Life Is Change
Copyright© 2016 by Ernest Bywater
Life’s Ups and Downs
Moses Kent ‘Smoky’ Grey is talking to another student while they both walk to the university car park. They’ve just finished their final exam so they can now relax until they get their results. As is the usual thing with students just after any exam they’re talking about the questions. Both Smoky and Ruth, the other student, are looking around the car park while they walk and talk. They can only see half of the car park due to the hedge beside the path blocking their view of the rest of the car park, but it’s only another two metres to the end of the high hedge on their left.
Both look up when they hear a loud vehicle engine on the other side of the hedge. That shouldn’t be happening because the university is a 25 kph (kilometre per hour) zone. So someone is speeding. The sound nears them and a black van races past the end of the path they’re on. The tyres screech due to heavy braking and the van comes to a halt in front of a car parked on the end of the row of cars several metres ahead of the two students. Four men get out of the van and race to surround the car they just blocked in with a young woman at its wheel. One man pulls on the door handle, but it doesn’t open. One races to the other side to try that door while one stands to the side yelling orders and the last man is reaching into the back of the van for something. The van’s driver is in his seat with his head turned to watch what the other men are doing. The van’s engine is still on, but it’s idling while the van sits there.
Smoky starts running forward while saying, “Ruth, hide and call the police.” He doesn’t wait to see what she does. The man giving orders is near the back of the van and he’s the one closest to Smoky. So Smoky drops his shoulder to charge into the man’s back as hard and as fast as he can in the several strides he takes to reach him. Smoky’s right shoulder hits the man in the middle of his back about level with the bottom of his shoulder blades. The man is tossed forward with his upper body at an angle. On being hit the man screams at the same time as a gun fires. The man hits the ground hard with his hands hitting the road just before his body. His right hand opens from the pain of the contact with the road, and the handgun in it goes sliding across the road. The man’s forehead hits the edge of the gutter with a loud crunch, and his scream stops.
The man who turned to reach into the van is moving backward while turning toward the car with a heavy hammer in his hand when the gun fires. The bullet enters the back right quarter of his chest, and throws him sideways into the pillar between the front and back doors of the van while it tears through his chest and lung. The impact with the van causes him to let go of the hammer he’s swinging while turning to his left. The hammer flies from his hand to hit the driver on the side of the head to knock him sideways while breaking his neck in the process.
After knocking the first man flying with a shoulder charge Smoky continues his charge to the car. The man trying to open the driver’s door half turns when he hears the gunshot. Seeing an attacker he turns more toward Smoky while he braces for the impact. However, there is no impact because Smoky half steps to his right while making a very fast upward swing with his open left hand. The bony part at the base of the palm of Smoky’s hand strikes under the man’s jaw while still moving upward. The man’s head goes back and there’s a loud crack when his neck snaps from the force of the blow. The contact causes Smoky’s body to start to turn with his right half continuing forward, so he grabs hold of the man’s shirt with his left hand to use the man as a pivot point while he turns as much as possible to throw himself onto the bonnet of the car. Smoky hits the bonnet while still turning and rolling, but out of control. He slides across the bonnet to slam into the body of the last attacker.
Jim, the man who ran around the car also looks up when he hears the gunshot. He sees his mates go down then the attacker is sliding across the car bonnet toward him. He grins while reaching for the knife in his pocket as he plans to cut this person up. However, Jim is still bringing the knife up from his pocket when the attacker slides off the car bonnet to hit Jim in the chest with his hands held up in front of him. Jim is off balance when Smoky hits him and Jim is thrown violently backwards.
Smoky knows he doesn’t have full control and he’s going to hit the ground hard, so he needs to stop the last man from doing anything to hurt him while he gets back on his feet. The best he can manage in the few seconds he slides across the car is to turn to get his hands in front of himself. His hands make contact and he puts all of his strength into shoving the man as far away as he can. The man flies backwards much faster and harder than Smoky expects him to. The man hits the next car, turns a bit, slides along it, falls to the ground, and heaves for a moment. The fall is awkward for Smoky, but he does get his left arm under him to help cushion the impact a little bit. He hits hard and he dislocates his left shoulder, which is better than breaking his arm. He struggles to get up, and he’s surprised the last attacker isn’t on his feet before he is.
After a few paces Smoky is beside the man checking his pulse, there isn’t one, so he leaves him to check on the others. All of them are dead. Damn it! Now he won’t be able to find out what it’s about. Smoky walks a few metres to one of the rubbish bins in the car park and he sits on it. In the distance he can hear sirens wailing, so he smiles. The authorities will be here soon, but too late, as usual. He gets his phone out and he hits a speed dial. His mother answers, so he briefs her, “Mum, the uni car park, section Red, Charlie Four. Some men trying to kidnap a young woman. I stopped them, five dead. Left shoulder is out. I don’t know who was involved or why. I feel very sick. Police are on the way.”
