Fraidel Rose (1)

After law school I worked in a public defender’s office in Florida. Can’t begin to tell you the things I saw. But at least I knew that my life was never going to get weirder.

The buffalo just stared at me. Smoke rose from its nostrils and mixed with the forest fog. Its musk seeped out between the pine trees, filled the air. There was nothing between it and me, and fifty miles of forest between me and anything or anyone. Because Siberia.

I went to get my rifle before I realized I was holding it. I’d been holding it for three days of hiking because the hunter in Irkutsk said the forest was full of things that were going to kill me. He seemed pretty certain about it. I was pretty certain that I wanted to make it home alive.

My hands trembled. I tried to stop them and it didn’t really work. I pulled up the rifle and leveled the barrel. The buffalo was just staring at me. Didn’t blink. Blinked. Then it snorted at me and turned and lumbered away.

I suddenly realized how quiet it was. I forced myself to get walking just to make some noise. That and I was almost out of food. I had to find her, or I had to turn around and go home empty-handed.

It was forty-six degrees out because hey, June. The leaves were so thick and dark that if I saw a dinosaur I wouldn’t have batted an eye. I’d been hiking for four days, I was deep in the subarctic forest. If I broke my leg I’d leave a corpse that needed a shave.

I had precise coordinates. I got them by finding a tiny blur on Google Maps and then right-clicking on the spot. I could be off by a few yards or a few miles. Out here in the forest there wasn’t much difference.

I stared at my GPS. Walked a little this way, a little that. Kept going until the numbers were lined up like a roulette wheel. Then I looked up and there was a hundred-foot fire tower reaching up above the trees.

It was the first manmade thing I’d seen in four days. It was something. I wanted run up and hug it. Then I saw the fence. And the barbed wire.

I forced myself to look closer. A clearing. A half-dozen solar panels, a pair of plastic water drums. Empty. I couldn’t see into the tower but there was nothing moving, no sound, no lights. In America this is the kind of place you didn’t go into. In Russia you should turn around and run, probably zigzagging until you were very far away.

I gripped my gun, took what I hoped was not my last breath, and shouted, “Hey! Oi! Anyone home?”

Dead silence.

Then I heard a latch, and up at the top I saw someone lean over the railing. From down on the ground I couldn’t make out her face. But there was no hiding that head of curly-black hair.

Fraidel Rose.

I had found her.

“I’m Peter Hardingfel,” I shouted up to her, sliding off my pack, forcing myself to drop the gun. Reached into the bag, rummaged a little, then pulled out a fifth of brown liquor.

“Glenliskie 20,” I shouted. “Buy you a drink?”

“Did you just hike here?” she shouted down.

“I did,” I shouted.

She stared at me.

“Sure,” she said, I think to herself. Disappeared and a moment later was coming down the grated stairs.

She was a small woman. I had seen that in press clippings from when she was CEO. She never wore a power suit, never shot up in heels or bulked up with blazers and shoulder pads. She was kind of famous for it. She hadn’t changed. High hiking boots and a hunter’s suit that fit her like a glove, probably made of some new fabric that hadn’t made it out of a garage in Silicon Valley. And she had a pistol at her hip, of a kind I will describe as Very Big.

She walked across a little clearing and opened a gate I hadn’t seen. I grabbed my pack and my rifle and stumbled over to her. She locked the gate behind us.

She looked me up and down. She didn’t comment. She just stared.

“Nosy neighbors?” I asked.

“Not until today.” And she led me to a rough bench made out of half a tree. Motioned for me to sit down. I did. She didn’t.

“You didn’t bring down glasses,” I said, and gave the bottle a little shake and felt like an idiot.

“I don’t drink the 20,” she said. “I drink the 10. I said that in a magazine interview and suddenly every swinging dick in nineteen time zones thought he could broaden my little womanly world by giving my a bottle of the 20 or 40 or 55. Which I don’t fucking drink. I had a collection of them. Had a bookcase built just to hold them all. I’m worth many millions of dollars, like a truly preposterous amount of money, do people really think I don’t know how to order from the top shelf? God I hate people who don’t know how to be rich.”

I didn’t know her then. I didn’t realize that she could produce a perfectly-formed paragraph about whatever the hell she wanted and still be steering the conversation. Right then all I knew was that I wanted to look around me and ask how she thought you should be rich. But that made me remember that there was about fifty feet separating me from being a hundred miles from the world. I either had to go back out there empty-handed, or I had to do my job.

“Miss Rose,” I started, but she stopped me.

“You work for Creighton Leigh,” she said.

Uh – yes, I did. “How did you-”

“There are three – don’t call me that – three sorts of people who would come to me out here. Intrepid business students, globetrotting reporters, and gallant catamites of the dear old company. You aren’t dressed well enough to be a job-seeker and you aren’t nearly dashing enough to be a photojournalist. And you just did something which should have killed you but somehow you’re still alive, which makes you the very model of Creighton fucking Leigh.”

I couldn’t argue with that.

“Let me guess,” she said.

“Don’t let me stop you.”

