- Chapter One -
Zahni flicked on the overhead light and transferred the photographs from their last bath to dry on a rope strung across the shed. They were taken at the bayou at the Palmetto Springs Wildlife Reserve, where he and the twins had gathered specimens of potato plants. The last image was the blurry close-up of a heavy-set man in front of a Cadillac.
He put it up with the other photographs and placed the negative again under the enlarger, this time inversed, and studied the details. This trick of reversing the negative helped him notice things he wouldn’t have found otherwise, but it didn’t take a practiced eye to see that the man in the floppy bob was not a happy camper. His passenger was walking away, the heels a might too high and the skirt a might too stretched over a hefty behind. Zahni put the negative away and sat in the darkness to review the events of the past weeks.
A company called Gamma Development wanted to build a shopping mall in Half Moon, and the news caused old wounds to reopen with the residents once again taking sides. A few years back the plan to build a Marina caused an irreparable rift in the community, jeopardizing friendships and family gatherings. The altercation formed odd alliances where conservatives bonded with the liberals in preserving their natural heritage and, as everyone predicted, Laura the baker broke her engagement with the pharmacist.
Mario and Tenacio attended the meeting at City Hall, where the vice president was presenting the project. Mario in particular was interested. He was taking business classes at the community college, picking up credits while deciding how to become a millionaire before he reached thirty. Maria and Zahni waited for them on the twins’ back porch where a slight breeze drifted from the bay, a welcome respite from the record-breaking mid-summer heat.
“It’s a good project,” said Mario appreciatively. He put his head under the kitchen sink, and leaving a watery trail sat on the railing near the fan. “Some people would love to see a shopping mall. It takes almost two hours to drive to the one in Argos.”
“I thought you’d still be at the meeting,” said Maria setting food on the table. The twins’ parents were in Italy visiting family, and their mother had filled the freezer with enough food to last a year.
“It was hot.”
“No surprise there. I’ll bet the storekeepers had something to say about it,” replied his sister. It was no secret that shopping malls take customers away from local businesses.
“He means HOT,” said Tenacio, grinning. “The mayor shut off the air conditioner.”
“Nope. It was the only way to end the meeting without having to arrest people for assault.” Mario described the sweaty stampede to the door.
“So, what happens next?”
“There’s no way it’ll be approved. Even those in favor have to admit the project isn’t viable,” said Tenacio.
Mario agreed. “For starters Gamma Development wants tax breaks that are unreasonable, but the main obstacle is the location.”
“They want to build it next to Lake Mantis.” Tenacio shook his head in disbelief.
Lake Mantis had several historic mansions but was best known for its organic agriculture. The farmers supplied all the restaurants in Half Moon and held a hugely popular Saturday market. A large part of the town’s reputation was because of these farms.
“There were some interesting public relations ideas,” said Mario. “A free day care, with the notion that parents will stay longer and buy more if they aren’t distracted by their kids. Genial.”
Tenacio left right after dinner with his two ginger cats that followed him everywhere. He’d recently finished the paramedic program and had to get up early. He was attracted to the unpredictable challenges of the job where a team had to make clear-headed split-second decisions. Tenacio was still renting the cottage from Alex and Zahni’s parents, and the cats eventually made their peace with Whiskers, though they never actually hung out together. He and Alex were still dating. He hoped.
Six months was a long separation. Alex left for Paris on a scholarship to study portraiture and would be back in a couple of weeks. They wrote frequently but he was apprehensive. Both she and Zahni learned Italian from the twins, and in a letter from Florence she said she felt right at home. Maybe she’d decide to live in Italy.
If so, he’d have her letters to remember her.
A week after the heated meeting at City Hall, Elvira McCarthy, treasurer of the Ladies Garden Club, invited Maria to lunch at the museum. After catching up on things that friends generally catch up on, Maria confessed that after a year at the community college she still didn’t know which direction she should take her studies.
“Does that worry you?” asked Elvira.
“Well, yes. Mario has known what he wants to be since he was five, and I don’t have a clue.”
