The Flames of a Potemkin Kingdom—Wolfgang Sinclair, a devout and extravagant global businessman with a maritime private-security firm, buys the French island of Saint Pierre after a devastating fire causes total evacuation. Egotistical colonization plans ensue—in an effort to create a utopia shaped in his image, literally.
Taking advantage of the gloomy economy, he hatches a bold artificial-insemination plan, and mothers representing the globe are amassed to birth Sinclair’s children, much to the suspicion of world leaders. Dabbling in eugenics and pedagogy, he plans out every aspect of life for the future leaders of the island kingdom.
And then there is Amelia Potvin, a timid woman who appreciates the status quo, but becomes centrally entrenched in the unfolding of Wolfgang’s bold plan—in a way she could have never anticipated or wanted.
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Enjoy the first few chapters:
PART I: Realpolitik
Chapter 1—The François Project
“Even in his youth, the young Wolfgang could effectively command the classroom, as later he would the boardroom. Possibly folklore, but on several occasions it was reported that his teachers changed their lesson plans based solely on the objections of the young and venerable Wolf.”
The Unauthorized Biography of Wolfgang Vinzent Sinclair, by Claude Ducharme.
Wolfgang Vinzent Sinclair sat authoritatively in his chair; even back then, he had a God complex. The others in the boardroom nervously looked his way, waiting for him to act. Despite the clauses in the Articles of Incorporation, there was a de facto dictatorship in the company. Authoritative rule was his style of management.
He had natural leadership qualities and a decisive personality, perhaps passed down from his family’s noble history. His paternal great-grandfather was a German Archduke, and several maternal relatives received knighthoods from the kings and queens of England. These titles were not conferred to Wolfgang, to his displeasure, but his blood was undeniably royal, and his charisma an extension of his lineage. He commanded mass wealth both from his inheritance and from his competence as a business mogul.
He had no children, and no wife, despite the efforts of plenty of women. It was either lack of time or lack of interest in mating that left him a bachelor so late in life.
When he visited other companies, as he was doing now, his presence brought fear and respect, which graced all discussions. Wearing a conservative three-piece suit, he was dressed more handsomely than the others. He wore no watch; something in his blood drained the batteries at an accelerated pace, making the accessory useless. He had no time for uselessness.
At the head of the table sat the Chief Executive Officer of the actuarial consulting company Wolfgang was currently soliciting. The CEO wiped sweat from his brow—he knew that, depending on the outcome of this meeting, his company may not meaningfully exist afterwards. Several other suits surrounded their CEO. Most had their heads in a lowered position, with hands poised to take notes. Wolfgang noticed their pathetic postures.
“Let’s begin,” Wolfgang announced.
“Yes sir, thank you for coming to us—I, um, am sure you have good news?”
Wolfgang was tall and striking in appearance, though it wasn’t his looks but his persona that made people take special note of his presence. He sat with an unamused smirk.
Sitting beside Wolfgang was his aide and loyal confidant, Horatio Maxwell. Wolfgang and Horatio were both in their mid-forties, and were thus the youngest in the room by at least twenty years. The two had waltzed into the company’s lobby a short time ago, and demanded a meeting be called with the executives and officers.
“I’m not sure as to their schedules,” the receptionist said, recoiling from their atypical demeanor and the unexpected confrontation.
“Tell your boss Wolfgang Sinclair is here. Tell him I want to see him now.”
Minutes later, the two were shown into a boardroom populated by grey-haired senior partners, seemingly hastily assembled, given the disarray of their disposition and the shuffling of papers.
“Gentlemen, thank you for showing up,” Wolfgang responded after an initial nod toward the CEO.
Horatio, relaxing in his chair, listened to his boss intently. He knew that his presence was valued, but he was comforted in the knowledge that he wouldn’t be doing any speaking himself, save the possibility of repeating a phrase for emphasis.
“Not a problem, Mr. Sinclair,” the CEO responded. “We didn’t have time to prepare much, but we always welcome you. I assume you want to talk about the François Project?”
“Yes, the François Mellet Project specifically, but also some of the other accounts as well.”
“All right,” the CEO responded after a moment.
“You see, with this environment of economic uncertainty, I must be prudent to the shareholders of the Sinclair Group of Companies. As I respond to challenges, I constantly have to change the path of my businesses. And we are entering uncertain times.”
Everyone in the room knew that Wolfgang himself owned well over half of the shares in the multi-million-dollar company that displayed his name. The majority stakeholder position gave him a special license to manage under his personal style. It took years for Wolfgang to nurture his empire to this level of maturity. He finally had his business holdings at a stage at which he could utilize them to drastically advance his own needs.
“Assumptions change over time,” Wolfgang continued, “and it is incumbent upon me to be prudent.” He smiled. “We are at a critical juncture.”
Wolfgang knew he was in the power position at the boardroom table. He was a powerbroker and was often surrounded by individuals dependent on him for employment. He took a sip of water, and observed the CEO and other representatives from the consulting firm. They were trembling in front of him. What a bunch of sorry people, he thought, without effort to conceal his feelings.
The CEO looked at Wolfgang, then at Horatio Maxwell, and then back to Wolfgang, and said: “Well, when I heard from my secretary that you wanted to meet, I dropped everything. I assembled my team of top dogs to join us… But can you elaborate on what we will be talking about today, Mr. Sinclair?”
“I have been contemplating ways to address the situation in France for quite some time. I am upset at the suffering I see. I am a humanitarian first and foremost, you know. It is for this reason that I bring unwelcome news. For the continued success of the Sinclair Group, for the shareholders that have invested in me, I, as Chairman, must make some tough decisions. This is business.”
The other men in the room sat silently. Some squirmed; some gazed out the bank of windows, where a birds-eye view of Manhattan, from fifty stories into the air, was visible. It was a sunny day, and the people on the street were likely enjoying the welcome change in the weather during this winter, especially in light of the ongoing economic depression that gripped the country. Those on the street likely had no idea that, fifty stories above, Wolfgang Vinzent Sinclair was executing the first set in a series of decisions that would change the course of the planet.
Horatio bit the inside of his cheeks to control his facial expression.
Wolfgang continued: “We have been trying to make the François Mellet Project work for nearly five years, but our accountants repeatedly tell me that it’s unwise for us to proceed further down this path. This boondoggle has to end.” The others in the room looked aghast. “Unless the French can agree to my terms, involving radical reforms, I’m going to have to put a stop to the whole thing. I realize this will affect your business drastically. You will be losing your largest account, but unfortunately for you, that is not my number one concern. We’re pulling the plug,” Wolfgang redoubled.
“Are you serious?” one of the suits asked with indignity. “Our company’s reputation…”
“Of course I am serious,” Wolfgang snapped. “I did not acquire my massive wealth by allowing emotion to dictate business decisions. Now your firm will have plenty of work bringing the François Mellet Project to an organized halt. I am not saying that the work is going to stop tomorrow: this is merely the first stage of the last stage.”
