Two Years Ago
Gail Thompson was never this late. Sam checked his watch. She should have returned forty minutes ago. She ran five miles every morning, a forty minute circuit. Infrequently, when she finished her run, she’d drive to the Quickmart to buy milk, cereal, or bread for breakfast. Sam checked the garage, but their minivan hadn’t been moved. That’s when he heard distant sirens on Halford-Beaman Road. He prayed there was no connection.
He took the stairs two at a time to the second floor to check on their girls. Melanie, five, and Rebecca, three, slept soundly. He called Barbara Shepard, their next door neighbor, and asked her to watch the children until he returned. Then he raced outside to his car, backed out of the driveway, slammed the vehicle into drive and sped toward the main highway.
As he turned onto Halford-Beaman Road, he could barely see the flashing red lights a thousand yards ahead in the fog. Emergency vehicles cluttered the road. He eased his old Ford onto the shoulder and hurried to the head of a line of cars where a policeman held traffic.
“I’m sorry, sir, you’ll have to wait here,” the boyish looking policeman said.
“My wife runs on this road every morning. I’m trying to find out if she’s been hurt.”
“What was she wearing?”
“She usually wears a black, purple and white jogging suit.”
“Go.” The officer pointed to an ambulance.
Sam sprinted to the ambulance. Nausea rose in his throat. It could be Gail. A large Georgia Environmental Services of Macon recycling truck was turned sideways on the road. Lights from a police cruiser flashed across the GES logo. An emergency medical technician who stood behind the ambulance stowed equipment and prepared to depart. “I’m trying to find out if my wife has been hurt,” Sam said. “I believe she wore a black, purple and white jogging suit.”
The EMT looked directly at Sam. “Was she in her late twenties, early thirties, tall, dark hair?”
Sam folded inside. “Oh God.”
“We just put her in an ambulance five minutes ago and sent her to Macon Regional. I’m going there now. Why don’t you follow me.”
“How badly is she hurt?”
“From the truck driver’s report, he took the curve too wide and didn’t see the runner in the fog until he was right on top of her. She must’ve tripped on the edge of the asphalt and fell onto the road in front of the truck.” He packed up his equipment and supplies and slid them into the back of the truck.
Sam grabbed the EMT by the shoulder and spun him around. “How badly is she hurt?”
“It’s not good, Mr.____?”
“Thompson, Sam Thompson.”
“Mr. Thompson, she was unconscious and critical when we put her in the ambulance. Where’s your car?”
“Parked on the side of the road.” Sam pointed back beyond the police barricade. “I’m in the old red car.”
“I’ll turn around, pull up to where the policeman is and wait for you. Then follow me to the hospital.” The EMT closed the rear doors and walked to the driver’s side of the vehicle. He turned the truck around, spoke with the officer, pulled through the barricade, and waited for Sam to turn his vehicle around to follow him. The policeman directed the ambulance then Sam onto the roadway. They both sped down the hill into the dense fog.
Sam reached for his cellular phone and called Barb Shepard. “Gail’s been in a bad accident, Barb. I’m on my way to the hospital.”
“What happened, Sam?” Barb asked, shock and concern in her voice.
“I don’t have all the details. I don’t even know how she is. But as soon as I get to the hospital and find out, I’ll call you.”
He considered calling Gail’s parents, but decided against it. He would wait until he had more information. All they would do is worry.
The fog thinned as he came down Halford-Beaman Road toward town. Rush hour traffic began to build. He tried to maintain composure. He choked when he pictured the accident in his mind. “God, please help her get through this,” he prayed aloud. He stayed close to the ambulance as the EMT wove his way through traffic.
The ambulance turned into the hospital’s emergency entrance. He turned into the parking lot, parked his car and met the EMT. As they walked into the emergency room, he was surprised how busy things were this early. He heard the EMT explain to a doctor who Sam was and signaled for him to join him.
“This is Sam Thompson. He’s the husband of the woman we transported in from the Halford-Beaman accident site.” The EMT patted him on the back, wished him well, and left.
“Mr. Thompson . . . ,” the doctor began.
“How is my wife, doctor?”
“We’re trying to get her stabilized. Could I have her name, please?”
“Gail.” He scanned the doctor’s face for additional clues about Gail’s condition. “Gail Ann Thompson. How was she when they brought her in?”
Concern flashed across the doctor’s tired face. “The truck nearly crushed her. Massive internal injuries. Lost a tremendous amount of blood. Once she’s stabilized, we can determine the severity of her injuries.” The doctor examined his wristwatch and made a notation on the clipboard.
“Do you think she’ll be okay?”
The doctor looked up from his paperwork and straight into his eyes. “Mr. Thompson, her chances aren’t good. Her injuries are significant. We’ve got our best team working on her. As soon as we know something, we’ll get word to you.” The doctor’s eyes lingered on his just long enough to convey genuine concern. He turned to a nurse. “Would you show Mr. Thompson to patient registration?” Turning back to Sam, he said, “We’ll need to get some information about your wife, Mr. Thompson. My prayers are with you, sir.”
“Thank you, doctor.”
The nurse escorted him to the reception area where he’d wait his turn for a clerk to take insurance information. “They’re busy and it might be awhile,” she said. It was the first moment he had alone. He sat in the hard, straight-backed chair, bent forward, put his face in his hands and began to cry. Within seconds he was sobbing uncontrollably.
He knew things with Gail were very serious, and her chances were poor, at best. The picture that came to mind instantly was Rebecca sitting in her high chair eating breakfast. At three years old, she depended on Gail–but did Rebecca really know her? He feared she never would.
Melanie would be hurt, she would grieve terribly. But she knew something about her mother.
Five minutes later, Sam’s name was called on the public address. He reported to the triage nurse’s station.
“Mr. Thompson, the attending physician just told me your wife’s injuries are so serious he can do little for her. She’s still unconscious. Would you like to be with her?”
“Yes, thank you. I’d like that.” Sam wiped the tears off his cheek.
The nurse led him into the emergency room, and introduced him to the attending physician, a balding man in his forties. “I’m Doctor Stafford, Mr. Thompson. I want to warn you, your wife’s in pretty bad shape.”
