Authors: David Riley Bertsch
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This book is dedicated to all those who enjoy open spaces; to my wife, Katie; and to my family.
It's a bugged and drugged world . . .
The Computer Connection
The power of
population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth
to produce subsistence for man.
âThomas Robert Malthus (1766â1834)
KOWLOON WALLED CITY, CHINA. SUMMER1960.
5:30 P.M., HONG KONG TIME.
The boy, Xiao, tottered from
one foot to the other. He had been standing in
the water line for hours without a single step of
progress. Hundreds of people were in front of him. Pain
seized his ankles. The summer heat made him sweat, and
he swatted at biting flies.
His breaths came shallow and
fast. Dry. He'd not had a drink in almost twenty-four
hours. No food either, but that wasn't even on his
mind. Other needs had to be fulfilled first.
apartment towers littered Kowloon City. In contrast to the immodest
skyline of Hong Kong, the precarious gray sentinels stood
as a memento of hard times following the Japanese occupation
during World War II, twisted obelisks teeming with the destitute
and the depraved.
The new water main had been installed
by Hong Kong's Social
Welfare Department the previous summer. It
provided a critical resource, but exposed human behavior at its
As dusk fell, when the water was
being shut off, the crowd began to push. The Welfare
Department knew better than to operate at night. It was
too dangerous. Dusk wasn't much better. Several yards ahead
of him, Xiao saw a commotion: a man pulling a
blade from his belt; another man trying to
wrestle it away. The fray morphed into a swarm of
thirsty beasts, pulsing with energy. A riot. With only seventy-five
pounds to his ten-year-old frame, Xiao didn't stand
a chance in the chaos. Gazing one last time at
the queue ahead, he took his jug and ran.
caught his breath and walked home along the gutter stream,
past the floating plastic bottles, bags of waste, and
dead birds. These things made no impression on Xiao. It
was the only world he'd ever known.
A few hundred
yards from his family's building, Xiao dunked the jug
and retrieved a liter of greenish-brown water from the stream.
It would have to do.
His family lived in a
second-story room, separated from another clan by moldy plywood.
When he arrived, his mother, Niu, was breathing but still
feverish. Sweat dripped from her hair and onto the dust
floor; in this heat she wouldn't last long without
water. His older brother, Shui, had been asleep, but woke
upon Xiao's entrance.
Shui took the jug and opened their
mother's mouth. She drank eagerly. Then she fell back onto
Shui grabbed their mother and shouted. “You have
water, mama! You'll be okay now!” Her face was
pale and waxy. It showed no signs of life. Eventually,
Shui gave up and sat down on his mat. He
reached for the jug, looked at the dirty
water, and then turned to Xiao.
“The gutter? You bastard.”
Shui stood and backhanded his younger brother hard across the
face. Xiao sat still for a moment, then picked up
the railroad spike the family used for self-defense. He
turned to Shui and stabbed his brother until he stopped
“There's never enough,” he said to his
brother's raw body.
Xiao took the soda bottle and guzzled
the rest of the water.
*Â *Â *
Xiao sweated and vomited for
three days in the stench of his family's death. Mother
and brother gone, and a father he'd never known.
He wanted to die, yearned for it, but his fever
On the fourth day, he gathered every bit of
strength he could and wandered outside. He remembered a building
where his mother had said boys and girls went when
they had no mother or father. So he went there.
Once he was showered and fed, they began the tests.
WEST BANK, SNAKE RIVER. OCTOBER 15, 2013.
3 P.M. MOUNTAIN STANDARD TIME.
You sneaky little bastard!
Jake Trent hissed under his breath. Talking to himself. A sure sign of obsession.
The object of his disdain wasn't
little. Seventeen or eighteen inches at least. A good-size fish. Big enough to be a worthy adversary, if he could ever get the size 18 cinnamon ant where it needed to be.
It was a tough shot: forty-five feet across Trout Creek, upstream of the tree roots and ten inches in under the willow. It would require a big mend, but without submerging the ant, which would prevent Jake from seeing the strike. He was on river right, looking upstream and across to river left, where the king sat in his castle.
The mend, the upstream flip of the fly line meant to preserve the dry fly's natural drift, had been the problem. Jake had made the proper cast a few times, but his mend pulled the fly under the sur
face, where the big guy couldn't see it. On the last cast, Jake had seen his quarry, with its butter-yellow underbelly, trail the sunken fly, considering it. But the fish sensed something was awry. Back to the castle.
Jake had a few more casts at most. The fish was onto him. It had slowed its feeding rhythm considerably, wary of an imitation. The wind wasn't helping. It was picking up as the afternoon wore on, rustling the sparsely dressed willows. With it came a cold blast, a herald of the approaching winter.
Jake switched the rod to his left hand to make the cast. He found the mend easier with his upstream hand. The first cast fell embarrassingly short. A small fish pecked at the ant, but Jake pulled it away. He didn't want a small-time tussle to spook the one he was really after.
His second attempt was spot-on. The fly drifted right over the fish. The king of the trout rose, and his mouth enveloped the fly.
