It was a bright summer day in the Auckland CBD and all around was noise. There was the pitter patter of feet, the honking of horns, the snatches of conversation of passerbys up and down Queen Street. In silence walked The Man in the Grey Suit. No one noticed him as he made his way but in their hearts they all knew his name
He looked to be in his early fifties with a head of hair that was more salt than pepper. His face was creased and seamed from years of being out in the Coromondal sun and his eyes shone green as the Southland fields. He wore white gloves on his hands and his Armani suit fitted him with impeccable neatness. In his pockets were half dozen brochures in American English, Chinese, and Arabic. Pure New Zealand Goodness said one; Secure Your Spot For Summer said another. A silver fern pin gleamed from his lapel in the afternoon sunlight.
“Spare some change?” a woman asked from the pavement. Next to her was a cardboard sign: NO HOME ANYTHING HELPS and a Starbucks cup full of assorted coins. Around her neck was a Pounami necklace. She lacked the dirt and filth that built up after nights of sleeping in the street but in her eyes were desperation and in her stomach a gnawing hunger. Just yesterday she had a job and a flat to her name. Just yesterday when meeting someone she would have held her head up in pride and introduce herself as Maria. But tomorrow had come for her the same way it came for the faceless others on the pavement.
The Man in the Grey Suit turned to face the homeless woman and she saw his face for the first time. His eyes shined with the dark light of collapsed stars and in his smile there was an emptiness that was as ageless as entropy. The homeless woman gave a shriek as she saw the eternity in his eyes. She had seen that baleful glare before. Huddled in the dark, fever sick, she had seen that same strange smile in her dreams. A visage of pointed teeth that had haunted her nightmares. The Man in the Grey Suit reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a large band of bills. A half dozen faces blurred as he rifled through them – Benjamin Franklin, Lord Rutherford, Mao Tse Tung, Salman bin Abdullaz. He peeled a single hundred dollar bill and held it above her cup as if to taunt her. Lord Rutherford’s face glowed faintly in the bright summer day.
“It’s a dog eat dog world out there huh?” The Man in the Grey Suit asked. His voice grinded and grated on sharp teeth, toneless and indifferent. There was neither love nor hate in his voice for he was beyond either. Animated by no other will than his own purpose, and driven only by his own design. In his mind weighed a set of scales and in his heart the clicking keys of numbers.
“Times are a bit tough that’s all.” The homeless woman mumbled, afraid to meet that terrible gaze of his again. It leered at her through layers of memories promising worse nights to come – a silver spectre of the moon shining through soot-black clouds. His gaze had seeded a sickness in her, a blight that corrupted the fruits of her joy. She tried to think of her old life and the name that came with it, but such thoughts withered on the vine.
The Man in the Grey Suit’s smile grew wider showing a sharp rictus of teeth. He hadn’t seen her around before like he had the others. There were more of them now. Crowded on the sidewalk, bickering over coins, broken down and weary he had seen them but none would meet his gaze. They had all forgotten his name. She still seemed to remember. He wondered where she had come from that held such a long memory still. Here they had forgotten his name as their parents had before them. Here they thought they had escaped him in full fields and lush abundance. But he walked amongst them now.
“That is a lovely necklace you have.”
The homeless woman clutched her necklace as she felt that terrible gaze close in again. Like the inexorable pull from an eldritch moon that held its own strange gravity she found herself drawn in. Light reflected off the dull green surface of the Pounami necklace as it clung to her skin, a ward against an ancient evil reminding her of her name.
“My dad gave it to me the last time I saw him.” The words came out slow and clumsy, forced through quivering lips. The Man in the Grey Suit held the hundred dollar bill closer toward her til her eyes were inches from Lord Rutherford’s. Her eyes never left Lord Rutherford’s gaze, widening like saucers. She could feel the prying eyes of others, just like her, watching the hundred dollars and thinking what that money could buy and she grew fearful that others would take what was held before her.
“Yes but he doesn’t seem to be here now hmm.” The Man in the Grey Suit remarked as if observing some unusual new type of insect. There had been a time where they had escaped him. Here in a land so foreign from where he was called forth they thought they were safe. A chill breeze began to blow through the streets as the skies obscured under new clouds. A storm was coming, this one far worse than the last. But the Man in the Grey Suit had little to fear, and little to lose in the rain.
They could never escape him. He was there in the farms and fields where the proud farmer worked the richness of the earth but never tasted its fruits. He was there behind supermarkets, fenced off and guarded, where mountains of food were wrapped in bags to be destroyed while down the street tiny mouths yearned to be fed. He was there in empty houses and in full prisons, where it was a crime to steal but held only the hungry.
“What I propose is a simple exchange; trade is the life blood of nations after all.” The Man in the Grey Suit gave a sharp barking laugh, as if he knew the punchline to a private joke. He slowly pulled the hundred dollar bill away. His smile widened as he saw the homeless woman’s eyes follow along, trapped in his orbit. Further along the pavement other eyes were turning, eyes that could only see their own desperate need.
