“My great grandfather took this picture in 1917 during the Great War,” confirmed Bälz Shluter, great grandson of the great Swiss banker Balderik Shluter. “These were some of the prisoners of war whose release he secured through his influence. These eight people became some of his Peace Makers.”
I had agreed to meet Bälz Shluter in my hotel room. He quickly annoyed me by keeping his elegant lambskin gloves on. I asked, “Why should 1917 interest us at WikiLeaks?”
He continued undaunted, “My great grandfather feared that trench warfare would spill into Switzerland. Earlier in the war it was clear that both the Allies and the Central Powers wanted Swiss neutrality, but my great grandfather saw that the Great War might burn out of control and consume even neutral Switzerland.”
To feign interest I politely offered, “Those were hard times.”
He turned my offering into a non sequitur, “While my great grandfather’s investments in Weapons and Medicine were wildly profitable he did, surely enough, become aware of a planned French campaign that would cross Switzerland.”
I glanced at my watch.
“A Swiss watch, of course,” smiled Bälz Shluter.
I mumbled, “Go on. Please.”
“Are you familiar with the concept of a ‘controlled burn’?”
I sat back fearing that Bälz Shluter might never come to his point, “I think so. To fight a wild fire, you start a ‘controlled’ fire to consume the fuel needed by the wild fire, thus starving the wild fire.”
Bälz Shluter gave an almost imperceptible nod to my intellection, “In 1917 my great grandfather reviewed his Weapons and Medicine investment portfolios and conceived of Projekt Kontrollierte Brennen.” Bälz Shluter then paused.
I became impatient, “Yes, yes. Project Controlled Burn. What was it?”
Bälz Shluter said, proudly, “The first modern Biological Weapons Program.”
I stared at him.
“My great grandfather knew history. In the 14th century the Mongols catapulted corpses infected with plague into a besieged city. That was the first crude instance of biological warfare. My great grandfather used that ‘germ’ of an idea, if I may say so,” and Bälz Shluter smiled at his elegant little joke, “to protect the destiny of neutral Switzerland.”
My skin began to crawl, “Herr Shluter, what did Project Controlled Burn consist of?”
While my participle dangled, Bälz Shluter would not be hurried, “My great grandfather used his influence to direct research in several pathology tissue repositories, demanding strictest secrecy as a matter of ‘national interest’. He directed the development of an infectious agent as well as the vaccine to counter it.”
I looked again at the photograph. With dawning trepidation I asked, “Who were these Peace Makers?”
Bälz Shluter misunderstood me and said jovially, “Well, the fellow on the far left is the Englishman George Pilkington-Miksa, a captured intelligence officer. Next to him is the Frenchman Rémy Dubois, a cavalry officer. The nurse is Malanya Zvansky. The fellow in the window behind her is Birk Yilmaz, a Turkish gunnery officer. Sitting on the window sill beside her is the famous American pilot, Phillip Katmanncross. Next to him is the Italian Nicolò Di Giovo, a mechanic. The big fellow with the pipe is the Macedonian army engineer, Krsto Milev. Reclining in front is Ulrich Friedmann, a medical orderly.”
“No, I’m sorry, Herr Shluter, I meant what were they.”
“They carried the virus.”
“My great grandfather made them carriers, immune to the virus they carried. They had no idea. They thought that they had been released from military prison to convalesce as his guests in Switzerland and then be repatriated through his humanitarian efforts.”
Bälz Shluter narrowed his eyes and watched me.
I asked, “What are you saying? What happened then?”
Bälz Shluter opened his eyes, “The 1918 flu pandemic.”
Bälz Shluter opened my eyes, too, “But… millions died all over the world!”
“Between fifty and one hundred million worldwide, I believe,” calculated the great banker’s great grandson.
After unholy silence, I asked Bälz Shluter, “What do you want from WikiLeaks?”
Bälz Shluter handed me a flash drive, “Download this. There are copies of all the documents, names of all of the participants, and a list of everyone and their descendants who got wealthy from Projekt Kontrollierte Brennen.
“You must be on that list, Herr Shluter. You are a respected gold trader. Why are you doing this?”
“It appears that sins of the great grandfather are visited upon the great grandson. My father has disowned me. So, redemption of my immortal soul requires a greater price than all the gold I currently have.” Bälz Shluter smiled as he rose and bade me good-bye and took leave of my hotel room.
I downloaded his flash drive to the server that night but the files vanished soon after I downloaded them. The flash drive also became blank. It seemed like Bälz Shluter had burned me. What had been the point?
A few days later I recalled with unease my transaction with Bälz Shluter as I listened to breaking reports of a computer virus dubbed Midas Touch that was decimating the internet, panicking entire global economies, and driving the price of gold into the stratosphere.
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