Jake pulled up to set the hook, but his left hand lacked the coordination of his right. It was too much. He felt the weight of the fish for only a second before the fly tore free. The fish splashed in a fury, wondering what the hell had just pricked him in the mouth. King Cutty was gone, looking for a new kingdom to call home, where stinging cinnamon ants wouldn't bother him.
“Damn!” More talking to himself. “Only been working him for a month now.”
If they were all easy, it wouldn't be any fun. Jake relished the smart ones. They challenged him. Right now, he needed that. A restless feeling engulfed him every autumn; the tourists were all but gone, and the best fishing was behind him. Little to no business for the bed-and-breakfast.
But to where?
Jake bit through the tippet and stuck the fly in his hat for next time. He walked through the high grass back to the front door of
the “guesthouse,” Jake's own residence on the property he ownedâa little irony he enjoyedâbroke down the three-piece rod, and slid it back in its case. He could leave it conveniently assembled for his next walkabout, likely tomorrow, but Jake liked to put everything back in its place: the reel in its faux-velvet bag, and the eight-foot, four-weight Winston back in its PVC tube.
After his equipment was stashed, he grabbed a diet soda from the fridge and shuffled over to an old cowhide sofa by the wood-burning stove. The flames from the morning were withering, and the pile outside was diminished. Jake made a mental note to pick up the cord of wood that J.P.âhis occasional employeeâhad chopped for the bed-and-breakfast, the Fin and Feather.
Jake's cell phone was buzzing on the side table. Area code 202. Jake flew through old associations. DC. Who could be calling from Washington?
“Jake?” A woman's voice.
“Who am I speaking with?”
Momentary confusion, then a bolt of recognition. “Divya Navaysam?”
“How many Divyas do you know?” A sweet, flirty tone.
He thought he'd recognized the voice, but it had been so long.
What in the world
does she want?
“I'm calling to ask you a favor. It's about a legal issueâa civil rights issue, actually. Influencing Washington away from some scary legislation. Speaking truth to powerâyour sort of thing.” Divya went silent for a moment, allowing her words to sink in. “I think you'll want to hear what I have to say.”
“I'm not a lobbyist.”
“It's not a lobby. Just listen.”
Sounds like a lobby
, he thought. But Divya had slyly employed that damned quote.
Speaking truth to
One of his favorites. The keystone of legal scholar Robert Cover's avant-garde critiques on the state of twentieth-century law. Long before Cover, it was a Quaker maxim, as meaningful now as ever: to stand strong against totalitarianism.
Jake looked out the window at the woods behind the guesthouse. A breeze blew brown shells of life from the streamside willows. Fall was here. He was looking at a month or more of reading and fire stoking before there was too much snow to do anything.
“Well, go ahead.”
TETON VILLAGE. OCTOBER 16. 2 P.M. MOUNTAIN STANDARD TIME.
A dead-end day at a dead-end job; J.P. had been in the damned shop for too long without a single customer. And he missed his girl. He was bouncing a tennis ball against the wall, thinking. The ball's bright fur under the fluorescent lights offended his senses, like catching sight of the Vegas strip when you're hungover. Still, there was nothing better to do, so he kept on bouncing.
He could inspect the rental fleet again, but that was pointless. Fat chance anyone was going to come in. The tourists had all left in September.
J.P.'s thoughts turned to Esma. How serious had their fight really been? J.P. wondered if the language barrier made it seem worse than it actually was. But he also suspected that his inability to completely grasp Esma's motivations was exactly what she was pissed off about. J.P. liked to think of himself as easygoing, but
she saw him differently. In her view, he was incapable of taking anything seriously.
Esma had come to Jackson for the same reasons many didâÂbetter wages and more opportunity. She and J.P. met at the Teton County Fair. It took some convincing, but J.P. eventually succeeded in wooing her. Now she had moved back to Mexico for the winter, where she was going to clear her head. They weren't broken up, she'd said, but they weren't together.
Whatever that means.
For all his shortcomings as a boyfriend, J.P. didn't lack patience. He was upset when she left, but he'd stopped short of blowing up. If she wanted time, he'd give it to her. He could wait her out. It was worth it.
He smelled the tennis ball and curled his lips in disgust. It stank of the can and the dog's slobber. Curiosity and the cat, and so on. He tossed it back in the drawer, walked over to the ancient radio, and fiddled with the dial. A new station came in clearer than the last one, which was a small improvement in his day.
She said you're
pretty good with words, but words won't save your life
. . .”
J.P. turned up the volume. Somehow, the song seemed to be coming straight from Tlaxcala, intended for his ears only.
If he cared, why didn't he do anything to show it? In her nebulous English, Esma had expressed that sentiment to him daily for the last few weeks.
What does she want? I'm not husband
material, if that's what she's thinking.
Though maybe that's what he was hoping for.
The bike shop didn't have any windows. That was one of the problems. J.P. looked at the blank white walls around him, bearers of the harsh report from the ceiling fixtures. He'd read about
sick building syndrome, which afflicted people who spent all day indoors with stale air and light, and figured this was what it must be like.
