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Nick drives the green-and-gold Gennaro Financial Recovery Chevy to the levee but, it being August, the levee is dry. The moment the name and address came in, Nick said he’d take this one himself. Frances said, “Who’s Herbert Landon?” He knew she had to be kidding. Herbert Landon, Landon House, Landon City?
Heading along the levee now, one hand on the steering wheel, the other at the window, drumming the truck roof in time to the radio, Nick thinks he should do this more often. Get out of the office; remind himself what the job is all about. He pulls onto the highway without really looking and, in an elongated blare of horn and silent curses, a rust-red Toyota swerves past, its driver gesticulating, his face peeled open with rage. Nick lets it go. There is a flow, he thinks, like a river, that brings things into your life that are meant to be there, if you let it. He’s taken the truck because that’s what they do. He doesn’t expect to be actually repossessing anything. The guy must be a hundred years old: if he hasn’t paid the tax, he’s probably just forgotten. Used the red reminders to line the kitty tray. It’s not going to be because he can’t afford a couple hundred. The job might need politeness, a little diplomacy, but Nick can’t see heavy lifting.
The gates are open – at least the old guy hasn’t barricaded himself in – and he pulls into the driveway, scattering gravel as he swings up to the front door. Four stories high and wider than City Hall, the house old Joseph Landon built himself just after the war when Landon Water really took off, is still the largest private residence in Landon City. Ugly, though, Nick thinks: the windows are too small, with heavy stone lintels and sills that give the place the air of a barracks, or one of those police stations he’s seen in Italy where the carabinieri roll in and out with their tinted windows and machine guns. On the top floor, under the eaves, one of the panes is broken.
He picks the beige folder from where it has slipped into the passenger footwell and climbs out of the truck. It is hot outside; unusually humid. It isn’t supposed to rain this time of year, but it looks like it might. He mounts four or five stone steps to the door and pulls an old-fashioned bell cord.
The guard would be as broad as a wardrobe, and about as forthcoming. He would grunt and Herbert would guess one of the grunts was “lunch”. He wouldn’t want to eat, and might say so. At his age, he’d say, there doesn’t seem much point. You just don’t need the fuel.
Herbert Landon is 103 and believes he’ll be the oldest person ever incarcerated in the city that bears his name. His father’s name. It is possible he’s wrong about that, but he doubts it. Perhaps, after everything else, that’s what they’ll put on his gravestone?
The stone exists already – it has for half a century – and he can picture it distinctly. It is not, in fact, a gravestone, but the last blank marble panel on the family memorial the city erected when his father died. The panels occupy each side of an octagonal fountain base. Inscribed around the rim are the words of St John the Divine: I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. Herbert wondered what his father would have made of that “freely”. The water that slides gently over them all, pumped and filtered and recycled now for fifty years, fell as rain three hundred miles away: Herbert Landon himself put it over the hill.
That was what the engineers at Landon Water called it then. They pulled water down from the lakes and reservoirs in the eastern mountains to pool in the central plain. When the weather forecasts and the big scale users said they were going to need it, they put that water over the hill to Landon City. It took two days to pull water down, six more to put it over the hill, along the aqueducts that Joseph Landon built, and sometimes they got it wrong. Sometimes, against the odds, it rained like the end of the world in August, or in February, when by rights it shouldn’t rain at all. The farmers kept their irrigation off, and the factories refilled their run-off tanks; what the Company couldn’t store they had to let run into the ocean and that cost them money.
Filling the doorway, the guard says it doesn’t matter shit what he wants, he’s going to fucking move, OK?
Herbert swings his legs over the side of his bed, places a liver-spotted hand on each knee and pushes to help himself rise. He’s used a stick for years but he knows they won’t let him keep it in jail. For health and safety reasons, they’ll say. Meaning, to be charitable, that other, fitter, inmates might take it away and beat him with it, or worse. So he is practising, and has found he can do without the stick after all, which is something to be thankful for. He wriggles his shoulders and tugs at his groin to settle the over-large jump-suit they’ll have him wearing. Pistachio does no one any favours, which he supposes to be the point, but it will be especially unfortunate against skin as grey as his.
