© 2010, 2015
June 9, 5:45 AM
San Rosario, Colombia
The child’s crying had awakened the old man in the middle of the night. He sat on the edge of the tiny bed watching as the five year old stirred in a fitful rest. Loving concern clouded his soft, kind eyes. Every few minutes trembling hands rinsed a tattered blue handkerchief in a basin of cool water lying on the floor. He returned the damp cloth to the child’s forehead. Her eyes struggled to open and she softly moaned.
“Easy, my child, I am here. Grandpa is here.”
His callous hands gently stroked the girl’s long raven hair. It was matted and soaked with sweat. Juan Carlos looked about the tired darken room, sighing heavily. The front of his worn cambric shirt heaved with weary muscles. The child’s fever had not broken; if anything it was worse.
He rose, stiff bones popping like kernels of corn in a fire. “Be brave, mi Niña,” he whispered, tenderly patting the girl’s shoulder, “be brave.”
Outside, somber shadows began to stir as the first breath of light touched the silent village. A puffy white mist kissed the earth, causing Juan Carlos to feel as if he were walking in a cloud.
“Someday,” the cracked lips proclaimed to the air, “someday I will know what it is like to walk among real clouds. Then there will be no more problems… no more troubles.” His voice trailed off. He had reached the square wooden house of Victor Manuel.
“Victor, my friend,” Juan Carlos called out in a voice heavy with the hour. “Victor Manuel, are you awake?”
A brown gibbous face appeared in the open window. It wore an unkempt moustache and a kind expression. “Juan Carlos you old goat, you stalk the streets like a ghost. Come inside, it is early. We will drink some of our special coffee which the Americans prize so highly.”
The old man shook his head, white stubble of his beard glistening in the yellow sunlight. “No, there is no time. Please, I need your assistance. My granddaughter is very sick. She has great fever. I am afraid for her. You must take us in your truck to the hospital in Vélez.”
“María Elaina, sick?” Victor Manuel blessed himself and disappeared. The front door to his home creaked open. “The hospital you say… the hospital is well over one hundred kilometers away, in the next valley. It will take us most of the day to get there. Are you sure my friend?”
Juan Carlos nodded, “I am sure.”
“This I will do for you, of course, but what of the beans? The big trucks are supposed to arrive today.”
The senescent face twisted in protest. “The trucks can wait! Already the men from the company expect too much from us. They work us hard and pay us nothing. It is because of them I must take my poor Niña across the mountain! They refuse to even provide our village with a doctor. And for what…” Juan Carlos spat on the ground, “just so some rich gringo can enjoy the special coffee that grows only here in our little valley!” He looked Victor Manuel in the eye. “Tell the men of the village to stay home… stay home till I return. There is no work today; maybe no work tomorrow.”
Victor Manuel opened his mouth to challenge his old friend and boss. He was cut off by an indignant wave of the other’s hand.
“I am in charge and it is my decision,” the old man said arrogantly. “I do not wish to hear about shipping schedules and deadlines. All I care about is my sweet little María Elaina. Come, the day grows old as we speak.”
By the time the crescent moon lay contentedly over the mountain, María Elaina lay under comfortable white sheets, resting peacefully. The fever had been reduced but she remained a very sick little girl. Juan Carlos shifted his position in the chair next to her bed. He would stay with his granddaughter at the hospital until she was better. Victor Manuel had returned to the secluded valley. The coffee beans would wait a few more days. The people of the village who grew the rich and rare beans prayed for little María Elaina. They understood.
The big international company that purchased the valuable commodity did not understand.
Nor did they care.
June 12, 8:19 AM
Nigel Bannister paced the thick green carpet of his plush twelfth floor office overlooking the Thames. Outside, a steady drizzle played against the smoke tinted windows, reflecting Bannister’s mood. On the expensive mahogany desk waited a steaming cup of English breakfast tea, while three yellow lights on the multi-line telephone flashed impatiently.
Bannister ignored them.
The intercom buzzed, pulling Nigel Bannister from his thoughts. “Excuse me, Sir. Mr. Cooke is here. And I still have Mr. Howard, and Mr. Smyth, and Todd Worth on hold.”
Bannister stopped pacing and frowned, his aquiline nose flaring. Finally he approached the desk and pressed a button. “All right, all right Miss Hastings… very well, let me speak to…” Bannister paused. Smyth could wait. He knew when he finally faced his boss he’d better have some serious answers.
Nigel Bannister was a good, albeit brusque man; a company man. After Oxford, he’d gone from buyer to vice president of export. Bannister knew his beans. He knew and understood the coffee business inside and out, perhaps better than he knew and understood the people he dealt with every day. But Nigel was also a cautious man. He was used to making important decisions in his own time, on his own schedule, after he had considered all angles, weighed all his options. This business with the small plantation in Colombia had popped up rather suddenly. And Smyth, his boss, wanted it disposed of swiftly and quietly.
“No,” Bannister corrected himself, “send in Cooke. And I’ll speak with Howard in a moment. Tell Smyth and Worth I’ll call them back momentarily.” With that Nigel Bannister closed the intercom. He nervously fiddled with the four-in-hand knot of his silk tie from Harold’s, painting on a plastic smile as the door to his office opened.
