The Ends of the World – Chapter 17

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN
FORD AND STEVENSON

April 2nd, whatever-the-fuck year it was in the World Facing.

We were gathered around the patio tables of Casa Relajada in the light of a cool morning. Señor Abarca-Abaroa sat at a table beside the Señora, an African lady (I couldn’t hyphenate it, since I hadn’t heard her speak) with shockingly beautiful cheekbones and short, natural hair held up with a red-and-gold headband. She wore a powder blue, long-sleeved satin dress with a black armband near her left shoulder.

I was a little obsessed.

The Señor was decked out in black velvet, with very conservative yellow embroidery and green piping. A matching cocked bicorn hat sat on the table before him, next to a glass and a bottle of red wine. There were other glasses around the table, in various states of fillage, in front of the Señora, and Gulick, and the other leaders of the Casa’s staff, who were in the same saffron and lime green livery they always seemed to wear.

I noticed the colors of the livery matched the accents on the Señor’s outfit. Solidarity?

Foster and his more roughly dressed leading men sat around another table with pewter mugs and a bottle of probably rum. My people sat at a third table, the men (except Sirhan) in blue velvet, the women (except Kinsey) in peach satin. A broad metal bucket took up most of our table, filled with corked bottles of beer and ice. There was ginger beer at the request of Ahmad and Karím. I guess the gastronomic apostasy was over. The ice was certainly courtesy of Henry Ford. Opened bottles and corks ringed the bucket.

The chairs were arranged in arcs, like a trefoil, so that everyone roughly faced each other.

“We lost eight men,” Gulick said. “They lost eighteen, including Q Bone and the Speedwell quartermaster known as Hippie Bob.”

“We may lose nine,” Foster said. “Simmy Sammy has a bad bleeder under his left shoulder.”

Abarca-Abaroa nodded. “I spoke to the other Señors before they left. They are unconcerned with the death of Señor Q Bone.” His lips grimaced at partnering the honored title with the gangster name. “All but Señor Marcus Jah, who told me he feared a slave uprising at news of his neighbor’s death.”

“Doubtless,” Gulick sniffed, “he’ll be raising the price of olive oil this season.”

“We can buy from Señor Gibson on the north slope,” said the Señora. Her accent was pure West Africa. “His oil has a nice tang that I prefer.”

The Señor put his fingers gently under her chin and they smiled at each other charmingly for a moment as the breeze convinced the palms and table-bound umbrellas to sway romantically. I saw Ahmad steal a kiss from Mei in the corner of my eye. Karím and Keiki were leaning into each other. Mukki put his head on Lincoln’s shoulder. I felt like reaching out toward Amy, but couldn’t muster the courage.

Foster refilled his mug, nodded as the rum gurgled into pewter. “The stragglers are hiding in the gorges to the east. They commandeered a monastery as a hospital. The monks are voluntarily aiding them.”

The Señor shook his head and lifted his wine. “Their damnable neutrality. We should drive them out and turn their valleys into a park.”

I grinned at that and glanced at my friends. They were also smirking. Sirhan jumped to the table, snatched up a chip of ice, and lifted it to Kinsey’s furry hand. Then, he plucked his own ice chip onto the table and started pecking at it.

Foster set his mug down. “My men have reassured the field workers, and distributed a compensatory ration of drink and smoked pork for their trauma. They were distracted in their pavilions last night, but they’ll keep a diligent watch on the Señor’s borders from now on.”

“I do not blame them,” said Abarca-Abaroa. He swirled his wine. “We were all surprised by the arrogance. The insolence.”

Gulick refilled the Señora’s glass to his left, then refilled his own. He handed the bottle to the man on his right, and nodded to a man across the table, who stood and walked into the house.

Gulick clinked his glass with the smiling Señora. “My lord, I have instructed the acquisition staff to look into the purchase of new properties.”