“If I may, Mr. Sinclair,” the same man continued, “it appears to us that the François Project is actually doing quite well, all things considered. Sure, there was the setback with the cosmetic agricultural research the Pension Plan invested in, but I think we all agree that our foresight for investing in the once-stagnant field of naval architecture has paid off in spades. We have a clear plan forward. Quite frankly, I think we are all shocked to hear that you are ‘pulling the plug.’”
“I thought I made myself clear,” Wolfgang said, with a visceral tone of finality. “I wanted to personally let you all know our positioning, and I am exercising my option. I wanted you to hear it from us rather than from the French Minister of Labour. Later today, Horatio and I are meeting with the Ambassador, and I will be relaying the same message to him. I trust your company will be able to adapt, and if future work arises with any Sinclair company for which your company could provide consulting services, I will personally contact you all again. Good day.”
Wolfgang and Horatio stood and left the boardroom without the customary shaking of hands.
Stringent austerity measures had been contemplated and rejected in France for decades. Angered youths went to the streets to riot, disappointed that they would not receive the same generous social benefits their parents had enjoyed; disappointed they didn’t get handouts.
Years earlier, Wolfgang recognized an opportunity in this situation, and reacted by directly engaging the President of France. On the night of François Mellet’s re-election victory, the following phone call occurred:
Wolfgang: Congratulations, Monsieur Président.
François: Merci, Monsieur Sinclair.
Wolfgang: You have made some bold campaign promises, Mr. President. Will you be making good on them?
François: Well, seeing that your generous donations to my campaign may have had a small impact on my re-election, I figure I better try to fulfill them, hey? I just hope you didn’t break our Elections Act with your ‘foreign interests’ [chuckling].
Wolfgang: You know I didn’t. I’m a significant player in the French economy. Look, François, I don’t want to keep you from your celebration tonight, but I need you to know that I have an apparatus in place to help implement your plan. I will get my people to contact your Minister in the morning about overhauling the National Pension Plan. Think of it as a mini-Marshall Plan.
François: Yes, yes, yes. I spoke to my advisors about this. We should be able to cooperate. We talked about this, no? Can we negotiate on the timing?
Wolfgang: No, we haven’t talked about what I am going to discuss with your Minister tomorrow. It will be made clear shortly. Have a good night, Monsieur Président. Once again, congratulations. Enjoy your evening.
The François Project was a thinly veiled code name, to the displeasure of the French president, given to the resulting deal and investment in the French National Pension Plan. The Sinclair Group of Companies assumed over twenty billion euros of French pension obligations in multilayered negotiations. As a result, money collected from the productive classes of French society would, in part, be placed in a holding company that Wolfgang would personally oversee. The money would be reinvested in various global business ventures, usually those vertically integrated with other Sinclair companies.
An auxiliary deal saw Wolfgang agree to commission a French shipbuilding company with a multi-year, one-billion-euro contract to build ships. A destroyer, a frigate, three costal defence minesweepers, and a half-dozen patrol boats were built for the Aquatic Phalanx, Wolfgang’s nautical security firm.
The ship-building transaction allowed François to brag to his electors, well into the next election cycle, about the high-tech jobs that had been created. As for Wolfgang, he had negotiated substantial subsidies for the procurement, saving him hundreds of millions, and now the Aquatic Phalanx fleet was sizeable enough to be taken seriously on the global stage.
Understanding Wolfgang involves understanding his whole business. The Sinclair Group of Companies was a diversified parent corporation with a global reach. Among the varied subsidiary corporations that fed the parent and financial-investment arm, there were two pillar enterprises that made up the bulk of the Sinclair Group’s combined worth.
The first constituent company was a maritime private security and shipping firm. The security contractor provided exclusive costal defence service to America’s eastern shoreline, in light of President Edward Randolph’s privatization of much of the American Armed Forces. A special agreement with the Canadian and Mexican governments allowed this security firm to patrol part of the way into their waters as well. The Sinclair Professional Aquatic Phalanx had a small fleet of warships of various sizes and capabilities. These ships could occasionally be found on the other side of the world, conducting anti-piracy missions or escorting precious cargo.
Sinclair Prospection & Exploration was a mining company Wolfgang’s father had started before his death. Prospection & Exploration was an outfit with significant interests in the Canadian diamond industry, which also provided specialized services to the mining and development of the Alberta oil sands. The company also claimed prospect to several untapped precious metal mines in Chile, Uganda, and France. This was a capital-intensive company requiring plenty of heavy equipment and skilled engineering knowledge. This company rode the ebbs and flows of the global economy, hit hard by the current recession.
“Back to Sinclair Tower,” Wolfgang tersely informed the chauffeur.
In the back of the limousine, Wolfgang turned his attention to Horatio. “Shall we dine tonight?”
Horatio stumbled at the rare invitation. “With the amount of work you just generated for me, I am not sure if I can,” he joked before revising his response. “Sure. When, where? I would love to.”
Chapter 2—Saint Pierre
“After the Treaty of Utrecht, and the Treaty of Paris, the British and Spanish permitted the French this consolation remnant, allowing them to harbour their fishing boats over winter. Only through the resilience of the French national character did they maintain this territory into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. After the defeat of Quebec on the Plains of Abraham in Canada, and the Louisiana Purchase in America, only the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon were left belonging to France. Most assumed they were a forgotten part of Canada. And then they belonged to Wolfgang Vinzent Sinclair.”
The Unauthorized Biography of Wolfgang Vinzent Sinclair, by Claude Ducharme.
Wolfgang sat alone in the study of his county home located just outside New York City. The Westchester residence was located just far enough from Yonkers for the zoning to allow estates of the size he demanded. The mansion contained well-manicured gardens, marble columns, priceless art, and hidden security cameras.
In his private life, Wolfgang cherished solitude. In his public life, Wolfgang flocked to the spotlight. This duality wasn’t a contradiction for those that understood what made this mogul tick. Every second was either dedicated to advancing his interests overtly, or in private reflection of his next move while recharging his over-drained batteries, as he was now.
He sat in a modest chair of sentimental value to him, in front of an antique oak desk made from planks of His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Rainbow, a gift from a deceased admiral. The room was well decorated with medieval hues, and contained a commanding fireplace. He often came to his study to think, occasionally daydream, and reminisce. Sometimes he would flip through the ancient leather-bound philosophical treaties on his shelves. He enjoyed reading the likes of Aquinas, Goethe, and de Tocqueville.
On this particular evening he was reminiscing. He was thinking of the annual vacations he took as a boy, with his paternal grandfather, to Saint Pierre and Miquelon. For one week a year, it was just the two of them staying at the Hotel Robert, a stone’s throw away from the harbour. It was France embedded in North America: a window into a different world.
“Where’d ya go this summer?” his friends would ask in September, as the boys would regroup and gossip of their separate adventures.
He always had the same answer about the place that he and his grandfather would annually visit, but his friends would never remember; they were horseback riding in Malta, playing polo in India, or sailing in Oceania. It may not have been a big deal to others, but he would never forget the times he spent on that modest forgotten island, in a foreign land. Just over an hour’s flight from New York City, it seemed like stepping back in time to a place of no contemporary influence or impact. He embraced the contrast it provided from Righteous Boys, his prep school, which otherwise encompassed his young life.