“Roger, old chap, good to see you again… been much too long…”
“How are you, Nigel? How’s the misses?” The two men stiffly shook hands, considering one another like prize fighters in a ring.
“Oh, fine, fine, thanks… now, what’s all this rubbish about San Rosario, eh?”
Roger Cooke was a field man for the company. He enjoyed his work, loved the people and countries he dealt with, and had no use for big cities, board rooms or four-in-hand ties. His sudden summons to the home office both surprised and annoyed him. He was glad Bannister had come right to the point. The sooner he could return to the field and his duties the better.
“There’s not much to it actually, Nigel. The growers are dissatisfied with conditions. It’s nothing new. Only it seems one of the children nearly died because there was no doctor nearby. She’s in the hospital in Vélez. It’s the same problem I’ve been pitching to you for years. The growers just need some improvements. They want the company to provide the village with a doctor and a medical facility.”
Bannister’s thin lips pursed, his steel eyes narrowing. “Damn nuisance, this business. It’s like the whole planet is on some health care kick or something; only why now, Cooke, why the work stoppage now?”
“Well, it seems the girl is the granddaughter of Juan Carlos. Carlos is the foreman of the plantation and a village elder. The people love and respect him. They…”
“Yes, yes,” Bannister interrupted impatiently. “So this Carlos character is the key to this whole mess then?”
Roger Cooke studied his vinegar faced opponent carefully. He knew his type. Twenty years behind a desk had hardened him to the needs of the field. The simple people of the towns and villages who grew the beans were the heart and soul of the company. Cooke knew this. Cooke also knew that the company looked upon them as no more than numbers; pluses and minuses, assets and liabilities; pawns in a global game with extremely high stakes.
“I think we need to listen to Juan Carlos this time, Nigel. I think…”
Once again Cooke was cut short by his superior. “Now listen here, Cooke. The world wants its coffee when it wakes up in the morning. It doesn’t want excuses. It doesn’t want to hear about some five year old; or her stubborn old grandfather; or some jungle village without a doctor.” Bannister let out a contemptuous snort. “And neither does the board of directors! In twenty years I’ve never lost a shipment nor had one delayed for any reason… hurricanes, revolutions, old men and children be damned!”
He paused, once again fiddling with the knot of his tie. No need to get all worked up over this, he thought. The solution is simple. He looked up at Cooke. “Your man in Colombia, this Howard chap, he’s a good man?”
Roger Cooke bristled at the inference of the question. “James Howard is a fine man. I picked him myself. This is what I do, Nigel… I know the field, and my people. If Howard says the situation is serious, then I trust his judgment.”
“Yes, quite… fine…” Without another word, Nigel Banister strode over to the large mahogany desk and pressed a lighted button on the telephone. “Hello, Howard? James Howard, are you there?” he bellowed into the speaker box.
“Yes, Sir, James Howard here…”
“Good, good, this is Nigel Bannister in London. Roger Cooke is here with me. Now listen carefully, this is what I want you to do.” He turned, his unforgiving gaze falling upon Roger Cooke. “I think it’s time for some changes. Find me a new foreman… I don’t care who… that’s your department. But I want this trouble maker, this Carlos fellow out… and I want him out today! Get those people back to work! And tell them I’ll hear no more talk of a doctor or health care or whatever… understood? And for God’s sake get that shipment on the trucks! Got it?”
Bannister didn’t wait for a reply. He snapped the speaker box off, severing the connection. His trademark confident half smile returned. “Well, that should take care of that, eh what? That’s how we handle things here in London. Decisions, that’s what I do, Cooke, handle problems; make decisions.”
August 3, 10:32 AM
The Hamptons, New York
Valerie White had a hangover. This was nothing new for Valerie White. Not to say that she was an alcoholic. No. But Valerie White enjoyed the way alcohol made her feel. She liked the way it loosened her, relaxed her. And she loved the way it made all of the troubles and tribulations of being young and rich and beautiful and single seem to disappear. What she didn’t like was the way it made her feel the morning after. And this particular morning after was a doozey.
It was her birthday, her twenty fifth. Valerie and a couple of close friends had gone out to celebrate over a simple dinner. But nothing in Valerie White’s life was ever simple. By midnight the friends numbered over thirty, some of whom she didn’t recognize. And the party had moved to a private corner of the hottest and trendiest night spot in New York City.
Now Valerie lay in her oversized bed, watching her posh and over done bedroom slowly revolve about her.
“Did daddy buy me a carousel for my birthday?” she moaned.
“What’s the matter? You always said the world revolved around you.” Valerie’s kid sister Amy swallowed a sagacious smile. “Close your eyes, it’ll help.”
“When I close my eyes I see little pink spots,” Valerie reported uneasily.
“Here, drink this.” Sitting on the edge of the bed, Amy held a steaming cup to her sister’s lips. Valerie took a long sip.
She almost gagged.
“Eeew! What is that stuff?”
