Ahead of Reality

One thing fun about writing is taking real-life situations and twisting them into fictional possibilities. In early 2011, I wrote a set of scenes for Global Anger in which Heinrich Althaus, one of my favorite bad characters, met with an oil baron in Libya.

Two things are happening in the scene.  Heinrich realizes that he and his colleague, Robert Barnsworth, have been betrayed, but his purpose for his trip to Tripoli is discussed in a few short paragraphs. That’s what I want you to pay close attention to.

As you read the scene, think about today.  Remember the good feeling you had the last time you were at the gas pump and prices were under $2.75, whereas a year ago they were at $3.75. Then think about all the American investors who since 2011 put money into ethanol plants and U.S. oil drilling operations because world oil prices jumped above $110 per barrel. Now they’re $60 a barrel.

We may not like it, but the world’s financial condition is controlled by a very few wealthy and influential people. They are making money as oil prices plummet and know exactly where the bottom will be so they can reverse their positions and direct prices up again so they can profit as prices rise. We’re the puppets being pulled around on strings and gasoline hoses.

However, no amount of social unrest will disrupt the inevitable, because protesters think their governments are to blame, but they have less influence than protesters understand. They’ll stir the ire of others, but it will have little effect on the people in control of the situation.

So I want you to read this Global Anger scene and wander into the possibilities. That’s what I did when I wrote it nearly four years ago.

 

Ben Ghashir Industrial Complex

Near Tripoli International Airport – Libya

 

Heinrich Althaus had an appointment to see Kasim al-Kutalba, a long-time acquaintance and a one-time petroleum industry advisor to the former Libyan regime.

Heavy security required Althaus to enter a small room with no windows. Doors were closed at both ends. The room was silent. It was like being in a pressure chamber in a submarine.

Althaus put his personal possessions into a scanner as though he was going through security at a commercial airport.

Two security officers huddled over the monitor and acted strangely. One picked up a telephone receiver and said something in Arabic. They told Althaus he must remain in the waiting area.

The head of building security entered the room from the opposite door. He joined the two guards at the screen. He studied the images for less than a minute. He stepped from behind the apparatus and approached Althaus.

“You are here to see Mr. al-Kutalba?”

“Yes. He’s expecting me,” Althaus answered.

“What is your business?”

“I’m a consultant. I’m here to provide Mr. al-Kutalba some advice.”

“I must have a conversation with him before I will allow you to enter,” the security chief told Althaus.

“He’s expecting me. What is the problem?”

“Your folder. It appears to have an electronic device inside it.”

“That cannot be. I carry my notebook with me at all times. No one has touched it.”

“You must wait here. I will have Kasim al-Kutalba to see what you bring. He can determine whether to speak with you.”

The chief left. Althaus watched the two guards, one with his hand on his holstered gun. They did not speak to each other, but kept their eyes on Althaus.

Heinrich Althaus, meantime, wanted to see the screen. What were they looking at that made them think he had an electronic device?

In short order, the security chief returned followed by Kasim al-Kutalba.

“Kasim, I apologize for this inconvenience, but I do not know what the problem is.”

“My security chief says there is a recording device in the folder you were carrying, Heinrich. His job is to protect the safety of our operation. Standard procedures.”

“I’m as curious as he is, Kasim. I have no reason to record private conversations. It contradicts our team’s reliance on trust and confidentiality.”

Althaus watched al-Kutalba step behind the screen with his security chief and the two guards. The chief pointed at the screen. Althaus heard them quietly converse in Arabic.

“There is clearly a device wedged between the leather and the lining of your folder, Heinrich. Were you aware?”

“Of course not. May I see it, Kasim?”

Al-Kutalba gave instructions to the three security officials. The chief motioned to Althaus to come behind the table to see what they were looking at. After pointing to the image on the monitor, he then pulled the leather folder from the conveyor belt, held it, and looked at al-Kutalba.

“He wants your permission to retrieve the device, Heinrich.”

“Of course. I want to see it, too.”

Al-Kutalba nodded and the chief opened the folder and inspected the lining, a supple leather stitched to the heavier exterior leather. He spotted a cut at the top about three centimeters long. He pointed to it.

Althaus looked at al-Kutalba and said the chief should remove whatever was hidden. Let them see it.

The security official used a razor knife to cut a T-shaped incision from the opening near the stitched seam. He cut down the interior spine about eight centimeters. He carefully pulled the thin instrument from the folder. They examined it together.

“I don’t recognize it, Kasim. What is it?”

The security chief spoke to al-Kutalba.

“He says this tiny part is a microphone and the rest is a transmitting source. You were bugged, Heinrich. How many people have access to your personal possessions?”

