The Well-Meaning Mister Carlson.
Short story by John William Tuohy
With the company’s blessing, they met once a month for a five mile stroll around Georgetown. He and the Old Man. He was called the Old Man, behind his back, because it was how the Old Man referred to virtually everyone. “Now listen here, Old Man.”
The Old Man knew about the title and didn’t dislike it. The moniker appealed to the large streak of snob in him.
The Company is what the agency, the CIA, is called, although the newer breed prefers to call it “The Farm”, a reference to the Virginia apple orchard that once occupied the massive plot of land on the banks of the Potomac where the company sits.
The Old Man had been a power in the company once until his fall from grace after the
Operation Corrective Vision fiasco. The plan was to overthrow Leonidas Trujillo, AKA El Jefe, the president for life of the Dominican Republic, who was insane. Truly a madman. It was also agreed by the powers that be, from the White House to the Kremlin, that El Jefe would die in a coup. It was just better that way.
On the day of the coup, the Old Man leaked news of the assassination through a series of reporters the company owned who reported that Trujillo had been assassinated by his own military at 4:30 in the afternoon on May 30, a Tuesday, as he was driven from the capital to his beach home. Junior officers had shot him twice through the head. That was how the story ran.
Unfortunately for the Old Man, due to a series of mishaps, the assassination actually took place two hours later. Upon learning of his impending death, Trujillo barricaded himself in his office in the Presidential Palace with a machine gun. A well placed hand grenade killed him.
Critics, the Latin and European press and eventually the US Congress, demanded to know how the media was able to predict the assassination two hours in advance. The American media, a mechanism designed to exonerate itself from all culpability and faced with the choice of blaming itself or hanging the Old Boy in the public square chose the latter.
As a courtesy, for there were many in the company who felt the Old Man had done no wrong, he was placed on the payroll of a company owned sugar export company and
unofficially kept in the loop. This was why he and the Admiral took their five mile stroll around Georgetown once a month, although the frequency of their walks depended on many factors. The route was always the same. They met on the corner of M and 28th Street and walked west up 28th, stopping at the corner market at P and 28th for a carry out coffee.
The Admiral disliked The Old Man. He found him to be a boor and when allowed, a subtle bully. There was rarely any small talk between them as they strolled the rain soaked streets looking like two older, well dressed gentlemen engaged in civil conversation.
“So,” the Old Man began, “what’s the word from the front lines?”
“Henrik Carlson?” the Admiral said. “Henrik Carlson is news from the front lines.”
“One of ours?” the Old Man asked.
“No,” he answered quickly. He always answered quickly. “A civilian. Dirty business”
“So what of Mister Carlson?” the Old Man asked.
“Mr. Carlson” the Admiral began slowly, “made a fortune. Three times. And with every fortune he made the less interested he became in being wealthy. We took care of his money concerns. We spent it for him.”
“Background?” The Old Man asked without looking at him.
“He was 64 years old when he came onto our radar,” the Admiral answered. “Native of Edina, Minnesota. Episcopalian. Private school education. He referred to himself as ‘an imperfectly socialized person’ and he was right, he was. Stood 6-feet-2 and walked with a forward tilt. Had a light, nasally voice. Brilliant in many ways but his train of thought was lost on a regular basis. Wore his hair long, giving him that aging-hippie-with money look. His shirt pockets were stuffed with pens, most of which did not work apparently. 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 Man asked.
“We know that he served for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua when he was an undergraduate.”
“Left of center,” the Old Man dismissively said. It was an opinion not shared by the Admiral. “Where did he study?”
“MIT,” the Admiral answered. The Old Man stuck out his lower lip and tilted his head. MIT was safe. The company recruited from MIT. The company funds MIT projects.
“His area?” the Old Man asked.
“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. With those funds he formed an investment firm called Paperboy Investments.”
“So named because he delivered newspapers as a child,” the Admiral answered as they topped the hill and looked past the high black Victorian style fence into the Oak Hill cemetery where the city’s leading citizens were laid to rest.
“He made his third fortune on a company called Aimlin Pharmaceuticals,” the Admiral continued. “It was a tiny, struggling firm that caught his eye while he was evaluating drug treatments for his wife, who has diabetes. Aimlin had been dong innovative diabetes research. Carlson poured $6.2 million into Aimlin’s research office, patented several new drugs and made two hundred million in two years. The wife died a year later. Heart attack.”
“Net worth?” the Old Man asked. Mention of the wife had no effect on him.
“At that point, $300 million. Almost all of it available cash” he answered. “His money and willingness to foot the bill for far left causes allowed him to globetrot with celebrities, although he was, truly, oblivious to pop culture. 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 a coat hanger for an antenna. He never owned a television. In as far as we could tell he owned one pair of shoes. Loafers. Anyway, he and his money eventually stumbled their way into Honduras.”
They continued their stroll up R Street, past the Dumbarton Oaks Mansion that sat gracefully on a finely manicured lawn. It was here in 1944, that the delegation from the Soviet Union, Britain and the United States drew up the plan that decided how a post-war world would look and then conceived and chartered the UN.
“And what motivated this stumbling into Honduras?” the Old Man asked.
“Our ambassador at the time motivated it,” the Admiral replied.
“Who was he? Remind me,” the Old Man asked curtly.
“White,” the Admiral answered. “Nathan White.”
“Oh God help us all,” the Old Man moaned.
“Carlson met him at a fundraiser of some sort and told White essentially, 'I'm immensely rich, and I want to spend my money fighting poverty in Central America. Over a three year period, our Mr. Anderson poured tens of millions of dollars 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. It would have been fine if he had left it at that but Ambassador White changed Mr. Carlson’s agenda. He refocused him on bringing democracy to Honduras.”
“Well that’s not good,” the Old Man injected. “We can’t have that. Can’t have that at all.”
