June 22, 2020
I can’t say I was surprised when Jimmy Clifton went over the side in heavy weather that night last May. A clumsier, more careless crew member never walked the deck of the Miss Rosie Mae. As usual, he had ignored the order to clip onto the safety wire and Porter, the last man to see him, said he’d seemed even drunker than usual. Of course, we came right about, and a Coast Guard chopper got out there too a few hours later, but in those swells and with the current running five or six knots you’d just as soon find a black cat in a coal cellar.
Well, sir, we’d been short-handed, or I never would have brought Clifton aboard, but he said he’d made an Atlantic crossing or two crewing yachts, so I took him on. He’d seen better days and fishing’s a young man’s game, but he still looked capable enough. I even challenged him to tie a rolling hitch and he passed with flying colors.
Jimmy never did a lick of work, though. He was clearly down on his luck so I cut him some slack but that doesn’t go over well on a working shrimp boat. The thought crossed my mind that maybe old Jimmy didn’t go over by accident, but most of the crew seemed pretty shaken up about it, so I put that thought to rest.
The question of contacting next of kin came up the next day. We were still three days out from Biloxi, so the crew gathered round and I broke open his footlocker. I have to admit, anticipation was running high. There was something about Jimmy you couldn’t quite put your finger on, and most of the crew held that he’d come from money, whether ill-gotten or otherwise. The crew was sorely disappointed when we lifted that lid. You’d expect to find the usual assortment of things that a man accumulates over time, but there wasn’t much in that footlocker but empty Mount Gay rum bottles, a loaded .45, some old NOAA nautical charts, and a stack of tattered five-star notebooks. You hate to see a man’s life reduced to such meager possessions at the end, but there it was.
Luckily, Lemieux, who knew Jimmy best among the crew, took a look at one of those notebooks out of curiosity as he was getting ready to load them into the marine incinerator. Turns out Jimmy’s notebooks were actually book manuscripts, all written in a bold, confident hand that you wouldn’t have guessed Jimmy possessed.
I’d never seen any of the crew reading anything more thought-provoking than Popular Mechanics, but pretty soon those manuscripts were making the rounds and work was slipping. I asked Lemieux about it and all he said was, ‘That old boy sure could spin a tale, Skip. Like po’ boys and gumbo, you can’t quite get enough.’ High praise indeed coming from a Cajun.
Well, here we are a year later. Never did find Clifton. I like to think the currents and his rummy’s luck carried him to shore and he’s on a beach somewhere sipping on a rum and coke and still putting pen to paper. But Lemieux was right. Old Jimmy’s books are hard to put down. This first one’s called POWERBALLS. A cautionary tale if there ever was one about the perils of sudden wealth, and what the almighty dollar can do to a man’s, or woman’s, soul. In the immortal words of Jimmy Clifton, Be careful what you wish for.
We think you’ll like it.
John Henry Thibodeau, Captain, the Miss Rosie Mae
Be careful what you wish for.
The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men
Henry Ball wanted his boss dead.
A pleasant little tremor rippled down his spine. Given the chance, he would kill Dexter Schmidt in a heartbeat.
Of late, plotting Dex’s demise was the only thing that brightened his days at PharmaSolutions. Dex wasn’t about to drop dead from natural causes, of that Henry was certain. The evil bastard was a world class athlete in his prime. As a testament to his physical prowess and narcissism, Dex even kept a life-size cardboard cutout of himself in the corner office that had once been Henry’s, immortalizing his triumphant swim-stage victory in the Chicago triathlon.
No, if he wanted vengeance, Henry would have to take matters into his own hands. His imagination ran wild with scenarios. In one of his favorites, Henry pictured himself in scuba gear, lying in wait deep below one of Dex’s early morning Lake Michigan training swims. As Dex’s steady crawl propelled him along the surface directly above, Henry would launch himself off the lake bottom, shoot upward with a few powerful kicks, and drag a terrified Dex down into the dark, cold depths.
