The 1st Dr. Dan Trix Mystery
Management by Murder
“One of the highest compliments I can pay a book is to be a little bit sad when I finish it. I feel that way about the Trix books. It’s like going on a great vacation with really fun and sophisticated friends. When it’s over, you miss them, and your regular life seems just the tiniest bit dull for a day or two.”
Susan Edwards – The Book Guru
Review of the Trix series
Why did the president of a small Midwestern university kill himself the day after Dan Trix arrived? The internationally renowned management consultant was hired to review the accomplishments of a research institute inside the university. How will this affect his contract? The university’s CEO quickly acknowledges the president had a disturbing secret and was terminally ill. Trix’s new job is to create a report for the university and the police confirming the president’s suicide. If the job is done right, Trix may be the next president. Trix proceeds but things just don’t add up. He suspects murder. And why has the sexy, smart, beautiful acting president of the university taken such a personal interest in him? Or could it be professional? Could she have killed her boss? Does she want the job enough to kill Trix? Is living with high-voltage tension better than living in his cold, lonely, gray cottage in England? His life may depend on getting that answer right.
Bradley David Kieper seemed like the kind of guy who would rather be anybody but himself. Had he been an actor this would have been an attribute. Unfortunately he was a college president and a gold-medal bore. When his cute and no-nonsense administrative assistant apologetically interrupted him for his signature, he was strictly no-nonsense. When the flip and sporting chairman of the board of trustees called about their weekend tennis match, he was flip and sporting. To the gruff custodian who had to check the thermostat, he in turn was gruff. Put the guy in the wrong room in a mortuary and he’d probably croak. I’m tempted to say he was the archetype for self-loathing chameleons but I’m not sure you can have an archetype if there’s only one of a kind.
I came to this conclusion in something less than a lifetime association with the man. In fact it was more like five minutes. Such high-voltage character distillation is a lot like reducing Beethoven’s Fifth to da-da-da-dum, but in my business you gotta get the guy’s hat size quick.
No doubt Dr. Kieper — he was Dr. Kieper to the custodian — had a lot on the other side of his balance sheet. He sure as hell kept some tailor in need of IRAs and capital rollover schemes. His expensive tie was the kind I can only admire in the windows in the Burlington Arcade, off Old Bond Street in London; wool so finely woven the weavers must work under microscopes. The soles on his Italian loafers were sufficiently thin such that he could probably pick up a marble in his toes with his shoes on. I hadn’t seen a diamond stickpin since my last Edward G. Robinson movie but Bradley — to that cute administrative assistant Elaine — might well resurrect the fashion.
After he and Harry-baby wittily decided on tennis at eleven and fun at one, whatever that meant, just-plain Brad apologized to just-plain Dan. “I’m usually not this inattentive to my appointments but sometimes those little mice run all over our plans.”
He hadn’t had time to be me yet and he garbled that one all by himself. I wasn’t going to give him any hints about how to act and merely nodded. Hopefully he wouldn’t take me for the quiet type and clam up completely.
He made a little steeple with his manicured fingers, half-moons shining through clear polish. Either that or he ate his weight in Jell-O every day. “We have a fine campus here, one I’m tremendously proud of.”
He was well back in a chrome and leather swivel chair that I coveted — a Corbusier that could auction well into four figures at Sotheby’s — gazing out the window like a Texas cattle baron. Given his tone and pace, I thought maybe I should take dictation.
“When I arrived, the budget was in the red, the faculty was torpid, the students belligerent. Given our tradition, the liberal over-indulgences of the previous administration were ministered to here much too long. We were floundering badly when I arrived. And now look, just look.”
I looked out his ground-level window. Two co-eds in shorts and halter tops bubbled across the quad. Brad-baby was right; things were looking good.
“The capital budget is nearly twice that of a decade ago, gifts and donations are at all-time highs, enrollment is up thirty percent and so are our freshmen SAT scores. And all this mind you, is independent of LURAD, and why you are here, of course.”
