Authors: Steven J Patrick
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery, #Retail, #Suspense, #Thriller
It's childishly obvious to me that, while trees and land and animals were put here to enjoy and make our lives possible, we are, in many ways, only a passing shadow in their lives. I think it behooves us to understand our place in the earth's grand scheme and practice the humility that understanding demands. In simplest terms, we're parasites. We take an amazing amount and give almost nothing, so, the bottom line should be, I think, that old doctors' adage: First, do no harm.
And, as I get older, it sorta pisses me off that so many people don't feel that way…a vital part of my favorite working theory: The world really is all about me.
Me was getting a sore butt as we pulled into the actual town of Colville, so we stopped at a cheery little diner to get the taste of the barbecue out of our mouths and stretch our legs.
Jack was looking at the ground with a thoughtful expression as we entered the diner. He excused himself abruptly and told me to order for him before vanishing around the corner of the building.
The menu was surprisingly adventurous but I played it safe and went for the Cascade burger with steak fries, burgers done medium. The young waitress gave me a dazzling smile and, unless it was just a touch of middle-aged crazy, laid on a bit more swish as she walked away.
It may be rusted and covered with duct tape but I've still got it.
Jack returned with two large boxes. He slid one onto the seat beside me and settled into the other side of the booth.
"What's this?" I asked.
"Boots," Jack smiled. "It occurred to me that I forgot mine and that those Reeboks you're wearing definitely won't cut it, so…hope I guessed right on the size."
"12D," I nodded, looking at the label. "Good guess."
"Same as mine," Jack shrugged. "Wasn't hard to figure out."
"What do I owe you?" I asked. I knew the brand. These puppies run about four hundred a pop—the very reason I don't own a pair.
"On me," Jack said, with a dismissive waive of his hand.
"Like shit," I replied.
"Look," he said mildly. "I'm worth about 4 billion dollars. What these boots cost is about what I tip at Vong for a dinner for four. I like being rich, I earned it the old fashioned way, and it makes me happy to buy stuff. So sue me."
"Just don't buy me a Cadillac, okay?" I sighed.
"Hey, I'm not freakin' Elvis, pal," he grinned.
"For four bil," I observed, "you could buy Elvis."
"I'd try, if he were still around," Jack chuckled.
He insisted I try the boots before leaving Colville. They fit perfectly; easily the most comfortable footwear I've ever owned. I kept them on as we drove north out of town, back into the majestic maze of hills and mountains that ring Colville and define northeastern Washington.
We crossed the Columbia on a bridge over a dam and turned south on a narrow two-lane road. Traffic here was sparse and consisted mostly of heavy trucks and ancient passenger cars stuffed with groups of young native American men. None of the latter was going very fast or seemed at all purposeful.
"You want my bleeding heart liberal rap about providing opportunities for young native American kids now, or you want to wait 'til later?" Jack asked quietly.
"Preaching' to the choir, chief," I sighed. "Lotsa right-wing kooks out here screamin' bloody murder about the evils of gambling. Gambling is about all some of these tribes have going for them. I don't gamble myself, but I think people got to live. More power to 'em."
"Not just casinos, though," Jack said, with an edge in his voice. "I don't want to be the guy who marginalized the entire Colville tribe. In the long term, after P.P.V.'s opt-out comes along and I buy their shares, I'm going draw up an agreement with the Colvilles that lets them buy me out in about ten years. They'll own it all—casino, resort, shopping center, farms, and, if I work it right, a hell of a lot of infrastructure."
"This, out of the goodness of your heart?" I smiled.
"Hell, no," Jack snorted. "For a profit. But one they can live with; one that lets them grow the businesses."
Suddenly, it dawned on me.
"P.P.V. has an opt-out?"
"Five years in," Jack nodded. "This is their first venture into anything other than simple timber rights. I'm assuming Anthony II is on a short leash: turn a quick profit, prove it's possible, and that pries open all those fossilized farts on Pembroke & Hawke's board…who, right now, think this whole deal is Anthony Sr.'s kid's loony cash pit."
"So, this thing could belong to you in five years?" I asked.
"Well, me and the Wrights," he murmured.
"Okay, confused now," I snorted. "The Wrights don't opt out?"
"Didn't want to, evidently," Jack shrugged. "This whole project is sort of a social thing for them, I think. Place to bring Clay's buds from la-la land and Jane's parents' old-money Spokane crowd. Which is fine, y'know - 25 mil is 25 mil - but not taking an opt-out…"
"You have one?" I asked.
"Of course," Jack chuckled. "Same as P.P.V., a buyout. I'd take a loss. So would they, but neither of us takes the gas pipe. That's the point: No ruin and desecration, above and beyond corporate law protection."
"Wouldn't that be even more important for the Wrights," I asked puzzled. "They don't, I presume, have your kind of deep pockets or gangs of feral lawyers."