“English breakfast tea,” Amy replied, stifling another giggle at her sister’s distress.
Valerie half opened one eye, sniffed cautiously at the tea, wrinkled her pert, perfect, expensive nose, and pushed the cup away. “Yuck! How can they drink that stuff? No wonder the British are all prune faced and stuffy! Where’s my coffee?”
Amy rose, setting the cup on the night stand. She looked down at the prone figure of her big sister. “Some role model you turned out to be! No wonder mom and dad decided to have me.”
Valerie’s road mapped eyes yawned fully open and she glared at Amy. “Just get me my coffee… please!”
“Sorry, we’re all out. Daddy had the last this morning. And the city as well as the country and the rest of the world are dry as prohibition. Since the major coffee bean growers went out on strike in support of the independents nobody is getting their coffee fix, nobody. Daddy says it all has to do with health care or something, I don’t know. But coffee futures are through the roof. I’ve never seen daddy happier.”
“Great… the rich get richer… meanwhile, I’m riding a king size Sealy roller coaster and my tongue feels like it needs shaving.”
Reaching the door, Amy stopped, turned and smiled sweetly. “Try a cold shower. Happy birthday, sis,” she chirped with a devilish grin and was gone.
By noon Valerie was feeling almost human. She wandered into the large, ornate, over done White family study. “Mother, father,” she announced in a serious tone, “I’ve made a decision.”
Her sister, sprawled on the floor with an Archie comic book, rolled her sparkly hazel eyes. “I’ll alert the media.”
“That’s nice honey,” her mother answered without looking up from her knitting.
“Ah, there you are. Happy birthday, Princess,” her father called from behind his newspaper.
Valerie surveyed her family, shaking her pretty blonde head. She started to leave, but then changed her mind. “No, I’m serious. I’ve decided to quit drinking. Not just cut down or anything, but quit completely, cold turkey.” Holding up one hand, she dramatically cupped the other over her heart. “No more alcohol for Valerie White. I’ve learned my lesson, especially if I can’t get any more coffee.”
Amy dropped her comic book, “Maybe I should notify the media.”
“That’s nice, honey,” her mother calmly repeated.
Valerie’s blue eyes narrowed and she scrunched up her face. “Daddy, what do you think?”
“Whatever you like, Princess,” he replied, stealing a peak at his oldest daughter before returning to his Wall Street Journal.
“It’s ok with him,” Amy commented slyly. “He doesn’t deal in alcohol futures.” With that she grinned, sticking her tongue out at her sister.
“Well, it’s my decision, and from this moment on no more alcohol,” Valerie called out, ignoring Amy, and stomping one dainty foot in petulant determination.
“And what about Brad Harrington?” Amy asked, voicing her parent’s thoughts. “Don’t you have a date with him tonight?”
“Oh… well…” The question made Valerie pause to think. Boorish Brad was bad enough, but sober? She wasn’t sure if she could take the obstinate heir while sober. “No,” she said at last, stomping her foot again. “No, I’ve decided. Valerie White is on the wagon. Brad will understand.”
“I don’t understand…”
“What did you say?”
“I said, ‘What?’”
Valerie grabbed Brad Harrington by his Sean John collar, dragging him from the tightly packed dance floor.
“Hey, watch it. You made me spill my drink,” Brad protested over the bone numbing thump of the trendy club’s bass. “What’s with you tonight, anyway?”
“What’s with me?” Frustration twisted Valerie’s carefully made up face. “You hardly said a word to me all night. Then you drag me to this nauseating human freak show…”
“Are you kidding? This is the hottest new joint in the city! Even the Kardashians would have trouble getting passed the door. But here we are, babe!”
Brad grinned broadly, surveying the sea of undulating bodies. He signaled for a fresh drink. “Lighten up, will ya…”
“I just thought tonight could be different,” Valerie admitted with a tightening catch in her throat, “that we could maybe go some place quiet and talk.”
A waitress arrived with a pair of purple martinis. Brad snatched them from the tray with a wink to the attractive brunette. He made no attempt to conceal his obvious admiration for her shapely figure as it seductively weaved through the crowd. “What did you say, babe?”
Valerie looked hopelessly at her date. By now all she wanted to do was flee the officious club and its obnoxious clientele. “How come I never noticed that before?” she said softly.
“How you never look at me when we talk… hell… we never talk!”
“What do you mean? We talk, we’re talking now.”
“No! We’re not, Bradley… look at me… look at me!”
Their eyes met for what seemed like the first time. Valerie wasn’t sure if it was the flashing dance floor lights or the clarity of sobriety, but she didn’t recognize the man standing in front of her; the man everyone assumed she would marry.
“What?” shouted Brad angrily. “You know, you can be such a drag when you’re not drinking.”
Valerie White squirmed uncomfortably on the hard plastic seat. People, buildings and billboards flickered past like a movie out of sync, framed in the grimy window pane.
“My life,” she murmured, “that’s my life… blinking past… out of focus… distorted.”
“That’s not a good sign.”
