Author - Jeffrey Osburn

Chapter One

            The aging P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft cruised at 5,000 feet as the early morning sun began to lighten the eastern horizon over the Caribbean to a beautiful predawn peach-pink.  The pilot of the six-man crew always felt drowsy just before dawn as they sensed the refreshing energy of the first rays of light shining through the forward windscreen.  It was a numbing, perfectly boring routine flying interdiction missions for the United States Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine division.

            The pilot, Captain Mike Andersen, joined CBP Air a few months after September 11, 2001 when he was furloughed by TWA.  The job paid far less than what he made as a commercial aviator, but being a young pilot without seniority his options were limited. Nevertheless, the benefits were good and he found satisfaction being a part of the world’s largest Law Enforcement Air Force.  His unit, operating out of Corpus Christi, Texas, was responsible for taking $3 billion worth of illegal drugs out of circulation last year alone. He often reminded himself that was certainly something worthwhile.

            The crew of Interdiction Agents was even younger than Andersen, and they were comprised of former servicemen from the Navy and Coast Guard.  However, this unit had experienced more action in the past year than most sailors and Coast Guardsmen see in a full tour of duty.  In fact, only the CBP Air bases in Corpus Christi and Jacksonville that operated the P-3s had the authorization to perform interdiction missions without permission of the local Border Patrol’s sector chief.

            The Orion was nearing the apex of the flight pattern extending to a point between the southernmost tip of the Florida Keys and the northern coast of Cuba.  Disengaging the autopilot, Andersen started the two outboard engines and prepared to reverse direction.  The drone of the four Allison turboprop engines changed pitch as he eased back the throttle and started to bank. The maneuver woke one of the three Detection System Specialists (DSS) responsible for operating the Electronic Support Measures system.

            Andersen looked over his shoulder and smiled at his waking colleagues. 

            “Enjoy your nap, kids?”

            CBP Agent Jill Neelson stretched and adjusted her headset.  “Wide awake, Boss.”  She elbowed the DSS in the chair next to her.

            “Is it that time already?”  Karl Stuart said. He yawned, rubbed his eyes behind his glasses, and then glanced at the altimeter display as the Orion leveled out at three-thousand feet.  The flight engineer, Julian Thomas seated in the cockpit with the two pilots would now rotate onto his own thirty-minute break.

            “Yep.  Get your cameras ready, boys and girls,” said Andersen.  “Let’s see what’s happening today on Fantasy Island.”

            The CBP Air and Marine routinely gathered electronic intelligence for other agencies within the Department of Homeland Security.  The DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis would review the information gathered during the weekly surveillance run and although thousands of hours would be spent analyzing the data, it was only seldom that anything of value would be found.

            The forty-five year old aircraft piloted by Andersen had received the P3-C Update III package last year making it a most capable intelligence platform despite its age.  Though tasked with the primary duty of detecting watercraft smuggling drugs, the opportunity to observe the Cuban coastline would not be wasted.  The Electro-Optical Sensor System would be used for today’s sortie since the weather and light conditions were good.

            Andersen drew copilot Adrian Rangel’s attention to the massive ultra-deepwater drilling platform twenty-five miles off the northwestern coast of Cuba.  It was a visual reference point they used to time the engagement of the EOSS program.

            “Got it,” said Rangel over the intercom.  He was surprised when he looked to the top of the towering rig.  “Hey, check out the flag, Boss.”

            Andersen used a small joystick to zoom the EOSS camera in on the top mast of the oil platform.  The image on his high-resolution color display surprised him.

            An enormous red flag with a large yellow star in the upper left corner, flanked by four smaller stars, filled the LCD screen.  “I’ll bet you it’s bigger than the one in Tiananmen Square,” Andersen said, shaking his head.

            For weeks the surveillance team measured and reported the drilling platform’s inexorable trek into the strait separating the island nation from the United States, much to the chagrin of U.S. oil and gas companies, state and federal lawmakers and environmental conservation groups.  Not since the discussions of opening the Alaskan National Wildlife Artic Refuge to drilling had there been such an outcry.  Apart from its proximity to the U.S. coast and the fact it was China assisting Cuba in the effort, there was a greater problem. The drilling was taking place in disputed territory on the continental shelf of the United States.