“Thank you, doctor.”
The doctor led Sam into a curtained off cubicle. He approached his wife tentatively.
Gail was covered in a green sheet from her neck down. A clear respirator tube taped to her mouth fed her oxygen. A nurse wiped her face clean and straightened her blood-matted hair, as Sam approached the gurney. Monitors connected to her arms and chest softly but irregularly beeped, indicating pulse and blood pressure.
He didn’t know where to touch her. He wanted to pull her into his arms and make all of her pain go away. Shakily, he placed his palm on the badly bruised and scraped right side of her face. He bent over and placed his cheek against hers. He began to cry again, more heavily than in the waiting room. “Oh, Gail,” he said several times and then the nurse placed her hand on his back to console him. As if on cue, the monitors went into alarm. The doctor walked over and turned off the machines.
Sam put his hand under Gail’s neck, lifted her head slightly and kissed her closed eyes. “I love you, Gail.”
The nurse patted him on the back. He turned and instinctively hugged her, crying softly. “We did all he could, Mr. Thompson,” the nurse said, then gently edged him out of the cubicle.
A voice inside his head screamed, “You can’t let this happen! Do something, for God’s sake. Don’t just walk away from the table! Damn it, DO SOMETHING!” He wanted to scream. On the outside, however, he said nothing. He looked at Gail one final time as nurses pulled the green sheet over her face. “What’ll I do without you, Gail?”
Sam finished paperwork at the hospital and drove home in a stupor. It was late morning when he pulled in his driveway. It happened so quickly. Just a few hours ago, Gail was alive. And now she’s gone.
Barbara Shepard met him at the front door.
“Barb, she never had a chance.”
“Oh, Sam, I’m so sorry.” Barbara opened her arms and communicated her love and concern with her firm hug. He cried for what seemed like a long time.
“Where are the girls?” He wiped his face with his hands.
“They’re eating breakfast. God, what’ll you tell them?”
“I don’t know, Barb.”
Melanie and Rebecca sat at the kitchen table still dressed in their flannel nightshirts. He picked them up into his arms and held them tightly. How would he explain their mommy was gone?
After two months, the picture of the funeral was still fresh in his mind. That he contained his grief surprised him. He didn’t want to think about the prospect of living without Gail. Death had never taken a relative or a close friend, so the experience was new. He felt amazingly detached, as though he had attended the funeral of a friend’s wife, instead of his own. He didn’t feel he had the luxury of grief. He had his daughters to think about, their future to be concerned with.
His daughters were grief stricken. Rebecca, his three year old, had nightmares. Melanie, his five year old, refused to believe Gail was gone. She made up fictitious reasons why her mother was gone; the latest was her Mommy was on a trip and would return soon. Their continued suffering brought him low. Their loss, not his, motivated him to make the changes he contemplated.
Sam Thompson liked his office, but felt uncomfortable with the perk. The executive offices, with picture window views of lakes and forests, surrounded a labyrinth of interior office cubicles. These more austere work stations were assigned to less fortunate middle and lower level managers handcuffed to lucrative pensions with one of the nation’s largest telephone companies.
As regional vice president of operations, his corner office communicated power and position. The accoutrements were plain and bespoke a man of simplicity. His only extravagance was a natural cherry wood and glass curio cabinet with antique phones, tools and memorabilia, a gift from Gail on his promotion to vice president.
He picked up the pink phone message slip from the chair in his office and examined the name and telephone number. Scribbled on the corner was a note: “Third time the man has called.” He stared at the message slip, but his mind was elsewhere
He picked up the telephone and called the Kentucky number.
“Barren River Telephone Cooperative.”
“Clay Cole, please.”
He had returned two days earlier from an interview with Cole. The smell of pipe tobacco from the eighty-year-old retiring manager lingered fresh in his memory. He remembered the difficulty the old man had filling the pipe bowl with hands that shook from the onset of Parkinson’s disease. As he waited, he pictured Cole’s office clouded with smoke from the aromatic blend of tobaccos.
“Sam! It’s good to hear from you,” the gravelly voice greeted him. “I met with the board last night, and they voted unanimously to extend an offer of employment to you.”
“Mr. Cole, I’m honored.”
“I know we can’t meet that big company salary you’re making, but we have great benefits, and Glasgow is such a great place to raise those two precious girls of yours.” Cole’s quaking voice dripped with patronization. “Can I count on you to come, Sam?”
“I’m very interested, Mr. Cole. Just want to run some last minute numbers to be sure I can swing it. May I call you tomorrow?”
“You take your time. I know this is a tough time for you. Just let me know by the end of the month. I’ve been here for over forty years. A few more weeks won’t make any difference.”
“I can let you know tomorrow.”
“Anything else I can do?”
“No, Mr. Cole. I’m very grateful for all you’ve done already.”
He laid the phone in the receiver. Lola Campbell, his short, plump secretary, barged into his office.
“Well? Am I out of a job now?” she asked sarcastically.
“What’re you doing, listening in on the phone call?”
“Don’t keep me in suspense anymore. It’s driving me crazy. Tell me. Tell me!”
“The board met, and they offered me the job,” He said flatly and plopped his tall thin body down into his old leather chair.
“Oh, that’s wonderful!” she shrieked and lunged at him to give him a high-five. He reluctantly held up his palm, while Lola went through the antics of her animated excitement. The aroma of her perfume swirled around the room as she did her small victory dance. He hated the smell, but didn’t have the heart to tell her.
“Now, where is Glasgow again?”
“East of Bowling Green. Due north of Nashville, just over the Tennessee and Kentucky border.”
Lola shook her head as though recalling the last time he had explained this to her. “I knew there were independent telephone companies I just didn’t know there were twelve hundred of them.” She brushed the hair out of her eyes and off her forehead. “Have you talked to your girls yet about moving?” Lola’s cheerful tone became solemn.
“No.” He took a deep breath. “I worry about doing the right thing. Rebecca and Melanie were born in that house. Gail carved notches in the door jamb to the girls’ room to show them how fast they were growing. Our next door neighbor is like family to the girls.” He got up from his chair, ran his hands through his gray-flecked hair and paced the floor. “But, I see Gail in every corner of the house. When I go to bed at night, I can smell her in our room. I can’t stay there any longer.”