He hears a sharp intake of breath before she says, “Take several slow deep breaths. I’m on my way. Keep calm and say nothing to anyone until I get there. I’ll bring someone to take your car home.”
“Right, Mum. See you soon.” He has his phone back in his pocket when he sees a police car enter this section of the car park.
The police come to a screeching halt by the scene and two cops get out of the police car. One stands to the side to watch everyone while the other checks for pulses. All five are dead so he turns to his partner and says, “Five dead. We don’t need the ambulance at all.”
Smoky says, “Yes you do! I’m hurt and I think the girl in the car is in shock. Keep the ambulance coming.”
The Australian Federal Police officer watching everything uses her portable radio to call in to request one ambulance plus the Scene of Crime people because she has five dead on the scene. She walks over and asks Smoky, “Up to telling me what happened?”
He gives a half smile as he replies, “Sorry, my shoulder is dislocated or displaced. All I know is it hurts a lot. Also, I rang my mother and she’s bringing someone over to collect my car. She said not to talk to anyone until after she arrives.” The officer smiles at him obeying his mother’s orders at his age. He grins as he adds, “She’s also my solicitor, Amanda Kent-Grey. I think you may have heard of her.”
The officer nods yes as his mother is one of the best known solicitors in Canberra. She says, “Yes, I know her. I’d follow her advice as well.” She turns to walk over to check on the young woman in the car, she’s still in her seat and shaking, obviously very upset. The officer is soon helping the young woman out of her car and sits her down in the passengers seat of the police car while her partner waves everyone away from the area.
Ruth slowly walks over while staring at Smoky. She reaches him and says, “Damn, that was incredible. You’re a one man combat team.”
Her comment gets the attention of the first police officer who comes over and says, “If you saw what happened you need to wait around until I can get a statement from you, Miss.”
Ruth nods yes as she says, “My car’s over there. Can I go to it to sit down for a moment?” The officer nods yes. Ruth goes to her car. Smoky smiles because as soon as Ruth sits down she pulls out her notebook computer and she starts typing. He thinks she’s doing her statement of the incident so she can get it done and get out of here right now.
More police cars arrive with two uniformed officers to direct traffic and two detectives. The ambulance arrives and they check the woman out. The medics give her a mild sedative and then they look at Smoky’s arm. They feel his shoulder, joint, and upper arm with great care.
One of the ambulance officers diagnoses the arm as being displaced but not a full dislocation. One of them asks, “Want it put back?” Smoky turns to reply, and the other does something to the arm. A short sharp pain and the hurting drops to a mild ache.
Smoky looks at the man working on his arm while saying, “That hurt, you sneaky bastard! Thanks, it doesn’t hurt as much now!“
The man smiles as he replies, “Yeah, a displaced shoulder hurts like hell. I’ve had one, so I know. To help it settle back into place you should get it massaged every day for the next ten days. We can take you to hospital if you want to get an x-ray to be sure it’s back in right.”
While shaking his head no Smoky says, “If it doesn’t settle down by this time tomorrow I’ll get an x-ray. That’ll allow the soft tissue time to relax again.” The man nods his agreement and the two ambulance men sit on the ambulance’s rear step while they finish their paperwork.
The Scene of Crime people arrive and get busy at the same time as Ruth walks over with some papers in her hand. She has a portable office set up in her car which includes a printer and paper. She hands Smoky a sheet of paper, walks over to give one to the young woman, then hands two to one of the police officers first on the scene as she says, “Here’s two copies of my statement of what I saw. I typed it up and printed it out on my computer. I’ve other things I have to do. Can I go now?” The officer reads the statement, and nods her approval. Ruth is soon driving away.
After walking over to Smoky the officer says, “According to this you put in one hell of a fight. I know you’re not superman because you got hurt and he doesn’t get hurt. I’ll wait for your solicitor to get a statement. OK?” Smoky simply nods his agreement while reading Ruth’s statement.
Ten minutes later Smoky’s mother arrives, dropped off by one of her office staff. When the car drives off Smoky figures his mother will be driving them home. She walks up and holds out her hand so he gets the keys out and hands them to her before pointing to the officer in charge. Although the two detectives are sticking their noses into everything the police woman first on the scene hasn’t yet told them who he is.
