Market Forces

Market Forces

She drove down on a glorious May morning, and had she not already known she was leaving God’s country she would have suspected she was entering it. Kathryn Banks had woke in an angle of light, the early sun falling through the bedroom window of her Loudon County estate and, for the first time since her husband had passed away the previous June, felt what might be called happiness or, if not happiness, purpose. Her daughters were away for the weekend, Maddy a junior at Hollins, Jocelyn, a high school sophomore, sleeping at a friend’s, so Kathryn walked alone through the paddocks and out to the stables. The horses appeared as luminous as the day, though she suspected that was simply the product of her mood. She had coffee and spent twenty minutes doing a serious of intense body weight exercises (planks, pushups, bicycle kicks—she had an app on her phone) and another twenty in the half lotus, attuning her breath. She showered and dressed, matched a Hermes scarf to her Eileen Fisher pants, and, sometime around eight, got in her Lexus and started south on I-81.

The bottling plant lay on 176 acres in a forgotten corner of Southwest Virginia, rolling hills, grazing Herefords. Farther east began the coalfields, the gutted seams and striated rock, but that was miles away. Here it was all apple orchards and bike trails, the farm-to-table restaurants by the clapboard churches, and beneath it all, a water as pure as the day.

Credit card receipts indicate she stopped once for gas and bottle of Lion Heart Kombucha (BEV $4.19) in Wytheville.

Cellular records indicate she made no phone calls.

It was just after lunch when she met the realtor, Monty Drudge, at his downtown office in Mountain View. His office, like the town, might be described as fabricated quaint. A fish-scaled Victorian, it had Federalist furniture and a La Marzocco espresso machine. The town had gaslights and a microbrewery. All of it intentional—the shabby chic the product of a Richmond consultancy—and all of it animated by the sort of civic pride that arises at the intersection of affluence and affectation.

Though he acted as if he knew nothing of her, Drudge admitted in later court findings he had done a minimum of due diligence, which is to say he had Googled Kathryn Banks. So, as they sat down to coffee and croissants on the wrought iron chairs in the triangle of courtyard behind his office—it really was a glorious day, all peonies and sunlight—Drudge would have known that when her husband had died the previous summer of a heart attack outside the U.S. District Court in Oakland, California, he had left his wife with sole ownership of a water bottling consortium that stretched from Rialto, California, to Enterprise, Florida, and was valued at roughly 147 million US dollars (Mr. Banks had consistently disputed this figure, thus his appearance that day in court). Drudge would have known that following her husband’s death, Kathryn and her daughter Jocelyn (Joce to her friends) had sold the family home in Santa Clara County and moved east to be nearer her oldest daughter. Had he accessed public records easily available online, he would have known she had recently purchased bottling plants in Michigan and Minnesota. Were he particularly diligent he might have even known that the Banks, man and wife, had been especially generous to Republican candidates at both the state and national level, had contributed lavishly (and unsuccessfully) to California Proposition 8, and twice been guests of the Koch brothers at their strategy sessions at the Esmerelda Renaissance Resort just outside Palm Springs.

“Mrs. Banks,” he might have said, hand extended. “What a pleasure.”

They made small talk on the courtyard—she’d seen the theater coming in and asked about the summer season: they were staging Shrek: The Musical—and then got into Drudge’s Tahoe and drove north.

The bottling plant sat thirteen miles out of town, the land ascending, rising from the valley into the rolling hills, everything green, everything alive. What poverty there was—trailers, concrete stoops crowded with washers and dogs—appeared more as authentication than blight. They passed a fledgling vineyard and a fading billboard—HOW DO YOU LIKE YOUR ETERNITY? SMOKING OR NON?—and parked on a gravel fire road beneath the beech and white pine, ahead of them a gate pulled shut.

“One moment and I’ll just…”

But when Drudge went to open the gate Kathryn Banks said she’d rather walk down, see the land, get a sense of things.

“You sure? It’s quarter of a mile.”

“I don’t mind,” she said. “A day like this.”

