Excerpts from books by Matthew Hughes
Excerpt from ‘Downshift’
I kept on going, and after ten minutes the winding road rounded a vast pile of stumps and slash, and suddenly it was clear space all around. Several large buildings, made of logs and shingles and in various stages of completion, clustered around a space at the bottom of a slope that seemed to run miles into the sky; it was mostly rock and brown earth now, but even my inexpert eye could see that this place would make skiers’ hearts go pitter-pat when the snows came.
Most of the resort was already built. The lodge, a long, low sprawling structure with log walls two feet thick, looked to be ready to stock its restaurants and boutiques. It occupied one side of a mud-churned square where construction workers had parked their pick-ups and four-by- fours; the other sides were held by several three-storey blocks of condos, exteriors finished, windows glazed. From inside the nearest, air hammers and some carpenter’s boom-box were in a contest to see which could deafen their owner first. Up-slope, heavy equipment operators were erecting pylons for the gondola cars that would sweep resort patrons to the top of the mountain in speed and comfort.
My car slewed around in the slick mud, but I managed to stop and park without adding to its extensive collection of dings. I left it next to a gold-on-white Cadillac near the front steps of the lodge, then climbed to the front doors. They were twin slabs of red cedar, skilfully carved in a west coast native motif, balanced to swing open at a baby’s touch.
I wiped my shoes on a drop-sheet that lay across the doorstep and went inside. The lobby was big, but it might look smaller once they added furniture, carpeting and guests in thousand dollar ski suits. My first impression was that all the trees they’d stripped off the slopes to make ski runs had been debarked, varnished and stacked up like a kid’s building set. There was more cedar, polished and grainy, in every direction except up, where the log walls rose to support a segmented steel and glass dome. The flood of daylight left no corner in darkness. This was a place for people who wanted to be seen.
The lobby was empty. I did the natural thing: I went to the front desk, and looked for a bell to ring. They hadn’t provided it yet, but I noticed that one end of the counter top was hinged and open like a drawbridge. I pushed aside the gate underneath and stepped behind the desk. A frosted glass door in the panelled wall said “PRIVATE;” behind it was a narrow hallway between offices with closed doors. I heard indistinct voices down the hall, and followed them.
At the end of the passage I turned a corner and bumped into something big in a shiny suit, something that had apparently just climbed out of a vat of Blue Stratos cologne. I bounced off and coughed. He was taller than me and a lot wider, with a beef-fed mid-thirties face, curly black hair and an overdeveloped taste for gold jewelry. We hadn’t met but already I could tell we were never going to be friends.
“Whattaya want? We ain’t open,” he said.
“I’m here to see a Mr. Gaspar.”
“Yeah? What for?”
“He’s hiring me to write a magazine piece about this place.”
He grunted, turned around and walked into an office. A moment passed and then he stuck his head out and looked at me, flat-eyed. “You want me to fuckin carry you?”
I followed him through the door, into what would someday be the hotel manager’s office, but which right now contained only a battered steel desk covered in blueprints, three-ring binders and a computer, and two chairs on castors. One of the chairs creaked as Blue Stratos sat down, crossed his legs and stared out the window. The other was occupied by a small man who reminded me of the fetal animal cadavers they used to make us cut up for grade eleven biology. He was pink, wrinkled and mostly hairless, looking up from the computer screen and blinking at me as I put on my cheerful PR consultant persona and stuck out a hand.
“Mr. Gaspar?” I asked, and when he half rose and extended a cold, pale hand, I grabbed it, pumped it, and didn’t let go of it until I’d told him who I was and what I was there for. According to the books I’d read, this was a sure-fire way to assure clients of my unalloyed confidence that I’d do an excellent job for them.
The confidence is supposed to be contagious, but life had immunized Gaspar. He got his hand back as soon as he could, and put his eyes everywhere except on me, his head ducked between his shoulders like a dog waiting for a swat from a rolled up newspaper.
“Please sit down,” he said, then realized that the only other seat was taken. Blue Stratos showed no inclination to vacate it. He had slowly rotated the chair to face me and was now leaning back in it, giving me a look you’d remember if you’d ever been a teenager going to dances at some East Vancouver community centre or strip mall disco. Out on the dance floor would be the kids who came to bop, but hanging around the fire doors were the guys who came to fight, and they always gave you the look: head back, lazy eyed, mouth open a little.
