THE RAINCOAST SAGA
Smith stood watching Najib Abouzeid, who had a mobile phone pressed to his ear. Abouzeid stared back at Smith with a face so despairing that it was blank. He muttered a few words in Arabic and put his phone away.
He said to Smith “They’ve blown up the pipeline in three more places.”
Smith just shook his head. He waited a minute, then said “The pipeline is your only means of supply?”
“Yes. It carries phosphate slurry from our open pit mines. I suppose we could go back to rail. But why? There is no way of processing it now.”
They stood on a gravelly rise, fifty yards from a helicopter whose rotors were turning at idle. Two soldiers with submachineguns stood off to either side. Smith and Abouzeid had spoken loudly to be heard over the engine noise of the helicopter. But now they stood silent in the winter sun of Morocco, watching black smoke rise against the blue of the Atlantic a mile away.
Smith said “Will you be able to salvage it?”
“We will repair the pipeline quickly. But as for the port …. First we will have to deal with the terrorists. That sounds like a delightful task, doesn’t it, Smith – a firefight among the toxic smoke and the storage tanks of sulfuric acid. If we can’t kill them or chase them out we will have to starve them out. Which will give them time of course to blow up whatever is still standing.”
Dark roiling smoke hid most of the processing facility and port. A pair of tall smokestacks were visible, striped red and white at their tips, and a few massive spherical storage tanks. But there was a roar and a new surge of smoke, and now the stacks and tanks were also hidden.
Abouzeid said something to himself in Arabic. He was middle aged, tall, well built and handsome. Smith was short and obese. Both wore flak jackets and helmets.
Without looking at Smith Abouzeid said “It will cost a fortune to rebuild Phosphate Marocain. We will have to borrow money. You could help us.”
Smith said “We invest, Najib. We don’t lend.” He looked away from Abouzeid as he said this.
Abouzeid said “No, but you could.”
They stood watching the calamity, smoke churning high, thinning here and there to reveal a tank or two, then billowing thickly again, a brief lick of flame among the main plant buildings, farther away a ship resting at a jetty.
Abouzeid put a hand on Smith’s shoulder and led him away from the helicopter so that they could speak more easily.
He said “Because of this there will be a severe shortage of phosphate this spring, which means the price of fertilizer will rise sharply. Only the richest farmers will be able to afford it. Crops will shrink dramatically.”
“You’re talking worldwide?”
“Worldwide. Less food on supermarket shelves in New York. Less food in the street markets of Calcutta. And what there is will be expensive. Very expensive. There will be riots. Governments will fall. So, Smith, what does all this do for our market value?” Abouzeid produced a vicious smile.
“There’s no way I can fix this for you, Najib.”
“Not for me, Smith. For the population of the planet.”
Smith shrugged. “We’ve got to write you off. I’m sorry.”
Abouzeid stared at Smith. Smith stared back, looking afraid. Abouzeid made a few palsied gestures, as if he needed to attack Smith physically but was restraining himself. Smith backed away.
One of the soldiers shouted and pointed. A quarter-mile away a few vehicles were racing toward them across the arid plain. Spurts of gravel flew up near the helicopter. As the rotors spun faster the soldiers each grabbed one of Smith’s arms to hurry him to the safety of the aircraft.
A doorman in a striped djellaba and red fez opened the door of the limo. The sun was just setting, and Smith felt the drop in temperature. He held out a hand, and the doorman helped him exit the vehicle and then hurried to open the hotel door for him.
But before Smith reached the door he heard something shouted in Arabic. He saw the shouter as he turned - a ragged blue suit coat, a face that looked as if it had been hacked out of rock - but he could not step away before the man shoved him. Only Smith’s bulk kept him from falling. The doorman pushed the man away. There was an exchange of angry Arabic between the doorman and the assailant.
The man dodged the doorman while shouting at Smith in Arabic and French, sprinkled with with a few phrases of English. Smith heard “Fat man! Fat man!” He heard “We kill Americans!” and “Go away Americans!” And as the man thrust a hand, palm up, past the doorman Smith heard “Money! Give money!”
Smith went into the hotel. He got some dirhams from the reception clerk and went back outside, but the man had gone. He offered a few of the bills to the doorman, who glared at him coldly as he accepted the money.
Smith went up to his room. The mini-fridge was empty except for a half-bottle of local wine. He called the desk and asked for scotch and ice to be sent up. He was told there was no scotch. Smith said “What do you have?”
“We have Moroccan wine. Very nice.”
He sat on the edge of his bed for a few minutes with his face in his hands. Then he speed dialed Gitta and switched his phone to speaker and laid the phone on the pillow and fell back on the bed.
“I have been waiting for your call, Smith. What is happening with Najib?” It was a voice coarsened by age. There was a light German accent.
“The facility is toast. Most of the port too.”
“Toast? Bread toast? Smith, are you drunk?”
“I wish I was, but it seems there is nothing decent to drink in Morocco. It’s burnt, Gitta. Totally destroyed. The terrorists are still there, so the army will have to root them out. Oh yes – and the phosphate pipeline from the mines has been blown up in five places.”
Gitta cursed in German, then said “Can they fix it?”
“Not for a long time, if they can even find the money in today’s world.”
“What does it mean besides our investment is fucked?”
“Gitta, there’s nothing I can do. Don’t swear, OK?”
She repeated “What does it mean besides our investment is fucked?”
“What it means is, starting now there is a severe shortage of phosphate.”
“Yes, globally. Phosphate Marocain is – was – by far the biggest producer. It is a major ingredient in fertilizers, so agriculture will be hard hit. Crops will be small, food will be expensive, the citizens of planet Earth will be ….”
“Do not lecture me, Smith. Just the facts.”
“The world’s largest producer of phosphate for fertilizers has just gone kaput. People may starve. Governments will fall. Najib’s own words.”
“Can other producers take up the slack?”
“I don’t know.”
“What should we do, Smith?”
“The stock’s price will tank. Then Najib ….”
“What is tank?”
“It will fall sharply. Then Najib will put a happy face on it. He will assure the world that the supply of phosphate is secure. Maybe the government will inject some money. The price will rebound slightly. Then we sell before the world realizes the truth.”
“This is the best you can do? This is the best the fixer can do?”
Smith sighed. “OK – find out who profits from a famine. Find out who profits from riots. Invest in them. The old formula you know so well, Gitta.”
“Are you all right, Smith? You don’t sound so good.”
“They shot at us.”
“The terrorists. We had to get away in Najib’s helicopter. Then at the hotel a crazy man attacked me.”
“Are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m fine.”
“Where are you now?”
“I’m in my room in Casablanca. It’s not a wonderful room, but it’s quiet. It would be better if they had some scotch.”
“OK, Smith. I’ll do what I can to get free of Phosphate Marocain without too much damage. Maybe we can move our money to other phosphate producers. Their product will be more in demand now. You told Najib we have to write him off?”
“Yes. He almost attacked me. A lot of people are wanting to attack me suddenly. When all I’m trying to do is fix things.”
“Why do you think they did it?”
“The terrorists? To hurt Morocco, obviously, and to hurt the king, who is the main shareholder. Najib brings in a ridiculous amount of money for him. Used to bring in a ridiculous amount of money. Not any more. But it seems to me ….”
“Say it, Smith.”
“It seems to me they’ve found a way to strike at the whole world by striking at the core of food production. Which is fertilizer.”
“Ach, Smith! You are such a pessimist. All doom and boom. We will find a way to profit from this. We always do.”
“Not boom, Gitta. Gloom.”
“Boom, gloom, what’s the difference.”
They were silent for a while. Then Smith said “I’m beginning to think we should sell.”
“Sell everything. Slowly. While we can still get a decent dollar for it.”
“This is the fixer talking?” She sounded offended.
“It’s Smith. It’s Smith talking.”
“You’ve had a hard day, Smith. Things will look better tomorrow.” The line went dead.
At supper Abdullah, the maître d’, apologized for the lack of beef and poultry.
“We cannot get it, Mr. Smith. This is so bad for us.”
Smith ordered fish.
“And some Moroccan wine?” asked Abdullah. “It is very nice.”
Smith nodded morosely. He was alone in the dining room.
While he was eating, two young women, pretty and well made up, appeared at the entrance to the dining room. Abdullah returned to Smith’s table. He nodded toward the women and said “You want?”
Smith shook his head.
Abdullah said “They are hungry.”
Smith did not look up from his snapper.
Abdullah went back to the kitchen and came out with two small plastic bags, which he gave to the women. The women kissed his hand and left.
Back in his room Smith called one of his sons, Justin, who was in his office in Seattle. Justin expressed some fear that a financial credit crisis was imminent. He said something about “the fed” and interest rates, and China defaulting on loans, and bond prices and derivatives and inter-bank contracts and vanishing liquidity. He said his credit cards had been cancelled. Smith told him not to worry, that there was nothing that could not be fixed.
He called his second wife and left a sentimental message on her answering machine.
He went to the window and stood looking out over the ocean even though there was no moon and the view was all black.
Smith stood for a few seconds at the door of the rental car, catching his breath after the effort of getting out. He reached back into the car and pulled out a wool overcoat and put it on. He started across an expanse of grass and mud and decomposing leaves. He called “Hello Frost.”
A tall young man in overalls and a jacket was standing in the shadow of a sailing yacht that rested on a wooden framework. The words Bye-bye Dubai were written on the transom of the boat. The man had dark curly hair and wore wire-rim glasses. He smiled and said “Well, it’s Smith” and came to meet the older man.
They shook hands. Smith said “I thought you wanted to build it.”
Frost said “Turned out to be more of an undertaking than I was ready for. Also, it’s become almost impossible to find certain parts and materials. I’m sure you could tell me why that is. Anyway, I decided to get a second hand one. Or is it third hand. Or fourth.”
There was a prefab shed. Frost brought out two folding aluminum chairs and set them up. He fetched a thermos and two mugs. They sat and drank coffee.
Smith said “How’s Susan?”
“She’s great. She’s happy to be out of Dubai.”
“I’m sure. And you said something in your message about a little girl?”
“Zahra, yes. She was left at the school where I worked. I guess her parents saw how things were going. We were lucky to get out, especially with her. And then to get into Canada. She’s a little miracle, Smith, a force of nature. She scoots all around the apartment on her rear end. There’s just no stopping her. You should come over. Come and have lunch.”
Smith said “I’d love to, Frost. But I’m flying out in a few hours. So they let you bring her in with no problems?”
“They let her have refugee status. Even though she had no papers. Even though we didn’t even know who her parents were.”
“Yes, well, things have to be looser these days.” They were quiet for a minute. Past the boat, through a thin screen of willows they could see a wide river. They watched grey water rushing westward. Smith said “I’m glad you called our office and left your phone number. It’s so good to see you again.”
Frost looked at him – the face round as a full moon, the chin and neck hidden under fat, the nose patterned with broken capillaries, the thin greying hair, the gentle, wary eyes.
Frost smiled and nodded. “Have you been back to Dubai?”
“I have, yes.”
“I thought it was pretty well shut down.”
“It’s still in its death throes. It seems that cities take a long time to expire. Total chaos, though. No law and order. It was the inevitable result of cowboy capitalism, incompetence, hubris and hire-your-brother-in-law. Everyone knew it had to fall eventually, but no one predicted how hard the fall would be. I went back to try and sell some of our property. Fat chance. Everyone was just trying to get out. There’s no commercial flights in or out now, so Gitta had to let me use the company jet.”
Frost said “That’s your boss?”
“Gitta. Short for Brigitte, meaning exalted one.” He went “Hah!” – half shouting, half laughing. He gestured toward the water. “That river, Frost? Those trees? That’s exalted.” And then toward Frost’s sailboat. “That’s exalted too. Not much else that I’ve seen lately has been exalted. Anything but. Incidentally, does it have a diesel engine?”
“I’m in the process of taking it out. I’ve bought one that runs on batteries. I’ll charge it with solar panels and a small wind turbine.”
“Good, because ….”
Frost said “I know. The oil situation.”
“Saudi is teetering on the brink. Qatar. Bahrain. They have trillions of cash in the bank, but that cash doesn’t really belong to the country, it belongs to the rulers. When the collapse comes, how much of it will they share with their starving hordes? And will money still have meaning? And what could they do anyway? Oil is only part of the huge, tangled web of global commerce.” He made a gesture of distaste and dismissal. “I’d like to have a closer look at your river.”
