Higher Cause, Installment #2

Join the Laissez Faire Club and be among the first to grab a FREE copy of the complete e-book of Higher Cause, a serialized novel with timely sweeping themes, active free-thinking characters, conflicts affecting the world, spies, guns, explosions, new forms of energy, sinister conspiracies, government plots, nationalization, destruction, and hope.

Installments will be posted on Wednesdays.

To read the beginning, go to installment #1 (Prologue; Chapter 1: Impending Doom; Chapter 2: Two Brothers with Four Guns).

For a full list of chapters, see the table of contents.

In the previous installment, we found Fletcher Christian — the leader of the Bounty mutineers — caught in a raging sea in an open boat, reflecting on how he had engineered his historic mutiny in order to abide by his secret orders from the British Admiralty. In the modern day, the visionary Petur Bjarnasson has achieved his first financial success by convincing Joseph Onbacher — a very wealthy man — to invest a huge sum of money into his effort to avert a global calamity sufficiently dangerous to lead to a new Dark Ages.

Chapter 3. A Bleeding-Heart Libertarian

The flight to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport allowed Petur to catch up on sleep and avoid the otherwise inevitable jet lag. He awoke just prior to arrival, as the pleasant blonde KLM air hostess rested her hand lightly on his shoulder to urge him to place his seatback upright. His laptop computer was nestled in his briefcase, comfortably leaning against his foot under the seat ahead.

Thomas Standall was expecting him by the early evening at his hotel in downtown Amsterdam, which for convenience was where Isaac had made reservations for Petur.

Clearing customs was easy here. The fact that drug use was legal allowed for there to be little concern for illicit importation. In the airport, he walked up to a foreign exchange counter where he presented his credit card to get euros. He had no idea if it was a good rate. He assumed it was not. The currencies of the world were now racing to see which could be printed the fastest, although the average person didn’t realize this. The euro was in deep trouble, but so was the dollar. Students may be taught the superficial concept that currencies collapse when nations collapse. The reality is the reverse: nations collapse as a result of the erosion of their currency.

The train into central Amsterdam was to depart from beneath the airport terminal. Petur purchased a second-class ticket and walked down the stairs to the tracks below. So far everyone spoke English, which was convenient since he knew little Dutch. Petur was fluent in English, without a trace of accent, and passable in French. His native Icelandic was not understood anywhere except home, and he used it only when talking to his friends, parents, and sister.

He had only a few minutes to wait before a gradually increasing rumble declared the impending arrival of his train. It was a large yellow train with no windows on the front . He wondered how the engineer could see the station, and he without thinking took an additional step back on the platform. As the train stopped, doors hesitantly but automatically split apart to welcome the three nearest passengers. It was a typical commuter train, stark but with adequate legroom. Petur tossed his suitcase onto the overhead rack and tucked himself into a forward-facing seat by the window. Within two minutes a shrill whistle sounded and the train began moving down the track.

After a few moments of darkness, they entered the light and Petur had his first sight of the Netherlands. The train seemed to traverse a thickly settled suburban area, similar in appearance to the outskirts of many smaller European cities. He watched for a while, but the scenery changed little, and he began to reflect on the recent turn of events.

He had called Isaac from his hotel outside Washington in Crystal City the night before. After the sixth ring Petur’s excitement had begun to fade, for he thought that he would not be able to tell his friend the news of Joseph Onbacher’s support for their plan. Just as he was about to hang up, he heard a clatter as the receiver on the other end was lifted and dropped. Then came a familiar grunt as Isaac leaned out of bed to search for the fallen phone in the dark.

“This better be good!” Isaac muttered.

“Hey, look alive! I owe you one from my pleasant wake up call this morning.”

“Petur, hold on.” Petur heard rustling and assumed his friend was trying to sit upright. “How did it end up with Joseph Onbacher? Do you think he will go for it?”

“He already has — says he’ll invest four hundred million! Thanks for making it happen.”

“Damn, I didn’t think he was that wealthy.” He paused momentarily. “Congratulations, it looks like we’re on the road finally! Now we just have to come up with another six hundred million and we can actually start something!”

“And thanks for deflating me, pal,” replied Petur. “But you know what this means? It means that our special breed of financier actually exists. We just have to find more of them.”

Isaac sighed, and said, “Onbacher is a unique man. But his fear of what is coming is not unique. You will find more backers. You offer rational hope.”

“Maybe more than just hope.”

“Which brings me, indirectly, to another point. I’ve mentioned this before. It’s time again. We are going to need some sort of intelligence network.”

“You mean, beyond what you provide?”

Isaac replied, “Yes, way beyond. There will be companies and countries that will try to steal our work before we are ready to release it,, or may try to stop us outright from doing it. We need to be able to anticipate those events. We will need people dedicated to watching out for us.”

“What, a Secret Service, Isaac? James Bond?”

Isaac had picked up on Petur’s intonation. “However you wish to think of it. But yes, Petur. Something like that. Don’t get cocky, kid. You got one guy to invest. But he wants return. So does everyone else. They don’t want corporate spies stealing their gold, their money, or their cars either.”

Silence followed for a moment. It would have been an awkward silence, except the two men had long since moved past any form of awkwardness in their friendship. Maybe Isaac was right.

The train came to a gradual halt at a small station. A cool breeze coursed through the interior of the car as a few more people shuffled onto the train from the covered platform; he appreciated the contrast with the oppressive heat of that morning in Washington. It was clear as he analyzed the surrounding area that he was not yet near his destination, Centraal Station, which, as its name indicates, is centrally located in Amsterdam. A conductor entered at the far end of the car and shuffled down the middle corridor, stamping tickets as they were presented. When his turn came, Petur handed the official his ticket and was surprised when the man immediately spoke in English, declaring that Centraal Station was the fourth stop of the trip, perhaps 20 minutes away. Petur decided that he must be looking more and more American. He shrugged, and closed his eyes.

After a brief nap, he was awakened as the overhead speakers declared, in several languages, the arrival at Centraal Station. There was a short walk on the platform, and then a staircase led him down to a long broad corridor that coursed under a series of twenty-eight tracks. One thousand trains left this station daily on those tracks — the busiest train station in Europe. He came out to the front of the station, queued for a taxi, and arranged for a ride to his hotel near the Dam.

His hotel was a structure indistinguishable from the surrounding four story brick buildings that rested side-by side along a narrow street adjacent to a canal called the Princengracht. He paid the driver, who seemed surprised by Petur’s generous tip, and then he climbed the rather innocuous cement entrance stairs as a bellhop reached out to take his luggage. A friendly Asian woman greeted him in English at the front desk. He checked in and left a message for Thomas Standall.

After settling into his room, he luxuriated in a long hot shower, but he was interrupted by the harsh buzz of the telephone. Petur pulled the too-small bath towel around his waist, waded across a floor flooded with water because of the European disinclination to supply functional shower curtains, and moved quickly to the phone stand. His hair was dripping into the receiver as he answered. Standall was on the other end.

“Welcome to Amsterdam, Mr. Bjarnasson. When would you be able to meet?”

“I’m available anytime, since meeting with you is my purpose for coming here. I’m currently standing in my towel, so right this minute might be inopportune.”

Standall laughed. “Sorry about that. Take your time, settle in. It’s seven o’clock now, can you come ’round at about eight? I’m in room 418. Maybe we can get a casual supper.”

The idea of a casual supper at which he would present a request for hundreds of millions of dollars made Petur smile. In his experience, these meetings were held either in an office setting or during an elegant meal. This Standall fellow sounded surprisingly informal.

