The Sunset Conspiracy
A single copper lamp at the edge of the desk provided an orange glow and just enough light to see the phone. He noticed the curly energy-saving light bulb and laughed at the thought of energy conservation, considering the topic of the call. The meetings were always held at night. It seemed to be an odd pattern, since they were always by phone. There were no names, and he was sure the entangled web through which each of the callers joined the conversation ensured the numbers were untraceable. The accents varied, but English was always spoken. Not the English they spoke in Baton Rouge, but what he used to hear others call the Queen’s English. They were all representatives and not principals. Their principals could never be seen together; at least not the entire group. A few shared similar views of religion, politics and lived in the same “neighborhood”. Some were mortal enemies on the world stage. There was one thing they all had in common; one thing that had driven their success for the past century. For some, it brought them riches beyond their ancestors’ wildest imaginings. But, despite the wealth, many would have condemned the temptations and sins it enabled. To others, it was the source of their current and future wealth. To the world, it was the first step in a chain reaction that created the most prolific improvements in the quality of life the world had ever known. It had built the most powerful nation in the world and toppled others. But there was a threat. And they all had agreed it was time to deal with it.
“Have all the ‘friends’ been identified?”
He hated having to answer these questions from such people almost as much as he hated having to speak in code, but he knew computers could be listening and one key word, like target, could begin to unravel the group he and his boss had worked so hard to assemble.
“Yes. All of the friends have been identified. One will be given leave soon, and two others will join him within the week.” He waited for the next question, knowing it would come.
“Two! Why is it now two others? Have you not been truthful with us?”
He knew the last word was not spoken but implied:
Still, he continued with his report.
“The second friend has made contact with another. He has not conveyed the discovery, and the information is still contained. This new friend is under the control of one of our primary contributors, and we can assure you this will not be a problem. They both will be given leave by Sunday.”
Another caller with a different accent spoke. “I don’t need to remind you what is at stake here for you and your principal. We have alternatives, and there are other methods.”
Normally, he’d shrug off such threats. In Washington D.C. it was a way of life. But these threats were real. He’d seen the result both on television and in the confidential briefings passed on from his boss. The visuals were gruesome. Rather than just kill, these people understood the psychological aspect of threatening a painful death.
“I assure you all this is fully under our control and in a few days all three of our friends will be on their way. The threat will be eliminated, and we will all enjoy the benefit of such actions.”
Yet another voice with a similar but slightly different accent spoke.
“Your words are hollow until filled by your actions. You are far beyond the point of no return, and without success, your leave, and that of your boss, will be imminent. Make it so. Insha’Allah.”
“Insha’Allah,” echoed in several accents. The phone went silent.
“God willing,” he echoed with a smile as he turned off the speakerphone.
He shook his head as he reached across the desk, clicked off the lamp and looked at the lighted spire of the Washington Monument rising above the lights of the city. He knew God would have nothing to do with this, and if he believed in His existence, he would not be making the next call.
The Continental flight from Houston touched down in Rio precisely at 6 a.m. Nathan Robbins walked down the jet way and shook off the grogginess of an all-night flight. While he never slept well on planes, the anticipation of the trip to the newest offshore installation in Brazil’s Campos Basin made the lack of sleep tolerable. He reluctantly slipped his Blackberry from his pocket, pressed the power button, and the onslaught of emails from the last twelve hours began. As he walked toward the terminal, he divided his attention between the screen and his path ahead. His frustration mounted as message upon message popped up on the screen. While the job at Targon Energy had its perks, its global operations meant someone was always working. One message caused him to stop in the middle of the jet way and attract more than one look of disgust as the other passengers stepped around him. The message was from Jon Mayhue.
Nathan clicked on the message. It was dated Thursday at 8:02 p.m.
Hey Sport, Just left NYC. Will catch up with you at the FBO in the morning to catch a ride to the platform. Have something we need to discuss but can’t do it by email. See you in Rio. Jon
Nathan was wide awake now. Jonathan Mayhue, the executive Vice President for the company’s worldwide operations, had met Nathan at MIT, while Jon attended Sloan Business School to get his MBA, and Nathan was there on a scholarship in chemical engineering. Jon was the reason Nathan joined Targon ten years ago and was the primary force behind his quick rise to Assistant to Targon’s CEO and Chairman. And Jon only reserved such caution for the most serious matters.