His grandfather, once known as Commodore Vinzent Strand, had fallen in love with the islands during the Second World War when he was stationed there as a senior officer, after alighting from U-boat U-900, with a section of sailors.
After the fall of Paris, the Vichy government also had control of Saint Pierre politics. The Third Reich saw a significant strategic advantage with having a possession in North America, and the Nazis brought in military brass to ensure compliance from the local population. Vinzent was chosen as the Commander of the Takeover because of the exceptional role he played in hunting down Free French Forces in Southern France, and because of his fluency in the language.
Vinzent expected to play a pivotal role in the pending invasion and conquest of America, but the outcome of the war didn’t allow for this opportunity. When he saw the writing on the wall for the German forces after Hitler’s death in the bunker, he defected and escaped to America to assimilate. He successfully blended in as a displaced Franco-German merchant fisherman, claiming asylum. After changing his surname, altering his identity to suit his role, and changing his religion from Protestantism to Catholicism, he met his future wife while he was working as a stevedore in Baltimore. They had a son shortly afterward: Wolfgang’s eventual father.
Years later, the grandfather-grandson pair vacationed in Saint Pierre annually, and Wolfgang was shown the marvels of its rugged coast and the delights of French cuisine. The two would go fishing and have their catches filleted and prepared with the young Wolfgang’s favourite onion and celery Breton sauce. The two would spend full evenings dining, where the younger was taught the ‘art of entertaining.’ During the day, if they weren’t out exploring, they’d go for afternoon crepes and sometimes linger at the table, over light conversation, until the same restaurant was ready to serve supper, hours later.
Saint Pierre and Miquelon is a small and obscure French possession in North America. The ancient collection of islands, located off the coast of Newfoundland, existed long before France planted its flag in the rocky terrain.
The architecture in the only populous city is similar to that of the Canadian Atlantic provinces; however, the buildings within the City of Saint Pierre also looked as though they could be found in Europe, Normandy perhaps. The aging houses, painted in bright reds and yellows, blues and greens, all with white window trim, sit on rolling terrain. The settlement is quaint, rural, and rustic. Fog is common. The sound of crashing waves on jagged rocks is also common and rhythmic. A settlement defined by the shore, it is a slave to the very geography and natural forces responsible for its existence and isolation.
Saint Pierre and Miquelon enjoy a tight-knit community and well-established local customs handed down from the Normans, Basques, and Bretons, whose descendants inhabit the islands. Despite being directly off the coast of Canada and in close proximity to the United States, they opted to import most of their non-perishable foods, clothing, and other goods directly from Europe. On the narrow streets of Saint Pierre, it is more common to see a Peugeot than a Ford, and English is rare, even discouraged.
For much of the twentieth century, Paris could not care less about the islands from a geopolitical perspective; they conceded defeat in North America, and the fishing harbour was not strategically important, but the twenty-first century revealed a renewed paternalistic pride from the motherland toward its subordinate overseas collective. New curiosity from France germinated, as Parisians were increasingly taught that this obscure group of islands was as much a part of France as was Corsica. However, in recent times of economic hardship, fiscally conservative French citizens shivered at the number of euros pumped into the island’s bureaucracy to maintain its existence: an irrational effort in stubbornness.
“Beatrice, babe, we got another booking for next week,” Leon told his wife and bed-and-breakfast co-owner. The two sat on the damp deck of their red home, with coffee mugs steaming. Beatrice was short and plump, and Leon was tall and skinny: together they were a perfect match in everything but appearance, but their mismatched shapes complemented one another nonetheless.
“Well, that’s great news,” his middle-aged best friend and life partner responded. “We could really use the money. Let’s just hope they don’t cancel,” she said. “Canadians?”
“Yup. Well, I’ve got their deposit, anyway,” he smirked. “And if they do cancel, at least we won’t have to clean the sheets or their mess.”
They both chuckled. They were laughing at the trials and tribulations of their business…but more the tribulations. Perhaps they also directed a snicker towards Canadians, especially French Canadians, the people upon whom their business depended. French? They are not real French…
“At this rate, I’m questioning cleaning sheets, even if they do stay here,” Beatrice said, after a pause.
“Yeah, that’s how we can grow this venture,” Leon joked. “I’m not smelling an early retirement for us.”
“Retirement? Ha. If we didn’t have this business, you’d be bored as hell.” They both sipped from their mugs and gazed toward the vast foggy ocean. “We’ll be doing this forever.”
Rémy returned to the front of his store after stacking boxes in the back room. A new shipment of confectionaries had come in from the belly of the daily ferry. He looked at himself in the mirror, which was obstructed by shelving containing various dry goods. He could see most of his physique on the dusty surface. For a middle-aged man, he was praised for his good muscle definition, and he liked to observe it for himself.
He reviewed his selection of cured meats and aged cheeses and brought some to the front glass display. Good thing these get better with age. Grudgingly, upon examining his offerings, he found some items that he knew he must discard or eat. When the meat jerkied on its own, or when the cheese cracked, it was no longer fit for a customer. His jaws were strong from routinely cleaning up his hardened products via ingestion.
The store’s bell chimed as the hundred-year-old door opened. Rémy bolted to attention, and then relaxed when he remembered that he didn’t want to seem overly anxious in front of customers. Two young American tourists entered his delicatessen and began asking in broken French about his products and island tourism. They claimed that their B&B hosts, Beatrice and Leon, referred them to his shop. Rémy sold them twenty euros’ worth of product and responded to all their questions in French, deciding not to flip to English, despite being near-fluent.
The City of Saint Pierre usually would sit quietly and not receive much attention; however, its sleepy forgotten status was interrupted when, on a particularly windy night in June, a majority of the island was set ablaze in a massive conflagration. The sea fog parted and the fire spread.
People ran and screamed like a pissed-off ant colony realizing its home was being crushed.
Local firefighting capabilities were fully utilized, and it was obvious there was no hope for most of the old structures. The island burned, and the five thousand distraught European Union inhabitants looked to one another for direction.
The fire continued burning in the City of Saint Pierre, and no one had a clue how it started. There appeared to be several points of intensity, indicating multiple origins. The carnage was spreading fast. Red and orange flames were leaping from building to building in pursuit of aged timber. Popping and hissing peals of various pitches, and faint screams and cries from humans, could be heard. The island was flickering and flames were licking the sky at ratios five times larger than the buildings being consumed.
Displaced residents mustered at the harbour mouth and on the wharf, and spilled onto the grassy parkway, where the heat of the city taunted them. The only other time this many people congregated there was in celebration of fête Nationale, the anniversary of the day the Bastille burned.
The small sentry of Marine Nationale servicemen from the French Navy, and firefighters, were barking orders over loudspeakers, commanding the residents: “Laissez vos maisons. Venez à l’eau!” There was hysterical crying from the crowd as the people realized that their homes would be gone. All their lives were being destroyed before their eyes. It was a massive catastrophe that they never even dreamed was possible, and it was obvious that much would be lost.
“How does this happen?” asked Rémy, in French, to Beatrice and Leon, who were now gathered together. “How long have we lived here? Our fathers? How is it our homes are aflame? All of them!”
