After two attempts on her life, Alex is faced with the ultimate decision . . . kill or be killed.
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Payback in Panama
By Noel Hynd
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2013 Noel Hynd
All rights reserved.
Someone shot a young Mexican man shortly before two a.m. on the tenth day of February 2009 in a seedy motel room in Jacksonville, Florida. Someone whacked him in the side of the head and then poured two gallons of gasoline on the body. Someone, it looked like a man from a surveillance camera mounted above the parking lot—slightly built, hoodie, dark jeans, quick deft movements—doused a newspaper in some gasoline, stood in the doorway to the room, a doorway that opened to an outside walkway and the parking lot, lit the newspaper, and threw it in.
The killer recoiled from the blaze as soon as it erupted but left the door open. A fire needs air. Then the killer fled to a car.
Good so far. Nothing unusual.
A few minutes later an alarm erupted at the Jacksonville Fire Department. The firefighters responded with two engines. The blaze had spread quickly, but there were only six other inhabitants of the motel, plus the owners, a Pakistani man and his wife. The fire department was only five blocks away and the roads were clear due to the hour of the night, so the firefighters had the blaze under control within a few minutes. Only when the fire was out and they found a charred body did the firemen realize that this particular call would have to be passed along to the Jacksonville Police Department as well.
Yet by this time the victim had been thoroughly cooked. Whoever he had been, wherever he had come from, and for whatever reason he had died, he was now unrecognizable.
The Homicide Division of the Jacksonville Police Department, Fourth District, was notified at three minutes after five a.m., and two officers of that unit, Sergeant John Langley and Detective Sharon Ruiz, arrived at ten minutes before six.
They came in the same car, parked near the fire engines, and walked toward the wet remains in the room. The dead man's charred limbs, from which rose a mixture of steam and smoke, were contorted at horrific angles. There was the repulsive odor of death in the air, much like the aftermath of a small plane crash.
"Oooh," Detective Ruiz said. "Nasty."
"Yeah," her partner said.
Langley was a good homicide cop when he cared to be, which was less and less as the years passed. In comparison, Sharon Ruiz, Langley's partner, was a quiet, thin family woman of thirty-six. She had been a cop for eight years and a homicide detective for five. She looked a little like a high school math teacher. With Langley, Ruiz completed an unlikely but effective team.
Langley looked down at the corpse.
"Drugs," he said. Ruiz nodded. They could tell without looking. A deal had gone bad in some way large or small, particularly for the guy on the motel floor. It happened all the time. They saw it all the time.
Ruiz nudged the dead man's left arm with the toe of her shoe. She said nothing, but rolled her eyes to her partner. She looked to the doorway where a man with a forensics bag was arriving.
"Look what the cat dragged in," she said. "Here's our favorite ME."
The doctor from the medical examiner's office was named Kenneth Huong. Langley and Ruiz liked Huong a little less each time they saw him. He was in his thirties and Taiwan-trained. He was on the staff of one of the city hospitals that specialized in DOAs. Huong's job seemed easy to the two cops.
Ruiz added a thought. "Natural causes? Cigarettes, maybe?"
Huong didn't answer. He fumbled with his glasses, his bag, and his notebooks. His work with the proper forms elevated speed writing to an art form. He handed the completed form to the detectives so that they could start work with their forensics team and he could get out of there.
A uniformed cop entered the room.
"The motel owner's out there in pajamas and a raincoat. Name's Kahn. Says there's a surveillance video available from a position in the parking lot. He'll download it to a flash drive if you want it."
"We want it," Ruiz said.
"Yeah, we'll take it," Langley said.
The van from the morgue arrived with a body bag and a set of shovels. So did Captain Robert Mazari from the Jacksonville Second District police command, along with the department photographer. Mazari was a big, strapping man with gray hair and wide shoulders. He'd seen things go bump in the night in South Jacksonville for twenty-four years and was looking forward to retirement in another five months.
"Just tie a ribbon around him, wrap him up, and get him out of here," Mazari said.
So with little further discussion the charred remains of a human being were loaded onto the body wagon and removed.
There it was. A single, unidentifiable man murdered, his body mutilated beyond recognition. Off he went to the city morgue where, in the absence of his connection to any missing person's report, his case would diminish daily among the priorities of the homicide division. Three weeks later he was cremated, and the next day his urn was buried. It was all too typically the sort of case that drifts into the daily oblivion of the unsolved and forgotten among the big-city police forces of North America. Within four days, Langley and Ruiz had moved on to other work.
A year later, Langley's name arose in an investigation of a local gambling scandal. He retired. Sharon Ruiz drew another partner, a woman with whom she worked better. She moved to sex crime investigations and was much happier. Lieutenant Mazari retired and bought his own motel down south in Clearwater.