The young man sitting across from her, studying her carefully seemed to appear out of nowhere. He wore faded jeans and an old corduroy jacket with patches on the elbows. A reassuring confidence graced his dimpled face.
They were the only two in the car. Valerie thought he looked like someone you’d find on the back cover of some stuffy best seller. “I’m… I’m sorry…”
His smile warmed the cool conditioned air. “A beautiful woman riding the subway alone at night, talking to herself… that’s never a good sign.”
“Oh, well… I was just thinking… thinking out loud I guess.” Her moist blue eyes gazed into the night. “About my life,” she continued with a sigh, “how it seems to be flickering past, right before me…”
And the seasons, they go ‘round and ’round, painted ponies go up and down
The verse pulled Valerie from her reverie. “That’s pretty… are you a poet?”
“No, not a poet… a journalist, an out of work struggling journalist I’m afraid.”
Valerie felt herself blush. “And here I am… I’ve never had to struggle for anything in my life.”
“Don’t ever be ashamed of who you are, sweetheart,” the stranger mouthed through a clenched jaw.
For the first time that night, Valerie smiled. “I know this one… Humphrey Bogat, right?”
“Close enough… Hi, I’m Bill Brown.” He moved to the seat next to her, his hand sliding comfortably over hers like a fine Italian leather glove; his engaging smile widening till it tugged at the corners of his mocha eyes.
“Hello, Bill… I’m Valerie White.”
“And what is lovely Valerie White doing riding a New York subway train alone at night?” He was still holding her hand in his.
“Oh, well, I’m not going far… just downtown.”
“You must be taking the scenic route then.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m afraid this train goes to Flatbush.”
“Oh, it does? I mean…” Now her pink cheeks blazed crimson. “Flatbush… that’s in New York right?”
“Well, there are many who would dispute the fact, but yes, it is. I take it you don’t ride the subway very often.”
Glancing down at her Dolce and Gabbana silk dress, her Ugg heels and Fendi purse, Valerie couldn’t help but laugh. “What was your first clue, Sherlock?”
“Let’s just say I had a hunch,” and they both laughed.
“Tell me, Bill, what’s it like in Flatbush?”
“Oh, you’d hate it… the streets are narrow and worn; the houses are old and they all look alike; and the redolent air hangs heavy with the sautéed scent of a hundred nationalities.” His voice softened in deep reflection. “But the people, Valerie… the people are real, and honest, and hard working, and kind, and friendly, and just about the greatest bunch of nobodies you’d ever care to meet.”
The train rocked and shook and the star crossed couple found themselves pressed together in the darken car as the lights blinked and dimmed.
“It sounds like a wonderful place.”
Valerie White awoke feeling strange. She lay in her oversized bed trying to analyze the alien sensations coursing through her body. Her head didn’t throb to a dissonant drum; her eyes didn’t protest the daffodil dayspring, and her mouth didn’t feel like a litter box. No, she thought with a refreshing clarity, none of the usual symptoms. Instead, Valerie felt rested, alive, energized. She even found she actually had an appetite for breakfast. And she didn’t miss her coffee.
Valerie White was sober and happy…
… and in love.
August 5, 1:10 AM
Flatbush, New York
“I think you’re totally out of your league, that’s what I think.” Rob gave his roommate a pitiful look. “And I think you’re totally nuts.”
“Quiet, you made me lose count again.” Bill Brown scratched his head then scratched thru the figures he’d just written on the yellow legal pad. He stared at the meager stacks of fifty and hundred dollar bills lined up like an undisciplined band of mercenary soldiers. With a sigh he began to count again. On the bed next to the tired particle board desk from K-Mart, lay his passport; a well traveled, over stuffed army surplus back pack, and the worn leather case that housed his aging laptop.
“Some poor little rich girl you met on the subway gives you her cell phone number and right away you become Don Quixote, off on a noble quest.” Rob threw up his hands and laughed, “The things we do for love.”
Bill finished his counting and tucked the money into a Harley Davidson wallet chained to his belt. “That’s not it at all, Rob. You don’t understand. This is what I do.”
With no attempt to conceal his bemused expression, Rob replied. “Oh, yeah, I forgot… the renowned investigative reporter who’s going to change the world. Ok, Clark Kent, suppose you explain it to me.”
Bill peered at his friend from across the top of his spectacles. “It’s not because of her,” he began patiently, “well… not exactly… it’s something she said, something that clicked in my mind. As we were talking she mentioned health care. At first I just figured she had changed the subject.” His face adopted the dopey expression of a beagle in love. “She can be kinda hard to follow sometimes…”
“You mean scattered,” Rob mused.
“No, not scattered…”
“Not the sharpest knife in the drawer…”
The reporter looked at his friend, the dopey expression giving way to acceptance. “Ok, scattered.”
“And because ’lil Orphan Annie confuses health care concerns in this country with striking coffee growers, you’re off to South America. Meanwhile, every legitimate reporter is in London getting the real story.”
Bill ignored the dig. “No… no, it’s not because of her, but her name. I didn’t connect the two until today. She said her father told her the strike was over health care.”
“So, who’s her papa to have inside info the rest of the world isn’t privy to?”
