For Pat McCarthy
They walked into my bar like they owned the place, the Major and this gangly female friend of his he calls "the Loon."
The Major says to me, "According to the Internet, you make the best tropical drinks in the state. Do you make your Dark’n’Stormies with the proper Bermudian ingredients?"
He’s a bit formal, this guy. I didn’t know his name yet, but I already had him pegged as retired military. Too young for Vietnam, too old for Gulf War II. Hint of a southern accent, more Kentucky than Texas.
So I said to him, "Absolutely proper. Everything at Coco Rico’s is authentic. You want Mai Tais–mine are just like the Royal Hawaiian. Singapore Sling? You don’t have to go to Raffles. Dark’n’Stormy? I’m pouring Gosling’s Rum and their spicy ginger beer. Lime optional."
"Sounds perfect." He pulled out a stool for his friend and politely held her coat and bag while she climbed up. "We’ll have two Dark’n’Stormies," he said. "No, make that three. Mix one up for yourself. I have a pretty good story to tell and you may want to listen in if you’re not too busy."
I asked, "Are you one of those book clubs?" I was thinking those clubs fill a lot of seats, but with light drinkers.
Then I heard this sound, like: "Ahhhhhh-ha-ha-haa, aaahhh-ha-ha-ha, ak-ak, ak-akh, ahhhhh." It was his lady friend laughing like she thinks my question is the funniest thing she ever heard. "We’re just here for conversation. But because he tends to do most of the talking, well, that makes it a story doesn’t it?"
I guess I must’ve looked at her funny, because he said to me, "You heard her laugh. She sounds like a lunatic. That’s why all her friends call her "the Loon," and you should too."
"I’ll do that," I said, serving their drinks.
The Major said his name was Brayden Collins but I should call him the Major. I told them both they could call me Coco.
Then we lifted our glasses and toasted, "To new friends!" We’d barely had time to swallow when the Loon said to the Major, "Now for that story. You’ve been out of touch for nearly nine months, and–ahhhhhh-ha-ha-haa, aaahhh-ha-ha-ha, ak-ak, ak-akh, ahhhhh–I’m bursting with curiosity."
The Major, always the gentleman, got right to it. "As the Loon knows, but you, Coco, certainly do not, I’ve been working on a desalination project in Bermuda for the last couple of years. That’s where I acquired my taste for Dark’n’Stormies, specifically, on the patio of the Coral Beach Club. It’s a beautiful old place. Clay tennis courts and a salt-water pool, set on a cliff above the pink sand beach and transparent water. Magical spot. The restaurant on the terrace is wonderful. Waiters in Bermuda shorts and knee socks, cheeky parrots in enormous brass cages.
"In any case, about six months ago I lunched there and then went down to the beach to relax. It’s a private beach and there are rows of turquoise chaises and yellow-and-white striped beach umbrellas, carefully lined up like an Army tent camp–except for the bright colors. It was crowded that day, hard to find a seat, and a lot of conversations going on. Children playing noisily and their parents not paying much mind as they were trying to relax themselves.
"In front of me was a nice group. Tall Indian fellow with his wife, clean-shaven and obviously brainy, talking quietly with a friend about their dinner plans. Seems they’d come to this part of the island on their yacht, over from Tucker’s Town, and were looking forward to some special event. I got the impression they were long-time members of the club.
"I was trying to nap, not successfully, when suddenly I heard this fellow–I might as well tell you his name even though I didn’t know it at the time. It’s Singh, Vinod Singh. And this Mr. Singh is looking back toward the club and saying, ‘Oh, oh, what’s going on over there? Oh-oh, this looks like trouble.’
"His wife and friend began looking too and Mr. Singh said, ‘Look at those children climbing up the cliffs. The sand is not stable and they should not be there.’
"They watched some more and talked it over. ‘Where are the parents?’ continued Mr. Singh. ‘Someone has to do something.’
"He walked across the beach and told the children to get down off the cliff.
"He might as well have assassinated an archduke, considering what happened next. The children’s mother–I assumed it was the mother because of her behavior, and of course I confirmed it later–the children’s mother was after him like a swarm of hornets. ‘How dare you talk to my children. You’ve got no right… Who do you think you are?’
"Of course it was all laced with profanity and a level of physical aggression that was surprising. This woman, Maude Rafferty-Fehr is her name, as I found out later, was young and trim. And she was wearing quite elaborate beach clothing with built-in sun and insect protection. And of course there was the Roger Federer hat…"
"The what? asked the Loon.
"The Roger Federer hat. The tennis player. Has his own logo. RF. It was pink, by the way. I found out later…’
"Ahhhhhh-ha-ha-haa, aaahhh-ha-ha-ha, ak-ak, ak-akh, ahhhhh. Ahhhhhh-ha-ha-haa," the Loon hooted. "Nobody wears a Roger Federer hat except, ahhhhhh-ha-ha-haa, aaahhh-ha-ha-ha, his wife and, ak-ak, ak-akh, his mother."
