“That was easy,” Mason told Charlotte when Kevin had left the mansion. “We found a great connection but I’m going to stop selling small amounts of coke. It’s too risky now that I’ve hit the big time dealing.”

“Good idea,” said Charlotte. “You can never be too careful when it comes to dealing drugs.”

They spent the afternoon getting high around the swimming pool and sipping ice tea.

Far away to the south along the Columbian mountains, Juan Gabriel surveyed his coca-leaf plants, which were in neat rows. Juan was a poor farmer, like most in the area who planted and harvested coca. Coca farmers do it out of necessity, living barely above the poverty level. For those involved with coca production, it is less of a moneymaking scheme than that of a financial imperative. Cocaine has created a new social class in Columbia, which influences several aspects of culture and politics.

Coca is grown 3,330 to 6,000 feet above sea level. The mountain region of Columbia produces the best coca plants. The mountain soil is iron-rich, helping coca grow. Juan picked an area for his coca farm that slopes slightly so that rainwater wouldn’t drown the plants.

The first step in the cultivation process begins with a seed. The seeds are gathered from December through March from coca plants ranging from two to three years in age. Juan pours the seeds into water and the bad ones float to the top and are discarded. The good seeds are planted a half an inch apart in humus-enriched soil. Seeds are sown about two inches apart at a depth in plots that are kept shaded from the sun.

The seeds are kept well-watered and weeded by Juan for twenty to thirty days to germinate. Seedlings reach transplanting size in two months when they are twelve inches high. Then Juan transplants the seedlings in holes about a foot deep. A coca plant cultivated by seeds reaches maturity and its leaves are harvested a year or two after being transplanted. Coca is a hardy plant and will live for many years and can produce large harvests of leaves.

            Harvesting coca leaves is a continuous and ongoing process over the entire year. The leaves are stripped from the plants by hand and Juan’s entire family helps him during the harvest. Even neighbors sometime help Juan harvest the coca leaves. They wear cotton gloves to avoid getting blisters on their hands. Juan takes the harvested leaves to an open-air patio and dries them in the sun. The drying process takes one to two days depending on the weather.

            Sometime Juan uses a flashlight, working at night because there is no electricity in his house. If rain occurs during the drying process and the coca leaves get wet it ruins them so Juan watches out for thunderstorms. He frequently rakes and turns the leaves to aid the drying process. Then he packs the dry leaves into twenty-five or fifty-pound bags and transports them to an illicit laboratory near his home. To make a kilo of pure cocaine Juan needs about a ton of coca leaves. Unlike Juan’s coca farm, many of the larger plantations provide prostitutes for their workers. Sexually transmitted diseases are spread at a rapid pace and contribute to the workers’ inability to heal flesh wounds. These wounds decrease the productivity of the workers.

            At the nearby cocaine laboratory, the dried leaves are placed in a fifty-five-gallon drum by Rodrigo Panagos and usually five other workers. The coca leaves are dampened with a small amount of water and dusted with lime. Then they are macerated with gasoline and mixed for several hours, even up to three days. Noxious fumes coming from the mixture requires that masks are worn by the workers. Rodrigo knows the leaves have to be chopped up to a fine state to better facilitate the extraction process. A mixing stick is used to stir the lumps of coca paste. After the completion of the extraction process the solvent is removed by a pressing procedure. The dried material has a cakey consistency and will not free flow. Water is then poured into the paste, which is cooked in Rodrigo’s kitchen. Once the yellow paste is cooked, or what’s called “fried up” to evaporate the water, it’s crushed into bricks ready to be sold.

            The process of making coca base is labor-intensive. Rodrigo gets about $900 for a kilo of coca paste. The kilo bricks are then transported to a base laboratory, which is usually near the cartel’s airstrip.

            Work at the base laboratory requires more skill than making coca paste. An older man named Pablo Rodriguez and five other workers take the paste and dissolve it into an acid solution. Some potassium permanganate is combined with water. This mixture is added to the coca base and water. It is used to extract alkaloids and other material undesired in the final product.