I hadn’t been on the receiving end of the look in maybe twenty years, but now I realized I was feeling the tightening shiver in the back muscles, the neck hairs lifting, the coolness of skin that says adrenalin on line, here we go. Meanwhile, I was thinking this is nuts, and meeting his look with as neutral and unchallenging a gaze as I could manage. None of the books advised aspiring public relations practitioners to get into adolescent ball-weighing contests with clients at the first encounter.
“Lou,” said Gaspar. “Would you give us a few minutes? Please?”
Lou slid his eyes from me to Gaspar and back again, so slowly I just knew he’d practiced it in mirrors. Then just as slowly, he looked away, eased out of the chair and left the office. A lot of his cologne decided to hang around.
I sat down. Gaspar looked like a kid caught doing something he was too old for. It struck me that neither of these two meshed with my preconceptions about developers of multi-million dollar properties. I had considerable faith in my preconceptions, because I’d met some of the money men who had remade downtown Vancouver during the development boom of the eighties. But I didn’t have to wonder long about why Gaspar didn’t fit the pattern. It was because, like me, he was hired help.
He told me he was a Certified General Accountant who had signed on as controller and project manager for the limited partnership that was turning this mountainside into a money-making machine. The side of beef I’d collided with in the hall was Lou Savelek, whom Gaspar described as “in charge of shareholder liaison.”
I was beginning to see that the Coronado resort did not fit the usual pattern: development by a small core of experts underwritten by the investments of cash-fat doctors and dentists, with everybody either doubling their money in five years, or writing off a tax loss. If that had been the case, a couple of those savvy hustlers would be on site; but since there was nobody here but a salaried bean counter and his no-neck babysitter, it began to look as if the money behind all this came from the kind of people who never planned for tax losses, because they never paid taxes.
Not that it mattered to me either way. I’d done a job or two for companies whose principals seemed a little out of the ordinary, but their money had been as good as anybody else’s, and I’d always been paid. So I mentally filed my speculations about Coronado’s backers under the heading of Who Cares? and paid attention to what Gaspar was telling me.
He gave me a quick overview of the development itself, and a copy of an informal prospectus that must have been originally prepared for a very small readership — probably three guys in the back room of a pool hall on Commercial Drive. But it was succinctly put together, and contained all the hard information I needed on the number and types of condo units, services and amenities at the lodge, speed and capacity of the gondola lift, and so on. I skimmed the document, asked a few questions, and in ten minutes I was fully loaded with facts. Now it was time to go out and soak up some atmosphere.
Lou was in the Cadillac, playing a CD loud with the windows rolled up. It sounded familiar, maybe something from the Beach Boys’ car culture period. I decided not to find out.
Growing up in the succession of blue-collar neighbourhoods through which my family had wandered, I’d learned early that my best hope for dealing with the look from a Lou Savelek was to talk my way out of it. I’d never been a great fighter, so I had become a great talker, able to generate a plausible spiel — or at least a dense fog of bullshit — that often enough left bullies and tough guys shaking their heads while I backed safely out of range. It was no wonder I’d turned out to be a pretty good speechwriter — I’d trained in a hard school.
I headed for the nearest low-rise condo across the mud patch. The building’s exterior was more cedar. As far as I could see, the logs looked neatly joined and finished. Another set of carved doors, smaller than those at the main lodge, then yet more cedar, including a staircase that rose from the foyer, circling the walls up to the third floor.
I climbed to the first landing, pushed through a glass fire door, and entered a hallway that could have been in a good hotel anywhere in the world, except for the wires dangling from the ceiling and the doors to the suites leaning against the walls like tired dominoes.
I checked out a suite, found it spacious, the carpets laid, fixtures all in place, including a jacuzzi-for- two handy to the bedroom. The view would be worth paying for, once it was covered in snow. Add some plush furniture, pipe gas into the glass-doored fireplace, and this place would justify my using words like “sumptuous” and “luxurious” in the article I’d be writing.