Of course, hell. I had no idea what I was doing there. I had received, via FedEx, a retainer, an appointment time, and a first-class air ticket on Delta from Gatwick to Atlanta, then on to Chicago and LaGrange, Iowa. If it hadn’t been Delta, I might not have come. The tournedos rossini they serve are superb.
“Of course,” I said.
“LURAD has transformed a declining liberal arts college into a state-of-the-art business-research interactive institution with horizons limited only by our imagination. I couldn’t be prouder of the LaGrange University Research Augmented Development Corporation if it were my own son or daughter.”
I was tempted to tell him a lot of parents hated their kids. But then he’d have a fix on me as a wise-ass, then he’d be a wise-ass. I preferred his image as former Mayor Rudy Giuliani raising funds for the Statue of Liberty.
“The procedure too often is for a university research fellow to externalize his discovery, leave the university with the invention after an extended legal battle then patent or sell it. The company or companies involved are left with a truckload of profits and the university is left with a memory and occasionally a marble memorial. Granted, the Research Triangle in Durham, N.C., has been able to internalize the profits that have been generated from some of their research, as have the Ivy League schools on a random basis. But nobody has sophisticated the idea like we have. We have systematically organized the resources of the institution to support the marketing organization required to capitalize on research and ideas.”
So far in the conversation I had said only two words and he was still fixated on the horizon. I was in the presence of a visionary.
“And in LaGrange, Iowa, mind you; not Boston or Durham or Palo Alto.”
If he’d been a kid, I think he would have added, “So there” and stuck out his tongue.
“We know they are there, Dan.”
He swiveled around to face me. The temple collapsed and became two six-guns.
“Now it’s time they knew we were here.”
He opened a leather folder that lay on a desk so large and tidy it looked more like a prop than a workstation.
“Your reputation is impressive, Dan. In fact, I’d have to say I know more of your reputation than I do of your work. The latter obviously is as distinguished as the former.” He read from a single sheet.
“This may seem a peculiar assignment for you. Normally you are contracted by organizations to find the leak in the tube and patch it up, so to speak. This time the tire is firm and rolling fast. And you are just the man to tell the world about it.”
Right. And Saddam was just the guy to sell tents for L.L. Bean.
“What we want, Dan, is something quiet and understated, published in a reputable journal, that analyzes the success of our focus-based organization. It seems to me that a title like ‘LURAD: a focus-based educational/ entrepreneurial model for the new millennium’ might organize your questions and research. I think theme is important rather than plot, Dan. The idea of what we are doing is more important than the specifics of contracts, to re-phrase the idea. Please don’t misinterpret my suggestions,” he said as his hands flipped away any misconceptions I might have had.
On his right hand he wore a weathered class ring. I couldn’t make out the word above the crest, but PREP was fairly distinct on the bottom.
“I’m not the kind of guy to tell you how to do your job. That is the antithesis of the philosophical underpinnings of LURAD. We hire clever, capable, self-disciplined people with some intuitive idea of the marketability of their research. We give them an office, the required tools for their research, and then leave them the hell alone. And that’s exactly the way you’ll be treated, of course.”
“Of course,” I said.
The light on his phone flashed again.
“Excuse me, Dan,” he said with a wink. “Yes, Elaine.” Pause. “Put him on. Harry-baby, you again. Either you catch me with my pants down or in a meeting.” Pause, nervous chuckle.
He absent-mindedly twirled a stiletto-like letter opener. After about three twirls I was able to read the inscription on the blade, “Wisdom through knowledge.”
“A meeting right now? Dr. Trix and I are about through.” Pause. “Dan Trix. Trix’ll fix it; I believe that’s the popular cliché among management consultants. He’s here to review the progress of LURAD for a management journal.” Brief pause. “Well, I can’t make it right now but…” Brad’s head twitched slightly. “I’ll see what I can do, Harry.”
“I think that about covers it, Dan,” he said to me after ending his call with Harry-baby. “I guess your next stop will be to confer with Dr. Anderson over in Lovett Hall. Nope. Wrong on that one. There I go, thinking like an academic instead of a businessman. Old habits are hard to break. Our comptroller is upstairs at the far end of the hall. He’ll take care of the financial arrangements. Your contract will be tailored after our research contracts, of course.”