“Her father is Wayne White.”
Rob let out a long low whistle. “Wow, Daddy Warbucks himself! If anyone should know…”
“Wayne White should know,” Bill said in agreement, finishing the thought.
“That’s some hunch you’re playing, my friend. I don’t know if I’d have the coconuts to empty my piggy bank on the word of some ditzy blonde…”
“Scattered,” Bill corrected.
“…scattered blonde,” Rob acquiesced. “You know, any one of Ms. White’s outfits is worth more than that entire bank roll you’ve got strapped to your hip.”
The realization gave Bill Brown a start and a chill. “Yeah, I know… I know it’s a gamble… but something tells me… besides, I’ve made the decision, and the reservations. It’s the red eye to Rio; puddle hopper to Cartagena; train to Vélez; then over the mountains and through the woods by Jeep I go, in search of coffee and a story.” He grinned up at his friend, slinging the olive drab back pack over one shoulder. “By the way, I borrowed your Nikon.”
“Hey! That’s my best camera!”
August 7, 3:06 PM
San Rosario, Colombia
Some sixty hours later, a weary, bleary eyed Bill Brown sat in a small square wooden house, eating flat bread and drinking his first cup of coffee in weeks.
“I can see why your beans are prized so highly,” he said with sincerity. “This is beyond a doubt the best coffee I have ever tasted.”
Juan Carlos scratched his stubbly chin and snorted indignantly.
“Juan Carlos, do not be so rude… where are your manners?” Victor Manuel turned to his guest. “Por favor, excusa, señor. Do not mind my friend. It was his granddaughter, little María Elaina, who was very sick.”
“I’m sorry, señor Carlos. I am glad that María is better.”
“You think this gringo is going to help us?” Juan Carlos snapped, ignoring Bill’s concern. “You are a bigger fool than I, Victor. He is just like the rest.”
“No!” Bill almost shouted, catching himself as the two men raised their eyebrows. “I’m sorry… no… no, I am here to help.”
“You must understand,” Victor said with a sigh, “we have been told that before. Men of the company have come to our village these past months, men like yourself, with fancy cameras and other gadgets.” He pointed to the open laptop and small digital recorder resting on the table between them. “They talk and talk and then they go away, and still we hear nothing.” He folded his sun browned arms across his broad chest. “The radio tells us of other growers in other places and of their demands. They want this thing and that thing… but there is never mention of our village or of a doctor. I do not understand… so much talk…”
“That is because the company has kept your village and its needs out of the papers. But I am not from the company,” Bill said softly. “And I have not come here to talk, señor Manuel. I have come here, to your village, not to talk but to listen.” He looked over at the old man. Juan Carlos’ dark eyes were the color of the coffee beans he grew and loved. “Señor Carlos, I will listen. Tell me your story. And I promise you, I will do everything I can to see to it the whole world hears your words; hears the truth.”
With a shrug Juan Carlos spoke. “It is not an easy life. But we are a hardy people. We love these mountains; they have been good to us. The coffee business I know nothing about, nor do I care.” A confident smile splintered the ancient face. “But the beans… the beans… this I know. It is not an easy thing, raising the beans here. But as you yourself have said, it is a good crop we have.” He relaxed, leaning his chair back on two legs. “The men of the fincas – where the beans are grown – are patient people… they must be… you cannot rush the beans. The trees must be hand planted, and then hand pruned; watered by hand and looked after. They require much attention, like a bebé.
“Harvest time is year round and the beans are handpicked, sorted by hand; washed and sun dried, and then allowed to ferment.” His expression grew serious as he placed a knurled fist firmly on the table. “It is only then, at the precise moment, that they are ready to be sent away. San Rosario coffee is the best in the world,” Juan Carlos proclaimed proudly.
“The work is hard, yes,” Victor Manuel continued. “But it is what we do… what our fathers and their father’s fathers did before us. And it is what we teach our little ones. We do not ask for machines and trucks and fancy factories. No, that is not our way. Our life is simple; it is a good life. All we ask is that our children do not have to suffer as poor little María Elaina. The company owes us that much.”
August 9, 11:58 PM
“So, are you going to run it?”
The managing editor of the Washington Post loosened his tie and top two shirt buttons. His sleeves were already rolled and perspiration marked his furrowed forehead. The east coast was in the middle of a devastating heat wave and the air conditioner struggled to meet demand.
“I’d be a fool not to. This is dynamite stuff. And the interview with the little granddaughter is Pulitzer material.”
“But he’s an unknown, a nobody…”
The editor looked up at his assistant. “We all were at one time.”
“What about our man down there, Riley?”
“Riley is a fool! And he’s damn lucky he still has a job. If I hadn’t needed him to confirm what is in this exposé he would have been gone. This story was right under his nose all along!” The editor mopped his brow, tossing the article on the desk.
“So, you are going to run it.”
“I’ve made the decision.” The Washington Post chief grinned. “Tomorrow morning unknown reporter B. Brown will find his story front page center with a by line. Before noon every paper, news agency, TV and radio station will have picked it up. And by dinner time he will be the most sought after journalist in the country, if not the world.”