Had anyone cared to look deeply in the ashes, bones, and rubble, there were nonetheless certain physical clues and—just as important—certain deductions that might have been made. But no one ever bothered. And for a long time concerning the events in Room 108 at the Paradise Vista Hotel in Jacksonville, Florida, nothing else was known.
Early on a Friday afternoon in January 2013, Alexandra LaDuca sat in her office, still deeply immersed in an ongoing investigation known as Operation Párajo. Outside her forty-first-floor window, a cold five p.m. darkness had descended across lower Manhattan and all of New York City. A resolute snow had begun to fall and the workweek was nearing its conclusion.
It was oddly quiet and strangely serene in Alex's suite of offices. Due to the heavy snow alert, employees who lived in the suburbs would be allowed to leave at three p.m., before the roads became impacted, before train service became erratic. By two forty-five, the exodus from the office had already begun.
Alex LaDuca, now thirty-one years old, worked as a Senior Investigator and Administrator with a division of the US Treasury: the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN. Her agency researched and investigated financial schemes and enforced laws against domestic and international financial crimes that targeted US citizens and corporations. Technically, Alex still remained a Special Agent of the FBI, but was now on permanent loan to FinCEN to combat international financial fraud. Unlike most of her peers at FinCEN, she actually went out into the field from time to time to experience, among other things, the exhilarating feeling of being shot at and—hopefully—missed.
During the previous spring, Alex had rallied those under her command at the Financial Crimes Enforcement Center in New York, a division of the United States Department of Justice. Alex and FinCEN had inflicted several devastating and punishing hits to the international drug-dealing and money-laundering operation headed by Yardena Dosi and her husband, Misha. Alex's work, and that of her surrogates across the United States and Central and South America, had left the Dosis' villainous Panama-based operation in disarray. But Señora Dosi and her husband had successfully fled before being arrested. They had traveled a circuitous route around Central and South America as well as Europe, evading arrest at every juncture, before settling down at a plush, well-guarded estate in northern Morocco.
There they lived, swore revenge, and, even more ominously, plotted it. Two attempts to assassinate Alex—a sniper firing at her through a high-rise window in New York and another gunman on a motorbike on a crowded Manhattan street—had failed. But it was no secret that others, known and unknown, were in the works. Three times was often the charm, or the curse, in this line of work. And everyone knew it.
The various attempts had driven Alex to live under the "protective cover and alias" of Susanna Ferrara in a well-protected private condominium in Chelsea on Manhattan's Twenty-First Street. It was nice to be armed with one's faith and a sense of righteousness, but some urban strategy was wise, too.
How long all of this would last was anyone's guess. It was common currency among those familiar with the operation that the lethal chess game—meticulous move, followed but meticulous move, suddenly augmented by bold, brazen attack—would end only when one of the two queens was down and out of the match. The scurrilous Dosi couple were frighteningly resilient, always ready to come back blazing with every weapon they had. So Alex would continue to live under her nom de guerre. King and Queen Dosi, lions of the international underworld, were a big battle in a major war.
The war was fought on many fronts, not just in back alleys, on cargo piers, and on beaches, but also in boardrooms, in luxury hotel suites, on accounting ledgers, and in various sunny places for shady people, places where offshore "banking secrecy jurisdictions" provided the ideal cover to shroud money and its various paths.
Earlier at FinCEN, the case had come across Alex's desk of the Russian arms dealer Viktor Anatolyevich Bout. Bout had been arrested in Thailand in 2008 before being extradited in 2010 to the United States. In November of 2011, he had been convicted by a jury and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison by a federal judge for conspiring to sell antiaircraft missiles to agents posing as foreign revolutionaries.
Court papers suggested the intent was to sell arms sales to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban for use against American soldiers and citizens. Most of Bout's transactions had used such "secrecy banking" locations. It was no coincidence that Bout—known as the Merchant of Death—had found a Bulgarian weapons supplier based on the offshore haven of Gibraltar. Nothing in the offshore havens happened by coincidence. The British Virgin Islands, a popular haven for secret transactions, were home to about thirty thousand citizens and half a million companies and bank accounts. In China, Alex knew from her old comrade in arms Peter Chang, it was said that a businessman was not a true success until he had his own subsidiary in the British Virgin Islands, where more assets belonging to Chinese nationals were held than in any other location except Hong Kong. And then there was Ugland House, a building in the tax haven of the Cayman Islands. More than twenty thousand corporations were listed there. There was more money on deposit in the Caymans than combined in all the banks in New York City.
