Jake Connolly slept in the middle of his king-sized bed, the sprawl of his lean frame the sole point of untidiness in his penthouse. Pristine and spacious, the apartment’s empty walls and sleek furniture had bold, clean lines. The exclusive designer called the style Minimalist Plus, and when awake, Jake found the effect calming. Now, though, he tossed and turned, his dark hair awry as he kicked the blue satin sheet from his body.
The display on his charging phone read four a.m., but in downtown LA, true darkness lurked only in pockets. While an eerie wind gusted outside, ambient light seeped into his penthouse from cars, from neon signs, from the nocturnal beat of a city that had long since abandoned the normal rhythms of sleep.
Sweating, Jake continued to twist and kick, gasping like a free diver surfacing for air. When the lull did finally arrive, it brought no solace. Eyelids tightly shut, he lay rigidly on his back, fists clenched, face pointing toward the ceiling.
Suddenly, he sat bolt upright as if waking from a nightmare, except that he didn’t wake up. His body relaxed while his eyes pinged open, dim with a far-off glaze. He swung his legs out to the side, standing up in a trance, oblivious to the feel of the hardwood floor as he padded along.
The open layout of the penthouse allowed Jake to cross it without the obstruction of doors. In boxer shorts he sleepwalked his way through the living room area, around the Italian couch; the TV and sound system; and the pyrite cube display, the fool’s gold glowing softly as he passed.
He padded silently into the kitchen area, all gleaming chrome and imported granite, a stark, spare space, the worktop uncluttered except for the microwave and coffee maker. To this Jake approached, taking out a cup and putting it in place. He turned the machine on, the soft hum as it warmed up the only sound in the apartment.
Still between worlds, Jake left the kitchen and retraced his earlier route. On reaching the bed he sat back down, closed his eyes, and reclined on his side. In an instant he was tossing and turning again.
By the time his alarm went off at six thirty, the satin sheet had spilled onto the floor. He felt groggy and ignored it, instead walking slowly to the front of the penthouse to take in the sweeping view from the floor-to-ceiling windows. As dawn broke, the city opened up to the horizon, sunlight washing clean all traces of the night. Traffic already dotted the roads, and Jake could see tiny figures scurrying to work along the sidewalk far below. He yawned and grabbed his phone, checking his messages automatically as he stretched out.
Due in Burbank court at nine a.m. for the water rights case, Jake hesitated before changing into his running gear, tired and for once sorely tempted to let discipline slide. But no, he’d do his usual few miles, forcing himself to stay in shape, his body just as much a project as his career. Aged thirty-one, he hadn’t become such a rising star by lacking grit. Tough local university, scholarship to Harvard, then slogging his way up Goldstein and Baker, one of the top three law firms in LA.
But even rising stars needed coffee. Jake walked over to the kitchen, while around him the city continued to come alive. The apartment benefited from the best soundproofing Jake had been able to buy. Even so, the buzz of it filtered through as he strode across the floor…
And found the steaming cup waiting. It sat in the coffee maker, hot and ready even though he couldn’t remember setting the machine. It was an accusation, as clear and damning as any piece of evidence or contractual clause. As hard as Jake tried to come up with an explanation for it, only one really made sense. He glanced back across the apartment toward his bed, then again to the cup.
“Not again. Fuck.”
Jake ran the way he did every morning, with a focused determination to shut out the world. Everyone he had to pass was an obstacle, every moment of interaction a delay. He kept the earbuds from his phone in, music drowning out the sounds of the city, blocking even the echo of his own breathing from intruding. When traffic forced him to pause on the edge of the sidewalk, he jogged in place, impatient for the opportunity to hurry on.
Grand Park was nearly empty as Jake set off on his second circuit. Normally, he barely noticed the scenery around him, but today one sight stopped him. An elderly Chinese couple was doing tai chi in the shade of a tree, the two of them flowing with such ease and power, Jake pretended to stretch so he could watch. Every light movement of their hands was rooted to the ground below. They stepped forward in perfect unison, lifting up onto one leg and extending the other as their arms spread wide. It was more graceful than anything Jake could have managed, even though he had to be thirty years younger.