They set their mugs on the ground. Smith heaved himself out of the chair. They walked past the sailboat. Three or four tiny flakes of snow settled on Smith’s shoulders. Frost stepped through the willows and turned to watch with concern as Smith held desperately to branches and let himself down to the narrow rocky shore.
Frost said “The river is deep at the edge here. There’s an abandoned ramp just downriver where I can launch her at high tide.”
“The tide comes up this far?”
“There must be a proper marina where you could launch her.” Smith was panting from his struggle with the willows.
“I’d rather do it myself, unseen, here in this primitive and secluded setting.”
Smith said “So, you’ve got the apocalypse jitters too.” He laughed bitterly, drew a long breath. His breathing slowed.
“I don’t know about apocalypse. That’s a pretty strong term. But I am worried.”
They gazed solemnly at the river even though there was nothing to see but the steady rush of olive-grey water, one moment of the flow no different from the last.
Smith said “I wish I could stay, Frost. I would be a happy man if I could stay and help you work on your boat. No, don’t say You can. I can’t.”
“I know. You’ve got things to fix.”
A strand of spider’s silk had stuck to a sleeve of Smith’s overcoat. He lifted it away and held it dangling in the cold breeze. He said “What happens when a strand of a spider’s web breaks? The spider fixes it. If only it was that simple with the web of supply and demand.” He released the filament. The breeze took it, and it vanished against the water. He turned. “Give me a push so I can get up the bank.”
At the shed Frost said “You sure you can’t spare an hour for lunch?”
“I’ve got a meeting. Raincoast Resources. Another futile clash of angry and terrified minds. And then I’ve got a flight out.”
“I didn’t ask about your family.”
“That was kind of you.”
Smith’s shoulders shook with quiet laughter.
Frost said “It’ll be a while before I can launch. I’d like to see you again if you’re back this way.”
Smith looked suddenly sad. He nodded. “Give Susan a hug for me. And give your daughter …. What was her name?”
“Give Zahra a kiss from Smith.”
They shook hands and then hugged. Smith squared his shoulders and walked back toward the car.
In the twilight of early evening the distant windows of old Frankfurt glowed with a comforting warmth. Closer the glass of surrounding office towers gave off a cooler radiance. Gitta and Smith sat in soft leather chairs near a big window, each holding a tumbler of scotch.
Gitta said “You don’t look so good, Smith.”
Smith said “Tired.”
“You should take a vacation.”
“How long is it since you took time off?”
She said “Do you exercise?”
Smith just chuckled.
She said “You won’t be much good to me dead, you know.”
“I need you to fix things. To put pressure. To get people fired. To insist on restructuring. To get fat trimmed. Who else could do this for me, Smith? Nobody. So please stay healthy.”
Smith said “I’ll take some time off. Maybe this summer.”
Gitta had thinning red hair, cut short, poorly combed. Her face was a ravaged terrain of wrinkles and liver spots, with jowls that swung as she leaned toward Smith and said “Prost.” They clinked glasses.
She said “Have you bought your yacht yet?”
“But you still dream of it?”
“Oh yes. I dream of the freedom. I dream of it all the time. The peace. When I was in Vancouver I saw a friend, a young man I met in Dubai. Frost is his name. He was a high-school teacher there. Now he’s working on a sailboat. He wants to sail the world. How I envy him, Gitta.”
“But you’ve got too much to fix, yes? You won’t even take a vacation, much less …. Is that what you say – much less?”
“Much less, yes.”
A man in a grey suit appeared at the door of Gitta’s office. When Gitta acknowledged him he said something in German and held up a file folder. Gitta replied in German, and the man nodded and left.
Gitta said to Smith “I told him to send Christian in. We hired Christian to do computer coding. He can code for hours, days, without losing concentration. But we discovered he’s also a wizard …wizard, yes?”
“… a wizard at research. He’s American, like you. You’ll find him interesting.” She looked toward the door and smiled. “Come in, Christian.”
Christian came forward holding the folder. He wore immaculate white running shoes, pressed blue jeans and a shirt with images of different kinds of fish and their names. He was no more than thirty. His blond hair was cropped close, but his eyebrows of the same colour were extremely bushy. Beneath them blue eyes beamed coldly, so pale they were almost white. He handed the folder to Gitta.
She said “Christian, this is Smith.”
Christian did not extend his hand to shake. He looked down at Smith in the chair and said “Smith? You speak English?” His voice lacked intonation.
Smith said “Yes” and smiled. But Christian’s expression - focused, empty of emotion - did not change.
Gitta said “Give me a summary of the report, Christian.”
Christian replied instantly. “In an effort to limit costs the breakfast cereal division of Nature’s Way has reduced their inventory level. This is a mistake. Because of the projected shortage of corn they should increase inventory levels while they still can. Under ordinary conditions they could also develop new products that use more abundant grains.” He sounded as if he were reciting.
Gitta said “What could they use instead?”
Christian repeated “Under ordinary conditions they could also develop new products that use more abundant grains.” Then he looked at Smith and said “However, because of drought conditions in the most important grain-growing regions there are no viable alternatives.”
Gitta said “No viable alternatives?” Her face darkened.
Christian did not appear to notice Gitta’s reaction. He continued speaking to Smith.
“A substantial portion of the Ogalallah aquifer in the grain-growing areas of the central U.S. has been used up. High ocean temperatures in the eastern Pacific mean less rainfall for California, so they are quickly using up their aquifers there too, and rice farmers are switching to other crops.”
Gitta said “That’s fine, Christian. Thank you.”
But Christian, in his intonation-free delivery, kept speaking to Smith. “Extended droughts in Russia, Australia and the Canadian prairies have also affected the supply of grains.”
Gitta said “No lectures, Christian.”
“Farmers can’t sell their farms, because there are no buyers. Farm workers are unemployed. Farm equipment merchants are going out of business. Agricultural towns are being abandoned. The price of every food that contains a grain is rising daily.”
Gitta stood up. She was wearing a shiny flowered top, black trousers that emphasized her substantial belly, and a black blazer. Using the folder she made shooing motions and said “Go. Go.”
But, still addressing Smith, Christian went on. “The droughts plus the attack on Phosphate Marocain will make grain supply negligible this summer. And the grain that is available will be too expensive for almost everyone.”
Gitta threw the folder. Some of her drink spilled. Pages fluttered around Christian’s head. He finally looked at her. There was still no emotion on his face. He studied her for a few seconds, as if trying to determine what she had meant by the outburst. Then he turned and left the office.
Gitta touched her hair, laughed weakly and sat again. She said “Why was he talking to you, Smith? Doesn’t the idiot know who his boss is?” She managed a more vigorous laugh, but she had reddened.
Smith said nothing. He leaned forward in his chair, as if he intended to collect the fallen pages of the report.
Gitta said “Leave it” and then “Oh my god, Smith! You see what I have to put up with? So, there we are. Nature’s Way. What do you think of his advice to increase their inventory?”
Smith was quiet. He took a swallow of his scotch. Then he said without looking at her “All right. I’ve been thinking lately that our focus is too narrow. We look at business practices. We look at ledgers, profit and loss. What we never look at is the bigger picture, what these companies are all part of. Is growth a good thing if it destroys the foundations these companies are built on? Resources are vanishing. Water, like – I’m sorry, yes, like Christian says. Oil. What will these companies do when oil is completely gone, as it will be as soon as what’s been stored is used up?”
Gitta looked down and clenched her teeth and said something in German. Smith appeared to understand that she was swearing. She tossed back her scotch and stood. Smith also stood, watching her, waiting. She said “Wrong answer, Smith.” She called “Max!”
The man in the grey suit reappeared, now wearing an overcoat.
Gitta said “Fire him. Fire Christian.”
Max stood looking back at Gitta for a minute. Then he nodded and went away.
Gitta said to Smith “You see what happens when I get the wrong answer? We need our investments to make money, OK? Money! Money! Fix it, Smith. Fix Nature’s Way.”
On his way to the elevator the lights went out. In a few minutes an elevator came but left again before the doors could open. Smith stood alone in weak emergency illumination, waiting for the main power to come back on.
When he left the building it was dark. Smith’s limo was not waiting, so he walked to a taxi stand. The driver was on the sidewalk talking to another driver. When he saw Smith approaching he opened the rear door.
Smith fell back into the seat and sighed deeply. But before the driver could close the door a face appeared in the opening. In the car’s interior light Smith saw the wild eyebrows, the expressionless face. Because Christian was not wearing a coat Smith saw the fish on his shirt, and their names. Carp. Barracuda. Blowfish. Christian managed to insert enough of himself to prevent the driver from closing the door.
Christian said in his flat way “The burning of fossil fuels by humans has produced enough greenhouse gases to raise the average temperature of the atmosphere past the tipping point for climate change. In the arctic the permafrost is melting, and hundreds of billions of tons of methane and carbon dioxide are being released, causing even more warming. The Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets are rapidly disappearing. Parts of New York city already flood during storms. The eventual economic costs will be incalculable.”
Smith said “I’d like to close the door.”
The driver said something in German and tugged a little at Christian’s shoulder.
Christian said “The Chinese economy is collapsing because of bad loans they made to support unrealistic growth targets. Rioting is widespread. The effect on the world economy ….”
Smith could smell Christian’s breath. It was as pure as a baby’s. Smith nodded to the driver, whose demands became louder as he tugged more forcefully at Christian’s shoulder.
Christian said “The world is drowning in debt ….” But the driver wrapped both arms around him and tore him away. Smith slammed the door and locked it. The driver hurried around the car and got in.
As they pulled away Smith heard “The chances of a global pandemic …. It’s coming, Smith. Total system failure ….”
“What kind of scotch do you have?”
“I’m sorry, sir, we don’t have any scotch.”
Smith stared up at the flight attendant, stunned, with his mouth hanging open a little. He produced a rueful chuckle that caused the woman to shrug and smile apologetically.
He said “Is this is the business class section of Planet Air? Or have they made a mistake and booked me into steerage?”
She said “What is that? What’s steerage?”
Smith was the only occupant of the section. Nineteen islands of comfort lay empty around him. The lighting was subdued and melancholy. Through the whisper of the engines rose an undertone of loneliness.
He looked away and said with some venom “Steerage is where they put the desperate and suffering of the earth who cough up their last pennies to get anywhere but where they are. No scotch? OK, what …?” He looked at her again. He saw that she was in her fifties, tall, thin, with dull blond hair, with small folds of skin hanging slack at her chin line, and very tired eyes. He said “Sorry …” He glanced at her name tag. “Sorry, Chelsea. I’m a grouchy old man.” He tried to smile. “I’d like a whisky, whatever you’ve got, and some ice.”
As she left, Smith reached for his laptop on his seat’s built-in side table but then let his hand fall back into his lap. When Chelsea came with his drink he said “I’ve never seen a business class so empty.”
She said “It’s not unusual these days.” She seemed to be trying to force some joy into her voice.
He said “Are they making you work a lot?”
She said “I’ll be back.”
She vanished past the curtain that separated business from economy class. Smith closed his eyes and nursed his drink. After ten minutes Chelsea returned. She sat in the window seat beside Smith’s aisle seat. She said “Don’t tell anyone.”
He said “You just rest. I think maybe you need it.”
After a minute he heard quiet sobbing. He sat upright so he could see past his seat’s privacy panel. He said “Chelsea?”
She sniffed, said “I’m all right.”
Smith said “Do you want me to get someone?”
“No. Please.” She rose and stepped past him into the aisle.
She stood there for a minute in her blue blazer, matching skirt, and red neck scarf, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. She said “I’ve got to check my mascara.”
She started toward the toilet, but Smith heaved himself forward with a grunt and grabbed a wrist. He said “Your mascara’s fine. Chelsea, what’s wrong?”
She leaned against the back of the seat across the aisle, looking down at the grey carpet. She sniffed, sighed raggedly and looked at Smith. Her mascara was not fine. She forced a brief smile and said “Tired.”
Smith said “I’ve always thought it can’t be an easy job.”
“They’ve laid off a lot of people. Those of us who are left have to do their jobs as well as our own.” Her voice was nasal from crying.
“Fewer passengers these days?”
“And fuel costs are higher?”
“Astronomical. So I’m told. Which is why they might be using contaminated fuel. Don’t tell anyone I said that.” She paused, then said “I’d better get back into economy. They need my help.” But she did not move.
Smith said “Getting supper ready?”
“Supper? Didn’t they tell you?”
“What! They’re not going to feed us!”
She shook her head.
“Not even in business class? Oh for Christ’s sake. What am I supposed to eat? It’s a long flight!”
