Authors: Richard House
For my parents Roy & Pauline House,
my partner Nick Webster, and to the memory of John Pakosta
John Jacob Ford’s morning began at 3:03 with a call from Paul Geezler, Advisor to the Division Chief, Europe, for HOSCO International.
Listen. There’s a problem and it can’t be solved. You need to disappear.
Five hours before Geezler’s phone call, Kiprowski came to Ford’s cabin and presented him with a Mason jar. Stopped at his door, Ford listened without much interest – until Kiprowski tilted the jar and what Ford had taken to be a nest of beetles unsnagged one from another, and he could see without trouble that these were scorpions, some ruddy-black, some amber, some semi-translucent. Most, except one, with bodies smaller than a quarter. The largest scorpion, black, brittle, almost engineered, took up the entire width of the container from claw-tip to tail.
Unwilling to touch the jar, Ford managed not to recoil. He asked Kiprowski what he wanted and Kiprowski said he didn’t rightly know. He’d found them under a tarpaulin close to Burn Pit 5, and while they were dead he didn’t trust the other men not to use them for some kind of a joke, Pakosta especially, and he didn’t want them winding up in food, in cots, on seats, in pockets – and besides, he said, I thought you’d be interested. They look like toys, he said. Like clockwork toys. And they light up under blacklight. They fluoresce, honest to god. They glow.
Throughout the conversation Kiprowski called Ford
, a name still fresh to Ford’s ears. Strictly speaking
didn’t exist. Stephen Lawrence Sutler, the name Ford assumed on his arrival at Camp Liberty, was an alias, an invention set up by his employer, Paul Geezler, to satisfy company policy.
New contracts require new contractors
. Ford understood Sutler to be a useful conceit for Geezler, certainly something more valuable than a quick-fix solution to a sticky contractual arrangement. More useful and more complex than he wanted to know. On occasion Geezler asked for favours, ideas on this and that, news on what was happening at the burn pits or at the government offices.
His six weeks as Sutler were not without interest. While Sutler and Ford were one and the same person, he’d noticed a growing number of differences, most of them small. Sutler, for example, spoke his mind and honoured his word. Ford dissembled, avoided stating definite opinions. Sutler applied himself to his work. Ford just couldn’t focus. Sutler endured practical jokes, and given Kiprowski’s gift, appeared considerably less queasy about handling venomous insects. Ford was familiar with many small disappointments and failures, but Sutler had no such history and as a consequence felt competent and free.
Ford took the jar into his cabin but couldn’t bring himself to throw the contents out, and set it on the floor, far from the bed, shrouded with a T-shirt with a hardback book on top, although he knew the lid to be secure and the scorpions to be dead.
For an hour after Geezler’s call Ford sat on his cot while time slipped from him, head in hands as he attempted to reason through Geezler’s message.
Listen to me. There’s a problem and it can’t be solved. You need to disappear. Tomorrow, go to the regional government office as planned and submit the transfer requests as if everything is normal. I’ve set up four new operation accounts, and opened a junk account. Give the transfer requests and the account numbers for all of the accounts to Howell. Make sure he attaches the four operation accounts to the Massive, and make sure he completes all of the transactions by midday. Then leave. The money in the junk account is yours. Once it’s transferred no one but you can touch it. Do not inform Howell about your plans. Do not stay at Southern-CIPA. Do not return to Camp Liberty. If you return you will be arrested. Do not pack your belongings, you are being watched. Make no attempt to contact me. Disappear. Avoid military transport and personnel. The warrant will be issued for you and Howell at noon: I can’t guarantee more time. You have nine hours.
Geezler read the numbers out twice, and Ford scribbled them on a sheet of paper rested on his knee: each number eight digits long, four prefaced with HOS/OA, one with HOS/JA. Geezler had him repeat the numbers back to him.
Under these instructions lay an understanding that Ford would follow precisely what was asked of him. This was their agreement. Geezler guaranteed employment under two qualifications,
you go as Sutler; you leave when I say
, and the money, a tidy two hundred thousand, was good enough for him to agree to these terms without question. The warning of arrest alarmed him, although the possibility had occurred to him many times. Geezler’s instructions were clear. Proceed as normal. Leave by midday. Tell no one. Make no contact.
Ford kept his passport and credit cards (all under his own name) safe in a plastic bag in a slit cut into his mattress. He ran through the possibilities. He could do exactly as Geezler advised, meet with Howell then manufacture an excuse to leave before midday – or, simpler still, leave immediately, take one of the vehicles, fuel up, drive and not stop.
A series of scratches brought his attention back to the room. Tiny and complex, and without any particular location.
As soon as he lifted the T-shirt he could see movement inside the container as one by one the smaller ginger scorpions appeared to revive. With a certain horror he raised the glass to the light and noticed how the smaller scorpions struggled to burrow and hide under the larger bodies, and this seemed strange to him, how something naturally armoured would seek the security of cover.
Listen. There’s a problem and it can’t be solved. You need to disappear. You have nine hours.
20:30 at the regional government offices at Amrah City, the Deputy Administrator for Project Finance at Southern-CIPA, Paul Howell, walked through Accounts and told the last late workers to leave. Howell stood at the centre of the office and pointed at the computer screens and said there’s a deep-clean scheduled for tonight. Log out, and unplug the terminals. I know, he said, I know. I just heard myself. Tomorrow we’ll have an updated system, maybe even something that works. Tomorrow, when you come in, you’ll need to change your password.
