Excerpts


VIRAL GAMES

 

Tuesday afternoon, November 25, 2008, at the Miami International Airport


The plane roars down the runway, and Mathieu Timonier feels it when the pilot lifts the old workhorse skyward to reach cruising altitude. A married couple he saw in the airport is in front of him. He hears the man murmur, “Amor, we’re ready for a drink.”

 

All is quiet and peaceful; pretzels and Coke have been served. An older lady in seat 15D, blissfully unaware of rules, proudly shows off her texting skills to an admiring neighbor. Some serious napping is underway; snoring here and there vouches for that. Peace.


In his 16C aisle seat, Tim has tried to block out the surroundings as much as possible. Earplugs from his swim kit help him steal a couple of ten-minute naps, but no more. His six-foot-three frame is not an asset in this cramped space. He intermittently moves his long legs into the aisle so they can have brief moments of relief. The exit seats, the “long-leg” seats, were all taken when he booked the flight.


With an eye signal downward and a frown upward from his seat, he tries half-heartedly to dissuade an unsuspecting blue-eyed tourist from proceeding to the restroom in just his socks. Tim lacks the conviction to argue the case. He shrugs his shoulders and mentally wishes the poor youngster well. He seems to be in a bit of a hurry. Don’t want to stop a man on a mission. Nobody’s perfect, and after all, the air is very dry in airplanes.”


Tim’s Dell battery called it quits a while ago. His BlackBerry is off-limits. The American Airlines in-flight magazine has nothing to offer that he has not seen or read a few times before; he knows of all the bargain-priced apartments in Miami and the plethora of superb—so they say—plastic surgeons roaming the city and skimming bank accounts.


The heavyset man in the seat beside him asks, “Do those things work?”


Tim looks up.


“Things?”


“Those earplugs you got out of your bag. Good-looking bag. From Paris, I guess? Saw your Lafayette tag.”


Tim guesses that his neighbor is from the Deep South.


“Yes, Paris. Plugs don’t work well enough, not today anyway. From Georgia?”


“Oklahoma. Muskogee. John Sanders. First Baptist Church.”


“Tim. Nice to meet you. Oklahoma, you said. I wasn’t even close.”


“Business trip?”


“Yes, kind of.”


“How do you make a living so far away from Paris?”


“Writing.”


Tim shows sudden interest in his travel documents, those nagging immigration and customs forms. He has a sweet escape this time. For now.


The overnight flight from Santiago to Miami wore Tim down. His four-hour layover in Miami did not make matters better. He’s tired. He wonders why En Avant sent him all the way down to Santiago to find out what’s going on with copper. Some guys active on the London Metal Exchange could have told him the same things he had learned in Santiago. There are more copper-knowledgeable Chileans in London than there are in Santiago. But then, he could not have bought his lapis lazuli at such a Chilean bargain price in London.


John volunteers that he is on his way to Barahona in the southwest of the Dominican Republic.


“I assist as a minister in the spiritual care of AIDS victims. Many of them around there. Global Mission operates two clinics in the area.”


“So we’re partners in crime. I’m also working on AIDS, in a way.”


“Really? Great! Partners. AIDS where?”


“Dominican Republic. For the last seven years, I’ve covered Latin America as an economics reporter for a French magazine by the name of En Avant. Now here we are, you and I. It’s all quite a coincidence. While covering Latin America for the magazine, I’ve spent many months, on and off, on AIDS work.”


“How so? And in the DR? So we are partners and neighbors.” The questions keep coming.


Tim hides a sigh and continues, “While working as a reporter, I’ve been simultaneously active as a volunteer in the Santo Domingo offices and operations of the Alliance du SIDA, French for AIDS. In the DR, they just call it the Alliance. You know them?”


“I’m sorry, I haven’t heard of them. Where are they headquartered?”


“In Paris.”


“Also, Paris! My apologies, I don’t know much about the network of NGOs. I work mostly on the inside.”


“No problem.”


Tim feigns interest in Nexos, a magazine he has already read.