“Being a millionaire isn’t really a ‘thing’ but he does seem focused. Maybe you shouldn’t worry about it, just keep taking different classes, or maybe find a job somewhere else for a while. Sometimes a change of scenery gives one perspective. Are you still volunteering at the animal shelter?”
They spoke a bit longer about Maria’s options and Elvira showed her a card she received recently from Alex, from Amsterdam. She’d purchased a Eurail train ticket and made a whirlwind tour of Europe, which is about the same size as the United States. Elvira herself travelled extensively in her role as board member of the Preservation Society and never married, never planned to. It’s too soon, she’d tell her worried mother until one day she said, it’s too late.
Elvira had a second reason to meet with Maria. A friend of hers, a member of the Palmetto Springs Preservation Society, was concerned about an LLC’s down-payment on a property on the outskirts of town.
“Constance knows that Gamma Development is looking for a spot to build a mall, so she followed the paper trail to Nathaniel Harding, who happens to be the son of the owner and vice-president of the company.”
“Is that a problem?” asked Maria.
Palmetto Springs had some grave financial downturns and people were leaving to look for work elsewhere.
“They’ll have to find a solution soon, that’s a certainty,” said Zahni, after Maria got back from her lunch date with Elvira.
The town was hard hit after the chip-factory closed its doors. Besides guaranteeing the purchase of the local farmers’ potatoes, Keplar Inc employed over half the residents one way or another. When the factory closed, local businesses suffered as well. The official statement was the plant was too old and too expensive to restore, and could never be competitive in a fast-growing industry.
“Why did it worry Elvira’s friend?”
“The property is adjacent to the Palmetto Springs Wildlife Reserve, and she worries how a shopping mall would affect the environment. She hopes we can do some quiet investigating.”
“Why that particular property?” Tenacio’s cats sauntered from the cottage to where the friends were sitting on the beach, and cuddled next to him on the blanket. He scratched behind their ears and was gratified by loud purrs.
“Bingo. That’s what got Elvira’s friend suspicious. Why that particular piece of land near the reserve, when there are so many other farms for sale in the county?”
That evening Maria went online for more information. The property was one of the larger potato farms and belonged to Maximilian Ross. Like the majority of farmers in the region he inherited it from his father, otherwise there wasn’t much more to be gleaned concerning MaxRoss Farms. The links concentrated on the region’s history with a host of sepia photos dating back to the last century. More recent articles addressed the depressed economic situation in the county and the problem of unemployed with too much time on their hands. Zahni called Santiago at the police station to see what more he could learn.
When Zahni turned thirteen he was accepted into the Law Enforcement Academy, notwithstanding his young age, with commendations from both Chief Masterson and Mayor Whitfield. He and Santiago were classmates and stayed in touch after graduation.
They made plans to meet the next day at the deli where they stopped every week after their martial arts class, owned by the same couple since anyone could remember. Refugees from Croatia, the wife wore her hair braided and wrapped tightly around her head the old-fashioned way. When she saw the two young men she came directly from the kitchen to greet them and, turning her apron around so the clean side showed, made them sandwiches. They took their lunch to Moon Lake, to a bench shaded by an oak tree where squirrels paused in their endless game of hide and seek to look at them expectantly.
Santiago drew a file from his backpack. Zahni read the first page and whistled.
“MaxRoss Farms was infected by late-blight, out of season?”
“Yup, right after it was inspected. Curious, isn’t it.”
It made no sense.
“As you probably already know, besides potatoes, tomatoes and a few other vegetables, the disease doesn’t infect the environment and it can’t affect humans. This is why the infestation was kept under wraps, for fear of scaring tourists away from the reserve.” The reserve was the only remaining source of income for the town.
In an effort to stimulate economic growth, the government awarded Maximilian Ross a grant to build a solar power plant to dehydrate the potatoes. The selling point was a healthy alternative to the traditional fried potato-chip, besides being environmentally friendly to produce. Max Ross put his project in motion when overnight his crop was infected. All precautions had been taken, and if blight does appear in the region it manifests later in the summer. Scientists were looking into a possible mutation of the disease.
