Thursday, January 29, 2009

Oh, Say Can You See

I thought I would be writing this a bit sooner, but things intervened, not the least of which was the weather. The Russians may be right -- another Ice Age is dawning. Certainly this is occuring in the Northern Hemisphere, and not only is this inconvenient for Al Gore, more importantly, it is inconvenient for me. A power outage brought things to a sudden halt at the Manor, and my generator also chose this moment to break down. Fortunately, I have an engineering degree, and an hour's work and some spot welding put things right. My driver and handyman, Ahmed, was impressed -- his Islamic university obviously had skipped this type of skill. Wonder what the Imams and Mullahs have against spot welding? Must ask, when the moment is right.

Anyway, when I left you, I was winging my way from Khartoum, and unlike one G. Bush, I could truly say "mission accomplished." I arrived in Washington in time for The Event; that is, the Inauguration of Barack Obama. I had a good vantage point for the parade, on top of the Canadian Embassy, where I had agreed to help out with security.

I was greeted by a colleague from former years, code name Barry, who I think is with the Canadian special forces, or JTF2. I say "I think" -- in the security field, one is never absolutely sure. Barry greeted me warmly.

"Simone! I heard you would be joining us. Been some time since Bogota."

"It has, " I replied. "Be nice to be there now. There's a hell of a wind chill up here." I was snuggled into a thick parka, but going from the Sudan into Arctic weather can be a bit of a shock.

"Got my thingy?"

"Here," he said, tossing me a rifle. "You requested an Erma SR 100, with the Burris Fullfield scope. Good choice, that."

"Right about that. What's the quadrant?"

Yours is forty-five degrees H, one eighty-three V. Those five windows."

"Got it. No discernible activity."

"Let us hope it stays that way." I nestled into a crouching position, trying to get as comfortable as possible. "How long before the limousine shows?"

"About five minutes -- holy shit!"


"Look!" said Barry, excitement in his voice, his eyes glued to his own scope. "Zero in on the large window in the quadrant adjacent to yours. Isn't that Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter? "

I swivelled a tad, and aligned my own scope. "By God, Barry, your right."

"You know, Simone, with a couple of fairly easy shots, the radical right would definitely take a turn for the worse. Things would become, well, more peaceful."

"Now Barry," I replied, "that's the whole point. The lunatic fringe, unless they are horsing around with explosives, missiles or whatever, are actually a Good Thing. Wingnuts help keep sanity in focus, and hence makes it easier for sanity to prevail. Besides, I rather like Ann. We only met once, at a reception for Bill Maher, and she can be very witty. Does a good job of making the untenable almost tenable. Carries herself well, too."

"She does that. Now concentrate, there's the limousine."

Everything after that went smoothly, and later at a small reception in the Embassy, I reflected a bit on the coming new era. (Attending public balls was out of the question -- in my trade, any publicity was simply courting disaster. I have it on good authority that I am Number One on the Taliban's hit list, Al Qaeda doesn't love me either, and at least two Mafia dons have very expensive contracts out. Such is life.) So I reflected, and while I certainly wished Barack Obama well (and was gratified to have a number for Michelle's Blackberry) I felt a twinge of regret at the departure of George Bush. I certainly won't miss his overweening confidence, his total lack of self-awareness, or his succumbing to advice given by those creeps Rumsfeld, Rove and Cheney. What a litany of useless deaths of young American men and women, to say nothing of the thousands of Iraqis that died. No, that aspect of the Bush Presidency I won't miss at all. What I will miss are those wonderful, Zen-like phrases he trotted out from time to time. Here are three of my favourites:

"The vast majority of imports come from outside the country."

"I have made good judgements in the past. I have made good judgements in the future."

"We are ready for any unforeseen event that may or may not occur."

As the Mastercard commercial goes, "Priceless."