            The mixture is allowed to sit for about six hours. The solution is filtered and the precipitate thrown away. Ammonia water is added to the filtered solution and another precipitate is formed. The liquid is drained from the solution and the remaining precipitate is dried with heating lamps. The resulting crystal white powder sparkles and is now pure cocaine. Pablo supervises the entire process carefully. One mistake can ruin the entire batch of coke.

            The kilo bricks are transported to collection points where they are shipped to the United States, Europe, Africa, and all corners of the world. A kilo of cocaine that reaches the U.S. border is worth at least $12,000 to $15,000 depending on the market conditions. Sometimes it fetches as much as $50,000. Once the kilo is broken up for retail distribution in smaller quantities it can be worth $150,000 or more.

            The overall value of the total international cocaine trade is assessed at $10,000,000,000. The vast profits made from drug production and trafficking are reaped in the United States and other countries rather than going to the farmers of Columbia, who are dirt poor.

            The whole enforcement system operating in the United States is based on going after the small dealer. The small dealer is the weakest part of the chain. The big financial systems where a sizable amount of money is exchanged are rarely caught by authorities. Bank officials are seldom arrested or charged for laundering drug money. Only the small dealers are harassed by law enforcement officials on a regular basis. It’s too hard to catch cartel smugglers.

            Alex Hunter was a long-term drug dealer and pilot for the Black Eagles cartel. He uses a Beechcraft Duke airplane for transporting the cartel’s cocaine by air. The airplane has torpedo-like tips on its wings in addition to a standard gas tank. It can fly over thirteen hundred miles without refueling. Hunter began flying marijuana out of Mexico but later turned to the less bulky and more financially rewarding cocaine shipments. Central America has taken new importance as a transit and storage area for cocaine shipments headed north.

            Hunter takes off from the Columbian border before banking sharply and heading for Honduras. When it comes to Central America cocaine trafficking, all roads lead to Guatemala. Plantation owners and ranchers provide clandestine landing strips and cocaine storage facilities in remote areas. Profits from drug trafficking can be passed off as the proceeds of productive farms and ranches. The money is hidden by Guatemalan farmers in secret locations. 

            Hunter makes several short hops across Central America. He memorizes the location of landing strips to refuel his plane. Many of the airstrips are in isolated country sides and not connected by roads. This makes law enforcement challenging. Police rarely visit remote areas where cocaine is being shipped. Guatemalan authorities are complicit when it comes to cocaine traffic. Drug smugglers like Hunter count on their cooperation. Indigenous groups of famers and rancher also provide logistical support to smugglers. It is one of the few sources of their income in isolated areas.

            From Guatemala Hunter flies to southwest California near the Twenty-Nine Palms area, landing on dry lakebed. When the salt dries out and binds with clay in the soil the lakebeds provide a near-concrete surface. The hard surfaces are used to land the space shuttle. No one visits the lakebeds except for the occasional salt miners who operate in the area. Some airstrips can be difficult to find by air. Pilots can get lost easily.

            A radio ground controller nicknamed Gummie, because he habitually chews gum and blows bubbles, helps Hunter and other Black Eagle pilots find the airstrips. Two other pilots take planes north. One is nicknamed Crash because he survived three plane accidents, and the other is Bombardier, who enjoyed dropping bombs while serving in the U.S. Air Force. Hunter flies for the Black Eagles more than the other two pilots do. He seldom takes risks and has never been caught smuggling cocaine since he started making illegal trips to the United States.

            Once on the ground the plane is unloaded and then refueled at a small L.A. airport. Hunter then flies back to Columbia for another load of cocaine, repeating the trip again and again until he takes some time off. Being a cartel pilot pays good money but Hunter seldom saves his cash. He likes to vacation in Hawaii and spend his money at casinos. Hunter is a fantasy card shark who plays high-stakes poker against other gamblers, sometimes winning but mostly losing money. He is a compulsive gambler and always broke. Being an attractive man, he has a good time hustling women and chasing skirts.   After a week or so he is back flying cocaine from Columbia to California across Central America.

