Evolution didn’t make us very good at cutting through uncertainty. Predicting the future is not a strong biological trait. No, our hunches and knacks only help us make guesses. But what evolution did endow us with is the ability to build tools that can. So we built computers, with the power to churn data into predictions.
The people who use these computers are just like prophets and oracles, foretelling a dire, dark future. And the window to take us off this doomed course is getting smaller by the day.
I like to think I am one of these prophets, but not one of the good ones.
I know the future is f^*ked because I keep my ear to the ground, at all times. Information is the power with which I secure my place in the world, safeguard my personal future. And that’s the most I am willing to do. Sorry, saving the world is not on my to do list. And that is why I am here, sitting opposite this backward cunt, this truly religious fanatic. This handsome millennial with his baby blue eyes and hollow, Johnny Depp cheeks. This Western educated, Gucci wearing maniac, whose lottery ticket was being born in an equally fanatical, yet wealthy royal family.
I am looking right at him inside the palatial walls of the royal residence; inside the massive living room. A marvel of engineering, it blends 21st century tech with conservative sensibilities.
But women love Eddie on Instagram. “God damn, look at that hottie riding a horse”, they comment on his pictures as he rides that prized stallion brought into the world thanks to artificial selection. Gay men probably jerk off to the chiselled abs he flaunts at his grand swimming pool. Gay men that are lucky to not have been born in his kingdom. Gay men like my brother, whom I won’t mention in front of him.
There are, of course, the rare woke folk who comment pleading Instagrammers to look into their family history, how they rule over the people with an iron fist – that’s a tailored, designer mailed fist with exquisite jewellery encrusted in it, mind you. But those pleas, I suspect, fall mostly on deaf ears. Because in a world that thirsts for wealth, looks and status, nobody gives a fuck if you’re a backward, fanatical cunt, as long as you look like a supermodel.
And so why should I? I mean, my family didn’t break their backs to send me to Ivy League for nothing. I was always in it to win it. Money, status, privileges, I was born to have them all.
Not only did evolution make us good at building tools, it also gave us an incredibly flexible moral compass. And if nature intended us to be heartless bastards, can we really feel bad for being monsters?
Well, that’s what I tell myself so I can sleep at night.
I smile at the Sultan’s son. I nod every time he tells me how great life is under his father. He tells me he is a visionary like his father. He drives through the streets in his Maserati, watching the people smile and wave to him as he passes by. He knows they are happy. Never mind the fact that should any of them even so much as grimace, they’ll be visited by men in black uniforms at night. Men who will question their loyalty to the kingdom, in turn questioning their loyalty to the one and true creator of all creation.
The Gini Coefficient for this nation looks so bad that they’ve stopped reporting stats to the World Bank. As the homeless sleep on the sidewalks, men in black uniforms beat and remove them so as to “beautify” the streets. As religious fanaticism strangles the people, people try to revolt. But an effective, brutal police keeps an eye on them and crushes them like insects.
No one challenges the Sultan, except for who they call “external meddlers”. Journalists, humanitarians, upholders of international law, all have been mounting pressure on the tiny kingdom. Things have gotten so bad that Western billionaires have started snubbing the Royal family. The only thing keeping the sanctions at bay are Uncle Tom, without whose support the Royal heads would have been severed and rolled down the steps of the royal palace a long time ago.
“This land is great, it always has been.” Prince Eddie smiles, revealing his perfectly set, pearly white teeth. He looks like a fucking movie star with his slick, long hair. “But”. He clears his throat and lets his smile fade. “These external meddlers are interfering in our prosperity.”
“I know.” I give him a reassuring smile. “Which is why Silverman Machs wants to help. We want to keep your kingdom great.”
“When the colonial powers handed control to my family, it was because they knew the vision of my great grandfather. They knew he was the man to take the reigns and steers the kingdom in the right direction.” Eddie looks at the painting of his great grandfather, whose name I cannot recall, hanging on the palace wall.
Losing the battle to freedom fighters, the colonists felt their grip on the country loosening in the middle of the 20th century. So they decided to do the one thing they could to cut their losses – leave. But they were too bitter to leave the country in the hands of college students that had the people’s interest in mind. No, they couldn’t let the world see they had lost to a bunch of people who spent most of their time drinking and fornicating, most never even having held a proper job or even fully grown chest hair for that matter. It was embarrassing. And of course, they couldn’t let the country slide down the path of socialism. They would, instead, reinstate the dynasty that had, for the most part, become irrelevant. A dynasty that to this day, practiced a strongly conservative interpretation of the national religion. They asked the generals and the religious fanatics to back the Royal family, who in turn enriched the generals. They sold this move as some sort of transition of power to the people. “The royal family is the people’s representative, ” they said.
