Few things in life are as amazing as typing “the end” on the last page of a novel. There were many times during the writing and editing process of FLAWED that I came close to giving up. But the muse was present and patient! And yes, it’s finally done. This co-authored masterpiece (what can I say, I’m proud) is a gift to my family and friends who kindly put up with my invisibility over the last few years as well as everyone who inspired me to keep on going when the going got tough. Thank you. I love you. Enjoy the complimentary read.
FLAWED (book summary):
Larry Sheffield is a lonely bachelor and a lethargic journalist who is sick and tired of writing about boring coin shows. He yearns for the story of a lifetime.
Officer Pat McGowan is a native Philadelphian and a dedicated, yet gullible civil servant who struggles with temptation. He’s forced to choose between honoring his oath and saving his family.
Joe Nilbert is a con artist whose only objective is self-gain. He’s entertained by pulling strings and manipulating results. Who better to direct the U.S. Mint in Philly?
Cat McGowan despises the system that perpetually screws her family and she’s not afraid to take what’s rightfully theirs. She’s determined to find someone who will help her expose the truth and restore her father’s good name.
FLAWED is the riveting tale of how one man’s dilemma makes him the perfect prey for another man’s trap.
(Book) Copyright © 2018 DD&LL, LLC / ISBN: Pending / Fiction
(Blog) Copyright © 2018 Lynette Landing – BareNakedTalk
All rights reserved. No part of either of these publications may be reproduced without the prior written permission of authors. To share this blog post, please include the following statement with hyperlink: “Copyright 2018 – Bare Naked Talk – All Rights Reserved”
Any references to historical events, real people, or real places are used fictitiously. Names, characters, and places are products of the authors’ imaginations.
Song Lyrics (I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You; Breakdown; The Voice) by The Alan Parson’s Project: I Robot, Released June 1, 1977 – Arista Records
Hospice Unit, Federal Correctional Institute
A caged clock on an otherwise lifeless wall counted seconds, a cruel reminder to sixty-year-old Patrick McGowan that his days were numbered. Lying on the lumpy mattress, he stared up at stained ceiling tiles and brooded over a life gone wrong. He’d once been a man of integrity, a man of honor. Given the choice, this police-officer-turned-prisoner would rather be shot in the line of duty than to go out this way. Was there ever a choice? The truth sat on his chest like a ton of newly minted coins, that he would not be remembered as a hero, but as a criminal rotting in a prison hospital. Convicted of tax evasion, but he was guilty of much more, the worst of his crimes – being gullible. To top it all off, end stage lung cancer is the inescapable ending that will have him choking to death on his own spit.
Officer McGowan spent close to four decades on the good side of the law. Fighting crime, putting thugs in jail, making Philly a safer place. What did he have to show for it? A rap sheet. So much for the elegant ending that most cops get. Like a motorcade of officers in uniform saluting their casket. And a color guard waving flags and leading a procession of sympathetic civil servants. Pat knew he’d not get one whiff of that. No loved ones paying their respects and fighting back tears. No black bands across badges. None of those things could happen because the idiot couldn’t resist temptation.
While his body deteriorated, his mind was alive and well, torturing him with the reality that he’d been written off, pissed on by stray dogs, unworthy of human dignity. Pat would leave behind only tax evasion as his legacy, but the truth was he’d stolen government property while in uniform and gotten away with it. Crime always catches up with you. That’s a bit of wisdom he imparted to every thief, embezzler, and drug dealer he’d cuffed over the years. “Your winning streak ends when that the ugly truth surfaces. Game over asshole.” McGowan never imagined his own words would bite him in the ass.
For Pat, death couldn’t come soon enough, and it surely couldn’t be worse than the emotional torment or the burning in his lungs with every breath. The only grace left to him would be the last of the holy sacraments. Father Kevin Casey sat in the metal folding chair beside Pat’s bed.
“If there is anything you’d like to confess before meeting with the Almighty, I am here to listen.”
Father Casey knew well the physical condition of the man to who’s bedside he’d been called, and he held some awareness of the crimes that put him in this hellhole. But the man in the collar was oblivious to the dark secrets that his former parishioner kept from him while sitting in the pews all those years. Lying there in the swamp of his own bodily fluids, Pat had resolved to come clean. Obtaining the good Father’s respect or approval no longer carried any importance for him.
“I got things to get off my chest and you might not like it,” Pat said smugly through the haze of his wheezing chest.
The priest leaned back in the unaccommodating chair, crossed his legs and said “Let ‘er rip.”
Father Casey prided himself on connecting with parishioners more than the average priest. Like Pat, he was also born and raised in Mount Airy. He formed friendships with many police officers and firefighters early in his career and unfortunately went on to officiate many of their funerals. It was the funeral of a mutual friend that had brought he and Pat together almost thirty-two years earlier. A fatal gunshot wound claimed the life of a young officer leaving behind a wife and five-year old twin girls. A record-breaking number of cops attended, most them unable to process what had happened to their young comrade. Their latent hostility permeated the sanctuary of the church, powerful enough to chill the marble statues, yet Father’s brilliantly crafted sermon sliced through that hostility and provided solace in the face of a senseless crime. It also reignited Pat’s interest in church. Over the years he and his wife came to know Father Casey as “Kevin.” The priest baptized two of the McGowan children and administered last rites to another.
Now Father Kevin sat deep in the armpit of a Pennsylvania cellblock that housed sick and dying delinquents, face to face with Pat for possibly the last time. Despite their kinship, Pat insisted on addressing him as “Father.” Closures of this type require a sense of formality.
With a quivering hand, the ailing man pressed the button making the top of the bed incline just enough to engage in conversation while keeping a safe distance. He took a deep breath and silently vowed not to filter anything. The time had come to speak his truth, to one person at the very least. Head back and eyes closed, he let ‘er rip.
“Father, it’s like this. I’ve been tempted by three things in my life,” Pat confessed before triggering a coughing fit that required several minutes to quiet. The priest reached out a hand to lay on Pat’s back for comfort. It didn’t abate the burning in his lungs, but it did bring an unexpected calm.
Once his breathing steadied, Father Casey removed his hand and Pat leaned back on the pillows and let his eyelids close.
“The first temptation was chocolate. Just thinking about it made my mouth water, but my mother wouldn’t allow it in the house. She said I had an allergy to it or something, but I knew that was bull crap and I had to get my hands on some. So I’d stop by Gibbon’s corner store on my way home from–”
“Gibbon’s! Sure. I remember that place.” Father interrupted, then caught himself. “Sorry Pat. You were saying?”
The break gave Pat the chance to catch his breath. Talking became more exhausting as the disease advanced. Were it not for the adrenaline rush of having Father listen, he’d have struggled to get the words out.
“I must’ve been nine or ten, can’t remember, but I wondered what made old man Gibbons stock the most tempting inventory furthest from the cash register and closest to the exit. Didn’t he know how easy that made it for a desperate kid like me to slip a chocolate bar up his sleeve? I got away with it once, then it became a habit. I pocketed twenty or thirty bars over a year or two. The old man must’ve caught on to the dwindling inventory because he moved the register to the front of the store, right next to the candy. That’s when I stopped.”
Pat’s eyes still sealed, he didn’t see the compassionate look on Father’s face. He sucked in a few labored breaths.
“Did I feel bad shoplifting? A little. ‘Til one day it occurred to me that maybe easy-to-grab chocolate was God’s way of making up for the mean-spirited nuns at school. Or having a mother who wouldn’t allow chocolate in the house. Either way I wasn’t about to insult God by not accepting His gift.” He cracked opened his eyes to gauge the priest’s reaction.
Father busily fished for something in his jacket pocket. “Hang tight, it’s here somewhere,” he continued to dig. “Ah, there we go.” He retrieved a half-eaten Heath bar in a frayed wrapper and waved it in corroboration. “I agree, chocolate’s a gift from God. Although,” he added sheepishly, “I did pay for this bar.”
An attempt at humor seemed instead to come across as a dig at Pat. Embarrassed, the priest extended the leftover treat, but it was waived away by the patient’s bony hand, so he stuffed it back in his pocket and offered grace instead. “I assure you Pat, God forgives you. Go on.”
Pat closed his eyes again. “The second temptation was breasts.”
Father cleared his throat and stared at the crease where the wall met the floor as Pat went right on talking.
“There’s just something about those wonderful mounds rising and falling when a woman talks. Or laughs. Or breathes. Big breasts, small breasts, it didn’t matter. They were all fascinating! How can you blame a guy for letting his eyes wander when women flaunt those things around like they do? Plunging necklines, tight sweaters. I was seduced I tell ya! Maybe I could have controlled myself, maybe I wouldn’t have even noticed if they weren’t right there in my face.”
“Like the chocolate in Gibbon’s store?”
“Exactly! Like the chocolate! You’d think God could’ve found a less prominent place on the female body.” He’d made his point, but his breath caught up with him and again he labored to fill his lungs enough to keep going.
Smiling uncomfortably, Father twisted his ring while Pat started flapping his lips again.
“I’ll admit it, okay? I undressed women with my eyes. I had lustful thoughts. I had sex before marriage. And even after I got married I kept looking.” Pat’s voice shrunk to a whisper, “and not just at my wife’s.”
“Then looking turned into touching and next thing you know I had. I had . . .” The phrase ‘I had extramarital affairs’ felt too uncomfortable to say in present company, so Pat maneuvered his way around it. “I slipped up, okay? But I’m human! And I felt really bad about it until one day it occurred to me that maybe sex is God’s gift to man to make up for all the stress in life. And I had a lot of stress.” Breathing became difficult again, but he pushed through defensively, “Life is not some walk in the park you know!”
Dead silence came from the priest as Pat closed his eyes and pulled at the air in the room while he listened for a response. Did Father pass out? Turn into a pillar of salt? Or worse, step out and dial Pat’s wife to tattletale? Pat winced at the thought. He slowly cracked open an eye, expecting admonishment for such evil practices.
Father’s fingers were steepled and leaning against his bottom lip, his gaze still fixed on the wall. At an obvious loss for words, he mumbled quickly, “God forgives you. Is there anything else?”
Pat asked the priest to take a large envelope from the top drawer of the night table and hold on to it for the time being. Then he closed his eyes and calmed his lungs before resuming his confession.
“The third temptation was money. I needed to find a way to stop the hardships from destroying my family any further. My one kid got sick and died, another landed up in jail. All I could do was stand there and watch. I never felt so powerless in my life. Huh, and Deidre. She started looking at me like I’m some kind of loser ’cause I couldn’t save my family, couldn’t get us out of debt, damn it! I got on my knees and begged for help.”
Pat opened his eyes and looked towards the flickering fluorescent light above him. The memory of this moment tightened his chest, which threatened to revolt against him.
“And I swear to you, it was like an answer to prayers. I got a tip from the head honcho at the U.S. Mint, the Director himself. He told me something in passing. Told me how much dealers pay for defective coins. I had no idea. I was clueless about coin collecting and dealers. But once he told me that, it felt like I’d been given the answer to all my problems. Next thing you know, I was stealing coins by the thousands and selling them. It was for my family I swear to you, I swear to God I did it for my fam–”
The mucus rose up suddenly, choking off his air supply and causing him to cough violently. This bout shook Pat’s body with more force than the last one, and the startled guest jumped from his chair and searched frantically for a call button. Pat’s frail hand blocked him before he could push it.
“I’m alright” Pat wheezed uncontrollably as he spoke. “A second. Just give me a second.” He motioned to the priest to push the other button instead, the one to make him sit up higher in the bed and take the pressure off his lungs. Once he managed to calm down, he looked squarely in the priest’s eyes with a voice faint and splintered. “The moral to the story Father? God doesn’t give gifts after all.”
Father nodded sympathetically. For the first time, the holy man had no words. He prayed he’d do better at the ex-officer’s upcoming funeral.
“What’s in here?” he held up the envelope.
“Go ahead, take a look.”
Father pulled out a slim stack of newspaper clippings about the incident, the arrest and the arraignment. Press coverage from various publications across the globe filled the pages. Ironically, the city where the crime took place published nothing about it. The United States Mint goes to great lengths to minimize press coverage about security issues and theft. That turned out to be a mixed blessing for Pat. It brought relief on one hand, as so few people in the Philadelphia area knew about the crime. It brought resentment on the other hand, as only half of the story was told. The real criminal got off scot-free.
Even Pat didn’t know precisely why he went to the trouble of giving this pile of news clippings over to Father Casey. Maybe to cut down on an already verbose confession. Maybe to get them the hell out of his personal space.
Father adjusted his eyeglasses and silently absorbed the first article.
“Former U.S. Mint Worker Charged with Tax Evasion for Alleged Theft of Coins”
A former federal police officer assigned to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia has been found guilty of income tax evasion. Patrick McGowan, 59, of Sea Isle City, N.J., was arrested at his home…
Father stopped reading. He didn’t bother looking at any of the other articles either. Instead, he slid them back into the envelope and tucked it inside his breast pocket. “There’s no need for me to read any further. I know who you are. God knows who you are. And God knows we’re all sinners.”
He dispensed with any other formalities and moved on to the point of his visit, offering Pat an explanation of the meaning of last rites. “As you know, I’m here to provide absolution for the sins you have committed.”
Pat had witnessed the sacrament enough that it no longer had meaning. He flashed back to grade school days when a severe nun extolled him on the importance of confessing his sins to gain entrance to heaven. An ugly moment he’d rather have kept buried in his subconscious. Facing whatever lie beyond this mortal life, he experienced no relief from this meeting to get that absolution. What did absolution even mean? The truth behind his sin hadn’t even been broached. The truth that he was purposely given a tip by the real criminal! In other words, it was all a set up! No one seemed to give a damn about that, not even the good Father. Casey clearly just wanted to get the hell out of there and get on with his day. Fine, thought Pat. Gaining absolution for sins was more the Church’s goal than Pat’s anyway. He let the priest believe that he’d reconciled with God so at least one of them could have a clear conscience.
Long after Father Casey’s visit, Pat continued brooding over things left unsaid. For hours he tossed and turned and replayed the discourse in his mind. Perhaps he was rehearsing his final defense for the Ultimate Judge.
His mouth moved breathlessly. His battered lungs would not allow his voice to come now, no matter how hard he tried. But he had to say it, if only to himself.
“I’m no thief – not deep down. I took those coins to survive! To feed my family, pay their medical bills, keep them safe. You dealt me a bad hand and then served me up to some sociopath who cost me my freedom. Why God? Why?”
He knew this thing to be pointless. Ruminating on the unfair cards he’d be dealt, arguing with an invisible deity. It only made him feel worse. He wanted something, and time was running out. He centered his thoughts, then sent up a voiceless plea to the great beyond.
“All I ask is that you help them remember the real me. The kid who tried hard to make his parents proud. The young guy who found his soulmate and did whatever he could to make her happy. The father who hurt when his kids hurt and would stop at nothing to help them. Can you help them remember that at least? That’s all I ask.”
United States Mint Facility
When it comes to committing a federal crime, officer Patrick McGowan felt certain that the third, sixth, even the eleventh heist were all just as nerve-racking as the first. He knew that one suspecting eye could land him in the federal penitentiary alongside dozens of thugs he’d put there himself. It didn’t matter that his first ten attempts at smuggling government property from his place of employment had been successful. This time he couldn’t help imagining the worst.
If people could walk in his shoes for a while, they might understand how he felt. It takes two thousand steps for the average person to walk a mile. It would take Pat one tenth of that to reach the exit while carrying stolen goods, a number he’d worked out to last footfall. Counting steps turned out to be a gift of sanity and a powerful focus technique that his daughter Cat had suggested. It stopped him from ruminating on potential catastrophes. It also stopped the disposable coffee cup in his hand from quivering.
Weaving his way through the plant, he counted under his breath. Twenty-three. Twenty-four. He acknowledged random line workers with an obligatory nod or smile. Forty-eight. Forty-nine. Pat then continued through the corridor into the extravagant lobby of the United States Mint. Ninety-seven. Ninety-eight.
Opposite a bank of escalators hangs a dynamic digital display that provides tourists with an up-to-date count on the number of quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies that are minted each year. One hundred and fifty-four. One hundred and fifty-five. Step number one hundred and fifty-six brought him directly in front of that mammoth display. Another twenty-eight steps and he’d reach his destination.
“McGowan!!! Stop right there!” yelled an impassioned voice from somewhere in the cavern of the giant building.
Pat froze. The cup in his hand shook to the beat of his thumping heart. Images of his wife and son raced through his head. What would Deidre and Jason think of him? He prepared for the stampede of angry cops, the cocking of guns, the echoing of charges leveled against him and the humiliation of being cuffed in front of his peers. He knew the worst was coming.
“McGowan?” The same voice called out, this time perplexed instead of indignant.
Pat looked cautiously in the direction of the voice. Simon. Harmless but stupid Simon, a fellow Mint cop whose sole job consisted of running the central x-ray detection system at the main entrance.
Simon laughed apologetically for alarming his coworker. “Geez buddy! Didn’t mean to startle you! I just noticed you headin’ out for your break and wanted to tell ya to lay off the cancer sticks! You been coughing more than usual and it’s gettin’ on everybody’s nerves!”
Pat smiled awkwardly and pressed the pack of Marlboro’s deeper into his breast pocket. “Thanks” he said, feigning normalcy, “but I already got one wife too many!”
“Ha, don’t we all!” Simon then turned his attention to a large group of chatty adolescents in lime-green t-shirts being unsuccessfully herded by a couple of tired-looking chaperones in matching t-shirts. “Good morning kids! Right this way.” Simon said in his haplessly cheerful tone, ushering them towards the detection system.
Pat refocused on his steps to brush off the shakeup. One hundred and eighty-six. One hundred and eighty-seven. As he exited through the large glass doors, he scolded himself for nearly losing it back there. His anxiety came dangerously close to giving him away and tanking the whole operation.
Inside the big glass doors, Simon busily x-rayed school children. Outside the big glass doors, Pat busily impersonated an employee on a smoke break. He counted eleven steps to the left of the main entrance where an isolated alcove protected him from the surveillance cameras. Then he casually took a seat on the alcove’s concrete bench and carefully set the disposable cup beside him. Pat took four focused deep breaths, looked up at the puffy white clouds in the Philly sky, and let his mind race through his situation.
The United States Mint in Philadelphia stood as one of the most secure facilities in the nation. For eight years and counting, Pat McGowan patrolled the place and kept a watchful eye on the hundreds of employees, the thousands of visitors, and the billions of coins that were manufactured annually. He took his job seriously. God as his witness, that was the truth! He considered it an honor for the government to entrust him with this responsibility. Why wouldn’t they? His resume boasted thirty blemish-free years on the Philadelphia Police Force. When the Mint hired him, from the looks of it they chose the right man. With seven years of impeccable service they had no reason to question his movements or his motives. For most of that time, Pat only desired to do his job and to do it with integrity.
Starting last year, he dangled his stellar reputation over a cliff. His oath of honor no longer carried an ounce of weight for him. A combined thirty-seven years of public service couldn’t prevent him from snapping. From willfully betraying the trust of those he’d served and falling from grace. Pat’s recent dabbles in illegal activity stood to put everything at risk. His career, his reputation, his marriage too. Dee would surely leave him if she ever found out. His son Jason would turn his back on him. His parents, upstanding and honest Philly natives, would roll in their graves if they knew what their son had done. Backed into the corner for too long, this officer of the law knew for certain that he had no choice but to commit the unthinkable. How could any man watch his family sink into a state of poverty while standing idly by?
Years of financial turmoil spoils moods and ruins relationships. It takes a physical toll, and Pat’s body bore a living testament to that. Much as he tried to deny it, his health deteriorated strikingly as the pressure squeezed his life dry. That was just one of many factors that convinced him to take the bait and steal from the United States Mint. At fifty-seven years of age, Pat finally concluded that he, like anyone else, deserved to have the simple pleasures that make life worth living. Sacrifice was no longer sexy.
To his own great surprise, Pat’s scheme worked. With the help of his daughter Cat, he found a way to beat the system. This would make the dozenth time now that Pat has embezzled coins right out from underneath the government’s nose. Not just any coins, but one-dollar coins from the First Ladies series that were minted in his hometown. When this series originally launched, the United States government had high hopes for it. They expected it would go over as famously as the Fifty State Quarters Program, making collectors out of average families.
Plans don’t always go as expected. The First Ladies Program failed miserably. Regardless of the cool artwork and the educational aspect of the coins, the public didn’t take to them. Who wants to carry around heavy dollar coins when paper dollar bills weigh a fraction as much in your pocket? Who wants to get shortchanged by witless clerks who confuse the quarter-sized dollar coins with actual quarters? When the consumers didn’t want them, neither did the banks. Much of the series got shipped right back to the Federal Reserve. That is until recently when interest in the program suddenly spiked. Thanks to Pat and his guilty habit of smuggling large sums of the coins before they were fully minted. Error coins, as they’re called, have a way of attracting attention because they’re worth almost two hundred times their face value. That means that one of these babies found in pocket change could be sold to a dealer for two hundred dollars or more.
Word travels fast when something of great value circulates through society. People began to race each other to the bank in hopes of getting lucky. They bought up roll after roll of First Ladies with the hope of finding an error or two in the bunch.
Pat McGowan inadvertently stirred up interest in a dying program. He inadvertently saved the program from an early termination. He inadvertently saved the government from incurring a huge deficit on the machinery used to manufacture the coins. He inadvertently saved the jobs of hundreds of local workers involved in the program. None of that mattered to him. Saving the program was never his intention. He and his family needed saving.
Up until a few months ago, Pat didn’t give a crap about things like numismatics, or collecting, or dealers, or error coins. All that changed after the Director of the Mint dropped an interesting idea into Pat’s head with an offhand remark. Something about the value of partially minted coins. That seed of an idea took root, and just like that a hardworking, likable, Philadelphia Mint cop transformed into a criminal.
Deep breaths and a clear head mattered right now. Pat needed to get a hold of himself because this gig wasn’t over yet. Too many debts left to pay, messes to fix, and relationships to rebuild. He owed it to Dee to renovate their little getaway in Sea Isle City, so they could retire there in peace. Leaving Philly couldn’t happen soon enough. For both of them.
The sound of a police car barreling by, sirens blaring, snapped him back into the moment. Pat pulled out his phone. He texted a single word to his accomplice and began a new count. Counting seconds tortured him making this ten-minute break seem endless. After two hundred and forty seconds ticked by, he reached down to the sixteen-ounce disposable cup which only contained a few ounces of liquid yet weighed more than three pounds. Ever so gently, he moved it into the shadowy sliver of space between the bench and the concrete trash receptacle. Tucked into that corner, the cup sat imperceptible from all directions. Pat pulled out a smoke and lit up.
“Fuck Simon” he thought to himself as he dragged the puffs of smoke into his lungs. Cigarettes were more of a prop than a habit these days. Yet like many of the dwindling number of smokers, Pat’s defenses flared when anyone challenged his cigarette habit. A smoke break is an expected ritual for employees, but for Pat it served as the perfect pretense to get outside and hide the goods without having to go through security.
He glanced at his watch. Like clockwork, a faded blue Honda Accord rolled up Independence Mall East. It passed the historic burial grounds of Christ Church where Benjamin Franklin had been laid to rest, then crossed the intersection of Arch Street and entered the Constitution Center’s huge parking garage located directly across the street from the alcove.
He exhaled fully, sending a final cloud of smoke into the air. Then Pat extinguished the nub of the cigarette. As casually as possible, he re-entered the building without a single glance back. That seemingly tiny mistake nearly bit him before as he and Cat executed their plan, and he wasn’t anxious to repeat it. It must have been the fourth or fifth time he’d concealed the cup of coins when a nosy Mint employee took notice and goaded Pat uncomfortably about eyeing up the “young girl with the large breasts” walking towards them from across the street. In any other circumstance, Pat would have punched the jerk in the face for even looking at his daughter. Given the situation, he bit his tongue and played along, quickly redirecting that idiot’s attention elsewhere.
With time, Pat had learned to exercise a little more trust in Cat’s part in this grand scheme. She knew what she was doing, and God knows her confidence far exceeded that of her father in many ways. Still, he did advise her to dress less conspicuously. A pretty girl is naturally an attention magnet, and Cat happened to be gorgeous. She needed to tone it down a lot. Forgo the make-up, pull the hair back, wear an oversized Eagles sweatshirt, that kind of thing. All this would help her blend into the landscape, not to mention help her conceal that disproportionately large chest of hers.
Perhaps someday they’d have a normal father-daughter relationship again. The shame he shouldered for drawing her into this crushed Pat. He couldn’t think about that now. As she constantly reminded him whenever shame got the best of him, “Dad! You’re going to blow it for both of us. Keep your eye on the prize, would you?!” He’d make it up to her someday.
Back at his desk he filled out mid-shift reports. At least he pretended to for the sake of his coworkers. Focusing on anything was impossible when his mind understandably fixated on Cat and her whereabouts. What could possibly be taking her so long? Normally after this many minutes she’d have messaged him some clever code word to let him know that all went well. He’d know she made it back to the car safely with the coins. Minutes passed with not a word from his daughter.
Meanwhile, Pat struggled to keep up the appearance of a normal guy doing his normal job. A fellow cop sitting a few feet away hounded Pat for not laughing at some asinine joke. “Jesus, buddy, the wall appreciates my humor more than you do.”
Pat couldn’t hear past the obsessive, paranoid thoughts running rampant in his mind. Where was Cat?
Coin Collector USA’s Headquarters
Lawrence Sheffield III, known to everyone as Larry, could be described as professionally lethargic. In ten short years a once exhilarating career now put him to sleep. He didn’t bother keeping his boredom to himself. Why hide it? Fellow journalists whispered about him in clumpy huddles at big events, waging bets on everything from his health to his love life. Larry politely and perpetually declined their inquiries, offers, and advice. He just wanted to be left alone. That was probably for the best as Larry’s gloominess contaminated everyone who came within a ten-foot radius.
Larry hadn’t always been this way. Originally, working for Coin Collector USA magazine felt like a dream come true. As a lifelong coin collector and a gifted writer, fate dealt him a beautiful hand by giving him a career that combined both passions.
His interest in coins came honestly. Of the three men in his family to carry the moniker Lawrence Sheffield, his career was the third to interact in some way with numismatics; the study of coins and currency. His grandfather, the original Lawrence Sheffield, took on an expert status in Greek and Roman coins following World War II, with his historical research maintained by the American Numismatic Society in New York City. Then came Larry’s father, Lawrence II, who carried the torch into the next generation as a professor of numismatics at Princeton University. He eventually became curator for their coin collection, a high honor given the rarity of academic coin collections in the United States.
Larry’s interest didn’t fall into the academic vein of his predecessors. He wrote about, as he put it, the “edgy side of coins”. He took coin journalism to a more exciting place by shining a light on dealing, auctions, and big-ticket items. Most provocative of all, he recounted the stories of famous thefts and unusual encounters involving coins.
His favorite writing assignment thus far in his career involved a major coin discovery made by a husband and wife while walking their dog on their sprawling Northern California property. The story began when something shiny caught the wife’s eye in the grass as her pooch did his business. It ended with the dream of a lifetime, ten million dollars’ worth of uncirculated, mint condition, solid gold coins. Larry had been granted permission to fly out to interview the couple and examine the coins for himself. A good year of writing came out of that find. It inspired several award-winning articles in which Larry postulated about how the coins landed on that property in the first place. To him, the most obvious answer was a robbery at the San Francisco Mint that occurred back in 1898. It was allegedly committed by one of the Mint ’s own employees. A routine audit by the San Francisco Mint at the time revealed that twenty-eight thousand dollars’ worth of Double Eagles were missing from the hoard within the compound. The finger pointed directly at a press operator, who ultimately did nine years of hard time for the crime. Oddly enough, the whereabouts of the coins remained a mystery. As usual, the United States Mint had a keen interest in keeping in that way. When Larry tried to get information about it from a Mint representative, she downplayed what he considered to be ridiculously obvious links between the modern find and the century-old heist. According to the representative, Larry’s interest in the story was typical journalistic sensationalism. His response: “No, it’s called connecting the dots!”
Regardless of the Mint’s stance, the story stoked Larry’s creative fires for a long time. How he longed for another great assignment! A buried treasure discovered by a worthy individual who put it to good use, or a minting event that exposed some dark secret about the Department of Treasury. Something with substance. Alas, intriguing stories in the world of coins are in short supply. Instead, Larry suffered through spewing out mindless articles about exhibits, coin dealing, collecting. Bleh.
Sure, being employed by Coin Collector USA had its perks, but hyping up some upcoming coin show in some big city was a massive waste of Larry’s talent, his vast intellect, his poetic grandeur! He seriously considered writing a novel on his own time just to keep life interesting, always putting it aside as a pipe dream and nothing more.
Then out of the blue he happened upon a stroke of luck – a tip with the potential to resuscitate his withering career. Carl Baggley, Larry’s former college roommate at Princeton was the unlikely source. Back in 2002, Carl muscled his way into being the best scrum-half ever to grace the field for Princeton’s rugby club. A decade later, Carl once again donned his number nine jersey on the day of his induction into their alma mater’s Rugby Hall of Fame. The small ceremony took place in a restaurant in Princeton’s Palmer Square just last month. In attendance were a small team of devotees to the rugby club, mostly former members and their families. As the evening wore on, Larry and Carl reconnected over drinks and memories. Two scotches in, Larry opened up to his old roommate about his occupational ambivalence.
Who knew that one month later, that venting session of Larry’s would unexpectedly pay off? He’d never have guessed that alcohol and an old college buddy would provide the antidote he needed. The phone rang just as Larry threw together beef and macaroni for dinner. Putting down the tomatoes, Larry picked up the phone to hear Carl speed-talking.
“Lar! Glad you’re there. Good to hear your voice buddy. I got such a story for you! This case hit my desk a few hours ago and I instantly thought, ‘Jesus, this has Sheffield’s name all over it!’ I don’t have all the details yet, but I had to at least call.”
“Whoa dude!” Larry interrupted. “You gotta cut back on the caffeine! What case?”
For eight years, Carl Baggley plugged away for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark, New Jersey. Initially an admin for the public affairs department, he eventually made his way past the bar exam and traded in the admin position for his dream job. Now Carl provides direction to various federal agencies like the FBI, the IRS, and the DEA, giving them the expert legal counsel they need during criminal investigations. The job kept Carl excited, and he called Larry to share the most interesting cases. At this moment on the phone his voice rose to a near fever pitch.
Carl laughed apologetically and began again. “An arrest was just made involving a retired Philadelphia police officer who used to work at the U.S. Mint!”
Larry’s lungs involuntarily drew in a deep gasp of air. “Whoa. What happened?”
“Tax evasion. That’s what’s on the initial warrant anyway. I don’t know all the facts yet, but it looks like a recent tax return didn’t account for all the proceeds he made selling stolen coins.”
“Wait, wait, you mean he stole them?”
“I can’t say for sure yet, but I’ll be involved with the investigation. All I can tell you so far is that it appears he sold over six thousand of those First Ladies coins.”
“Holy shit!” Larry slid the pack of ground beef back in the fridge and turned off the burner under a half-cooked pot of elbow macaroni. Dinner would have to wait. “Okay Carl, you’ve got my attention.”
“It gets even better. The coins weren’t even finished. They hadn’t gone through the process that engraves the edge of the coin.”
“The edge inscription! Oh my God, the dude stole half-baked coins!” Larry jumped up, bouncing around like a five-year old on Christmas Eve. “This is huge! The cop knew exactly what he was doing. Coin errors rake in a fortune!”
“Yes, they do. Wanna take a guess how much of a fortune he raked in?” Carl challenged.
Larry zoned out as he tried to recall the bits and pieces he’d heard around the office about the First Ladies Coin Program being under government review. Who’d been talking about it? Oh yes, Travis. Travis Simmons, a lanky fellow journalist at the magazine had gone on and on about it to the receptionist at the office. Larry remembered him leaning over her desk in a clear effort to impress her. At the time, Larry took more notice of how she shifted uncomfortably in her swivel chair than anything else. The information didn’t concern Larry then, but he certainly planned to follow up now.
“Yo Lar, you still there?”
“Yeah yeah, I’m here.” Larry slid into the solitary chair at his kitchen table, cell phone still pressed against his ear. A typical journalist, he’d already scribbled half a page of notes on his legal pad as the two talked. He finally got back to Carl’s challenge and offered his best guess.
“I’ll say some dealer offered him fifty per coin. You said he stole six thousand of them?”
“Yep, a little over six thousand.”
Quickly drawing the calculation out on his pad, he circled the answer. “That’s about four hundred grand.”
“It would have been four hundred grand if he hadn’t hit the jackpot of dealers. Some guy on the west coast paid him two hundred bucks a piece. He raked in over a million two!”
“Jesus! One million two hundred thousand?
“Crazy isn’t it? How would you like to make a hundred and ninety-nine-dollar return on your one-dollar investment? Oh wait. He didn’t invest, he stole! Or at least that’s what it looks like.”
“You said the warrant is for tax evasion. So you’re telling me the guy managed to hack security at the most secure building in the State of Pennsylvania but has a moron for an accountant?!”
Carl laughed. “Sounds like a good possibility. Hey, hang on a sec.” His voice trailed off, and after a few seconds of muffled sounds he returned to the line. “Buddy, I gotta run. The kids are up way past bedtime and my wife’s giving me the evil eye. But just so you know, the cop’s next hearing is scheduled for Thursday. I’ll be there, and I’ll fill you in on every detail, cool?”
“Fantastic! Wow man, how can I thank you?”
“I was hoping you’d ask! You can start by telling your Cubs to lay off my Phils. This series is killing us.”
“Yeah sure, I’ll get right on it. Hey, don’t forget to fill me in on that hearing. I’ll chase you if I don’t hear back.”
The next morning Larry moved with an extraordinary bounce in his step when he entered Coin Collector USA’s office building. Everyone noticed. Including Phoebe, the attractive receptionist who Travis worked so hard to impress. She’d found Larry fascinating until his attitude went south a couple years ago. The twinkle in his eye when he greeted her had Phoebe sitting a bit higher in her swivel chair.
“Larry?” she squeaked out quickly before his atypical demeanor had time to fade. “You look downright elated!”
“Who, me?” It felt good to smile again, and to be smiled at. “Yeah, I guess you could say it’s going to be a productive day!” He paused and placed his hand on top of her computer monitor. “You know, I’d really like to treat you to lunch at Jake’s one of these days.”
“Really?” Caught off guard, Phoebe struggled to conceal her erupting smile. “Why, what’s going on?” As she looked down away from his eyes, he whizzed past her leaving the words of her question suspended in air.
A handful of journalists lingered in the main corridor near the cafeteria. Those who knew him best did a double take, with a bit of harmless taunting flying from the boldest. “Yo Lar! Tone it down.” and “Looks like someone got lucky last night!” He smiled and nodded, engaging them just long enough to get his coffee. Then he abandoned the inquiring minds to gossip among themselves and entered the solitude of his office. Opportunity knocked, and as any good journalist knows you never leave her waiting.
He yanked the cord on the mini blinds, sending a cloud of dust throughout the tight room. As the computer booted, he retrieved the legal pad from his backpack and held it gingerly as if it were a sacred manuscript. Page after page of notes, many he’d scribbled long after Carl ran off to tend to the kids. The little bit his friend shared so far reignited Larry’s fire.
He scrolled through Coin Collector USA’s Intranet looking for the ‘Team of Journalists’ webpage. It didn’t take long for him to find contact info for Travis Simmons. Before dialing, Larry practiced a nonchalant inquiry. No need to raise dust at this point, he simply wanted to learn a little more about the controversy surrounding the one dollar First Ladies Program.
“You’ve reached the voicemail of Travis Simmons. Please leave a message.” Larry hung up and decided to email him instead. Just a quick note asking Travis to touch base for a brief, non-urgent conversation at his convenience. Then Larry dug back into and expanded the notes from the night before. He knew from experience that keeping busy cured nerves. Within the hour Travis responded and let Larry know it would be a couple days. He was out of the office until Thursday. That wouldn’t be a problem, because Larry had plenty to keep him busy until then. Call it intuition, but Larry just knew this was the story he’d been waiting for. The hearing and Travis’s information would make Thursday well worth waiting for.
Coin Collector USA’s Headquarters
The sunrise on this clear morning cast the most spectacular shade of pink across the glass skyscraper that housed Coin Collector USA’s headquarters. It only lasted for a moment dazzling the handful of employees insane enough to hit the office that early in the morning. Larry entered the reflective golden tower somewhere around 5:50 a.m. and rode the elevator to the seventh floor. The early bird was back!
When his interest piqued around a project, he possessed a razor-sharp focus. Besides, Larry didn’t have time to sit idle. Today was the big day, a hearing for “Patrick J. McGowan.” The full name of the accused according to an email from Carl yesterday gave Larry his first blush with the man who could potentially relaunch his career. The message from Carl read “Be available after 2 p.m. tomorrow and I’ll fill you in. By the way, you owe me a steak dinner next time you’re out this way.”
With very little information about the suspect, Larry spent the last few days sorting through old material he’d authored that might tie in well with this case. Things like previous crimes committed by Mint employees, the impact of Mint ‘mules’ or errors on the coin market, and security measures in government buildings. Of course, he also perused some historical information to bring a splash of color to the story. Philadelphia housed the largest and oldest of the six United States Mints, besides being a city with some sweet history of its own. Maybe some of those grueling years of mundane writing assignments were leading up to this.
He scrolled through the spreadsheet of articles that he’d spent hours categorizing. Not too shabby. Digging down the list line by line to determine which of them might be relevant, he then put the printer to use. A slight twinge of guilt reminded him of times he chastised others who printed stuff they could easily read on their screens. Eh, too bad. This project was too important to worry about saving trees. He grabbed the documents off the mammoth office printer and wound his way back towards the reception area where he swiped a few highlighters from Phoebe’s desk with a second twinge of guilt.
Back in his cozy office he underlined, circled, paper-clipped, and marked up the selected articles as he re-acquainted himself with the City of Brotherly Love. The original facility that housed the Mint had been erected in 1792. Three costly relocations were necessary to accommodate the growing coin demand over the course of the next three quarters of a century. The government finally got smart and built a mammoth-sized building in 1969 to ensure it would never again be outgrown. That building still stood fifty years later, taking up a city block and looking for all the world like a military fortress.
Fun fact, the United States is home to many Mints. Novices to the world of coins and collecting tend to get them confused, and understandably so. Like Cheryl, a girl Larry dated back in college. She hailed from Chester County and argued with certainty that the Franklin Mint, the one located in a suburb southwest of Philadelphia, housed the production of quarters, nickels, dimes, and so forth.
“Nope,” Larry explained, “That’s a private Mint that sells stuff to the public. They only make collectables–”
“But I’ve been there.” Cheryl rudely interrupted. “It’s right up the street from where I grew up. I’ve seen the coins!”
“Yes, Cheryl. They do make coins. They also make dolls, jewelry, and die cast vehicles. The keyword is collectibles.” At least she had a nice rack.
Larry had been a bit of a bull to her then. If Cheryl were still in the picture, rather than with the female partner she chose over him, he would do a smoother job of explaining the difference. God knows he’d had that discussion with so many others since then. Larry came to appreciate why people got confused, even if he still felt a twinge of frustration. The distinction in Mints isn’t necessarily about “collectibles” as he sarcastically responded to Cheryl back in the day, because the United States Mint sells collectibles too. It’s about who owns the Mint.
In recent decades, privately owned Mints popped up all over the place. With familiar names like the Franklin Mint, USA Collector’s Mint, the Danville Mint, and a zillion others, these places sell products directly to the public. Some even rip off the public, but that’s another conversation.
The U.S. Mint is a division of the United States Treasury Department and reports directly to the President of the United States. The bulk of coin production at the U.S. Mint is legal tender. Cashola. Money in the form of coins that is regulated and circulated domestically through depositories like banks, credit unions, savings and loans, etc. so that the American people can pay bills, buy stuff, and eat. Simple.
The U.S. Mint headquarters are now located in Washington, D.C., nice and close to the boss. Philadelphia is home to one of four active coin-producing facilities. Denver, San Francisco, and West Point are the other three. Then there’s Fort Knox where gold bullion and silver bullion are stored. The United States Mint also produces coins that fall under the numismatic category of collectibles. These collectibles include items like commemoratives, proof sets, and uncirculated coins. These particular items can be purchased directly by the public or even by privately owned Mints and then sold to the public for a profit.
Geez, all of this knowledge and no one to share it with. Larry scratched his head, wondering if the elusive Mrs. Right might be too blinded by his brilliance in numismatics to find her way to him. “The day will come,” he assured himself. Until then, he would court the muse.
By 10:30 a.m. Larry sipped his third cup of coffee and snuck his twentieth glance at the clock on the wall. “Come on two-o’clock, come on.” Larry whispered to himself when the hours seemed too slow. As if in answer to his plea, he heard a light knock at the door just before it eased open a few inches. “Hey Lar, this a good time?”
“Travis! Yes! This is perfect.” Larry cleared off stacks of publications and files from the extra chair and invited his colleague to take a seat.
Travis Simmons stood six-foot-five, composed of steel from stem to stern. He was one of those guys that made other guys look down at their beer guts in disgust. A topnotch dresser and an easy talker, the dude even smelled good. Shades of some expensive cologne that can’t be found in a drug store. Larry always thought Travis resembled Magic Johnson, but he kept that fact to himself.
“Sorry I couldn’t talk the other day with my kid’s track meet going on and all.”
“No, no, that’s fine! How’d he do?”
Travis’s face lit up at the inquiry and there it shone, that Magic smile. “Thanks for asking man, he did great. Came in first in three different relays.”
“Wow, that’s fantastic! How old is he?” The small talk continued for a few minutes before Larry felt he could cut to the chase.
“I overheard you talking to Phoebe a week or so ago about the First Ladies Coin Program. I’d like to learn a little more about what’s going on with it.” Travis hesitated in his response. “Don’t worry, I’m not here to horn in on any of your projects. I’m not in this to scoop you.”
“Oh no, it’s nothing like that. There’s just not a lot to share. My wife’s brother works for the Obama Administration. We were talking at a family thing a while ago and he brought up the coin program, figuring I’d find it interesting since I work here and all. Anyway, Capitol Hill seems to consider the program a bit of a mystery.”
“Really? You’d think they’d have more pressing matters to discuss, like which part of the country they should plant new terrorists.”
“Ha. Well, they gotta spend taxpayer money one way or another, right?”
“Yeah, ain’t it the truth! Did your brother-in-law say anything about why the program is a mystery?”
“Yep, he said it goes hot and cold. Wait, actually it was the other way around because it bombed coming out of the gate. Nobody wanted the coins to begin with.”
“I get that! The freakin things are heavy.”
“Exactly. Something like a billion and a half of them were wastin’ away in vaults. Department of Treasury officials were flippin’ out over it and heads were ready to roll. Eventually, they forced a date on the docket to vote on whether or not to pull the plug on the program. There were gonna chalk it up as a loss. The weird thing is, three years into minting there was suddenly all this interest. Like the American public finally got the memo and they came out from under rocks to trade in their dollar bills for those coins. The sudden interest was the mystery. It’s died down now, but it made enough noise to stop it from being terminated. Anyway, that’s kind of the extent of it. Nothing earth shattering. Just a little halftime exchange during the Iowa State championship.”
Normally, Larry would take the bait and talk game highlights, but his mind busily pieced together the puzzle. Could this case be more than just some greedy cop trying to live the high life? Was this guy possibly part of some shady government plan to save the First Ladies Coin Program? It was too soon to speculate, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that some dirty dealing went down in Philadelphia.
Seeing that Larry temporarily spaced out, Travis cleared his throat awkwardly and leaned forward.
