On July 31, 1789, the fifth act of the first Congress of the United States established the United States Customs Service. Their function was to collect duties and taxes on goods entering the ports of the new nation.
The Service evolved from collecting duties on goods to a tax on immigrants after the Civil War when the organization functioned as an arm of the Department of the Treasury.
At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the U.S. Customs Service saw it place better suited as an arm of federal law enforcement. Interdiction of contraband and illegal immigration at the borders became the chief role of Customs agents, however, customs agents served in virtually every aspect of law enforcement as deemed necessary by the circumstances.
In 2003, the U.S. Customs Service moved under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security and divided into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
The following story is based on events prior to that consolidation.
CHAPTER ONE- Before The Senators
The scratchy baritone voice came from Wheeler’s left and just behind him, his blind spot. The voice had the tinge of a Caribbean accent, and as it echoed off the marble Art Deco fixtures and mixed with the building’s interior warmth, it made Wheeler think of the tropics.
“Yeah?” Wheeler said as he turned and saw the guard in the olive drab blazer and shirt, and the black trousers. He wore a narrow black tie held in place by a silver tie clip, and his shoes were so highly polished that they looked wet.
The guard was a few years younger than Wheeler, in his mid-thirties, but he was shorter and a half size wider than Wheeler. He had a thick neck, about eighteen inches, and the roughly shaven skin at his neck strained against the stiff collar. Wheeler thought that the young man at one time probably wanted to be a fullback, but he moved too slowly. He probably worked as a bouncer for a time too. Then he found a quieter home in the service of his country.
“Please come this way, sir,” said the guard, as he motioned for Wheeler to step through the upright metal detector.
Wheeler let his woolen greatcoat sweep open. It had kept him warm as he walked two and half blocks through the light snow on the way down Delaware Avenue from Union Station to the Russell Senate Office Building in the capital city of the world’s most powerful nation. The temperature outside tumbled into the high twenties, and his feet were cold in the leather loafers made for warmer weather. Wheeler stepped through the metal detector. It made no sound.
“Please remove your coat, sir,” said the guard, blocking Wheeler’s progress toward the guard station in the lobby’s center. The man’s black eyes looked determined, professional. Wheeler recalled the training in dealing with prisoners, how a guard should always remain calm and absolutely authoritarian, to give no ground.
Wheeler slipped the Navy blue coat from his shoulders and handed it to the guard.
“Now step forward and place your hands on the counter and spread your feet, please, sir,” said the guard.
Wheeler hesitated, but then a second guard appeared. A few years older than the first; he wore no blazer had the same olive drab and black uniform. The edges of his mouth turned up as he watched Wheeler’s eyes. On his hip was a large-frame Beretta handgun, model 92F, a model that Wheeler knew well.
Wheeler placed his palms on the counter and shifted his mass back so that his hands would bear some of his weight. He looked over the counter of the guard station and saw a computer monitor, a keyboard, and a dozen small security monitors that changed their view every eight seconds. He also saw a thick, steel grey folder that was open, with a photograph of his own face pinned to the inside corner of the jacket.
“Did you boys have a good Christmas?” Wheeler asked. Wheeler’s voice sounded hollow. In fact, the quiet in the lobby of a building this large struck Wheeler. He scanned the space for bureaucrats, congressional assistants, and interns. He saw an assortment of potted palms, wall plaques, and small portraits.
The first guard thoroughly searched Wheeler’s greatcoat, checking the lining as well as the pockets. He removed the neatly folded subpoena and train ticket that showed Wheeler had come from New York. The second guard considered the photograph. Then he looked hard at Wheeler. Wheeler had aged.
“Santa bought lots of toys” the second guard finally said in response to the question.
He thumbed through the pages of the file that had followed John Wheeler from his days as a Force Recon Marine to the day he left the U.S. Customs Service.
“Isn’t anybody else around?” Wheeler asked. Satisfied that the great coat held only the ticket stub and the subpoena, the first guard placed the coat on the counter. Then he began a careful pat search of Wheeler’s body. “Everybody’s in Hawaii watching the president play golf,” said the second guard. “The Hill gets pretty lonely this time of the year. Most of the Congress people are gone too. Except for the people who want to see you.”
Wheeler felt the guard’s strong hands clamp around his upper right thigh and begin a slow slide down toward his knee. When the hands reached the knee, they moved to the ankle. Wheeler looked down to see the guard raise Wheeler’s pant leg and expose the ankle.
