Sunday, 26 January 2020

Hostile Takeover (Night's Black Agents)

This week's post is inspired by two recent news articles about Luanda: an executive of a Portuguese bank found dead after being implicated in a scandal involving Luanda's Isabel dos Santos, and the diamond deal that rocked Angola.

All this is part of a recent expose of Dos Santos' shady dealing, in the Luanda Leaks scandal. I've mentioned Luanda here before, as the most expensive place to live. Paradise if you can afford it, and most Angolans can't. Roughly half the population lives in abject poverty, and roughly a third of the country's entire population lives in Luanda. Angola's crawling out of decades of civil war. The ruling social democratic MPLA party is riddled with corruption and vice. Isobel dos Santos, the daughter of a former president, is one of the richest women in the world, and allegedly the centerpiece of a conspiracy to strip Angola of its oil cash - and 80% of Angola's economy is dependent on oil. [Not to quickly rehash something I've already written …]

The articles talk about many things, but I'm going to focus on the diamond dealer De Grisogono. Founded in the early 1990s by a black diamond specialist, this luxury jeweler soon became a centerpiece of high society. It regularly makes record sales at Christie's auction house. Its parties at Cannes are the stuff of legend.

Not that De Grisogono actually makes money, goodness gracious me no. Its accounts are awash in red ink. Its sales in its Vegas and St Moritz boutiques are abysmal. Meanwhile its ultimate owner, Sindika Dokolo and his wife, De Santos, buy its diamonds for themselves at cut-rate prices. Most of the cash that enabled the pair to buy the jeweler allegedly came from Angolan state funds.

On the other side of the fence, a Portuguese bank co-owned by De Santos hit the news when a senior executive, Nuno Ribeiro da Cunha, was found dead in an apparent suicide shortly after he was named, along with three others, as a person of interest in a massive Angolan anti-corruption  investigation called for by Angola's new President. The banker allegedly helped De Santos shuffle funds. His bank, EuroBic, has since cut all contact with De Santos, one of its shareholders. She held 42% of its stock, which she intends to sell.

Conspiracy, money laundering, luxury, vice, and glittering high society. Can vampires be far behind?

Hostile Takeover

One of the major vampire-adjacent intelligence agencies - it might be China's Room 452, since China has historic links with Angola, but any of the European agencies might get involved - becomes suspicious of a proposed takeover of a Swiss luxury jewelers, Grupard, when one of the bankers involved in the deal winds up dead.

Grupard, wholly owned by Luanda billionaire Mafuta Domingos, who has family links to the current government, is in red ink up to its eyeballs, but still makes all the most wealthy destinations glitter. Cannes, Monaco, St Moritz - everyone wears Grupard diamonds. However there are rumors that all is not well in the Domingos household, and that there is pressure from an outside consortium to sell her stake in Grupard. It may simply be the ebb-and-flow of Angolan politics, where nobody's ever sure of their position. It may be more than that. The rumor mill says Domingos is worried her family connections won't cut it any more, that it may be time to make that final plane journey somewhere where the weather is pleasant and nobody can even spell extradition, much less attempt it. The sale of Grupard would ease her passage, but the Consortium she's doing business with won't meet her asking price.

Things come to a head when one of the most important executives at the Portuguese bank Banco Prima, which she part-owns with several other important Angolans, winds up dead. This man was in charge of her private finances, as well as her lead negotiator in the Grupard sale. There are reasons to think that, before his death, the banker was concerned about SBA influence, gathering Banes and seeking religious consultation. His colleagues interpret this as a spiritual crisis that ended in suicide, but the intelligence agency suspects something else.

Through cut-outs, they bring in the agents to act as an 'independent' stalking horse. They have their own hitters waiting in the background, but they want a much better idea of who to hit before they strike.

The agents are tasked with infiltrating the next stage of the negotiations, which are being held at Cannes during a prestigious event at the Cannes Film Festival. They'll need to be able to pass as high society types, or possibly their bodyguards. They are to find out the details of the negotiations, and most importantly, the purchase price.