            The Maritime Boundary Agreement, signed by Cuba and the U.S. in 1977, established the boundary between the two countries to be the halfway point in the strait between Florida and Cuba.  In 1999, however, following the formulas outlined in Article 76 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas, the United States attempted to prove amidst cries of protest that its continental margin actually extended to within 20 miles of the Cuban coast.  According to Article 76, the exclusive economic rights and natural resources in the sea and below the seafloor belonged to the United States.  Cuba, and therefore China by extension, were squatting on U.S. territory. 

            Through Article 76, the United Nations sought to create an objective, science-based method by which coastal nations could determine the geographic extents of their underwater boundaries.  The actual result was a reshuffled international deck of cards with new players holding the best hands.  Equipped with a new energy policy to begin actively drilling in offshore areas previously off limits, the United States was prepared to make the most of a crude oil market that had recently traded above $100 a barrel.

            The United States, in accordance with Article 76 and the newly created internationally recognized laws, asserted claims to regions not only in the Gulf of Mexico, but also to Georges Bank in the northeast Atlantic, Blake Plateau in the southeast Atlantic, the eastern Gulf of Alaska, the Aleutian Basin and Bering Sea, the Artic and Chukchi Seas, and the islands of the Pacific Trust Territory.  Although not a participant in the process undertaken by the United Nations, the United States was one of the countries that benefited most from the new laws

            With just a year left in the 10-year protest period, it was not likely the countries disputing the U.S. claims could substantiate their opposition.  None was more opposed than the tiny Communist nation on the south end of the Strait of Florida.  Making matters worse for the United States, defending the rights of Cuba was a cause being taken up by China, with assistance from its closest socialist ally, Venezuela.

            The warbling warning sound from the Radar Warning Receiver jolted Jill Neelson.   “Boss, we have multiple threat warnings,” she shouted startling the pilots.

            “Say again?” Rangel said raising his eyebrows.

            “Two aircraft approaching at 8,000 feet, three miles to the southeast.”  Neelson bit her lower lip and steadied herself.  “Their radars just lit us up,” she said.

            The crew was accustomed to receiving non-threatening “pings” from the ground-based radar systems used by Cuba’s aging missile batteries, relics left from the Soviet Union’s military arsenal.  The Radar Warning Receiver indicated that this radar energy was in tracking mode and sending guidance information to the aggressor aircraft.

            Not since four Cuban-American pilots were shot down and killed while flying a humanitarian mission more than twelve years ago had there been any instance of airborne aggression in this airspace.  Seldom had any aircraft from the CBP Air and Marine come under hostile fire, and never from a military source.

            “Start countermeasures,” said Andersen.  He then called flight engineer Thomas, who had just stretched out on the rack in the rear galley, back to the cockpit

            “Roger that,” Stuart said, quickly switching on the electronic countermeasures display that engaged the radar jamming system.  Operating in international airspace, the crew routinely ignored aircraft passing within five miles.  Stuart now questioned the practice.

            Andersen waited a moment to verify that the aircraft he thought were most likely old Mi-Gs were planning to engage.  He was starting to regret this mission was flown without the aid of a “dome”, which was the Airborne Warning and Control System version of the P-3. Outfitted with a powerful radar dome like that, they would have had the benefit of an early warning.  Flying in the tandem Double Eagle configuration, the “dome” would have provided air traffic control and early warning information to their “slick” in a 360-degree, 250-nautical mile search area.

            “I have a missile launch indicated, sir.” Neelson was shaking her head like it was all a dream.

            Andersen's barked out his command.

            “Call this in to CBP Jacksonville, now.”

            “Sir, two Su-27 Flankers are tracking us,” said Stuart, using NATO’s designation of the Russian-made interceptor.  “They managed to get off the missile before our jamming system kicked in.”  Stuart and Neelson exchanged glances.

            The information was redundant to Anderson.  His IFF display—Identification, Friend or Foe—informed the pilot that the two jets were of Russian origin, manufactured by the Sukhoi Corporation.  Andersen wondered for a moment why the former Soviet Union had never bothered to change the internal designator to the foreign countries that had purchased fighter jets from them.

            “Taking evasive maneuvers.  Launch countermeasures,” Andersen ordered.  He remained calm as his copilot radioed a second distress message to CBP’s Cecil Field Air and Marine Operations near Jacksonville, Florida.  The crew tightened their four-point harnesses and braced themselves as Andersen rolled the lumbering aircraft 135 degrees to a near inverted position. 