A light rain started in as they rounded Wisconsin Avenue.
“Didn’t we own a man down there?” the Old Man asked.
“We did” the Admiral replied. “Pepe. Remember Pepe?
“Ah yes” he said with a smile. “Pepe Lobo.”
“Right,” the Admiral replied. “Pepe the wolf. Reliably corrupt, wonderfully greedy, brutal and completely ignorant. Basically everything the company needs in a dictator. Henrik Carlson’s problem with Pepe the wolf was that Henrik was a tree hugger and Pepe, being Pepe, had raped the country’s precious hardwood mahogany forest through illegal logging operators who handed him a ten percent cut of everything. In the process, the chopping decimated indigenous communities and when the locals rose up, he used the military to put them back down. In the meantime, the well-meaning Mister Carlson, with the urging of Ambassador White, was using his millions to search for a candidate to run against Pepe the Wolf.”
“Did he find one?” the Old Man asked as they stopped on the corner of R and Wisconsin. The Old Man pointed his black umbrella to the left side of the street and they crossed. A light drizzle was starting.
“He did,” he answered. “Actually, the meddling Ambassador White found him. A man named Zela, Manny Zela. A longtime member of the National Senate. Zela billed himself ‘A man of the people.’”
“Oh God help us,” the Old Man said. “Not another man of the people.”
“The problem was,” the Admiral continued “that Manny Zela was competent. With Anderson’s millions behind him he ran one hell of a campaign against our man Pepe. Zela spoke publically about the country being owned and managed by multinational corporations. He promised to do away with a class based educational system and raise the minimum wage. He promised that if elected he would crack down on illegal logging and would improve human rights and generally, as they say, spoke with the voice of the people. 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.”
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 Pepe 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 Anderson funded an investigation by the Environmental Investigation Agency, an international organization that had ferreted out illegal loggers in Asia and other places.
“Let me ask the obvious,” the Old Man said, “why do we, the company, why do we give a damn about this?”
“We were partners with Pepe the Wolf in the logging operation. The money from that operation funds the peasant revolt in Tibet. I think it’s Tibet.”
They crossed at R Street and crossed over 34th and then 35th Street as the rain increased.
“This watchdog group, the Environmental Investigation Agency, the EIA” he continued “had one of its investigators posing as a lumber buyer secretly videotape a meeting in Miami with a Honduran congressional candidate who told the investigator that to ensure the steady flow of lumber they would have to kick back to Pepe the Wolf.”
They turned right onto 38th Street.
“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. 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 Pepe the wolf was out.”
“And our skeletons were left hanging in the closets?” the Old Boy asked.
“They were,” the Admiral said as they turned left on S Street. “Zela alienated the Honduran elite by cultivating leftist allies in Central and South America. He enacted some of his reforms which resulted in the country becoming even more profoundly polarized between. There was 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. That same day the company heard from all of our friends, the conglomerates that own hydroelectric plants, coffee interests, and the fast-food market, and they were not happy. 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.
They turned left on 39 Street.
“How much?” the Old Man asked with interest.
“Where was it reinvested?”
They turned right on to Reservoir Road where tall trees protected them from the persistent drizzle.
“That is out of my area but I understand the company put 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. You hear things. Anyway, in a wonderful little bloodless coup the Honduran Army ousted Zela -- in his pajamas – and we had our boy Pepe the Wolf back in office the next day. The Honduran army backed the move.”
“And the well-meaning Mr. Carlson?” the Old Man asked. “What of him?”
“Our people in 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 a coconut tree or something.”
“Our involvement?” the Old Man asked.
“Minimal,” he said. “We handled the PR on Zela as being alive and well and living in Miami on the fortunes he stole from the people of Honduras.”
“No one asked about Carlson. He had no family. No friends. He was an odd duck. Almost no one knew about the role he played in the national election and how he almost single handedly elected Manny Zela President.”
“Well good,” the Old Man 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. This was the end of the stroll. They would part company now.
“It’s a shame really,” the Admiral said.
“Shame?” the Old Man asked as he turned to look at him for the first time.
“The whole mess,” the Admiral answered. “It’s too bad.”
The Old Man stopped walking, looked at him and asked, “Why?”
“Well,” the Admiral replied searching for his car keys, “were Carlson not planted under a coconut tree he would have spent a fortune for higher causes like making the world a better place. The Honduran poor would have a slightly better life and the Honduran rich would be slightly less rich.”
“And how do you know that?” the Old Man asked. “You can’t answer that because you don’t know. And that was why we had to make his money evaporate. Because we don’t know either. What we do in the world is to ensure that there are no unknown factors. We iron out the risks. And it is a damn good thing we do. What if Zela had succeeded in his plans? Then what? The price of coffee goes up by a nickel or a dime? Maybe, maybe not. Fast food chains increase the price of a burger because Honduran lettuce cost more? Maybe, maybe not. This Henrik Carlson fellow, yes, he could have changed things. But he had to be a kingmaker. All you see is a man without greed, and all I see is a man drunk with power. We didn’t kill Henrik Carlson. Henrik Carlson killed himself. He doesn’t make kings. We do. That is our job in the world. That’s what we do when we must do it. Because if we don’t others, far worse than your beloved Henrik Carlson, will.” Realizing that he had become emotional the Old Man cleared his throat, paused and then continued, “The problem was that your Mister Carlson actually succeeded at it and he succeeded at it without us. We just can’t have that. As for the rest, well, it’s human nature, the oppression of the poor. I don’t like it any more than you do but it’s a tradition as old as the earth. It’s wrong of course, but for the time being, in the way the world is now, at this moment, it is often in our interest to stand on the side of the oppressor. Have a good day Admiral. Please see that you are not here for the next briefing. Have them send someone else.”