Unlike city streets, whose greasy alleys and congested avenues teemed with a Mecca of nefarious activity, the industrial sector waited courtroom quiet. Abandoned avenues, empty bus stops, closed commercial outlets and fewer streetlights, created the impression we had arrived upcountry. Unlike the downtown core where the presence of bright lights hid the stars from sight, the clear night sky on the outskirts of the city was crowded with pinpricks of celestial light.
We crouched side by side judging our bearings by the soft glow of Kira’s telephone screen and the map it showed. Hushed night voices that had silenced themselves at our arrival, recommenced. Brave little crickets were the first to chirp a neighbourly presence. Off to our left, a lonely bullfrog bellowed. Leathery wings flapped furiously overhead. Black and brown bats turned briefly visible whenever they crossed the face of the partial moon, ducking and diving, jinking left and right, banqueting on insects. In the far distance, a car horn honked faintly.
Backlit against the moon and the stars, we studied our objective through night binoculars. Half a mile distant, powerful, high-pressure sodium wall packs radiated wedges of scrappy light over the crushed gravel apron ringing the plant. Beyond the wall packs ability to illumine, buried in the night’s dark embrace, a fence topped with coils of barbed wire materialized. It enclosed the plant, yet it failed to appear on the drawings. We had taken pictures of the architectural drawings with her phone to refresh our memories. The parking lot held two dozen cars and two vans. By no means did we look upon a building abandoned until morning. As the moon slid out from behind a cloud, my vision improved.
The original gypsum plant lay eighty yards east of our objective. It was one third again as large as the new plant. Satellite buildings surrounded the older plant. No fence. Fewer wall packs. No gatehouse. A sprawling parking lot stretched half the length of the factory. One car and a five-ton cube van parked close to the main doors occupied an otherwise empty lot. Adjacent to the older building, mountains of stone rose thirty feet high. A green and black John Deere pay-loader outfitted with a large bucket waited next to an A-frame shielding yellow-hued raw material. Beginning twenty yards out from the end of the building, a long conveyor belt was in place to feed material into the plant. The hard-packed gravel road, with few weeds and almost no grass, intimated regular usage.
In contrast to the original plant, dandelions and crabgrass reclaimed the gravel road leading to the material storage area of the new factory. The raw stone pile was considerably smaller than its neighbours. Extending from the base of the building, supported by A-framed legs, a rust-covered conveyor belt rose diagonally from the ground to reach several meters above the peak of a pile of stone being taken over by weeds and grass. Immediately adjacent to the green mound, the first several inches of topsoil had been scraped clean. The round scar measured fifty feet in diameter. Pressed into the freshly exposed earth, wide tire prints indented by big rubber knobs evidenced an earthmover had recently worked the ground. A light summer breeze carried a cloying and unpleasant chemical scent. The discrepancies between buildings inspired our confidence.
Once Kira had taken her turn on the glasses, she raised her hand and pointed, “Over there. An SUV.”
We watched the vehicle halt at the corner of the building nearest the main road. Both backdoors opened. The interior light illuminated two figures exiting the truck. Each slung shoulder straps attached to short black weapons around their necks. The second man held a blocky object in his hand. A small red light glowed when he spoke into it, performing what I imagined was a radio check.
“Bruce, the property is too large for only one patrol, especially in the rear where there isn’t a road within a quarter of a mile of the fence. They must have a communication centre, cameras as well as other security measures may also be in play for such a large, unpatrolled area. We should establish their patterns. Wherever they do not patrol we may assume the presence of automated security. Also, the light projected by the buildings between us makes it necessary to take a longer approach route.”
“Agreed. Frequent patrols would raise questions and suspicion from neighbours. Unseen electronic security measures would obviate patrols. Let’s take our time. Learn their route. I’d rather avoid them until we’re certain of their pattern. Also, these other companies may employ roaming security to protect their property as well and may have hired night watchmen. I do not want to rule out drones, either.”
