Friday 25 September 2020

Claude Hackford

 by Bobby Cohen

flat cola


“The Undersecretary informs me your English is excellent.”

Vladimir understood that the Director was not making a statement, but rather asking a question. Vlad did not know what the assignment was—only that if completed successfully it would increase his value, and thus his lifespan. When he volunteered for entry into the ultra-secret agency hidden in the depths of the Kremlin, he knew it was an all or nothing job—be a star or be dead. It was his nature to live on the edge. Any other way was not really living, simply existing.

 Vlad thought for a few seconds before answering, wanting to appear confident but not rash.

“My English is better than excellent, sir, “he said. “My English is good enough to sound like a native—of America, England, Canada, even Australia.” Vladimir Gregoryvich Kovalensky had spent eight years of his twenty-year preparation for this moment doing nothing but learning every dialect of English spoken in any country that mattered to the agency.

“This assignment requires that sort of confidence, Kovalensky,” the Director said. “But overconfidence can destroy the mission.”

 “I understand sir.” Vlad changed neither his posture nor his expression. It was up to the Director now.

“Sit, Kovalensky. I’ll describe your mission.”

Pleased to have received the Director’s approval, Vlad sat facing his superior, refusing to show the satisfaction this moment brought to him.

“You will be required to speak in American English, southern dialog—specifically Virginia. Is that a problem?’

“Not at all, sir. As I said, I am fluent in all dialogs.”

“We shall see, Kovalensky. You will be tested stringently before you leave the Motherland.”

“I would expect nothing less, sir.”

“Good. Your assignment is to enter the United States surreptitiously. You will be ferried across the St. Lawrence River and into northern New York. Your contact will meet you at a pre-appointed place, where he will transfer a vehicle to you suitable for your needs. Your driver’s license, registration, and plates will all be from the state of Virginia.”

“Excuse me, sir. Virginia is referred to as a Commonwealth, not a state. There are four Commonwealths in the United States. They are Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Mass…”

“Enough, Kovalensky! You’ve made your point.”

“Yes, sir.”

“All right then—the Commonwealth of Virginia. It is meaningless because your assignment will not take you anywhere near Virginia. You will travel through New York, and then to northeastern Pennsylvania…the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Is that satisfactory, Kovalensky?”

“Yes, sir.” Vlad realized that his zeal had been interpreted by the Director as overconfidence—exactly what he didn’t want. He adjusted his facial expression slightly to reveal moderate rebuke. That seemed to have satisfied the man across the desk from him.

“Back to your assignment, then. You are to travel to a rural area in northeastern Pennsylvania and buy large amounts of nitrogen-based fertilizer and diesel fuel, which you will then make into a bomb to be stored in your vehicle and detonated in midtown Manhattan. Any questions?”

“Yes sir. I was under the impression that President Putin had a good relationship with President Trump.”

“Don’t be foolish, Kovalensky. The only person our esteemed president has a good relationship with is our esteemed president himself. But the purpose of your assignment is to make the Americans believe that they have been attacked by a Muslim terrorist organization.”

“But I don’t speak any of those languages…”

“Just shut up and listen, Kovalensky.”

Vlad was about to acknowledge his superior’s command, but wisely decided to obey it instead. He remained quiet and adjusted his facial expression to one of intense concentration.

“You will wear a keffiyeh when you buy the fertilizer and diesel fuel. You will try to convince the dealer that you are from Virginia and are new to the area which, unless he is a complete idiot, he will eventually see through. When the bomb goes off the next day in New York, he will know it had to have been the work of a Muslim terrorist, which he will then report to the authorities. Any questions?”

Vlad had many questions about this foolish scheme but said, “No, sir,” anyway.

“Good. The attack, attributed to Muslims, will increase the power of Trump as a wartime president, something President Putin desires, mainly because he owns Trump one way or another. I’m not sure exactly why but it doesn’t matter. Your case officer will give you all the strategic and tactical details. Any questions?”

“Pardon me for questioning the plan, sir, but why would the fertilizer supplier believe that a man with a southern accent wearing a Keffiyeh would need all those supplies?”

“That’s actually a sensible question, Kovalensky. We have purchased a nearby farm which would require supplies to maintain production. You will appear as the new owner of the farm, but you will order quantities of materials that could not reasonably be assumed to be useful for anything but making a bomb. When the bomb goes off, the supplier will have his suspicions confirmed. If there are no more questions, report to your case officer.”

“Yes sir.”

My name’s Claude Hackford. This here’s farm country. We haven’t got many city folk hereabouts and don’t need none neither. We vote Republican here in Wayne County, PA, and we’re proud of it too. Had no problem voting against that Clinton lady last time and I’d do it again. Don’t want no rich New York City people running the country, that’s for sure.

That don’t mean I’m not tolerant of strangers. If they’re running a farm around here, I’m going to service them at Hackford’s Feed and Farm Supply. Just the other day, new fella come in asking for fertilizer. I could tell he hadn’t been around here long because he wasn’t wearing a straw hat to keep the sun off his head like we do. Had some sort of checkered cloth wrapped ‘round his head instead.

“I can get you a straw hat for the sun, if you want,” I told him.

