Chapter 2: A Challenge with Unintended Consequences
Pearson was committed to fostering an environment of mutual respect in his classroom. He had seen too many of his colleagues develop an “auto-pilot” attitude after teaching the same material year after year. The students in his creative writing class were typically very bright and he enjoyed interacting with them as they discussed various styles of writing.
One afternoon, something quite unexpectedly happened which started from a relatively simple discussion about choosing topics to write about. Pearson had encouraged the students to draw from their own life experiences and explore topics “you know”. A young man raised his hand and asked tentatively, “Professor Pearson, I’ve read all of your novels, short stories, travelogues, etc. I’ve enjoyed them and learned a great deal.”
“And?” queried Pearson
“I don’t mean to be forward or sound disrespectful, or anything like that”
“Some reviews of your books compare you to James Michener and other say they are more like Tom Sawyer or Hardy Boys adventures. But, I believe you’re different. You’ve actually lived with some of the most important people and in some of the most important places during perhaps the most important period in recent history. Following your own advice, Sir, why not write about how those same people, places and events are still “at play” today and having a major impact on world events?”
The expression “you could hear a pin drop” accurately described Pearson’s classroom for what seemed like a very long time, but, in fact, only a few brief moments before another student blurted out, “Yeah, there is no doubt that OIL is the most valuable commodity in the world and you WERE THERE! You SAW it all happen!”
And from another student, “You know all the major players; you grew up with them.”
And another. “The people who took you into their homes and taught you about their land and customs are the ones who are shaping much of what happens throughout the world today. Surely there are LOTS of exciting story lines you could develop!”
The next thirty minutes were perhaps the most exciting and energizing of Warren Pearson’s entire time of teaching at Rice. Every student participated. One student proposed a topic and others joined in to expand and enhance it. Each comment built on the previous ones and the atmosphere was electric. “I imagine your diaries are an untapped source of potential story and plot lines, like some undeveloped oil reservoir in the Middle East.” There were shouts of “Yeah” and “Go for It” and “Just Do It” as the bell rang to signal the end of the class.
Pearson’s head was literally bursting with thoughts and emotions as entered his home and walked to the usual sanctity of his den. Typically, he would enjoy a small glass of sherry and settle into his easy chair to read for the evening. But not tonight; he was too alive as vivid memories rushed into his consciousness. He rummaged through the kitchen cabinets and found the Arabic coffee he had received as a gift years before. He took out the dallah (pot) and put in some of the ground beans and regional spices that distinguished this blend and began to brew. He savored the aroma as he poured some into the traditional finjaan (cup) and sat down at his desk, staring at a blank computer screen. All of a sudden, he began to type and soon lost track of time. By the time the sun came up announcing another sub-tropical day in Houston, he had completed the outline of an entire novel. His students were correct; there were untapped and unexplored story lines hidden, not too deeply, among the pleasant memories of his youth. He realized that many of his childhood friends were now some of the most influential people in the world of oil. He also knew that within this group, there were examples of ”the good, the bad and the ugly”.
Over the next several weeks, he wrote and re-wrote his basic outline, adding more detail with each editing. He dedicated a portion of each class to engage his student in the overall process. They made substantial suggestions about plot and characters and encouraged him to explore the “darker” side of the world of oil. The development of significant oil reserves in many Middle Eastern countries had resulted in improved basic living conditions for many people. But, the vast amount of money involved had also brought out the worst behaviors in some organizations and individuals, resulting in numerous instances where greed was excessive and rampant. Pearson sadly recalled how his father had blamed greed for his mother’s sudden departure.
Finally, Pearson settled on a basic theme and story arc that involved a group of individuals who devised a complex scheme to profit from fluctuations in the world price of oil. This group consisted of oil traders, OPEC staff personnel and a few royal family relatives based in key locations around the world. These individuals referred to themselves simply as The Group and reasoned that, if they knew in advance which direction the price would move, they could create significant profits with each movement. They realized that much of the short-term price movement was based on rumor and emotion, primarily fear. Their basic strategy, therefore, was to create the means to influence the emotions of other oil traders in key oil commodity trading markets. And, there was no better way to influence emotion, primarily fear, than through the actions of a previously unknown terrorist group. The primary targets of these terrorists were major oil transportation facilities. They would claim that Saddam was “foolish” to attack individual oil wells as he did in Kuwait. By attacking oil shipping terminals and maybe even a few tankers, they could achieve a much larger effect on entire economies by disrupting world supply networks. The Group realized that they could orchestrate this entire charade through the Internet and various Social Media platforms and developed a comprehensive “back story” for a new terrorist group known as The New World Order. NWO were not religious extremists and not affiliated with any previous terrorist organizations. Their basic Objective was to “punish” those western countries that had exploited the peoples of the oil-producing nations to support their decadent and immoral life styles. The Group was technically very sophisticated and was able to disguise the ultimate source of everything by routing the Internet activity through a myriad of hosting sites around the world. Similarly, The Group developed a series of sophisticated trading algorithms that would execute trades almost instantaneously and without ever disclosing the ultimate trader. As the NWO threats and rhetoric rose and fell, oil prices would move in concert and The Group would always be on the “right” side of the movement.