            Rangel’s pulse raced and his senses throbbed.  He launched a series of flares as Andersen simultaneously pulled back on the throttles and set the yoke into his lap, placing the Orion into a diving turn back toward the northeast.  The aging P-3 strained against the g-forces as the large blades of the Allison turboprop pushed back against the rushing wind.

            Andersen’s eyes quickly scanned the altimeter, airspeed and g-meter, striving to balance the forces as he maneuvered the plane: pull too hard and the wings would shear from the airframe, not enough pull and the waters Gulf of Mexico would become their grave.

            Rangel’s hands were sweaty and clammy inside his gloves and a wave of bile gathered in his stomach as they reached the bottom of their vertical maneuver just three hundred feet above the water.

            The overwrought turbo-prop engines reverberated through the airframe as Andersen pushed the throttles all the way forward, sustaining as much airspeed as possible with the threat now behind them.  The trailing jets would have the morning sun, now cresting above the horizon, to blind their pursuit.

            “Missile is still locked on us, sir,” said Neelson.  Her big brown eyes were wide behind her glasses although her voice was composed.

            Rangel cursed under his breath as he watched the flashing dot on the cockpit screen close in on their position at Mach-4.  They raced toward the Florida coast and, hopefully, to some much needed air support. He did a quick calculation of the rate of closure and turned to his captain. 

            “Boss, we’re not going to make it,” he said and the beads of sweat that had gathered above his dark eyebrows glistened.

            Andersen ignored Rangel and gave another order. 

            “Get ready to launch flares again.”  He knew it would be impossible to outmaneuver the missile but hoped the flares would trick its heat-seeking radar into believing it was locked on the Orion’s engines.  “God, help us,” he whispered.

            The P-3 was moments away from reaching the U.S. mainland when Stuart double-checked his monitor and gasped. “The bogies have disengaged, Boss.”

            Simultaneously, the missile terminated its acquisition signal on command from the lead Flanker and dropped harmlessly into the Gulf of Mexico, a mere 100 yards from the Orion.   Though normally deployed in a fire-and-forget mode, the pilot that released the PL-12 smart missile controlled the launch and flight right until the end.  The three Detection Systems Specialists exhaled simultaneously as they watched the threat monitor go blank.

            Andersen pretended not to notice as Rangel removed his mic and vomited in the plastic bag that was carried on board for that reason.

            “Adrian, let’s work on a clearance to proceed to Cecil Field.”

            The crew was in no condition to continue the mission.  Andersen had made up his mind to divert the mission to this nearby CBP base.

            Pale and shaking, Rangel wiped his mouth on his sleeve.

            “Roger, Boss.”

            The final five minutes passed in silence as the crew of the Orion each tried to sort out what had just happened.  They all knew how defenseless they were flying recon missions without weapons or armed escort, but none of them had anticipated a day when they would be the target of an unprovoked attack.  After all, they were flying in international airspace.

            Andersen fumed quietly as he finally allowed himself to consider how close they had all come to dying.  He looked at his copilot and remembered that during his first combat encounter his own reaction had been just like Rangel’s.

            “You okay?”

            Rangel shook his head.

            “Yeah,” he said but didn’t look up.

            Andersen saw the mixture of tension and relief in his young copilot.  His confidence had been severely shaken.  “Bring us in, Adrian.”

            “Copilot has the controls,” said Rangel with all the assurance he could muster, and he brought the plane into the glide path for landing near Jacksonville, Florida.

            Ray Timmons was deep in thought.

            “It’s not as if no one knew China was going to be involved in Cuba’s offshore drilling,” he said.  Ray and his team of engineers had been keeping a close eye on the progress of the newly deployed ultra-deepwater rig. ParTex had spent the last nine months mapping every square inch of the Gulf of Mexico.  “But who would have anticipated they would use the Chinese as mercenary guard dogs?” He said shaking his head.

            “Well, now it’s out there for everyone to see,” said John Billings, legal counsel for the independent defense and petroleum industry contractor.  “It’s like they’re rubbing our noses in it.”