The relationship among the three was strong. Rémy’s wife died of cancer years earlier, and all he had left was his friendships and his delicatessen. Beatrice and Leon would always point tourists to Rémy’s shop when tourists staying at the B&B asked where they could get good French wine, made-in-France cheese, curried meats, and the like.
“What now?” Rémy asked again, looking toward the destruction on rue Verdun. The reflection of the flames could be seen in all of their eyes. Beatrice and Leon remained still and unresponsive.
Abruptly, over the already-deafening sound of the massive fire, the thunderous clap of helicopters approaching could be heard. The wind from their blades provided temporary relief from the heat. It wasn’t until the helicopters came that the residents realized how hot, or how loud, it was. Rémy looked up and noticed three white and red Canadian Coast Guard choppers land in a clearing, only a short distance from other frantic residents. Once assembled, the Coastguardsmen joined the local crews, who were now performing crowd control, as the hysteria from watching their houses burn boiled in all of their blood.
“Please be patient. For your own safety, please stand back. We are doing everything we can to bring the blaze under control and salvage your belongings,” one of the flustered French officers said. The Canadian Coast Guard echoed similar sentiments in Canadian-accented French.
The rescue workers had limited resources available, and thus limited options to control the rapidly deteriorating situation. There wasn’t enough firefighting equipment to suppress the flames on a meaningful scale. In fact, the local fire hall was on fire, too.
Is this how we are prepared to answer emergencies? Rémy thought. Shameful. Mellet and his cutbacks.
In the distant vicinity of the blaze, two vessels of the Sinclair Professional Aquatic Phalanx fleet steamed ahead. They received the distress call and engaged towards the burning city. In the ship’s bridge, the admiral of the fleet sat with the commodore and the ship’s captain. The admiral and commodore didn’t always sail, as their roles within the private navy were more administrative and political than operational; but they were aboard the Sinclair Warship (S.W.) Righteous on this day.
The S.W. Righteous was a French built destroyer, flagship of the fleet. “Is this what we’ve been waiting for?” the gruff-looking Commodore Hiltz said to the more refined Admiral Chalmers. Hiltz knew all evening that his boss was waiting for something to happen, but as it is a virtue at sea not to speak unnecessarily, the Commodore had waited. He took a sip of black coffee.
The Admiral, a retired career officer in the United States Navy, smiled. “We were not waiting for anything, Hiltz, how many times are you going to ask that? We have received a distress call, and it is our obligation to respond; that’s all. We’ll invoice France for cost plus twenty, and maybe save some lives.” Although he was distinguished and decorated, many felt that the Admiral’s current station was a testimony to his ‘kiss-ass’ nature toward Wolfgang Sinclair. The Admiral contested this allegation by claiming that wit, intelligence, deference, and observation of proper marks of respect earned him the top gig.
“Sure,” Hiltz responded, unconvinced. Hiltz, a former boatswain Chief Petty Officer of the Royal Canadian Navy, salty from prolonged sea life, was dismissed with disgrace for misconduct from the R.C.N. on a rap he took for one of his superiors. Hiltz was a different man from his current admiral, but both were now mercenaries, nonetheless.
“Contact, sir,” a young midshipman, in black uniform with binoculars around his neck, said to the admiral, bypassing the captain of the ship to whom he would normally report. “Orange haze on the horizon at 11 o’clock.”
“Does it look like street lights or fire?”
“Very well; carry on, midshipman,” the admiral said, and turned to the skipper. “Captain?”
“Uh, yes, adjust bearings port by 10; I say again red 10,” the captain said, very aware of the unconventional power relationship of having two more senior officers aboard his ship.
“Aye, sir,” the midshipman said. “Port 10.”
As the five thousand tonnes of steel canted slightly to the left in pursuit of the light on the horizon, Admiral Chalmers returned to his conversation with the commodore. “Won’t be too long until we come alongside in Saint Pierre. Get the Midshipman to ping Pitiless and see where she’s at.”
S.W. Righteous rendezvoused with S.W. Pitiless an hour later, and the two sailed on toward Saint Pierre harbour, avoiding the rock formations that rookie navigators historically hit, pulling alongside the jetty near Pointe aux Canons Lighthouse. Those on the upper decks could feel the heat from the burning island. The gun-metal ship began to warm. The iconic lighthouse flashed its beacon while the crew, in bunker gear, readied to disembark with all onboard medical supplies.
Nearly every island resident not fighting the fire was congregated at the harbour, near the safety of the water. At the lower altitude, the smoke was less. It was an informal muster point, and provided a good vantage point to observe the smoldering city.
Despite being islanders, many residents did not own seaworthy vessels capable of making the shores of Newfoundland, especially past the ‘The Mouth of Hell,’ the rocky trap for seafarers, at night.
How the hell could our whole city burn down? several residents collectively thought. Typically, cities didn’t just burn anymore, as they did in medieval times. There were no more Great Fires. But then, many thought to the destruction of Fort McMurray, a modern tragedy. It was possible for a city to burn to the ground.
Residents greeted the sailors, thankful for the additional help, although many first assumed that it was the French military, not Sinclair’s private assets, coming to the rescue.
Small aircrafts took flight from the small Saint Pierre airport until all the planes were gone.
On the other side of the ocean, the French officials reluctantly decided to let the fire run its course, although this was not overtly communicated to the residents. Effectively battling the blaze wasn’t possible; evacuation was the priority.
“Que devrions nous faire? (What should we do?)” Rémy asked Beatrice and Leon, again, seriously hoping that someone would finally answer him. The three of them had stood petrified for the past hour, despite Rémy’s occasional attempts to speak. If they were to do anything other than follow official orders, he knew a plan was required immediately, as officials near the harbour were rounding people up for transport.
There were two Sinclair ships and one French naval ship, and a large passenger ferry, which was docked in the harbour and made regular trips off-island. These vessels began loading people to begin the five-plus hour shuttle to Fortune, Newfoundland.
Fortune was the city in North America that had the most regular interaction with Saint Pierre. Despite the staunchly French patriotism that existed on the island, over the years there had been plenty of intermarriages and significant interactions with Newfoundlanders.
Residents hesitantly boarded these ‘rescue’ ships, assuming that fire crews would continue to battle the blaze until order was restored. Many figured that rebuilding efforts would be difficult, but presumed that they would commence shortly. Little did they know the future of the island would be much different than its past, and that most of the residents would never return. They carried whatever belongings they had on their person; in many cases, it was only pajamas. Rémy, Beatrice, and Leon did not go aboard; rather, they went to the ancient cemetery to hide while they devised a plan, a few hundred yards from where they had been standing. The coolness of the headstones provided relief from the heat.
“Most businessmen limited their interactions with public politicians, usually by discreet endorsement at black-tie affairs, dirty work being the chore of the lobbyist. Wolfgang was different in that he would skip the $10,000/table galas; rather, he made direct business deals with choice politicians, usually via walking into their offices unannounced or swinging by their homes at suppertime.”
The Unauthorized Biography of Wolfgang Vinzent Sinclair, by Claude Ducharme.
