Decaf Coffee

A Boston journalist researches an article about the US presidency in December 2018

Decaf coffeeAn unprecedented northerly brought feet of snow, blizzards and freezing weather to much of mid and eastern America. The number of poor people who would die because they could not afford heating was as yet unknown. Trains were not running, airports closed. Most main roads would be deadly parking lots until the blizzards eased up sufficiently for them to be cleared. People were trapped in cars and trucks, some would die.

It was without doubt a tragedy, but despite the deaths, there were those who said it was not the most serious tragedy facing the people of America in mid December, 2018. Though they tended to say it furtively, being very careful who heard. Criticism of the current President, even if only implied, had dire consequences. At best you might be robbed in the street, or you might be kneecapped, or you might go to jail, or you might die. Five journalists had inexplicably committed suicide in the last twelve months.

Peter Klinger finished off his fifth cup of coffee for the day. It was decaf and tasted vile, but it was better than no coffee at all. His doctor had been quite straightforward. “You can choose Peter, continue drinking coffee and die anytime within six months from irregular heart beats, or give it up and live perhaps for a few more years.” Peter’s first thought had been that the decision was not as simple as it might seem, but in the end he opted to continue with his life, such as it was. He was still not sure his choice had been correct.

Peter was an old fashioned journalist from the time of cigarette smoke filled rooms and green eye shades against the glare of incandescent lighting. The clatter of typing frantic to meet printing deadlines and the rumble of the printing presses in the basement. From the time when newspapers used paper only and were owned by family companies, when ethics and telling as it was went hand in hand with professionalism. When investigative reporting was the expected norm and electric typewriters the latest technology.

He had joined the Boston Globe in the late 1960’s when Larry Winship had only just taken over as Editor from his dad Tom. They had been exciting times to be with the Globe; the paper won twelve Pulitzer Prizes in twenty years. He had stayed with the Globe ever since. More then a solid reporter he choose to decline the usual competition rat race for editorial positions and stick with what he did best, researching and writing real news.

Yesterday he had driven down to the Globe’s new headquarters in the industrial park in Taunton, MA despite the gloomy weather forecast. He needed to do some serious research for the article he was planning. The heightened internet surveillance the President had introduced (ostensibly to protect Americans from Muslim terrorists) made it just too dangerous to do the research from home. Now he was stuck there until the weather eased and the roads were cleared, but at least he had managed to get some food sent in before the snow started. There was no shortage of ready brewed decaf coffee and the isolation gave him time and access to do what he had to do in peace.

He had of course been able to do some background research from home. But the nuances behind US overseas and home policies were a little more tricky. The summary was simple, despite the President’s persistent claims at rallies across the country and tweets across the world, the major impact of his policy had been that the poor had become poorer and the rich richer.

Overseas, things were a little more complex. Israel now belonged to the right wing Zionists. There were precious few Palestinians alive in the West Bank. Most had been forcibly transferred to the Gaza ghetto where they hovered on the brink of starvation if not extinction. Sufficient food and electricity was allowed for them to stay alive, but not for them to prosper let alone mount a serious revolt. Any spark of resistance was met with Lockheed F-35 fighter jets dropping DIME weapons and cluster bombs. Both the jets and the weapons were paid for by US tax payers; Israel had long since become the major recipient of US overseas aid.

The US propaganda media, which was most of the media, described it as the successful implementation of a two state policy and praised the Administration for helping Israel solve the Palestinian problem.

Syria had been divided up into small regions from which their war lords launched occasional forays into the land of their neighbours. Israel controlled the south, Turkey the north. The US had taken out Bashar al Assad with a small tactical nuclear missile. It was claimed that only 50,000 had died, of whom at least 98% were Syrian forces since the bomb was smart enough not to kill innocent women and children. “A triumph for democracy”, the President had tweeted. The missile itself was but a small part of the trillion dollar update and development program of US nuclear weapons. Russia had withdrawn from Syria after trade sanctions were lifted in return for allowing US companies to jointly explore for oil and gas in the Russian Arctic. US oil companies were making a killing.

The Ukraine had been split. Russia remained in the Crimean Peninsula and the rest was a dictatorship. As for much of its history, the Ukraine was again ruled by corruption.

The relationship with China had the most impact on ordinary Americans. The US was now involved in a trade war with mainland China while all the time increasing its trade with Taiwan. As a result prices had risen in the US.

Serious as all that was, Peter and for that matter the Boston Globe, were more interested in domestic issues. The President had come to power amid a swathe of promises to improve the lot of workers. Time card punchers if they actually had a job. Men and women who made up the bulk of US citizens. It had become harder and harder to get true data on the number of jobless in the US.

In Peter’s mind the majority of economists were idiots. A few, the number seemed to be shrinking, pointed out that the best way to stimulate an economy was to increase the amount of circulating money that the majority had access to. More people buying more goods gave rise to more jobs, particularly if the goods were grown or made in the US. This could be accomplished relatively cheaply by small increases in the minimum wage and social programs and by improvements in health care and inexpensive education.

That was what they thought they had been voting for, but it was not what they had got.

Peter paused to reflect, a plastic coffee cup halfway to his lips. The problem was not that there was a shortage of material to put in his article, rather it was in what order should he present the data. Were some more topics important than others, and if so, why? In the end he decided just to write as it occurred to him. He would try to reorder it once he’d got it all down. He put the cup down.