            “I’ve been saying it for years. Someone is going to tap all that crude off the Florida coast.  It should have been us,” said Tom McBride.  He had spent many fruitless years lobbying members of Congress to persuade the state’s legislature to overturn the outdated prohibition against offshore drilling in Florida.  Now that crude oil had been trading in triple-digits per barrel, more lawmakers were ready to reopen the discussions and find an environmentally responsible way to drill in the protected areas.  “And you know it has to be driving the eco-nuts crazy seeing that oil platform so close to the Keys.”  McBride chuckled at the thought of it.

            Chief Executive Dan Parsons interjected.

            “There’s no doubt American drillers would be far more environmentally responsible than either the Chinese or the Cubans,” he said.  “But the real issue is who has the rights to drill in these waters.  Word from Washington is that we’re going to press our claim to the UN to enforce our economic zone all the way to downtown Havana, if possible.”

            The directors of ParTex had recently decided to take their new discovery—a satellite-based method of locating offshore deepwater oil formations with pinpoint accuracy—to the government first before making the technology available to the private sector.  The political dimension of global oil exploration and exploitation and its impact on national security was all too familiar to the directors.  Now equipped with the data necessary to drill responsibly and productively, the United States government was in the best position it had seen in years to lessen its dependence on foreign oil.

            Dan Parsons was a true entrepreneur in every sense of the word, but had the reputation of putting his duty as a citizen above his financial interests.  Though he had amassed a fortune by age forty-five, he still lived by the principle that true wealth was not a matter of who had the most, but he who needed the least.  The government—without surprising any of the directors—had agreed that the public interest be served before the private sector, but had made certain that the exclusivity period was handsomely rewarded.

            Larry Newsome, Petroleum Engineer and board member of Houston-based ParTex International, headed up the latest project, one that was funded by “unallocated” government monies.  It was lucrative for ParTex, and entirely legal.  Besides, such a small amount of the Department of Defense’s budget was hardly noticed among all the other massive contracts that went to private firms.

            ParTex had refined the satellite-based underground technologies dubbed “DeepSat”. These were the ones used so successfully in the Border Protection Initiative two years before to locate underground tunnels used for smuggling.  It was then that Newsome and his team discovered by sheer accident that its newest technology was capable of identifying geological structures in ultra-deepwater as well.  The past year had been spent fine-tuning the programs, and the result was one of the most valuable pieces of intellectual properties in decades.  The only thing more amazing was the fact that that the technology had remained a secret from all but a select few outside of ParTex; most of these were high-ranking DOD officials with a highly-vested interest.

            Everyone agreed the lessons learned in Iraq and other parts of the world were hard and not to be repeated. The fledgling democracy in Iraq yielded little economic benefit from oil revenues and there was far less advantage for the United States there.  Russia continued to exploit the Northern Territories while India and China aggressively drilled in their own waters; both forged partnerships with countries that lacked the resources to do so on their own.

            Venezuela frequently had used cheap oil as global propaganda in Central and South America.  Consequently, the United States threatened to cut off its imports of Venezuelan crude as part of a tough embargo designed to bring down the socialist dictatorship.  Though the pressure seemed insignificant at first, many failed to realize that few countries had refineries capable of processing the low quality, high-sulfur Venezuelan crude.

            Thus, a new resolve hardened in American politics and among the general population to find a way out of dependence on foreign oil, first by reducing demand and second by tapping national sources of crude.  The part of the project assigned to ParTex—mapping the offshore territories and finding the likely oil formations—was deemed critical to the United States being able to proclaim energy independence.

            “We just received this morning the coordinates of the Chinese rig.  Our mapped data shows they will likely have a dry hole,” said Newsome.  “I don’t know, but they must be using some really old seismic data to have chosen that location.” He paused and thought for a moment.  “Or it may be that this whole exercise has a much different meaning and purpose.”

            Parsons looked over at him.

            “What do you mean, Larry?”

            “China knows that things are going to change real soon in Cuba.  No more comrades to make sure you’ve got your oil.”

            “Stake a preemptive claim in a place you know will be disputed, and then negotiate from there?” asked Billings and Newsome nodded.

            McBride furrowed his brow.

            “That is one heck of an expensive political statement, Larry,” he said, “but I agree.  It’s as if they’re encroaching on our turf and daring us to do something about it.”

            “And they’re doing their best to draw attention to that fact,” added Newsome.

