Tail of the Coin

By Thomas O'Hare

Copyright© 2023-2024, Thomas O'Hare – All Rights Reserved.



First Draft: August 14, 2023

Last Edit: April 09, 2024


The following is a non-fiction account about real people and events.  The narrative, names, and circumstances are changed for dramatic purposes.  Some sequences were invented for story compression and continuity.  The story is real; it involves instances of actual deep cover covert activities.  The dialog was invented as few records of these activities exist.  Any similarity to events or persons, living or deceased, are purely coincidental.


Chapter One – The Minting of Rick


Pivoting slowly on the southwest Florida shoreline, savoring the quiet seclusion, he lets go of the never-ending chess game going on within his thoughts. From various international and domestic intelligence agencies, his sixth sense suggests a new dilemma approaches. An overwhelming sense that his biggest conundrum is just around the corner silently nags at him. There's no denying the electricity; he has to compose his thoughts and savor this moment while the warm gulf waters swirl around his feet. He's been in this trade long enough to understand that you are able to concentrate far better if you clear your head prior to facing the next challenge.


Childhood recollections resurface like driftwood jutting from bleached beach sand as the relaxing sound of Gulf tides finds him. His abode is a tropical paradise, surrounded on three sides by the vast Atlantic Ocean, the narrow Florida Straights, and the Gulf of Mexico. This natural paradise was known by early Spanish explorers as 'Land of Flowers'. Cattle barons, muck farmers, and citrus tycoons once transformed the wilderness into the economic mainstay for most early Florida settlers. As a child, he listened to stories of the Florida Crackers, whose skin turned to leather from constant exposure to the elements. They rode on horseback, toting six guns for protection from venomous snakes and other predators. Their moniker derives from the distinct cracking sound their whips created as they drove cattle herds across grasslands dotted with palmetto stands.


Those memories remind him of his beloved Rottweilers running for miles through the wilderness, not seeing another soul. His powerful canines broke trails through pathways originally created over decades by horses, Jeeps, and wild game. His lone fear was the venomous fangs of rattlesnakes silently winding their way through dense brush in search of their next meal. While his Rotts made the most of their outing, he nourished his inner peace with the sight of osprey, hawks, and eagles on the wing, gliding across blue-topaz skies.


Rick is a middle-aged, multifaceted man of medium height and build—nothing extraordinary. At first glance, you may overlook him, as he is conservative in both looks and fashion, carrying himself with natural confidence and swagger. His persona is a reflection of how he's navigated life through the various roles he maintains. Confident, with a sparse air of mystery, this mild-mannered man remains slightly extroverted, just enough to make his presence known and reserved enough to avoid scrutiny. Rule number one: A good operative can never draw undue attention; they must remain within the shadows. To achieve his objectives, he seamlessly morphs into whatever role is required at the time. He does this just as gracefully as the gulf breeze that now moves silently across his face.


He's never been able to accept land developers clearing swamps that support the life cycle of a profusion of native species. The complete idiocy of the newly transplanted invaders as to why indigenous animals, like black bears and panthers, have the nerve to cross into their zero-lot-lined communities. Rage finds him when those same transplants feed wildlife, clueless that, in doing so, they're sealing their own fate. Native Floridians fully understand that predators, especially alligators, normally only attack humans when they lose fear of those feeding them. It defies his logic that people are ignorant when it comes to the land they've plowed under. People generally create the environments they fear—a fact he always keeps in mind.


While roaming the Florida boondocks, he found the faded remnants of previous generations laying scattered among abandoned ranches resembling bone yards. He's witnessed the colorful history of the Florida backcountry and its people. Exploring remnants of forts, like the diminutive Fort Duncan McRee, assembled from coquina blocks, dotting the landscape and protecting settlers during the Seminole Wars. The Kings Road traversed the wilds of Florida's east coast, originating at St. Mary's River, crossing other rivers and wilderness, then proceeding down along the Matanzas River and ending south of New Smyrna. All who traveled were under the direct protection of the King of England; any disruption was dealt with under English law.


Other notable rock structures explored were involved in the production of the highly desired 'trickle' (rum). Abandoned WWII concrete runways, long overgrown with weeds, once housed aviators and crews training for war. Covert military sites were created during the mid-twentieth century to battle the rising Communist threat in South America, Africa, and Asia, among other global hotspots. History books seldom record a fraction of what he's witnessed over many years. He hesitatingly understands that all of this will quietly vanish as time marches on. Much like the Florida Crackers, who once drove cattle herds into the fading sunset.