“The contamination was devastating for Mr. Ross,” said Santiago. “His crop was ruined, the grant was rescinded, and his wife left him for the managing-director of Keplar Inc.”
“Poor devil. Do you think Gamma Development had something to do with it?”
“Who knows, hard to prove. It’s not illegal to purchase private property, and Ross is facing bankruptcy. His land is useless to him and a shopping mall would be popular, there’s no doubt about it.”
For the populations in the small rural towns, a trip to the mall in Argos was a treat. Folks planned ahead, travelled with friends, ate junk food and watched family-friendly movies. For children it was like Disneyland and for teens it was the closest thing to Heaven.
“It would certainly affect the ecosystem in the reserve, with the asphalt, noise, traffic and litter.” Zahni felt a familiar knot in his stomach.
“That’s right, and the ‘you-can’t-stop-progress’ group will tell you to suck it up.”
Zahni was acutely aware how everything was connected. The extinction of even the smallest bacteria can cause a chain reaction that would damage other forms of life. Long-term consequences are what guided his approach to his research. As an example, he used well-meaning missionaries in Africa who cleaned the water a tribe was used to drinking because it contained a dangerous bacterium. They did not realize that the tribe was inoculated, and that the bacteria acted as a vaccine against the poison of a certain invasive insect. Everyone died.
Santiago was right, change was an integral part of life and the fight for survival dictated the outcome. He was vehemently against the project but what right did he have to be judgmental. Palmetto Springs needed jobs more than anything, more than the wildlife reserve could provide. More than the possible extinction of species that few people even knew existed.
Zahni wanted samples of the infected potatoes. There was no answer when he called MaxRoss Farms so he and the twins drove over the next day. No one was home and they wandered around the property which had the distinct aura of abandonment, as if the buildings felt betrayed. They drove the short distance back to the bayou where Zahni noticed some potato plants next to the fence that separated the field from the wildlife reserve. Mario found a clearing off the road and parked behind a hedge of seagrapes. They put on their boots and carefully made their way along the fence, on the alert for alligators. They were taught from the youngest age to back off slowly and then turn to run like the devil, as alligators can’t run far and don’t go out of their way to pick a fight.
Maria kept watch and took pictures while Zahni and Mario quickly dug up a handful of tubers. As they were leaving they noticed a Cadillac parked in front of Max Ross’ house. A woman with orange hair, a lavender suit and a small pink bag stepped from the passenger’s side.
“What’s that, the Easter Rabbit?” asked Mario, while Maria fumbled in the backpack for her camera.
The woman shed her jacket, patted her hair and walked to the hangar, stumbling on her high heels over the uneven ground. A heavy-set man eased himself with difficulty from the driver’s seat and used his bob to wipe his forehead.
While their attention was focused on the odd couple, a small figure dashed from the back of the hangar across the field.
Mario wanted to see what the woman and her driver would do but it was getting dark. While the twins argued, Zahni walked to where their car was parked and picked some of the ripe seagrapes.
The next day Zahni brought the developed photographs over to the twins’ house.
“Look at this,” said Mario, pointing to a spot in the potato field. A dark blur looked suspended halfway between the hangar and the fence, on the east side of MaxRoss Farms. It could have been human, or an animal. Or something extra-terrestrial, said Maria, who believed in this sort of thing.
Zahni left the pictures at the twins’ house and caught the bus to Harry Maddock’s apartment. He was almost sixteen and there was mounting pressure for him to take his driver’s test but he put it off, preferring the bus without having to ‘find a place to park’ or ‘stop for gas’.
No one was surprised when he turned down scholarships to become a private investigator, with the exception of his Iranian grandparents who took the decision as a personal affront. That their son Kadir married outside the Muslim faith was somewhat compensated by his producing a genius grandson, and they’d bragged to family and friends in Iran how universities were stepping over each other to have him. Outraged, they cut all ties, which had never been strong to begin with. They blamed Kadir, who’d left his professorship at the university to become a cab driver. This would never have happened had he married a Muslim woman.
