Goma, June, 2014
Both of our girls had elected to spend their school summer holidays with us in Goma, and Helen and I were glad to be "far from the madding crowd". Here, at our lakeside mansion, we knew that reporters could not reach us. At least not reach us and stay alive.
The house had everything we needed, and I was even getting used to fishing bugs out the pool in the mornings. We used a pool-cleaning lad, but he started at a normal human hour, whereas I liked a dip at 5am. I found a dead snake one morning, figuring that maybe the chlorine killed it.
The guards on night duty offered to check it around 4am, which only left a small window of opportunity for a bug to land, to creep across the grass, or to slither into the pool. So when I found a baby croc I figured it made use of the window of opportunity. That or the guards were taking the piss.
I plunged in, put my goggles on and played with the croc for a while; I swam after it as it tried to get the hell away from me. I eventually caught it and lifted the little snapper out, taking it to the carp pond and dropping it in. It seemed right at home and snapped at a tiny fish within minutes, ignoring the hideously coloured carp and goldfish. Feeling mischievous, I left it in the pond, wondering who'd spot it first, and if it would grow to be huge by snacking on slow moving goldfish.
Lucy spotted it later and was delighted, finding a large plastic plant tray that suited our new family member. She cleaned out the plant tray, added a few rocks and some water, and plonked the smallest family member in. As I sat by the pool observing, she scooped out small fish fry from the lake and carried them back, dropping them in for the snapper. I wandered over.
'What you planning on doing with it?' I asked.
'We'll keep it till its bigger, and let it go. Could we ... dig a pond for it, put a small fence around it?' she risked.
'Sure. Out by the lake.'
By the end of the next day our garden offered a pond lined with tarpaulin, a twelve-inch high fence, water and rocks. And a small croc. Stood looking down at the croc, Lucy thought it needed a mate, and so patrolled the shoreline with a net, brining one back after a few hours. She diligently caught small fish, it wasn't hard, and dumped them in with the crocs.
She would spend hours sat staring at them, then tried a little smoked salmon on the snappers. The salmon was a big hit, as was the tuna she tried next.
But sat around the pool one day, I asked Lucy, 'At what age do the mummy crocodiles abandon their young?'
'After only a few weeks I think. These are independent.'
'Are you sure?'
'Are you really, really sure?' I pressed.
'Yes, why?' Lucy asked.
'Oh, it's just that a ten foot croc is coming up the bank.'
Lucy stood, Jimmy following her up and onto the grass. The guards now noticed it, closing it with pistols drawn.
'Don't shoot it, ' Jimmy ordered. 'Luce, go get a chicken. Not a frozen one!'
Lucy ran past me as I closed in on the monster. If there was trouble, I was sure that it would go for Jimmy first. I was also sure that I'd push Jimmy towards it if need be; he was the crocodile wrestling type.
Lucy returned, followed by Helen, my dear lady wife wishing to know why our daughter was running through the house with a dead chicken. Jimmy took the chicken and walked forwards, tossing it to the croc. Our garden croc gobbled up the offering.
'It's the same one as in the marina, ' Jimmy suggested. 'Not that many around here.' He turned. 'Helen, ask the corporation to put an iron fence across here, with a little gate. Keep the croc out of the lounge.'
The guards kept it under observation as it slid back to the lakeshore, the monster intent on sunning itself for a few hours.
'That's what happens when you feed youngsters, ' I said to no one in particular. 'They grow and stop being cute.'
Our fence was installed the next day, and our visitor got a chicken any time he popped in, something of an attraction for our human visitors. When the BBC popped in we made no mention of it, and it took thirty minutes for a presenter to scream and come running.
Jimmy flew off a few times, leaving us to our family peace, and one day I invited around Second Lieutenant Lobster from the officer training college. He turned up in a suit, his family all dressed as if off to church. We found trunks and bathing suits for the kids, nudging them towards the pool as I sat in the shade with Lobster, talking about Afghanistan.
Lucy adopted Lobster's youngest as her own, which pleased me, and they sat chatting for hours as Lobster and I sank a few cold beers. The memories of Scorpion Base came back, of dangerous helicopter stunts, heat and dust and the imagined sound of Hueys. I missed it all.