This is the peninsula where he was raised and still calls home. He's traveled to the Everglades, sometimes staring out across the river of grass, remembering when melancholy found him: "They wonder why the ecosystem is collapsing. People act more like sheep as they inhale constant streams of social media; they've lost the independent spirit of the pioneers who built a sustainable way of life—built from the sheer necessity of survival."


Refocusing on the churning gulf waters continually cleansing the white sand, he appreciates this moment in time. Light reflects from the full moon, creating a chromatic fluorescence as it illuminates sun-bleached expanses as crashing waves add a sonic symphony. Gentle breezes coming off the Gulf of Mexico carry scents created by churning waves. Finding tranquility once more, he scans the horizon directly west. His consciousness is free, as words celebrate this Zen-filled experience: "Florida, my home. Wars and struggles fought for hundreds of years to keep it's sanctity. As long as I can watch the sea of grass sway freely down to the Florida Straights, I'll do all I can to save this pristine land. I'll not give in to any enemy, foreign or domestic. We know right from wrong; it's just pure common sense. May my compadres and me continue the good fight. May we live a long life in defense of this magnificent homeland."


To the south-west, the pulsing illuminations from within distant clouds remind him that a strong blow is coming. Staring in the storm's direction, he questions, "The entire coastline will feel the wrath of this tempest. Yet it will be slight compared to a direct hit." He's witnessed destruction firsthand from wars and weather over the years, fully understanding the immense trauma each generates. Prophetically wondering, "People along Florida's big bend will soon feel the brunt of this monster as it makes landfall. How much of life will be swept away—just a memory of what was? What will it take to replace what's stolen from a life interrupted?"


He's the result of the greatest generation that survived World War II. When the darkest period of the twentieth century took place. The failed attempt at world dominance, instigated by a handful of megalomaniacs, extinguished eighty million lives. Ethics instilled by the devastation of war carved out the character of generations.


Turning back to the southern shore, he feels the wind gusting. The once-calm Gulf waters encroach further on the sand dunes found on higher ground. The dark skies produce lightning, exposing storm clouds moving towards him. With each flash, a person's outline takes on a more defined shape. He begins to wonder, "What other idiot is still on this beach in this blow?" Sea oats, firmly entrenched in the sand dunes, dance faster as wind speed steadily increases. "It's way past time to get off the beach, take shelter, and latch the shutters." Yet the silhouette is in no hurry, making its way closer at a steady pace.


Shrouded in darkness, a fleeting thought crosses his mind: "Maybe my past finally caught up with me. This could be an ideal conclusion for anyone who knows too much. The storm will sanitize the beaches as it moves through. Any possible evidence will be swept out to sea. Secrets kept for a lifetime will remain just that, secrets." Striking a solemn pause, he quickly weighs his alternatives. Years of experience few could ever fathom come to the forefront. After a short pause, he takes a deep breath and, as he exhales, his shoulders lower slightly, finding calm. He wonders aloud in a soft whisper, "Well, this could be the day I became expendable..."


Chapter Two – The Coins


His face exudes a serious facial expression as Rick calmly addresses the gathering of colleagues: "The eleventh hour, the eleventh day, the eleventh month—the end of the war to end all wars. These words were originally spoken eighteen years into the twentieth century. And yet here we are, still facing the constant precipice of another world war." The group consists of a colorful crew from diverse backgrounds—some celebrated, some kept secret—and, of course, the sharing of common allegiances. It's rare they gather face-to-face, but this is a special day. As puffs of white clouds cross the aqua-blue Florida skies, they exchange low-key greetings while surrounded by tropical foliage.


Roy, Willie, and Sony have served with Rick for several decades on various operations spanning the globe. Their favorite rendezvous, a small park located near an aged single-story motel, is located just south of Tampa Bay. On the opposite side of the bay is the headquarters of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), located inside the confines of MacDill Air Force Base, four miles south-southwest of downtown Tampa. It is an installation they are quite familiar with. The small, nondescript motel operates in a quiet tropical setting on the Gulf shoreline. It doubles as one of their scatterings of safe houses. The park's picnic tables, located under a cluster of royal palm trees, provide needed shade for their open-air office. A steady breeze off the gulf supplies relief from the normally high and taxing humidity. It would be challenging to find a more diverse yet closely knit crew of exceedingly experienced operatives.


