Book excerpt

Blackmail Earth

Bill Evans

Tor/Forge

CHAPTER 1
 
 
Jenna Withers could see more than fifty miles from the shotgun seat of The Morning Show helicopter. None of it looked pretty. The farms and forests north of New York City had turned to tinder. Mid-October was as hot as mid-August had been, the third scorching year in a row. Lakes and reservoirs were drying up and the rivers looked like they’d slunk away from their banks, thieves in the night.
It was just as dry—or drier—on the West Coast and across the Sun Belt. The hottest growing season on record. Much of the Midwest had been singed, too, with farmers in Iowa and Nebraska losing 80 percent of their corn crop. Food and fuel prices were rising as fast as the mercury.
Minutes ago Jenna; her producer, Nicole Parsons; and their crew had choppered out of New York City, the heart of a drought emergency that had been declared two months ago. That was the second highest level of official panic, right below drought disaster—conditions so dire that they were bluntly unthinkable in a metro area of twenty million people.
No one in the Big Apple had escaped the vicious grip of the Northeast drought. Water for parks, golf courses, and fountains? Fahgeddaboutit. Let ’em brown, where they hadn’t burned. Car washes? You gotta be kiddin’. Pools? You’re still jokin’.
Not even sprinklers to cool off the kiddies, and fire hydrants were locked up tighter than Tiffany’s. Most of the water for everything but drinking now came from the Hudson River, where crews worked 24/7 to pump out tens of millions of gallons. The water level had dropped to historic lows. Sailors had to take extra steps to climb down from docks to their decks, but this was a minor inconvenience to a city in survival mode. A city that looked like it was on chemo.
Jenna, a meteorologist, didn’t need the Ph.D. after her name to tally up the terror that could come from a cigarette tossed into the brittle brush down below, where a single spark could turn the region crisp as Southern California when the Santa Ana winds wicked all the life from the land, before burning the mountainsides black. Merely looking down at the devastation from the front passenger seat brought to mind the scores of scientific studies linking high temperatures and high-pressure systems to homicide and the full spectrum of urban violence.
The current condition was a classic summertime high. It had originated just east of Bermuda. For most of the past two months, it had driven the polar jet stream north, into Canada, and the subtropical jet stream south, below the Gulf of Mexico. That left the “Bermuda high,” as it was aptly known, hunkered down like a big old bear at a beehive, far too content to move.
“You finding our reservoir? I’m getting nervous back here.” Nicole’s voice came through Jenna’s headphones. In the seat right behind her, “Nicci” to those who knew her well, was the off-camera part of the weather team. She was as short and dark-haired as Jenna was tall and blond. They were the best of friends—real friends, not frenemies—which was good because they were virtually joined at the hip, “married” in the parlance of network television.
“I don’t see it yet.”
Nicci shot back, “We’ve got to land somewhere and go live in nine minutes.”
The countdown, thought Jenna. There’s always a frickin’ countdown. Her stomach tightened as seconds flew by, softening only slightly when their pilot, Harry “Bird” Stephenson, pointed to a huge empty bowl in the earth that was their destination, a reservoir wrung dry of every last ounce, as if a plug had been pulled on the whole works, but not a drop had drained: All the water had burned into the sky.
Dust was rising now, engulfing the copter, swirling wildly as if they were in Iraq or Afghanistan. Bird flew by instruments—eyes locked on the panel, pudgy hands on the controls—and landed on the edge of the dry lake bed with the softest bump.
With the engine shut down and the AC off, the glass bubble heated up faster than a cheap lightbulb. Jenna started to sweat immediately. Her blouse and panty hose felt like warm, wet leaves plastered to her skin. Even the dust still eddying outside looked more appealing than sitting in this sauna. But the instant she reached for the door, Bird took her arm.
“I don’t want that goddamn grit getting in here. It’s hell on the instruments. Give it a sec to settle down.”
“Bird,” Nicci said in her most urgent voice, “we’ve got about five minutes to get out, get set up, and get on the air. Five minutes, Bird. Let’s go.”
Nicci shouldered open her door, rousing Andi, the camerawoman, from her open-eyed torpor. Andi cradled the high-definition digital camera in her arms as she started to climb out the left side of the chopper.
Jenna sucked in one more breath before heading into the chest-choking air. Ducking, she hustled out from under the still whirling rotors, and spotted a man and his border collie in the drifting dust. Not a happy pair. The guy stood stiffly, rifle by his side. That made Jenna uneasy. She found little relief in glancing at Bowser. The dog was poised next to his master, staring at Jenna from a pair of unblinking blue marbles. Eerie freakin’ eyes. Doesn’t the dust get in them? Jenna’s own eyes were closed to slits.