The homeless woman knew that she could not bear to part with her most prized possession, her last memento of her old life. Her dad had given it to her before he wasted away to dementia as a reminder to keep by her side at all times. A gift passed down from his grandmother, a relic to remind him always of their roots. A happy memory of a man unrecognisable to what he was now. But hunger gnawed at her insides. How long had it been since she’d eaten. Since she’d been anywhere besides this small slab of concrete. Since she’d felt like a person instead of an animal, desperate and afraid. Around her a dozen people walked past but she could only see Lord Rutherford’s face and the print letters which read ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS.
“I can see it means a lot to you.” The Man in the Grey Suit peeled another hundred dollar bill and added it to the first. His voice feigned sympathy but his eyes gleamed with vicious glee. They thought here they would be safe.
“I’ve always believed in looking out for the little guy. I had some tough times growing up myself you know.” His voice flowed like quicksilver before it ran poison through your veins. Wind tugged at his pockets and a stray business card flew away into the street, a picture of his face smiling out under another name next to the letters M.P. The Man in the Grey Suit hardly paid notice; he had many more where that had come from, and many other names.
“Thanks for the help mister. I really appreciate it.” The homeless woman reached behind her neck and unclasped the Pounami necklace with one hand, while the other accepted the money. “Times are tough but I know I can get through this.” She said, handing over the Pounami necklace. The Man in the Grey Suit smiled at her and this time she couldn’t believe she had been so frightened before. Half formed memories melted away into the deep recesses of her dreams. She hadn’t seen him before; surely she would have remembered a smile so genuine and a manner so warm. Here was the only person who had bothered to help her when she was down on her luck. The Maria’s mind began to wonder to what she would have for lunch, a towering billboard proclaimed a new sushi place had opened up near Britomart.
“That’s the entrepreneurial spirit.” The Man in the Grey Suit cheered as he felt the Pounami necklace deposited into the palm of his hand. It was cool to the touch but the hand around it was cooler still. He slipped the Pounami necklace into his pocket, next to a pamphlet that read LESS TAPE LESS TAX and another that read CLEAN GREEN NEW ZEALAND. They thought they had escaped him here in this new land of milk and honey.
“You seem like a hardworking New Zealander unlike the others I’ve seen who just want a handout.” The Man in the Grey Suit gestured further down to a group of young men, their faces darkened and dirty, their clothes worn for wear. “I’m sure you can pull yourself up with that kind of initiative.” He handed Maria a pamphlet that read TAKE CHARGE OF YOUR DESTINY.
“Thanks for everything mister. I won’t forget the help.” Maria scanned the pamphlet with eager eyes, a holy manuscript passed down by a prophet. The Man in the Grey Suit saw the newfound mania in her eyes and he knew his work was done. Here they thought they could escape him.
And perhaps for a time they had. Continuing his walk The Man in the Grey Suit saw his face smiling down from every billboard. In the glossy pages of scattered magazines he saw his smile glow with a fey fire and a malignant malevolence that only he could see. Here they had forgotten his old name as they built monuments to his new image.
Maria got up from the pavement and brushed off what little dirt had fallen on her clothes. Looking around she saw the dirty and dishevelled, whose silent eyes followed the money in her hands. They had been there long before she had, their signs tattered and writ in a messy hand. Maria saw the defeated resignation in their faces, nothing like her. They hadn’t taken risks like she had and given up something precious to earn their place back amongst the hard working. She pitied them, pathetic and passive to their fate. If they had tried harder they wouldn’t be here, after all if the Man in the Grey Suit had come through tough times to get to where he was why couldn’t they do the same. He was right they just wanted a handout, lying there on the pavement. Maria thought about how she could get her old job back as she walked down the street, oblivious to the rain clouds forming above.
The Man in the Grey Suit turned into a well decorated lobby and gave a brief nod to the receptionist before walking into his private elevator. Ten floors of apartments to his name but only the penthouse at the top was occupied. Outside a heavy rain began to beat down on the bustling streets. The Man in the Grey Suit looked down at the city and saw crowds disperse, leaving only those who had nowhere to go. In the corner of his eye he saw Maria walk into a store he owned and his smile grew savage with triumph.
When he was certain he was alone The Man in the Grey Suit drew the Pounami necklace from his pocket and placed the dull green gemstone between his teeth. As his elevator rose to his penthouse there was an industrial roar of grinding gears and pumping pistons as the Pounami was smashed and shattered into dust.
The Man in the Grey Suit smiled as he looked down at the ground remains of a once personal memento. They had brought him here across the Pacific even as they escaped his fell shadow. In the blight of their crops they had brought him, in the hardening of their hearts to hunger. In the gleaming promises of want and the silvery whispers of need they had brought him here. They thought they were safe but they never were -for they all knew his name in their hearts.
For once they had called him FAMINE, but his true name was GREED.
Born somewhere between the old world of Korea and the new world of New Zealand Isaac is an award winning writer, teacher of literature and nomad currently residing in Nanjing.