When Freddie Smallhouse took a job with the city planning department eight years earlier he had never dreamed how controversial his position would eventually become.
Smallhouse had been happy to work in a backroom checking the details of applications and the relevant codes, while channeling his monthly paychecks back to his parents. Unfortunately, his bosses had other ideas. It all started one day when he was asked to present some findings about erosion on the Chesapeake Bay to member of the council. Planning officials usually sought to blind council members with science on these occasions. They even had a list of intimidating words to use that were guaranteed to stymie councilors. Clearly Freddie Smallhouse had not read the script when he presented the findings in a layman’s way.
Smallhouse had watched an amazed expression wash over the Mayor’s grizzled features.
“Hey. I actually understand what this fella’s saying,” he declared.
“Now you’ve gone and done it,” the planning director hissed in Smallhouse’s ear.
The planning director was right. After his initial presentation, Smallhouse became a hot property in the council chamber. He was the closest thing to a rock star in the council chamber. He was routinely dragged in front of the members who appreciated his ability to explain planning concepts to them as he would to an eight-year-old. Smalhouse had a quality that became increasingly rare and valued in the mid 21st Century – that of patience.
When he was appointed to head up the flooding management department in 2034, the workload was manageable and there were five inspectors. Five years later there were 15. Increasingly inspectors found themselves drawing up new flood maps that obliterated properties and having to spread the bad news that homeowners would either have to move out or jack up their properties.
Smallhouse often accompanied his officers in the field. He hated the idea of being a distant boss who heard about issues second hand. And there were a lot of issues.
One day in late July he was out near Carrolton with Herbert Mayhew, a veteran inspector who made no secret of the stress constant interactions with the public put him under.
“Seriously Freddie. If I get any more abuse I’m walking.”
“Just work it out Herb. How long have you got left here? Can’t be more than a couple of years. OK who’s next?”
“Oh God. It’s Tarheel Trailer Park. Mr. Carson Collins.”
“You’ll need some back up for this one.”
“I’ll need an Advil.”
They approached the trailer late in the afternoon. Smallhouse went through the mental checklist. Rusted car. Check. Confederate flag. Check. Pitbull. Check.”
He rapped on the door three times, carefully avoiding the splinters between the peeling paint.
A young woman with dark and not unattractive features came to the door. Smallhouse tried to imagine her wearing something more complementary than the shapeless dungarees. He was struggling.
“Good afternoon. Diana Collins I presume.”
“Yep. Who are you?”
“I’m Frederick Smallhouse from the planning department. I was wondering if Mr. Collins was at home. There was a large Ford pickup nearby and a child could be heard wailing in the trailer but there was no sign of Carson.
“He’s not in,” said Diana. “You can talk to me,” with the pained expression of a woman who was being treated as an accessory to her husband.
“I apologize,” said Freddie. “Our records say the last conversation we had was with your husband and he made some rather forceful points, it says here. My inspector here came by a couple of weeks ago to talk about the flooding risk. We wanted to check on your progress in moving.”
The woman’s olive eyes started back blankly and then there was a sliver of recognition. “So who was the inspector who I spoke with?”
“Probably flood control, community integration and solutions,” Mayhew chimed in.
“So with regard to moving out of here?” Freddie continued.
“Oh Carson said that’s not something we are doing,” Diana told him.
Freddie Smallhouse suppressed a sigh and used his slow and level voice. “I’m not sure you understand Mrs. Collins. It’s mandatory. I mean you have to move for your own safety. That river will swell up and could endanger your family. See those empty plots. There were trailers there a couple of weeks ago.”
The woman gave a half shrug. They heard the roar of an engine behind them as a big Dodge approached. Carson swung out of it and planted his heavy boots next to Smallhouse.
“What the hell do you want?”
Smallhouse repeated the spiel he had given to Diana. Carson cut him short. There was a swelling in his throat and he aimed spittle at Smallhouse’s foot. It missed and slid down the grass.
“Mr. Collins. We know this is not easy and your family has lived her for more than 10 years. I’m afraid it’s just not safe anymore. There are people moving from low lying areas all over Hampton Roads.”
“Let the rats move,” growled Carson. “We ain’t going nowhere.” He spat again and this time it hit its target.