During the election period, the current President had made some promises, but there had also been the odd controversy. One was the question of a payment made to the Attorney General of the day. The payment, it was claimed was a mistake. But by some chance, an investigation into possible wrongdoing doing never actually occurred. Furthermore the donation, mistake or not, was not withdrawn. One topic Peter was keen to investigate was whether there were any other payments over the past two years. After an hour or so of digging, he was pretty sure there were. The President’s business interests continued to expand. Government contracts were won both within the US and overseas. Where data were available and even where not, rumour suggested that the final contract was rarely the cheapest or even the best suited.

Then there was the investment into infrastructure that was supposed to drive the economy forwards. As had been initially suspected by the more thoughtful, most of the funding for the roads that had been built came from a 95% tax credit to private equity investors. Some more came from municipal bonds and very little from actual private money. The investors gained huge assets with an investment to asset ratio in the order of forty to one in their favour. On top of that, all of the roads were toll roads, thus putting up the cost of transport.

Despite the initial fuss about the price of the Lockheed F-35 jet fighter, the President had poured a huge amount of money into the planes, at considerably more per plane than Lockheed has wanted before the President was inaugurated. The situation with the Navy new guided missile destroyers was even worse. Over two years since the first ship was launched, it was still having mechanical difficulties. The price had blown out even more and it seemed unlikely that the vessels would ever fulfil their originally stated purpose.

The President claimed that his plan to bring back money that US companies held overseas to American shores had been successful. Well, Peter thought as he concentrated on that section of his article, he had certainly brought the money back. But it was structured in such a manner, that, coupled with extraordinary decreases in company tax, the only outcome was that dividends to share holders increased at a slightly lesser rate that bonuses to CEOs and other senior company men. Little if any of the money wended it’s way to increased company investment and none to workers’ wages or conditions.

But it was the situation of the workers themselves that most annoyed Peter. Even the hint of wages growth had disappeared. All aspects of social security had decreased as had the amount that employers would pay for health insurance for the ordinary worker.

The US environment policy was a disaster that was not even waiting to happen. Surface temperature in the Arctic close to the North Pole had just recently reached an all time winter high. The daily average temperature was sometimes above freezing. Polar bear numbers were falling and methane release from melting deep ice was increasing dramatically. The President had withdrawn from the Paris agreement and had removed many restrictions on carbon output. Oil exploration was now allowed in the ice and sea north of Canada and there were no longer any environmental restrictions on fracking in places like Texas. Ground water contamination was ignored.

Despite promises to the contrary the North Dakota pipeline had been built as originally planned. A few months after completion it had sprung a leak close to the Mississippi River. Media were not allowed to report the actual size of the leak. In the ensuing public protests, the President had called out the National Guard and an unstated number of Standing Rock Sioux had been shot. Again there were no official numbers, but leaks from local hospitals suggested at least two hundred had died.

Two of the journalists who had mysteriously committed suicide recently had reported data about both the size of the oil leak and the outcome of the massacre at the subsequent protests.

Over the last two years, America had moved further and further to the right. Individual freedom had become a thing of the past. The scanning of emails and phone calls had increased and the use of social media was very tightly monitored. A new offence had been defined so that serious debate on freedom could easily be rejiggered to be support of terrorists trying to undermine the country. Any mention of Israel that even came close to criticism was labelled anti-Semitic and felonious.

Even the research that Peter had done while in the secure basement of the Boston Globe could result in a prison sentence.

Peter carefully copied the last of his references onto the thumb drive that also contained the final draft of his article. He made sure yet again that nothing was left on the computer or the Globe’s hard drives.

The weather had improved considerably though it was still cold. An army of overnight snowplows, mainly ordinary trucks to which their drivers attached plows when necessary, had cleared enough for him to be able to get home. His plan was to finish the article at home and the Editor had agreed to publish it, despite the risks, just before Christmas. He ran the paper he had used to play with ideas through the security shredder.

Peter pulled on his overcoat and scarf, and after one last look around and one last decaf coffee, he tossed the plastic cup into the trash and took the elevator up from the basement to the ground floor.

There were a few people in the lobby, but no one he recognised. With a nod to security he headed out and turned left towards the car park where he had left his car.

“Hold on a minute, Sir.” Peter turned to see a security officer waving and trotting towards him. He breathed out quietly, his heart settling back to normal rhythm when he saw that the device the security man was holding in his outstretched hand was a windscreen scraper. “You might need a hand getting the snow off the car.”

“Oh, thanks.”

Surprisingly, it appeared that someone had already not only cleared the snow from the top of Peter’s car, but from all around it as well. There were no cars parked immediately nearby.

“Oh, it,looks like the ground staff have already got to it. Still, I’ll just wait here to make sure your car starts okay.”

With a wave of thanks and still a little puzzled why his car was clear of snow but many others were not, Peter got in and turned over the motor. It coughed, and was silent. He tried again, it started on the fourth try.

Peter and the security man died instantly, burned to crisps in the exploding furness of yellow and red flames. A plume of oily black smoke Peter’s only epitaph.

The President tweeted that terrorists had killed a security man and would soon be brought to justice.

The trial of the Editor of the Boston Globe was not reported by anyone. It was a matter of national security. The Editor was not allowed a legal representative, nor allowed to question the prosecution. The prosecutor stated that traces of explosives and internet plans of how to make an explosive device had been found at her flat. Guilty as charged, she was executed two days later, still protesting her innocence to an empty room.

It was Christmas Eve.

The President tweeted that a person with ties to Muslim terrorists had confessed to the murder of the security man and then killed herself.

The President tweeted a Merry Christmas and thanked all those who supported him.

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