“I – shut up – I guess that CL is in trouble again. Falling profits, falling share prices, stagnation of new product offerings, the whole lead goddam parachute. And the Board has made it its mission to undue every god damned thing that I did to save it from itself. So the new CEO – who is it?”

“Javin Akers.”

“Never heard of him. He calls you upstairs and cracks two tall boys and tells you, boy, we’re in trouble. Everything’s going to shit on a biscuit and we need Fraidel to come back and turn the tide. Avoid the iceberg. Plug the leaky hull. Pull our goddam carcasses out of the swimming pool and give us ten million dollars worth of mouth-to-mouth.”

“Twenty,” I said.

“A hundred.”

“I’m only allowed to offer twenty-”

“And yet, they’ll pay me a hundred,” she said. “A hundred million dollars to come home and fix a seventeen billion dollar conglomerate that is so monumentally fucked that you had to fly to literally the other side of the earth-”

“And the hiking. Don’t forget the hiking.”

“And – you’re funny – and drag me out of retirement to save it all from ruin.”

“Retirement?”

“I am not working,” she said. “That is what retirement is.”

“You’re 41.”

“I’m 41 and I retired at 38 and when I retired I was worth seventy million dollars. I am now worth almost twice that. Because there is a small building in southern Connecticut where six very smart people do nothing all day but find ways to invest my money. While I fly around the world and shoot things and enjoy being left the goddam hell alone.”

We had reached the heart of it, I could tell.

“Fraidel-”

“Yes?”

“I – we need your help or the company is probably going to collapse.”

“My dear Mister Hardingfel – what is that, Swiss?”

“Norwegian.”

“I could not possibly be less interested in the fate of Creighton Leigh. I do not care about the fate of any company, or every company, and in point of fact I would be very hard-pressed to give a damn if the world as we know it were to stand on the brink of annihilation. I would not lift a finger to save an entire goddam hemisphere so long as I could make it to the other. You are not going to convince me otherwise by asking me to save one single company that I have already saved.”

“They’ll make you CEO.”

“I have been CEO. I could have stayed CEO. I could have kept that position until six years after I had died of old age. I did not want to then. I do not want it now. You are doing a very bad job of selling me on this and if I shot you in the head there is no one who would ever find the body.” And she stared at me.

I looked up at the firetower. “Not much of a retirement.”

“Well, apparently I disagree.”

“Some people would rather live in a Manhattan penthouse than squat in a Soviet watchtower.”

“The Soviets did not build this. I did.”

Oh.

“I have five of them,” she said, “in places far from people, the corners of the earth. Every month or two I move, following the seasons and the migration of game. I hunt, Mr. Hardingfel. I stalk animals and I shoot them and I eat them and I turn their skins into stinky blankets. I fall asleep beneath the stars, I wake to watch the dawn, and in between I read and I drink and I content myself with the knowledge that I am richer than God and can do whatever the hell I want and I am, Mr. Hardingfel, I am doing precisely what I want. I have engineered this life, at no small expense, because it affords me happiness. And a casual observer such as yourself might note that this life approaches the mathematical antithesis of the life you beg me to return to.”

“Do you always talk in paragraphs?”

She paused for a moment. Turned her head and looked up into the sky. Her profile, beneath the fire-tower, is one of those small pictures I will keep.

“Yes,” she said at last. “But I’ve been living alone for a long time, which has not improved the matter. Come on, I’ll just show you.”

She moved towards her tower. I left my pack and followed.

We climbed the staircase. I shouldn’t have stopped without stretching, my legs were sore and my knees gave me hell. When we got to the top Fraidel punched in an eight-digit pin and pushed open a trapdoor. I followed her up and closed it behind me.

The room at the top was maybe forty feet square with plexiglass walls and ceiling. A walkway ran all around it. The tower was above the treetops and you could see for miles in every direction. A soft fog moved like a sea among the trees.

Inside it was sparse but hardly spartan. There was a mattress on the floor, the covers in disarray. There was a weight machine and a stationary bike with a VR headset looped over the handlebars. In the middle of the room was a firebowl and flue, stacks of wood to either side. Behind it was a little sink, a few pieces of cast-iron, a glittering array of knives. A tea-chest and a pair of teapots. A little bookcase serving as a pantry. And a small oak barrel with a spigot, the word GLENLISKIE burned into the side.

And a lot of guns.

“It looks like the Unabomber’s dorm room,” I said.

She shrugged. “It is remote and yet functional, soft enough to come back to and yet not so warm as to keep me from going out. Of course the sunsets are better from the Kalahari and the aurora here is nothing to the Kobuk. But here there are bears and wolves and moose and wapiti and not a single soul to stop me from shooting them.”

“And it will still be here,” I said, “a year from now, after you’ve earned millions of dollars and saved the company.”

She added two logs to the fire, filled a kettle from a little tap and put it over the coals.

“Why, Mister Hardingfel, ought I to bestir myself? My life is simple, my wealth preposterous, and if I were to live for a thousand years I would not even near my margin of safety. You are offering me money I do not need.”

“Tens of millions of dollars.”