“I’ll find you something, Mr. Smith. You are Smith?”
“I’ll find you something.”
They were quiet for a while. She continued leaning against the back of the seat across the aisle. She seemed more composed. Looking down at the carpet again she said “My grandson’s got leukemia.”
Smith waited, said nothing.
She said “I work extra shifts to pay for his treatment. Medicare doesn’t cover all of it. That’s why I’m tired. That’s why I’m ….”
“You don’t have to explain.”
“My daughter’s at home. So she looks after Jayden. She’s a single mother, can’t find work. My husband’s at home too. He was laid off from his job a few months ago. I tried to get a loan to pay for Jayden’s treatment, but they wouldn’t give me one. They said my job wasn’t secure. I guess they’re right. They said money was tight, something about liquidity, whatever that is.”
Smith said “It means money doesn’t flow the way it used to.”
She looked at him. “Well, it certainly doesn’t flow in my direction.”
“No, well …. Jayden’s lucky to have you for a grandmother.” He seemed a little embarrassed by the intimacy of her account. He said “I’ve heard leukemia in children is very treatable.”
“Yes, he’s got a good chance. But it’s so expensive.”
“I wish I had some ideas for you, Chelsea. I’m supposed to be an ideas person. Not that any of my ideas have been working recently.”
She said “No, there’s nothing to be done except what I am doing. I just need someone to talk to sometimes. And you were all alone here in business class, so ….”
“Well, talk to me some more. Do you want to sit down?”
She shook her head.
Smith said “What did your husband do?”
“Kenny was a logger. Until there was nothing left but trees that were too spindly to cut down. We live in a small town, but it’s all pretty well boarded up now.”
The plane bounced. There was a ding, and the Fasten Seatbelts sign came on. Smith put his belt on and looked out the window. There was only unbroken darkness. Chelsea did not seem to notice the turbulence. She continued leaning against the back of the seat across the aisle, swaying as the plane wobbled.
Smith turned back to her and said “Why didn’t I know this? I’m supposed to know this kind of stuff.”
“Is it part of your job?”
The airplane rocked and bucked. Smith gripped the arms of his seat and said tautly “Yes, it’s an important part. You’d better sit down.”
Chelsea swayed like a reed in a storm. She said calmly “At least there’s no problem getting extra shifts. I’m lucky – so many others have been laid off.”
The plane bucked as if it was trying to shake Smith loose from his seat. His drink and his laptop bounced off the table.
Chelsea said “Maybe I’d better sit down. I’ll clean that up in a minute.”
But she could only hang on, because the plane was now writhing as if it could not bear the thought of human beings in its gut.
Smith said through clenched teeth “I’m sure everything’s going to be fine.”
With a hand on a seat back on either side of the aisle Chelsea managed to take a step. But then she turned to Smith and said “What kind of business are you in?”
He said “We invest.” He had gone white
“Do you have money in Planet Air?”
“We do, yes. Which is why I should report you.” He tried to laugh to show that he was joking, but the laugh came out more like a shout of fear.
“Too bad” she said as she stepped toward an empty seat. “Planet Air is in debt up to its eyeballs. Past its eyeballs. Planet Air is going down.” She turned and smiled bitterly.
“Going down?” squeaked Smith.
The turbulence stopped. Smith sighed. Chelsea did not sit but paused in the aisle. She seemed to be listening.
Smith said “It’s quieter than it was.”
Chelsea came back to stand beside him. She was still alert, listening.
The lights went out. It was now black in business class, and absolutely silent. The plane dipped into a descent.
Smith said “Shit, we’ve lost power in both engines!”
Chelsea said “We’ll be fine. We can glide.”
Smith could not see her. When she laid a hand on his shoulder he reached up and covered her hand – hard and sinewy – with his own – soft and sweaty.
He said into the darkness “You said contaminated fuel.”
For a second the cabin flared white in a flash of lightning but then went black again. The plane bounced as if a giant foot had kicked it, then fell as if clubbed. Smith went “Yah!” and even Chelsea whimpered involuntarily. Ejaculations of terror came from economy class. Smith said “We’re going to die.”
The dark and silent plane fell and bounced and twisted. Smith realized that the flight attendant had fallen into his lap. A hand was gripping the deep fat around his throat, the nails digging into it.
Chelsea said rapidly “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee, and I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishment, but most of all because I have offended Thee my God ….”
The plane continued to plummet and buck. Lightning blazed outside the windows. Smith wept and held Chelsea close. Chelsea said more prayers and did not release her grip on his neck fat.
In a few minutes an engine restarted. The lights came on. The other engine caught. The plane levelled out and plowed on through the storm.
Chelsea pushed herself off Smith, fell into a seat and fastened the seat belt. Her “For Thine is the Kingdom ….” was barely discernible in the subdued roar of the engines.
Chun Jin said “Shall we go into the conference room? I’ve prepared a PowerPoint.”
Smith said “I may be fat, Jin, but I don’t take up a whole conference room. Let’s stay here. I like the view.”
Smith was standing at a floor-to-ceiling window, looking out at a city without colour. The closer buildings were dulled by smog. The more distant were only half visible, dissolving into grey-brown air. Beyond a quarter mile there was nothing at all.
Jin waited a few seconds, then said “Actually, I think you have lost weight since the last time I saw you.”
“I’ve had all my pants taken in. Anxiety burns calories I guess.”
“Is that so? Perhaps that is why I never have a problem with weight.” Jin laughed.
But Smith only said “Yes, you must have a lot of worries.” Still he did not look away from the view. The ghostly office towers. The sidewalks below crowded with people wearing white pollution masks. “I thought May was supposed to be the best month. Or the least awful.”
Jin said “The north wind is not blowing today. We are at the mercy of the weather.” He tried another laugh. It came out stilted and false.
Smith said “Yes, the fickle winds of spring. Just like the fickle winds of commerce. The actions of human beings have nothing to do with it at all. Right, Jin?” Finally Smith turned to face the man. He was smiling, squinting in a predatory way.
Jin said with bogus zeal “Come and see the PowerPoint. It explains everything.”
Smith shook his head.
“At least come and sit down. Would you like a drink? I have some excellent scotch. Cutty Sark, aged twenty-five years.”
Smith shook his head again.
Jin still smiled, but now there was fear in his eyes.
Smith said “The word is out that crops everywhere will be small this summer. People are already hoarding. Did you know that?”
Jin could not retain his smile. He shook his head.
Smith said “Of course the hoarding has driven prices up. Are you having riots yet here in China?”
“Well, not about food ….”
“Yes, Jin, about food as well as about everything else. How about we tell the truth today? For a change?”
Jin said with eager sincerity “Not for a change, Smith. The truth always. Ask me anything.”
Jin was almost as short as Smith. He wore a sober suit as grey as the scene beyond the window glass. He had gold-rimmed glasses and smiled often, or tried to.
Smith said “I was just in Mexico City. Trying to rescue another hopeless cause. Every food store I saw had been looted. The whole city was in shambles. And this is long before the harvests. They’re hanging hoarders from the lampposts. Hungry Mexicans are storming the border, heading north by the thousands, pouring over the fence. There’s no way they can be stopped.”
Smith looked out the window again. “Before that I was in London, witnessing the messy death of an oil company. It’s way too expensive to go after the trickle of oil that’s left, so they’re shutting down the North Sea oil platforms. Just walking away. Yes, yet another one of our prize investments goes very publicly bust. Which means of course there’s panic in the markets. Now you only hear one word in the City. Sell, Jin. Sell, sell, sell. But no one wants to buy what’s being sold, and they couldn’t get credit for it anyway. Oh it’s fun, Jin, participating in the death of world trade. The only one of our companies that’s making money is Shanghai Armor Systems right here in China. They sell anti-riot equipment.”
Smith turned to look at Jin, who stood there meekly, listening. “I thought I was tough, Jin. The thick-skinned fixer. But I’m afraid the carnage is getting to me. Wading through the wreckage of business after business.” His eyes widened in an ironic glare. “I’ve lost weight, though. Yippee.” He patted his still considerable belly. “Did you know they shot at me?”
“Yes, in Morocco. Terrorists. OK, I’ll have that scotch after all.”
Jin fetched the drink. He seemed relieved to be out of the spotlight. His habitual smile had returned.
But Smith leaned back against the window glass and took a swallow and said “Now, about rare earths ….”
Jin paled. He said quietly “You must be patient, Smith.”
“Must I? You’re going to pull a rabbit out of the hat, right?”
“What is that? What rabbit do you mean?”
“It means you’re going to perform magic. Because that’s the only thing that can save the Chinese rare earths industry.”
“Yes, it is a strange market. I admit it. But here at South China Metals we understand the complexities. If you can be a little bit patient, Smith. We just need a little time.”
“Time. Yes time will fix everything. Is that why your other backers are pulling out? Is that why the banks are calling in your loans?”
“It’s a wild business, as you say in America. But you can be confident that we are in control.”
Smith drank off his scotch, handed the glass to Jin and said “You know what I can be confident of? Sweet fuck all. As we say in America.”
Jin put the glass away and hurried back, looking desperate, a little hunched, with hands clasped.
Smith said “It doesn’t bother me telling you that we’re pulling our money out of South China Metals.”
“What bothers me is the damage your cowboy industry is doing to the rest of the world. First of all you’ve wantonly depleted the supply of rare earths, meaning nuclear power plants can’t get what they need for their control rods. Electric vehicles need rare earths but can’t get them. Wind turbines need them but can’t get them. Computers need them but can’t get them. Smart phones. On top of this your government has imposed export tariffs in order to raise prices for foreign importers. This has strained the international supply. However, it has helped the illegal miners, who smuggle it out of the country and sell it cheap, thus depleting China’s reserves even more. Not to mention dumping radioactive leftovers into the water supply. Don’t tell me you understand the complexities. If you understood the complexities you would hightail it right the hell out of the business.”
Jin said weakly “Hightail …?”
Smith shrugged. “Sorry for the lecture. I’m not telling you anything that’s not common knowledge. Anyway ….”
“Maybe if you talked to your boss, Miss Gitta?”
“You talk to her, Jin. Give her a call. Gitta doesn’t like me anymore. I’m not making her any money.” Smith started toward the door of Jin’s office.
Jin cleared his throat and said “You have grandchildren now. I would be honoured if you would allow us to donate something for their education expenses. To show our appreciation for your support.”
Smith turned, glared, shook his head in disgust. “Is my limo waiting?”
Jin said “Oh, Smith.” He looked defeated and hurt. But he called something in Mandarin and received a reply from beyond the office. He said “I’m sorry Smith. The limo has run out of petrol.” He did not look contrite at all.
From the backseat of his taxi Smith saw in the distance the colourless silhouette of his hotel. But he saw also that two blocks ahead the street was jammed with people coming toward the car. He saw white banners with Chinese script. When the driver lowered his window Smith heard chanting. Smith said “What do they want?” But the driver only glanced in his rear view mirror and made a sound of dismay. Smith turned to look out the rear window. A block behind the taxi he saw the flashing lights of police cars. He saw two rubber-tired tanks and ranks of men in riot gear.
The driver turned into a cross street, drove for a few blocks and turned again in the direction of Smith’s hotel. They passed a line of cars that were stopped in the right-hand lane. The line went on for a quarter-mile and ended at a filling station.
The driver had some English, for he said “No petrol.”
A block farther on, as if to illustrate his comment, the taxi sputtered and stopped. The driver smashed the steering wheel a few times and barked something in Mandarin.
Smith said “Never mind. I’ll walk. How much?”
The driver turned. He had a narrow, rugged face, haggard eyes and messy black bangs. He said “No money.”
Smith said “No, I want to pay you.”
The driver said again “No money.” He showed Smith that he had a kitchen knife with a six-inch blade. He said “Shoes” and nodded toward Smith’s feet.
The driver shouted “Shoes! Give shoes!” He poked the knife toward Smith.
Smith untied the laces of his Ferragamo oxfords. The driver took them with his free hand and got out of the car. Smith sat there for a minute and watched the driver walk down the middle of the street with the shoes dangling, cross to the opposite sidewalk and disappear among the host of face mask-wearing pedestrians.
Smith got out. The air smelled like car exhaust and burning coal. In his stocking feet he headed toward his hotel along a sidewalk dotted with discs of spit as shiny as silver dollars.
Michael said “Climate change means there won’t be much snowpack from here on. But we’ll have water year round anyway.”
He and Smith were standing in a pasture near the bottom of a forested hill, beside a dammed spring.