Petur toweled down and settled in to read a fax that Isaac had sent to him in DC. It was a brief summary of Standall’s career — Isaac was always able to get him some information about the potential financiers. He had never asked Isaac where he got it, and Isaac never volunteered that information. Isaac was not a normal professor. He had his tendrils in tightly with all his most powerful and useful former students. Petur was certain that Isaac leveraged those contacts well.

Standall was a doctor. Trained in the early 1990’s at Harvard, he practiced as a family physician for several years, but had become gradually distracted by research interests. He was a prolific publisher of medical research, but most of the articles were rather esoteric, at least from a layman’s perspective. He seemed to have a proclivity for obtaining private grant money and always had several projects underway. Although primarily involved in basic research, he also was fully aware of the potential business benefits of his inclination, and he had patented his ideas. He hit pay dirt about a decade earlier with a device that was now nearly a household item and used the income from that to pursue other medical devices. His innate business sense plus his experience and inside knowledge of medicine was a combination that served him well. He was the ultimate capitalist, and without doubt one of the most successful and affluent of his kind.

Isaac usually included an estimate of the prospective financier’s net worth, but this time that information was absent. Standall’s company, IntensiMed, was less than a decade old, but already boasted yearly revenues greater than three billion dollars. There was also a tremendous profit margin, probably the best in the industry. Standall was sole owner until twelve months earlier, when the company had announced an initial public offering. The hungry brokerages on Wall Street jumped all over it because IntensiMed actually produced real product that real people wanted to buy. The frantic young stockbrokers had clawed and scratched their way to get each available share. Despite the high initial valuation which the stock possessed, these eager marketeers still managed to obtain a substantial early return, as the stock price increased by two hundred percent within the first day. Then it was highly unstable in its pricing and had become one of the most watched stocks in the market, occupying spots on the evening business television channels daily. Poor timing and impatience had been very costly to many individuals and mutual funds, but those who were patient and stayed invested in the company seemed likely to obtain an excellent return over time, especially because the company’s market was worldwide and not dependent on the uncertainties of the whimsically regulated medical industry of the United States.

During the past year, Standall had been farming out his corporate responsibilities to several carefully picked and very experienced executives. It appeared he was trying to withdraw from the business world. Perhaps he was trying to retire.

Petur dressed in a pinstriped, cuffed, gray business suit, out of style but always a safe bet anyway. It was also the only suit he owned, and it fit very well. He picked up his briefcase, left the room, and headed down the narrow hallway to press the button that hailed the elevator. No staircase was visible nearby, which was irritating since the elevator was intolerably slow. It finally arrived. In impatience, he started through the doors as they parted and almost ran into a woman trying to exit. She was much shorter than Petur, her face not visible as she looked down and pushed her way past. As she walked away he could see she was a young brunette in a black mid-length skirt that fitted a perfect figure. About five feet five inches tall, she walked like a goddess, and as she did so she exuded sensuality and confidence. With that sort of grace and elegance, she could have been royalty, and Petur had to wonder if she was. She headed toward the back of the hotel. Then the elevator door closed and he saw no more of her. Although he had not seen her face, at least the image of the most perfectly honed calves he had ever seen was carved in his mind.

He took the elevator to the fourth floor, guessed which way to turn as he emerged, and searched for room 418. The hotel was not what an average American would call luxurious, but then it was not advertised as such. It seemed best described as “middle-class.” There was a fresh coat of ivory paint on the walls, which were already well-coated with dozens of layers. The carpet was simple, new, and clean. The brass lamp fixtures were plain.

Around a slight crook in the corridor he found the correct room, paused, took a deep breath, and knocked.

Standall was not a large man, but he had a large smile. He stood perhaps no taller than the young woman on the elevator. He looked significantly younger than his 48 years. In fact, he appeared to be in his twenties. Although his hair was graying, and crow’s feet lined his eyes, he nonetheless had a boyish face. He was trim and tan and his eyes gleamed as he welcomed Petur into his room.

“It is a great pleasure to meet you, Mr. Bjarnasson. I’m sorry to drag you all the way here — I hope you plan some vacation time also?”

Petur responded with some similar pleasantries and glanced around the room. Like his own, it was small, unimpressive, but clean. Petur noted with amusement that the bathroom floor was flooded. A suitcase rested at the edge of the bed, closed but not latched. One of the closets was cracked open and revealed several suits and an unzipped hanging bag. There was nothing about Standall that would indicate that he was an extremely wealthy entrepreneur. Petur’s inclination was to like this fellow.

Standall waved his hand around the room, indicating the lack of seating available, and said, “Any objection to doing some touring as we talk?”

The two men, dressed lightly, dropped off their keys at the front desk and headed out into the street. It was still daylight in the northern latitudes of Holland, although dusk was coming soon. A black BMW with a sign on top marked ‘taxi’ rushed by at high speed, and then the street was empty of traffic. Petur was watching the BMW disappear over a small hill as he stepped onto the narrow rough street. He turned to the unexpected sound of a ringing bell, and a bicycle swooped by, missing his toes by inches. Long blond hair trailed in the breeze behind the tall thin bicyclist who had almost knocked him down. Petur vowed never to rely on his ears to warn him of impending danger in this city full of bicycles.

Across from the hotel and parallel to the street ran the Princengracht, one of the larger canals in the city and an important part of the business district. The Princengracht was one of several concentric arc-shaped canals that encircled the man-made island on which Centraal Station was built. Other canals, like spokes of a wheel, served to connect the arcs and gave complete access to the city by water. Once used as a primary mode of transportation, commerce and sewage disposal, the canals now served a much more limited use as surprisingly long tour boats carried visitors through the city while multilingual university students recited historical facts.

Standall said, “Amsterdam is an easy city. You can walk the length of it in about an hour, or pick up canal taxis for reasonable fees. There are plenty of cafes and drinking establishments too.”

Petur added, “Which reminds me: I’m hungry.” They decided to walk around until they saw a nice place to snack. Neither one was aware of the two men who had slipped out of an alley by the hotel and followed them discretely.

“Why don’t you give me the scoop on your grand scheme, Mr. Bjarnasson? I’ve heard only minimal second-hand information, but it intrigued me — very much.”

Petur chose his words carefully. “I, with several others, have spent two years working out many of the details, and several possible routes which we could follow. A dozen of the top minds in the country, in a variety of fields, have donated their time and effort to make this dream into a reality. It is investment dollars and the directions of the investors that we require now.”

“So I understand. Tell me some details.”

Petur had his presentation loaded into his notebook computer in his briefcase, but walking down the narrow streets of Amsterdam limited its utility. He would present without his slides.

He began by discussing the same facts he had told Joseph Onbacher the previous evening. He did his best to convey this information with words, although it was much more compelling when expressed visually. “Most people who are paying attention to anything other than reality-television shows in the United States know that something is wrong with their country and with the world. They attribute this feeling of wrongness to a variety of political movements, greed, climate change, political corruption, loss of morality, or anything else that provides a simple box for their uncertain dismay. But the explanation for their dismay is more sinister, and more hidden. Over the last fifty years, a few brave economists and politicians have tried to get the word out, but it is so terribly difficult to comprehend without serious effort and education that their message is lost, or ignored out of laziness and lack of motivation. Most of the political leaders of the United States and Europe have little or no comprehension of the problem. They cannot get their head around it. Indeed, it is very hard for anybody to grasp.”

Standall nodded his head. “There is a similar problem with the health care system in the United States. We know it is wrong, but can’t see how or why.”

“That health care debacle in the US and Europe is actually a symptom of the wrongness that I speak of. The whole mess that is the world today can be made sense of with an understanding of the key problem.”

“And you have found the key problem?”