As for the college students, our young starry eyed revolutionaries, they were hunted down or chased away from the country.
The colonists reveled at the fact that the newly crowned Sultan would do what was in their interest, but most importantly he would be the guy keeping the door open for foreign investors and vacationers.
“So, you tell me you have seen the future?” Eddie leans forward and his gold chain falls out of his T-shirt.
“You can say that.” I lean back in my chair and clasp my hands on my abdomen, feeling the tight sculpted muscles with them. Oh, I work out. Yeah, a high status goes hand in hand with peak physical form. It makes me feel, what’s the word, strong. “My team has been busy crunching numbers, following trends. I have contacts, insiders, that tell me what moves lie ahead.”
“Please, enlighten me.” Eddie strains his facial muscles. His eyes lock onto mine, commanding answers. I see his father in him.
“Well, for one, you export most of your oil to Western, developed nations. Nations who have a…” I think of the right word. Truth is, I want to say, “conscience”. But instead I choose, “tendency to meddle”.
Eddie gave me a powerful nod.
“They worry about the climate and human rights.”
“Their concerns are nothing more than the latest fashion trends and virtue signalling.” Eddie snaps.
“They have a problem with you and your family’s religious views, too”. I say, softer this time.
“We are simply doing God’s will”.
God’s will? Does that include driving expensive sports cars and wearing Gucci? Does God also tell you to do all those things?
“Perhaps, you can continue doing so, with…Minor alterations’. I suggest.
“Well, tell me, I am all ears.”
I take a deep breath, before I lay down the master plan.
“The world is changing, it’s time we change with it. So here’s what me and my team have strategized:
We move quickly, to cut down oil exports to developed countries. Announce it as a humanitarian move. Say we are cutting down on production of oil. The world will see you as reformed. At the same time, we increase exports to certain countries we have in mind. They are developing, they need all that oil for economic growth.”
Eddie folds his arms. “You want us to increase exports to certain countries? Who did you have in mind?”
I reach into my breast pocket and take out a folded piece of paper. Putting it on the table, I slide it towards Eddie. He picks it up and unfolds it, before reading what’s on it.
He looks up at me. “These are the countries?” Putting the paper down on the table, he says, “Why them, specifically?”
I take another deep breath and explain:
“These countries, let’s just say we have big plans for them.”
When I say big, I mean big enough to have a fucking global impact. No, actually, an impact on the fucking solar system. These small island nations, scattered all over the globe have lot of land and fuck all population. Their main exports are fishing and farming and ramping up their industrialisation will take most of the oil from one reliable source. Some of these might just become tax havens and homes for front companies. Who knows, right? We only facilitate the deals, open up the opportunities. But most importantly, some of these tiny island nations will become the launching pad for space exploration – to be precise, asteroid mining. Hell, we will mine Mars. Outer space is loaded with minerals and completely lawless. The ones who move first and move fast will call the shots and reap the rewards for decades, or perhaps even centuries.
By the way, this whole operation will be funded by some rather questionable organisations, if you know what I mean. Drug cartels, oligarchs, consortiums of small time crooks, all who wish to not only clean their money, but have an aligned ambition to cut a piece of the pie that is our future. Well, to be honest, their money is already mostly clean by the time it gets to us. We just don’t ask questions.
But I don’t give these details to Eddie. The kingdom is not a big part of the plan, it’s simply ancillary to it. They are a small part of the bigger puzzle. Their largely state owned oil company will have its oil supply securitised and the sales transactions will be knee deep in derivatives. They will form a part of a bigger web of global transactions. Transactions that will be encapsulated in contracts.
All of this will come at a price. A price that all the participants are willing to pay. A price that will be in the billions. Our profits will skyrocket. And that, ladies and gents, is the cost of laying the foundations for humanity’s future.
“What plans, exactly?”, Eddie’s eyes lock onto mine again.
“Well, they have land, they have potential. Some people are interested in developing these assets.” I play it coy.
“Some very powerful people, you mean?”
“Alright”, Eddie leans back into his chair and folds his arms. “I want to be a part of it. The kingdom should be a part of it.”
Just as I anticipated. Like a dog who spots a bone, the son of the Sultan is in. And he will be key to selling this plan to his father.