“Oh man, sorry for daydreaming like that! I couldn’t help thinking about the Fifty State Quarters Program and how that seemed to go over without any hitches,” Larry lied. No point in sharing his true thoughts with Travis, at least not yet.
“You got that right! All three of my kids had, well still have, those fancy collector maps. When the program was in its prime they used to shake me down when I got home from work to see what I had in my pockets! ‘Daddy, did you get any change today? I still need Montana!’ Ha!”
“You mean to tell me you didn’t buy your kids the uncirculated sets? Come on dad!”
Travis laughed, “Nah, a set only keeps their interest so long. The collector maps kept them nice and busy for a long time. They’d get all excited when I emptied my pockets onto the kitchen table and Tennessee sat in the middle of the pile. I loved the attention. My kids tripping over each other to get to me as soon as I got in the door. Hell, before the Quarters Program I was just some guy that lived in the house and paid the bills.” Travis’s phone buzzed. He glanced at it and returned it to his pocket, then slowly stood up and reached out his hand towards Larry.
Larry stood up, leaned over his desk and shook it. “I don’t believe that for a second! You got that magic smile. Every kid wants a father like that!” He walked Travis to the door. “Speaking of which, anyone ever tell you that you look just like–” he paused hoping it would come across as a compliment.
“Magic Johnson?” Travis beat him to the punch. “Let’s just say the ladies all call me Magic.”
Hospice Unit, Federal Correctional Institute
The caged clock seemed to expand as if it would eventually take over the entire room. The sound of seconds ticking away was enough to drive Pat insane. Tick tock. Tick tock. It’s no picnic being in any hospital, but prison hospitals take the cake. They’re as dismal as the inmates. The four walls closed in on Pat, especially during those nebulous, sleep deprived hours in the darkness of the night when the only disruption came from the occasional footfalls of a nurse’s aide or night guard.
The walls were concrete block painted a glossy shade of lifeless gray. The same color as the scrubs worn by every employee, including the doctors. Even the metal folding chair beside the bed shone the same boring gray. Punishment is living in a tight space void of color.
One small window let in some outdoor light. On clear days, the sun made a brief appearance through that twelve-inch square for a few precious moments sometime between the hours of nine and ten a.m. Unless he’d lost his faculties completely, he assumed that meant his room faced east, opposite the Delaware River. No real way to find out though, since the window stood too tall to look out unless he stood on that folding chair, something he considered doing.
His arms were nearly purple from bruising. With all the needle marks, he started to look like some of the thugs he’d arrested over the years. Big Elmer, the third shift nurse, had the build of a linebacker. He must be six-foot-seven and pushing four bills, mostly muscle, and got his kicks by resticking a perfectly situated intravenous. Maybe the guy was getting even for a traffic ticket or the unlawful arrest of a family member, or who knows what else. Regardless, Pat knew there was no use trying to humor the guy. It just seemed to piss him off even more, so Pat learned to shut his yap when Elmer made rounds.
A small box sat high on the window sill. It sat there for days despite Pat’s objection, looking down at him from on high. An old King Edward cigar box with the word “INVINCIBLE” printed across the front. Long after Pat’s father gave up stogies, the empty boxes were used to store whatever loose shit lay around the house. This particular one happened to hold old photographs. It sparked an argument when Deidre brought it to him the last time she visited. It sat at the bottom of the plastic “guard approved” bag she carried that also contained a few “comfort” items, including a pair of Eagles socks, some noise-muting headphones, and a small hair comb. When she pulled out the King Edward’s box, Pat became enraged.
“Get that out of here!” He snapped. “I already told you I don’t want to look through family photos!”
“It’s a good way to pass the time,” she reasoned. “Did you consider that?”
“Did you consider that I’m the family fuck-up and that it’s humiliating for me to look at the faces of people I let down?” A bit of phlegm flew from his mouth. “Just get it out of here Deidre.”
They went another round before Pat’s grouchy tone won the argument. Defeated, Dee stuck the box back in the plastic bag and sulked the rest of the visit. He knew she meant well, but this was a non-negotiable. One small bit of autonomy he held on to.
Right after she left that day, big Elmer marched in the room and straight towards the window. He casually placed something on the sill, then spun around military style and marched back out mumbling something in that throaty voice of his. “The missus says family pictures is good medicine.”
“What the hell’s he talking about? Was he talking to me?” Pat wondered aloud while he stared at the ceiling. Then it hit him. Deidre had given that damn cigar box to Elmer. So here it sits on a shelf out of reach.
“Jesus Christ, Dee! Had to have your way didn’t you?” Pat spat into the stale prison air.
He could no longer ignore the stupid box with the word “INVINCIBLE” taunting him constantly and reminding him of the irony of his situation. An orderly could have easily retrieved it for him, but the stubborn old guy chose to do it himself. He willed himself from bed, steering the drip pole and staggering drunk-like towards the box. “Shit,” he mumbled when the box hit the ground, spilling photographs across the grimy floor and into the corners, under the bed, and beneath large medical equipment. A couple of them actually skated out the door.
At this point the room started to spin. Pat pushed the call button on the wall and tried to steady himself. Chenice, a boisterous aide, responded long after he’d managed to get himself back to bed. She stared at the unexpected collage of glossy and matte finished photos puddled around her feet. “What we got here?”
Handful after handful, she piled the photos on the foot of the bed, oooing and awwing and asking a bunch of senseless questions he preferred not to answer. She didn’t wait for answers anyway. “Awww, that you, Mr. McGowan? Is that your house? Who’s the baby? I think I know that school! That your wife?”
Wearily he mumbled, “There’s a cigar box somewhere. An empty one.”
She found it under the bed, filled it and placed it on his lap with the lid open. Then she checked his vitals and went on her way. When he was finally alone, he mustered up the necessary strength to slam that lid down in protest. So much for sentiment.
Chenice reappeared, thrusting Pat further into his surly mood. “Good god, now what?” he thought.
“I got two presents for ya.” She smiled. “One.” she held out a thick rubber band. “This’ll stop that lid from coming open again.” He managed a wink and let her do the honors. She wrapped the band tightly around the box and put it on the night table.
“And two.” She reached into her sweater pocket and pulled out a deckle-edged, black and white 5 x 7 and placed it on his lap facing him. “Found this under the nurse’s station across the hall. Says ‘Mom and Pop 1953’ on the back. You know Mr. McGowan, times like this you need your folks so why not keep this one out?” She patted him sweetly on the leg and left.
Hospice Unit, Federal Correctional Institute
Through tear-filled eyes Pat took in the image of his proud parents posed in front of their house on Hawthorne Street.
The photo was snapped the day Frank and Irene McGowan took ownership back in the early fifties. That’s when Hawthorne Street sat in a newly developed neighborhood in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia. A home like that represented a big score for a self-made man with a modest budget, but Frank always knew how to manage his money better than most. He worked hard and set aside every dime to provide a safe place for his young family.
Pop, as Pat called him, rarely showed emotion and remained reserved at nearly every moment of his life. Not so the day this photo was taken. In it, he chomped on a celebratory cigar and smiled at the same time. One hand gave a thumbs-up for his accomplishment while the other wrapped around his wife. The three-piece pinstripe suit that he wore could well be the same one he was buried in many years later.
The woman next to him was Pat’s mom, Irene. Her tailored suit and small netted cocktail hat made her a Lucille Ball look alike. Instead of smiling for the camera, she focused on the bundle in her arms: her first born, Patrick.
In some odd way, Pat felt a sense of relief that her eyes weren’t meeting his as he stared at the photo. Though he knew her to be one of the most forgiving people that walked the earth, seeing him here in this place, knowing what he’d done, it would have destroyed her.
“God rest your souls, Mom and Pop,” he said, stroking the photo. “Don’t hold my place ‘cause there’s a different destination for people like me.” A slight tickle in his throat tripped off a coughing fit. He stuffed the photo under the sheet to spare it from the irrepressible phlegm his body began manufacturing.
Pat watched his Pop die of lung cancer in his mid-seventies. Years of smoke inhalation finally got the best of him. It could have been from the cigarettes, although that seemed doubtful since he quit when Pat was a kid. The doctor said Pop’s cancer probably came with the job. An occupational hazard from putting out house fires, car fires, tankard fires, and more. Not to mention over-exposure to gases and chemicals that scalded his lungs. Frank McGowan had given the Philadelphia Fire Department forty-five years of service.
After putting out fires for twenty-five of those years, they promoted him to Battalion Chief. That thrilled Irene to no end, because supervising eleven fire divisions meant the old man spent more time behind a desk and less time inhaling noxious fumes and smoke. By then the damage was already done. Whatever life-threatening crap he’d inhaled had penetrated his lungs and lay dormant until his golden years when all hell broke loose.
There’s nothing worse than standing by a loved one as their oxygen supply is slowly, agonizingly choked off from the inside. In those last tortured weeks of his life, Pat could barely bring himself to visit Pop, much to Mom’s dismay. When not by her husband’s bedside, she walked to a payphone in the lobby of Jefferson Hospital to whisper to Pat. As if the old guy might hear her from three floors and two wings away.
“Pat,” her muffled message nearly inaudible, “Please Pat, your Poppy needs you here.”
Pat made every excuse in the world not to oblige his mother. The man in that hospital bed could not be the same man who used to pick him up with one arm and ride him around on his shoulders. No thank you. But the nagging continued. When it wasn’t Mom at the helm, Deidre stepped in. Or maybe Pat’s own conscience reminded him that the burden was all on one son to see Pop through his final phase. That’s because Pat’s brother Tom was a worthless piece of shit who bled the family dry and contributed nothing.
Regardless, to do right by everyone and get them off his back Pat mastered the run-in-run-out visit every so often. Luckily his Pop was so incoherent he didn’t know better. He raised his head occasionally, but that only happened when he strangled on his own mucus. Pat figured he dropped the ball where Pop’s final days were concerned so now he’d pay the price, dying the exact same way. Knowing what lie ahead having watched Pop go through it, well that was no benefit!
If Pop’s death felt like a shit-storm, Mom’s felt like the calm after the storm. Literally. A heart attack took her while she slept, only five months after they buried Pop. She exited as gentle and drama-free as the woman herself. An unusual phone call from Mom the night she died still haunted Pat to this day. It’s like she knew it would be their last conversation, even if she didn’t say so. She sounded fine and when he asked, she assured Pat that everything was okay. But for her to call him after ten on a weeknight was completely out of character, especially given the reason for her call which was simply to say, “You’re a good boy Pat and I want you to know how proud you’ve made me.”
Present circumstances aside, Pat believes he did his best to make his parents proud. Of their two sons, he stood by them and fulfilled their dreams of having a son in uniform.
Tom on the other hand turned out to be a tie-dye-wearing, dope-smoking hippie whose major qualities entailed being self-serving and irresponsible. His hair length stayed a constant source of tension for years until Mom and Pop at last decided there were bigger fish to fry, like talking the school into permitting Tom’s return after he was expelled for the twenty-foot peace sign he painted on the brick exterior. Or breaking up the riot he organized over some political issue he opposed. When it came to Tom, Pat saw red. He justified the disdain he had towards his brother, yet the memory of their last encounter haunted him, even if he couldn’t admit that to himself.
It all begin with an old paint can in the garage. After graduation, Pat had found odd jobs around the neighborhood as a way to make some cash. He cut lawns, made minor repairs, painted, that kind of thing. Stumbling across Tom’s stash – a sandwich bag full of weed and some other paraphernalia – may not have set Pat off the way it did, if he wasn’t one interview away from wearing a badge! To Pat, his brother’s negligence could have put his entire future with the police department at risk! That’s why he lost his cool when he opened the can and found that stash.
“We got problems!” Pat yelled as he stormed passed Pop who read the paper at the kitchen table. He took the steps three at a time, Pop cluelessly running behind him. Then he threw open Tom’s bedroom door and shoved his younger brother up against the wall. He pinned him there, demanding the name of his supplier. He would have gotten that name too if Pop hadn’t pulled him off his brother. Pat still remembered the look of shock on Tom’s face at seeing his older brother react worse than his father ever had. But Pat felt it was his obligation to protect this family from scum of the earth drug dealers.
Whether Tom gave up the habit or not would always remain a mystery. Within a month of that incident, he quit school a month before graduation and headed out West. He shacked up with some skinny broad covered in tattoos and they spent most of their time riding matching Harleys all over Colorado. When the broad dumped him a year later, he rode his Harley back East, but not to reunite with his family. Nope. Tom had big dreams. He teamed up with a group of biker enthusiasts whose sole purpose on earth revolved around an annual rally by the name of “Fender Butt.” That’s right Fender Butt. It always made for a good laugh at McGowan family reunions when some inquiring relative asked Mom, “So what are the boys up to these days?”
The name of the rally might have been comical, but what happened thanks to it, was tragic. During the rally, Tom’s cycle met a sixteen-wheeler and landed him in critical care for over eight months. It drained Frank and Irene of almost every bit of savings they’d spent a lifetime working for.
Pat privately celebrated the day his brother’s body gave out. His death gave Pat back his mother, who had wasted way too much precious time sitting by Tom’s bedside praying for his sorry ass to return to consciousness. “Good riddance little brother!” was all Pat had to say.
Hospice Unit, Federal Correctional Institute
Deidre’s visits became fewer and shorter as the summer dragged on. Who could blame her? Leaving a cozy house by the beach to drive several hours and sit in a hospice unit full of criminals, not to mention watch her husband turn ten shades of green. Ain’t no joy in that.
Pat never dreamed their love story would end this way, but at the very least he saw the strength in his wife. She survived his mistakes, his unlawful behavior, the unraveling of his reputation, and she’d survive his death too. She probably counted down the days in the sunshine.
If he should live so long, their upcoming fortieth wedding anniversary will go by without recognition while he lay in the prison hospital. Normally couples go out to dinner, throw a party, or take a nice trip together. Not these two. Not this year. They won’t even acknowledge the date out loud. There’s something about barbed wire fences and armed guards that kills the mood. Almost four decades of memories, some good and some horrible. He only hoped that the fond ones could find a way back to her. Perhaps bringing the cigar box to him was her way of saying those memories were still alive?
“Stupid idiot, I made her feel bad about that too,” Pat muttered to no one.
He struck out so much these days that it was a wonder she visited at all. He considered telling her not to come around anymore. Why put her through that anguish? Didn’t she deserve better than that? Call him selfish, but he just couldn’t do it. Despite their shared despondency, she remained the only source of relief from the endless abyss of prison.
There were other things he wanted to tell her too. Some she probably wouldn’t want to hear at this point. Some that would make her hate him even more than she already did. Some he couldn’t bring himself to say, no matter how he tried. Like the fact that it would be okay for her to fall in love again. How she deserved to find a good man, a stable guy she could trust. One who would sweep her off her feet and erase all the bad memories. But the words wouldn’t come out when she sat in the metal chair in his room. How could any man hand over their soulmate to another man?
Dee was the love of his life. He knew it right from the start. No matter how much time passed or how many bumps there are in the road, there’s no forgetting that moment when you meet the woman you want to marry. She was the graduation gift he never expected.
It happened back in ‘71, just three days after Archbishop Ryan’s commencement. Pat and five of his buddies crammed clothes, food, a couple cases of beer, rafts, and two surfboards into a VW Microbus and headed to Avalon, NJ for senior week.
They rented a rundown house on one of the busier streets, but it didn’t matter. The place had perks. Dirt cheap rent, a laid-back landlord, and a five-minute walk to the boardwalk. And the biggest perk of all? The gorgeous redhead who worked right next door at Sea Galley Motel.
He saw her before the Microbus had even been unpacked. Her apron and short black skirt suggested that her status was an employee rather than a guest of the hotel. But her hair had him spellbound. Crimson colored, shiny, and wrapped in an oversized bun. It probably hung all the way down her back when it wasn’t tied up like that. She must have sensed him staring because at that very moment she unfastened the clip and gently shook her head, letting those incredible locks drape her back. Just as he thought, waist-length and stunning!
Pat wasn’t one to waste time. Within twenty-four hours he learned she was single, not much older than he, and best of all lonely. He approached her, this woman who would become his wife, at the end of her shift. Deidre Erin McGlinty, a green eyed, freckled faced beauty with a faint brogue that excited him more than her hair. Pat learned she was born in Cork, Ireland, came to the United States on an exchange program, and fell in love with the host-family’s son Peter, a guy who eventually proposed to her. She became a United States citizen but never became Peter’s bride. The young couple ended up splitting just weeks before their planned wedding.
To lift her spirits after the broken engagement, she’d rented a room by the ocean and found a job as a chambermaid. Pat’s spirits were lifted just listening to her talk. Who cared why the loser dumped her, Pat made it his mission to make her forget all that.
Within a few days, Pat’s buddies had all but written him off as part of their senior week fun. What could he say? His priorities had unexpectedly changed when an older woman with an Irish brogue stole his heart. “I mean look at her, guys. Can you really blame me?” No, they couldn’t. They didn’t even try. The dude was in love and there’s not a surf-riding wave in the world that can steer a hormone-driven guy away from sex and a gorgeous woman.
Dee managed to shuck a work shift or two that week so the two could get better acquainted. They spent days talking, running around the beach, sharing pizza and caramel corn on Surfside Pier, and racing each other down the newly opened Wipe Out fiberglass slide in burlap sacks at least a dozen times. The most special night that week sealed the deal for them. It began at Snyder’s mini-golf when the sun sunk into the distance. Halfway through the course, he made a bet with Deidre that he could get them a free game. The wager – making out under the boardwalk.
Even from a distance, they could see other mini-golfers playing the 18th hole. One loser after another completely missed the hole in the clown’s stomach and lost their chance to collect the free game pass.
“You think you can do better than all those people, eh?” She tapped his butt with her putter.
“If you doubt me, you’ve got nothing to worry about. But if I get us a free game, are you willing?” he asked with a sheepish smile.
She hit her ball for the 11th hole. “Hmm, well based on your score right now I think it’s safe to say there won’t be any making out tonight. So, you’re on!”
As they finished the 17th hole, he retrieved both of their balls and stuffed them in his pocket. Then he pushed her hair behind her ear and whispered, “Pay close attention. This is how you get a free game.” She prepared to watch him lose the ball in the clown’s stomach just like everyone else. Instead, he didn’t even approach the 18th hole. He grabbed her hand and whispered, “Quick! Come with me!” and they ran like hell towards the hedge near the start of the course. He pulled her behind it keeping a watchful eye out for any suspicious Snyder employees. When he was certain the coast was clear, he whispered, “Okay now, act innocent.” and together they nonchalantly stepped up to the 1st hole as if they’d just arrived.
“That’s not fair!” she laughed hysterically, “You cheated! You bypassed the clown!”
“Shhhhh!” He put his finger against her lips while he scanned the area for onlookers. “I never said anything about playing the 18th hole. I just said I’d get us a free game.” He bent down to place his ball on the green but never got his swing in. She wrapped her arms around him, looked into his eyes and said in a seductive tone, “I like a man who knows how to beat the system. Do you really want to play a second round, or are you ready to collect on your bet?”
Before he could respond her lips were on his. They pitched the putters and balls in the bush and bolted quickly across the boards, down the steps, and onto the sand, where they sat under the stars and made out. Then a love-struck Pat, who had been smart enough to borrow his buddy’s old VW Microbus for the evening, decided it was time to put that van to good use. They drove to a stretch of road between Mud Creek and the canal and made love ’til the sun came up.
That’s the night he knew she was the one he’d grow old with. A year later and shortly after he began his career with the Philly PD, Deidre Erin McGlinty became Mrs. Patrick McGowan. They set up home in a tiny apartment in Morrell Park. He was nineteen, she was twenty-one. Unlike the average couple their age, these two openly discussed their future. When to start a family, how many kids to have, how to raise those kids, and what retirement might look like.
People set goals. As a matter of fact, society frowns upon those who don’t. They’ll call you lazy, reactive, unmotivated. Pat used those labels himself, more times than he could count. He’d throw them at certain family members, some lifelong friends, and definitely most of the thugs he arrested through the years. The thing is that when you get old and look back on your life, you start to notice that the majority of the goals you set, the ones you wanted the most, that you worked the hardest to achieve, that you suffered the most for – those goals don’t mean shit. Because life has a goal of its own, to trip you up and break you.
Life chokes the innocence out of a young boy with the best intentions. It puts undue pressure on a young couple in love. It uses every crappy trick in the book to drain the life out of an unsuspecting family.
When Pat and Dee took their vows, hardship became the threesome in that bond. It lay dormant for a while, but not for long. Eventually they were slammed with one hardship after another. Regardless they held it together, for better or for worse. Yet despite everything they endured as a couple, he had no doubt that most of his life was spent with his soulmate. For that, at least, he could be thankful.
Hospice Unit, Federal Correctional Institute
Pat’s dreams became stranger by the day. Maybe it’s because they’d upped his pain meds. That was ok, he’d take a disturbing dream over pain any day. Although last night’s dream had him a bit unnerved. In it, Deidre sat completely nude in an overstuffed chair with her hair the length it had been when they first met. Long crimson waves cascaded down her shoulders and fanned across her naked body, barely concealing her intimate parts. An old familiar sensation came over Pat and he could swear that his sickly body actually mustered an erection in his sleep. She flipped on an old projector and suddenly the blank wall in front of her lit up with family movies. In reality, no such film existed, but in the dream their life on camera began flickering by in backwards order, starting with recent memories and going back in time to life before the crime, then further back to when the kids were young, then before the kids were born.
That’s when the dream became a nightmare as Dee transversed the dream realm and stared straight in the face of the guy having the dream. It felt kind of like watching a TV show where the actress on the screen suddenly leaves her role to turn and stare at the TV viewer. The serious look on Dee’s face left Pat shivering as she pointed up at the moving images that continued projecting on the wall. A young couple – a slim and fit female with dark curly hair, straddling her uniformed lover. They were in the midst of an erotic encounter, rocking back and forth, moaning louder and louder as they approached climax. The clip ended and another immediately began. A gorgeous bombshell with long blonde hair and big boobs blowing a guy in a police car. That clip ended and another began. On a blanket in a secluded area of the woods, a barefoot woman with sandy brown hair unbuttoned her white peasant blouse. “That’s enough!” Pat yelled while still asleep. “Please make it stop! I’m sorry Deidre! I’m so sorry!”
Suddenly he awoke, panic stricken and drenched with sweat. The first thought that crossed his mind was “Holy shit, does she know?”
Pat and Dee’s path to parenthood took more than one strange turn. It started with their oldest son, Jason. Shortly after the death of his brother, the young couple found themselves unexpectedly new parents when Tom’s ex-girlfriend was found dead in her apartment in Connecticut. None of the family knew that Tom had fathered a child, much less that it had happened in the last year. Suddenly the newlyweds, Pat and Dee, were saddled with a three-month-old infant.
Something about the crystal blue eyes made Pat’s heart melt with memories of what his brother might have been. Dee fell in love with the boy immediately and insisted that she would be the best mother a child could ever have. From that moment on, Jason was their son and Pat made it his goal that the boy wouldn’t turn out to be a hippie drug user like his father.
With little time to adapt to parenting and chasing around a hyperactive one-year-old who seemed to require the attention of three, Dee announced that she was pregnant with their own biological child. Pat felt as flustered as an under aged drinker in a topless bar. Elated one minute, traumatized the next. It’s not that he didn’t want to have a child of his own because he did. It was always part of the plan, but until a plan materializes, it’s just a fantasy. It’s the difference between imagining a roller coaster ride versus being strapped into the seat. Which is the safer risk? Plans are conceptual, property of the future. They’re ideas that are invented while your feet are still firmly planted on the ground. When that plan is put into motion, the words “Honey, my pregnancy test is positive,” have a way of stealing the fucking ground right out from under you. He became the father of two before he could fully settle into husbandry.
Nine months of waiting swelled Pat’s tension in a way that a kid materializing out of thin air didn’t. He put on a good face for everyone and played the happy-father-to-be for his parents, his wife, his wife’s family, his adopted son. Yet he couldn’t fake out the guy in the mirror who felt like any wild animal trying to outrun the inevitable storm. He went on a tear and buried his face in every set of tits that would have him. By the third trimester, Pat had been with about five women. He quickly discovered how they tend to throw themselves at a guy with a badge and a gun.
Pat got no sense of pride from his actions, but at the core of his bad behavior an internal frenzy grew. He suffocated under the feeling of being trapped, of not measuring up, of not being the kind of man a kid could depend on. It might have been a lame excuse, but that’s how it went. Being wrapped tightly inside the warm thighs of one insatiable woman after another, each name and face forgotten within hours of the encounter may not have been love, but it did offer escape. Plain and simple. Probably the same sensation a drinker experiences when the shot glass tips forward and provides instant relief from a world of chaos.
The birth changed everything. Something about your own child in your own image. The event itself veered far from routine considering the newborn needed to be manually shifted out of a breech position. The infant came frightening close to wearing the umbilical cord as a choker. Although he was an average weight, his unusual positioning and the speed of his entry ripped Dee’s cervix to shreds during delivery. Pat fought back emotions until the fight left him. Between watching his wife brave the pain and realizing what an incredible ass he’d been, all the guilt for his infidelity rushed to the surface and he sobbed uncontrollably. Dee felt too exhausted from giving birth to question him, so Pat’s secret remained a secret.
This tiny little person, Christopher Shane McGowan, became the catalyst for change in the man never cheated again. He vowed to put his family first and make Dee’s dreams a reality. Her dreams were simple – to have two kids and a modest home to raise them in, then of course to have a tiny vacation home near the beach. Having been raised on the coast in County Cork, life near the water, even part time, would be essential.
Christopher’s debut into the McGowan family presented challenges for Jason whose initial enchantment with a new baby brother wore off just about as quickly as his only-child status. It wasn’t the baby that kept the McGowan’s up all night. It was a jealous toddler and his tough to manage erratic outbursts that drew the attention of neighboring apartment dwellers who banged on the walls in the middle of the night. This caused his frazzled parents to become the target of disturbing looks and know-it-all comments. It wasn’t long before the assholic judgment of lowlife tenants gave Pat the nudge he needed to start working on those dreams.
Finding a good home involved more than realtors and open houses and finances. In Pat’s case, it meant letting everyone have a say, as annoying as that was. Thankfully, 1818 Jacklyn Street fit the bill. Pat’s Pop was happy to learn that the neighborhood scored low on the row-home fire-hazard scale. Pat’s mom was happy that her only living son chose a house within minutes of her, and that he didn’t leave the state to ride motorcycles. Pat’s wife was happy because of the park with swings that stood within walking distance. Pat’s boss was happy because it was just ten minutes from the 8th district headquarters. And Pat was happy because he could afford it, if only barely. The only one not happy seemed to be Pat’s oldest adopted son. Little Jason soured even more as the boys got older and settled into their new home, where his tiny lungs could scream at their loudest without any neighbors barking in to make him stop.
Philadelphia Police Department
Long before he joined the Philadelphia Police Department, Pat prided himself on knowing the ins and outs of its history. When he finally did take the oath back in ‘73, it felt to him like taking his place in that history. The force dated back over two hundred years and while there were a few bad apples along the way, Pat knew that he was part of group of men and women who stood for honor and integrity.
In the mid-1700s, the individual states that make up this country had no real police department and relied on volunteers called Watchmen to break up brawls in local taverns, to arrest prostitutes, and to levy fines on farmers who stole livestock from other farmers. It was a shoddy system, but good enough to handle a triple digit population.
After the nation gained its independence in 1776 and well into the next century, migrants rushed into the country. Headcount in Philly rapidly increased, and so did crime. Watchmen were no longer interested in volunteering their time to babysit an expanding population, now they wanted compensation. The Paid Watchmen program launched, but this temporary solution began to crumble under the weight of a city that continued to grow by leaps and bounds. It took over fifty years for the city to stop pussy-footing around and find a permanent fix.
In 1833, Philadelphia finally took matters seriously and created a proactive “prevention versus posse” approach to law enforcement. It instituted a round-the-clock police force, the first of its kind in the nation, making Philadelphia’s PD the standard for the America’s up and coming communities.
By 1973 when Officer Patrick McGowan took his oath the population had grown twenty times, amounting to close to two million people living in the city of Philadelphia. Two million. An intimidating number that could have had him scrambling for another occupation if it weren’t for the fact that the department was split into twenty-one different districts. Smaller areas with less people per square mile, a cop can easily handle that. Still, in a volatile city like Philly there are frequently ‘all hands-on deck’ types of crimes that require involvement from all cops no matter which district he or she was associated with. Throughout his career with the force, Pat worked in the 8th district, a section of Northeast Philly which he also called home. A somewhat suburban area such as this has garden variety police matters – mainly traffic violations, domestic disputes, robberies, DUIs, drug possession and dealing.
As a second generation Irish-American male born and raised in Mount Airy in the sixties, Pat’s future had in many ways been predetermined. He would be in uniform, whether a firefighter, cop, or soldier. Pat chose this career not because he had options, but because destiny chose it for him. Considering his brother’s plight, Pat became his parent’s only shot at displaying a framed portrait of a son in uniform on their TV console.
Regardless, he didn’t feel pressured to take the role. Pat always held cops in high esteem. Growing up with a father who was not only a career firefighter but who had lots of friends in the PD, Pat witnessed the good side of law enforcement. He saw the random acts of kindness that most people miss out on. Like the eight-year veteran of the force who turned a near deadly altercation between knife-wielding teens into a teaching opportunity with the use of a basketball. Police officers showed them how to settle disputes like men. Or the twenty cops who showed up at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia wearing clown noses and handing out balloons to every kid in the oncology unit. Or the one that scaled the Commodore-Barry Bridge to rescue a jumper. Countless stories of heroics and compassion are what drove Pat’s decision to wear the badge.
So many courageous, caring, well-intentioned actions go unnoticed most of the time. Even as a kid, Pat sensed that cops got a bad rap and that many folks overlook the positives associated with the force. Rather than support and applaud, they complain and accuse and believe whatever bullshit they hear on the news. The press has a way of telling half-truths, blowing things out of proportion, or out and out lying. “And there’s nothing newsworthy about a bunch of cops in clown noses, right?” he would sometimes say to Dee while watching the evening news. In Pat’s opinion people needed to grow up, get their facts straight, or butt out. Nothing’s gained by political camps. Law enforcement was not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but resolving its problems and improving its image were impossible as long as the press stirred the pot!
No doubt, there are plenty of assholes with badges. Pat wouldn’t deny that. As a matter of fact, his former partner Officer Ralph Dazzio, offered a perfect example. Ralph didn’t start out that way. The two hit it off and got along relatively well for several years. At the end of many shifts they’d shoot hoops together, or play pool, or grab an occasional beer.
They were tight enough, for a while that is, to get past the personal differences and basic annoyances that are unavoidable working with the same person day after day. Pat stepped in when Ralph broke down over his wife leaving him – she eventually returned. Ralph encouraged Pat when his Pop got sick. They were just two humans, trying to survive in a flawed world and making things easier by supporting one another.
Unfortunately, there are relationship deal breakers that cast a dark shadow on the past, no matter how good things used to be. For these two, the deal breaker came during their eighth year working for the force together. They were on a routine traffic stop late one afternoon when they pulled over a souped-up Cutlass Supreme that completely ignored a detour and barreled through a marked construction zone on State Road. They pulled the guy over in an empty lot on Mill Road near the train trestle.
The driver sat there visibly shaken or drunk or high, a blubbery guy with a belly that could steer the car. Since he stunk like pot, they were entitled to search his vehicle. The guy sobbed and cursed and even called Pat a “gay fucker.” His questionable behavior forced the partners to order him to the ground and cuff his hands behind his back. Still ranting, they left him face down, off to the side, and began the search.
Old fast food containers, unopened condiments, and sticky plastic soda cup lids with straws sticking out littered the interior. A partially smoked joint lay hidden in the glove compartment. Not much to speak of.
Then they popped the trunk. Crumbled newspaper, an old sleeping bag, and a couch cushion that stank like rotten potatoes. Shoved into the right front corner of the trunk, buried under a week’s worth of dirty laundry, they found the source of the jerk’s emotional outbursts. Twenty Ziploc bags filled with white powder. Cocaine.
Pat shouted towards the tub of lard laying on the ground. “You got a lot of explaining to do when DEA gets here!”
“Holy shit!” Dazzio yelped as he made another discovery. “Looks like we may have interrupted the idiot’s delivery schedule!” The officer held up an over-sized athletic sock that bulged from its contents. Eight individually rubber-banded bundles of bills with Ben Franklin’s face on every single one. Five hundred Franklins per bundle meant they held in their hands a grand total of forty thousand dollars stuffed in that sock. “Seems the big guy scored today,” Dazzio said. Then in a muffled tone he continued, “or should I say we scored today.”
These unexpected situations, like a routine traffic stop that turns serious, happened often. A cop has got to be prepared and know the protocol. Usually backup or a special unit is called, in this case the Drug Enforcement Agency. The DEA performs an in-depth investigation, retrieves the narcotics and cash, and gets the city prosecutor involved.
Pat asked his partner to make the call while he detained the suspect. It gave him the ability to intimidate the punk for a while, because nothing made Pat sicker than a drug dealing sack of shit. Wrecking families, making the city unsafe, it made Pat’s blood boil. God what he wouldn’t give to bloody the guy up, beat him with his pistol. He held the punk’s face to the ground with his shoe. “You’re facing at least twenty years behind bars, one for each of those plastic bags. Twenty years pal. That’ll give you plenty of time to think about all the lives you would have cost dealing this shit.”
Pat glanced towards the squad car to see if his partner had finished the call. Turns out Dazzio never even started. He stood there still lingering by the trunk of the Cutlass, gazing at that bulging sock like a kid on Christmas morning. Pat knew by the expression on his partner’s face what must be going through his head. It’s not the first time he’d seen it. They’d made unexpected hits like this in the past, where a routine traffic stop is anything but routine. Times where they stumbled across stolen goods, drugs, large sums of money, and every so often Dazzio got weak. He’d forget who he was, forget the oath he took. Asshole. Pat left the suspect and joined Dazzio at trunk of the Cutlass.
“What the hell you doing? Make the call so we can get out of here.”
“I think we made a mistake, Pat,” Dazzio said in the typical sleazy tone he used in these rare cases. “These plastic bags here, they’re nothing but rock salt. Twenty bags of rock salt,” He dangled the cash-filled sock between them.
“Quit the comedy and let’s get this show on the road.”
“Just hear me out for a minute.” Dazzio murmured, “Forty thousand bucks, Pat. It takes you and me over a year to make this much money. Let’s dump the goods in the river and pocket twenty grand each. Treat ourselves to several months of bonus salary and no one has to know a thing.”
“Not on my watch buddy.”
Not ready to quit, the nitwit took Pat’s arm and pleaded, “C’mon partner, let him go. Let’s save taxpayers a ton of dough by not paying for the jerk’s room and board. He’ll be happy just to stay out of prison. It would cost him a lot more than this for bail and attorney fees,” he shook the sock for effect.
Pat yanked his arm away. “Yeah, like he won’t talk. You know what Ralph, you’re a real moron. Sometimes I wonder about your mental health. Make that call or I will.”
“Chill out dude. I was kidding around with you.” He laughed awkwardly and then stupidly added, “Just thought you and Deidre could use a cozy vacation. When’s the last time you took that beautiful woman away for a week?”
That jibe hit the hot button Dazzio shouldn’t have pushed. Pat grabbed the fool by the shirt collar and yanked him forward, then said in a tone that would not soon be forgotten, “You listen up. We will never have this discussion again, EVER. Are we clear?”
Rose-colored blotches formed on Dazzio’s face and his eyes twitched nervously as Pat held on waiting for an answer. It shocked him that this was the same reaction Pat remembered seeing on his little brother Tom’s face when his back met the wall years ago. Overcome with remorse, Pat released the grip on his partner’s shirt and stepped away to save face. Pat’s mind raced with anger though, thinking “Why should I apologize? I despise stupidity whether a pot smoking loser or an embezzling cop.”
Encounters like this change relationships for good. Why do people push the envelope like that? Going forward things stayed strictly business between the two cops. Ralph wasn’t evil, just an idiot. Like Pat, he dealt with his own financial woes trying to stretch a tight salary in an economy that no longer allowed it. They were in the same boat. There were days when waves of embarrassment swept over Pat for grabbing his partner the way he did, for revealing the hatred he usually masked. But Ralph went too far, and Pat had to put an end to it. No use stewing over it.
About a year after the incident, Officer Dazzio got shipped to the 3rd district in South Philly when he was promoted to Sergeant. Pat was leaving work when he heard the news. On the ride home, he stopped for cigarettes. First pack he ever bought. He never stopped smoking after that day.
Eisenhower Elementary School
San Francisco, California
A Venus Flytrap lures its prey with its appealing, fragrant blooms. An innocent insect explores the captivating plant, feeling as if it’s struck gold by stumbling across something so rare, so enchanting, so magical. It doesn’t realize that those blooms are just a front to hide the plant’s true nature. The plant is actually a trap that quickly snaps shut, once the fly lands inside beyond the blooms.
Young Joey Nilbert had a thing for Venus Flytraps. He learned about them in science class two days before his eleventh birthday and from that moment felt determined to get one of his own. He pushed through the crowd of slow moving kids as they exited the school bus and ran home as fast as he could, praying that his “birthday wish list” would still be taped to the refrigerator. Nearly breathless when he reached the house, he ran straight to the kitchen with his book bag still strapped to his back and sighed in relief. It wasn’t too late – his mom had yet to shop.
A piece of an old cereal box had items written across the blank side in blue ink. “Rock em Sock em Robots, Gemini Space Rocket Kit, Electric Powered Airplane.” He peeled back the masking tape that held the crude list to the fridge and squeezed in one last item using a bright red marker. “VENUS FLYTRAP.” He even drew a big red star in front of the item to ensure that his mom would know it was the priority. Satisfied with the effort, he re-taped it to the fridge and helped himself to the last blueberry frosted Pop Tart, which he ate in the den while he watched the Flintstones on TV.
Flash forward a dozen years or so, and Joe Nilbert never forgot those Venus Flytraps.
It takes all kinds to make a world. Givers, takers, lovers, haters, and the scary kind of people who completely baffle the mind because they appear to be giving, loving, and kind, when in fact they are nothing of the sort. God help you if you run into one of them.
Take Joe for example. His dynamic personality won over most people right from the start. Intelligent, attractive, and influential, he had a knack, manufactured though it was, for making people feel really good about themselves. Especially the sensitive types. The people pleasers. The naïve. They flocked to him. They raved about him to their colleagues and friends. They trusted him with their secrets and they even defended him to anyone who might suggest that he might not be not as great as he seemed. As if he were some kind of Messiah.
If only they knew.
Joe made his way through life by being a con artist. He didn’t think like the average person, nor did he process life in the same way. Say a human tragedy occurred. Joe put on a good act, turned on the tears like everyone else in the crowd, even went further than most by donating to the cause or rallying people together to help. But it was all an act. In reality, he felt nothing. Mourning the pain and hardship of others felt as foreign to him as any other form of empathy, but his personal agenda hinged on the crowd’s interpretation of him, so he’d play up whatever emotion necessary to meet that agenda. His skilled performances had one objective, self-gain.
Get too close to a guy like Nilbert and you risk being trapped, drained of all your resources, and discarded when something better comes along. No use in crying or pleading or looking for his sympathy. He’d pretend to care, but he’d inevitably use your emotions, your weakness, your talents, or even your own family against you when the time came. In other words, he’d play you for a fool and walk away looking like he’d been the one harmed.
How did he do it? Joe learned early on to be the master of confusion. Long before anyone sensed a problem in the relationship, Joe had already checked out. He neatly tied up all the loose ends and eliminated his victims from his memory bank, except for the sensationalized version he employed for sympathy points or to lure in future prospects. By the time anyone could figure out his game, it was too late. The destruction had already happened.
The Venus Flytrap is a selective plant that doesn’t open itself to just any prey, only the kind that provides the most nourishment. Prey that will give the plant what it needs and sustain it the longest is the only kind worth trapping and digesting.
Just ask his first wife Evvy. She considered writing a book about him to prevent potential victims from flying into the same trap she did. She fell for his seduction, she gained his trust and gave him access to her most personal issues as well as her family’s private business, so that he could eventually rob them blind. By the time the couple celebrated their fourth anniversary, Joe had successfully pitted Evvy against her own parents. By their sixth anniversary, he took control of her parent’s commercial real estate investments. By their eighth anniversary, he had fleeced the old folks out of sixty percent of their assets and had them believing it was all Evvy’s fault. Shortly after their tenth anniversary, he had Evvy brainwashed into believing that her emotional breakdowns drove him away. She apologized, begged and pleaded for him to stay. She promised to get her act together. But it was no use.
The Venus Flytrap knows when there’s no value left to the hostage. When the life has been sucked out of it, the prey’s bones are spit out as the plant prepares the trap for its next unsuspecting victim, who is already exploring the plant’s alluring blooms.
Once Joe had secured his next prey and destroyed all evidence of his dirty dealings, he put on his sad face and “reluctantly” divorced Evvy. Odd timing though, considering the drop came right after a romantic island getaway for the two of them where he spent a small fortune on her.
He was long gone by the time she stopped blaming herself and started piecing things together with the help of a good therapist. That’s when she finally saw the truth. That she and her parents had been pawns in a sick game. Instead of venting her feelings in a book, Evvy took the advice of her therapist and surrendered the bastard to God to handle. She focused on the future and rebuilt what Joe had nearly destroyed – her relationship with her parents. She dedicated time to making them as comfortable as possible in their remaining years. Eventually she met a genuinely loving man whose presence wiped away all memories of what’s-his-name.
In Evvy’s case, the biggest kicker of all was how Joe had already scoped out his new life, all while playing “devoted husband” to her.
The Venus Flytrap doesn’t discard the bones of the digested prey until it has targeted its next source of nourishment.
That new life was sparked by a memorial service that occurred while Joe was still married to Evvy. A memorial service is typically a somber event, but not for Joe who saw the gathering as an opportunity. The deceased? Just some chick from his alma mater. Denise or Debbie, something like that. Like Joe, the deceased had also graduated from the University of San Francisco, majoring in accounting and finance. Her life post-graduation and her untimely death were unknowns to Joe, not that he cared. Nor did he care that the dead woman left behind a husband, now a young widower. He didn’t care that their three-year old girl would grow up motherless. Stuff like that didn’t move him. There could be only one reason he blew off eighteen holes with his lifelong buddy Edward and lied to Evvy about his real whereabouts that sunny afternoon.
Theresa was the deceased woman’s best friend and former sorority sister, so bets were high that she’d be at the memorial service too. Now that felt like something worth putting on a black suit for. How could anyone blame him? Winning over someone like Theresa would be like taking home a huge ticket item from an auction. He’d be the envy of everyone. Theresa was simply amazing. She raised the bar for other women. Smart, sophisticated, successful, and beautiful inside and out. Rumor had it that she once played the cello for Jimmy Carter.
Theresa also served as a patron for noble causes, always rescuing the underdog and advocating for the downtrodden. In college she spearheaded clubs to help the homeless and to expose poor treatment of gays and lesbians on the campus. She even started a club dedicated to cleaning up the bay.
Joe had a wild crush on her back in the day, but with all her various activities he never managed to get a moment alone with her. That was about to change.
A native of Denver, Theresa only left her home state long enough to get a finance degree at the University of San Francisco. Then she returned to Denver where she became a loan officer at a bank in the city. She bought a condo near her favorite biking trail, took yoga regularly, and made wise investments with her inheritance money. Most of her spare time was spent with her siblings and their families. They were a tight knit group.
The untimely death of her sorority sister eleven years after graduation brought Theresa back to the City by the Bay for the tearful memorial service. She discovered an unexpected highlight to the trip – the handsome man she vaguely remembered from college days, Joe Nilbert. He would have been just another face in the mourning crowd if weren’t for his compassion and concern. He wiped Theresa’s tears with his handkerchief and listened attentively as she shared one memory after another involving her dear friend and sorority sister Donna, who had lost her battle with cancer.