He almost burst out laughing as he imagined reading about it the next day in the Chicago Tribune: . . . the accomplished Chicago triathlete drowned early yesterday morning within yards of the North Avenue beach. Betty Kravitz, out for her morning walk, witnessed the event from shore. “The way he was flailing about, I never would have guessed the man was an athlete,” she said, still badly shaken from the event. “He seemed completely out of his element.”
While it seemed like the perfect death for Dex, Henry had to admit there was a high probability the younger man would turn the tables on him as they struggled below the surface. Years ago, in college, Henry had spent his summers lifeguarding, but of late even walking up a flight or two of stairs left him winded. The potential for failure reminded him of an old adage:
If you strike at a king, you must kill him.
Dex’s death had to be foolproof.
Then how about curare? Henry smiled. The slow-working neurotoxin used by native tribes in the Amazon to poison their arrows would be the next best thing. Just a few drops slipped into one of Dex’s espressos would almost certainly do the trick.
Henry stifled a laugh as he imagined Dex panicking as the poison took effect and even taking a breath became impossible. He imagined looking down at a helpless Dex in the ICU as he wrapped his arms consolingly around Dex’s new girlfriend, the beautiful Samantha Tarleton. Then he would lean over and whisper in Dex’s ear, Sweet dreams, asshole—I win!
Henry’s reading glasses went flying as his head snapped up from the report he'd been pretending to read. Dex, who was leading PharmaSolutions’ monthly cashflow assessment meeting in a windowless conference room with ten others from the finance department, stood glaring down at him from in front of the whiteboard. The development of a promising new treatment to arrest the effects of Alzheimer’s, code name Shield, had encountered serious setbacks in the clinical trials stage and was now months, perhaps years away from FDA approval. Wall Street had heard the rumors and PharmaSolutions’ high-flying stock and market cap were teetering on the verge of free fall. With the future of the company at stake, a full-court press was on to stem the flow of red ink and Dex, as the newly-minted CFO, was hoping to ‘make his bones’ by saving the company millions. The fact that Dex had, in typical fashion, lowered the temperature in the room to about 60 degrees hadn’t prevented Henry from drifting off.
Now, as Henry sheepishly looked around the room, even some of his longtime allies were stifling smiles, knowing what was to come.
“Nice of you to join us, Henry,” Dex said, with mock politeness. “If you have a moment, and if it’s not too much trouble, perhaps you can shed some light on the cost of our paper clip consumption or whatever it is you’re working on at the moment.”
There was some nervous laughter. Even Samantha Tarleton, his former protégé, had turned away and was looking down with embarrassment.
“People,” Dex said, “we need to shave $5 million off our monthly burn rate or heads will roll.” He looked directly at Henry. “Any idea where we should start?”
Rose Ball wanted to make love to her boss.
She flushed at the thought. She strongly suspected Dr. Nick Cohen felt the same way about her. Rose had begun to detect a heightened level of attentiveness a few months earlier when most of North Shore Urology’s doctors, nurses and Rose, the office manager, had gone to the annual Leading Edge Urology Conference in Las Vegas.
True to form, the doctors attended one early morning 30-minute lecture and then spent the rest of the day at the exclusive Shadow Creek golf course courtesy of the pharmaceutical reps who circled the doctors like sharks. It was a welcome three-day respite from the pressures of a practice reaping the enormous benefits of baby boomer demographics. A surprisingly inebriated doctor had perhaps summed it up best in a pithy dinner toast one evening as he raised a glass and struggled to keep his balance: “Thank God for ED!”
Million-dollar salaries softened the blow for the doctors, but for Rose and the other staffers working 60 hours a week, the comparatively meager salaries and rare perks seemed increasingly inadequate. But if the natives were getting restless you would not have guessed it poolside at the Mirage. Perhaps no other profession let its hair down so quickly and as thoroughly as the RN. Rose and the nurses spent their days relaxing alongside the vast pool, drinking an endless supply of mai tais and margaritas, and fending off the clumsy if harmless advances of the high rollers known as whales. It was, as one of the nurses yelled out of nowhere, “Just what the fuckin’ doctor ordered!”