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Dalliance in Darfur

It is good to be back home after a rather hectic week. Readers of my last piece will know that I had received an assignment, one that involved extracting some over-eager missionaries who had been abducted by the Janjaweed while in Darfur. I was not keen on this endeavour -- missionaries of any ilk are bothersome, the "my stone is mightier and prettier than your stone" syndrome, and I wish they'd just grow up and leave us to our own devices. Or in my case, vices.

In that one of the abducted was a niece of an American Senator (Republican, goes without saying) I was pressured by my colleague in these matters, Matilda "Tilly" Hatt of the CIA. The fee was also substantial, so off we went.

Now in any operation of this kind, one depends on certain assets, both technological and human. Thus there are certain things blocked out in this particular missive; to do otherwise puts a number of people at severe risk, most importantly of all, me. Apologies.

Now to begin. Tilly, with the help of an overhead AWAC and a ******* had located the place where the captives were being held. The place, a large tent, was heavily guarded, and while Tilly knew that it would be child's play to blast the entire area into smithereens using the new ******* missile, this would not be really beneficial to the health of the missionaries. The Janjaweed had to be encouraged to leave. This is where I came into it.

I had gone to Khartoum, and with the assistance of ****** and ******* had been vetted as a "sexual relief person" (my Arabic is no hell) to the ruler of Sudan, Omer Al-Bashir. Thus it was that I was admitted, clad in a chador, to the great man himself. I removed the chador, and saw his eyes light up. Good, I thought. I had thought long and hard about just what to wear to entice, and had selected my best alligator boots (up yours, PETA) my suede miniskirt and the tightest cashmere sweater I owned.

"Come here, " Al-Bashir ordered, and I complied. Once face to face, I swiftly reached under my skirt, withdrew a small plastic syringe containing ******* that had been overlooked in the pre-visitation search, and jabbed it into his neck. He fell back onto his desk, a flicker of fear in his eyes.

"Now then, Omer," I stated in English, with which I knew he was familiar, "this is what will happen if you do not do exactly what I say. You will notice, for instance , that you have lost all feeling in your toes and feet. In five minutes your entire body will be in the same condition, completely paralyzed. And that will last for the rest of your life."

"What do you want?" he whispered.

"One phone call. To those Janjaweed idiots holding the missionaries at ******. And you better make that call soon, or you will have no vocal chords left to do it.

"I don't --"

"Oh stop it. You pay them. Now get with it. Should you be successful, I have an antidote that will bring you back to whatever normalcy you enjoy. And don't even think of calling your guards. By my reckoning, you now have only four minutes left, and if you were going to torture the antidote out of me, well, I've withstood a lot longer than four minutes. Good Lord, man I once had to watch an entire episode of Larry King Live, the one where he was interviewing Paris Hilton. Now do it!"

I guess the drug had begun to enter his upper legs, and I could see the fear in his face. He reached for his phone, and in harsh Arabic issued orders. "There", he said, "they've been released. Now --"

Now we wait," I said. "And you hope."

Another minute passed, and then a voice rang in the receiver planted in my ear.

"It's OK, Simone," said Tilly. "The ungodly have cleared out, and there the captives were, all neatly bound and gagged in a row. We're now off the ground, and headed out. We owe you."

"Yes you do, but we'll settle up later. See you soon."

I broke the connection, and turned to Al-Bashir.

"Right. And Omer, think twice before you encourage the Janjaweed again. Dealing with the deranged always presents problems. Now hold still."

I reached into my mouth, uncapped a tooth, and withdrew a small pill. It was comprised of ****** and I was told its effect would be surprising. I popped it into the man's mouth, and within twenty seconds watched as beatific smile emerged on his face, and he began to gasp with pleasure. Interesting, that.

I put the chador on again, and rapped on the door. A guard opened it, and I said "I think satisfaction has been given."

The guard looked at Al-Bashir, who was in some kind of ecstasy. As he escorted me out, I could see a real look of respect in his eyes. "You'll have to come again," he said.

"Looking forward to it," I replied.

Not on your life brother.

Again assisted by our Khartoum assets, I was soon on a plane out of Sudan, and this quick departure suited me just fine.