The Canadian government took careful stock of the situation as it unfolded. The Canadian Cabinet was briefed to expect an influx of ‘visitors.’ Facilities were set up accordingly. Knowing that it would be about five hours before the displaced people would arrive, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Border Services Agency officers organized and implemented emergency plans, previously prepared around Canada in the wake of the Fort McMurray disaster. The people of Newfoundland were no stranger to assisting during catastrophic events, such as was done when dozens of airplanes landed en masse in Gander on September 11, 2001.
Fog horns trumpeted as the flotilla steamed on. The naval ships were the quickest. The ferry lagged. As the vessels approached land, the waters were considerably less choppy. Dawn broke. Several Griffon and Cyclone choppers, with search and rescue technicians on board, were dispatched from Nova Scotia to pick up more displaced people.
“This isn’t home,” one of the ferry ‘passengers’ observed, as he saw the scattered lights that made up the ‘skyline’ of Fortune, a small town in western Newfoundland. Silhouettes of sleepy houses were visible. A staple lighthouse stood tall. No one was thrilled at reaching the destination.
Tired exhilaration gripped a few of the passengers, but the dominant emotions among them were frustration and anger, and then there were those who were just seasick. The ride had been rocky, as it usually was. “This isn’t home,” the same passenger repeated to no one in particular. Since boarding, he had regretted getting on the vessel. While on board, he couldn’t do anything but wait. Wait. What if I would’ve just stayed? What would’ve happened? So what if my house is gone; my home is that island. Islands don’t burn. I could’ve stuck around; heck, I could’ve gone out to one of the country homes. Those folks would’ve had me, I’m sure. I can’t imagine everyone left.
En masse, the passengers (refugees) alighted the vessels. While hastily queued for processing, a Canadian Customs officer shouted in French: “Good morning. We are sorry for your trouble. The good news, if there is good news, is that over your five-hour journey we had time to prepare for your arrival. We have been able to make temporary accommodations for everyone—the best we could under the circumstances.”
But why are we in Canada? Wouldn’t Miquelon have done just as well? Couldn’t have they taken us there? Fucking government, the same man thought, but he knew that Miquelon was much less capable of absorbing the influx of people. Miquelon was hardly developed, and Fortune was really their only option. The decision had already been made.
Back in his sixty-first-floor penthouse suite, Wolfgang stood tall in the large boardroom attached to his private office. His boardroom was royally decorated in hard woods, deep reds and purples, unlike the sleek modernism of most other boardrooms within which Wolfgang conducted business. He was glad to be back on his home turf, back from his morning business. He looked out the window, as he had so many times before. Light glistened off the Hudson River. On the streets cars clustered like beetles, he noted. He thought about how Robert Moses, at one time, shaped the city through foresight, cunning, and manipulation. He admired Moses.
Horatio, ever present, was seated in one of the leather chairs. He had papers scattered before him on the mahogany conference table, waiting for his boss to act. I’m always waiting for his action, Horatio realized. Perhaps that’s the reason he trusts me so much.
Although Horatio wasn’t Wolfgang’s only aide, no others were present during pinnacle events. Wolfgang often liked to discuss matters of the utmost importance with Horatio alone. When needing a change from thinking in solitude, he bounced ideas off him and, for this reason (and because of proximity), Horatio wielded significant power in his own right. Wolfgang wasn’t impervious to external influences, whether he realized it or not.
A sizable flat-screen television played at the far end of the room. It was on mute, as usual. Viewers would have to read the captions, should they be interested. The current images showed the smoldering City of Saint Pierre. A reporter in a windbreaker looked tired as airborne ashes were tossed around her. The view behind her was of an obliterated blackened landscape, with scattered charred timbers. It was the worst natural disaster of the twenty-first century.
The cause of the conflagration was still unknown, but preliminary investigation suggested multiple origins. The school, the airport terminal, the gas station, and the Hotel Robert all showed signs of initial ignition. The reporter, citing a French arson expert, concluded that it looked suspicious. “An investigation into the cause is ongoing,” the reporter said.
While the City of Saint Pierre was all but gone, though the stone Cathedral defiantly remained mostly unscathed by the destruction, the overseas collective had other land masses, such as Miquelon, which could accommodate some of the displaced, although that sister island had limited infrastructure.
“I received a report from my Admiral that two of our ships made it on time to save the day, to save precious lives,” Wolfgang stated. “They were steaming in the vicinity when the incident occurred.”
“Certainly lucky, and further proof as to the benefits of a private maritime security force.”
“Ha. I will be sure to remind the Canadians, Americans, and French of this, of course.”
“Any casualty besides what’s being reported on the news?”
“No, I think they’re sticking with twenty dead, mostly seniors, and dozens more being treated with smoke inhalation. I wish no one got hurt but, really, it couldn’t have run more smoothly,” Wolfgang said, flashing a devilish grin.
Horatio did not verbally respond, but his eyes widened. He felt something of importance would be disclosed to him soon. For the past few months he believed that his boss’s actions were calculated to achieve an unknown end, but such behaviour was not uncommon. He had too much faith in Wolfgang’s intelligence to think his actions were chaotic, but, at times, Horatio really did not know what to conclude. He was often along for the ride and witnessed many unconventional business deals.
Wolfgang continued: “Horatio, as my most trusted confidant, I will soon require your direct assistance. I just can’t tell you everything yet.”
After a pause, Horatio said, “I look forward to hearing whatever you can share, sir. I dare say, I hope there’s a brilliant resolution to these tragic events. I had trouble sleeping last night, but I have faith in you, as I always have.” He did not know exactly what his boss had done.
“And I appreciate your loyal service. You will be greatly awarded, especially once we gain control of that island. You know I will own that island?”
“Are you trying to deliver a message to President Mellet? What exactly do you plan to do with the island?”
“I see you haven’t figured it all out, old friend; that’s good. I’ve been coy. Really, it has nothing to do with François; I just like that island. He is the man I have to go through to get the island; it’s really no different than any of my other business transactions. I want that island. And I’m going to live there. It’ll be a passage away from here. I want to detach from this mess,” Wolfgang said while flailing his hands towards Lower Manhattan, via the window, in disgust.
“You’d want to live there after all of the civilization on the island burnt to the ground?”
“Especially after all the civilization is burnt to the ground.”
“The world’s crumbling, my friend. There’s massive unemployment and consistent rioting. I want out. I want control.”
“And you chose Saint Pierre?”
“How long have you been planning this, Wolfgang?”
Wolfgang paused before answering, “Forever.”
“Forever, eh? Since you were a boy?”
“Something like that…”
“But why there, if you don’t mind me asking? I know you used to visit there with your grandfather, but…”
“The location is grand. Forget the weather.”
“So, you didn’t look into warmer islands?”
“No; this one is perfect. I am going to start something truly spectacular there, and I am going to need your help, Horatio. You will learn to love that island, too, trust me.”
“Well, my loyalty to you is strong. The world has seen enough suffering over the past decade and I’ve see how you positively affect those you surround and do business with. I think the world needs more people like you.”