Then There Were None. The purchasers are part of a Conspiracy node, and their task is to draw out Domingos. They don't want Grupard, but it's a convenient excuse to get close to Domingos. They want her; her bank accounts, her government connections, her international prestige. While she was in Angola, it was difficult to get close enough to influence her. Now she's in Cannes it should be easy - they just have to eliminate a few of her close associates first, to get a clear path to the objective. Quietly eliminate, of course - it wouldn't do to cause a scandal at Cannes.

Jack-in-the-Box. The problem isn't the purchasers, it's Domingos. She wants in, and this whole arrangement is to buy her way in. She keeps pouring money into the Conspiracy's pockets in the hope of impressing them, but it's never enough. The banker was unfortunate enough to get too close to the gates of hell and paid the price, but she doesn't care. This sale is her final gambit, and if this doesn't work, she'll do something drastic, something public. That is something the Conspiracy can't abide.

Never Say Die. It was never about the jeweler, it was about the bank. That financier who committed suicide was a would-be vampire - suicide's the way, so they say. Now he lies in unhallowed ground, waiting for his chance for revenge against his faithless employer. He'll be at Cannes with the others, eager for the hunt. The Conspiracy doesn't mind what the banker does with his immortality; what it wanted was access codes, passwords, bank accounts. While Domingos is busy at Cannes, they're busy in Portugal, draining her accounts of every last Euro, Dollar and Kwanza. The purchasers are just ordinary rich people playing hardball with someone they see as a weak negotiator. Meanwhile Domingos is throwing her weight around as only a spoilt child and billionaire can, denying with her last breath that disaster's at the door.



Sunday, 19 January 2020

Isolation Booths (Esoterrorists)

This post is inspired by isolation booths as used in schools in England to which I can only reply, if Orwell were alive today, imagine the novels he would write.

The principle is understandable. There needs to be a penalty for disruptive behavior in the classroom. In this instance, the penalty is to be shoved into isolation for hours, perhaps days at a time. In some cases, allegedly, weeks. No social interaction whatsoever. Just sit and do work - or sleep, or whatever, so long as it's quiet.

Image taken from the Guardian

Problem being that disruptive behavior can mean anything. It can mean mental health issues, learning disabilities, not wearing the right shoes, talking out of turn. In a BBC study, one student was put in isolation after contracting fibromyalgia. Given that schools are graded by academic performance, there must be a strong temptation to put underperforming students in isolation, as a first step to easing them out of the school altogether. 

There's enough demand for booths to inspire its own cottage industry, at £175 a throw. It's the numbers that enthrall me. Imagine the school that needs a hundred units worth of isolation booths. How many disruptive pupils can any one school have? How many isolation rooms - not booths, rooms - can any school need? 

There's a short step from this to Esoterror. 

The Summer of the Kooks

The OV's attention is drawn to the problem by a whistleblower in the school system, or a member of a pressure group like Lose the Booths.

Pupils across the UK are vanishing. There are always runaways, always heartbreaking little mysteries, but this seems different. The numbers are higher than usual but, more than that, the kids who vanish share similar symptoms - dizziness, lethargy, unwillingness to communicate, except on one topic. They all seem fascinated by someone they call Little Man, who makes all kinds of promises - happiness, sunshine, play, all the best things. Anything's better than the dark little isolation booth they regularly get shoved into at school.

At the same time, there's also a sharp uptick in unexplained deaths. Messy, gory deaths. A few teachers, a PCSO, some parents of missing children, some children. Not enough in any one place to draw official suspicion, but always the same small details. It happens in or near school. There are no witnesses, electronic or otherwise - cameras always seem to be broken, or recordings wiped. There's always something missing, usually noses, ears, in one case bearded cheeks and chin. Bitten off, it looks like.

In one case a victim, before she died, sent a text to her sister that said Picture for yourselves a little man, broader than he is tall, tender and greasy like a ball of butter, with a rosy face, a small, constantly laughing mouth and a thin, adorable voice of a cat wishing all the best to its master. Which is a quote from Pinocchio, in the original Italian, about the Coachman who whisks naughty children off and turns them into donkeys, to be sold. The Coachman in the story had a habit of disciplining his donkeys by biting their ears off - some distance from Disney's round-faced unctuous Cockney.

