Excerpt from “A Run to Hell”
A Run to Hell, written by Frederick Schofield, tells the story of a cagey mob lawyer and his toughened female counterpart, an FBI Special Agent, whose troubled pasts compel them to take a joint-CIA/FBI op to terminate dictator and drug kingpin General Manuel Noriega in the days leading to U.S. Armed Forces storming Panama in “Operation Just Cause.”
Excerpt from A Run to Hell, pages 37-49
Copyright © 2020 Frederick Schofield
Deal or Do Time
LEE STEPPED INTO THE FBI MIAMI FIELD OFFICE ALONE, wondering what they wanted from him and how they intended to get it. Moving quickly, the slight limp in his left leg wasn’t detectable. His confident stride concealed emotion though he entered the building with genuine trepidation. Lee knew he shouldn’t meet them. He knew he shouldn’t go without legal counsel. Yet most of all, he knew he had no choice.
He had learned that Frankie was right about Miami. Truly, it was the Super Bowl of major crime. Illegal drug distribution, which impacted the nation, and accompanying nefarious activities roosted in that corner of the Sunshine State. The local Bureau office had so much work, its agents turned down many cases other field offices would seize. In Miami, even a million-dollar drug bust is no big deal.
Why are they interested in me? Lee thought.
Why were they pursuing income tax evasion charges against him that stemmed from years he represented mob figures in Philadelphia? The allegations weren’t new, but charges had never been pressed. Four years earlier, in 1985, when he abruptly moved to South Florida, Lee had left his Philly law practice in his former partner’s hands. Neither he nor Alfonse had heard a peep since then. Moreover, Lee had always been Mister Outside, handling courtrooms, while Alphonse countered as Mister Inside, managing the firm and tending to their financial accounts.
Rules for the impromptu talk were simple. It would happen off the record. Lee was to come alone, without counsel. They would present a onetime plea offer he could accept or reject. If Lee rejected the deal, charges would be immediately presented to indict him before a federal grand jury. That wasn’t how they usually played the game. Something was more than mildly amiss, and Lee didn’t know what or why.
Under the cyclops eye of a video monitor, Lee approached a young woman, who sat behind bulletproof glass. He slid his attorney ID card through a metal drawer to the receptionist.
“I’m here for a ten o’clock meeting,” he said.
The young woman smiled warmly. Lee remained lean and ruggedly handsome. He had trimmed his long blond hair since his Philadelphia days. The ponytail was gone, yet, with a permanent tan Lee almost looked like a California surfer. At thirty-eight, he was at his prime, physically and professionally. Lee had a natural aura of confidence and a strong sexuality to which he was oblivious. Perhaps that’s why it worked.
The confirmed bachelor still hit the sometimes vibrant, often languid nightclubs. That had never been purely recreational. Club life was an essential part of his criminal practice. Contacts in the drug community used crowded and noisy drinking dens as meeting places where law enforcement couldn’t bug them. Quick conversations went unobserved and unrecorded. Just as Lee had once met criminal clients in nightclubs dotting Philadelphia’s Society Hill, he crisscrossed the endless variety of Miami night spots.
“You’re on my list,” Mister Gunther,” called the receptionist. “I’ll call for a clerk to lead you there.”
The woman slid his attorney ID card back with a plastic visitor’s badge. He clipped it to his suit jacket lapel, while studying a pair of framed photographs hanging on the wall, decorated with blue ribbons. In one, a bespectacled agent’s smile bespoke the self-confidence of youth. The other portrayed an older man, whose GI buzz cut exposed white walls over his ears, lending a look of unflappable determination.
“That’s more than a memorial to agents slain in the line of duty last month,” a young man called. “It’s a reminder for everyone, who works with law enforcement, of how dangerous Miami can be. You’re Lee Gunther?”
Lee nodded. The black face that greeted him appeared to be about the age of the younger agent. The office assistant dressed in khaki trousers and a short-sleeve white shirt. His tone was lively, his movements crisp.
“Follow me,” the clerk directed.