I look him in the eyes. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“If there’s a party, we don’t want to be left out of it.” He chuckles.
I nod. “I get that. Which is why we may need to make some changes on the human rights front. You know, for PR purposes.”
“Well, firstly, we need to stop the stoning of gay men. On the whole, let’s relax on the homophobia.”
“A relationship naturally happens between a man and a woman. Anything else is against the will of God.”
I am told the prince studied at some of the finest schools in Europe. And yet, his thinking is stuck in the dark ages. You can dress these people up in nice clothes and gold watches, but their backwardness doesn’t stay hidden for long.
“Prince Eddy, with all due respect, the only god I believe in the bottom line – profits.” I straighten my back and look him in the eyes. “And frankly, if you want a seat at the big table, you’ll have to alleviate some of the concerns the boys at the table have. They have a reputation to protect.”
Eddie slowly turns his head to one side and glances at his great grandfather’s portrait. Right now, I suspect he is thinking hard. He’s evaluating what’s more important – religious hard-line or being able to buy into the future. But most of all, I suspect he is curious to know what is going on. He wants to be a part of the big boys club. He wants to be one of the power players. He wants his finger on the pulse.
He heaves a breath and then looks back at me after a moment of thinking. “Alright, if we must do so for PR reasons. Besides, what is good for the kingdom is in line with the will of God.”
Another thing evolution endowed us with, the ability to rationalise in every way it works to our interest. And so the son of the Sultan rationalises his devotion to his god any which way he deems fit.
“I will run these plans past my father.” Eddie rubs his palms together as his eyes gleam with excitement. “We definitely want the kingdom to play its part in orchestrating the future.”
“Great, I’ll see what I can do from my side.” I lean forward towards Eddie. “This has been a fruitful meeting.” I extend my hand forward. “But I must take your leave now; more meetings to attend.” That’s not true. I just want some alone time at the bar of the hotel where I am staying.
“Well, you could at least stay for a drink.” Eddies beckons to his servants.
I retract my arm. “Please, that won’t be necessary. I am afraid I have to be sober.” I get up and reach out to him again.
“Alright, well, we’ll keep talking.” Eddie stands up and takes my hand.
We shake as we look into each other’s eyes and feel a mutual sense of accomplishment. A major transaction has been done, a verbal transaction that will lay the foundation for more transactions. Transactions that will see me line my pocket. Transactions that will give Eddie the feeling of power.
“My men will see you to your car.” Eddie looks at one of the servants who jumps into action.
Walking to me, the servant points the way to the exit of the building. I walk with him, through corridors decorated with framed portraits of various members of the royal family, alive and dead. The walls are plastered in exquisite paisley patterned wallpaper. It takes us sometime, but upon reaching the door, he opens it for me and I step into the bright sunlight. Taking the shades out of my pocket, I put them on. A valet brings my car, a rental Nissan Leaf, fully electric without a carbon footprint. Getting out, he opens the door for me. I thank him and get inside. Putting the automatic transmission into drive, I drive away from the royal palace. As I approach its massive gate with its elephant carvings, the security opens it for me. I drive through and continue back to the hotel, through a path that runs between hills and jungles. In my rear view, I glance at the palace getting smaller and smaller, until it is completely out of sight, hidden behind green hills. I listen to the GPS to guide me back to the capital city.
Within twenty minutes, I am on one of the main roads leading to my hotel. The traffic is light because it’s still two thirty and a couple of hours left before work ends. This whole city has seen massive developments over the last few decades. Shopping malls, offices, shops, everything is here, catering to the needs of a consumerist population. A population free to buy anything and everything the kingdom deems in line with the will of god. A population free to do anything, as long as it is within the will of the god. Of course, there are the homeless who toil around, doing whatever it takes to earn a living. And of course, men in uniforms watch them.
I look at the rear view mirror and notice a black Mercedes has been behind me for some time. Probably just a coincidence that we have been driving down the same path for the past half an hour.
Driving through the metropolitan streets, I arrive at my five star hotel – The Drysdal Richter. Overlooking the ocean, the building offers top of the line accommodation, luxurious pools, gyms, restaurants and bars. I drive into the front of the main hotel entrance and a valet awaits me. I step out of the car and let him drive it to the parking lot.
I make my way towards the main bar, where I can finally be alone in an empty room, drinking a Scotch. The hotel staff greet me, as I move through the foyer, past the reception and towards the bar. The gargantuan chandelier hangs from the ceiling, lighting up the whole place. Marble floor reflects its light. The few guests who are moving about don’t take much notice of me as I walk past them. Good, I like it this way.
