WEDNESDAY, APRIL 11, 2001
He stood at the observation window of the nursery at the maternity ward looking at the newborns with a satisfied expression. He appeared to be a proud new father.
In reality, he was an assassin searching for his target.
Code name Cobra, he knew this would be the most difficult and most important assignment of his career. He received the contract only this past Monday evening and at first, he refused to accept it. Never had he been given a target like this. But, when he was told the background and what the survival of the target would mean, he gladly accepted the challenge. And, what an enormous challenge it was.
In the past, he had been given weeks, sometimes months, to prepare. He had the time to study his targets, their schedules, habits, and idiosyncrasies. He had the time to plan the location, the time, and the method of assassination. False identities, disguises, and—most important—his escape were all meticulously planned and developed.
Not this time.
He was given only two days to develop his plan, formulate his identity, travel to Chicago, study the surroundings and, finally, to execute his target and make his escape. There was no leeway; there was no tomorrow; there was no room for error. Failure was unacceptable.
The future of millions of people depended upon him.
Before his departure, he colored his hair with gray highlights, glued on a fake mustache to match the photo of one of his American passports, and selected a plain gold wedding band from his large collection of jewelry. With his dark complexion, he appeared to have recently returned from a family vacation in the tropics. He wore a navy blue traditional American business suit with a white shirt and a solid dark blue tie.
He blended in perfectly.
He arrived at O’Hare International Airport on an early morning flight and took a taxi to the Park Ridge Sheraton. Satisfied after observing the lobby traffic for ten minutes from a comfortable armchair, he took another taxi to the Northwestern commuter train station. Standing on the platform among the crowd in the brisk morning air, he carefully observed all the surrounding people. He waited only a short time for the next train to downtown, confident he was not being followed or eyed with suspicion.
Less than thirty minutes later, he joined the throngs of bustling commuters streaming through the downtown Northwestern Station. It was a typical overcast damp Chicago April morning, which accentuated the smell and taste of automobile and bus exhaust. As he walked the three blocks from the Northwestern Station to the Union Station, he noticed how few people spoke as they hastened to their workplaces. They were oblivious to the blaring of car horns and the shrill police whistles as traffic was directed through the busy intersections.
After surveying his surroundings, he boarded a taxi and had the driver take him to the Drake Hotel on North Michigan Avenue. After entering the hotel, he watched the taxi depart and then walked two blocks to the Ritz Carlton Hotel at Water Tower Place. He checked in under the name of William Dodd, paid cash for the room and retrieved a package that had been left for him by a delivery service. He allowed a bellman to show him to his room, giving him an average unmemorable tip. After closing and locking the door behind the departing bellman, he opened the package. Satisfied with its contents, which included a backpack, he hung the uniform in the closet and put the rest of the items in a dresser drawer.
After exiting the hotel via the Michigan Avenue entrance, he walked the four blocks to Chicago Metropolitan Hospital. As he stood on the sidewalk across the street, he studied the gray granite exterior and paid close attention to the emergency exit door on the ground level at the west end of the massive fourteen-story building. He had previously accessed the floor plans of the eighty-year old structure on his computer and knew exactly where he needed to go.
Satisfied, he crossed the street and entered the hospital, walking purposefully past the information and security desk toward the elevator bank. One of the receptionists called out, “Sir, you need to sign in and get a visitor pass.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I went outside for a walk,” he replied. Reaching in his suit coat pocket, he produced a hospital visitor badge, which had been left for him in the package, and clipped it to his lapel. He smiled at her as he added, “I’m sorry, I almost forgot.”
Cobra continued to the elevators and rode up to the maternity ward on the fourth floor. Breathing in the sterile antiseptic air, he walked past the nurse’s office and approached the large glass viewing windows. Glancing at the two couples looking at their babies through the large viewing windows, he wondered if either of them might be the parents of his target.
He distanced himself from the doting parents and proceeded to count the number of bassinets. There were thirty-seven, with twenty-six being occupied. He assumed the other eleven babies were in the rooms with their mothers. Disappointed, he observed the bassinets were not labeled with the names of the occupants but rather with a hospital code. Unfortunately, this could prevent him from identifying his specific target unless he could locate the occupancy chart. Glancing at his watch, he noted that it was nearly noon. He had enough time.
He observed several large racks of metal shelving lining the far wall, containing towels, bed linens, and both plastic and cloth diapers. There were also several cabinets lining the wall. He watched as a nurse came into the room, went straight to one of the cabinets and pulled out a pair of latex gloves, putting them on her hands. As he began to formulate his plan, a sinister smile momentarily crept across his face. Had someone seen it, they would have felt a chill sweep over their body. But he was too smart and too experienced to let body language give him away. His warm smile quickly returned, and he once again appeared to be the ecstatic father of a newborn baby.