“No one, Kasim. I lead a very private…” Althaus stopped. He suddenly felt foolish and angry. “I am very sorry for this interruption, Kasim. I will take care of this problem when we complete our business. May we have some privacy?”

Al-Kutalba spoke to his security chief. The chief insisted that they take the rest of Althaus’s possessions for a thorough examination. He pulled the microphone from the transmitter.

Althaus gave permission for the security personnel to keep his money clip and credit card case. One of the security guards counted his cash. He wrote a number on a pad and showed it to Althaus and al-Kutalba. They acknowledged and left.

“I am very embarrassed and very upset, Kasim. I regret this interruption in our time together. I will be brief so that I may discover where the breach in our privacy occurred.”

“I am puzzled, Heinrich, that you have no safeguards in your work. You are an extremely vulnerable individual.”

“We operate secretively. There has been no need for outward security before now.”

“It appears that has changed, my friend. We would never operate so freely. There are too many enemies in the world. But you did not come for my scolding. Why are you here, Heinrich?”

“To talk about oil; to talk about your personal future, Kasim. I hear that you are being courted by several Libyan leaders to take on responsibility for your industry, to become the new oil minister.”

“…and if true…”

“I can help you if that is your goal. But I want you to consider a new strategy. It’s controversial, so there will be many who oppose it.”

“I am in line for the ministry job, Heinrich, you have heard correctly. I have not decided whether I want to accept. If you are going to complicate my decision with one of your outrageous ideas, I’m not sure I want to hear.”

“I know you better than that, Kasim. You enjoy antagonizing others as much as I do. You will like the idea when you hear it.”

“Then speak, Heinrich. What outrageous ideas do you have now?”

“I want you to accept the ministry position and immediately drop Libyan crude prices dramatically. Say that it’s a new marketing plan to reclaim world leadership in oil production for Libya within the year.”

“You are indeed a crazy man, Heinrich. Do you know what that will do to world markets, not only for oil, but for dozens of other commodities and precious metals?”

“Of course I do. Why do you think I’m asking you to do it?”

Kasim al-Kutalba looked at Heinrich Althaus and suddenly laughed out loud.

“You are so devious, Heinrich. I will introduce you to the new leaders. They are the power brokers you must deal with. Win them over and we will play your game.”

“Thank you, Kasim. Obviously, I have an issue I must deal with first. Pak has been warning us that our autonomy would not last much longer. I need to tell the others that Pak was right again – people want to know what each of us is doing. I must find out who is spying on our activities.”

The security chief knocked on the door to al-Kutalba’s office and entered with Althaus’s possessions. He spoke to al-Kutalba. He placed Althaus’s folder, the money clip, and the credit card case on the executive’s desk.

“He says they found a second bug with your credit cards, Heinrich. He said one of his technicians did something that he thinks neutralized the signal.”

The chief held out his pointer finger with the chip barely noticeable on the tip of his finger.

Althaus took the chip and gave him a nod of appreciation. The chief returned the respectful acknowledgment and left.

“Go, Heinrich. Solve your problems. I will arrange a meeting and contact you. I’m now excited to hear the full strategy.”

“Thank you, Kasim. There’s more to tell you. Your role is the second step in our new economic plan. A year from now, the poor Americans will not understand what hit them, but you and I will have fun and we will add to our wealth.”

“I always like more wealth, Heinrich.”

Once in the backseat of his limousine, Heinrich Althaus called his friend and colleague, Robert Barnsworth. He pumped him for information. He wanted to know if Barnsworth had spent any time alone with Allison McCrae when visiting the Caymans.

Barnsworth laughed at Althaus, accusing him of becoming too involved with the young woman and becoming jealous. He chided Althaus for letting his guard down.

“You may be right, Robert. But I hope you haven’t done the same.”

“What in the world are you talking about, Henry?”

“Did she touch any of your personal possessions?”

“No. You are jealous, aren’t you?”

“…something you carry all the time. Did she have access to it?”

“No, Henry, what are you driving… Oh, well, I showed her my family pictures.”

“…from your wallet, Robert?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have them with you now?

“Of course…”

“Take them out. Check them for a bug, a tiny wafer about the size of a dime. It has a sticky back.”

Barnsworth, sitting in the passenger side of a pickup truck at the edge of an Argentine cornfield, did as his friend instructed.

“Henry, what’s this about?”

“Like you said, I let my guard down. And you may have, too.”

“Oh, my gosh. It’s here. That thing you described is stuck on the back of my family’s picture. It’s a bug, is that what you said?”

“Yes, Robert. They know where you are.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know. Can you meet me in Grand Cayman by seven tomorrow morning? We need to confront her. We need to find out who she’s working for.”

“I’ll be there, Henry.”

 

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