When the crowd dispersed, Joe invited the mourning woman out to dinner to cheer her up. What a masterful job he did aligning his interests, his values, and his long-term goals with hers. Having done his research ahead of time, he conjured up some passion for her “cause of the day” and providing a sizable donation to score points with her. His attempts at winning her over were successful. Theresa was absolutely mesmerized.
Hours into the conversation and at her insistence, they turned the conversation to him. Joe painted an award-winning picture of a life of service, conviction, and integrity. Then he confided in her about his “recent heartbreak.” One hundred percent contrived of course.
“Theresa, the last thing I ever wanted was to throw in the towel on my marriage.”
She stared sympathetically into the eyes of the man who looked even more handsome now than he did back in college.
He conjured up a few tears. “It’s just that, well my poor wife had emotional problems that got worse with time. I swear to God I tried to help her, but it was beyond my ability.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that. I’m sure you did everything you could.”
“I don’t know. Sometimes I feel terrible about the way I left her. I believe a couple should stick together no matter what! But when her moods got violent, I was so lost as to how to help, you know?”
“Oh my God, Joe, she got violent?“
“More times than I’d like to admit. Let’s say I learned to duck a lot.” He smiled meekly.
“You mean she threw things at you?”
“Oh yeah, but that wasn’t as bad as…” He paused for effect before continuing, “well, there were times I took a shower with my car keys in my hand, you know, just in case I needed a quick getaway.”
She reached across the table for his hand and squeezed it supportively. “Oh, Joe. You had no choice. You had to leave!”
Hook, line, and sinker.
The longer they spent together talking, the more Theresa began to see the silver lining to her beloved friend’s passing. Goosebumps seemed to confirm a recurring thought, that maybe this could all be part of a higher plan? Could it be God’s way, or perhaps even Donna’s way to bring her together with this incredibly special man? She’d nearly given up hope of ever meeting a decent guy who had his act together. As sad as she felt for Joe’s challenges Joe with his “ex-wife”, she felt pleasantly surprised to know that he was available. She launched a silent prayer to the Heavens, hoping that she could be the one to make up for all his pain.
Had she known his wedding band had been buried deep in his pocket from the moment he entered the church parking lot that morning, she’d have made different choices. She’d have seen through the lies and never invited him back to her hotel room. But why would anyone doubt such a vulnerable, compassionate guy? Curled up in the hotel room on their first night together, he continued to lure his unsuspecting prey towards the trap by saying words that every woman longs to hear.
“Theresa, meeting you again like this – it’s a gift from God. I’ve thought about you so many times since college. I feel like my prayers have just been answered.”
The next morning, unbeknownst to the woman he’d just made passionate love to, Joe dialed his wife from the hotel parking lot and told her to pack her bags. “Evvy, sweetheart, I’m taking you to Hawaii for our tenth anniversary.”
Two weeks after the trip, he filed for divorce. Driving away from his attorney’s office towards a rental apartment overlooking the bay that he’d leased that morning, Joe felt on top of the world. Flipping on the radio, Bette Midler’s velvet voice streamed out at him. “You’ll be swell, you’ll be great, got the whole world on your plate. . .”
“Everything sure is coming up roses Ms. Midler,” Joe said to the radio.
Exactly a year after they buried poor Debbie. Denise. No, it was Donna, thirty-one-year-old Joe Nilbert professed eternal love to a second wife. Theresa Wilson had no idea that the trap had just snapped shut on her.
Victoria Hills Community
San Francisco, California
“The cellular customer you are trying to reach, Abby Sheldon, is not available. Please leave a message after the tone.”
“Hey sis, it’s me again. I’m sorry to bother you. It’s just, one of those days, you know? Call me back when you get a chance, k?”
Theresa Nilbert swallowed the lump in her throat and scrolled through her contacts wondering who else to call. What’s the use? Nobody would understand. She stuffed the cell phone in her pocket and continued walking. Lately she’d started to depend on her evening trek because it seemed to be the only time she felt free to think. She felt almost invisible. The autumn sky made early evening look more like midnight now, and the temperature had dropped just enough for a fleece hoodie.
Eleven years since she married him, Theresa still wonders what came over her. How did she ever let Joe persuade her to leave her family, her career? The close-knit community in Denver that had always been her home, but somehow she abandoned it to go live with this man thousands of miles away.
There were times the resentment pressed down on her so heavily that she could barely look at him. There seemed to be no point in talking about it though. She’d done that before and it got her nothing but a subtle, yet patronizing reminder that she came to San Francisco willingly, followed by a “why in the world is this coming up now?”
“How is it he wins every argument and leaves me feeling like the nagging, unappreciative wife?” Theresa spoke aloud to herself.
Yes, she did come to San Francisco. Did she really have a choice? Having heard all the horror stories about his crazy, demanding ex, Theresa had been groomed right from the start to comply and to put aside her needs and wants in order to make up for the supposed pain of her husband’s past. Maybe she wouldn’t be so homesick if it weren’t for her troubled marriage.
Her one true friend, Val, showed signs that she might be growing tired of Theresa’s sob stories. At the soccer field earlier in the day they sat in lawn chairs as their boys practiced, and Val fired off questions to help Theresa sort out the confusion surrounding her marriage.
“Does Joe ever hit you?
“No, he would never raise a hand to me.”
“Is there another woman?”
“I doubt it. Outside of family, the only person he has time for is Edward – you know, the guy with the coin shop out in Reno. Maybe a little too much time.”
“Are you saying he might be gay?”
“Joe?! Gay? Haaaa!” Theresa’s howl came out loud enough that the boys’ soccer coach glanced toward the sidelines. Slightly embarrassed, she leaned in towards her friend and whispered, “No way! He’s got the sex drive of a, of a, is there a word for a guy with a major sex drive?”
“Horndog. So you’re having sex regularly?”
“Yes. Constantly even.”
That’s when the fellow soccer mom made the face a person makes when they’ve had it with you and your issue. “Really. Then what’s the problem?“
“Well, sex isn’t everything.”
“Sweetie, things could always be much worse.”
Oh God please no. Not the “things-could-be-much-worse” speech.
“He could be an unemployed bum. He could be an alcoholic, or a jealous maniac, or a pedophile, or messing around behind your back, or you name it!”
“I know, I know.”
“But it seems to me Joe’s just a hard-working guy doing his best to provide a decent life for you and the boys. And yes, he’s got his flaws, but then nobody’s perfect.”
“You’re right.” Theresa smiled and glanced around the field fishing for something else to talk about. Anything. “Gotta get the boys ready for Halloween soon! You?”
The street grew quieter with the each passing minute. Theresa dug through the pockets of her fleece, relieved to find a crumpled tissue from last winter. She wiped her nose and picked up the pace a little. Walking gave her perspective. Maybe what Val said earlier was true. Things could always be worse.
“Then why does life feel so incredibly horrible?” Theresa whispered out loud in desperation. As if someone might hear her and give her an answer.
The fact was that the early days with Joe had been nothing short of a fairy tale. Joe’s effect on her had been powerful. His interest in helping the underprivileged had touched her deeply. He said all the right things, shared her political views, and expressed common goals. If all that didn’t captivate her, he showed more attention to her than any man she’d ever known. Maybe he’d been too attentive. At times his indiscreet displays of affection seemed more of a show for others then a genuine interest in her. Yet she rarely objected. She just went along with it and let the spectacle go on. Almost like he’d cast her under some kind of spell.
The more entranced she’d become with Joe, the less aware she was that her goals and interests were slowly and methodically being stripped away and replaced with his. That’s what she’d been trying to explain to Val earlier.
Yes, as Val so boldly pointed out, Joe had proven himself to be a great provider and a hardworking guy with a stable job. The Federal Bank of San Francisco paid him handsomely and he kept climbing the corporate ladder like a champ. Regardless, she felt so left out. She missed the conversations where they’d plan their eventual move to Denver to be closer to her family. He used to claim that as a top priority. He used to promise her lots of things. These days if she brought up her needs she’d be met with a sarcastic response or silence that lasted for days. All of that was his way of saying “this subject is not up for discussion.”
Within six years of marrying Joe, she was pregnant with twin boys. Jonathan and Alexander were an unplanned yet magnificent addition to her life. As the mother of energetic twins, she did a great job of taking care of their needs while maintaining a few of her own interests.
Serving the community gave her life purpose. Unfortunately, she made the mistake of telling that to Joe about a year ago.
“Yeah because being a mother to our sons – I guess there’s no purpose in that.” He said coldly.
“That’s not what I meant! I love our boys!”
“You said the board position gave your life purpose as if it’s the only thing that does. So why not go full steam ahead with that and quit your sons instead.”
Conversations with Joe took on an ugly competitiveness that has no place in a marriage. Like some kind of weird word salad, communicating with her husband left her exhausted, meaning she felt less and less desire to talk about anything other than things that interested him. Like promotions and sex. And if that was all that was left, she chose to participate rather than face the potential of losing him and her boys. She did whatever she could to win back his respect, to make him love her like he used to and avoid subjects that caused tension between them.
As she took her walk this evening, the chill that consumed her felt less like the dropping temperature and more from the realization that she’d given away all her power to a man who never really had her interests in mind. So when she got the latest news, a bomb that he dropped on her when he came in from work last week, it was just more of the same. It should have come as no surprise.
Fumbling to retrieve the buzzing cell phone from her pocket, she nearly dropped it. “Abby! Oh thank God! You caught me just in time, I’m still out walking. I miss you sooooo much!” Her voice sounded weak and raspy.
“What happened honey? What did that narcissist do?” asked the voice on the other end of the line.
Her answer came out accompanied by sobs and coughs. “How could I fool myself for so long?! How could I pretend he’d think of anyone but himself? I honestly believed there was a chance we were coming back to Denver. I held on to that hope all these years! I thought the boys would finally get to know their cousins better! I’m such an idiot!”
“Calm down honey. It’s okay. Tell me what happened.”
“He quit his job at the bank and starts a new job at the beginning of the month! He never even told me he was looking for a new job. I thought we might move to Denver, but now we can’t! Because he’s just been hired by the U.S. Mint. He’s their new director. Now we’ll never leave San Francisco!”
Hospice Unit, Federal Correctional Institute
Pat knew the end must be close. He could tell by the way the hospital staff looked at him and by the way his heart struggled to keep up. Mostly he could tell by the recent vision, the angelic encounter. It happened mid-morning when he felt the presence of someone in his room. His eyes opened expecting to see his wife or daughter or a nurse’s aide. What he saw didn’t seem to be human at all. He witnessed the most indescribable vision, an iridescent white light that hovered between the bed and the window and lit up the whole room, he could even feel it in his body! He felt lighter and pain free, and practically giddy! He thought he might have died yet he wasn’t the least bit afraid. After a few seconds, the light took form and became an angel, and the angel became Christopher! His beautiful second child who had been taken away way too early.
Christopher appeared flawless, not a trace of the past trauma remained. All the pain and sadness that aged him those last couple of years, they were replaced with a heavenly glow that bounced off the boy and transformed the dingy hospital room into something magical for a few precious moments. Pat reached out his hand hoping to touch his long-lost son. Christopher just smiled and faded away.
Deidre knew something special had happened before Pat had the chance to tell her. She arrived just moments after the celestial event and saw his euphoric expression. How refreshing for her to see something other than sheer misery on his face.
“Dee!” his voice rattled, “He was right there, Christopher was right there!” He pointed a shaky finger towards a location somewhere between the bed and the window. “I was wide awake, I swear! Our boy was standing there smiling at me! It was incredible!”
Dee stood there stiff as a board. Not much these days got her excited. Too many years of hardship and senseless tragedies had zapped her joy. Much as she hated to admit it, she’d grown as miserable as her dying husband. She used to pray all the time, even after her son’s death. Now she couldn’t see what the good was in praying. Life continued throwing punches at her despite her stupid prayers. They say that the death of a child is the number one worst thing for a human to endure. It’s true. Being married to a convicted criminal who hid behind his badge must be number two. How could she not be angry at God? Or not loathe the man in that bed? He’d be dead and gone soon, and she’d be left to shoulder the ongoing fallout from the crime and the remaining legal mess. Not to mention the public humiliation! Not a prayer in the world could clean up this steaming pile of garbage. So to hell with inspiration. She felt too bitter to be inspired! Perhaps directing that bitterness towards God eased her heart more than taking it out on the one who really deserved the blame – her dying husband.
It saddened Pat to see his wife’s resistance to the divine. Her heart had hardened, and he blamed himself for that. Regardless, miracles have a way of softening the heart, so he attempted to recreate the vision for her.
“There was a shimmery curtain…hanging right there,” His voice sounded less strained and more enthusiastic than it had been in recent weeks. “Christopher was on the other side of it, but I could see him clearly. He was dressed in a white gown and his face glowed, Dee! The whole room glowed. It was amazing!”
“Did he say anything?”
“Well, not in the usual way. I mean, not with his mouth. It’s like we were communicating without words. In my mind, I was saying, ‘I can’t believe it’s you!’ and ‘I miss you so much!’ And I know he was saying, ‘Everything is going to be okay dad, you’ll see!’ And ‘Don’t be afraid, I’ll be right here waiting for you when you’re ready.’ Dee, I didn’t hear him say it, but I’m certain that’s what he was telling me.” His voice began to crack.
Dee’s resistance gave out and tears streaked her cheeks. With her eyes tightly closed, she tried to envision her son the way Pat just described. She gently patted his hand and whispered softly, “I believe you Pat. I’m so happy for you. I’m happy for our son.” Then she lowered herself into the metal bedside chair and said no more about it. No need to color such a grand experience with mere words. Her spirits were somewhat lifted.
Their late son had been named after Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers who is often seen on prayer cards and medals. But most people associate the good saint with automobiles as older drivers have been known to glue tiny replicas to their dashboards in a superstitious attempt to avoid accidents. In the early years of their marriage, Dee would give those tiny plastic statues as gifts. Pat bit his tongue for a while, silently laughing at the irony, until one day he finally asked her, “What does a saint who was born way before the invention of automobiles have to do with cars?” The question came out a little more sarcastic than he intended.
Pregnant with the saint’s namesake, Dee didn’t look up from the sink full of sudsy water; she just kept right on scrubbing dishes and said, “Not cars, Pat – travel. He’s the patron saint of travelers. And since you asked, I’ll educate you. Legend has it that Saint Christopher was walking by a river when this young boy asked to be carried across. Saint Christopher was big and strong and figured carrying the small boy was no big deal, right? Surprisingly the kid was really heavy! Turns out that kid was Jesus Christ and he was bearing the weight of the world. So see, Saint Christopher wasn’t just carrying any kid across that river.”
She put down the sponge, shook the water from her hands and turned to face her husband while she pointed down at her protruding belly, which poked out much further than seemed possible. It had grown so big in fact that an unexpected fist full of suds that had escaped from the sink planted itself right there on that belly. That had her cracking up, and the suds started wobbling like whipped cream on pudding. That had them both laughing. She used the dry part of her wrist to push aside some long strands of auburn hair that had stuck to her forehead and proceeded to get to the point. “See this kid? You may not realize, but he’s heavy! Everyone asks me if I’m carrying twins. Since I don’t think it’ll go over well to name the kid Christ, I thought Christopher would be a nice substitute.”
Turns out “Christ” would have been a fitting name since Christopher was the most Christlike soul Pat ever knew. Unlike Jason, who seemed as self-centered and reckless as his biological father, always into trouble, Christopher came across as introspective and selfless. He saw the potential in people who never lived up to it. That didn’t make him some softy who bent over and took it. On the contrary, the boy had always been intolerant of prejudices and disrespect. Peer pressure had no power over him, especially on views that opposed his own. The first time this quality appeared came just a few weeks after he turned six years old. In the heat of a summer evening, Dee waited until the boys were both asleep then ran outside to join Pat while he had a smoke.
“Hon, you gotta hear this!” she bubbled over with pride about something that happened that day at Pennypack Swim Club. “The boys were swimming for a while, then Chrissy gets out of the pool and plops down on the towel next to me. It’s real crowded so people are practically on top of each other and there’s these two smart-mouth boys sitting close by. I over hear them talking about a girl from school who happens to be in the pool. They’re mocking her, you know? Not to her face or anything, but they’re making derogatory comments. I tune it out but Christopher is taking it all in and all of a sudden I hear him let out this disgusted grunt and next thing you know he’s towering over those two boys who are laying on their towels, and he’s giving them a piece of his mind!”
Pat nodded his head and laughed, “Yup! I can picture that! Not the least bit afraid, right?”
“Nope! And what’s crazy is that those boys were probably ten or eleven years old! And there’s our scrawny fifty-pound kid in his drippin’ wet Scooby Doo swim trunks, hands on his hips, lecturing them! He says ‘Hey! It’s rude to use the word retarded unless a person is really retarded, and that girl is not retarded!’ Oh my God, Pat, I thought I was gonna lose it!” Dee slapped her hands together savoring the memory.
“Ha! Scrawny or not our kid’s got morals!” Pat laughed.
“I was holding my breath. Praying to God I wouldn’t have to pull those boys off him!”
“So what happened, what’d they say?”
“They just looked up at him all embarrassed. And get this babe, they apologized!”
“Yeah they did!” Dee imitated the boys’ responses. “Um, sorry about that. Yeah, man, sorry.” She even did the pouty face. “I mean can you believe that?”
“They called him ‘man’?” Pat joked.
“And the funniest part” Dee continued “was the way he marched back and plopped on the towel and didn’t say a word to me about it. Just closed his eyes like it was business as usual. I had to stop myself from laughing out loud!”
When they were little, Pat’s father used to take the boys to Engine #36 for fundraising events like ice cream socials and pancake breakfasts. They’d climb all over the trucks and toot the horns and ride with “Pop Pop” along the parade route. The old man sat there in his glory showing off his grandkids to his buddies, but he had a special place in his heart for Christopher, who decided all on his own to dedicate one afternoon a week at the Engine to wash trucks and shine equipment. Even into his early teens when most of his peers were wasting away in front of TVs or goofin’ off on street corners, Chris still gave up a day to contribute to something important.
That in a nutshell was Christopher Shane McGowan. Pat never imagined his beautiful, well intentioned son would one day be the object of some cruel tug-of-war between he and God.
Sea Isle City, New Jersey
Sea Isle City, NJ is a second home to a large number of cops and firefighters from Philadelphia. Ninety-minutes separates the rat race from paradise. Paradise may seem a bit far-fetched to describe a beach community in Jersey, but for Pat planting his feet in wet sand, closing his eyes, and listening to nothing but the hypnotic sound of the surf, that felt like paradise. Having their own little slice of it was as important to Dee as being a mom. She reminded Pat constantly. Thanks for the pressure.
There’s more to Sea Isle than just the beach. It’s a parade town that loves bringing out its honor guard for almost every holiday on the calendar. It’s a concert town that offers music under the stars in its waterfront amphitheater. But the main attraction is the annual four-day Irish festival in late September. Celtic dancers, crafters, storytellers, pipe bands, and all kinds of foods and beverages blanket the blocked-off area as people from all over the East Coast commemorate the Irish heritage. Sea Isle has become known as the Irish Riviera.
Ellen Clark served as the unofficial Queen of the Riviera. She held the spot as the top selling real estate agent in the area, and she raked in so much dough during the Jersey Shore housing boom that her husband Jim, a former Philadelphia firefighter, put in for early retirement. Ellen’s target audience was civil servants from Philly who flocked to her in search of an escapist lifestyle. She happily sold it to them while Jim putted around in his fishing boat, catching dinner. Their life was the ideal that Pat kept in his head. Something for him to aim for.
The McGowans spent several weekends with Jim and Ellen Clark in their beautiful Landis Avenue home. The Clarks refused to accept money from their guests, their compensation would eventually come via a signed agreement of sale. More pressure.
The first trip to the Clark’s felt nerve wracking for Pat. He set the big suitcase down in the corner and closed the guest room door before Dee could get out. “Can’t we just enjoy ourselves for the weekend? It’s unseasonably warm! Let’s take the boys to the beach and get some unhealthy food, and let go of the insane idea of taking on more debt?”
Dee scrambled for reasoning. “But our debt is really manageable,” she said in an overly perky tone, “especially with your recent pay increase from the department. Pat, we can do this!”
Pat stared at the sailboat painting that hung over the bed.
“Hon just consider the possibility of a shore house. It doesn’t hurt to look, right? You never know, maybe we’ll find some great bargain!”
“You mean an offer we can’t refuse.”
Dee stood dangerously close to him in that intoxicating way she always did to make him forget what the heck they were talking about. “Would it help if I offered to get a part time job?”
Pat just stood there, speechless. Then he burst out laughing.
“Pat! I’m serious! I can contribute you know! The boys are self-sufficient.” She looked away attempting to hide her own doubt about that. “Well, for the most part.”
He agreed to just look. As long as there wasn’t any pressure, from anyone.
The pressure was relentless. Dee was determined to get her beach house by summer. Staying with the Clarks turned out to be a double-edged sword. Their place was so immaculate and inviting, but it made all other houses look like complete shit. Especially those in Pat’s budget. They hosted Pat, Dee, and the two boys, dangling the shore-house-life in front of Pat’s face. He had to get back to Philly for work, but he promised Dee and Ellen they’d return subsequent weekends for a more serious look at listings.
He made the mistake of mentioning it to his father that week.
“A vacation home? You gotta be nuts!” Pop criticized. “You got one modest income and two teen-aged boys to raise. Take it from me, kid. I seen enough young men overextend themselves. Remember what happened to Chaly?”
Who could forget? Pat had heard the tiresome story enough to tell it himself. “You mean Chaly the neighbor who had a heart of gold, but not a lick of common sense? The guy with the wife and four kids whose house went into foreclosure? So they had to live in some shit hole apartment in Shit-hole-ville? And his wife up and left him and took the kids, so the poor slob took to drinking? That Chaly?”
Pop shrugged his shoulders as if to say, ‘damn good lesson in that story.’ He meant well, but Pop was tight with a buck. He’d been known to squeeze the symbols off a dollar bill. He always felt content living out his entire life in the one and only house he ever bought. Aside from the fire station, the church, and occasional trips out to visit ailing family or friends, Pat rarely remembered his Pop and Mom ever leaving Hawthorne Street. One thing he knew for damn sure, he wasn’t about to live his life closed in like that. More importantly, he couldn’t survive another year of Dee’s constant harping on him “When, Pat? When can we get the beach house?”
Ellen turned into more of a help than Pat expected. She knew how to steer the couple back to reality when they got starry eyed with places over their budget. When they griped about rundown properties they could afford, she showed them the potential they overlooked. After scouring Sea Isle’s listings, they found the one.
The one Dee felt certain about.
The one that seemed in decent enough shape.
The one that was actually a money pit.
Pat’s Pop was right. Maybe. Too soon to know anything except the sense of being totally overwhelmed. One family with two houses in different states. It wasn’t the extra mortgage that stressed Pat out, it was all the other expenses like repairs, permits, contractors, inspections, and the gas and tolls to get back and forth, and back and forth, weekend after weekend after weekend. “The one” became the White Elephant and the source of arguments for the first few months they owned it.
That pressure wore on both Pat and Dee. It showed when they spent time in paradise, enough that people started noticing.
Ellen Clark saw the commotion from a distance and stepped into take some pressure off. “I’ve got a surprise,” she said one evening as she pulled up to the home of her recent clients. “I never gave you a gift and that’s something I always do for my buyers. Usually it’s a bottle of champagne, but for you two I have something better in mind.” With that, she turned towards Jason and Christopher who had both had it with their parents constantly fighting. “Grab your stuff boys, you’re spending the weekend with Jim and me. We’re renting video games and ordering pizza.” She winked at Dee and Pat and said, “Enjoy some alone time!”
Pat groaned and strapped on the tool belt, waiting for Dee to rattle off her never-ending list of projects. “Okay, what part of the elephant are we tackling this weekend?”
“How about some quality time instead?” She smiled.
“But I thought you wanted the first floor prepped for paint.”
“And I thought you might wanna get laid.”
The tool belt hit the floor hard. Over the next three days no spackling got done, no windows got caulked, no light fixtures got replaced. Instead, Pat and Dee ran on the beach, drank some beer, and then locked themselves inside the bedroom with the pink flowered beach towels tacked across the windows. Aside from the occasional food break, that bedroom’s where they spent most of the weekend. Making up for lost time.
A few weeks later, back on Jacklyn Street, Dee paced in the kitchen waiting for Pat to get home from work. “Pat,” she told him as he sat down to dinner, “I’m pregnant.”
The McGowan’s third child, Caitlin Deidre McGowan was born on the seventh day of February at Lankenau Hospital in Wynnewood. “Lucky number seven!” Pat laughed nervously as he watched her enter the world. That was his way of making light of the terrified feeling of having another mouth to feed and another excuse for Dee not to work. But one look at that baby girl and nothing else mattered. She was as cute as a button. Wisps of strawberry blonde silk swept across her perfectly round head, v-ing at her forehead. She had dimpled cheeks, big round eyes and a mischievous smile seldom seen on a baby.
Named for her grandmother Caitlin McGlinty, the baby girl became known as “Cat” instead of Caitlin, a name that suited her cunning and adorable personality. Cat had her daddy wrapped around her finger from the day she arrived. She had a way of getting him to agree to just about anything, especially when she caught on to the fact that he would do it all for her. Seems all three McGowan kids had a different effect on their father. Jason challenged him. Christopher softened him. Cat kept him young. Since she came along over a dozen years after Christopher, Dee was less than enthusiastic to tote around another toddler, so Cat sought an ally and that’s what Pat became. Eventually, they were partners in crime.
Raising Cat meant a never ending stream of interests, activities, and passions. In her early years, she was a ballerina and an athlete who outran most of the boys in elementary school. She played soccer and field hockey and softball. But as she approached her teens, she pushed aside the “wholesome activities,” as Pat liked to put it, for her starry-eyed fascination with the “rich and stupid, “as Pat like to put it.
Enter Angela Rhoads Girard, a rich and stupid female who shortened her name to Angel. Pat refused to address her as such, claiming she was anything but angelic. He insisted on calling her Ange despite her protests. The estranged wife of Horus Girard, heir to the Girard Tire fortune, Ange and Dee were somehow related. Dee explained the family tie to Pat repeatedly, but he could never keep it straight, nor did he care because basically he found the woman despicable. Not because she took her former husband to the cleaners or because she never worked an honest day in her life, or even because she talked a blue streak about nonsensical bullshit. Pat didn’t like Ange because she proved to be a bad influence on his daughter.
His attempts to keep the two apart were futile. To a young, impressionable teen like Cat, Ange might as well have been a rock-star. High heels, short skirts, tight sweaters, and a face plastered with makeup, Ange looked quite the spectacle and mesmerized Cat.
To Pat’s frustration, Ange was equally enchanted with his daughter. That kept her coming around way too much. The brassy broad practically mowed over the McGowan boys to fuss over Cat. Dimwit.
“Just ’cause she couldn’t have her own kids doesn’t give her the right to stick her claws in our daughter!” Pat yammered to Dee one evening after Cat returned from a daylong shopping spree with Ange. Just one of many where the kid returned with some overpriced outfit or designer accessory.
“She’s family Pat.” Dee said matter of factly and kept right on clipping coupons and making out a grocery list.
“Family or no family, she’s spoiling the kid rotten!!”
“Shhhh!! She’s still here!” Dee shot him a punishing look and pointed towards the ceiling.
“Yeah.” He whispered sarcastically, “she’s probably up there talking to your daughter about birth control or something! I’m telling you, they spend too much time together and it isn’t healthy. She’s your cousin, you need to deal with this.”
Dee glared at him from across the table. “Jesus Pat!” she whispered back, “Angel has nothing but good intentions! She thinks of Cat as a little sister. So she treats her to a few nice things once in a while. So what?! It’s harmless!”
“Harmless! Ha! Well, I disagree. I’m telling you, she’s bad news and you’ll eat your words someday!”
“Maybe you’re just jealous.” A badgery face and overdramatic head-shake were Dee’s attempts to get her point across, given that yelling wasn’t an option. “Because Angel gets to give Cat a taste of the good life that you’ll never give her.”
“Nice. Real nice, Dee.” He yanked open the storm door, sending a few of his wife’s neatly piled coupons airborne before he let it slam behind him. He paced around looking for something to kick, like the garbage can or the front tire on the minivan. Instead he fumbled through his pocket for a smoke and lit up.
Pat may not have been rich, but he was far from stupid. That low blow had nothing at all to do with Cat. Another volley in his wife’s ongoing war to remind him of the huge disappointment he turned out to be as a husband. Didn’t matter how many years he put in, or how many kids he gave her, or how he killed himself paying for two houses, he’d never measure up to Mr. Wonderful. That loser who practically left her at the altar decades ago might be long gone, but Dee’s bizarre fantasy of him remained a prominent fixture in the McGowan’s marriage.
Pat flicked the butt of his cigarette and crushed it with his foot, enjoying how much that would piss off the wife. Then his focus returned to the real source of his anger – Ange. He could still hear Dee’s subtle attack “Maybe you’re just jealous.” Although he’d sooner die than admit it, he asked himself if she might be right. Was he jealous of her rich cousin? Nah! Not the way she meant. Pat couldn’t give a rat’s ass about wealthy people and their five-star living or their fancy wardrobes. He wasn’t wowed by all their name-dropping and expensive artwork, their lavish toys and their ridiculously overpriced tickets to la-de-da shows at the Academy of Music. Not his thing. However, he did resent Ange for upstaging him all the time. For stealing Cat’s attention away from the simple things. The father-daughter activities she used to enjoy like playing horseshoes, coin collecting, walking to 7-Eleven for a Slurpee. Not to mention all the activities at the beach. Just when the boys had outgrown being with dad, Cat filled their spot and became his constant sidekick. Hopping waves, tossing the frisbee, and best of all plopping down in a couple rusted sand chairs for free beach concerts. Why would anyone want to pay top dollar to sit sideways at some fancy theater on South Broad when you can spread a blanket on the beach and listen to the rockin’ sounds of Chico’s Vibe on a Sunday evening at Excursion Park? No shoes required. But for Cat, the simple things lost their luster almost overnight. That hideous woman dangled her rich and stupid life full of shiny items and expensive activities, right in front of an impressionable, innocent young girl. Where Ange was concerned, like it or not, Pat’s hands were tied, no thanks to his wife who refused to listen! Hell, Dee probably felt happy just to have Cat out of her hair.
He went for a second cigarette, nearly crumbling it in his hand. Too much anger. Too much. He tried to change his perspective knowing the dangerous effects rage has on a person’s health. Kevin Casey immediately came to mind; the Parish priest Pat had grown to like. Kevin had a knack for turning Pat’s mood around, calming him down, pointing out silver linings. He’s the one that warned Pat about too much anger and what it can do to a person’s internal organs. He’d probably suggest that Pat think of one good quality about that she-devil in order to feel better.
One good quality. Pat slowly blew a long stream of smoke towards the half-dead evergreen that leaned towards the neighbor’s yard and gave it some thought. One thing. Yes. There was one thing Pat could credit Ange with, she ignited Cat’s passion for cooking. No, she didn’t teach Cat to cook. A woman like Ange would never risk chipping a nail by handling pots and pans. But she liked dining in style and dragging her “little sister” along with her. That meant Cat got to eat at some of the most upscale restaurants in the city, places way out of Pat’s budget. While Pat and Dee splurged on Pizza Hut, Cat ate like royalty at Vetri, Buddakan, Butcher and Singer, The Capital Grille, Morimoto’s, and Del Frisco’s.
Pat’s habitual griping about how expensive meals ruin young minds stopped mid-gripe the night he came home to the luxurious fragrance of dessert heaven, created right there in his own kitchen. Just remembering that night made his mouth water. How the scent of warm chocolate cake with raspberry mousse filling wafted into his nostrils before he even got into the house. Intoxicating! He never imagined he’d find his teenage daughter in a full apron and hairnet. Cat was hyper focused on some printed recipes and she shushed him when he started to gush over all the treats. “Later! I’m concentrating!” She insisted he leave the kitchen temporarily, as she recreated several decadent desserts she’d grown fond of. That’s what eating out-on-the-town did. Eating out-on-the-town with that woman. With Ange.
“One good quality,” Pat told himself. The priest would have been proud of him. He figured out there was some good even in Ange because she turned his kid into a foodie, which turned out in Pat’s favor. How else would a lowly cop have had the pleasure of feasting on hazelnut mousse flan, asparagus in prosciutto, salmon cakes on glazed arugula, or a strawberry panna cotta?
“Hey Pat. Pat? Yoohoo! Anybody home?”
He must have been deep in thought not to notice the sequin-clad woman in the six-inch heels standing a few feet away. “Yeah Ange, I was thinking about, uh, work. You takin’ off now?”
“Yes. Caitlin and I had a fabulous day. She was talking about college–”
“College?” The peaceful state of mind that Pat had just spent so much time and effort to achieve, was quickly fading. “Why was she talking to you about college? Isn’t it a bit early for that? She’s not even a sophomore yet.”
“Oh, it’s never too early to talk about the right college. And don’t worry, I’m not trying to interfere.”
Pat bit his tongue. And smiled.
“I think it’s exciting that she’s considering culinary schools! And you’ve got one of the best right here in the city!”
“Uh, huh.” Continuing to look interested while praying she’d get on her broomstick and fly away proved extremely challenging to Pat. He knew that any school recommendations that woman would make would were going to be out of his budget! For all he knew, his daughter’s cooking craze would pass in time, just like many of her previous passions. She was still a kid! But arguing with Ange was like arguing with Dee. He couldn’t win. He made up his mind to give her another sixty seconds before he’d pull the “I gotta pee” card.
“The Restaurant School of Walnut Hill is not only a fine culinary institute, it’s graduated an impressive list of famous chefs. But I don’t want to steal Caitlin’s thunder. I’m sure she’ll tell you all about it herself.”
Then the sequin-clad woman in the six-inch heels gave her cousin-in-law a hug goodbye. A tradition that Pat was certain he could do without.
Later that evening, Cat approached her parents holding a plate of peanut butter ganache and a Restaurant School of Walnut Hill brochure that she’d printed off the computer. “I know it’s a few years off, but I’m giving you this info now so you can start savin’ up! You know what they say. ‘A penny saved is a penny towards your favorite daughter’s future!’ Nighty-night!” She trotted up the stairs laughing at herself the whole way.
Since the McGowans first mortgaged the White Elephant, summertime had developed into a fairly solid routine. Thursdays, at the end of his four-day shift, Pat would swing by Jacklyn Street just long enough to change out of uniform and grab the mail. Then he’d high-tail it down the Atlantic City expressway to join the rest of the family. A decade of driving to and from the shore on the weekends hadn’t grown old, maybe it was the negative ions from the ocean. Or maybe it was Dee’s mood which seemed a hell of a lot nicer at the beach. It had taken seven or eight years of Pat’s subtle reminders, for her to finally “contribute.” Her word, not his, he reminded her when she almost took a swing at him back then. The job was only part-time, but better than nothing. She’d accepted it under one condition, that the boss work out a schedule that considered her dual-house lifestyle. She expected long weekends off just like her husband had. Pat thought that seemed like a tall order, even arrogant, but Dee pulled it off and got Risotto’s Baked Goods on Frankford Avenue to meet her conditions with a custom-tailored shift of Tuesdays through Thursdays from 5 a.m. until noon.
Summer months had Dee bolting home from the bakery covered in flour and fondant, rounding up Cat, then heading for Sea Isle without even showering. Pat would join them several hours later. Would it have made sense for the couple to drive down together, leave a vehicle at home so they could save on gas and tolls? Of course, but Dee wasn’t willing to wait the eight hours for her husband to finish work, so they drove separately. Two times the gas, two times the tolls. Pat griped about it occasionally, but in truth, those ninety minutes alone in his truck felt glorious. It afforded him the time to unwind and be alone with his thoughts or listen to sports radio. Driving separately turned out to be great for a marriage.
Dee’s job did little to help their financial situation, and Pat’s cost-of-living had barely kept up with the needs of his growing family. The McGowans were maxed out and living on plastic. They didn’t discuss it much, but somehow Pat’s Pop sensed the trap his son had gotten caught in. The old man refused to let it rest.
“You’re gettin’ in deep, son. Debt’ll do you in some day.”
Whether or not Pat secretly agreed, he always took the defensive. He’d tell him how the housing boom at the Jersey Shore had worked in their favor, how much the house, no matter how beaten up it still was, had increased in value. “It’s a damn good thing we didn’t wait to buy, or we’d never have been able to afford it,” he’d justify.
Pop muttered to no one in particular, “Can’t afford it now either.”
The subject came up perpetually and drove Pat a bit crazy, but he’d remind himself that his father’s generation had witnessed the deepest, darkest economic times in modern history. Foreclosures, bankruptcies, and breadlines can scare anyone out of spending, he figured. Nonetheless, he stood his ground with the old man and steer the conversation away from debt.
“You can’t put a price on memories Pop.” He’d gloat about the treasured moments spent crabbing with Jason and Christopher, although those days were in the past. He’d talk about collecting shells with Cat. He’d talk about tipping back a few beers at The Crab Trap with other Philly cops who also owned real estate at the shore.
Pop’s apprehension only made Pat feel small and uneasy. And it had him silently seething when the subject came up. He’d think to himself, “God forbid my retirement end up looking like his! Who the hell wants to stay in Mount Airy or Roxborough ’til they bury you? Not me! My golden days will be meaningful. Fishing, crabbing, walking the boards, now that’s what I call retirement.” At that point Pat’s retirement was so far in the future, but he knew how fast time slips by. With the boys practically on their own already and probably a dozen years until they could nudge Cat from the nest, he envisioned the easy life. The future easy life. The one where he and Dee could unload the Roxborough house and pay off their loans and spend their remaining years at the beach. The one where he could look back and say that all the hassle and stress of chasing a buck, will have been worth it. In the meantime, Pat buried his head in the sand as much as he damn well pleased.
Just as he had told Pop that day, time did slip by fast. Very fast.
On a Thursday evening, two years later, Pat finished up his shift at the 8th District and headed home for his usual pit stop before the weekend. Dee and Cat were already at the beach and would be expecting him in a few hours. Storm clouds darkened the sky, making 6:00 p.m. look more like 9:00 p.m. By the time he pulled into the driveway on Jacklyn Street, the rain came down hard. He sprinted to the door, grabbed the mail, and stood on the mat inside the kitchen shaking of rain water. On top of the table sat a gift box and an envelope bearing his name. Pat set down the keys and the mail and opened what turned out to be a greeting card with the word “Congratulations!” printed atop a cheering audience. Inside it said, “Twenty years on the force! We’re so proud of you! Love, Dee and Cat.”
The gift box was from Risotto’s Baked Goods and contained six specialty cupcakes. Dee had scribbled a small note across the top, “Hope I picked your favorites! See you tonight. Drive safely!”
Pat untied the ribbon and eyed up the contents trying to decide which to wolf down first, then opted for some left-over stew instead. No need to rush with the storm still hovering. He popped open a Heineken and made himself comfortable. Twenty years on the force – big deal. What did he have to show for it? Mounting debt, that’s what.
If Pop had any idea how far in the hole his kid had sunk, he’d be shaking his head and dredging up that tired story about Chaly. To be honest, right now Pat would have given anything to hear the old man tell a story, even the one about Chaly. He missed his Pop so much since they lost him to lung cancer back in the fall. A few months later Pat’s mom died too. The previous year had been tough. Way too tough.
He grabbed a second Heineken and devoured the cupcake with the chocolate frosting. In rare quiet moments like these, when there was no boss making demands and no wife chirping in his ear, Pat’s parents were prominent in his mind. Maybe he hadn’t fully grieved their deaths yet. Who has the time for grief?
He wondered what they would think of him now with his twenty-year milestone. What would they think of the kind of man he’d turned out to be? What would they think of him as a father? Of how he’d raised their grandkids? Tom’s son? Why had he been too proud to ask them when he still had the chance? When they were still alive? Probably because back then, Frank and Irene were way more involved than the average grandparents and gave unsolicited advice that often made Pat resentful. It comes from living too close to your parents and giving them a front row seat to all the joy as well as all the problems in your family.
When it came to problems, the majority revolved around their oldest, Jason. The kid was a terror and put parenting to the test. So similar, Pat thought, to his brother Tom. The kid’s biological father was dead long before he could’ve been a bad influence on the boy. So it must have been genetics. Jason didn’t intentionally hurt anyone, but he was so high-strung and impulsive. He lacked common sense and the ability to think before acting. Again, just like Tom.
In grade school, Jason had worn a path to the principal’s office and poor Dee had to suffer through one call after another. If it wasn’t the principal complaining about the kid, it was a fed-up teacher, or the school psychologist, or even the disgruntled parent of a classmate who’d lay it on thick about the kid. Being told how to raise her kids never sat well with Dee, who would take all her frustrations out on Pat instead of disciplining their son. Pat learned to bite his tongue while she rehashed the upsetting conversation she’d had with some “idiot from the school.” As far as Pat was concerned, the school had it right. The kid did have problems. He didn’t listen, didn’t obey rules and didn’t think about the consequences. The opinions of those “idiots” were spot on, but don’t try to tell Dee that! When it came to her kids, even her adopted oldest son, she was always right.
Pat’s parents witnessed many of these confrontations, always taking Dee’s side and fueling her fire. Maybe their soft spot for their own lost son Tom drove them, or maybe they wanted to stay in good standing with their daughter-in-law. Everyone missed Tom, but Pat’s folks never saw that they were making the same mistakes with Jason.
“Dee, dear” Irene would say compassionately, “I used to get just as many calls from the school when Pat was a kid–”
“What are you talking about?” Pat’s blood pressure would spike. “You know that’s not true!”
Then Frank would immediately back her up, “Oh yes it was. I remember ‘cause I was the one that had to hear about it later.”
Pat would stop himself from arguing, from insisting that those calls were always about his younger brother Tom, never about him. Why break their heart by condemning the dead son that they memorialized? Regardless, it hurt and it only took a few of these bullshit sessions for Pat to realize he was, and would always be, outnumbered and too weak to speak up. The charade kept him up many nights, tossing and turning and wondering how his parents could throw him under the bus especially when he had been the good son!
Pat’s only recollection of being in trouble was in grade school and it had to do with that nun, that nasty nun that looked like a tank. Sister Mary Ella. The students called her Sister Mary “Fella” because she looked like a dude, whiskers and all. A striking resemblance to Jackie Gleason in a black tent. Big and loud. Not even God could move that mountain. Her husky voice still haunted him “Mr. McGowANNN! How many times do I have to tell you to pay attention? It’s the corner for you, young man. Go on, spend five minutes in that corner and ask the Lord to forgive you.” Then the old broad would point a beefy finger towards the wooden three-legged stool that awaited him in the front corner of the classroom, as if he didn’t know the way.
He’d sit facing the crease where the walls met and stare at the speckled tile floor. Then he’d stare at his hands pressed together in prayer. This went on for way more than five minutes. He flat out refused to pray for forgiveness like bossy Mary Fella demanded. Instead he’d pray that the chair that supported the weight of that fat cow would give out and down she’d go with enough force to shatter windows. He didn’t want her dead or anything, just bedridden for a while so that a nicer, younger, and prettier Sister could take her place.
To this day, he doesn’t understand what the hell he did to get under that bitch’s skin.
Pat didn’t profess to be the perfect kid, no kid is! But to be compared to his troubled son Jason was a tough pill to swallow. Pat had always been more disciplined, more responsible! He had a strong work ethic, even as a kid. Delivering papers, working at Pennypack stables, getting a job on the force while still in school. To the contrary, until recently Jason couldn’t keep a job to save his life. He’d been fired three or four times from mindless jobs he’d found on the boardwalk, peddling funnel cakes or hermit crabs – all before his twentieth birthday. When the surf was high, he’d blow off work at the last minute, leaving the boss high and dry. When he’d bother to show up, he’d often get drawn into some kind of drama with a customer and land up terminated.