He looked up, observed the ceiling tiles and counted the sprinkler heads. He allowed a brief smile. Continuing to watch the nurses at work, he waited patiently until one opened the door to the large storage room located at the back of the nursery. Once again, the sinister smile briefly darkened his face. Everything was exactly as he had hoped.
Realizing he had been there for nearly an hour, he walked toward the end of the hallway, passing a door to the nursery. He casually tried to turn the knob. As he expected, the door was locked, but it was a lock he could easily pick. Continuing to the end of the hallway, he opened the door to the emergency stairway and stepped through to the landing. As he closed the door, no alarm sounded, and his shoulders relaxed. Everything was fitting into place.
A moment later he descended to the main floor and entered the lobby. Again, there was no alarm. As he walked past the security desk, one of the guards stopped him and said, “Sir, what were you doing in the emergency stairwell?”
Giving his warmest smile, the assassin responded, “I thought I’d get some exercise by walking down the stairs.”
“Didn’t you see the signs saying hospital personnel only?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t notice them. It won’t happen again.”
“That’s okay, no problem. Do you want to turn in your badge?”
“No, I’m just going out for a walk and to grab a bite to eat. I’ll be back in a while.” He smiled at the guard and glanced at the information sign. Visiting hours were 9:00 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Leaving the hospital, Cobra grinned as he strode away. This was not going to be as difficult as he had thought. Almost everything he might need was in that storage room or on the shelves.
Back at the hotel, he went to the gift shop and bought three packs of cigarettes and a lighter. He also asked the clerk for six books of matches and where he might purchase duct tape. He was directed to the sundry shop where he made his purchase, then went to the coffee shop. After a light snack he went straight to his room, checked that no one had entered during his absence and stripped naked.
After a long hot shower, he turned the water to cold and stood in the icy spray for a full thirty seconds. Refreshed, he admired himself in the mirror as he dried off. He was tall, six feet three, with a lean muscular body. His dark hair was cut close in an American style and the gray tint made him look older than his thirty-three years. His face was handsome when he smiled, which he did only when he had to. Running his fingers over the scars from the two bullet wounds in his chest, he thought about the mistakes he had made early in his career and his vow to never let that happen again. He kept himself in shape with daily exercise and he was an excellent athlete, having mastered physical skills that would keep him alive. His advanced military training earned him commendations for martial arts, marksmanship, and close order weaponry.
In short, Cobra was a highly-trained, highly-skilled killing machine with neither compassion nor remorse.
After peacefully sleeping for several hours, he retrieved the uniform and the other items that had been left for him at the hotel that morning and placed them in his backpack. Before he left his room, he wiped down every surface, handle, and doorknob he had touched. As he walked back to the hospital through the crisp air, he contemplated his assignment, preparing himself for possible multiple kills.
The sun was setting as he clipped the visitor pass to his lapel while climbing the steps to the main entrance of the hospital. This time the security guards barely took notice of him and did not comment on the backpack as he walked past them to the elevator bank. Instead of taking an elevator up to the fourth-floor nursery, he went down to the cafeteria. He had two and a half hours to occupy and he was hungry. Cobra didn’t leave anything to chance. He did not want to be one of the last visitors to walk past the security guards—the last one in their memories.
He took his time eating, watching the other diners as he slowly ate a slightly stale roast beef sandwich. When his watch read 7:50, it was time to play the role of the proud new father and visit the nursery. This time, there was one couple and three single men admiring their babies as Cobra entered the observation area. He nodded and flashed a brief smile as he walked to the end of the viewing windows. One of the men appeared to be a young doctor as he was dressed in hospital scrubs and had a stethoscope around his neck.
Cobra gazed at one of the sleeping babies while watching the reduced nursing staff from the corner of his eye. By 8:20, the other visitors had departed, and he quietly walked to the emergency stairs. As he passed the door to the nursery, he again tried to turn the handle.
It was still locked. It didn’t matter.
He entered the stairway landing to prepare himself for the long wait. After climbing the stairs to the first landing, he sat against the
wall in a strategic location where he could observe the stairs leading up as well as those leading down. Mostly he relied on his hearing. If he heard someone coming down the stairs, he would silently walk down ahead of them until they exited. Likewise, if someone was coming up, he would climb until they left the stairwell.
He had another seven hours to wait.
THURSDAY, APRIL 12, 2001
Finally, it was time.