“Sam, you’re doing the right thing. The girls need a change. They see Gail in the house, too. It’ll be hard for them to adjust unless you move.”
“But to Kentucky?” He turned and looked at Lola with uncertainty. “There are lots of places I could move. And I wouldn’t have to leave the company. I could transfer–”
“You don’t want to stay here and you know it.” She slid forward to the edge of the seat. “You hate it. Do you want me to replay all the conversations we’ve had over the last two years? You’re miserable. Do something about it.”
“If Gail were here . . .”
“Well, Gail isn’t here.” There was a tone of caution in her voice. “You need to think about what’s good for you and the girls.”
He walked over to the window, rubbed his hand across his five o’clock shadow and the back of his neck and thought for a minute. He turned toward Lola. “You’re right. Staying here means more unhappiness. I’m ready for something different.”
“That’s the spirit!” she said, driving her right fist into her left palm.
“But what’ll you do if I leave?” He walked closer to her.
She stood up and faced him with her hands on her hips. “I’ve been around this rat hole for twenty-seven years. I’ve got three more to put in and then I can retire. If they lay me off, they’ll have to give me an early retirement option. I can’t lose. Don’t you worry for a minute about me. I’ll be just fine. You worry about yourself and those darling girls of yours.”
“Lola, where would I be without you?”
“In Kentucky, having a great time running that little company. After the last two years, you’d be on vacation. Now, go home to your girls and tell them what you’ve decided to do.”
John Stanko watched the pilot shut down one of the Brasilia 120 propjet engines and glided the sleek aircraft off the taxiway at the Biloxi Airport.
A grounds person gave hand signals to guide the propjet to its parking place on the ramp. The pilot shut down the remaining engine, opened the door next to the cockpit and nodded to John Stanko and the rest of the passengers to disembark. Stanko gathered his briefcase from the empty seat next to him, moved to the front of the small jet and deplaned.
A young woman in her late twenties approached him as he walked through the doors from the ramp to the waiting area. She held up a sign; “John Stanko.”
“Welcome to Biloxi. I’m Sandy Simms. I work for Phillip Task. He asked me to meet you. Unfortunately, he’s in a meeting this afternoon and won’t be able to make it. May I take your bag?” she asked, reaching for the briefcase in his left hand.
“No, I’ve got it. But I do need to get a bag from baggage claim.”
Sandy pointed over his shoulder. “The driver is getting your bag now.” He turned around to see a man with a driver’s cap headed toward the exit with his rolling overnight bag.
“Come with me, and I’ll show you to the car.” She grinned broadly, then turned and headed to the rear of the building. He followed.
The limo was a white stretch Lincoln Town Car. The driver deposited Stanko’s luggage, closed the trunk, and then walked to their side of the vehicle to open the rear door. He offered a hand to Sandy Simms, and then offered to take Stanko’s briefcase as he got into the car. He declined.
Sandy directed him to the seat directly across from her. He put his briefcase on the floor, and then looked over the inside of the limo. To his left was a small bar, where bottles of scotch, rum, and vodka stood guard over several crystal tumblers. To his right there was a console housing a CD player, radio, and television. The television set was off and muted classical music played in the background.
“Is this your first time to Biloxi, Mr. Stanko?”
“Nah, I’ve been here many times, mostly to fish with Phil. But I’ve never been picked up in a limo before. Phil must be doing pretty well. By the way, my name is John.”
Sandy extended a hand to him. “Then John it is.” He reached across, took her small hand and shook it. “I’m glad to meet you, John.” He could not detect an accent of any kind in her voice.
“Nice to meet you, too.” He shifted in his seat. The inside of the limo smelled like cigarettes and liquor. “Have you worked for Phil long? I don’t remember meeting you.”
“No, I just started to work for him a week ago.” She turned her legs at a forty-five degree angle, and then crossed them. The skirt of the pink business suit was extremely short.
“What do you do for him?” He struggled to make conversation.
“I’m a meeting coordinator, and I handle client relations. I guess you might say I’m a public relations person.” She smiled broadly. Her blue-gray eyes gleamed like the summer sun reflects off a pool of water.
“Where are the rest of the guys?” he asked, suddenly feeling slightly uncomfortable being alone with her.
“What other guys?” Her eyebrows cocked into a puzzled look.
“There are usually twenty to thirty people on Phil’s fishing weekends. We’ve been doing this every year for as long as I can remember.”
“I’m afraid there isn’t anyone else coming that I’m aware of. I have a copy of the itinerary for the weekend, and you’re his only guest.”
“That’s odd,” he said. “Why would Phil go to all this trouble just for me?”
“You’re an important client, John. Last year Phil tells me your telephone company did more business with Task Construction than any of his other clients. I think he wants you to know how important you are to him.”
He looked around the limo then scanned Sandy and said, “I’m not this important.”
“Sure you are. Phil speaks very highly of you. He has great respect.” She brushed her wheat colored hair away from her thin face.
He was surprised at the attention. He and Phil Task were professional friends, but never socialized. Task was a heavy drinker, Stanko drank only occasionally. Phil’s flamboyant lifestyle was light years from his.
The limo turned out on Highway 90 and headed west toward Pass Christian. The number of casinos that lined the beach surprised him. Biloxi had grown dramatically since he first came here for vacation with his parents in the sixties. Then the town was totally dependent on the Kessler Air Force Base. Now tourism and gambling had made Biloxi the crown jewel of the Redneck Riviera.
“I wonder why Phil didn’t tell me I was the only one coming?” he said aloud but to himself.
“John, look at me,” she demanded. He turned from looking at the Gulf through the limo’s dark tinted windows and looked directly at her. Her short-cropped hair, wide eyes, thin nose, and full lips contributed to her allure. It was the small details, however, that made her desirable: the slight, almost choreographed movements of her body, the turn of her highly arched eyebrows, the way she looked at him through bangs at her forehead that were too long. “You’re a valued client and friend. Phil is just trying to show some appreciation. Just relax and enjoy it. He has a great time planned for you.”