Pat watched in disbelief as Dee would make one excuse after another for Jason. He finally had enough and insisted the “beach bum” return to Philly and take a part-time job that had opened up at the department, dispatching calls. A mixed blessing to say the least. Having his son work nearby allowed Pat to keep a close eye on him, but the constant concern over whatever stupid-assed stunt Jason might pull, brought on the worst case of agita! And sure enough the boy did nothing but complain. “Lack of training. Inconsistent shifts. Too much pressure. Underpaid.” Pat tried to wise the boy up, shake some sense into him. Dee, on the other hand, let Jason’s unhappiness consume her and made it her mission to fix the situation. She called Jim Clark in Sea Isle in search of a job or a lead, or anything to help lift her distraught son’s chin. Within a few days, Jim came through. He hooked Jason up with a full-time job in Sea Isle, thankfully, a real gig. Jason would have moved out the very next day and headed to New Jersey without giving the dispatch manager so much as a day’s notice. But Pat wouldn’t let that happened. He told Jason he’d have the department hold his pay if he didn’t do the right thing. Jason complied, it seemed to Pat, with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. But at least he complied.
The job at Merk’s Marina and Ice House in Sea Isle City did seem like a perfect fit for Jason. Jim was Marty Merk’s golf buddy and he knew Marty had a few year-round positions to fill. Physical strength was a top priority, because hauling ice onto boats and trucks was not a job for a lightweight. Jason was nothing if not strong, built like a bull. Jim’s recommendation of Jason won Merk over without even meeting the boy in person. He interviewed him by phone and by a stroke of luck, he didn’t check Jason’s references. Jason couldn’t pack fast enough. He left Roxborough before Pat had time to say, “Don’t screw this up!”
Jason’s first few months on the job had Pat holding his breath waiting for history to repeat itself. Surprisingly, he noticed a change in his son. Jason began to grow up! He took responsibility for himself and started to appreciate the rewards of working hard. There was no denying the kid seemed happier living in South Jersey than Philadelphia. An unexpected bonus, Jason seemed excited to see his dad on the weekends. He’d tell him all about his week and what he learned and how many pounds of ice he’d moved. He’d share some off-color joke he’d heard from a drunk fisherman who’d tipped him with a leftover six-pack or a bottle of wine or sometimes with a fresh caught striper.
But the cash tips had Jason the most stoked. He’d fan out the dough in his hand and wave it in front of Pat. “They love me dad. Those wealthy boat owners really love me.”
“Woah, looks like you’ve learned how to schmooze! Not bad, son!”
“Merk says I’m the hardest worker he’s ever had, and the smartest!”
That was music to Pat’s ears.
Jason banked decent money since he lived rent free at the White Elephant – Dee’s idea, not Pat’s. Within a few months of working at Merk’s, Jason plunked a down payment on a pre-owned ’78 Camaro z28; cobalt blue with white motion stripes. An impulsive purchase as far as Pat was concerned, but Jason brought a strong argument. He’d used up all his favors from friends and needed wheels to get around, especially when traveling back to Philly for an occasional visit. The kid finally manned up, and Pat agreed that he deserved to treat himself.
Pat focused on the remaining five cupcakes in the bakery box, this time going for the red velvet. It dawned on him that while he sat here “celebrating” his twentieth year on the police force, his son had just completed a full year of employment at the same job without so much as a glitch. “Here’s to you son. If you were here right now, I’d share a few of these with you.” He held up the half-eaten cupcake in a ceremonial toast, then devoured it. A quick glance at his watch stirred up a little dread at the thought of the long ride to Jersey. The storm had passed, but the peace and quiet of the last hour had almost lulled him to sleep. Or maybe the beer had kicked in. Either way he wasn’t really up for the drive and decided that twenty years on the force granted him an evening to himself. He started to dial Dee to let her know he’d see her in the morning instead, but the phone buzzed in his hand; she had dialed him at the same time.
“Hey! I was just ready to call you!” He said pleasantly.
“Are you on the road yet?” She sounded flustered.
“No, I was gonna–”
“Pat. You’ve got to get here fast. Cape May County police just called. They have Jason in custody.”
Cape May County, New Jersey
“Get Your Own” was a name Jason wouldn’t soon forget. Painted on the transom of the forty-five-foot yacht that he and some creep from work vandalized, the name stuck in his head for the rest of his life. Messing with the vessel might not have been Jason’s idea, but that didn’t matter. He’d been foolish enough to get drawn into the act, which made him equally guilty. He and another Merk employee, a huge guy by the name of “Trink,” were downing a few beers at Keenan’s after work. They mutually griped about some uppity yacht owner who supposedly snubbed them when they loaded his vessel that day.
Trink said the rich snob made a derogatory remark about “Cubans”, suggesting that to be Trink’s heritage. He came to New Jersey from Puerto Rico at the age of five. Regardless, he didn’t appreciate the man’s tone and stewed about it all day. Jason hadn’t heard the remark for himself and he wondered if his coworker’s real grievance was from the lack of tip from the well to do tight-wad. Either way, Jason wanted to shrug it off.
“Rich dudes can be pricks sometimes, who cares? Drink another beer and forget about it!”
But Trink wouldn’t drop it. He convinced Jason that the racial slurs and greater-than-thou attitude had him pissed, “Tell me that jerk-off ever put in a hard day’s work. I doubt it, man.”
He continued brooding about it and eventually got Jason worked up as well.
“You know what, my man? You got a point. We hauled over a hundred and fifty pounds of ice onto that friggin castle-on-water during a record-breaking heat wave, and he couldn’t dig a few bucks out of his pocket for us? Fucker.”
“Oh he tipped us alright dude. He shot us both an insulting look like we were dirty farm hands or something! You didn’t see that?”
Just like the old days Jason took the bait. Some things never change. After the two wounded egos contemplated revenge, they brazenly discussed their plan right there at the bar.
Perhaps they’d have been discreet if they’d known the identity of the chubby brunette sitting caddy-corner from them at the bar. Linda Alvarez, a rising agent for Alcohol Beverage Control of New Jersey (ABC-NJ) was a regular at Keenan’s and neighboring bars. She always kept a lookout for underage drinkers. The age of the two young men wasn’t in question, she’d seen them before. It was the tone of their conversation that captured her attention. While she appeared to be fully immersed in a book, she was fully tuned in on their disturbing plot.
At first Ms. Alvarez chalked it up to immaturity. A couple of coworkers squawking over some work-related issue, just men being big babies. Their discussion got more deliberate as the sun went down. Then when they paid the bar tab and the Latino guy patted the short, stocky one on the back and said “Let’s do this” she froze. She waited until they exited Keenan’s and then hit the speed dial on her cell to notify the Cape May County Police.
The arresting officer, Jack Gebhart, showed up on the scene six minutes after the boys got there. Unfortunately, a lot of damage can be done in six minutes. They’d dumped several five-gallon buckets of sludge, grease, and fish guts all over the docked vessel.
“That’ll teach you some courtesy!” Trink yelled at the yacht as if the owner were there to hear.
“Yeah! Next time you can ‘Get Your Own’ ice, ya pompous ass!” Jason chimed in.
The two morons hooted and hollered. When the dirty deed was done, and they turned to leave they stood face-to-face with Gebhart whose Glock 9mm was cocked and pointed right at them. “HANDS UP ASSHOLES!” He yelled, then took them into custody.
It took Pat a mere seventy-eight minutes to pack up his shit and haul-ass from Roxborough all the way to the jail in Cape May County. He saved time by not changing his clothes. Besides it probably couldn’t hurt Jason’s case to have his father show up in uniform. On the ride down, Dee had filled him in by phone. That is, when she wasn’t crying hysterically or making judgments about the arresting officer.
Officer Gebhart had the full report ready by the time Pat arrived. He handed it to him and said, “There’s no law that says a customer has to tip.”
Through some persuasive small talk on Pat’s part and a bit of negotiation, he was able to get his son and the other moron off without any charges filed. They were ordered to clean up the mess as much as the yacht owner deemed necessary for “Get Your Own” to look like new again.
When Jason arrived for work at the Ice House at 6:00 the next morning, Merk was waiting for him and fired him on the spot.
Beach life lost its luster for the boy after the incident. Go figure. He couldn’t get a job anywhere in Cape May County and he blamed that on Marty Merk. Merk also deserved the blame, according to Jason, for the fact that every cop in the county were suddenly targeting the cobalt blue z28. Jason said he felt like a sitting duck at every drinking establishment at the shore. When paranoia finally got the best of him, he packed it in at the White Elephant and returned to Roxborough.
Pat learned to look the other way just to stay sane. Although looking the other way isn’t always easy when a kid gets under your skin. Damn Jason turned out just like his father. Like when he made the decision to join a gym before finding employment. It lacked taste.
So did his choice in females. Jason attracted barflies the same way overripe fruit does, and Pat could only imagine those to be the kinds of places where Tom had met Jason’s biological mother. Women who spend too much time in bars acquire a certain look and it ain’t pretty. Skinny broads covered in tattoos with caked on makeup, they look hard. There were so many of them vying for Jason’s attention and coming around the house that Pat couldn’t keep them straight.
A barfly flittered around the house when Pat got home from work one night. She and Jason were getting snacks together in the kitchen, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and other stuff. Pat glanced up from the pile of mail in his hand and quickly greeted the two of them.
“Hey son, hey Crystal.”
That’s all it took to send sparks flying. Apparently, the woman standing there wasn’t Crystal, but she knew Crystal! And hearing that name set off fireworks for the Crystal-look-alike who slammed the jelly knife on the counter and glared at Jason. “Did he just say Crystal? Really? And just how does your dad know Crystal, huh? When was that bitch here?!”
Neither of them could hear Pat apologize for his completely innocent mistake because they were too busy screaming at each other. She interrogated, he defended, and Pat made a quick exit before getting caught in the crossfire. Into the living room he went and turned on the TV loud, then flopped on the couch and opened the mail.
The back door slammed hard and the sound of squealing tires were heard racing through the neighborhood. Defeated and embarrassed, Jason made his way past the couch without making eye contact with his dad, who still lounged on the couch. When he reached the stairwell he said, “Rene, dad. Her name was Rene.”
It took almost three years of juggling a bunch of part-time, dead-end jobs for the kid to finally get serious about work again. He landed a job with a local roofer. Andrea Brothers had a good reputation and a lot of work, not to mention they paid relatively well. They also had company trucks and within a few months, Jason made it behind the wheel driving a red Ford pickup with the big white Andrea Brothers logo painted on both sides.
You’d think it might occur to a guy who likes to drink after work that parking a company truck in front of the same tavern every happy hour, might draw attention. But thinking that way would require common sense.
Pat noticed the truck parked in front of Walt’s Tavern, three, four, sometimes five times a week. He finally brought it up to his son. “Looks like you have yourself a designated parking spot right smack in front of Walt’s. Why not put a billboard there instead that says, ‘Attention local cops: I drink at Walt’s Tavern almost every night after work if you wanna get me for DUI.’ Or better yet, park around the corner kid.”
“You know, I thought about that dad, but then I realized you’re a cop, so I got nothing to worry about.” Jason said condescendingly and kept on walking.
Just the response Pat would expect. If it weren’t for Dee’s dominion over decisions involving the kids, Jason would be out on his ass by now and Pat would be changing the lock. While he remained thankful that Jason didn’t get into drugs like his biological father had, he’d definitely inherited Tom’s sense of entitlement. Pat was tired of footing the bill for another grown man to live in the house. Especially when a recent tragedy involving Christopher had consumed so much parental energy. Regardless, Pat had little say in the matter. Dee always thought Jason had a rough start and deserved to be coddled, and there wasn’t a damn thing Pat could do to move her on that.
Pat never understood why, but Christopher seemed to worship the ground he walked on. At least someone did. Maybe their matching DNA meant they were natured alike, or Jason’s out of control behavior meant Christopher wanted to make it up to them. Pat’s second son and first born even mapped out a future that would mimic his dad’s. Like Pat, he planned to pursue a career with the police department, although his career path of choice contained a lot more obstacles than it did back in Pat’s day. The criteria for getting into the department had changed over the twenty-some years since Pat took his oath. Back then, nineteen or twenty was the average age to begin working for the force, whereas Christopher and others of his generation, wouldn’t be sporting a badge any earlier than twenty-three.
For Christopher, patience and hard work were a way of life. While he studied criminal justice at the local community college, he worked at Nick’s Deli on Cottman Avenue and socked away every cent he made. He kept his eye on the prize. To him the prize was a career as a cop and a future with Heather Kelley, his childhood sweetheart.
A guy with too kind of a heart often attracts piranhas. That’s what happened with Christopher and the woman who chewed him up constantly. Maybe Heather had good intentions, Chris seemed to think so, but it would take a microscope to locate them. The rest of the family felt a bit unnerved by her presence. A self-centered, opinionated, and touchy individual who drove Chris hard. She hounded him to get married with no regard for his finances, goals, or the pressure he felt juggling school and work. Heather Kelley jonesed for a free ride and for whatever reason, Chris loved the squeaky wheel and made whatever adjustments were necessary to keep her happy. The thing is, there’s no keeping someone like that happy.
Moving the wedding date up meant trading in the deli job for a full-time gig with benefits, something to tide him over until something opened on the force. He found out that if he worked for the City of Philadelphia in another capacity, any benefits he accrued could be applied to an eventual position on the police force. Level-headed Chris took a job with the City’s trash department. Pat’s jaw hit the floor when he heard the news.
The trash department struck gold when they hired that boy, but they were too stupid to see it. Chris was way out of their league and their threatened egos knew that, so they stuck it to him. They gave him the worst shifts in the worst neighborhoods and had him work with a handful of the meanest employees that walk the earth.
Of course, the work came easy for the young man. Emptying trash cans, working hydraulics to lift dumpsters, sweeping up garbage on sidewalks. It might be monotonous but that was a plus to Chris who used to say, “It’s mindless work so it saves brain cells for the important things.” He meant studying, but Pat figured that having a bitch like Heather around must have cost Chris a ton of brain cells.
The politics involved with the job were the thing that Chris hadn’t prepared for. As the only white guy on the shift, he became the sacrificial lamb for every injustice committed against the black population. “White motherfucker” they called him. He was dangled like a piece of meat over an alligator pit and purposely put in situations where being white was an obvious detriment.
In black neighborhoods, he got threatened for ‘taking a black man’s job.’ But the whites were no better. In the upscale, hoity-toity Rittenhouse neighborhood they thumbed their noses at him. A rich old biddy cleaning up after her poodle picked up the dog’s shit and threw it at him as a sign of disrespect.
Pat sensed his son’s stress even as Chris poked fun at the issues. He put pressure on the police department to bump Chris’s application up, hire him, get him the hell away from that toilet he worked for. Yet all Pat’s so-called pull didn’t do a lick of good.
“Everything happens for a reason.” Chris probably hoped by saying that, he’d come to believe it. He stuck it out and resolved to make his presence count. He’d soften the hardened hearts of his coworkers, make a difference in that god-forsaken organization. No doubt, this kid was the diplomat his father never could be.
Close to midnight on Halloween, Dee’s sudden gasp woke her husband from a dead sleep. He would have fallen right back to sleep if it weren’t for her subsequent whimpering.
“You okay?” He managed through partly stuck lips.
“I don’t know,” she sounded rattled. “I had this dream that was so real my heart is beating like crazy!” She went right into it while her husband shook sleep from his head and tried to catch up.
“I was on this dark highway going really fast. Driving out of control” She sat up and wrapped her arms around her knees. “It was pouring rain. I couldn’t get the vehicle to slow down so I pulled off to the shoulder. But I didn’t see the car! This abandoned car was just sitting there. I slammed right into it and then I woke up. My God, Pat! My heart’s pounding!”
Pat’s eyes still closed, he reached his hand over and felt his way to her chest. “Aww honey, it is pounding. It’s okay though. Just a dream.”
She covered his hand with hers.
Less than four hours later, the phone jolted them awake. Who the hell? Pat could barely make out the caller with Dee panicking in the background. “No dear God, please no!” she whimpered.
“Pat, that you? Pat? It’s George Gresko, can you hear me?” Pat swung his legs out from under the sheet and sat at full alert. Sargent Gresko from the 24th district wasn’t calling him at 3:37 a.m. to shoot the breeze.
They arrived at Hahnemann hospital thirty minutes behind the ambulance. Puddles of water from an earlier downpour reflected the streetlights. George Gresko made it his duty to arrive before them. He knew Pat well. He knew he’d have to wrestle him to the ground to keep him from assaulting ER staff if they refused him access to his son. George filled the teary-eyed parents in.
Christopher and two other employees, one male and one female, were traveling southbound on I-95 in a pickup truck that belonged to the trash department. They were headed back to the yard. The male, a thirty-five-year-old grunt had been driving. The female had just been hired. Chris, slimmer than the other two, wedged between them in the front seat. The only seat without a belt. The driver was going seventy miles per hour and lost control, then veered into the shoulder, barreling straight into an abandoned car. It may as well have been a concrete wall. Chris flew forward and broke the windshield with his head.
It took hours for them to get any information about their son’s condition. Gresko was kind enough to stay the entire time. He kept them relatively calm and prevented Pat from blowing a gasket waiting around until an ER doctor finally approached them. Christopher had suffered a cracked skull, ruptured vertebrae, broken ribs and wrists, and a shattered kneecap. But he was alive and conscious. It took a few days for the doctor to discover the most devastating part, the loss of vision in Chris’s right eye.
Yes, he was alive. Yes, the accident spared him, for a while anyway. But the fallout from the accident eventually broke his spirit and claimed his life.
“I breakdown in the middle and lose my thread.
No one can understand a word that I say.
When I breakdown just a little and lose my head,
Nothing I try to do can work the same way.”
Deidre developed a hatred for that bloody song. If she had her way, she’d take a hammer to the CD and smash it into a fine powder and then flush it the hell down the toilet. Instead, she tuned it out and remembered what the therapist told her, “Your son is in a deep state of grief and to rush him through the process will only delay his recovery all the more. Be patient with him.”
To Dee it wasn’t about patience! It was the fear of losing Christopher to some altered stated he entered whenever he played that damn music. In her opinion, Breakdown by The Alan Parsons Project gave her son the fast track to hell.
Chris closed himself in his bedroom again. This new habit was so uncharacteristic of the boy she raised. Her former peacemaker had become a recluse. His room remained dark like a cave all day and all night. She stood in the hallway holding a pile of folded laundry, her forehead leaning gently on the door that shut her and the whole world out. Standing there, she prayed for God to grant her understanding. She contemplated her son’s new world. His shattered dreams, his fears, his physical pain. She wondered how a loving God could have let something so horrific happen to a beautiful soul such as his.
As one song faded, the CD player chose the next at random.
“It’s almost a feeling you can touch in the air,
You look all around you but nobody’s there…
It’s been a long time now since you’ve been aware
That someone is watching you…
(He’s gonna get you) …”
A tear dampened the crease in her arm. “I’m here Christopher! Please don’t shut me out!” she thought. She longed to tell him, to remind him again how much they loved him. How bad she felt. How she’d trade places with him in a heartbeat if she could. She wanted to assure him it would be okay. Would it be ok? Could she really be that gullible, that arrogant to assert such a thing now? No. She’d wised up. She learned the hard way that confidence breeds misfortune. It’s where the grim reaper hides and polishes his scythe, preparing to slice the soul from the family. Best to raise them knowing the truth, that there are no guarantees, that happiness seldom lasts, that in keeping your chin up you risk having your throat slit. God almighty, this music brought her down!
She stepped back from the door, dried her moist eyes with a pair of rolled up socks, and left them with the rest of Christopher’s freshly folded laundry outside his door. Cat was waiting for a ride to a friend’s house and she had to take her.
“Thank God she’s finally gone.” Christopher exhaled slowly, then turned up the volume and continued drawing. He loved his mom. In fact, he loved her more than she knew. They had always been tight, his dad too for that matter. But things were different now and his parents couldn’t adapt. His lifelong plans had been derailed, his relationship annihilated. His body had been broken in many places. Post-traumatic stress, anxiety attacks, high blood pressure, you name it and he struggled against it. Trying to maintain an optimistic facade for parents who can’t face the truth is fucking exhausting.
Besides, he felt sick and tired of arguing about the pull shade. His mother would pull it up, insisting he needed more light. He’d pull it down to keep the light out. She’d lecture. He’d ignore her and turn on the CD player. She’d resort to guilt. He’d plug in the earphones. She’d get frustrated and cry or storm out of his room. Within a few days, they’d do the same dance all over. He put an end to it when he yanked the pull shade so hard the spring broke. Problem solved.
Chris felt sufficiently relaxed now that “Mommy Dearest” no longer lured in the hall. He adjusted the gooseneck arm on the desk lamp and admired his work in progress. The art supplies from Heather’s parents came in handy after all. Al and Barb, Barb and Al. The good old Kelleys. Maybe he should have been more appreciative when they brought them over for one of his birthdays, he couldn’t remember which one though. Maybe he should have spared them the snide remarks about the gift. But a guy is in his mid-twenties is going to feel a bit emasculated when his ex-fiance’s parents give him colored pencils and sketch pads like he’s in grade school. Especially when the guy assumed that by his age, he’d be starting a family and fighting crime, not living with his parents and wearing Depends.
He removed the latest masterpiece from the spiral bound drawing pad and thumbtacked it amidst the thirty or forty others that covered the walls. Most of his drawings contained an eye or eyes, opened and staring straight at him. It’s not like he set out to draw eyes, they just found their way into his art for some reason. Who knew he’d end up being a pseudo artist anyway?
Maybe he ought to send Al and Barb a thank you note, even if it had been a long time. Or draw them a picture to hang on their refrigerator. “Maybe some doors are better left shut,” he thought to himself. They were like second parents to him for several years, but when Heather bailed shortly after the accident, he knew it would only be a matter of time before he’d lose her parents too. To their credit, they seemed as disappointed to lose him as he was to lose them. Heather on the other hand, left skid marks on her way out and never looked back.
There were times he felt far removed from the accident, like it had happened a lifetime ago. At other times, it felt like yesterday. The impact of his head meeting windshield caused a wide range of problems, beginning with ruptured C1 to C7 vertebrae which crushed the nerves they normally protect. This made it challenging for him to sit or stand during the first year. He suffered temporary paralysis of the whole left side, including his face. The feeling eventually came back, but the vision in his left eye didn’t. To add insult to injury, a damaged pituitary gland nearly ruined his manhood. Not only did he struggle to ‘get it up’ for a while, he also crapped his pants without knowing it since the signal from his brain to his bowels was faulty.
The accident had been horrendous, no doubt. A body has a way of healing, at least to some degree. Broken bones knit themselves back together. Physical pain can be managed. A pituitary gland can function properly again. Regardless of the physical body’s ability to bounce back, the emotional toll overtook his life. Christopher reached the unfortunate conclusion that a shattered heart is beyond repair. Perhaps the accident that left him blind in one eye also had a way of opening his eyes to the stark reality of a world gone mad.
He held the vial of OxyContin up to the desk lamp. There were only a few left and a week before it could be refilled. This was one of many pharmaceuticals he swallowed in a given day, but these were his favorite. As long as he could continue to snow the doctor about his pain level, he could keep those babies coming. A broken heart is far more painful than a stupid neck injury anyway, so no one needed to know that the physical pain had subsided. The time had come to up the prescription and amass a surplus. Christopher felt another haunting coming on.
Haunting. It’s the word he used to describe the wave of sorrow that struck without warning and destroyed a perfectly peaceful mood. It happened almost daily and would hang around for hours. Nothing could shake it off except these pills. The haunting would taunt him with mental tapes from the past, the days when he was starry eyed and believed the world lay at his feet. The days when he looked forward to following in his dad’s footsteps, enjoying a career in law enforcement, marrying Heather, and having a couple kids. The haunting shoved his face in the twisted outcome of dead end dreams, all demolished by a sleepy driver on a dark highway in the rain.
Though Christopher had the brains to let go of those dreams, the haunting wouldn’t let go of him! It had been exactly four years since the accident and three years since Heather broke the engagement. A guy should be over it by now. The old tape player would click on at random and suddenly he’d see her. Heather, more radiant than ever, walking passed pews of beaming relatives arm in arm with her dad who smiled at the young man who would soon be his son-in-law. Al raised the veil from his daughter’s face and kissed her cheek, then gave her away to the man who will love and honor her all the days of her life.
“It should have been me, Heather! Why did you do this to us?! How could you walk away when I needed you the most?” With the house empty, Christopher had the courage to speak the words out loud.
“After all the sacrifices I made for you, after all we shared. You buried your face in my chest when I was clinging to life and promised you’d never leave me. You promised you’d stand by me forever, no matter what, and I believed you because that’s what I would have done for you.”
A shot of pain ran up his left arm. Not enough to warrant the dose of narcotics that he got from his doctor, but enough to make him feel like he wasn’t cheating when he took the pills. He looked over at his wall of drawings.
“I pushed through constant pain. I dealt with the crushing news about my eye. I didn’t let it destroy me though because I had a future to keep me going. I broke records rehabbing this body all because I wanted to marry you like we always planned.”
He lifted the broken shade enough to glance at the street where he and Heather had walked hand in hand when they were teenagers. They’d spent years together, and he never could imagine being with anyone else.
“But you couldn’t handle it, could you? You couldn’t stand seeing me like that, couldn’t put your needs aside and think about someone else for a change. You dropped the bomb at the worst possible time and had the nerve to walk that aisle with someone else ON MY BIRTHDAY! My parents were right, you never loved me, you don’t know how to love.”
Christopher broke down and cried as if the event had just occurred. The haunting preserved every painful detail, no matter how much time passed, and triggered full blown panic attacks. Stabbing sensations in his temples blurred the vision of his one good eye and his constricted throat made it hard to breathe. But worse than all of that was the hollow feeling in his chest. It had been blown open.
He twisted the cap off the vial and downed one of the remaining jade colored gems while the haunting continued.
A career in law enforcement got shot down before it ever began. There’s no place in the department for a one-eyed cop. A future with Heather got cancelled before the words, “Sorry, but I’m in love with someone else” had time to sink in. A pile of medical bills was suspended in air while the justice system decided if this sad sap was worthy of assistance.
Christopher’s antidote began to kick in. A mellow sensation penetrated his bloodstream and paused the haunting, for now anyway.
“I don’t care
What you do…
I wouldn’t wanna,
I wouldn’t want to be like you.
I wouldn’t want to be like you.”
Saint Jude’s Rec Hall
At the end of a painstaking ninety-minute gathering, the group of approximately twenty adults was asked to stand, join hands, and recite the Serenity Prayer aloud. Pat’s resistance to linking hands with the sweaty guy to his left must have been sensed by Dee, whose vice grip on his other hand sent the message “Behave buster!” More agonizing than the meetings were the long minutes in the car driving home. Dee squeezed every last second out of the sixteen-minute commute to pick Pat apart.
“Can’t you at least pretend to be interested? You look like you don’t care.” she hounded.
He gave her the same response he has in the past. “This was your idea, not mine.”
“It doesn’t matter whose idea it is. It’s the right thing to do for our son.”
Pat had never been a fan of support group meetings. She should know that after all their years together. “How does commiserating with a bunch of sad parents benefit our son? We have nothing in common with those people.”
“You’re in denial Pat. When will you accept the fact that Christopher is a drug addict?”
He hit the accelerator and fumbled for a cigarette.
“Slow down! You’re gonna get us both killed!”
Pat lit up and kept up the speed. Longest sixteen minutes of his life while Dee kept on talking, but he zoned her out. He counted this to be the fifth Wednesday he’d allowed her to drag him to a Parents of Addicts meeting for “Christopher’s sake”. Yeah. Okay. The only one benefitting from the meetings could be Yappy herself, who found any excuse to air the McGowan laundry and whine to a bunch of strangers about her difficult life.
The meetings were a waste of time. Besides there were no real answers given as to how to help Christopher get cured of his addiction. It wasn’t his fault to begin with! Fuck the doctors and hospitals that pumped him so full of narcotics that he developed a dependency. Then the same shitheads that caused the dependency suddenly cut him off. The poor kid was reeling, climbing the walls. It sent him to the brink of insanity. What kind of fucked up world would yank away the very pain relief they force-fed him in the first place? It seemed to Pat like some kind of vindictive experiment where the patient always loses. Christopher did what he needed to do to survive, he found the drugs elsewhere. The addiction worsened and as it got harder so did the drugs. Pat could almost see the faces of the creeps his son had to connect with just to stay alive. The thought of it brought on instant heartburn, so Pat popped the last of the Tums that were kicking around in the kitchen junk drawer. He avoided Dee for the rest of the evening, or at least he tried to. She followed him into the living room and left a piece of paper on the coffee table in front of him. “This is the information I was talking about on the drive home,” she said. Then she went upstairs.
He didn’t bother looking at it. Pat knew it would be a brochure from a rehab center for the rich and famous. The state facility was all that Chris’s disability compensation could afford. Shitty as it might be, they had no choice. Chris stood to enter his third round in the detox-rehab cycle, so the second-rate facility gave his second born the best chance. Working class families getting screwed again.
Christopher, Jason. Jason, Christopher. It would take a coin toss to decide which son’s dilemma caused more insomnia. In Chris’s defense, his current circumstances were no fault of his own. The accident almost six years ago, was to blame, for Chris’ plight.
Jason was a whole other story. As his younger brother struggled to get clean from drugs and stay alive, Jason sat behind bars for a crime he committed only six months ago. A senseless crime.
Twenty-nine at the time, Jason’s mooching off mom and dad had gotten old, real old. There was no reason for him to be living under their roof at that stage and thankfully the barfly he’d been with for a while, Samantha, pointed that out to him. She didn’t want to be dating a guy whose mom still washed his boxers, so they rented a small apartment in Olney and played house like a real couple. For Pat, the day Jason had finally left the nest was like a holiday.
Excited to show off their new digs, Jason and Sam had offered to host brunch on the subsequent Christmas Day, for both their families. Admittedly, Pat and Dee were not in the mood to entertain family after a challenging year with Christopher. They gladly accepted the invitation.
The day actually went well, and the couple were practically glowing with pride as everyone congratulated them on the decorations and the great spread they had put out for Christmas. After the gang went their separate ways, Jason and his girl headed to Dell’s Tavern on Discher Street to watch the Eagles-Dallas game.
Huge hype led into the game, the first time for the Eagles to play on Christmas and they were playing enemy #1, “America’s Team.” The two teams were locked in a battle for postseason placement in the NFC East. Dell’s was mobbed with extremely rowdy fans wearing green shirts, hats, and face paint, cursing at the top of their lungs. Regardless of the sacredness of the holiday, Eagle’s fans have a reputation to preserve, so “Fuck you Dallas!” reverberated through the bar long before the kick-off. Jason and Sam grabbed the last two stools at the bar and settled in for the game just as the patrons stood up for the Star-Spangled Banner.
The first half of the matchup went as expected. The Cowboys had Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith steamrolling the field, while the Eagles had gone through three quarterbacks in the course of the season. Dallas scored a quarter one touchdown, but surprisingly Philly put points on the board with a field goal. With no further score by the Cowboys in the first half, it felt like the Eagles might make a go for it.
In a sea of green and white, Dallas colors stand out like a sore thumb. Two enormous guys, who could easily tower over the players they rooted for on the screens, entered this neighborhood tavern full of Philadelphians as if they owned the place. Where they came from, how they ended up there, or how they could be so stupid was anyone’s guess. They entered Dell’s at the start of the third-quarter when the Eagles were down by just one point. The crowd had just erupted in cheers for a fifty-two-yard field goal that brought the Birds to close tasting victory, but suddenly went quiet at the sight of the strangers. For the first few seconds these guys were there, you could have heard a pin drop. Like the quiet swell of the sea before a colossal wave smashes the shore, the collective pause suddenly gave way to a burst of jeers, hollers, hissing, booing. None of it dissuaded the intruders from squeezing into the crowd to get a drink. They stood there, right smack across from where Jason and Sam sat at the end of the bar.
Sam’s grip on Jason’s thigh tightened, her non-verbal attempt at preventing some sort of episode that he’d later regret. She knew him well. He acknowledged her concern and put his arm around her. His body reacted like a guarded animal anyway, and the hair on his arms and neck stood on end when he took in his adversaries.
Harmless heckling between fans continued through the third quarter as the game stayed close until the larger of the two Dallas fans, either humiliated by the Cowboy’s lackluster performance or possibly fed up with the indignant glare coming from the Eagle’s fan across the bar, decided he’d had enough.
“What the hell you looking at?” He sliced as his stare met with Jason’s.
“Me? I’m looking at a couple of clueless fools who got lost in the wrong neighborhood.” Jason responded without so much as a blink.
The large dude smiled down at his buddy, then looked back in Jason’s direction and said, “I hear you can’t keep a quarterback this season ‘cause they’re all too busy playing with their dicks. Think you oughta go join them, pal?”
Sam gasped unintentionally. Her pleading voice, her grip on his arm, her efforts to divert Jason’s attention were all ignored. Nothing she did could stop him. The dog had been provoked.
Jason’s barstool hit the ground hard, taking his leather jacket down with it. He barreled through the crowd screaming “Tell me you ain’t that stupid! Dissin’ a team in their hometown?!” Unintimidated by his rival’s size, Jason grabbed the big guy by the throat and started swinging his fists.
The Dallas boy definitely got the better of Jason before the crowd could pull him off. It took eight or ten guys to shove the two navy-and-gray-clad gatecrashers towards the front of the tavern and out the door. Jason’s face was bloody and swollen, but not nearly as bruised as his ego. He grabbed the leather jacket off the floor and noticed a broken pint glass lying next to it. In keeping with his long-standing tradition of acting first and thinking later, he grabbed the glass and tucked it inside his jacket and charged out before anyone knew what he meant to do. His target didn’t hear the sound of Jason’s footfalls behind him in the fresh snow. Pulling the jagged glass from its hiding place, Jason reached around the taller man’s neck and yanked his hand backwards.
The snow-covered sidewalk became speckled in red and the badly wounded Dallas fan let out horrifying howls as he fell to the pavement. Instinctively, his friend whipped off his own shirt to soak up blood.
Jason found himself immediately forced down by two off-duty officers who witnessed the entire thing. One kept his knee in Jason’s back until a patrol car arrived.
Back at the Roxborough house, comfortably nestled beneath a blanket on the recliner, Pat sipped a Rolling Rock and helped himself to another handful of chips as he cheered on his team. Dee was pleased to see her husband excited about something, to see his eyes light up in anticipation of an Eagle’s victory.
That’s when the call came in. The hysteric sobs of the caller were practically drowned out by crowd-noise. Pat thought it must a prank call and readied to hang up when he suddenly recognized her voice. “Sam? Is that you?”
Jason swore up and down that his goal was merely to scare the obnoxious Dallas fans, not to nearly kill one of them! “Dad!” he insisted from behind bars, “If I wanted him dead, he’d be dead! He’s not because I purposely didn’t hit the jugular! I wanted to scare him, that’s all!”
Pat wanted to reach between the bars and strangle the boy. If he’d felt free to speak his mind without any fear of who might be listening, he would have said, “To think your mother and I were gloating about you hours ago! About how far you’d come. How you’d finally cleaned up your act and proven yourself. You wowed us earlier, you and Sam, you made us proud. But it’s all bullshit. Because here you are, the same old confrontational kid who’s got no control over his emotions and gets drawn into whatever drama comes along. You never consider how your actions will affect those closest to you!”
Instead, he said nothing. He just glared at the face behind the bars and shook his head with disgust. Dejected, Jason shut his mouth and slowly retreated to the bench against the wall. He sat on that bench and stared a hole into the floor.
The charges against Jason were enormous. Attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, public intoxication, endangering the lives of others. He faced fifteen to twenty years behind bars for an impulsive, idiotic move. The judge set bail at a million. The Public Defender tried to get it reduced to twenty thousand, but the attack had been so terrible that it was impossible. A million. Twenty thousand. It was all the same. If there had ever been a time Pat needed some pull with the department, it was that moment. The City of Philadelphia wouldn’t budge, and rightly so. There was nothing Pat could do but watch his son go down the drain. Just as he watched his brother go down the drain.
From the living room, Pat could hear Dee upstairs clearing her throat or gargling. The thought of joining her repulsed him for the first time ever. It was probably all the stress. What couple can survive all of this? He picked up the brochure she’d left on the coffee table and glanced at the pictures and read about the facility. “Christopher,” he said to a son who wasn’t home, “If I could afford to, I’d buy us both a room there.”
The department celebrated Officer Patrick McGowan’s thirtieth anniversary on a Wednesday. It’s what they did for anyone who hit that milestone regardless of their role. Nothing fancy, just dinner and drinks at Albert’s Cafe on Grant Avenue with a handful of other cops, the administrative staff, and the guest-of-honor’s family members. In Pat’s case, that meant Dee. A ‘thank you’ speech was given by the department head or managing supervisor. A cop got recognized by their sergeant and awarded an oversized police whistle made from the finest fiberglass, engraved with the name of the thirty-year veteran being honored. A paperweight.
Pat tried talking the department out of honoring him, but they wouldn’t hear of it. No one ever turned away the celebratory event because it gave the administrative staff a reason to dress up and socialize once in a while. Pat felt in no mood to socialize. As a matter of fact, he had gotten so close to resigning he could taste it. He didn’t mind the job per se, or the people, or the politics. His frustration stemmed from his inability to affect change in his personal life. He knew it was time to shake the damn tree and find something new.
Thankfully, no one pushed him to speak. He simply nodded his head in appreciation and waved the tacky paperweight toward his small audience, then returned to his seat and kissed his wife. His butt was in the seat of honor, but his mind strayed somewhere else. How long would it take to get the news?
Few things in life are as agonizing as waiting. Waiting to hear something, anything from the United States Mint about the job application he’d submitted tortured Pat. The least they could do was tell him that they received it!
About three weeks ago he’d learned about an opening for a cop at the Mint. The job captured his interest for many reasons, a second pension being high on the list. Typically, a civil servant employed by the city is only eligible for one pension, but an employee of the Mint reports to the Federal Government, not the city. A job there meant cashing in on his first pension and being able to start a second.
Submitting an online application proved to be a bit of a circus for a technologically challenged guy, so Pat left work early to jump on it. He walked in to find Dee on the kitchen floor surrounded by pots, pans, and other cookware. She couldn’t have picked a worse day to tackle a cleaning project and it didn’t help any that the family’s only computer lived in the kitchen. It sat on a rickety corner-style hutch that also served as a desk. The keyboard was buried under a disorganized pile of Glamour and Self magazines, a stack of unopened mail, store receipts, and coupons. He even uncovered a long strand of dental floss floating around in the pile.
“Eww,” he said tossing it in the trash.
“Don’t look at me,” Dee responded without even seeing the source of his disgust. “That’s your daughter A bit of a slob, you know. More McGowan than McGlinty.” she laughed at her own joke.
As the computer booted, Pat told her about the job opportunity. Rather, he attempted to sell her on the idea as though he’d be met with an argument. He emphasized the rarity of a position where he could amass a second pension.
“That would let us cash in my current pension and use it to renovate the White Elephant.” He probably should have skipped that last part.
Still kneeling on the floor amidst a sea of cookware and kitchen gadgets, Dee acknowledged his news with the occasional “I see” or “uh huh” while she restocked the freshly wiped cabinets. She huffed and puffed a little more these days, but that’s what an extra twenty-five pounds will do. As she bent further into the cabinet, her faded sweatshirt rode up exposing a roll of fat Pat had never noticed before. He winced at the sight, then felt bad for judging her. God knows he’d put on a few pounds as well. He reached down to help her to her feet.
“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” she warned as she brushed dust from her jeans, “You never know how many applicants you’ll be up against.” Then she voiced concern for his safety, as if Mint cops were prime targets for violence. While it sounded like a legitimate concern, it was most likely one of those fake gestures that a wife makes to score points. Either way the perfect response was on a webpage he’d seen earlier in the day while he’d sat in the patrol car and researched the job. He pulled up a chair to the cramped computer desk and located the same webpage.
“Here you go.” He pointed to the screen. “Mint Police go back to 1792. It’s the oldest law enforcement agency in the country–”
“What does that have to do with safety?” She interrupted.
“I’m getting to that, dear,” he shot back, “In the last two hundred years only one Mint cop was ever killed, and it wasn’t in the line of duty. He died in a motorcycle crash.”
Dee leaned in behind him and rested one hand on each of his shoulders, “Well, that makes me feel better. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you! And I can’t wait to renovate the White Elephant!” She kissed the bald spot on the top of his head and went off to get cleaned up.
He searched for the online application. After several minutes and several frustrated clicks of the mouse that kept sending him to the same empty screen, he threw his hands up in surrender and decided to get help. Cat stood right outside the back door yapping on her cell phone. He pushed the door open enough to get her attention.
“Hey princess, time to earn your keep! I need your help with something.”
Her eyes rolled but she obliged. She went inside to watch her dad curse at the computer as he repeatedly clicked the wrong link. Cat got him straightened out and stuck with him through the process. At his request, she even proofread his completed application no less than five aggravating times.
“Daddy, it’s fine! If you don’t send it soon somebody’s gonna steal the job out from under you!”
Pat reviewed the online form one last time.
“Go ahead Daddy,” Cat nudged, “Hit send.”
He took a deep breath and clicked the red button at the bottom of the screen.
“You did it! Good luck Daddy!” Out the door she went, dialing up another friend before Pat had time to thank her.
Three weeks had passed since then and his patience wore thin. As the Sargent finished up his commemorative roast, more for the applause-factor than for the guest of honor, Pat couldn’t help but wonder if his application had been lost or if the Mint had found someone else. The website communicated firmly about their ‘no calling policy’, but he felt sick and tired of waiting and wondering where things stood. It was time to follow up and get an answer, no matter what the outcome.
The day after the ceremonial dinner, Dee beamed at Pat when he returned home from work. “You’ll be happy to know they called!”
“Really?! What’d they say?”
She handed him a slip of paper with a name and number. “Beth from Human Resources says to call her and schedule an interview.”
“Beautiful.” Oddly his attitude didn’t reflect that sentiment.
“What’s wrong? I thought you’d be happy?”
“Just nervous. Do you know how many years it’s been since I interviewed for a job?”
“You’ll be fine, hon.”
The HR department was closed for the day by the time Pat called, which meant another sleepless night waiting to firm things up. His mind jumped from one concern to the next. Over thirty years had passed since he sat across from an interviewer. Who knew how much had changed since then? What were the rules these days? How much competition did he have? And what the hell would he wear?
By 2:45 a.m. he gave up on sleep. While Dee snored, he tiptoed across squeaky floorboards and hunted through the closet with a flashlight. A jungle of clothes hung on a wooden rod that bowed in the center. A haphazard mess, no system at all. With his free hand, he rummaged through garments looking for anything that might be his! A couple of Dee’s blouses slid off hangers landing on the floor. He left them where they lay and went downstairs in search of a snack instead. In times of trouble, Cat’s culinary delights always made him feel better. She’d baked a fresh batch of fancy chocolate macadamia nut cookies that night and Pat had every intention of drowning his nerves in food.
United States Mint Facility
Beth Harris turned out to be younger than Pat anticipated. Not much older than his sons. Her patience came as a huge relief to an old guy who hadn’t been down this road in a long time. They sat together in a large conference room in the east wing of the Mint with a glossy table between them. A bronze bust of Benjamin Franklin rested on a pillar in one corner of the room, an American flag in another, and a large portrait of the 43rd and current President of the United States, George W. Bush, hung on the adjacent wall.