Amanda walks over to the officer and says, “Hi, Jenny. Can I take him to his car to prepare his statement?” She nods her approval and Amanda waves at Smoky. He gets up to go to his car which is several cars down the row on the other side. They get in, she opens her briefcase, and she types on the computer built into it while he talks. When he stops talking she shows him what’s on the computer, he mentions a few things to change, she makes the changes, they both check it again, he nods his approval, she prints out several copies, and he signs them. Amanda gets out of the car, goes to the police car, gives one copy to the young woman while talking to her for a moment, and the other two copies go to Jenny, the initial police officer, while the two women have a short talk.
Back at the car Amanda gets in and drives off. A bit down the road she says, “Moses, you need to take great care for a while. That young woman’s father is very rich and you just busted up her kidnapping. You also took out the five professionals sent after her. Whoever sent them is sure to be very unhappy with you. Jenny did us both a favour by not telling the detectives about you yet. She’ll just hand them the statements when they finish looking over the scene. If they knew you were more than just an ordinary witness we’d be hours before we got away. I want you to go away somewhere, anywhere, for the rest of the day. I’ll call you tomorrow to let you know how things are going.”
He sits and thinks for a few minutes before saying, “Can you spare Betty for a few days? I shouldn’t drive, so she can take me fishing.”
Amanda smiles. Betty is her office manager and nearly old enough to be his grandmother. She treats Amanda like an equal with just a touch of boss respect, but she looks on Moses as the grandson her daughter never had. She says, “Yes. I can let her take the rest of the week off on pay since she’s looking after a client. Damned if I know why she likes you, but she does. I know all you two do out on that lake is sunbathe, fish, and talk, so you may as well take the camper to go to Lake Burrinjuck.” She uses the ‘hands-free’ phone accessory to call Betty to tell her what’s going on. Betty is happy to have a few days out on the lake to fish, and on full pay too.
An hour later Betty is driving the Grey family camper-van out of the garage and down the road. Both of them have enough clothes for ten days, now all they need is to stop to get some food on their way out of the city. A short stop at a supermarket is made to get all they need for the next week. They’re on the Barton Highway and passing the village of Hall when Betty says, “Care to tell me what happened?”
Smoky knows his mother didn’t tell Betty about the incident but she must know his mother raced out of the office at short notice and now she’s driving him off on a trip in the luxury camper-van registered to a privately owned company that can’t be traced to the Grey family but they own it because they own the company that owns the company, etc. They both love driving this big van, but he didn’t even ask about driving it. Smoky just gave her the keys for her to drive instead of having the usual heated discussion over who drives for how long. So Betty knows something serious is up and she wants to know what it is.
He sighs and says, “I have to get out of town for a few days and be unreachable on my normal phone. Mum has that and I’ve got the ‘hide out phone.’ She’ll call when it’s safe to return. After this morning’s exam I interrupted a kidnapping in the car park. There was a bunch of them so I hit them hard. One had a gun I didn’t see, one had a knife, and one had a hammer. I smashed into them from behind and scored a strike by knocking them all down. In the process two of them killed two of them and the guy with the knife landed on it to kill himself. I broke the neck of the fifth one. So they all ended up dead while I hurt my shoulder.”
Betty gives him a quick glance, slowly shakes her head, and asks, “This the first time you’ve really hurt anyone?” He nods yes, which she sees. “So it’s also the first time you’ve killed someone and you feel a bit sick to the stomach about it.” Another nod. “Your mother may not like what I’m about to say, but I want you to think about this as a case of stomping on a nest of roaches. Men don’t go around in groups of five to kidnap a person! Only scum and vermin do. Got it?” He turns to stare at her and she catches his head movement out of the corner of her eye. She grins, “You’re not the first person to have to kill someone. I threw up after my first one. But it could’ve been due to all of the bloody mess the shotgun made of him that caused me to be sick.” His eyes go very wide.
