AS HE OPENED THE DOOR the alarm went off.
The sort of mistake you would expect an amateur to make, which was surprising, as Connor Fitzgerald was considered by his peers to be the professional’s professional.
Fitzgerald had anticipated that it would be several minutes before the local policia responded to a burglary in the San Victorina district.
There were still a couple of hours to go before the kick-off of the annual match against Brazil, but half the television sets in Colombia would already be switched on. If Fitzgerald had broken into the pawn shop after the game had started, the policia probably wouldn’t have followed it up until the referee had blown the final whistle. It was well known that the local criminals looked upon the match as a ninety-minute parole period. But his plans for that ninety minutes would have the policia chasing their shadows for days. And it would be weeks, probably months, before anyone worked out the real significance of the break-in that Saturday afternoon.
The alarm was still sounding as Fitzgerald closed the back door and made his way quickly through the small store room towards the front of the shop. He ignored the rows of watches on their little stands, emeralds in their cellophane bags and gold objects of every size and shape displayed behind a fine-mesh grille. All were carefully marked with a name and date, so their impoverished owners could return within six months and reclaim their family heirlooms. Few ever did.
Fitzgerald swept aside the bead curtain that divided the store room from the shop, and paused behind the counter. His eyes rested on a battered leather case on a stand in the centre of the window. Printed on the lid in faded gold letters were the initials ‘D.V.R.’ He remained absolutely still until he was certain that no one was looking in.
When Fitzgerald had sold the hand-crafted masterpiece to the shopkeeper earlier that day, he had explained that as he had no intention of returning to Bogotá, it could go on sale immediately. Fitzgerald was not surprised that the piece had already been placed in the window. There wouldn’t be another one like it in Colombia.
He was about to climb over the counter when a young man strolled past the window. Fitzgerald froze, but the man’s attention was wholly occupied by a small radio he was pressing to his left ear. He took about as much notice of Fitzgerald as he would of a tailor’s dummy. Once he was out of sight, Fitzgerald straddled the counter and walked to the window. He glanced up and down the road to check for any casual observers, but there were none. With one movement he removed the leather case from its stand and walked quickly back. He leapt over the counter and turned to look out of the window again to reassure himself that no inquisitive eyes had witnessed the burglary.
Fitzgerald swung round, pulled aside the bead curtain and strode on towards the closed door. He checked his watch. The alarm had been blaring away for ninety-eight seconds. He stepped into the alley and listened. Had he heard the whine of a police siren, he would have turned left and disappeared into the maze of streets that ran behind the pawnbroker’s shop. But apart from the alarm, everything remained silent. He turned right and walked casually in the direction of Carrera Septima.
When Connor Fitzgerald reached the pavement he glanced left and then right, weaved through the light traffic and, without looking back, crossed to the far side of the street. He disappeared into a crowded restaurant, where a group of noisy fans were seated around a large-screen television.
Nobody gave him a glance. Their only interest was in watching endless replays of the three goals Colombia had scored the previous year. He took a seat at a corner table. Although he couldn’t see the television screen clearly, he had a perfect view across the street. A battered sign with the words ‘J. Escobar. Monte de Piedad, establecido 1946’ flapped in the afternoon breeze above the pawn shop.
Several minutes passed before a police car screeched to a halt outside the shop. Once Fitzgerald had seen the two uniformed officers enter the building, he left his table and walked nonchalantly out of the back door onto another quiet Saturday afternoon street. He hailed the first empty taxi and said in a broad South African accent, ‘El Belvedere on the Plaza de Bolívar, por favor.’ The driver nodded curtly, as if to make it clear that he had no wish to become involved in a prolonged conversation. As Fitzgerald slumped into the back of the battered yellow cab, he turned up the radio.
Fitzgerald checked his watch again. Seventeen minutes past one. He was running a couple of minutes behind schedule. The speech would have already begun, but as they always lasted for well over forty minutes, he still had more than enough time to carry out his real reason for being in Bogotá. He moved a few inches to his right, so as to be sure the driver could see him clearly in the rear-view mirror.
Once the policia began their enquiries, Fitzgerald needed everyone who had seen him that day to give roughly the same description: male, Caucasian, fiftyish, a shade over six foot, around 210 pounds, unshaven, dark unruly hair, dressed like a foreigner, with a foreign accent, but not American. He hoped that at least one of them would be able to identify the South African nasal twang. Fitzgerald had always been good at accents. In high school he had regularly been in trouble for mimicking his teachers.