For about thirty minutes, Beth discussed generic information concerning life at the Mint and requirements for working for the Federal Government. It seemed to be a well-rehearsed speech that she’d given many times. She held the responsibility for interviewing all personnel, with the exception of police officers. That task was reserved for the Mint Police Captain.
“His name is Dennis Rafferty and you’ll meet with him shortly,” Beth said. “First there are some forms you’ll need to sign.” Pat’s signature amounted to his agreement to be drug tested, to get a full physical, and permit the Mint to rummage through his credit, employment history, and criminal history. In addition, if hired, he’d be required to attend school since there is a police academy specifically designed for United States Mint cops.
Beth gathered the signed forms, stuffed them inside a folder, and escorted Pat to another part of the building where he’d speak with the Captain. Along the way she pointed out safety features of the building taken for granted by the average employee. Pat couldn’t help but be impressed with walls that were six feet thick, two-way mirrors, and steel doors like the kind in bank vaults. Security cameras dotted the ceilings everywhere he looked.
Eventually they approached a bank of elevators and traveled to the fifth floor. Pat was asked to wait in another conference room, even larger than the first, while Beth went to get Rafferty. He took a spot in one of twelve leather high-back swivel chairs and tapped his fingers on the table. Then he rested his hands on his lap. Then breathed into a cupped hand and silently cursed himself for not grabbing a peppermint from the bowl in the first conference room.
“Officer McGowan? Dennis Rafferty. Nice to meet you.”
Pat stood up quickly causing the chair to spin awkwardly. The man extended his hand. Ex-military, no doubt, and distinguished looking with freshly buzzed salt and pepper hair. His white shirt, which donned the official blue and gold stripes indicative of his rank, stood stiffly starched and tucked neatly into pants that weren’t cinched or creased. His belt buckle even appeared polished as it lay flat against tight abs. The Captain seemed in impeccably good shape for a guy who looked to be in his mid-sixties. Pat sucked in his gut and returned the greeting.
“Thirty years on the force, eh? Pretty impressive. How will the 8th district feel about losing a guy who has devoted that many years of service?”
That was the first of several questions that Pat had prepared to answer thanks to a coaching session from Cat. He’d also found some interview tips online while munching out in the middle of the night.
Almost an hour later, Rafferty finally gave Pat the opportunity to ask his own questions before he closed his file folder and said, “I trust you’ve got time for the physical exam.”
Physical exam. Today? Pat would have appreciated a little notice! He wondered if they made all cops do this on the spot or if it meant he’d been the hiree selected for the job.
“Isn’t it a bit costly to provide a physical to every person interviewing for the position?” Pat phished for some morsel of evidence that he’d just nailed the interview. But did he overstep his bounds by asking?
Rafferty looked the man over a few seconds before answering his question. “It’s protocol.”
Trying to make light of the awkward moment, Pat jumped in with something humorous, “Well, I for one, am ready to drop my drawers and cough!”
Rafferty cleared his throat. “Good.” He stood and gently pushed the chair back in perfect alignment with the other five on his side of the table. “Once we get all the results from your physical and your background check, we’ll make a decision.”
“Do you have any idea how long that might be?”
“The results come in rather quickly. Probably by the end of next week we’ll have everything we need. But it may be another week before you get a call.”
The wind left Pat’s sails. It didn’t sound as promising as he thought, or maybe his nerves were just getting the best of him.
“Captain, will they let me know either way?”
Rafferty extended his hand in a sort of promissory handshake and smiled, “Of course. I’ll make sure of it.”
Pat followed the Captain back to the elevator and resisted the urge to ask any further questions. He wanted the job and he’d made it known, probably more than he should have. The rest would be up to the Mint and dependent on the results of all the tests, including that unexpected physical. Instead of pushing an elevator button, Rafferty inserted a card into a slot that allowed the elevator to descend to a level two floors beneath the main. To Pat’s surprise, a fully operating medical unit lie before him when the doors opened.
Rafferty walked with him towards the nursing station, shook his hand a final time, then made his exit back to the elevator. While Pat tried to mask his astonishment at learning that the United States Mint, the same Mint he’d toured a couple of times, the same Mint that employed former colleagues, contained an entire hospital in its bowels! If he hadn’t been so focused on controlling his blood pressure after a lengthy interview, he’d have asked the nursing staff why the U.S. Mint needed its own hospital.
Seventeen days, four hours, and twenty-three minutes after the interview, Pat and Dee sat down to split a stromboli when the phone rang.
“Officer McGowan. Dennis Rafferty here. Well, sir, it looks like you’ve got yourself a new job! Congratulations and welcome to the United States Mint in Philadelphia.”
One month later the orientation began when the Mint Police Academy finished. Through both processes Pat learned all about the different roles and responsibilities of a police officer working for the U.S. Mint, and the top-secret nature of the building and security. Yet he still had no clue which part of the Mint he would be assigned to. He could be stationed outside of the building in uniform, or in plain clothes inspecting the various vendors and contractors that enter with their vehicles. He could be protecting the armored vehicles as they enter and exit the complex. He could be stationed at the mega x-ray machine at the front entrance examining the contents of tourists’ pockets. Who knows where else?
For over four weeks his response of “not yet hon” was the same every time Dee asked, “Did they tell you what your actual job is yet?” That kept up until the thirty-second day of his employment. He was determined to answer her question before she asked again.
“I found out I’ll be working inside the video surveillance room. It’s on the third floor…” His voice petered out.
“Surveillance! Ooooh, sounds interesting!”
He didn’t think so, but he kept his mouth shut. Having complained to Dee about his former job for so long, then talking up the Mint so much the last few months, he didn’t dare air his grievances about the assigned post. He definitely felt disappointed. Basically, he’d just traded in a highly interactive job that required strong communication and problem solving for one where the biggest decision he’d make would be whether to walk up three flights of steps or take the elevator. In essence, he’d just become a glorified security guard who’d be sitting on his ass all day in a vault-like room, watching monitors and filling out check lists.
You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. Isn’t that what they say? He wondered if losing the independence and variety of his former job could be worth the slight wage increase he got working at the Mint. In accepting the new job, he’d traded in the perfect shift just minutes from home, for a graveyard shift in the crowded side of town. Was it even worth the second pension? “Time will tell,” he told himself as he observed his new coworker, so he could learn the ropes.
There were about eighteen cops assigned to the video surveillance room, also known as the “Vid”, with three cops per shift. Pat replaced a long-time employee they called “Goodie”, who retired a couple of months ago after having a minor heart attack. The other two cops on Pat’s shift assured him that the heart attack was not a result of work related stress, rather it came from Goodie’s addiction to cheesesteaks and cannoli. Apparently, the big guy had tipped the scale at 355 pounds, which probably explained the wickedly uncomfortable office chair under Pat’s ass. All springs and no stuffing.
According to the duo, nicknames were a longtime tradition in the Vid. Officer Gary Wentzer became known as “Idol” because of his good looks and his attention from the ladies. Officer Owen Broadback was known as “Ham” because he was the resident comedian, although it took Pat a while to see that for himself. Pat, whether he approved of it or not, would be known as “Sketty” since his packed lunch almost always consisted of some kind of leftover pasta.
Mint cops, no matter where in the facility they worked, were bound by the same rules and consequences as all other employees. Their entrance and exit into the secure building happened through the x-ray detection machine and was captured on camera.
Security cameras showed almost every square inch of the facility. There were approximately one hundred and fifty cameras. Vid cops were responsible for watching live coverage that played on a limited number of monitors, as well as random bits of footage stored on a digital video recorder. The equipment was state of the art. It could zoom in on a single coin that landed on the floor. They could then not only read the date on the coin, but the cops could tell how long it had been sitting there by the amount of dust on it.
The Vid cops were required to observe any change in work patterns of employees, any suspicious activity of visitors, anything out of the norm. Like Ham told Pat, “Employees keep their noses clean because they know that pocketing even one penny can get them fired.”
“Not to mention wipe out their retirement fund or land them in jail.” Idol added.
After several months of monitoring screens and video footage, Pat didn’t have a lot to report. No criminal activity and nothing even remotely suspicious. Well except for a questionable tattoo. Ham always had a way of keeping things interesting and adding a little humor to an otherwise uneventful shift.
“HOLY SHIT. We got problems,” he belted out one night. His alarming tone had the other two spinning their swivel chairs around in his direction. “Quick, look at this!” he urged.
Three sets of eyes were immediately glued to the screen and Pat’s heart raced as he expected to see a gunman heading towards the building, or a machine gone awry, or some other safety hazard. He stared sideways trying to make out the moving image in front of him. “What are we looking at?”
Ham zoomed out just enough for the other two schmucks to figure out they’d just been had. They were staring at the pumped-up forearm of a press operator, Raul Ortiz.
Idol laughed and punched Ham in the arm. “Yeah? So you got a thing for that guy or something?”
“No, you’re missing the point! Listen guys, this is very suspicious. Take a good look at that tattoo. It says ‘Leon,’ don’t it?”
The forearm in question moved around, so he zoomed back in and captured a still shot of the arm with about two-thirds of the tattoo visible.
“Looks like a bunch of vines and leaves to me.” Pat’s eyes rolled, and he wheeled himself back towards his own desk.
“Nah, I’m telling you, that tattoo says ‘Leon’. And it makes complete sense. I saw them leaving together yesterday. Raul and Leon. No lie.”
“Leon. You mean Leon Nguyen? The Asian dude who’s like 90 years old?” Idol still participated in Ham’s charade.
“Yup, that’s the one. Looks like they played a little FooManChew recently. OR maybe they shared a PooPoo platter?”
Disgusted groans of protest bounced off the walls. “That’s nasty! Tell me you didn’t just say that.” Pat reprimanded.
“Jesus Christ Ham, thanks for the visual.” Idol clasped a hand over his eyes and bent forward over his knees as if to vomit. “Would one of yous get me a bucket please?”
“I’m telling you, I’m onto something here. Sketty, you check out camera fifty-two. Let’s see if old Leon’s got a new tattoo. I’ll bet my life Raul’s name is on his arm.”
“You know,” Pat rolled his chair back towards Ham’s monitor and pointed at the freeze frame still on the monitor. “Now that I give it a closer look, I do see a name.”
“See? I told you.”
“You’re right! That’s no vine.” Pat’s enthusiasm bubbled over. “It’s a fancy letter O, and it’s followed by the letter W. Well, whadaya know? It doesn’t say Leon, it says Owen.”
Idol burst out laughing, “So you do have a thing for that dude! Anything else you wanna tell us Owen ol’ buddy?”
Pat jumped in before Ham could answer, “Better yet, anything you want to show us? You got Raul’s name tattooed to your arm? Come on, give us a look, we won’t judge you.”
“Why don’t I drop my pants instead and show you where I had your wife’s name tattooed.”
“Ohhhhhhh,” Idol ducked out of the way hysterically as if to dodge the line of fire. Pat laughed and gave them both the finger. Then he went back to the monotony of monitoring screens and completing the daily “no-incident” checklist.
Working with the same two guys night after night, Pat began to know more about them than he did his own kids. Their likes, dislikes, stupidities, even their gross habits. Ham’s farts for instance. Worst smell in the world. They could easily cut off the oxygen in that small room. Or the way Idol constantly dug earwax out with the cap of a ballpoint pen.
What grated on Pat’s nerves more than their disgusting habits was the way they both gloated about how much money they’d packed away over the years. All the traveling or squandering they’d done on new toys, new experiences. Things way out of Pat’s reach.
Idol owned several rental properties, all bringing in income. At forty-five he’d stashed enough away to retire if he wanted to. Ham had a gambling habit that actually paid off. He bet on horses and a couple big winners had earned him enough dough to take his wife to Europe four times over the past five years.
Envy was not something Pat took pride in. In fact, Pat’s coworkers were decent guys who treated him well. Still, he couldn’t deny how sick and tired he grew of hearing them gloat over their possessions and trips. All the while Pat’s family lived in the dog house, with one son doing time and the other one heavily addicted to pain meds. With household bills still mounting, reality set in. This job, just like the old one, wouldn’t make a lick of difference. Pat was screwed.
United States Mint Facility
San Francisco, California
Some people have a knack for getting what they want without having to take the usual steps. Is it luck or manipulation? In a staunch system known for promoting from within, no one knew exactly how Joe Nilbert had the government breaking their own rules. He swooped in like a vulture, casting a shadow on the organized line of longstanding employees awaiting promotion. He bypassed mounds of red tape and clearances. Then he landed directly at the front of the line and collected his fancy new role of Mint Director, San Francisco Facility.
An insatiable appetite keeps a scavenger from resting for very long. While most people acquiring a position of this type dedicate themselves to bettering systems, procedures, policies, and relationships, Joe busily scoped out higher trees and zeroed in on his next conquest. Ten years later, the perfect tree came into view.
The U.S. Government needed another minting money maker to pick up where the 50 State Quarters Program left off. That program had been the biggest success in the history of the U.S. Mint and Congress was tasked with finding something even better. They sent a memo to the Directors of all five U.S. Mints. Their goal: to solicit ideas for the next big hit.
The financial incentive certainly made the mouth water, but for Nilbert it was more about the fame, the power, and the knowledge that the average American would possess coins that he came up with. The word “seductive” barely captured it.
He set up a tireless schedule of staff meetings with employees from various divisions throughout the facility, yanking them off production to pick their brains. A long list of encouraged plant workers and administrative staff entered their allotted meeting with a sense of pride for having been selected to brainstorm with the Director. Within a short time though, the majority of them walked away with their asses handed to them. “Incredibly idiotic humans!” he growled and waved off the first group. “Worthless! Get back to work” he snapped at the next. “A monkey could do your job. You’re a complete waste of my time.” His aggression was palpable, yet no one had the balls to stand up to him.
After five full days of meetings, canvassing ideas, humiliating staff, and leaving everyone feeling they had nothing to contribute, he harvested the wheat from the shaft. The fact is, there had been many great ideas and brilliant insights shared. Joe knew that. But he wasn’t about to the share the credit!
“I deserve this,” he said to his stunning reflection as he straightened his tie.
Joe’s idea came to him simply and elegantly. A program that would commemorate all past First Ladies of the United States. A photo of the First Lady on one side of the coin, bio and other details on the flipside. Unlike the 50 State Quarters, Joe had his sights set on minting the series using a one-dollar coin. Why? For the simple reason that bigger to a guy like Joe is always better.
He knew he would have to be very persuasive. This would be a tough sell to a government that already sat on billions of one-dollar coins in vaults. Those were coins that the American Public rejected due to weight and various other annoying reasons. The allure of many of life’s challenges lies in overcoming the tough sell by maneuvering the outcome. In other words, there is an indescribable high in getting people to agree to things they formerly resisted, or things that make no logical sense. Our DNA wires people to either lead or to follow. It’s part of human history. Joe was far from a follower, but he certainly got a charge out of watching what some people follow. To him, nothing was more entertaining than pulling strings. With so many puppets walking the Earth, puppeteers are necessary to manipulate results, though their goal isn’t necessarily evil. Sometimes it’s for the best interest of the population. Sometimes it’s simply to achieve the adrenaline rush that goes along with watching the masses blindly follow. Let the government just try to resist the one-dollar coin, Joe knew he could convince them otherwise.
One last look in the mirror before heading into work to submit his idea. “The First Ladies Program is my baby” he said confidently as he winked at the reflection.
Five submissions were received by the federal government over an eight-week timeframe. After many closed-door meetings in D.C. that took place over several weeks, Nilbert’s presence was requested to make his case because just as he predicted, Capitol Hill resisted minting a one-dollar coin. Joe welcomed the challenge. It nearly aroused him. Just another opportunity to work his magic, crack the diehards, and lead them into his way of thinking. That’s exactly what he did. Paperwork crossed tables and legislation soon took effect to launch a brand-new program.
About six months after the initial memo went out to the various Mints soliciting ideas, a follow up memo went out to announce the results.
Dear Mint Directors:
The United States Government would like to thank you and your staff for participating in the submission of valuable and creative programs intended to enhance the lives of the American public. A selection has been made. A First Ladies Commemorative One Dollar Coin Program, submitted by Mint Director Joe Nilbert, San Francisco facility, has been accepted into legislation. Please join us in congratulating Director Nilbert!
Strategic planning began immediately to iron out the specifics, like the type of bullion to be used, mandatory inscriptions, artwork, stamping process, and figuring out what type of machinery would be necessary to make it all happen. Similar to the famous 50 States Quarter Program, the new program would feature four coins per year and be minted in the order that the First Lady served. Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Martha Jefferson, and Dolley Madison would be produced in the first year, with the Martha Washington coin rolling out to the American public beginning on Presidents’ Day 2009. Could there be anything more perfect?
After the handshakes and high-fives, the time came to push up sleeves and get down to business. Lots to do and little time with which to get it done. One particular detail gave Joe pause, and it came to his attention one morning as the elevator doors opened to the corridor near his office. His assistant, Tomika, handed him a phone memo that said:
“Denver or Philadelphia – decide asap.”
“You just missed his call,” she said excitedly and watched Joe stare at her handwritten message. “Some guy from the Department of Treasury in D.C. by the name of…” Joe tuned her out and continued walking towards his office. He knew exactly who the call came from and the important decision he had to make, soon. In order to oversee this baby, he needed to relocate because the facility in San Francisco didn’t have the necessary machinery for the new program. The larger facilities in Denver and Philadelphia did, so the federal government gave him the option of where to go.
He looked at the note again before he turned back towards Tomika. “No interruptions please. I’m not to be disturbed. I have an important call to make.”
He closed the door behind him and stood for the longest time with his hands clutched across his head. Unaware that he held his breath, his brain entrenched in a mental debate as he continued staring into the space. Bookshelves lined the wall he faced, filled with textbooks, security manuals, policy and procedure binders, and a few framed pictures. As those pictures came into focus, he exhaled and shrunk an inch or two.
Family photos. Memories that spanned at least a decade. Reluctantly he approached the shelf and held one of the frames in his hands. He and the twins were building sandcastles on Stinson beach. How many great days he spent on that beach playing King of the Mountain with the boys, giving them a head start, then soaring right past them to the top. He replaced the frame and picked up another with a photo taken at Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge. The twins precariously balanced on wooden posts, posing like birds. The next frame contained the photo of a couple who smiled for the camera while toasting each other. They were celebrating an anniversary, who remembers which one. He and Theresa at Gary Danko’s with wine and steak.
Theresa. The other half. Mother to his boys. The woman who held homage to her “beloved Denver” since she first left the damn city and moved further West. The woman who nagged him incessantly to move them all back “home”. God knows she’d made her point enough over the years. Directly, subliminally, through dramatic outbursts, through tears. Oh and through purchasing their family of four enough Denver Broncos crap to dress the country’s homeless.
“I hate the damn Broncos” he said under his breath. “As a matter of fact, I’d much rather live in Eagles territory.” He finally had clarity on the grueling decision that had him stalled. He slapped the framed photo of he and the wife face down on the shelf. “She doesn’t have to know I had a choice.”
Relocating was at least a year away, he had plenty of time to tell her they were moving to Philadelphia. For now, though, someone else needed to find out. Someone who would surely be heartbroken over the news. It made Joe weak thinking about it. He promised himself they’d figure out a workaround. They always had.
He sat at his desk and began dialing. When the call connected, he said, “Hello love. We need to talk.”
United States Mint Facility
“Hey Sketty, take a look at this! San Francisco in da house!” Ham pointed to his computer screen. On it stood a picture of a guy in his late forties dressed in an expensive suit and shaking the hand of some bigwig in D.C.
“Who’s that?” Pat asked nonchalantly.
“Our new boss of course. He’s the brains behind the big idea that’s about to make the U.S. government rich, again.”
“Good for him.” Pat looked away.
“You know what I mean by ‘big idea’ right? The First Ladies series that we’re gonna start minting.”
Pat responded in the most nitwit-like voice he could muster, “Duh, is dat what all doze new machines are for?”
“Just checking, Sketty. Gotta make sure you’re on the ball” Ham sensed Pat didn’t feel like himself but kept right on talking. “Turns out this new director ‘Nay burg?’ or is it ‘Ny burg?’ already set up home in Philly and he’s getting his ducks in a row for the big kick off.”
“That’s nice.” Pat retrieved a foil wrapped item from his knapsack. “I brought in some leftover stromboli if you’re interested. I can’t seem to eat this stuff anymore. Doesn’t go down well.”
Ham remained glued to the screen and blurted out factoids he found about the new Mint Director. Pat had no interest interested mainly because over the last four and a half years, he’d never met the former Mint Director so chances were he wouldn’t meet this one either. Nor did he want to. Nor would they have anything in common seeing as the guy has really expensive taste in suits. Mint Directors are too self-important to notice the little people they employ. A guy in a position like that usually shields himself behind his next-in-charge so he doesn’t have to be bothered with petty human issues. That sat just fine with Pat. The only boss he had to report to was Dennis Rafferty and they got along just fine.
Ham gave up trying to engage Pat but repeated the news for Idol when he arrived. “Hey Idol, looks like San Francisco in da house! Take a look!”
Pat’s despondency had nothing to do with the new guy or the program. It had everything to do with a personal issue that he wasn’t about to share with these two clowns. The latest in a long list of disappointing events involving his kids. This time the boys weren’t the issue, but rather Cat and a recent decision. A stupid decision. An impulsive decision she made without consulting her parents or asking their opinions first.
Boobs. Fake ones.
Cat went out and bought herself an expensive set of them and hid the whole ordeal from her parents until the ‘evidence’ got shoved in their faces. Who had been responsible for this? Who else but that no good, meddlesome devil woman – Ange. Turns out she’d been dating the surgeon! Probably wanted to score points with the guy by sending him some business. There’s no easier sell than a young girl who’s always been self-consciousness about her small chest. The surgery was over before Cat had time to consider the risks. She finally came clean about it first to her mom, then later to her dad. Pat had to get his two cents it, but it didn’t happen easily given the awkward subject matter. Not to mention, he didn’t know where the hell to look while he spoke to her, so he focused on anything else in the room except that chest.
“With all the great things money can buy, why those? I mean that! I mean, why the surgery?”
“Because it’s my body and I wasn’t happy with it.”
“So maybe you should have gone to a therapist instead of a surgeon!”
“Dad, stop! There’s nothing wrong with my head. I made a decision that can help me in the long run.”
“Help you with what? Wait,” he cringed imaging the potential logic she’d give. “Please don’t answer that.”
“This is important dad. There’s a reason they call this an enhancement. Because there’s a return on investment.” she said boldly. “Think about it. Bigger boobs mean bigger tips. How’s that for ROI? And speaking of tips, I gotta get to work.” She grabbed her purse and her car keys and ran out the door, leaving behind a “Love ya!” as if that would make it all better.
What could he do? What could he say? She was nearly twenty-one so he no longer had a say. But the situation gave him chest pains.
“You alright over there, Sketty?” Idol asked. “You look worse than usual.”
“Indigestion” Pat put his hand on his chest, “worst case ever.” He filled out the Start of Shift forms and prepared for a long evening in the Vid room. His thoughts were somewhere else. He deserved the blame, not Cat. He’d failed his daughter just like he’d failed his sons. Failing Cat hurt much worse for some reason. His plan to pay the majority of tuition for the Restaurant School of Walnut Hill hadn’t panned out given all the unexpected expenses involving Christopher. Pat could only stretch a buck so far, so Cat had to shoulder the tuition alone. That changed her. Chasing money tends to do that.
In her freshman year of college, she waited tables at a low rate seafood joint in Manayunk that fried everything in sight. Her hair stank, her clothes stank, and the stink made her want to quit until they dangled the head bartending position in front of her. Oddly, the smell of fried fish no longer bothered her. As she put it, “The place suddenly smells like roses!” From Pat’s point of view, the scent of money seemed to cloud everything including her long-held dreams. Her former passion for experimenting with cooking techniques and quality foods took a backseat to slinging drinks and flirting for tips. Her excitement with studying international cuisine fell under the shadow of an insatiable desire to accumulate stuff. Shoes, clothes, boobs.
“Indigestion. Hmm, would milk help that?” Idol asked his sick-looking coworker. “There’s probably some in the small fridge, but I’d check the date if I were you. Might be chunky by now.” Then he returned to the former subject matter. “Speaking of the new Director, whatta you guys think about this new program anyway? Is it gonna do as well as the States Quarter Program?”
Ham hardly processed the question before belting out an opinionated response. “No way. Dollar coins don’t go do well. Just look at history. Then you put some crusty old women on them and it’s worse. I gotta say, I’m surprised that the U.S. government is insane enough to move forward with this.” He suddenly appeared paranoid as if he thought the walls might have ears. “On second thought,” he said loudly, “it’s educationally beneficial. It’ll smarten up the average American by teaching them about our nation’s First Ladies. I gotta say, the government did their homework. This is a good move.”
“What a save, you big Ham!” Idol hooted and then played up the paranoia. “Hello?” He pretended to hold a phone to his ear. “It’s the Department of who? Sure, I’ll put him on. Hey Ham, the governments on the line for ya. They wanna know why you called them insane.”
Pat chimed in, “Tell ‘em he’s busy right now trying to find out which crusty woman goes first, Martha Washington or Martha Stewart.”
“Sketty! You’re back from the dead! Ham laughed excitedly.
The three of them killed time by engaging in some First Lady trivia, which proved a challenge as they didn’t know anything more than the facts in the brochure of the new program. The camaraderie continued until eventually the Vid room settled into its usual lull.
United States Mint Facility
Words like “defeat”, “failure”, and “mistake” should all be struck from the dictionary according to Joe Nilbert. Only the weak admit to mistakes and wave their silly white flags and say uncle. They let their guard down and confess to spilling the wine, then they shell out the cash to re-carpet your whole place. Pathetic.
Joe subscribed to a different philosophy. He knew for certain that life should be played like a game of chess. Until every strategy was examined, every possibility explored, and every stone turned, the King remained standing.
Nilbert’s program came under fire after only a year and D.C. lay the blame at the feet of the man who oversold them on the idea to begin with. No matter how the marketing department spun it with efforts to entice collectors, educators, historians, artists, it all fell short. The coins weren’t moving at all. Basically, the American public and the banks thumbed their noses at the Department of Treasury. The latest news reports labeled the First Ladies One Dollar Program “a complete flop that will join the other failures in Mint history.” They said the Federal Government had already sunk millions into the program and that it threatened to pull the plug on it by the end of 2010 if it didn’t produce a profit by then.
Anyone else in Nilbert’s shoes would spend sleepless nights agonizing over the dilemma. A guy in that situation should naturally toss and turn, calculating layoffs and the welfare of those who may be affected. He may even pace the floors and mentally script an apology or letter of resignation. That’s not Joe. He slept like a baby. He didn’t sweat through the barrage of incoming calls from the Department of Treasury, nor did he angst over the bad press. He certainly didn’t second guess himself. Joe Nilbert saw the situation as a welcome challenge.
An important memo from the Director’s office was sent to Mint Police Captain Dennis Rafferty.
Dear Captain Rafferty,
The health, wellbeing, and overall satisfaction of our valued police officers is of the utmost importance to this office. We are currently reaching out to vendors and reviewing a variety of high quality programs that target work-life balance, nutrition, heart health and more. In an effort to choose the best programs, we are requesting the following:
1- Onsite medical examination of all police officers. Updated physical exams are required for those who have not had an onsite exam in the last three months. No exceptions.
2- Informal “meet and greet” with the Mint Director. Each police officer will meet personally with Mr. Nilbert for approximately thirty minutes. Meetings can be scheduled through Beth Harris in Human Resources.
Please see to it that your staff follows through on both requests. I trust that this initiative will be positively received, as it will promote a happy healthy workforce. For questions, contact Julie DiGenardo, Assistant to the Director, or Beth Harris in Human Resources.
Joe Nilbert, Director
Within six weeks, the medical files of all thirty-one Mint police officers were updated with the results of their most recent physical exam. The medical files stayed under lock and key in Beth Harris’ office, while an unauthorized copy of each lay scattered across Nilbert’s desk. One by one, he analyzed the files and separated them into a “no” pile and a “maybe” pile. The very last file he pored over was that of a cop who worked in the video surveillance room. He stared at the physician’s urgent recommendation for that particular employee to undergo specific imaging tests and biopsy. Nilbert was no doctor, but based on the urgent recommendation, there was reason to suspect tumors in the lungs.
A smile spread across Nilbert’s face as he nodded hypnotically and spoke to the file still in his hands. “My, my. Patrick McGowan. Looks like we need to meet so I can learn more about you.”
United States Mint Facility
The first five First Ladies coins had been successfully minted, but unsuccessfully circulated. The buzz caught up with Pat, as well as most employees, that a large quantity of the recently minted series wasted away because the American public didn’t dig them. Or so said the rumor mill, but who could trust that? Concerns like “The program is a bust! Heads are gonna roll! The Director’s in hot water! They’re going to start layoffs!” filtered throughout the building. Pat steered clear of idle gossip because it typically originated from the same idiots who said crap like, “Obama is Iranian!” and “Saudi Arabia owns the Liberty Bell and leases it to Philadelphia!”
Rumors about the struggling one-dollar coin may have been spawned by some unusual activity going on with the Mint Director and his recent interest in the Mint cops and their health and wellbeing. All cops were required to update their medical file with an immediate onsite physical and they were invited, more like required, to sit with the Director one-on-one. Pat dreaded the idea and set up an appointment as far off as possible. Ironically, some scheduling issue came up and forced Pat’s appointment up, meaning his “meet and greet” would be one of the first. He went into it with a chip on his shoulder, expecting to sit across from a dictatorial, condescending, untouchable snob in an expensive suit. To the contrary, he felt pleasantly surprised by the Director, Joe, who turned out to be a regular guy.
At first Pat felt tense. The office alone seemed intimidating. Like something out of the West Wing, expansive and spotless with plush oriental carpets and exquisite antiques. A life sized portrait of David Rittenhouse hung on the wall behind the desk. Rittenhouse, to most Philadelphians, was known as a clockmaker. That only accounted for a small part of his story. He had been a skilled instrument maker and a passionate astronomer whose combined interests led to clock making, telescope making, and model making. A mathematician, and a surveyor, and a philosopher, and a good friend to several of the founding fathers, Rittenhouse became the first director at the United States Mint. Of course, that all came as news to Pat when he faced the behemoth painting. He wished he’d paid attention back in high school history class. If he had, he might have had something intelligent to say to the man in the expensive suit.
Sitting there in the most prestigious office in the facility with the highest in command, a guy who’s hobnobbed with politicians and possibly even the President of the United States, seemed odd to Pat. Completely bonkers. Why was he there? What did the Director want with him and the other cops? Could there be some truth to the layoff rumors? Or was this just some hokey morale boosting initiative? Pat found it hard to relax, that is until Joe got rolling with subjects that appealed to Pat. Maybe he’s just looking for friends?
They talked sports for the most part. It surprised Pat that a guy who born and raised in San Francisco could be as excited about the Eagles as a Philadelphia native. That’s a phenomenon that had always baffled him. Like the South Philly couple who moved in next door. They grew up two blocks from Vet stadium yet pledged their allegiance to the New York Giants. Shameful! Pat wasn’t about to question this guy about his lack of loyalty towards the Forty-Niners. He just felt relieved to have his boss’s boss’s boss talking football with him rather than pay cuts or layoffs. It was entertaining to hear an outsider’s take on the players and coaches from as far back as the Vermeil days.
“I know it’s ancient now, but who can forget that speech. I mean imagine the nerve it took the guy to tell the media, the officials, and a bunch of Santa Claus hating fans that as a coach you can’t hack it anymore. That you’re ‘emotionally burnt out.’ That takes balls, you know? You really gotta respect a guy like that!” Joe reminisced.
“Yeah, Vermeil was one of a kind. It’s a shame some of his vulnerability didn’t rub off on the fans.”
“I admired the guy for taking a team of misfits and leading them all the way to the big game.”
Pat nodded. “I was pretty burnt out myself after we lost that game to the Raiders!”
After a few seconds of silence, Pat added, “Well, it’s always good to get some new blood rootin’ for our team, so thanks for supportin’ the Birds!” The words felt awkward coming out. So much for small talk.
Joe didn’t seem to notice. As a matter of fact, he went on to share something way more awkward. He told Pat how the government had offered him the option to move to either Denver or Philly, and that he chose Philly for his love of the Birds. “But,” he added in a semi-serious tone, “You’ve got to promise to keep that between us. If my wife ever found out that I chose Philly over Denver based on team preferences, she’d leave me. Her entire family lives in Denver.”
Whoa. What an eyebrow raiser. Dee would hit the ceiling if Pat ever made a decision like that. Unsure of how to respond, he said the first thing that came to mind. “Well Joe, you may actually love the Birds more than I do.”
All this talk about football had Pat thinking about his son Jason, and how some stupid football related debacle landed the kid in prison. It hurt his heart thinking about it. He came dangerously close to bringing it up right there to the director. He considered telling him how fanatics can ruin lives and pull families apart. Then he reconsidered and instead blurted out something random about baseball and the San Francisco Giants.
“Snoozefest.” Joe responded.
“Yeah. I’ve never been much for baseball. I take it you’re a fan?”
“Yup. Baseball takes a close second to football. The Phils have had some great players over the years. I’ve probably been to about a hundred games. Used to take my kids.”
“Phils ever win a World Series?”
“Wow you really don’t follow baseball.” Pat teased. “Then again, I have no idea whether the Giants ever won the series either.”
“They did, back in the ‘50s. I only know that because my old man was a fan. That is until the big strike. After that he wouldn’t watch a Major League game if you held a gun to his head. ‘Bums!’ he’d shout, ‘I’m done with those greedy bums!’ Anyway, you didn’t answer my question, what about the Phils?”
The stately looking room that served as an office to the Mint Director must have been the only room in the entire fortress-like building that actually had a picture window. Pat was floored by the fact he never knew that. Had he been asleep all these years? The view took his breath away. From where Joe sat and where David Rittenhouse hung on the wall, the top of City Hall could be seen clearly. What an incredible sight. City Hall is an architectural oddity, built in “second empire” style with a huge tower that juts five hundred and fifty feet into the sky. It’s the world’s largest municipal building housing the Mayor’s office, City Council, and the judicial system. Pat had been there so many times, on official business mostly, that he took the place for granted. He’d even found the place repulsive when high humidity accentuated the smell of urine. There was no keeping the homeless from sleeping amongst the building’s nooks and crannies. Perhaps that’s as it should be in a public building.
The building suddenly called to Pat as if to remind him of a cool piece of trivia he could share, a fun fact that would score points with the man in charge.
“See that building off in the distance? The one with the statue on top?”
“You’re talking about City Hall, right?”
“Yes. That’s William Penn up there. The Phil’s haven’t won a world series since 1980, and you wanna know why? For the same reason that none of our pro teams have won a championship in years! It’s the Curse of Billy Penn!”
Pat’s excitement drew the Director right in. Joe was on his feet, standing at the window, staring out at the statue.
“Oh man, I gotta hear about this!”
“Philly’s teams are cursed because that statue is supposed to be the tallest thing in the city. Not the tallest, the highest. The top of that statue was higher than anything else. There was a gentlemen’s agreement to make it stay that way. But the city got greedy and let one developer after another build skyscrapers. Next thing you know, tons of buildings are towering over that statue and we can’t win a championship to save our lives.”
“Billy was pissed.”
“Exactly. The Comcast building is the most recent championship ruiner. It’s now the tallest building in the city. I’ll tell ya Joe, I have half a mind to go find a William Penn figurine and plant it on the top of that building.”
“You should do it! Philly fans are depending on you.”
The meeting came to an end. “I enjoyed getting to know you,” Joe said as he shook Pat’s hand. “Hey, I know it’s way past your normal time to leave on a Friday, so you’re welcome to use my exit if you want. Or do you have to go back downstairs for something? Like car keys?”
“Your exit? I’m not sure what you mean.” Pat stood there feeling stupid.
“Sorry. I figured the cops knew about the Director’s special exit.” he said as he faked embarrassment for even having a special exit. “In that case, keep this under wraps, would you?”
“Whoa, I assumed this door led to a closet or a bathroom or something! I never expected this!” Behind the door was the landing to a narrow stairwell that zigged and zagged down to the ground floor.
“This leads all the way down?”
“Yes it does. It’s my own personal indoor fire escape.” Joe laughed. “The only one of its kind in the entire building. Pretty cool, huh? I guess the government assumes Mint Directors are prima donnas around here. Although I had nothing like this in San Francisco, that’s for sure.”
Pat stood there dumbfounded.
“Uh, sure, I’ll take this route.” Pat refrained from saying another word. Discovering an exit that he’d never known about had him too perplexed to speak.
““I’d walk you out, but I’ve got a ton of work here. Oh, and Pat, listen – I’ve met with a couple cops already,” Joe lied behind his teeth, “and I just want to tell you what a pleasure it’s been spending time with you. Everyone else seemed so uptight about meeting with me. Maybe it’s because I’m the Director, or maybe I’m just a dickhead,” he laughed. “My point is, you’re the first one to treat me like one of your own and I appreciate that. Let’s do this again. I’ll be in touch.”
“Okay.” Still dumbfounded over the “secret” stairwell, Pat managed a smile and then slowly descended the steps and out a side door made of steel. He stood beyond the steel door and scratched his head and thought to himself, “There’s an exit that doesn’t require security screening?”
Joe returned to his seat and took a pad of paper from the top drawer of his desk. A handful of names from the “maybe” pile of folders had been transcribed in list form on that pad. He tapped the pad with his pen, then starred Pat’s name. “I think I may have found my man,” he said. “Time will tell.”
United States Mint Facility
The second time the odd couple met, Pat came armed with trivia to prove himself smarter than he looked. “Did you know that the first coins minted in Philadelphia were made from flatware?”
“Is that right?”
“Not just any flatware, George Washington’s flatware. He gave it to the guy hanging behind you.” Pat pointed to the portrait of David Rittenhouse, “Rittenhouse hand struck the coins himself.”
“Are we talking butter knife or salad fork?”
“Funny you should ask.” Pat pulled a teaspoon from his pocket and handed it to Joe. “Philadelphia’s big on tradition you know. So, in keeping with tradition, I offer you this flatware. Start striking, Mr. Director.”
“Wow, I’m touched. In my fifty years on this planet no one has ever given me a spoon.”
There must’ve been a good joke in there somewhere, but Pat left it alone. It’s a good thing, since midway through the hour he had the strange sensation he was being hit on. Or could it be he just felt exhausted from working all night? Or perhaps the strangeness of these non-work-related meetings with a VIP had started messing with Pat’s head? Either way, he immediately scoped out the stately office looking for evidence of a family. His eyes landed on the framed photographs propped on the edge of the desk. It depicted Joe fishing with two young boys. His son’s? Joe and the same boys climbing a trail. Same boys perched on fence posts posing like birds. A chubby kid holding a potted plant like it must be a prized possession in a picture that looked like it had been taken in the sixties. Finally, Pat’s eyes caught the one and only picture of Joe and a woman clinking wine glasses. The wife? Most likely. Joe did wear a wedding band.
“Are these all family members?” Pat risked digging into the personal life of the man in charge.
“Yup. That’s my wife Theresa, and those are our boys Jonathan and Alexander.”
“Nice looking family! Are your boys twins?”
“Yup. They keep life interesting.”
“Nice! Are they Eagle’s fans too?”
“Heh, I wish. They would be if it were up to me! But my wife has smothered them in Bronco memorabilia since they were babies, kind of like a brainwashing.” Joe laughed at himself.
Before Pat could ask further questions, like “How long have you and the little Mrs. been married?” or “How ‘bout I suggest some romantic places that’ll wow her, like Magic Gardens on South Street or the Whispering Benches in Fairmount Park,” Joe took over and asked about Pat’s family.
Pat swallowed and inadvertently shook his head, contemplating the disastrous subject matter.
“Wow looks like I hit a nerve.”
“No. Well, it’s complicated. My family. . .” Pat hesitated. He hadn’t prepared for this. Under normal circumstances, his private life stayed private. Sitting with the Director for God only knows what reason, Pat felt perplexed. Lying wouldn’t work as he’d already shown his cards, so how much information would be too much? Discussing his chaotic personal life could cast a shadow on him professionally. The long pause became awkward, both men felt the strain. Just as Joe started to to let him off the hook and change the subject, Pat blurted out something he’d later regret.
“It’s like this. My home life makes coming to work feel like a vacation.” Pat immediately felt the sting that comes with doing something stupid.
“Wow. That bad huh?”
That bad indeed. His adopted first born behind bars for anger issues that seemed to span a lifetime. Two lifetimes if you counted the boy’s biological father, Tom. His second born in a prison of another kind, the place drug addicts land when there’s nothing left to steal from parents to support their heroin addiction. Then the daughter who sent a few frenzied texts last night that had Pat somewhat unnerved.
Things can’t go on this way.
Can we pls talk when you get home?
While mom’s still @ work?
She probably just felt fed up at hearing her parents fight all the time. That’s what they did best. Neither one was perfect, but Dee blamed Pat for every problem, including the diminishing bee population. The more he dodged her habitual attacks, the harder she came after him, determined to squash all peace. Even the White Elephant pissed her off, especially when Pat suggested they go there for a few days. She disregarded his theory that beach time would rejuvenate them both. She insisted it wasn’t fair that they should relax while both of their boys were in such a bind. Could it be better that they spend every weekend sitting around Roxborough arguing with each other instead? It struck Pat as just plain stupid. Aside from the occasional pitstop to make sure the house still stood upright, they rarely got to enjoy the place in Sea Isle anymore. He missed the sand, the seagulls, the tranquility. The only peace he ever got outside of work were the three mornings each week that Dee was already at work by the time Pat got in. He thanked God every day for Risotto’s Baked Goods as it kept her ass employed for all these years. If all that didn’t add up to enough, he just got word from the doctor that recent test results were alarming. History could be repeating itself. Nothing certain yet. The possibility of lung cancer seemed like a thing he didn’t need to know right now. He preferred to live in denial and maybe even will the cancer out of his body if it was there. Not a soul alive would find out about it until he felt ready to tell them.
Decision made. Nothing positive could ever come from sharing his private life with the big guy. Pat smiled humbly to the guy who inquired and said, “So how ‘bout those Eagles!”
Joe laughed and faked a sympathetic “I hear ya”. In truth, he had zero interest in sitting through a bunch of sob stories. He already knew all about Officer Patrick McGowan anyway. Nilbert didn’t believe in being unprepared. “Hey, check this out,” he said and pointed to something on his computer screen.
From Pat’s place across the desk, he couldn’t make it out. “What is it?” he asked.
“An article someone forwarded me last night. Looks like one of our Dolly Madison coins got pawned off as flawed to a dealer in Reno.”
“There was a flawed Dolly Madison minted here?”
“Nope, it wasn’t actually flawed. But the customer did a damn good job of making it look like it was! The dealer thought it was a legitimate error and paid the guy five hundred dollars for it!”
“I don’t get it.”
“A customer took a perfectly minted coin, shaved off the edge, and made it all nice and smooth so it looked like it hadn’t undergone the engraving step in the minting process.”
“And he sold it for five hundred bucks?! You’re telling me that’s what dealers pay for imperfect coins? Wow!”
“You know what they say about errors. They’re worth a fortune. But in this case, the dealer got swindled.”
“So how did he figure it out?”
“His doubts got the best of him, so he got a flawless version of the same coin and weighed both. Turns out the supposedly flawed version weighed less when it should have weighed more. That’s when the dealer figured out he’d been duped, that the coin was tampered with. But by then, the customer was long gone, and five hundred bucks richer!”
“Five hundred dollars for an error coin. I had no idea.”