            Meanwhile, once in the United States, the kilos are shipped by car to another location and cut with local anesthetics. Procaine, tetracaine, and lidocaine are used by dealers to cut the coke. The materials used aren’t just cosmetic, as some of the additives can intensify cocaine’s effects and make it easier for the drug to cross the blood-brain barrier. Next, the cocaine is cut again at least one more time by small-time dealers and placed in mini batches. It is sold on the retail market to individual users. Compared to drug smugglers, small-time dealers run the greatest risk of being busted and are usually caught by local authorities eventually.

            A week after giving Kevin the $50,000, the drug dealer returned to the mansion and greeted Mason. Charlotte had gone shopping with Cheyenne on Rodeo Drive. Kevin carried two camera cases full of money. He said, “I’ve been busy selling a coke shipment. Your share is $100,000.”

            “Quite a profit from my investment,” said Mason, pleased with the results.

            “If you want to reinvest the $100,000 for two weeks, I’ll turn over the money again and make your total share $200,000.

            Mason thought for a moment and then said, “Yes indeed, I’ll reinvest all the money for bigger profits.”

            “You’re a smart man,” praised Kevin. He left with the two camera cases and drove away.

            Kevin is a good businessman, thought Mason. At this rate, I stand to make a lot of money dealing cocaine without becoming too involved selling it directly to customers. I’ll play it safe.

            Two weeks later Kevin reappeared at the mansion and had bank bags full of money. This time the profits for Mason came to $200,000. Kevin poured out the bundles of cash on the concrete floor by the swimming pool and showed Mason all the money. Next, he offered, “If you want to reinvest the $200,000 for two weeks, I can double it selling coke to major dealers in Hollywood and Los Angeles.”

            “This is too good to be real. Are you actually making that kind of money selling coke?” asked Mason.

            “Yes, I am. I work hard at it and take my dealing seriously,” answered Kevin.

            “I’ll go along with you and reinvest my $200,000,” Mason told Kevin.

            “Good. Here’s some coke on the house,” said the drug dealer handing Mason a half-ounce baggie of nearly pure cocaine.

            “Thank you and be careful not to get busted. I don’t want to lose my profits,” cautioned Mason accepting the baggie of what’s known as blow.

            Two more weeks passed before Kevin returned to the mansion. He unloaded several bags of cash and told Mason it he had made $400,000 worth of profits.

            “Unbelievable,” said Mason looking at the full bags of money.

            “A huge shipment of coke is coming this week. We can make even more money selling kilos wholesale. But in order to get in big time trafficking I’ll need $2,500,000,” explained Kevin.

            “Wow,” said Mason. “That’s a lot of money to front out for a drug deal. If you want $2,500,000 from me, I insist on meeting your connection during the exchange. I’ll keep their identity a discreet secret of course,” assured Mason.

            After thinking about it for a brief moment Kevin agreed, saying, “Okay, that’s fair, considering the amount of money involved in the deal. I trust you. You can come with me to the delivery point where we will make the deal.”

            “I’ll need a few days to get all the cash,” said Mason.

            “No problem,” said Kevin delighted that Mason would become a full partner in his dope business. “Today is Monday and we won’t need the money until Friday. Is that time line possible?”

            “Yes, that will work on my end of the deal,” answered Mason.

            “See you on Friday morning,” Kevin told him and said good-bye. He left the mansion pleased with Mason’s willingness to invest so much money on the major cocaine deal.

            Mason immediately drove to the Wells Fargo Bank and requested the $2,500,000 from New York. That would give Kevin plenty of money for the drug deal. The lady at the bank treated the transaction normally and didn’t ask any questions. Mason couldn’t believe the bank wasn’t concerned with him making such a large withdrawal of money. The cash came on Wednesday in bundles of bank bags. Mason took the five bags out to his Porsche with a guard for security and drove back to the mansion. He put all of the sizeable bank bags in his closet because the safe wasn’t large enough to hold it all.