I push through the bar door and go straight for the bartender.
“Scotch on rocks”, I tell him as I place myself on a stool.
The bartender nods, before turning to the rack behind him with all the liquor on it. He picks an expensive bottle of Scotch and brings it to me, showing me the label to see if I approve.
He uses tongs to put ice in a glass and then pours the Scotch into it.
I thank him and take the glass. As I take a sip, I feel the liquor on my tongue and then down my throat. I sigh as I lower my shoulders and take off my shades, placing them on the table. As I enjoy my solemn drink, I relish the one of the brief moments in my life where I get to be alone. This and when I am sleeping alone at home. At all other times, I am surrounded by people. If no one is talking to me, someone has got their eyes on me. I am, at all times, on someone’s radar.
Price of success, I suppose.
“The rising star of Silverman Machs. The Rockstar of the financial world, by some people’s accounts.” A man announces behind me.
Taken by surprise, I turn to look at him. He’s five foot nine, wearing khaki shorts and an ugly Hawaiian shirt. His chest is out and he stands straight, smiling, brimming with a confidence that says, “I don’t give a fuck who you are.”
“Can I help you?” I say to him, feeling tight in my throat all of a sudden. I narrowed my eyes on him.
“Indeed. You are the man I have been waiting for for the past couple of hours.” He walks towards me and sits on the next stool. “You are Julian Friedman.”
I clear my throat, feeling a little nervous. “Do I know you?”. I swallow as my lip starts to quiver a little on the side. I do my best to control it, to hide it.
“Relax, I won’t be long.” He places himself next to me.
“Who are you?” I demand.
“Raj Gupta, Tumbling Weed magazine.”
I scratch my brows. “Like, the music magazine?” I say raising my chin up and giving off an air of condescension. Why in god’s name is a journalist from a music magazine talking to me.
“Well, not just music, we do other kinds of pieces, too. Political kind.”
That explains. Wait, has he been following me all this time? How did he know I was here? And what does he know? “How did you know I’d be here?”
“Journalists are good at finding people.” He strokes his hair.
“What do you want?” I snipe.
“Well, is it true?”
“Is what true?”
“The big shift in the kingdom’s fuel export strategy, to support development in certain third world states with unstable governments. The plan to build launchpads for space exploration, namely for outer space mineral mining. Plans that will most likely see a complete disregard for human rights and the environment. Plans that will see certain corporations finding a legal passage out of their carbon neutrality obligations. Plans that will effectively turn billions of dirty money clean. Plans that are to stay under the wraps for a very long time.”
“Well…” I feel my eyes watering as my cheeks feel hot. “I have nothing to say.” How the fuck does he know this?
“That’s ok. I know enough of what’s going on. I just wanted to come here and talk to you, face to face. Get a comment.”
I take another sip of Scotch, clasping the glass with all the strength in my hand. I feel an onset of rage coming, but I tell myself to calm down. “If you want an interview, talk to my PA. As for now, I got nothing to say to you, so fuck off and let me have my drink in peace.” I turn away from him and continue drinking.
“Fine.” Raj takes a deep breath and gets off his stool. “I will leave you alone. I guess, I just wanted to see the devil in the flesh, to look him in the eye.”
Self righteous guilt! I swallow and take a deep breath, forcing my anger down. “What did you just call me?”
“Have a nice day,” He says and walks away, leaving me fuming in my seat.
The nerve on these damn social justice warriors turned journalists. Fuck them, every single one. I fish my pocket for my phone, before fingering its carbon fibre chassis. I pull it out and speed dial the office back in New York.
A woman picks up the phone, “Hey, Julian.”
“Sarah! Listen to me carefully. Somebody has been leaking sensitive documents from our office.” I say sharply as I try to keep my voice down.
“I’m sorry what?” Sarah shouts.
“Somebody has been leaking information to a journalist. He knows about our plans involving the kingdom’s oil supply.”
There is a pause and Sarah’s breathing gets faster. “How…” she stutters. “How in the hell would they…What the fuck?” She starts to mumble.
“I guess we’ll have to deal with the leak.” I remind myself to breathe, to stay calm.
“Just get back to the office, as quickly as possible.”
“I will”, I disconnect the call and run my hand through my hair. How did this happen? I guzzle down the remaining Scotch in my glass and slam it on the table. Shaking a little, I get up and fix my hair. The walls start to feel like they are caving in. It feels like the people in the bar are watching me. Feeling a sudden onset of claustrophobia, I dart out of the bar, through the lobby and into the hotel entrance.