Should I? Oh what the hell. “Of course.”
“Hey,” he said with a clap of the hands as he bounced out of his chair. “It’s always a pleasure to meet the guys in the fast track. We’ll talk soon.”
I’ll bet he thinks we had a conversation.
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Renowned management consultant Dr. Dan Trix has been hired to market a luxury golf course in Hawaii. So why is someone trying to kill him? Trix is no stranger to violence. And he particularly doesn’t appreciate being attack by dogs or thrown off cliffs. From opulent resorts, through spectacular landscapes and deep into the dark soul of the islands, Trix and his war buddy Lester search for those responsible. It’s not all gumshoeing. They have the opportunity to enjoy an exotic array of the islands’ culinary and feminine delights. Trix initially resists the gorgeous women who are readily available. However, his smart, beautiful, devoted new girlfriend Elaine has joined him for a romantic week. But when Elaine has to cut her vacation short, Trix is left defenseless. Will he be true to his new budding love or will he lose it all because he can’t let go of any of it?
Stepping off the airplane into the Honolulu night was like stepping into a warm, scented shower without the water. Not heavily scented. More like the shadow of a scent. Those who live in the Mojave think Honolulu is humid. Those who live in Florida think it’s heaven.
You hear those perspectives from fellow travelers as you stroll none too hurriedly, from the gate to the baggage claim. From the air, the place looked much different. It was sparkling lights crawling up the valleys of east Oahu; the dark, quiet ridges, and the mega-glow from Waikiki, the same from Honolulu; the persistent twinkle of traffic marching along the coast. Down here it was over-lit high-rise buildings typical of any-city USA.
As a first-class passenger, I received the first, and still fresh, thank-you-for-flying-United. I’ve noticed that after a hundred or so of those, the flight attendants lips move, but there’s not enough gas left in the tank to power the words.
First Class on United from San Francisco to Honolulu should really be re-titled. Bourgeois class might do. Something between economy plus and business class. The seats a little wider, the service a little more prompt. The food horrifies the gourmet, titillates the obese. I brought a sandwich.
Sometimes, and this was one of those times, they do unload first class luggage before that of the hoi polloi. I had one Hartmann tweed bag, loosely packed. A few things to make me look Oh So Continental. The rest I planned to buy here. Tommy Bahama silk shirts with subdued tropical flowers, fashionable sandals by Ecco, satin shorts by Kahala. Underwear optional. I was meeting Elaine Newman, and if all went well, wouldn’t have much need.
I was surprised to find a guy with a sign that read “Dr. Daniel Trix.” My contractor knew I was coming but I hadn’t indicated exactly what day or flight. The Polynesian guy with the sign was big. His face was so fat his smile sunk into his cheeks. I could have used his aloha shirt as a shower surround.
“Aloha. Come wid me, brah.” I didn’t know if the guy was speaking in a local dialect or vocally impaired.
The guy didn’t walk so much as waddle. I followed. We waited for the stoplight outside of baggage claim then crossed to the parking garage. He wasn’t talkative and I was tired. That worked out well. He pointed at a white Toyota Camry parked in a handicap spot. Tricked out, as they say. Enormous exhaust pipes, spoilers, and those wheel covers that spin by themselves. How quaint, this Hawaiian limo.
The guy started to get in the car, paused, remembered I was there, opened the trunk without helping with the luggage, then returned to the drivers seat. He must have been paid in advance. I slipped in the back.
It was a short drive out of the garage and onto the H-1. This was my first visit to Hawaii and I had a Bali Hai notion of the place – palm frond bungalows, banana leaf roofs, swarthy bear-breasted maidens in grass skirts serving rum drinks from coconut shells. It may have been fronds and maidens and coconut shells for Captain Cook, but for Dr. Trix it was industrial warehousing, clogged freeways, and light-festering, high-rise concrete carbuncles.
I could see the glow of Honolulu in the rearview mirror when the driver left the freeway. Short-cut. Avoid traffic was my guess. Another couple turns and it got dark real quick. Open fields on either side of the road.