            “If they want to play chicken, I say bring it on,” said Stefan Wahl, the youngest member of the ParTex board of directors and chief programmer.  Wahl was a dropout from UCal San Diego, and a math wizard.  He had recently taken an interest in poker, and could not understand why others did not grasp the laws of probability as well as he did.  His knowledge of playing the odds was cemented by the fact he was no longer welcome at the casinos in Lake Charles, the closest place to Houston to gamble.  “They won’t be able to negotiate a thing as long as we’re holding all the cards.  There is no oil where China’s rig sits.”

            “You sound confident Stef,” said Parsons.

            “I am, sir.  We have every inch of the eastern GoM fully mapped.  I don’t know where the lost city of Atlantis is, but I can tell you where it is not.”  The directors chuckled, but Wahl remained serious.

            Newsome smirked.

            “Hey Stef, while you’re at it maybe you can help locate the Loch Ness monster, too.”  He hooted loudly and high fived Timmons.

            “What I’m really hoping to locate is a treasure chest so I can buy you a clue, Larry,” said Wahl.  “Besides, everybody knows Nessie lives in fresh water.”

            “Come on, now.  I always kinda’ thought it lived in the Bayou Teche, back home in Breaux Bridge.” Newsome laughed.

            Parsons indulged the jibes but moved to change the topic before things spun out of control as they usually did.

            “We need to get this info to the Department of Defense.  Are we prepared to make final submission of the Gulf of Mexico DeepSat maps?” He asked.

            Timmons answered.  “Yeah, I’d say we’ve shaken them down enough to guarantee 99% accuracy.”

            “Ninety-nine point four seven,” corrected Wahl.  The whole ParTex board groaned in unison.  “What?” Wahl said. He was confused by their reaction.

            “Excuse me.  Ninety-nine point four seven percent accuracy,” said Timmons.

            Wahl smiled with approval.

            “Okay, okay.” Parsons rolled his eyes.  “John, Tom, call General Butler.  Tell him the two of you are on the way.”

            The National Capitol Building was overflowing with the dignitaries representing many nations that had now gathered for the ceremony.  The country’s leader was lying in state, known as a revolutionary, a hero, a despot or murderer depending on to whom you spoke.  Rene Cardenas’ last living order was that his body not be visible during the funerary proceedings at the Capitolio so the ornately-filigreed bronze coffin was draped with the red, white and blue flag of the Republic of Cuba.

            Chief of Mission Homero Rios sat beside the American Secretary of State gazing into the crowd that had gathered. The heads of state of Russia, Spain, China, Venezuela, Iran, Mexico, and India, were seated in the prominent positions among others.  On the platform behind the casket stood General Joaquin Sepulveda. He frowned and wrung his hands as he waited for his chance to speak.

            It was a critical time in the history of the communist island nation.  Felix Cardenas, the elder brother of the deceased who ruled over Cuba uninterrupted for more than 50 years, had transferred his responsibilities to his younger brother, Rene, after a hospitalization following a medical procedure to remove a cancerous part of his colon.  Five years later, he died of complications from a bout of pneumonia.

            The younger Cardenas was in power for a comparatively short period of time when he succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver that was the result of many years of alcoholism.  General Sepulveda had imposed the martial law that had been in force since the younger Cardenas had died.  The citizens of Cuba passively remained under control of the de facto military government, but many sensed a groundswell of change in the making.

            Being of Cuban descent himself and in touch with the sentiments of the majority of the people, Rios was one of those who anticipated the popular uprising his government predicted would follow the death of Rene Cardenas.  As Chief of Mission of the United States Interests Section in Havana, Rios was very much aware of the growing unrest in the communist country.  Although Rene Cardenas tried to improve wages and motivate productivity, little had changed in the lives of the common worker.  A recession that lingered for more than 15 years had eroded the average earnings of the Cuban worker by one quarter.  And in a command economy where more than half of the work force was employed by the government, the common Cuban employee still had even less motivation to improve productivity or do little more than what was required by the state.

            One faction poised to take control of Cuba was an army of college students who now dared to demand freedom and democracy.  Other dissident groups hijacked buses and sought asylum at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Although Rios hoped it would be a bloodless transition, he knew the military machine was what filled the vacuum for the time being.  Those in the higher levels of the military would fight hard to maintain the lives of privilege and power they were accustomed to.