Warren Pearson presented this story synopsis to his class and was rewarded with a standing ovation. “My next step is to submit this synopsis to my Publisher. I have some concern about whether she will accept this significant departure from all my previous work, but I guess we’ll know soon enough. Regardless, I want to express my sincere appreciation for the help and support you have all provided. In particular, I knew virtually nothing about the Internet and Social Media and your explanations of how these work and what was possible to do were invaluable. At the beginning f the semester I was just “an analog guy lost in a digital world”! And, for your information, I’ve selected a working title of The Hormuz Conspiracy.”
“Wow, Professor Pearson, how quickly you moved from James Michener to Tom Clancy! I can even see a major movie deal in the not too distant future, something like Gordon Gecko meets ARGO.”
“OK, OK, Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. My Publisher may reject this completely and force me to write another Hardy Boys mystery, as you call it. They’ve made a lot of money from that format, you know.”
“Let’s all be serious for just a moment. We’ve come to the end of the semester and should consider what we’ve all learned over the past few months. And, I do mean all of us. From my perspective, I am indebted to you for making this perhaps the most enjoyable class I’ve ever taught and you’ve restored my faith in young people. You have my commitment to keep all of you apprised of what develops with this project. I also commit to share whatever commercial success may ensue with you. You deserve more than simply a mention in the Acknowledgements.”
Aaron and Miriam Bulloch were idealistic and ambitious recent college graduates living in Manhattan. Both had recently taken jobs with prestigious firms and were eager to make their mark on the world. Miriam had graduated from Vassar with a degree in Journalism and had been at Random House Publishing less than month when all of the Senior Editors left for summer vacation in the Hamptons. In their haste to depart, they had simply told her to familiarize herself with office procedures and “read a few manuscripts”. With virtually no one else available to sign for the FedEx package from Houston, Warren Pearson’s manuscript landed on Miriam’s desk. She thought she could impress her new employer by reading this latest offering from one of their more successful authors and preparing a professional assessment for their review. She put the FedEx envelope in her briefcase and went home to start reading. She was about a quarter of the way through when her husband arrived home from his new job as a junior analyst at Homeland Security.
“Miri, I‘m home. Where are you?” It wasn’t a very large apartment and it didn’t take long to find her sitting on the floor beside the bed, deeply engrossed in a stack of papers. Aaron was unable to get Miriam’s attention until he knelt down beside her on the floor.
“Look at this.” she said, excitedly. “You have to read this.”
“What is it?”
“It is a manuscript from Warren Pearson, one of our best-selling authors.”
“So? What’s the big deal?”
”Pearson has written many things for Random House over the years and they are typically adventure-type stories based on his youth growing up in the Middle East. This is different. It’s about a major terrorist threat to world oil markets and economies.”
“But, it’s another fictional adventure story, isn’t it?
“I don’t think so. What made Pearson’s stories so captivating was that he actually knew most of the important and influential people in the Middle East because they grew up together. That gave his stories a genuine sense of realism.”
“I still don’t see why you seem so excited.”
“Look, Aaron, if Pearson based this story on actual people, he could be talking about an actual terrorist plot that could have far-reaching effects. I don’t think it is just a fictional story. Or, if it is fiction, it is based on actual facts and events. We can’t just ignore this.”
“Well, you can share your concerns with the management of Random House and let them decide what to do.”
“They’re all gone until after Labor Day and I think we should do something NOW.”
“What do you suggest?”
“Is there someone at your office that you could talk to and tell them about this? Is there someone that would be willing to read this manuscript?”
“I don’t know.”
“Please, Aaron, there is an urgency here and we need to say something; we can’t remain silent.”
“OK, OK, I think I know someone I can talk to.”
The next morning, Aaron Bulloch took Pearson’s manuscript to work and asked his immediate Supervisor to “have a quick look at it”. “My wife got his at her work and thinks there is something serious involved. Personally, I think she wants to make a good impression on her Boss and is making more out of this than it deserves. But, I’ll catch Hell at home if I don’t at least play along.”
For the next few days, Aaron was bombarded with text messages from Miriam asking “if he’s heard anything” and “what does Homeland Security think?” He did not want to be seen as harassing his Supervisor and kept making excuses to Miriam. Late one afternoon, his Supervisor came to his cubicle and said. “You were right, Aaron. There is really nothing here. We’ve checked out this Pearson guy and he’s just a harmless professor who writes interesting fiction. I’m sorry your wife got so concerned. Why don’t you kids go out to a nice dinner as a “Thank You” from me and put it on your expense account? You can return this manuscript to your wife and get back to your other analysis projects tomorrow morning.”
Aaron was much relieved with this outcome and looked forward to a pleasant dinner with Miriam. Neither of them could imagine the unintended consequences of their actions or the series of events they had set in motion.
A few days later, two agents from Homeland Security, a “Mr. Smith” and a “Mr. Jones” arrived in Houston and “escorted” Warren Pearson to a secure government house outside Mexia, Texas to begin an intensive interrogation process.