“And we’ll have on hell of a scoop.”
The editor scanned the galley proofs with satisfaction. “Mister Bill Brown, your life is about to change.”
August 11, 9:15 AM
Steve Fields sat in his small office, drinking ice cold buttermilk. He re-read the article for the third time. The accompanying photos tugged at his heart, making him think of his own young granddaughter. Bill Brown’s exclusive exposé of the London based international conglomerate and their treatment of the coffee growers was headline news. The Washington Post story had been picked up by newspapers worldwide, including the Joplin Globe. Fields sipped his milk and smiled. Maybe… just maybe…
He made up his mind. The big, affable mid-westerner rose and strode into the outer office. “Mrs. Marshal, have every department head assemble in my office, please.”
“Yes, Mr. Fields.”
Fifteen minutes later, Steve Fields surveyed the stunned faces on half a dozen employees. “Any questions?”
Finally a soft, timid voice spoke up. “Sir… are you… are you sure, sir?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“This is all very well and noble of you,” a more confident voice advanced. “But you’ve got to think of the customers. What will they say, and will they go along? And what about sales? Since the new chain supermarket opened up around the corner on Range Line Drive, we’re barely staying afloat. This store can’t take any more losses.”
Fields grinned. “That’s why I hired you, Tom. You are always the voice of reason. That and because you’re my son-in-law.” Nervous laughter circled the room. “I know the situation, of course… but I’m glad to see each of you is aware as well.” He leaned back in his chair. “This store is fighting for its very existence. Being an independent is never easy. My father and his father’s father faced even tougher times… wars… the depression. It’s during those hard times that people look to their friends, their neighbors, and the community. The independent has been the backbone of commerce in this country… it still is. But more importantly, the independent is looked upon as a community leader.” He tossed the copy of the Joplin Globe onto the broad, round meeting table. “You’ve all read the story. You all know what those people in South America are up against. I couldn’t in good conscience drink another cup of coffee now, even if I could get one. It’s David and Goliath all over again. But this time David needs all the help he can get.”
Steve Fields ran his fingers through his thinning, graying hair. He looked each of the men and women assembled before him in the eye, deciphering their expressions. “I don’t want any of you to get the wrong impression of my altruism. I am doing this as much for the store as for the coffee growers. It’s a gamble I’m sure. But one I’m willing to take. I’ve made the decision. We’ll all have to work hard and pull together and keep a positive attitude. A few well said prayers would be appreciated as well.”
By noon, every product sold by the London based conglomerate had been removed from the shelves of Field’s Family Market. Along with the missing coffee, tea; crackers; cranberries; cat food; canned meats, and a number of other products disappeared. Each item was replaced by a neatly printed handbill. It read:
Dear valued customer, as long as the parent company
of this product refuses to see to the needs of the small
village in Colombia on whose production of coffee beans
they rely, Fields Family Market will refuse to carry any
of their products. We apologize for any inconvenience
this may cause our customers. We thank you for your
support, and encourage others to join our boycott.
A copy of the handbill along with a letter explaining the store’s position was forwarded to London.
That night the market owner counted the spots on his bedroom ceiling instead of sleeping. He tried counting up his savings and investments in case of a forced early retirement, but discovered it too depressing. By five AM he abandoned any hope of sleep and reluctantly rolled out of bed.
When Steve Fields arrived to open his store he found the parking lot cluttered with mobile remote vans and satellite trucks. Several starched, shinning TV reporters, followed closely by huffing camera men, rushed over as Fields exited his old pick up. A microphone with the CNN logo was among the many thrust in his face. “Mister Fields, can you please comment on your decision to pull the London company’s product from your shelves?”
By the next day the media circus had abated somewhat. The new story du jour became the hundreds of chain stores and independents across the country that had joined in the boycott. The Joplin Globe ran a feature on Steve Fields, proclaiming the gutsy store owner a home town hero and a national inspiration. The impassioned speech he’d made to his staff just two days earlier was featured in a side bar. It was printed nearly word for word with some additional patriotic pumping. The David and Goliath remark was picked up by the New York Times and soon became a catch phrase with the media. Fields couldn’t decide if he should kiss or kill his over eager son-in-law.
But the gamble paid off. The small family owned business began to thrive again. Old customers showed their support and new patrons flocked to the small maverick store that had challenged the large international conglomerate.
August 30, 9:27 AM
Todd Worth settled into the thick winged back leather desk chair of his plush twelfth floor office overlooking the Thames. Outside, a cheery yellow sun cast it contented smile on the smoke tinted windows, reflecting Worth’s mood. On the expensive mahogany desk waited an iced can of Pepsi, while a single yellow light on the multiline telephone blinked impatiently. Worth ignored it, staring blankly at the framed photo of his new sports car.
The intercom pulled Todd Worth from his thoughts. “Excuse me, sir, Doctor Hawthorn is here.”
Worth mumbled to himself, a strand of sandy blonde hair falling across his smooth, tanned brow as he reached for the speaker box. “Thank you, Ms. Schafer. I’ll see him in a minute.”