Lana, Harry’s live-in secretary, was thrilled when she saw the seagrapes as Zahni guessed she would. She’d entered a jam-making contest to raise funds for the Ladies Garden Club, and such a unique flavor would certainly draw interest. Jam-making was Lana’s latest hobby after one of Harry’s grateful clients gave her fruit from his farm too ripe to sell, and the counters in the kitchen were covered with glass containers of different sizes, shapes, and colors. This irritated Harry no end though he was unable to supply a good reason, as he never cooked.
She was no newcomer to contests, and generally avoided them. Her mother had a certain notoriety in the Marilyn Monroe circuit and when she saw that her daughter had the same physical traits, she signed them up as a mother-daughter team. Lana hated it. They fought all the time until one day she walked out of her mother’s life.
“Is there a prize?” Harry asked, when Lana told him she was going to submit one of her jams.
“Of course there’s a prize, why it’s called a contest.”
“I mean is there a cash reward?”
He knew it was to raise money for an orphanage sponsored by Countess Katrina Katro, and Lana pretended not to hear him. He was picking for a fight. She told Tulip to fetch his leash and they went for a walk.
“No use getting all bent out of shape,” Harry muttered to the wall. “Just asking.”
Harry Maddock knew about every trick in the trade, including tricks he’d learned when his job took him to the gray areas of legality. He’d become a cynical, mid-aged man, slow to shave and generally unkempt. The elegant, spacious art-deco apartment left to him by his parents was a mess, the kitchen table littered and the sink cluttered with empty milk cartons. Not much in the muscle department with a pot belly lurking above his belt. Notwithstanding, his disheveled appearance did not keep clients away. He had the reputation of being smart, honest, thorough, and discreet.
His life changed the day he accepted a job that ruined a young girl’s life, a Marilyn Monroe look-alike who worked as a waitress in a restaurant in Argos. Harry did his best to make amends, encouraged Lana to go back to school and hired her as his secretary. Six months into the arrangement they decided it would save rent money if she moved into the guest-quarters in his apartment. It was a perfect match; she made his appointments, cooked, kept the apartment tidy, and turned her boss into something of a half-civilized human being.
Zahni started working for Harry after he passed his exam at the police academy, and though it was mostly online research until he turned eighteen, he’d accompany him occasionally to assess people’s behavior. Only seven percent of information is gathered from language, the rest is communicated nonverbally. Even the way people select their partners is nonverbal. That’s where Zahni focused his genius; on what people don’t say.
While he learned the investigating trade, the Lyceum continued to fund his research on bird bones under the supervision of Professor Melik Halabi. His father helped him transform the greenhouse in the backyard into a laboratory, and the wild hens, no longer allowed on the premises, were outraged. Kadir generously provided other comfortable nesting spots on the property but they weren’t having it. The exclusion from what they considered legally theirs created a great deal of distress that did not recede with time. Staging silent dissent, they lined along the glass partition to glare at him. He equaled their single-minded efforts to regain their domain to the way humans defend at all costs what they feel is rightful ownership.
The shed remained Zahni’s preferred haven to clear his mind. One has a tendency to find conclusions that fit into one’s preconceived ideas, what we want or expect to see or, as Sherlock Holmes would say, ‘One tends to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts’. He’d sit in the darkness and observe the dust particles caught in the shafts of light between the blinds, solid matter unrestrained by molecular boundaries, airborne and atomically indiscriminate.
Lana and Santiago were dating, and the rooky policeman would come over with his young niece Lucia who matter-of-factly decided the grizzly detective was her best friend. The more he pushed her away the more she lavished him with love. One day she arrived with a puppy basset hound, crying because her mother wouldn’t let her keep it. She’d named it Tulip.
“That’s not a dog’s name,” said Harry, going out of his way to use his most reasonable tone while the puppy, all ears and paws, attempted to climb on his lap with its stumpy legs.
“Why not?” asked Lucia. Her expression suggested a drawn-out-bring-it-on argument.