I had an inauguration to attend.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Reviewing Accounts

Every time I receive an "assignment", I find it worthwhile to review my financial holdings, and ensure their proper dispersal should things go awry. Well, apparently some missionaries have gone and got themselves kidnapped in Darfur. One of them is a niece of an American senator, and a colleague of mine, Matilda Hatt, called and offered a very lucrative retrieval contract. Tilly knows I have some ability in this area, and yes, she does get comments on her name, Tilly Hatt. Nobody, however, believes this is her real name, something which can be considered a Good Thing, since Tilly is a senior operative in the CIA.

I will report on the mission (to the extent possible under the Official Secrets Act) in a later note, but for now my attention was focussed, not on what the Janjaweed might be up to, but on my accountant and financial advisor, Billy-Joe Barrett. Billy-Joe hails from the Deep South, and has made a fortune in day-trading on the market. He has an instinct for buying low and selling high, and has turned down a host of offers from investment banks. Some years ago Billy-Joe got into some trouble in Tijuana -- one of the drug cartels wanted the specs for certain device that is now safe in the NORAD vaults -- and I assisted in retrieving both the device and Billy-Joe. It was, as I recall, a fairly clean operation. Only six cartel members were killed, something remarkable in its frugality given how some of these Mexican things go. Billy-Joe spurned the offers from the banks, for he is far more interested in his hobby -- robotics. He was also grateful to me, and agreed to supervise my somewhat eclectic holdings.

His robotics enterprise is going well, but it was not always so. There was, for instance, the Quark debacle.

Quark was an invention of Billy-Joe, a humanoid robot that was designed to clean house. When Billy-Joe was satisfied that Quark was ready to be shown to the world, he invited a number of venture capitalists and their wives or "companions" to his house for a demonstration and a party. He indicated to the assemblage that Quark could only work on a pre-arranged room set-up, but once that set-up was encoded in his memory, well, Bob's your uncle. Only two commands were necessary: "Come out," and "Return". Billy-Joe then asked for silence, and in a piercing voice said, "Come out!'

The hall closet opened, and Quark emerged. The robot quickly set to work, and various appendages emerged from his body that enabled dusting, vacuuming, and polishing various surfaces. The guests had all retreated to one side, and watched with admiration as Quark completed his tasks. Billy-Joe then said "Return!" and Quark dutifully returned to the closet.

All were mightily impressed, the party took on a distinctly celebratory tone, and the liquor flowed. Perhaps too much, for one of the guests, in a moment of alcohol-fuelled courage, felt impelled to tell the group that it was time to reveal his true sexuality. "I have," he said in a loud voice, "come out!"

There was a moment of shocked silence, and then all were dashing around trying to avoid Quark, who had heard the command to emerge and was busily cleaning. But the room was now no longer "pre-set" and tables were upset, glasses crashed to the floor, and guests ran about trying to stay out of Quark's way. Billy-Joe was momentarily fascinated, but then came back to reality and shouted "Return!"

This Quark did, but as he entered his closet there was a shriek. Apparently the girlfriend of one of the guests had taken refuge in the closet, and Quark was pushing against her, pinning her to the back. She was attempting to writhe away, but maybe not, for when Billy-Joe said, "Hang on, I'll turn him off," she gasped, Augustine-like, "OK, but not just yet. Ye gods, but this is a wonderful robot!" Her face was flushed, and she appeared extraordinarily happy.

Billy-Joe waited for a minute, then cut Quark's power.

The girl's boyfriend stormed out of the house, muttering something about being shown up by a damn robot.

As for Quark's future, one of the venture capitalist had spotted an opportunity. Quark is now marketed to women, and is proving a huge success. He has been renamed BFF.

Thus a little background on Billy-Joe. He reviewed my accounts, and deemed them all satisfactory save for one thing. "What's this option to buy all about?" he asked.

"That's an option to buy Iceland," I replied, a bit uneasily. "A friend of mine, Hana Andersdottir, is in Iceland's Ministry of Finance, and apparently they really need liquidity. And with global warming, sugar beets might be possible..."my voice trailed off.

