- 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 hollering to run like the devil, as alligators can’t run far and don’t go out of their way to pick a noisy 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.
Initially the conquistadors - an eclectic assembly of soldiers, lower-level nobility, and monks - were unimpressed with the lumpy tubers the Incas dug from the ground. “Colorless and insipid, this thing called papa,” wrote Father Ignazio in his diary. However, when they learned that papa was nutritious, and just as importantly could be stored indefinitely, they took the tubers with them for the long journey across the Atlantic to their homeland.
The lowly potato supplies all vital nutrients except vitamins A and D and calcium, which can be had by drinking milk. Because of its nourishing and healing properties, the ancient Incas worshiped it with a thousand names and placed it alongside the deceased as the ultimate gift from the gods.
Sir Walter Raleigh (after crushing the Spanish Armada in 1588) planted potatoes on his property in Ireland, and soon after the prolific tuber became the main crop and food-source in the British Isles, as most everyone at the time was poor. It is easy to grow and resistant to low temperatures, why the populations therein survived when a cold period, the Little Ice Age, killed most other crops in Europe.
Even with the horrible prospect of starvation, people on the European continent refused to eat potatoes. The hesitation was justified. Not realizing that only the root was edible, folks ate the leaves. Which make you sick. They’re packed with a poisonous crystalline alkaloid called solanine, the plants’ defense against insects. Ingested, it can cause paralysis of the central nervous system. Add to that rumors and superstitions - causes leprosy - the potato was given such a bad rap people preferred to go hungry. King Louis XVI of France, with his co-conspirator the pharmacist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, conjured publicity stunts to encourage its consumption during those harsh years, to reassure his subjects that the underground part of the plant is good for you, and it’s okay to touch the leaves.
The conquistadors could not have foreseen that their Peruvian discovery also carried a nasty microorganism called phytophthora infestans. It took its good time to develop, and by the mid-1800s the disease destroyed all the potato crops in Northern Europe. The Irish and the Germans were the most affected, as it was their principal harvest and the populations’ main staple.
The political and social consequences were enormous. With the Industrial Revolution came mass production with an increased demand for labor in North American factories. Almost two million Irish, a quarter of the population, immigrated to the United States to find work, as well as one and a half million people from Germany, reaching six million Germans by 1916, after a second potato blight in their country (the copper the farmers needed to halt contamination was used instead to make war machines). Between 1845 and 1920, approximately thirty-seven million immigrants passed the Statue of Liberty.
Progress has been made to control the disease, but scientists are still working on an antidote to an organism that refuses to cross-breed.