By the time the docs arrived at the poolside bar in the late afternoon, no one was particularly sober, and the usually discrete and very professional Dr. Cohen seemed enamored with Rose. It would not have surprised the casual observer. Rose kept herself in great shape and her lithe, 50-year-old body in a simple black two-piece compared favorably to women 20 years her junior. There was something of a ‘come hither’ quality about her too that was hard to define. Perhaps it was the way her thick, wavy auburn hair fell seductively just above one eye, made all the more alluring because she seemed so completely unaware of its sultry effect.
While nothing had happened, later that evening she had been squeezed cozily against Dr. Cohen as five or six of the doctors packed tightly into an elevator after a raucous dinner, and he seemed to welcome the contact.
Dr. Cohen was certainly the most handsome of the clinic’s partners. Rose particularly liked his calm demeanor, which seemed to get even calmer in crisis (her husband Henry was excitable and seemed to take pleasure in over-reacting); his intelligence (Henry was bright too, well-read and witty, but his interests now seemed limited to the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and ESPN rather than the theater and the other arts that Rose had a passion for); and, well, his great body (Henry was taller but had begun to slouch a bit and sport the noticeable gut that seemingly every middle-aged American male gets when he’s thrown in the towel on any pretense of athleticism).
Rose yawned, rubbed her eyes, and laid her head down on the tall stack of file folders in front of her. Vegas seemed like a lifetime ago. Who could blame her if she took just a minute to catch her second wind? Most of the staff were still at lunch. She wasn’t one to indulge in fantasy but now, overcome by weariness, she succumbed to a favorite daydream.
She imagines returning to the office after the staff has left that evening. She’s fallen weeks behind and now hours of pure drudgery awaits. She’s changed out of her usual business casual into something more befitting the long, dreary night ahead: vintage Chicago Bears sweatshirt and a pair of ancient Kappa Delta sorority sweatpants dating back to college.
Shit! As she logs into the office server, she suddenly realizes she’s left her iPhone at home and there’s not even Puccini’s “Tosca” to help get her through another hellish evening at North Shore Urological.
But wait. As if on cue she hears what sounds like the unmistakable voice of the renowned tenor Roberto Alagna coming from down the hall. Intrigued, Rose walks to her office doorway and peeks around the corner. Only it’s not Alagna; it’s Dr. Cohen. He emerges from his office, hesitating for a moment as he masters the role of Cavaradossi and the most difficult of Puccini’s arias. He lifts his arms heavenward and the pictures in the hallway rattle with the power of his crescendo.
He grins a bit sheepishly when he realizes Rose has been watching him and takes a modest, self-deprecating bow. She notices that he’s exchanged scrubs for a tux and now he strides down the hall with all the je ne sais quoi of James Bond (the Connery version of course).
Rose ducks backs into her tiny office. She’s in a panic. She looks like hell and her office is in a shamble. She begins to straighten the mountain of file folders on her desk, but it’s too late.
“Never mind all that,” Dr. Cohen says as he comes up behind her, then sends the file folders flying across the room with a powerful sweep of his arm. He lays a dozen long-stemmed red roses in their place.
“We’ve got to hurry, Rose, Lyric Opera starts in an hour,” he says, holding up two tickets. “Limo’s waiting outside.”
“Dr. Cohen,” she starts to respond.
“Nick,” he says. He looks her up and down. “Hmmm. I hope I guessed right. Size six? Couldn’t be sure if you liked Valentino or not, but I took a chance.” He hands her a garment bag.
He starts toward the door but then turns. “Oh, almost forgot, here, give me your wrist,” he says. “This was my grandmother’s. They say Cartier made just two. The czarina got the other. Thought it would look nice on you. The Ceylon sapphires match your eyes.”