            There was another group that Rios would watch with interest as well.  The Directorate of Intelligence (DI) had worked tirelessly to identify those dissenters most likely to participate in organizing a popular revolt against the communist regime.  They were now slowly losing their iron grip on the masses, and it was expected some would fight to maintain their positions while others would use their influence to get out of the country at the first opportunity.

            Over the preceding decades, Cuba’s spy agency had covertly employed operatives in businesses, universities, and even foreign governments.  Trained in intelligence gathering and fieldcraft by the Soviet Union, the DI rivaled many of the world’s top intelligence agencies.  The global intelligence community was once shocked to discover that a high-ranking senior Cuba analyst at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency in fact worked for Cardenas and had assisted in passing along classified information that would eventually aid al Qaeda in the war with the United States and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

            It angered Rios that so many Americans, and especially the celebrity types, knew so little about the threats Cuba posed to the United States.  He wondered how they could they ignore the fact that Cardenas had supported terrorism around the world for over five decades, and that there were thousands of dissenters crowding his prisons whose only crime was to espouse ideas contrary to the dictator.  He felt it was ironic that these same people were so vehemently opposed to the United States holding enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay.

            The young Chief of Mission grew to dislike Cardenas as he listened to the stories his parents and grandparents told about the revolution and their escape from Cuba.  While still an undergraduate at the University of Florida, Rios interned with the humanitarian organization Brothers to the Rescue, and met the pilots there who were later shot down by Cardenas’ command.  Dislike gave way to loathing, and Rios pledged to work hard to find a way to help restore self rule to the homeland of his forefathers.

            His first encounter with Cardenas was memorable if not outright embarrassing.  Rios had been working for the Department of Agriculture when the first international trade show was held in Havana just months after legislation was relaxed to allow the exports of certain agricultural products to Cuba.

            He was seated at a table with three trade representatives from Mexico since the Cubans were very nervous of any association with the Americans.  He was on his sixth mojito of the evening and feeling no pain when he remembered one of his favorite jokes and started telling it, 

            “Here’s one: two doctors—one Cuban and one American—attending a medical conference, were having drinks at a bar when they began bragging about how good the doctors were in their own country.  ‘In the United States, our doctors can perform open heart surgery in six hours,’ the American says.  ‘That’s pretty good,’ replied the Cuban, ‘but in Cuba, we can do open heart procedures in less than four hours.’  Not to be outdone, the American doctor said, ‘We can perform a kidney transplant in less than four hours.’  ‘In Cuba, we do it in less than two hours,’ the other replied.   ‘Well, can you beat our best time for a tonsillectomy—just thirty minutes?’ asked the American doctor. ‘Ah, you have us there,’ replied the Cuban.  ‘It takes us twelve hours for a tonsillectomy.’ ‘Why so long?’ asked the American.  ‘In Cuba, you see, no one wants to open his mouth…’”

            “…so we have to remove his tonsils through his ass,” a man had said who'd been standing behind Rios.

            He wore drab, olive-colored military fatigues and a matching cap, and he’d stared with steely black eyes as Rios turned around to meet his gaze.  The Mexican trade reps turned pale when they recognized the bearded man with the stub of a cigar in his mouth.

            “Who is this young pup?” Felix Cardenas asked his aide without looking away.

            “The name is Homero Rios,” Rios said without standing or extending his hand before the aide had a chance to respond.

            “You dare insult my country while a guest, señor Rios?”

            “Not an insult, Mr. Cardenas, just an old joke,” he replied.  “A joke I was told by a former citizen of your country.”

            “I find that hard to believe.  Who told you this?” Cardenas demanded.

            “Oh, it was a very long time ago,” Rios began, “probably right after you took over in 1959, if I remember correctly.  The man was my grandfather.”

            Cardenas sneered.

            “Well then, that makes him a traitor,” he said.  

            “You may be right,” Rios shot back.  “A traitor to your revolution, perhaps.  But he never once lived in fear of opening his mouth.”

            “Nor do you, I see.”  Cardenas sized Rios up and down, then turned to his aide.  “This one bears watching.”  He shook a bony finger at Rios.  “Yes, I will remember him.”

            Cardenas did remember Homero Rios, too.  In fact, the two spent quite a bit of time together over the next decade in lively negotiations. They even managed to develop something like a mutual respect for each other.  Rios smiled at the memories while he waited for the funeral to end.  He’d also been careful not to tell any more Cuban jokes after that first encounter.