“I don’t think there is enough room in the world for more people like me. Your loyalty is appreciated, Horatio. I wouldn’t expect anything less from you. Things will work out beautifully, and you will be rewarded. You are lucky.”
Wolfgang finished his sentence while staring at the television screen. Recurring pictures continued to flash of rescued people in rows of gurneys, under makeshift medical tents. A man in medical scrubs, standing in front of military tents, was being interviewed, with a caption below explaining that the location was near Fortune, Newfoundland. The camera panned over the motley patients again before the image cut back to that of Saint Pierre smoldering. Next, a shot was shown of refugees eating sandwiches on a grassy lawn. In the distance, orange snow fencing could be seen enclosing them.
“Looks like they are well,” Wolfgang observed.
The television then showed a previously recorded message from President François Mellet. The President looked tired; Wolfgang adjusted the volume to listen.
“This is tragic; we will rebuild; we will investigate,” President François Mellet said, in English, from his Paris office.
No, you won’t, thought Wolfgang. Your time with the island has expired.
Wolfgang, still standing, pressed the speakerphone button on the device located in the centre of the conference table. A crackling sound emitted, followed by a cheerful female voice: “Yes, Mr. Sinclair?”
“Julia, can you patch me through to François?”
“The President of France?… Now?”
“Yes, that old bugger should still be awake if he’s any kind of politician. And can you get me a glass of spring water?”
Wolfgang Vinzent Sinclair had a cordial relationship with President Mellet, but only out of necessity. The President of France didn’t often have time to interact with personal friends, given all the challenges facing France, but he did realize the importance of engaging with the people who wielded significant interest in the French economy, and Wolfgang was one of those men.
In addition to his investments in France, Wolfgang was known globally as a general businessman of strong character, sagacity, and intrigue. His portrait had been featured in several continental business magazines over the years, and his methods were analyzed at business schools the world over. Wolfgang unquestionably was a mogul, and his billionaire status made others jealous and envious of him. His status made socialites and politicians flock to him, but he seldom dealt with them, except when personal gain was an option.
A new female voice, with a French accent, crackled over the speakerphone: “Please hold for the President, merci.” Beep.
And then a languid male voice: “Mr. Sinclair?”
Wolfgang: Please call me Wolf, Mr. President. You know that.
François: All right, Wolf. To what do I owe this pleasure? ‘Tis late here in Paris, and I have the Saint Pierre disaster to worry about. I can make myself available to you for only a short period of time, I’m afraid.
Wolfgang: François, well, I am calling to discuss Saint Pierre, and send my condolences. How terrible. How many houses were destroyed? The whole city?
François: All is gone or condemned. ‘Tis devastating, a true tragedy, but your words of support are greatly appreciated. What is not appreciated, if I may switch topics, is the option you exercised on our pension deal.
Wolfgang: With all due respect, I did not call to discuss that.
François: And so you want to discuss the fire?
Wolfgang: How does something like that happen? My sailors state that it looks like it was arson.
François: We are thinking terrorism. I don’t know. Thank you for the support of the Aquatic Phalanx. Not many citizens died.
Wolfgang: No problem. That is why you hired our service.
François: It has been a long night.
Wolfgang: I read online, in La Gazette, and saw on TV, that you previously declared Saint Pierre a blight on the French economy, and that the days of French imperialism are over. You want your people to wake up to the reality of France’s position in the new world order.
François: Yes, I said that before, but that was under the status quo assumption. No one expected this tragedy. Since the disaster, I have told every reporter we’re resolute to rebuild. And we are!
Wolfgang: Tell me, in your own words, François, what is the future of Saint Pierre for France? Are you really going to rebuild, or do the sensible thing and abandon it? How much longer can France afford to keep this experiment going?
François: Mr. Sinclair, you are being quite bold. France has resolve and has previously faced plenty of natural disasters. What happened was tragic, but we’ll carry on. I enjoy being your friend, but unless you can demonstrate how this matter concerns you, I think we should move on.
Wolfgang: I understand, François. I beg for your forgiveness; it’s just that I see a mutually beneficial opportunity for the both of us that can result from this tragedy.
François [sounding disingenuous and frustrated]: Oh? Now I am intrigued. What do you mean?
Wolfgang: One of my mining prospectors has expressed interest in the geological composition of Saint Pierre. He believes there is plenty of coal, and we have cutting-edge technology in both extraction and refining. We can make coal a noble industry again. It may be the energy of the future, as it was the energy of the past. My mining outfit has the technical know-how to extract it in a cost-efficient manner that your companies could never. Further, I could use a safe harbour to dock my ships, one not subject to the territorial jurisdiction of Canada or America.
François: You want to mine where the settlement was?
Wolfgang: Basically, yes. Yes, I do. The government of France need not be involved in coal. That’s for private business.
François: I am not sure if I like where this is going. I am sure you can mine coal elsewhere.
Wolfgang: I could and I do. Can I continue?
François: Go on.
Wolfgang: How much will it cost France to rebuild all the houses and social institutions in this remote territory? I can make France a tremendous offer, and it will relieve you of the political pressure of rebuilding, especially in the light of the austerity measures you recently implemented. We both know that, within the National Assembly, plenty of politicians will want to pull the plug on Saint Pierre once and for all. And I’d be surprised if your administration didn’t support that, too.
François: You want to buy France’s remaining remnant in North America? What gives you the impression France is for sale?
Wolfgang: Yes, I do want to buy France’s interest in the island. Everything is for sale.
François: I dare say that is quite bold of you, Mr. Sinclair.
Wolfgang: You need to concentrate on mainland France, and trim the fat. Saint Pierre is excess confit de canard to your proud country. Quite frankly, I think that whatever deal we strike will be quite generous for you. You need to ditch this liability at your earliest convenience.
The overseas call became silent for a few moments.
François: Well, for argument’s sake, can you give me an idea of what you are thinking?
Wolfgang: For France to surrender ‘control’ of Saint Pierre and Miquelon—without losing sovereignty as far as the atlas is concerned—to the Sinclair Group of Companies, I am prepared to offer three hundred million dollars, cash. But we will tell the newspapers that the price was five hundred thousand. My company will use the land for mining, and French settlements/resettlements will be prohibited. Further, we will provide an indefinite thirty-five percent royalty on the profit received from said coal mining, and from the fishing industry. On top of this, we relieve France of all the rebuilding and reclamation efforts she would otherwise be obligated to engage into. The opportunity cost for France is quite spectacular.
François: I really don’t know what to say. Three hundred million is really not that much. This would change all our geopolitical assumptions.
Wolfgang: Yes, you wouldn’t have to defend a remote territory of no strategic importance. The islands could remain under the French flag; it’s just that my company would own all the private property. Thirty-five percent royalties are unprecedented. All I would ask for is that you apply to secede the territory from the European Union, and all other multilateral agreements to limit geopolitical complications. In summation, instead of losing money on this territory, you will be making money through annual royalty payments. Talk to the diplomats.
François: My instinct is to brush off your suggestion with haste, but I will have to speak to my advisors. I will not, however, completely relinquish France’s control of the territory. Mark my words. And you’ll have to up your offer.
