The Knowland Retribution

Richard Greener

“… while the future’s there for anyone to change, still you know it seems, it could be easier sometimes to change the past.”

- Jackson Browne

New York

The Hudson River began with a single drop of water in the wilderness. It fell from a leaf or blade of grass into Lake Tear of the Clouds, no more than a pond on the shoulders of Mt. Marcy, the highest peak in the Adirondacks. It flowed downhill, gathered speed, increased its number. Each drop joined others of its kind, first one, then another, and another, until there were many billions-trillions-a number so immense it could not be imagined.

That’s how this began, unseen and unnoticed, with something microscopic, so small no one could see it, marshalling the wicked force of nature as its ally, eager to pour down devastation upon all who touched it. Many things start long after they’ve actually begun. This was such a thing.

It started on June 25 with Pat Grath’s phone call to Wesley Pitts. Pitts was, as always, the first one awake. Grath called at five thirty in the morning New York time knowing full well Wesley Pitts had been in his office at least fifteen minutes and was already settled in for the day. From his office window, looking out into the morning darkness, Pitts could see the Hudson River three hundred miles from its obscure beginning, expanding through New York Harbor, pushing out to open sea. What he couldn’t see were the cows.

Caller ID told Pitts it was Pat Grath in Houston on the other end of the line.

“Hi, Pat,” he said cheerfully. “How you doing? Four-thirty. You’re up a little early this morning.”

“Yeah,” Grath said, exhibiting none of his trademark jovial nature. “Ain’t that the truth.” The concern and worry in his voice plus the early hour in Texas gave Pitts an uneasy feeling. An urge deep inside him cried out, “Run!”

Grath said, “Look Wes, I’ve got Billy Mac with me here. We’ve got a little problem.”

“Oh, Christ,” thought Wesley Pitts. Nobody, certainly not Pat Grath, calls him with a “little” problem at this time of day. For the tiniest fraction of a second Pitts thought the unthinkable. He wondered if the problem, whatever it was, would disappear if he simply told his biggest clients to fuck off and hung up the phone. Instead, in his most charming and confident voice, he said, “Tell me about it.”

St. John

Cruz Bay is a dumpy little town. It sits alongside the largest harbor of St. John Island under a broiling sun, cooled only slightly by intermittent breezes. St. John is part of the United States, but only because they say so.

The people are Caribbean. The island is neglected. The roads are narrow, bent, and curved, in terrible condition-nearly undrivable here and there. They paint orange circles around potholes but never fill them in. All buildings except the posh hillside and hilltop homes appear to be in some state of disrepair. The island is littered with old and broken cars. When a car stops running they push it off to the side and carry on.

Except in Cruz Bay, the capital, there’s no way garbage can be collected at the source because large trucks cannot manage these single-lane, hilly roads winding their way through and around the narrow, nine-mile island. Instead, St. John makes do with frequent drop-off points where the locals, and the visitors too, pile up large bins of loose garbage, brightly colored plastic bags-large and small, stuffed to bursting-empty beer cases, anything else they no longer need. Most will concede, with varying degrees of interest in the subject, that this detracts from the beauty of the place, from its natural charm.

The island does have remarkable good points. Nearly two-thirds form a national park, splendid and untouched. St. John has some of the most beautiful beaches anywhere in the world. And, best of all, there’s no way to reach St. John except by boat. The much larger St. Thomas looms nearby, twenty minutes by ferry. Still, St. John is not a busy spot. When you rent a car they tell you there’s a thousand dollar charge, a fine really, for taking your car on the ferry to St. Thomas. How will they know? You ask yourself this only until, and it does not take long, you realize that they know everything. It’s a small place. The permanent population comes to less than four thousand, including the exiles: the twenty-two-year-old girls from Seattle and Boston and Sioux City who’ve run away for however long it takes them to go island nuts waiting tables in Cruz Bay. St. John’s four hundred or so vacation homes and villas accommodate a couple of thousand owners, renters, and guests at high season. A few campers come for the park. Most people shop at the island’s two supermarkets and there’s nothing super about either. It’s a great place for scuba diving and looking at fish, if that’s the kind of thing you like, but there’s no golf course on St. John and that keeps the riffraff out. It lacks the Old World allure of Curacao, the mystery of Grand Cayman, or the sexy extravagance of St. Barts, but St. John is the perfect place to be if you’re looking to be alone.

Walter Sherman often found himself contemplating one or another of these points. The old habit never ceased to give him satisfaction. He felt good now, comfortable in his regular seat in Billy’s, second from last at the end of the bar, away from the street and near the standing fan next to the kitchen door. Cruz Bay is a bar town. Walter liked Billy’s best. It nestled securely on the west edge of the square, directly across from the slip where the St. Thomas ferry docked. Like most island bars, Billy’s is an open-air establishment, dependent on rare cool winds off the water and a few large fans for comfort. It admits more than enough natural light to require sunglasses for some, and to welcome the affectation of hip shades by others. Billy’s wide open front is guarded by a low, white picket fence separating it from the sidewalk. The white tables, some nearest the front with colored umbrellas, lead to a rosewood bar that runs the whole length of the building at the far end. Behind the bar, with a full view of his kitchen, Billy holds court. When he was on the island, Walter breakfasted at Billy’s most mornings, took an occasional lunch there, and every so often, dinner too. But no one could remember Walter being in Billy’s later than that. This morning he sipped his routine Diet Coke and quietly ate scrambled eggs with toast. He was trying hard to forget about a newly painted pothole, forty feet down the road from his hillside home, and was reading the obit page of the New York Times when heavy steps broke the silence around him. He glanced quickly toward the wide doorway.

Walter Sherman was in his mid-fifties, of average height, and, like most men his age, at least twenty pounds heavier than he wanted to be. He wore his hair long in the back, but carefully combed and not so long as to attract attention. He hadn’t lost much of it, but over time the color had changed from dark brown. It looked washed out, and it was streaked with gray, especially around the ears. Women commented favorably on his leathery tan and pale-blue eyes. He thought he looked good, even in Billy’s scratchy bar mirror, but he also looked a good fifty plus. He was clean-shaven and dressed in his usual faded jeans and oversized pastel T-shirt. It gave him a casual appearance that some mistook for messiness. He was no tourist, and it didn’t take much to spot that.

It was late September and this time Walter had been gone almost a week-Boston, Pittsburgh, and, finally, of all places to find someone, Beckley, West Virginia. All three were disappointingly wet and cold for this time of year. The whole east coast had been an unpleasant mess. The island’s morning heat felt glorious. The back of his neck at the top of his shirt under his hair was damp with sweat. He loved working up a sweat, especially when all it took was eating breakfast. Walter spotted the three newcomers right off the bat. How could he miss them? One large black man, two white men. They wore suits, shirts, and ties, and dark socks and shoes with laces-the kind you never see around here. They were not renters, or owners, or guests. They might have been FBI, or some other law

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