“I used to carry it on my left ankle,” Wheeler said. Wheeler felt annoyed and looked hard into the eyes of the second guard. He adjusted his posture.
“We know,” said the second guard as he held up the file. The first guard checked Wheeler’s left ankle. Wheeler squinted to see the file. The photograph had been taken a month after his discharge from the Marine Corps, eight years ago. Wheeler had retained his height at just over six feet, but he was lighter now, closer to 180 pounds than 190 pounds. His hair was shorter and darker in the picture and clean shaven. Every active Marine had shorter hair and was clean shaven. Now Wheeler wore a heavy goatee and had let his hair grow, partially to cope with the New England cold and partially to change the way he looked. The guard marveled at the eyes in the photograph. They reflected optimism. Now Wheeler’s eyes were different, as if he had seen beyond the Garden of Eden.
The first guard moved from Wheeler’s legs and lower body to his torso and arms. Again, the guard’s hands moved carefully, slowly, deliberately along Wheeler’s ribs, his arm pits, over his shoulders to the middle of his back and then down each arm. Wheeler’s simple Navy blue suit fit his body snugly.
The guard saw the Hong Kong tailor’s mark on the inside lining and deftly wrenched Wheeler’s wallet from the inside breast pocket.
“Hey!” Wheeler protested. Wheeler changed his stance and was about to stand upright when the second guard grabbed his forearms and pinned him to the counter. “We need you to keep your hands on the counter until we’re through here, sir,” said the second guard, seeking understanding with the pitch of his voice. Wheeler relaxed. The guard removed his hands.
“What makes me so special?” Wheeler asked.
The guards opened Wheeler’s slim calf-skin wallet and removed his California driver’s license, a gold VISA card, and a platinum American Express card. The guards compared the signatures on the cards with the signature in the file. The second guard then loaded a three-inch compact disk into a small drawer that extended under the computer monitor.
“Right thumb on the glass,” said the second guard. Wheeler followed the guard’s eyes to an inch-wide piece of black glass embedded in the counter surface. He complied. The guard pressed a button. A warm, orange glow showed under Wheeler’s thumb.
The second guard had some difficulty with the sequence that compared Wheeler’s file fingerprint with the one just taken. The guard’s fingers danced on the keyboard. He waited. His finger repeated the dance. Then the first thumbprint appeared on the left hand side of his screen. The second thumbprint appeared on the right. The guards watched the machine compare the two.
“Probability of match: 99.2%” displayed the monitor. Anything over ninety percent constituted an acceptable confirmation. The guards looked pleased.
The second guard smiled at John Wheeler. “You’re special, Mr. Wheeler,” began the second guard, “because your file has a red dot. You are capable of inflicting great bodily harm if you so desire, or so it says.” The guard smiled widely, displaying great rows of yellowish teeth. “You don’t want to do that now, do you?”
Wheeler recognized the question. It came from the first part of the psychological tests the Navy gives to gauge post- traumatic stress disorder.
“That depends on if your buddy here wants to snap on some rubber gloves and really get to know me,” said Wheeler.
“It’s not your birthday, Mr. Wheeler,” the second said with a smile. “But you must answer the question.”
“Maybe I should just say thanks for the quick feel and get out of here,” Wheeler said.
“Yes or no, Mr. Wheeler?” the second guard persisted. “Do you wish to harm anyone or yourself today? It’s for the insurance people, you know.”
Wheeler shook his head. The second guard smiled. “We’ll take that as a negative.” His entire attitude relaxed. As he tapped more data into the keyboard, he behaved like a hotel desk clerk. “Now, you’re here because your presence has been requested by a sub-committee of United States senators. Please, sign in.” Then he shoved an electronic pad and plastic stylus at Wheeler.
“Is this for the insurance people too?” Wheeler questioned.
“Something like that, sir,” replied the guard.
Wheeler signed his name. He saw the black letters, the loops and swirls, appear under the plastic window.
The guards watched the signature appear on the computer monitor. Again, it was compared to a known signature and confirmed by the computer.
The second guard printed a hard copy and filed it with Wheeler’s other papers. He placed a pink copy in another file. He gave a gold copy to Wheeler. The form effectively removed any of Wheeler’s rights under the Fourth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments. The guards now had control of Wheeler’s bodily freedom and could use deadly force at their discretion. The second guard smiled again at Wheeler. All the paperwork was in order.