"Hmf. I suppose not. I’d never seen one before." The Major continued, "I found out later she’s Swiss, or at least married to one. And they play tennis. So I suppose it’s possible she’d wear something like that. Anyway she kept after him in this manner–like a terrier or a mosquito–without letting up for quite some time. I decided to go in for a bit of snorkeling and I followed a school of angelfish around for a half-hour at least.
"I came back to my chaise and thought the stratagem had worked. Peace and quiet. Wonderful. Mr. Singh was relaxing, trying to read. I was pleased to see it was the latest Brad Thor thriller.
"Imagine my disappointment, then, as I noticed a man with his teeth and his fists clenched like worn-out disk brakes, looking down at Mr. Singh through thick lenses and struggling to breathe through a scraggly blondish moustache.
"’I don’t like the way you were talking to my wife,’ he said, clearly trying to start a fight.
"Mr. Singh did not take the bait: ‘It isn’t safe to climb on the cliffs. It’s against the rules of the club and all I did was to ask the boys to come down. It was for their own safety.’
"Well, if Roger Federer was bad, her husband was worse by far. He was a jackal-piranha to her terrier-mosquito. ‘Damn the rules,’ he screamed. ‘You have no right to talk to my children or my wife."
"Julius Fehr, that’s his name: Doctor Fehr was trembling with anger and still standing over Mr. Singh who remained seated and spoke in a calm and logical tone that was infuriating in its own way.
"The two went at it back and forth, until somehow Mr. Singh managed to escape. He gained a standing position without making physical contact with Dr. Fehr. And this small triumph must have somehow clouded his judgment because, at this point, he opened a new line of argument."
"Always a mistake," agreed the Loon. "Unless you can strike a lethal blow, the defense should always stay on defense. Otherwise you open yourself up to a new line of attack."
"Exactly," said the Major. He turned to me and explained that the Loon’s profession was the law. "She’s a formidable plaintiff’s attorney; she also has a sharp tongue and knows when and how to use it." He leaned closer and whispered, "Her real name is Susan Pahlmayer. Be sure to stay on her good side and keep those D’n’Ss coming."
I hurried around to the back of the bar and carefully loaded ice into the glasses so it wouldn’t make too much noise. The Major continued with an audible sigh: "Mr. Singh correctly, but incautiously, noted that it was bad for the cliffs to have people climbing on them. ‘It precipitates erosion and undermines the cliffs," he said. ‘Eventually the club will have to be abandoned.’
"I have no idea what this triggered in Dr. Fehr. He started screaming, ‘Are you a Bermudian? Are you a Bermudian?’
"And Mr. Singh replied, ‘I live in Bermuda. I work in Bermuda. I own a house in Bermuda. I own a business in Bermuda. I own a boat…’
"None of which was satisfactory. ‘Unless you are a native-born Bermudian,’ roared Fehr, you have no business talking about these cliffs. I am a medical man. I have scientific training. I understand the environment. I appreciate the earth and ecology…’
"As you can see, he was beside himself. And, while everything he said was literally true, I found out later Dr. Fehr’s degree was actually in dentistry. His proper name and title was Julius Fehr, DDS."
"Ahhhhhh-ha-ha-haa, aaahhh-ha-ha-ha, ak-ak, ak-akh," Susan laughed. "Now it all starts to make sense. He sounds just like my dentist…"
"Yes, precisely," the Major agreed. "Mr. Singh seemed to find this part funny too. He saw fit to point out his own credentials, which are actually impressive: as chief actuary for a reinsurance firm, he is a bona fide expert on disasters caused by natural events."
Suddenly he broke off. "I just remembered we forgot to dedicate this new round. By the way, Coco, your D’n’Ss are splendid. Does everyone have something left? Of course you do. Here we go: to fresh air and pure spirits."
"Fresh air and pure spirits!"
Then he asked me if I understood about reinsurance.
I said, "Please don’t tell me I need another kind of insurance. I’ve got too much as it is."
"Nothing to worry about unless you’re planning to start an insurance company," the Major explained. "Reinsurance is how Warren Buffet made his first billion. Say you’re selling insurance on properties in Florida. Your actuaries and underwriters would figure the risks and the premiums so you’d be covered for claims resulting from your normal garden-variety hurricane. But once every ten years or whatever, you’ve got to expect there will be a monster storm that causes damage so great, it could put you out of business. So you buy reinsurance from good old Warren or Mr. Singh to cover that risk. The product is called Super Cat insurance–and it covers these super catastrophic events. As it happens, Bermuda is the global center of the reinsurance industry."
"So Mr. Singh really is an expert on weather and natural disasters?"
