Before we get to this week’s installment, I want to ask your help with something. I was having dinner with my editor this week (she’s also a dear friend of 20+ years). We were talking about the blog and about this story and she said, “Yeah, there was a huge typo in the middle of Part 10. Did you see it?”
Needless to say, I didn’t. This story is total stream of consciousness. No editing, rereading, or anything that isn’t caught in Word. So, what do I need your help with? Just this, if you see something, say something. I may eventually put this serialization into a book. I am not sensitive if you see something wrong. Go ahead and point it out. I’ll fix it like I did with the huge typo in Part 10. Now, back to our regularly scheduled program.
Now that you know some backstory on our yet-unnamed hero, it’s time to accelerate the story again. When we last left our characters, they were hanging out in the trailer Clifford Jones put them in waiting to go off and meet Mr. Athenos, the mysterious powerful figure that curates the Deep Web. I feel like we’re getting close to some action here, but there may be some twists and turns along the way. Please enjoy this next installment.
Road Kill Part 11
Ben seemed to act a little differently after I told him about what happened when I was in Iran with Rafferty. He was a bit more businesslike and distant. I asked him what was wrong.
“I didn’t know you had that kind of experience. Some of that information you picked up in Iran might be part of the reason you’re in danger.”
I could see where he would think that. The funny thing was, I didn’t tell him everything I knew. In fact, Rafferty and I were ‘aggressively asked’ by our commander to forget what we knew and let it go. I told Simpson I didn’t think they were related. I really didn’t think they were, but until I could get a look at what was on the modified image of my computer, I wouldn’t know for sure.
As I was thinking this, there was a knock on the door. Before we could panic, Clifford Jones’ voice called out to us.
“Hey guys, it’s me. We need to strategize a bit.”
Ben looked out the window next to the door to make sure nobody was with Jones and that there wasn’t anyone coercing him into visiting us. He nodded to me and I opened the door. Jones came in carrying a laptop.
“You need to take a look at what they added to your laptop image. I didn’t look at it, and I recommend that you are the only one who does,” he said glancing at Ben.
Simpson seemed unfazed.
“That’s fine with me. I probably wouldn’t understand it without the context of what was there originally. Besides, I need some sleep. I’m still not caught up.”
The juices of my curiosity were flowing. Even though I was in trouble up to my eyeballs, I didn’t know why. I’m an analyst at heart and I needed to find out what evidence was being used to frame me.
“I’ve loaded the last four images from your laptop on this machine along with the latest decryption utilities. Why don’t you take a look at it while I’m here and make sure you’ve got what you need?”
As I looked at the laptop, I knew immediately that Jones was no amateur. He had provided me with a high-end laptop that had the four most recent manipulated images of my agency laptop. They were dated and time stamped 24 hours apart starting four days before my plane trip where I escaped death by sitting in the wrong seat. The images were encrypted, but Jones had provided me with the utilities I needed to decrypt them and analyze what evidence was being used to justify framing me.
I thanked Jones.
“Don’t thank me. Just find out what the issue is. Once you find out, do me a favor and don’t tell me. I don’t want to disappear at Guantanamo or whatever deluxe accommodation the government reserves for those that commit treason or share secrets.”
Jones seemed anxious to leave and Ben had escaped to the bedroom without any trace of curiosity. It was as if I had some type of disease that was highly contagious. I understood the concern. The more Jones and Simpson knew, the deeper they were entrenched in this situation.
Jones left the trailer and I was on my own with the laptop. As I looked at the oldest image, I noted that there were three times the files. I didn’t recognize many of them. I began the tedious task of opening and examining each file.
Most of the files appeared to be memos and emails. Most of them seemed to be routine State Department communications. Some appeared to be moderately classified with notes from sensitive meetings, but, initially, there was nothing earth shattering.
About halfway through the second image, however, I began to see communications that were flagged as top secret. Someone at my level should not have access to these items. I could see why Donovan would be concerned. They were above his pay grade as well.