“Are those dollar signs I see in your eyes?” Joe joked. Then he launched into a philosophical one-way discussion about the uptick in fraud cases. Pat looked like he listened, but his mind was absent, or more like overly fascinated by the fact that a dealer would pay half a grand for a Mint error. Several times a week he walked right past bins that were filled to the top with partially minted Louisa Adams coins. If one coin is worth five hundred bucks, Pat could only imagine how much money a small handful could get him? Enough to take off all the fucking pressure, that’s for sure. The fantasy continued to play out in his head until reality set in. Too many obstacles. Too much at risk.
His focus returned to Joe’s soapbox until the time came for Pat to go home. For the second time, Joe invited him to use the private staircase to save him time. As far as Pat knew, that had to be the only exit in the entire building that bypassed security. His wheels were spinning like mad.
Cat waited in the kitchen for him when he got home, a fresh pot of coffee brewing.
“It’s decaf daddy. I figure you don’t need to drink high-test right before going to sleep.”
Pat gave his daughter a hug. “I never see you up this early.”
“Yeah, last night was slow so I had someone else close for me. It was nice to be in bed by midnight for a change. Listen dad,” Cat got right into it, “I’ve got an idea that can help ease the financial stress.”
“What financial stress?”
“What do you mean ‘what financial stress?’ Your’s and moms of course.”
“You shouldn’t be worried about that. You’ve got enough on your plate. Leave the financial stress up to me and mom to deal with.”
“But that’s just it, dad, neither of you are dealing with it. You’re just fighting and bringing me down.”
“I’m not trying to make you feel bad, I just want to help. I’ve been thinking long and hard about this idea I have, and I want to tell you about it.”
Pat nodded, Cat continued.
“You always say families should stick together and I agree. As part of this family, I came up with an idea that can help. But I really need you to listen.”
“Honey, I am listening.”
“With an open mind.” Then she looked away as if eye contact would be awkward.
“Okay?” He started to get nervous.
“A friend of mine works at Sophia’s on Delaware Avenue.”
“Sophia’s. You mean the Gentlemen’s Club on Delaware Avenue that draws anything but gentlemen?” Pat despised the seedy joint. The kind of place that gave the city a bad name.
“Open mind, remember? So this friend is from school. I knew she worked at Sophia’s, but I had no idea how much she makes there. Lately she’s been on this spending spree. She bought this adorable condo in University City, then filled it furniture from Grossman’s. Grossman’s, dad, that’s high-end stuff! I got curious and finally asked how the hell she could afford all that. Turns out she makes a fortune at Sophia’s. She brings in over a thousand bucks a night!”
“She’s a dancer.”
“Yes, she dances. And she just found out there’s an opening for another dancer!”
Pat’s neck tightened into knots. His head tilted from side to side trying to loosen the hold. “Good God kid, what are you suggesting?”
“Wait! I know what you’re thinking, but before you judge it.”
“No, no, no! Please don’t tell me you got a job there!”
“No! I mean not yet! But I’m thinking about it. I have an ‘in’ there and that’s a big deal! Do you know how hard it is to get a job at Sophia’s?”
Pat buried in his face in his hands and muffled the sounds of shock, of frustration, of failing as a father.
“Daddy, I just want to help.” She said softly. “I’m worried about you. Honestly, you haven’t looked well in a long time.” She continued talking over his muffled voice. “I swear I wouldn’t consider working there if it weren’t to help you, and mom. But a thousand bucks a night?! Imagine how quickly we could get Christopher into a decent facility! Or find Jason a decent lawyer! It wouldn’t have to be a long-term gig either, just long enough to. . .” Her presentation fizzled. The great idea didn’t win him over like she’d hoped.
He took a deep breath. “Cat, it’s admirable of you to want to help. And you’re absolutely right, I don’t feel well right now, but that’s a conversation for another time. My point is, if you take a job like that it’ll do more damage to my health than anything else. More than Jason being in jail, more than Chris being in that detox. I can’t be any clearer than that, kid. Please don’t damage my health?”
Message received. It was evident in her sensitive expression that she wouldn’t push it any further. She got up from the table with a defeated smile and kind eyes. Part of her wished she hadn’t brought it up at all. “Well, since I’m up, I think I’ll head to school early to get some studying done. Finals are coming up.” She patted her dad on the shoulder, “Go get some rest daddy.”
“Thanks hon. I will. And don’t worry. Everything will be okay.”
Out back, he sat on the only lawn chair that wasn’t broken and smoked one cigarette after another. Five hundred bucks per coin. That had to be the answer. That had to be his way out of this mess.
Hospice Unit, Federal Correctional Institute
The sound of people laughing echoed through the halls of the hospice unit and interrupted Pat’s slumber. “Jesus! It’s the middle of the night!” he mumbled into the darkness. He waited for them to pass, but suddenly they surrounded his bed. Two, maybe three of them. When his eyes adjusted to the dimly lit room, all he could see were two pistols aimed at his face. He could do nothing but lie there and have his head blown to bits, brain parts sticking to walls. “Help me, somebody!” he tried to scream, but his mouth wouldn’t open.
The smell of sweat and metal sent chills through him, but not as much as the nasally voice of a former coworker, Orville Clemson. “Aw, look at dat! McGowan is scared,” the man mocked. Clemson operated a press at work and his presence felt as unwelcome as a rash. Whether due to his lack of productivity, his weaselly personality, or that irritating voice, Clemson had been the brunt of many insults. He was also a fun one to mimic and Pat did that well, but only in the company of the two goofballs he’d worked alongside. As a matter of fact, the mimicking ended one day when Ham rewarded Pat with a fake Oscar made from an empty Mrs. Butterworth’s bottle. “For best impersonation of an irritating coworker who looks like a man but talks like a toddle the Oscar goes to…Officer McGowan!” It made Pat feel juvenile and stupid. He pitched the “gift” in the trash.
But how did Clemson know about it?
“Aww, c’mon McGowan, why you so scared? You tink I’m upset wit you for mockin me behind my back?”
Pat stared into the barrels of both weapons, horrified at the mess Dee would find when she visited later. A tear streaked down his cheek at the thought of her reaction. That made the second intruder whoop and holler like a schoolyard bully egging on a fight.
“Cry baby! Look at the cry baby!” This time Ruth Jones, also a former coworker Pat had never been fond of, jeered at him. Big and mean and not the least bit feminine. Like the black version of Sister Mary Fella, with a butt so wide that the Mint had to special order her coveralls. Ruth was a bin worker who spent her entire shift wheeling around 80-gallon cube-shaped bins filled with partially minted coins. She escorted them from one minting process to the next, an extravagant job for someone as big and slow as her. Pat had no problem with her until that weird experience he had with her in the employee lounge. He’d run in to grab coffee and saw her sitting there leafing through an O magazine and he made the mistake of making small talk. Ruth looked him square in the face, cocked her fat head to the side and grunted. Literally grunted. He was in no mood that day, so the words “lard-ass” inadvertently slipped from his lips. That’s all it took to send the big woman off the deep end. She sprung from the chair, making it crash to the ground, then screamed obscenities and did an angry dance. Face contorted, arms thrashing about, body jerking this way and that. Pat ignored the theatrics but exited the room as fast as possible and never acknowledged the woman again.
Ruth’s pistol hovered in his face while her free arm thrashed around the same way it did in the lounge that day. “Lordy!” she yelled dramatically, the smell of curdled milk on her breath, “You surprised to see dis LARD ASS again?”
Pat’s former coworkers obviously wanted revenge for his bad behavior. Who could blame them? He wanted to apologize, but the words wouldn’t come out. All he could do was pray that they’d get it over with quick. Shoot for God’s sakes! What were they waiting for!
The third and last of the intruders stood at the foot of the hospital bed. He thrust some object at the bed. Pat braced for pain, but nothing hit him other than the cruel sting of laughter coming from the two bystanders. The object dangled over the bed hanging from strings. It was a marionette in a cop’s uniform with a neon badge that flashed on and off every few seconds. PM – PM – PM. What kind of sick twisted joke?
The puppet master made the puppet dance and swing. Then he began to speak, his voice cold and calculating. “Tell me, Pat, how does it feel to know you were had? Do you feel a bit like a SUCKER?”
A surge of adrenaline gave Pat hulk-like strength. He lunged at the puppet master, grabbing him by the throat and shaking him violently. “Nilbert!” Pat roared, “I’ll kill you with my bare hands! Nilbert!!”
“Mr. McGowan! Mr. McGowan, please! Wake up! Shhhh, please!”
“Huh? What? What’s going on?” The sun beamed through the small window, almost blinding him. Pat lifted a quivering hand to shade his eyes. There stood Chenice, the young orderly who had cleaned up the mess of photos not long ago. Her concerned look eased into a relieved smile, “Mr. McGowan, you was making quite a ruckus! You having a bad dream?”
“Dream. Uh, yeah. Guess I was.” He shook the dream from his head.
“Well, I don’t know who this ‘Nilbert’ is, but I sure am glad I’m not him! Sounds like he was gonna git it good!” Chenice took the patient’s pulse, smoothed his blanket, and advised him to always pray before going to sleep. Then she gently left the room.
Hindsight can be a lousy bedfellow. It dangles in front of you all the blatant signs you missed. It reminds you that you are the world’s stupidest son of a bitch.
It took Pat a long time to figure out that he’d been set up, and even longer to accept the fact. Having been fixated on personal issues, he stood ignorant to the truth – that he was a pawn in Nilbert’s hidden agenda to save his own neck. The First Ladies Coin Program started off as a disaster. A bust, not at all like the 50 States Quarter Program. Nilbert knew he was about to get slammed by an angry government, so he came up with a plan that would spike public interest in the dollar coins. All he needed was a patsy.
Pat was the patsy.
How many red flags did he ignore? More than he could stomach. The mandatory physical exam, the meet and greet, the secret exit, so many obvious signs he missed! Awaiting death allows too much time to ruminate. Awaiting death is a field day for hindsight. Pat had already made peace with his punishment for committing a crime and for having to pay back what he stole. God strike him dead, he’d never be at peace with having been a puppet. When would the puppet master pay?!
“If your house is consumed in flames and your only chance of survival is jumping out of a second story window, you don’t think about it, you just jump. As quickly as possible. You deal with the consequences later. You don’t mull over it. You don’t think about the pain or worry about how many bones you’ll break. Because when the house collapses, you’re toast.”
The speech had been given to Pat so many times growing up that he could still hear the echo of the words in his mind over a half century later. “Words to live by,” Pop would say. The McGowan household was starting to collapse. Pat mulled too long and it ended up costing him a son.
Christopher’s life came to end and not in a pretty way. His subsidized rehab had run out. Without funding, he got forced from a drug free environment long before he could stand on his own two feet. Too embarrassed to go to his parents for support, he ended up staying with the same screwed up crowd that fed his habit.
The worst phone call of their lives came in early February, informing them that Christopher had been found in the hallway of a rundown apartment complex barely breathing. For twelve days, Pat and Dee, family and friends held vigil by the boy’s hospital bed, praying for a miracle that never came. His mind had gone before his body finally gave out.
Ironically right before the call came in about Christopher, Pat prepared to come clean about his own life-threatening issue. The biopsy results were positive. Pat was fated to die the same way his old man had years ago. Lung cancer. Obviously he postponed that news, Dee had enough to mourn with the loss of her son.
“You don’t think about it. You don’t mull over it. You jump as quickly as possible and you deal with the consequences later.” Pop knew life, that’s for sure.
The metaphor empowered Pat. It gave him the courage to do something unfathomable. He would smuggled unfinished coins and sell them for top dollar. A week after his son’s burial, Pat basically “staked out” his workplace to prepare for the jump. He scoped out surveillance equipment, studied procedures, and spied on his coworkers. All while he remained cozy with the Director so he could use that exit.
That secret exit.
An exit meant only for the Director. How did a guy like Nilbert earn that level of trust? How could he be allowed to leave the building without having his pockets checked? More importantly, why did Nilbert extend that same trust to Pat having only just met him? Under normal circumstances, Pat would have mulled that over for a while, but not now. No baby. He wasn’t about to waste another precious moment. He chalked it up as Irish luck, then speculated all the ways he could use that door to his advantage.
First things first. The exit had no value without the goods. He had to figure out a way to get his hands on some coins. Some partially minted coins.
He spent almost every working moment reviewing stuff he’d known for years. Cameras, locations, live-video versus stored-video. He analyzed archived checklists to determine which footage the surveillance teams typically examined. In the midst of his research he recalled two words that made his day.
Areas in the facility that aren’t captured on any camera. Captain Rafferty had been on a mission to secure those areas for over a year, but his hands were tied because Nilbert wouldn’t okay any funds for additional cameras. During a Vid team meeting one morning, Rafferty relayed Nilbert’s message. “While the Director does agree it’s a high priority, he feels there are currently other issues of greater importance.” Rafferty said it with integrity, but he was obviously pissed! To a guy like Rafferty, it was downright negligent to ignore something that could present a security crisis. Pat hadn’t given it much thought, until now.
Blind spots and secret exits! Joe Nilbert, you have no idea how easy you’re making this!
Or did he?
Things just got better and better. In searching out blind spots, Pat made a huge discovery. A bin filled with partially minted First Ladies coins was situated in one of those blind spots. In a long hall that ran adjacent to the plant. The coins, part of the Louisa Adams series, were awaiting one of the final minting processes, the edge engraving. If one of those coins were to land in someone’s pocket without the engraving, they’d assume it was a minting error. They’d have something very valuable on them. Something worth five hundred bucks!
Next on the theft-checklist came figuring out how to get past the two guys he worked with. Would they notice anything suspicious? It’s amazing what Pat learned about his partners when he really paid attention. Ham gambled on the job, placing bets on everything from football to hockey to horse races. Idol, the chick-magnet, used the surveillance equipment to zoom in on females throughout the building. Pat found himself astonished at how little either of them bothered to monitor the building. Jesus, he could’ve robbed the place years ago.
The only thing left to figure out now was how to get the coins out of the bin. No small task. Should he grab handfuls and stuff them in his pockets? Should he stick a ziploc bag full of them down his pants? This issue hung him up the most and made him so crazy he almost gave up.
Mulling over things cost him a son. He decided not to mull ever again.
He came up with an easy, almost absurd answer to the problem. A disposable coffee cup. He’d dip it in the bin and fill it with as many coins as possible, then top it off with coffee to prevent the coins from jingling. Yes an asinine idea, but it’s all he had.
Three days until his next meeting with Nilbert. Three days to think about what he was about to do. Three days to fight off demons and guilt, not to mention potential disasters.
“Come on in, Pat!” Joe ushered him in like he a long lost friend. “So, what do you think about the trade?”
“The trade the Eagles made to get rid of Trotter earlier this season? Hindsight. It sure seems to have cost them. Come on’ buddy, stick with me!”
“Oh. Yeah! Of course.” Pat wondered how long it would take for the Director to be onto him, to see the guilt on his face. “I gotchu a coffee.” Pat said and handed Joe one of the two cups he held. The cup in his right hand, the cup that wasn’t doubled up to reinforce it. “I hope you take it black?”
“That’s great. I appreciate it.” Joe set down his cup and went right back to talking sports.
Pat nodded and responded and faked his way through the longest forty-minutes of his life. The doubled-up twelve ounce container in his left hand barely moved, and wouldn’t dare be held to his lips. Only a third of it contained coins, the rest of the space full of coffee. This was his test run. If all went well, robbery number two would be more aggressive.
When the Director’s private door closed behind him, he sent up a silent thank you and carefully descended the staircase that zigzagged down the inside of the building.
“Holy shit! I did it! I got away with it!” Pat silently cheered as he crossed the threshold to the sunlight and onto the side street.
He felt half-tempted to call someone, anyone, to share the news! What a high there was in doing something so goddamn ballsy. He would have pounded his chest if it weren’t for the cup in his hand.
When he got to the house, he rinsed the coins in the laundry tub in the garage and threw them inside an empty paint can lined with a quart-sized freezer bag. Then hid the can behind some rusty plumbing supplies. Not perfect, but good enough for now. They’d be safe while he figured out the next step.
Stepping back from the shelf, flashbacks of Tom’s weed filled Pat’s head. He shook off the memory and went inside for a beer.
His first hit only brought in half-a-dozen coins, but for a test run it went off without a hitch. Twice after that he risked carrying a heavier load and succeeded. The paint can began getting heavy.
Like everything else in Pat’s life, the other shoe eventually drops. Pat’s schedule was about to change.
Interacting with a high number of thieves over the years, Pat witnessed an interesting phenomenon. No matter how much a crook gained from their steal, they stayed miserable. Their attitude usually led to their undoing, eventually landing them behind bars.
You would think a guy who’d successfully smuggled thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise would be celebrating. More importantly, you’d think he would have cashed them in immediately and started paying off some of the debt that he’s griped about for years. Driving home with his third “score” drenched in coffee and sitting in the console, Pat felt miserable.
Turns out stealing zapped his energy. Dodging onlookers, scooping coins without making noise, holding onto a cup that’s heavier that it appears, and making it down a long flight of stairs without falling. These actions required a level of precision that left him too exhausted to hunt down a dealer.
With the mandatory shift change happening in a matter of weeks, he wouldn’t have time to steal enough to put a decent dent in the family debt.
There was another issue looming that prolonged cashing in the coins. What the hell would he tell Dee once the money came in? “Hey Babe. Bills are paid, don’t ask any questions.” Or “Believe it or not, money really does grow on trees! Look what I picked on the way home.” Or “Guess what? A rich uncle I never met just died and left me a fortune.”
As he turned onto his street, he noticed Dee’s minivan sitting in the driveway. Damn it. She was supposed to be at work. He parked on the street and locked up the truck. Dee stood in the kitchen engaged in what appeared to be a serious phone conversation. Pat’s entrance had startled her, making her pause for a second before moving into the living room to resume the call in private. Based on her actions, it clearly wasn’t any emergency, so Pat couldn’t have cared less. He felt mentally spent and just wanted to lay down and shut his eyes. He walked past her as he approached the staircase and ignored the “stop stalking me” glare she shot him as she scurried back into the kitchen. Whatever. He took the stairs like a ninety-year-old man.
Before the Tylenol had a chance to kick in, she barged into the bedroom infringing on his quiet as if the room were empty. Drawers opened and shut, clothes hangers clanged together.
“Do you mind?” he grumbled, “I’ve got a headache.”
She ignored him and kept it up.
“Jesus! Can’t I have twenty minutes to myself?!”
“You can have all day,” she shot back, “I’m heading to Sea Isle to meet a realtor.”
“What?” He lifted his forearm from his eyes just enough to see her packing clothes into a duffle bag.
“We need to sell the White Elephant. You know it and I know it. People with financial problems like ours don’t have the luxury of a vacation houses.”
“NO! I can’t believe you’re springing this on me now.” He sat up and faced her.
“Springing what on you? If you’d pull your head out of the sand long enough to see what’s going on around you, you’d realize we have no choice.”
They did have a choice and a solution in the works, but there was no sharing that with her. Pat did the only thing he could, he engaged in the argument. “But this wasn’t the plan! It’s not what we wanted for our life together.”
“Plan?” She bared teeth. “Plan? Our oldest is sitting in jail because we can’t afford a lawyer. Was that part of your PLAN? Or need I mention Christopher? Was that part of your plan?” Dee stored her emotions so long that when the cork finally blew it usually hit Pat right between the eyes. Normally he’d wave the white flag and get it over with, but not this time. Not when it came to the White Elephant!
“You want to blame me for all of that, go right ahead! But nothing’s going to change my mind.”
“Of course not, because you’re a pig-headed man. Pay attention Pat! Your family is falling apart.” She choked on the last few words meaning the floodgates could open any second. How he despised when she turned on the tears. He had no choice but to remain calm.
He paused, inhaled, and tried to reason with her. “Hon, we’ll sell this house, not that one because we’re going to retire down there. Grow old together. Come on Dee, you love the beach!”
She turned her back on him and continued packing. She shoved clothes and random items into the same bag in no particular order, even taking his bottle of Tylenol.
He continued his line of defense in a rather pathetic tone. “The shore house is the only stress reliever we have. We’ve worked long and hard to keep it. Without that place, what’s there to look forward to?” A failed attempt at sympathy. He decided to go for the confident approach instead. “Listen hon, we will find a way out of this mess, trust me.”
“You just don’t get it,” she said disgustedly. “We can’t afford two houses. We couldn’t even afford to save our kids.”
In his opinion his kids had already been adults when their problems became their parent’s problems. To tell that to Dee would be suicidal. Instead he played the endearment card. “Sweetheart,” he said reaching towards her affectionately, “You’re emotional right now and that’s understandable. But you can’t give up on your dream. On our plans.”
She dodged his outstretched hand. “Plans change Pat! And whether or not you’re ready to face it, the fact remains – things will not get better.”
“Let me FINISH!” She snapped. “The realtor said we could get a good price for the place even though we never updated it. With the profit we make on the sale, we can pay off Christopher’s medical expenses.”
“This house, honey. We sell this house.”
“Did you forget you work in Philly? Jesus Pat. Stop being stupid and let the dream go.” She zipped up the bag dramatically and slung it over her shoulder; then sprinted down the steps and out to the minivan without so much as a goodbye.
He ran after her still trying to change her mind, “I’ll make this work Dee. You’ll see.” In desperation he added, “Don’t go! I have a way out. I just haven’t told you yet. Please LISTEN!”
The words fell on deaf ears. She turned the key and slammed the shift into reverse, leaving tire tracks in an already deteriorating driveway.
“DON’T YOU DARE SIGN ANYTHING WITHOUT ME!” he hollered at the empty street.
“Goddamn it.” He shook a fist at the air. “Who the hell do you think you are? All those years you spent nagging me to buy a beach house and this is the thanks I get?! Go ahead. Just try and sell.”
The stunned expression of a neighbor retrieving his morning paper finally shut Pat up. For the first time in his married life, he wanted to hit his wife. Good thing she was gone. He stomped back to the house throwing open the door with such force it actually dented the wall. In some odd way, it felt good. So he did it again. This time the door hit the wall so hard that the knob sunk into the wallboard. He pulled it out and stared into the black hole.
“Realtor!? What Realtor? Why didn’t you just say ‘Ellen Clark?’ That’s obviously who you’re talking to,” he grumbled to no one.
He wanted to know for sure. He yanked open the junk drawer, grabbed the address book, and pounded out Ellen’s number. But he hung up when he noticed his daughter standing a few feet away. Oh God. He’d completely forgotten she was home.
“Cat.” he said humbly as he maneuvered his stance to hide the damage done to the wall.
“What happened?! It sounded like your gun just went off!” Cat was a sight in the mornings. At twenty-two she looked ten years younger in a faded pink bathrobe tied at the waste. A pair of fuzzy blue slippers poked out from underneath, each one dotted with various colors of nail polish that got away. Her hair looked a wild mess and the skin under both eyes was smudged with mascara. She leaned against the wood casing and shaded her sleepy eyes with a hand.
“Sorry you had to hear that.” He stepped shamefully to the side and pointed at the gaping hole in the only wallpapered room in the house.
“Wowwww.” A sobering glance had her rushing towards the damage to run her fingers over it. “So what did the wall do to you?”
Leave it to Cat to make light of a situation. The response would require a full pot of dark roast. “Coffee?” he asked.
As it brewed he brought her up to speed, beginning with the fact that her mother was supposedly meeting with ‘some realtor’ in Sea Isle so they could trample all over his future. Bitterness eventually caved to despair as he opened up to Cat and shared things he’d long held in. Humiliation about finances. Anguish over losing Christopher. Failure to steer Jason in the right direction. He almost let the news slip out about his cancer but stopped himself. For the first time since his mother’s funeral, the man came unglued right there in front of his daughter. There was no preventing the tears. From either of them. Add regret to the pile, he thought. A dad should never show this side of himself. He was supposed to be strong, fight off the monsters, scare away the gremlins, protect his family from the bullies and the bad guys. Yet there he sat unable to catch his breath between sobs.
Watching her daddy’s world crumble frightened Cat. She felt the weight of his emotional pain as if it was her own. So much sadness, so many challenges. It killed her to see him this way. It was up to her to help him. Although he’d shot down the idea before she brought it up again, firmer this time. “Daddy, Sophia’s will hire me in a heartbeat. I’m going to stop there later and see how many shifts I can take, even if it means quitting the Seafood Hut.”
“No,” he said weakly.
“Dad, you have to get over it! It’s not about the dancing, it’s about the money. I can help.”
“Shhhhh” he put his finger to his mouth and said quietly, “I have a solution.”
Pat dreaded the thought that he was about to be thrown off the pedestal that his little girl kept him on. Telling your offspring that you’ve been stealing from the United States Government is not typical breakfast banter. Exhaustion swamped him, his body’s way of avoiding a daunting task. It tried to lure him into sleep, into a world where pain would temporarily cease. Bending over the sink to splash his face with cold water he met the unpleasant odor of a musty sponge. He dried off with a paper towel.
From across the room Cat watched him procrastinate. Tinkering with the coffee maker, rinsing his face. “When did he get so old looking?” Cat wondered. She rubbed her eyes and looked again. He still looked well old. This “solution” of his must be complicated, she assumed, because it had literally aged him. The suspense killed her, but she resisted the urge to push him.
Coffee splashed over the rim of his “World’s Best Cop” mug as he sat back down at the table. He ignored the puddle and cut to the chase. “I’ve been stealing from the Mint.”
No shock, no surprise, no reaction of any kind, not even a facial flinch. Cat simply replied, “Stealing what?”
“The one-dollar First Ladies coins that are being minted right now.”
“Yes. But the ones I stole are worth more than that.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Do you know about Mint errors? Coins that turn out flawed?”
Her blank expression gave answer enough. He leaned to one side and pulled out two coins from his pocket and handed them to her. “Take a look at these for a second. Tell me what you see?”
She examined each one closely, flipping them from side to side. After a few seconds she set them down and said, “I don’t get it. What am I supposed to see?”
He pointed to one, “Notice how this one has words engraved on the edge,” then to the other, “and this one doesn’t?”
“Yes! I see it now. Wow, how did I miss that?!”
“You didn’t know what to look for.”
He placed the coins back in her hands, the slight difference now clearly visible.
Pat explained the point, “The one with the engraved edge is minted exactly as it’s supposed to be. Exactly like all the others in the series. Its face value is one dollar and that’s what it’s worth. But the one without the engraved edge is considered flawed. We call flawed coins “errors,” and they’re worth much more because . . . ”
“Because they’re rare!” Bingo. Cat got the picture. “How much is this one worth?” she asked anxiously.
He told her about the article in Nilbert’s office. The one about the coin dealer who paid five hundred bucks for a First Ladies error coin that turned out to be a fake. A crook disguised as a customer shaved the coin’s edge and pawned it off as something unique.
“So you’re saying somebody took a perfectly minted coin and tampered with it so that it would appear mis-minted?”
“And if that coin had actually been a legitimate error, it would be worth five hundred bucks?”
“So basically the dealer got ripped off.”
She held the defective coin in the air between them, “Was this one tampered with?”
“Well, yes and no. I mean, not in the way you’re thinking. I didn’t shave it or change it in any way.”
She looked puzzled. “Then how was it tampered with?”
“I guess you could say I tampered with the process, not the coin. I stole it before it got fully minted. Before it was engraved.”
“I see.” That matter-of-fact facade did little to conceal her increasing excitement. Learning that her daddy had done something so bold, so criminal, to save his family, to Cat it was simply enchanting.
Pat’s jaw loosened. The conversation was going smoother than anticipated. Why wouldn’t it? His daughter had never been one to ridicule or judge him. Feeling safe enough to provide more detail, he told her how he’d gotten away with the theft a few times. He described the bin in the blind spot, the coffee cup, the secret stairwell. All of it.
Cat’s eyes were as big as the coin in her hand. “So this came from that bin! Insane! I’m holding a coin worth five hundred bucks?!”
“Not necessarily. You can’t trust the news. It’s rarely accurate. And even if it is true, there’s no guarantee that I’ll find a dealer who’ll pay that.”
“You mean you haven’t sold any yet?” She stared at Pat, completely baffled.
“I haven’t had the energy. I’m still recovering from stealing them! Can you imagine how stressful this is?”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said dismissively. “But they’re useless until you sell them!”
That was obvious. Yet thinking about the “next step” just made him tired. He scraped an old sticker from the bottom of the mug with his thumbnail.
Cat refused to let him drop the ball after coming so far. She sprang to her feet and leaned on the table like it was a podium.
“Would it help this completely kickass plan of yours if you got a little angry? See, one of my professors used to say ‘anger motivates’. It’s why top chefs act like assholes. Anger drives them. It keeps them one step ahead of their competition. You need to get angry! How about a constant reminder of all the times you got screwed by the system? Working your butt off and never getting ahead. Banks extending you all kinds of credit, then raising the rate so fucking high you could never catch up! Doesn’t that piss you off dad? How about the fact you put in all those years with a police force who dicked you when Jason got arrested? That should piss you off! If not, think about how they treated poor Christopher. The city you served didn’t give a fuck when his head smashed the windshield. They blamed him for not wearing a seatbelt in a city owned truck. And the friggin doctors pumped him so full of painkillers he got addicted to them, and they had the nerve to snub their nose at him! Really?! They all suck! Admit it, Dad! The system failed you. It failed us all! And it owes you big time.”
Somehow this five-foot-one-inch tall, tangled-haired, mascara-smudged, bathrobe-clad, speaking-dynamo had her coin-smuggling thief of a father justifying his criminal actions. Rocking the platform like a boss, Cat stood adamant in her attempt to rouse a starry-eyed rebel in the beaten down man in front of her.
“Imagine how great it’ll feel to have a wad of cash in your pocket from some dealer who wants those coins. Do it for Christopher. Hell do it for yourself, you’ve got a shore house to save! Come on Daddy.”
Before he could fist-pound an inspired “I can do it,” she began to lay out her own plan.
“Here’s what we’ll do. You keep those coins coming and I’ll take care of selling them. I’ll start on it this week. I’ll do some research, get a list of dealers, and I’ll find out which ones pay the most.”
She ignored the doubtful smirk on the face of the lone man in her audience and continued her monologue.
“And damn it I won’t stop until I find the one willing to pay five hundred bucks. Oh, and by the way, I’m not looking for anything in return, at least not yet. Down the road maybe, after we get you out of the hole financially. Deal?”
No matter how delicate the nature of this conversation, no matter how emotional, nor how serious his daughter was, Pat could not suppress a spontaneous fit of laughter. “What a spectacle!” was all he managed to say before explosive hilarity had turned him shades of magenta and doubled him over. When he finally caught his breath enough to eek out an “I’m sorry,” a string of spit accompanied the words.
“Gross.” Cat arms crossed as she waited for him to get a grip. But contagion won over and she couldn’t help but laugh too. She quickly buried her face inside the collar of her robe unwilling to give him the satisfaction.
“Jesus! What a release that was!” He said, “Like a shot of adrenaline!”
Then he continued, “Hon, I have no doubt you can sell the coins. Probably better than I can. But there’s a bigger issue. In two weeks I’ll be back on day-shift for almost a year. That means I have two more shots at this unless by some miracle I can find another way out of the building without getting caught. But I honestly doubt there’s another way.”
“I don’t buy it. Those coins in that bin are waiting for you. There has got to be another way.”
“Good God kid, I wish I had your confidence.”
“Seriously Dad? Who else do you know confident enough to steal coins from the United States Mint? I’m telling you if you can do that, you can do anything!”
There must be million different things that motivate a man. In Pat’s case, his daughter had just nailed it. “If you can do that, you can do anything” gave him all the motivation he needed. He felt determined to find a way to keep this going, to save his family, and to continue to be a hero to his little girl.
Cat hopped up and fixed her dad an omelet for breakfast. He couldn’t remember the last time she cooked for him using her secret spice stash. She seemed downright elated.
By 3:30 in the afternoon dark clouds raced in from the east, just as Accuweather predicted. The wind gusted strong enough to toss around lightweight lawn furniture and garbage cans.
On her way to work, Cat stopped by the drop-off recycle bin at St. Jerome’s to unload several bags of old newspapers that had accumulated in the garage. A small gesture, but after the intense discussion earlier in the day, she was intent on taking every bit of pressure off her dad. His energy, outside of normal day to day bullshit, would be spent examining every nook and cranny in that compound for another exit, another way to smuggle those “special” coins out and into their hands.
One at a time, she pushed the overstuffed bags through the hole on the side of the receptacle. Thud. The fifth and final bag was heaviest. It slipped from her grip before it cleared the car door, splitting open as it hit the blacktop. The contents spilled on her freshly painted toes.
“Fuck it! Now I’m gonna be late!”
The wind kicked up, sending random circulars and junk mail into the air. She managed to grab the bulk of the pile and shove it into the hole, then she darted around the parking lot chasing down the rest. After retrieving every last piece, she plunked behind the wheel of her Honda Accord and cursed the wind for messing up her hair.
Suddenly a lime green flyer plastered itself to the windshield.
“I’m not chasing after you, you son of a bitch.” She hit the accelerator hard, veering to the right to lose the page, but it clung on, hooked by a wiper blade. She threw the car into park and glared at the page obstructing her view. That’s when she saw it. The word “coin” big and bold and right in front of her face.
Anatomy of a Coin for the True Collector
It took a few seconds for her to recognize the flyer as one that came to the house two or three times each year advertising non-credit classes at the local high school. Night school for adults.
Allegheny High School Adult Education
Noncredit Courses begins soon!
Don’t miss our most popular courses!
A short list of course names followed. The third one down, “Anatomy of a Coin for the True Collector” taught by Eugene somebody. Sporadic drops of water hit the windshield. Cat threw open the car door, grabbed the flyer, and pulled the door closed again. Not a second too soon. Sheets of rain turned the parking lot into a large puddle. Cold winter torrents passed quickly, so no point in trying to drive yet. She pushed the dome light on and read the flyer.
Not in her wildest dreams would Cat have ever considered taking some boring non-credit class. Especially one given at the local high school. But having spent half the day talking coins, dealers, collecting, and money, she felt this must be some higher power giving her a break. It had to be a sign. Hell, the whole thing had even happened in the parking lot of a church. Maybe this course could provide answers, a way for her dad to keep the coins coming. At least it might help her find the right dealer.
“Shit! This Thursday?” The course started within days. Cat shoved the flyer in her purse and sped out towards Colfax Street despite the downpour. She prayed someone could cover her shift for the next four Thursday nights. She’d done enough favors and filled in for others; it was her turn.
Old City Coin Club
There was no point in arguing with Eugene Kelper. He went to great lengths to prove his status as the numismatic authority of the Old City Coin Club. He got so protective of his collection that occasional rumors suggested it might not be as extensive as he claimed. That didn’t bother him. Most of his coins were too precious to put in the hands of unsophisticated so-called collectors anyway. He played it safe by distributing photos and accompanying documents of his treasures rather than the real thing. Akin to a celebrity keeping their offspring away from drooling crowds.
At fifty-two Eugene remained single and probably always would be. He had plenty of intellect, a somewhat attractive appearance, and yes, he did like women. But who has time to find a wife when you’re busy hunting for a rare coin that trumps those of your colleagues? Coins were his life, outside of a ho-hum job he rarely discussed.
A 1795 Draped Bust Small Eagle Silver Dollar originally spurred Eugene’s interest when it showed up in a handful of change given to him by a customer on his newspaper route. At twelve years old he was too young to make sense out of his parent’s divorce. He couldn’t possibly reconcile the complete alienation of a father who split for some hot young Parisian client without so much as a goodbye to his son. Eugene felt miserably invisible in the wake of it all. That distinctive coin dropped into his hand felt like a gift from God. Or perhaps more like a message, one saying that he too was special despite his father’s behavior. Observing his captivation with the unusual coin, his mother quickly gathered up some books about rare coins for Eugene. Thus began the adventure that would keep him busy well into the future.
Eugene wasn’t much of a socializer outside the coin world, however he rarely missed a club meeting. Members appreciated his broad knowledge of coins from various countries. With one quick glance at a slide or a photo, he could give a fairly accurate account of the time period, the country, and the language of a coin. While holding a coin in his hand, he could go into a liturgy about it as if it were a chapter in a favorite book. Pretty impressive. However, people struggled to overlook his quirks. Eugene could best be described as a coin collecting bigot. He only tolerated those who collected coins for what he considered the right reasons. The sentimental value or reliving a special moment of childhood. Or to indulge in the historical or cultural aspects. Or for the artistic appeal or the significant changes in the minting processes over the centuries. But to collect strictly for the monetary value? Or to search the world over for a coin to fill some missing hole in a silly cardboard book? Not cool in Eugene’s book.
Most of the members tuned him out when he got on his high horse. Jules Manatrov insisted on speaking up. A long-standing member of the club, Jules gladly disputed Eugene’s pathetic stance on the collector mentality whenever the sour subject came up. To his advantage, Jules practiced as a psychotherapist, making him a master of poking holes in Eugene’s reasoning. Who better to understand the psychology of collecting?
In his classically confrontational style, Jules positioned his eyeglasses to rest on the tip of his nose and peered over the lenses towards Eugene. “There are some in this very room who collect for monetary purposes. They collect to someday sell the whole lot of them for their child’s education or to splurge on a self-indulgent materialistic craving. That is their right. They may look at your ‘collection habit’ as a means for you to hide your intimacy-phobia, but I’ll bet my life they keep that opinion to themselves.”
“Ouch. So you speak for others in this room?” Eugene shot back with a deeply uncomfortable, deeply fake smile. A couple of members nervously shook their heads to dispute the claim.
“Of course I do. You know I don’t collect coins for monetary purposes. I’m richer than God!” Jules laughed loudly. “Besides, I’m only here to study the psychology of collectors. I seek to analyze the wounded child inside all of you.” he wiggled his fingers hypnotically at all the members seated throughout the room, “You who collect coins to fill some gaping hole in your poor, broken childhood.” He laughed at himself again before anyone could take offense. A few members risked a lighthearted snort or smirk and slowly the majority joined in and laughed. Not Eugene.
“My good Dr. Manatrov,” he said snobbishly, “You may be fluent in psychology, but a true numismatic, you are not. You, much like the mass populace of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries blindly jumped on the bandwagon, as to not be crushed by the wave. You never made the effort to understand.” He paused, cleared his throat, and attempted to restate his point in layman’s terms. “What I’m trying to say is, the majority of collectors have a skewed understanding of what they are collecting. They see it only as a commodity, so they hoard it and store these precious works of art in jelly jars. Whether you believe it or not, I don’t judge you or anyone else here, I simply want to educate you.”
Jules reached across the table and actually patted the hand of the Old City Coin Club’s most knowledgeable numismatic, who oddly enough didn’t recoil at the doctor’s kind gesture. “Eugene, my friend,” he said in his best Carl Jung voice, “I’ll ask you one thing. Have you considered the social aspect of coin collection?”
“The social aspect?”
“The social aspect is the subconscious motivation for collecting coins, and many other items for that matter. It’s the underlying reason most of us attend coin shows and expos. It’s a form of fellowship for like-minded souls with a common interest. It’s what brings us all together under this roof, month after month, to exchange information and learn from each other.”
Dead silence. Eugene nodded in defeat. He rarely found himself stifled, but there could be no denying that Jules got him good with that one.
Barry Jones, sensing Eugene’s embarrassment, offered up a self-deprecating story to lighten things up. “Well I’ll confess,” he said humbly. “For me it’s definitely the thrill of the hunt. Do you know I once got a call from a dealer in Texas who was ecstatic to tell me he got his hands on the 1920 Silver Bird I’d been searching for almost eight years! I couldn’t believe it. I dreamt about that day for so long. So I rearranged my schedule and caught the first flight to Houston. And there she was, sittin’ all pretty on a velvet mat. Just waiting for me. I marveled at that coin. I spoke to her, told her how long I’d been looking for her. I even held that coin up to my lips and kissed it! Then after a few minutes I put her back down on the velvet mat and said, ‘Eh, I think I’ll pass.’’
With confused laughter the group’s unanimous response came. “What??? Why did you do that?”
Barry’s longtime friend, Ted Eakes took over. “That’s no surprise! It’s the same thing he used to do with women. Like that cute brunette at West Chester State College that had him spellbound years ago. What was her name, Barry?”
“Margo.” Barry had a dreamy look on his face as he recalled the beautiful woman.
“Margo. That’s right. He barely knew her, but he kept telling me he was gonna marry that girl one day. Well she dodged him as long as she could until Mr. Suave here finally won her over. Then one good roll in the hay and Barry was done.”
“Eh, I think I’ll pass!” Barry blurted out, cracking up at himself.
Eugene wanted to roll his eyes. Instead he brought the Old City Coin Club meeting to a close until next time.
As much as he enjoyed running the meetings, the non-credit adult education class he’d taught at a local high school each winter got him far more excited. And tomorrow night he’d get to present his “Anatomy of a Coin for the True Collector” to a new crowd of excited participants. He could barely wait. The twelve-hour course rolled out on four consecutive Thursday evenings It had been advertised in the night school’s fall-winter catalog and mailed to the twenty-eight thousand residents of the school district. Eugene made the curriculum simple in order to draw in the simpletons, the common coin collectors, and prevent them from sounding like asses. There was so much more to coins than their monetary value. Eugene found his purpose in helping people appreciate that. Of course, as the instructor he drew a tiny benefit for himself. With an average of sixty students coming through his class each semester, eventually someone would turn him onto a winner, a rare find. Perhaps the find of a lifetime.
Allegheny High School
Adult night school was a terrible let down to Eugene in the winter quarter of 2010. Only nine of the fifteen who enrolled for “Anatomy of a Coin” bothered to show up the first evening. Night school rules stated that instructors receive a percentage of the enrollment fee only for students who bother to show up and complete the course. Even when he hit the full roster of twenty, the money wasn’t spectacular, but Eugene counted on every single penny of income that moonlighting provided. With an aging mother to care for, his finances were stretched to the max.
Eugene must have been the only night school instructor in numerous decades that continued to use a wooden pointer. The black tip smacked the screen lightly, making the projected image quiver for several seconds.
“This is the blanking process,” he explained. “It’s the third step in creating what you see over here.” The long wand swung through the air and stopped to point at a small pile of circulating coins on his desk. Then it swung back to the screen. “The metal that’s wound around that gigantic spool is thirteen inches wide. You might be surprised to know the length. Would anyone like to guess? How many feet of metal do you think winds around that spool?”
A few random incorrect answers were shouted from the audience. Classroom interaction helped to keep things interesting. Eugene only learned that from previous evaluations that suggested the course gave a lot of content but lacked pizazz. Pizazz? This wasn’t Salsa dancing! One student wrote that the course provided the best sedative he’d had in years. Ouch. It took Eugene a long time to shake that comment off. He went in search of a few tricks to keep people awake and interested. Overall, his evaluations had been above average since.
When all responses were exhausted, Eugene revealed the correct answer. “Fifteen hundred feet.”
“Whoa,” uttered Todd, a beer-belly toting middle-ager in a Donovan McNabb jersey. “That’s the length of five football fields.”
Like Eugene knew anything about football. A pause and a quick calculation in his head made him relatively confident to second that statement. “Exactly. Five whole football fields! Believe it or not, this coil weighs approximately six thousand pounds and it eventually becomes your pocket change or,” his eyes timidly met with those of the only female in the room, “the change in your purse.”
Eugene felt nervous around women, especially gorgeous women. He didn’t understand why, but there were times that attractive women had caused him to stutter like an idiot. Since no one likes a stutterer, he preferred not to be in the company of an attractive woman. Yet here she sat, a paying student, and undoubtedly a beauty.
While her oversized chest drew looks from every other male in the room stupid enough to think their stares weren’t obvious, Eugene had been captivated by her eyes. Large, brown and hypnotizing. Such a beautiful complement to the shiny waves of auburn hair that spilled carelessly over her shoulders. To top it off, Eugene gathered from her response to various questions that she possessed a sharp mind. She seemed to know more about the minting process than any other student he’d ever had. Beauty and brains. But she looked young – too young for him. Twenty-three, twenty-five tops. Much younger than the average student enrolled in noncredit courses of this type. What could have drawn her to this class?
