It will not do. This preposterous place simply will not do.
Gael Carolina sat in the study of the former Pickle Manse -- now temporary headquarters for Delaval Enterprises' Hardy County operations -- and studied his notes. He had been aware, when he requested the position of project manager, that Hardyville was somewhere sunsetward of the middle of nowhere. He had, perhaps, expected miles of sagebrush and a heavy dose of Wild Westness. He had known the place was unusual; it's very unusualness was what attracted his and Delaval's interest in the first place.
But this! This was ridiculous.
People walking in off the streets and buying opium or hashish at Doc's Drug store! Surely, a civilized place couldn't allow that. A few discreet lines of cocaine among adults, fine. Sharing a mellow smoke in the privacy of one's own home. Having representatives who grow one's own crop in some out-of-the-way location. But storefront displays of such substances? Uncivilized!
Miss Fitz's Academy for Young Ladies? It was a good thing he had investigated that before making the humiliating blunder of promising Jennifer he'd pay her tuition there! Again, a discreet out-call service for the traveling businessman ... fine. Having one's own mistress ... of course. But an open walk-in trade? Outlandish. Unseemly. How can one hope to attract the finer sort of visitor with that going on?
And guns! Guns everywhere -- and not just in the hands of bodyguards or carried quietly in purse or pocket. These people bore every imaginable sort of weaponry as if it were some primitive badge of honor. Submachine guns in pickup-truck racks, .50 calibers mounted on their rooftops, sidearms as big as cannons strapped to their hips.
It was embarrassing. Not to mention intimidating. And surely most repellant to well-heeled European visitors who were coming for the banking ... and who would later come for the exclusive clubs and casinos, the nearby skiing, and the private high-level conferences. Can you imagine their faces when they saw gangs of rowdy teenage cowboys with Kel-Tecs slung insouciantly over their shoulders? Heavens, what a thought!
But Gael Carolina was not one to let obstacles stand in his way.
He swept aside his notes about how things are in Hardyville. Better to concentrate energies on what should be. A few clicks of a mouse took him to the web site of a world-famous architect, known for his stylish high-rises.
If the princes of Europe could build the grandeur of Monte Carlo on a cramped plot of land barely wide enough to stage a soccer match ... if a mere gangster could conceive and give birth to Las Vegas in an unpromising desert oasis ... surely Gael Roberto Carolina could father a playland for the wealthy, even given such an unpromising patch of mother earth. But first ...
The shrilling of the phone down the hallway hadn't interrupted him. Mirabelle took care of such things. But this time, after a moment's pause, she tapped on the door of his study.
"Darling," she called, using English, their most fluent, if not quite perfect, shared language. "I think you must talk with these people."
She opened the door a crack. "May I enter?"
He sighed and clicked to minimize the browser. His computer screen now showed only his favorite wallpaper -- a portrait of himself on a yacht, raising a crystal goblet with a buxom redhead, most definitely not the raven-tressed Mirabelle. Her eyes flicked to the photo, and away again, as she approached. Her face remained carefully neutral.
"It is very odd," she said. "They are the attorneys calling. From Washington. They ask for your help."
"For the five federal agents in the jail."
"And they want my help? Why should they want my help?"
"I don't know. They say no one else will do what they need."
* * *
Generally, the wheels of justice turn much faster in Hardyville than elsewhere. But due to various technicalities, the case of the DEA Five seemed only to be spinning its wheels in mud. Thick, tenacious, knee-deep mud. The mud the locals not-so-fondly refer to as "tiger poop." We blamed it on the attorneys, who kept looking for things like courthouses, judges, precedents, and such, long after they should have figured out that's not how things are done here. They blamed it on our stubborn, cussed backwardness.
And perhaps we gave them reason.
* * *
"They won't do what" Gael Carolina chuckled into the phone, after hearing out the puzzled travel planner from the big D.C. law firm.
"Rent us hotel rooms. Or temporary office space. No one will. We've even tried booking rooms at a bed and breakfast and cabins on a dude ranch. No one will have us. The nearest accommodations we can find are 200 miles away, and that won't do."
"Surely rooms here can't be that booked up. This fine" (he said "fine" in that sardonic way again) "community doesn't exactly teem with life. You must be mistaken."
"No. Seriously. It's not that everyone is booked. It's that they don't want us."
* * *
That was true ... and not true.