            On Friday Kevin arrived in a rented Cadillac limousine because Mason’s Porsche 911 was too small to carry all the cocaine they would get from the Black Eagles cartel. He drove Mason and the money across Hollywood to the United Bank’s underground parking lot. The two men waited at the designated meeting point for the cartel’s members to arrive with the kilos of cocaine. They waited in anticipation of seeing their connection. At noon, right on time, another black limo pulled up next to Kevin and Mason, who came out of their own car with all of the money. Mason was nervous but Kevin remained calm. Two men stepped out of the limo. One was wearing a gray overcoat, which Mason thought was unusual given the hot summer weather. They approached Kevin and Mason walking forward.

            “Have you got the money?” asked one of the Black Eagles with a thick accent. He was obviously a foreigner and quite possibly Columbian.

            “Yes,” replied Kevin. “It’s all here in these bank bags, $2,500,000. Have you got the kilos?”

            “We’ve got something more special for you two bastards today,” announced the man wearing the gray overcoat. He pulled an Uzi submachine gun from under his overcoat and pointed it at them.

            What the hell? Something is wrong! Mason thought, suddenly realizing that he and Kevin were in harm’s way.

            A burst of bullets fired from the machine gun. The Black Eagles cartel member opened up, shooting at them. With a roar of gunfire Kevin and Mason were shot down to the concrete surface of the parking lot. Smoke from the machine gun’s muzzle filled the air. A woman nearby screamed in terror. The Black Eagles quickly snatched up the bank bags of money and fled in their limo. The men knew that returning to Hollywood represented a danger for them so they decided not to come back for a long period of time.

            The screaming woman missed seeing the license number on the back bumper of the limo. She approached the two bodies and called 911 to report the crime and requested an ambulance. Two police cars arrived at the scene with their flashing lights on and sirens blaring loudly. Shortly thereafter an ambulance came inside the underground parking lot. The first responders checked to see if Kevin and Mason were still alive after being shot down. Kevin lay dead. Mason was barely breathing and had four bullet holes in his chest and arms but did not have any damage to his vital organs. The medical team tried to stop his bleeding. He was rushed to the Hollywood Community Hospital Emergency Room. Mason went directly to surgery for five hours where three doctors worked hard to stop his bleeding and extract the four bullets. Massive blood transfusions kept Mason alive during the lengthy operation.

            The police began an investigation at the scene of the shooting. A crowd of curious spectators gathered around the area in the underground parking lot. One of the officers identified the spent cartridges from the Uzi with yellow plastic markers. Another officer took several photographs of the area around Kevin’s dead body. The county coroner arrived and ruled that his death was a homicide. The police retrieved his wallet and found a telephone number for his parents in San Francisco. They called the number, reached his mother, and informed the family of Kevin’s death. She took the bad news hard but had known he was a drug dealer and led a risky life. His death didn’t surprise her.

            The police loaded Kevin’s body onto a stretcher and placed it in the back of the coroner’s van. The coroner took the deceased drug dealer over to the county morgue. A medical team conducted a routine autopsy on Kevin’s dead body. They found he had died of five gunshot wounds to his chest. His death was ruled a homicide.

            When Mason awoke after five hours of surgery he found himself alone in a hospital room with an IV stuck in his left forearm. He wasn’t sure what had happened to him. A nurse entered the room and checked on Mason to see if he was doing okay. She read the medical data off the machines and found it within limits for someone coming off major surgery.

            “What happened to me? Why am I in a hospital?” asked Mason when he regained consciousness. He was groggy and in pain.

            “You were shot four times and lost a great deal of blood. Mr. Rossman, you almost died from all your bullet wounds. A doctor is coming to see you shortly,” said the nurse, leaving him alone in the hospital room.

            Oh shit. This is a bad scene. I got robbed. I’m badly wounded by one of the Black Eagle cartel smugglers. I can’t believe it; I almost died from the attack, thought Mason.

            Just then a doctor dressed in a white medical jacket with a stethoscope around his neck entered the room. “Let me check your breathing,” he said.