“A reporter from Paris working on AIDS in Santo Domingo? How does that work? What can you do for AIDS patients?”


“I take days off from my regular job and help out at the Alliance with the writing of small brochures, some translation.



 

THE BRIDGE OF WHISPERS

 

It’s Saturday, December 1, 2007, seven thirty in the morning, at the Elsschot Nest residence, between Herselt and Averbode, about forty miles southeast of Antwerp, in Belgium.

 

Richard Van Pelt steps into his car, throws his necktie and blazer on the passenger seat, sits down, sighs, and swears. Shit! Another frigging weekend morning ruined by this silly breakfast.


Before he turns the ignition key, he checks his BlackBerry and sees a message from his father, Simon. He’s still furious after our heated phone conversation last night, I bet. Sent at midnight. He reads:


Hanging up on your father like a spoiled brat isn’t what
your mother and I taught you. Shame on you. Tried
to be polite and reasonable discussing your follies but
should have talked to you in plain French. I have no use
for Nippon. No use for Nippon! My father suffered too
badly from their German allies during the war. They
destroyed his factories. I rank the Japanese on par with
Hitler and Mussolini, but I must say the latter was at least
a good Catholic. I don’t need the Japanese. I won’t touch
sushi. The Japanese now make good cars, they say, but I
won’t drive one. I have my Peugeot. Too bad European
electronics went to hell. Yes, I must tolerate a Sony TV in
my living room, but that’s as far as it goes. And I’ll replace
it with a Samsung soon. Grow up and start living the life
of a person your age. Get those damned Japanese fantasies
out of your head.


Richard rereads the message as he drives to his father’s residence in Westerlo, ten or fifteen minutes away. Father should have poured himself a good Scotch last night and gone to bed. That’s what he had done.


He arrives early for the breakfast meeting to which he and his brother, Thomas, have been summoned by their father. It’s the “worn out-ritual,” Richard’s words, of every Saturday except during vacations. It takes place in Simon’s spacious dining room.


When he arrives and steps out of his car, Richard puts on the obligatory dark blazer and the conservative tie he detests. His father is allergic to khakis, loose clothing, beige blazers, and lively ties.


He greets Leona, the middle-aged housekeeper, as he enters the residence and proceeds to the dining room. There he waits. He’s furious as hell. Why must I show up for this damn farce every week? On Saturday. Saturday! I’m a bachelor. We’re at each other’s throats every time we meet anyway, the two of them against me. They still think the world is flat. Our company’s dying a slow death. Rome is burning, but we just argue. This is huge. I bring them a steal of a Japanese deal, one we sorely need to save our bloody company, and all they do is throw insults at me. Racism and ignorance—that’s what I’m dealing with.


Thomas and Richard are supposed to run the company, but at eighty-three their father still pulls the invisible strings.
And Richard knows that Thomas is constantly egged on by his scheming wife. Marie wants to take over the reins of the company. When she tries to put her transparent moves on me, I’d like to slowly strangle the bitch—slowly.



 

Ripping the Veil

 

Monday, Januar y 12, 2009
Valencia, about fifteen miles west of Santo Domingo


Luis, a go-getter bachelor businessman in his early forties, entered the office of Dr. Barone around noon. It was located on the first floor of the doctor’s two-story stucco building.


This was Luis’s second visit. He had been very successful in his commercial ventures. In his exuberance, he saw no limits to the piles of money he would amass in the future—“the near future,” he liked to say. He probably wasn’t that far off in his assessment; he worked long, irregular hours. But he also partied hard and lived the good life. He spread the money around and unfortunately collected around him a crowd of fair-weather friends of both genders. Today, as he entered Dr. Barone’s offi ce, he just knew one of his female companions had gotten him in trouble. Hard to say exactly which one, but he had to see Dr. Barone again.


“After the two positive Rapid tests of last week,” the doctor explained, “I now have the result of the Elisa test. It’s more thorough and reliable and … it confi rms that you carry the HIV virus.”


Luis was speechless.