“That’d be right kind of you,” he says. I appreciate a fella with manners. Not near enough manners in this country, ‘specially in the big city.

“You don’t talk like you’re from around here,” I say. “You buy the McIntyre spread up the north end of the county? I heard it was up for sale.”

“Yep, I did just that. Now I need supplies.”

“Where’d you say you was from?”

“Virginia,” he says.

“Well then, welcome to Wayne County. What can I do for you today?”

“Need me some nitrogen-based fertilizer.”

“We got that. How much you looking for?”

“Half a ton would suit me just fine.”

“Don’t sound like enough for the old McIntyre place. You got more land up there than that.”

He looked a little surprised. I figured maybe they don’t use as much fertilizer down south. Couple of seconds later he seems like he’s got it together.

“What do you think it would take?”

“More like a ton,” I tell him.

“Not enough room in my truck for a ton,” he says. “I’ll just fertilize half the land now and come back later for more.”

Now I’m thinking, what kind of truck don’t have room for a half ton of fertilizer?

“Can I see your truck?” I say.

“Sure thing. It’s parked right out front.”

Well, we go out t’ the lot and he’s got a white van, looks like my electrician’s truck.

“I hope you’re not planning on running the McIntyre place with just this for a truck,” I tell him. Then I swing open the side door and it’s pretty roomy in there.

“You know,” I say, “I could squeeze a ton in here if you want.”

“Thanks for offering,” he says, “but I got to put more supplies in the truck today.”

“What else do you need?” I figured I could rack up a nice sale by filling that van up.

“Diesel fuel…uh, for my tractor.”

“How much do you plan on buying today?” I say.

“Two hundred gallons.”

Now some folks might say I wasn’t too bright, but I’m not so dumb neither, and I know you can run a tractor for a heck of a lot longer on two hundred gallons of diesel fuel than it takes to spread a half ton of fertilizer, ‘specially that nitrogen based stuff, which is a lot more compact than the composted manure, which we carry as well, if you’re interested. But I was trying to help this new fella out so I offered to sell him three quarters ton of fertilizer and a hundred gallons of diesel fuel.

“I figure you can get most all your land done that way,” I say to him.

“Real grateful,” he says, “but I got other work to do with the tractor. I’ll just take the half ton of nitrogen-based fertilizer and the two hundred gallons of diesel fuel.”

Now you see, I’m a businessman and I got me a family to feed, so I’m not about to argue with a customer. It’s business and the customer’s always right. Took me less than half an hour to get his van loaded with what he said he needed, but I figured he’d learn his lesson and come back with a more sensible order next time. Hopefully with a decent pickup truck as well. We got a Ford dealer here in town could give him a good deal on a used one and I told him as much.

“Thanks for that,” he says. “I’ll think real hard on it.”

Anyway, I total up his bill and he says, “Do you take credit cards?”

“I will if it runs through this here machine I got, which tells me if it’s any good right away.”

He hands over this Master Card from the Bank of Pakistan.

“Never heard of the Bank of Pakistan,” I say.

“It’s in Virginia,” he says. “You swipe it, it’ll work.”

Goddamn if he wasn’t right. That card was good as gold.

“They still got that pair o’ bulls up there?” I say. We had a joke hereabouts that, near the end, old man McIntyre didn’t know a cow from a bull, and let some fast-talking guy sell him two bulls ‘stead of one and a milk cow.

Now he’s looking real uncomfortable like. “Don’t know,” he says. “Haven’t checked out all the livestock yet,” and starts for the door.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?”

He gives me this funny look like maybe he’d almost got away with underpaying me. “Like what?” he says.

I know how to run a business so there’s no way he’d get out of here underpaying, and I know how to make the most of a sale.

“How about that straw hat?” I say. “Only twelve bucks.”

He got this big smile on his face like he knows that thing around his head isn’t going to keep the sun off his face.

“I’ll pay cash for that.” And he does and is on his merry way. I know damn well the next time I see him he’s going know a lot more about farming than he knows now.


Me and the wife was watching the TV the other night after work, and when my shows were over the Ten O’clock News came on. I can’t stay up for the Eleven O’clock News ‘cause I got to get up early. Like I said, this here’s farm country and folks start their day with the sun. Can’t be sleeping in like them big city folks. Anyway, speaking of big city folks, I seen on the news they had a big explosion in some fancy store in New York City. Must have been hundreds of folks got killed is what the colored gal says into her microphone, and don’t know how many more they’re going to find when they get through cleaning up the mess. Looked on the TV like it took out damn near half a city block. The colored gal said it was the worst attack since Nine-Eleven. Like I said, I may not be too bright but I’m smart enough to take care of my own. No way you’d find me letting some guy in to blow up my store, no sirree bob. Them smartass New York rich people think they’re smart, but they’re the ones cleaning up the mess and counting up the dead folks, not Claude Hackford. No sirree bob.

About the author 

Bobby Cohen has taught in the School District of Philadelphia, Temple University, Peirce College, and Holy Family University. He is a longstanding member of the Bucks County Writing Workshop. He and his wife have lived in Richboro for the last forty years. He is the author of three novels, and numerous short stories, six of which have been published. An avid tennis player and skier for many years, Bobby is known primarily for his dogged persistence.

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