Taking in the air, I look up at the blue sky. You’ve got a handle on this situation, I tell myself repeatedly. “You’re in control” I mouth the words. It doesn’t matter that some journalist has caught a whiff of your plans. It doesn’t matter whether he publishes it. We can deny and obfuscate our way through the shitstorm. Yeah, that’s it! A full denial would be our strategy for now.
Nearby commotion catches my ears. I turn to look and find a few men in black suits surrounding…The journalist. What is going on? Behind them a black Mercedes waits with a door open. They all stand like rocks around Raj, unwilling to let the journalist get out.
I take a couple of steps closer to them, to hear what they are talking about. I can’t hear a word, but one of the men beckons the journalist to get inside the Mercedes. The journalist raises his arms in protest, but the men aren’t wavering.
“I wonder what that’s about?” A bald man in a thick accent startles me from the side.
I turn to look at him, to inspect his face. He has a bushy moustache and a double chin. He’s wearing black suit, with his belly building out in a white shirt.
“I…” I open my mouth. “Am not entirely sure.”
“Well, he must have done something bad.” The bald man tells me.
His job, I think to myself. He was doing his job. An inconvenience, yes. A nuisance, yes. But it has warranted the attention of a group of men that I can only suspect work for the government.
The door of the Mercedes slams shut. With the journalist inside, the car drives out of the hotel grounds. My mind cannot help but conjure up strange, violent thoughts about the man’s fate.
“Relax, he’ll be ok”, the bald man touches my shoulder. “Can I buy you another drink? Perhaps a Scotch, just the way you like it?”
I turned to him, perplexed and stammering, “How did you…who are you?” How does he know my drinking preferences?
“I am Amir”, he holds out a hand. “A friend of the Royal family.”
“Have you been watching me, following me?”
“Just taking precautions, friend.”
I stare at him, bewildered and wondering just how long these men have been following me, watching me?
“Let us go inside, yes. I am sure you have questions. I will answer as many as I can.”
I move, but with great reluctance and partially curious to get to the bottom of what just happened. So I go with Amir, back inside the hotel, to the bar.
As we walk towards the bar, I glance at Amir’s face every now and then, half hoping I can recognise him from somewhere, while I look around to see who else has their eyes on us.
“Your friend, the journalist, will question him…Maybe talk a little sense into him.” Amir says, after he orders a Scotch for me.
“What exactly do we mean by ‘talking a little sense into him.’”
“I would rather not go into the details now.”
Oh, my God…Are we talking about a Jamal Kashoggi scenario here? I feel my stomach churn and kick the food up my throat, causing me to wretch. Kashoggi was butchered by the Saudis, chopped up into little pieces.
“Relax, we are only going to talk.” Amir rubs my back.
I regain control of my stomach and take a deep breath. Straightening my back, I say, “Good, because it won’t be a good look for the Royal family.”
“Probably not, but in this age people forget easily. They care more about who did what on social media.”
“Seriously, you cannot hurt…”
Amir puts his hand on my shoulder and cuts me off, “Nobody will get hurt…” He smiles to reassure me. “Well, not unless we have to.”
“Do you realise…”
He cuts me off again. “Please, like I said, this is none of your concern…”
The bartender places the glass of Scotch in front of me. I pick it up and pour its content down the hatch. Swallowing hard, I sniffle and wipe my nose. Clearing my throat, I say, “So how long have you been following me? How much do you know about me? Have I had any privacy?”
“Let me just put it to you this way, as part of my job, I do whatever is necessary to look after the interests of the Royal family. I do whatever it takes to keep them safe. And that involves knowing and watching. Being the eyes, ears and nose.”
“Ok, well, so what, you’ve been watching me in my room? You’ve been following me around? Has my phone been hacked?”
“Like I said, eyes and ears.”
What have these people seen? Have they seen me naked, in my room, in my shower, while I took a shit? How many hotel employees have kept their eyes on me? Eavesdropped on my telephone conversations?
Amir looks me dead in the eyes, his face devoid of any emotions. “In case you’re wondering why I am even talking to you, well, that’s where the nose comes in. You see the nose, it smells. It catches the whiff of shit…Or rotting corpses. It’s a defence mechanism, no? You can smell something bad from far away.”
