When the penthouse elevator doors opened, we entered directly into a living space decorated with metal artwork, oil paintings, an Arabian area rug, and solid wood furniture. Taking up one-third of the far wall, an eighty-inch television, circled by four smaller screens and surround sound speakers, would have made a terrific Stanley Cup party pad. The sound of Ace’s voice from another room interrupted my appraisal.
“Jays are two-and-one-half-point favourites. Four G’s on the Jays? Thanks for the donation.”
“You know the bottle n’ stoppers can trace the GPS chip on those things. They’re probably listening to everything we’re saying right now as part of an NSA/CSIS information-sharing program.”
Ace ignored my comment, or he at least tried to give the impression he did so. Mark departed the room to allow us privacy. The blonde-haired woman in the jeans and T-shirt who had joined us in the elevator acknowledged Ace before leaving the room and heading for another room down a hallway past the kitchen. Bantering over how the government was fast approaching big brother status was an old and enjoyable hobby Ace and I practised. Besides, everyone knew the Mounties worked with their American counterparts. With the world’s longest unpatrolled border joining our two nations, security precautions like monitoring the airwaves, internet email and planting sensors in the ground near our shared border were taken for granted since September 11, 2001. Even in Canada, everything had changed post 9/11.
“Mark randomly switches the chip signature every thirty days.”
When we shook hands I said, “Ace, this is Kira. She’s been assisting me with my problem. We have no secrets.”
“I see.” Unlike most others, he was unfazed by Kira’s exotic appeal. Money and power spoke to Ace. “Allow me to let you in on a secret young lady — we both have terrible taste in friends.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Ace. Like parents, one is unable to choose their brother. It is sister’s duty to endure brotherly challenges.”
“You and I are going to get along just fine,” said Ace holding out his elbow to Kira. “How was your ride over?”
“The trip was most enjoyable. Thank you for inviting us into your home. Very beautiful.”
“Who is he?” I asked tilting my head in the direction Mark had disappeared.
“Point man; university grad in computers, another degree from a technical institute. Keeps me bug-free and in toys the Man shouldn’t be able to trace, or he makes it damned near impossible. Millennials ain’t all bad. The woman’s name is Loretta. She handles all legal, social and financial arrangements, and real estate concerns, as well as meetings and appointments.”
Loretta re-entered the room saying, “What you should be saying is I ensure you don’t break the law when you can complete your agenda legally. You might even say I help you to bend certain laws, but never to break them.”
Loretta and Ace shared a look. She tilted her head before moving toward the kitchen. Had I to guess her age, she was somewhere between thirty and forty years old. A timelessness made any more of an exact guess impossible. Jeans and T-shirt hugged a fit and trim body well. She dressed down but spoke precisely. Lawyer talk, I thought to myself. Only inner circle members and those who claimed client-lawyer privilege were allowed into Ace’s life. And Kira and I were not introduced to her. Loretta could claim she had had no direct interaction with either Kira or myself.
Fine. Worked for me.
Gesturing with his hand from left to right, Ace asked, “Like the joint? It’s clean. Not connected to me by paper. Perfectly legit and off the record. You’ll be safe if you don’t call out on a landline or let yourselves be traced back using the internet. Three days. No questions asked.” Looking at Kira, Ace added, “I’ve allotted you the master bedroom. Bruce can sleep on the couch.”
“Most kind and thoughtful of you to sacrifice beautiful leather furniture.”
Ignoring the asides, I said, “You’re going to have to update us on our recent adventure.”
“So that was you two at the Royal York?” He gave Loretta a look that said, ‘Told you so.’ “Did you get a chance to ask your questions?”
“Well, I peppered them, and Kira twisted an arm, but they weren’t very forthcoming. Our time together was cut short, but I think they got our memo.” Kira grinned. “You were right. It’s a Machine. Central American is my best guess, but I’m no expert on Spanish accents. Could just as easily have been South American, or even Mexican.”
“News reports surrounding the Katana Dojo were pretty sketchy,” filled in Ace. “They showed a Japanese man either being rescued or taken into custody for questioning, but little else was revealed, except the police are interested in speaking with his daughter. The entire building was cordoned off. Five stretchers, occupants covered with sheets, exited the building and were loaded into coroner wagons. It won’t be long before the coroner’s report and hospital records are shared with the media. This whole scenario is going to bust wide open any day now.” Looking at Kira a little differently, he added, “It’s time you two turned over your cards. What the fuck have you gotten yourself into Garland?”
“Is there a computer handy?”
“Next room.” In a louder voice, he called, “Mark, get in here.”
When Mark appeared, I said, “I need you to work a little computer geek magic and enter the Hall of Records, commercial/industrial building permit section. Cross-reference Cornerstone Gyprock with building permits going back at least five years. Find the title company and run a search for warranties, quitclaims or construction mortgages. If Cornerstone matches up, hardcopy the legal description page.” As Mark turned to comply, I added, “And check for zoning permits, as well as an architectural firm. I’m interested in a land tract map.”
Ace listened to my request and waited for Mark to leave.