The assassin took off his business suit and put on the black pants and matching black button-down collared shirt. White lettering spelled out “Reliable Plumbing Company” on the shirt pocket. He changed shoes, putting on a pair of soft-soled shoes and then clipped on the contractor’s pass from his bag. After stuffing his discarded clothes into his bag, he fastened the tool belt around his waist. Satisfied, he left the stairwell and silently walked out into the nursery viewing area.
As expected, it was empty.
He easily picked the lock to the door and eased into the dimly lit nursery. There were only two female nurses in the next room, doing paperwork at their desks. He anticipated a larger staff. They would not be obstacles for long.
He silently walked to the storage room door, entered and retrieved the step stool he had observed that afternoon. Cobra placed the stool under one of the sprinkler heads, climbed up and gave out an intentional cough. Every action he made had a purpose.
The nurses rushed into the room. The first one through the door demanded, “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” he replied, flashing a warm smile. “I was called at this ungodly hour to repair the sprinkler system in the newborn nursery.”
“I wasn’t told anything about this. How did you get in?” she snarled. The younger nurse stood by her side.
“They let me in the door over there.” He turned and pointed to the door with the lock he had just picked. Again, he gave her a warm smile. She seemed to relax for a moment, then scowled at him. “No one is allowed in here without my knowledge and approval, especially in the middle of the night. Let me see your work order,” she demanded.
“Of course,” he politely responded as he climbed off the stool. Reaching in his back pocket, he pulled out some papers and held them out to her in his right hand. As she moved toward him in the dim light, he could observe her a little better. She was young, about thirty years of age. Her auburn hair fell around a strikingly pretty face.
He focused on her eyes, so he was unable to size up the rest of her. If she made a sudden retreating move, he was ready to spring at her and her eyes would give away her intention before her body would. The younger nurse remained silent but appeared concerned.
As she moved forward to reach for the work order, he made his move. With the quickness of a striking serpent, his left hand lashed out and grabbed her throat. He drew her body into his, turned her sideways and wrapped his right arm around her head. He gave a quick jerk to her head, snapping her delicate neck. As she went limp, Cobra dropped her body to the floor.
The younger nurse clasped her hands to her mouth, eyes wide with horror. Before she could utter a sound, he grabbed her by her hair and yanked her head up. He gave a hard chop to her throat, crushing her windpipe. After letting her crumble to the floor, he felt for a pulse in both bodies.
Satisfied they were both dead, he dragged the bodies into the storage room and dropped them at the far end where they could not be seen. He found the two oxygen tanks he had seen earlier and wheeled them out into the dimly lit nursery, placing one at each end of the room.
After glancing at the rows of bassinets, he rushed to the nurse’s office and searched for a list of the babies’ names.
Quickly and silently, he went to work. Gathering a bundle of cloth diapers from the storage racks, Cobra set about lifting the ceiling tile at one of the sprinkler heads. Wrapping a cloth diaper around the sprinkler head he tied it with the duct tape. He quickly did this with each of the sprinkler heads in the main nursery room, storage room, and each of the supply closets, constantly on the alert for the arrival of any hospital staff.
He was familiar with this type of fire prevention system. The main valve had a tamper alarm which, if activated, would send an alarm directly to both the fire department and the security desk. There were zone valves located above the ceiling grids, also protected by tamper alarms and there were smoke detectors located in several locations in the nursery and each of the supply closets and the storage room. He disabled them.
He knew he could not deactivate the entire system, so he had to temporarily immobilize it. The sprinkler heads would be activated when heat melted the temperature-sensitive link at the sprinkler head. The diapers around the sprinkler heads would delay the activation. Once the system was activated, the diapers would contain the spray, resulting in ineffective dripping of the water to the floor.
Cobra went to the metal shelving racks and moved one of them to the center of the nursery. The bottom shelves held linens while the upper shelves stored towels, cloth diapers, and baby blankets. He went to the storage room, gathered all the bottles of alcohol and placed them on a cart. Rolling the cart out to the nursery he heard, for the first time, the sounds of whimpering and soft gentle moans coming from the bassinets. He paused for a few seconds as he thought about what he was about to do.
He had no room for weakness.
He went to the supply cabinet, removed all the boxes of latex gloves, opened them and spread them over the linens on the bottom shelf. Then he opened the bottles of alcohol and poured them over the linens. He went back to the two other metal shelves laden with linens, towels, blankets and diapers and moved them out to the ends of the room next to the oxygen tanks, repeating the procedure of spreading latex gloves over the linens and dousing them with alcohol. Constantly listening for any unusual sounds, he hurried to the nursing station in the next room and locked both doors leading to the outside corridor. He then slid a desk in front of each door, making entrance difficult.
Once again, he rifled through the papers stacked on the desks and searched through the desk drawers.