Squinting, she looked from beast to man. They looked like attitude squared, an opinion only confirmed when he roared, “You didn’t even see us, did you?”
“I’m not the pilot,” she said calmly, hoping to soothe him. He did have that rifle. How did we manage to miss them? she thought.
“You almost killed us.”
“I’m really sorry.”
“Everywhere we ran, that helicopter kept coming at us, and then we couldn’t see a damn thing with all the dust. Four miles of open reservoir, and you just about planted that thing right on our heads. How stupid is that?”
Jenna glanced at Bird, still sitting at the controls, staring straight ahead. Leaving her to own up.
“Pretty damn stupid,” Jenna agreed. “Look, really, I’m sorry. I’m Jenna Withers. I do weather for The Morning Show.
“I know who you are.”
Now she noticed a pistol hung from his hip.
“Law enforcement?” she asked softly. Hoping. She’d grown up with guns—her dear departed father had been a hunter and marksman all his life—but years of city living had made her more wary of firearms.
But you’re not in the city, she told herself.
Before he could answer, Nicci snapped, “Weather girl”—only she could get away with that moniker—“three minutes. Three. Ready?”
Jenna nodded, still hoping that the gunslinger was a cop because presumably they possessed a strong measure of self-control with their weapons. On the other hand, there had to be some really nasty FAA regulations about almost landing a chopper on an officer and his four-legged friend.
“Dairy farmer,” she heard him say in the next breath.
“Dairy farmer,” she repeated. That sounded friendly enough: Elsie the cow, right? Reassuring. So was the lowered volume of his voice. Which was good because she needed to focus on the live update, now less than ninety seconds away. She pulled weather data up on her laptop screen, then checked temperatures for the region; this was a story on the Northeast drought, so she didn’t need to worry about the entire country on this go-round.
Pulling a tissue from her pocket, Jenna patted her face; sweat and dust stained the tissue when she was done. Or was that tan stuff makeup? She’d applied it during the flight, after all. Opening her purse, she drew out a small mirror in a sleek black leather case that looked like a notebook, and gazed at her face. The little case was a discreet way to check her appearance without reinforcing the narcissistic TV talent stereotype. The headphones had messed with her hair, but she straightened and fluffed it, then noticed that her eyes were red from the dust. Murine emergency.
Andi peered through her viewfinder, then snapped together a wireless microphone and clipped it to the inside of Jenna’s blouse. The camerawoman kept eyeing the farmer and his border collie. Jenna understood the concern: Loonies were known to mess with live shots in the city. But you’re not in the city, she reminded herself a second time. And the dairyman didn’t look like a loony. Actually, he looked kind of handsome, but she had to put aside his presence and turn her thoughts to the work at hand, though in truth she figured that she could do an update in her sleep. And given the schedule of a meteorologist on The Morning Show—up at 2:00 A.M., on at 7:00 A.M.—she probably already had on numerous occasions.
Besides, what she would say would play second fiddle to the split screen that the show planned to use as her backdrop: empty, dusty reservoir cheek by jowl with old footage of the lake brimming with cool water. The sweet “then,” the sour—and scary—“now.”
Cued, Jenna chattered to the camera, alternately smiling and turning serious as she boiled down the update to “hot and dry,” the daily mantra since a high-pressure system had settled over the region five weeks earlier. The stagnant weather had shown no more inclination to move on than a two-ton boulder plopped on a trail.
She engaged in snappy closing patter with Andrea Hanson, The Morning Show’s visibly pregnant host, a darling of viewers and a mainstay of morning television for the past five years.
The dairy farmer and his furry pal watched Jenna sign off. She felt a familiar sense of relief when the camera went dark, then noticed that Andi was back to keeping a wary eye on the guy with the guns.
“Is the drought making dairy farming tougher?” she asked in her most empathetic “the weather really sucks” voice, hoping to charm away the tension. She unclipped the mike and handed it to Andi, who pocketed it before heading back to the helicopter. Nicci had already boarded.
“We don’t need a drought to make dairying tougher, but the cows are okay. They’re just moving a little slower.”
“They free range?”
“That’s chickens around here. Only thing free range these days are the roaches. They love the heat. Ever been to Puerto Rico? Cockroaches big as your fist. They’re getting that way around here.”
Who did he remind her of? Somebody appealing. Tall as she was, wiry, with smooth skin and sharp features. “What’s your name?”