He slipped the Blackberry back into his pocket and headed to baggage claim. After clearing customs, he spotted Fernando Renaldo, the head of Targon’s in-country security team, who greeted him with a wide smile.
“Mr. Robbins. It’s good to see you again my friend.”
Nathan loved the warmth and hospitality of the Brazilians.
“Hi Fernando. I trust everything is well with you.”
“That it is.”
Fernando motioned to two other men standing behind him. One took Nathan’s bag, while the other stepped in front and led them to a Mercedes waiting by the curb. The first man opened the back door of the Mercedes and directed Nathan inside. Fernando took the front passenger’s seat. Once in the back seat, Nathan recognized the thick glass of a heavily armored car and watched the two men enter a Land Rover parked in front of the Mercedes. Nathan was thankful for the precautions Fernando had taken, but the fact he needed protection at all was unnerving. The Mercedes sped down the highway and on to the boulevards of Rio that were lined with tropical palms and fauna. They turned onto Avinida Atlanica that ran along Copacabana on the way to Ipenema. The paved path along the beach was lined with joggers and people enjoying a morning stroll as they watched the breakers roll in off the Atlantic, past the towering volcanic domes jutting from the sea. The bright sunshine, the fresh ocean breeze, and the rhythmic sound of the surf reminded Nathan of his most relaxing vacations. It was a shame that simply because of his role at Targon, he might be a target in this beautiful place. It took only a few criminals to taint the entire population by ruling the kidnapping trade from the drug-infested favelas, to the point where even the police feared for their lives. The tourist on a bicycle who was shot just two blocks from his hotel on Ipanema for refusing to surrender her wallet and cell phone had learned that lesson the hard way. The kidnapping trade had advanced from the express kidnappers, who preyed on any opportunity to grab an unsuspecting victim at an ATM and hold them for 24 hours to hit their limit again before releasing them, to the highly-organized, well-planned kidnappings of the wealthy or those executives whose companies were thought to have deep pockets.
After a quick stop at the Caesar Park hotel in Ipanema to shower and change, they headed to the Fixed Base Operator where the twelve-passenger Sikorsky helicopter awaited the team headed offshore. Nathan sat in the back seat and scrolled through the morning’s news and updates on his Blackberry. He stopped the screen on the ticker that showed Targon’s share price at the close the day before: $122 a share. He glanced at the remaining list showing the competitors’ share prices and noted Targon had edged out another day of superior performance. The pressure was always on. The shareholders owned the company mostly through large institutional investors. These funds represented the portfolios of people who were putting in a hard day’s work to earn a good day’s wage and park a little in their 401Ks, hoping they’d have enough money to enjoy the golden years and not have to make choices between medicine or food. People from every walk of life, directly or indirectly, held shares in the best energy companies, and Nathan thought of them with every decision he made.
Fernando had taken his usual position in the front passenger’s seat of the car and carefully scanned the progress through the heavy traffic of the small security crew in the Land Rover in front of them.
“So, Nathan, how did we do yesterday?” he asked.
“Up 1.3%,” Nathan replied.
“A good day then. And what did crude do?”
Nathan scrolled to the bottom of the screen with the thumbwheel.
“One twenty-five and change.” Nathan smiled and winced as he spoke.
He hated that number. On one hand it meant that there would be more cash coming into Targon to fund the huge investments required to bring more production on to the market. But to the consuming public it represented a battle cry against the industry and its people; and Nathan took that personally. He knew the number was driven by the balance between the world’s supply and demand for oil. Demand had grown faster than supply. Supply was constrained by everything from the increasing difficulty and technological challenges of finding oil and natural gas, to government policies that restricted access. Misinformation from the politicians for political gain led to the public’s hatred of oil companies and their people. That hurt the most. Nathan grew up with the people who worked the oilfields. His father spent forty years welding in the oil and gas fields of Oklahoma. Everyone he knew worked long hard hours and transferred their families around the world, making great sacrifices because they loved the business. They knew that what they did was critical to the way of life people enjoyed every day. They weren’t profit mongers or enemies of the environment. And yet each day, Nathan read the stories and watched the news about how the oil companies were out to screw everybody. It had gotten to the point where he was almost ashamed to tell people who he worked for and what he did. But he always pushed those feelings aside and pressed on with the business of finding oil and gas; so the kids could get to school, their parents could get to work, and life would go on comfortably.