Chayote was curled up in the corner, half-awake. His ears perked up and his eyes opened every time J.P. looked at him.
“How does he know?”
J.P. wondered aloud.
The dog closed his eyes again. J.P. looked away and then glanced back. Up went the ears. J.P. tested him a few more times, then moved on to other variations: watching out of his peripheral vision and waving his hands in the air. Could he trick the pup by sending invisible sonic waves toward him? The dog snored.
J.P. finally turned his head toward him. The big satellite-dish ears rose.
“C'mon buddy, I'm just messing with you.” The mottled young heeler sleepily lumbered over, sat on J.P.'s feet, and gave him a solemn look. “Sorry, dude.” J.P. scratched his ear. The dog leaned into his petting and let out a sigh. Chayote was bored too.
“Poor thing. We're not cut out for this, are we?”
The hound only cocked his head.
Without warning, the bell rang. Someone was coming into the shop.
“Best behavior, Chayote.” The dog rebelled immediately and yipped at the intruders, but settled back into slumber when J.P. glared at him.
When he looked up, J.P. was surprised at his luck.
The women were both tall, one blond and the other brunette.
, J. P. thought; her skin was so pale. They wore dark pantsuits that were perfectly tailored to their bodies. They were all lipstick-red lips and long legs. J.P. bent over and feebly tried to wipe the dog hair off his pants. “How can I help you ladies?”
The light-haired woman spoke with what sounded like a Scandinavian accent, but her English was confident.
“Just looking, thanks.”
J.P. couldn't think of anything witty, so he simply nodded, pretending to punch something into the register.
The women looked at the merchandise on the walls: bike-tire levers, pumps, and a few kitschy hats and T-shirts. J.P. watched them out of the corner of his eye. They didn't stay for long.
“Thank you!” the brunette said as they turned to leave.
When they opened the door, Chayote bolted for freedom from behind the counter. “Hey! No!” J.P. ran after him, but it was too late.
The dog was looking for Jake again.
J.P. quickly caught up and found Chayote on his hind legs, front paws planted on the brunette's toned stomach. She was giggling and petting his head while trying to avoid his tongue.
“Chayote, down!” The dog obeyed, which shocked J.P. Still, he stayed by his new friend, his tail wagging with enough momentum to make his rear end wiggle.
“No, no. It's okay. He's adorable. What do you call himâcoyote?”
“Chayote, actually.” J.P. felt sheepish. A classy woman in a classy outfit, and Chayote had jumped all over her.
“Well that's an unusual name, huh, Chayote?” The woman never looked up from the dog.
“Yeah, he's not mine.” The woman looked up at J.P., a tinge of disappointment in her face. “I mean, he kind of is, I guess. But my buddy named him.”
“Does he know any tricks?” The other woman asked.
“Yeah. Quite a few, in fact.” J.P.'s voice regained a note of confidence. He reminded himself to thank Chayote for the favor with a pig's ear.
“Chayote, come.” The dog obeyed.
“Sit.” He moved his hand in an upward sweep as Jake had shown him. Again the dog obeyed. This was going surprisingly well. One of the women clapped briefly, but it didn't distract the hound. Not now. Not Chayote the Wonder Dog. He was staring intently at J.P., waiting for the next command.
“Good dog. Now for the grand finale!”
J.P. put his hand behind his back and made it into the shape of a pistol. “Okay, Chayote . . .” The dog focused, his tail wagging slowly in anticipation, like a metronome about to kick off a grand symphony.
“Bang!” J.P. shouted, pointing the faux weapon at the dog. The women watched eagerly. Chayote didn't move.
Nothing. J.P. put his hand behind his back and started from the beginning.
“Bang!” This time he shouted it even louder, startling the women.
He started again with his hand behind his back, but the brunette shook her head at him.
“It's okay,” she said again. Chayote ran over to her when she did. She bent down to pat him on the head. “You're still a good dog!”
“We should get back to the conference,” the blonde interjected. They smiled at J.P. one last time.
“He's supposed to play dead!” J.P. shouted after them, then quieted down and spoke half to himself. “It's not
J.P. opened the door for Chayote, who walked back into the shop without being asked.
“What? You forgot âbang'?”
Upon hearing the magic word, Chayote dropped to the floor and rolled over onto his back, dead.
“Never could perform under pressure, could you?”
*Â *Â *
At 4 p.m., J.P. put up the
sign, even though the shop was supposed to stay open until six.
Outside, the October air felt warm and dry like early September. It had snowed in the high country overnight, but only a few centimeters. Most of it had melted on the south-facing peaks. A few of the north faces were still dashed in white. The leaves were past their prime, and it wouldn't be long before the harsh winter set in.
J.P. got to his bike and rolled up one leg of his baggy jeans so it wouldn't catch in the drivetrain. He whistled for Chayote, who was off sniffing God-knows-what at the back entrance of the restaurant next door.