"Hmm" said Billy-Joe, and studied the option carefully. Then he looked up. "You see this codicil?"

He showed it to me, and I instantly saw the difficulty. Not only would I have to look after the country, I would also have to look after Bjork.

Deal breaker.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Dialogues In Eastern Europe

This is how it all came about.

Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, had expressed a Worry to her Master of the Horse. The Worry eventually made its way to Whitehall, where it began to percolate down through the various layers of British bureaucracy until it reached a certain individual in MI 6, who recalled that I had a relationship (of a kind) with the cause of the Worry. So could I help?

After a rather generous sweetening of the Strunsky pot, I agreed to do what I could. I was going to take action in any event, because of a threat to my sugar beets. And not only to the beets, but also to the workers who were involved in tending them. Now I like to think I look after my workers, and in my Ukrainian holding, they were, to put it bluntly, freezing their asses off.

Vladimir Putin had turned off the gas.

Now Britain has a not insignificant investment in sugar beets as a possible fuel substitute. As for me, I have a considerably more significant investment. So meet it was that I have a little discussion with Mr. P. on the matter. This was not overly difficult to arrange, the result of a rather wild evening in St. Petersburg where a number of things were exchanged, not the least of which were confidential cell phone numbers. Russian is one of the six languages I am comfortable in, and the following dialogue then ensued.

"Vlad, it's Simone. Turn the gas back on. My sugar beets are suffering."

"I've told you to only use this line in an emergency."

"This is an emergency. You once said that you would do anything --"

"That was in the heat of a moment."

"And there was Vladivostok. Awkward situation for you, given that the bitch --"

"All right, all right. But it's not my fault. It's the fault of Yuliya Tymoshenko."

"What on earth has she got to do with it?"

"She wants a lower price for the gas."

"No she doesn't," I replied. "She wants a bigger cut, into her personal account. Really, Vladimir, the woman is venal, and if I remember correctly, she used to run a gas company herself. She knows you can afford it. So what's really going on?"

There was a short silence before he answered.

"I asked her to my dacha last month, and she turned me down flat."

"Of course she did. You picked the wrong venue, and no media attention. Ask her to, oh I don't know, hell, ask her to the Bolshoi. Make sure there's lots of press, including the internationals. Invite Paris Hilton. Then throw a big party. Lots of vodka. Yuliya will like that. A lot."

"Medvedev might have some concerns --"

"Well, Vlad, you'll just have to deal with that. I mean, power is like a present, and you gave Dmitri a really big one.The person receiving it will shake it, toss it about, weigh it and after all that will open it. I think Dmitri is in the "opening" phase. But you know this."

"Perhaps you're right. Ah, er, do you think that you might have a word --"

"With Yuliya, you mean."

"Yes. And I will give the gas question serious consideration."

"You do that. And for goodness sake, do something about the infrastructure of Gazprom. The lines are in terrible condition. One or two breaks, and Russia itself will have a gas shortage. Now I will see what I can arrange with Yuliya."

That conversation was much shorter. I had negotiated the Ukrainian sugar beet concession with her, and had little difficulty. Particularly when I threw in the silver Hummer. Yuliya was a bit hesitant at first about agreeing to anything that Putin had on offer, but the Bolshoi and the concomitant media attention proved too hard to resist. I also urged her to lose that ridiculous braid she parades around in, pretending she is of the Ukrainian peasantry. Yuliya Tymoshenko is about as far from peasantry as you can get.

So there, problem solved. Maybe. But the real answer lies in a non-Russian pipeline, like the one being proposed that would link the EU directly to Central Asian energy suppliers. I am all for it.
The name of this pipeline is Nabucco, and any pipeline named after a Verdi opera has got to be a winner.

Even if the opera is an early one.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

An Intimate New Year's Eve Soiree

Carriages long after midnight. That would have been the case at the first Lord Strunsky's Estate in Surrey in the Eighteenth Century, when that august personage held an event on New Year's Eve. Plentiful food, even more plentiful wine, dancing, excellent music, and liveried servants everywhere. Today, "liveried" is usually a comment upon age spots.