I take a gulp as I begin to see something in his eyes. Something dark, something cold. On his stony face, I read the expressions of a man who does not want to be, and should not be, fucked with. I noticed a scar under his right eye, just above the cheek. I feel my heartbeat picking up; sweat begins to pour out of the pores in my forehead. I think back to all the kickboxing classes I have taken, all the different ways to throw a punch, kicks, knee strikes. If needed, I can protect myself.
The bartender moves out from behind the bar. I follow him with my eyes and watch him go to the exit where he stands with a smile on his face. The handful of people in the room get up and leave. He bids them farewell as they walk out the door, before leaving the room himself and closing the door behind him.
My stomach turns a little. “What the fuck is going on?” I protest, clenching my fist and flexing my muscles.
Amir cleared his throat. “Mr Friedman, I may not have gone to an Ivy league school or climbed my way to the top of a multi billion dollar organisation. My net worth might be a fraction of yours and I may not know how to move numbers around on a spreadsheet or read graphs, but I like to believe I’ve seen enough shit in my life. I may not understand the details of what you do, or the sort of transactions you enter into. But I can read and I don’t always read the best things about your line of trade. Suffice to say, people get screwed all the time. Nations see their economies crumble and leaders red faced when something, somewhere in the financial structures goes wrong. Tensions cause a breakdown in social structures and governments get overthrown.”
He’s trying to intimidate me? The guy who whines and dines with some rather well connected people on the planet? I mean…Does he…Does he not know…Who I am.
He places a hand on my shoulder and leans in. I feel the air coming out of his nose against my face, as he exhales. It’s unsettling.
“I…Think we are being a tad dramatic.” I say in a bid to ease tensions.
“Let me finish”. He continues. “Mr Friedman, I have seen men, up close, stare into their eyes. To put it rather mildly, I have done things to them that changed their perspective of life within seconds. Good-guys-turned-bad, bad-guys-turned-good kind of stuff. I have transformed lives within minutes. I have seen their piss pouring down and out the leg of their pants. I have done it with no hard feelings. I have heard them scream and beg for mercy. I have nothing personal against them. It’s simply a job. And I love my job.”
My heart begins to race. Thoughts of death, mutilation, torture come to mind. My body begins to shake as my stomach starts doing summersaults. It is not uncommon for such practices in these parts of the world. And I just might not have immunity from such acts.
“I am committed to serving the kingdom and it’s Royal family. In fact, they gave me a place within their secret service when I was a young man with barely any chest hair. I interrogated the radical intellectuals. Men who were not so different to you. Men who thought they were smarter than everyone in the room because they felt they had some great understanding of the world that us mere mortals didn’t. They smiled and acted nice, but behind this mask, you could see their condescension, their superiority complexes. So…To be honest, it was kind of fun breaking them. You see, I may not be as qualified as you or savvy with numbers, but I have seen enough shit to know that us humans, we still operate on our fears and emotions. We still respond to pain. Most importantly, we respond to our inbuilt instinct for self preservation.”
I whimper, as tears begin to form in my eyes. Any sense of physical toughness begins to seep out of me. Out of myriad things I could say, these words come out of my stuttering mouth, “Please, please…I have a family.”
“We know.” Amir squeezes my shoulder as he leans back. His stony mouth curls into a smile. I feel a sense of relief, like a gun has been taken off my head. “Which is why, for your safety and their safety. I urge you to always act with the best interest of the kingdom in heart.” He lets go of my shoulder. “The Royal family’s best interest”.
I take a breath of relief.
“What I am saying is that we need to build and maintain trust. We need to ensure that our communication is clear. And most importantly…” His smile widens. “Do not try to fuck us.”
“Mr Amir, sir, that is not my intention here. We are straight dealers, looking after the interest of our clients.” I raise my shaking hands in a reassuring gesture.
“See, the problem is, we are a small country. And sometimes, people don’t take us seriously enough, you know? They think they can try something with us that they would never try elsewhere. Just like your journalist friend. He thinks he is being brave by talking about us in a negative light. But I’ve seen men much harder than him break. Basically, from time to time, we just like to remind people they can’t fuck with us.” Amir pats my back.
I hunch over and begin to draw in deep breaths. My stomach makes a noise and I just might throw up.
“Anyway, well, I better get going.” He gets off his chair. “I wish you a safe journey back and…oh, yeah…Please keep this conversation between us.” He sticks his hand out to shake mine.