Howell considered himself a smart and logical man, and he understood that if any of the officers paused to think through the situation it wouldn’t make sense. So he stood in the office, chivvied them along, and waited until the last of them were gone. This gesture would cause fresh trouble: a delay in payments to utility workers, a delay in payments to the Oil Ministry, a delay in reports to Baghdad. But in one day, he could be certain, none of this would be his problem.
He sent his officers back to their quarters, knowing there were no bars or facilities within the compound, no place to relax, and that a night off work meant a night without air-con and a night without computers. While most worked late through necessity, others stayed by choice to contact their families back in the US.
Alone, Howell returned to his desk. He shut the blinds, he took out a bottle of malt and poured himself a generous measure. He settled behind his desk, drew a note from his pocket, placed it beside the phone and considered his options – he could shoot himself, he could attempt to disappear, he could destroy the records, he could burn down the office – but knew, in seriousness, that he didn’t have that kind of character or commitment. Instead, he waited until the time written down on the paper, then called Paul Geezler, Advisor to the Division Chief, Europe, for HOSCO International.
‘I have your note.’ Howell spoke softly, as if this were an ordinary discussion. ‘There are rumours about who might be the new director. I’ve heard that David is interested?’
‘We need someone in post. He’s preparing his bid.’
‘You’d move with him?’
‘I haven’t decided.’
‘Everyone knows he depends on you.’
‘I haven’t decided.’ Geezler drew in a long breath. ‘We need to speak frankly, Paul. About the border highway. About the transfers. I found the requests – and I wouldn’t have questioned them – but the money never arrived. Out of interest, Paul, why Al-Muthanna?’
‘Because it’s desert. Because no one goes there. There was a onetime project when I arrived, building roads. The project finished two years ago. Right now it looks active, but it’s only live on paper.’
Geezler cleared his throat. ‘Just out of interest, how close was my estimate?’
‘A little low. It’s closer to five, five and a half.’
‘All from the same accounts?’
‘About eighty-five, ninety per cent.’
‘And all of it money allocated for HOSCO projects?’
Howell said yes, if anyone was going to build highways through a stretch of desert, it would be HOSCO. ‘We had money ready for disbursement to HOSCO accounts sitting without movement. The figures were small in proportion to the overall budget.’ These reasons, he knew, came only after the fact. He hadn’t deliberately meant to take money, not at first. What started as a modest one-off loan to cover a shortfall quickly became a habit, and once he figured out a ruse, building roads through deserts no one would use, he saw no reason to stop himself. Every day he handed backpacks, suitcases, briefcases, even brown-paper bags packed with cash to ministers, contractors, and project organizers, all of it a legitimate part of his work. Losing a little, allowing a little backward flow to smooth the edge off his own discomfort, seemed natural, easily within bounds.
‘How much of this is refundable?’
‘None. How did you find out?’
‘The transfer requests. Eventually, they’re all tracked. There was movement where there shouldn’t be movement. Road building is smart. I looked right at it and thought it was ours.’
‘How did you know it was me?’
‘This could only come from a government office. Only you can authorize transfers over ten. Only you can attach accounts to projects.’
Howell pushed the note away. ‘You should know, I can’t pay it back.’
Geezler allowed a long pause. ‘I’m not looking for you to pay anything back, Paul.’ Sounding weary, Geezler said he needed time to think. He’d call back in twenty minutes and make only one offer. Did Howell understand?
Howell said he understood.
‘This isn’t a negotiation, Paul.’
Twenty minutes later, Paul Geezler called back. In the interim, Howell had attempted to total his spending, but overshot Geezler’s estimate and came up with a new and larger figure. He apologized for taking up Geezler’s time.
‘I’m interested in the Massive, Paul.’
‘What do you need to know?’
‘I take it the funds are still in place?’
‘Something in the region of fifty-plus – but it’s barely started. The money hasn’t been transferred. The project hasn’t moved beyond paper yet. Nothing has been spent. I’m seeing the budget holder in the morning.’
‘That’s right. You know him?’
Once again Geezler cleared his throat. ‘Paul,’ he said, ‘have you heard the story about the gorilla and the basketball game?’
Howell said he hadn’t.
‘It’s all about a simple bluff. It’s from a test. A number of subjects are taken to a basketball game and asked to count the passes. An incentive is offered to sweeten the activity and make it competitive. Halfway through the game a man in a gorilla suit walks onto the court. There’s no explanation for this. He stops right in the middle of the court with the game going on around him, beats his chest, then he walks off. None of the players, none of the commentators, nobody in fact gives the gorilla any attention. Do you know how many of the people counting passes notice him?’
‘I can’t imagine.’
‘Less than fifty per cent, Paul. Less than fifty. And do you know how many people raise this in a discussion after the game? How many ask about the gorilla once everything’s settled?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘No one. Not one. Because they’re too busy trying to get something right. They’re anxious, Paul, they want to know if they’ve done everything they were supposed to. Because, if they can help it, nobody likes to get anything wrong.’
Howell struggled to see how the story applied to him.
‘We need to perform something a little different. We don’t want the auditors counting passes, we want them to look out for the gorilla. It’s very simple. If they look for one thing, if they focus on one task, they won’t see what matters. They won’t see things
. You understand?’ Geezler cleared his throat as he came to the point. ‘Does anyone else know about the highways?’
‘That’s how we’re going to keep it. Everyone is going to be looking for missing money, but no one is going to be looking at those highways. There’s no reason to. Now, Paul, I want you to do something very straightforward. Can you change the codes on those transfers you made? Can you make them look like cash payments?’