They wound uphill through the dense forest, the road overhung with white pine and cut with the runoff of spring rain, but at the switchback it opened onto a long sweep of pasture, the path lined with sunflowers. The building itself appeared in a fold of land, block walls and a metal roof, like an airplane hangar removed to a landscape painting, the Hudson River School gone post-industrial. The bottling plant had closed in March of 2003, a victim, according to bankruptcy filings, of heightened security requirements after 9/11.

“But everything’s intact?”

“Like the day they left it. I’ve seen it myself.”

He was right, of course. The raw tank and the booster pump, the quartz and carbon filters. The winding belts that led from the filling and capping machine on to the shrink-wrap— it was all exactly as it had been left, functional and clean. Cleaner, in fact, as Drudge had hired a service to pressure wash the interior, flushing out the dust and grime and a family of field mice so resilient he’d debated hiring a falconer.

“I’ll have to have someone check the condition of the machinery,” she said.

“Of course,” Drudge said, smiling his bright smile.

“I could get a team down here by, say, middle of the week.”

“I can be here at your convenience.”

“They’d need to check the transfer pump, a few other things. Is there power?”

“I can certainly get it on.”

She stood nodding, bottom lip caught between her teeth. “It might be useful to find a local partner,” she said.

“I can look into that if you like.”

“Someone with a good sense of the business climate, local knowledge.”

“I can certainly look into that, absolutely.”

She turned then, no longer nodding, no longer biting her lip. She had, it appeared, decided.

“And the price?” she asked.

But she already knew the price. It was the price that had drawn her. 800K. Absurdly cheap, even if the machinery was no longer operational—though she could tell by looking at it that it still was. Her husband had taught her that much at least.

“Let me make a call,” she said, and walked out of the cool, dim interior into the warm sun.

It was all, they were both thinking, too good to be true. And it was, and they knew it.

That was Saturday.


Sundays Monty Drudge kept the Sabbath, driving south from Mountain View to Abingdon Baptist, an octagonal arena of sound and light where three thousand parishioners met over coffee and crullers to celebrate the resurrection of both their Lord (via God’s grace) and the greater fossil fuel industry (via the grace—and subsidies—of the Trump administration).

Abingdon was the legal hub of the region’s coal companies and was littered with lawyers and executives and former legislatures who had retired here in order to drink bourbon at Morgan’s while their wives got their mani-pedis at the Martha Washington Inn. You could drive around the countryside in your vintage Aston-Martin thinking about the founding fathers while antiquing for stoneware or another corner cupboard. Monty Drudge made the half-hour drive for reasons economic: the church provided a gateway to his moneyed clientele, and more often than not he stuck around for lamb and roasted potatoes in this or that paneled dining room.

So it was that two weeks after Kathryn Banks’s visit he found himself having Sunday dinner in a Main Street bistro with Jeff Morgan. Morgan owned a chain of interstate Bojangles, thirteen restaurants spread north along I-81. He had spent two years as a missionary in Sierra Leone and while he had found salvation, he had lost his wife Carol who left him at the Freetown Radisson to return home and take up with a North Carolina carpenter known to his 8000 followers on Instagram as The Wood Shaver.

“Except he doesn’t even build houses or barns or whatever,” Jeff said. “It’s god-dang ‘wood art,’ or ‘wood sculpture,’ which, excuse me, but that’s just bullshit is what that is.”

The previous week Banks had sent down both a lawyer and a mechanical engineer. The machinery had functioned exactly as it should and now the papers were being drawn up.

When the waitress—Drudge recognized her from one of the local theater productions and made a mental note to stop back by later in the week—brought out a torte for Morgan and a coffee for himself, Drudge switched the conversation to the bottling plant.

“You finally selling that son of a bitch?” Morgan was all chocolatey teeth, powdered sugar in his beard.

“Like you didn’t hear?”

“I heard some little old lady from California bought it.”

“From Virginia,” Drudge corrected, “by way of California. Just to be clear.”

Morgan smiled.

“Well, good for you, brother. What’s the commission on a deal like that?”

“What are you up to these days, Jeff?”

“Ten percent of what? Seven, eight hundred K?”

“Cause a little bird told me you were spending your days driving up and down the highway bugging the fry cooks.”