"That’s right. He thinks long-term about the frequency of hurricanes, typhoons, earthquakes, and tornados. Black swan events, wars and revolutions. He hardly even bothers with tropical depressions. No wonder he was laughing."
"I wonder though," said the Loon, thinking out loud, "as an analyst dealing with complex systems, abstractions, and long-term probabilities, I’m not sure how well he matches up against someone like this Dr. Fehr. It’s much easier to act when you only see one possibility."
"I’m sad to say that is the very crux of the issue," the Major agreed. "Now that Singh had upped the stakes, our Dr. Fehr needed validation–immediately. He turned to me and demanded my opinion. He said, ‘You’ve heard everything. You must decide.’
"Then an absurd impulse overcame me. For a moment, I thought I could actually do some good–perhaps, even bring these two warring souls to find middle ground. I heard myself saying, ‘Why don’t you boys take some time off and do whatever you can to help the environment. And then we’ll meet back here six weeks from now, on the terrace, and talk it over like gentlemen…’ I figured by giving them time to simmer down, everything would turn out all right.
"Big mistake. In the intervening weeks, remembered insults had rankled and the wounds had festered. Sitting there on the otherwise peaceful terrace, I had to listen to a litany of Priuses, composting toilets, and CFLs. Inverters and solar panels.
"Finally, I threw up my hands. I couldn’t bear to hear any more about mpg and kilowatts and six bus rides of three-point-seven miles in each direction. I’d noticed they both carried sports bags with the handles of multiple tennis rackets sticking out. And I naively suggested, ‘Why don’t you settle this mano a mano on the tennis court.’
"’Let’s do it!’ they agreed as they hurried off in the direction of courts. I settled back expecting to hear the comforting thwamp-pause-thwamp-pause-thwump-dammit of a tennis rally. Instead came screams and cries, waiters running this way and that, and parrots cursing. Singh and Fehr were on the court all right, but weren’t using tennis balls. Instead they were trying to bash each other’s heads in with their tightly strung graphite racquets.
"While the waiters held them down, I described my credentials: mechanical engineer, retired military, and running out of patience. I said I expected them to come back in two months time with serious, measurable, verifiable results–or else.
"This time, I figured I’d never hear from them again. I’d put them to too much trouble, set too high a hurdle. But once again I was bitterly disappointed.
"Singh had invested in carbon offsets. He’d purchased tree credits from a forest in Georgia, priced at $3.75 a metric ton of sequestered carbon. He also invested in a project that collects methane, on the hoof, from a swine farm and uses it to fire artists’ kilns in Pasadena."
"Pig farts! "Ahhhhhh-ha-ha-haa, aaahhh-ha-ha-ha, ak-ak, ak-akh."
"Susan, please," the Major scowled, "I’m coming to the serious part of the story. You see, Dr. Fehr was starting to become radicalized. He’d gone to England where the world’s most sophisticated environmentalists were staging an ‘Uncivilization’ festival. He left there with mixed feelings. On the one hand he agreed with the radicals that neo-eco approaches, like carbon trading, were repellent. On the other, he said the movement’s leaders had lost their nerve; the festival was all about grieving and featured people wallowing in mud while making animal noises and singing children’s songs. That sounds silly, but you can look it up. There was a big feature in the NY Times.
"Fehr left the southlands and headed for the industrial north. He acquired a rifle and shot power transformers around Manchester, Birmingham, and Sheffield. Then he returned to North America and continued his shooting spree in the U.S. and Canada. He came prepared with photographs, newspaper clippings, and a spreadsheet tallying the value of the expensive machines he’d destroyed, the kilowatts he’d removed from the grid. He actually expected me to be impressed. I think he believed he’d won the contest.
"Instead, I told him, ‘you’ve committed a dozen felonies. You should be in jail.’ And Singh piled on, saying, ‘and think of all the fuel you used, driving and flying around the way you did.’
"Dr. Fehr marched off in a huff. It seemed Singh had won–both objectively and by default. We sat on the terrace for about a half hour, chatting about desalination and some of his recent business triumphs. It seems he’d correctly predicted that storm frequency would decline–despite the consensus opinion to the contrary. And his firm had pocketed a bundle as a result. I was starting to like–or at least understand–the fellow, despite his habit of looking at my shoes while he spoke to me.
"Time passed and I assumed the matter was finally put to rest. Thus I was surprised, and a bit curious, when I received a call from Singh three months later. He said it was an urgent request and I mustn’t refuse him. He was meeting Dr. Fehr at the club and he needed me to be present as a witness. By now Fehr seemed positively unhinged. He was drinking Planter’s Punch like it was lemonade, and he appeared to be wearing his wife’s tennis cap, but with the bill to the back.