“Now, LeRoy,” said the second guard, “you know where to take the man.” They returned Wheeler’s wallet and ticket stub to him. “You tell the truth now, Mr. Wheeler, and make you mama proud” was the second guard’s good-bye.
“This way, sir,” said LeRoy as he took Wheeler’s elbow and led him from the marble colonnaded lobby down the long corridor along the front of the building.
Completed in 1908 and situated to the northeast of the Capitol building just across Constitution Avenue, the Russell Senate office building houses the space where the senior members of the Senate and their staffs execute their duties. Her sister structures directly to the east, the Dirksen and Hart Senate office buildings house many of the larger committee chambers. All the buildings are massive, impressive, traditional, stone-faced facades with touches of classical Greece influenced by Imperial France.
However, the hallway down which LeRoy led John Wheeler held little of the building’s grandeur. Wheeler walked on industrial tile under long rows of recessed fluorescent tubes. Nestled like blisters in the ceiling were charcoal half-dome lenses that covered the security cameras. Heavy fire doors, deep blue and green, some with small windows of thick glass with wire reinforcing, indicated utility rooms, janitors’ closets, and probably a break room for LeRoy and his co-workers.
LeRoy guided Wheeler around the corner. They walked parallel to C Street. This corridor was on the shortest side of the trapezoidal structure. Tightly woven gray carpet replaced the industrial tiles. Sconces of frosted glass and brass accents high on the walls replaced the fluorescent tubes and cast a softer light toward the ceiling. They passed the first offices, mainly occupied by interns, research staff, and press officers. At the far end of the corridor, a janitor mindlessly pushed and pulled a vacuum cleaner. The machine’s small motor created the only noise in the space. The machine’s dull orange cord draped over his shoulder as he worked around a potted palm tree. He paid no attention to LeRoy and Wheeler waiting for the elevator.
“Uncle Sam likes to look sharp,” LeRoy commented. He pushed the elevator button, and a soft ding sounded as the doors opened. “Watch your step, Mr. Wheeler.”
Wheeler stepped into the car and smelled the stale air that held the scent of cologne and cigars, expensive leather and cheap women. LeRoy pressed the button that would take them to the third floor. The doors whispered closed, and as the elevator jerked, Wheeler felt heavy. He looked up at the lights that marked the floors and took a deep breath. He had developed a great dislike for elevators.
“Will you be going back to California for the new year?” LeRoy asked. The doors opened to the third floor before Wheeler could answer. “May be,” Wheeler responded. LeRoy held the door and motioned for Wheeler to exit and go to the right. They walked down a corridor similar in size to the one they had just left, but this one held even finer furnishings. The carpet was thicker. The shine on the brass fixtures was brighter. Narrow tables of deeply polished cherry wood were positioned between each of the dark oak doors. On each of the narrow tables sat an orchid, some yellow, some white. Like LeRoy’s accent, the flowers made Wheeler think of the tropics.
LeRoy led Wheeler around the first corner, back parallel along Delaware Avenue. This hallway held four sets of double doors. LeRoy stopped before a set of doors marked C-17.
“They’re expecting you,” began LeRoy. “Let me hold your coat. I’ll escort you out when you’re through.”
LeRoy gently took Wheeler’s greatcoat, and then his meaty hand wrapped around the brass ball doorknob and turned it. The door slipped open as if it weighed nothing. LeRoy smiled. “Good luck, sir.”
“Thanks,” Wheeler said as he moved past LeRoy and entered the hearing room.
Wheeler felt the door quickly close behind him, and he needed a moment to let his eyes adjust to the dim light. He scanned the space and saw the hard reality of government. He walked into a large, rectangular space that felt like a hotel conference room that might hold seminars on weight loss or wealth-building. A thick bulkhead archway divided the room into two halves. A heavy accordion curtain of cloth and fiberglass was bunched against the far wall and was fixed to a track in the bulkhead. Fluorescent lights evenly shared space with the acoustical tiles in the ceiling, and only about a fourth of the tubes were lighted in the front half of the room. No lights burned in the back half of the space.
Directly before of John Wheeler was a folding table that might host a family picnic in a park or hold knickknacks at a flea market. To the right of the table, at the room’s front, were five more tables, skirted with blue drapes, on a raised dais. Five microphones and name plates marked the places where the senators would sit. Wheeler knew only two of the names, Richard Fox, the Maryland senator who had subpoenaed him, and Oliver Whitehead, the Arizona senator who was head of the Justice Sub-Committee.