The limo driver pulled the car into the left turn lane and eased across traffic into the Riviera Resort, one of the newest and most expensive resorts on Biloxi Beach. Lavish landscaping and immense rocks imported from Utah formed an expansive waterfall and made the entrance a spectacle. A doorman dressed in a maroon and gray uniform promptly opened the door when the limo came to a stop and welcomed them.
“Well, we’re here, John. I hope you’re not disappointed.”
He didn’t respond as he followed her out of the limo, then stood and took in the entrance to the hotel. They certainly didn’t have anything like this in Kentucky, he thought. He raised his eyebrows and shook his head in disbelief. Sandy tipped the limo driver and doorman, and gave the bellman the number of the room.
“We’re already checked in, John.” She led the way toward the entrance. He was in awe as he followed her up some low steps and through the automatic doors to the lobby.
The rock waterfall at the entrance flowed into the lobby, cascaded down the interior side of an imitation mountain, formed a waterway that worked its way through the lobby to the swimming pool and gardens. She led him, but he moved slowly, distracted by the sights and sounds of water. To his right was the casino, jammed with slot machines. To his left was the registration desk, and in front of Sandy a sign over an archway read, “Guest Rooms.”
Fifty yards down a dark hallway he and Sandy caught an elevator marked “Penthouse” to the tenth floor. When they came out of the elevator, the sign on the wall directed them to the “New Orleans Suite,” which faced the west toward New Orleans and the “Mobile Suite,” which faced east. She turned east toward Mobile, stuck a Ving key in the special security lock and pushed her way through the door.
“This is it, humble as it may be.” She glided around the room, turned on lights and opened sheer drapes like a realtor might show a home for sale.
He was stunned at the forty foot wide room. A solid plate glass window ran the entire length of the room. She pulled back the drapes, the white-capped Gulf now the prominent feature of the room. To the left, a living room, on the far left a floor to ceiling fireplace of the same stone used in the lobby. Straight ahead, in the middle of the living room, a conversation square of Southern Colonial couches. On the wall near the entrance door, an elaborate wet bar made of natural cherry wood. To the right, a kitchenette and a long dining table. Occasional Queen Anne chairs dotted the expanse of off-white carpet; all faced the panoramic view of the Gulf. Three other doors led out of the room.
She said, “That’s the entrance to your room.” She nodded to the right toward the door next to the kitchen. “That’s the entrance to my room,” and she nodded toward the other end of the room in the direction of a door next to the fireplace. “The other door is to a small bathroom.”
“Your room?” He didn’t believe what she had said.
“I don’t have anything to worry about, do I, John?” she said with insincere innocence. She was smiling now.
“Well, no,” He hesitated. “I just didn’t expect–”
“Phil’s orders. He’s given clear instructions you’re to enjoy yourself. If you want something, I’m here to arrange it for you.”
He took in the enormity of the room. “This is ridiculous. I don’t need a room like this for heaven’s sake. We’re going on a fishing trip, not to see the Queen of England. A regular room would be much better for me,” he insisted.
“Nonsense.” She cut him off. “Wait till you see this bathroom. You’ll change your mind.” She led him toward the door to his room. “Phil’s in the suite next door,” she said. “He’ll join us for a drink in about an hour; that’ll give us time to freshen up.” She opened the door and went into a large bedroom with twin king-sized four poster beds. Framed water fowl pictures, like those found in Charleston inns added southern charm to the room. By contrast to the living area, the room had only a small window.
“You haven’t seen anything yet.” She opened the door to the bathroom and flooded the bedroom with light.
The bath was larger than the bedroom. Like the living room, the exterior walls were all glass. The view of the Gulf impressed him.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” He said, with wonder.
In the opposite corner there was a Jacuzzi tub that could easily sit four people. Between the entrance door and the tub was a glass enclosed shower and on the other side of the tub, an elaborate sink and dressing area. Next to the vanity was a small room with a toilet.
“Wow,” he said involuntarily.
“You get to have this room, under one condition. You let me use this tub. My bathroom isn’t quite as nice as this.”
“Well, you can have this room then. I don’t need all this. A good strong shower will be fine for me.”
“No, no, no. Phil would kill me. This is your room. I just want you to share.”
He let the comment slip. “How do you get some privacy in here?”
“No one can see in, John.”
“Well, I just wouldn’t feel right . . .”
Before he could finish his sentence, she flipped a toggle switch near the entrance door, and silver Venetian blinds cascaded out of a recession in the ceiling. With another switch she adjusted how much light the blinds let in. “For those without guts,” she said with a laugh. “Well, tell me what you think. Are you pleased?”
“Overwhelmed. I could put my whole bathroom at home in this shower stall.”
“I’m glad you like it.”
He shook his head as he left the bathroom, headed through the bedroom and back into the living area. He couldn’t believe the amount of money Task had spent on him. It made him feel uncomfortable, like he wasn’t in control.
She tagged along behind him and said, “Phil will be here about six o’clock. You have plenty of time to get ready.”
There was a knock at the door and a loud voice, “Bellman.”
She treaded across the living room and opened the door. The bellman carried the large bag into the foyer and set it down. She pulled some bills out of her coat pocket and tipped him. She started to lift the bag, but Stanko intercepted, picked the bag up and headed toward his room.
“If you need anything, just holler.” She opened her door and went in, but left it open.
He went to his room, sat on the bed and contemplated the day’s surprises. A limo from the airport. This penthouse suite and all the attention from Sandy. All this for him. It just didn’t make sense. But then again maybe it was just as she said: Task showing his appreciation. After all, he thought, we’ve done a lot of business with him over the years.
He called home. There was no answer, only his southern sounding voice on the answering machine. He decided to leave a message for his wife, Teresa that he had arrived safely. He normally didn’t call home when he went away on trips, but he needed to connect with reality. He needed to hear something familiar and comfortable.
