit self-serving man. You are a disgrace!”

The men at the table looked up at Jeff now, each confused by his sudden verbal offensive and his impressive command of their language, suddenly with no trace of accent. The redness had receded from Andrei’s face, and he had begun to squint his eyes.

Jeff continued. “Comrade Tomolov, I will tell you exactly who I am. I am a man who knows what you once were, and what you could have become had the Soviet Union been maintained. Those who hired me you once called friends, your brothers in arms. They have been watching over you. I am their man, assigned to prevent you from suffering the sentence that the remainder of this fine group will no doubt receive. You know full well how those same local Moscow police whom you have always so disdained have infiltrated your organization. When you were in the KGB, you despised them for their ineptitude — their failure to adequately enforce proper law. Now you despise them for their meager efforts to enforce the laws that you break. You need not despise them anymore, for their efforts are much more effective. Indeed, in the past, you might have even been proud of them.” Jeff paused for a breath, and one of the other men at the table took the opportunity to intercede.

“What are you talking about?” He asked Jeff. Then he turned to Andrei. “What is he talking about?”

Jeff was hoping that these men would be intimidated by him. And he was right. He had built a reputation in the past months as a man of action, quick and deadly. He had earned their respect and their fear with his display of physical prowess and agility with weapons. But they had considered him inferior in intelligence because he spoke so slowly in Russian. With their one reason for feeling superior now shattered, Jeff was intimidating.

Jeff continued. “You thought that you have bought out the local police. This is not true, Tomolov. There are a few people who have not been touched by you, and the Americans and Interpol are now working with them. They are moved to action by your incessant efforts at promoting the drug trade. It would have been better had you avoided that industry, for you have now fallen into the arena of the crazy American war on drugs. The Americans have created in their media, and instilled a great enmity for, an entity called the ‘Russian Mafia.’ This is the same entity which you are only now attempting to create.” Jeff looked at each of the men in turn, then at the eldest. “You see, Tomolov, the Americans and Interpol have an enormous task force already here in Moscow to lay siege to the organization that you have yet to even create. They will squelch you in your first efforts.”

Andrei was seated quietly at the table now. Jeff knew it would not be long before he realized the absurdity of Jeff’s statements. Most of Andrei’s friends whom Jeff had referred to were dead or already on his payroll. But for the moment, Andrei was considering what Jeff said, and it gave him time.

He picked out one of the younger men at random and began to prod him verbally. “You sit there in your high-fashion clothes, flaunting your newly gained wealth as a status symbol. Can you not see that this will only be tolerated temporarily? Do you not see that there is power yet in the government? Only Andrei will be protected. You will simply be found with a bullet in your head — placed there by the Americans, or by the Moscow police — could be either or both.”

His bluff diminished the overconfidence of the men near him, and they began to argue among themselves. Should they pay attention to this man? How could the police dare to interfere? Which of the police were going to be executed tonight for allowing this to happen? How much could they trust Andrei, who may have little need for them?

Jeff was being ignored now by the three younger men who seemed convinced that there was indeed, finally, an organized effort to destroy them. They had not had to deal with such a thing before now and it would put a rift in their confidence in each other and themselves. The pressure of the warm muzzle of the gun at Jeff’s neck had relaxed some time ago. Jeff fixed his eyes upon Andrei. He would soon come to his senses. Indeed, it was not long until a sneer began to form on the old man’s lips and Jeff knew his ploy had been recognized. It was time for action.

Andrei motioned to the fat man, Jadovovic, and the muzzle of the gun came back to Jeff’s neck. Jeff suddenly spun around counterclockwise; he raised his left arm high in the air and came down hard on the fat man’s arm, catching the gun in his armpit. Simultaneously, he pummeled his right fist into the man’s larynx, crushing his windpipe. Jadovovic suffered the anxiety all men feel as they suffocate, and in his duress squeezed the trigger of his weapon repeatedly, each bullet exiting the gun and dissecting a different part of Andrei Tomolov’s torso. The old man spun around like a rag doll shaken by a puppy, unable to fall, as the force of each impacting bullet raised him almost off the floor. The three men had turned quickly toward the melee and drew their weapons. Jeff let the fat Russian fall in agony to the ground and dove toward the dark shadow cast by the nearest piece of massive wrought-iron machinery. A hail of bullets followed him, pinging off the solid metal of the surrounding equipment.