            The crowd that had gathered to pay their respects stood abruptly, momentarily confusing Rios until he noticed that General Sepulveda had concluded his eulogy.  Then he stood and bid a silent farewell to the man he still considered a murderer. 

            Jorge Bolivar stepped out of the Mercedes that had diplomatic tags onto the busy sidewalk.  Leaning back into the open window, he gave instructions to his driver to pick him up in an hour.  Tossing his cigarette butt into the street, he turned to walk into the dimly lit deli that was in front of him; it was one of the few restaurants in Washington, D.C. where Bolivar could get a good Cuban sandwich.

            He caught a fleeting glimpse of his car as it sped around the corner and away down the block.  His driver Jose could never resist spinning the tires because he liked to imagine he was a Formula One driver.  That brought a smile to Bolivar's face.  He shook his head because he understood.  The CLS63 was an amazing piece of work. He thought of the car as a work of art.  “And a four-door coupe, something of an oxymoron—not unlike myself,” he chuckled.  “Perhaps that is why I so dearly love that car,” he said as the deli door shut behind him.

            Bolivar had received his appointment to the post of Ambassador to the Cuban Interests Section six months before by Rene Cardenas.  Felix’s younger brother felt the need to surround himself with la guardia vieja—the old guard.  Bolivar had served thirteen years as Assistant Chief of the Directorate of Intelligence. It was a post he still officially held.  The only difference was that he worked harder now at his cover job than his DI job.  But what could be more convenient than spying on another country while enjoying the privileges that came with being an ambassador at the same time?  He thought it was beautifully ironic.

            Had he been a career diplomat, it would be more problematic to manage working for a foreign intelligence agency while in a host country.  It was far too easy to have their governments confuse the distinctions between the professions.

            Bolivar cared little about what confusion his new job created.  He lived alone in Washington, DC, and enjoyed his new life and the deferential respect paid him by the Americans.  It amused him when he spotted those assigned to watch him because he knew there was absolutely nothing they could do to him.  He could speed around the beltway as fast as he wanted, or even carry a gun if he chose.  Diplomatic immunity was a heady rush for the powerful spy.

            He walked past the deli counter to greet the owner.  “Good day, Omar.”

            Amar Patel did not mind that the ambassador consistently mispronounced his name.  He was a regular customer that tipped well.  

            “How are you, Mr. Bolivar?”

            “Fine,” Bolivar said.  “I’ll be joined by a guest, shortly.”

            “The usual?” asked Amar.

            “Make it two this time.”

            Bolivar settled into the corner booth and looked around.  The regular customers who were drinking coffee and reading the Post seemed like permanent fixtures at Katz’ Deli.  It was far enough away from the haunts frequented by politicians, lawyers, and lobbyists as to afford a safe meeting place for the ambassador and his occasional visitor.  The owner, Amar, was very discreet, having been taught well by his former boss, Chaim Katz, while Amar was still a dishwasher.

            Satisfied there were no threats, Bolivar pulled a file from his diplomatic case. It was a dossier on a small defense contractor in Houston—ParTex International—and its principals.  The Office of the Directorate of Intelligence had learned of the company’s integral involvement with mapping the underground expanse beneath the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and of the remarkable success they had locating significant oil finds in areas previously thought to be barren.  Bolivar was tasked with finding a weakness in ParTex and exploiting it in order to gain advantage for Cuba’s oil exploration efforts.

            Bolivar took a sip of his coffee and wondered what was in store now that Rene Cardenas was dead.  Not that his efforts to undermine ParTex would be wasted, of course.  He knew that if his government and the Directorate of Intelligence were removed from power, the information he gathered would still be valuable to another party.  Especially to one particular country that was in desperate need of oil to fuel it’s rapidly expanding economy.

            It was readily apparent that ParTex’ most valuable stock in trade was its unique application of programming and analysis to the most common tasks.  It was logical to assume they would be very tight with electronic data security, and so it was time to find a different way to gather the needed information, a new approach to gain access to the necessary intelligence. When Bolivar saw his guest step into the restaurant, he put the documents back in their place.  Even from this distance, he began to believe he had found his new approach to breach ParTex’ security and find and exploit a weakness—a weakness common to every man.