“It’s not a death sentence; it can be controlled,” the good doctor assured him, grabbing and shaking his right shoulder to encourage him. “A strong, young man like you can fi ght this virus for many decades, very successfully. I always say it’s a bit like living with diabetes.”


The diagnosis was a blow to Luis, who sighed, desperate. “So it’s true … HIV … Maybe I can beat it, as you say, but the damn virus will ruin my checkbook and my reputation. There goes my whole business.”
He saw the doctor smile. He wants to encourage me.


“Wrong, my friend. We can control the virus and help you keep your reputation intact. Your fi nances may suffer a bit, but I understand you have a good money cushion. Nobody has to know about your HIV. The assistance we can provide is complicated, hard work that never ends or slows down. It won’t come cheap, but it can safeguard both your
health and your reputation.”


“That sounds almost too good to be true, Doctor.” Luis sighed, unconvinced.


Dr. Barone smiled again. He looked impressive and confident, also compassionate—the lanky, graying doctor, athletic, in his fifties, a picture of controlled serenity. “My friend, relax. And believe me. I know what I’m talking about. Let me explain. A man of your means can pay for the best medicine. You don’t have to take the cheap antiretrovirals,
the crummy ARVs you can get free from the government. For those, I’d have to put you on their dreaded list where they give you a code number. It’s a ‘secret’ list but not much more so than the number of mistresses the president of the country has at his disposal. Crooks will sell you the codes on that list. On the web. I’ll keep you out of that kind of trouble and in good physical shape if you want me to.”


“I want you to,” Luis hurried to answer.


“Of course you do. That’s always the immediate answer. But you must understand a couple of things before you say yes.” The doctor sat down.


“Go ahead, tell me. I’ll beat this damn beast. It’s my frigging body.”


“It sure is. Good attitude. Now these are the damages: a good deal of money, and you’ll have to follow strict rules, always, no exceptions, for the rest of your life. A long life. I bet we can make it that.”

 


 

TENNESSEE TREMORS

 

6:30 a.m.

Thurs day, January 13, 2000

Knokke, Belgium

 

Alex Follon stretched his arms and yawned with abandon. He rubbed the stubble on and under his protruding chin and relaxed his neck. Good thing Francine left early last night, he chuckled inwardly . He knew he was going to need all of his energy for today’s big game.

 

He had slid open the curtains of his luxurious fourth-floor seaside apartment in the Residentie Miramar. It was still dark. He spent a minute taking in the reflection of the boardwalk lights on the barely rippling waves. Our gray North Sea . He turned his eyes to the heavy, dark, water-laden sky. Pea soup again , the Fleming in him swore. Driving will be “ fun,” mist lights or not. His breath soon clouded the cold window. His nostrils created two small circles on the glass. He was a weather-sensitive soul who could be drawn, swept, into lows and highs by clouds, light and darkness, wind, sun, rain, hail, and snow. He was the person who always saw more sheep, dogs, and birds with fluffy feathers in a clouded sky than the person standing next to him. He loved listening to the sea and discovering rhythms others wouldn’t hear or feel. He was the romantic soul who, at age fifty, had slipped in and out of two brief marriages and was still looking for the real goddess.

 

His stubborn full-sized potbelly and a quickly graying but still full hairdo testified to the marital and other stresses his mind and his five-foot-nine frame had suffered. He kept his hair long and used his hated reading glasses sparingly. He strained after the image of a slowly aging French troubadour, the type able to attract female company whenever he felt the urge. He usually looked a bit unkempt—intentionally. He often wouldn’t shave on weekends. A little on the bad-boy side, he would philosophize as he puffed away at his Gauloise. On his cheekbones, the skin showed red spots. A red that was suspiciously intense. Alcohol. Liver issues? He would wonder about it for a moment and shrug.

Author Information


Jan Smolders, author of Viral Games, The Convenient Fund, The Bridge of Whispers and Ripping the Veil carries Belgian and USA passports, has lived in Belgium, Japan and Singapore, and resides in Florida. Read More...