Disappointed, but resolved, the assassin hastened back to the nursery. He surveyed his work. Satisfied, he removed his uniform and again put on his business suit. Now, it was time for the final part.
He unwrapped all three packs of cigarettes and removed four or five cigarettes from each pack, throwing them on the floor. He then opened three packs of matches, placing one on each of the three alcohol-soaked linens on the three shelves. He took out three cigarettes and lit them altogether, taking several puffs of each one to get the tobacco burning. He slid a burning cigarette back in each pack, the burning end facing out. He started at the shelves at the end of the room furthest from the door and quickly placed the pack next to the open book of matches. He rushed to the center shelf and then the shelf nearest the door, repeating the procedure.
Now that the time-delayed fuses were set, he opened the valves of the oxygen tanks, slowly spreading gas into the nursery. He grabbed his bag and left the nursery, locking the door behind him as he hurried to the stairwell and silently ran down the stairs. Passing the main floor, he descended one more floor to the exit door to the outside and easily disabled the alarm connection.
As he left the building, he glanced at his watch and was pleased to note that the entire operation took only eleven minutes.
He hastened back to the hotel and caught a cab for the Northwestern Station. After the cab drove away, he changed direction and walked the three blocks to the Union Station. As he walked up the steps to the station, through the crisp early morning air he heard the distant wailing of sirens.
He smiled briefly as he proceeded to the departure area and the six o’clock train to Milwaukee.
Throughout the hospital, the speaker system emitted three loud chimes followed by the announcement: “Mr. McRoberts, fourth floor, Pod A. I repeat, Mr. McRoberts, fourth floor, Pod A. I repeat again, Mr. McRoberts, fourth floor, Pod A.”
A young doctor on the fifth floor, just finishing his tedious twelve-hour shift, froze as the chimes and the message were repeated two
more times. All the hospital staff knew this to be the coded message that the fire alarm system had been set off. His body chilled as he realized this was the location of the newborn nursery.
He rushed down the nearest stairway and ran toward the nursery. He coughed as he reached the smoky hallway with the viewing windows. Dark black smoke poured out from under the door to the nurse’s station.
Where were the three on-duty nurses?
He reached the viewing windows, coughing in the hot pungent fumes. Looking through the windows, his heart stopped as he saw flames shooting up through thick black smoke. He ran back to the nursing station door. It was locked. He stepped back and kicked at the door with all his strength. It didn’t budge. He tried two more times, then ran down the hallway to the nursery door. Locked.
Oh my God. Those poor babies can’t survive that smoke and fire.
Through the viewing window, he could barely see the deadly flames through the thick black smoke caused by the burning latex. When he kicked in the door, he was met by a surge of flames that engulfed his entire body.
Within seconds, he was dead.
It was an uneventful ninety-minute train ride to the downtown Milwaukee station.
Cobra took a taxi to the InterContinental Hotel, waited a moment until it departed, and walked five blocks to the Grand Avenue Mall. He boarded another taxi and had the driver take him to Sensenbrenner Hall at Marquette University. Walking to 9th Street, he hailed another taxi and had the driver take him to the airport. Using a different identity, he purchased a one-way coach ticket to Detroit where he would again change identities and make his way home. He felt comfortable that he had covered his tracks.
As he approached his gate, he saw large crowds gathered around the television monitors watching the CNN news channel. He saw anger on several shocked faces and tears on others.
Joining the gathering, he quizzed a female viewer, “What happened?”
Visibly shaken, she replied, “There was a horrible fire in a hospital in Chicago and thirty-seven newborn babies and five hospital staff were killed. They say it was arson.” Sniffling through her sobs, she continued, “What kind of person could do such a thing? Why?”
Cobra wondered who the other three staff members were.
He would have been extremely perplexed had he known there were four other assassins in the hospital at the time of the fire.
FOUR YEARS EARLIER
ROME TO EDINBURGH
TUESDAY, JUNE 24, 1997
The British Airways flight left Rome at 1:40 in the afternoon, bound for Birmingham and then on to Edinburgh. The two men sitting in seats 7A and 7B talked quietly. Their kind elderly faces exuded a peacefulness not often seen in the first-class section. The flight attendants normally had to cater to the egos of celebrities, business icons, or the wealthy. These two men were different; they didn’t want cocktails, just a simple glass of wine for each. When the flight attendants served the meal, these two passengers simply requested whatever was easiest for the attendants to serve.
They did, however, gather the attention of the other passengers, particularly those who were Italian. It wasn’t often that one had the opportunity to take an airline flight with two cardinals of the Catholic church. Dressed in their black cassocks with red trim and scarlet band cinctures, they each displayed a large pectoral cross and wore a red zucchetto. They were very noticeable.