Sighing Betty pulls over to the side of the road and parks. She turns to him, “About twenty-five years ago we lived on a farm west of Sydney, near Dural. Jane witnessed some bike gang members shoot someone. The gang came around to shut her up. Jack met them at the gate and they shot him, he was unarmed. Their leader motioned for one of them to open the gate. I was standing nearby with the shotgun because Jack told me to. I aimed at their leader and fired. We only had bird-shot for hunting rabbits and ducks. However, at only fifteen feet it was more than enough for them. The bastard’s head vanished in the blast and blood spurted everywhere. I bent over and threw up. When I came upright again the rest were looking everywhere for where the shooter was. I was bent over behind a bush while being sick, so they didn’t see me. Being so close they weren’t sure of the direction. I pumped another round and fired at the next one, but a little lower. I got all six of them at the gate. The one hanging back a bit turned and raced off. An hour later thirty of them arrived. They drove through the gate with a truck. I was up on a hill to the side of the house with Joe’s old three-oh-three. He taught me how to hunt roos with it soon after we got married. I got seven with the first clip while they came through the gate and I got seven more with the second clip while they spread out on the farm. I was pushing in the fourth clip when the ones still able to do so took off and they left twenty-one of that group as dead scum behind them. Jane didn’t need to testify because the ones she saw kill the man were all now lying dead on my farm. The prosecutor called it self-defence because they were all armed. I wasn’t charged, the dead were buried, then Jane and I moved down here. Just like me, you were busy killing vermin on two legs.”
Smoky is astonished this little frail grandmother shot up a bunch of big, bad, gang members. He slowly shakes his head as he says, “I must remember not to make you angry with me. I figure it’ll hurt a lot. Yes, it’s best to think of it as vermin eradication. But my stomach still feels a little queasy.”
Betty gives him a weak smile while saying, “You’ll get over it. Just make sure you’re up to doing it again when you have to.” He nods yes. “So, I see all of your training and workouts finally paid for themselves. You likely saved that person’s life!” He half frowns. “Smoky, most kidnap victims end up dead, unless they’re a child or young person taken for the slave trade. Thus it’s very probable you saved that person’s life.” He hadn’t seen it that way or thought of that likelihood. However, that point of view does help him to accept the consequences of his actions a lot better. Although all five of the men died because of his intervention the deaths of four were due to the situation or things outside of his control, but he did intentionally hit the man under his chin with the clear knowledge he’d probably kill him with the blow he intended to use.
Both sigh, chat some more, and then get on with their fishing trip. Their talks do help Smoky come to terms with the situation, to fully accept he did the right thing, and to also acknowledge he’ll do it again if he has to. When they stop for fuel Betty refills the van and she pays for it while he hides in the back of the camper-van. They don’t want him to show on any of the fuel depot’s surveillance cameras. A few hours later they’re parked in a camp-site beside Lake Burrinjuck in New South Wales. Betty is busy stabilising the camper-van while Smoky is getting the aluminium boat off the back of the camper by undoing the ties and working the winch to lower it to the ground. They take a side each to carry it over to the lake to put it into the water at the nearby launch spot. Betty unpacks their fishing gear to put it in the boat while Smoky gets the outboard motor and he attaches it to the boat. Thirty minutes later they’re out in the middle of the lake with fishing rods in the water while lying back and softly talking about what he’ll do for a living now he’s finished his university degree.
She asks, “Smoky, you’re always taking photos so the photography studies make sense, but why the business management degree too?”
He grins, “If I know how to run a business I won’t go broke making mistakes running my own photography business.” She slow nods her understanding in reply as it makes sense and it’s typical of the way Smoky and his mother think things through in great detail.
Time for a Change
It’s nearing midday of the fourth day at the lake when the two go back to the camper for lunch. They’ve caught a couple of fish and even had one for dinner last night, but mostly they catch and release the fish. As is their routine they turn the phone on to check for text messages. The delay in being given the ‘all clear’ is of concern, but not yet an issue. Today the phone has a message: ‘Drop by the office as you have to collect a box.’ Both smile because few people would get the message there. It’s not a note to visit the office, but hidden in a simple code is a request to check a cloud-computing storage site they use.
Betty prepares lunch while Smoky gets the boat off the lake, washes and cleans the boat, gear, and motor; secures the boat to the camper; puts the motor away; and stores their gear. He’s back inside when the food is ready for them to eat. After eating they go into the small town of Bookham, NSW, to access the Internet via the computer’s SIM card.
Smoky logs in, downloads copies of the two files there, and logs out before opening the encrypted files with his personal security code. The first file is more information on the kidnap victim, her family, and the histories of the kidnap team members. The only people who’ll miss the dead are those who hire them to hurt people, so he’s now feeling a lot better about the outcomes of the incident. The young woman is on her way back to the USA with the security staff her very rich father can provide. Her family is very concerned because only ten people knew she was in Australia and only four of them knew where in the country she was or why she was there. The last four are from her family and the others are government officials with access to her passport records. They now suspect a family member is seeking to take over control of the many family businesses. The Coroner has already ruled on the deaths and no action is to be taken against Smoky, but he will have to keep an eye out for the people connected with the kidnappers who may want revenge. Since they’re all Australians that is a major concern to him.