One of guards, just coming on duty, had to do a double take when he saw Lobster, striding across quickly. Lobster jumped up with a huge smile and hugged our guard, a fellow Rifle of course. I told the guard to sit, and ordered him a beer.
'An officer? No.' The man could not believe Lobster's new status. It seemed as if Lobster had betrayed his fellow grunts.
The following even, I invited Lobster and six of his Rifles buddies out for a drink, our guard off duty and tagging along; this was a boy's night out, no women allowed. We started with a few beers in a loud bar in the marina, broke for an Indian meal, returning to the loud bar afterwards. I was, however, certain that anyone wanting to pick a fight with me would meet some determined resistance.
We reminisced about past adventures, and joked as only soldiers could. A few young stock market traders turned up, and I bought everyone in the bar a drink, soon chatting about derivatives, London, and damp old British weather. It turned out that these guys were making about the same money as they would back London, but costs here were a tenth of those in London.
One trader said, over the music, 'My rent is two hundred pounds a month, my food about twenty quid. I spend more on beer!'
If only I was a young trader again, starting out, and here instead of London in 1980s. Now, the 1980s seemed primitive; no computers worth talking about, few mobile phones. It seemed like a lifetime ago. It was thirty years ago.
I introduced the Rifles to the traders, both social groups being worlds apart, but the traders found the stories from the Rifles fascinating. They were also wary, since the Rifles were not only tall and built like tanks, but their reputation preceded them. Great strapping soldiers adopted the skinny white traders, picking them up off the floor when drunk.
Leaving the bar as a group, desiring some fresh air, a senior army officer seemed to stop and take exception to the men being here, and to their drinking. He had not seen me. I was waved over, enquiring as to what the problem was, the officer apologetic.
'Major, ' I said, nudging him away from the main group. 'If these young officers are to understand the western mentality - to work alongside western soldiers, and possibly work in the west, then they need exposure to us westerners in social settings. If they can't cope with a simple social function, then what good are they on exchange courses?'
'I see your point, sir.'
'How many of your young Rifles officers could work undercover in the west?'
'I don't know, sir.'
'I do: none of them, because they'd stand out in London. Maybe, working undercover abroad is something you should consider, because they're sadly lacking in an ability to blend into western social functions. And besides, I invited them out. If any of these men were to be judged upon being here, I'd get very upset about it.' I sent him on his way, the man in no doubt that I meant business.
I collected the gang and we again attended the Indian restaurant, sat under the stars and chatting away. I had not been drinking like this with lads for a while, and these were all lads, some of them half my age. It was a good release. I may have looked thirty, but my mind was approaching fifty.
Back at the house I found Helen sat reading in our room. 'Good night?' she asked.
'It was good to let my hair down without worrying about the fucking world, or the fucking press. But a funny thing happened. This senior army officer came past, and he was horrified that the lads were out drinking. They were dressed smart, behaved, not drunk. But what a difference to the west, when the lads here are treated like second- class citizens in their own bleeding country.'
I sent Ngomo an email: pop in when you're next in Goma. I was going to shake things up.
He dropped in a few days later, on his way to the college of all places. With him was the new head of the Rifles, a Colonel, both of my guests in uniform.
'You look warm in those uniforms, ' I said, pointing towards the shade, cold drinks ordered. 'I won't keep you long. Listen, I invited some young officers out the other night —'
'We know, ' Ngomo said.
'You do? Was there ... a problem?'
'No, no. It's just that gossip goes around the Rifles faster than official communiqués. If you want something to be told to everyone, you tell your driver ... and ask him to keep it quiet!'
I laughed. 'Anyway, it struck me that your very excellent killing machines had little comprehension of western ways. Surely it's a gap in their education if they can't talk to western officers, and meet on a social level without feeling like their talking to white colonial masters.'
'They have lessons on etiquette in later years, formal meals, ' Ngomo informed me.
'And trips to countries outside Africa?' I nudged.
'Only if they intend killing those they visit, ' Ngomo noted.