Suddenly the guy slammed on the brakes. He opened his door, scooted out and said, “Haole go home, if you still live.”
I unhook my seat belt as he slammed the door. The rear passenger side door opened at the same time. I heard the growl. I spun and brought my legs up. The dog leaped. I caught his body on my knees, his front quarters in my hands and accelerated his momentum straight into the window behind me. The safety glass didn’t break. His neck did. It was that fast.
I think I heard a car accelerate away, but that could have been my heart. The dog was heavy, but I pushed him off and lay there on the bench seat while my systems normalized. There was more adrenalin in my blood stream than there was gin in a good martini.
The only dogs I had as a kid were mutts, so I don’t know dogs. This one was big and brown with a head the size of a calf. It would look at home lying by Zeus’s sandals.
I scooted out of the car and gulped a few breaths. Then a few more. The air was as wonderful as it had been at the airport. Even better. The breeze gently flapped my shirtsleeves. The lights again had a Christmas twinkle. The traffic was white noise. I had lost neither body parts nor pints of blood. It was a good night.
I dragged Fido out of the car and off to the side of the road. No collar. No identification. Given the ways of nature, he would make a fine feast for something.
I was mulling how to get my bag and how far would be the walk, but that got preempted when I noticed the key still in the car. I checked the glove compartment. No registration. No insurance form.
It was a snappy piece of equipment. Scooted promptly. There was an entrance onto the freeway a couple miles down the hill. I headed back toward the bright lights.
Nine o’clock on a weekday night and the freeway was busy. Since I didn’t know exactly where I was going, I let everybody pass me. Almost exclusively Hondas, Toyotas, Mazdas, Nissans, and a few Hyundais and Kias. Allegiance to the homeland maybe. Or maybe the people with the franchises know their business.
The exit signs were little help. Words that start with K’s and W’s followed by lots of vowels. From the pilot’s spiel on the plane I knew Honolulu was between the airport and Waikiki. Figured if I drove through Honolulu to the water and turned left, I should find my hotel.
The Bishop Street exit took me past a busy YMCA, then quickly to a Y in the road with no signs. Most were going left. Me too. Bishop Street seemed to be the financial center of the city. Four or five blocks long, several banks, some insurance companies, mortgage brokers, wireless providers, and hole-in-wall restaurants to feed the worker bees.
Down to the water, then left on Nimitz Highway. Maybe a highway once, but now just a busy street with the usual commercial suspects lining the road. A few miles down the way, and there was a big park on the right, an even bigger shopping center on the left. Ala Moana, read the sign.
My suspicion was that my chauffeur did not hold clear title to this car. I had no interest in a sweat-stink room explaining to one of Honolulu’s Finest how it was that I was in possession of a stolen car. The shopping center was busy, and so were the open-air garages that surrounded the place. I found a spot street level, opposite some shops catering to the young and the restless, “Foxy” this, and “Juicy” that. I lowered the windows, left the keys in the ignition, and with wheeled carry-on, walked away. If this was a city like any other, that Toyota and my car troubles would be gone before dawn.
After hours on an airplane, and an adrenaline surge, I needed a walk. I was told it was a half-hour, or an hour walk to Waikiki, depends on where you’re going.
A nice walk, made even better by those same trade winds that greeted me when I exited the aircraft. No shortage of hotels, big and small, luxurious and modest, and that was just the few blocks up to Ft. Derussy. May have been a fort one day, but this day it was a park on one side, beach and a couple more hotels on the other. A couple more blocks and I was on the main drag in Waikiki. Lots of glitz, lots of schlock. Something for everyone. And lots of people strolling, many with shopping bags from those glitzy shops. Who knows, maybe they bought the bag at Louis Vuitton and stuffed it with a Quiksilver t-shirt. I get skeptical when I’m tired.