He closes that file and he opens the other file, it’s scanned copies of letters from a law office in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Some distant relative has died and a very old trust he manages is now Smoky’s to manage if he wants to. He has to visit them to finalise the paperwork and take it over.
There’s also a note from his mother suggesting he take over the trust because it’ll give him something to do while it also gets him away from the people in Australia who may want to harm him. She also mentions she sent over scanned copies of the requested documents and she mailed certified copies of the originals; these are the documents proving his heritage and his relationship to the deceased.
Betty reads them with him and she simply says, “I’ll miss you, but you should go.” He turns to her, gives her a hug, and nods his agreement.
Ten minutes later they’re on their way back to Canberra and home.
Five days later Smoky is in Sydney to catch a plane to the USA, he’ll change planes at Los Angeles. At the airport security checkpoint to board the flight to the USA he shows his Australian passport for processing while they check his luggage. There isn’t much because he’ll be buying suitable clothing in Atlanta, so he has clothes for ten days in the single bag he has and no carry on luggage because the tablet he has for reading on the plane fits into his coat pocket.
This move from Australia to Georgia in mid December is going to be a bit of a shock to Smoky when going from summer to winter so quickly.
Two hours into the flight Smoky is very glad his mother insisted he go first class, for which she paid the thousands of dollars it costs to do so. His seat is more like a miniature bunk and it’s very comfortable. Qantas call it a suite, so that gives you an idea of what it’s like. He’s in the first seat beside the galley, so he’s able to hear the cabin crew chat. One of the other crew members is asking the crew leader, “Does any of the crew on-board know any languages other than English, Spanish, German, French, or Russian?”
The crew leader asks, “Why, Joan? What’s up?”
“We’ve a passenger with a baby and she’s agitated about something to do with the child. We’ve tried all of the languages my team knows, but no luck at all, Frank!”
Smoky leans forward and signals to the crew leader. When the man walks closer Smoky says, “I know several languages. I’ll try them if you want me to.”
Frank smiles and replies, “Thanks. At the very least it’ll cut down on the ones we still have to try.”
Smoky stands and follows Joan down the aisle of the aircraft while thinking, Well, studying all of those languages Dad insisted on may pay off, for once. From when he could speak English well until his father died three years ago his father had him learning languages. As soon as he got control of one language he was started on another. Like his father he has an affinity for languages and he learns them faster than most people. At one time he thought about working as a UN translator, but dropped the idea after looking into it a lot more. He’s fluent in English, German, Dutch, Swedish, French, Spanish, Italian, Farsi, Hebrew, Polish, and Navajo. His father taught him Navajo and he’s always wondered why he knew it. The Farsi was understandable because his father served in the first half of the Iraqi War. He served as a US Marine between high school and university, but he never told Smoky why he did. Whenever Smoky asked his father about his time in the Marines he was happy to tell him all about it, but he always refused to say why he joined the Marines.
About three-quarters of the way down the aircraft Joan stops beside a young woman with a child about eighteen months old. They stare at each other until Smoky touches his mouth then waves his fingers up and down against his thumb in the universal hand sign for talking. The woman starts to talk. He listens for a moment, smiles, and replies. The woman smiles and continues to talk. He puts a hand up to stop her, turns to Joan, and says, “The child has developed a mild fever since they left the hotel this morning so she’s worried about the fever and the child’s health. Is there a medically trained person on-board the plane that can look at the child?”
Joan nods yes and says, “Two of our staff are trained paramedics.” She goes to the galley and she uses the phone there.
Smoky looks around and notices several people looking at him. One of them is staring real hard, so Smoky wonders what his problem is.
A moment later another cabin crew member arrives with a first aid kit. She checks the child over, asks a few question, and gets answers. All via Smoky translating both sides of the conversation. The child is given a tablet for the fever.
After listening to the crew member telling him what to say he tells the mother the paramedic isn’t too worried at this time, but she’ll be back to check the child every hour or so and they should get a doctor to look at the child after they land. Then he passes her reply of understanding to the crew member. The paramedic writes a note of her findings and treatment which she gives to the woman to help her if she needs more help after they land. Smoky adds a note stating her language and he tells her what both of the notes are for. The woman writes on the back of each note in her native language before she puts them away in her pocket.
He returns to his seat and all goes well for the rest of the flight. The arrival in Los Angeles is smooth and he’s one of the first to disembark. However, things get a bit interesting when he reaches the Customs and Border Control point. They want to question him in a room first.