“Artesian” said Michael. “Hasn’t gone dry in a hundred years.”
He was a trim, curly haired, fresh faced man of about thirty. He wore mud-spattered jeans, a work shirt, rubber boots and wire rim glasses whose lenses were specked with tiny drops of the rain that was beginning to fall.
They walked across the pasture toward a man who was arranging the components of a machine on the grass.
Michael said “Your shoes are getting wet.”
Smith said “They’re good shoes. Brand new. They can handle it.”
“I’ve never seen a suit on the property before. This is a first.” He smiled.
Smith said “I should have worn something more suitable. But I wasn’t sure I’d have time to change when I get back to the city.”
“Rush, rush, rush. Same as always.”
Smith laughed. He looked at Michael. “You remind me of a friend I met in Dubai. Frost. He’s turning his back on it all too. But he’s taking to the sea in a sailboat.”
“The sea can give you everything you need for a short time. But it’s the land that will save us. Those of us that know what’s coming.”
Smith said “What about your job?”
“It’s summer holidays. School’s out until September.”
“And in September?”
Michael shrugged. “A lot can happen between now and the fall. And none of it good. We’re going to get as much done here as we can, and see what happens.”
They reached the man who was working with the machine parts.
Michael said “Robert’s an electrical engineer. If he can’t put a mini wind turbine together, no one can.”
Robert was red haired, chubby and cherubic. He wiped his hand on his overalls, laughed, shook hands with Smith and said “Was. Was an electrical engineer. The company I worked for until they laid me off is in its death throes. You’ve heard about the big credit crisis?”
Smith said “I’ve heard way too much about the big credit crisis.” He nodded toward the turbine components arrayed on the wet grass. “I hope you’re stockpiling plenty of spare parts while you still can. The supply of rare earths for your magnets is drying up.”
Robert looked stunned. “I didn’t know that.”
“Same goes for solar panels, if you’re planning to use any.” Smith said to Michael “What about ammunition? Have you got a lot?”
Michael said “No guns, no ammunition. Not yet.”
“You think the gun manufacturers won’t drown with everyone else?”
Smith nodded goodbye to Robert. He and Michael walked toward a large log house at the edge of the pasture, near a wall of dense forest.
Michael said “What you should do is turn in your suits and join us here.”
“I’m a fixer, Michael. I don’t give up and run away.”
“You think we’re running away here?”
“Yes, Mikey, I do.”
“You think we should just stay in the city and watch the world collapse around us?” His voice had risen.
All that Smith could say was “I just think you should not run away.”
There was a garden near the house, about a hundred feet square. In it a pair of women were on their knees, weeding.
As if to change the topic Smith said “Have you heard from your brother?”
“My half-brother. Yes, Justin called me the other day. Did you know he lost his job?”
Smith stopped, gaped. “God, no!”
“Looks like Western Capital is folding.”
“He’s got that huge mortgage!”
Smith said “Why didn’t he tell me?”
“I guess he was ashamed.”
“Ashamed! Christ, it’s not his fault. I’ll call him. I’ll send him some money.”
“I think he’s still got something in the bank. Provided the banks are still working. I told him months ago to get rid of the house and leave that stupid job. I invited him to join us here. But you know Justin.”
They walked on until Michael stopped and gripped his father’s arm. “Dad, listen. You’re not god. You can’t even fix yourself, much less fix the world. Look at you ….”
Smith said “I know, I know. But it’s good. I was way too fat.” He managed a laugh.
“There are good ways to lose weight, and there are bad ways to lose weight. Rushing around the world trying to fix what can’t be fixed is not one of the good ways.”
As they neared the house a woman came out the door. She wore jeans and a T-shirt and was barefoot. Her long blond hair was tied in a tail. She had a pleasant face and a mild expression. She was carrying a baby.
Smith held out his arms.
The woman said “Adam wants to say goodbye to Grampa.”
Smith took the child, whose dark eyes widened as it squirmed with delight. He kissed a cheek and produced a string of sing-song endearments that caused Michael and the woman to smile. He tried to shelter Adam’s face, but a drop of rain splashed on the same cheek that he had kissed. The tiny face froze in an expression of shock and terror. But Smith bounced the child a little and said “It’s only rain, Adam. Don’t we love the rain? Yes, we do. We loves it so, so much.” And he kissed the water away.
Another woman came out of the house. She looked worried. Smith’s daughter-in-law went to her, they talked in low tones, and both went into the house.
Smith said “What’s wrong?”
Michael said “Cohen is sick. That was his wife.”
“What kind of sick?”
“We think it’s the flu. He’s got a fever and chills, and he aches.”
“Is there a hospital in town?”
“No, and it’s a long drive to the city. We’ll take him if he gets any worse.”
Smith said “Better do it now. Don’t take any chances. For god’s sake don’t try any of your herbal cures.”
They walked to Smith’s rental car. He handed his grandchild to his son. The two men stood there looking solemnly at one another.
Michael said “What’s wrong?”
Smith’s eyes brimmed. He said “Only everything” and had to look away. He saw trees and pasture and the long dirt drive with its many puddles reflecting grey sky. He saw a hawk circling. Carefully so as not to crush the baby he hugged his son and finally looked at him and let the tears roll. He got in the car and turned it around. He honked the horn once and drove slowly down the drive.
“Restructure, Smith? You want us to restructure?” Larson wiped a hand across his eyes and produced a weak laugh that was half sob. He looked at Smith, shook his head and smiled bitterly. “What? What is it we’re supposed to restructure? This?”
He swept an arm to indicate the work area. There were about thirty cubicles. All were empty, and the computer screens that Smith could see were all blank. Five people – three women and two men – were standing in a group near the far end of the room. One of the women made a grab for a child who ran past, a chubby boy of about three. He dodged the woman’s hand but tripped and fell to the carpet. He lay there kicking and yelling. The people in the group watched him. One of the men said something to the woman who had tried to catch the boy. The woman snapped at him “What would you know, you fucking fairy!”
Larson sighed and said to Smith “A lot of the schools are closed. And the daycares. Or the parents are just not sending their kids. Tiffany wanted to do the right thing, wanted to put in an honest day’s work. I wish to hell she’d stayed home. Like the others.” He nodded toward the empty cubicles.
Larson was maybe fifty, pale skinned, thin blond hair going to grey, a little overweight. His suit jacket, like Smith’s, had been tossed over the back of one of the cubicle chairs. His tie was loose, and his shirt collar was open.
Smith said “What happened to the air conditioning?”
“It worked for a while, three days, after the power went off . The computers too, the lights. Except for massive absenteeism everything was fine until the emergency generator ran out of diesel. We tried to order more, but ….” Larson shrugged. A trickle of sweat dripped from his nose. He put a fist to his mouth, coughed for half a minute, finished with a ragged gasp.
Smith waited until Larson was breathing calmly, then said “How is your power generated around here?”
“Coal. But trucks and trains have pretty well stopped delivering the coal to the generating plants. Why? Because they don’t have any fuel. Or because the drivers are afraid to leave the house. Or they’re sick. Or they’re dead.”
Larson offered Smith another rueful smile.
Smith said “The virus. Can’t your people work from home?”
“Theoretically, if they had power. But there was so many people working from home that the system ran out of bandwidth. Which is irrelevant now because there is no electricity anyway.”
A new blast of raised voices erupted from the group at the far end of the room. The child was running again, circling the clusters of cubicles. He flopped to the floor near Smith’s feet and lay there panting. Tiffany came and squatted beside the boy and helped him sit up. She gave him water from a bottle. Her dark hair was messy. Her dress was sweat blotched. She looked very worried.
Larson said “Take him home Tiffany. There’s no point in you staying here. There’s no point in anyone staying.”
Tiffany looked up and said “I came with Chris. We all did. He’s the only one with gas.” She stood. The boy rose and leaned against her leg and stuck a thumb in his mouth. “He’s been hoarding it in barrels in his back yard. Which is what we were fighting about just now. Blaming him for hoarding but actually wishing we’d done the same. Anyway, I just called my ride a fucking fairy.” She managed a smile. She said to Smith “You’re the fixer, aren’t you?”
Smith loosened his tie and opened his collar. “I’m trying to remember the last time I fixed anything.”
Tiffany offered the bottle. Smith and Larson shook their heads. She said “We’re agribusiness. So before the power went off, here is what I learned, Mr. Fixer, about what needs to be fixed. Because of the shortage of fertilizer people in poorer countries are starving. Those who can hoard are hoarding. Those who can loot are looting. The fact that there’s not enough petroleum to make insecticide for the crops doesn’t help matters. The sugarcane harvest in Brazil is failing. Sugarcane is what they make their biofuel from, OK? So their transportation system is fucked. No, don`t excuse my language. Name a country that can survive without transportation. This fall the corn harvest will fail in China, in Europe and here. This fall our soybean harvest will fail, and so will China’s. The August wheat harvest will fail in China, in Russia and here. So there’s the agribusiness picture. You want to fix us, fix that.”
Larson looked away from Smith and Tiffany and said said “None of that matters to Smith. What matters to Smith is short term profitability.”
Tiffany said “Really? How original. Well, Smith, here are a few short-term projects to help things along. Fix the fertilizer shortage. Get credit flowing again. Turn the oil supply back on. Squash the riots. Shoot the hoarders. And, most important, kill the virus.” The boy took her hand, and they walked back to the group. She hugged Chris, the gasoline hoarder, who waved half-heartedly to Larson as the group left the room.
Smith said to Larson “So you’re just going to let AgriGroup go down without a fight?”
“Down? Smith, are you blind? This is down! This is exactly what down looks like!”
Smith laid a hand on his shoulder. “All right, Larson. All right. I know you’ve done everything you can. We’ll have to pull our money out, of course.”
Larson just shrugged and said ‘Whatever.” He went to a window, placed a hand on the glass, looked out at the hot city for a second, and leaned there coughing and coughing.
In his rental car Smith started the engine, put the air conditioning on high and sat there perfectly still for a few minutes. When he took his phone off mute it rang immediately. It was his son Justin. Smith said “Any news about your brother? My phone’s been off. Last time I called, this morning, they were on their way to the hospital. I wish they weren’t so goddamn far out in the country. It’s good they had gas, it’s a long trip.” He listened for a minute. His hands dropped to his lap. The phone bounced to the floor.
Between Smith’s feet Justin’s tiny voice said “Dad …? Dad …?”
Smith’s head fell back against the headrest. When the roaring sobs came they sounded almost like laughter.
Jim Williams kept turning to look out the window. It was as if he wanted Smith also to observe the hospital’s understated forecourt, the scalpel-edged sweep of lawn, the single magnolia tree. But Smith just sat there, not looking at Williams or the view or anything else. He was verging on thin. His formerly moonlike face was now all drooping skin. Above dark crescents the once canny eyes seemed almost clouded.
Williams said “Twenty-seven percent operating margin.” Williams’ face – trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, gold-rimmed glasses, persistent smile – was as benign as his Deep South accent. “You don’t have to worry about Magnolia Health Center.”
They were sitting in leather armchairs near the window. Williams leaned forward, reached to touch Smith on a knee to emphasize the point. Smith just sat there slumped.
Williams said “We were profitable when you were here last, and we still are. We’re the only private hospital for fifty miles in any direction, and I don’t see that changing. So you can tell Gitta her money is safe.” Williams sat back, smiling benignly, to let Smith absorb his summary. He folded his hands behind his head and waited.
Smith sat up with effort, sighed, cleared his throat. He said “That’s …” but the word was inaudible. He tried again “That’s good, Jim. That’s what we want to hear.” He forced a brief smile.
A woman came into the room. She stopped just inside the door. She wore a crisply tailored jacket and matching skirt. She was middle-aged, fair haired, freckled, heavy. She looked worried. She said “Still no blood.”
Williams dropped his hands to the chair arms. The smile vanished momentarily. He said in his warm way “Not now, Kimberly.”
But Kimberly said “It seems their delivery drivers are scared to leave the house. Some are sick apparently. Others are staying home to look after their kids because schools are closed.”
Williams said “OK. No more interruptions now.” He nodded minimally to indicate that Kimberly should go away.
But she said “So, no blood deliveries. Which means all our surgeries are on hold. We’re just praying for no emergencies.” She waited for instructions.
Williams smiled, nodded again. Kimberly left.
Smith said “How many of your staff are off?”
Williams shrugged. “A few.”
Williams seemed surprised and amused. “You want me to give you a percentage!”
“You’re the percentage man. The operating margin man.”
Williams shrugged again, looked away, stopped smiling. “Fifty percent. More or less.”