The secrecy laws protected home-grown American crooks and con men, also. Bernie Madoff had worked in New York, but the funds that fed his Ponzi scheme were stashed in the sunshine of scores of exotic offshore locales. The accounts looked like independent hedge funds, but were conduits that funneled investor money back to Madoff. They furnished no information to the United States Treasury or regulatory authorities.
Similarly, another recent Ponzi figure, Robert Allen Stanford, inherited a legitimate and profitable insurance company in Texas. Planning for bigger things, however, he branched out into banking fraud, and he moved to Antigua. Taking advantage of secrecy laws and outright bribery, Stanford cheated investors out of seven billion dollars by selling phony certificates of deposit. Not only did the friendly government of Antigua fail to stop him, Alex noted as the Stanford case passed across her desk and through FinCEN, but the Antiguans decorated him with a knighthood. He used the knighthood to further impress his potential victims. A bit later, following his arrest in the United States, a federal judge rewarded him again, this time with a one-hundred-ten-year prison sentence for fraud. During trial, Houston-born Lord Stanford claimed amnesia due to the terrible stress of the trumped-up charges against him and the horrible things people were saying about him.
So it went, as Alex spent several tedious hours a day scouring leads and tips from leaked information from these off-shores. She meticulously read through a library of files on drug trafficking in Central America, all of which bore upon the involvement of the Dosi money-laundering operations. For these times, when concentration was at a premium as she searched for interplay between accounts and operations, she kept herself locked up in her office like a monk or a nun poring over ancient manuscripts in a convent, searching for inspiration.
The ground game itself was spreading: north of Panama, the home base of the departed Dosi family, smuggling operations were sprouting across countries like Guatemala and Honduras. Increasingly, those two Central American nations were on Alex's radar screen.
And yet, additionally, the previous November, Alex had opened a new line of investigation and attack against the Dosis. It was well known that they were behind several homicides, both in the United States and in at least seven other countries. Alex and her staff had pored through many of the cases attributed to them, looking to establish links, hoping to parlay good luck into a sealed indictment.
From time to time, even the meticulous Dosi couple had to emerge from hiding and travel to maintain their networks. It had been Alex's strategy to build a homicide case against them, wait for them to set foot in a country with extradition, and prevail upon the locals to make an arrest. So far, some cases were coming tantalizingly close to success. But there had been no payoff so far and as of that morning she and her assistants had pursued thirty-six separate leads.
Around four p.m., Rick McCarron, Alex's best CIA contact, phoned Alex on a secure line. McCarron had a lead on a thirty-seventh. Maybe.
"I'm calling to find out how Párajo is going," Rick asked. "I had an inquiry from a foreign government. They have something that might help you but want something in return."
"How big is the 'something in return'?" Alex asked.
There was a pause. "Considerable," McCarron said. "But it can be handled out of some middle-range CIA assets. Inventory, you know."
She grimaced. "Inventory," she repeated. Inventory meant sale or exchange with other police units or intelligence service. It was a loathsome back alley commerce in crooks, defectors, and scam artists, usually small-time at this level, where even pretenses of official justice and morality were completely absent.
Alex was ill at ease with the practice, or at least had been when her tenure at FinCEN had begun. Now, having seen a few examples, she hadn't changed her position, but she knew it was one of the pieces of currency in which people in her position traded.
"I assume this is back channel."
"Totally. A 100 percent black operation which is about to turn a few shades darker."
"Am I familiar with the asset?" she asked.
"I don't suppose you can share a name with me."
"No names yet," McCarron said. "I just wanted to see whether you were in a position to need a new ingredient in the Dosi case. If so, I'll tell my foreign contact he may have a buyer." McCarron paused. "This is not to sway you one way or another," he said, "but if you were inclined to say you're in the market, it would complete another arrangement for us. And there's a little frontier justice at the far end of this, also. A couple of ne'er-do well 'some-ones' are going to get exactly what they have coming to them."
"Making it a little easier for me, huh?" Alex asked. "The well-deserved payback thing."
"Maybe," McCarron said. "Payback is a good thing, don't you think? It balances the karma around the world."
"If you say so, Rick," she parried, thinking it through further. "I can always use another good lead," she said. "If it doesn't cost too much."
"That's what I wanted to hear," McCarron said. "I hear it's snowing in New York. True?"
She glanced out the window again and managed a slight smile. "You Agency guys have all the top info, don't you?" she said. "Even the weather."
"We like to think so," he said. "Have a good weekend. I'll be back to you next week."
Yet right now, at the end of this particular week, other matters currently encroached on Alex's precious time. Two in particular. One pleasant, one unpleasant.
Excerpted from Payback in Panama by Noel Hynd. Copyright © 2013 Noel Hynd. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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