“Not I. Others found it. I simply recognized that they were right and came up with a solution previously not considered. I certainly performed my own root cause analysis for what is wrong in the world, and it lines up with what the few brave souls have been preaching about.”

Standall sat down on a bench and looked up at Petur, squinting his eyes. “I know you are going to say that the problem is with the world’s money. The money is diseased. That much I heard about. And by the fact that I am here with you, you know that I agree with you.”

“I’m preaching to the choir then,” responded Petur, nodding.

“Well, only if the choir doesn’t know the music. Look, Petur, I’m one of those people in America who knows something is very wrong. I am also one of those people who don’t understand central banking and money supply well. I have never put the time into it. And I don’t watch reality shows, so that can’t be my excuse. Only recently has central banking made the national stage as an issue, and then, still, it has been kept on the fringe. So, my ears are open. Teach.”

Petur sat down on a stonewall adjacent to the bench, next to but slightly behind Standall. He spoke gently, but not in a whisper, simply stating facts into the ear of the willing listener.

“Counterfeiting the currency of a nation has for all human history been considered a capital offense. Deserved of the death penalty. Why? Because counterfeiting so seriously destabilizes a nation. Debasing gold coins by mixing base metals into them like copper would get a man killed, rightfully, for fraud. Likewise, debasing silver with nickel and lead would trigger the same punishment. The Secret Service in the United States spent much of its effort protecting the US paper currency in the 1800’s, because that paper currency had to all be backed by gold and silver in the US Treasury. Printing fake paper currency was a huge concern to the United States, and to the people of America. Printing out fake dollars was often easier and cheaper for criminals than debasing gold or silver. It is one reason why gold and silver coins have more value than paper notes backed by the coins, often substantially more.

“Do you know what the dollar is, Thomas?”

Standall replied, “I think what I assume it to be is not likely to be correct.”

“I expect you are right. The word ‘dollar’ was derived from a mint in what is now Bohemia, in the Czech Republic. In the Middle Ages, there was a silver mint there, in the Joachimthal Valley. This mint developed a reputation for making excellent and trustworthy silver coins of exactly one ounce. Everyone throughout Europe preferred these coins from the Joachimthaler mint because they were well-forged and hallmarked. They were truly one ounce silver coins. Over time, these coins became known as Thalers. Then the term ‘thaler’ became a generic word for one ounce of silver. In turn the term ‘thaler’ became ‘daler’, and then ‘dollar’. A dollar in the beginning of the United States was also the equivalent of one ounce of silver. A dollar is supposed to be, still, one ounce of silver.”

Standall smiled thinly and offered, “But it’s not. Now a dollar is but a thin piece of paper. No silver backing.”

“Correct. It is a piece of paper. A piece of paper that the government is allowed to print as fast as it wants to, but that no one else can print. If you were to print such paper, the government would track you down and imprison you for counterfeiting.”

“And yet the government counterfeits everyday.”

“Everyday.”

“But people trust the US dollar anyway.”

Petur asked, “Do they?” He let the question answer itself.

Indeed, Standall responded only with silence. Petur looked over his shoulder at the canal which he would fall into if he leaned too far backward. Standall shifted his position to see Petur’s face and put his feet up on the slats of the iron and wooden bench.

“And coins, Dr. Standall, what about coins? Until 1965, the United States quarter was 90% silver. It was debased to only 40% silver through 1969, and since that year it has no silver at all. It is just base metals. The quarter is now counterfeit. Entirely. So are the dime, and the half dollar coin. The government tried to hide it, by reeding the fake quarters, and making them look the same.”

“Reeding?” Standall interrupted.

“Reeding is the grooves on the edges of the coins. They used to only reed coins that are made out of precious metals — Dollars, half-dollars, quarters, and dimes. Nickels and pennies are made out of base, cheap metal, and don’t have reeding. The Romans started reeding coins so people could not shave the edges off precious metal coins and make new coins out of the silver. It was their effort to prevent counterfeiting. I’ll get back to that too. In any event, the U.S. government has continued to put the reeding on the quarters and dimes, even though there has been no silver in them for more than 40 years. They were trying to fake people out. Make people think that these fake coins still had value.

“But people knew, of course. As the new fake coins were made, by that I mean counterfeited by the government in the USA, the people stopped spending the silver quarters, and hoarded them. In the mid-sixties, there was a severe shortage of quarters as a result. The government made a law that insisted that the new fake quarters be considered to be worth as much as the old silver quarters. But just because the government made the law that says so, doesn’t make it true. The new quarters had less silver, and then a few years later no silver at all. People knew. And they weren’t going to spend the good quarters for what they wanted to buy when they could pay with crappy new quarters. They hoarded the old coins. All those old silver quarters and dimes came out of circulation. You will never see one of them circulating now.”

“What is a silver quarter worth now?” asked Standall.

“It goes up and down with the demand for silver, but when silver is selling for thirty dollars an ounce, a quarter is worth about seven dollars.”

“So, a dollar, which used to mean one ounce of silver, is now worth about 1/30th of an ounce, and a quarter, which used to mean one quarter of an ounce, is now worth seven dollars.”

“That’s right. There’s nothing new about this process. The Roman government did the same thing despite their own honest reeding of their coins earlier in their history. During the early empire, in the first century AD, the Romans began a 200-year process of debasing their currency. The Roman government had to pay for wars, welfare, construction projects and the like, just like our country does. They taxed their people to get the money, but after a while, the people complained as taxes got too high. They started having a Roman version of the Boston Tea Party. So the Roman government started cheating. People caught on quickly if coins were clipped — shaved into smaller coins. So the Romans instead melted gold and silver coins and started adding cheap metal into the melt mixture, and then re-minting new coins, now debased. The government used the extra coins they were able to mint with the diluted precious metal to spend on their projects, wars, welfares and subsidies. In about 50 AD, a Roman denarius was a coin that was 94% silver. Within 200 years, the process of debasing had gone so far that a denarius only had 1% silver, and then none. During that time, the costs of goods soared over a million-fold in relation to the denarius. Inflation happened. It wasn’t really that the value of the goods were higher, but rather that the value of the denarius was lower, obviously.”

Standall nodded. “And at the end of those 200 years, with the currency completely debased, the Roman Empire collapsed.”

“Inevitably. It was a long and horrid decay. Such collapse is the certain end-result of counterfeiting of the currency. It always happens. Always, always, always. Such destabilization of the economy from counterfeiting is why governments have always been so harsh in punishing people who counterfeit.”

“Unless it is government itself doing the counterfeiting.”

“Right. Governments commonly excuse themselves from laws. The US government counterfeits the currency all the time, to pay for wars, projects, welfare checks, social security, medical expenses. They do it so they don’t incite a revolution against the higher taxes that would otherwise be needed to support the spending desires of the government. But the cost of this counterfeiting is the inevitable destruction of the economy, and in our case the destruction of America, Europe and most everywhere else.”

“And people don’t complain much about it,” inserted Standall.

“Nope. They don’t get it. The government and the Federal Reserve use confusing terminology like ‘quantitative easing’, and ‘discount rates’ and ‘fractional reserve banking’ and ‘required reserves’ to effectively hide the fact that they’re doing this.”

“Why don’t the bankers, who know about finance… well, stop this?”

Petur smiled, “Why would they? They are the principal beneficiaries of the counterfeiting! They created the central banks. They designed the Federal Reserve and the central banking system. They are often the first recipients of the inflated currency, and receive it while it still has full value. They profit from inflation.”

They talked for another hour. Standall’s eyes grew ever so slightly wider as the degree of the problem, the impossibility of contending with it, the inevitability of the loss of his entire fortune, and the nation itself in the very near future, was made increasingly clear. Petur’s knowledge of the issues was deep and certain, buttressed by years of study and complete comprehension of the bewildering issues. Through the whole conversation, the conviction in Petur’s eyes was firm, strong, unmistakable and convincing.