The Moana Surfrider was near the end of the shopping area. The hotel was one of the Grand Dames of Hawaii. Built in 1901, it had had more facelifts than Joan Rivers, but looked a hell of a lot better. The guest is greeted by a giant porte cochere, supported by gigantic white columns, maybe Greek, maybe Roman. Maybe white concrete over telephone poles
A white Rolls Royce was parked to one side of the porte cochere. It may have been a rental. It may have been a guest. It may have been the equivalent of that jar of tips at the coffee counter that the staff stuffs with bills to encourage you to tip well. It’s that tired thing again.
Check in was prompt, the staff polite, knowledgeable and outstandingly photogenic. If the customer assistant had been a man, I doubt I would have been so effusively gracious. Sun tanned Asian women with bright smiles, luminous eyes, dressed in a kimono silk blend that hugs the curves like a BMW in the Alps. Let me tell you, I was pleased with check-in.
The lobby has the traditional sculpted sitting areas, lots of them. But what immediately caught my attention was the beautiful hardwood floors and the many white columns that echoed those in the porte cochere. And the breeze. The conventional wisdom holds that Hawaii is an expensive place to live. My intuition said that air conditioning and Hickey Freeman suits were not part of that expense. Nature was providing the air cooling, and aloha shirts were clearly the uniform of the day.
My high-floor ocean view suite in the tower was easy to find. Easy for the bellboy at any rate. I followed him.
The young man opened the door, and, curiously, rather than leading me in, simply held the door while I entered. I palmed him a couple bucks, closed the door, turned, and from a single glance, felt pressure on my zipper.
She was lounging on the dining table, resting on one elbow, one leg straight out, the other akimbo. Spiked heels strapped around her ankles. Fishnet stockings up to mid-thigh. A transparent black bra. Lipstick the color of a vixen’s blood. Brown eyes as dangerous as black holes in space. A martini glass gently rolling back and forth on her cheek. Bangs and hair glistening as though shined by a jeweler. Bettie Page lives.
“You look like you could use a drink, big boy,” she purred.
“I thought for sure you’d say Bettie Page,” she murmured.
“You weren’t due in till tomorrow.”
“You had other plans tonight?” she pouted.
“Yeah. I was going to plan what outfit to wear when I met you at the airport tomorrow.”
“Oh, I think whatever you don’t wear will be quite nice.” She slithered off the table. “Much too warm for all these, don’t you think?” she said as she began to unbutton my shirt. Pressure on the zipper mounting. By the time she found her way there, it was somewhat difficult to unzip because of the peculiar angle it had attained.
Over the course of the next hour or so, we had the opportunity to test the comfort and resiliency of the various couches, easy chairs and ottomans in the suite. All proved satisfactory.
In comfortable cotton bathrobes, we slouched on the lanai chairs and watched the stars over the ocean, what few could be seen through the ambient glare from the hotels on the beach. A Far Niente chardonnay the drink of choice, compliments of the management.
“How was the flight?” was her perfunctory question. It was difficult to tell whether she was sipping the wine, or merely massaging the rim of the glass with her lips.
I explained my concept of bourgeois class, then continued, “but the massive canine that was loosed on me in the back of the limo was quite a surprise.”
Non sequitur statements like that will guarantee a pause in the conversation.
She paused, then asked, “Is that a punch line to a shaggy dog joke?”
“It’s what happened. But anything more than that, I certainly don’t know.” I recounted the tale from the time I met the driver, till I walked in the hotel room, excluding the prurient check-in experience.
“Could it have been a mistake?” she wondered.
“Until this moment, I hadn’t thought about the episode. It was so quick and viscous and stunning. Then I had to deal with traffic, and dumping the car, and absorbing the glitz and gaudy of Waikiki. And then exercising a long-dormant fantasy of unusual-body-posture sex with Bettie Page. Mistake? The driver had a sign for Dan Trix. Maybe he got the wrong name? I truly hope so.”
She turned to me, both leggy legs over the arm of her chair. “If it wasn’t a mistake, then whose shit-list are you on?”
I slowly shook my head in bewilderment. “Even if I weren’t tired, sexually sated, and pleasantly in the bag as I now pour my second glass of wine,” which I did, “I would not be hard pressed to conjure a list of those who dislike me, but very hard pressed to guess who would want me dead.”
“Sexually sated?” she asked as those legs began to part slowly.