“A little bird told you that?”

“Checking the sweet tea for sugar. Checking the bathrooms for toilet paper.”

“It’s called quality control.”

“It’s called boredom. You really love biscuits that much?”

“I love profit that much,” he said. The tines of the fork came out of his mouth gleaming.

“How bout that?”

“How bout that indeed. But listen for a minute.”

“The woman, the California Yankee via Virginia via wherever the hell she hailed from, needed a partner, someone local, someone with area contacts.”

“Ah.” Morgan had the chocolate smile thing down. “So that’s what this was about. She wants how much, a third of the stake, half?”

“She doesn’t want any money.”

“Don’t tell me two-goddamn-thirds.”

“Zero. She’s buying local knowledge.”

“Local knowledge.”

“She wants someone onboard who’s from here.”

“Thus the invitation to lunch.” He attempted to wipe the chocolate from his face. “Look, I’m flattered, but I’m not interested.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“I appreciate it, but I’m not. This thing with Carol—”

“Jesus, Jeff.”

“This thing with Carol. Seriously. It just sort of took the starch out of me.”

“Would a twenty percent stake put it back in you?”

Morgan took his napkin from his lap, inspected it, quartered it, and, finally, draped it over his dessert plate as if it were a fallen comrade.

“Twenty percent?”

“So you’re listening?”

“I’m listening.”

“Or maybe you just can’t get away long enough from all that chicken and biscuits and dirty rice?”

“Goddamn, brother. I said I’m listening.”


Ownership was transferred on the second of June, 2017, and while Banks LLC. held a controlling interest, a minority stake (twenty-five percent after negotiations) fell to Morgan Enterprises. Two days later Jeff hired a secretary and set up an office on the premises. A week after that, water samples were taken from Morgan’s kitchen sink and shipped to Richmond for testing. This wasn’t so much obfuscation—the water was pure as a Christian’s heart—so much as convenience: the pumps would take a few days to get operational and there was no sense in delaying.

Jeff called a friend with Dollar General to see if maybe they were interested in a distribution deal and sure, maybe, we’ll see.

Three days later revival began.


Revival in the southern church goes back as far as the brush arbor. The circuit-riding preacher arrives via horseback or Edsel or, in the case of Abingdon Baptist, a Land Rover driven south from Arlington, to drive membership and quench a collective thirst for the water of life. While tradition called for a week of prayer and repentance, market forces had compelled the church to consolidate to a single night, that night being Sunday, the eighth of June. The preacher in this case, Dr. Michael Fuzzeli, was not so much a Soul Saver as a political organizer currently on leave from his own church (Baptist, mega) and spending a year as a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. It was known that Reverend Fuzzeli had the ear of the president, and the presence of such a Beltway heavyweight brought out the area’s business and political elite, including, but not limited to, former Congressman (R—Ninth District) Gresham Manley. Manley had served two terms in the halls of power but then, more taken with his own electability than the electorate, lost a bid for Governor, polling, alas, in the single digits. There followed a period of soul-searching involving affairs with both a staff intern from UVA (nineteen and perfectly legal) and low-grade benzodiazepines (Oxys, ten milligram Percs—but only occasionally), ultimately culminating in twenty-eight days at the Wildflower Recovery Center and a YouTube confessional where he tearfully apologized for his misdeeds and announced his intention to reenter public life as the Servant-Leader God intended him be.

But God had other ideas, and the night Manley arrived to hear Reverend Fuzzeli deliver his sermon “Gifts of the Spirit,” he had put aside all plans of returning to office (the focus groups were less than positive), and accepted a job with the World Food Program. It was a sort of sinecure, he supposed, but a good job, and he was excited, maybe a little scared. He needed comfort. In a week, he’d be in Rome organizing aid efforts in the Sahel, and overcome with a certain sentimentality, had come, he supposed, to say goodbye.

Looking back, Manley would come to believe that winding up thigh-to-thigh in the pew by Jeff Morgan could only be viewed as God’s inscrutable will. That they fell into conversation, Manley revealing his imminent departure—“Goddamn, Gresh, Rome?”—could only be seen as, well, a Gift of the Spirit. And then Africa came up.