Standall asked, “Is there any country that is not doing this?”

Petur replied, “Every nation on the planet now relies on counterfeit currency. Some of them counterfeit slowly or not at all — and they are much more stable, but some rapidly expand their money supply — in other words, they inflate. The US government is massively inflating currently. But even those countries that aren’t inflating currently still have given themselves the power to do so: the ability to counterfeit is always there, because the currencies are all unbacked, unreal, without any real inherent value. All the currencies of the governments of the entire world can be created out of thin air as easily as pressing a button on a computer keyboard. The whole world’s system of currency, which is the central underpinning of every economy, is an utter and complete fraud. In the end, fraud collapses. This will assuredly devolve into tyranny, famine, and war as it has every time in the past. Even though these events have happened over and over, such knowledge does not prevent them from happening again. This time, though, it’s the whole world. And in the very near future. That is the future of our children, Dr. Standall.”

“And this utterly fraudulent cheat, central to society and the economy but dark and hidden in its own confusing veneer of financial sophistication, is why people sense something is wrong, but cannot put their finger on what it is?”

“Certainly.”

Almost in exhaustion, Standall said, “Is there nowhere on Earth that we can go to avoid this?”

Petur smiled. “Not yet. But there can be.”

Both men stood up and began slowly walking, in no particular direction. As they walked, Petur began detailing his vision of the future with the confidence of one who has thought through every predictable detail — which he had. The two men became so enthralled in their conversation that despite their hunger, they walked past several adequate restaurants, without paying them any heed. Petur suddenly realized that they were lost. In the dimming light, he looked around him, his eyes passing, but not noting, two men with dark complexions and black wavy hair, following a block behind.

Standall was asking, “And the investors? What of them? You can expect them to want money back for what they’ve provided.”

Petur slowed his pace, a little distracted. “Certainly, why not? Those who invest will be taking an enormous risk. These investors will have the foresight. They will have invested the time and energy to prepare. If successful, they will benefit. You will benefit. But that’s not the main reason why investors will choose to participate. The main reason is that they will see that there is no other choice. We will pay our investors back in the stock of human survival and human progress, and, someday, with real money.” He switched his heavy lap top case from one hand to the other.

“An interesting notion.” Standall said, calmly. “But you can’t just flood money into a system indefinitely, regardless of the form of the reward. The space shuttle program has cost multiple billions, yet only takes us two hundred miles above the planet — hardly out of our atmosphere. What is the core difference in your philosophy that will allow you to accomplish such great and grand goals as you propose?”

This was a standard question, and the biggest part of the financial gamble.

“Because there will be no initiation of force or fraud in our system. All money invested in any project will be freely invested. No coercion, no taxation. The risks will be borne entirely by, and benefits accrue to, those who invest in and work on a project.”

They were walking past a little restaurant that advertised itself as a pancake bakery. It was set down below street level, and the smells emanating from it distracted Petur even from the impassioned discourse. He caught Standall’s eye, and without a word, they headed down the five steps into the restaurant. Two men followed them inside several minutes later.

It was not as dark inside as it had appeared from the street, but it was a simple place. Wooden tables lined the walls on either side, leading back to the kitchen in the rear. Tucked in the back corner were a few shorter tables, surrounded by infants’ high chairs. The cement floor in that area was littered with toys, and, intriguingly, sand. Two toddlers were playing in the sand, while their harried parents enjoyed an evening snack.

Otherwise, the place was nearly empty. At one of the front tables facing the windows leading to the street above was an older gentleman with a gray mustache who greatly resembled an American television actor. In fact, thought Petur, he indeed was that television actor, although he could not come up with his name.

Petur and Isaac settled down at a table near the actor, and perused the menu. There were two pages filled with more than fifty methods of topping pancakes. There were meats, vegetables, candies, sugars, and chocolates, alongside the familiar fruits and syrup options. It was the perfect restaurant for Petur, and it seemed to please Standall too.

Standall repeated an earlier question, one that Petur had not yet completely answered. “How do you presume to accomplish such a task?

“I believe that it is primarily a matter of sheer drive, combined with foresight, and most importantly, focus. Focus is the key. We only recruit people who can recognize the urgency. And who have the skills and knowledge that may be useful for any given project. To obtain funding, the researchers will have to convince the investors of their worth, and of the worth of their proposal. The scientists won’t be funded by a committee that distributes money collected by taxation, but rather will need to use persuasion to convince thoughtful investors voluntarily risking their own money. The successful people who create value will be treated as heroes. It’s what they deserve, after all. They are certainly much more heroic than movie stars or professional athletes.” Petur had said that a bit too loudly, and the actor nearby turned his mouth slightly downward at the edges in silent protest.

Standall nodded fervently. “Too bad most people don’t see how much more the scientists can provide than the athletes in the form of wealth and happiness and health.”

“The people who will be working on the project shall be unhindered, unfettered by outside influences. It will be just a group of people dedicated to the intense challenges. Many will be radicals. Out-of-the-box thinkers. We will rely for the big leaps forward on people who are not in the mainstream, who don’t think like the average scientist, or even like the average top scientist. Special. We need special. At least that is my bias. However, it is the investors who will make those determinations, primarily.”

Standall asked, “Who will make the decisions for this group as a whole?”

“This is important: I don’t like to think of them as a group. They are individuals, and will be making their own decisions, individually. Each individual will choose what project they will commit themselves to, and that will be determined by how much they believe the project will be successful and profitable. To the extent that there are common resources — which, by the way, will be kept to a highly constrained and very bare minimum, relevant decisions will be made by consensus voting, but only as long as the group is small and focused. Democracy often ends in calamity, so there will be elected members who will serve the purpose of daily administration, and also make emergent decisions. There will be constant electronic information and debate available via a computer network, and it will be the responsibility of each member to participate in this communication, and then vote on proposals. To vote on an issue, each person will have to prove they are knowledgeable about it. It will be a small enough group that a representative structure will play a smaller role initially, but over time the powers of the democracy will be transferred to the representatives as the number or people involved increases.”

“How about secrecy? You will be sacrificing secrecy in this form of government. Your thoughts and successes will be available to the world.”

“We won’t be a true democracy, thank God, but you are right, information will be freely distributed among the people involved, for the most part. Isaac Bonhoff has been worried about the secrecy issue also. He thinks we need some secret agents, some spies, some counterespionage team to protect us. But I think differently. Details of our successes and advancements may well leak out to the general public, industries, governments. But remember, the projects have to succeed in the market process, small as it is, that will be present on the Island. If secrecy hinders profit, then the methods of maintaining secrecy will be developed spontaneously.”

Standall had learned quite a bit from the racquetball player who had told him about Petur, and revealed some more of that knowledge now. “Yes, an island. I had heard that you plan to do this all on an island. Why?”

“We need to be above and outside of any sovereign nation. No external influences, avoiding the whims of current political tides. In order for the maximum value to be created from this proposal, and no less than maximum is enough by the way, we need to not suffer from irrelevant regulations and bureaucratic hurdles that provide no value but suck energy and strength out of people and projects and funding. Most importantly, we need to not be controllable by the powers of the central banks. We need to be an island in geographical, political, economic and cultural contexts.”

Petur spent the next ten minutes detailing more specifics of his plan. Standall continued to interrupt from time to time, with important questions to which Petur always had the answer. The waitress was approaching with a tray of food for them.

“You need a tremendous amount of capital, I imagine. Do you think you can obtain the requisite financing?” Standall queried.