Lee tried keeping pace as he was shepherded down a long corridor, where video monitors scanned every inch of the way. Finally, Lee stopped and called out.
“Let’s take it a little slower,” he said, tapping his left leg. “This thing acts up sometimes.”
“Sure,” his guide replied. “Sorry to make you take this hike. The hallway was designed to avoid house calls from pistol packin’ cocaine cowboys.”
Lee nodded as they moved more slowly toward an elevator at the end of the hall. An armed guard checked Lee’s pass and permitted the twosome to enter an elevator. At the second floor, Lee’s guide escorted him to the section of the building used by the organized crime unit. That immediately alerted him. They should’ve taken him to the white-collar wing. It told him the feds weren’t really after tax charges.
What are they after? he continued to wonder.
His guide left him in a small room. Austere by design, the walls were white and bare. Fluorescent lights glared overhead. Four empty chairs surrounded a metal table. They made him wait under the focus of another security camera. Lee knew they tailored the treatment to make him feel ill at ease. A few doors away whomever would talk to him was killing time also. Lee never appreciated feigned dramatics yet knowing what the feds were doing didn’t help. He was damned uncomfortable by the time three expressionless agents entered.
Special Agent John Ferguson took the lead, carrying a manila file folder under his arm. He was too heavyset and too bald to have served in the FBI during Director Hoover’s reign. The guy was lucky to have come around after J. Edgar had left and standards for physical appearance relaxed. Ferguson did the introductions, speaking in a rapid-fire, staccato rhythm. Lee knew he would have to listen intently to keep up: more of the same psychology and gamesmanship.
“Take a seat,” Ferguson directed.
Everyone sat at the table except Supervisor Martin, who stood in a corner, remotely as the small quarters allowed.
Lee looked the supervisor up and down. Martin was no slouch. He’d spent more than thirty years with the Bureau, and he had seen it all.
Martin is too high-powered to be on this case, Lee thought.
He knew Martin had extensive experience in counterintelligence before shifting to criminal work. Lee had come up against the man while defending a client. That experience was the kind he didn’t forget. Martin had a cerebral approach to criminal investigation that came from years studying the KGB, the Soviet spy network, and GRU, the Soviet military intelligence. He was a thinking man’s thinker, who said nothing until he was ready. Martin looked the part of a former spook, being of average height, medium build, and quiet mannerism. Nothing about the man stood out. If you didn’t know him, he was invisible. Lee knew the man by reputation and by the singular experience, which was enough. He wouldn’t take the cagey man for granted, not for an instant.
The other surprise package in the room was Special Agent Calero. About five feet eight, with raven dark hair and light complexion, the female agent stood out in every way Martin didn’t. Calero had striking, yet refined and graceful facial features. A well-toned and physically fit body completed the picture. She didn’t hide her good looks. That was rare in the Bureau where petty harassment of attractive women was all too common.
Ferguson fired: “You’re looking at serving prison time for federal income tax evasion, Counselor.”
“That’s bullshit,” Lee retorted.
Years of defending career criminals made some responses automatic.
“No. The charges are solid.”
Lee looked around. As he suspected, the three agents had their eyes trained on him for his reaction. He fought to deprive them of that satisfaction.
Screw them, he thought. If they want something badly enough from me, they can sweat, too.
Everything about the setup suggested that the feds wanted something very badly. Lee wouldn’t let fear show on his face or in his mannerisms. He still hoped to find a way out with a good bluff. Lee intently listened to Ferguson, who was going strong.
“I can even tell you where you’ll do your time.”
The agent paused for emphasis.
“Want to know? I’ve been through this old file of yours, and personally reserved your cell.”
Lee realized it was time for him to shoot back.
“Your Philadelphia office looked at that years ago and closed their file. The charges were bogus then and they’re bogus now.”
“No, our Philly office only started its investigation before you moved down here. We had them complete the job. Want to see what we’ve got on you?”
Ferguson opened his manila folder and sifted through paperwork.
“Well, lookie here, Counselor. We have a couple sworn affidavits from mob informants, people you represented from the Philadelphia crime family, who’ve changed sides. Now, they’re working for us. They’re cutting deals for lighter prison sentences by turning in their mob buddies. They’re turning in the goods on you, too.”