He closed the blinds and took a shower, amused at the twin shower heads. He stood at the intersection of both sprays and languished in the calming effect of the hot water beating on his back and chest. He finished his shower, wrapped a towel around himself and walked to the bedroom to get his shaving kit from his luggage. He went back to his bathroom, set the kit in front of the vanity and looked at himself in the mirror. At forty-eight, he felt fortunate to still have his wavy light brown hair. His youthful, fair, freckled face was sunburned from working outside on his farm in Fountain Run. The tan disappeared at a “v” in his T-shirt and his chest was white. Halfway down his biceps, the tan returned. He shaved, brushed his teeth and unpacked what were his only semi-dressy clothes: a western-style sport coat, a long sleeved blue western dress shirt, and a pair of Wrangler tight-fitting jeans. He dressed quickly, not wanting to be late.
At nearly six o’clock someone knocked on his door. He opened it, and Sandy stood there, holding her black dress against her chest.
“I need your help. I can’t reach this zipper.” She turned around and offered a naked back to him. The start of the zipper was below her red panties.
He began, not sure how to approach the task. With his left hand he pinched the spandex material at the base of the zipper and with his right he slipped the zipper tab between his forefinger and thumb and, with effort, pulled it to a point halfway up her bare, deeply-tanned back. As he pulled the zipper up, the material stretched until it had become second skin. She turned around and faced him. The neck of the dress scooped low in the front.
“Thanks for your help. Phil will be here in just a minute.”
She turned in her black stocking feet and headed back to her room.
“It was my pleasure,” he said aloud as she went through the door, but not loud enough for Sandy to hear.
The entrance door burst open, and Phil Task sauntered into the room like it was part of his kingdom and Stanko was a subject. He stood a foot taller than Stanko, was wide across the chest and sported the beginnings of a protruding gut. Yet Task managed to look presidential in his gray Armani suit, Gucci slip-ons and Tabasco tie, tied loosely about his neck and hanging about six inches below his belt. It wasn’t until he opened his mouth this impression of a person of importance was shattered.
“John. How the hell are you?” Task’s standard greeting. Stanko extend a thin bony hand, and Task crushed it with a massive fleshy hand.
“Good.” Stanko withdrew his hand in pain.
“The missus and kids?” Task asked without appearing to care and didn’t wait for his reply. “Good, good, so what do you think of the spread?” He extended his arms out parallel to the floor and turned to survey his domain.
“It’s–” Stanko began to say.
“Beautiful, isn’t it? Best damn place on the Gold Coast.” Task heard Sandy Simms come out of her room, intercepted her before she crossed the room to Stanko and hugged her affectionately like a father might hug a daughter. “Isn’t this the prettiest girl you’ve ever seen, John? What more could a guy ask for?”
He started to say something, and Sandy rescued him. “John was surprised he was the only person invited on the trip. He expected the same crowd as last year.” She pried herself away from Task, took a few steps and stood next to Stanko.
He looked at Task and marveled at his heavy beard, and wiry black and gray hair. At 6:00 p.m. he looked like he hadn’t shaved.
“John,” Task’s voice boomed, “We’ve been friends a long time. We’ve done a helluva lot of business together. It’s just high time we recognized how damn important you are to us.”
“But all this,” he paused and looked around the room, “is totally unnecessary.”
“Bullshit. We make a pile of money off that little company of yours. My friendship with you is the only reason we still have the business. Showing our appreciation was long overdue,” Task strutted over toward Stanko and gave him a few pats on the back. “So what would you like to do tonight, John?” He asked heading to the phone on the end table next to the couch. Before Stanko could answer, he picked up the white phone and punched in a few numbers.
“Rena? What the hell’s keeping you? Yeah . . . I don’t care what you want. Get your ass down here with those drinks. Mr. Stanko here is thirsty.” He slammed down the receiver and turned to him as though the phone call never happened. “We’ve got a great evening planned. Dinner at the best damn steakhouse on the coast, a show, and then we’ll turn in early to be rested for our trip tomorrow.”
“Where are we going fishing?” he asked.
“It’s a surprise, but you’re going to love it. Sit down John, you’re making me nervous.” Task paced the room. “Sandy, see if there’s any booze in this place.”
Sandy opened cabinet doors and found nothing. “Empty,” she declared. “There’s no booze here, you’ll just have to wait for Rena.”
The main door flew open, and a waiter pushed a cart into the room. A petite woman with blonde hair followed.
“What the hell took you so long? John’s thirsty because of you.” Task’s face contorted in anger.
“It’s okay. I really don’t want anything to drink.” Stanko looked at Rena and read fear in her eyes. He wished there was some way to get Task off her back.
“It’s not okay.” Task shot Stanko an angry look. “Rena’s been in a shitty mood all day, and I’m sick of it.” Rena was silent. She kept her eyes and head down and avoided looking at Task.
“So, where are we going tonight, Phil?” He tried to ratchet down the tension in the room. Sandy crossed in front of Task with caution and sat on the couch next to Stanko.
“First, Lucky Lindy’s Steakhouse. And then to a little night spot I know.”
“It’s not a strip joint, is it?” Stanko remembered last year when Task and the rest of the guys on the fishing expedition told him they were going to a cocktail lounge to get a drink. Instead, they took him to a strip joint. He had never been to one before. It was the worst night he could remember.
“It’s a surprise.”
Rena was dressed in a white linen pants suit and worked quietly to mix Task’s favorite drink, a Black Russian.
“John, what would you like to drink?” Rena asked as she tipped the room service guy who left the battle zone as quickly as he could.
“Nothing for me. But thanks.”
“Bullshit, Rena. Fix John a Margarita. He likes those umbrella drinks.” No one argued with Task.
Rena mixed a concoction and passed the results of her work to Stanko. “Sorry we don’t have salt for the rim.”
He accepted the drink without comment. Sandy reached over and took a sip from Stanko’s glass. The drink was strong enough to make her shiver. “Mmm, that’s marvelous. Here John, you’ll love it.” She handed the drink back to him.
Stanko took a sip and suppressed a reaction to the strong blend. He thought the time between visits with Task was just long enough to forget about all the vulgarities he disliked about him: his language, womanizing, and the heavy drinking. Mostly, he disliked the constant pressure to mimic Task’s behavior. It was bad enough he had to tolerate Task’s offensive practices, without Task’s relentless insistence he join in.