Petur was pensive for a moment, then replied, “Perhaps there’s a better person here to ask,” He looked into Standall’s eyes. “Do you think I can?”

Their waitress placed their pancakes on the table. It was a large spread of delicious, fattening treats. Petur ignored it, as he looked directly at Standall.

Standall was smiling, a grim pained smile, but with an element of hope. He was looking down at the table, but not at his plate. “Yes, perhaps I do, Mr. Bjarnasson.”

The two men then settled down to devour their chocolate and whipped cream covered pancakes. Petur was ecstatic, for prior to this last twenty-four hours, he, himself, would have said ‘no’ to that exact question.

They ate in silence. Both men were thinking intently — Petur greatly worried about never producing anything despite all the effort, past and future, while Standall, knowing he had nothing better to do with all his money — soon to disappear otherwise anyhow — was considering how much fun he might have working on such a project, while wishing he had more whipped cream. They both cleaned their plates. After paying the waitress with thin strips of counterfeit currency printed insidiously by the European central bank, they climbed the short flight of stairs into the now dim light of the evening. Turning back toward the hotel, they walked in silence.

There was a loud clatter to their left, the sound of metal striking metal. Both men stopped at the startling noise and peered into the darkened alley that cut narrowly between two tall, but narrow, blocks of houses. Something had moved back there, near a trashcan. A stray cat perhaps, looking for a meal. While stopped, Petur heard the shuffling of feet not far behind, and took a quick glance over his shoulder. He saw two men, both with dark hair and inadequately shaved faces. They stopped in their tracks when Petur turned to look.

The characters behind him he had seen in the restaurant. They had been drinking coffee, and had ordered nothing else. There was an immediate sick feeling in his stomach. The hairs on his neck stood upright. He could hear his heart beating excitedly and feel the blood rushing in his head. He started walking again, grasping Standall’s elbow and propelling him forward.

They were not far from the red-light district, a less-than-desirable neighborhood of Amsterdam. The street was poorly lighted, narrow, and relatively untraveled. There was nobody in sight, and the place was filled only with shadows. A boat moved down the canal to their right, but it was already out of earshot.

“I think we have company,” he whispered. “Don’t look back.”

Standall appeared concerned. He quickened his pace so as to get off this darkened street and onto a more well-lit avenue. Both men then heard the footsteps behind growing louder and faster. They looked back to see the two men running towards them, long trench coats flapping open behind. Neither Standall or Petur was much of an athlete, and their brief effort at flight met with no success. The two men were on them immediately. Petur was grabbed by his back collar and spun around into a wall, smashing his head solidly into the red brick. He held on to his laptop computer case, even as it crashed onto the ragged pavement.

Standall had been tripped and thrown into some sickly shrubbery that lay next to a short staircase leading up to the entrance of a darkened building. The man who had tackled Standall followed his initial assault by kicking the doctor in his chest as he tried to pull himself out of the shrubbery. Standall swore loudly.

The other man, scruffier by half while taller by a head, spit sticky saliva through brown teeth and spoke in a deeply accented English. “Your briefcase!” He was crouching directly over Petur’s face, his hand clenched in a fist. The threat was obvious.

Petur tried to sit upright, but the weight of the man’s knee pushing into his chest halted his effort. He wiped the back of his free hand across his sweaty forehead to find that the sweat he felt was actually blood, dripping from a gash in his scalp. The man above him was looking nervously up and down the street, assuring that they were still alone. He reached into the pocket of his coat and produced a dark gun with a long smooth round barrel. It was a .22 caliber Ruger MKII, modified with the elongated barrel of a suppressor — the classic assasin’s weapon. The man’s breath was putrid and corrupted with stale cigarettes. With his free hand, the man tried to pry the computer case free of Petur’s grip.

The gun moved closer to Petur’s head. He had never been so close to a gun before, and yet he felt none of the anticipated terror. A voice shouted in the distance. A woman’s voice, but threatening nonetheless. The barrel of the pistol touched his forehead. It was not a cold steel, but rather warm.

Peter reluctantly released his briefcase. The man took it, said something to his partner in an unrecognized language, and the two attackers ran down into the dark. A woman in a black suit ran past in the dark moments later, either pursuing or attempting to join the attackers.

Petur helped Standall to his feet, and both men looked around the scene. Petur’s heart was beating so fast and hard that his pulses sounded in his ears like water pouring over Niagara Falls. Their two attackers had disappeared, along with Petur’s laptop. They had not taken the wallet of either man.

Wishing to get into a public area as fast as possible, Standall and Petur hustled down the street to the lighted avenue ahead, neither looking back.

Chapter 4. Mysterious Wealth

A bowl of oranges sat in the center of the heavy wooden table. The oldest man in the group counted them with his eyes. Seven. There used to be nine. Now only seven. When he died, there would be only six. The six lines that were left.

The leader had called this meeting emergently. These meetings used to be held but once a year, and served only to remind the men of the importance of their families’ responsibility. Handed down through the generations, the significance and meaning would have become lost but for those annual ceremonies. His father, and his father’s father, had been in the ceremonies. The same ceremonies.

Now there was less need for ceremonies. These meetings had of late been occurring monthly, sometimes more often. The old man looked around the room at the others. Five men, ranging in age from thirty to seventy-five, sat there. They chatted amiably amongst themselves about the weather, their wives, their children and grandchildren. They were good people, most of them. The oldest man hoped that they could remain good.

The howling wind announced the arrival of the leader, as it rushed through the door ahead of him. It was a wet, cold, and miserable day, as it so often was here. The old man shook his head.

The leader was taller and leaner than all the others. He carried the authority to make the final decisions when the group could not. He removed his parka, placing it on a hook on the wall, and approached the table. Pleasantries were exchanged only briefly before the leader got to business.

He looked first at the old man, then the others, before announcing simply, “Petur Bjarnasson has met with Onbacher.”

While the others sat in shocked silence, the youngest man jerked straight upright in his seat, and shouted, “How on earth could that be?”

The leader said nothing but shook his head solemnly.

The old man decided he was next to speak. “This is an unexpected occurrence. And obviously raises an unprecedented problem for our group. First, let us have the details. When and how did they meet?”

“At Onbacher’s house in Alexandria. Yesterday. Bonhoff made the initial contact. Our men followed Bjarnasson from San Diego, right up to Onbacher’s doorstep.”

“What was said?” another man asked.

“We have no idea.”

“What do you mean, we have no idea?”

A deep voice from the end of the table interrupted, “We should have planted listening devices long ago.”

The old man spoke up. “We have always been able to get what we need from the obsessive notes on Bjarnasson’s computer. And Onbacher has been quiet for over a decade. We can’t watch everybody all the time. In fact, I had been considering suggesting we stop monitoring Bjarnasson so closely. It hasn’t looked like he was going to succeed.”

The leader smiled, faintly. “I am glad we have continued monitoring him. He seems to be quite active. Bjarnasson’s in Amsterdam now.”

“What’s there?” the big man asked.

“We aren’t sure yet.”

“Are our men with him?”

“Yes,” the leader nodded.

“And?”

“And a meeting occurred. With a man named Thomas Standall. He’s another very wealthy man who lives in Boston. We know little about what transpired in this meeting.

“Why do we know little? Read Bjarnasson’s notes, as usual! There can be no delay here. We all know how important it is to know, now, what is going on! How else can we intercede safely?”‘

“He has not connected to the Internet at all, so we have not been able to hack into his notes. Our men, however, acquired his laptop computer. But it was before Bjarnasson had made notes on his meeting with Standall.”

“What happened with Onbacher, then?”

“According to Bjarnasson’s notes, trouble. Lots of trouble.”