Jeff spun and rolled deeper into the shadows. How he wished for a gun right now. When Jadovovic had taken his gun, Jeff had not been able to see where he had placed it. He had relied on obtaining the fat man’s own gun to complete his escape. The unfortunate emptying the entire magazine into Tomolov had contributed to Jeff’s mission, but it left him in the unenviable position of being unarmed, outmanned, and in deep trouble.

He could hear the footsteps of the men, one walked down each wall, away from the lit corner of the room. Undoubtedly, one man was weaving his way amongst the machinery directly toward him. That would have to be Hi-Top, for there were no audible footsteps. He would take on one at a time. They had divided and therefore they could be conquered. From his position tucked in the shadows, Jeff could see one man make his way down the wall to his right, past the row of machinery in which he hid. He moved quietly in that direction.

The light from the single bulb in the corner cast long beams, like a flashlight, between the dark green machinery. Jeff had to proceed through several of these beams. He made his move quickly and as silently as he could, ducking and rolling into the welcome deep shadow of the next heavy press in the line. He needed shadows desperately. Once and twice again he leapt across the white beacons that were his greatest enemy in this place. On his third leap one of the men caught sight of his fleeting shadow, shouted loudly to the others, and began to close in on his position.

As the man on the right wall approached one of the largest machines in the factory, he cautiously peered around the side, giving plenty of clearance to avoid an assault from around the corner. Jeff looked down at him from the top of the machine and jumped, crashing into his head with his knees and then dropping and rolling to the side. As he fell, he drove his fist into the back of the man’s wrist, forcing him to release his grip on his weapon. Jeff grabbed the freed gun by the muzzle and smashed the grip downward onto the man’s temple, knocking him unconscious and probably killing him with the blow. He rolled into the next shadow as the two other men came rapidly on the scene. They quickly realized that they now had an armed opponent, for one of the men panicked and began firing randomly into the shadows and yelling obscenities.

A good plan often fails not because of poor decisions but because of the events that cannot be predicted. Jeff had learned to be very wary of any plan, for there were so many opportunities for the unanticipated to occur. One of those events happened now, as a randomly fired bullet, shot by a man in an unthinking frenzy, ricocheted off a hydraulic pump and imbedded itself into the right side of Jeff’s chest.

A bullet does not drill a clean hole in the tissues through which it passes. Rather it initiates a rapidly expanding cone of complete destruction as the velocity of the bullet is transferred, like falling dominoes, to the fragments of skin, fat, cartilage, bone and vital organs in turn. After entering his skin, this bullet shattered Jeff’s anterior seventh rib — sending bony fragments throughout much of his right lung — and into the muscle tissue of his heart. The large base of the cone of injury exited under Jeff’s right armpit, an eight-centimeter hole filled with a mass of bloody tissue with bone and lung fragments protruding from it.

Jeff was so far tucked in the shadows that the man who shot him could not have seen his successful targeting, and Jeff could not even make out the extent of his own wound, although he knew that it was probably fatal. He lay back and, as quietly as he could, coughed up his first mouthful of blood. It tasted salty and sticky. He felt like vomiting.

As the echoes of the gunshots died away Jeff was unable to hear the footsteps of the two Russian men over his progressively more labored breathing. They might be right around the corner, or in the next shadow over. He examined the gun that had fallen to his lap. It was an old Russian model of some kind that, in his pain and in the dark, he could not name. It looked to have about a 9-mm round. He checked the chamber and the clip and found nine bullets. It would serve.

Blood sprayed from his nose as he attempted to stifle his next cough. Jeff knew that it was quiet enough in the abandoned factory that the men in pursuit would hear any noise. He had to move. With great caution, he rolled onto his left side and pushed himself up to his feet. But he fell back into the supporting cold metal surface of the heavy press, as even the effort of standing was exhausting. More blood. More of metallic and salty taste. He spit into the fabric covering his left shoulder, and slumped to the ground. He would make his stand here.