Roy, a tall, stout individual with an ingrained smile across his face, responds to Rick's quote, "The great hope of the World War One armistice only lasted a generation. Four years of war, gentlemen, ended with the deaths of fourteen million soldiers and civilians. As you well know, scars across the landscape remain prominent throughout western Europe. Trench warfare took almost as many lives from disease as from guns."


Willie is a soft-spoken, slender man with well-tanned, leathery skin of medium height. He replies with a smile, "That's why we're here, amigos, to minimize the shooting wars, unless we're the ones doing the shooting."


Sony appears to be chiseled from iron and built like a bull. He's of Mexican-American descent, average height, and keenly focused. "Keep in mind that one bullet, in the right place at the right time, stops conflicts, saving millions of innocent lives. I will be happy to provide that bullet."


Rick stares at the ground in silence until each man has finished speaking. Slowly lifting his head, with a blank stare, he utters one thought that deeply troubles the others: "If there is to be a next one, there's little doubt it will turn nuclear. Entire civilizations will be wiped from the planet within minutes. Our compadres came too close to that in Cuba back in '62. We cannot allow that type of environment to propagate ever again, especially with a strong Communist influence."


Willie gazes directly at Rick and, with a somber look, adds, "Duly noted."


While palm leaves dance to the rhythm of the gulf breeze, the group is spared from the heat of the tropical sun. They sit gathered around the picnic table and continue their discussion, but now the topics focus on current, more pressing issues.


Roy, Willie, and Sony, are acknowledged assets from the agency, whose true identities remain secret. They have been supplied with official covers (OC) and receive monthly paychecks in concealed accounts along with other government benefits routed through shell companies. If they require new resources, they have the authority to procure what's needed through business fronts set up for their use. If their cover is ever blown, the agency will protect them. If the worst happens during operations, they will receive a star on the wall of honor at agency headquarters.


Rick, on the other hand, is an asset concealed within the confines of covert operations. The agency considers him to be a hidden asset with a non-official cover (NOC). His role requires that he have absolutely no connection to the agency; his presence resides within layers of concealment. Living expenses, needed resources, and anything else required must be supplied using only his unique talents. What's visible to any observer is his public persona: a respectable small businessman. No links to any security service exist. On occasion, Roy feels obligated to remind him of his situation: "Remember, you're a ghost. If anyone connects you to us, your cover is blown, understand? If that comes about, termination of one kind or another will happen, right? You're doing one hell of a job, with all the risk and zero direct compensation or acknowledgment. I don't envy you, but I do respect the hell out of you."


Two men stand out as part of the agency's top echelon: Sandy and the Frenchman. They earned promotions by being especially effective at their jobs. Both have served with distinction in the field at overseas posts, succeeding at carrying out extremely complex and risky operations. They have earned reputations as resourceful, cunning, and driven individuals. They both know Willie, Roy, and Sony very well, having worked shoulder to shoulder with them in the past.


Sandy, a tall, slender, mysterious, reserved gentleman—as cool a character as they come—heads the agency's Special Operations Group (SOG). Members of that silent fraternity make up a majority of the intelligence stars that grace the memorial wall of the agency's headquarters. Normally passive, Willie, on occasion, will question Sandy, "SOG accounts for the most assets killed during agency operations, and you're the man now directing that group. How do you cope?" Sandy's reply is, "True, but the body count would be exponential if we didn't attempt those operations at all. I have activities that must be carried out. I don't send anyone to their deaths. I sent them to do a job. We give them an abundance of support. But like any job, the unexpected occurs. Statistically, we do very well. Yeah, I get it; even one loss is one too many. Especially if you've gotten to know them. That's the bad end of the stick; it stays in my craw every day. But that's the job, and we accept it. They know the odds; they're not going in blind."


The Frenchman, also known as Pierre, is a flamboyant character, a man of medium height and build. He's spent years getting his hands dirty, working with special forces on covert operations on multiple continents. Plus, he's served with several intelligence organizations over the years, learning to speak several languages fluently. He's moved up the ranks by taking on the toughest missions across the globe, consistently returning positive results.