“Lord, help me. This is going to be a long night.”
He didn’t. And it was.
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“One hundred year old women die of old age,” the doctor said. Dan Trix suspects it was murder. Detective Rodriquez also suspects murder. He suspects Trix. Trix discovers that the week before her death, his aunt changed her substantial will leaving everything to a hospice in Nebraska and nothing to him. Then his aunt’s nurse is found dead. Trix flew to Sarasota to visit his aunt and enjoy a romantic weekend with his new girlfriend Elaine. A cell in the police station is now as likely as a suite at the Ritz. Trix and his buddy Lester are forced to followed a trail littered with greed, deceit and death.
I walked to one side of the horseshoe bar, then the other. On the one side, the only spot available was between a well-nourished lady who overlapped her stool like a walrus would a pancake, and a nervous guy who flipped his elbows to a tune only he could hear. The other side was filled with young women in charcoal pantsuits, texting and drinking something pink in martini glasses.
Finally a stool emptied with no one on either side.
“How you doin’ this evening?” the bartender asked with all the sincerity of an overworked parole officer.
“Hoegaarden, on tap, please.”
While I waited for my Belgian wheat beer, I wondered why I was sitting there. Why not someplace where women wore Yves Saint Laurent, and men with loose Ferragamo ties scrolled through smartphones to check closing stock prices? This place had fake Tiffany lamps shining down on football pennants. But there was good beer on tap.
A guy slid onto the stool next to me. Sleeveless t-shirt, faded, mushy tattoos on both enormous upper arms, face by Sir Walter Raleigh, baseball cap with the bill at a cocky angle. But all was clean and neat. “Pilsner Urquell. Long Island chaser,” he ordered. He didn’t say “please”.
I knew Pilsner Urquell. “What’s in that drink?” I asked, not that I gave a damn, but just to start a conversation.
He shrugged as he opened his phone and began to text. “I just drink ‘em.” He had the smartphone. Stock prices?
Wine, I can sip. Beer, I drink. As a result, I barely had time to lust after a tightly wound young waitress before only a few suds remained. Barely, but I made it.
“Take care,” I offered, flopped some cash on the bar. Thought I’d visit the restroom, then maybe find a stool next to someone more verbal.
He grabbed my arm above the elbow and gave it a squeeze. Working man’s hands. “You’re the one who should take care. Maybe you should, like, find someplace else to hangout. Starts to get real chilly in Sarasota real soon.” His voice was almost a whisper, never making eye contact.
“Now that you mention it, I do feel the chill,” I replied calmly.
“Maybe cold. Guy can get real sick when it’s cold,” he whispered still looking straight ahead.
“Preventive medicine,” I whispered, then grabbed my beer glass and slammed it down on his open left hand resting on the bar. Three of his fingers and his determination shattered in a blink. He let go of my arm.
The man had experience with pain. Not a peep. No intention of creating a public scene.
“That was good,” he mumbled through clenched teeth. “But you gave your hand away.” He paused, then chuckled at his pun. “You’re a pro, man. That means, like next time you don’t get no chance.”
“Let’s put it this way, I have a particular acquaintance with violence. I’m not a pro, just a natural. Besides, it’s stupid to warn people. Makes them alert,” I replied.
“Must be that makes me a humanitarian,” he said with a smile, emphasizing each syllable in “hu-man-i-tar-i-an”, then slid off his stool and out the door without ever looking at me.
I’ve hung around my share of tough guys, but this guy was in a class by himself. Slam a beer mug on your fingers and see if your equanimity remains intact. Your fingers won’t, that’s for sure.
Since the guy was outside, I thought it might be prudent to stay inside for a while. It was still Happy Hour, the humidity was waning but still noticeable and the tightly wound waitress was more than she seemed – she was now tending bar. One more will be fine. In a non-chilled glass, please.
My charm was dazzling, but there were too many empty martini glasses on the bar, and too many worker-bees buzzing in from their hives, waiting for that ethereal alcoholized moment when giggles become laughs.