'Then I want that looked at; a tour of Hong Kong and China, England, America. An education, gentlemen, is as much about experience as exams in the classroom. Do you teach them military history?'
'Yes, of course.'
'Then take them to the battlefields of Europe, and engage them with the westerners down here, small groups out drinking. I want Rifles officers to be able to hold their own in a conversation about world politics with a westerner. We have tourists here, so impress them with your young officers. Use the tourists for practice.'
'I'll arrange it, ' Ngomo said, seemingly curious about the outcome.
'What happened to the two British officers that were at the battle at Scorpion Base?'
'One is head of training at Mawlini, ' Ngomo informed me. 'The other is head of training here, for the Congolese Rifles.'
'Have the guy who's here put in charge of social training, please. Next, I want you to build a Rifles bar and café in New Kinshasa, a big one, with events and shows. I want one bar for enlisted men, one for sergeants, one for officers — but in different areas. And I'd like to see sergeants and above using the facilities here. I don't want anyone to feel that they're not welcome.'
Two days later, with Jimmy off somewhere, the British PM rang. 'Paul, got a moment?'
'For you, always.'
'Cut the crap. Listen, we're trying to finalise a deal with the Saudis, selling them military hardware, but they're trying to twist our arms about meeting you.'
'Dunno where Jimmy is —'
'Not him, you. They want to make an approach, and thought they'd try you first ... as being the less violent option.'
'Oh. Well, Jimmy has never asked me not to speak to them, so send then them over, but no large groups, just two of them. And in western clothes.'
'I'll call you back.'
And he did, the gentlemen in question flying down the next day. I asked for ten Pathfinders to be present, fully kitted, just to make a point. I had them remove their shirts - I slapped Shelly for her comments, and had them put their webbing back on. Now they looked extra menacing for my guests.
Gathering my three ladies, I said, 'We have a Saudi prince coming over, and therefore sensitive to our decadent western ways. You can either wear full length burkas, or bikinis, it's up to you.
I was sitting by the pool when my guests arrived, a cold beer in hand. A maid stepped out and announced their arrival, so I asked for them to be brought out. When the two men in suits drew near I pointed towards chairs, not bothering to stand up. Helen and the girls had elected for bikinis, and my guests glanced their way as they sat.
'Beer?' I asked. Deliberately.
'We do drink, you know, ' the first man said. 'A habit many of us pick up at Oxford or Cambridge Universities, in your fine country.'
'I went to Kingston Polytechnic myself. So, cold drinks?'
'Beers will be fine.'
I looked up at the maid and she trotted off. 'So, what can I help you gentlemen with?' I sipped my beer.
'We'd like to see if there is a way of us cooperating, for mutual benefit.'
'Such as... ?
'It may surprise you, but many of our senior figures have been injected with the drug.'
'Your clerics wouldn't like that.'
'Our clerics ... are not running the country, and we're not as backward as you may think.'
'Oh, I don't think you're backward, I just fail to see what use you are to the world ... and to our plans to help the world.'
They stared back. 'There was I time when I would have considered our country as ... players ... in the global economy.'
I took a moment. 'Players? You pressure the British and American governments, and they nag us to play nice with you. But coming back to my last comment: what use are you? What have you ever done for the world, what are you doing for the world, and what will you be doing for the world outside of your own borders — and outside your narrow view of things?'
'I'll admit that we haven't put a man on the moon, nor sailed the seven seas, set-up colonies or invented much. But we have also not invaded anyone, nor do we try and interfere with other nations.'
'Really? After the Russians left Afghanistan you funded the rise of the Taliban and their extremist religious views. Now, those Taliban, and their al-Qa'eda chums, represent one of the greatest threats to the world.'
They took that in. 'Given what your Rifles are doing in Afghanistan, our ... miscalculation will be expunged. The stain will be wiped clean.'
'What is it that you want? Really ... want?' I rudely asked.
'As I said, to cooperate, since we're not going to get anywhere using threats, persuasion or pressure.'
'Cooperate on ... what? On raising oil prices? We're keeping oil prices down so that the world economy doesn't go to shit. And if it does go to shit, oil purchases from you will fall. Damned if we do, damned if you do.'