            He noted Manson’s breathing using the stethoscope. Then he said, “Mr. Rossman, you’re a lucky man. We thought we lost you for a while but it looks like you survived the murder attempt on your life. It will take time for you to completely healed. Is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable?”

            “I’m hurting and have a lot of pain in my chest and arm. Can you prescribe something to help me with the discomfort I’m experiencing?” asked Mason.

            “Yes, I can. I’ll have the nurse give you a shot of morphine to help with the pain but I won’t give it to you routinely as you might become addicted to the narcotic. I’ll be back to check on you in a couple of hours,” said the doctor.

            “Thank you in advance for the pain killer,” said Mason.

            The doctor said good-bye and left Mason in the room alone again. A few moments later the nurse returned and injected a dose of morphine into his left arm. She checked his vital signs once more. “There is someone here to see you Mason,” she said, leaving the room.

            The visitor was a hardened detective named Chase Longley. He had been a Hollywood cop for twenty-five years. Longley felt burned out from his demanding job. Each morning he sat behind a desk at headquarters, working on a massive amount of paperwork. Sometimes the daily routine of pushing a pencil lasted all day. Years ago, he had been disillusioned by the revolving door of plea bargains that prosecutors made with criminals to avoid trial. Detective Longley had grown sick of the bureaucracy and the mayor’s office, which always took the political course of action in the community instead of the tasks at hand. The only serious crime in Hollywood was the sale of cocaine to movie stars. He had never drawn his handgun.

            “Mr. Rossman, I’m Detective Longley of the Hollywood Police Department. What happened to you?”

            “I don’t know for sure,” replied Mason, disturbed by the arrival of the cop.

            “I think you got involved in a drug deal that went bad,” said Longley leaning over hospital bed and getting into Mason’s face. “Your friend Kevin Mattson is dead. We know he was a big- time drug dealer here in Hollywood and beyond. Our narcotics team was ready to bust him when he was unexpectedly killed. You need to help us find his murderers. Who shot you?”

            “Kevin wasn’t my friend, just an acquaintance. I didn’t know him that well. If I knew he dealt drugs I would have avoided him like the plaque. Detective Longley, I’m a law-biding citizen and not a criminal. Please just believe me that I wasn’t involved with dope or knew about Kevin Mattson’s crimes. I want a lawyer here before I answer any more of your questions,” demanded Mason. “I know my rights.”

            “Okay, I’ll honor your request for a lawyer to be present during my questioning of your made-up story but you’re still on the hook for dealing narcotics. I’ll be back tomorrow when your lawyer gets here,” said the detective firmly. “Until then I am going to have a uniformed police officer guard your door.”

            Wow, that detective sure is pushy. I’m in deep trouble now. It’s too bad Kevin is dead. He was a good connection. Now Charlotte and I will have to find a different dealer to get our drugs. I don’t know any other person to help us so finding one could be hard, Mason thought to himself.

            Mason lay in bed recovering from surgery, recalling the assassination attempt on his life. He was shook up and nervous. A second nurse brought him a bowl of hot chicken-and-rice soup to eat but he wasn’t hungry. She left the room. Mason realized $2,500,000 had been stolen from him. The money was gone and he wouldn’t get it back.  Kevin’s death resulted in a loss of his drug connection for cocaine and Quaaludes. The narcotics wouldn’t be as easily available in the future—a fact that depressed Mason even more.

            The first nurse came back inside his room and said, “There is another person here to see you Mr. Rossman. But you two only have five minutes together. You need your rest after surgery.”

            Charlotte walked into the hospital room where he was staying. She said, “Mason, you’re in deep trouble. A policeman is guarding the door to your room. There is a police detective in the hallway and he asked me some questions I couldn’t answer. Did you get more involved in a major drug deal?”

            “Tell the detective to go to hell. I want a lawyer present before I talk to the cops again. Charlotte, go to one of the banks and pay for a large security box. Then hide all our drugs inside it and lock it. I’m worried the police will get a secure a search warrant and raid the mansion. Do it right away,” said Mason. His pain was easing from the bullet wounds.

            “Okay, I will do that today. Kevin is dead,” said Charlotte.