The car pulled into the lot of the FBO and Nathan and Fernando grabbed their blue duffels from the trunk. As they approached the front door, they were greeted by Paulo Rocha, country manager for Targon’s Brazil office. At six-foot-five, with a natural tan, salt and pepper hair, and relaxed gait, he reminded Nathan how good life could be here.
“Nathan, it’s good to see you again. I trust you had a safe trip in?”
“No problems at all.” Nathan extended his hand. “How’s the family, my friend?”
Paulo gripped Nathan’s hand, and patted him on the back.
“The kids are off at university and Adriana is still missing them. She’s learned to text message rather than call and that’s helping wonderfully.”
“Has Jon arrived yet?”
“He’s inside changing.” Paulo directed Nathan inside. “But we’ll need to get ready quickly. We’re scheduled to leave at 0730, and the swells are near the three meter limit for landing on the FPSO.”
Nathan felt his flight or fight response ramping up. Even with his engineering background, he always thought it was unnatural for a helicopter to have the ability to fly. And now the waves were rocking the converted oil tanker nearly enough to make landing unsafe. He stepped through the door and walked to the end of the hallway to check in for the flight.
The young flight coordinator for the FBO looked like a techno rocker from the 1980s.
The blue-eyed kid scanned the roster then looked up and smiled.
“Yes. Mr. Robbins. May I see your passport please.”
Nathan produced his passport. The coordinator scribbled a few notes and handed it back to Nathan.
“You’re good to go, sir.”
“How’s the weather?”
” Low clouds and limited visibility with some fog off the coast, but it’s clear at the FPSO. Just a few swells approaching three meters.”
Nathan glanced at the kid’s nametag. “Thanks Emerson,” and stepped into the changing room.
Nathan looked to his left and spotted Jon zipping up his blue coveralls. At six-foot-four with a solid build and good looks, he could have been intimidating. But his smile and genuine interest in others made him appealing instead. Nathan dropped his duffel and greeted him with a handshake.
“How was New York?” he asked.
“Well, it’s still there.”
“I see you kept the Wall Street analysts happy for another day or two. We were up 1.3%.”
“Sure, I’ll take credit for that!”
They both laughed.
Nathan thought of asking him about the cryptic email, but noticed the others around the room from the Brazil operations changing into their coveralls. They would not be able to talk on the flight either: the roar of the engines in the cabin made it impossible to speak without the aid of the headphones equipped with integrated microphones that were connected between all passengers. All twelve people on board could hear each other’s conversations.
Nathan leaned in a little closer to Jon. “Can we talk about your note somewhere on the FPSO?”
“Good idea.” Jon’s smile momentarily disappeared, then returned. He shifted his attention back to his boots.
Nathan had never seen that before. Something wasn’t right, and he could see it in Jon’s eyes. But now was not the time to discuss it. He stepped back to his locker, changed into his safety gear and followed the others into the next room for the safety briefing. The briefing took five minutes, and then the group walked to the blue and white Sikorsky 76. Nathan noticed the strong smell of jet fuel.
One by one they stepped into the chopper, belted in, and donned the headphones. Nathan sat in the forward seat, just behind the pilot on the left side of the aircraft. He figured being close to the pilot was good in case of a problem, and he liked the view from the front.
The engine roared to life quickly. It sounded like a jet engine until the pitch of the rotors was adjusted to lift off. Then the aircraft shook and wobbled and lifted into the air. Nathan was reminded that helicopters shouldn’t work, but he was glad this one did. Still, his stomach churned.
They were over the city quickly and crossed the long sandy beaches of Rio. Thick rolling swells foamed against the shoreline. About a mile from the shore, they turned north and paralleled the coastline. The volcanic monoliths jutting hundreds of feet out of the water were dwarfed by the vastness of the Atlantic. Waves foamed against the intruding rocks and then moved on to the sandy beaches where they crashed ashore. Soon the coastline disappeared in the fog, and Nathan saw nothing but the deep green water below.