Williams’ expression changed to bitter resignation, as if he had known all along that this moment was coming. “Comprising everyone. Doctors, nurses, admin, cleaners. But listen, Smith - we’re making money like there’s no tomorrow.”
He leaned forward again, reached again to touch Smith on the knee. But Smith swatted the hand away.
Williams said “Hey, Smith, come on ….”
Smith stood with effort. He went to the window, so that his back was to Williams. He said “When my son Michael got the virus his wife took him to a private hospital because it was the closest.” His voice was tired and sandy. “But he didn’t have private insurance, so they wouldn’t accept him. By the time they found another hospital it was too late.”
Williams said “I’m sorry, Smith. I really am. But you know there’s no hospital that could have saved him.”
Smith heard behind him the voice of Kimberly again, both tentative and desperate. “We’re out of gases too, Jim. There’s just no deliveries.”
Williams shouted “I said no interruptions! God damn it, Kimberly …!”
When Smith turned he saw that Williams was standing. His face was grim. Kimberly had gone.
Smith said “Are you accepting patients who’ve got the virus?”
“Why – if they’re going to die anyway?’
“Because they pay very well.”
“They pay and then they die.”
“Listen, Smith, you’ve come here today to see if we’re still profitable. Would you rather I told you that we aren’t?”
Smith walked toward the door but stopped halfway. A nurse in blue top and trousers was there. A white mask covered the lower half of her face. She said “We’re out …” She bent forward for a few seconds, coughing. “We’re out of pain meds.” She waited for a reply. None came. She left.
Smith said without turning “I was counting on you, Jim, but your ship is sinking.” He shuffled out the door after the sick nurse.
The next day Smith drove through the city on his way to the airport. The traffic was extremely light. Some buses were running, but they were mostly empty. He had to drive around a dozen cars sitting abandoned in the traffic lanes. A few stores had broken windows. He saw a man walking down the sidewalk, carrying an armful of rifles.
At the airport he turned in his rental car. The clerk said “You didn’t top up the gas.” She had dark cropped hair, small closely set eyes and a large nose.
Smith said “I only saw one gas station that was open, and they had a lineup half a mile long.” He sounded tired, sluggish, morose.
“I’ll add the estimated top-up to your bill. Good thing you didn’t use up the whole tank.”
Smith handed her a credit card.
She said “We’re limping along here. Sometimes the computer works, sometimes it doesn’t. Is the head office even open?” She shrugged. “Will I get paid this month?” She shrugged again. She handed the card back to him. “We’ve stopped accepting credit cards.”
For a while Smith said nothing. She stood there looking back. He said “A car rental outfit that won’t take credit cards? You must be kidding.”
“Boy, do I wish I was. The last time the computer was working I got a message. Cash only.”
“Debit?” He was resigned now.
She shook her head.
“This is unbelievable. Is there an ATM?
“Sure, but I can’t promise it will give you any cash?
“Oh lord. So, what if it doesn’t?”
“Then you’ve broken your contract. You rented a car and didn’t pay for it.”
A spasm of fury shook Smith. “So I’m going to use my debit card to get cash, but you won’t accept that same card to pay for the car!”
He left his suitcase by the counter and tried stomping away angrily. But he found he didn’t have the energy, and slowed to his usual shuffle. The airport was almost deserted. Half of the people he passed wore face masks. With them Smith exchanged glances of pity and fear. The wheels of their suitcases echoed in the vast space, which was otherwise silent except for distant aggrieved shouts from check-in counters. Smith found an ATM. It refused to give him enough to pay the bill.
Returning to the car rental booth he saw another customer at the counter, a woman in jeans, runners and T-shirt. A boy of about ten stood beside her. The woman cursed and reached across the counter and clawed at the clerk’s face. The clerk grabbed the woman’s head in both hands and smashed her face three times against the counter. The woman snatched the boy’s hand and walked away holding her nose.
At the counter Smith checked the clerk’s name tag and said “You’re bleeding, Ashley.”
She found a tissue in her purse and pressed it against her cheek.
Smith said “You want me to get some help?”
“What help?” She was sniffling. “There’s plenty of assholes – but help? Not a chance.”
Smith considered this for a moment. He handed her the cash. He said “You’re sure you’re OK?
“So can I ask a question?”
“I’ve been wondering. What if I had gotten in that gas lineup?”
“If you had gotten in that lineup, first you would have waited two, three hours to get to the pumps. Meaning you probably would have missed your flight.” Her voice was nasal because of the tears. “You would have pushed your car along so as not to use any more gas.”
“Do I look like I can push a Chrysler?”
She studied him for a second, wiped her eyes with the tissue, but did not answer the question. “And when you got to the pumps – those drivers in the lineup? They all had cash in their pockets.”
He said “Jesus, the banks must be running out!”
Ashley shrugged. She held the bloody and tear-moistened tissue in one hand and with the other made out a receipt for the amount he had paid. She sniffed and said “Our legal department will be in touch. Maybe.”
There was only one person at Smith’s check-in. He was about Smith’s age, almost as heavy as Smith used to be. He said to the check-in agent “But I’ve got to get home! My granddaughter is sick.” He leaned on the counter, coughing and wheezing.
The agent was a tall dark-skinned man in a grey suit. He said “We’ll get you home to your granddaughter, Mr. Goldfarb. Please don’t worry. You’re on the next available flight. Meanwhile we’ll see if we can get another airline to honour your ticket and get you out of here as soon as possible. Check back in an hour. And keep an eye on the Departures board.” He had a calm and reassuring manner, unaffected by the fact that he was wearing a face mask.
Goldfarb went away.
The agent reached under the counter and came up with a spray bottle and a roll of paper towels. He sprayed the counter, wiped it with a paper towel, dropped the paper towel into a hidden trash basket and put the spray bottle back. A pump bottle of hand sanitizer sat prominently on the counter, beside an open box of face masks. The agent depressed the pump five times and rubbed his hands thoroughly, like a doctor scrubbing before surgery. He said “Would you like a mask?”
Smith took one and put it on. He laid his passport on the counter. He said “I’m booked on your next flight to New York.” He took some sanitizer.
The agent typed something on his keyboard and handed back the passport. He gave Smith a boarding pass and said “I’m sorry, Mr. Smith, your flight has been delayed.”
Smith said “Why am I not surprised? What exactly is the problem?”
“Well, flight delays have become common, unfortunately. Maybe you’ve noticed. Not just for us but for all airlines.”
“The exact problem? Honestly, I can’t really be sure. There have been so many problems. A lot of the mechanics are off sick, for one thing. Or they’re afraid to leave the house. Or they can’t get transportation to work. I’m just being honest with you here.”
Smith said “I appreciate that. But you know there’s no point in trying to cover things up anymore. Everybody knows what’s happening. So ….”
“So, also, jet fuel is sometimes … well, often, hard to come by. And once it’s located it can be very expensive. I guess you’ve noticed fares have gone up?”
“And then the fuel has to be delivered. Which means ….”
“Never mind. What else?”
“And apparently they can’t always get parts for repairs. And then there’s the ground crews. And ….”
“Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.”
“And because of the storm on the east coast both La Guardia and John F. Kennedy are flooded. I think Newark is still open, but it’s hard to get updates. So ….”
“Never mind. Just do what you can.”
“I’m really sorry, Mr. Smith.”
Smith said “Not your fault …” He checked the man’s name tag. “Not your fault, Caleb.”
Caleb said “Meanwhile we’ll see if we can get another airline to honour your ticket and get you out of here as soon as possible. Check back in an hour. And keep an eye on the Departures board.”
“Goddamn, Gitta. Please don’t make me do that again. Can’t we meet in a restaurant or something?”
“All right, next time maybe we can meet at the pizza place across the street. If they are still in business. Which I really doubt.”
Smith had collapsed into his customary armchair near the big window. He was heaving noisy breaths. He said “What happened to the elevator, anyway?”
Gitta had also been sitting, but now she stood. “Elevator!” She made a dismissive gesture. “What happened to the television? What happened to the traffic lights? What happened to the street lights? What happened to the telephones? What happened to the newspapers? I haven’t seen a newspaper in a month.”
Smith said “You’re lucky. I saw one this morning in Dublin, and I wish I hadn’t. But do you really climb those stairs every day?”
“Of course. Do you think I fly?” She was gesticulating. “Internet! There’s no internet! How am I supposed to run a business!”
Smith said “Just don’t make me climb those stairs again.” He recoiled slightly as Gitta slumped into the other chair, propelling toward him a gust of body odour.
Her short reddish hair was uncombed and unwashed. On the shoulders of her black blazer lay a sprinkle of dandruff. The liver spots seemed to have multiplied, the wrinkles to have deepened. There was a keen glow of fear in her eyes. She said “I’m sorry, Smith. I know it’s all so hard for you. Your son. The whole business. My brother just died. The virus.” She shrugged in resignation. “He was old, but still ….”
Smith just looked at her. He shook his head. There was no lighting in the office, but as they sat quiet by the window the afternoon light of Hamburg was sufficient to reveal the exhaustion that marked their two faces.
After a minute Gitta said “Don’t give up, Smith.”
“We can fix things.”
“You’re the fixer, ja?” She reached, patted his knee.
The carpet was dirty. In addition to the tang of Gitta’s sweat there was an airless, dusty smell. Some manila files lay scattered near her feet, and a few loose pages.
Gitta said “So?”
Smith sighed, sat up a little and cleared his throat. “No surprises, really. Nothing we didn’t see coming. Soybean, corn and wheat harvests have failed worldwide. Not enough fertilizer, not enough water, not enough credit, not enough transportation. And for the last while, not enough workers. The commodities have all been hit by fuel and transportation problems. And the virus of course. Magnolia Health Center in Arkansas is doing well because of the virus. But it’s only a matter of time until …. Some medical supply outfits have managed to hang on. Some businesses that were smart enough to build up their inventories. Gardener’s auction house was doing well, but now nobody seems to want to buy anything they’re selling, or can’t get the money to buy it. The banks are dying, I’m afraid – shuffling money here and there is suddenly not such an easy game to play. And unfortunately everybody needs the banks.” He handed her a folder.
Gitta dropped the folder among the others on the floor. She closed her eyes and for a minute quietly swore in German. She opened her eyes and said “So, what do you think?”
“Think?” He managed a small, bitter laugh. “I try not to think. I’ve found it’s best to carry on blindly.”
“The blind leading the blind. Is that what you say in English?’
“Better than nobody leading at all. I guess.” He shrugged.
She sat there for a while looking at him without expression. She said “You’re all I’ve got, Smith. I mean it. You’re a pillow of strength.”
“Pillow – yeah, pillow is about right. But a pillow is fat, and I’m not anymore. It’s pillar. And the only thing that’s keeping me going is habit. Not strength. The reason I’m running at all is because I don’t know what else to do. I’m like some kind of robot. So don’t lean too hard on this pillar.”
“If I need to lean I lean. You will need more cash?”
He nodded. “You wouldn’t believe how expensive flying has become. And that’s when I’m lucky enough to find flights.”
“I’m going to tell you something, Smith. I’m afraid. Can you believe that? Me!”
“I can, yes. Like everybody. But why be afraid? What’s the worst that can happen?”
They both seemed amused by her reply.
Smith said “No, that has to happen anyway.”
“Ja, but to the whole planet?” As if to avoid whatever answer he might offer she quickly bent and lifted from the dusty carpet a single sheet of paper. “Maybe you will have trouble trying to contact me. So here is a list of our investments that still might be viable. See if you can help them. Fix the things that have to be fixed. I trust you to do what you can do.”
“Viable. You mean barely breathing I think.” He took the sheet of paper and scanned the list handwritten in pencil. He did not seem reassured. He shrugged, said “Well ….”
Gitta called “Max.”
Max appeared at the door. He wore the same grey suit as the last time Smith had seen him, but now it drooped and seemed too big. His salt-and-pepper hair hung in a stringy mess to his collar. He wore a face mask.
Gitta said something to him in German. He went away for a minute and came back carrying a canvas side-pack with a shoulder strap. With a grunt he set the pack at Smith’s feet and left.
Gitta said “There you are, Smith. If people don’t trust money it doesn’t matter. They will trust gold. Just in case. Is this what you say – just in case?”
Smith did not answer.
She said “There are big pieces and small pieces. The value will be different in different places, and it will be different on different days. Smith?”
He was gaping at the pack – khaki coloured, with a folksy logo. He bent forward, managed to lift the pack an inch off the floor, dropped it.