“I’ll be working in the Sahel. Mali, Niger, Chad—”

“Jesus, man, I know the Sahel. I spent the two best years of my life in Africa, Carol and me. Tell you what, let me buy you a drink.”

Manley didn’t drink anymore, but he did accept the invitation, so that they wound up at The Tavern on Main, leaning forward over glasses of Woodford and a Diet 7Up, no ice, but yes, a straw, please, plastic, because he was sick of those tree-huggers telling him what to do. Manley had spent the weeks since accepting the position wishing badly for a different life, so when Morgan confessed how jealous he was—“I’d love to be you right now, brother.”—Manley was willing to hear it. Eventually, the conversation turned to Morgan, his divorce, his fried chicken, and, a mere afterthought at this point, his water-bottling venture.

“Hey,” Manley said, “are you for real?”

“About the water? Completely.”

“You know we deliver water to Africa. All over the world, actually.”

“I did not know that, my friend.”

“At least I think we do. You know?”


“Hey, if something were to ever come up.”

“Sure, yeah,” Morgan said, now drunk and unable to imagine anything past those days in Freetown, Carol on the balcony of the Radisson in giant sunglasses and gauzy sarong, “keep me in mind.”


But the only thing Gresham Manley could keep in mind was how much he hated Rome. It was dirty, it was hot. When he tooled around the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in white Nikes and fanny pack the locals looked like he was some dumb American which, obviously, he so was not. He liked Africa better. He was spending two or three days a week in Niamey or Bamako, flying down on a baby blue Hercules to oversee the distribution of this pallet of grain or that crate of tractor parts. He’d started keeping a blog called “Dispatches from the Dark Continent,” then, realizing he was in violation of both departmental policy and good taste, had started simply emailing his reflections to his old friend Jeff Morgan. Though Morgan only responded to every third or fourth post—“Good stuff, buddy!!!”—Manley was grateful for an audience. In his darker moments, Manley refused to entertain the possibility that Morgan was his only friend, and, if you got down to it, not really a friend at all. But Gresham Manley’s one true talent was ingratiating himself in places he was otherwise unwelcome, so when he found his department on the verge of opening bidding on a new contract (7.5 million dollars of water to be delivered in one liter bottles for distribution throughout the Sahel) Manley very casually—it involved no more than a single click of his mouse—changed the bidding status from “open” to “closed.” Then, in what he would later describe to the Inspector General’s Office as a fit of temporary insanity brought on by the heat and a nascent case of (undiagnosed) Typhoid fever, inserted a two in front of the 7.5. 27.5 million dollars the figure became. 27.5 million to be paid for 7.5 millions dollars worth of water.

Then he picked up the phone and, despite the time difference, called Jeff Morgan.


In July, Kathryn Banks attended the Spring Cup in Middleburg where both her daughters were participating in the individual dressage (both were said to be horse-crazy, and a look at the Instagram pics of the Dorado riding boots lining their closets like soldiers in a North Korean parade would seem to attest to as much). It was to be a grand day, announcing, as she imagined it, her arrival in Virginia society, a regional trumpeting of her wealth, taste, and gathering influence. It was a classy affair and the last person she wanted in attendance was Jeff Morgan—she had met him twice, both times equally underwhelmed, and since then had given no thought to her new bottling plant. But she had a member’s box, so when he asked, repeatedly, insistently, what was she to say but yes, come, of course. He had good news, he said. She supposed that with the grace of God and a sufficient quantity of gin she could handle as much.

The Spring Cup is arguably the oldest horse race in the United States. As such, it holds its attendees to a standard of dress that makes most derbies appear as receptions at the local Hampton Inn, all Business Casual and a party tray from Chick-fil-A. But here, the landed gentry of Old Virginia dressed in seersuckers by Thom Browne and sun hats by Etro while rubbing well-moisturized elbows with the Beltway elite, the retired three-stars, the lobbyists, the blonde with the high cheekbones and a spot on Fox & Friends. It was not so much the world Kathryn Banks preferred so much as the one only one she acknowledged.