I began to see a series of communications around something called Project OSCAR. The communications were cryptic, but it seemed to point to some type of action in the Middle East. Top secret projects often received random names that did not hint at what was being carried out. When the project name was in all capital letters like this one, however, it usually was some kind of descriptive acronym.
I started thinking through what Project OSCAR might be. Again, there were many references to the Middle East. It appeared that the sponsorship for this project went to the Secretary of State and maybe higher. It could be some routine diplomatic relations type effort. If that were the case, however, it wouldn’t usually be top secret and, more importantly, it wouldn’t be enough to get me locked away for knowing about it. This led me to believe that this was some kind of military or covert operations type project.
I finished looking at the oldest image and then set about comparing the newer images to see what files had been added. After I did this for all four images, I had about 50 files that were not in the first image. My analyst nature told me that I needed to look through all of these before beginning the second stage of the process during which I would try to piece together the information to discover what Project OSCAR was and why is was such a big deal.
The additional 50 files were further developments in the conversation and planning for Project OSCAR. It referred to a playbook that, upon several reviews of the backup images, was not present. This playbook seemed to be the key. It apparently held the detail behind the schedule and plan for this top secret effort.
Once I had reviewed all of the information, I decided that I would follow my usual process for putting the pieces together. In the past, I found that it was good to get away from the information for a period of time before trying to assemble the details into an overall analysis.
I was tired and pouring through this detail made me realize that I needed some rest. I decided to stretch out on the couch and try to take a nap. I drifted off.
My sleep was surprisingly deep and dreamless. I awoke feeling disoriented. It was dark in the trailer and I had to stop and think of where I was. My mind hoped that I had woken up in my apartment and that the events of the past few days were just a bad dream. Unfortunately, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, the reality of my situation came crashing down on me.
After I recovered from this realization, my thoughts turned to the images of my laptop. Project OSCAR came back to me. I wondered what the acronym stood for. I began to cycle through key words in my mind; Middle East, Diplomacy, Oil, Terrorism…Oil…Oil…OIL. Could the ‘O’ in OSCAR stand for oil?
I turned on the lamp on the end table next to the sofa and grabbed the laptop. I ran a search through the laptop backup images for the word oil. As the utility searched the encrypted files, four documents popped up that had the word ‘oil’ in them.
The first three documents didn’t have anything consequential. They just listed projections of the oil output from various Middle Eastern countries. Then I looked into the fourth document and that’s when the definition of the acronym OSCAR hit me like a ton of bricks. That’s when I saw ‘Oil Seizure, Collection and Recovery (OSCAR)’. Apparently Project OSCAR was some type of effort to seize oil from Middle Eastern countries.
This had always been taboo. After two wars in the Persian Gulf, the United States had made a point of avoiding the seizure of oil from Iraq or any other country. Could Project OSCAR be some type of effort that deviated from this long-held prime directive?
I knew now what I had to do. I checked the time on the burner phone that Jones had given us. It was 5 A.M. Too early to call Jones, perhaps, but this couldn’t wait.
“Hello,” Jones’ voice answered sounding less groggy than I expected.
I told him I was sorry to bother him.
“It’s no problem. I’m just heading out to catch some early morning waves.”
I asked him if he could defer his surfing for today and come to the trailer.
“You found something? Are you sure I need to be involved in whatever it is?” Jones asked with obvious concern for his own well-being.
I told him I needed his hacking skills.
“What exactly for? I mean, isn’t that why you’re in trouble in the first place?”
I told him I would explain when he got to the trailer. I needed to ask for his help face-to-face. It was the only chance I had of succeeding. I needed more information. I was starting to believe that there were two factions at play; one that wanted me dead or worse and one that wanted to pass me information to expose some terrible plot. At this point, I thought that the latter might resolve the former. To do this, I was going to need Jones to hack into top secret State Department files. Things just escalated to the point of no return.