Wolfgang: Yes, Mr. President, talk with your advisors, but I think we already know that you will make the right decision. If you do not make the right decision, do not be surprised if the existing elements of the Sinclair Group of Companies, currently operating on French soil, such as our shipbuilding contract, cease their operations. My companies can pack their bags, as we saw the light with the pension deal, but I digress.
François: I cannot commit political suicide.
Chapter 4—To Miquelon? (the night of the fire)
“He always had a fascination with obscure geographic entities, countries, enclaves, and disconnected societies, such as Seychelles, Vanuatu, and Tonga. ‘How do these entities work?’ he would ask friends in government. ‘Can they truly be self-sufficient?’ ‘What is the critical mass for a functioning society?’ ‘What impact does isolation have on self-actualization and state building?’”
The Unauthorized Biography of Wolfgang Vinzent Sinclair, by Claude Ducharme.
Earlier in the evening, the day of the fire, Jacques had walked home from work with dried sweat caking his body and sawdust in his nostrils. It wasn’t a particularly hard day; rather, it was a typical day at the Saint Pierre carpentry shop. He kissed his petite wife, Estelle, who happily presented him a tourtière meal she had been working on for the better half of the afternoon. The pie was filled with a mixture of wild game Jacques had captured the previous season.
Estelle smiled as she watched her husband wolf down the food. She giggled at the sawdust still in his hair. Estelle was happy to see that the two were now normalizing relations, after recent fighting. Maybe tonight, they would become romantic.
She was not jealous of her twin sister, Amelia, who was perpetually single. Amelia never had to deal with the whims of a brute man; but then again, she did not get the benefit of having a man in her life, either.
“It was good,” Jacques finally said to Estelle, as he scraped the last crumbs of the pie into his mouth. It was the first thing he had said to her all day.
Now the landscape sizzled; hot coals illuminated the contours of the terrain. The heat recessed the fog, and smoke filled the void. Fire crews continued working, but it was painfully obvious to old-timers Rémy, Leon, and Beatrice that the city was now a complete write-off.
Next to these three stood three more people: younger folks. Jacques stood with his arm around the shoulders of his wife, Estelle. Her twin sister, Amelia, stood alone, a metre away, dazed.
The two groups had bumped into each other in the cemetery. The six Saint Pierrians intentionally ducked out of the way, while the other residents were being loaded aboard the ships bound for Canada. These six, all feeling the same resolve, weren’t going to leave France for Canada, even if their homes were destroyed. They believed they were the only remaining residents of the city still on the island, but assumed some of the rural dwellings (beyond the reach of the flames) were occupied in bucolic custom, despite the mandatory evacuation orders barked over loudspeakers.
The cemetery, containing elaborate mausoleums, seemed to glow where it usually sucked light. Like Lafayette in the Garden District of New Orleans, this cemetery, unapologetically French Catholic, gave off a cold breeze, as stones sometimes do. The group rejoiced in the eerie relief.
“Now what?” Amelia asked Estelle. “What do we do? I’m hungry.”
Hearing the concern in his sister-in-law’s voice, Jacques interjected: “Have faith, be strong. We’ve been through trouble before, haven’t we? How is this different? You need to be strong. Trust in God.”
Amelia sarcastically rolled her eyes, hoping only Estelle could see her disbelief. Estelle, who was still in the arms of her husband, did not respond.
“Estelle?” Amelia finally prodded.
Looking uncomfortable, Estelle looked her twin directly in her face, as if talking into a living mirror. “Jacques is right. Honey, we need to be strong at this time. The decision has been made for us to stay.”
“But…” Amelia let out a weak cough.
Jacques released his wife from his embrace and decisively put his arm around his sister-in-law’s shoulder in a rare gesture. “Amelia, give it a week or two. We’ll go to Miquelon and my friend there will house us. The fire isn’t affecting Miquelon; it’ll be a jolly vacation in the country. A much-deserved rest for all of us while we understand what happened,” he grinned. “The six of us will go; we’re all friends. We will lay low for some time and then come back here. And when everyone else eventually moves back to Saint Pierre, we can laugh at them for having run away in the first place. When the government rebuilds our house, we will return, without the assistance of Sinclair or the Canadians. Things will return to normal for this island. Different but normal. God is testing us; time to be strong and not disappoint.”
“Umm. Well.” Amelia wasn’t convinced. “In a week, Saint Pierre will still be in ruins.”
No one acknowledged this poignant observation, but none of them believed that the whole city was destroyed.
The group of six was standing in a semi-circle, with a clear view of the blaze. “How will we get to Miquelon?” Estelle asked her husband. The others looked intent on receiving the answer as well. Miquelon was close, but water transport was required.
“We’ll all spend the night at Papa’s Pointe de Savoyard château,” said Jacques. “That’s not too far from here. We’ll get supplies, and take his boat in the morning. It’s peaceful in the countryside; I bet all his neighbours evacuated, but not Papa.”
“You think Mathieu will still be in his home?” Rémy asked Jacques. “Why wouldn’t he have evacuated?”
“Come on. Pointe de Savoyard isn’t on fire. He’ll be there, and if he’s not, I know where he keeps the key.”
“But how will we get there—to your father’s? We have no auto?” Amelia said.
“Oh, come on; it’s less than five kilometres from here. We’ll go now and make good time. I’m sure he’s worried about us. We’ll check in, have wine, and break bread. In the morning we’ll leave for Miquelon and see if he wants to come along with us. He’s still young at heart.”
The conversation about the journey to Pointe de Savoyard was mostly occurring between the pair of in-laws, Amelia and Jacques, but Rémy budded in again: “You think people will be evacuated from their houses, even if they are a few kilometres away from the fire?”
“Probably,” Jacques responded. “Without essential services, the government will want us all to leave. No police, no groceries. No—” his voice trailed off.
The six took in the sight—and what a sight. Their city was on fire. The heat radiated and touched their cheeks. “Let’s go; follow me,” Jacques finally said to the rest of the group. “Try not to be visible from the harbour so that some do-gooder doesn’t report us.”
He proceeded to walk west, and the others followed as directed. Beatrice and Leon squeezed each other’s hands and exchanged glances for reassurance. Amelia hesitantly took a final look toward the harbour—toward rescue—and finally scuttled ahead to where her sister was, right behind Jacques, walking at a steady pace, and grasped her arm in reassurance of her resolve. Family was an important concept to them all.
Amelia Potvin was a timid young woman, the opposite disposition of her sister Estelle. She had a tinge of red in her often-ponytailed hair, and appeared as though she had some Irish ancestry, the only deviation from the otherwise identical look of the sisters. She wanted to be a teacher, but had no degree. She worked as a librarian and, naturally, liked to read. Her job gave her a better grip on English than many of her island-mates, but she still mostly conversed in French—or with no one at all.
She enjoyed the isolation that her island home brought, and her favourite pastimes were picnicking alone on the breakwater, listening to the waves, and drawing the lighthouse and other island scenery in a tattered sketch-book.