A year prior, the Frenchman contacted Roy by phone, saying, "Bonjour, mon ami, it's too long since we last chatted. Let's grab some coffee at your favorite diner in Ybor City and catch up on the latest. Can you get away for an hour or so?" Roy's reply: "Definitely been too long, mon ami; how about tomorrow for lunch?" The Frenchman's answer is, "That's the plan; we'll talk then," as they both end the conversation. As is standard tradecraft, a phone is the last resort, and conversations are vague and kept brief to avoid eavesdropping.


The next day finds Pierre and Roy rendezvousing at their favorite old-style diner with typical weather for that time of year. It's definitely not upscale, but it's certainly an authentic Cuban cafe. They seat themselves at a small table along 7th Avenue during the normally busy lunch hour. Tall palm trees lining the street provide shade, keeping the midday lunch atmosphere pleasant. They take advantage of the brisk business at the cafe; the bigger the distraction, the greater the chance their rendezvous will go unnoticed.


A very attractive young Cubana senorita approaches, and in a thick Latin accent, asks, "Buenos días, señores. May I take your order?" Pierre, being the more continental of the pair, makes the most of the conversation: "Sí, mi ángel, nos gustaría dos cafés, por favor." She replies, "Dos cafés que vienen mi amigo?" Wearing a confident smile she walks away with their order.


As the pair wait under a pleasurable sky, they start an idle conversation to catch up on recent adventures. They soak up the laid-back atmosphere and Cuban flavor while they chat. Several minutes later, their waitress returns with their coffee, wearing a gracious grin and keeping a steady gaze directed at Pierre. "Please enjoy, gentlemen," as she places their cups on the table. Pierre smiles as he replies, "Estoy seguro de que lo haremos, gracias." She tips her head slightly in acknowledgment, still smiling, then turns and leaves the pair to enjoy their coffee and continue their talk.


With a slight grin, Pierre questions Roy, "When was the last time you visited Cuba?" Roy focuses on his coffee, gently lifting it and responds, "Who said I was ever in Cuba?" The Frenchman in turn reaches for his cup as he says, in a muffled tone, "OK, your passport has never obtained a Cuban customs stamp; I get it." Roy leans back in his chair as a Cheshire cat smile creeps across his face, silently staring directly back at Pierre.


After a pause to sip their coffee while reflecting on their inside joke, the Frenchman decides it's time to get down to business. Looking Roy square in the eye, he inquires, "I've known you a very long time. You've always been a solid go-getter. That's why I specifically requested that you be my second in this new role. I left the company and now head up a new department across the street." He pulls a business card from his shirt pocket and hands it to his friend. Roy's eyebrows rise high on his forehead as he reads 'Drug Enforcement Agency, Director, Clandestine Operations Network' (DEACON). The Frenchman adds, "Keep the card as a souvenir, and if you want one of your own, let me know. I can arrange it." Roy shifts his eyes down to his coffee as a blank stare covers his face. Pierre continues, "Yeah, I can see you never expected that one. We'd be doing things the company can't. This role is considered angelic as it makes our work more publicly acceptable." He leans back to relax while scanning the cafe dining area, taking another sip of coffee. He quietly turns his attention back to Roy, then continues, "It's paramount to transfer serious SOG (Special Operations Group) work away from your company and run it out of the new office. Your company's charter only allows activities outside our own backyard. This new role lets us go anywhere, anytime, and any place, especially inside our own yard. This gives us carte blanche to run any play we like, anywhere we choose, with better funding and the full blessings from both companies.


Roy slowly nods approvingly as Pierre finishes his presentation. He shifts his eyes across the table and inquires, "I assume my present standing will remain intact; is that correct?" The response is, "You will be my number two, so you will actually do better, especially with autonomy. I know you have a family, and believe me, I took that into consideration. Base yourself wherever you want; stay between Tampa and Key West if you wish, no matter. You will run your own show, implementing the plans I lay out. It's not a matter of how you do it; I know you, and I know you will get the job done right. I need an answer soon, and I really look forward to working with you. It's the opportunity we've both always wanted."


A week later, Roy gives the Frenchman a 'thumbs up' for accepting the new role. He now has the best of both worlds—the freedom the DEA has in doing its work—and full access to close colleagues from the agency he can count on.


Copyright© 2023-2024, Thomas O'Hare – All Rights Reserved.