Gitta said “You will hurt your back. Max will carry it down for you. After that you should carry it with your shoulder.”
Smith continued to stare at the pack. “Oh my lord” he muttered. “Gold. The day has finally arrived.”
“Max will give you some cash too. We have some that I have been saving. There is no light on the stairs, but Max has a Taschenlampe … a ….”
Smith finally looked up. “A flashlight?”
“Ja – a flashlight. He will stay with you until you can get a taxi. No, I’ll tell him to go with you to your hotel. Maybe you must walk. He will walk too. It’s dangerous for an old man to be alone in Hamburg. Especially an old man who is carrying a bag of gold.”
Smith said “You’re going to burn the fence?”
Justin said “I am, yeah.”
“There’s no other wood?”
Justin held the handle of the hammer with his left hand. With the heel of his right he thumped the head, driving the claws under the cedar board. He said “What do we need a fence for anyway? These days.” With both hands he pulled hard on the handle. The nails screeched as the board separated an inch from the two-by-four rail. He handed the hammer to his father, placed a foot against the fence and tore the board loose, top and bottom. He gave the board to Aidan, a twelve year old boy, his son.
Aidan laid the board on the ground with the nails pointing downward. He had fine brown hair – trimmed but not recently washed – regular features, and the guileless expression of a saint.
His father was tall and had a full blond beard. With grim focus Justin tore off two more boards.
Smith said “Can’t get cordwood?”
Justin’s only reply was a twitch of a smile and an ironic snort.
A light rain was pattering on maple leaves that dotted the backyard grass. The men and the boy were wearing peaked caps and Gore-Tex jackets that matched the leaves, the grass, the fence.
Justin said “You better go in, Dad. Aidan can help me.’
Smith said “No, I’ll stay. If you don’t mind. I’ve never noticed the smell of autumn before. Isn’t that strange?” He inhaled deeply. He looked at Aidan, who accepted another board, laid it on the growing pile and smiled at his grandfather. Together the two of them drew long breaths of moist autumn air.
“Justin, just what the hell do you think you’re doing?” The question came from beyond the fence. In the next yard a man approached. He stopped at the boardless gap. He also wore Gore-Tex and a cap.
Justin said “Brian, I am burning the fence.”
The man went “Uh-uh.”
Justin said “What do you mean, uh-uh?” He pried a board part-way loose, handed the hammer to Smith, gripped the top of the board.
Brian said “I mean uh-uh you’re not burning the fence. ’Cause it’s not your fence.”
Justin tore the board free and tossed it near the pile. Only the top and bottom horizontal rails now remained in that section of the fence. Justin and Brian faced each other through the gap.
Justin said. “The fence came with the house.”
Brian said “No, the fence came with my house. It’s on my side of the property line.”
“Since when? How come you never brought this up before?”
“I never brought this up before because nobody was stealing the boards from my fence before.”
Justin said “Look – the boards are facing towards me. If the person that owned your house before you built this fence, why did he put the boards on the wrong side?”
Brian was older than Justin, and shorter. He had hooded, dark eyes. He had managed to remain clean shaven, so that deep furrows around his nose and mouth gave him a serious, determined look. He placed both hands on the top rail, taking possession of the fence.
Justin said “You going to take me to court?” He smiled, shrugged, as if the notion of a functioning legal system was a joke that had grown stale.
Brian just glared at him.
Smith said “I’m Justin’s father.”
Without looking away from Justin, Brian said “I know.”
Smith said “Maybe we can reach a compromise.”
This seemed to annoy Justin. He said “It’s my fence, Dad. There’s no need for a compromise.” He said to Brian “What do you want the fence for anyway? Do you think we’re getting ready to attack you? The invasion of the Smiths?” He tried another smile, but it was brief and angry.
Brian said “Come on, I’ll show you the survey post. The fence is a good six inches on my side.”
Justin said “So? Look at the way the fence is built.” His voice was louder. “It was built by the previous owner, meaning it was his fence. He sold the property to me, so now it is my fence.”
“No, it’s on my land. Therefore it’s my fence. So just pass me those boards you tore off, and I won’t press the matter any further.”
Justin snorted with contempt. He took the hammer from Smith, flipped it, caught it by the handle and moved along to the next section of the fence.
Smith stepped forward to face Brian. He said “It’s hard times, Brian. People do rash things sometimes. Sometimes emotion takes over. I’m sure we can work this out if we just stop and think it through.” His head only cleared the rail by six inches.
Justin said sharply “I’ve already worked it out.” He drove the claws of the hammer under a board.
Brian took a hand off the rail, slid it into a pocket of his coat and brought out a handgun. He rested his wrist on the rail.
Justin said “Oh for Christ’s sake.”
Smith stood very still, with the barrel of the gun nestled against his windpipe. His eyes were closed.
Brian said “Aidan pass those boards back over.”
The boy hurried to send the boards one by one through the gap in the fence. His face was white.
Brian said “Drop the hammer.”
Justin did so. He said “For God’s sake, Brian. This is crazy.”
“You’re right. It’s a crazy world.”
Justin said “OK – there, you’ve got your fence. I’ll even put the boards back on. Just, please put the gun away.”
Brian had not looked away from Smith. He said to him “I hear you like to fix things. So I hope you’re paying attention.” He used the gun barrel to waggle the empty folds of skin at Smith’s throat. “’Cause this is the way things get fixed from now on.”
Smith opened his eyes, nodded minimally.
Brian nodded for Smith to go away.
Smith stepped away from the fence. Aidan went to him. He was the same height as his grandfather. He took Smith’s hand. He said softly “Come on, Grampa” and led him toward the house. Smith pawed the air with his free hand, as if he needed more than his grandson to lean on.
Justin said to Brian “I only wanted some wood for our fire. So we can cook. That’s all. If you give me the boards I’ll nail them back on.”
Brian finally looked at him, blinking as if roused from a reverie. He said “These boards are cedar anyway. They’ll burn up way too quick. Tear down your garage like I did. That old dry wood burns great.”
Justin waited, considered, said “Is that what you’re burning?”
“I was. First I was burning my cordwood. Then I was burning the wood from my garage. But it’s soon gone. And it’s not even winter yet.”
“So you want the fence.”
“That’s right. I want my fence.”
“And when the fence is all burnt up?”
“Who said I was going to burn it?” Brian put the gun back in his pocket. He was animated now, not angry. “I’ve got a deal for you.” He nodded toward the maple tree in the centre of Justin’s backyard. “You’ve got a tree. I don’t. I’ve got a chainsaw. You don’t.”
Justin turned and regarded the tree. It was sixty feet high, still mostly clothed in golden leaves. He turned back to Brian. “You’ve got gas for your saw?”
They shook hands.
Justin went to his father and took his arm. As the two of them and the boy continued toward the house a girl of about eight descended the back steps. “What’s wrong, Grampa?” She had pink-framed glasses. Brown hair hung to just past her ears. She wore a short-sleeved dress and no coat. She was holding a lidless plastic pitcher.
Smith said “Where’s your coat, Chloe?”
Chloe shrugged. When Smith forced a smile she went to a metal barrel at the corner of the house. She scooped the pitcher full and hurried back up the stairs, grimacing at the weight of the water, slopping a little.
Near the stairs Smith stopped and turned. Still holding his arm and his hand Justin and Aidan turned with him.
There was a garden of potatoes. The leaves were beginning to wilt.
Smith said “Without the tree the potatoes will get more light.”
Justin said “And maple’s a great firewood. It burns hot and slow.”
“So I’ve heard.”
Aidan looked into the faces of the men. He seemed perplexed and sad. He looked toward the tree, where a tire suspended by a rope moved slightly in the cold breeze. Below the tire the grass was worn away.
They guided Smith up the steps and into the house.
Aidan stood at a window, looking out into the backyard. He said “I wish you didn’t have to cut our tree down.”
Justin said “I’ll find someplace else to hang your tire.” He was sitting on the floor, leaning back against a couch where Smith lay.
With effort Smith swung his feet off the couch and sat up. He said “Come and tell Grampa what you’ve been up to.”
But Aidan turned and, without looking at either his father or Smith, went up some stairs.
Smith said “It must be hard on the kids.”
Justin said “Chloe thinks it’s fun. She gets tired of the food, though.”
There was a loud crack. The men looked across an expanse of hardwood floor, toward a floor-to-ceiling fieldstone fireplace. A woman was on her knees beside a small table lying on its side. She had broken off a leg, which she now fed into the fire. Chloe was kneeling beside her.
Justin rose and crossed the room. He broke off the remaining three legs and placed them neatly beside his wife. He touched her head and came back to sit beside Smith.
Smith said “Today was my third run-in with a deadly weapon. Terrorists shot at me in Morocco. Then there was a cab driver in Beijing. He had a knife. And now Brian, your worthy neighbor. Have you got a gun?”
“Just a Walther twenty-two.”
“Get a hunting rifle and as much ammunition as you can.”
“Get? Come on, Dad, you know we can’t just get anymore.”
“OK, I know. You’ve tried?”
“I rode Aidan’s bike to the mall. Their rifles were all sold out. I bought some ammo for the Walther. Now his bike’s got a flat tire that I can’t fix. So we’re kind of stuck. I walk a lot.”
Smith said “After we eat I’ll drive you anywhere you need to go.”
“You’ve got gas?”
“The rental companies are resourceful. Just like the airlines.”
The fire was burning well. The woman was now watching Chloe stir a deep pot that rested over the flames on some bricks.
Smith called “Smells good, Heather.”
She turned and tried to smile. She had large dark eyes and chiseled features. But the face was drawn and exhausted. She wore a dress and a pair of men’s socks.
Smith said to Justin “What are you doing for money?”
“I took it all out of the bank a while ago, back when it was easy to get to town. A lot of people were doing the same, so it took the branch a few days to round up the cash. It’s hidden here in the house. But now some businesses are even refusing to accept cash. They want to barter.”
“You’re not afraid of robbers?”
“I am, yes. I’m afraid of them stealing the potatoes, once they’re ripe.” He smiled at his father.
Smith said “Are you making payments on the house?”
“Hah! I’m not making payments, no, and I wouldn’t even if I could. None of the neighbors are. You think the banks are capable of foreclosing? Think the sheriff is going to show up and turn us out into the street and auction off the house? I guarantee you the sheriff isn’t making the payments on his house either. Anyway, the last thing the banks want – if they’re still in business at all – the last thing they want is to be loaded with millions of houses that nobody can buy or even wants to buy. And are the courts capable of enforcing the foreclosures?” He shrugged.
At the fireplace Chloe rose and went into the dining room. There were sounds of cutlery being gathered, plates clinking.
Justin said “Have you been in touch with Mom at all?”
“You know your mom doesn’t want to talk to me.”
“Not even …?”
“Not even under the circumstances? I don’t know. Maybe. You’ve been in touch?”
Justin said “A few weeks ago. When the phones were still working. She was coping, more or less.”
Smith said “I talk to Michael’s mother sometimes. But it’s harder now, since …. Even if communications were better it would be hard.”
They were quiet for a minute.
Justin said “Michael felt sorry for me for being stuck with this house and no job. What he didn’t know is that it’s wasn’t safe in the country either.”
Michael said “I guess there’s no safe place. But it’s got to be safer here than where you’re going.’
Smith smiled ironically. “Stockholm? Madrid? Edinburgh? Bastions of security.”
“I’m amazed the airlines are still working.”
“I know. I’m amazed when I find one that is working. If it flies to where I want to go, that’s a bonus.”
“Dad, what’s the point? Stay here with us. We’re in good shape. We’ve got a good chance.”
Aidan came back down the stairs and sat beside his father, leaning against him.
Smith smiled, said loudly “Commerce, my boy! The lifeblood of humanity!”
Justin said “Do you really believe that?”
Heather stood up, turned, nodded. Justin crossed the hardwood floor, lifted the pot from the flames and carried it into the kitchen. Smith held out a hand. Aidan helped him rise.
They washed their hands at a basin beside the kitchen sink and took their places at the table.
The children sat side by side on Heather’s left. She said to them “You know about Thanksgiving?” In spite of the bone-weariness and constant fear in her eyes she managed to sound supportive, dependable, the good mother. She had a calm, precise manner of speaking.
Aidan nodded. Chloe looked up, tried to remember, shrugged.
Heather said “We’re having Thanksgiving early this year. Because Grampa’s here.”
The children beamed happily at their grandfather.
Smith’s eyes brimmed.