He turned his mind to Jon’s email and the concern on Jon’s face at the FBO. Glancing at Jon two rows back, he saw that he looked preoccupied, staring off into the fog. It must be bad news, but why the secrecy? And why couldn’t they use the company email system? Was it so personal in nature he didn’t want the company to know? Or was it something about Targon, and Jon didn’t want to risk documenting his thoughts in an email where some plaintiff’s lawyer could scoop it up during discovery and twist it into a million dollar verdict?
“There she is, off to the right,” the pilot squawked over the intercom.
Nathan spotted the huge vessel. It was as long as three football fields, with a bright red hull, gray topsides with a white conning tower and stack. Targon’s name was proudly displayed on the stack in the deep green company color. These were large supertankers converted to floating processing facilities for oil and gas production for deepwater installations. The green heliport sat on the back of the tanker. The pilot deftly maneuvered the craft and softly touched down on the heliport. Taking a deep breath, Nathan pulled off the headphones and life jacket and followed Jon off the deck. Jon joked with two of the crew members as they walked down the metal stairway to the briefing quarters below.
After a short safety briefing about the vessel, Jon was handed a note. Nathan studied Jon’s face as he read. His trademark smile disappeared again. He looked up and nodded to Nathan. They followed the crew member to a small conference room where the young man demonstrated the use of the speakerphone on the table and then promptly left, closing the door behind him.
Jon threw the note on the table.
“It’s Penwell, your boss.”
Nathan grabbed the note. It simply said to call Penwell immediately. Lawrence Penwell was the CEO and Chairman of Targon Energy. His style was simple; he was old school. Intimidate everyone and see if they hold up. He was a brilliant business man, but that brilliance was dimmed by his arrogance. Nathan worked as Penwell’s chief of staff and gopher. Nathan liked the job for the experience, but described it to his friends as the best job and the worst job he ever had. He’d tell them it was like having a front row seat to the New York Philharmonic and the WWE WrestleMania at the same time. Jon also reported to Penwell, but as the second in command.
“I’ll dial in on the speaker, but don’t say a word,” Jon said as he began to dial. The phone rang and Penwell’s assistant quickly put him through to the boss.
Penwell started in right away. “Jon, Larry. Sorry to interrupt your little boondoggle.”
Jon looked a Nathan and shook his head in disgust.
“That’s okay, Larry. Something wrong?”
Penwell didn’t respond to Jon’s question. He barked out his orders, indicating there was no room—or time—for questions.
“I’m afraid I have to send you to Bogotá immediately. I was just informed of an irregularity in our Colombian operations and need you to assess the situation and report directly back to me. You’ll meet with a special investigator who will contact you at your hotel. Everything is confidential; we don’t want this out in the press. I can’t give you any more information over the phone.”
“Any briefing material I can get my hands on, boss?”
“I’ve had my assistant make all the arrangements for your trip. The special investigator will meet you at the hotel with the file. You’ll be briefed on this highly confidential matter upon your arrival.”
Jon looked at Nathan and rolled his eyes.
“Okay Larry, I’ll leave immediately and report back when I get there and figure this thing out, whatever it is.”
Nathan knew that was the right answer. Lawrence Penwell was used to hearing yes to his orders. His abrupt, intimidating style had served him well over his thirty years in the business. After all, it had taken him to the top, he’d proudly say.
“Good.” Penwell hung up. No niceties or even a goodbye.
“Shit!” Jon jammed his finger into the speakerphone and cut off the call.
“What an asshole!”
Nathan rarely heard Jon cuss. Penwell could do that even to Mother Teresa.
“What do you think it is? Is this what your note was about?”
“I have no idea what this is about. As for the note, it will have to wait till we meet back in Houston. The walls have ears here. Sorry, Sport, but I gotta go.”
Nathan’s shoulders sagged, but he tried to hide his disappointment. He followed Jon back to the briefing room, and Jon informed the pilots that they needed to fly him back to Rio. The company plane would be waiting at the airport. They agreed Nathan would stay with the tour and carry the flag for the company’s management.
Standing on the deck of the huge ship, Nathan watched as the helicopter raised and hovered for a moment, then turned and raced off into the distance. He saw nothing but the ocean as far as he could see. He thought of the vast unknown world under those waters and the denizens that called the deep their domain. He shivered in the cold as he watched the helicopter disappear in the distant fog. He was certain there was something terribly wrong.