“It’s the name of a flower.”
“Rose is a flower, and it’s my aunt’s name.”
“Your aunt isn’t a dog, and I don’t know anyone who’d want to be called Tulip,” said Harry. “Anyway, it’s a boy dog, you can’t give a boy dog the name of a flower.”
“Why not?” asked Lucia, arranging her face for a full-blown temper tantrum. Life was totally getting in the way of her plans and she wasn’t going down without a fight.
Harry was coerced into letting the dog stay.
- Chapter Two -
Frankie Martinez sat across the desk from her boss and turned her head to the window so he wouldn’t see her consternation. The office, located near the entrance of the Palmetto Springs Wildlife Reserve, was a small two-story structure made from cypress wood, surrounded by a porch wide enough for visitors to take refuge during rainstorms. A family of ibis strutted across the waterlogged grass hunting for bugs with their long beaks, the little ones running to catch up.
“Don’t get involved,” he was saying without looking up from his paperwork. “It’s not our problem.”
She had no grief against Mr. Stuart. From his first day on the job she saw that the new manager took no interest in the reserve, with no appreciation for its mysterious beauty. On the other hand he was a competent administrator, no drama, and they got along well. Chase Stuart recognized she had more knowledge than he did concerning the reserve, and counted on her experience.
Today she faced a stranger.
“I’d like to check anyway, sir, I thought I could contact the Health Department and see if they sent anyone.”
“It’s not our problem,” he repeated sharply, staring at the collection of pens on his desk like he had to make the important decision which to choose, and waved the air to indicate the meeting was over.
Frankie was perplexed. Her task as head of security was to ensure the safety of the visitors and make sure no one entered certain areas closed to the public. One of these areas was the bayou next to Max Ross’ potato farm, and when she found a couple who thought it would be exciting to kiss near an alligator, she was extra cautious. She checked the bayou often and at all hours, as it was on her way home. The repercussions of an alligator attack were enormous, for the possible loss of life as well as for the reputation of the reserve.
Frankie lived with her grandfather, bicycling distance from the reserve. If she needed a vehicle she’d borrow his truck which was almost as old as he was and, like him, never broke down. Her mother died when she was a child, and her father travelled around the country building bridges. Every time he got back from one of his gigs they’d make a model of the bridge with toothpicks.
The day before her meeting with Mr. Stuart, Frankie stopped as usual to scan the bayou. She’d seen a female alligator lately, pregnant, and was watching out for her when she noticed someone in the potato field. She’d been told the field was infected, and knew why it was best not to speak about it. It could have been normal for investigators to be there except she didn’t feel he was an investigator and it was late in the day. Why didn’t Mr. Stuart agree to a routine check, for security measures?
About a month later she noticed two figures in protective suits. They selected some plants on the east side and took them to the hangar after planting a small flag where they retrieved the tubers. She increased her rounds and noted the days she saw anyone in the field. Not because she was especially worried. She kept a daily log for the reserve. It was only when she saw the armed guards around the fence that she started worrying. The looked downright mean.
Edwina Mansfeld stepped from the air-conditioned Cadillac and waited for her glasses to un-fog before glancing at her surroundings with open distain. MaxRoss Farms had been left to its own resources; weeds grew unhindered between the cracks in the pavement while the bougainvillea in front of the house competed for space. She spread her hands over her lavender suit, patted her permed orange hair and shed her jacket revealing pale, plumpish arms.
“How many palm trees do these people need?” she asked, slapping at a mosquito. “They have more plants and swamps and springs than God.”
Edwina thought of herself as a pragmatic visionary and believed in Darwin’s theory of evolution where wildlife reserves become parking lots. Winston, releasing himself with difficulty from the driver’s seat, knew better than to reply one way or another. The humidity hit him like a sledgehammer and beads of perspiration rippled down his chubby, likeable face. He grabbed a briefcase from the back seat, closed the door on the passenger side and used his bob to wipe his forehead while Edwina waited for him in the shade of the hangar. It was getting dark. She checked her watch.
