Valley Of Shadows – Snippet 13

She watched everything but them.

The party strode directly to the table where Smith and Rune rose to greet them.

“Mr. Smith, Mr. Rune, please accept my thanks for meeting us today,” Matricardi said, offering a firm handshake. “I believe you are acquainted with Mr. Tradittore.” The suave aide nodded and shook hands with the two bankers.

“I also asked my companion, Ms. Oldryskya Khabayeva, to join us. I hope that you don’t mind.”

“Delighted to meet your associates, Mr. Matricardi.” Tom nodded at the companion. “How do you do, Ms. Khabayeva?”

“Quite well, thank you,” the woman replied coolly.

“Please, everyone sit.” The head of the Cosa Nova waited as the others sat in the chairs helpfully pulled out by the wait staff. “I’m delighted that we can all meet as friends and enjoy this restaurant. It’s one of my favorites.”

As the group seated itself, Matricardi snapped his fingers like a rifle shot. Before the sound had faded, Fattore led a short squad of tray bearers to the table. It rapidly filled with wine, rolls, antipasti, frutti di mare and some very small crescent pastries. Rune saw that his boss hadn’t reached for anything, and copied his example.

“Please, the appetizers are excellent,” Matricardi said, shoveling calamari onto his plate. “Talking goes better with eating, believe me.”

“Perhaps I would be a little more comfortable if you asked your security, who is doing a bad job of ignoring me, to either join us or leave,” Smith said, smiling slightly. “Their watchfulness is ruining my appetite.”

Rune controlled a start. He hadn’t noticed any surveillance. Matricardi smiled thinly and nodded to Tradittore, who tapped on his smartphone. Moments later two pairs of men rose from different tables and quietly exited the restaurant.

Smith reached over and spooned some antipasti onto his plate and added a roll. He nodded to the door.

“Thank you.”

The charcoal-suited businessman shrugged and took a bite of his squid.

“It’s a normal precaution,” he said. “But here, as I said, perhaps we can all be friends.

“This zombie plague is scary stuff,” Matricardi continued. “At first a lot of people left the city, but then nothing happened. Every day some people turn zombie, maybe they bite some people, and then the cops snatch them up. My sources tell me that the hospitals are already nearly full. My sources also tell me that this might be some kind of biological weapon attack. They say that the government, the military, the banks and the biotech companies are all trying to make a cure. I notice that you banks are still running your operations in Manhattan, so maybe things aren’t so bad yet. Am I right?”

He emptied a partial bottle of red into his own glass and motioned for more wine.

“I am, at the heart of the matter, a businessman.” He gestured around the restaurant. “This disease is bad for business. More than that, even though my businesses may be unconventional, they fulfill a need and a purpose. Otherwise, why would I even exist?”

“No argument here,” Smith said with a nod. He took another bite and tucked the bite into his cheek as he talked. “Here’s what I am ready to share now, here. One: the disease is synthetic. We think it’s a weapon, but we don’t know who made it or why. There appears to be no specific motive.”

His audience was rapt.

“Two: even though we are catching and isolating victims, the infection curve is still accelerating. We’ve started to get a feel for the natural resistance rate and it’s not good. Whereas with something like smallpox you’ve got a high enough natural resistance rate that society can continue to function even in a major outbreak, the natural resistance rate to this is low enough…so, very not good. Barring a cure or at least a vaccine, it will eventually reach a take-off point from which there is no recovery.”

Tradittore laid down his silverware. Khabayeva hadn’t picked hers up.

“Last: in order to have the best chance to find the vaccine and manufacture it in amounts sufficient to dose the entire population, we need the engines of the economy to keep turning.” Matricardi seemed unperturbed while Smith spoke. The mob boss chewed and swallowed and followed that with wine.

“My business is a part of that engine, right?” Matricardi made a little open palmed gesture towards his side of the table.

“Yes,” Smith agreed equably. “Businesses of all kinds preserve the feeling in all people that things are ‘normal,’ for values of the word normal. I understand that you sell a lot of tuna and swordfish.” He sipped some of the wine and nodded in appreciation. “This needs some of that prosciutto.” He forked prosciutto and green honeydew melon onto his plate.

The Sicilian rotated one hand a few times, flipping it first palm up and them palm down.

“Tuna, swordfish, orange roughy, seabass, cod, abalone, lobster…” Matricardi grinned. “Yeah, I import a bit of seafood.”

