John William Tuohy lives in Washington DC

Short story: Sven Carlson Struck It Rich

Sven Carlson Struck It Rich

   They met once a week for a five mile stroll around Georgetown. He didn’t necessarily want to go but it got him out of the house, something he did with less frequency the longer he was retired. So he went. He and the Old Boy. They met on the corner of M and 28th Street and walked west up 28th,   stopping at the corner market P and 28th for a carry out coffee for him and a tea for the Old Boy. Of course he drank tea. It was what he liked to think that British drank and the Old Boy wanted so desperately to be British.
    He was called the Old Boy, behind his back, because it was how he had referred to virtually everyone in the agency when he was there. He knew about the title and didn’t dislike it. The moniker appealed to the large streak of snob in him.
     His dislike for the old boy,  his boorish behavior and his subtle bullying was beginning to overshadow his ability to make small talk with him which was the only thing that masked his growing contempt of him so they usually walked along in silence. But today he felt like talking.
   “Did I ever tell you about a man named Sven Carlson?”
   “No” he said “One of ours?”
   “No” he answered quickly. He always answered quickly “Civilian.
   “An operative?” the Old Boy asked with a puff. He was badly overweight and the hill strained him.
   “Of sorts.” He answered “Not a voluntary operative.”
   “Well there’s really no such thing as a voluntary citizen operative is there?” the Old Boy corrected him “So what of Mister Carlson”
   “Sven Carlson” he said slowly, disregarding the Old Boy’s reprove “made a fortune.  Three times.  And every fortune he made the less interested he became in being wealthy.” He turned and smiled at the Old Boy as the trudged up the hill. “We took care of that for him.  We spent it for him. Of course he spent most of his money himself.
   “Background?” the Old Boy asked without looking at him.
   “He was 64 years old when he came onto our radar.” He answered “Native of Edina, Minnesota. Episcopalian. He referred to himself as "an imperfectly socialized person".  Stood 6-feet-2 and walked with a lean forward tilt.  Had a light, nasally voice.  Brilliant in many ways but his train of thought was lost on regular basis. Wore his hair long, giving him that aging-hippie-with money look.  His shirt pockets were always stuffed with pens, most of which did not work. When he wore ties, they were distinct in their ugliness.”
   They passed under a leafy elm towards the top of the hill.    
  “Political leanings?” The Old Boy wanted to know.
   “We know that had served for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua when he was an undergraduate”
   “Well that places him left of center” the Old Boy dismissively said “Where did he study?”
   “MIT.” He answered without saying he disagreed with the Old Boys spur of the moment decision that everyone who entered the Peace Corp was left of center.
   The old boy stuck out his lower lip and shrugged. MIT was safe. They both knew that.  They agency recruited heavily from MIT.
    “His area?” the Old Boy said as he stopped walking for a second to take a breath. He checked his own breath and saw that he was breathing normally and he liked being one up from the arrogant old man even if he was twenty years his junior.
   “R and D” he answered “He held several well-paying jobs as an engineer, but had a habit of getting himself fired from each place he ever worked. Then he struck it rich, about 50 million dollars. The first fortune came from inventing an early word-processing system and then made an even bigger bundle, about 100 million from the stock he got for selling his software company, which had developed a system for connecting phone networks to the Internet.  He formed an investment firm called Paperboy Investments”
   “So named because he delivered newspapers while growing up poor in the Midwest” he answered was they topped the hill and looked past the high black Victorian style fence in to the Oak Hill cemetery where the city’s leading citizen were laid to rest.
    “He made his third fortune on a company called Aimlin Pharmaceuticals.” He continued as he tried to make out the name on a white marble tombstone “It was a tiny, struggling firm that caught his eye while he evaluating drug treatments for his wife who has diabetes. Aimlin had been dong innovative diabetes research. He 6.2 million into Aimlin’s research office, patented several new drugs and made two hundred million to go along with the first hundred million.
   “Net worth?” The Old Boy asked.
   “300 million” he answered “His money and willingness to foot the bill for far left causes allowed him to globe trot with celebrities, although he was, truly, oblivious to pop culture. He has no ever owned a television.  He just wasn’t in the universe with the rest of us. He didn’t care.  He drove, badly, a 15-year-old black Honda Accord with the coat hanger for an antenna.
    They continued their stroll up R Street, both of them paying a nod to the Dumbarton Oaks Mansion that sat gracefully on a finely manicured lawn.
   “Anyway” he said “at that point, finding his incredible new wealth both “Funny and amusing” as he put it….”
   “Did we have an ear on him?”