Lee knew the FBI had cracked the code of Omerta—the mob vow of silence sworn by all members—in the Philadelphia crime family. Rats, as their brethren called them, had turned as government witnesses. They would say anything to cut a deal for themselves.
“Yep. Just lookie. Proofs of pricy cash fees to paid to you personally for mob related legal work. That cash never made it to your law firm business accounts, and it was never declared as income. Makes us a prima facie case of income tax evasion for each tax year affected. That’s a lot of tax years, Counselor.”
Ferguson held up his left hand and counted fingers with his right. “Yep, five, I count. And, that means you’ll serve a lot of time behind bars. I count twenty-five years in federal prison on five mandatory five-year sentences. Aren’t mandos a nut buster?”
“You know that evidence was manufactured,” Lee said.
“We know a few things,” Supervisor Martin interjected. “They’re the same things you know. We can prove our case and you can’t prove your defense. If we present the charges for indictment, we’ll convict you.”
Lee knew Martin was right.
“We’ll talk to you just once,” Martin continued. “You can cut a deal, right now, or you’ll go down starting tomorrow. We’ll never offer another opportunity for a plea bargain. The U.S. Attorney’s Office will act under orders to push this case as a priority, to the limit, and past the limit. An Assistant U.S. Attorney has already drafted the indictment for presentation to the grand jury in the morning. Here’s your courtesy copy.”
Lee looked at the papers Martin handed him. His shoulders slumped as he read the first two pages. No reason to read more. Lee would have to give the feds whatever they wanted. True or false, the charges against him would stick in a court of law. Someone had planted evidence too deep.
“What do you want?” he said.
Martin looked at his agents individually. First, he glanced to Ferguson in a way that let Lee know it was Martin’s turn to take over. Evidently, the plan was Martin’s baby. Then, Martin turned to Calero. Lee saw her eyes were cold, as if her beauty were a mask concealing some ugly secret. He could tell she was all business and felt her icy gaze as she stared back at him.
Jaime Calero studied the lawyer. She wondered if he was up to what they had in mind. She had read the file that the Bureau maintained on the mob lawyer. She knew his connections. He had spent enough years with vermin to become infected by the virus they carried. It didn’t astonish her that the Bureau had caught him in a web of tax evasion charges. It only surprised her that they hadn’t nailed him sooner. She didn’t feel sympathy. The guy had earned what they were about to do to him.
The lawyer had a reputation as a solid courtroom combatant, but she questioned how tough he really was. They were going to make him fight a different kind of battle. His good looks and confident demeanor could be a thin veneer that easily folded.
How smart is he? Jaime thought. Untrained, can he really play the role?
Jaime was uncertain he or she would survive what was in the works.
I’m ready, though, she swore to herself. God knows I’m ready.
The special agent had come up the hard way. She had joined the FBI in a clerical position, then gained special training offered by every government agency connected to law enforcement. Her superiors noticed her work ethic and natural abilities. She excelled at each opportunity that came her way, regularly completing training courses at the top of her class. Finally, Jaime entered the FBI Academy to become a special agent. After graduation, she continued the hard work.
As a former Bureau office clerk, they had derisively called her a “clagent” behind her back. That term didn’t bother her, but another did. In the California office, where she’d started as an agent, her male counterparts called her, like all female agents, a “breast-fed.” No man called her that twice. Jaime knew how to take care of herself. She also had a record of arrests and convictions that few agents could match.
The agent was good at the job she loved—and the job was giving her the opportunity she never thought she’d fetch. Jaime had accepted a mission she may have been born to undertake, one that could also bring her death. She knew the slim odds and accepted them. The plan would bring closure, one way or the other, to a haunting chapter of her life.
Jaime’s attention riveted on the lawyer. She stared intensely enough to make him look away.
Lee’s eyes darted down. Calero’s gaze shot through him; it could have penetrated steel. For an instant, he wondered what had hardened her. Then, Martin grabbed him with words that seemed carefully chosen. The senior agent uttered them almost lyrically, like a baritone delivering an aria.