The taxi’s radio continued to pump out the views of expert after expert on the likely outcome of the annual fixture. Fitzgerald mentally switched off from a language he had little interest in mastering, although he had recently added ‘falta’, ‘fuera’ and ‘gol’ to his limited vocabulary.
When the little Fiat drew up outside the El Belvedere seventeen minutes later, Fitzgerald handed over a ten-thousand-peso note, and had slipped out of the cab before the driver had a chance to thank him for such a generous tip. Not that the taxi drivers of Bogotá are well known for their overuse of the words ‘muchas gracias’.
Fitzgerald ran up the hotel steps, past the liveried doorman and through the revolving doors. In the foyer, he headed straight for the bank of elevators opposite the check-in desk. He had to wait only a few moments before one of the four lifts returned to the ground floor. When the doors slid open he stepped inside and pressed the button marked ‘8’, and the ‘Close’ button immediately afterwards, giving no one a chance to join him. When the doors opened on the eighth floor, Fitzgerald walked down the thinly carpeted corridor to room 807. He pushed a plastic card into the slot and waited for the green light to glow before he turned the handle. As soon as the door opened, he placed the ‘Favor de no Molestar’ sign on the outside knob, closed the door and bolted it.
He checked his watch yet again: twenty-four minutes to two. By now he calculated that the police would have left the pawn shop, having concluded that it was a false alarm. They would phone Mr Escobar at his home in the country to inform him that everything appeared to be in order, and would suggest that when he returned to the city on Monday, he should let them know if anything was missing. But long before then, Fitzgerald would have replaced the battered leather case in the window. On Monday morning the only items that Escobar would report stolen would be the several small packets of uncut emeralds that had been removed by the policia on their way out. How long would it be before he discovered the only other thing that was missing? A day? A week? A month? Fitzgerald had already decided he would have to leave the odd clue to help speed up the process.
Fitzgerald took off his jacket, hung it over the nearest chair and picked up the remote control from a table by the side of the bed. He pressed the ‘On’ button and sat down on the sofa in front of the television. The face of Ricardo Guzman filled the screen.
Fitzgerald knew that Guzman would be fifty next April, but at six foot one, with a full head of black hair and no weight problem, he could have told the adoring crowd that he had not yet turned forty, and they would have believed him. After all, few Colombians expected their politicians to tell the truth about anything, especially their age.
Ricardo Guzman, the favourite in the upcoming presidential election, was the boss of the Cali cartel, which controlled 80 per cent of the New York cocaine trade, and made over a billion dollars a year. Fitzgerald had not come across this information in any of Colombia’s three national newspapers, perhaps because the supply of most of the country’s newsprint was controlled by Guzman.
‘The first action I shall take as your President will be to nationalise any company in which Americans are the majority shareholders.’
The small crowd that surrounded the steps of the Congress building on the Plaza de Bolívar screamed their approval. Ricardo Guzman’s advisors had told him again and again that it would be a waste of time making a speech on the day of the match, but he had ignored them, calculating that millions of television viewers would be flicking through the channels in search of the soccer, and would come across him on their screens, if only for a moment. The same people would then be surprised, only an hour later, to see him striding into the packed stadium. Football bored Guzman, but he knew that his entrance moments before the home team were due to take the field would divert the crowd’s attention away from Antonio Herrera, the Colombian Vice-President and his main rival in the election. Herrera would be seated in the VIP box, but Guzman would be in the midst of the crowd behind one of the goals. The image he wished to portray was of a man of the people.
Fitzgerald estimated that there was about six minutes of the speech left. He had already heard Guzman’s words at least a dozen times: in crowded halls, in half-empty bars, on street corners, even in a coach station while the candidate had addressed the local citizens from the back of a bus. He pulled the leather case off the bed and onto his lap.
‘. . . Antonio Herrera is not the Liberal candidate,’ hissed Guzman, ‘but the American candidate. He is nothing more than a ventriloquist’s dummy, whose every word is chosen for him by the man who sits in the Oval Office.’ The crowd cheered again.
Five minutes, Fitzgerald calculated. He opened the case and stared down at the Remington 700 that had been out of his sight for only a few hours.
‘How dare the Americans assume that we will always fall in line with whatever is convenient for them?’ Guzman barked. ‘And simply because of the power of the God-almighty dollar. To hell with the God-almighty dollar!’ The crowd cheered even more loudly as the candidate took a dollar bill from his wallet and tore George Washington into shreds.