Odd coincidence, as it happens, since the schools affected all have isolation booths with colorful murals on the walls, scenes out of Pinocchio's Land of Toys. There, at the back of the picture, sits a cheerful little butterball with a cat's grin.

For the Kooks aren't coming out of the woods this time. They're coming out of those pretty murals, and there are so very many of them now …  

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Not Quite Book Review Corner: How To Catch A Russian Spy

How To Catch a Russian Spy tells the story of Naveed Jamali's career as an amateur double agent in New York, which really sounds as if it ought to be a Sting tune, but isn't.

Jamali, the son of Pakistani and French immigrants, comes off as a bit of an idiot in the early chapters. His parents are brilliant academics who own and operate a high-end research company in New York, selling specialized texts to whoever needs them; Jamali's a shiftless nimrod who almost flunks out of high school. He likes cars and computers, and ends up working in "a frat house for nerds," also known as Harvard's IT department. Life is soft. Life is good.

Then 9/11 happens. Jamali rushes back home, mind a-whirl. Who knows what's normal any more? Suddenly he has ambition, a purpose: he wants to join the Navy, put his brains to use and become an intelligence officer.

Except the Navy won't have him.

This must have happened to a lot of people, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. There was a flood of recruits hammering on military doors, practically begging to be taken on. This is before Iraq, before the conflict that ate up all that ambition and willingness to serve. There are too many people for too few posts. To Jamali, rejection is a challenge. He will get in, whatever it takes. He needs a sponsor. He needs to impress someone.

He decides to impress the FBI.

The Feds have a long history with Jamali's parents. Early in the career of their research company, they were approached by a Russian diplomat who wanted them to get some books for him. None of them were classified or otherwise off-limits, so they do as he asks. The FBI's knocking on their door soon afterwards. What did the Russian ask for? They tell the Feds. Thus begins a long career of cat-and-mouse. The Russians present a book list, the Jamalis acquire the books, and promptly tell the FBI. This goes on for pretty much the Jamali's entire working career, and their son Naveed is well aware of what's going on. He's met the Russians, met the Feds.

He's perfectly placed to become a double agent.

By this post-9/11 point Jamali's parents are close to retirement, and the book business is changing. Less physical, more digital media. Perfect for computer nerd Naveed, who takes over the business and approaches the FBI with an offer. Why don't they let him pretend to the Russians that Jamali has access to classified material? Why don't they let him pretend to want to sell that material?

The FBI's reluctant at first. The Feds like things as they are: nice, quiet, a steady earner. Jamali's proposing some risky business, and whether it fails or succeeds, the steady earner's dead in the water. However, Jamali manages to get the FBI onboard. Now it's time to persuade the Russian, Oleg.

Oleg's the latest in a long line of Russian diplomats who've come to the store to buy documents. He's a bit of a boob, a peasant, but he's also a naval officer, an ex-submariner, who works for Russian intelligence. He's a spy.

Jamali spends the next three years trying to catch him. He teaches himself spycraft, from books and movies. He tempts, lures, dangles bait, and slowly but surely, Oleg's enticed into a trap ...

I'd recommend this book to anyone with an interest in spies, spying and real-life spycraft. It leans heavily to the Le Carre side of the equation, but then really, why wouldn't it?

One thing it definitely shows is how difficult it is to actually catch a spy. Jamali spends three years enticing one relatively small fish. Imagine if your Night's Black Agents players spent three years trying to catch one vampire. In fact, this is more a book for players than Directors, though everyone will find it useful. Jamali's the perfect prototype for the eager vampire-hunting recruit: ambitious, motivated, with one hell of a Symbol. Frustrated in his ambitions, he turns to shadowy less-than-legal methods to get what he wants. Of course it's all okay, really - he's working for Edom, right? Edom will be there to catch him when he falls …

Jamali went on to have the Naval career he wanted, and more recently ran for political office in Seattle. He's active on Twitter, and is very much involved in anti-Swatting and Doxing measures, after being Swatted himself.


