New Short Story – “Puffery”

Remember last month when I said I was doing the NYC Midnight Short Story Contest? My first story, “The Nickel Tour,” was good enough to get me through to the second round. Now the results are in for that one and, well, I won’t make it to the third round. “Puffery” garnered an honorable mention, but didn’t place in the top 5 (out of 25 in the group). Given that it was outside my usual genre and style, I’m still pretty pleased with it.

For this round, my group was assigned to write a political satire on the subject of medical tourism, with a warlord character in it. After a false start I slipped into the right mode and wrote something that is definitely influenced by the time and place in which I wrote it. It also allowed me to create a character that I think I want do more with in the future.

Until then, enjoy!

Puffery

Milo slipped into the Trapezoidal Office just as the Generalissimo said, “what’s in the bay?”

Advisors were arrayed around the room, each clutching papers and trying to hide behind one another. Milo didn’t even recognize some of the faces. He’d made the right decision not bothering to learn names. What was the point? They’d be gone soon enough.

“A plague ship, sir,” the Minister of Defense said.

“From America,” threw in Kevefe, the Generalissimo’s son-in-law. Educated in America, married to the Generalissimo’s beloved eldest daughter, he was the one the man always tasked with doing anything important, from managing the Generalissimo’s properties to trying to negotiate treaties. His title should have been Minister of Everything. “They’re having a plague. It’s whipping through the south right now, like Sherman a generation ago.”

The American south was the closest large land mass to Oflana, the small island the Generalissimo had made his stronghold. It wasn’t even at large as Charleston, the nearest American city.

“And why are they here?” the Generalissimo asked, putting his elbows on his desk. It was enormous, made of dark walnut with ornate carvings of mythical sea creatures on each leg. He  told people it was made from the beams of the British frigate that Sadont, the national hero of Oflana, boarded and captured when the island won its independence. He would take any opportunity to tie himself to that legend. The truth of the desk, so far as anybody could tell all, is that the Generalissimo had found it in an estate sale in Savannah during one of his “diplomatic” missions.

“Because we are a day’s steamship voyage from Charleston,” Defense said. “Perhaps two, depending on weather.”

The Generalissimo looked as confused as ever. “But why now?”

Milo knew how this dance worked. The Generalissimo worked through the problem in his own time and in his own peculiar way. Everyone would have their say, but he had to make the final decision, even if everyone else knew it was the wrong one. Milo decided he had to goose the process along.

“Sir?” He raised his hand like a grade school child.

“Yes, Minister of Information?” the Generalissimo said, slightly slurring his words.

“Sir, that ship is here because of what you said on the radio last week.” Every week the Generalissimo took over the island’s five radio stations for his Voice of Oflana broadcasts. Ranging from five minutes to five hours, depending on his mood that particular day, it was his chance to talk to his people, who had little choice but to listen.

“Last week?” The Generalissimo looked at Kevefe, squinting, like he was trying to dredge the memory from the depths of his mind.

“You talked about the plague in America, how their hospitals and doctors couldn’t cope,” Kevefe said. “Things of that nature.”

“Due respect, sir,” Milo said before the Generalissimo could move on, “it was much more than that.”

The Generalissimo looked at him, slumped in his seat, hands outstretched. “How much more?”

Milo took a deep breath. “You also discussed the medical system here on Oflana. You called it the best in the world.”

“Of course,” the Generalissimo said. “We only have the best things here in Oflana.”

Milo knew that might be true for the Generalissimo and his family, but that for the rest of them modern medical treatment was more hope than reality. He pushed on anyway, leaving truth bloodied in a ditch yet again. “You also said the plague would not strike Oflana,” Milo closed his eyes and quoted verbatim, “because it knows in its heart that we have the medicine to kill it.” It was times like this that Milo cursed his eidetic memory.

“So?”

The Minister of Health sheepishly raised his hand. “Sir, that pronouncement may have been premature.”

“Are you suggesting I lied?” the Generalissimo said, slowly rising from his chair, his ever expanding girth straining the medal-covered white uniform he was wearing.

Health’s eyes went wide, but before he could defend himself the hammer came down.

“You’re fired!” the Generalissimo boomed, pointing to the door with great emphasis. “Get out!”

“Sir, I,” Health began to say.

“Do I need to call for Boze?” the Generalissimo said, invoking the name of his security chief, a massive islander who could snap Health, or anyone else in the room, in two.

Faced with a fate worse than termination, Health scurried out the door.

“If I even said that, about having a cure for the plague,” the Generalissimo said, returning to his seat. “I don’t think I said that.”

The advisors all exchanged wary glances. Milo just managed to avoid rolling his eyes. Not only had he heard the Generalissimo say those exact words, now the man had gone and fired the person who should be put in charge of dealing with that plague ship slipping into the dock.

“Rest assured, sir,” the Minister of the Interior jumped in, “our physicians will deal with this pestilence with care, skill, and strength.”

“We’re about to find out,” Milo said. There was a clock tick-tocking in his brain, knowing that the American ship was going to reach the dock in any moment. “Sir, that’s why they’ve come. They think there’s a cure here, and they’ve come to get it.”

Milo could tell that the Generalissimo was still missing some links in the chain. “Your broadcasts sometimes reach the American mainland. It depends on weather conditions, if I’m correct.”

Across the room the Minister of Technology nodded vigorously.

“In addition, although you expelled a number of American journalists last month, there are still a few foreign reporters here. I’m sure they heard your broadcast.”