Heather said “The real Thanksgiving isn’t for a while yet. But Grampa is here now, so we decided to have it today.”
She smiled at Smith.
He said “Thank you, Heather. Thank you, Justin.” He had to turn away. He looked down at the table for a few seconds, and then produced a brief smile for the children.
Justin said “Would you like to say grace, Dad?”
Smith was startled. “Good grief, why are you asking me? You know I don’t believe.”
Justin seemed annoyed “Fine. I was hoping maybe you had come to believe. Under the circumstances. Never mind.”
It was as if an invisible veil had been snatched away. Smith trembled for a second. He glared at his son “The circumstances? What I’ve come to believe in, under the circumstances, is the fatal but inevitable stupidity of human beings. If you think god is responsible for that stupidity, then you go ahead and thank him. Just don`t ask me to.”
There was silence.
Only Chloe would look at Smith.
He drew a deep, ragged breath. “Oh, man. I’m sorry. What a thing to say. I guess I’ve become bitter. At least you haven’t given in to that. Heather, I’m terribly sorry. Please, Justin, go ahead.” He took the hands of Justin on his right and Heather on his left. He did not close his eyes, and neither did Chloe. They regarded each other openly, without expression.
Justin said “Our Father in Heaven, we give thanks for the presence of my father for this occasion. We give thanks for this food prepared by loving hands. We give thanks for life, for the freedom to enjoy it and all other blessings. As we eat this food, we pray for health and strength to carry on and to try to live as you would have us live. This we ask in the name of Christ, Our Heavenly Father.”
They all said amen except for Chloe, who was too absorbed in staring at her grandfather.
Heather took Smith’s bowl. From a large vessel in the centre of the table she ladled a stew of beans, grains and small new potatoes.
Smith said “This looks wonderful.”
Heather served the others.
Chloe said “Yum, more beans.”
Aidan elbowed his sister. Justin and Heather glanced at her but displayed no displeasure.
Smith said “Wait. Before we begin.” He slid a hand into a pocket of his suit jacket. He reached across the table and placed beside the bowls of Aidan and Chloe rectangular one-ounce wafers of gold.
Aidan said “Whoa, is that real gold?” He turned the wafer in his hand, studying it eagerly.
Chloe also picked hers up but seemed perplexed. She glanced inquiringly at her grandfather, as if puzzled about the possible use of the thing.
Smith dropped onto the table a handful of similar wafers and parts of wafers. He reached into the pocket again and added to the gleaming pile a ten-ounce bar stamped with an image of a cornucopia.
He said “That’s better. All that weight was making me lean to one side. I was afraid I’d fall over sideways.”
Aidan seemed to appreciate the wit. He gave a little laugh.
Justin said “Good god, Dad ….”
Twisting her wafer in front of her face, admiring its shine, Chloe started to cough. It was a quiet, shallow cough, but it went on and on.
They all stared at her.
Heather went rigid. The skin of her cheeks and jaw contracted tight against the bone. But yet she said calmly “Cover your mouth, dear.”
From the backyard came the snarl of a chainsaw.
“Are you going to the airport by any chance?”
The question came from a man seated at the next table. He wore an overcoat. A plaid scarf hung over the lapels.
Smith said “Are you?”
The man nodded. “Maybe we could go together. What do you think? Just for safety’s sake.” He had a mild Scottish accent. He was a little younger than Smith. He was clean shaven, and his thin blond and grey hair was neatly combed.
Smith said “Where are you trying to get to?”
“My ticket is for Paris, but I’ll settle for anywhere in western Europe.” The man smiled.
Smith held out his hand, said “Smith.”
The man reached, shook Smith’s hand. “Brown.”
Brown left his table and sat at Smith’s. He nodded toward Smith’s bowl. “Good Scottish fare.”
Smith said “Porridge. Same as supper last night. The milk isn’t real, but the oats are, the ones I can locate floating in the fake milk. If I’m lucky it will get me to my next meal.”
“Which will be where?”
“Paris, like you. If I’m lucky.”
Brown said “It’s fun, isn’t it, Smith? International business in the end days.”
Smith waited, said “I guess that’s funny. I wish I could laugh.”
“Sorry. We Scots have a gene for irony.”
“Must come in handy these days.”
They were the only people in the dining room of the Edinburgh Cairngorm House Hotel. The table was by the window, which admitted snow-brightened outdoor light but also a steady flow of cold air through the glass. There was no other lighting in the room.
Smith said “You’ve paid?”
“What did they want?’
Brown reached down, unsnapped the clasps of an old-fashioned leather briefcase, held it open to let Smith have a look. It was filled with handguns. He said “You won’t find a better barter item. The only problem is they’re heavy as hell.” He snapped the clasps shut.
Smith said “Ammo?”
“Just what they’re loaded with.”
“What about the airport?”
Brown sat back and regarded Smith with an incredulous but kind smile. “When’s the last time you had your bags checked.”
“OK. Maybe a month ago. Are you ready?”
They walked through the dining room and through an equally dark lobby. Like Brown, Smith was wearing an overcoat. He pulled behind him his wheeled suitcase. Brown had only the briefcase, which he cradled in his arms.
At the desk Smith said “I’m checking out.”
Behind the desk stood a woman, thin, sharp-featured, baggy-eyed, with very curly grey hair. She wore the red Cairngorm House livery, on which stains were visible even in the gloom. She said “No dollars, no pounds, no euros. Do you have ammo?”
Smith held out his fist, opened it so that she could see the quarter-wafer of gold, closed it again. She nodded and held out her hand. Smith dropped the gold into it.
A single pair of tire tracks ran down the middle of the street, but there were no cars and no other people. Smith and Brown stood waiting in falling snow.
Brown said “Someone will come along. They run between the airport and the hotels. You’ll have to cough up more gold. I’ll have to part with another gun, I suppose.”
“Where do they get the petrol?”
“Oh, they’ve been hoarding it, like good tightfisted Scots. Aye, we know what it takes to prosper in straitened circumstances.”
“More apocalypse humour.”
“Smith, it’s what keeps me going. Without a wee joke from time to time, what’s left? Reality. No thank you. Did you hear about the hoarder and the looter who walked into a bar with Santa Claus?”
Across the street three men came out the dark door of a shop. They were young, thin, scruffily bearded, and wore dark jackets and knitted caps. One of them was carrying a red coat with a fur-lined hood. He held it up by the shoulders for the other two to admire, while they made sounds of approval. Another man appeared. He was bald and wore a parka and a necktie. His face was bloody. He stood unsteadily in the doorway until one of the men made a fist and stepped toward him. Then he sank back into the darkness of the shop.
The three men saw Smith and Brown. They consulted with a glance, and started across the street.
Brown unsnapped the clasp of his briefcase. It fell open. Without looking away from the three men he reached into it and lifted out a plain black handgun. He held the weapon a little higher than shoulder level to be sure they could see it. In his other hand he gripped the gaping briefcase by its handle.
The men stopped for a few seconds, then crossed the tire tracks. Smith heard the soft crunch of their feet in the snow and the softer snick of Brown flipping off the safety switch.
Brown said “That’s a lassie’s coat you’ve got there.”
The man carrying the coat said “Aye, it’s for my ma. She likes red.” He stopped a few feet in front of Brown. He said “But I’ll trade you for it if you put that gun away. See how warm it looks.” He displayed the garment as he had to his friends. “Real fur.”
The other two stepped up onto the sidewalk. One placed himself behind Smith, who turned to face him. The other moved behind Brown and craned to peer into the briefcase. He said “Fuck me, Ian, it’s full o’ guns!” He reached tentatively to take hold of it, but Brown swung his weapon toward him.
The man with the coat tossed it over Brown’s head.
Brown fired, hitting no one. As the blast echoed, and as he used his gun hand to claw the coat away the man who had thrown it charged forward and pushed him. Brown stumbled backwards and fell. The briefcase was torn from his hand. Guns spilled onto the sidewalk. Smith snatched one of them and ran.
There was another blast. Smith kept going. But his suitcase was dragging on its side, so he let it go. There was a shout near him in the street. “Hey!” A car had stopped. The rear door was open. Smith threw himself into the backseat. With wheels whirring the car slid slowly forward but soon picked up speed. The same person who had shouted, a man in the passenger seat, said “Close the door.” Smith did so.
Smith looked out the rear window. He saw that one of the men was holding a gun. Brown lay on the sidewalk. There were two blotches of red in the snow. One was the coat. The other was under Brown’s head. In the entrance of the hotel, as the three men stood looking down at Brown, a third patch of red appeared – the Cairngorm House uniform of the desk clerk. She had a handgun, which she aimed with two hands. She fired three times. The men fell. She stepped forward and again shot the man who had the gun.
As the scene grew small Smith saw the woman gather the spilled guns back into Brown’s briefcase. When she re-entered the hotel with it the man from the shop hurried across the street to retrieve his coat.
In the rearview mirror Smith could see the face of the driver, a woman. She was wearing a white face mask. For a minute the man in the passenger seat turned and regarded Smith. He also wore a mask and was bearded.
They drove slowly along the white street. A single car passed in the other direction. When they drew near a group of people on the sidewalk the driver speeded up. The man in the passenger seat locked his door and reached back and locked Smith’s. The group watched them pass.
Smith saw a pack of dogs emerge one by one from a shop door. In front of another shop a woman, the only person in sight, was sweeping the sidewalk. She stopped and watched them solemnly and raised a hand slightly to wave. Farther on the silhouette of Edinburgh Castle hung like a ghost in the falling snow.
The man said “You OK?”
It took a while for Smith to respond. “I’m not hurt.”
“I ken you’re not hurt. But are you OK?” He looked back at Smith again. “No, you’re not OK. But who the fuck is?”
The car was an ancient Toyota. But the heater worked. Smith sat with his eyes closed, breathing rapidly and heavily. The gun was still in his hand, lying in his lap.
The driver said “Where are you going?” She had an Eastern European accent. She waited a minute, repeated the question.
Smith opened his eyes. “What?”
To her reflection in the mirror Smith nodded yes.
The man turned again “That’s a long way. How do you plan to pay?”
Smith could not seem to understand.
The man said “The gun?”
Smith looked at the thing in his hand, nodded.
The man said “The gun, OK?”
Smith nodded again.
They drove steadily. Smith’s breathing became normal. With unfocused eyes he stared out the window. Soon they were on a highway. The snow was well rutted, but in ten minutes only two cars passed.
Without pulling off the highway the woman stopped the car.
The man said “You better pay us now.”
Smith waited, said “I’ll pay when we get to the airport.” His voice was weak. He was panting again.
“No, we’ll take the gun now, or you can get out here.”
Smith unlocked the door.
The man said “Hey …!”
Through a gap in the hedgerow Smith saw the white undulations of a golf course. He walked away from the car. Near the hedgerow he waited, bent, vomited, waited, straightened. He wiped his mouth on a sleeve and stood for a while with the gun hanging at his side. He went back to the car. The door was still open. He got in and said “Let’s go. Or I will shoot both of you and take your car.”
There were no other vehicles at the airport drop-off. But a group of a half-dozen men were waiting. As the Toyota approached they waved frantically. While the car was still moving they ran forward trying to open the rear door. When it stopped they pushed, cursed, kicked, threw vicious elbows. One man managed to place a hand on the door handle but was torn away by the hair. Smith saw a face smashed against the window, nose flattened, eyeglasses skewing and falling. Someone went down and was stomped.
The man in the passenger seat got out, shouting “Hey! Hey!”
Then Smith’s door was open. He was hauled out. He tripped over the fallen man and blundered on toward the entrance of the building. Behind him the brawl continued – enraged shrieking, cries of pain, sounds of blows or kicks.
Inside, Smith stopped. He looked around. He did not seem afraid, only sick and bewildered. A few people in face masks stood by their suitcases, watching him. He moaned almost inaudibly. He turned when he he heard behind him “Hey!”
The man’s mask hung twisted against his throat, smeared with blood that ran from his nose and through his beard. He came rapidly toward Smith. “Pay up, mister! I want that gun!”
Smith aimed the weapon at him. The man stopped. Smith stood there blank-faced, pointing the gun.
The man cried “You said! Fair’s fair!”
With his free hand Smith unbuttoned his overcoat. He fumbled inside his suit jacket. He tossed toward the man a one-ounce wafer of gold.
“You said the gun.” But the man’s objection was weaker.
With a twitch of the weapon Smith indicated that the man should go away.
The man picked up the gold and hurried out the door.
