Sweet Carolina Sunshine,
Touches gentle on your mind.
It’s always home again, In Carolina.
Ghosts still touch the land,
They’ll lead you by the hand.
You can go home again, In Carolina.
A generation after she promised, we watched the leaves turn.
We walked down by Hippol Castle. The morning fog and the wetness of sunrise put a matte finish on the leaves. Dogwoods and maples were smeared with color, set off against the evergreens that filled in the spaces overhead.
We looped off the castle property down into Battle Park. We moved along the same trails used by Kemp Plummer Battle, who was president of the university nearly 150 years ago. I had searched my family tree for a connection to Kemp but never found one. Still, the park had always felt like my personal place.
Fats could have been sprinting the trails. The hills were getting to me this morning.
I had held my college weight, 180 pounds, and at six-feet tall still presented an illusion of fitness. Yet somehow the pounds were no longer distributed the way they had been back in college, and the lungs weren’t as robust. I was chasing Fats and Father Time on that trail.
“So what does 4:17 a.m. mean?” she asked?
“You tell me. You’ve got a global enterprise,” I said. “That number could be tied to anything. Or it could be just a time zone thing. Say, Bootstrap is in London. Every morning at 9:17 UK time, he or she has a free moment to send you a note.
“Could be at precisely this moment every morning scary voices appear in his or her head and compel the action. Sometimes crazy is just crazy. May be nothing rational or real about it all.”
“Or,” Fats picked up, “I could be getting scammed. Some disgruntled researcher could be cooking numbers and publishing the fraudulent work through GRL.”
“No way to tell,” I said, casually. I was more worried about the hills than the question.
“Yes, there is a way to tell. And you’re going to find it. Because I’m paying you $5 million,” Fats said, using her CEO voice.
“What if I solve this before the year runs out?” I asked, trying to poke at her a bit. “The deal Siler negotiated just gives me an incentive to collect the quarterly payments. If is solve it tomorrow, I’m leaving money on the table?”
“Ok, genius,” she said. “You solve this in the first 30 days, and you get a $1 million bonus.”
We were a few minutes away from the trail head at Park Place, where we would exit Battle Park for the residential street. This would leave us a good walk back to Gimghoul Road. I needed carbs more than I needed a longer walk.
The sunrise was burning off the morning haze. We covered the trail in silence. A couple of steps behind Fats, I was watching her ass toggle left and right like a metronome. She was in all black – black lululemon pants, black Patagonia jacket. Black gloves, black fleece hat. Black hair pulled back into a pony tail. Black Merrell boots. The white of her neck was visible above her collar. Just a few dots of sweat. Bright as a China serving dish.
Fats had stocked up the guest house for me with personal items, a wardrobe and a laptop loaded with GRL data and information. I was now a GRL contractor, so I had a GRL email address, password and identity. She offered to have the company deliver boxes of hard copy files, but there was no need. Everything else was virtual. Beyond the work items, she had stocked the place with my genmaicha tea, protein bars and all of the personal items that you’d find in a fancy hotel. She’d loaded in bunch of trail shop clothing, so I was in a blue North Face jacket, gloves and hat. Kakis from last night were taking a beating, and the lack of sleep was heightening my senses and dulling them at the same time. Then she had included bowties, jackets and slacks from Alexander Julian’s store.
“How are your Mom and Dad?” she asked. Her first personal question. After all these years. After they thought Fats would be their daughter-in-law, a lifetime ago.
“Retired,” I said. “Both in pretty good health.”
“Did they ever move back to Saluda?” she asked.
Mom had been and English teacher and Dad a math teacher when Fats knew them. Teaching middle school and high school in Hillsborough. Was surprised Fats remembered that they once had been so focused on retiring to a second home in Saluda, in the southwestern North Carolina mountains. I had forgotten that myself until that moment. Reminded me how malleable our dreams really are.
“Not Saluda,” I said. “In the Ukraine, in fact.”
That stopped Fats for a moment. She turned and looked again, measuring my face to see if I was bullshitting. Raised her eyebrows.
“No lie,” I continued. “In Kiev. They are missionaries for a progressive, faith-based organization. They’re feeding hungry kids, saving orphaned girls from being sold into the sex trade.”
“Damn,” Fats said, and she was back to leading me through the trails.
“It’s the real thing. Communication there is iffy. We try to check in around the first of each month. Sometimes they can get a phone line out. Sometimes not,” I said.
“So they traded Saluda for Kiev,” Fats said.
“Now there’s a country music song.”
“Hey, send me a link to their group. I’d like to make a donation,” she said.
“That would mean a lot to them. I will,” I said.
Her ass kept toggling. Left. Then right. Then left. I was gonna be hypnotized.
I turned the conversation back to GRL.
“Who hates you?” I asked.
Fats turned her head and cut her eyes at me.
“Really. Who hates you? Someone is trying to do you harm – either through fraudulent research or by sending you harassing notes to cause you grief. So who hates you?”
“Hate is a word for freshman dorm,” she said. “In my world, the only word is money.
“I have a lot of it. GRL makes lots of it. Nobody hates me. Nobody loves me. People just see a chance to make money through me – and through GRL. In most cases, this motivation is a good thing. Honest researchers know they can do good and do well at the same time. They can design a medical treatment that helps people enjoy their lives. Or they can find a cure for a disease that will extend lives in developing countries. And they make money along the way. My business depends on that. And 99 percent of time times, it works.”
“Even when it doesn’t work,” she continued, “people want to keep open the chance to do business in the future. There’s always another deal around the corner. So keep the relationship positive.”
“Then what’s new? Something has changed. There has been a trigger,” I said.
“Lots of new things. The interesting new things are, for now, covered by that ‘trade secrets’ designation I mentioned,” Fats said, turning back again to peek at me. “You’re going to have to work for your million-dollar bonus.”
“So how do I factor in ‘trade secrets’ when I’m solving this riddle?”
We were out of the trail and into the clearing by the lane.
“Watch the Today show Wednesday morning,” she said, this time without looking back.
Fats waved at a black car idling on the gravel. It pulled over. She opened the door and nodded for me to get int.
“The car will take you by your place. Pick up whatever you need and get settled in at Gimghoul. I need you in the guest house.”
I slid over to make room for her. Fats chuckled and shook her head.
“The car is all yours. I’m going for a run now. I can’t drag your ass around these trails all morning. Oh, and your 9 a.m. with Mallette has been moved to Gimghoul Road. He’ll meet you in the guest house. I’m meeting with him at 11 to talk about a GRL partnership with the university.”
She whipped the car door shut. She stretched down to touch her toes, then took off on a fast run, heading down South Boundary to Cameron Avenue. The black pony tail was bouncing.
“Where to?” the driver asked.
“Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen. God bless you,” I said.