It is Friday. Lunch will be chilli con carne – more kidney bean than carne, Herbert predicts dispassionately; he isn’t going to eat it anyway. It will be popular with his fellow inmates. In his head a black man in a uniform like an all-over purple bruise with a white trim slops rice and chilli into the largest depression of a pre-formed aluminium tray and thrusts it at him. He carries it over to the least crowded section of the long refectory tables. He puts the tray down carefully and sits on the bench, facing the wall, away from the table. He can stand, he can walk without a stick – he is proud of that – but lifting one leg then the other over a bench is beyond him. If he can’t get a spot at the end – and usually they’re taken first, and by the least amenable inmates – he has to sit and swing his legs a hundred and eighty degrees, his hands tugging at the table without dignity or grace. As he swings around, his foot might brush his neighbour, and there will be an ugly moment while the neighbour decides whether to take offence. It is lucky that Landon City is now large enough (and lawless enough) to need two prisons: during his time as a Councilman, Herbert himself gave the go-ahead for a separate maximum security facility on what used to be flood plain before his father banked the river. He will not be going there.
Nick hears a distant jangle as a bell rings somewhere deep inside the house. There’ll be some kind of help: a nurse/housekeeper, a butler, even. When he worked for the city council – processing benefits, at first; then, when he found sitting at a desk all day drove him crazy, investigating fraud, collecting debts – there’d been people there who remembered when Herbert Landon was a Deputy Mayor. Apparently the parties – mayoral inauguration, founder’s day – were something to behold. There were even one or two who’d been around in the early 60’s when old Joseph Landon died and Herbert and his mother sold Landon Water to the city. Nick had been there himself in the 80’s when the city sold it on to Continental, an altogether bigger operation that supplied a score of towns and cities up and down the coast. A couple of years after that, Nick rode the same privatization wave, set up Gennaro Financial Recovery, took the city contract and half his employees with him. Since when, he thinks, he’s been sitting at a desk most days.
He pulls the bell cord again, hears the same muffled sound. He can feel the sun on the back of his neck, the sweat beginning to trickle inside his shirt. He turns away from the door, looks out over his truck. The lawn is brown in places, the borders a little ill-defined, but the place hasn’t run to seed. There must be a gardener: there’s no way Herbert Landon is looking after this himself. So why is he suddenly on Nick’s books?
He turns to try the bell a third time and hears bolts scraping back. When the door swings open there’s no housekeeper, no butler, just a guy who must have once been tall but has lost a deal of height to age and gravity. A guy with watery eyes and no hair that’s not transparent and an immaculate herringbone suit. Who looks as old as Methuselah and has just got to be Herbert Landon himself. Nick can hear the breath rattling his ribs but his hands are steadier than you might expect on the shotgun he’s pointing at Nick’s chest.
When Joseph Landon found the place, it was called Eden and, even though it styled itself a city, there were less than five hundred souls in all, strung out along a river that dried to a trickle every summer, but which, every decade or so, burst its banks in spring, ruining everybody’s ground floor furnishings and washing a farm and a family or two into the ocean. Insurance was hard to come by.
This isn’t the first time anyone has pointed a gun at Nick, but the last was long ago and not something he wants to recall Besides, whatever anyone says, it is not something you ever really get used to. Nick lifts his hands, palms out, dropping the folder, and backs away from the door. Fear makes him forget the steps he has climbed to get there: he stumbles and falls, sprawling in the gravel.
Herbert has not fired a gun for seventy years – since before the Second World War – but he keeps the barrels trained on the dough-faced man sprawled against the front wheel of a green-and-gold pick-up. The man is wearing a summer-weight navy suit and a plain tie. The trouser cuffs are pulled up, showing legs like suet puddings above pale yellow socks.
Herbert walks slowly down the steps, never taking his eyes off the debt collector, who sits up, brushing dust from his knees, reaching for the folder he has dropped. When he puts one hand down to lever himself to his feet, Herbert tells him to stay where he is. He circles to the front of the truck, checks there’s no one else inside, then swings his gun off the man and blows out the windscreen. Both barrels. Once, when he was young, his father took him to see a dam he’d just built in a bowl in the mountains. The noise of water cascading down the hydro shaft was unbelievable. Then his father stopped the fall, like turning off a tap, and Herbert had been impressed, then appalled, by the complete absence of sound as water began slowly to swallow the valley. The silence that follows the shotgun blasts and the soft thump of glass collapsing onto the truck seat has the same unnatural density, like something physicists might imagine happening deep in space.
To Nick it is like the silence you get in war films, when the good guys think they might be safe, and then all hell breaks out.
In time Continental was swallowed up by someone even bigger; its executives paid themselves a bonus for pushing through the deal, and more bonuses as the workforce shrank and profits grew.
The engineers who were left watched a digital map of the entire network while their computers pulled water down from further and further afield and pushed it over the hill to the entire western seaboard. But they still couldn’t stop it raining in August, or February, which last year it had more than the year before, which itself was more than any year since records began. The aircraft plant in Landon finally went bust, along with so much else, and the farmers stopped growing stuff they couldn’t sell when the Government stopped paying them do it and the whole thing looked like it was going belly up. So the water company called the city politicians, said they needed cash: it was a strictly temporary thing, they said, and they made a lot of jokes about liquidity, but basically it was a threat. The cities agreed extraordinary tax levies because what else could they do? There were a hundred and fifty thousand people now in Landon City alone; they couldn’t not have water. So the company survived, and its executives rewarded themselves for saving it – and, of course, for saving all those people who lived on the coast and were always their first concern.