“Cat” was handwritten on the folded name-tent in front of her. Cat. A fitting name for such a young maiden. With absolutely no perverse intent, he suddenly envisioned her in his small study admiring his collection. He imagined the look of awe in those striking brown eyes as she beheld his most cherished possession, the Lydian Lion from Asia Minor. Quite possibly the first government coin ever minted, it dated back to 600 BC. Few had seen it, and as long as it stayed in Eugene’s possession, few ever would. But Cat, she would appreciate it. Without knowing her well, he just knew she would! He couldn’t explain how he knew but he could see it all so clearly.
A cozy evening together in his study. His extensive collection. His most valued coin in a protective frame. Stacks of papers he’d written. Shelves filled with the research he’d devoted his life to. Her intrigue about the history and the culture. Her fascination with his broad knowledge. Her yearning to learn more, to delve deeper into his world. She’d look deeply in his eyes and marvel at the stories he’d tell. He could practically smell the sweet scent of her hair. He’d touch her face, admiring the awe that she, unlike so many others, had towards his lifelong passion. He’d feel his heart opening to her, reaching out to her, longing for her.
A foreign sensation, or at least a long forgotten one, emerged at opposite ends of his body. A warmth that slowly swirled around his chest and his calves, causing his shoulders to drop and his knees to weaken. A woozy feeling overcame him as the warmth intensified, sending tingles down each arm, up each thigh and closing in on his pelvis. “Get a hold of yourself! She’s too young!” Eugene thought frantically as he shuffled papers nervously, searching for a page he didn’t really need. Anything to move past that insanely unintentional hiatus and help him focus on teaching. He knew nothing about her anyway. She could be married, she could be gay, or she could be a complete bitch. Regardless, her presence in the room made him uncomfortable.
He went about the business of teaching. He guided the students through the “nuts and bolts of minting” as he called it, sharing everything from blanking to bagging. People ought to know the process involved in creating the most necessary element for human survival. Unfortunately, most take it for granted. They don’t value the time, the dedication, and the attention that goes into every last coin that circulates the planet. Still, Eugene was the first to admit that this part of the course, the minting process, could come across somewhat dry. Future weeks would cover art, history, culture, and some spectacular masterpieces unearthed after centuries. He had traveled to the Museum of Athens, the Maharashtra Coin Museum, and even the Money Museum in Rome. Discussions about those trips, as well as his slides showing some of the rarest coins in existence, seem to gain the most praise from former students. Well, at least the students who were genuinely interested in true numismatics.
Dry or not, describing the minting process offered the most logical place to begin and would be revisited throughout the remainder of the course.
“Blanking is the process that punches plain round disks from metal strips. Annealing is the process that heats those disks to soften them. Upsetting raises a smooth edge around each blank, making the coins stackable. That’s when the ‘blank’ becomes known as a ‘planchet,’ an old French term from the early 17th century.”
Eugene went on to tell them about the striking process that stamps both sides with an image and how he frowned upon the words “heads” and “tails” unless one was talking about a child’s game. “Numismatics deserves proper etiquette and that includes proper vernacular, therefore ‘obverse’ and ‘reverse’ should replace the former.”
There were times where that particular discussion drew some heckling from the audience, as if to say Eugene was a bit of a stickler. Long gone were the days since that bothered him! He respected the art of coinage and expected the same from his students.
The pointer slapped the screen where an image was projected, of a man with cotton gloves looking through a microscope. “Inspecting is the next process and one that is taken very seriously, especially where United States circulating coins are concerned. There are strict quality standards to be met and if a flawed coin is spotted during inspection, the entire batch is scrapped and destroyed by a waffler and sent to recycling. The ones that pass inspection are counted and bagged. The bags are weighed, sealed, and shipped to Federal Reserve Banks.”
After some Q&A, Eugene asked the nine students to split into three separate teams so they could engage in an activity that summarized the minting process. An easy enough instruction, split into three separate teams. Yet this collection of idiots couldn’t get it right, mainly because the majority of them were tripping over each other trying to get a seat beside Cat. Eugene took control and divvied up the group, sticking Cat with the only two gentlemen over the age of eighty.
Each team received a small plastic tub filled with a variety of circulating coins, a blank, a planchet, and even a waffled coin. They were asked to identify the coin, where it was in processing, the Mint marks, and various other information. A crowd pleaser of an activity, it seemed to put an end to those less-than-pleasant evaluations from the past. Also a nice way to wind down the evening after a three hour class.
Before class ended, Eugene distributed an agenda for the remaining three sessions and reminded the students to bring along any coins of interest next week. He thanked everyone for coming and excused the group. Some students slipped out the door immediately and some stuck around to talk to each other. Eugene clicked off the projector and began collecting the various pages, photos, pencils, piles of coins, and plastic containers from around the room. He placed everything into a large pile on the front table to be packed.
“Do you have a minute?” Her voice came as a surprise. A pleasant one, until he suddenly became aware of the coppery smell on his hands from handling all those coins. All he could think about was locating the hand sanitizer as soon as possible. He mumbled something while he moved things around on the desk and side table, trying desperately to find the stupid four-ounce bottle that had been sitting right in front of him the whole night. She watched him dig through the pile of supplies he’d just gathered together, lifting file folders and handouts, pushing markers aside, and inadvertently knocking coins off the edge of the desk. His eyes closed as he tried to gain composure and silently prayed he wouldn’t start to stutter.
“Maybe this isn’t a good time,” she said apologetically.
“No, no, this is fine!” He said as he finally spotted the bottle of light green gel. He squeezed out a small puddle into his palm and rubbed his hands together, releasing an astringent-flowery aroma between them.
She laughed, “Well after that you aren’t going to want to touch this.” She held up her hand, a large coin between her index finger and thumb.
“What do we have here?” He took the coin she offered, relieved that he wasn’t stammering. Perhaps those days were finally over. “It’s one of the First Ladies coins. Louisa Adams, 2009. Looks very similar to one I showed on the screen earlier.” He flipped it back and forth in his hand, wondering why she’d take the time to show him a rather common coin. Could this be an excuse for something more? Did she feel some sort of chemistry too?
“Mr. Kelper, I thought you of all people would notice.”
“Eugene. You can call me Eugene.” His voice dimmed at the mild reminder of years between them.
“Look closer Eugene, there’s something you’re missing.”
He grabbed one of the lenses out of the pile, but set it down, as the flaw in the coin now jumped out at him. “I can’t believe I didn’t notice it right away,” he said sheepishly. “The edge is missing the inscription. My goodness! So where did you get this?”
“Ohhhh, ha. That’s a long story.” She was the sheepish one now. The question had her backing up a few steps from him. Was it such a surprise that he would ask? Her reaction prevented him from prodding any further. She cut to the chase. “I’m just wondering what it’s worth.”
What’s it worth. The question that typically made his skin crawl. The one uttered by almost every “so called” numismatic who was really just a shallow minded collector looking for a quick profit. “What’s it worth?” The three words that would normally discredit the asker, but in her case he let it slide. He couldn’t explain the hold she had on him, but he was willing to entertain a discussion about the coin. As a matter of fact, time for old Eugene to take a risk. Time to expand his comfort zone. He pressed his hands on the desk, leaned forward on his arms and looked into those big brown eyes. “I hope you don’t mind, I’ve been on my feet for most of the day. Could we continue this discussion over a beer?”
“Sure. Why not.” The dispassion in her response was temporary. She broke into a smile that revealed the sweetest dimples he had ever seen.
Time to alter his former stance on coin collecting. Everyone can change.
Eugene’s mother was also his neighbor and the only woman he’d ever cooked for. Nothing special, just things from a short list of recipes filed inside his brain. Meatloaf, spaghetti, chicken cutlets, or a burger on the grill. For the most part, meals were a solo event for Eugene. Like most bachelors, cooking for one wasn’t his idea of fun. He’d rather stop somewhere on his way home to grab a quick bite or pick up something ready-made that he could nuke. That’s why tackling the meal he’d planned for a very special guest had him a bit unnerved. His laptop stood open on the kitchen counter amidst a pile of ingredients, spices, mixing bowls, and utensils. He stared intently at the “Romantic Meals” webpage for his next instruction.
Inviting Cat to his place for dinner was probably a little impulsive this early in the relationship. Were they even in a relationship or was that wishful thinking? A gaping generation between them and God only knew what millennials expected. Having only been out with her to grab a beer after class a couple times, technically they hadn’t been on a real date yet. According to dating articles online for twentysomethings, technicalities were no longer cool.
Relationships seemed lighter and easier for the young people. They’d start and end without all the drama ever present in the love-lives of the previous generations. Maybe that was the real reason Eugene had never been in a relationship before, he had drama-proofed his life by going solo. The resident psychologist from Old City Coin Club ought to chew on that for a while, the old coot.
Perhaps God saved Eugene for a free-spirited, twenty-four-year-old auburn-haired Cat who obviously had an interest in him. Love and relationships may change from one generation to the next, but the signs remain the same. Romantic gestures speak for themselves. The way her one shoulder dipped down towards him when she asked him questions. The way she tossed her hair and giggled when he responded. That seductive look she flashed him. Eugene may be a novice in the kitchen, but he knew the womanly signs that say, “I want you”.
He removed the cling wrap from the styrofoam tray full of fresh sea scallops and tossed them into the strainer, then into the preheated skillet with the white wine butter sauce he’d prepared earlier. Instantly, the room infused with the smell of seafood, and that’s when it hit him.
“Seafood??? What a dope.” He scolded himself. “She works in a seafood restaurant! Scallops are probably the last thing she’ll want.” His head hung in defeat. How he wished he could dash back to Acme and grab a couple of nice steaks instead. But no time for that. The scallops would have to do. Hopefully the chocolate covered strawberries would make up for his stupid choice of main course.
A vase full of spring flowers sat in the sink. At least he’d been smart enough not to follow through with the red roses he originally had in the shopping cart. Too presumptuous. He dried the bottom of the vase with a dish towel and placed the cheerful flowers at the center of the small kitchen table, then stood back to observe. Too tall, the flowers would obstruct their view of one another. He moved the vase to the kitchen counter, then back to the table, then he looked around for two full minutes until he found a perfect spot in the family room, where he envisioned the two of them spending time after dinner.
By seven o’clock, he was showered and dressed. An abundance of silver flecks had begun to crowd out his neatly parted, wavy light brown hair. A box of Just for Men he bought earlier remained unopened and shoved behind a stack of towels in the bathroom closet. Why bother? It’s not like she hadn’t noticed the gray glaring at her from under the neon lights of his classroom.
He dimmed the kitchen light, then turned it back up a bit. Then he flicked on the stereo and searched for a station not suited for old fogies. Before he could find something a bit hipper, the doorbell rang. His guest arrived right on time. How he loved the fact that she was prompt.
“Hi handsome!” Her gorgeous smile had him gripping the doorknob to steady himself. His knees would surely give out if he allowed himself to look beyond that face to the stunning body he’d gotten quick glimpses of in the past.
“Here, take these,” she said before he had time to speak and handed off a liquor bag with four bottles of wine inside. “I wasn’t sure what you were cooking, so I covered all the bases. There’s some red and white in there. And these,” she said extending the foil-wrapped plate in her other hand, “are for dessert.”
“You shou…shou…shouldn’t have!” Eugene felt like a toad in the presence of a princess. He hoped to God she didn’t notice that annoying stammer.
She strolled right past him, chatting her way towards the kitchen as if she’d been in his house a dozen times before. Thank goodness! Her casual, confident nature had him feeling less like a fumbling idiot. From behind her, he took her in without looking like a pervert. She wore a navy spandex top that fit snugly through the waist and hips, barely concealing her shoulders. Beneath the shirt’s hem were the signature Wrangler W’s on the pockets of stone washed bootcut jeans that fit as if she’d been poured into them. A pair of crushed-velvet, navy platforms added at least two inches to her height. Her long wavy mane was pulled back in a loose bun at the base of her neck.
He pried his focus from her perfect figure and responded to Cat’s one-way dialog about who-knows-what with an occasional ‘uh huh’ as he placed the unexpected gifts on the counter and searched for a corkscrew. Before he could apologize for making scallops instead of a more logical main course, Cat had the lid off the skillet and a spoonful of sauce to her lips.
“This is good,” she said with a serious nod, “but it’ll be killer with a little paprika. May I?” She asked as she pulled open cabinets looking for spices.
“Of course!” He stood there, mesmerized with the way she made herself so at home in unfamiliar territory. Maybe she’d teach him a thing or two about self-assuredness. “So you like to cook, do you?”
“Hmmm,” she flashed him that seductive look, the one that consumed his thoughts through many a night. “You have no idea.”
He handed her a long-stemmed glass filled with white wine and quickly gulped down a large sip from his own glass.
“Wait!” She yelped. “Shouldn’t we toast first?”
He wiped perspiration from his brow and asked if she’d like to do the honors. She slowly stepped towards him, their chests practically touching, and gently clinked his glass and said, “Here’s to numismatics! Who knew it could be so inspiring?!”
“Here, here!” He said excitedly, then guzzled what remained in the glass.
She put her hand on his shoulder and gently pushed him back from the stove, “Okay, now go sit down. I’ve got this.”
“What?!” He laughed, “You’re taking over?”
The princess came unexpectedly into his night class only a few weeks earlier, and now here she was in his home, adding her touch to what turned out to be a killer meal. She entertained him. She served him. She flattered him. She brought him chocolate raspberry brownies that she made from scratch. She turned him on. She wound him tightly around her finger. Life is good, he thought. Really, really good!
Eugene didn’t recall much after dessert. Just bits and pieces. Whether it came from too much wine or something in the brownies, the remainder of the evening was a series of snapshots that flashed through his mind in no particular order. Confusing, hysterical, delightfully alluring snapshots.
He watched her bring another forkful to his lips, the most decadent, most delicious brownie he’d ever tasted. His eyes closed and he savored every velvety morsel. His eyes opened. She asked him to feed her a chocolate covered strawberry. He obliged but missed her mouth, leaving a chocolatey trail from her nose to her ear. They both burst out laughing. His eyes closed and he heard the odd sound of drums in a cave, drums in a cave, drums in a cave. She laughed hysterically when he asked her about them, “It must be the wine!”
He opened his eyes and saw her dancing as she washed the dishes. Her hips swayed back and forth, back and forth, hypnotically. Then there were three Cats in the room, in the room, in the room. One of them sat down across from him and pointed to the shiny First Ladies coins on a paper plate sitting under his nose. He giggled like a child. How did they get there? Urgently, she grabbed his hand as he prepared to bite one.
“What are you doing?!”
“I thought it was dessert.” He said drowsily.
They both burst into laughter. He felt so woozy! He wanted to touch her. Wanted to reach across the table and touch one of those big beautiful, perfectly shaped . . .
She picked up a coin and dangled it over a cup of coffee. She made coffee? When did she make coffee? He reached for the coffee but she filled his wine glass instead. He blew her a kiss and took a swig, then thought about those breasts again wondering if she’d mind if he . . .
“Silly question for you,” she smiled adorably, “If I dropped this coin in this cup of coffee, would it damage the coin?”
He stared quizzically, then burst out laughing, barely able to catch his breath. She giggled and then asked again. He cleared his throat and put on his best expert numismatic face, then explained as if he were in front of the class about the composition of the coin and why coffee wouldn’t damage it.
“How about oatmeal? Would oatmeal damage it?”
Wasn’t she just charming?! How he wanted to push the table away, pull her chair close to his, wrap his arms around her and plant a big wet kiss on those beautiful lips. He was in his glory. “Cat. You amaze me. You are gorgeous. You can cook. And you take interest in something so important to me! Where have you been all my life?” The thoughts roamed through his mind but never made it to his lips.
His half-opened eyes gazed lovingly at her, then grew as large as eggs as he suddenly remembered his prize possession. The Lideon Lion! “I have something to show you!” he squealed and attempted to stand. “It’s there in the family room!”
“Wait!” She grabbed his hand and pulled him back into his chair to feed him another huge chunk of brownie. “You haven’t answered my question yet. Would oatmeal damage the coating on this coin? How about chocolate mousse? As a matter of fact, can you tell me what substances would damage these coins?”
Still chewing, his body felt as light as a cloud. He heard jazz but couldn’t remember putting in that CD. He could barely feel his feet yet wanted to dance. He wanted to pick up the princess and put her on his lap as he knew he could. Because he was invincible.
The serious look of anticipation on Cat’s face brought him back to the moment. She awaited an answer. Who knew why she has all these crazy questions about coins and food substances? Eugene didn’t need to know the reason. He’d tell her whatever she wanted to know if she’d just . . .
“Kiss me Cat!” He hiccupped. “Kiss me and I’ll answer every question you have! I’ll even cook up some oatmeal so you can see for yourself. I’ll steam some rice if you want to drop a coin in that too! Or leftover spaghetti!! I think I’ve got some leftover spaghetti in the fridge! Whatever you want princess! Just kiss–”
Their lips locked before he could say another thing. Soft, warm, tender, yet passionate and filled with fire. Exactly what Eugene imagined. There’s nothing in the world like kissing the woman you’re head over heels in love with.
Yes, despite many lost moments of the evening, he couldn’t forget that kiss. He savored the memory and replayed it over and over. And although he’d often been caught daydreaming at work, he needed that precious memory to spice up an otherwise monotonous day job.
Unfortunately, Eugene didn’t see Cat again after that night. She told him she’d been nursing a very sick friend back to health. He didn’t want to smother her, so he waited patiently. In the meantime, he practiced cooking and planned out their next romantic meal, however long it might take. Both he and the Lideon Lion would be ready when the princess returned.
Over a month had passed since Dee stormed out of the house and threatened to sell the White Elephant. During that time Pat dialed her constantly, but they only spoke on the three occasions she was willing to pick up. She never met with Ellen Clark or any other realtor because she knew that without Pat’s signature there would be no sale. Her dramatic outburst that morning had been more about grief anyway. Pat offered to go down and spend a few days with her, but she made it clear she wanted time alone. Very understandable having just buried a son, so he didn’t push it. He offered, merely as a gesture of kindness. In truth, he felt beyond relieved to her out of the way for a while. It gave him the space to troubleshoot ideas and come up with a new way to steal the coins now that his shift had changed. Now that he’d no longer be meeting with Nilbert every week. Now that he’d no longer have access to that special-security-free-exit.
Days passed, then weeks, and nothing came to him. There was simply no exiting the building without a security check, no stealing coins without setting off alarms. Outside the main entrance he sat on a concrete bench in a small alcove and sulked. “Goddamn shift change! Without that stairwell I’m shit out of luck.”
He considered asking Rafferty to leave him on night shift. The cancer could justify such a request. He’d lie and say his days were needed for various treatments.
The idea seemed promising for an entire fifteen seconds until he remembered that working night shift without Ham and Idol would be way too risky. God knows all the other cops were brighter and more observant than those two slouches.
“Fuck!” Pat lit up a smoke, cursed his luck, and stared into space for the longest time. That’s when it hit him. The answer was right there!
“There is a way to exit the building without being screened.” he mumbled excitedly. “A smoke break! Right here in this cubby hole.” Suddenly a plan, so simple it was practically hysterical, began to take form.
The alcove offered a blind spot located a few feet to the right of the main entrance. The space was a low priority on the Mint ’s surveillance list and rightfully so. Why waste expensive equipment to video a concrete bench and a trash receptacle? They underestimated the resourcefulness of a desperate man.
The alcove is one of a few designated smoker’s areas meant specifically for the cops. Also, the most underutilized because of its location near the main entrance where lines of tourists tended to form. The bench sometimes worked as the catchall for lazy middle-schoolers that whined about tired legs or the perch for weary old folks who were unable to keep up with their Mint-touring family members. Pat knew the tour schedule like the back of his hand. He knew when the Mint would be the busiest and when that alcove was most likely to be vacant. Best of all, he knew that coming out here required no x-rays, no scans, no metal detectors, and no pat downs. Because it was just an innocent alcove. A smoker’s area. A perfect place for a thief to stash stolen goods.
Of course, every plan has a downside. In order to pull it off he needed an accomplice. Someone to retrieve the goods from their hiding place as quickly as possible. To involve his daughter in a federal crime, especially in this capacity – that had to be a mortal sin. It had to rank higher on the damnation scale than cheating on his wife. What choice did he have? He thought about finding someone else. A person with a life worth risking if things went awry. Perhaps an ex-con or a dirty cop. But there wasn’t another soul in the world he trusted more than Cat because basically there wasn’t another soul more capable!
Regardless, involving her in the actual theft would be complicated. Not because she wouldn’t be willing, but because he’d have to live with himself after putting her in such a dangerous position. As expected, Cat did cartwheels when Pat presented the idea.
“This is serious business, kid. I’m telling you. I need you to think long and hard about it.” He spelled out all the potential risks to her reputation, her future, her freedom.
Cat paid him no mind, instead dancing circles around him and chanting, “We’re gonna be rich, daddy! We’re gonna be rich!”
He eventually got her to calm down so they could have a deliberate discussion. Every tiny detail must be measured. Every potential threat must be weighed. Finally, a set of solid instructions materialized as did a mutual pact to follow those instructions to a T.
The timing couldn’t be better since the Mint ’s semi-annual shift change went into effect and Pat’s team flipped back onto the 7-to-3 shift for half a year. His goal was to amass enough of a fortune over the next six months that he could retire from the Mint for good! The question was, would he still be alive?
His body took a beating in the last year, not just from the burden of his deeds but from the cancer. He had yet to tell his family. Advanced lung cancer warrants treatments like chemo, radiation, and other rigorous regimens that zap energy and cloud thinking. Pulling off a crime is impossible while puking up one’s guts, so the written prescriptions were trashed and all further doctor’s appointments were cancelled. He continued to deny his destiny except for the eerie reminder he got when he looked in the mirror and saw his father’s drawn face staring back at him.
Other than medical personnel and Captain Rafferty, Ham and Idol were the only two who knew about the cancer. Pat let it slip out during a weak moment. An instantly regrettable moment, because the last thing a thief needs is to be the center of attention. He retracted some of his broadcast and made light of the diagnosis. Then he made both men promise to keep the news to themselves and they never discussed again.
While Pat finalized the new plan, Cat explored ways for her dad to transport the coins without diminishing their monetary value. It turned out that ionized water was the safest bet, safer than black coffee, so Pat stocked up on the stuff and kept it by his desk. Since his cancer was no longer a secret to the Vid cops, bringing in specialized water raised no eyebrows. Ham and Idol assumed he drank it for his health. That’s when it occurred to Pat that spilling the beans to his coworkers may have been beneficial after all. His illness became the perfect excuse for his mental preoccupation and sudden bouts of edginess. Cancer turned out to be a coin smuggler’s smokescreen.
It seemed everything about the plan synced up by mid-March. Even Dee’s temporary hiatus ended right on time, just days after her husband and daughter had secretly succeeded with their first co-conspiracy.
United States Mint Facility
Cat crossed Independence Mall East with the cool indifference that one might exhibit on her way into the office, or to a dental appointment, or to meet a friend for lunch. Not the attitude you’d expect from an accessory involved in a federal crime. Perhaps that laid-back demeanor was a perk of youth, or the certainty that life should be lived large. Or maybe it stemmed from hellbent desire to stick it to the government. Regardless, unlike her father Cat didn’t angst over the task at hand. Picking up thousands of dollars’ worth of revenue felt beyond thrilling. They were close to breaking the quarter-million-dollar mark and the timing couldn’t be better. At twenty-two, she’d already amassed a lot of debt. God forsaken school loans. More importantly, she had dreams and goals. Like getting the hell out of Roxborough and ditching her old Accord for a pearl-white BMW turbocharged V12 sedan. Opening a five-star restaurant atop a tall building in the city where she’d employ only those chefs ballsy enough to experiment with a wide range of flavors, because preparing food should be an adventure. She’d name the place “Bravado.”
The only part of the routine that irked her was the way she looked out in public. No makeup, hair stuffed in a Flyer’s cap, boring pair of khakis and a baggy t-shirt. Not a pretty sight. There were better looking vent-people. She understood the reasoning and accepted that when playing a part in an important performance, costumes and props are expected. The costumes varied each week, but the prop remained the same. A sixteen-ounce disposable coffee cup with a black lid.
Like most theatrical props, the cup simply worked as a decoy. Not a drop of liquid in it, though her performance suggested differently. She held it to her lips and faked a sip as she ascended the front steps of the fortress-like building and planted herself on the same concrete bench that her dad had just abandoned. Then she wedged the prop between her thighs and busied herself with her cell phone to fend off the attention of any onlookers. Ha. Like anyone would bother looking! There wasn’t much to see. She fit in well. Just another drab local, sitting on a bench, drinking coffee and tapping away at her cell phone.
On one particular visit, Facebook hooked her attention so deeply she forgot why she sat there. Their “agreed upon 15-minute timeframe,” was long over by the time her dad received her code text indicating all went well. That little delay put him through the wringer, she later found out. In a local diner that evening, he sat across from her and lectured in a frustrated whisper.
“Thirty minutes?! Do you have any idea what I went through? I thought someone must be on to us! Or that you dropped the goods! Or that, Jesus I don’t know! I didn’t know what the hell to think! Don’t do that to me!”
“I almost came out looking for you.” His tirade continued, “And that would’ve blown our cover! Do you get it?”
She sat back in the booth and sighed. No point interrupting him.
“In the future, don’t get on Facebook. You got so distracted you didn’t even notice I texted you! Don’t take this job so lightly! You’re an accomplice for Christ’s sakes!” He lightened up. “Okay hon?”
“Yeah, yeah. I will daddy.”
His mild eruptions didn’t bother Cat. No matter how many times they pulled off the job, the night before a hit gave him his chance to clarify and re-clarify every little detail and use his famous line: “There is no room for error!”
He’d repeat that line as he ran through the instructions she’d heard a million times before. What time to arrive, what to wear, which hand should hold the coffee cup, which part of the bench she should sit on, how many minutes to wait until she should dispose of the decoy cup and retrieve the one hidden under the bench. The need to protect that cup like the holy grail, tread carefully back to the car, and before driving away, send him a quick text to him so he could resume breathing. Sounding off meant a great deal to her dad so she afforded him that. The payoff was worth it.
This hit went just as smooth as all the rest. Within twelve minutes Cat sat back behind the wheel of her Honda Accord with the sixteen-ounce cup of coins, which weighed much more than that, nestled safely in the console. Approximately one hundred and fifty First Ladies coins filled that cup. Their face value clocked in at just a buck each. Minus the edge engraving, they were worth much more. Two hundred bucks a piece. This cup alone could pay off half of her debt, but it wasn’t her turn yet. All the money made so far would go to a greater cause, getting her daddy solvent and helping Jason get out of jail. Unfortunately, time had run out for her other brother Christopher, who fell victim to a crappy world. Too many hardships had taken their toll on her family and this plan would make up for it. Once her dad got out of the red it would be Cat’s turn.
She tapped out a text message hoping he’d get the pun. “We got this routine down, Pat!” She laughed at herself as she hit ‘send,’ then turned the key in the ignition and drove off.
Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania
Looking back over the last few months, Cat never dreamed that her life would become so busy. One day she was pouring drinks to blurry-eyed patrons who smelled like fish, and the next she found herself exporting goods that she helped steal. Celebrating right now would be premature since the proceeds had only begun to come in. Nonetheless, thinking about celebrating kept her on track when things got frustrating. Where this gig was concerned, there was no escaping frustrations. They were her constant companion right out of the gate.
Like when she’d made that first call to Morris Specialties in Reno, Nevada over a month ago. According to her dad, that was the dealer who’d been swindled. Unfortunately, that’s not the story Cat got when she called them directly. Edward Morris, the shop owner, claimed he never paid five hundred for a so-called “flawed” First Ladies coin, nor would he ever pay that much. Somebody needs to get their facts straight! However, if she had Mint errors for sale, he told her he was willing to pay two hundred per coin and not a cent more. Having anticipated a much higher offer, two hundred felt like a slap in the face. Cat reluctantly countered with the pathetically low price of three hundred and fifty, but Morris wouldn’t budge. “Two hundred per coin, take it or leave it.” She thanked the man for his time and scratched him off the list.
That was the beginning of a many a disappointment but thankfully, Cat’s “no sweat” attitude prevented her from giving up. Maybe finding local buyers would be smarter anyway, she told herself, because she’d have an in-person advantage. A chance to wow them into meeting her bottom line. Who needed Morris Specialties anyway? Turns out she did.
After scouring the Delaware Valley looking for anyone willing to pay more than a measly twenty-five dollars per coin, Cat had enlarged the search and racked up miles with last minute road trips to Pittsburgh, NYC, Rehoboth, Baltimore, and podunk towns in between. She was forced to sell a couple of rolls at a sickeningly low price just to put gas in the car. At the end of each trip, she’d update her list with new categories:
No longer in business.
Fucker doesn’t return calls.
Small quantities only.
Business hours on website were wrong. They were closed!
Freaked me out with too many questions.
Doesn’t speak English.
It took her five road trips to hit forty-some dealers; the majority were a waste of time. A few went as high as forty-five dollars per coin. One in southern Maryland came slightly closer to her target by offering one hundred and twenty-five dollars per coin, but with one condition, that she’d follow him back to his apartment after hours. Fat chance creep! Pawning these error coins proved tougher than she imagined. Reno didn’t look so bad anymore.
Edward Morris received Cat’s second call a few weeks after her first. Not only was his offer still the best by far, he was professional, patient and spoke good English. He explained the entire process for long distance deals including the packaging, shipping, insuring, and tracking of shipments. He advised her to set up a direct deposit account and told her proceeds usually hit the account seven to ten days after a given shipment is received.
She loved the idea of direct deposit. Matter of fact, she loved everything about this guy. One issue remained left to discuss, one that could pull the plug on doing business together. No point in hesitating, she asked the million-dollar question.
“Edward, I trust your offer is the same no matter how large the quantity?”
Silence on the other end. Anticipating what he might ask in response, she broke the silence with a contrived story. “My grandmother died recently. She was an odd one. We were cleaning out her house and found a huge quantity of these coins, hundreds, maybe thousands. My siblings and I, well we’re not planning to sell all of them now because we’re still in the process, still trying to divvy stuff up between us, you know?”
She waited for Ed, expecting he’d question her, ask for more details or some kind of proof, or God only knows what else. It was the deal killer for potential buyers who were too skeptical to work with her.
Ed simply responded “These cases come up more often than you think. Eccentric family members keep life interesting, don’t they? You wouldn’t believe some of the stories I hear and some of the valuable things people come across, often in their own homes. My offer stands at two hundred dollars per coin, for now anyway. If I need to adjust the price, I’ll let you know in advance, so you can decide what you want to do.”
“Okay, that sounds perfect!”
“Good. I’m eager to do business with you. Be sure to let me know when to expect the first shipment.” As a courtesy, he provided his personal number for future use.
Cat had immediately put the process to the test. First, she opened a bank account in Central Jersey under her dad’s name. She picked one in a remote location, halfway between Philly and the shore, where chances were slim they’d bump into anyone familiar. Second, by shipping two rolls of defective Louisa Adams coins to Ed. She let him know the shipment had gone out and anxiously awaited the money. Five days after delivery, eight thousand dollars was deposited into the account. What a magical moment that was!
This crazy plan was actually working! It worked so well in fact that the co-conspirators upped the hit from once to twice a week. Her dad’s idea. He seemed more determined than ever to get solvent and move on. Every week they picked two random days to make the exchange. Pat hid the goods, Cat retrieved them. Two hits per week sped everything up. Double the coins, double the shipping, double the proceeds, and double the work.
Pat was already seated in a booth when Cat walked into the diner, late as usual.
“I took the liberty of ordering for you,” he said as she slid in across from him. “Hope you like their southwest omelet.”
“That’s fine” she said, then didn’t let him get another word in as she bombarded him with all her latest thoughts.
A cup of coffee and several minutes into the meal, she told him she was considering quitting her job at the Seafood Hut, what with all the work involved with moving the coins.
He stopped her mid-sentence. “I urge you not to do that!”
“What? I was sure you’d support the idea!”
Pat let her know that he respected her reasoning but added his perspective to it. He was afraid that quitting her job would be a flag raiser with Dee.
“It would mean more explanations and more lies,” Pat reasoned, “For the time being, we need to at least pretend everything is normal.”
“Yeah. I get it.” Cat picked at the cold omelet on her plate. She didn’t have much of a taste for diner food, yet Pinocchio’s in Bala Cynwyd was a second home lately. Like a co-conspirator’s clubhouse. A place where the duo could meet and talk business freely, without having Dee wander in on their conversation like she did at home several weeks ago. It was in the middle of the night, when Cat had been filling her dad in on her progress with dealers. Dee, who’d been sound asleep for hours, was suddenly standing at the foot of the steps listening to their conversation. Roguishly, Cat threaded their topic into a scene from a Netflix series and Dee thought nothing of it. She got a glass of water and went back upstairs. “Great save.” Pat whispered once the coast was clear. That was the last time they risked discussing the theft at home. He’d chosen Pinocchio’s because day or night the place stayed packed and noisy enough for the two of them to fade into the background and go over highly sensitive issues.
“Maybe I should just get a place of my own so mom won’t know my schedule. Then we won’t have to eat this crap all the time.” Cat pushed her plate away with disgust.
“That’s fine down the road, kid. But right now, status quo works in our favor. There are enough complicated issues to work through without adding to the list.”
“More coffee, honey?” The silver-haired server with the dangling cross earrings already knew the answer and poured Pat a refill without waiting. Cat’s crumpled napkin stuffed inside her cup spoke for itself. The woman pulled the check from her apron and slid it towards Pat telling him to pay at the door. “But please stay as long as you want, honey!” she added with a toothy smile and a wink. She never forgot a good tipper.
Pat let the check sit there and resumed conversation. “Speaking of complicated issues, I gotta figure out what to tell your mother. It’s still kinda early in the game, but eventually I’ll need some explanation for the sudden windfall. I’m stumped.”
Cat smirked. He’d brought it up before, so it obviously stressed him out. She resisted repeating her former “that’s the least of my problems” response. She leaned into the table and compassionately offered the following: “Daddy, I think I have the perfect solution. Tell mom you hit the jackpot at Parx.”
Pat’s head jerked back and his eyes widened. “Hmm. Wow. I never considered that.” Seconds ticked by as the potential conversation played out in his mind, then he looked back at Cat and said, “The casino, huh? Jesus, your mother will blow a gasket if I say I’ve been gambling!”
“Winning, not gambling. There’s a difference.”
“Either way she’ll be pissed!”
“But what’s the alternative?”
“I know. You’re right.” He sighed and nodded slowly. “Gambling, I mean winning at Parx Casino. Well, it tops all my excuses!”
“Your welcome!” Cat winked at him and gathered her purse and sunglasses.
“Wait hon, one more thing before we go. How soon can you leave for Reno?”
Cat huffed and hung her head dramatically. “You were serious about that?”
Except for the glow of Cat’s bed lamp and the muffled sound of parents snoring, the McGowan house sat dark and quiet. After a long night of serving drinks, she stood freshly showered and wrapped inside her favorite bathrobe. She tipped-toed into her room and gently pulled the door shut. Her parents were fast asleep, but she had work to do. A purple bed pillow cushioned the floor beneath her and a second one held her laptop as she shopped for flights. Like it or not, she’d fly to Reno to see if Edward Morris was legit.
“What a waste of time. The guy’s already proven he’s trustworthy.” She grumbled to herself as she checked out various flights. “I wish you’d just relax dad. You make everything a big deal.”
No point in ruminating on an argument that she lost almost twelve hours ago. The decision was final, no changing her dad’s mind. In his opinion, it would be haphazard to trust some faraway coin dealer based on phone etiquette. Despite the fact the guy had already followed through on a few sizable transactions. “Suck it up,” she told herself and accepted that the upcoming trip would be for her dad’s peace of mind, not hers. “Fine, you win dad.”
She hit the “book ticket” button on the American Airlines reservation page, then went on to reserve a rental car. This whirlwind trip had to be wedged between hits at the Mint and shifts at the Seafood Hut. Exhausting. “Hang in there girl, your day is coming.” Cat consoled herself.
Aware that Cat, aka JerseyGirl201, was online at this hour, three different guys, all probably drunk, had instant-messaged her over the last twenty minutes. She purposely ignored each as she shut her laptop down and left it on the floor. The fuzzy pink robe slid off her shoulders and landed on top of it. She got under the covers and kissed her favorite photo of Christopher, the one on her nightstand. Then she turned off the lamp.
Eight days later American Airlines Flight 1448 circled Reno International preparing to land. The forehead of the beauty seated in 4B pressed against the small round window. Taking in the view, she suddenly felt elated! “You were right, dad, coming here was a great decision!” Cat told the window. Elation was the emotion she also equated with fine dining. Would she have time to scope out a restaurant or two? The ambiance, the menu, the clientele, all things that could benefit her future as a chef or restauranteur. She was dying to know how the “best” this city offers compares with some of her favorite spots back East. So much traveling lay ahead of her. She just knew it. So many customs to experience, art to adore, shows to see, and cuisine to sample! Life meant way more than sitting in dive bars and getting hit on by losers.
When the tires hit the tarmac, her eyes squeezed shut. She suddenly caught a glimpse of the future Cat, the independent woman who finally broke the mold of females before her. She’d be accomplished, self-assured, thriving, and passionate about life. A man would enter the picture. Unlike other men she’d known, this guy would smart, funny, creative, and interesting. With a worldview that wasn’t limited to Philadelphia sports teams. He’d be well read and well versed, the absolute perfect partner for a woman who walked to the beat of her own drum. Joining paths would be their destiny, and destiny called to her.
The compact rental car rolled slowly passed the storefront baring the Morris Specialties emblem, slow enough to make sure it was open for business. It impressed Cat already. She kept in the front of her mind what her dad said, “At the rate we’re bringing these things in, we could end up selling over a million dollars’ worth by the time we’re done. Morris Specialties may look good on paper, but please Cat I’m begging you to be open minded enough to change your mind if something doesn’t look right. There’s too much is at stake here, okay?”
This trip would be the determining factor and she promised to keep her eyes peeled. She parked a couple blocks up the street and spent several minutes inside the vehicle preparing for possible scenarios. Would Morris even be in? He might, he might not. Either way she had to keep her identity secret. Dropping in unannounced, and incognito, enabled her to poke around, play dumb, and look for anything suspicious. More importantly she could try to figure out what’s been done with the coins he already bought. For a few seconds the task felt overwhelming. Then she reminded herself that for weeks now she’s succeeded in walking away from a government fortress carrying a shit ton of stolen coins! Pulling this off would be a piece of cake.
She practiced her alias in the rearview mirror. “Hi, I’m Angela Girard!” It sounded absurd and unnatural. “Angela Girard. I’m Angela Girard. Ugh cuz! Help me, would ya?” She laughed. “By the way, hope you don’t mind that I’m using your name. I know daddy wouldn’t like it.”
A quick touch up of lipstick and it was time. She left the car parked a couple of blocks away. That way she could take in the surroundings on foot. Cat knew very little about Reno, but no doubt this was a high rent district. The pleasing mixture of residential and commercial dwellings all appeared freshly painted. No loose rain gutters, no dangling shutters, no roof shingles missing. The properties were small, yet immaculate. Every yard neatly landscaped. Every lawn manicured. The sidewalks were probably clean enough to eat off.
She rang the bell and waited to be buzzed in. A man in the back of the store nodded and smiled, then resumed his phone conversation. Cat returned the nod and browsed the various displays like a normal shopper, except for sneaking occasional glances at the man. Trim and neatly dressed in slacks and a sports jacket. Clean, polished, classy. His tapered hair had been gelled in place, as had his goatee. A couple of thin gold chains dangled from his left wrist. She could tell by the way he carried himself that this was the same man she’d spoken with. “There’s Big-E. I’m sure of it,” she thought.
Unlike some of the filthy dumps she’d been to, Morris Specialties was as meticulously kept as the owner. Rare coins weren’t the only collection in stock. Antique jewelry, guns, stamps, and old-fashioned toys filled the rather large space.
“Good morning ma’am! I’m Edward.” He extended his hand. “What brings you in here on this lovely morning?”
The handshake was a dead giveaway. “He’s gay. I knew it. Yet another point for Morris Specialties,” she thought.
“It is a lovely morning, isn’t it?” The fake accent was a total joke. Cat forced out a couple coughs and pointed to her throat, “You’ll have to forgive me, allergies.” She coughed again. “I’m looking for gift ideas for my boyfriend Scott for his big 3-0 next week. He’s dabbled in coin collecting, I don’t know much about it myself, but I see you carry different types of displays for that dollar series. You know, the gold colored coins.”
“Ah yes, the First Ladies series. Has he started collecting them?”
“Well if you call ‘leaving them in a soup bowl’ collecting.” She laughed. “Problem is, we’re short on soup bowls.”
Ed smile and waved his finger at her. “I’m picking up an accent. Are you from New York?”
So much for faking it. “You got me! You know, it doesn’t matter how many years I’ve lived here, I can’t shake the old Brooklyn accent.” Cotton tongued, she asked him, “Would you happen to have a water fountain?”
“See that? You can always tell a New Yorker by the way they say ‘water’!”
Idiot. People from Philly sound nothing like New Yorkers. She played along and happily accepted the unopened bottle of Evian he offered.
“Collector displays. I assume you saw these?” He turned her attention to one of the gondolas, “This is portfolio style. As you can see it has pictures and factual information. There are several to choose from. They’re the least expensive and most popular with younger people. For a few bucks more, we have these classier leather-bound folders.” He grabbed one in navy blue to show off the inside. “Better quality, yet still reasonable. Twenty-nine dollars.”
She held the leather-bound model, inspecting the front and back, “Yeah, I don’t think he’ll miss the pictures.”
Edward headed towards the cash register. “We do sell the First Ladies series here in case he’s missing any of them. You know, the ones that are ‘out of print’ so to speak. There’s no guarantee he’ll find them circulating around, so he can always buy them here.”
“That’s good to know, can I see which ones you have?”
He pointed to the middle shelf of a long glass case where the commemorative coins for only the first three First Ladies, the ones no longer being minted, were displayed on royal blue felt. “They sell for anywhere from five to eight dollars depending on when the particular series finished minting. Of course, they increase in value with time. The series is still rather new. Is his missing any of these?”
“Hmm, I’m honestly not sure.” Nor was she interested! She busily glanced around at higher priced inventory. Coins of varying denominations, conditions, ages, and prices. Some circulated, some uncirculated, some extremely rare. “Wow, some of these are seriously expensive yet they look like pocket change I use to buy coffee. I wonder how many valuable coins I’ve given away cluelessly?”
He showed off a few of his favorites and shared it’s prospective background story.
“You have such an incredible collection here. I’d love to splurge and get him something a little more special than a six-dollar First Ladies coin that’s only recently out of print. The thing is, he teaches American History and has this crazy passion for the United States First Ladies! I swear he’s made up individual files for each one. I wish there was something that I could get him that tied in with the First Ladies, but a little more unique. But something that wouldn’t break the bank if you know what I mean. I guess that’s a tall order.” She said coyly.
Edward’s eyes lit up. “I think I may have just the thing you’re looking for.” A turn of a lever had him through a gate and behind the glass counter. She watched as he dug through his pocket and retrieved a key to unlock a large, wall-mounted cabinet. He returned with a foot long, wooden display case, and set it on top of the counter. The contents – what looked to be about two dozen coins from the Louisa Adams series.
Her heart beat rapidly.
“Before you say anything,” he explained, “these coins may not appear to be anything special, but trust me, they are.” He picked one up and held it sideways pointing out the flaw already familiar to her.