I raise my shaking hand and look at him with teary eyes, like a submissive dog. He grabs my hand and shakes it firmly. Pulling me in, he says, “We have eyes and ears in a lot of places, Mr Friedman. And at the right moment, maybe when you’re on vacation with the family, or standing naked in your bathroom staring at the mirror, we will nab you. And it won’t end quickly and painlessly, believe me.” He lets go of my hand. “Have a nice day.” He walks away.
As Amir leaves the room, I break down and begin to sob. I do so for the next fifteen minutes, before wiping my eyes. The bartender returns and pours me another drink. I take it and swallow it down.
Back in the office, I stare out the glass behind my mahogany desk. The skyscrapers look back at me, their tinted windows glinting in the noon sunlight. The noise of the city is inaudible from here. But the traffic and people bustle about like ants. Busy with their lives, these people are oblivious to the machinations working behind the scenes. Invisibles strings are being pulled and they are shaping their destinies.
There’s a knock on my door. I tighten my paisley patterned tie and turn around. “Come in”, I announce.
The door opens and three of my juniors pop into the office, including Sarah. They all have a nervous look on their faces. As they rally around my desk, I give them a stern look. “There’s a rat in the office.” I say gnashing my teeth.
They get even more nervous.
“This is why I have called you guys here.” I lean on my desk. “We need to flush it out, before it chews through everything.”
One of them clears his throat, “But, Julian, how do we know this…I mean.”
“Oh, I know, I have been made aware of it. Project ‘Space Race’ has been leaked. Suffice to say, a certain journalist has caught a whiff of what we’re doing.”
The three of them exchange nervous glances. Their nervousness spreads through the room like odour.
“It wasn’t us, one of them announced.”
I look at them all, one by one, examining their expressions, before stating the next course of action. “Find out who did this. I don’t care how. Check emails, phone calls, interrogate people, do whatever you can.”
“Err…Interrogate?” Sarah asks, a little uneasy with the use of that word.
“Interview them, get information out.” I fire back at her.
They all nod.
“Now leave me alone.” I command and point at the door.
They all scuttle out the door.
I settle into my chair and turn on the laptop. Sifting through the news headlines, I can find no mention of the journalist I met a couple days back. Raj Gupta’s name is nowhere to be found. I guess no one’s figured out by now he is missing. Most of the headlines are about the latest social trends, which actress wore what dress last night, which influencer took selfies with endangered dolphins. Just the usual excrement.
I close the laptop. Swivelling my chair, I turn back towards the glass pane and stare at the city. All these people, all these lives, many of whom have no idea what’s around the corner. Many of them are oblivious to the future, too preoccupied with social media trends to take notice. They have their little corners of the world and they’re happy living and dying there. I kind of feel bad for them, but in this business, you cannot let emotions get the better of you. Not until you retire and then you can do all the good, charitable stuff you want. And to be fair, I make enough donations and commit to various causes as it is. It’s my way of laundering my conscience; a way to convince the world that I am one of the good guys. Most importantly, to convince myself I am not one of the bad guys.
I read somewhere that space is vaster than we can imagine. Billions of lightyears across, they say. And we are so small and inconsequential. A pale blue dot, that plays just about no part in how the future of the cosmos unfurls. Although we’ve begun the process of venturing into it, I seriously doubt we will get much far in exploring it.
I take a deep breath and lean back into my chair. Closing my eyes, I take a minute to switch myself off from all the insanity of this planet. Tiny as it might be, it’s problems still weigh heavy on all 7 billion of us.
A loud knock on the door disrupts my peace. I open my eyes, swivel around and shout, “What?”
A man pushes the door open and comes in. He’s tall, skinny and wears an expensive grey suit that definitely catches attention. He has an Ipad in one hand and a serious expression on his face.
“Who the fuck are you?” I demand.
“Mike, uh, from Sarah’s team.” He says.
That suit definitely cost him a big percentage of his salary.
I bark at him. “What, Sarah couldn’t come to me herself?”
Mike looks around, hesitant to speak and picking his next few words carefully so as to not badmouth his own boss. “I think…” He continued looking around, as if the answer was written on the walls. “She’s busy.”
I scoff. “Well, what do you want?”
He steps closer, holding the Ipad out for me. “Take a look at this.” He places it on my desk.
I take the Ipad. Glancing at it, the first thing I notice is the headline on the newspaper article. Journalist goes missing. Raj Gupta, our missing journalist, is on the page. He’s smiling at the camera; probably taken by a family member. The publication appears to be a small, independent one.
I look up at Mike, staring into his eyes. “Why are you showing me this?” Being coy about the whole affair. Playing it cool.