“Oleg, you’ve been a lifelong friend of His Holiness and his closest confidant. You grew up together in Poland. Do you think he will listen to you when you explain our project?” asked the silver-haired cardinal, speaking Italian with a German accent.
“Oh, Loleck will listen. Whether he will see it our way is a different matter. We would be asking so much of him. He would have to circumvent a lot of church doctrine.” After a contemplative pause, Oleg softly continued, “Giuseppe, it will pain me to put him through so much consternation. He has had so much tragedy in his life, but this project is critical, and Pope John Paul II is probably the strongest Pope in history.”
“I know his mother died when he was young and that you saved his life in a streetcar accident,” replied the silver-haired cardinal. “Tell me about your youth with our Pope. It had to have been be terribly difficult growing up in Poland during the war.”
“His Holiness is three years older than I and our fathers were in the army together. Loleck’s father became a tailor and my father became a baker in Wadowice. Our town had about ten thousand people at that time, eight thousand Catholics and two thousand Jews. Everyone in our town called His Holiness by his nickname, Loleck, instead of his given name of Karol.”
“So, you were best friends with our Pope as a youth?”
“Yes, Loleck was liked by everyone, but he spent most of his time with his father. They lived in a one-room apartment behind the church and my family lived in two rooms attached to our bakery. His father, who was also named Karol, was a strict disciplinarian and, fortunately, Loleck was an excellent student and athlete. Like I said, he spent most of his time at home, studying religion, poetry, and theater. He had a passion for all three.”
Taking a small sip of wine, Oleg continued, “I was a close friend, but his best friend was Jerzy Kluger. Jerzy and I spent many an afternoon sitting in the Wojtyla kitchen, next to the coal stove, listening to Loleck’s father tell stories about ancient Greece and Rome, and, of course, Poland. We, in turn, would spend time with the Kluger family. They were rich by our standards. They had a six-room apartment overlooking the town square and we would go there and listen to music performed by a string quartet. At first, the Klugers had difficulty accepting us. They were Jews and we were strict Catholics. In those days, many Catholics were prejudiced toward the Jews, Loleck being the exception. He became a good friend to the entire Kluger family.”
Giuseppe asked, “I believe that is the same Kluger who assisted the Pope in extending diplomatic recognition to Israel back in 1993?”
“Yes, that relationship has lasted over sixty years.”
“As has yours, Oleg.”
“Yes, it has been a wonderful relationship. He went into the priesthood, studying at an underground seminary in Krakow during the war and I joined him about a year later. All the seminaries were closed by the occupying Nazis, so we had to study in secret at night while we worked in a chemical plant during the day.”
“What became of his father during this time?” asked Giuseppe.
“He died in early 1941, so he was never able to see his dream fulfilled of having his son go into the priesthood. Loleck had a sad childhood. First his mother died and then his older brother Edmund died when Loleck was twelve.
“I had forgotten that. Remind me, how did his brother die?” Giuseppe inquired.
“He died of scarlet fever when he was only twenty-six years old. He was a physician and caught the disease from one of his patients.” Oleg paused, reflecting on the past, then quietly said, “That is why his Holiness is now so reflective. He understands pain and suffering. It seems as though they have followed him around his entire life.” Oleg bowed his head and added, “I am blessed to have him as my friend and mentor; he is like a brother to me. I must admit that I love him more than life itself and would do anything for him.”
After several minutes of silence and changing the subject, Giuseppe whispered, “Oleg, I’m afraid that if the project is successful, there will be many people who would not want to see the baby survive.”
“I also have that same concern, Giuseppe. But my biggest fear is that if the project is not successful, then the world may not long survive. We have an important meeting tomorrow at the institute, and I would like to take a short nap. Now let us have no more talk of this on the airplane, there are too many ears present. We can discuss it further when we get to Edinburgh.”
Cardinal Aleksandr Jaropelk, known as Oleg to his close friends, did not know just how true his words were. He also did not take notice of the passenger sitting in seat 2C. The passenger had a dark complexion and thick curly black hair. He was wearing casual slacks with a short sleeve shirt revealing thick black arm hair. He appeared to be sleeping throughout most of the flight, listening to music on his headphones. Close inspection would reveal these were not the airline-provided headphones and they were not plugged into the outlet on the armrest. They were plugged into a pocket-size amplifier/recorder, from which another wire led to a highly sensitive directional microphone. The passenger had a blanket draped over his lap so no one could observe the audio interception device or the directional microphone, which was placed under his left arm and was aimed directly at seats 7A and 7B.