So when she saw Jeff Morgan coming through the crowd in khakis and a golf shirt that read—good Lord—18th Annual Bob Evans Charity Golf Classic, she felt herself go brittle, a sharpening of her already sharp features. She met him down by the infield fence, away from anyone she might recognize, and exhaled with great deliberateness. She would give him two minutes.

“I just saw a man in a pink suit,” he said.

“How lovely.”

“Had the sort of frilly collar if you know what I’m talking about.”

“You’ll see those now and then.”

“He looked queer to me but I’m bad about those things.”

“What exactly did you want to talk about, Mr. Morgan?”

“Like ruffles is what you’d call them. A grown man, I’m talking about.”

He held a champagne flute, a single raspberry having sunk to the bottom.

“Business, I presume,” Banks said.

He downed the champagne, hesitated, and then ate the raspberry.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Business, indeed.”

Somehow those two minutes turned into ten, and then twenty, and then Banks was escorting him up to her box, oblivious to the expensive clamor all around her because Morgan had said the magic words. Morgan had said, “Twenty-seven point five mil, ma’am.”

“And this man?”

“Gresham Manley.”

“This Gresham Manley. He’s a friend of yours?”

“So to speak,” Morgan said. “I mean yes, so far, I guess, as he has friends.”

“Don’t we already have a deal to distribute through—where?”

“Dollar General. But this is different,” he said. “This is another order of magnitude, profit-wise.”

They were leaned against the open window of the box, around them Kathryn’s new friends, her daughters friends, around her the world she would shortly come to rule through not so much the heft of her bank account as the force of her will.

“And this is legal?” she asked.

He shrugged. “It’s just a contract.”

“For 27.5 million.”

“I’d say we’d turn 21, 22 mil in straight profit. But the thing is, we’d have to ramp up production.”

“What would that entail?”

And with this he took not a business plan from an attaché case but a single sheet of notebook paper from his pocket. On it, he had diagrammed the layout of the RAIN! facility.

“We drill a second well just down the slope here” he said. “Pump the water back up to the bottling facility. Up front costs are maybe two mil but the return—Lord.”

“Couldn’t we just up production from the primary?”

“Unfortunately no. We couldn’t meet the contract demand.”

“You’re sure of this?”

“You can send your man down if you like, but I’ve looked at it ten different ways.”

“So a second well.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And you can do this?”

“We’d have to it tested, approved, all that legal shit.”

“That’s nothing.”

“Water samples and so on.”

“That’s a mere formality.” She looked out at the track where the horses were being led from the infield tunnel, beside them small men in bright jumpsuits.

“So…” Morgan said.

“So call your so to speak friend back. Sign the papers.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Get that well in the ground.”

“Yes, goddamn, ma’am,” he said, and slapped the notebook paper against his thigh.

“Oh, and Mr. Morgan,” she called to him as he was leaving.

He paused and grinned his big cracker grin.

“Next time,” she said, “wear a tie.”


Phone records indicate Morgan called Gresham Manley that night. It was early morning in Rome and Manley picked up. Two days later, they began to drill the second well just down the slope from the primary borehole. It was three weeks later that Manley called back to let his old pal know that the contract had now made its way through the bureaucratic tangle that was the World Food Program and was ready for a signature.


Gresham Manley’s call went to voicemail. Not that Jeff Morgan was avoiding him. It was more that Morgan suddenly found himself sunk in a mire of his own trouble. RAIN! had pumped its first samples from the second well and, per state regulations, submitted them to the Department of Health and Environmental Control. The A and B samples were bottled and labeled and off to the state office in Richmond. It had happened without his consent—in a fit of initiative his plant manager had sent them, but while Jeff would have preferred submitting samples from the well that pumped cool mountain water into his house, he wasn’t worried. It was a formality. They’d be flying water into the Sahel by autumn. But then Morgan got a call from Ben Johnson, a distant relative he now and then ran into at family reunions beneath the picnic shelter at Grayson Highlands State Park, the big shelter, he meant. Morgan was head of Dairy, Soft Drinks, and Bottled Water (this is what was meant by “local knowledge”) and called with some very troubling news.