'If there is a ... middle road, we'll look at it. We want eighty dollars a barrel, you want sixty-five. Nudging prices towards seventy would be a ... compromise. CAR would make more, and the world economy would not ... go to shit.'
'CAR is not about profit, it's about fixing the world. I'm disappointed you haven't figured that out yet.'
'With more profit, you can fix many more things.'
'Take that cynical attitude with me and you'll be thrown out ... head first.'
'Sorry, ' the man offered. 'Since you obviously do care more about fixing things, than money.' They exchanged looks. 'We have a few former CIA people working for us, and they seem to think that 2025 will see the rise of a Muslim terror group that threatens the whole planet.'
I took a moment. 'Around 2025, a disaster will destroy the world economy, ' I said, altering the truth a little. 'Those economic conditions give rise to a terror group based on al-Qa'eda, and that group will see money — and oil — as the root cause of all evil. They'll start by blowing up all of your oil wells, tearing down your satellite dishes — so no porn, and then your sparkling cities.'
'And don't you think that this a great concern to us?'
'Guys, you sell oil, you make money, you stick it in the bank to make more money — what is it that you do besides that?'
'Our job, is the same as for any government: we look after our people.'
'Your people ... live on a small round planet. If a disease breaks out in Lagos you're at risk ... just like everyone else. No country on this planet can ignore the other nations any more, we're all too interconnected.'
'Is our ... isolation a cause of disdain for Mister Silo?'
'It is, ' I confirmed.
They exchanged looks. 'Coming back to cooperation. Is there no way that we can combine our resources, given that we are both highly motivated not to see this terror group rise?'
'Raise your right hand and swear like good little boys that OPEC will not drop the dollar for oil trading.'
'Is that a cause for concern for Mister Silo?'
'Well, let's see. You drop the dollar, US import costs treble overnight, the US economy goes to shit, a hard-line American leader takes office and invades Saudi Arabia to take your oil, sparking a global conflict, which leads to the world economy crashing — and the rise of a terror group in the Middle East. You ... connecting the dots yet, boys?'
'They are connected?'
'It's all connected; a puzzle of a thousand pieces. The world is like ... ten people sat in a canoe. If one stands up, the stability is gone. If one tries to dive in, the rest fall out the other way. But if we all agree to stay sat still and row carefully the canoe keeps going.
'America made a huge mistake when it got clever ... and got oil traded in dollars; it's printed dollars to keep itself a super-power. Conversely, you dumb fucks have done nothing other than sell oil, and build big cities that could never be supported when oil revenue runs out. You're tied together, and both as daft as each other. When one falls, you both fall.
'What Jimmy is trying to do is ... to undo the knot in the rope, and to get us all to 2025 in the fucking canoe together. If he fails, you'll be the first to be destroyed, the very first.'
'Then we have much in common, and much to discuss.'
'He's a time traveller, and he's had that conversation with you before, ' I said, taking a guess. 'Don't come back unless you truly understand the problem, and you're truly willing to cooperate. Start with your fucking clerics.'
They stood. 'And if we do have solid ideas?'
'Then I'll listen, and be just as charming.'
'We would not wish you to change, Mister Holton, ' they said as they left.
Helen came over and sat. In her bikini. 'Well?'
'They know about 2025, but not exactly what. They say they want to cooperate — which means they think we'll keep oil low and their coffers less full. They may come back, or they may just try and shoot us.'
When Jimmy returned, two days later, I informed him, but he already seemed to know.
'Where you nice and polite?' he asked.
'And if they want to play ball?' I pressed.
'Their economy is all oil, nothing else. They're in a bad position and they know it, large modern cities with lights on in the desert, squandering money like it flows out of the ground. When the world economy goes to shit they'll hurt quickly.'
The next day, I received an email from one of the Saudi men I met, asking if there was anything specific he could be looking at. I suggested Yemen, and desalination in Jordan, not knowing what would happen — if anything, and left it at that.