I climbed to the top floor. The units here were definitely first-class, although the gold-on-black bathroom was probably more Lou’s taste than my own. Through the floor-to-ceiling window in a sitting room, I saw him squeeze out of the Cadillac and saunter back to the lodge. I didn’t figure him for a skier: bowling, maybe, or bocce. Most likely, his favourite form of exercise involved some poor bastard’s knee and elbow joints and a ball peen hammer.
But the more I looked around Coronado, the more Lou Savelek’s presence made sense. Somebody was spreading a thick layer of money over this piece of mountain, and that somebody wanted a watchdog for his investment. The mob believes in managing for minimal risk.
Fifteen minutes later, I’d seen all the interiors I needed to see, and was taking a look at the gondola lift’s base station. Built of fieldstone, raw beams and plate glass, it was big enough to hold a car that would in turn hold twenty skiers. The big wheel and its massive diesel engine were installed, but they wouldn’t be pulling the cable into place until the upslope towers were ready.
I stepped outside and jotted down a few words in my notebook: “smooth, silent ride” and “rapid turn-around.” I looked up, figuring I’d gathered all the information I’d need. Then I noticed a small building a little ways downhill, not much more than a steel hut surrounded by a chain-link fence and set back among the trees. Pump house, I thought. There was a sign on the fence, black on yellow, but too distant to make out the lettering.
I wandered over to see what it said. After stumbling across three sets of bulldozer tracks gouged in the future ski slope, I could read the big word at the top of the sign and the slightly smaller one below. The big one read “DANGER;” the little one was “EXPLOSIVES.” Stump blasting, I thought.
“Can I help you?” said a voice behind me.
I turned around. He was a few years younger, just pushing thirty. The hardhat, clipboard and iron ring on the little finger of one hand said “engineer.” The expression said he was suspicious of people wandering around where he was working.
I gave him the same handshake and introduction I’d given Gaspar, and he loosened up a little. He told me his name was Mark Betchley, a consultant from a company called Alpine Systems. He had laid out the ski runs that led down to Coronado.
I told him it looked pretty good to me, and asked him how he thought it ranked against some of the other ski developments on the coast.
“This is as good as it gets,” he said. We talked a little more, and I began to realize that Betchley’s feelings about skiing approximated those of the average medieval saint about prayer. In laying out the Coronado runs, he was building his equivalent of Chartres cathedral.
“It’s the finest work I’ve ever done, that I’ve ever been allowed to do,” he said. “Can’t say enough about the people behind this development. Other jobs, the money’s always looking to cut corners. You know, if there’s a way to do it ten per cent cheaper, that’s the way they want it, even if it’s fifty per cent worse. But these guys, they just say get it done right. It’s great.”
This sounded promising. I began to weigh the chances of inflating the puff piece fee to the thousand dollar mark. My attention was wandering anyway, as Betchley launched into a lecture on slope stability and average rates of descent. As he talked, we drifted downhill toward the fenced-in steel hut.
By the time we got there, I’d heard my fill about ski runs. When he took a breath, I tapped the warning sign and said, “What do we have here?”
Betchley shrugged. “Avalanche control.”
That might be interesting. I flipped over a new page in my notebook. “What do you do, drop dynamite into the snow drifts?”
“No. We use artillery.”
He fished out a ring of keys, selected one, and opened the padlock on the gate. Another key worked the lock on the shed door and he opened it wide. Inside, against one wall, was a stack of waxed cardboard boxes, drab green with black lettering stencilled on the side. But most of the shed was taken up by a battered wooden trailer with rubber tires, like something a farmer might hitch to his tractor for hauling rocks out of a field.
The bed of the trailer supported a framework of tubular steel in which was cradled what I first took to be a length of stovepipe painted olive drab. Then I noticed that the near end of the pipe was capped by a massive cylinder of metal, with slits cut into its sides and a handle that curved out and around like an old fashioned gearshift, topped with a ball of polished steel.
I peered at the contraption. “What is this, some kind of CO2 cannon?”
“What, you mean like compressed air? Hell, no. This is your basic 105 millimeter, recoilless, anti-tank rifle. Korean War vintage, probably.”
“Anti-tank rifle? You mean, like a cannon?”
He stepped inside the shed and rubbed his hand on the ball grip. “Yeah, like a cannon, except it’s made to be mounted on a jeep or a truck, I guess. Only weighs about eight hundred pounds. But it fires an armor-piercing round that would go right through the old-time tanks, maybe even a modern one, for all I know.”