A week after sending the samples, Johnson phoned to say that the water he had just tested contained unusually high levels of dioxins.

“That can’t be.”

But somewhere far away in an office park Morgan swore it was. “Jeff, I’m telling you, you’ve got chlorinated hydrocarbons running out the ying-yang.”

“I got what?”

“Aldrin, dieldrin, DDT—”

“DDT’s banned, I thought.”

“It is. But these things have hell of a half-life, cuz. Where’d you bottle this again?”

“North of Mountain View,” Morgan said. “In a goddamn pristine place. You can see the info there on the form. This absolutely can’t be.”

“I don’t know what to say except sorry.”

“Did you check the B sample?”

“The results are right here in front of me.”

“But we checked out before. What the hell?”

“But that was a different well.”

“Like two-hundred meters up the slope.”

“Up the slope you say?”

“Yes, up the goddamn slope, where else?

“Well, I’m guessing you’ve got run-off, cuz.”

“Bullshit we’ve got runoff. We’ve got reverse osmosis is what we’ve got. We’ve got carbon filtration. I watched a fucking Wiki-How probably eighteen times. Hired some hydrologist out of fucking Atlanta.”

“But did you look at your soil mobility?”

“My what?”

“Your soil—”

“Look. Just sit tight. I’m driving up there.”

“To Richmond?”

“Has anyone else seen this?”

“Just the lab tech, but there’s no identifying info on it, so—”

“All right. That’s good. Look, just sit tight and don’t do anything till I get there.”

“You really driving up?”

“Don’t call anyone.”

“I gotcha.”

“Don’t even look at anyone. I’m fucking serious, Ben.”

“I gotcha. Relax.”

But there was no relaxing. What there was, was Jeff Morgan making the five hour drive in four so that it was early afternoon when he sat on the brushed steel counter of the lab that adjoined Ben Morgan’s office, report in one hand, his bursting head in the other.

“So I did some research,” Johnson said, and raised an open palm when his cousin looked up in panic. “Didn’t talk to anybody, don’t worry. But I looked up the file on your bottling plant. Take a look here.” He handed Morgan a sheaf of pages, dot-matrix printed down the center, three-hole punched in the corner.

“Why did you tell me they closed?” Johnson asked. “Back in 2002.”

“I never said. But it was security costs after 9/11.”

Johnson tapped the sheets Morgan held.

“I think you better read that.”

He did, the sinking sensation quickly giving way to nausea.


“Like I said, running out the ying-yang.”

“How the fuck did they hide this?”

“Did you ask for the papers?”

“I don’t know.”

“This is all public record,” Johnson said with a shrug. “I had to know where to look, but it’s all out there. I guess no one bothered to track it down? Or maybe no one cared?”

Either way, the papers revealed that while the bottling plant did indeed cite security costs as the reason for declaring bankruptcy, they had failed to mention that water tests conducted in December 2001 had revealed the same elevated levels of chlorinated hydrocarbons that were now showing up in Well 2 and likely would have been found in Well 1 had that sample not come from Morgan’s kitchen sink.

“I’m guessing once the water tested dirty they went and closed preemptively,” Johnson said. “Avoid potential lawsuits, keep regulators out.”

“You mean people like you?”

Johnson shrugged.

“They probably tested it in-house. By law they had to release the result, but since they had already closed it just slipped into the public record.”

“You found it.”

Again, Johnson gave a shrug.

“Yeah, but I knew where to look.”

“And it’s still there,” Morgan asked, “in the water?”

“Half-life. It just takes forever for that shit to go away.”

“But there’s nothing up there. Trees and grass and blue sky. I just don’t…”

“Read the bottom.”

Morgan did.

“An apple orchard,” he said.

“I’m guessing they sprayed pretty heavy back in the day,” Johnson said. “Pesticides, you know? That stuffs seeps, cuz.”


“I’d say you got lucky with the first well. In fact, I’m betting if we tested it again you’d get some elevated number there too. In fact, I’m betting what you supplied was maybe not what you labeled, were they, Jeff?”


“Were they?”