‘I can assure you of one thing,’ continued Guzman, scattering the tiny pieces of green paper over the crowd like confetti.
‘God isn’t an American . . .’ mouthed Fitzgerald.
‘God isn’t an American!’ shouted Guzman.
Fitzgerald gently removed the McMillan fibreglass stock from the leather case.
‘In two weeks’ time, the citizens of Colombia will be given the opportunity to let their views be heard right across the world,’ Guzman shouted.
‘Four minutes,’ murmured Fitzgerald, as he glanced up at the screen and mimicked the smile of the candidate. He took the Hart stainless steel barrel from its resting place and screwed it firmly into the stock. It fitted like a glove.
‘Whenever summits are held around the world, Colombia will once again be sitting at the conference table, not reading about it in the press the following day. Within a year I will have the Americans treating us not as a Third World country, but as their equals.’
The crowd roared as Fitzgerald lifted the Leupold 10 Power sniper scope from its place and slid it into the two little grooves on the top of the barrel.
‘Within a hundred days you will see changes in our country that Herrera wouldn’t have believed possible in a hundred years. Because when I am your President . . .’
Fitzgerald slowly nestled the stock of the Remington 700 into his shoulder. It felt like an old friend. But then, it should have done: every part had been hand-crafted to his exact specifications.
He raised the telescopic sight to the image on the television screen, and lined up the little row of mil dots until they were centred an inch above the heart of the candidate.
‘. . . conquer inflation . . .’
‘. . . conquer unemployment . . .’
Fitzgerald breathed out.
‘. . . and thereby conquer poverty.’
Fitzgerald counted three . . . two . . . one, then gently squeezed the trigger. He could barely hear the click above the noise of the crowd.
Fitzgerald lowered the rifle, rose from the sofa and put the empty leather case down. It would be another ninety seconds before Guzman reached his ritual condemnation of President Lawrence.
He removed one of the hollow-point bullets from its little leather slot inside the lid of the case. He broke the stock and slipped the bullet into its chamber, then snapped the barrel shut with a firm upward movement.
‘This will be a last chance for the citizens of Colombia to reverse the disastrous failures of the past,’ cried Guzman, his voice rising with every word. ‘So we must be sure of one thing . . .’
‘One minute,’ murmured Fitzgerald. He could repeat word for word the final sixty seconds of a Guzman speech. He turned his attention from the television and walked slowly across the room towards the french windows.
‘. . . that we do not waste this golden opportunity . . .’
Fitzgerald pulled back the lace curtain that obscured the view of the outside world, and stared across the Plaza de Bolívar to the north side of the square, where the presidential candidate was standing on the top step of the Congress building, looking down on the crowd. He was about to deliver his coup de grâce.
Fitzgerald waited patiently. Never leave yourself in the open for longer than is necessary.
‘Viva la Colombia!’ Guzman cried. ‘Viva la Colombia!’ the mob screamed back in a frenzy, although many of them were no more than paid flunkies strategically placed among the crowd.
‘I love my country,’ declared the candidate. Thirty seconds of the speech left. Fitzgerald pushed open the french windows, to be greeted by the full volume of the masses repeating Guzman’s every word.
The candidate dropped his voice almost to a whisper: ‘And let me make one thing clear – my love of my country is my only reason for wishing to serve as your President.’
For a second time, Fitzgerald pulled the stock of the Remington 700 slowly up into his shoulder. Every eye was looking at the candidate as he boomed out the words, ‘Dios guarde a la Colombia!’ The noise became deafening as he raised both arms high in the air to acknowledge the roars of his supporters shouting back, ‘Dios guarde a la Colombia!’ Guzman’s hands remained triumphantly in the air for several seconds, as they did at the end of every speech. And, as always, for a few moments he remained absolutely still.
Fitzgerald lined up the tiny mil dots until they were an inch above the candidate’s heart, and breathed out as he tightened the fingers of his left hand around the stock. ‘Three . . . two . . . one,’ he murmured under his breath, before gently squeezing the trigger.
Guzman was still smiling as the boat-tailed bullet tore into his chest. A second later he slumped to the ground like a string-less puppet, fragments of bone, muscle and tissue flying in every direction. Blood spurted over those who were standing nearest to him. The last Fitzgerald saw of the candidate was his outstretched arms, as if he were surrendering to an unknown enemy.
Fitzgerald lowered the rifle, broke the stock and quickly closed the french windows. His assignment was completed.
His only problem now was to make sure he didn’t break the Eleventh Commandment.