Black and White

Mary White sat in the Remington Bar at the Houston St. Regis with three Kentucky county commissioners. A rose among celery roots.

“Gentlemen,” she said, “you are doing your country a great service. America needs the coal lying under Hickory Mountain. America needs to sell that coal to China. It’s unfortunate that Hickory Valley will be affected adversely by the strip mining and consequent erosion and runoff, but in a hundred – well, two hundred – years, you won’t know that a mining company was ever there.”

The three men glanced around the bar, showing some white in their eyes. Mary took a hit from her Old Fashioned.

“Relax. You’re safe here,” she said. “No prying eyes. You’re in oil country. Nobody’s skulking around, trying to catch you selling your votes. When the deal goes through and I receive my commission from Apex, you’ll each get your three million.”

“We’ve been discussing that,” one of the men said. He sat a little straighter, though he was still looking up at Ms. White. “We need to make that five million, not three.”

Mary raised her eyebrows and looked at the other two. They nodded, uneasy. She lifted her glass and toasted them.

“Done,” she said, quick enough to let them know that they could have gone higher. Should have gone higher. Just to be clear with them, who was in charge.

“Gentlemen, let’s eat some steak,” she said.

The next morning, back home in Beverly Hills, she told her husband about the deal.

“Apex now owns the complete set of tracts,” she said, as they sat on their back patio next to the pool. “They can strip off the top of the mountain and dump it right down into the valley.”

“You bewitch me,” said John Black, “but you know I can’t condone these deals. I abhor them. You’re a menace to the planet, Mary. You’re probably responsible for more environmental damage than anyone else in the nation. Breaking all sorts of laws in the meantime. Shame on you.”

“I don’t know about that,” Mary said. “I just want to ensure energy independence for America. That’s no crime.”

“Selling coal to China?” John said. “Never mind. I’ll be in Kentucky for a day or two.”

“Have a good trip.”

As he pulled out of their driveway later that day, in his new, fully charged Tesla Model S, John spotted a van, sprouting antennas, parked down the street. It could have had “FBI” painted on its side, so out of place was it in the luxury neighborhood.

John thought about that van on his way down the 405 toward LAX. On impulse, he left the freeway at Mar Vista and parked in a supermarket lot on the Venice border. He got out, pulled an undercar dolly from the back of the car, lay down on it, and rolled under the vehicle. It took him ten minutes of maneuvering around on the asphalt to find the tracking device. He left it in place and rolled back out. He fished a disposable phone out of the glove compartment and called a cab and then his wife.

Mary White answered on a disposable phone of her own.

“There’s a surveillance van down the street from our place,” John said, “and my car is bugged.”

“I shouldn’t wonder,” Mary said. “You’re an environmental activist, after all. It’s a wonder they haven’t set the dogs on you.”

“Let’s assume the house is bugged as well. I’m guessing it’s the Fibbies. Look into this, will you? We’ll need to know if they’re after you, or me, or both. I’ll check too.”

“Will do. See you when you get back.”

The cab took him to the airport, where he bought an economy ticket to Lexington using a fake ID. He brought a vegan lunch on board with him in his briefcase.

He met with the three Hickory Valley commissioners in the Blue Moon Saloon on East Euclid in Lexington.

“You boys are responsible for the coming devastation of a mountain and a valley and a community. You should be ashamed of yourselves, especially since you’ve acted for base profit.”

All three sat frozen, drinks forgotten.

“I expect you to make restitution,” John said.

“Is that tall woman involved?” one of them said.

John frowned.

“Restitution how?” said the quickest of the three.

“There’s a wind-power project in Paducah that I like. I’m thinking that all three of you will make anonymous donations to it. Twenty percent of your ill-gotten gains will satisfy me.”

“Blackmail, pure and simple,” said one of the commissioners.

“I’m here to heal the Earth,” John said. “No jury would convict me.”

The commissioner opened his mouth.

“Let’s not negotiate,” John said. “I’ve a dislike for it. I’ll check with WindWorks in Paducah in two weeks. If you’ve all done the right thing, the matter is settled. If not, you’ll be arrested… But that’s enough about that. You’re losing a mountain but gaining a crowd of windmills. Let’s change the subject. I’m ordering some fried potatoes, and how about those Wildcats?”

Before returning to California, he put in a call to one of his government contacts, in Albuquerque.

Back in Los Angeles, he caught a cab to Mar Vista and retrieved his car. There had been no sign of surveillance in Lexington and there was none now. The car was bugged but he hadn’t been followed to Kentucky, which meant the Fibbies hadn’t bothered to figure out where he had gone, or hadn’t been able to. Which meant that an A team hadn’t been sent. Yet, at least. John got into the Tesla and, once on the 405, crept home at a walking pace due to a traffic jam that engulfed every lane including the HOV he was in.

When Mary came home from her office, she found John out on the patio with a drink in his hand. A Beethoven quartet was playing. She wrinkled her nose at the music.

He put a finger to his lips, not for the music but for the bugs, if present.

“Dinner at Valentino?” he said.

“Excellent.”

She ate gamberi in padella and he had a plate of boiled vegetables. They drank a Phitos Bianco and kept the conversation light. Afterwards, they walked along the Santa Monica beach. A swell was rolling in from a storm five hundred miles over the horizon. They faced the surf. The breakers glimmered under the moon and curled over with a rippling crack and thump they felt through the soles of their feet in the sand. An onshore wind blew spray onto their cheeks.

“Anything?” he said, under the boom of the ocean.

“A tracker under my car too, but the van disappeared,” she said. “I’m flying north on Friday for a quick conference with a friend.”