Pressing the flashing yellow button, he lifted the receiver to his ear. “Hello… Todd Worth here… what’s that? No, no… I’m afraid Nigel Bannister is no longer with the company… yes, that’s right… took an early retirement, I’m in charge now… yes, quite… very good.”
He hung up the phone, his last words echoing sweetly in his mind: I’m in charge now…
Todd Worth was a good, albeit casual man; a company man. He learned the coffee business from his father. From plantation to export to refining to packaging to shipping to merchandising, Todd Worth knew his beans. He spent twelve long, sweltering years in South America as a company representative, dealing with plantation owners, cartels, drug lords, dictators and revolutions.
The next decade Worth spent dealing with hurricanes and sea sickness, riding the endless blue green waves of the Atlantic. He’d graduated to the position of senior supervisor of shipping. The fancy title translated into interminable hours at sea babysitting the company’s cargo of coffee beans.
Then for six years Todd Worth rode a desk. He was finally back in England, this time checking and rechecking the status of shipments to the company’s numerous distributors. The work was boring and repetitive. And, it seemed for a time he would ride this desk to retirement.
But Todd Worth always considered himself a lucky man.
The unexpected and troublesome work stoppage had mushroomed into an international incident. Coffee growers all over the world refused to pick or ship the valuable commodity. Chain stores and independents across the US and Canada canceled major orders, removing from their shelves all products produced by the coffee conglomerate. Consumers around the globe stood in support of the boycott for better conditions for the people of the tiny village of San Rosario. Common stock of the London based company plummeted, with no bottom in sight.
But Todd Worth’s luck held true.
Forty eight hours earlier Worth was in the right place at the right time when aging CEO Smyth pointed his finger and made his decision. Now Todd Worth was enjoying his first full day as vice president of export and international relations.
Worth rose, confidently fiddling with the Windsor knot of his hand painted silk tie from Soho. The door to his office opened and a man with graying temples, round spectacles and a limp entered. “How are you, Todd? My, it’s been a time hasn’t it?” The two men shook hands, sizing up one another like a pair of British bulldogs.
“Yes, quite, Quincy, quite some time. How are things at the hospital?”
They took up positions in matching arm chairs near the oversized window. “Oh, well, running along smoothly as ever, you know.” Dr. Quincy Hawthorn considered the opulent office. “I must say, you’ve done well by yourself, old chap.”
“Yes, yes, we’ve come a long way since Eaton, haven’t we?” Worth turned in his seat, his brown eyes narrowing. “I need your help Quincy old man, I’m up against it. Surely you’ve heard about this mess in South America. I can’t see how anyone could avoid it. That school of yours has recently graduated a fresh batch of interns. Perhaps you could fine me one willing to pull a year or two of service in Colombia. The company’s setting up a wonderful little clinic in a place called San Rosario. It will be well equipped and maintained; there’s a fine hospital nearby and the pay is decent. It should be a great experience as well as quite the adventure for the right chap.”
The doctor studied his flaccid faced friend carefully. He knew what medical facilities in remote places could be like. He knew that the nearby hospital was in Vélez, a grueling full day’s journey. And he was aware that this was as much a publicity ploy as a humanitarian effort. Still, Worth was right. The medical experience gleaned would be invaluable to a young doctor just starting his practice. He thought of his own years with the home service as a young doctor in India.
Dr. Hawthorn smiled, nodded and made his decision. “Ok, Todd, I’ll find you a doctor. I’ll start the process immediately. In fact, I think I just might have the perfect candidate.”
Rising, they strode to the door. “Thanks, Quincy. I knew you’d come through for me. Ring me up as soon as you have somebody.”
As the office door closed, Worth’s own words returned, playing over like a stuck record: I’m in charge now…
He grinned slyly. “I’m in charge now,” he said to no one, straightening his tie. “And I make the decisions. You got your health clinic thanks to a lot of bleeding heart liberals and that senile old duck running this company. But just step out of line again and you’ll have to deal with Todd Worth!”
September 6, 6:39 PM
“So, you’ve made up your mind?”
“And that’s it? You’re back home less than a month and you are leaving again?”
“Dad, I…” Paul Chandler slid the half eaten meal from in front of him. Across the elegant dining room table his father eyed him curiously. “Dad, I know it hasn’t been easy for you since mom passed away.”
Dr. Thomas Chandler balled his linen napkin, tossing it onto the table. “I told you, Paul, your mother has nothing to do with it,” he replied, closing his eyes and his mind to the bitter memory. “Lord knows I’ve missed her these last two years. But I’m fine, son, just fine.”
Paul smiled across the room. He loved his father and would do anything for him. He understood his father’s pain. There wasn’t a day that went by he didn’t miss his mother. He remembered how proud she was the day he started college, following in his father’s footsteps. His mother had been his biggest fan and strongest supporter during the difficult first years of pre-med. It wasn’t fair. She never got to see her son graduate from medical school.
“Why do you think we sent you off to that school in England?” his father asked for about the tenth time since Paul broke the news. “We wanted the best for you; you are a part of this family, and a part of the family business, Paul. You and I are a team. Your Uncle Jack and cousin Jess are looking forward to you joining us at the clinic.”