“Go ahead, take a look.” He placed it in her hand and proceeded with a short synopsis about the rarity of Mint errors.
She tuned out and silently counted seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, plus the one in her hand made twenty. “Jesus! He bought two hundred from me! Is it possible he’s already moved one hundred and eighty of them?” she wondered.
“That’s why we’re selling these particular coins for three hundred and fifty a piece.” He leaned in towards her. “Between you and me, there are only twenty-four of these babies in existence and Morris Specialties bought them all. Just last week as a matter of fact, at an estate sale. Looks like we’ve sold five or six already, and knowing our collectors like I do, the rest of these will be gone by the end of the week.”
She couldn’t help but admire what a great liar this guy was. “That’s incredible!” she said.
“Yes and believe me, three hundred and fifty dollars for one of these is a song. They’ll skyrocket in value! Mint errors always do.”
“I believe it!”
“So do you think Scott would appreciate one of these?”
“Oh, Scott!” Her eyes rolled. “Sorry, I got a bit lost in space.” No exaggeration there. She was thinking how hysterical to find out that Edward Morris was just as good a liar as she was. No doubt about it, this guy was the right dealer. Oddly, she felt bad disappointing him, but told him she’d have to give it some thought. “The collector folder will be all for now.”
As he returned the display to the wall cabinet, she quickly grabbed her cell phone, nearly dropping it. Like rapid fire, she snapped a whole bunch of pictures, pointing the camera this way and that, capturing various angles and display cases. Even a few of the owner himself. As he turned back around, she jammed the phone back in her purse and innocently brought out her wallet to pay for her purchase.
All the way to the car she held her breath praying that her pictures turned out. She sat behind the wheel and slowly scrolled through each, deleting a few duds and taking notice of things she hadn’t noticed while inside. Like an embroidered sign that read, “Morris Specialties buys and sells with the utmost integrity.” Ha! And an older sign that read “Family owned and operated since 1965.” Best of all, a collage of glossy photos mounted on poster board. Every photo with Ed wrapped in the arms of another man. “Your lover, how sweet.” Cat smirked. “It’s just another reason I like you, Big-E. Gay guys are nicer to deal with.”
She had enough time for a quick bite. Vallexandra’s featured an expansive second floor lounge with a grand view of the casinos and the mountains surrounding the city. The sizeable tip Cat slipped the maitre d’ bought her the best seat in that lounge. She treated herself to a warm spinach and baby portobello salad with shaved parmesan in a lemon glaze along with a glass of Josh’s Cabernet. By 8:35 p.m, she was sound asleep on the plane heading home.
Coral Sands Estate
Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Joe Nilbert felt rather superior, more than usual, and with good reason. His program recently experienced a slight increase in sales, enough to call off the dogs. The D.C. dogs. Their frantic calls, their constant interrogation, their threats towards his job, all that was behind him now. Hell, it was only a matter of time before the Department of Treasury would be kissing his feet and apologizing for having ever doubted him. Still, he wouldn’t hold his breath. Too many dignitaries were still on edge about the First Ladies Program after its close brush with death. Until they were certain that the spike wasn’t fleeting, the champagne would have to wait.
Regardless, the Department of Treasury couldn’t deny the dollar coin was starting to trend. It took long enough for it to catch on. The question was how? They attributed it to “more efficient marketing initiatives.”
Marketing initiatives. Hogwash! Joe knew better. He knew exactly what spurred the program’s recent popularity and had people flocking to banks to get those coins. They were looking for flawed coins, ones that escaped the Mint before they were fully minted. Thanks to Edward Morris, a renowned coin dealer from Reno, there were tons of them filtering through channels of collectors.
For many years, Edward Morris had managed an upscale jewelry store in the heart of Reno. He loved his job and his clients, but he needed a change. A fresh start, a new challenge. His grandfather offered him that. Edward now owned the family business, a coin shop that originally opened in the mid-sixties. The business had changed tremendously over the years, expanding in size and inventory and most of all, building a massive distribution list. Edward was the master of customer relations and his customers bought what he sold, often sight-unseen. He turned over hundreds of error coins, to the tune of three hundred and fifty bucks each, in a matter of months. Then word spread through the masses and suddenly hoards of people all over the country started searching for the coins.
Coral Sands Estate and Golf Club in Fort Lauderdale was a favorite getaway for Joe and Edward. They rewarded themselves with a short getaway. At the “nineteenth hole,” they drank Jameson’s, shared shrimp cocktail, and gloated about their success. Edward affectionately referred to the influx in public interest as the “lucky coin phenomenon.”
“Everyone’s rushing to the bank hoping to get lucky.” Edward said seductively.
“That’s hysterical!” Joe laughed, “It kinda reminds me of the egg hunts I used to take the twins to when they were little. The hunts that hid the greatest number of eggs drew the biggest crowds.”
“Yes, people do like to find things, don’t they? Especially things that set them apart from everyone else. It was you that once said that without competition a game isn’t worth the time. You always play to win, Joseph, that’s what I love about you.” He rubbed Joe’s arm.
It’s true. Joe had won every game he’d ever played; this one will be hard to top.
“I guess some credit is due to the Philadelphia Pigeon.” That was the code name Joe used when referring to McGowan.
“Listen to you giving someone else credit for something. Waiter! Bring this man another Jameson’s!”
“I couldn’t have asked for an easier mark. The pigeon is making us both rich. All I had to do was plant a seed and he ran with it! But he’s making out alright too! Hell, he ought to thank me for setting this all up. But of course he’ll never know about that.”
Back in the northeast, Pat’s bank account looked like a hog on a wild ride, with huge deposits coming in and huge checks going out.
First on his list of priorities was getting Jason out of jail. No two-bit lawyer would do, Pat learned that lesson already. He needed the acquittal expert, the guy that twisted prosecutors into pretzels with his words. He needed Blaze Galster, a semi-retired defense attorney whose cushy life came as the product of thirty years of defending high-profile crimes in the city followed by the passive income of his twelve-lawyer firm. He spent most of his day riding horseback on his sprawling ranch in Chester Springs, and he wasn’t the least bit interested in talking to some flatfoot. Pat had been ignored, insulted, and shuffled between three junior attorneys before he finally got through to the head honcho.
“Make it quick, my horse doesn’t like waiting.” The pompous ass spared Pat two whole minutes of his precious time. Uninterested and increasingly frustrated with Pat’s “hard-luck stories” Galster threatened to hang up.
“Wait!” Pat yelled. “Name your fucking price! What’ll it cost me to pull your head out of the horse’s ass and give me fifteen minutes of your undivided attention, right now on this call?!”
Through the momentary silence Pat sensed the man was smiling, maybe even laughing.
“Five thousand. You’ll wire me the money right now before you say another word, then I’ll listen. But no guarantees. I keep your money whether or not I take the case. Deal?”
Lesson #1 – Money talks.
Galster did listen. He did take the case. And he did win.
Pat was leaving work when the good news came in.
“Get a bedroom ready.” Galster said, “Your kid’s coming home in a week. He’s had enough of the slammer.”
The news caught Pat off guard so much that he sobbed into the phone. Then he mumbled humiliated apologies for having been a sap.
“I get it” Galster laughed, “I got kids too. Go get a drink and celebrate.”
Not a bad idea. There were things to think about anyway, and discussions to prepare for. Jason’s incarceration was coming to an end and Dee had been in the dark about all of it. The acquittal, the high-priced lawyer, and the money used to retain the lawyer. First she’d be overjoyed. Then she’d ask questions. Pat’s answers would open a big can of worms. So be it. He couldn’t hold off any longer. He’d tell her all the debt that had been settled, all the credit he’d paid off. Shortly after Christopher died, Dee stopped looking at bills or opening mail or discussing much of anything. That’s why Pat had been able to postpone “the talk” for so long. Still, hiding money started to get complicated. “Soon, I’ll tell her soon.” Pat told himself.
He took 95 south to Broad Street and into the Naval Shipyard. Dry Dockers Bar on Kitty Hawk Avenue was one of those best kept secrets of shipbuilders and naval personnel who’d stop after work for a beer. It was the perfect spot for Pat to sit alone and think. He grabbed a booth on the side closest the river and ordered hot wings and a Coors Light, and he thought about Jason.
Thrilled as he was to know he got his son off the hook, he was also frustrated knowing what it took. Money was a savior and a culprit. It seemed clear to Pat that he had a love/hate relationship with it. Why was money the only solution to problems? Not love, not knowledge, not years of dedication to the police force. It took money, and lots of it. He wanted to spit.
Money alone was responsible for Jason’s freedom. He’d remain prison-bound otherwise, for God only knows how long. Money, or the lack thereof, was just as responsible for Christopher’s death. A shrew like Galster would have thumbed his nose at Pat back then. Back when Chris was still alive and needed decent representation to sue workman’s comp and the city for the tragedy that eventually cost his life. The lawsuit never got settled, yet the medical bills and the rehab bills didn’t miss a beat. They kept coming long after the boy lay in the ground. It takes balls to demand payment for rehabilitation that didn’t rehabilitate. Collection agencies finally renegotiated the unpaid balances and Pat recently paid them off with theft money.
Only money talks and Pat had none when it mattered the most. “I’m so sorry Christopher,” he said to himself as he stared out the window and watched as the tide lifted the river. He longed for his boy whose life had been cut short. Longed to have a second chance with him. Longed for his presence, his forgiveness, his guidance, especially for the upcoming discussion with Dee.
Christopher’s spirit was at the forefront of Pat’s mind. With nothing to lose, he asked “Got any suggestions for me, son? I could really use your advice!”
Suddenly waves of goosebumps ran up and down his spine. “The lawsuit! Of course!”
Christopher’s lawsuit – the perfect answer! He’d tell Dee that the lawsuit did settle. It’s the most feasible, most rational explanation for suddenly having money. It’s the perfect lie. He’d tell her it settled a while ago and that he used some of the proceeds to get Jason out of prison. And he kept it all a secret to surprise her. Yes! That’s it! One son’s awards would be responsible for the other son’s release. The story sounded practically touching.
“Thank you, Christopher! That’s exactly what I needed kid. You really came through for me!”
Pat left a fifty for a twenty-dollar tab and headed home.
Sea Isle City, New Jersey
Heaven. When the monkey’s finally off your back and you’ve paid off collectors that had stuck it to you for years. When you leave the rat race behind to live a life of your choosing. When you have more than enough cash to renovate your dumpy shore house into a small castle and move into it full time. When you can finally shower your wife with jewelry and buy yourself a fishing boat. That’s heaven.
That’s what most people would call it. Yet to Pat, it felt foreign. Years of accumulating debt and living paycheck to paycheck, being slammed with one family issue after another had been his familiar. Without all that, who was he? Strange as it sounds, even surrounded by all the things he ever wanted, Pat felt a new sense of struggle. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but something felt off. Call it sadness, call it confusion, call it loss. Whatever it was, it robbed him of the joy he should be feeling. It felt practically humiliating!
At times he could shake it off by buying some new toy. Like the day he went car shopping. A BMW for Cat, a Lexus for Dee, and a Ford truck for Jason. The black Caddy was a gift to himself. Four cars in one day. That kept him happy. For a while.
Seeing her husband so despondent doing the things he used to love like reading the morning paper, walking the boards, and fishing, Dee knew something didn’t seem right. Witnessing the physical changes like weight loss, chronic cough, and an increasingly grayish skin tone, she began to suspect the worst. Pat was sick.
Of course she was right. He’d been sick for a long time but succeeded in keeping it from her. Keeping it from himself too. Denial didn’t make the cancer go away. He felt worse than he looked. Dee launched a daily crusade to force him to get a physical. After weeks of pestering, he finally fessed up and told her.
At first she was livid and lecturing. For better for worse, she shouted angrily at least eleven times at him. Second, she cried for three straight days. Third, she accepted the fact that he had no intention of getting treatment, having watched his Pop go through it. That he’d prefer to live whatever life he had left, right there with her at the beach. Fourth, she doted on him day and night and vowed to make him the happiest man alive. He rather liked that.
Other than the perpetual reminder of his ailing health, they basically lived the dream. No debt, few monthly bills, an updated house, brand new cars, and their two adult children, both happy and healthy, and living their own lives in Philly.
Pat failed to ease into the dream. He walked around in a constant state of unrest, and it wasn’t just the cancer. It was a sense that the bubble was always about to burst.
And burst, it did.
It was Labor Day and Dee and Pat planned to host a little barbecue for their small family. Jason and his wife Marissa, were out back with Pat admiring the latest additions made to the White Castle and heating up the grill. Dee made deviled eggs and kept an eye on the cake in the oven. Cat exited the highway with the top down and the tunes playing, looking forward to family time.
Then came a loud knock at the front door.
“Cat? That you?” Dee yelled from the kitchen. “Just come in!”
Another loud knock.
Dee put down the spoon and wiped off her hands. “I bet your arms are too full!” She laughed. She expected to see Cat juggling a couple side dishes, some creative cuisine she’d whipped up, far better tasting than anything Dee had made. “Hang on, I’m coming.”
What Dee never expected to see in the middle of a sunny holiday were the serious faces of three FBI agents standing at her door. She gasped and grabbed her chest. “Oh my God! Where’s Cat?!”
“Are you Deidre McGowan?” asked the agent in the middle.
“Yes. What happened?!” Dee’s head spun, conjuring up all kinds of catastrophes. Not a single one involved her husband. She barely remembered leading the men through the living room, through the kitchen, and out the back door to where Pat, Jason, and Marissa were seated in deck chairs and drinking cold beer.
As Pat was being cuffed, Cat struggled to get through the front door with a large cooler full of food. “Hey, somebody wanna help me with this? Yoo-hoo! Anyone home? The chef has arrived!”
With no takers she hauled the heavy container by herself, huffing dramatically. Then she dropped it on the kitchen floor. Through the open windows she heard an unfamiliar voice.
“You have the right to remain silent…”
“Daddy!! No!!” She ran out back and pushed through two of the agents to get to her father. “Let him go! It wasn’t his fault!”
“Cat! Stop!” Pat screamed “Don’t you say a word! Not one word! Do you hear me?”
The holding cell in Cape May County became Pat’s home for longer than anticipated. Until he was willing to divulge the truth, “You better get used to it here!” screamed a flunky detective with bad breath. Pat refused to cooperate. Why should he? He hadn’t been arrested for theft. He’d been arrested for tax evasion. His admission to that should be enough. But the Feds weren’t willing to leave him alone. When they didn’t get anywhere with him, they went after Cat. Pat knew they would and he warned her about it when she came to visit him eight days after he’d been hauled in.
They sat across a table from each other for an allotted space of time. The purpose of her visit was much bigger than just seeing her dad, he could tell as soon as she sat down and faced him.
She reached into her purse and pulled out a newspaper clipping from the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I’ve been reading the paper every day since your arrest to see if anything has been published about it. I never expected to see this. It’s from yesterday’s paper.” Some blurb about Nilbert had been published exactly one week after Pat’s arrest. The article had nothing at all to do with Pat.
He read the relatively short and unexciting article that announced the “retirement of the U.S. Mint Director in Philadelphia.” The article contained no more than three inches of print and a thumbprint-sized head shot.
Unimpressed, he handed it back to her. “So?”
“Daddy, I recognize this guy! When I saw that photo I started shaking!”
“Not surprising. He’s been living in Bryn Mawr for a while and his picture’s probably been in the paper before.”
“Nooooo! That’s not where I know him from! I’ve never met him and I don’t read the paper!” She grabbed her cell phone and scrolled through several pictures she thankfully never deleted. “This one!” She zoomed in anxiously and held up her phone in front of Pat. “See anything unusual?”
Her dad looked puzzled so she cut to the chase. “Dad, your former boss. This Nilbert guy. He’s Edward’s lover!”
“Edward?” He still hadn’t putting it together.
“Edward Morris. The coin dealer in Reno. He and Nilbert are in cahoots! Do you get it now? You were set up!”
O’Hare International Airport
“Got time for another, sir?”
Nilbert glanced at his watch then back at the bartender. “Yeah. Jameson’s, rocks.”
Boarding was still seventy-five minutes away and the gate sat right across the hall. He’d left Philly at 10:20 that morning planning to be in Reno by 6:00 p.m., but the layover at O’Hare took longer than expected thanks to freezing rain or something. By the looks of it, he wouldn’t see Edward until midnight. He’d be pissed if it weren’t for the NCAA Championship playing on every TV in Blackhawks Brew. College basketball never really interested Joe, but having paid Villanova’s tuition in duplicate, he had a vested interest in the outcome. What made it more entertaining, the Wildcats were currently crushing Chicago’s own Loyola University, so Joe had a blast rubbing it in the faces of every sulking local at the bar.
With each drink, he felt better about a recent decision. Theresa’s incessant whining had driven him nuts and made six months of retirement feel more like ten years. “But it’s almost over.” he thought to himself. “This chapter is almost over.” His soon to be ex-wife would be served in a few more days. That was worth celebrating. He gestured “another” to the bartender and sucked that one down fast.
Theresa had no idea what lay before her. Maybe she suspected it with all the recent arguing. Regardless, he’d leave her the house. That’s a big deal considering Bryn Mawr is one of the richest suburbs in Philly. “She’s lucky I’m letting her keep the house.” he told himself.
Who cares what she thinks anyway? It was the boys that had him concerned. How would they take the news? He hoped it wouldn’t crush them. The university stood only a stone’s throw from Bryn Mawr, yet Jonny and Alex lived on campus. At this very moment they were in a wall-to-wall crowd of rowdy classmates, witnessing history on the campus center’s big screen. The Wildcats were up twenty-five points with less than five minutes to go.
“Here’s to the future!” He blurted to an audience of airport-bound drinkers, unscathed by their lack of response. At fifty-nine, he was about to embark on a new journey with a man he’d known since grade school. A man who supported Joe through thick and thin, who waited patiently while he got his ducks in a row, and who took part in the greatest scheme ever involving the United States Mint. Edward Morris.
Maybe the liquor had Joe feeling misty. Swamped by sentiment, he retrieved a memento tucked safely inside his wallet and held it between his fingers. A gold colored coin with a smooth edge. A gift from Edward their last night in Fort Lauderdale.
“This is a token of our mutual devotion.” Ed had told him as he pressed the coin into Joe’s hand. “It’s from the very first shipment!”
“I love it!” Joe laughed, “What a great reminder of what you and I were able to pull off.”
“And best of all, now I know how much you spend on me.” Joe teased.
“Ah, but you’re forgetting, dear. It’s not what I spent that counts. It’s how much I’m sacrificing by giving it to you instead of selling it.”
For whatever reason, holding the coin in his hand between flights made him feel closer to Edward. “Hang in there love, a few more hours.”
Unbeknownst to Joe, another coin aficionado had walked into O’Hare as he sat at the bar.
“Don’t forget your driver’s license Mr. Sheffield!” said a TSA agent.
Larry finished tying his shoes, then retrieved the license from security’s dog dish. He kicked himself for having left home without confirming flight status. He could have watched the entire game from the comfort of his apartment! It wasn’t until he stood in the harrowing security line that he learned his flight to Philly had been delayed by two hours.
The only bright spot was that Terminal A housed a few decent bars. Larry snagged the only empty stool at Blackhawk’s Brew in time to watch the grim expressions of Loyola players congratulating their opponent. Tragic. No national title. No trophy. No hometown parade. Worst of all, the jerk seated next to him heckled the locals. Obviously a Villanova fan, and obviously drunk. Larry came close to relinquishing his seat and finding somewhere else to drink when something caught his eye. A gold coin spinning between the jerk’s fingers!
Larry stared at the coin, obviously one from the First Ladies series. Anyone could see that. He wondered if… Nah. There was zero chance that could be one of the errors. Was there? He was afraid the man would put it back in his pocket before he could find out. He had to think quick.
“Pour my friend here another, would you?” Larry asked the bartender. Then he smiled at the coin yielding stranger and said, “From one Villanova fan to another. Cheers.”
“Cheers.” Nilbert set down the coin long enough to shake Larry’s hand. “You flum Philly?” He slipped, then wheezed at his own blunder. “From Philly!”
“Nah, just headed there on business. But I love those Wildcats!” Larry lied. About the Wildcats, not the business. He was headed to Philly on business. A kind of fact gathering mission that would be more effective in person than by phone. He’d tour the U.S. Mint, talk to a few Mint employees, and maybe even interview the convict. Although according to Carl the dude was on his last leg. Apparently, he landed up in some prison hospital in the middle of Pennsylvania shortly after his arrest.
“Word on the street,” Carl told Larry last time they spoke, “is that McGowan’s health is spiraling fast. I doubt you’ll get any information out of him, but I’ll leave that up to you. We all know journalists have no shame.”
“Ha! Not true at all. But funny you mention shame ‘cause I was ready to say ‘the dude’s probably dying of shame!’ I know I would be. If the Feds hauled me away in front of my family and then confiscated all their stuff. Is there anything more shameful?”
“I hear ya. Hell’s gotta be a treat after that.”
There could be no way to predict what would come of this quick trip, but to Larry it was worth getting out of the office for a couple days. He kept the small talk going with the drunk skunk on the next stool, hoping to get a better look at that coin.
“So you’re headed to Philly too?”
“No way!” Joe replied obnoxiously. “Done with Philly! Done with the marriage too. Done with the damn Mint and the goddamn government breathing down my back.”
The hairs on the back of Larry’s neck leapt upright. Did that guy just say ‘MINT?’ Larry couldn’t ask if he wanted to because the boozed-up-basket-case was on a tear, airing his drunken frustrations to an annoyed-looking crowd.
“You know what I’m saying?” Nilbert slurred, “The government talking down to me. ME! I’m Joe Nilbert! I’m the brains behind the program! You see this?” He stood up and shook the coin wildly in the air, “I’m the fuckin’ creator!”
The tirade immediately drew TSA attention. An agent grabbed him firmly by the shoulder. “Sir, you will calm down right now if you know what’s good for you.”
“Get your hands off me, you two-bit airport clerk!” Joe pushed his hand away. The agent yanked him back from the bar and right into a corridor full of travelers and wheelie bags. “
“Wait!” The young bartender shouted, visibly distressed. “His tab is still open!”
Flabbergasted, Larry remained seated and watched the intoxicated idiot actually put up a fight! Who does that? Within seconds two additional agents helped the first to wrestle the crazed man to the ground. The coin flung from his hand and rolled across the glossy floor, landing inches from Larry’s stool. Inconspicuously, he concealed it with his foot.
The man continued to resist instructions until things got loud and scary. The chaotic scene had travelers dodging the area like cockroaches dodging light. But time stood still when someone screamed “EVERYONE DOWN!”
Squatting behind his bar stool like all the other Blackhawk Brew patrons, Larry grabbed the coin from under his shoe and examined it closely. The edge was smooth. Jesus! It was one of them! What were the chances?! The irony blew his mind. To bump into a guy who not only worked at the Mint, but who waved around one of the very coins Larry was writing about! God must exist! He felt so exhilarated that he barely noticed the intense mixture of sounds. The whimpering of frightened travelers huddled together and using luggage as refuge. The echoes of angry security officers trying to manage an unhinged crowd. The final warning of a determined FBI agent. But there was no ignoring the sound of a discharging weapon, nor the gasps that followed. It seemed the only resolve for constraining a madman.
The oddest sound of all, hauntingly odd, came in the dead silence that followed the gunshot. Or maybe it was the congratulatory cheers of Villanova fans in bars all over the Main Line who were being interviewed by newscasters. The parallel world of TV goes on when all else stops.
The man on the ground wasn’t dead. He was, however, unconscious, so they were able to cart him off in an ambulance without a fight. For a few seconds, Larry felt guilty for walking away with the guy’s coin in his pocket. But the way it had rolled right to him? It had to be a sign. The guilt passed quickly.
At the gate, several disgruntled travelers balked over the second delay of the day caused by “some crazy man at the bar.” Some worried he was a terrorist. Some said they heard he was drunk. One said it was a CIA plot to take down the President who was visiting family in the Windy City. Larry tuned it all out and googled the guy’s name. Amazing. Joe Nilbert wasn’t just any guy who worked at the Mint. He was the former Director!
Sea Isle City, New Jersey
If it weren’t for Theresa’s persistence, she’d still be thought of as “the woman married to the enemy.” Her goal in contacting Dee wasn’t to change that reputation, but to follow through on the dying wish of her deceased husband. After several failed attempts to speak with Dee, who hung up on her every time she called, Theresa had no choice but to show up at her door and introduce herself.
Dee immediately seemed skeptical. She reluctantly gave the woman ten minutes, through the parted door, to say what she came to say.
“My husband Joe is dead” was all it took.
“Oh.” Dee let down her guard and invited the woman inside.
Hours flew by as Theresa shared the truth about the man who Pat had worked for. A man whose drive for power and money trumped any concern for the wellbeing of others. A man who succeeded at keeping his gay lover a secret from the world. A man who cleaned out his first wife’s family, leaving them destitute. Who prevented his second wife’s family from being together. A man who saved his own neck and his reputation with the U.S. government by finding a patsy to stir interest in his struggling program. Joe Nilbert had successfully groomed Pat into the perfect thief and gotten away with it. His complete disregard for human life finally caught up with him and he paid the ultimate price.
The visit turned out to be an unexpected gift. Hearing Theresa’s side of the whole Mint nightmare put an end to some of Dee’s disdain towards her own husband. With all the secrets he’d kept, all the lies he’d told, Pat’s bizarre “set-up” story had nearly sent Dee over the edge. How could she believe such a story without any proof? Long ago she refused to listen and called him a “defensive pussy” who should “stop pointing the finger and take responsibility.” When the dust settled, Pat revisited the conversation. His use of the words “set up” sent Dee into such a rage that he backed down and never mentioned it again. She never knew what to believe. At one point she came close to talking to the Director for herself, then reconsidered. If she couldn’t trust her own husband, how could she trust the guy he blamed? To her, Nilbert was just another “enemy” whom she tossed into the ever-growing shit pile that became her life.
That evening with Theresa shattered Dee’s paradigm. Beneath the fragments of confusion and skewed beliefs, she found the truth. That they were all, yes even Joe, victims of a world gone mad. And yet both women agreed that somewhere within that mad world they could find something good and kind and loving. Some invisible energy, perhaps the same energy that made the sun rise, supported them both and continually offered new opportunities for them to smile despite their sorted pasts. Spending time with each other was one of those opportunities, so they agreed to continue doing so.
“Dee, you’re sure you’re okay with having me pay Pat a visit?” Theresa asked as she got up to leave.
“Of course. Jason spends the day with him tomorrow, I won’t be there ‘til Thursday. I don’t think he’ll be with us much longer, so . . .”
“Thursday is fine, I can get there by noon.” Theresa smiled warmly.
Dee explained the visitor process at a prison hospital, then walked her to the door.
As Theresa left, a decorative plate that hung by the front door caught her attention and caused her to gasp. She stood like stone absorbing the words painted across the plate.
“It’s beautiful isn’t it? A close friend gave it to me after Christopher died.”
Theresa’s eyes filled with water. She looked at Dee and said, “My God, those were the last words Joe spoke! And then he was gone.”
“Wow! That’s gives me chills! Thank you for telling me!”
Dee stood in the doorway and watched as Theresa’s car drove to the end of the street and turned left on Ocean Drive as she headed towards the Parkway. Then she closed the door and held on to the good feeling that came from being understood and accepted. She prayed it would linger. For several seconds she admired the hanging plate and read it aloud to the empty house. “I once was lost, but now am found. I was blind, but now I see.” She thanked God for the all signs, large and small. Dee closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. “I know I’ll be okay.”
The following day a portable cd player sat perched on the night stand beside the dying man. A gift from Cat, a little something she’d brought her dad the last time she visited. The disc included ninety minutes of best loved hymns, some of Pat’s favorites, set to auto-replay. It practically took an Act of Congress for she and Dee to obtain hospital approval from the prison, but even the staff seemed to enjoy the angelic voices of the choir accompanied by harps and flutes. The music played non-stop at a low volume. At least it did when family visited, which was more frequent now that the end was near. Dee, Cat, and Jason agreed to rotating shifts so there would be as much coverage as possible. Today was Dee’s day.
She stood facing the heart monitor, mesmerized as always with the blue neon lines that jerked erratically across the dark screen.
“Mrs. McGowan?” Big Elmer tapped softly on the door, “Excuse me ma’am, but your visitor is checkin’ in down the hall. You wanna speak with her?” He pointed in the direction of the guard’s station by the elevator.
Dee smiled warmly at the large man in freshly pressed scrubs who’d become a welcome face over the long haul. “Thanks Elmer, could you send her in here?”
“Be glad to.”
She turned back towards Pat. “Sweety, somebody’s here to see you.” His eyes hadn’t opened in hours, not that it mattered. Even when they were open he seemed entirely unaware of his surroundings or of anyone’s presence, no matter how animated or expressive they were. Perhaps he’d already entered that other dimension. The one that permits entry of the mind, while the body hangs onto life deteriorating into jelly. It might not be that way with every death, but it had been the norm with too many of the lives taken from Dee. Including that of her precious son, Christopher.
It had been years since her boy lay in a drug-induced coma with no hope of recovery, the result of an overdose. In a state of frenzy, Dee paid an unannounced visit to Father Casey, bursting into his private office and interrupting a phone call. He cut the call short.
“I want answers, Kevin!” she screamed, hands balled into fists down at her sides. “It’s bad enough God let my son’s head go through a windshield and caused him so much pain that he turned to drugs! But now this? He’s half dead and half alive. His mind is gone, but he’s still breathing. I can’t take anymore Kevin. Please tell me how God can do this! Does he enjoy torturing mothers?”
The good father apparently knew enough medical terminology to convince Dee that her boy didn’t suffer as much as it appeared and that he, like many other souls, died slowly due to unfinished business that they must complete before leaving this realm.
Unfinished business! What unfinished business did Christopher possibly have?
That concept did nothing to bring her peace, although she did come to accept it. Yet now, watching her husband waver between semi-unconsciousness and complete-unconsciousness, she came to her own conclusion. That the “unfinished business” had nothing to do with the one dying, rather it belonged to the living. In other words, Pat’s lengthy exit gave her time to make peace with things she never imagined.
“Deidre. It is lovely to see you again.” A slender middle-aged woman entered the room and took Dee’s extended hand in hers and held it for a long time. There exists, quite possibly, a secret handshake that belongs to the deeply scarred among us. Those who’ve endured the toughest of life’s tests, those who are broken wide open and emerge with an enlightened perspective. In that special handshake are the unspoken words that convey compassion for mutual sorrows, fears, frustrations. And the shared elation for the subtle signs that remind us we are all connected.
“I’m so glad you came.” Dee squeezed the woman’s hand in return, then led the way to her husband to make the introduction. “Pat honey, this is Theresa Nilbert. She has something important to tell you, okay?”
Dee nodded reassuringly at the woman who she’d known very little about until two days ago. She positioned herself as close to the hospital door as possible to give them space.
“I’m honored to meet you Officer McGowan.” Theresa spoke softly to the patient who made no sounds or movements, who gave no evidence that he was aware of her presence. The subtle rising and falling of his chest offered the only sign of life.
“I’m sorry that we couldn’t have met under different circumstances. But I believe God has had this whole situation in His hands all along. I just want to tell you – that before my husband, I mean before Joe passed away, he asked me to do one thing. To promise that I’d – ”
Suddenly the beeping sound of the heart monitor quickened. Concerned, Theresa paused and turned towards Dee, who simply gestured for her to continue.
“Are you sure? I’m afraid I’m upsetting him,” Theresa whispered still looking towards Dee for direction.
“He deserves to hear this. Please continue.”
Theresa looked back at Pat, whose eyelids now flickered if trying to open. She resisted the urge to look back at Dee and focused on conveying the message as quickly as possible. Her hand rested lightly on his chest and she said, “Pat, from Joe’s heart to yours, please accept his heartfelt apology for taking advantage of you, for setting you up. Joe was a broken boy who became a broken man and God knows he hurt many people, you and your family included. I didn’t think he was capable of ever owning up to it, but he proved me wrong in the very last moments of his life. He owned up to all of it.”
Joe’s recent confession about his double life with his male-partner, his first marriage and all of the betrayal, it came flooding back to Theresa in a tidal wave of sadness that almost buckled her knees. She took a deep breath and conjured up the strength to proceed. There was business to finish here. There would be plenty of time for her to deconstruct her past and forgive Joe, and to forgive herself. This moment belonged to someone else. Patrick McGowan.
“Pat, I can’t tell you what to do. All I can do is tell you how sorry he was and that I represent Joe in asking for your forgiveness. I will keep you in my prayers.”
With that, she’d carried out her promise. She sighed deeply and thanked God for giving her the strength to deliver that message. Her head bowed in prayer and her hand, still resting on Pat’s chest, was suddenly joined by another hand. She looked up, expecting to see Dee standing next to her, but the hand belonged to Pat. Their eyes met. He nodded weakly and mouthed “Thank you.” Then his hand dropped back to his lap and his eyes closed as he re-entered the sleep state.
Theresa looked back to see the amazed expression on Dee’s tear-streaked face. The two women stood shoulder to shoulder facing the bed and watching Pat sleep. Their stance slowly gave way to gentle rocking as they listened to the angelic voices of the London Philharmonic choir. The small room filled with the sound of “Amazing Grace.”
Laurel Hills Cemetery
One headstone after another, they all looked alike. Though if she were honest, it had been a while since her last visit to Laurel Hills Cemetery. Cat wasn’t much for sitting by graves. She felt closer to the deceased, especially her dad, standing at the shore watching the waves crash. Or sailing into the sunset aboard the fifty-foot Watercraft Cruiser with her husband. Was it possible that her father could have arranged their divine meeting from the other side? Did he pull some heavenly strings so that Cat would meet and marry the love of her life? She didn’t care what anyone else might say about that, she believed it was true and today she came to thank her dad in a more formal way by visiting the place he had been laid to rest. She also came here to pay respects to her beloved brother Christopher.
Her knee length, form fitting, black and gold brocade dress with the deep V in the back may have seemed a bit over the top for a visit to the cemetery, but she’d look perfectly stunning at the Kimmel Center later in the evening.
A large paper shopping bag sat between the two headstones and an oversized beach towel with the faded Sea Isle City monogram blanketed the grass before the deceased. She kicked off her patent leather platform pumps and sat on her knees facing the granite representations of two very significant men in her life. She looked towards the stone on the left first.
“Christopher it doesn’t matter how many years pass, I miss you big brother! So much.” She stopped abruptly knowing how tears would undo all the work she’d put into her makeup. “Uhhh!” She laughed and shook a reprimanding finger at his grave, “Don’t you make me cry!”
No use, the tears still came. She retrieved a tissue from her gold beaded Chanel purse and lightly blotted her cheeks.
Not long ago, Cat got wind of something pretty interesting concerning Christopher’s former girlfriend, Heather. The one that used him and kicked him to the curb after his accident, then married some big business executive. A few years and a few kids into the marriage, the guy met some bimbo at work and left Heather high and dry.
Facing Christopher’s gravestone, Cat almost revealed the news hoping to give her brother some peace of mind. She wanted to let him know that what comes around goes around. Then she thought better of it. She laughed out loud and said, “I know, I know. You were never the judgmental type. You’d probably say ‘Cat, we all deserve to be happy, Heather included’. Knowing you, you’re watching over her just like everyone else, sending her love right now. But see, that’s where you were so different. So special.”
Those large eyes looked skyward as if to spot him in the puffy clouds overhead. “You were the angel that mistakenly landed on Earth years ago. When God did roll call and you didn’t answer, he found you with us and yanked you back. A win for heaven, but a big loss for us. Would you mind telling God that for me?!”
She closed her eyes and inhaled, taking in the luscious scents of early summer. Honeysuckle and Lilacs. A gentle reminder of contents of the shopping bag. She reached in and grabbed a dozen red roses wrapped in cellophane and removed all but two of the long-stemmed beauties, leaving those two inside the bag for later. She placed half of the roses in front of Christopher’s stone and the other half in front of her father’s.
“Hi daddy.” She said with a bittersweet smile. “It’s been exactly five years since we said goodbye. I’ve missed you so much! More than you know. But I’m so glad you’re with Christopher. You used to say you were short-changed on fishing time. I bet the two of you are making up for that now! I can imagine you stretched out on some amazing vessel right now watching the fish reel themselves in.”
She reached inside the shopping bag again and retrieved a Ziploc bag. “I brought you a little gift to let you know I’m always thinking about you.” One by one, she placed a variety of sea shells along the top of the headstone. “Remember these? We collected them together. Some of them date back to when I was only two or three. I held on to them all these years. I probably never told you how much I loved collecting these with you, I hope you know it. All those wonderful mornings, just you, me and that tired bucket. What I’d give to have one more day to do that with you. You always cheered me on. No matter how your life played out, you never wanted me to lose hope or give up. Remember what you told me a few weeks before you died? You said, ‘Live so BIG that dead people will want to come back to be you!’ Remember? Well, you’d be proud to know I am. I am living big, just like you told me to. They couldn’t keep us down dad. Taking away everything we worked so hard for. Leaving us in such a bind. I know you were so worried about us. Mom, me, Jason. Wondering what would happen to us after you died. But It all worked out dad. Eventually. Things turned out in our favor!”
She paused. “Of course, you know all that already. You set it up this way.” When plan A fell apart, her dad came up with plan B – a plan that would ultimately make up for his family’s heartache and humiliation and recoup some of what they lost. It came to him in his final moments as he lay dying in that despicable hospice facility in Loretto more than five years ago. Cat was there to witness it.
Having appeared unconscious for days, a decision had been made to disconnect Pat from all the life support once the family arrived. Cat stood by Pat’s side waiting for her mom and Jason to join her. Watching her dad’s chest rise and fall by artificial means, she stopped asking for a miracle and accepted that it was his time to go. She held his hand and prayed to God to set her daddy free peacefully and without struggle. Suddenly, his eyes opened and his head turned slowly towards her as he acknowledged her presence! Where did this spark of life come from?! He looked straight into Cat’s eyes and returned the squeeze of her hand. Euphoric and confused, she almost ran out to tell the staff, to call it off, to stop them from pulling the plugs. But something made her stay right there by his side holding onto his hand. She just knew there was a message.
“What is it daddy?” Her voice quivered as she returned his gaze. “Please daddy! What do you want me to know?!” She was tempted to rip the tube from his mouth so he could speak. But there was no need to. Somehow he found a way to convey the message. Was it a gift of the dying? Was it telepathy? Whatever it was, his message was clear.
“Tell the world our story. Tell them who I really am. Tell them I meant no harm. Tell them honey.”
She nodded her head. Message received. His eyes closed and seconds later, the thin green lines that travel across the monitor no longer waved. His heart stopped beating. Her daddy was gone.
The unanticipated chime of an incoming text jerked Cat back to the present moment. She grabbed her purse and dug out her cell phone. A pleasant message from her husband brought a smile to her face:
Babe, wait til you see this crowd!
This is all for us!
Your dad would be so proud!”
She hadn’t told him she was stopping by her dad’s grave. She shook her head in amazement and typed back:
Your timing is perfect!
I’ll be there by 7 to celebrate w/ my fav author
Love you hubby!
She refolded the beach towel and gathered up her belongings. After a few final words, she blew kisses to both headstones and left.
As the white BMW exited the cemetery, the sun pierced the clouds lighting up the words that had been recently engraved on the headstone on the right.
Officer Patrick McGowan
January 28, 1953 – April 26, 2013
Loving servant of God, family, and community
A banner hung in the main lobby of the Kimmel Center directing the large crowd towards the Rendell Room where author Lawrence Sheffield III sat signing books. Once the adoring fans had retrieved their personalized and autographed copy, they were ushered into the grand theater for a preview of the movie based on the book.
Carl Baggely from the U.S. Attorney General’s office in Newark, NJ stood in line with all the other fancily-dressed guests. As he approached the ornate table, he opened his freshly purchased copy of Paybacks to the inside cover and pushed a pen towards the author. The author who happened to be his best friend, former college roommate, and member of the rugby club. “Just autograph it to ‘The Man’ would ya?”
“Carl!!!” Larry stood up excitedly and reached across the table to embrace his friend. “No doubt about it! You are the man!”
“Nah, I’m just a washed-up rugby hall of famer. But you dude, you’re a bestselling author with a movie deal. What amazing universe do you live in?!”
The exchange continued until some gentlemen with the “usher” designation on his suit reminded the author there were still people in line. Carl apologized for holding things up. “Lar, I’ll catch you after the preview!” he said and turned to head towards the grand theater. Larry stopped him.
In a between-you-and-me sort of tone he told Carl, “If you stick around here while I finish signing books, I’ll bring you up to the balcony where the premium seating is.”
“Will your smoking hot wife be there?”
“You mean my gorgeous coauthor? Of course! Matter of fact, she’ll be here any minute.”
Larry cheerfully greeted the petite white-haired woman who was next in line. Every so often he wanted to pinch himself to see if this was real. Paybacks was a freakish success that immediately caught the attention of not one, but three separate movie producers who fought each other for the rights to the book. Larry just sat back and watched the fight escalate into higher and higher offers. The results? No more mundane job at Coin Collector USA. Now he and the beautiful restaurateur he married live in a million-dollar waterfront condo in Penn’s Landing. They spend their free time on a fifty-foot sailboat named for the restaurant.
To think that a little more than five years ago Larry’s life seemed all washed up. He was a lonely bachelor with a worn-out career wondering why his writing talent was going to waste. That’s when Carl saved the day. First by giving him a tip about an ex-cop who committed a crime at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, and eight months later introducing him to that ex-cop’s beautiful daughter. Cat McGowan, the co-conspirator in the coin heist, was freed of all charges thanks to her father. But that gave her no pleasure. She fell into a deep depression. Grieving her father’s death, watching her mother struggle, and processing the fact that her family was basically played. By the time she reached out to the attorney from Newark, NJ, the man she’d seen in court who was somehow involved with her dad’s case, she was barely surviving.
“I need to tell his story!” She nearly begged Carl to help her. “It was his dying wish! I can’t live with myself until the story is told!”
Carl was surprised to say the least to learn that the daughter of the convicted ex-cop was desperately searching for someone to write his story. He wasted no time calling the man for the job.
Larry flew to Philadelphia within a week and met her for the first time. Cat mesmerized him with her candor and her willingness to be completely transparent despite the part she played in the crime. She painted a crystal-clear picture for Larry of the man she had worshipped from the time she was born. An average man dedicated to fighting crime in the city where he was born and raised. An average husband who wasn’t perfect, but who loved his wife and stuck by her through thick and thin. A way-above-average father who loved his three kids and stuck his neck out for them in a way that very few fathers ever do. Cat also wanted the world to know how her father had been set up. He went down as the government’s patsy. Thankfully, where the government ignored that fact and let the real villain get off scot free, God saw to it that justice was done. Nilbert paid the price with his life. As Cat shared the facts, she started to come back to life. Her tired eyes began to shine again. Those adorable dimples lit up her face.
Truth be told, Larry knew from the moment he met her that there would be more to this than just business. He wanted to be with her. But he was patient. He knew she was worth the wait. He quit the magazine and eventually moved to a tiny temporary apartment in Northern Liberties and lived off his savings while he devoted all his time to interviewing Cat and writing the book.
Cat McGowan started as Larry’s muse, but with time she became his bride.
The book signing came to an end and the excited crowd of people meandered with their signed copies of Paybacks. Then they were ushered from the Rendell Room to the Grand Theater to preview the movie of the same name.
Patrick McGowan’s only daughter spotted her handsome tuxedo-clad husband standing right outside of the theater with his best friend Carl. Perfect! With two red roses in her hand, she offered one to each of the gentleman, then the three of them rode the elevator to the top of the Grand Theater. In the film director’s balcony, a small group of guests feasted on pastries prepared by the city’s trendiest new restaurant, Bravado.
The lights dimmed, and the camera rolled.
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