The woman took up a pose with her hands out in front of her while Jake waited for her to do something, but she didn’t. The man, meanwhile, started walking in circles, faster than typical tai chi, but with the same sense of wholeness. His movements turned sinuous every time he switched direction, his body seeming to fold and unfold as he did.
Jake remained transfixed until the bleeping of his phone’s alarm shattered his absorption as neatly as a dropped vase. “Damn it,” he muttered. He’d now have to sprint back to the apartment to make it in time for the case.
Jake had bought his Porsche Cayenne Turbo SUV for its spirited driving along the dirt tracks of California’s mountains. Out there, it charged its way around with enough speed to make him feel totally alive. Stuck downtown in traffic en route to the Golden State Freeway, it was simply an expensive frame for his frustration.
“Come on,” he said as another light turned red. He resisted the urge to slam his hand against the wheel. It wasn’t bad luck—luck only existed for those who believed in it. If plans went wrong, you worked harder, you didn’t whine about it. Although exactly how hard work could make traffic lights turn green, he didn’t know.
He sighed and looked to his right at the graffiti-covered wall painted with strings of signature tags, odd-looking scrawls, and occasional attempts at real art. One piece of graffiti caught his eye, mostly because of the blank border around it. Elsewhere, the lines and tags swirled over one another, claiming and reclaiming space, an argument in spray paint. In this one spot, those painting around it had conceded.
“History is myth,” Jake read aloud. “What does that mean?”
Before he could ponder the answer, his phone rang, loud and insistent. The display showed the name of his boss, Giles Bennett.
Jake glanced at the clock on the dash: 8:31 a.m. Steeling himself, he took the call.
“Jake, where the hell are you?” Giles demanded over the car’s speakers. It was always a demand with Giles. His voice was too loud, too bluff, for anything else.
“I’m stuck in a jam.”
“That sounds like an excuse, Jake,” Giles said. “When are you going to be at court?”
“I’ll get there soon,” Jake promised, although he couldn’t see how.
“Well, hurry,” Giles said. “There’s plenty of meat on the table, and I’m ready to start carving.”
Giles cut off without the niceties of a goodbye. Clenching the wheel, Jake spied a gap ahead and darted forward into it, doing his best to ignore the blaring horn of the white van behind.
When Giles had talked about carving he hadn’t been joking. Their client, a multinational water bottling business, was paying them top dollar to defend a test case against a crank organic almond farmer. Jake’s firm had advised the water bottlers on ways to establish their right to use the stream on the farmer’s land, playing a slow, patient game for the eventual payoff. Picking the right grower had been a big part of it. One who paid attention to every aspect of his farm would have been a problem. One like Henry Rinder, however, the too-rich son of minor British aristocracy, regularly in and out of rehab…that was easier.
A sensible man would have settled a long time ago, but this one wanted his day in court, presumably hoping if he could get his story plastered over enough newspapers he could at least win the PR war. Jake’s clients were naturally concerned about their brand. After spending millions marketing the purity and honesty of their water, they didn’t want their image tarnished. And that was the real challenge. The case itself presented no difficulty other than their clients coming out of it looking like the good guys.
This didn’t concern Jake now as much as getting to the courthouse. After leaving the freeway and making his way through the suburban streets of Burbank, he raced up East Angelino Avenue, and then turned into the courthouse garage. With three minutes to spare, he screeched around the first two levels before spotting a space on the third. Jake swung his Porsche into it, his front bumper scraping the car on the left. He jumped out and fished his briefcase and a bulging plastic bag from the passenger seat, straightening his suit before taking the elevator to ground level and jogging the short distance to the main entrance of the courthouse.