The Señor reached his glass past his lady. Gulick dutifully clinked it. “Walk softly there, Mr. Gulick. I do not want the other lords thinking I dispatched Q Bone just to take possession of his fields.”

Who dispatched Q Bone? I stifled the instincts tightening my face by shoving a bottle into it.

“It would be a just compensation for his assault on your rightful lands.” Gulick took a drink.

I felt left out. Especially since my shot into Q Bone’s chest had just been appropriated. I needed to add something to the conversation. “How will you implement this analysis?”

Everyone sat straighter in their chairs. The lady of the house was taking me in with a slight grin and lowered lids. I struggled not to swallow visibly. Gulick’s man walked onto the patio from the house with a pair of wine bottles, and immediately stopped, sensing there was a moment happening.

Gulick waved him over, and the man took his seat, nervously. The bottles had already been uncorked, and the men around the Señor’s table set to refilling glasses.

“Mr. Randolph,” Gulick said. “You have an idea?”

My lips tightened and I forced that tightness into a smile. “A propaganda campaign? Engineer the acceptance of the purchase? Spread the argument that the purchase is indeed just compensation?” I had tried to swallow those question marks, but my mouth did not comply.

Gulick stared at his wine. He started nodding. “I have men, traders, who could spread that message through the plantations.”

Before the purchase,” I said quickly.

Señor Abarca-Abaroa was smiling at me. He glanced around at his staff as he jabbed a finger at me.

“This man is,” he shook his head, searching for the words. “Mr. Gulick, what did the monks you captured call him?”

Gulick had captured monks? I tried to imagine that confrontation, plantation men surrounding monks with skull, cat, and lizard faces.

“They called him an Exceptionally Disruptive Person.”

Everyone shared a laugh at that. I felt my face blush. Kinsey tapped my cheek with her furry hand until I looked at her. She grinned at me and shoved a chip of ice into my mouth.

“An EDP,” I said around the ice, “as their abbot put it.”

The Señor nodded at me as he sipped his wine. “You put an end to that troublemaker.”

I glanced around, sheepishly. “I did.”

He jabbed a finger at me again. “You remind me of Mr. Ford. Does your female monkey have a name? Ford’s elephant was named—”

There was a loud bang. Everyone ducked. Then, they looked past the blood-stained grass where the corpses of last night’s skirmish had only been recently been dragged away. Toward the fat palms, toward the sugar cane.

The morning sun cast sharp shadows against Ford’s water tower, diffused at the base by a cloud of gunpowder smoke. It leaned, wooden beams creaking and splintering. The fat barrel, with Ford’s name crudely painted on its side, arced toward the grass. It slammed into the ground with a crash, and a wave of water spread in a fan toward the house.

I instinctively lifted my boots. A sheet of water rushed across the patio under us. Foster and Gulick’s men rushed toward the fallen tower, pistols drawn and boots splashing. A man was fleeing into the sugar cane beyond the smoke.

The Señora raised her eyebrows and lifted her glass to her formidable lips. She was suppressing a grin. I admired her humor in the face of chaos.

The Señor, on the other hand, was fuming. Black velvet coat heaving with his breath. He spun toward me. Foster and Gulick followed his lead. None of them were happy with me. I lifted my bottle and took a sip of the sweet ale.

“You,” the Señor said, lifting his bicorn hat and shoving it onto his head crookedly. I could see his eyes working things out, listening to advice in his head. Ford’s advice? His Facing Father, the Señor Rejón?

“You,” he repeated, setting his glass on the table with one hand and pointing at me with the one that had just released his black cocked hat. “You have more work to do here before we are square.”

I lifted my bottle to him. I felt my head nodding, and I agreed with it. I welcomed the work. I saw my own name on a water tower, in crude, black, block letters. No. Multiple water towers, for added security.

“I do,” I said.

The Señor played against his teeth with his tongue. He lifted his wine glass.

“Three water towers,” I said. “One for Ford, one for me, and one for Q Bone.”