His life in his small community was bound by work, family and his church. And while Stanko didn’t feel he was fanatical about religion, he found much of Task’s activities vulgar. He felt uncomfortable, but at the foundation of his righteousness there was a vague curiosity about his irreverent lifestyle. He sensed Task knew this and used this weakness against him. And while Stanko was uncomfortable now with alcohol in one hand and Sandy sitting closer than she should, he was powerless to object. He quickly drained his Margarita, and Rena just as quickly replaced it. He accepted the drink and looked at Task, who grinned at him, obviously amused at his lack of willpower.
Rena mixed a second drink for Task and sat next to him on the couch. On an empty stomach, the alcohol raced straight to Stanko’s face, gave it a warm, flushed feeling, then on to his brain where it began to silence the thousand voices that urged him to get up and leave.
“Have you gotten your new RUS construction loan approved yet?” Task turned the conversation to business.
“What’s an RUS loan?” Sandy asked.
Task shot an annoyed look at her, but Stanko answered, shifting slightly in the couch to face her. “It’s a low interest loan the Rural Utilities Service given to rural telephone companies to ensure that telephone service is equal in quality to the service available in metropolitan areas. The telephone company I work for serves a rural area in Kentucky. All of the money we borrow for construction comes from this federal government program.” He looked in Task’s direction. “We got a phone call from Washington on Monday; the loan was approved.”
“When can we start drawing down funds?” Task asked like a child ready to open a package on Christmas morning.
“Immediately. RUS electronically transferred the first draw against the twenty million dollars to our bank yesterday.” Stanko said the words “twenty million dollars” more slowly than the other words in the sentence for Task’s benefit.
“We’re ready to begin construction on your new fiber optic system next week,” said Task. “I’ve got people staged in Tennessee and Indiana ready to come to Glasgow.” The intensity of his words reminded Stanko Task was an excellent businessman despite his crude behavior.
Sandy sat up and moved even closer to Stanko. “What’s fiber optic?”
“Aren’t you the queen of questions?” Task growled.
“That’s okay, Phil.” He turned to Sandy. “In the past we transmitted conversations through copper cables by modulating voice over forty-eight volts of electricity. This required a pair of wires for each conversation. With fiber optics, we shoot laser light down a silicon glass fiber. When you talk on the phone, electronic gear turns your voice patterns into a digital code, like Morse code. Instead of dots and dashes, the digital code is ones and zeros. Down the glass fiber, an electronic device reads the code and reproduces your voice perfectly. One fiber pair can handle thousands of conversations at the same time, instead of just one. And fiber is faster–operating at the speed of light rather than the speed of sound.”
Sandy rolled her eyes. “Oh, I understand completely now,” she smiled and patted him on the shoulder. “But thanks for taking the time to explain.”
“Twenty million. I like the way the words roll off my tongue.” Phil brought his hand to his mouth and gestured as though the words came out of his mouth and into the air around him. “Sure wish we could get a bigger cut.”
He found this statement ironic. Task was the master of the cost over-run. He didn’t always understand how he was going to do it, but he’d always managed to overrun fifteen to twenty percent. He was always low bidder. Many construction firms withdrew their names from Barren River Telephone Cooperative’s bid list because Task was always low by ten percent or more. Task would always find design flaws or would convince management additional work should be done. He was amused Task derived so much pleasure from thinking about money. Men are tempted by power, money or women. Task had trouble with all three. “You always get more than your fair share, Phil.”
“There is never enough. I have three ex-wives to pay for! There is never, never enough. I’ll never do the marriage bit again. Besides, I have Rena to screw, what do I need to get married for?”
She sprang from the couch, her face red with anger. “You bastard. You’re not satisfied until you humiliate and degrade everything around you. You’re the most heartless, selfish son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever met, Phil.” She stood looking down at him, her shoulders heaving from her sobs.
The anger built in Task, and before Rena could react, he was on his feet. He raised his hand to strike Rena who shrunk back from him, hands and arms now protecting her face. Stanko shot from his seat, putting himself between Task and Rena. “Phil, don’t do this,” He pleaded with him.
It was as though Stanko had summoned him back from some distant dark world. He watched Task’s eyes cut between him and Rena. The blood and anger drained from his face. He lowered his hand. “Get this tramp out of my face,” he said, with a strange, viciously demonic voice. Rena howled and bolted for the door. She yanked at the knob and sent the heavy door crashing into the wall next to the bar. Stanko could hear her uncontrollable cries from the hallway. The elevator door opened and closed and returned the penthouse to silence.
Sandy sat on the couch with her face in her hands. Stanko stood, silent and couldn’t believe what he’d just seen; he felt he should run after Rena to console her, but knew he wouldn’t.
“I needed to do that a long time ago.” Task’s face changed in an instant. “Let’s go get something to eat.”
They never saw Rena again.
After dinner, the limo driver drove them to David’s, a club on the outskirts of town. The club had a small band and a dance floor. Stanko was impressed the club was crowded on a Tuesday night. The dance floor was clogged with gyrating and twirling bodies as the band punched out a Phil Collins song, “Don’t Lose My Number.” Strings and a brass section made the ten piece ensemble sound like an orchestra.
The hostess showed the three of them to a round black table wedged into the center of the room. The smell of alcohol and cigarette smoke assaulted Stanko’s senses.
Task had too much to drink at dinner. Stanko and Sandy pulled out their chairs with difficulty. Task excused himself, went to the bar and shook hands with the bartender. He leaned towards him and talked in his ear over the noise of the bar and the music coming from the bandstand.
Before Task could return to the table, Sandy asked Stanko, “Dance?” She wiggled in her chair to the beat of the music, anxious to move.
“I don’t know how, at least not to this kind of music.”
“So you mean you never learned to dance?” Her movements became more animated.
“Believe me; in Fountain Run the opportunities to dance are few except for square dancing.”
Task returned to the table with a cocktail waitress in tow. He yanked out a chair and banged it into a guy at the table behind them. The man turned around, annoyed, until he looked at Task’s size and thought better of complaining.