Sunday, 5 January 2020

Zombie Companies

You may have noticed this phrase pop up in your feed. It's become popular recently, in part because there's a significant school of thought that argues we're past due for a recession. If you want a more weighty, scholarly definition of the term, hie thee to Bis, but the short version is:

A zombie company is at least ten years old, burdened by debt it is unable to pay off, and only exists because banks allow it to pile on more debt, rather than die. In recent years banks have been weak because their balance sheets suck every kind of rectal cavity, and as a consequence they'd much rather roll over debt - thus keeping it on the sheet - than terminate it, and the company.

This is problematic. Zombie companies employ people and pay tax, which is great. However, because they have no money they have no hope of doing anything economically useful. They just consume resources, which might have been better used by another, more vigorous company. Zombies stifle expansion by eating all the brains, essentially.

If you're wondering whether this has happened before, it has. Economic growth in Japan came to an abrupt halt in the 1990s, ushering in what's now called the Lost Decade, from about 1995 to 2007. Corporations had guaranteed credit from the banks, discouraging them from making any reforms or trying to save the company from the consequences of its debt burden. It was easier just to let things slide. Nobody invested - after all, why would you? You'd never get your money back, never mind a profit, since every Yen that came in was eaten by the company's debt burden. Anything that might have saved the situation would have had negative short-term consequences, and nobody wanted that.

It's been argued that one of the best ways of clearing out the zombies, preparing the ground for new growth, is to have a recession. A nice, stiff, painful recession, that puts a lot of people out of work. One in which nobody's too big to fail. As with Japan, that's going to be very unpopular politically and socially, which means central governments are going to do everything in their power to prevent it. Which in turn encourages more zombies, stifling growth and initiative.

What does this mean? Apart from cardboard box homes in about five to ten years?

Let's talk gaming, which is somewhat less depressing.

In Night's Black Agents, this could be a whole new endgame for your global Conspiracy. If the vampires fix it so a colossal economic crash brings about a new world order, one in which they can operate freely rather than skulk in the shadows, that's a big win for them. So their best bet is to encourage zombies. Let those brain-dead, shuffling nonentities eat the economy alive, making the crash all the more painful when it comes. This has been done before on much smaller scales; only this week, Ken and Robin discussed the career of William Playfair, who among other things attempted to ruin the French economy to benefit British interests. This is precisely the same game, played on a much larger scale. This kind of campaign best fits Dust or Mirror, some setting where betrayal and political infighting is commonplace. The soldiers on the battlefield are bankers, executives, Wall Street high-fliers, and the great thing about this kind of soldier, from the Vampires' perspective, is that they don't even need to be promised eternal life. Just bigger and better year-end bonuses.  

Of course, the agents' role is slightly less angelic than usual. If they win, either there's an economic collapse anyway, killing all those zombies, or the zombies continue to devour the economy, ruining things long-term.

An Esoterrorists pitch is slightly different. In this version, zombie companies look shiny and bright on the outside - but behind those closed doors, something awful lurks. Executives desperate to keep their company going in spite of everything fall prey to all kinds of promises from the Outer Dark. High-level Esoterrorists know that economic instability and poverty are breeding grounds for new Esoterrors. Occult beliefs and odd religious groups profligate and prosper when everything else fails - the Great Depression proved that. The Dollarmen from the main book are the obvious actors in this timeline, but there could be plenty of others working behind the scenes. Hotsetter Marcus could be sending off prize execs to be CEOs and CFOs at select zombie firms, whose sole purpose is either to perpetuate the zombie disease or to bring an otherwise healthy company to zombie status. Of course, people at that level have plenty of resources at their disposal and can hire other cells, like the Infernalists, to do their grunt work for them. Also, they could be working towards literal zombification, which drives the theme home. How many good little employees stuffed in their cubicles, like slaves in a galley, are still human? How many just exist to keep the zombie company afloat, and what happens if their conditioning breaks? Does that cause an actual zombie outbreak?

Enjoy! If you dare ...