            “The detective told me he’s dead. I feel sorry for him. We lost a good connection. The Black Eagle cartel members shot him down like a dog. I lost a great deal of money,” said Mason, feeling miserable about the bad situation.

            “Try not to talk,” suggested Charlotte. “Your agent, Paul Finch, wants to see you tomorrow. I’ll be back tomorrow morning too.”

            “Good. I will want some company by then. I will get lonely in this damn hospital,” said Mason.

            “Okay I’ll be seeing you. Good-bye dear,” said Charlotte, kissing him on his cheek. Mason was her private piggybank and she regretted him getting shot.

            “Good-bye sweetheart,” Mason told his mistress, happy she had come to the hospital to visit him.

            No longer in pain, Mason fell asleep in the hospital room. Late in the night the same pale white ghost approached again him from the woods in a horrible dream. The ghost said, Mason, you are cursed and will die a painful death.

            He awoke, startled by the ghost’s message. Lying in bed Mason thought about what the ghost had said and dismissed it as just a bad nightmare. He was not able to fall back asleep again for a half an hour. Then he slept peacefully the rest of the night.

The next morning Mason ate a lousy hospital breakfast of cold cereal, which he

wasn’t fond of at all. Later a lawyer named Marc Evans arrived; he had been recommended by Paul Finch. The lawyer greeted Mason warmly and said, “Hi Mason. I’m an attorney named Marc Evans. I want to be your lawyer. My friend Paul Finch said you have been shot and are lucky to be alive. How are you holding up?”

“Okay, I guess. A detective grilled me with questions yesterday. He got

aggressive with me,” said Mason. “I didn’t tell him anything about the assassination attempt on my life”

            “Good,” said Marc. “The police will want a statement from you as to what happened yesterday when you got shot. Just tell them you don’t know why you were wounded and that it must have been a random shooting or a mistake. Be brief and don’t answer any more of their questions or you might incriminate yourself. I don’t think you will be charged with a crime because the police didn’t find any drugs in Kevin’s limo. I suggest you get rid of any narcotics in your mansion. If and when they raid your home you’ll be clean. They will probably serve a search warrant and try to raid your home. Understand?”

            Mason nodded yes. He said to his lawyer, “We did take that precaution yesterday. When the cop detective came into my room and tried interrogating me without you by my side I completely shut up.”

            “That was an appropriate,” Marc said, pleased with his client’s response to the police detective’s questioning of him as if Mason was a hard-core criminal.

            Detective Longley later that morning entered the hospital room with a notebook and pen to record Mason’s statement. Mason gave a brief statement and refused to answer any more questions, just as his lawyer had instructed.

            “I’m suspicious that you were involved with a drug deal that went bad,” said the police detective.

            “Mr. Rossman gave you his statement and won’t be answering any more of your questions,” injected his lawyer.

            “I’m not satisfied with his statement. I think he is lying to me. There is more going on here than just a random shooting,” said Detective Longley. “I know you were involved in dealing cocaine with Kevin Mattson.”

     Upset with both of them, the police detective left the room without any more information about the incident or suspects of the murder of Kevin Mattson.

            When he was gone Mason’s lawyer said, “Good job. I’ll be leaving this business card with you and if the police come back, call me right away. By the way, you hit the front page of the Hollywood Reporter this morning. I don’t want you to talk with any reporters about the shooting. Okay?”

            “I won’t say a word to them and will decline an interview if they ask,” assured Mason.

            “Good. Being silent is the best approach with the media,” said the lawyer. He left the hospital room.

            That afternoon while Mason ate lunch with Charlotte in his private room, Paul came to visit him. They were concerned about his painful recovery after surgery. Mason told them he was feeling better than he had yesterday. Paul told him he had telephoned Samantha and told her about the shooting.  

            When he heard that, Mason got mad at Paul. He didn’t want to get Samantha involved in his life right now. Unsuccessfully, Paul tried to cheer Mason up. He was still fuming about the loss of his $2,500,000. After a half an hour they left, saying good-bye for now.