The old man rubbed at his face. “We have to prepare for the worst. This is a terribly unfortunate occurrence. Of all people to first fund Bjarnasson!”

The leader nodded. “And once the ball starts rolling, it will not be stopped easily.”

“We have known about them both for years,” interjected one. “Does the fact that they have met burden us more?”

There was a chorus of concerned replies, with the leader summarizing. “We have feared accidental discovery if Bjarnasson ever succeeded in his quest. Discovery by Onbacher would not be accidental, but has been considered unlikely. However, with the two together, Onbacher will increase the pace that Bjarnasson’s accidental discovery might occur. And, there will be no chance of it being overlooked. The two together are much more concerning than the two individually.”

The big man at the end of the table asked, “The Mexican plans. Are we still inserted there adequately?”

Another nod. “Sleeping. Shall we activate? It will take time, of course.”

The young man said angrily, “Why don’t we just kill Bjarnasson and Onbacher? Let’s do it now. End this.”

The old man frowned, and replied somberly and simply. “Because that is not what we do. No, let’s activate Mexico.”

Join the Club

Petur was on another airplane, his third flight in as many days. He reached up and felt at his hairline. Dr. Standall had put some superglue on his cut to hold the skin together. It was billed as working better than sutures. Petur hoped it would, or else the scar could be ugly.

Much of the rest of the prior evening had been tied up with the Amsterdam police. Petur had tried to provide a description of the two muggers, but he had never been good with faces, and this was no exception. They appeared to be of Mediterranean heritage: Italian, Spanish, maybe Arabic. The effort had been futile. The attackers were unknown. There would be no answers forthcoming this day.

Petur and Standall had become so numb to the events of the evening that they quickly stopped talking about it between themselves. Instead, amidst police examinations, Standall had asked Petur for more details of his substantial undertaking. After hearing the plan in full, he had been enthusiastic.

“You have made it clear that I will be making the major decisions as to where my money will be focused.” Standall stated, “I do have one other wish. It’s simple. You will need a doctor for your project, will you not? I would like to be that doctor. Will you allow me to submit an application for the post?”

Petur had been initially surprised, then pleased. Standall had gone on to explain his desire. “On my deathbed,” he had said, “I not only wish to look back and be proud of what I did during my life — I also want to have accomplished all my goals. One of these goals was to be a player in man’s advancement. By supporting the fraudulent system, however, I have accidently, naively contributed to a process that will be the whole world’s undoing. A new dark age. My money can help compensate for my errors, now that you have come along. But I would really like to be a part of it, to be a member of the team. I have done medicine, and done it well, and can continue to pursue it. I would very much like to pursue it with you.”

Petur had been unable to answer right away. He had not given this proposal any advance consideration. The concept had not occurred to him. Yes, he had needed a physician for the island, and a family practitioner would fill the billet well, but he had not yet begun to search. If Standall was as good as his record suggested, he might be an extraordinary asset. The trip to Amsterdam could be doubly successful.

Actually, ‘triply successful’ would be a more appropriate phrasing. For Standall was about to introduce him to another potential financier.

After the long night with the police, Standall had flown out of Amsterdam, but Petur could not get a ticket. He was therefore forced to enjoy this wonderful city for another twenty-four hours. He took in the Rijksmuseum with its impressive collection of Rembrandt and Vermeer. He visited the Anne Frank Huis, with its attached museum recording the legacy of pain and horror during Hitler’s reign of terror, a reminder of just how horrible tyrannical national socialism was. He had a boat tour with a polylingual college student as his guide. All in all a valuable twenty-four hours. The only disappointment was that he never ran into the brunette woman from the elevator, despite spending an excessive amount of time lounging in the hotel’s lobby, suffering from excruciating curiosity in an unmet desire to see what her face looked like.

So now he was on a plane, on his way to Frankfurt. His final destination was Mannheim, on the banks of the Rhine, the industrial center of Germany. It was hardly a high spot for vacation travel — but then, this was business. And Mannheim was a great place for business.

Standall also would be there. He had suggested Petur come and present his case to a man named Otto Wagner, who was the chairman of the board of the largest chemical manufacturer in the world. Petur was definitely playing in the big league now. Isaac had been his usual competent self, supplying the standard dossier that provided a summation of the man’s life and career, all loaded onto a new computer. All of the available information indicated that he was a man of high moral caliber — all his business dealings were ethically conducted, and he had an underlying concern for the well being of the employees of his company, to whom he was dedicated. He was very clearly a first class businessman, and seemed genuinely respected by his peers.

The plane landed in Frankfurt — a busy and expansive airport. Jetliners from dozens of nations lined the concourse of the terminal, competing to be the most colorfully painted. Petur, with very broken German, determined that his best transportation to Mannheim would be rail, and there was a station in the next terminal.

He could not understand the instructions that the man had given him at the ticket counter, despite the struggling attempt at English, so he boarded the next train with trepidation. It was correct, fortunately, and it took him northward to the central train nexus in Frankfurt, the Frankfurt Main Hauptbanhauf, where he transferred to a southbound train that in turn carried him on an hour-long trip to Mannheim. The heart of the Rhineland was nothing like he expected. He had imagined that the industrial center of Germany would appear appropriately dirty, run-down and polluted, with smog-filled skies. Instead, as the train entered the city on this midsummer afternoon, he noted that it was clean and hospitable, with pleasant suburbs scattered amongst rolling hills. There was little evidence that base industry was hard at work throughout the city, providing materials that allowed the German economy to persist in its generally upward climb while much of the rest of Europe teetered.

Petur checked into the same hotel as Standall again. He was entirely surprised when he saw the brunette from the elevator in Amsterdam step up to the far end of the inordinately long lobby desk. She had just been swimming in the hotel pool. There was a white towel wrapped tightly about her, and water dripped down her leg, forming a small puddle on the marble floor. Her dark hair was plastered to her head; her face was turned away from Petur, but her posture and curves were unmistakable.

She spoke German to the desk attendant, received her room key, and turned further away from Petur and toward the elevators. With her back to him, Petur took the opportunity to admire those same fabulous legs he had noted before. Even without the effect of high heels, her calves were still exquisitely carved. He was captivated.

She slipped into the elevator, seemingly never having noticed Petur.

Petur’s heart was beating a little harder than it should. Pheromones, he thought. A furrow crossed his brow as he wondered why she was here. Was it just coincidence? No. Assuredly she was working for or traveling with Standall. His personal secretary, perhaps? Standall was wealthy and unmarried — it would not be unnatural to have a traveling companion. Likely that was it. In any event, there was probably some kind of romantic interest there, and his own chances were therefore nonexistent. Petur would consider nothing which might interfere with the great progress he had made in the last few days, and entertaining the notion of romantically approaching a rich investor’s girlfriend would no doubt qualify as insanity.

He had settled in his hotel room, planning on a quiet evening of reading when the phone rang. It was an irritating sing-song beeping that he now knew was the standard ring in Germany and it was entirely unpleasant. Petur grabbed for the receiver to quiet the noise.

“Petur. Glad you made it!” It was Standall.

“Yes, it was an easy day. Nobody tried to mug me. Are you having a productive time?”

“Well it’s not what my stockholders would call a productive time, if that’s what you mean. But it was a lot more fun! I spent the whole day with Otto, but we never talked about the purpose of the visit. During the mandatory exchange of initial pleasantries, I mentioned you and your plan and the conversation never deviated from that theme. He is eager to meet you. I think you will have another financier by tomorrow!”

Petur was actually beginning to feel confident now. Before these last four days, he had failed to obtain any support other than the money Isaac had provided, but now he seemed to have a deluge of investors.