Staying low to the ground allowed the tall grass and depressions in the terrain to minimize our profiles while we worked ourselves closer. Every forty or fifty yards we eased ourselves to one knee and scanned ahead to chart a course that avoided light projected from other buildings and poles as though we navigated a luminous minefield. Knee-high grass rustled around our legs, pushed east to west by a breeze. We reached a common asphalt road that connected to the main road and bisected both industrial plant entrances. We dropped down into the ditch and crawled up the embankment until only the tops of our heads were visible. The patrol Kira sighted earlier entered a fenced compound and disappeared.
Cornerstone Gyprock loomed two hundred yards distant, behind a chain-link fence topped by barbed wire. After scuttling across the asphalt, we waited, watching and cataloguing. Taking turns passing the binoculars between us. We sighted neither foot patrols, nor cameras, nor electronic laser eyes, nor any other security measure. Not so much as a patrol vehicle showed itself. Why didn’t a patrol walk a fenced perimeter seemingly empty of security measures? Not so much as a motion detector showed itself. Nothing moved out here.
Fifteen minutes of low crawling placed us twenty feet from the twelve-foot high chain-link fence encircling the property. Even from this short distance, we failed to detect a single security device. I motioned for Kira to keep watch and moved forward a step or two closer to the fence, more nervous than a long-tailed-cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Something felt wrong. There should have been IR scanners, electronic eyes, cameras, no trespassing signs, lights, patrols, thermal imaging cameras, motion sensors, something, but there was nothing. Not a single security measure.
It was too far beyond unlikely to accept that a ten-foot-high chain-link fence topped by barbwire was the only obstacle to prevent someone from raiding a plant that manufactured cocaine wallboards. Where was the security system? Its personnel? Just because the drawings we obtained omitted showing security features, did not preclude their presence. We assumed security features had been added once the general contractor filed substantial completion and signed off. Private security contractors had been employed, otherwise the architectural and electrical engineering drawings we possessed would have shown the power needs of the security systems. It was not uncommon in the construction industry for private contractors to do work for the customer after the general contractor had completed the initial build.
If it had been my responsibility, I would have used several different security contractors to install multiple layers of security to make security breaches more difficult if individuals thought they could subvert security contractors. When the clouds masking the full moon thinned, silver moonbeams revealed a landscape peculiarity. Approximately six feet wide, a relatively weed-free crushed stone apron bordered the fence. Someone had removed a layer of topsoil and replaced it with crushed stone. The absence of weeds intimated a chemical agent was regularly applied to prohibit plant growth, or finely woven broadcloth had been buried. Rather than move to the fence and begin cutting its links, I probed the ground tenderly with my K-bar knife the same way a minesweeper looked for submerged metal objects. I began my enquiry where the crushed stone apron began.
Ten minutes later, one foot in and five inches down, the blade contacted a stationary object. Beads of sweat broke out on my forehead when further exploration revealed the object was not a stone cluster, but a black, insulated line as thick as a television cable. Careful excavation of the crushed stone overburden concealing my find revealed a section of pressure-sensitive cable. Placing pressure on the soil above, or moving it, triggered an alarm. Its pressure setting had to consider local wildlife ― foxes, raccoons and coyotes. Twenty- or thirty-pounds max, I thought. Certainly not an adult’s weight.
I conveyed the results of my find to Kira and continued to excavate the area between the fence and me. Now that I knew what to look for, I rapidly discovered additional layers of pressure-sensitive cable. Continued probing produced a second cable three feet out from the fence, same depth, and another two cables at the two-foot and one-foot marks. These cables were the reason why perimeter guards did not walk the fence, obviously, but did the security contractor who laid the cables outside the fence also lay more inside? Was that why we did not see inner perimeter patrols?
