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Authors: Eliot Peper

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BOOK: Cumulus
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Every time she rounded the corner of a switchback, Lilly stole a glance into the rearview mirror. It was almost time. The smoldering disk of the sun dipped lower toward the horizon. A gabled roof blocked her view, but before her eyes flicked back to the road, she noticed a little black object zip around a stand of redwood trees in an adjacent yard. Probably some kid playing with a toy drone.

The Land Rover roared up the winding narrow streets like a diesel-fueled bull elephant. If she hurried, she should just make it. She tried to gauge angles and timing with every glimpse into the mirror. So close. She came up around another corner, and a “No Outlet” sign flashed past on her left.

The road angled up steeply, and came to the crest of the ridge. The sun burned low in the mirror. Perfect, an unimpeded view. Lucky for her, the road ended at an estate that sat all by itself on the ridge. She pulled over in a cloud of dust on the gravel driveway that led into the estate and pulled the parking brake. There wasn’t much time. Grabbing her kit, she jumped out the door and slammed it behind her.

The vantage point from the road wasn’t as good as it had appeared. A wooden fence surrounded the estate. Bright green vines covered almost every inch of it. Once she was done, she had to remember to snag a bunch of the plump red grapes dangling every meter or so.

She prowled the perimeter, looking for an open shot of the western horizon, but there was none to be had. Damn Greenies wouldn’t even share a view. Mansions so big and fences so high that they lived in their own walled-off little universe. Shit. She needed this. Her camera needed love, needed passion shots. The minute it became only a tool instead of an artistic vessel, she was done. If she did only paid gigs, she’d lose her touch. If she lost her touch, she’d lose the paid gigs. She couldn’t afford to lose either.

Fuck it. She circled back to where she had parked the car and continued around to the downhill side of the house. Then she adjusted the straps and pushed her camera behind her back. She looked up at the fence and took a deep breath. No time for second thoughts.

She jumped up and grabbed the thickest twist of grapevine she could find. Her feet scrabbled for purchase against the wooden fence. The rough bark of the vines rubbed her hands raw as she hauled herself over the fence. She pressed her eyes shut to keep the leaves out, and threw her body onto the top. The top of the fence dug into her stomach, and the grapevine clung to her like the grasping tentacles of a sea monster.

With immense effort, she dragged her legs free of the vines and over to the other side. Then she pushed off with her hands, and fell to the lawn on the inside of the fence. Her breath came in sharp pants. That had been a lot harder than it looked. Movie heroes always made hopping over fences look elegant and effortless. Instead, her face was flushed. Her palms were all scraped up and sticky with sap. Her clothes were in disarray. She clearly wasn’t cut out for cinematic heroism.

But hey, she had made it. Time to find her spot.

She surveyed the estate. The landscaping was impeccable. Lilly imagined the months of hard labor that must have gone into designing the layout, grading the earth, and planting everything. Brightly colored flowers accented the largely native vegetation. Gravel paths wove through the yard. In defiance of California’s endless drought, a small stream flowed between stands of graceful olive trees. The house was too tasteful to be called a mansion. Some architect had really outdone themselves on this one. Arching angles of wood outlined wide windows, which blazed amber in the light of the setting sun.

Shit. She needed to focus. She could ogle structural masterpieces any old time. Right now, she was about to miss the climax of this little misadventure. There was a slight rise in the terrain just in front of the olive trees where a wooden bench offered a panoramic view of the western horizon. She used the backrest of the bench to steady the camera and began snapping shot after shot.

Click. Click. Click.

This was to shooting a wedding as sex was to foreplay. The bay was a glittering expanse of molten silver. High-altitude clouds streaked across the dome of the sky like radiant calligraphy. Fluffy heaps and piles of lower-altitude clouds formed flying golden palaces. The San Francisco skyline was outlined in stark contrast. The blood-orange span of the Golden Gate Bridge sat directly west of her, the gateway to the Pacific and beyond. The sun dropped toward the pregnant ridgeline of Mount Tamalpais.

Click. Click. Click.

A lavender wall of fog advanced from the distant marine horizon. The tendrils of its vanguard began snaking around the massive piles of the Golden Gate, rising to obscure the bridge in an impenetrable blanket before shooting through it and onto the bay as if a dam had given way. Tributaries squeezed through hidden valleys before rushing east to cloak the skyscrapers of downtown San Francisco. The dislocated flows of fog re-formed into a uniform mass that surged across the water like a silent tsunami. The sun kissed the horizon and set aflame the tufts trailing off the top of the soft expanse.

Click. Click. Click.

Lilly’s consciousness subsumed into the scene. She was the hawk hovering on the updraft, the sailboat tacking back toward the Marina, the headlights that transformed the Bay Bridge into a Christmas tree. The tangible sense of
being there
felt when appreciating a great photo was nothing but a taste of how
present
the photographer was when capturing it. Her intuition anticipated how the light was morphing and changing as the sun dipped lower and lower. Art sat at the balance between self and other. Only by fully investing herself in the object could she turn it into a subject. There was nothing but the composition. Nothing but her breath. Nothing but now.

Then a flash of light blinded her through the viewfinder, and she jerked away from the camera, as if burned. A piercing shriek slammed into her with almost physical force, and she fell away from the bench and onto the gravel, hands jerking up reflexively to cover her head. Pain lanced through her ear canals.

She blinked rapidly, but all she could see were dark purple spots. The gravel was sharp against her skin. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. What on earth was happening? Nightmare scenarios played out in quick succession. Had someone just detonated a nuclear weapon in San Francisco? Was a shock wave about to tear up the hill and turn her into a smoking pile of ash? Was she going to live out the rest of her short life fighting assault after assault of radiation-induced cancer?