“What’ll it be?” The waitress in a tank top and extremely short shorts asked, placing napkins around the table in front of the party of three.
The waitress took the orders and departed. Task scanned the tables around theirs and found what he was looking for; a table occupied by three unattached women. “I’m dancing,” he announced and departed for the table he’d spied.
When Task moved away, he asked Sandy, “Why do you work for him?” He stretched out the word “why.”
She shook her head and leaned closer to him to be heard. “He’s okay. He makes a lot of noise and racket, foul-mouthed, and a little crude, but I just give it right back to him and he stays away from me.” The music changed to a slow song. “Come on, John. Dance with me. Don’t tell me you can’t. I’ll teach you if I have to.” She stood and extended her hand to him.
“Task seems like he enjoys humiliating people.” Stanko stood and followed Sandy through the maze of seats and people until they reached the parquet dance floor and wedged themselves into a small opening.
“Phil loves to exploit weaknesses in people. When he finds one, he zeroes in on it. He draws pleasure in finding that one thing and then hammers away,” She yelled above the music.
“What weakness of yours is he exploiting?” he asked. Her facial expression changed. Stanko could tell she didn’t like the question. She ignored it. They stood on the dance floor while others around them danced to the clarinet version of “Stranger on the Shore.”
“Are you going to dance with me, or are you going to talk me to death?”
She held up her right hand, approached him and put her arm around his shoulders. He tentatively took her hand and waited for Sandy to do something.
“What are you waiting for?” She nodded her head, signaling for him to begin.
“I told you I don’t know how to dance.”
“You’re serious, aren’t you?” She pulled him closer. “Relax; you’re as stiff as an ironing board. Now follow me and shift your weight from one foot to the other, without moving your feet. Good. See, you’re dancing!” She swayed back and forth in one spot. “Now each time you shift your weight to one foot, slide the other about six inches in a new direction. See? Yep, you’re a natural. But you still need to loosen up some.” She pulled her hand away from his and slid it around his waist. With both hands at his waist, she pulled herself closer to him.
“And this is supposed to make me relax?” he asked.
“Shut up and just go with it. Let the music fill your soul, John.” She tilted her head, put her face into the crook of his neck, and then pressed her body into his.
He dropped his free hand to her waist and returned her embrace. The seductive music swam in his head on the evening’s alcohol and swept him along to a place of surrender.
As if she understood, she said, “Finally, you’re loosening up,” she laughed and brushed her lips across his neck.
As they shuffled in a small circle on the floor, he swam in the heat they generated. The band played four slow songs and then announced a break. The lights came on and the spell was broken. As they walked back to the table, they noticed Task was no longer alone. There were two women with him. Sandy began to say something and stopped, which gave him the impression she knew the pair. As they approached the table, Stanko saw the girls were identical twins. He regretted the music had ended and he must now face a drunken version of Philip Task.
The twins weren’t the women Task had approached when he and Sandy went to the dance floor. And they weren’t dressed like many of the women at the club. They were both decorated in revealing evening wear, identical dresses but different colors. Before they reached the table, Task stood with his large breasted bookends hanging on him.
“Well, if it isn’t the two dirty dancers,” he said, loud enough to be heard at the bar. Task didn’t introduce the blonde duo. “What took you so long? I was ready to go fifteen minutes ago.” His speech was impaired.
Sandy protested, “We just got here!”
“I have plans.” One of the clones snuggled into Task’s chest. “I’ll take the limo back to the hotel and have the driver come for you.”
“I’m ready to go, too.” John felt lost to the affects of the alcohol and Sandy Simms.
“John, I love this band. Can’t we stay for just a little while longer?” Sandy protested.
“If I dance with you one more time . . .”
Sandy’s lips curled at the end into a coy smile. She said nothing.
“Well, are you staying or going?” Task was impatient.
“We’re coming with you,” Sandy said in false exasperation.
On the way back to the hotel, Sandy sat close to Stanko. Stanko closed his eyes. “What the hell am I doing?” he asked himself. But his internal protests were like the receding tide trying to cling to the jetty, refusing to be pulled out to sea. Hard as he tried to grasp onto something, the full moon and the strong sexual undertow pulled him toward a forbidden unexplored world. It horrified him to think he might violate an eighteen year trust of marriage, that until this evening he’d held sacred. He opened his eyes as the limo slowed for a right turn into the resort.
Task surveyed Stanko as a boxer might look into the eyes of his rival to see defeat just before dispatching his final blow. That look was all-knowing, all-understanding, like a wolf would look upon a rabbit when his prey could not escape. Task winked at him before the doorman popped open the door to the limo.
Stanko was gripped with guilt and shame. She lay on her stomach on the right side of the bed with her arm draped over the side. He felt he had betrayed his wife, Teresa. He felt horrible. The hotel room that impressed him so the night before felt like a cage.
He didn’t want to face Sandy. He didn’t want to admit to her the feelings he had. He didn’t want to blame her for his lack of willpower. And he didn’t want to face Task either, but knew this was inevitable.
He packed in silence and left the room. He called Task’s room from a lobby house phone.
“This better be important,” the voice growled.
“Phil, it’s me, John.”
“Well, are you singing this morning?” The tone of Task’s voice changed in an instant.
He ignored the question, “I’m heading home.”
“You didn’t like Sandy? These twins are a piece of work. You can have them.”
“It’s not Sandy, Phil. I just want to go home.”
“But I have a whole day planned. I’ve got a boat chartered. I’ve gone to a lot of trouble.”
“I’m sorry, Phil, but I just can’t stay.”
“Well, at least let me buy you some breakfast,” Task said. He could detect a brightening of voice.
“I’m not hungry, Phil. I just want to leave.”
“All right, give me a couple of minutes. Get a table in the coffee shop, and I’ll be right down.” Task hung up the phone and didn’t wait for a response.
He learned from the front desk the airport shuttle ran to the airport in twenty minutes and confirmed a seat. He stored his luggage with the bellman and headed to the coffee shop. He ordered two coffees.
He saw Task lumber past the hostess. He wore a swimsuit and a T-shirt. His wiry hair stuck out in all directions, and he looked like he hadn’t shaved in days. He slid into the booth with Stanko and flipped a manila file folder onto the table.