“That’s your dream, dad,” Paul said patiently, “not mine. At least it isn’t right now. Perhaps in a couple of years, after…”
“After what?” his father interrupted. He caught himself. He didn’t mean to raise his voice. But this wasn’t the way it was suppose to be.
“Dad, those people in San Rosario need me.”
“Those people don’t even have any kind of a facility for you yet. If you are determined to go, what’s your hurry?” Chandler faltered, the words welling up in his chest. “I need you, son, here at the clinic, the way your mother and I always planned.” Rising from the table he began to pace. “I’m sorry, Paul, it’s just so hard to understand.”
Paul’s quiet blue eyes turned inward. “The Grand Canyon…”
“The Grand Canyon,” Paul repeated softly. “Do you remember that trip we took to the Grand Canyon?”
The question caused the senior Chandler to stop and turn. “Why, you couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old.”
“I was six. And we never made it to the Canyon. Remember, dad?”
Dr. Chandler’s stern face softened. “Yes…”
“Traveling up route sixty four,” Paul continued, “we were flagged down by that Hopi Indian family. The woman was in heavy labor, a breach birth. You saved her life… and the baby. But not just that, you made the decision to go with them all the way to the hospital, over seventy miles away. You wouldn’t leave her until she was out of danger. For two days mom and I waited in that old motel room while you remained with your patient. By then our vacation was over and we had to return home. Later you took me aside and explained. You told me no one, regardless of who they may be, should have to suffer for lack of medical attention. I was never so proud of you. It was then and there I knew I wanted to be a doctor… just like my father.” He rose, moving to his father’s side. “Now I am a doctor, dad, just like you. And I’ve made my decision.”
Dr. Thomas Chandler smiled and nodded at his son but said nothing as he walked out of the room.
Young Paul Chandler looked up as his father entered the kitchen. “Good morning, dad. How are you? I haven’t seen much of you these last two days. Is everything ok?”
Dr. Chandler poured himself a glass of juice. “I’ve been very busy; had plenty to occupy my time… and my mind. Son, I…”
“Dad, don’t… please. Everything is set. I’m leaving in an hour.”
Setting his glass aside, Chandler grinned broadly at his son. “Yes, I know: US Air flight 90 to LA; American Airlines from LAX to Panama City; then Aeromexico to Bogata. The train and Jeep trip into the hills promises to be interesting. It should be quite an adventure. Hopefully, the medical supplies I’ve arranged for won’t be far behind us. We should arrive in San Rosario sometime Thursday.”
Chandler placed a loving hand to his son’s arm. “You are right, Paul. I’ve lost sight of why I became a doctor. Thanks for the kick in the pants.”
“But, what about the clinic here in Flagstaff?”
“Uncle Jack can handle it while we’re gone. He’s got Jessica and a great staff. Hell, the place practically runs itself. I doubt if I’ll even be missed. I’m sure your mother would approve. Besides, I told you, we’re a team.”
Father and son embraced warmly. “I love you, dad.”
“I love you, too, son.” Wiping a stray tear, Dr. Thomas Chandler ran his arm around his son’s shoulder. “C’mon, we’ve got patients waiting for us in San Rosario.”
September 15, 7:45 AM
Rick McConnell was running late. Not having his morning coffee didn’t help his disposition. “What do you mean?”
“I’m sorry; I just didn’t have time yesterday. I’ll stop by Tully’s this afternoon.”
McConnell swallowed hard, struggling to contain his anger. “Damn it, Laura, I ask you to do just one thing, just one! You know how important this meeting is to me. If I can get on old man Baxter’s good side I’m a shoe in for a promotion.”
“And the best way to get on his good side is with that special coffee,” McConnell’s wife replied patiently. “I know, you’ve told me.”
Reaching for his briefcase, McConnell started across the kitchen. “Then you know how much he loves his coffee. Because of that nonsense with the growers, it’s been months since he’s been able to get any. That specialty coffee shop promised the first shipment would be on their shelves yesterday!” He nervously checked his wrist watch. “Let’s see, they should be open now…”
“No, Rick, surely you’re not thinking… that’s all the way up in Ballard, the only store that carries that blend. Your meeting is in forty five minutes. You’ll never make it in time.”
Rick McConnell’s kiss barely grazed his wife’s cheek as he barreled out the door. “I’ll make it…”
Thirty minutes later, McConnell’s Ford raced down 15th avenue. On the passenger seat rested a package of rare, expensive coffee beans: San Rosario Select Blend. Up ahead the Ballard Bridge began to lazily creek open, allowing a fishing trawler to glide silently beneath. Traffic on the busy thoroughfare slowed to a stop.
McConnell cursed aloud, pounding a fist to the dashboard. Ignoring the red flashing warning signals, he wheeled the silver Taurus onto a side street. A block further the speeding vehicle violently broadsided a minivan as it backed out of a driveway.
Five year old Mary Ellen, on her way to her first day of pre-school, was killed instantly.