 

 

 

12

 

 

 

TAKE CARE OF THEM.

Graham went over to the side table and poured two fingers of bourbon. Swirling the golden liquor in the glass, he stepped out onto the balcony of his San Francisco apartment. The cool evening air raised goose bumps on his arms.

This had been a long time coming. Most operations failed before they had even begun. Success required meticulous preparation, plus a healthy dose of luck. He took a sip and leaned on the railing.

The culture of Silicon Valley had surprised him. From afar, it seemed that the region’s success in developing and commercializing advanced technology must stem from intellectual and procedural rigor. Up close, it felt like the modus operandi was, “Ready, fire, aim.” It was a bunch of geeks playing with technology like the whole exercise was an improvisational jazz ensemble. But this jam session had vast implications for the wider world.

Graham sometimes felt like a visitor from a parallel dimension. His universe played by different rules. People who vied for geopolitical influence were nothing if not calculating. Every contingency had to be accounted for. Every box had to be checked. Perception often counted for just as much as actual achievement.

The hill below his apartment building descended straight into downtown San Francisco, where towering skyscrapers were packed together like travelers in a Tokyo subway. Lights were just starting to flicker to life. The last rays of the setting sun made the Bay Bridge appear to glow from within. On the other side of the water, the Slums smoldered behind the derelict cranes of the Port of Oakland.

The bourbon painted a fiery line down his throat, and a strong sense of déjà vu saturated his consciousness.

Graham’s first assignments had been in Mexico, Brazil, and Bolivia. He had actually shuttled between them for a few years before someone further up the Agency food chain had seen fit to shift him over to postings in sub-Saharan Africa and then Southeast Asia. But his virgin destination as a rookie agent had been Mexico City. He had plied the fraught waters of the
VIP
cocktail circuit, schmoozed with up-and-comers in La Condesa, and slowly but surely mapped out the intricate web of narco influence and corruption within the federal government.

Upon arriving in Mexico City, Graham had expected he would suffer from bouts of homesickness or cultural disorientation. But those feelings had never materialized. He had immediately caught the rhythm of the place and established a comfortable routine. It was only when he came back stateside that things got weird.

Graham came from a long line of proud civil servants and military officers. He grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in northern Virginia where he played Little League baseball, went to summer camp, and couldn’t get enough of
Call of Duty
. His friends in town were in pretty much the same boat. That wasn’t to say he was sheltered. His parents dragged him on various road trips to DC, New York, and even Los Angeles. In college, he went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and road-tripped around the country to camp in various national parks with his roommate.

Obviously, there was poverty, sometimes quite severe, in the different American states and cities he visited. But it just seemed like the way it was. Some people had money, and some struggled. A wealthy family meant easier and additional opportunities. If you didn’t speak fluent English or if you didn’t have much of an education, it would be a lot tougher. But if you worked hard enough and got lucky, you could fight your way up the ladder, and eventually retire in the Virginia countryside.

The countries Graham was assigned to were different. There were two groups of people. An overwhelming majority of people lived in abject poverty with no path to bettering their lot, while a tiny minority controlled virtually all the nation’s political and financial resources. The wealthy minority had every incentive to defend the status quo and established an impenetrable moat around themselves to guarantee their fortunes. Privilege was a matter of birth and family. Poverty was deplorable but inevitable. Wealth justified itself.

Of course, it was somewhat more complicated than that. Any sociology or economics professor would layer on all sorts of fancy intellectual models. But Graham’s job was extremely practical. Understanding and influencing an organization or society required a bracing dose of pragmatism. Graham had investigated, and occasionally collaborated with gangsters, terrorists, and mercenaries. On the whole, he found them fairly indistinguishable from their legitimate counterparts in business and government. You could find desperate bottom feeders, ambitious climbers, and bureaucratic gofers pretty much everywhere. That wasn’t surprising. He always studied the socioeconomic profile long before touching down in a new capital.

The surprising part was returning home. Every time he came back to the United States, the country seemed to have shifted in his absence. Public roads fell into disrepair as private gated communities sprang up everywhere. Neighborhoods self-segregated and became more homogenous. Police departments went through forced layoffs and were replaced by contractors like Security who served only paying clients. Young people were either accelerating along astronomical career paths or stuck in a cycle of low-paid contract work. You were either a rock star or a peon.

None of his friends or family seemed to notice. It was like trying to track weight gain by looking at yourself in the mirror every morning. The changes were too incremental. But Graham would live overseas for months or years at a time. To him, the changes were dramatic. The country was stutter-stepping into a new order. Every time he landed at an American airport, the boundary between the first and third world seemed to dissolve a little more. DC felt more and more like Nairobi. Miami felt more and more like Rio. New York felt more and more like Mexico City. San Francisco…

The city sprawled out under his balcony was a cookie cutter of Slum and Green Zone separated by tense sections of Fringe. It was simultaneously the hub of techno-utopian imagination, and a wasteland of half-forgotten dreams and frustrated ambition. It was a living, breathing paradox.

White fingers of fog rushed alongside his building, and startled Graham as they wove themselves into a soft, cold blanket that entirely obscured his view. In less than a minute, he was completely surrounded. The entire process unfolded in complete, eerie silence.

He shook his head. Enough with the philosophical head trip. The world was as it was. And Graham knew how to handle situations like this, knew how to operate in countries like this. That was why he had decided on forging his own path here in the first place.

Take care of them.

Here in San Francisco, he was a wolf among lambs.

 

 

 

13

BOOK: Cumulus
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