“You have one way out,” he intoned. “Bring us a dictator. You’ll convince him to leave his palace voluntarily and walk into the Miami Federal Courthouse where he’ll enter a plea to drug trafficking charges and face trial.”
Lee was speechless. He realized that was just the way they wanted him.
“You’re going to bring us General Manuel Antonio Noriega, Commander in Chief of the Panama Defense Forces, the most repressive dictator in this hemisphere. And you’re going to bring him to us so we can lock him in an eight by ten-foot prison cell where he’ll spend the rest of his miserable life.”
Lee felt his jaw drop.
“You’re going to bring us that son of a bitch or you’ll take his place in that cell for the next twenty-five years.”
Lee couldn’t keep a shocked expression from covering his face. He looked up to the security camera, knowing they were recording him. After hearing Martin, he also knew who else was watching: a broad audience of agents engaged in counterintelligence and criminal work. Lee knew they wanted Noriega badly for political reasons as well as for trafficking overwhelming quantities of Colombian cocaine through Panama into the United States.
How can I be of any assistance? Lee wondered.
Noriega’s own American attorneys had already publicly denounced United States efforts to have him surrender at Miami’s federal courthouse. Those attorneys were among the best criminal lawyers in the country.
The plan’s too big for me, Lee thought. Maybe I’m better off just serving time on tax charges.
Noriega was a ruthless killer. News accounts, rumors, and innuendo circulating among knowing members of the criminal Bar and the underworld creatures he represented left no doubt. Whatever the feds were planning, his life would be endangered. Lee had already dealt with one deadly force when the mob had literally kicked him out of Philadelphia. Only his connections in the crime family, through some devoted former clients, had spared his life—at least for the time being. He was still a marked man on some Philadelphia street corners and they could pull the plug on his life, anytime.
He sensed Martin was anxious to recite his plan, but Lee wasn’t ready to hear it.
“Hold it,” he said. “Don’t go any further.”
Martin glanced at the camera.
Someone higher up is watching, Lee surmised, someone other than a Bureau chief.
The deal smacked of covert intelligence work outside FBI jurisdiction. Someone from the Central Intelligence Agency was probably observing. He wondered whether the White House was involved. The Administration was likely staying clear of the operation to avoid political embarrassment if the plan fell apart and became publicly exposed.
How high does this go?
He pondered, then mused, “I need time to consider.”
“You’ve got five minutes,” Martin said flatly. “And, Mister Gunther, once you’re part of the plan, there’s no backing out.”
“What in God’s name is the plan?”
“Deal or do time,” Martin shot back. “Think of where you’d like to spend the next quarter century. You may also wish to think about what brought you here.”
Lee watched the three agents rise, then disappear as somberly as they had entered the room. Martin took the lead and Calero followed. On her way out, she stopped and turned. Calero looked at Lee again, as if studying him for some special purpose of her own. Trailing them, Ferguson carefully locked Lee in the room as he departed.
Eying the camera, Lee intuitively knew that whoever had been watching was still there. He wouldn’t put on a show. Instead, he sat motionless and thought of what the feds wanted him to do.
Then, he thought of the trouble that had sent him to Miami in the first place, the trouble with the Kelly deaths and the Philadelphia crime family. He was caught between forces that were consuming him like demons riding on his back with insatiable appetites for lifeblood. They could even send him on a deadly mission to Panama.
Lee scanned the room as he vowed so softly his words nearly didn’t rise to a whisper.
“I’ll never take another shit-kicking like the one I took in that South Philadelphia alley.”
He knew what he had to do. To survive, he had to cast the ogres off his back forever. He swore to do it. Lee Gunther longed to get on with his life and to find peace of mind.
His eyes closed. Then, Martin’s words gnawed at him as he reflected on a dash down the street he had taken years earlier—a dash that was now sending him on a run to Hell.
For more information, or to purchase a copy of A Run to Hell, visit: https://frederick-schofield.com/
© 2020 The Havok Journal