A brunette women in her twenties, wearing a chocolate brown pantsuit, entered from somewhere behind the raised dais. She carried a microphone. She smiled politely and placed it on the single table. Very calmly she said, “Mr. Wheeler? You are John Wheeler?”
“We’ll get you set up, and the senators will be with you
shortly,” the young woman promised as she ran the microphone cord to a jack under the dais. “All this for me?” Wheeler inquired.
The young woman scampered to the darken rear of the room and grabbed an armless banquet chair from a stack.
“All our guests are special,” she said as she placed the chair at the lone table. “Please make yourself comfortable.” The young woman gestured toward the chair and the table, motioning for Wheeler to take a seat. “Please remember that this is a closed hearing,” she said. “No press?” Wheeler stated flatly “Just you and the senators. Everything you say will be recorded.” Her eyes twinkled, and she exited the room. Wheeler was again very alone in the room. The dull hum of the fluorescent lamps grated in his ears.
He moved past the table and chair and over to the window. He cranked the wand that worked the blinds and had to shield his eyes from the sudden, glaring gray-white light. The sun hung in the sky just above the point of the Washington monument, and the two shapes together formed a strange link between the earth and the heavens. Wheeler smiled at the contrast in the climates he remembered. The size and majesty of the same star in the tropics reigns always. Here it looked like a dim, tinsel ornament, a vestige of its true self.
“Looks like it might clear for New Year’s,” said the voice of the young man behind Wheeler.
Wheeler turned. A male contemporary of the young women, in a dark rumpled suit, carried a tray loaded with five carafes of water. He moved around the low-backed leather chairs on the dais and placed a carafe at each of the places where a senator would sit. The young man smiled at Wheeler.
The young women re-entered, carrying six glasses and one carafe of water. She and the young man passed like a seasoned tango couple. She set a glass by each of the carafes. She placed a glass and a carafe on the table meant for John Wheeler.
“Mr. Wheeler, I could bring you some coffee or tea or a soft drink if you like,” she said.
“Is the water safe?” he asked. For nearly half his time undercover, Wheeler removed bacteria from his drinking water as a matter of habit. He meant the question as a bit of humor. The young women reacted soberly. “It’s filtered. How about a slice of lemon?” said the young woman as she clutched the tray like a shield to her chest. “I could get you bottled.”
“Filtered’s good,” Wheeler said. “Thank you.”
The young woman made a small bow, and with the young man, exited the chamber. Wheeler turned his gaze back out the window. Traffic pushed through the slush on Delaware Avenue. The fire door clunked again, and the scent of shaving soap, like the kind his father once used, touched Wheeler’s nostrils. The smell was light, clean, from an era of sureness and certainty. Wheeler turned and saw the large frame of seventy-two-year-old Senator Cleveland Morris climb the first step to the dais. He moved slowly and with difficulty and used the backs if the chairs to steady himself.
“Please take your seat, Mr. Wheeler,” Morris said with a thick, pasty voice as he stood by the center seat on the dais. He fired a craggy finger at the lone chair behind the lone table.
Wheeler strode to his chair and watched the other senators enter the room. The four other men ascended the dais. Morris looked impatient. He directed the other men to his right and left with the actions of a traffic cop. The other senators took their places behind their name plates.
Morris’s pale blue eyes looked hard into Wheeler’s. A chill went down Wheeler’s back. The old senator looked tough and tired and without mercy.
At Morris’s right were the two senators who wore spectacles. Richard Fox, a man about fifty years old, carried a half dozen thick folders. He looked eager to begin. Next to him was Senator Ryan. The name plates offered no first name, and Wheeler had no idea about Ryan’s origin. He looked about sixty-five. He had shiny black hair and wore an olive green suit with vest. From his left wrist dangled a diamond encrusted Rolex Presidential watch. Ryan looked drowsy, as if he lost the battle with the forces that induce sleep after a big lunch with several martinis.
To Morris’s left were Senators Fielding and Whitehead.
Fielding had narrow eyes and the features of a rodent. Whitehead was tall, lean, athletic, wrinkled from time in the sun, probably an old golfer. When Wheeler looked into Whitehead’s eyes, Whitehead looked away.
“Let us begin, gentlemen,” Morris said as he looked to his left and then to his right. Morris was the first to sit. The others followed.