Morgan nodded his heavy head. What had been a low thrum behind his eyes had been replaced with the buzz of action. What was 25% of 27.5 million? He had 6.875 million reasons to do something.

“Can I take these?” he asked about the papers.

“Sure,” Johnson said. “I just printed them off the internet.”

“This report too?”


He went for the two water samples so quick Johnson found himself jumping back. Morgan was hunched forward, papers and bottles clutched to his chest. But even hunched forward he was a big man.

“Actually, Jeff, the water I can’t let you take—”

“I’ll be in touch, all right?”

“The samples are kind of state property now.”

“I’m sorry,” Morgan said. “I’ll be in touch.”


Morgan made it as far as the door before he stopped and walked back over. But something had changed. He stood upright now and his eyes had acquired a clarity that would have frightened Johnson had he not known that—actually, he was flat-out scared.

“Not a word about this, all right?” Morgan said. “These samples never happened. You understand?”

Johnson made his body as still as possible.

“Nod if you understand?”

Johnson made his head nod. If it was slight, it was also all he managed.


That night, Morgan’s phone continued to flash, but he sunk deep into gloom and four glasses of Woodford so he didn’t bother to listen to the voicemail. So it was the next morning when he heard Gresham Manley sounding particularly tinny and chipper.

“Hey, buddy! I got a contract sitting right here in front of me. I think you’re gonna want to give me a call soon as you can.”

That afternoon Morgan drove north to visit Kathryn Banks.


It was August when Monty Drudge got a call from Jeff Morgan inviting him to lunch. Drudge had been seeing the waitress/actress he’d met months ago with Morgan, and hadn’t heard from him since putting together the water deal, as he had come to think of it. But business is a web or a spiral, or some other tacky tangled thing, so when Jeff called asking Monty to join him and his cousin Ben Johnson he wasn’t the least surprised.

They met at the Mountain View Country Club and migrated from the zinc bar with its Edison bulbs and dapper barkeeps to one of the tables that overlooked the fairway.

Morgan appeared sunburned but happy.

“Yeah, old Ben here,” he said, slapping his sheepish cousin on the back, “had a dear aunt pass away—didn’t even know her really, did you, Ben? But here she up and left her entire estate to him. Now he’s looking for a nice piece of property down here to retire on. Aren’t you, Ben?”

Monty found him a twelve-acre estate with a stream, a saltwater pool, and a long view of green mountains. 642K of which he earned six percent. He took his waitress/actress to South Beach to celebrate. Around the time RAIN!’s first shipment of water was loaded onto pallets and slipped into the belly of a C-141 Starlifter at Pope Air Force Base, Ben Johnson bought a membership to the Country Club and a new Kubota tractor. His wife was reading Yelp reviews, searching for a local landscaper though Ben would have rather done things himself. He thought some manual labor might ease his nerves, now that he’d taken early retirement from the state. Still, he was happy. Periodically, he reminded himself to be happy. There had been some misunderstandings regarding water quality and periodically he reminded himself he was glad to have sorted them out. Everything was fine. It was all market forces and he had the house, the wife, the barn with the gorgeous rafters from which, a year later, he would climb into and, reckoning their construction solid enough, tie off the garden hose he would use to hang himself. But that was months in the future. That day, he just needed someone who knew his flowers and shrubs.


Meanwhile, Jeff Morgan had dug his passport out of the drawer—the very act dredged up painful memories of Carol—strapped into a jumpseat on the plane, put on a pair of noise-canceling headphones and swallowed an Ambien. A few hours later he watched the cargo door ease open onto the searing brightness of Ouagadougou Airport and the silhouette of his old friend and new business partner, Gresham Manley.

“Hey, buddy!” Manley called into the hulking interior of the plane. He slapped a pallet of shrink-wrapped water and laughed. “Are you thirsty?” ■

Mark Powell is the author of six novels, most recently Firebird. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, and in 2014 was a Fulbright Fellow to Slovakia. In 2009, he received the Chaffin Award for contributions to Appalachian literature. He holds degrees from Yale Divinity School, the University of South Carolina, and The Citadel. He lives in the mountains of North Carolina, where he teaches at Appalachian State University.

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