“They’re late,” she said in her you’re-the-one-to-blame tone. She handed him the keys. “Here, make yourself useful.”
Winston opened the door and turned on the lights when the van finally appeared from the road and unhurriedly rolled up the driveway. Two sullen-looking men (after a pit-stop for a six-pack on their way over) got out and started unpacking. Edwina was not the kind of person to let bygones be bygones, and made her feelings known as they carried the boxes into the hangar while Ernest checked the items on his list. Without a word they got back in the van and drove off. Winston locked the door and followed Edwina’s indignant posterior in the dim moonlight, her pace slowed considerably by her heels as she recited a string of blasphemous words that do not dignify repeating. He noticed that she was careful to wait until the two men were out of hearing, before threatening to have them fired.
Edwina was personal secretary to Nathaniel Harding, vice-president of Gamma Development. She and Nathaniel knew each other since high school though they gravitated in different circles. She had a brief crush on him their senior year but he lacked spine and she lost interest. In college they were in the same business class, and because he was more interested in chemistry he was about to fail the course. Harding Senior let him take chemistry only if he studied business administration. If he failed, he’d have to pay his own tuition. Edwina helped him get his grades up. After graduation his father made him vice-president of the company, and Nathaniel asked her to be his secretary.
Gamma Development was not doing well financially, why the mall project was so important. Nathaniel wanted to diversify and was at odds with his father, who preferred to blame his son for the company’s failure when in reality it had been in the red for quite some time. Nathaniel wanted to put funds aside for research but Harding Senior was a bully, the shut-up-you-don’t-know-anything kind. He’d built his real estate empire from scratch and by golly nobody was going to tell him how to run his business.
“Papa, because your system worked forty years ago doesn’t mean it works today. There’s more competition than when you started the company.”
“Just out of college with grades that would make a rock cry and you are telling me how to run my business?”
The old man had set his mind on having the mall built at Half Moon, a prestigious town that was thriving. Nathaniel was certain the request would be refused and suggested a less expensive property in a county that needed jobs.
“You are a coward, you want everything always to go smooth,” yelled his father. “You have the easy life, you got your degree in chemistry like you wanted and I make you vice-president, like that. Instead, you complain.”
“Did you see the last financial report? The company is tanking.”
“Because you don’t do your job right. We don’t talk about it no more,” said Harding Senior. “And apologize to your mother, look, you make her cry.”
Nathaniel was certain Half Moon would turn down the project and searched for possible locations around Palmetto Springs, where the land was reasonably priced and close enough to Half Moon to appease his father. He knew about the government’s willingness to give tax breaks to companies who could provide work for depressed communities. His hunt for a property was also an excuse to get out of the office and the oppressive atmosphere at the house. He could have moved on with his life, like his sister. He convinced himself that the reason he stayed was for his mother, who was so obviously unhappy. When his father was away they’d eat with the cook and the housekeeper, and play cards around the kitchen table until all hours. Those evenings together she was like the mother he remembered as a child, happy, and giggling mischievously when Cook suggested she should become a professional gambler.
Nathaniel learned about the diseased field at MaxRoss Farms in a science journal he received monthly, in an article on blight. It mentioned the unusual timing of the infestation and the theory that it could have mutated to become the new norm. Out of curiosity he drove by. There was no one at the house so he walked around the back and followed the fence that separated the tilled earth from the bayou and the swampy wilderness.
A week later he found another article in the Chemical Review regarding a study on late blight titled ‘Conning the Spores’. Nathaniel was at his favorite lounge where a pianist played low-key jazz music so he felt transported to places unknown. He ordered another glass of pinot grigio and continued reading about the professor’s unorthodox approach to the problem. The article was written by Dr. Karl Weber, professor of biology and entomology at the university in Argos. He sipped his wine, looked out the bay window where the landscaper created a decent rendering of a Japanese garden, and had an idea, the kind that comes to you as an omen.
A peaceful feeling washed over him, something he’d never before experienced. He’d show his father how to make money. He’d invest his own savings and the money his grandfather left him.