The low-rise concrete building of Burbank Courthouse looked as though it had been carved out of a huge brick. As he approached the front, he could see a group of protesters jostling outside, monitored by two policemen. An occupational hazard these days; people thought if they shouted loudly enough they could change the law. The media were also out in force, an unexpected bonus. Jake had banked on phones being pointed at him when he solved his clients’ PR issue, but actual news cameras were much better.
“Time to play,” he said and pushed his way through.
Sixty minutes later, Henry Rinder and his attorney were back outside, keen to take the
fight to the media. Jake followed closely behind.
The noise of the protestors hit them like a wave.
“No water, no life!”
“Drought means death!”
Obviously, news of the result had already gotten out.
Henry stepped up to the microphones and cameras being held by the assembled reporters.
The shouting stopped.
“I promise you, even though this has gone against me today, I will continue to find ways to fight for farming in ethical, meaningful ways!”
Jake stood to the side, waiting to catch the crowd’s attention. His eyes alighted on one girl who seemed determined to rewrite her message to reflect the day’s events, her placard running out of space. She spotted Jake and pushed her way forward, shoving a leaflet into his hands that explained in small writing everything the evil water bottlers would do to LA’s environment.
“You’re killing our planet,” she insisted.
Jake smiled. “Me in particular, or just my clients?” He delivered the line not for her, but for the reporters, willing them to take notice as he spoke.
They spotted him soon enough, turning their cameras to him in a ring of expectation. They knew when they were going to get a better quote than anything offered from an old-money farmer.
“Do you have any idea how much water they’re wasting?” the girl asked.
Jake reached into the plastic bag he’d taken from the car and pulled out an empty gallon water bottle. Or almost empty. He held it up to let the cameras focus on the contents. A single almond rattled inside, clear and easy to see. Jake had originally been going to use a whole bagful, but one made for a better image. One would be something the watching public could remember, put up on its social media feeds, talk about.
“Water is our most precious resource,” Jake said. The cameras closed in to get a clear shot of the almond. Hopefully, they were also getting a good view of his face. He wanted them to recall who had done this. “It is always regrettable when we can’t solve our disputes outside of a courtroom, but water is a resource worth fighting for.
“But what are we really fighting about?” He paused for emphasis, hoisting the bottle higher. “Henry Rinder will tell you it’s about heritage, or the environment. About a big company coming in and stomping all over the little guy. It’s not. It’s about this. An almond.”
Jake tipped the bottle and spilled the almond onto his palm. “One almond takes a gallon of water to grow. California almond farmers like Henry Rinder use 1.1 trillion gallons of water each year. That’s enough water to supply all homes and businesses in Los Angeles for three times as long. And yet the government urges us to take less showers and not water our plants.” He let the figures sink in, then clenched the almond in his hand and held his fist up. “That’s nuts!”
There were sniggers from the media and cameras flashed in front of him.
“Almonds are a luxury product, and over 70 percent of our almonds are exported overseas, mainly to China. The prosperous middle classes in other countries benefit while we suffer.
“The organic almonds from Henry Rinder’s farm cost fifteen dollars a pound. He wants you to believe my clients have been criminally wasting his water. The truth is this—almond farmers like him criminally waste your water.”
He looked toward Henry and his attorney and then back to the cameras.
“Would you rather be clean and have fresh, safe bottled water, or be dirty and thirsty but have plenty of expensive almonds? My clients tried to work with Henry Rinder to find a way to share the abundant water around his farm, but he was never there.”
Jake didn’t give the reason. It would look better if the news people found out about the farmer’s time in rehab for themselves. He looked around at the crowd again. He’d won and they knew it, even if he’d taken some liberties with the facts. It didn’t matter. What mattered was the story people would repeat, a story where his firm’s clients triumphed as the good guys.
Jake’s eyes met those of the girl who had given him the leaflet. He could see the contempt in them, almost pity, and although it shouldn’t have disturbed him in his moment of victory, it did. He’d had clients to protect. The rest…well, that was somebody else’s problem.