“What the hell’s wrong with you, John? I’ve got three of the prettiest women on earth going out on a boat–not a boat, a yacht–and you want to go home.”
“I just don’t feel good.”
“Don’t be silly. Your wife will never know what happened.”
He shook his head. “I’m leaving, Phil.”
“Okay. I’ll just take the three of them out myself, and we’ll all get naked.”
Stanko said nothing
Task picked up the manila folder, slipped some papers out and set them on the table in front of Stanko. “John, I could use your help.”
He looked at the papers and recognized them as work orders in the amount of twenty thousand dollars. “What’s this for?” he asked and noticed the Name of the Project, Description of Work, and Purchase Order Number boxes on the form were blank.
“Well, I hoped you would help me out with some of the expenses for this trip. Cash flow is a little tight right now.”
“Twenty thousand dollars?”
“Well, the limo, the driver, the hotel, the yacht, and then, of course, there’s Sandy.”
“Surely you don’t think an escort with Sandy’s class is cheap?”
“I thought Sandy worked for you?”
“Damn right she works for me. At three hundred an hour she damn well better work for me.”
He was horrified. It was as if Task had reached across the table with a knife and stabbed him in the heart.
“She had better be the best sex you’ve ever had, for the kind of money I paid her.”
Task’s eyes danced with delight.
“Phil, I can’t do that. I could go to jail for doing something like this. I’d be stealing the company’s money!”
Task put the work order back into the manila folder. He rubbed his whiskered face with his hands and his mood changed. His bushy black wiry eyebrows narrowed. “There are things far worse than jail, John.” He slid the folder over to him. “After you think about it over the weekend, I’m sure you’ll want to help out all you can. Now I’ve got some high-priced women waiting for me upstairs, and the meter is running. I’ll need a check within a week, John, or I’ll have a lot of unhappy people looking for me.” Task reached across the table and patted him on the cheek. “Now, you have a safe trip home.”
Task slipped out of the booth, a look of conquest on his face as he nodded to him and left.
He opened the manila folder, pulled the work order out, and underneath saw a black and white photograph of himself and Sandy locked in an embrace in the Jacuzzi in his bathroom.
Two weeks ago.
“Mr. Stanko? My name is Bob Childress, with Childress, Childress and Joiner.” His boyish bespectacled face belied his heavy responsibility. “We’re here to do an audit of the corporation’s finances.”
Stanko’s stomach rolled. “I’m not aware of any audit.” He tried to conceal the horror that swelled within him.
“If a phone call to Sam Thompson is in order, by all means–.”
“That won’t be necessary.” He was shaken; the company’s regular auditors had done the company’s audit for years. For his part, he did most of the work, and the firm rubber-stamped his efforts. He figured Sam would do an audit when he started to work nearly two years ago. He was ready then. But, why now? Childress coughed, and he snapped, “How many people do you have with you?”
“Four. Perhaps you have a conference room you could let us use?”
“The boardroom is just down the hall.” He got up from his chair and escorted the short thin man down the hallway. Childress’s entourage followed behind, each carrying black square sample cases and laptop computers. “I’m sure you’ll find the accommodations in here acceptable.”
He opened the ornate double doors into the boardroom. The troupe filed in and laid their paraphernalia on the table.
“Thank you, Mr. Stanko. Who’d you like us to work with during the audit?” The faces of the audit team gathered around the board table, looking like a group ready to have dinner. In a perverse way, he thought of himself as their meal.
“I’ll have my lead bookkeeper provide you with any information you need. I’ll go and get her now and introduce her to you. Just make yourself at home. He gestured for them to sit down.
He left the boardroom and wanted to run. Anywhere. Maybe he could talk Sam out of this. He headed toward Sam’s office and stopped. No, he thought, this might arouse suspicion. He went back down the hall toward his office and remembered he told Childress he would bring in his bookkeeper. He gathered Charlotte Jensen and led her back to the team that would probably undo him. He introduced her and bade them goodbye.
As calmly as he could, he went back to his office and closed the door, sat down at his desk and took a deep breath. He picked up the phone and dialed the Biloxi number he knew by heart.
“Phil, this is John.”
“So how are things on Happy Valley Road?”
“I’m not very happy today, Phil. I’ve got a slew of auditors sitting in the boardroom.”
“That’s nothing new. You’ve had auditors before. Handle them.”
“These aren’t the company’s normal auditors. I’ve never seen these people before.”
“Why are you telling me this, John?”
“Because they’ll find out what we’ve been doing.”
“The hell you say. I haven’t been doing a thing, sonny boy. You’d better get that straight in that damn pea brain of yours.”
Anger and fear gripped him. “I’ve taken a truck load of money out of this place for you, Phil. We both have a problem. I need some help. If these guys are any good, it’s going to take less than a day to find out what’s going on.”
“And what they’re going to find, dick-wad, is a shitty little redneck accountant from a shitty little nowhere company has stolen a shitload of money. That’s all they’re going to find out.”
Stanko’s chest heaved in anger. “If I get caught, Task, you’re going down with me.”
Task’s silence was ominous. He felt his heart pound in his chest.
“Listen, asshole. I’ve got videotape of you and that whore, Sandy, screwing your brains out in the Jacuzzi. You even breathe a word of my involvement to anyone and I’ll broadcast that tape to every man, woman and child in that hell hole little town you live in. Your kids will know their high and mighty religious father is a hypocritical fraud.”
“You bastard!” Stanko yelled into the phone.
“I’m a bastard? You have no idea, you little piece of shit. You bring me into this and you’ll find your precious little college girl mangled in the bushes of that snooty college she goes to. You’ll regret the day you set eyes on me.”
“I already do,” he said, but Task had hung up. He slammed down the phone, his anger peaked. “I’ve got to get out of here,” he thought to himself.
He left the office and knew it would only be a matter of days before the truth was known. He didn’t have much time. He had hoped this day would never come. But it had. And now he was forced to protect himself and his family. His plan was bold. It’d need much skill and a great deal of luck. He had no other options. He only hoped he had enough time to pull it off.