    “Yes. Eventually” he answered “He poured tens of millions into building libraries and underwriting reading programs for the poor throughout the country.  The Pope wrote him letters of encouragement. The UN named a day in his honor. There was talk of building a statue to him in the capitol city. The whole world was rooting for him. Hell, I was rooting for him. He decided he could do truly revolutionary things in Central America., as he put it, though philanthropy on a massive scale.
   “Well that’s not good” the Old Boy injected “We can’t have that. Can’t have that at all”
   “Of course you’re correct “he answered.
   “What motivated this action on his part?” The Old Boy asked as they crossed 32nd Street and approached Wisconsin Avenue.
   “Our ambassador at the time is what motivated this”
   “Who was he, remind me” The Old Boy asked curtly.
    “White” he answered “Nathan White”
    “Oh God help us all” The Old Boy sighed.  
    “Carlson met him and said, essentially, 'I'm immensely rich, and I want to spend money bringing democracy to Central America”
    “And of course that idiot White encouraged him.” The Old Boy grumbled.
   “He did.  He kept saying, 'Think big. Spend, spend, spend.' "
   “Didn’t we have a man down there?” the Old Boy asked.
   “We did” he answered “Pepe. Remember Pepe?
   “Ah yes” he said with a smile “Pepe Lobo”
   “Right” he added Pepe the wolf. He was our main man in Central America. He was reliable corrupt, greedy, completely unambitious and brutal. Pretty much everything the company wants and needs in a foreign dictator. Sven Carlson’s problem with Pepe the wolf was that Pepe had raped the country’s precious hardwood mahogany forest with illegal logging that had decimated indigenous communities, for which he took a ten percent cut of everything chopped down.  Pepe denied it all; of course, I mean what else could he do? He said his business interests have been primarily centered on food crops and not timber etcetera and so on. 
     In the meantime, our man Carlson was raining money on Central America, gleefully and searched the countryside high and low to find a candidate to run against Lobo the Wolf.
   “Did he find one?” The Old Boy asked as they stood on the corner of R and Wisconsin. The old boy pointed his black umbrella to the left side of the street and they cross. A light drizzle was starting.  
   “He did” he answered “actually White found him and forwarded him along.  A man named Manny Zela. A longtime member of the otherwise docile but elite National Senate. Zela was a man of the people”
   Oh God help us” The Old Boy said “Not another man of the people”
   “He had taken on the multinational corporations that ruled over the country. He, promise to do away with a class based educational system, raise the minimum wage, promised that if elected that he would crack down on illegal logging and to improve human rights and generally, as they say, spoke with their voice. Even those who didn’t agree with his politics liked him because he said things they knew were true but that no other presidential candidate had said before.”
   “Did we have anything on Mister Zela?” The Old wanted to know, already knowing that we did.
   “Only a general file. Our people there watched him with some interest but largely we viewed him with the same cynical eye as our man Lobo the wolf, who was clearly the front-runner in the race.”
    The rain increased and both men opened their identical black umbrella with maple handles and continued their walk.
   “Carlson was everywhere during the election.” He said “He didn't trust the local media because he said it was almost completely controlled by various oligarchs, which is true enough of course.  So, he took over a small newspaper, El Libertador, and encouraged the reporters to write tough stories about Lobo the Wolf.”
   An attractive young woman in a black business suit and trench coat approached them and he stopped talking. When she passed, he continued speaking “Then he hired a U.S. polling firm, Cassidy and Quinlan, to conduct surveys about Lobo’s unpopularity and then he ran those in his little newspaper. He also funded the Environmental Investigation Agency, a worldwide organization with offices in London and Washington that had ferreted out illegal loggers in Asia and other places.
   “Let me stop you here and ask the obvious” the Old Boy said stopping to ask “why do we, the company, why do we give a damn about this?”
    “We were partners with El President Lobo the Wolf n the illegal logging operation. The money we made from that funded our little wars in Tibet and a few other places”
      They crossed at R Street and cross over 34th and then 35th Street as the rain increased.
    “I see” The Old Boy added unnecessarily “We wouldn’t have to be involved with criminals like him if the idiots up on the Hill funded us the way we need to be funded”
   “Well” he said “It’s how we get things done”
   “No” the old Boy countered “It’s how we exercise influence in a world that understands little besides hard cash. So continue”
    He didn’t care for the reprimand. It was an insult. He continued anyway “So this watchdog group Environmental Investigation Agency, the EIA has one of its agents posing as a lumber buyer secretly videotaped a meeting in Miami with a Honduran congressional candidate, Maria Noriega, and her father, a lumber dealer named Jesus Noriega. On the tape, Maria Noriega says payoffs to government officials can be made to ensure a steady flow of lumber, and brags that their business will be protected if her father's best friend, Lobo the Wolf, is elected. “
    They turned right onto 38th Street.