A year later things are still touch and go, and the company is coming back for more.
Herbert breaks open the shotgun, tosses aside the spent cartridges. When the debt collector finally stands up, Herbert hands him the gun.
Nick, not knowing what else to do, takes it. He can see it is a beautiful piece: rosewood stock, silver chasework. Herbert says it is a Beretta, a name Nick associates with gangsters and spies.
“It was my father’s. Beretta make first rate shotguns. Up there with your Purdeys and Brownings; for smaller birds – woodcock, quail – maybe the best. That one’s worth about twelve grand.”
Nick looks again at the gun in his hand, touches the breech gently. The metal is still hot.
Herbert says, “Would you care for a drink?”
When Nick gets back to the office, Frances looks at the gun he places on the desk and asks why he’s soaking wet. He tells her how, on his way back, the summer clouds opened and the rain came through the hole where his windscreen used to be like a waterfall, and he’d had to pull off the road and wait and let it happen.
Frances shakes her head, makes that sound she makes, like a little sigh, that lets him know he’s being stupid. “What happened to the windscreen, Nick?”
He nods at the shotgun. “Junior destroyed it.”
“Christ, Nick. Were you in it?”
He tells her how it happened, though he omits to mention his falling backwards down the steps.
He tells her the old guy led him to a library, like you see in films about the British aristocracy, and poured him a whisky. He tells Nick he can keep the gun – on condition. The condition is Nick doesn’t come back, and his operatives don’t come back, and his competition doesn’t come back. Nick is to tell the city the place is barricaded and he’s not coming out.
Frances says, “Why?”
“Because he’s not paying and he doesn’t want some repo man shouldering his stereo and selling it off to settle the levy. Thinking that makes them straight.”
“He said “stereo”?”
“He’s a hundred and three. He said it “steer-e-oh”. He says they’re not getting the money. He’ll go to jail first.”
Frances shakes her head. “He keeps shooting up people’s trucks he will go to jail.”
“He said not to tell anyone about that.”
“He said I should remember the gun was one of a pair.”
Frances laughs. “He’s a game old bird, you’ve got to give him that.”
Nick opens a cupboard, pokes around until he finds a couple of Gennaro Financial Recovery tee-shirts. He strips off his own sodden jacket and shirt and pulls on a tee, then sits at his desk and uses the other to wipe down the gun, drying off the rain and polishing the silver inlay and the flower patterns etched into the steel. He locks it shut and raises the barrels, closing one eye and aiming at the clock above the door. He pulls a trigger and makes a soft explosion with his throat and lips.
Frances has turned back to her email. She looks up and says, “You’re not going to keep it?”
Nick has been thinking about that. He could hand the gun in to the city. Job done. The old guy was a hundred and three. Twelve grand would pay his water taxes long enough that it made no difference. He takes aim at the computer screen on his desk, pulls the second trigger and breathes another quiet explosion.
In the kitchen at Landon House, Herbert lies face-down on the floor, waiting for the police. He is attempting a press-up. He can’t quite make it, but he will keep trying. He can do sit-ups now, and touch his toes. Prison isn’t going to break him. The guy in the top bunk would have to look out for him.
For the first time in years Herbert has worked up a sweat. He climbs slowly to the fourth floor, hauling on the carved oak banisters. He has not been up here since the late seventies, but he has decided that he wants a bath – God knows he won’t get one in jail – and there are only showers in the second and third floor bathrooms. He pictures the bath, white and vast like a cruise liner in dry dock, gleaming under the sloping eaves at the top of the house.
When he reaches the bathroom it is thick with dust.A window pane is broken and birds have got in. There are droppings and, in a corner, the carcass of a pigeon. The bath is crusted with dirt and calcium. The taps are stiff and hard to shift, but he is strong now and he manages to work them both. Somewhere far off in the house the pipes begin to knock and he waits for water to come gushing through the filth and sediment of all the years, and run freely.
Guy Ware is a recovering civil servant. He has published stories in prize collections and other anthologies from Apis Books, Comma Press, Earlyworks, Leaf Press, and Route. Reviewing his work in Time Out, Nicholas Royle described one of his stories as “a remarkably successful short story – the best I’ve read for a long, long time.” His collection, Witness Protection, will be published by Comma Press in October 2011.