“I am not fully sure, Sarah asked me to.” Mike loosens his collar.
Good, she hasn’t shared the details about my meeting with the journalist.
“Sarah also said, ‘there’s a lot of anger brewing. Activists, lawyers, some famous people too.’ Possibly, I think she is hinting towards something big coming our way…I think.” Mike’s face eases a little and his eyes light up, like he’s feeling proud about being onto something.
I glare at him. “Son, we don’t pay you to speculate and guess about what’s going on. You are merely a middleman in this situation, a messenger who’s as cognisant of the happenings around him as the mailman, except you are paid more.” I scoff. “Frankly, I cannot see, right now, why that is.”
Mike becomes visibly embarrassed as his face turns red at being demeaned. Being compared to a lowly paid mailman’s stinging him hard.
He clears his throat and musters an iota of courage to defend himself. “Well, sir, with all due respect, judging by people’s faces around here, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out something has gone wrong. So, yeah, I am cognisant.” For a moment, he forgets his place in all of this. For a moment he looks at me as a shaky smile appears on his face; a moment of mild insubordination.
I stare at him with a ferocity that grows through me like a fire that’s spread through the wild at a moment’s notice. “What did you say?” My eyes burn holes into his skull.
He looks down, reminded of his place and the fact that all it will take is an email from me to his boss, Sarah, before his life turns to literal hell.
“I…I didn’t mean any disrespect…” He loosens his collar.
“Damn right you didn’t, son.” I hold the Ipad out to him. “Now get the hell out of my office.” I bark at him.
He moves swiftly to take the Ipad off me and leave the room.
I turn around and look at the city again. Rubbing my forehead, I feel the anger give way to a sense of despair. Things are turning to shit and I wonder how much I can really salvage from the train wreck that is about to happen. I take out my phone and type Raj Gupta’s name through my social media. A bunch of photos and videos pop up with the hashtags “Justice”, “Missing”, “Father”, “Activist” attached to them.
As I continue going through my various social media accounts, I notice the chatter. People are talking, organising, asking questions. Sarah is right, something is brewing. Anger, frustration, discontent are building up. Then I noticed it, the Tumbling Weed, publishing an article. They are by no means a small, independent publication. They are influential and influential people follow them.
I sigh as I look out again at the bustling metropolis. It almost feels like a sleeping giant is now awakening. There may be protest marches, there may be candle light vigils, there may be inquiries. More information may get leaked about project Space Race and it may just come into the limelight. More information about Silver Machs connections to the oligarchs and the dictators and the shady businessmen will come out. There will be anger and actions will be taken. So we re-strategise, we re-plan the whole thing as we weather the shit storm. Most importantly, I better start working on my sincerest apologies…To the taxpaying people of this nation whose money keeps us afloat…To the oppressed humans whose oppressors we work for…To the climate activists…To the world.
The giant goes back to sleep.
In a forgetful world with a forgetful attitude, things blow over quickly, people forget, any notions of justice eventually go out of fashion.
I turn away, throw my phone on the table and take a breath. Loosening my tie, I press my palms onto the table and lean over it. Maybe, just maybe, I pray that nothing much comes off it. I pray that people forget and move on. That will be the best case scenario.
My phone buzzes and moves on the table, the vibrations travel through the wood. Startled, I glanced at the screen and it’s an international number.
As I reach out to pick the phone, I hesitate for a moment and wonder who it could be, before working up the courage to take the call. Putting the phone to one ear, I say, “Hello…”
A man’s husky voice comes from the other side, “Mr Friedman”, he says in a thick Mediterranean accent. “We need to meet, 3pm at the Ehud’s Turkish café. Make sure you get there and don’t be late.” The phone disconnects.
What the f^*k?
Drawing in a breath, I wonder just who called me. Could be anyone of the various shady organisations we deal with. People we never communicate with directly, always through an intermediary. Or it could be one of the men working for Amir, our head of security for the royal family.
My hands begin to shake as sweat trickles down my forehead.
I take a deep breath and muster some courage. Whoever it is, I better see them.
I swivel my chair around and stare at the city again. I wonder to myself, if the giant that is the people’s conscience doesn’t get to me, the snakes that are slithering around in the dark will.
It’s just a question of who gets to me first.
The future, from where I sit, can head down multiple paths. All the possibilities, however, appear to be different variations of a bleak future – possibilities that go from the bad to worse. That’s how I am reading the situation right now. And my best bet is to improvise, while formulating a plan.