“I’ve almost filled your shopping list. It’ll be completed by tomorrow.”
“Thanks. I appreciate that.” Thinking about Mark, I said, “Point man? Kinda young.”
“Remember Frank? That’s his nephew. Don’t let his youth fool you. He grew up with rounders. Bright guy, besides. Have you learned why this Machine snatched your twist n’ twirl?”
“Just a minute,” I temporized and opened my laptop. Kira sat across from me, beside Ace. “We have something, but I don’t know what it is, or why it’s worth lives.”
At Ace’s bidding, Kira described the convention while I connected with the North American Scientific Company. Shortly after I entered the chemical formula found in Odera’s file and initiated the search engine, disbelief stunned all three of us into silence. We stared at a graphic representation of cocaine’s molecular structure. The chemical composition of the compound described in Odera’s file contained fifty-five percent cocaine. The other percentage, I assumed, was filler being used to bind the cocaine into a shipment durable form, and perhaps to mask the scent from border drug dogs. It had a long and complicated chemical name.
I placed the screen for all to study.
Ace raised his hand to still further conversation and then called Loretta in from the kitchen. Kira’s brow wrinkled and then smoothed as the meaning and ramifications behind our discovery sunk home. Any hope of a peaceful solution to our trouble became impossible. One look at her eyes and her posture confirmed she saw a similar response from me and that I was asking her silently for her thoughts. Kira’s eyes narrowed. She nodded slightly wearing a quirky grin that said not to worry, we were fine. Was never really a decision.
When Loretta answered his summons, Ace asked, “How are we looking?”
“Solid. Everything accounted for. There’s an anonymous internet connection present. Four nondescript cell phones are on the kitchen counter. I have their numbers recorded. Are we clear on the rental vehicles and insurance concerns?”
“Yes. Let’s use the UBER strategy. Our semi-anonymous drivers.”
“Perfect. Then you don’t need me here any longer. When I’m gone, wish the people who I never formally met, or learned their names, or spoke with good fortune.”
When the elevator doors closed Loretta from our view and delivered her to the parkade, Ace studied the cocaine molecule on the screen with admiration telling. No doubt he was thinking of his earlier days. And he was considering the organizational structure of the Machine and what this newest piece of information meant. And wherever else his criminal genius mind took him. Neither Kira nor I had the reference to draw anywhere near as many conclusions. We needed Ace’s assessment.
“Explains a lot. Mark, c’mere.” At Mark’s arrival, Ace asked, “Any word from the street? Anybody asking about our friend?”
“Everyone.” Mark examined the laptop screen. “There’s a hefty reward offered by the Asians, the Hell’s Angels, and the Bloor street boys, for any information about Garland.” Addressing Kira, he said, “Your name didn’t come up on the street directly. People are saying Garland might be travelling with an Asian girlfriend. Thing is, there isn’t anyone new out there looking for either of you, and it’s a middleman whose offering payment. Its as though the Machine doesn’t exist. As though the reward is being financed by an outside source without direct connection to the city.”
“It doesn’t exist. At least not in this province and perhaps not in this country. Especially not in Canada. It can’t exist in Canada if what Mr. Ace said about there being no new drug gangs is correct.”
Ace and I both nodded agreement and Mark looked at all of us with some confusion. It made perfect sense now that Ace had asked the most telling question of all and Kira had voiced our mutual thoughts. Mark’s blurry expression told me he had not yet made the connection.
“Is one of you going to explain it to this poor dumb bastard?” he griped, tired of our smug faces.
Ace turned to me.
“It’s your show. I’m just a tourist taking photos.”
Inhaling deeply, I turned to Kira and let the pieces tumble into place. She nodded for me to begin. Like me, Kira owned intimate details about everything that had happened during the past four days.
“Odera and I visited the computer convention last Friday. We picked out trial software and a demo computer specifically designed for virtual structural tests that required independent variables to run simulations. When she logged onto the Cornerstone website to retrieve numbers to fill the empty wallboard variable fields, she had to enter a website access number. For some reason, she downloaded the file we see. We’ll never know the specifics until we talk to her.” I rose, walked to the bar, poured myself a whisky, and paced the floor. “Fill in if I miss anything,” I told Kira.
“Ten to one the hacker I went up against at Hidden Oaks discovered Odera’s presence when she punched in the access code to enter their website. Wouldn’t be hard for him to follow her footprint after she had downloaded the file, or maybe he hacked the convention company for her address. After all, it was their access number we used. It doesn’t matter. He found her. But Odera’s smart. She would have figured out something was amiss with those wallboard numbers pretty quickly. And she probably would have investigated the reason for their failure. The woman has a serious computer knack. They do everything for her but sit up and beg. The Machine, fearing their cover blown, had to take immediate action to contain their security breach, AKA Odera.”
“What Machine? Didn’t you guys say it didn’t exist in Canada?”