Back to school
We flew back to the UK for the start of the school term in September, and heavily tanned. 'Hello stranger, ' we got a lot of around the estate. It felt a little strange to reoccupy the house, but after a day back and we forgot about Goma. It had been a good break, and Jimmy had left us alone for one very good reason: SARS II. He wanted us to have a good break.
A week after we returned, Jimmy emailed the World Health Organisation, asking them to prepare the world for second outbreak of SARS this winter. That evening, the entire country came to a halt, people putting their faces in their hands. The world followed in its despair as the news spread, countries like Singapore traumatised.
Jimmy called a meeting of European Union member representatives, to be held in London, and we journeyed up in the coach a few days later, leaving at 5am. The meeting was held at the club, security tight, the keen police sniffer dogs doing their stuff, noses to the carpet. The ministers arrived in groups for the ten o'clock meeting, drinks and nibbles provided till the latecomers arrived and took their seats in the Red Room.
'Thank you all for coming, ' Jimmy began. 'And I won't keep you too long, not unless you have a long list of difficult questions.
'First, the second SARS outbreak will not be restricted to Asia. This time it will be well spread right around the world, with no particular centre. Rescue Force personnel will not be dispatched, they'll be utilised in their own countries, with Rescue Force Europe responding to the Athens earthquake. May I ask the Greek representative just where you are with your principal evacuation plans?'
The man stood. 'The government and civil servants have moved, as have principal industries and businesses. There are, however, still a quarter of the city's residents either living in the city, or aiming to stay. They believe that they can sleep outside, protect their properties, and rebuild afterwards. Some people reinforce their houses as we speak, and aim to remain.'
'And will you force them out?' Jimmy asked.
'That ... is an option, but resistance will be stiff. We may well injure and kill people trying to remove them. And maintaining and effective cordon will be hard when that cordon is ten miles out. Some will move back in.'
Jimmy responded, 'If they sleep outside in tents, then they may well survive. And we'll have Rescue Force on hand. But there'll be no sanitation or running water for many months, existing sewers will leak, and the conditions will be poor. That will come on top of a SARS outbreak, so the people living in those poor sanitary conditions will be at an even higher risk.' He held his hands wide. 'People who are cold and hungry will be susceptible. If SARS takes hold in that group, it'll stay — and kill many.'
'What casualty level are we expecting from SARS?' a man asked.
Jimmy took a moment. 'Hard to estimate, but worse than last time. Much worse.'
They glanced at each other, shocked.
'You've all produced more of the super-drug, so use it as before, ' Jimmy told them. 'And ... as you can appreciate, the economy of the world will suffer. You should all take additional austerity measures now, and expect the worst. Don't ... be afraid to get tough. Impose wage freezes, or cut wages, raise taxes a little, cut public spending. At the height of the outbreak you can expect at least ten percent of your working population to be off work, a great many man-days of productivity lost.
'The Greek economy has already suffered, and will continue to do so. On that subject: after the quake, the hotels in Greece will be filled with the displaced. When summer comes around you'll want those hotels for much needed tourism. As such, it may be an idea for other European nations to assist Greek refugees. Spain has a surplus of vacant apartments and houses; they should be considered.
'There are already many Greeks staying with relatives around Europe, but that number will obviously increase in the months ahead. Such a shortage of accommodation in Europe will help to keep property prices up, an odd benefit. OK, questions?'
They went round and round in circles, as if they could debate the Athens quake or SARS from happening. When frustrated, Jimmy thanked everyone and sent them off, the PM popping in to see us.
'Do we have everything in place ... that we should have?' the PM asked, clearly concerned.
'Do you have a large dose of hope, and a little luck?' Jimmy asked him.
'I have a time traveller to guide me. Luck doesn't come into it, ' the PM insisted.
'SARS is tricky, and the numbers can vary, not least because I've altered a great many things already. Many people received the drug early, so they should resist it, some others more prone to it. It's a hell of calculation.'
'And the estimated dead here?' the PM asked.
'Given the use of the drug early, I'm hoping to keep it to a quarter million.'
'Two hundred and fifty thousand dead?' the PM said in a strong whisper. He rested his elbows on his knees and let his head drop. 'I thought it was bad last time.'
Jimmy sighed loudly. 'Yeah, well wait for round three.'