“Please have a seat, Mr. Wheeler,” drawled Morris. He shifted in his chair and opened a well-worn briefcase. He flipped the latches and produced a thick file which he spread before himself on the table. On his nose, he slipped a pair of reading glasses.
“This is a fantastic circus,” Fielding snapped in a nasty tone. “And a waste of taxpayer money.”
“Finding the truth is never a waste of money,” growled Morris.
“Has anyone of you read all of Mr. Wheeler’s de-briefings?” Fox fired at his colleagues.
“As a matter of fact, I have,” said Fielding. “Which is why I will ask again if this hearing is necessary.”
“There have been questions,” boomed the voice of Cleveland Morris, as if he were a preacher addressing a congregation. “And we want all the matters settled. The presidency is at stake.”
“Can’t we adjourn until after the holidays?” Ryan asked. “Shut up, William,” Morris grumbled. “We are all here, and we need this testimony put to rest.” Then he turned his pale blue eyes on Wheeler.
“You have been granted full immunity, Mr. Wheeler,” began
Morris, “in exchange for your cooperation. This is a closed hearing, and if you chose to violate the confidence of these walls in any way, I will have your immunity revoked and have the Department of Justice render a federal indictment against you in thirty minutes. Do you understand?” Morris’s pale blue eyes stared over the top of the reading glasses.
“I understand,” Wheeler declared.
Morris said to Fox, “You witness, Mr. Fox.” Fox appeared flushed and frustrated. He arranged some papers on the space before him. His eyes moved to each senator and then to Wheeler.
Fox cleared his throat before he spoke. “Mr. Wheeler, is it true that after four years with the United States Customs Service you volunteered to go undercover in Central America to help the interdiction of drug trafficking?” asked Fox.
“Yes,” Wheeler replied.
“Is it also true that you saved the life of General Xavier Napoleon Garcia during a coup staged by U.S. Special Forces?” asked Fox.
“Senator,” Whitehead interrupted with a sharp tone, “Mr.
Wheeler’s exploits have no place at this hearing.”
Cleveland Morris raised his large pale hand. “Mr. Wheeler’s service to the country has been duly noted,” he began. He looked at a sheet of paper before him. “With the liberation of the Swallow’s Nest of the Ukraine, the siege of Kabul, and the Djibouti uprising. None of those incidents is in dispute nor is Mr. Wheeler’s service to his country. This hearing is to determine if Robert Louis Stone committed crimes unbecoming a United States Senator.”
“Senator Morris,” interrupted Whitehead, “if we questioned the criminal behavior of everyone who ran for the presidency, no one would run.”
Morris shifted his eyes in Fox’s direction without moving his head. “Mr. Fox, please confine your questions to Mr. Wheeler’s first-hand knowledge of the senator’s actions.” Morris removed his eyes from Fox and leaned back in his seat. The chair loudly creaked.
“Sir,” began Fox, “we should first establish the context in which Mr. Wheeler dealt with the senator.”
“Proceed,” agreed Morris with a flip of his hand. Fox cleared his throat. The other senators looked annoyed, even bored with him. Ryan fiddled with his carafe and spilled some water. He took his handkerchief and wiped up the liquid.
“Mr. Wheeler, according to the debriefings, you stated that you believed that your mission was to monitor and report the money laundering and drug smuggling activities of General Xavier Garcia,” Fox said.
“Yes,” Wheeler responded.
“You also stated that the first time you met Robert Stone was on Paradise Island.” Fox asked as he cross-checked the name on two sheets of paper.
“La Isla Paradisa,” Wheeler said without a hint of accent. Wheeler’s fluent Spanish helped qualify him for the mission. “I was first introduced to the senator when he stepped off the boat. We spoke only briefly then.”
“You had no preconceived opinions about Senator Stone?”
“No,” Wheeler answered.
“Had the senator ever been to the island before?” Fox asked.
“Not during the time that I was with the general.”
“But he seemed familiar with the place?”
“He knew his way around the place. In fact he knew the short cut to the Arena.”
“At this Arena, or ‘Pit’ as you call it, was the first place the senator engaged you in the first of what you describe as ‘serious conversations’?” questioned Fox. Fox flipped through more pages of his notes.
“Yes,” Wheeler volunteered.
“And?” Fox pursued.
“He spoke to me,” Wheeler answered.
“And how would you describe this conversation, Mr.
Wheeler?” inquired Fox.
“I was uneasy,” Wheeler said.
“Why was that?”
“Because I knew a man was about to die.”