Burying cables twelve inches apart forced me to stand parallel with the fence to snip an opening without allowing my body’s twisted position to transfer down my leg and turn my feet. When I had cut a decent-sized opening, I traded the fence cutters for a knife and probed the ground inside the fence. Fifteen minutes of cautious digging exposed nothing but beetles, worms and grubs, which triggered feelings of anxiety, and raised questions, the chief of which asked: What had I missed? Why wasn’t there any crushed stone apron inside the fence?
After we passed through the breach, Kira used severed fence links to hold the metal curtain shut. It would fail close inspection, but from a distance greater than fifteen or twenty feet it appeared intact. No alarm sounded as we slunk away watching for foot patrols. Too easy. That’s what my nerves kept screaming at me. Too damned easy my back brain nagged at me. No way was I this lucky, but we could not turn back just because I developed a case of nerves.
Having navigated half the distance between the fence and the building, we stretched ourselves flat on the ground. The army surplus binoculars we carried brought the front gate and the shipping and receiving areas into focus. The chain-link fence we had passed through marked a transition from the unkempt field to grassland. It eventually transitioned into a security compound. A newer and taller chain-link fence formed a rectangle and segregated the shipping and receiving area from unauthorized pedestrian access. A four- or five-acre parking lot was located outside and adjacent to the inner compound.
Mounted atop twenty-foot tall poles, a pair of three-hundred-and-sixty-degree swivel cameras swept the compound entrance and loading bays. They looked down upon a long gate supported by heavy-duty roller wheels. Next to the gate and connected by a short walkway, a pedestrian gate let visitors and employees enter the compound under the scrutiny of a brightly lighted security checkpoint where they encountered a second, locked pedestrian gate. Beneath a ‘Visitor/Employee’ sign written in big black letters instructing everyone to sign in, lay a logbook on a shelf outside a sliding window.
Security personnel buzzed visitors and employees through the second electronic gate after screening. Just inside the side door, viewed through the sign-in window, we sighted a red mushroomed-shaped emergency button. Did it provide an emergency shutting operation, or did it inform personnel inside the main building a breach of another type had occurred? My guess said it performed both functions simultaneously. Intuition told me armed personnel would rush out of the building to investigate the reason why security pushed the red button. The design was a classic mantrap that put a person between two locked gates.
Inside the security shack, two uniformed men conversed casually. They monitored an array of four, closed-circuit television camera views depicted on a single computer screen. Kira and I had yet to locate other cameras. A keyboard and telephone shared desk space. Several adjustments to the binoculars let us zero in on the monitor screen and decipher the images. The images depicted the parking lot outside the fence.
Not unlike outdoor hockey rink lighting, six poles containing a group of powerful floodlights illuminated the compound. One of the guards reached for the telephone where he spoke briefly before replacing it on the cradle. None of their actions contained obvious signs of heightened awareness. We found nothing to indicate Lucien Gomez had put the plant on alert. So far, so good. Or, so far, they had fooled us.
Up the road a way we identified the sound of a diesel engine gearing down. Transport truck headlights crested the rise. A big rig rolled into view. It halted at the gate where it flashed headlights ― one short and two long. One of the guards exited the security enclosure carrying a telescopic pole topped with a round mirror in one hand and a clipboard in the other.An electric motor driving a chain and sprocket assembly rattled to life. The long truck gate rattled and rolled open. The second guard stood inside the doorway of the checkpoint, hand hovering out of sight near a four-foot-tall cabinet with tall twin doors. The driver drove his rig inside the compound and came to a halt. The gate clattered closed. The guard carrying the telescopic pole with a round chromed mirror walked cautiously up to the driver’s window. A short conversation ensued. The guard looked to his clipboard. Apparently satisfied with the information, he walked the length of the transport probing its undercarriage with the mirror. When he reached the end, he extended its telescopic length to view the trailer’s roof. The second guard, who now openly carried an AK-47 Kalashnikov held at port arms, exited the shack while his partner moved to the back of the trailer to check its contents.