“What the hell are you doing with an anti-tank gun at a ski resort?”
“Ah, they use these all over.” He pushed the lever, and the thick end of the pipe swung open to reveal a four-inch hole. Betchley stooped and blew imaginary dust from the shiny smooth interior. “The Highways Department’s got a couple dozen in places where there’s regular danger of avalanches. Mostly they’re in fixed positions, set in concrete and steel, wherever there’s a risk of avalanche knocking out main roads in the mountains. But they’ve got a few that are fixed up like this, on trailers so they can go where they’re needed.”
He slammed the breech closed, and fondled the thick plug of steel. His eyes lost focus for a moment. “These things really do a job. You can get off three rounds in twenty seconds, easy. Fump, fump, fump! Wham, wham, wham! And then, whoa, about a million tons of snow comes rolling and sliding down the hill, snapping off trees, making the weirdest sound you ever…” He came back to earth, looked a little abashed. “Well, you know what I mean.”
I didn’t but I said I did. It can be embarrassing when a grown man suddenly turns into a little kid, unless it happens during some football-hockey-game-beer-drenched-male- bonding situation. I patted the cannon’s breech, and for lack of anything else to say, asked him how it worked.
I should have been warned by the mini-course on ski runs: Mark Betchley was one of those frustrated lecturers who are always primed to let go. He carried a fair burden of knowledge about recoilless rifles, and he unloaded a lot of it on me over the next five minutes, while I nodded and made polite noises.
I learned that avalanche control meant firing a standard military round — whether of the armor-piercing or shrapnel variety depended on abstruse snow conditions — into the right part of a snowpack at the right time. The fifty- pound cartridge was mostly propellant in a cardboard tube attached to the warhead. You slipped it into the breech, closed up, sighted through the side-mounted telescopic sight, and fired.
It had a three-mile range and, of course, no recoil. Having fired a .22 as a kid, I didn’t see how a round as long as my arm wouldn’t kick back, but Betchley showed me the slits on the sides of the breech, told how they were exhaust ports for explosive gases recaptured in the barrel. You could stand right behind the breech block when the gun fired and you’d be fine. But if you were standing beside one of the exhaust, the blast of gases from the slits would rip the flesh from your bones.
It didn’t look up to the job, but I took his word for it that, in the right hands, this tube on a toy trailer could kill a tank or blow a bunker to smithereens. Which led me to speculate how, in the wrong hands, this piece of ordnance might do the same thing to an armored car or a bank vault.
He shook his head. “Nah. Well, maybe if you were going for gold bullion. But if you wanted paper money or stock certificates, all you’d end up with would be fly ash. This is no neutron bomb. It doesn’t take out the people and leave everything else intact.”
He patted one of the boxes stacked against the wall. “This is an armor-piercing round,” he said. “Know how it works?”
I shook my head.
“There’s a shaped charge in here: explosive in the shape of a hollow cone. It goes off when it hits something hard, like a tank. The explosion shoots a jet of superheated high-density metal that instantly melts through the armor. It’s like hitting a pat of butter with a a stream of boiling water. Anything that’s burnable inside the tank — ammunition, fuel, people’s clothes, the people in them — it burns.
“Now, an armored car, that’s like a tank full of paper.” He lowered the anti-tank round into its box and replaced the lid. “Using one of these would be like giving the inside of the truck a quick squirt from a blast furnace. Shrapnel round would just bounce off. Although it would give anybody inside a first-class headache.”
We went back out into the sunshine. I thanked him, and put away my notebook. Five minutes later I was raising dust along the logging road, heading back to Comox. I started thinking about the cannon, and how it might figure as a plot device in a movie script. Maybe some dim-witted Dillinger wannabes steal a recoilless rifle to knock over a bank, but in the end all they have are charred bank notes.
That was as far as I got before another monster logging truck rolled up behind me and used its air horn to lift the hair on the back of my neck. I spent the next fifteen minutes trying to keep it from eating the Concord’s rear end.
Besides, I’d blown it in the movie writing business.
Comments are closed.
Sign up for my Newsletter
Or support me on Patreon
the Archonate Bookstore
Latest at the Archonate:
Search the site