The Señora was smiling at me, white teeth under those gorgeous cheekbones. Her husband glanced at Foster and Gulick. They nodded.

“We all have work to do.”

»¦«

The rest of the day was, I have to say, tense. The people of Casa Relajada were not used to a water shortage. I spent the remainder of April 2nd with the Señor’s staff studying Ford’s design and ordering repairs and improvements.

There had been a second pipe hidden behind the outlet pipe, which led underground up the slope to an intake pool. Now that the tower had fallen the water was spouting into the air and running all over the place through the fields downstream. My first order was to set the workers (I had a hard time calling them slaves when, as the Señor insisted, they were free to leave if they wanted) to digging a furrow to let the run-off drain harmlessly over the seaward cliff, past the crop.

A short hike up the slope showed me more of Ford’s handiwork. The intake pool was created with a crude spillover dam built at the precise height so that hydraulic pressure maintained the water level perfectly in line with the top of the water tower’s basin. My second order was to knock a brick out of the dam below the outlet pipe to temporarily drain the intake pool and stop the flow of water down to the furrow.

As impressive as Ford’s simple design was, I found the intake shockingly insecure. God knows what sort of poison or other contaminant some saboteur could introduce to the plantation’s water supply. My third order was to cover the intake stream all the way up to the spring, a distance of about 30 meters. Brick arches, and then natural stone and shrubbery, to conceal the water source as much as possible. The Señor’s staff nodded and took a mental note to call in the plantation’s bricklayers.

Sirhan and Kinsey came with me on my rounds, and they were mostly silent. Every once in a while, they would say “Yes!” or “Cool!” or ask some question about the engineering. Their talking made the humans uncomfortable at first, but they got used to it.

Replacing the first water tower was simple. Just rebuild to Ford’s original design, which was sound and took full advantage of local resources. My only innovation was to add joints at the base so that the intake and outlet streams could eventually be connected to the other two towers I had planned. I had to send to Calvary for machine-workers who could build the valves that would allow each of the water towers to be isolated from the system for repairs and regular maintenance.

That was the first day of my official employment at Casa Relajada. Other than overseeing the work, I had finished my engineering. I had given the Señor’s men drawings to guide the machine-workers. As the sun descended toward the sea, I reported in the ballroom to Abarca-Abaroa, who invited me to dinner and voiced his concern that the water would be restored before the 8th of April.

“What happens then?” I asked, leaning against one of the fireplaces. I was tired. My body was tired, my brain was tired. Sirhan and Kinsey stood on the mantle, picking at chunks of fruit the Señor’s staff had brought them.

At one of the ballroom’s outer doors, he smiled over his shoulder, a glass of wine in one hand. He turned back to look out over his fields, over the patio, over the sea beyond. “For the Japanese in my service, it is their Buddha’s Birthday, on Ford’s advice. I like to give them a day off, some nice tea, and some good food. They have bath-houses in the fields. It would be nice to have those bath-houses working again for their holiday.”

Ford really had an impact on the Señor. I don’t remember anything about the man that made sense of that. I only knew him as the inventor of the assembly line.

“What did Ford do here?” I asked. “Other than the water towers. You said he helped you with human resources.”

He let out a chuckle and spun to face me. He moved to the other side of the fireplace and set his wine glass on the mantle. He was smiling and couldn’t stop himself.

“Ford was a brilliant man.” His hand waved romantically in the air. “I didn’t learn that term, human resources, until much later. From Gulick, who is brilliant in his own way. But this is what Ford truly excelled in.”

All three of us were at full attention. The fruit was gone, and both Sirhan and Kinsey were looking at the Señor to continue. The man liked their attention. He reached out a finger and let Kinsey put her hand on its tip.

“Ford helped me organize my workers into stages. Let some learn to plant, others to tend, others to reap, others to process, others to brew. They each became very skilled at their individual tasks.”

He lifted his glass and took a sip of wine. I bent to retrieve my bottle of chilled ale from the floor.