The PM lifted his head. 'Round ... three?' he asked in a strained whisper.
'You'll hardly catch your breath before 2019, ' Jimmy told him.
We flew off aboard our 747, heading to New York and a scheduled round of meetings, our aircraft now cleared to disturb American skies. The same group of reporters tagged along, familiar seats grabbed, familiar routines entered into. Some had eye covers to sleep under, a few used neck cushions, and some liked a little tipple before bedtime.
SARS II had not broken yet, no one asking about it specifically. Questions were mostly about Greece, plus the usual pumping for information about future disasters. Seems that they were keen to crash the markets and ruin their own pension plans.
We took a hotel room instead of the apartment, and I figured I might sell it. We had left it empty so long we worried about bugs, and not cockroaches in the bath.
Our first meeting was in the UN building, with some of the old "M" Group nations: America, Russian and China. The various leaders greeted each other, a long break between these meetings, but the Russians and Chinese met often, President Fitz not much of a traveller. Settled around a table, Fitz seemed a little distant.
'Gentlemen, politicians, history makers, ' Jimmy began. 'We did well during the SARS outbreak, and the Nigerian crisis was ... handled. I would not say that Lagos Fever was handled well, since I traumatised a nation and held them prisoner in their own country. The Nigerians are now grateful for a swift and firm response from me, since they can now see how bad it may have been otherwise.
'The Greeks are ... where I expected they would be at this time, and casualties will be limited. Some residents will remain in the city, and many will be killed. Others will die from disease by remaining in the city afterwards. Russia, I would appreciate you responding with your Rescue Force unit, a ... show of solidarity with your European partners. OK, coal-oil. May I ask where the Russians are?'
'We have the first two refineries working well, ' they reported. 'And we think that we could reduce production costs further.'
'Given the damage that's about to be done to the European economy, I would appreciate that your oil and gas prices are ... helpful till Europe recovers. Keep your future customers warm this winter. China, where are you with coal-oil?'
'We have eleven refineries working, and production costs are encouraging, ' they reported.
'Good. Mister Fitz?'
'Two refineries are online, but extraction costs are still above where you think we could get them. But, overall, we can produce it cheaper than importing it, so it's being rolled out in numbers.'
'OK, moving on to SARS — and round two. This winter will see a second outbreak, basically a slow cooking first round. Russia, you will suffer more than before. America — you'll take a full-blown pandemic. You'll need your soldiers ready, national guard, the works.'
'And the number of dead?' Fitz asked.
'As I told the Europeans, it's hard to pin down, since I've altered a great many things. The early use of the drug will help — in most cases. My best guess would put the dead above a million.'
Fitz was shocked, and I wondered about our new President; Hardon Chase knew these figures. I also wondered about how he'd react with the other bad news we had to deliver to him today.
Jimmy informed him, 'The pandemic will last about three months, as before, and your economy will take a hit. Your "M" Group representatives have known about this for many years, so I hope that you're ready. If not, I guess the American people may lower your approval ratings.
'And whilst we're on your approval ratings, Mister President, we have a difficult matter to discuss next.' Jimmy took a moment. 'I warned your predecessors that a disaster would strike America in 2017, and they assumed that maybe an earthquake would hit Los Angeles or San Francisco. That disaster will strike in early 2017, so you have more than a year to enhance your planning.
'Now, if revealed too soon, the markets will crash — but recover. If revealed too late, people will have little time to evacuate. Whichever way we do it, people in the affected areas will wish to take legal action for us not warning them twenty years ago. I could not have done that, and I have deliberately left it this long so that the businesses in the affected area could profit from twenty good years.
'All of you here, and other nations, will be affected by the disaster. Mister Fitz, I will now give you the chance of having the location revealed to you alone, but I will warn the others six months from the date. You would have more than six months with that knowledge.'
'Six months will not make much of a difference, ' Fitz flatly stated. 'But I might have liked to know when I took office.'
'No ... you wouldn't have, ' Jimmy countered. 'You would not have slept much. I took that decision for you, whilst asking for your military to make plans. Might I ask if those plans are ... well advanced?'