“Dafoe. Dafoe Tillian.”
“Good to meet you, Dafoe.” He shook her hand, and she knew that she had, indeed, charmed him, but try as she might, she could not place his face.
The rotors whirled faster. Jenna climbed aboard and belted herself in. Dafoe hurried away from the dust storm whipping up from the lake bed, then turned around so quickly that even through a hurricane of dust and heat he caught her staring at his retreat. She wanted to look down, peel her eyes from his; but her body wouldn’t obey, and a smile betrayed her even more.
As Bird flew them over the barren bowl, Jenna felt herself sink back to earth: He’s a farmer, for chrissakes. You left that life.
She closed her eyes, catnapping till Nicci asked her to join a call to The Morning Show’s executive producer, Marv Balen, or “the twit,” as the two women called him in private. “He texted us a few seconds ago.”
Up ahead, the city’s skyline poked through the low-lying smog like quills through a dirty old quilt. Jenna turned on her headset.
“We’re here, Marv,” Nicci said. “Go ahead.”
“We had three murders in the Bronx last night. Cops found the victims about an hour ago. They think they’ve got the shooter. Word is he snapped and started shooting his poker buddies when the air conditioner went on the fritz. So that makes three more heat-related homicides this week.”
“So you want us to do the story?” Jenna said, hope as irrepressible as ever.
“Noooo. One of our correspondents will. But don’t get ahead of me. There’s more of the gore out on the West Coast. Fresno’s had a week of one-hundred-ten-degree weather…”
Like we need you to tell us that.
“… and last night they had their fourth murder during that heat wave. So you’re going to be our resident expert on how weather affects behavior, Jenna.”
“It’s not really my area of expertise, Marv, but—”
“Yeah, I know,” he interrupted, “but you can say that heat and high pressure systems are linked to higher murder rates.”
The 101s of weather, Jenna thought.
“It’s a lot cheaper than flying a crew up to MIT to get some professor to spew,” Marv went on, “and you’re an author. You can spout off.”
He was referring, in his typically ham-handed way, to a book Jenna had published seven years ago on geoengineering—how technology could be used to combat climate change. There had been little interest back then, but the publisher had reissued her volume three months ago to great interest in both the academic and mainstream press.
“So talk about heat and murder, and don’t go throwing in a lot of other stuff. Don’t complicate it. And Nicci, make sure she doesn’t go yammering on about global fucking warming. We’re keeping it supertight.”
All stories had to be supertight these days: reports, live shots, updates, even the banter with Andrea Hanson. It was a presidential election year, and the news hole for everything but polls, politicians, and pundits had shrunk faster than a Greenland glacier.
Minutes after they’d landed in Manhattan and raced back to the Weather Command Center, a crew hurried over from the Northeast Bureau. The correspondent was an up-and-comer who put together reports for The Morning Show as well as the evening news. He was all smiles and good cheer, which Jenna appreciated. Life was too short for sneakiness and sarcasm—for people like Marv, in other words.
A cameraman set up quickly, positioning Jenna in front of The Morning Show logo. Product placement. As she finished answering the correspondent’s question about heat and homicide, Jenna spotted Cassie Carter, the Weather Command Center’s frizzy-haired assistant, waving frantically for her attention. “It’s the White House,” Cassie said breathlessly.
“The White House?” Jenna asked. Nicci looked up from her laptop. “Is this a joke?” Jenna asked her. “Did you put Cassie up to this?”
“No, I didn’t.”
And she hadn’t, Jenna learned an instant later when she heard “Please hold for Ralph Ebbing.” The White House chief of staff. In seconds he came on the line.
“Good morning, Ms. Withers.”
“Good morning.” Her voice sounded as bright as one of her weather maps. Still, she shot Nicci a final questioning look. Nicci gave an immediate shake of her head, but even without that, Jenna had heard Ebbing on the Sunday morning talk shows often enough to know that the voice on the phone really did belong to him.
“I’m sure you’re busy,” he said, “so I’ll get right to the point: We’d like you to serve on the Presidential Task Force on Climate Change.”
“I’m very honored. Very. But I’ll have to check to see whether that’s permitted. The network has rules about this. As you probably know,” she hurried to add. Her heart was pounding.
“Absolutely. But I want you to know that we’d really like you to serve.”
Serve? The word had such an honorable ring to it. Jenna thought about asking about per diem costs and transportation, but decided those pesky questions were best left to one of Ebbing’s underlings—and after she made sure that the network had no objections to her … serving. “I should be able to get back to you in a day or two,” she said.