“That’s great. I hope you’re right!” exclaimed Petur. “Thanks for giving him the pep talk.”

Standall chuckled on the other end of the phone. “It was hardly a pep talk. We spent the entire day discussing potential pitfalls, advances, political, cultural, social issues. You name it, we probably talked about it. Couldn’t figure out who was going to clean up the garbage on the island, though. If everyone’s a scientist…”

“Not everyone will be a scientist. The primary ideal of my planning has been to not plan, but to let the systems evolve freely within a framework that encourages success; but we have to get enough money first to see if it can actually be done. The first agenda item is to get the funding.”

Standall concurred and the two men decided to meet for breakfast the next morning to discuss tactics to get Otto on board. Standall seemed to be much more than just a financier, Petur thought. He was diving in with both feet, and was acting more like a partner.

Before hanging up, Standall added one cryptic comment. “Otto is a bit of an imposing figure, Petur.”

The remainder of the evening Petur spent pursuing his favorite pastime: reading. He read just about anything. Political, medical, legal, scientific, social theory, economics, business and history. One can never know enough history. Written history contained all available knowledge of humanity’s societal being. Ignoring man’s history was as counterproductive as deciding to pay no heed to the lessons one learned in childhood. Recent history confirmed that mankind’s historical lessons needed to be repeated every generation. Petur delved into a treatise on governmental structures.

The morning arrived with the disruptive bleating of the German telephone’s automated wake-up call. Petur groaned as he lifted the receiver a centimeter above the cradle, then dropped it back in place, silencing the infernal device. He had rarely disembarked from a warm bed without a fight, and today was no exception. As always, he had planned to squeeze a few more minutes of slumber out of the clock, and drifted back to sleep, secure in the knowledge that his watch alarm would announce when the time to arise truly approached.

In the early morning hours, one can cycle through sleep sequences rapidly. In the ten minutes between the telephone’s attempt and the watch’s success, Petur dreamed that he was climbing down a ladder inside a long shining cylinder. Visible far above was a small circle of light — below was only darkness. He was aware of a fine mist throughout, and the smell of salt. There was no noise but for the clink, clink, clink of his shoes on the metal rungs of the ladder. He continued downward. After a moment, he realized he could no longer hear the sound of his shoes on the rungs. Above him, the light was no longer visible, replaced with a deluge of steaming frothy water dropping toward him. The roar of the water became deafening. There was no way out. Panic overpowered reason and even emotion as the tumultuous flood crashed down upon him, the pressure of the water forcing the air from his lungs. The power was overwhelming, ripping him off the ladder and racing him toward the darkness below.

The sound of the watch alarm rescued him from his nightmare. He was drenched — not with water but with perspiration. He wiped the sweat off his forehead and realized all was well. Taking three deep breaths, he launched himself off the mattress, staggering toward the shower. He would need to present a very respectable impression to Otto Wagner, not the image that reflected back at him from the mirror. He was terribly disheveled — unshaven, with unruly light brown hair. His eyes were bloodshot. He had not even been drinking. Fortunately, the power of a long warm shower could overcome most adversities, but not the purple bruise that surrounded the gash at the top of his forehead.

Breakfast with Standall was pleasant but shed no light on his enigmatic description of Wagner the previous evening: “You will see,” was all that Standall said about the matter.

Standall had rented a little Fiat from an economy rental car company, again belying his impressive wealth. The two men climbed into the subcompact. Petur’s tall body fit surprisingly well once the seat was moved all the way back. He peered into the rear seat, pleased that no one else was planning on riding with them. Even Standall’s short female friend wouldn’t have been able to slip her amazing legs into that narrow gap behind Petur’s seat. Petur was about to ask about her, but Standall spoke first and began a dissertation about the history of the city.

Standall drove the car expertly through the complex highway structure around Mannheim, working his way to the eastern periphery. Evidence gradually revealed that this was indeed an industrial center. Enormous chemical storage tanks began to dot the landscape, connected by sinewy pipelines that wove through buildings, over hills, and under the roadways. They were all kept immaculate, sparkling, and, unlike the grotesque chemical plants of New Jersey, they seemed to fit well in their surroundings — a counterpoint to nature. All seemed appropriate.

Standall kept talking, and drove past the industrial areas and eastward toward Heidelberg. He pointed to his left. A castle sat prominently on top of a hill several kilometers to the north. Petur could imagine its importance in the Middle Ages, as it looked out over the surrounding lands and guarded the people from barbarian invasions. Standall raised his eyebrows, indicating that the castle was their destination.

They reached the approach to the castle almost twenty minutes later. The castle jutted out from the hillside high above them, stone and masonry walls obstructing the view of the structures inside. The castle had indeed been a fortress, serving its purpose well through the centuries, and it could still be considered a fortress today. The little car reached the sole entrance, well guarded and heavily gated, and it was greeted by a stern man in a gray uniform. The man recognized Standall. He turned into a small guardhouse from which he called the main residence, received approval, and waved them through.

The narrow drive up to the main house was frightfully steep, and the inadequate engine of the little car moaned under the strain. To the right, the car was almost grazing the tall outer wall of the fortress. To the left was a sharp drop to a forested area below. As they neared the top of the hill, the view of the valley was suddenly revealed, the early morning sun reflecting off the Rhine and cascading over the surrounding agricultural area. A faint mist lifted lazily off the river and caught the sun’s rays. The expanse of bright green fields was littered with quaint German villages, interspersed throughout the valley. The edge of the chemical-industrial area in eastern Mannheim just could be seen to the west — brilliant flashes of sunlight reflecting off the polished metal sides of the chemical storage tanks.

Beyond a sharp curve to the right the road suddenly flattened, and the racing engine, less hindered by the force of gravity, propelled the little car urgently forward. Standall backed off the gas, depressed the brake, and deftly steered the car through a narrow ingress in the formidable wall. The road ahead was straight and lined with meticulously pruned and carefully positioned trees, behind which lay three small houses on either side. The trees were set far from the road at first, but were closer set in toward the end, creating the illusion of distance and making the already-grand main house look even larger.

The landscaping was conscientiously maintained, hedges well trimmed, flowers blooming in a pattern that must have been planned deliberately. Nothing was haphazard here. The only incongruity was the general state of disrepair of the interior beyond the enormous wall. Several piles of rubble lay beneath breaches in the top of the edifice. It seemed as though no effort at repair had been made.

The main house dominated the compound. Clearly medieval, it appeared like the castles one would see in Hollywood tales of knights and conquests, but completely lacked the airy pinnacles and spires familiar to fairy tale enthusiasts. Heavy, strong, and intimidating, was the impression it conveyed. Petur was expecting to see a moat and a wooden drawbridge. But nothing blocked their transit to the house, and Standall stopped the automobile in front of a wide stone stairway that led to the front entrance.

“So, here we are,” said Standall. “Pretty impressive layout, wouldn’t you say?

“To say the least,” Petur replied. “Is this corporate or personal?”

“Both, I think, as most of the corporation is owned by Otto. But this is where he lives, and where he entertains, so I think he calls it his home.”

The two men were walking up the broad stone stairway to the main entrance. Standall paused before ringing the buzzer on the side of the door and looked at Petur.

“Otto is a very nice man. But, like his dwelling, he is intimidating in appearance. Don’t let it phase you.”

Standall pressed the buzzer and within a moment a man who could only be Otto Wagner himself pulled open the heavy iron door.