            Sofia Berlusconi removed her sunglasses and took a moment to let her eyes adjust to the dimly lit dining room.  When she recognized the Cuban Ambassador, she made her way to the booth in the back.

            Bolivar stood to greet Sofia, and shook her hand.  “Ms. Berlusconi.  It’s a pleasure to meet you.”  Her natural beauty stunned him as he motioned for her to take a seat.

            “Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.”

            “Please, call me Jorge.”

            “I expected you would prefer ‘comrade’, Mr. Bolivar,” she taunted and slid into the booth.

            Bolivar smiled; he liked ballsy women.  And he was convinced there were none were more ballsy—or beautiful—than Venezuelan women.

            Sofia was a petroleum engineer by education and a graduate of her country’s premiere institution, the Universidad Central de Venezuela, in Caracas.  She was recruited straight out of college to work for the Intelligence and Preventive Services Directorate, known widely by its Spanish acronym, DISIP.  There was a lack of agents in the Directorate following the failed coup attempt in 2002. President Hernán Chapa fired or imprisoned more than one-third of the Directorate because they hadn’t seen the revolt coming.

            Berlusconi used her degree and her training in engineering effectively as a cover, working ostensibly as a mid-level project manager at Magna Petroleum in Pasadena, Texas, just southeast of Houston.  Placing her there was easy since Venezuela was majority owner of the gas refinery.

            Sofia’s grandparents were middle-class business owners who immigrated to Venezuela from Italy shortly after Mussolini signed the Pact of Steel with Nazi Germany.  Born to a German father and Italian mother, Sofia was favored with her father’s blue eyes and tall stature, and her mother’s extraordinary beauty, wavy dark hair and olive complexion.  She learned early in life that her physical beauty could help her get many things she could not otherwise get.  It was this ability—and her academic reputation on campus—that attracted the DISIP recruiters to her while she was in college.  Partly to maintain her cover and partly out of deference to her mother, Sofia adopted her mother’s maiden name when she joined the Directorate.

            Berlusconi's espionage services were used sparingly since her government considered her to be too great an asset to risk blowing her cover before she was able to make a major contribution.  Without their knowledge, she occasionally freelanced to earn extra money and this meeting at the deli was one such occasion.

            Amar personally brought their order to the table: two sandwiches made of roasted pork, salami, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles on a pressed and toasted baguette.

            “Omar makes a wonderful Cuban sandwich that rivals the ones from back home,” said Bolivar, making small talk.  Amar smiled with pride before taking his leave.  The ambassador quickly started to work on his sandwich.

            “There is a company in Houston I would like for you to become acquainted with,” he said between bites.  “ParTex International.  Ever hear of them?” He slid the file across the table to Sofia.

            “No,” she said and then took a few minutes to flip through the pages.  She looked up after she was done.  “This is unbelievably interesting work.”

            “I hope you understand it better than I do.”

            “This is stuff you only read about in white paper reports.”  Sofia voice rose with excitement as she continued.  “Near-infrared laser telemetry that is capable of mapping the ocean floor and below…far more precise than old seismic technologies.”  She was almost giddy with the realization of the impact this would make on the oil exploration industry.  “This changes everything, Jorge.  It almost guarantees you won’t hit a dry hole.”  She waved the papers in front of her.  “Do you know how much this is worth?”

            “Apparently a lot, judging from the priority my government has placed on getting this damned information,” Bolivar said.  He wisely avoided telling Berlusconi that it was he who had arranged for her services, not Cuba.  If successful, she would be rewarded handsomely.  If not…well, he hoped to avoid that outcome altogether.

            “Just the programming required to download this much data for this degree of resolution—from a satellite platform…” Her voice trailed off as she tried to estimate the data transmission rate required.

            “Which is precisely why we want you to get to know this person.”  Bolivar slid an 8” x 10” envelope across the table.

            She it and removed a black and white photograph.  “So young,” she said to herself.  “And most assuredly a scientist.”

            “This is the man credited with developing the programming.  His name is Stefan Wahl.”  Bolivar handed her a tri-fold event brochure.  “He will be attending this Offshore Technology Conference next weekend, in Houston.”

            Sofia opened the brochure.  “He shouldn’t be hard to find,” she said raising her eyebrows and smiling.  “He’s also one of the featured speakers.”

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