"He raved, ‘I’ve got you this time Singh, you smug sitzpinkler. You know your carbon offsets you’re so proud of? There was an explosion at your hog farm. It all went up in smoke. You won’t even be able to salvage any ribs or bacon.’ Then he turned to me and mumbled vague threats about my desalination plant, while poking me in the chest.
"Singh appeared agitated. He pulled out his cell phone and punched in his number with difficulty–his hands were shaking uncontrollably. He spoke rapidly in his native tongue, then listened for a lengthy period. Finally a smile began to blossom and spread across his face. He listened some more and then burst out in a full-throated laugh.
"’What is it, Vinod?’ By this time we were on a first name basis, you see.
"’I’ve confirmed that indeed the sequestration equipment at the swine farm exploded, destroying the carbon offsets…’
"’Not to mention the animals and all the air pollution it caused,’ I reminded him.
"’Yes, there’s that as well. But at the same time that I bought the carbon offsets, I also took the precaution of shorting them on the European exchange. Now that the facility is destroyed, the value of my short positions is through the roof. Dr. Fehr, I can’t thank you enough.’
"I had to restrain Fehr physically. Not a pleasant proposition as the fellow had let himself go and probably hadn’t bathed in a week. ‘You sick, evil hypocrite,’ he screamed, nearly biting his tongue in the process. ‘You are criminal and indecent. You take a phony moral stand with your carbon offsets, and then bet against them in secret. That offsets the morality of your environmental position and proves that you are an opportunist and a repellent creature.’
"Singh took it in stride. He actually tsk-tsked. ‘Not true in the slightest,’ he said. ‘I believe firmly in the moral intention of the carbon credits. But I had worries about the financial and operational acumen of the managers of the sequestration project. I hedged my financial position, not my moral stand.’
"In the end, we had to phone the authorities to take Fehr away.
"I no longer felt quite comfortable with Singh, even though he was carrying a copy of my favorite Thomas Perry novel, Death Benefits. Bottom line–I never wanted to see either of them again. I assumed Fehr would be locked up in jail or in a mental institution, and I didn’t expect to cross paths with Singh as long as I avoided the club.
"Then accidents started happening at my project, and I ended up having several conversations with the police. I didn’t hesitate to identify Fehr as the logical suspect. Unfortunately, the police informed me that Fehr had dried out in jail and they’d let him go. They said they’d lacked any proof other than my report of his drunken ravings. That meant our project had to hire extra security and remain on high alert.
"Do you think it really was Fehr?" I asked the Major.
"Actually, we now suspect it might be both Fehr and Singh."
"Because our security contractors started following Fehr and discovered that he and Singh were living together on Singh’s boat."
"How could that be possible?"
The Major stole a glance at his watch. He apologized for having to hurry the conclusion, but it couldn’t be helped. He frowned thoughtfully, then continued:
"It seems the competition continued after my involvement ended," he explained. "Singh’s investments turned against him and he took to riding around on a scooter. Those are very common in Bermuda, so it’s not that eccentric. But he even transported his mother-in-law on it, to a doctor’s appointment, no less. He had to strap her to the back of his saddle, as it were. He got in an accident–again not that unusual considering what Bermudian traffic is like–and his mother-in-law broke her hip. Singh’s wife was furious and kicked him out.
"By chance, Singh and Fehr ran into each other in Hamilton, and Fehr became incensed. The good doctor, always the narcissist, thought Singh’s misfortunes–not to mention his mother-in-law’s–were just an attempt to one-up him yet again. So Fehr decided to settle things once and for all. What he did next was beyond belief…"
Both Susan and I sat in silence. Any way you slice it, much of the Major’s adventure was already pretty fantastic. I can’t speak for Susan, but I know I was thinking, "What now? What now?"
The Major did not stoop to suspense. He stated it directly: "Julius Fehr, DDS, got rid of his children. I don’t know if he sold them or put them up for adoption or merely shipped them off to relatives. But he did it without telling his wife…"
"But that was what started it all in the first place," said the Loon. "He was protecting his children!"
"I know, I know. His wife, Maude, became homicidal when she found out. So Fehr asked his sworn enemy for help and Singh agreed to let him stay on the boat…"
The Loon was furious. "I can’t believe it. I know there are people out there who say that having children is the ultimate insult to the environment. But those are usually people who don’t have kids themselves. Fehr must have been lying."
The Major held up a finger, signaling that he heard the Loon’s comment and would answer directly if she’d only let him. He turned and looked her squarely in the eye and made this pronouncement: "I have no doubt that if I didn’t know these men in person, I too would find the whole thing quite outlandish. However, I spent quite a bit a time with them, unfortunately, and here’s what I observed: When you’re fundamentally dishonest with yourself, there’s no need to lie to other people. So I’d be inclined to take Julius Fehr at his word."
Susan had no response. She certainly wasn’t laughing. Neither was I. So I said what I always say. "Who’s ready for another round?"