Plenty of business owners would have been glad to rent rooms to the Devil, had he shown up with a retinue of purple demons and a wad of cash. Homeowners who wanted to see justice move ahead might have cleaned out their children's rooms, held their noses, and invited the D.C. legal-ators to sleep in Spider-Man bunk beds and share their macaroni and cheese for free.
It wasn't the attorneys we didn't accept. It was their money.
The distinction was one the minions of Mordor-on-the-Potomac would never understand -- until it was too late. That they never tried to understand us -- on our own terms -- was their gravest fault.
* * *
"I'd like to help you," Gael Carolina told the travel planner. "But you can't seriously expect me to. Appearances ..." he gave a small, refined shudder. "I cannot be perceived as being on your side, you know. And in truth I am not on your side -- or the other. In this legal case, Delaval Enterprises must remain a neutral ..."
"I understand, Señor Carolina," explained the travel planner. "But the situation is dire. Only one individual is willing to offer accommodation. And to accept would be unthinkable. We hoped that you, as one of the few civilized individuals on site would ..."
"I don't understand? Unthinkable?"
"Yes. We received a call from one person, offering to put our attorneys up in the bunk house at a ranch a few miles outside of town."
"Well, then. It may be primitive, but I'm sure you can arrange some comforts. I would be glad to discreetly supply ..."
"No. No. You really don't understand. The person offering to house our legal staff is Mrs. Harbibi. The widow of the man our clients are accused of murdering."
* * *
And she meant it, too. Anything to get this legal show on the road. She had even promised to let them sweep for bugs everyday. And to feed them her best beans and pork. The faster things moved, as she saw it, the faster she might get some goodies to compensate her for the loss of her late unloved loved one.
* * *
Gael Carolina shook his head in bemusement as he hung up the phone and clicked the architect's site back onto the computer screen. This was indeed the strangest place. But thus it was, sometimes, with isolated communities before their development. Such folkways would eventually fade.
He clicked through a gallery of the famous architect's drawings and structures. Although he couldn't have distinguished post-modern from deconstructionist by name, he sought a certain look. Free-form, yet grand. Sophisticated, yet amusing. Yes, he could envision a building like that one rising at the intersection of Liberty Avenue and Freedom Way (which would perhaps someday be renamed Delaval Boulevard and Via Carolina).
He would, in fact ...
This time the doorbell clanged, disrupting his train of thought. Mirabelle's footsteps receded doorward. There were murmurs in the hallway, followed by a clumsy thump. And once again, Mirabelle's light tap on his door.
"Yes? What is it?" he snapped.
"May I enter?"
"Can't you deal with whatever it is?"
He sighed. "All right then, if you must. Enter." Again, he minimized the architect's website, leaving only himself and the redhead beaming outward. Mirabelle eased herself inside the door and closed it, casting a worried glance back down the hall just before the latch gave its solid, brassy thunk.
"It's your daughter," she said without preamble. "She has arrived with a suitcase and a backpack."
"Damn. What has that woman done to upset her now?" The question was rhetorical. Gael looked at the pile of work on the broad desk that once contained the entire mayoral burden of Hardyville. "Well, whatever it is, they'll just have to deal with it on their own. I'm too busy. Tell her ..."
"Gael. She is your daughter. I cannot tell her. You must."
He pushed back in his chair and ran his fingers through his sleek black hair. Another sigh. "You're right. Send her in. But whatever you do, leave that suitcase and backpack by the door. It's one thing to visit with my children again. But we can't have a young girl ..."
Mirabelle cast her eyes toward the door and made a shshing gesture. "Please," she begged.
"Oh, all right. I'll handle it nicely."
Mirabelle slipped away, leaving the door ajar. He stood, ready to be resolute. Seconds later, Jennifer burst in.
"Oh, Daddy! Daddy!" she cried, flinging herself into his arms. "Thank God you're here. I couldn't stand it at Mom's house one more minute! She's just awful. A witch. She's horrible and mean. But that's over now. I'm here and you're here and it's going to be wonderful, living with you and Mirabelle!"
Against his best intentions, Gael found himself awkwardly patting his daughter's back. He looked over her shoulder at Mirabelle, standing beside Jennifer's pathetic heap of possessions in the hallway. He shook his head. But the gesture, instead of conveying the "no" he had intended, was full of fatherly, if still reluctant, resignation.
Thank you to proofreaders Darrell Anderson and EB -- saving writers from themselves one typo at a time. And to Oliver Del Signore, faithful font of ideas for stuck writers.
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