Smith turned unsurely. He stood for a time with his eyes closed and the gun hanging. He heard more cursing from outside. Nearer, the echo of rolling suitcase wheels. Distant weeping from a check-in. He slid the gun into a pocket of his overcoat and drew a deep breath and went forward.
The plane descended through endless cloud. Sleet that streaked Smith’s window was swept away moment by moment until it was finally replaced by rain. The plane rocked side to side in a rhythm that roughly matched blasts of flame from the only working engine. Smith was seated in first class, as were the other dozen or so passengers on the flight. He said “You think we’ll make it?”
The flight attendant said “We’re almost there.”
The only illumination came from exterior daylight. But when a belch of flame from the engine lit the window it lit Smith’s face too, darkening the crevices among hanging folds of skin below his white sanitary mask. On the female flight attendant standing in the aisle the flame threw less light, but for a second her name tag glowed. Chelsea. She was also masked.
The ventilation system had stopped working. There was a smell of fear-sweat. Smith leaned into the aisle. He saw masked faces half hidden by privacy panels. He heard constant coughing. He sat back and said “I’ve finally remembered where I know you from.”
Chelsea said “You’ve lost a bit of weight since then.”
He touched a pendant flap of skin where neck fat had been. “For a long time I had the marks of your fingernails. I was sad when they went away. I remember, you said Planet Air was going down.”
“Well, this time Planet Air won’t fly again. This is it. Once we land I’m going home to Washington.”
She and Smith regarded each other steadily, as if they did not need to speak, as if all the important information was already obvious. But finally Smith said “How?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. But I’ve got to get back to my family.”
“Yes, last I heard they’re all OK. They can’t get Jayden’s leukemia medicine, but they’re all alive.”
Smith said “Good” and then “My son died. Back east. I have another son in Seattle. His daughter died. My granddaughter. Chloe.”
Another spurt of flame lit his passive face. The plane rocked. He and Chelsea did not look away. She said “Come with me as far as Seattle. Your family needs you.” She was extremely thin, but her voice was clear.
Smith said “I know. And I need them. But there’s a chance I can fix something – some little thing. I’ve got to try, before it’s too late. I’ve got to do what I can. Because I think maybe we can make it. Do you?”
Chelsea’s expression did not change. She waited, nodded.
There was another blast of flame. The plane rolled. People coughed and groaned.
Above the seat-back in front of Smith a man’s face appeared. The face said “Ninety percent mortality. Plus, the web of commerce no longer exists. Total system failure.” There was a face mask, a halo of curly blond hair, a blond beard, and wild eyebrows.
Smith said “My god, is it you – Christian? From Gitta’s office in Frankfurt?”
Christian said “A few will survive. Possibly ten percent of those the virus doesn’t kill.” The skin above his beard and mask was firm and healthy. As they emerged from the final layer of cloud the blue of his eyes flashed paler and brighter than the rainy daylight sifting through the window.
Smith looked away. “I’m not interested.”
Chelsea said to Christian “It’s time to put your seatbelt on.”
Christian said to her “I’m going home to Olympia. There are marinas near Vancouver Airport. We’ll find a sailboat and sail down the coast.” His sentences had no intonation. They were simple information. “Georgia Strait is relatively sheltered, the passages among the San Juan Islands more so. Once inside Deception Pass it should be smooth sailing. I calculate a two-day voyage.”
As his face sank below the top of the seat he said “If we can’t get a sailboat, we’ll walk. Seven or eight days to Seattle. Two or three more to Olympia for me. I don’t know how many to wherever it is you’re going.”
Before Chelsea found an empty seat and sat and fastened the seatbelt she touched Smith on the shoulder and said “Come with us.”
The plane landed with a bounce, then fishtailed. People cried out. The sick engine fell silent. Passengers were in the aisles and grappling in the overhead for bags well before the plane rolled to a stop. Chelsea was helping them. The groans and coughing continued.
Smith waited in his seat, looking out the window. He coughed a little. They were far short of the terminal. When he saw in the distance the mobile boarding stairs he said “Oh damn.”
From the seat ahead came Christian’s voice. “Clydesdale.”
A man in a green slicker was leading a horse. The horse was pulling the stairs.
In a scattered group the passengers walked through cold rain toward the terminal. Among them was the pilot, who coughed as he walked. Chelsea was the only other crew member. She was wearing a blue coat that matched her uniform. When Smith looked back he saw the unharnessed horse being led toward grass beside the runway.
Nearer the terminal a second passenger plane stood abandoned. They passed under the wing of another, entered a vast ground-level space and followed the captain through near darkness. There were horizontal shapes that might have been conveyor belts, hints of colour from baggage wagons. There were no workers. The only sounds were the muted clatter of footsteps, the rolling of hand luggage wheels, and the coughing of the captain and a few others.
The darkness increased. But then a narrow flight of stairs became visible, lit by daylight. At the top of the stairs they entered a long passageway enclosed by glass. The captain fell behind as the others moved through sombre, flooding light. They passed under a sign whose unlit message said Welcome to Vancouver and Bienvenue à Vancouver.
The immigration area was dimly lit by a glass roof, and empty. The baggage claim area was completely dark and silent. They inched through it toward a distant smudge of light, stumbling over dozens of suitcases. And then they were outside. In the covered taxi rank the single taxi had no driver. Beyond, an empty SUV waited at the open-air passenger pick-up, with a door ajar and rainwater pooled on the seat.
The others stood under shelter, coughing or looking around in a dazed way, but Smith walked out into the rain. He had his overcoat but no hat. He stopped, turned and saw Chelsea take sports shoes from her small case. She leaned against the taxi and put them on. She took out a folding umbrella and closed the case without putting her high-heeled shoes into it. She came forward with Christian at her side. They stood just out of the rain, watching Smith.
Smith tried a smile, failed. He said “Good luck” and turned and headed down the empty roadway. He walked steadily, looking straight ahead. He passed the covered-parking building and then the outdoor parking lot. He ran his fingers over the few pieces of gold he kept in the a pocket of his overcoat. He kept going down the middle of the road.
After half a mile, past the major structures of the airport, he stopped, fished a folded sheet of paper from the inside pocket of his suit jacket and unfolded it. It was stained and torn. A few drops of rain splashed among the list of company names printed in pencil. Only the name at the bottom of the list had not been crossed out. Raincoast Resources. As he stuffed the list into the coat pocket with his gold he heard behind him “Food, water, shelter …”
Smith turned. He glared, puzzled and furious. He said sharply “You were going to help Chelsea!”
Christian continued “… weapons, hygiene, medicine …”
Smith gestured angrily. “Go! Go and help her!”
Christian said “… tools …” and kept coming.
Smith turned and walked quickly away. But soon he had to slow down. His breath rasped. He coughed as he walked, and then had to stop and lean on his knees as the coughing continued.
Beside him Christian said “Friends. A community of like minded people. This is extremely important.” He had on a black slicker with a hood. He was speaking through his face mask.
Smith walked on. He managed to say “Not interested.”
There were no cars, no other people. The rain fell steadily. They passed a twenty-foot fir tree beside the airport boulevard, decorated with red Christmas balls.
Christian said “It is very possible to survive. The main obstacle at this point is the virus. So of course certain precautions are necessary.”
Smith stopped. He and Christian stood looking at each other. Smith coughed a little. Christian backed away a step. The rain ran down Smith’s cheeks and over his face mask. It made pattering noises on Christian’s hood.
Smith said in a measured way “International business is my community of friends. They are awful people, but I love them. The present condition of the world may be mostly their fault, but it doesn’t matter. They are what civilization is about. It is their tools that we need. Sometimes the tools have to be repaired, is all. Now go away. You don’t want to be with me.” He started coughing. He took off his mask and dropped it. He continued coughing but did not cover his mouth. He took a step toward Christian.
Christian backed away farther.
Smith resumed walking. He did not have to stop again to cough. The monologue continued ten steps behind him as steady as the rain.
… inevitable … resource depletion … gross national products … growth …temperature … irreversible … population …
The road curved. Ahead Smith saw a bridge. He leaned on his knees to rest for a minute. He straightened, set his mouth firmly, nodded. Their was some brightness in his eyes. Beyond the bridge lay the south slope of the city. Buildings, streets, trees. He said “OK. Raincoast Resources. Good, good.”
He turned briefly, saw that Christian had also stopped. But the monologue had not.
… technology … sustainability … ecosystems …
The approach to the span was long and gradual, but still Smith had to rest frequently. Partway up the bridge he leaned on the railing. Below him the grey-brown river seemed to sway from side to side. He moved on, and the bridge and the city also swayed.
At the cusp of the bridge he stopped again. The tide was running. He leaned on the railing, gasping, and watched the headlong rush of water.
Christian had drawn closer. He said “When systems are highly complex, individuals matter. Supply chains break.”
Smith said “No.”
“If truck drivers die or are too scared to go to work, or stay home to care for the sick, or look after children because schools are closed, the effects are magnified.”
…fuel … electricity … fertilizer … pesticides …
When he said “… apocalypse …” a jolt of electricity seemed to shoot through Smith. He sprang.
Christian threw up his arms for protection and scuttled backwards. But he tripped and dropped his guard.
Smith yelled “Not …”
He held in the palm of his right hand a gold bar the size of a bar of soap. He swung viciously and smashed Christian on top of the head. Christian fell backward. His hood fell off. He managed to raise an arm.
But Smith smashed him again and yelled “… the …”
Christian said “Don’t.” His mask was over an ear. His slicker had come open. There was a picture of a dinosaur.
Smith yelled “… end!” and clubbed him a third time.
Christian pushed himself backward with hands and feet.
Smith watched him for a few seconds. Then he turned and leaned again on the railing.
Christian struggled to his feet and stumbled back the way they had come. When he turned to look back Smith saw that his face was red with blood.
Smith watched the water. He said “Not the end. Not the end.” Then, below the bridge, something appeared. Smith grunted with surprise. It was a sailboat. Against the mud-green water the sails were brilliant white. It was gliding fast on the rushing tide, in front of an east wind. A person in yellow rain gear stood at the wheel. A moment later Smith was able to read the words painted on the transom. Bye-bye Dubai.
Smith shouted – tried to shout – “Frost! Frost, wait!” He threw what was in his hand. “Hey! Please!” The blood-smeared bar plunged into the water almost directly below. The boat grew rapidly smaller.
Smith wept. He looked down the bridge. Although weaving, Christian was moving away steadily. Smith raised his hand as if he intended to call him back, but he did not. He saw that a piece of paper was caught under his shoe. He lifted his foot and saw Raincoast Resources and bent to retrieve the list, but a gust of wind caught the paper and carried it through the railing. It drifted toward a collection of log booms hugging the southern bank, where the Bye-bye Dubai was passing.
Then Smith’s phone rang. He fished it out of his pants pocket and stared at it. The charge indicator showed that the phone was dead. But the display glowed, and Smith saw a familiar name. It rang again, weakly. He tapped the answer icon and raised the phone unsurely to his ear. He heard nothing. But then there was something that sounded like electrical interference. He said “Hello?” He heard the sound again. It was coughing. He heard a word. He heard it again. There was a barely detectable accent. Gitta repeated “Smith … Smith ….” The coughing came again. Then only silence.
Smith dropped the phone into the river.
He coughed for a long time. He gasped for breath. Above him the sky seemed to spiral like water sucked down a drain. He reached for the railing, missed. He sat heavily on the pavement and remained there, watching the rain fall on the dead city.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Morgan Nyberg is the author of the post-apocalyptic series The Raincoast Saga, comprising The Fixer, Since Tomorrow, Birds of Passage and Medicine. His other novels are El Dorado Shuffle, Mr. Millennium and the novels for younger readers Bad Day in Gladland and Galahad Schwartz and the Cockroach Army, which won Canada’s Governor General’s Award. He has lived in Ecuador, Portugal and the Sultanate of Oman. He now lives on Vancouver Island, Canada. You can connect with Morgan on Twitter, on Facebook at Morgan Nyberg’s Books, and you can email him at [email protected]
Copyright Morgan Nyberg 2016
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
Book cover design and layout by Ellie Bockert Augsburger of Creative Digital Studios.
Cover design features:
Air pollution: © Sergey Nivens / Dollar Photo Club
Lightning Bolt: © Jules / Dollar Photo Club
Storm at Night: © Sergey Nivens / Dollar Photo Club
The Fixer chronicles the year leading up to the global collapse upon which The Raincoast Saga is based. A man who works for a powerful investment firm travels the world attempting to fix financial problems. In the process he is caught up in a relentless downward spiral toward the death of civilization.