“I’m getting there, Mark. I’m only now connecting all the dots. Needing to minimize the risk to their operation, they rushed over to Odera’s condo to erase evidence of Cornerstone Gyprock and anyone who was privy to its existence. Before they arrived, she had emailed the variable list with the attached chemical composition to Hidden Oak’s computer. The email’s time stamp precedes the 911 alarm company call noted by the news stations and was confirmed by Julia, Odera’s neighbour. Emailing the file to me at work made Odera indispensable, at least until they re-acquired the file, and verified containment.
“While trying to wipe up at Odera’s condo, her house alarm tripped. Julia’s unexpected appearance spoiled their search. They had to beat their feet outta there. They took Odera with them. The hacker most likely learned about Hidden Oaks through the email, or from questioning Odera. They had to visit Hidden Oaks before anyone discovered the email and decoded the chemical composition. And they had to wipe the file from the hard drive. Parts of it we’ll never know for certain. The Machine probably figured they had contained the breach until they learned about the optical drive thanks to my clumsy entry and retrieval of the email from the drive.
“After the abduction, I was named suspect number one, but the Machine didn’t count on me scooping the email and their precious variable list remotely. They had to eliminate me before I put two plus two together and ran to the cops. By itself, the numbers set with Cornerstone’s name isn’t conclusive evidence of anything, but it points a finger and raises questions they don’t want to be asked. No way could their plant stand up to scrutiny by drug enforcement if it manufactures cocaine wallboards.
“This arm of the Machine is a fabrication and distribution only. As Kira said, they don’t market in Canada, well, not Toronto at least, but I’m siding with her and betting not in the whole wide country. DEA tightly patrols Mexican/American borders and closely monitors air space around the coastlines so the Machine imports raw materials taking advantage of our impossible-to-patrol shorelines. Using Cornerstone as a front, they package their product into commercial boards that imitate the real thing.”
Mark jumped in, “With free-trade booming, they take advantage of our friendly neighbour status and ship truckloads of cocaine, masquerading as wallboards, south, against the normal flow of drugs. Because the crack-making process reduces cocaine to its purest form, they have an unlimited number of fillers to stiffen the boards. And because they don’t market in Canada, they don’t attract attention. All they would have to do is mask the scent from border drug dogs. Fucking genius.”
“Sharp scam,” Ace noted.
Kira said, “This Machine isn’t a complete criminal organization, it is only large enough to run the manufacturing plant and to ship wallboards out, which raises a question I cannot answer. How did they hijack a factory without raising suspicion? How is this big secret kept? Many, many employees must work there. Is the plant fully automated?”
“Right,” agreed Ace. “The employees would eventually discover what they were manufacturing. Way too many mouths to contend with. This play shouldn’t work. Could the plant be automated to that degree? Perhaps. But what about drivers and deliveries and cleaners and maintenance personal? Automation still leaves far too many potential flapping gums.”
“Mark, did you locate the information I requested?”
“Yeah, give me a minute to print it.”
Ace asked, “Where does that leave you and your friend? Still planning to crash their party?”
“No choice. We can’t call the bottle n’ stoppers, and a hostage negotiator doesn’t have anything to offer. You said yourself they would cut their losses and run if they felt the heat. Kira’s father also said something similar.”
“Fucking twist n’ twirls. The things a man will do for the right woman, or the wrong one for that matter, begging your pardon,” he said to Kira, grinning ear to ear.
I looked at Kira.
“What do you say?”
“Father advised speed. Everything we’ve learned since indicates his wisdom is sound.” Kira’s eyes hardened. “I say when two people act with one mind, they become many. Let the sword that brings life drink deeply from the hearts of our enemies.”
“Regardless of how you found your way into Garland’s mess, I admire the poetry in your words.”
“Here,” Mark said laying the printout on the coffee table.
After a quick comparison, I drew a circle around the lot and block description on the grid map.
“This is the first building built twenty-some years ago. These are the land tracts designated on the newest mortgage’s grid map.”
Ace assessed the information.
“Two buildings. One legit, and one a little cocaine sweatshop. That explains the labour. They didn’t fire ― they handpicked their people. It also explains why so many chins ain’t wagging.”
“The capital required to bankroll this had to have been enormous,” Mark noted.
“It didn’t cost them that much at all,” Ace said pointing to the mortgage deed. “The grantor sold the land to himself, to the original company. The first company owns the second. They used the existing property and its buildings to secure a loan with which to build the new one. Maybe they’re heavily mortgaged, but not a lot of initial capital outlay. The owner of the original plant has to be in on it.”
“Did you find the name of the architectural firm for the second plant?” I asked Mark
“Yeah, it’s written down here.”
“What’s your next move?” Ace asked.
“What do you say, Kira, would you like to tour a cocaine factory?” I voiced, earning two disapproving looks.
“Father would not expect me to let you have all the fun.”“We need to borrow a car we can discard after our stops. Kira and I have house calls to make. The plant must have an early warning system. I’m not good enough to break into the security company, but an architectural firm is another story.” When Ace stayed silent, I said, “Kira’s in for the whole ride. My second set of eyes and much more. It’s a family matter.” As Ace gave Kira another curious glance, I said, “We’d be obliged if you would give us a lift back after we’ve wrapped things up. Woodbine racetrack. West entrance.”