'The military seem think so, ' Fitz stated, but without sounding confident.
'Do you wish the six months period?' Jimmy repeated.
'If you've held off up to now, then I assume it was for a reason, and ... I'll have to assume that it was a good one.'
'Revealing the disaster, during the SARS outbreak, might be a good idea, ' Jimmy suggested. 'That's only six weeks away.'
'OK, let's have it, ' Fitz urged, the Chinese and Russians waiting patiently.
'In early 2017, an earthquake will strike Hawaii —'
'Hawaii?' Fitz repeated. 'Not the west coast?'
'Both, ' Jimmy said. 'Hawaii will be destroyed, but the resulting tsunami will hit Los Angeles and San Francisco — and points in between. Alaska will be hit, so too Vladivostok, and the Chinese coast.'
'How much damage?' the Chinese asked.
'Extensive in some areas, simply a bad flood in others. Start planning soon. Japan will also be hit, and all islands in the Pacific, New Zealand, Chile and Mexico.'
'How much damage to Hawaii?' Fitz asked.
'When its over, just a few peaks will be left above water, ' Jimmy informed him. 'Total loss.'
'Total ... loss?' Fitz repeated, staring wide-eyed. I had to wonder if the States had the right man for the job.
'Total loss, ' Jimmy confirmed. 'With extensive damage to your west coast.'
'The ... the cost!' Fitz gasped.
'The cost ... in human lives ... is the important one, ' Jimmy emphasised. 'The entire group of islands will need to be evacuated, plus all Pacific Islanders. You'll also need to evacuate parts of the west coast.'
'Something like this ... takes years to plan for!' Fitz protested.
Jimmy slid across a data stick. 'On there is the plan that you and your military would have come up with ... with years to plan. You'll find it very detailed. And you're welcome.'
'You ... you prepared this?' Fitz asked as he took the data stick.
'He's a time traveller, ' I put in. 'Go figure.'
'And after Hawaii?' Fitz asked, waving the data stick. 'What else will go wrong?'
'Lots of things, ' Jimmy said.
'Did you get an "M" Group briefing?' I asked Fitz. 'And, more importantly, were you paying attention?'
Fitz took a moment. 'It's one thing to discuss theoretical scenarios — '
'Just when the fuck were they theoretical?' I loudly asked. 'You best get on the case, Mister President, because you're going to be knee deep in bodies soon enough.'
Jimmy silenced me with a look. Facing Fitz, he said, 'If you have any doubts, then step down, because I need the man in that seat to be a rod of iron, and so far I'm not seeing that. A great many people have their lives in your hands, and they deserve the best they can get.'
'I need to think about this, ' Fitz said, standing and leading his team out.
'Did he just walk out?' I asked when the room fell quiet again.
Jimmy exchanged uneasy looks with the Russians and Chinese.
'Was this man not supposed to be President during this period?' the Chinese asked, Jimmy shaking his head. 'You did not manoeuvre him, or object?'
'I knew him as a moderate, and a reasonable man, but not as a president. A great deal has changed.'
'This is ... so not good, ' I helpfully put in, a look exchanged with Helen.
Jimmy told the others, 'Stay in town, please, we'll meet again tomorrow. A day is a long time in politics. And I'll give your "M" Group representatives details of the measures you can take to prepare for the tsunami.'
Fitz flew straight back to Washington, I caught it on the news, no communication for us. Then the skulduggery started. An admiral popped in to the hotel via the back door, and in civilian clothes.
Sat in Jimmy's room, the admiral said, 'We have doubts about Fitz.'
Jimmy and I exchanged looks. I said, 'It doesn't appear as if he can handle the pressure. He walked out of the meeting.'
'He ... walked out?'
'He walked out of a briefing on the most important things he'll ever hear, ' I added. 'A briefing of upcoming disasters to hit the States.'
The admiral looked Jimmy square in the eyes. 'And if he doesn't make the right move at the right time?'
'Then I will, ' Jimmy assured the admiral. 'But I would do so at the risk of alienating your people and your Congress. I'd have to make the press statements that he should be making.'
The admiral said little more and left us.