He saw the face of the youngest Russian gangster peek around a corner of a machine several rows down. Almost simultaneously, a long shadow climbed the far wall of the building. From the angle of the shadow, Jeff reasoned that this man was now only ten paces away from him.

The sound of two pistol shots resounded through the building, and the tall shadow on the wall suddenly melted downward — no longer visible. Jeff assumed the man had ducked to take cover from the flying bullets, but who had fired the shots?

He heard a rustle to his right. He lifted the pistol from his lap — an act that seemed to require an inordinate amount of strength for such a small weapon — and aimed it through the shadows toward the corner of the machine upon which he was propped. The noise had been only a few meters away. It seemed that an eternity passed. Jeff was aware that the other Russian, to his left, must be closing in on him, but if he turned to look now, the stalker to his right would appear around the corner. Jeff’s only chance was to fire before that stalker could find him in the darkness.

He was losing his vision, a veil being drawn inexorably across his eyes. A shadowy figure stepped out from behind the machine. Jeff, already aiming at that precise spot, pulled the trigger without hesitation. The palm of his hand felt the click of the trigger mechanism, but he heard no explosion, and felt no recoil. The gun had jammed.

A flash of fire spewed from the middle of the shadow in front of him, then another and another. Jeff felt nothing as the veil drew further closed. Initially, he did not know what the noise to his left was, but he turned his head slowly to see the second Russian gangster squirm and twist as several rounds pounded into his chest. Jeff let his head fall back to the right and his torso began slipping to the ground. He thought he was imagining the pleasant scent of a perfume, the soft brush of silky hair across his face, and a pair of hands gently cradling his head as he settled to the cold cement floor. The dark veil lifted for just a moment, and he gazed upward into the kind eyes of Tanya, the lovely, ignorant, unaware prostitute. She was speaking to him in perfect English.

“It will be okay Jeff,” she was saying.

And then all was black.

Join the Club

The wind rattled the old wooden shutters. Everyone was accustomed to the sound. It was almost always there. Especially at night.

There were only six men at the table. But there were still seven oranges in the bowl. The youngest of the group was absent. The old man had his suspicions as to why.

“We have heard that someone poisoned Petur Bjarnasson.”

“Yes. I have heard it also. Fortunately, he is alive.”

“Perhaps it is not so fortunate.”

The old man shook his head. “What are you saying? This is not our purpose! There is no role for killing. No role! What have we become? What are we doing?”

“Why do you assume that we were involved?”

“Come now. We were involved. Where is our seventh?”

“He’s away.”

“He is in the Paradise Islands.”

“And someone tried to kill Bjarnasson. Accept responsibility, gentlemen. This was our man.”

“Acting without a mandate. We have never agreed to this.”

“But perhaps we should.”

“No.”

“Never.”

“It is not our way.”

“What are we going to do?”

“He cannot be allowed to continue with us.”

“What are you saying? Do we expel him?”

“We have to.”

The leader spoke for the first time. “Yes. We have to.”

The room was silent. Such a thing had never before been done.

Then the old man said, “What is the news from Mexico?”

Across the table, the man in charge of the Mexican situation spoke. “Things are moving forward very well. All the relevant players are on board. The plan is increasingly likely to be successful.”

“It had better work.”

The old man nodded. “Yes. There is no way we can stop Bjarnasson otherwise. We decided. We will not kill a man for any cause, even our most noble cause. Let’s make sure Mexico works.”

“Mexico is only beginning. And we may already be too late. Any day they could find it. With all the people on Paradise, and more coming every day, it is only a matter of time.”

“I understand that they will be opening a resort later. Pools, beaches, activities. People. Lots of people. I agree. Someone will find it all. The truth will come out. Weeks. Months. Years, maybe. But it is inevitable.”

“Unless the Mexican plan works.”

“As I said, it had better work.”

Preview

In next week’s installment (Chapter 12: Survival; Chapter 13: A Drinking Club with a Running Problem; Chapter 14: Rekindling the Fire) we find that Jeff isn’t dead, but he is badly damaged and needs to work his way home if for no other reason than to see Sophia once more. On Paradise Island, Evan Harrigan leads a race to a clue on a hidden beach.