“Yes. I understand. I do not want it.”

I didn’t have a response to that. So I did what they taught us in law school, and changed the subject.

“And so that’s what you do now? Hunt and Bowflex?”

She put on a glove and took the kettle from the fire. Set it on the floor. Took out a little bon-bon and unwrapped it of crinkly brown paper. It looked like chocolate inside. She dropped it into the kettle.

“Have you ever waited for tea to steep and let yourself wonder what you would do with a million dollars? Of course you have,” she answered for me, “it is the American daydream. With a million dollars you could really live it up. Go on a cruise. Go to Vegas and bet large and buy Champagne for ladies in cocktail dresses – you like ladies in cocktail dresses?”

“I guess so.”

“You could buy that fishing-boat. Or that shiny-brand wristwatch in the big glass case or the car that would have gotten you laid in high school. Or just live your life the way you do except a little better, eat a little better, dress a little better. Maybe you could retire early. A year early? Ten? Maybe you could quit your job that very day and spend the next fifty years in a Winnebago watching Kansas go by. Fifty years? Do you know how fucking long that is? Do you know how much god damn corn there is in Kansas?”

“Or wapiti in Siberia?”

“I – shut up – I was not given a million dollars. I was given close to a hundred million. It didn’t give me some options, it gave me leave to do whatever the fuck I wanted for the rest of my goddam life. I could buy a yacht. I could buy a garage full of classic cars and drive them one by one into a wall. I could eat at three-star restaurants seven days a week, wearing a new dress every night and a new man every morning. I could spend my days parasailing and hang-gliding and helicopter skiing and going to the opera and buying art and selling art and founding colleges and shaping elections and all the other goddam things that you do when you’re richer than god damned hell.”

“Only three-star restaurants?”

“Three Michelin stars.”

“I know. I was just messing with you.”

“I – fuck off – and realizing this, this vast ungodly potential, after much soul-searching I settled upon this. I go off into the woods for days at a time with nothing but what I carry. I hike for miles, I sleep on the ground, I climb trees or crouch down in river-beds and I load a round and I wait. Three months ago in Patagonia I tracked a red stag for three days and then put it down at eleven hundred yards. Last week I shot an Amur grizzly twice, the first time at eighty yards, the second at forty. The third time would not have been the charm.”

“I take it you aren’t a vegan.”

She rolled her eyes.

“It’s nothing but gold-plated self-indulgence,” I said.

“What you are offering is gold-plated. Mine is a full metal jacket and that’s what I have chosen. But that is what I am trying to convey to you, Mister Hardingfel. They are cosmetically antithetical, but at their core, the same.”

“Tea’s ready,” she said, and lifted and poured. Her cup was a rough bowl of brown raku-ware. Mine was white porcelain that said WORLD’S GREATEST BITCH.

“Secret Santa?” I asked.

“The directors of your dear Company,” she said. “It had a check inside.”

I realized that she was giving me time to collect myself. I thought that was very nice of her. Then I realized, no, she wasn’t nice. I didn’t know what she was but nice was not it. Because you don’t have to be nice when you’re a hermit and you’re armed to the teeth. And before she was that, she still was Fraidel Rose.

I had offered her money. She explained that money wouldn’t tempt her. I offered her prestige. She’d already had that, as she told me. She was guiding me. She was teaching me who she was. What she didn’t want. Which means she wanted something.

What was that about everyone having their price?

So what did she do? She hunted. She’d been telling me for a half an hour that all she did was hunt. What is hunting? Killing? Collecting trophies? I didn’t see heads on those clear glass walls. No, wrong question, not ‘What is hunting’ – but ‘What is hunting to her.’

And she had told me. Necessity. Hard work. Conquest. Completion. Little stories with beginnings and middles and ends. A game to be beaten. A thing to be better than. I-

“Like you said, Fraidel, the difference is cosmetic. You live in your towers and hunt your animals. Same as you did back in your other life. Well, there is game afoot. And unlike some bear in the woods -”

I stumbled. Couldn’t find the words. She didn’t let me suffer – benefits of talking to a hunter.

“I have become good at stalking animals,” she said, gently. “I have not grown tired of it. I did grow tired of playing titan. A new option might tempt me, but an old one…”

She went to the corner of the room, reached up and unhooked a handheld shower-head. “Why don’t you take a shower, get some sleep, and we’ll discuss it in the morning.”

Suddenly I was very tired. Which it what happens when you hike all day and then fail like hell at night.

“Do you mind?” I asked.

She started to say something, bit her tongue. “No, I don’t mind. I recommend the far side of the stove, it will keep the dawn at bay a little longer.”

She went to the gun-shelf, and after a moment’s pause she selected a carbon-stocked rifle with a scope like the Hubble. There were four backpacks on the ground. She chose a large one and swung it to her shoulders. Clasped it at the waist and chest, then crossed the floor and opened the trapdoor.

“Where are you going?”

“To shoot something,” she said, not even looking at me. “Don’t wait up.”

She pulled the trap shut behind her.

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~ by davekov on 22 December 2016.

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