The man who checked and cleared Smoky’s single bag of luggage sits him at a table in Interview Room 3, takes a seat, and starts to examine the contents of Smoky’s tablet. It only takes him a few minutes to clear it and hand it back. Just after that another man walks in with some papers in his hand and he sits down on the other side of the desk. The man looks up and says, “Mister Grey, there are a few disturbing things about your entry we’d like to clear up, if we can.” Smoky nods his understanding. “First, we’ve no record of you in our computers, apart from the issue of your current passport when made two years ago. We’ve no record of you leaving the country and your passport has no entries in it. Why’s that?”
Smoky grins, “Well, the most likely answer is because this is my first trip to the USA. I was born in Australia. My father was from Atlanta, Georgia. When he died, a few years back, I notified the US Embassy in Canberra and the officer there suggested I apply for my US passport at that time. So I put in the application and it took a while for them to verify all of the papers and to issue the passport. I’m a US citizen via my father. This is my first trip outside of Australia and I left there on my Australian passport since it made for easier paperwork. Last week the man I spoke to in the US Embassy said I wouldn’t need a visa to enter the USA and I only have to show my passport to gain entry. Then you’ll put me into the computer system.”
The first Border Security fellow is making notes while the lead one is reading his notes. The talker looks up and asks, “Why only the one bag of clothes?”
“I’m on my way to Atlanta, Georgia. I don’t know what the weather or fashions are like there and I’ll be staying there for some time while I sort out some issues to do with Dad’s side of the family. If I don’t stay long I won’t need much and I’ve enough to manage if I wash it often. If I stay longer I’ll be buying some new clothes in Atlanta.”
The next conversation starter is, “The Air Marshall on your flight said you were speaking Arabic to some woman. What was that all about?” Smoky now knows why one person was very interested in him.
“Obviously the Air Marshall doesn’t know the languages from that part of the world. The woman was speaking Hebrew. She’s an Israeli born woman married to a US man she met while he was over there. Her child had a problem and the child needed an examination by trained medical staff. The cabin crew didn’t know the language so I acted as interpreter. During the examination I passed part of the time by asking her about her trip. She told me about her husband and her being on the way to meet up with him in Texas. She doesn’t speak or know any English. I find that a bit odd, but not impossible. She likely comes from one of the more rural areas of Israel. And, just for the record, my father was big on learning languages. Both he and I found them easy to learn so he had me learn a few he knew. He served in the first Iraqi war in 1990, the one they call The Gulf War. He learned Farsi in the late 1980s and he found it useful in the war because it’s the most common version of modern Persian they speak in the region. He had me learn German, Dutch, Swedish, French, Spanish, Italian, Farsi, Hebrew, Polish, and Navajo as well as English.”
There are several more follow up questions with notes passed in and out before he’s allowed to go on his way, nearly two hours later. Smoky has just enough time to grab something to eat before he boards his plane for Atlanta. Unlike his first plane this one has several stops along the way.
When Smoky arrives in Atlanta, Georgia, he goes to the hotel the local lawyer he’s here to see recommended he use, and where he’s booked into. It’s a good hotel. A good night’s sleep is what he needs before his day with the lawyers, and that’s what he gets after his dinner.
At 9:30 a.m. the day after his arrival in the city Smoky is in the Atlanta office of Hardesty John ‘H J’ Rowe, the lawyer who contacted Smoky’s mother about him, and why he’s in Atlanta, Georgia. After the usual greetings and small talk H J says, “I want you to call me H J. I hate the common short form of my first name.”
He gets a smile and a reply of, “Early in my life Moses got cut down to Mo. However, everyone now calls me Smoky.”
“OK! how do you get Smoky out of that?”
“When I was about ten or eleven I joined the scouts. The local unit already had another Mo in it so they called me Mo K because they add the initial of the middle name for the new member when the first name is the same as another member. The next week I was at a birthday party for one of the scouts. When his young sister, she must have been about six or so, was introduced to me she mispronounced my name because she has a lisp and it came out as Smo Kay. She stopped for a moment then said, ‘Oh, Smoky, like the bear.’ And I’ve been stuck with it since then because Smoky Grey sort of fits.”
“That’s a different way to get a nickname, but you’re right, Smoky Grey does sort of fit as a name. Well, on to the trust and its manager. The new manager has to be twenty-one years of age or older, male, have the surname of Grey as his birth name, and be the closest in line to the last manager. They can refuse to accept the position. That’s known as ‘breaking the line’ and it makes their children ineligible for the job, but their later descendants can be considered if there are no eligible heirs in any of the unbroken lines. The job’s pay is dependent on how well the trust is doing. Two closer heirs have refused the job because the trust isn’t doing well and to be the manager you can’t hold another full-time job, only a part-time one. They have good jobs on high pay and they don’t want to take a pay cut. Now we’ve met with me offering you the job you’ve four weeks to accept the job or to refuse it.”