"Only thing I can think of is that those sorts of opt-out clauses are sort of a double-edged sword. Almost always. They give your partners first option if you sell, and frequently, like in our contracts, open up the possibility of a forced sale. P.P.V. and I gang up, decide we just don't want the Wrights anymore—they're difficult, unhelpful, get into some kind of jam that taints the public image, whatever most contracts give us the right to buy them out. Our deal includes language that says we can't buy their shares. We get first right of refusal if they decide to sell, and we get limited veto power if we decline and they go to an outside buyer. But, basically, they can stay in forever if they want."
"Why would you sign on with something like that?" I asked.
"They're locals," Jack shrugged. "I'm not and P.P.V. is a bunch of damned foreigners. If we wanted the deal at all, we needed the Wrights."
"More aromas of fish," I observed.
"Not really," Jack smiled. "Nearly every deal I've ever been part of has had its own Wrights. Fundamental, human nature: People don't trust outsiders. Locals help you grease wheels and sleaze deals."
"My achin' head," I groaned.
"You wouldn't make a good resort developer," Jack smiled, "which speaks very well for your character."
"Well," I sighed, "there's one thing, at least."
We talked easily and laughed a lot. I found that, far from what I had assumed about pain-in-the-ass rich guys, I liked Jack. It would have been hard not to. Take away the vast mounds of cash and my stretch in the military, I could easily have turned out to be a lot like Jack. Like most Marylanders I had known, he has that appealing combination of a fundamentally bright outlook coupled with a wickedly dark and cynical sense of humor. I dated a girl, far too briefly, in high school; a vivacious, playful blonde named Sheryl, who remains the most fun I’ve ever had with my clothes on. She was a Maryland gal down to her chromosomes and I laughed more with her than I ever have with anybody. There’s a strong whiff of that sunny-yet-jaded thing about Jack and I found myself smiling and recalling Sheryl. Which is not a bad thing.
Jack sat up straighter and pointed to a broad entry road forking off the two-lane. It was carefully graveled but completely unmarked except for a small, plastic-covered plywood plaque festooned with permit forms and employment notices.
We turned into the road and started up it at a crawl. I spotted a glint in the trees and stopped. I opened the door, got out, and walked over to the edge of the gravel.
"Problem?" Jack yelled.
"Camera," I replied. "I think we'll sit right here."
"Why?" Jack asked.
"Perceived threat," I said, coming back to the Cherokee. "Don't want to make anybody nervous."
"Fuck that," Jack snorted. "I own the place. Let's go."
I shrugged and put it in gear, driving slowly up a small hill and around a sharp curve. The road fell gently away down an incline that led to what looked to be a long, green valley.
Coming up the road at a good clip were two beige, soft-top Jeeps with heads showing above the rowbars. They got to within about 50 yards of us and executed a tight, neat V, spanning the entire road. I rolled up to about 20 feet and killed the engine.
"Please stay in your vehicle," came a voice over a loudspeaker.
Jack was out in a heartbeat.
"Who's your crew chief?" Jack growled over the beginning of the voice's next sentence. "Let's go! We don't have all day."
A human caricature of Sergeant Rock unfolded itself from the left-hand Jeep. I took a deep breath and got out of the Cherokee.
The Sarge positioned itself in the middle of the road, arms folded, flashes of filtered sunlight flashing off the silly mirrored aviator shades. He stood quietly and said nothing.
I noted a 9mm sidearm and what looked like a pretty replete gun rack at the rear of each Jeep.
"You crew chief?" Jack asked bluntly.
"Identification, please," the Sarge-unit said evenly.
"You're not a cop," Jack replied mildly, "so you don't need my I.D. Now, are you the crew chief or not? If not, get on the radio and get him here."
"Sir," Sarge shot back, an edge creeping into his voice, "you are on my job site. That means I have every right to demand I.D."
"No, I'm not," Jack laughed.
"Not what?" Sarge said, his brow furrowed.
"I'm not on your job site," Jack replied.
"Sir," Sarge smiled smugly, "I think I know my own job site and this is it."
He stepped a bit closer to Jack. I did the same.
"Now show me your I.D.," Sarge said softly, "or get your fucking smart ass off my turf."
"You misunderstand me, son," Jack said, stepping in nose-to-nose with the guy. Look out, I thought wearily. "This may well be your job site, but it is also my land."
A flicker of amusement flashed across Sarge's face.
"This land is held under a 30-year lease by Pembroke Property Ventures and their partners. That's who I work for. We got leases and permits all legal, all proper."
He spat on the ground next to me. A small drop landed on my boot.
My vision went red around the edges and I had that curious out-of-body sensation that sometimes happens when my temper threatens to get the best of me. As always, I counted slowly to five, struggling to keep calm instead of doing something stupid.
Jack just smiled and stretched in a way that managed to be both nonchalant and blatantly insulting. Sarge stiffened and his ears took on a distinct red tinge.
"Son," Jack smiled, "when I said 'my land,' that wasn't some vague ancestral claim and it wasn't a figure of speech. In fact, I, along with P.P.V. and Doctor and Mrs. Clay Wright, own this lease you just made reference to."
"Bullshit," Sarge grinned.
I glanced over at an older guy behind the Sarge-unit. One old soldier can usually spot another. If you're good, you can even make a fairly educated guess about the guy's branch, rank, and M.O.S.