The practice’s senior nurse, Britt Johannsen, all six feet of her, towered over Rose. Big Jo, as everyone called her, was feared by most of the staff and the more timid doctors. Of late a palpable hostility had grown between the two women, and Rose strongly suspected it had a lot to do with Dr. Cohen. Big Jo seemed particularly enamored with him, and while Rose doubted there was any mutual interest, she had to admit that Big Jo could be considered attractive if you went for that big-breasted Swedish dominatrix-nurse look.
Rose lifted her head, looked up at Big Jo, and returned the fake smile. “Yes, Jo, how can I help?”
In what Rose imagined was a subtle act of intimidation, Jo sat down on the edge of Rose’s desk and leaned uncomfortably into Rose’s personal space; so close in fact that Rose noticed that Jo smelled of a rather sickening blend of tic tacs and antiseptic soap.
“Ball, these records should have been converted to EMR and uploaded to the cloud months ago,” Jo said, gesturing toward the stack of blue folders on Rose’s desk. “When that task got delegated to you, I feared the worst. Now it’s costing us. I don’t know who you’re playing footsy with around here, but who do you think the docs will keep when given the choice: a highly trained nurse practitioner or a glorified bookkeeper well past her prime?”
With that Jo stood, casually smoothed the front of the pristine white scrubs that somehow accentuated her evilness, smiled at Rose and walked off. Rose settled for a mild flipping of the bird at Jo’s back. It had taken all of her willpower not to have leaped onto Big Jo’s back and throttled her with any of the six different choke holds she was expert at.
“In some cultures, age and experience are revered!” Henry railed later that day at lunch at Murphy’s. It was a popular strip mall eatery with faux Irish pub décor and a sort of canned Cheers bonhomie, just one of the many watering holes in close proximity to PharmaSolutions and the dozens of other promising young startups that had sprung up along the northern edge of Cook County. Henry was already on his third beer, a personal best for a Friday lunch, and alcohol tended to make him louder and even more excitable.
“But not at big pharma! Now it’s all about youth, and bastards like Dex rule!”
Heads turned at several of the adjoining tables. Murphy’s was the go-to Friday lunch spot for many of PharmaSolutions’ employees, and the place was packed. Not even the Jimmy Buffett soundtrack could lift the somber vibe, a far cry from the raucous Fridays of just a few months ago when Shield and stock price were both flying high. Henry’s best friend Arnie Schlecter from IT smiled and held a finger to his lips.
“You know, I have a theory about that,” Arnie said, seeking to diffuse the situation. “In the old days everyone had a trade. Blacksmith, carpenter, bricklayer, all requiring great skill and years of experience. Now, technology is the most important trade.”
But Henry wasn’t listening. Arnie followed his gaze and saw that Dex and Samantha had just walked in. It was a raw, blustery early spring day and Samantha re-arranged the luxurious blond mane that had blown down over her startlingly blue eyes. Dex nodded in their direction and said something to Samantha that made her laugh. Henry watched as Dex helped Samantha out of her coat, her back arching a bit and shoulders thrusting back.
“Henry get a grip, you’re drooling,” Arnie said.
Henry leaned toward Arnie. “I can’t help it, Arnie, she’s like Circe, turning men into swine.” He glanced in their direction. “What does she see in Dex anyway?”
“Have you seen that life-size cut-out in his office?” Arnie asked. “The Speedo? No shrinkage in evidence there, even after 30 minutes in Lake Michigan.”
“Arnie, you’ve no doubt heard of Photoshop?” Henry asked. “With a bit of work, I’d be a dead ringer for Brad Pitt.”
Arnie was too good a friend to hit the hanging curveball out of the ballpark. Instead, he changed the subject. “More importantly, have you heard about the Powerball? Up to $1 billion and change. The drawing’s next Tuesday.”
“Arnie please, I’m an accountant. It’s mathematically more probable that we’ll both sleep with Angelina Jolie.”
“Oh, come on Henry, live a little, let your hair down,” Arnie said, his eyes going inadvertently to Ball’s receding hairline. “Life can’t all be about playing the percentages. Just think what you could do with that kind of money.” He nodded in Samantha’s direction.