The two Potvin girls were raised by their grandmother, who died when the twins were entering their late teens. Due to a frugal upbringing, Amelia had never left Saint Pierre. Estelle, however, had visited Newfoundland many times with her husband Jacques. Much of the sisters’ mutual time together was spent while cooking or drinking tea.
“You must come with us, one time,” Estelle had pleaded, while drying a large serving platter. “The Canadians are so funny.”
“I know the English-Canadians; they come to my library and ask goofy questions about whale watching and ‘poutine.’ Will they ever realize that we are not part of Quebec?”
“Then you’ll come?”
“I’d come with you, but I would just get in the way,” Amelia observed, while using her fingernails to remove oily turkey skin from the base of a submerged roasting pan. “I will go when the time is right. Maybe if I ever have a honeymoon, I will go… Or maybe, I will go to Paris.”
Amelia jerked her hand in the sink, and dish soap bubbles found their way onto her hair. “Yup,” she responded.
“I couldn’t picture you over there; you’d get lost.”
“Well, you might be right. Maybe I’d go to Prince Edward Island instead. Yes, I think that is a better plan.”
“You are so silly, Ms. Anne of Green Gables lover.”
Amelia had dated the usual high-school classmates, but nothing worked out. She was attractive by all accounts, but not overly interested in men, though one man had caught her attention.
She once met a sailor who had travelled the world. He spent nine months with the French Navy, stationed in Saint Pierre. The two were near-inseparable during that time. When his orders came in for his next assignment, he abruptly left.
Jacques defiantly led the way through the dark, damp grass. Estelle and Amelia followed, holding hands. The fire had started in the middle of the night, and none of them had properly rested. Furthermore, the smoke was polluting their lungs and had taxed their oxygen supply.
Estelle’s pace was a fraction ahead of her sister’s. Next, Rémy walked alone. Several times he thought he heard something unusual in the bush, and braced for an encounter, but nothing of the sort occurred. Further behind were Beatrice and Leon, with less determined steps than their comrades.
“Hurry,” Jacques barked to the group. “Papa’s house is close.”
A helicopter passed above the group. For a brief moment they were illuminated by a searchlight. The party froze, but the light moved on. Close call. The helicopter disappeared with the search light painting zigzags in front of them.
Jacques knew the path like the back of his hand. The others followed him, realizing there was much of the countryside that they had not seen before. Jacques opted to take an inconspicuous route, in case there were any patrols on the main roads. “Almost there,” he said multiple times to reassure those following. Dawn was breaking; dispersed smoke was visible in the sun’s rays.
All of their eyes watered, and a few times they had to stop because the older three had trouble breathing. Leon, Beatrice, and Rémy coughed a lot. Then their shoes became wet from the dew forming in the wild grass and foliage. There was collective moaning from everyone, except Jacques. “Almost there. Honest,” he assured them.
Finally, they were there.
The cabal stood in front of the large rural house, and Jacques wondered if his father was asleep. He pounded on the wooden door. The door swung widely open, and there was Mathieu, grinning ear-to-ear, definitely not asleep.
“Hey ya, boy. I was worried. I’m glad to see that you, and your lovely wife, are all right,” he said. Then, looking to the others, he continued, “And I’m glad to see all of you. Amelia! Rémy—hey! Hey to you all, Beatrice, Leon? Please come in. I figured it was only a matter of time before I would see Jacques, and it doesn’t surprise me that he brought friends.”
They all happily entered the rustic dwelling, and moved via candlelight to the kitchen. The floor squeaked.
“Did you lose power?”
“What about your generator?” Jacques asked his father. “Need help firing it up?”
“Well, actually, I don’t want to draw any attention to myself. You know, don’t you? Do you know that they—the police—were driving up and down the road trying to round us up?”
“Really? Already? Thought they’d be busy trying to put the fire out…”
“Yeah, they did. But I think they figured this house as abandoned now. I hid my car around back, too. Ha ha. But if they saw the lights on, or heard that loud-ass generator, I think they’d be back, and telling us to pack up. I don’t want to leave; this party just started,” he said gleefully, with the tone of a man losing grip on reality.
By extension, Mathieu Blanc was Estelle’s father-in-law. No family linkage existed between Amelia and Mathieu, but the two got along well as friends, despite an awkward sexual advance by him during fête Nationale the previous year.
Mathieu uncorked a dusty bottle of his unlabelled wine and filled seven glasses. There was only enough for each recipient to receive a few ounces, with a noticeably larger portion going to himself. All gladly accepted the alms. The group proceeded to exchange pleasantries with their host. It had been a long time since Mathieu last saw Rémy, and even longer since he’d seen Beatrice and Leon. He smiled at Amelia, and she shyly returned the gesture.
“So what are your plans, Papa?” Estelle asked her father-in-law. “You think you should’ve left on the big boats?”
“I don’t know. At first I liked the idea of staying here, but I’m getting worried that it will be lonely. I really don’t know what to do. I feel old, but… Well, where am I going to get fresh milk, meat, eggs? How many cigarettes are left on this island? My opinion is changing by the minute.”
“You’re not getting it from my shop,” Rémy said for comic relief. “The place is ashes.”
“Such a shame. Waste of tobacco!”
“Well,” Jacques said in attempt to keep the conversation serious, “we would like you to come with us to Miquelon. If you say that the police are patrolling, if they are looking for people, then it’s obvious we can’t stay here long. Do you still have your old fishing boat? I think going to Miquelon is what we must do—at least until this all blows over.”
“Yes, I still have the boat. It’s yours to use if you must, but I am not sure if I can make such a trip myself. I feel I’m getting too old. I really don’t know what to do,” he said, while swirling the wine in his glass. “All I know is that I didn’t want to just run to the harbour to get ‘rescued.’ And I wanted to know that you and Estelle were safe, because I figured you wouldn’t get on those boats either. I guess I was right, ha ha. And, of course I am glad to see the other four of you—but maybe a bit surprised that you all didn’t leave. My house is still standing; all of yours must be burnt?” He finished his wine in a pronounced gulp.
“You’re too old? Ha ha,” snorted Rémy. “Come on; you’re a young buck like I. What are you, two years older than me? You used to be up for an adventure. Don’t tell me you’re now going to run away?”
After some back-and-forth, mostly joking around, Mathieu decided to vocalize what he had been thinking for some time. “Look, I am going to stay in my home until the police come to get me. I am not going to hide from them, and I am not going to bring attention to myself. I’ll keep the lights off, but they can come whenever. I have plenty of food here, and could live contently for quite a long time. Even got my old fishing rod, if need comes to it. But I will go when the police knock at my door. That’s final. As for you all, well, you might not want to be around when that happens.”
“You’d go to Fortune?” Amelia asked Mathieu, relieved to know someone else in the party was thinking as she was. I want to go to Fortune! Why the hell are we still here? This is nonsense. Here there are no doctors left. There are no people. What if feral dogs or wild animals attack?
“Yes, I will go to Fortune,” Mathieu said with conviction. “Do any of you want to come with me?”
No one responded, but Amelia squirmed in her seat. She loved Saint Pierre. She had never left Saint Pierre, but she was afraid to stay. Suddenly a trip to Fortune seemed long overdue.