Petur, accustomed to being taller than most men, took an uncontrolled step back as he looked upward at the smiling face of the enormous man who stood before him. The man’s head was perhaps the most striking — even horrific — feature. It was the largest head Petur had ever seen. The forehead was bulbous, uneven and prominent, overshadowing the deep-set, dark eyes. The lower portion of the face consisted almost entirely of a grossly disproportionate chin, reminiscent of the jawbones of australopithecines found by anthropologists in Africa. A deep divot, impossible to shave, pitted the protuberant flesh under the lower lip. A broad nose, with cavernous nostrils filled with graying hair, separated the smiling mouth from the twinkling eyes above.

The man’s body was adequately designed to support the massive head. A neck most akin to a tree trunk was powerfully rooted between two broad and muscular shoulders. Arms and legs were reasonably proportional to the wide, not fat, torso. As Petur reached out to shake the man’s hand, his own hand was consumed in the grasp. The size discrepancy was as if a grown man was shaking hands with a toddler, the large fingers wrapping entirely around Petur’s palm, and overlapping the hammer-like thumb.

Otto Wagner’s voice was deep and resonant, almost as impressive as his physique. “Welcome, Mr. Bjarnasson. And how are you today, Thomas?”

Standall nodded to affirm he was well as Petur spoke. “Thank you for meeting with me on such short notice, Mr. Wagner. You have a marvelous and interesting place here. My trip to Germany will have been worth it even if I leave with memories only of your home.”

“It is my pleasure to meet with you, and if my hopes are confirmed, you may be leaving with more than memories. Thank you for driving all this distance. Please indulge me by accepting a little tour of my humble home. And also call me ‘Otto’, as my friends all should.”

The large man was congenial and conveyed a warmth of spirit that was infectious. Petur could see plainly why he was an effective corporate leader and employer.

The cavernous entrance hall was exactly as one might expect of a medieval castle. There were full suits of armor, holding in gloved hands the requisite panoply of swords, maces, and shields. Tapestries with faded artistry covered each wall, serving to partially dampen the echoes of the men’s footsteps and Otto’s hearty laughter. The floor was cold gray stone.

“The ceiling is over ten meters high in this room, and completely flat,” said Wagner, his English excellent, but heavily accented. “By all rules of physics, it should collapse upon us. I honestly have no idea how it remains intact. But worry not. The odds of it falling at this moment are low, given that it has been up there, untouched, for over five hundred years. In all that time, my family has never been sued for any emotional injuries from a collapsed roof.” Standall and Wagner laughed, having each experienced the frustration of frivolous lawsuits. Petur joined in, and hoped he never would.

Wagner pointed to a rather plain looking suit of armor. “That suit allegedly belonged to my twelfth-great grandfather. Note the breastplate.” There was a ragged and rusting hole at the position of the heart. “An English cousin stove him through while jousting during a tournament. Apparently, my twelfth-great grandmother was a desirable woman, and that cousin decided to make her more available by removing the protective muzzle from his lance. The sharp point found its mark. My ancestor was killed instantly.

“Look at the engraved words under that hole. They translate to ‘victory comes from a strong heart.’ ” He smiled. “I suppose that a corollary in my family’s case would be ‘defeat comes from a hole through your heart.'” His heavy laughter resonated in the great stone room, despite the best efforts of the tapestries to quiet the sound.

He led the two men onward, up to a suit of chain mail. Thousands of tiny metal rings were forged by hand and painstakingly interconnected to create this protective barrier, designed to prevent sharp objects from reaching the skin. It provided no obstacle to heavy blunt devices such as the mace. This was a suit unlike any Petur had seen in a museum or book. The leggings were forged all the way to the toes, where each individual toe had a tiny chain mail coat. Each finger likewise was separately protected. It seemed entirely nonfunctional, for no one could walk in that apparatus.

“My ancestors were a humorous lot. This suit was commissioned by my twelfth great-grandmother in the mid-sixteenth century, as a gift for her new husband — that English cousin I mentioned earlier. Our family lore has it that she possessed such love for him that she was unwilling to sacrifice a single part to battle.” He paused. “Note the genital area.”

Indeed, there hung between the legs a carefully crafted metallic sheath, clearly designed for a man’s privates.

“If you look closely, you can see that at the base of the sheath is a hinge.” He shifted his gaze to a nearby table on which stood a glass display case. “In there is a note from the wife, written in English, which says, ‘In the heat of battle, think of me warming your bed at home, and let that keep your priorities straight.’ ” Otto laughed, “I surely would not want my priority straight when there are swords flying around.”

Otto continued the tour of his “house,” as he called it, with a continual recitation of humorous anecdotes, most of them at his own or his family’s expense. They walked through a grand hall, used for formal entertaining for centuries. On the walls hung portraits of generations of Wagners. Next was a small sitting room. Rippled glass within tall windows lined one wall and provided modest lighting for the red velvet couches and chairs scattered amongst several marble sculptures. Prevalent throughout was a musty scent that bespoke the antiquity of the place.

After strolling through a dark medieval dining room with a long narrow table in the center, they were guided through a swinging doorway into a very modern kitchen facility filled with the most modern appliances. The gray stone castle floor had been replaced with glistening white tile. The room was brightly and diffusely lit by an unidentified light source that served to make the entire ceiling glow, as if the ceiling itself was a giant fluorescent bulb.

Passing through another set of swinging doors revealed an unequivocally modern living room, brightly lit, without even a suggestion of an antique. An ivory colored leather sofa sat between two tall sinewy brass halogen lamps. Across the room was a wide-screen television. Man-sized stereo speakers stood on either side. Several smaller speakers were scattered in various corners of the room, some hanging from the ceiling. A mirrored armoire, which could only be a bar, sat in the corner. Petur had a sudden longing for a bloody Mary.

Otto pointed around the room. “This is where I really live. All the other is for heritage and show. I can put on a facade of European regency and respectability with those rooms up front, and still be able to walk to the bath in the morning without abusing my bare feet on the cold stone. In fact, my bedroom has this marvelous thick pile carpeting … ah, but you do not want to hear about that. Let us move on.”

There was a well-equipped exercise room, much of the equipment having been custom made to tolerate Wagner’s bulk. He had an office here also, with nothing particularly grand about it. It led through to one more room.

This next room looked like the Command Information Center on board a nuclear aircraft carrier. Computer monitors were everywhere, translucent situation boards cut off the room’s corner angles. A large round table surrounded by black leather padded office chairs occupied the center of the room. One entire wall was a rear projection television monitor. The remaining walls were carpeted with sound absorbing black felt.

“What do you do here? Control a nuclear arsenal?” Petur was astounded at the place.

“I have a rather large corporation, worldwide. This is where I can keep informed, twenty-four hours a day. Our transactions in Tokyo; our ships’ locations at sea; weather forecasts. This room saves me from having to go to the city everyday. I am far too old for that.” Petur thought that he might barely have been fifty.

“Well, enough showing off. Let’s get down to business. Have you two had breakfast yet? My chef prepares an outstanding omelet — I know, I just had one.”

Standall took the lead. “We had a nice breakfast at the hotel, thank you.”

“Good,” said Otto. “Then, Petur, why don’t you start straightaway.” He paused for a moment. “Try to convince me to give you a billion dollars.”

Preview

Next week’s installment (Chapter 5: A Possibility of Fusion; Chapter 6: Recruitment; Chapter 7: Creative Destruction) finds DEA agent Jeff Baddori back in San Diego, unsatisfied with his job and seeking solace at a beach party, where he meets a beautiful Icelandic physicist named Sophia Bjarnasdottir who has exciting insights into fusion power. We also meet failed physics professor Evan Harrigan, who learns that Isaac Bonhoff, a stranger to him, has let himself into Harrigan’s house. Bonhoff is Petur Bjarnasson’s business partner, and he has a curious proposal for Harrigan.

Check back every Wednesday on the Laissez Faire Blog.