Smoke is a bit pensive when he asks, “How much is it? What’s in the trust? Why isn’t it doing well?”
“The maximum pay is twenty-five percent of the annual profit after taxes, and you can take a lower figure if you want. Currently that’s at only two thousand dollars a year. The trust assets are the bank account which doesn’t have much in it, twenty small farms within one hundred miles of here, and six large properties in a nearby city. The catch with the farms is they’re all under long term contracts for others to use but the terms limit what they can grow and how they can grow it. Costs have gone up and revenues are down so our share of the profits aren’t much, but they do cover the taxes. The commercial buildings are in the older town center of the city and have restrictions on them due to being on the state and county heritage lists. Also, they don’t meet current state or county building codes while four are condemned, one has two retail stores in it, and the sixth is zoned as a farm. They’re all together and they make up a whole city block with the farm in the middle of it. The taxes are high and paying them is where most of the trust revenue goes.”
“I think I need more information on the situation before I can make a decision. Yet it seems the city properties should be profitable but they’re actually a drain on the estate. Is that the case?” He gets a nod yes in reply. “What are the heritage restrictions? What’s the property layout?”
H J moves a writing pad between them and he draws a picture of the block showing two long buildings on one side, another just as long on each of the two short sides almost touching the first ones, and a shorter building on the fourth side between the last two, with an open space between them all while saying, “The farm is in the middle of the block with the other buildings around it. The small one was originally a stables and the farm property was used as a field for the horses. The two buildings on either side of the stables plus one of the buildings at the front are condemned. We can use the ground floor of the fifth building because it has a toilet within fifty feet of it. We can’t use the upper levels because of access code violations. All of the buildings are three stories with this one having a basement as well,” as he taps one of the buildings near the stables while making his last comment. “The state heritage rules require the exterior to stay as it was when listed or to be returned to its original condition. The county heritage rules require the building to be as it was in eighteen seventy, inside and out. All of the other heritage buildings in the county are the same rules as the state ones.”
“That sounds like someone on the county management doesn’t like the trust or the family!”
“The county heritage listing is thirty years old and at that time the county was controlled by a family who don’t like the Grey family. They still have a strong influence on the county board as well as family on it.”
“What are the code issues and how hard are they to fix?”
“All of the buildings were built in the early eighteen hundreds so none of them have running water, an inside toilet, electricity, lifts, nor air-conditioning. Thus they don’t have a disabled access to any of the upper floors. Today all commercial buildings need to have toilets and the larger ones need break rooms with running water. County codes requires all properties with sewerage available in the street it fronts to be connected to the sewer. All of the buildings have sewer lines in the streets in front of them, but no connection because the county heritage rules means we can’t make the internal changes to put in toilets or connect them to the sewers. The county rules also stop us from putting in lifts, electricity, and running water. The one building we can rent space in can operate due to the natural light through all of the windows with battery lighting further in and because we’ve a toilet attached to a septic tank in the corner of the farm nearest to them it gives them a toilet to use within the maximum distance allowed. The farm isn’t a building so the septic tank is allowed. The farm isn’t big enough to allow more than one septic tank toilet on it. Having the toilet that close is all that stops the last building from being condemned.”
“So, if we can get a change to the county heritage classification we can rectify all of the issues and renovate for a viable rental property?” He gets a nod yes from H J. “What are the zones for the properties and are there any other county or city codes that limit what we can do?”
H J taps the buildings while he talks, starting with the one with the basement he then goes clockwise around the block, “This is industrial; these two are commercial and residential because the staff lived on the top floor; this is residential because it was housing for the workers in the big building; the stables are commercial with residential up top as well.”
Smoky interrupts with, “Any limits on the farm?”
“The farm is full rural and you can do any farming there, why?”
“What happens if the trust goes bust? And who owns the buildings near these ones?”
“If the trust goes bust the blocks will be taken by the county and sold cheap to pay back taxes. The trust rules don’t allow us to sell any of the assets, just add to them. So, no income means we eventually run out and default on taxes. The county can get a court order to take them and the trust can’t stop any government acquisition. Most of the land around these buildings is owned by the family who controlled the county.”
“Can the county force a zoning change on the owner?”