   "Pepe Lobo will be our savior," Jesus Noriega says on the tape. Word about the tap gets back to our boy Carlson who is ecstatic. This, he tells his people, this will be the smoking gun that bring down Lupo the Wolf. Carlson got the tape and pounded the illegal logging story on the front pages of his newspaper and booked $200,000 of advertising time on the Nicaraguan television networks; he saturated the air waves with the tape, and even had operatives show it on screens set up in parks and other public places. By the time the ballots were counted, Carlson estimated he had spent $2 million trying to influence the outcome. His boy Zela won, by a squeak, but he won and our boy Lobo the wolf was out.
   They turned left on Left on S Street and he continued “Zela started alienating the elite by cultivating leftist allies not only in Central and South America but in Asia and Europe.  The country became profoundly polarized and divided between two diametrically opposed sides. The haves and the Have not’s.  There is lots of tension in the air. Then he made a speech in which he called for "An insurrection." A poor choice of words in a nation where seven of 10 people live in poverty.  He also said "The coffee exporters have congressmen, the bankers have congressmen, the fast-food interests have congressmen," Maldonado said. "That's why the country has been in these difficult conditions . . . because there is not a congress that permits people to participate." Well that sealed it for him. His drift to the left alarmed the conglomerates that own hydroelectric plants, the established media, coffee interests and the influential fast-food market people but that speech was the final straw. The problem was that Zela still had Carlson’s mountain of cash behind him and they were using it to popularize their programs. So we had no choice but to drain his bank accounts. The Australian drain”
They turned left on 39 Street
   “Do they still call it that?” The Old Boy asked with a smile.
   “How much?” The Old Boy asked with interest. 
   “250 million”
   “Was it reinvested properly?”
    They turned right on to Reservoir Road.
   “That was out of my area but I understand the company reinvested the bulk of it in an oil drilling project in Iran, I think, I don’t know for sure, or maybe it was a shoe factory in China. I don’t know. You hear things.”
   “The company” The Old Boy added “has a lot of money invested in a lot of things all over the world”
     It was an unneeded addition to the conversation. He continued “The Army ousted Zela -- in his pajamas -- in a military coup. We had our boy Lupo the Wolf back in office the next day.
  “And Mr. Carlson?” the Old Boy asked “What of him?”
  “The Army took him as well. He was living in his own suit in the Presidential palace. Apparently he slept in the nude. They took them both out to the jungle and executed them, buried them under a rubber tree or something.”
  “Our involvement?” the Old Boy asked.
  “Minimal” he said “We handled the PR on Zela being alive and well and living in Miami”
  “And Carlson?”
  “No one asked about Carlson. He had no family. No friends. He was an odd duck. Almost no one knew about the decisive role that Carlson played in the national election and how he almost single handedly elected Manny Zela as President”
  “Well good” The Old Boy said “let’s keep it that way’
   At 35th Street they took a right and the rain started to fall harder.
    They fell into silence for a few seconds.
   “It’s a shame really.”  He said
  “What is shame?” The Old Boy asked as he turned to look at him.
 “Well the entire thing” he said “The whole mess”
   The Old Boy stopped walking, something he had not done before on their strolls and look at him and asked “Why?”  
   “Carlson would have spent the money for higher causes like making the world a better place and not on fleeting luxuries.”
   “It’s not a shame “the Old Man said in a chastising way “We had to make it evaporate. We had no choice. It was the right thing to do. I’ve said this many times in the past and I will continue to say it until I die. We are not spies. We gather intelligence and make decisions to protect our economy and way of life based on that intelligence. We are in the business of speculation. What if Zela had succeeded in his plans?”
   “The Honduran poor would have a slightly better life and the Honduran rich would be slightly less rich” he countered.
   “And the fast food chains would up the price of a hamburger by 10% or a penny more for a cup of coffee because the cost of making the Honduran rich would have to be passed on someplace.” The Old Boy stared at him hard and added “Frankly, I’m very surprised to hear you say these things”

   The walked along in silence for a moment and the Old Man spoke “It’s human nature, the oppression of the poor. It’s a human tradition older than dirt. It’s wrong of course but right now it is in our interests to stand on the side of the oppressor. As for this         Sven Carlson fellow, he was on his way, he could have been somebody. He could have been a contender, if only he had stayed out of it. If only he had not tried to become a kingmaker. That’s our job. That’s what we do in the world. Of course, we don’t mind if other people in world try to become kingmakers, we expect it, in fact, we encourage it. The problem was that Mr. Carlson actually succeeded at it and he succeeded at it without us. And as I said, we just can’t have that.  “