“I’m hopping over to Albuquerque. I don’t think anyone followed me to Lexington. Seems like we’ve got a little time to work with. By the way, I’m expecting WindWorks to send a check to our account in the Bahamas.”

“Nice. You deserve it for your efforts to save the planet.”

On Friday, Mary paid Diego Aviation at the Santa Monica airport for a flight up to Seattle. The big Cessna filed a flight plan for the trip, but made an unscheduled stop at Oakland International. Mary stepped off the plane wearing a blond wig and caught a cab over to the Tapioca Express on Shattuck in Berkeley, where she met one of her FBI informants. She ordered a Mango Snow Bubble.

“A client of yours had a come-to-Jesus moment,” the agent said. “He didn’t know your name of course, but when he described you, the Bureau came up with a picture that he recognized. However, rather than reel you in at once, the Bureau sees this as a wedge that can be used to begin building a case that exposes the corruption prevalent in certain major energy companies. They know they’re poking a stick into a dragon’s cage, but they’ve got a hot new agent in Washington who thinks he can ride that dragon to the top of the mountain.”

“Who is he?” Mary sucked on her straw.

“Special Agent Gray. He’s working on a list of acquisition projects that fit your profile, with the idea of identifying others you’ve corrupted. If he’s any good at all, he’ll find several officials who haven’t washed their money well enough to hide your bribe. In the end, once the Agency has all the information it thinks it’s going to get, you’ll be sent away for a long, long time. But as I say, that’s not Gray’s main focus. He’s got his eyes on the multinationals. To make a name for himself, you understand.”

“My hubby says he’s using scrubs. A van that stuck out like a sore thumb on Loma Vista. Obvious trackers on our cars.”

“Gray trusted the L.A. office on that. He won’t make the same mistake again. I’ll tell you this. The man has got his motor running. When he’s done with you, you’re going to be a sweet memory and not much more, if you’re not careful. Assuming the oil and coal fat cats don’t get wind of this and jettison you first.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Mary said.

“Don’t thank me,” the agent said. “Just remember me at Christmas.”

“I’ll stop at Wells Fargo,” Mary said. “Santa is going to visit your bank account this afternoon.”

Gazing out the cab window at Telegraph Avenue on the way back, Mary thought about Special Agent Gray.

“Can I reason with him?” John asked her later, as they strolled along Rodeo Drive.

“No, it’s all by-the-book with Gray. He thinks the goose has laid a golden egg in his lap. He’ll be looking at the other packages I’ve put together. Talk to the participants.”

“The executives you work with are all rich anyway,” John said. “They’re good at covering their tracks. Hiding the money they make from their deals.”

“No. If he’s any good at all, he’ll pick up some vibrations. One leak and there’s blood in the water. And the guy who fingered me hasn’t mentioned coughing up twenty percent of his take to some green company yet, either. A smart guy like Gray might figure out that two hands wash each other.”

She held up her right hand. John held up his left hand.

“A hand can’t wash itself,” Mary said. “We’ll have to get rid of Special Agent Gray.”

“We can do that,” John said. “We’ll need to go to Washington.”

“That’s fine. But I refuse to miss the new stegosaurus exhibit again. Be warned.”

Two days later they embarked for Washington from the airport in Burbank, using a modest Cirris Vision SF50 jet leased from Executive Air. After takeoff, they caught up on their email, made a few calls, texted, checked the markets on three continents, and drank champagne.

They stopped in Denver and Chicago to refuel and conduct a little business and landed at Ronald Reagan National in Washington. A limo delivered them to their townhouse on the waterfront in Anacostia. Their cook and housekeeper had it open and ready for them when they arrived. No sign of a tail on the way over from the airport.

“Good hunting,” Mary said to John in the morning.

They spent Thursday and Friday from dawn until midnight, separately, in meetings. They returned to the airport Saturday morning, wilted and drained, and departed for home.

After breakfast on the plane – a grilled chop for Mary, mixed strawberries and blueberries for John – and a few online business transactions, plus, for John, an extended conference call, they settled down together to compare notes. Below them, the country scrolled past like a quilt.

“That felt like an annual pilgrimage,” John said.

“Actually, it’s been two years,” Mary said. “Senator Brown is showing his age but he’s as strong as ever for oil and coal. As are his friends in the Department of Energy.”

“Senator Green still looks like a kid,” John said. “He was downright frisky. He seems to have an army of backers at the EPA. They’re funded for a change.”

“I got off pretty cheap,” Mary said. “Under the table to the oil-and-gas lobby, under the table to the senator, under the table to two directors in the DOE.”

“The depressed economy. Bribes are hard to come by. You know things are rough when the lobbies are taking more than they’re giving.”

“The cost of doing business is going down. How about you?”

“The same. We have some pleased and grateful friends in the nation’s capital.”

“The FBI investigation into our activities has been terminated,” Mary said.

“Special Agent Gray has been transferred to Omaha with a big bump in pay grade. He’s to focus on kidnapping cases in the Midwest,” John said. “Did you make time for the stegosaurus exhibit?”

“I did. Amazing.”

“I wonder how many extinct species you can take credit for.”

“I wonder how many you’ve saved. Listen, why don’t we take a little time off. Visit Rome,” Mary said.

“And the cottage on Lake Como. And Venice.”

“Enjoy the world a little before I destroy it or you save it.”

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2 Responses

  1. Great story! Reminds me of Shirley Jackson’s other great short story (besides “The Lottery’), “One Ordinary Day with Peanuts.”

    http://members.multimania.co.uk/shortstories/jacksonordinaryday.html

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