“We’d appreciate that greatly. We believe your expertise could be helpful to our nation,” Ebbing said. “The vice president will chair the task force, and if you could communicate with his chief of staff, that would be best.” Ebbing gave her a phone number for his counterpart. “On behalf of the president, I want to thank you for considering this appointment, Ms. Withers. I hope you’ll serve.”
“Thank you. And I will if I may. I’ll let the vice president’s people know.”
And then the conversation was over. Jenna kept the phone to her ear after Ebbing hung up, savoring the request in silence for a few seconds because she was all but certain that as a member of the news division, she would be barred from taking any appointment to a governmental body. Those were the network’s rules.
After a breath, she cradled the receiver and passed the bulletin to Nicci and Cassie.
“Wow,” Cassie said. “Big, big wow.”
“The suits are never going to let me take it,” Jenna said to both women, shaking her head. “They don’t want us doing that kind of stuff.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Nicci said, “but you’re a meteorologist, and that’s a little different.”
“I doubt they’ll see it that way.” Jenna shrugged. But she could take solace, scant as it was, that someone had seen her as more than the morning weather bimbo. Not many years ago, the joke in male-dominated newsrooms was that a woman’s sole qualification for a weather job was whether her breasts reached from New York to Kansas when she stood next to the map.
The phones started ringing and Nicci went to work. Cassie took a message, hung up, and handed it to Jenna. “Just a guy who wanted to talk to you—”
Another one. It seemed to Jenna that half a dozen guys called after every show, most of them vowing to make her happy. Their means for accomplishing this were notably unmentionable.
“He said you almost landed on him this morning,” Cassie finished.
“Really?” A lilt colored her voice. “What did he want?”
“He said just to talk.” Cassie rolled her eyes.
Jenna stared at the name: Dafoe Tillian. Before she could do more than remember his rugged, pleasing appearance, Nicci cupped the receiver on her phone and said, “It’s Rafan on line two.”
“Rafan?” Jenna sat up. He was an old boyfriend, one of the few real loves of her life. “Where is he?”
“The Maldives, I guess. He says it’s pretty important.”
Jenna got on the line right away.
“I saw you on The Morning Show,” Rafan said in his accented English. “You do weather now.”
Had it been that long since they’d spoken? She’d been doing the show for three years. She told him this gently, as if she might break his heart all over again. They used to talk all the time: in bed, first thing in the morning, at the beach, the market—
“Here, the weather gets hotter. The islands, they will disappear.”
“I know, Rafan. It’s so sad.” She’d been aware of the threat to his country’s archipelago of twelve hundred islands since she’d started on her doctoral work ten years ago. The Maldives had been her home for several months of research. She’d look out and see nothing but islands and Indian Ocean all the way to the horizon. Now the Maldives was destined to become the first country to fall victim to global warming. Seas rising much faster than the U.N.’s predictions had already claimed coastline, and now had started claiming thatched houses. To see your homeland washing away must be heartbreaking, she thought.
In recent years, the Maldivian president and his ministers had strapped on scuba gear for an annual underwater cabinet meeting to dramatize the plight faced by his country’s three hundred thousand people. To no avail. Most Americans, Jenna had found, still hadn’t heard of the Islamic nation, much less of its highly endangered status.
She listened closely to her old lover, but knew that if he was pitching a climate story, he’d picked the wrong person. Especially in a political year. But no, he was pushing a story that always had traction.
“Muslims here, they are angry. It’s not like before. Remember? We would go to parties, have a good time. Here, it’s changing, Jenna. It’s changing very fast. People say the West, your country, is doing this to us. They say the decadence is killing us. Come see for yourself. I think they will strike back. Soon.”
“What do you mean, ‘strike back’? How?”
“How do you think? How do you think?”
Jenna looked out her window and saw another warm summer day not so many years ago.
“You should come. I can show you.” Rafan said good-bye.
She walked to the window and looked as far as she could see to the right. She didn’t do this often. It hurt too much. But she let herself stare at the smoggy sky where the Twin Towers once stood.
How do you think? How do you think?


 
Copyright © 2012 by Bill Evans
BILL EVANS has won multiple Emmy Awards as Senior Meteorologist for WABC, where he can be seen every weekday. He can be heard nationally on the ABC Radio Network, Martha Stewart Living Radio, and ESPN Radio, and in the New York metropolitan area on WPLJ. Evans is coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Category 7 (with Marianna Jameson). He holds an honorary Doctorate in Letters of Humanity from Dowling College. Evans and his family live in Connecticut.