“Then, he asked me about deserters.” He frowned thoughtfully and nodded. “As you can imagine, fleeing slaves are a constant concern. It remains so in most plantations. Ford told me he faced similar problems with turnover, that’s another of Gulick’s terms, in his oil cart business. Workers leaving his employ and adding to his recruitment and training costs.”

He lifted his glass toward the other fireplace and nodded as an invitation to walk. I took a sip from my bottle and followed him. Sirhan and Kinsey leapt to my shoulders.

“He told me how he eliminated turnover by raising wages and reducing work hours.” He laughed and shook his head. The ballroom clicked under our boots. I tried to imagine a room full of dancers, decked out in fancy antique dress, a string quartet in one corner stroking out a lively waltz. Would that have been the natural close to the April Fool’s dinner?

“I was muy escéptico,” the Señor said. “My Father had been a typical lord, very strict in discipline and dubious of the work ethic of slaves. But, I had seen an increase in Japanese and Chinese workers before Ford arrived, and I had seen them work.”

I frowned at that, not sure how to take in the information.

The Señor waved a hand in the air as we passed the central doorway leading forward into the main house. Toward that lobby full of weapons. “Ford told me a story about a general, who gave his men a break in their march every hour. That general’s men moved much further than other armies who forced their men to march without rest. In the end, Ford said, you get more by demanding less.”

We approached the far fireplace, the Señor looking at me to take in my reaction. It made sense. I was nodding.

“So,” he said, resting his wine glass on the mantle and leaning his arm against it. “I established regular work holidays, had the bath-houses built, banned the lash, reassigned my slave hunters as border guards. Ford was right. Some workers fled at first, but many of them came back.”

I took a drag on my ale. Sirhan and Kinsey hopped onto the mantle.

The Señor looked at me. “You know the best part, though?”

“Higher profits?”

He laughed. “No! Although that keeps Mr. Gulick happy. The best part is the holidays. More feasts, more opportunities to invite my neighbors to dine with me. I like the dinners and it makes the Señora happy.”

I reached my bottle out, and he clinked it with his glass.

“They say,” I said, “a happy wife, a happy life.”

He laughed loudly at that. “Do they say that?” He took a deep drink of wine. “It’s true. I will say that, from now on.”

He tilted the glass at me, pointing with one finger. “And, the envy of the other lords tells me that they, too, are taking in Ford’s advice. Slowly, but surely.”

I nodded, genuinely encouraged to hear that. Perhaps my 21st century morality asserting itself. But, I was also tired and needed to take off my velvet and slip into something lighter. I nodded Sirhan and Kinsey onto my shoulders.

The Señor made a frownish smile and nodded at me. “I am changing the world, too. I am not an Exceptionally Disruptive Person, but I see the value in men like you. Brutal men like Q Bone are the past. Time progresses forward, even here in the World Facing.”

I lifted my bottle in one last toast. Abarca-Abaroa met my bottle and bowed slightly in a surprising show of respect. Sirhan and Kinsey returned his bow from my shoulders.

“You have given your orders,” he said. “My men will be busy following them in the days ahead.”

I nodded, sniffed, took a step toward the stairs at the far end of the ballroom.

“Tomorrow,” he held a hand out to still me. I stopped. “Tomorrow, Foster and his men will descend into the valleys. Hunting the insurgents. I want you and your guns with him.”

I felt the air flee my lungs. I had thought I was exempt from such duties. Like when Yellowbeard freed me from the starboard watch as ship’s engineer. I felt several words pressing themselves against my tongue. Finally, I just said, “Me?”

“You,” his brows lifted, “dispatched that gangster Q Bone. You sent the notorious Bob to his grinning grave. And, you cost Yellowbeard his leg. Gulick’s men say the monks had to cut it off and give him a crutch.”

Christ in Cleveland. My old captain reduced to Long John Silver’s mode of travel. He would double the ransom on Robert Louis Stevenson’s head.

“Have someone wake me,” was all I could think to say.

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