The Generalissimo shook his head. “Deadbeat losers. Why do I let them come here and cause trouble?”

“They’ll be gone by morning,” Kevefe said with a wave of his hand.

“Er,” Milo said, lump in his throat, “that won’t solve the problem, sir.”

“Why not?” Kevefe glared at him.

Milo tugged at his collar. “They surely know that this plague ship is arriving. Anyone can see down into the bay from the city. And the ship is quite large.”

The Generalissimo leaned forward. “Larger than the Dominator?”

Dominator was the pride of the Oflan navy. For all intents and purposes it was the Oflan navy.

Milo chose his words carefully. “I’m no expert, sir, but I can say that it is not nearly as impressive as Dominator. Nonetheless, it’s carrying hundreds of people.”

“All infected?” At least something was getting through to him.

Milo shrugged. “It could be healthy people trying to escape from the plague. Or it could be sick people looking for a cure. We’ll only know for certain once they dock.”

The Generalissimo furled his brow. “Don’t we have radios? To talk to the ship?”

Milo wasn’t in the mood to handle this question, so he did what he had to do. “I believe that the Minister of Technology could best answer that question, sir.”

Technology shot Milo a look that said he would pay for this in the coming days. “Recall, sir, that the land-to-sea radios were damaged in the storm two years ago.”

“Ah, yes,” the Generalissimo said, “the great hurricane I turned away from the island.”

Hurricane Robert took dead aim on Oflana, turning off to the east and out to sea at the last moment. While it spared the island and the city the worst of the winds, the bay at the bottom of the hill had still been swamped by the storm surge. Hundreds lost their lives.

“Yes,” Technology continued, “well, sir, those systems have never been repaired.”

“Why not?” The Generalissimo said.

The truth was that the money went to rebuilding the swimming pool in the Generalissimo’s palace, but Milo certainly wasn’t going to say that.

“It went,” Technology started. He apparently thought better of it, too, the firing of Health still fresh in everyone’s memory. “I don’t recall specifically, sir. Regardless, there’s no way to contact that ship until it docks.”

Milo checked his watch. They had, at most, five more minutes to make a decision.

“Then how do we deal with this?” the Generalissimo asked, relaxing again. “Why not just send them back? I’ll defend my people against any threat. Keep that infected ship off our land.”

“That would look very bad,” Milo said. “This plague is fast acting. If there are sick people on that ship and they don’t get any kind of treatment they may die before they get back to Charleston. The press would have a field day.”

“The press hate me,” the Generalissimo said. “Even if we don’t send the ship back, they’ll say bad things. Lies and slander over and over again.”

Milo wasn’t about to get into this now, so he dodged the barb. “Is there another option?”

“We let them dock,” Interior said. “If they’re healthy refugees, we take them while stating this is a onetime situation. Any other ship will be turned back. If they’re sick, they go to the hospital and we’ll treat them the best we can.”

That was a bad option, too, Milo knew. It would lay bare the Generalissimo’s claims that the plague could be treated here. These people, if sick, would overwhelm the island’s small hospital and most likely die horrible deaths, but at least their ends might come with some dignity and care. “Sir, we really have to make a decision. That ship is about to dock.”

The room fell silent. Milo held his breath, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet, waiting.

“Let them in,” the Generalissimo said, after what seemed like an eternity. “We are a generous people, are we not?”

“Yes, sir,” everyone else muttered without real conviction.

“Thank you, sir,” Milo said, bolting from the room. He couldn’t believe the man did the right thing, even if it was probably for the wrong reason. Milo ran to his office, rang the dock, and told them the news.

Shortly after he hung up, Kevefe knocked on his open door. “How are you going to sell this to the press? Before you’ve expelled the foreign reporters, of course.”

With the foreign press gone that would only leave the handful of Oflan reporters, none of whom were interested in doing anything but regurgitating whatever Milo told them.“I hadn’t thought of that yet,” he admitted.

Kevefe raised a finger and said, “I have one word for you.”

“One word?”

Kevefe nodded. “Puffery.”

Milo raised an eyebrow. “Puffery?”

“It’s a legal term,” Kevefe said, lapsing into his typical condescending explanation mode. “When someone makes a promise, say in a contract, and can’t keep it, that can be because they lied about the promise or they, let’s say, promised more than they could actually deliver. They puffed up their capabilities.”

“In other words, they lied to get the contract,” Milo said.

Kevefe stepped into his office and glowered down at him. “No, they innocently exaggerated their abilities. Are you suggesting that our physicians aren’t capable of dealing with this plague?”

“The best doctors in America aren’t,” Milo said, deciding not to answer directly.

Kevefe shifted forward, hands on Milo’s desk so that he was almost on top of him. “Are you calling my father-in-law, the Generalissimo of Oflana a liar?”

Milo wanted to, but knew he couldn’t. “Of course not,” he said, doing his best to back away from Kevefe. “Puffery. Yeah, I think I can sell that to the press.”

“You’ll prepare a statement?” Kevefe said, stepping back and composing himself.

Milo nodded. “And, of course, I’ll share it with you before it’s released.”

Kevefe stepped back into the hallway and smiled. “You’re a good man, Milo. Don’t know what we’d do without you.”

Milo took a moment once Kevefe disappeared to compose himself. He needed to prepare a statement for the press. And he needed to expel those foreign reporters. If he was lucky, maybe they would take him with them.

Cartman

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