But not to despair. A good party can still be held, and to this end I decided to throw a New Year's Eve get-together, in order to dispel (somewhat) the mess of 2008. Not a large one, mind you. Only about 100 were in attendance, and there were several notable absences. Bill and Hilary, for instance, had to send regrets. Indeed, they had to cancel their own Ball, in order to lower another type of ball in Times Square in New York. The Sarkozy's were at Klosters, going down various Alps on two sticks, which was a pity -- La Bruni does have a good fashion sense, and on this topic can make intelligent comments. The Obama's were still in Hawaii, and wanted to stay there. This I can understand. I had been involved in a salvage operation in Hilo involving a nuclear missile that had gone a little astray. After recovering it, along with some assistance from two very attractive Navy Seals, I noticed a car parked on the pier with a bumper sticker that stays in my mind: "Not a native, but I got here as quickly as I could." So enjoy, Barack -- things are not going to be as enjoyable after January 20th.

For those that could attend, I feel I must let my readers down a bit. Several of the invitees belong to the Western Intelligence Services, and would not take kindly to their names popping up in a missive such as this. To say nothing of breaching Official Secrets Act. Others have privacy concerns, and while the paparazzi are not a problem -- too busy being iron filings around such sad magnets as Lindsay, Paris and Britney -- nevertheless I see their point. Fame attracts, and not always happily.

My main criterion for selecting my guests was to ensure that no one espousing "A Cause" ever darkened my doorway. Ideologues are the most boring people on earth, and, when cloaked in religion, some of the most dangerous. Not that members of Al Qaeda or The Taliban would seek an invitation, unless it was to be a "party" where I could be stoned to death. Yet others, not as insane, did seek to come. David Suzuki expressed such a desire, but was turned down. I mean, here was a scientist doing superb work on the genetics of fruit flies, and then for some obscure reason turned his back on this work to become that most useless of things, a "personality". I simply sent him a note, drawing on Marlowe, "Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight."

Then one of the Mayor's aides put out a feeler, indicating that he and some of the members of his Star Chamber (read, Executive Committee) might enhance the festivities. This request I nipped in the bud. I want no truck or trade with the Mayor or his minions, who seem intent on taxing Torontonians to the extent that the entire city becomes homeless. Two Councillors were present, however, in that they had exhibited a knowledge of such terms as 'fiscal restrain', 'value for money' and 'tax relief'. I will not divulge their names -- ideologues, as well as having no sense of humour, are extremely vindictive.

As for the festivities themselves, a fine afternoon was spent with some of my colleagues doing Tae Kwan Do in the gym, along with some energetic fencing sessions. (The Compte de Rienville, who had been a member of the French Olympic team, taught us some interesting and rather deadly moves with the rapier). Then all went outside and engaged in an epic snowball fight. It was, everyone agreed, good to be a kid again. That done, showers were had, and everyone dressed for dinner.

This gave me an opportunity to wear "the little black dress", an original obtained by my grandmother from Coco herself, and the Compte was duly impressed, as he bloody well should be. Music was provided by a somewhat eclectic trio of groups. Taking turns were Coldplay, Feist, and the Julliard String Quartet, and somehow it all worked. More guests arrived, including two Royals and, Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen. After which, things got a little fuzzy.

And where were my four brats? Well, this being the first time they had all been together in ages, I managed to rent a club in the city, and arranged to get a band that all four agreed on -- something to do with a condiment and jewellery. Pearl Jam, maybe. They invited God knows whom, and trooped off. My only worry was that word would spread, and that unwanted guests could cause problems. A few words in the tinted ear of the Police Chief, however, along with a hefty contribution to the Police Benevolent Society, and presto! -- first rate security. This would do wonders to ensure that the kids had a good and safe time. As Al Capone tells us, "A kind word sometimes gets things done. A kind word and a gun always gets things done."

Happy New Year to all.