'They going to top him?' I asked.
'No, ' Jimmy said, giving me one of his fatherly, disapproving looks.
In the morning, I caught the local TV news, and stood quietly stunned. Fitz had stepped down, his Vice-President taking over. He had quit. I knocked on Jimmy's room. When inside, I asked, 'Does this right royally screw things up?'
'It does, ' Jimmy gloomily stated. 'The new Vice-President is even more moderate, and even less suitable. He's a nice guy, he's been around a long time, but he's not Hardon Chase.'
The new president, Oliver Samuels, called us inside of an hour and invited us down to Washington. Kind of pronto! We boarded the plane and headed down, avoiding a million difficult questions from the press. On the plane, I got our hacks together.
'Now listen up, and listen well. There are a few things happening, big things. Fitz has stepped down, and we're not going to discuss why. If you screw with us you're off the plane and you'll never be invited back on. Until I say otherwise you'll not ask any questions other than about the baby.' I wagged a warning finger. 'You each represent your papers and TV channels. Don't ... fuck with me!'
They used the satellite link, and the whole world was suddenly focused on Washington. We met Samuels in the Oval Office with his Chief of Staff, Samuels already sworn in, Fitz already gone, the former President's stuff being packed up.
Samuels blew out, long and hard. 'Whatever you said to him, he decided he didn't wish to preside over it.' He appeared as if he was ashamed of his running mate.
'President Samuels, ' Jimmy began. 'You're a good man, and with a lot of experience, but can you ... preside over large-scale disasters? Are you a ... wartime leader, a ... Roosevelt?'
'I doubt it, but I care deeply about this country, and I have a very strong sense of moral duty. I won't be quitting.'
'It'll be a difficult three years, ' Jimmy warned.
'I'm a believer in the people, Jimmy. And ... I'm a believer in you. I saw what you did in Nigeria, and I know how much you care about Africans. Can't have been easy to put soldiers on the borders and order them to shoot; it would have given me a few sleepless nights.'
'You have my number, and I'm available twenty-four hours a day for the right man, ' Jimmy told Samuels.
Samuels nodded. 'I've given the data stick to the joint chiefs. So, do you want to give me the heart attack now, or after a coffee?'
We gave him the detail.
When done, Samuels stood in the window. 'I wonder how Roosevelt felt after Pearl Harbour, because right now I have a feeling in my gut that I haven't felt since I asked my wife out on our first date. I was seventeen, and terrified.' He sat. 'Is everything I need on that data stick?'
'It is, and your military can call if they have a question. May I be so bold ... as to suggest that you invite down the Russian and Chinese leaders, right now, and show a united front; something to inspire the people. Fitz's sudden departure will leave people wondering.'
'I still don't know what to tell the press, ' Samuels admitted.
'Tell them ... that Fitz did not feel that he was suitable for the challenges ahead.'
'They'll tear Fitz apart, ' Samuels baulked.
'There's no way we can cover this over, ' Jimmy warned. 'He walked out right before a crisis. But, you could say that the cabinet and disaster planning committee had no confidence in him ... and expressed as much.'
'That may be better for the image of the office, ' Samuels thought aloud. 'Anyway, I have an emergency disaster planning committee meeting to preside over if you'll excuse me.'
'And the Russians and Chinese?' Jimmy pressed.
'If they can be here this evening, I'll do the photo-opportunity.'
'I'll arrange it, ' Jimmy offered. 'And we'll stay the night in a hotel - if you have any questions.'
At 6pm we lined up in front of the White House and forced smiles, Samuels making a statement. It still sounded like Fitz had run off.
At the hotel, I switched on the US news, and it was not pretty, the Democrats calling for an election. Fitz had won with a small majority and mid-term elections were due soon enough, so I suspected trouble ahead. After two beers I called the Democrat leader, Sanchez, and invited him around for a chat. He appeared an hour later, Jimmy coming down to the hotel bar to meet him. Sanchez was tall, as tall as Jimmy, with jet black hair and an intense look. But looked to me more Afro-American than Latino.
'You going to tell me what the hell happened?' Sanchez asked.
'You going to use it?' I asked.