“Let’s say that you supply something like fifty percent of illegally caught wild seafood on the East Coast,” Smith continued. “Round numbers. Looking at just one sector, let’s pretend you had to stop bringing flash-frozen swordfish into New Bedford, Port Elizabeth and Pompano Beach. That would cut the annual supply by a wholesale value upwards of a hundred million dollars or conservatively, what, thirty percent? There would be places that couldn’t keep it on the menu. Ditto other seasonal items. Ditto a number of other, lets call them consumer goods, including some truly impressive volumes of oxycodone.”

Tradittore involuntarily grimaced. Matricardi’s genial expression didn’t change at all.

“We all know that the price of unleaded changes overnight every time some Saudi prince breaks wind,” Tom said. His tone was light, even if his eyes were hard. “Food prices move almost as fast. If consumer prices for everyday expected goods spike or worse, the products are simply not available, then the man on the street assigns the responsibility for that missing item to the zombie plague. If he reflects on how his ‘normal’ is being changed, then he might be a little more susceptible to fear. He may start thinking about his participation in doing his ‘normal’ job. The absence of an expected good or service can prompt further inventory shortfalls, if you see what I mean.”

While Smith talked, silverware clinked lightly and waiters poured more wine. Matricardi swirled the deep red liquid around in his glass as he listened. Tradittore and Rune ate but Khabayeva still hadn’t touched the food since Smith began sharing details.

“So, you see…” He looked at each person in the party in turn. “…it isn’t just in my interest to keep the bank running…and the financial engine that fuels this city, this country and by derivation the laboratories and scientists searching for a cure to the Pacific flu. It’s in everyone’s interest.”

Rune was attentive, Tradittore was blandly pleasant, but Khabayeva was unsettled. Or unsettling. Smith wasn’t certain. Her slightly tilted violet eyes were cool and intelligent, not appraising like the moll that he had expected.

Something deeper was there.

“Mr. Matricardi’s businesses are considerable.” Oldryskya spoke in clear, if slightly accented English, filling the brief pause. “But they are not comprehensive. Does your information cover the…other businessmen in the area?”

Tradittore shot her a surprised look, almost shocked. One doesn’t expect a pet, no matter how beautiful, to participate in a meeting. Matricardi held up his hand to forestall an interruption and looked at Smith instead.

Tom addressed her in a Slavic tongue.

“No, not Volograd, farther south actually,” the woman replied. “But your accent is quite good. Still, the question is for you.”

“The real currency in banking isn’t money,” Smith said, smiling a little crookedly. “We deal in information. Mr. Matricardi may not be the largest in all the markets where he…competes. But the Cosa Nova’s interests aren’t so different from Wall Street’s interests.”

Matricardi didn’t quite frown, but his glance appeared to quell Khabayeva from saying more.

“And yes”–Smith looked back to Matricardi–“the economic activity in your, pardon, in these sectors are as much a part of the economic engine as any other.”

“Your information is quite good.” Matricardi thought a moment, then took a final bite of calamari. “I won’t pretend that I don’t know what you are talking about. As for the rest, that’s a lot to think about. This take-off point for the disease. You got a date?”

Smith grimaced, showing his first real emotion of the meeting.

“That’s the million, sorry, trillion dollar question.” He dabbed his mouth with a brilliant white linen napkin. “I’m trying to get the best estimates for designing and mass producing a vaccine to our market modeling analysts. Other teams are working on a therapy for the already infected. A number of factors are driving the infection rate, and we don’t yet know them all. An additional number of factors are complicating the vaccine design, and the best virologists are fighting over the desperately important details, which are not yet all finalized.”

Matricardi gestured impatiently.

“Other countries are not uniformly reporting their infection rate,” Smith continued. “And they aren’t aggressively using measures that we know work such as isolating anyone who has any flu symptoms and screening travelers, as well as protecting critical transportation and security personnel. These factors and more prevent me, with great regret, from having a precise answer.”

“But…?” Matricardi slapped a palm on the table this time.

“Best case?” Smith asked with a shrug. “We find a really cheap way to vaccinate and we make it past Labor Day and reach an equilibrium. We still take a big hit, deaths in the millions. But the general national framework holds mostly together.”

Smith looked around the restaurant, then worked his shoulders and met the gangster’s eyes steadily.

“Worst case: sixty days. Turn the lights out, shut the door, civilization is closed for the night, however long that night be. Very little chance anyone sitting at this table survives. At least with a functioning brain.”

Matricardi grunted and glanced around the table at a very quiet group.

“Two months, eh?” Matricardi said with a grunt. “Two months to doomsday. Just when I was getting the family business back on its feet. Wouldn’t you know?”

He thought about that for a moment, then smiled broadly, revealing very white teeth.

“So…who wants the calzone, eh?” he said, smacking his hands together and rubbing them. “They make it really good here!”