“Not without a court order and they’re hard to justify or get. And, going back to an earlier question. The only other codes to affect them, if we can get the heritage changed, is the fencing and access path codes. The fence code is for a six foot fence on every boundary line except for a three foot fence for the front yard fence beside the road or a side road fence from level with the building’s front or a rural property roadside fence unless special approval is given for the rural property for higher fences due to the stock being kept there. For residential only property no building closer to the boundary than three feet and four feet for all other properties. Foot access paths to be a minimum of four feet wide, vehicle access paths to be a minimum width of eight feet, and mixed access paths to be a minimum of twelve feet wide.” Smoky notes all of this down on the pad with the block outline while H J talks.
“Right! I need full plans of the blocks and buildings, interior plans of the buildings, a new inspection report on each building. A map showing where all of the utilities and services are accessible to the properties, and a terrain map. I’m unable to make a decision until I can see if I can turn the viability of the city properties around. For the other farm properties I think you should use the change of manager to sound out if the current tenants want to void the existing contracts by mutual agreement.”
H J nods his agreement and says, “I like that. The previous manager wouldn’t even consider renegotiating the contracts. If you’re happy to do it I’ll ask them if they want to void the current contracts and then see about signing new short-term contract with more flexibility in them. I’m sure we can get them to be more profitable if we do that. I’ll get all of the other stuff for you but it’ll take a few days. Where are you staying?”
“I want to look over the buildings in detail but I don’t want to spend a fortune on hotel bills. I’ll get a cell phone, some camping gear, and I’ll camp on the farm in the city. That gives me access and saves me money.”
“I think the trust can pay for the phone because you need it for trust business. But you’re on your own for the camping gear and getting there. Buses run all of the time, but it’s too far to take a taxi. I’ll give you a set of keys to take with you. Get yourself a notebook computer you can link to the phone and I’ll email you the information.”
H J gives one of his staff some instructions and she takes Smoky to a nearby electronic goods store to buy a good phone. It’s not top of the line, but it’s not far off it and it has a decent Internet access plan as part of the phone plan they buy with it. They put in the SIM card and set the phone up while she pays for it with a company credit card. He talks to the staff about a computer and his situation. They sell him a good general use notebook with a robust carry case which includes shoulder straps to carry it like a backpack. Plus the top of the case is solar panels to recharge the battery and he buys an extra long-life battery for the computer. He also gets a nice compact radio he can charge off the solar panels. He pays for his gear with some of the traveller’s cheques he has.
After they leave that store H J’s staff member takes him to an outdoor store. The first items are a high quality sleeping bag good for use up to Arctic standard and a light-weight water-proof three person tent with the main body as a single unit so water won’t get in. The tent is made from a composite fibre material for extra strength and durability. A set of light-weight cooking gear of stove, plate, pot, pan, and cutlery set. Two sturdy light-weight canteens with cup tops, and a fire starter kit. An LED (light emitting diode) battery lantern with built-in solar cell. A portable shower unit with a solar panel heating unit plus a frame to hold it up. Only then does he look at the backpacks and he buys a high quality one.
A shift to another section for two full sets of hiking gear plus twenty pairs of two types of socks to wear, two types of water-proof cloth hats that fold up, wet weather gear that folds up tight, extensive first aid kit, two types of gloves, winter over-mittens, two balaclavas, plus some of the dehydrated meals with a long shelf life.
All but the shower unit go into their special pockets in the backpack while the shower unit is strapped to the top of the backpack. Smoky pays for it all with traveller’s cheques. When they leave the store Wendy, H J’s assistant, says, “I thought you wanted to camp to save money! With what you just spent you could live in a top hotel for some months!”
Smoky grins, “Yes, I could. However, I want a camping set like this for later. If I don’t take the job I’ll go camping. If I do take the job I’ll go camping for holidays. So, since I was going to make these purchases anyway it’s better to do it now and to use them instead of paying a hotel bill.” She laughs as she nods her agreement with his logic.
They stop for lunch on the way back to the office. When they get there H J has a huge pile of keys, notes on what they’re for, a USB drive with some of the information requested earlier (plans of the buildings, and a site plan for the block without the utilities marked), pens, and notepads to write on since he thinks Smoky will want to make some notes. Last is a bus reservation to the city with maps of how to get to the bus station and to the block at the other end. Smoky thanks H J and leaves the office.
On his way back to the hotel Smoky stops to buy more underwear and a few other items of clothing more suited to the area. Back at the hotel he packs everything he won’t need before he leaves, informs the hotel staff he’ll be checking out in the morning, then he puts his new phone and computer on to charge before taking time to study the plans H J gave him. The more he looks at things and thinks about them the more he’s sure he can get these problems sorted out to allow him to make a good living here in Georgia.
The next morning he’s up for an early breakfast and off to the bus station with all of his gear in the backpack and the bag from Australia.