I contented myself with a few of Life’s Eternal Questions. Why do women dress so well, and guys dress like slobs? Why does everyone who does it, think they are not distracted by texting when they drive? How can anyone watch baseball on television? Why is it easier to find love in an emergency room than it is in a Happy Hour bar? I wasn’t sure whether that last one should be a question or a statement.
Most people, rightly so, would have been speculating on why that meatball had confronted me. Thankfully, somewhere along life’s hallway I had developed the ability to open the door, put the bad stuff in, close the door, and let it be. Frankly, I think this ability was just hardwired in my DNA. There have been times when I put good stuff in and closed the door. That’s always a mistake. The good stuff depreciates, the bad stuff appreciates. I’ve noticed that good soldiers have the ability to put bad stuff away and continue with the mission. Maybe they’re good soldiers because they have that ability. I’ve lately begun opening some of those closed doors and confronting the ghouls that would feed on my spirit like vultures on carrion. It is a long hallway with lots of doors.
I wasn’t really thinking about the threat, only the fact that I could deal with it later. Right now I had something much more important to consider.
Tan summer-weight wool trousers by Polo, Trask buffalo hide cordovan-and-black saddle shoes, red and dark blue checked Faconnable shirt, Brooks Brothers blazer? Or Polo white cotton shirt with the cuffs rolled up, complemented by Diesel fashion jeans, and Johnston and Murphy casual taupe penny loafers? Which would be more impressive with a dark gray BMW 328i convertible? I was never one to shy away from the tough questions.
Elaine Newman was coming to town. My preference over Santa Claus any day.
All the management journals will tell you the importance of first impressions. I didn’t have to read management journals to understand that fact. Many times I had been on interview teams for new faculty members, when I was busy climbing my way up the sheer face of the academic flatirons. If a guy came to the interview with scuffed shoes and a tub of donuts over his belt, or if a lady arrived with unwashed hair and smudges on her lopsided glasses, there was no need for them to even take a seat. Too often these people are in the same fashion cohort as their students, but we certainly weren’t going to pose them as role models. In the arts colleges, that look was de rigueur. Not so in the college of business.
This certainly wouldn’t be my first impression on Elaine. I had had the pleasure of making a good many impressions on her. When you haven’t seen each other for a while, it has the impact of a first impression. She was due to fly into Sarasota early that evening, and I was idling at a Main Street bar, waiting for her arrival.
She had a convoluted flight from LaGrange, Iowa, to Chicago, to Atlanta, to Bradenton-Sarasota. Once you enter the terminal, it’s all an adventure, she insisted. Travel was reward in itself. Her flight had been delayed out of Atlanta, as are all flights, as near as I can tell.
I was checking the flight tracker app on my iPhone, when a voice strained through honeycomb asked, “Is this stool taken?”
If her dress had been any shorter, it would have been a belt. Angie Dickenson once insured her legs for a million bucks. I wondered if this lady had the same policy. If I had the choice to suck on her lips or the succulent flesh of a juicy mango, I wouldn’t choose the mango. Lots of small coils of gold tumbled down her forearm as she flicked an imagined mote from the corner of an eye that might have been a rider on that policy. She wore a simple, classic white shirt, with cuffs rolled up. I felt a kinship.
I tried to see all this out of the corner of my eye, conveying that first impression of Matt Damon-cool.
“How’s it goin’?” the guy bartender asked, no Matt Damon there. “Appletini’s are half-price till seven,” he said as he slid a cocktail napkin her way.
“What’s your most expensive Champagne?” she asked calmly.
“Ah, a Mumm Napa,” he replied with a shrug.
“That’s not Champagne. Your best red wine?” she continued.
“Give me a minute,” he replied, then bumped down to the end of the bar, and tapped a guy in a sport coat and tie on the shoulder. Probably the manager.
“Can’t expect a filet at McDonalds,” I offered sagely.
“I wouldn’t know,” she said as she uncrossed and re-crossed her legs. If my eyes got stuck in this position, I would surely look stupid.
An Eagles cover was on Muzak. The ladies in pantsuits were giddy. A couple of them entertained flirtations from guys in black shirts and matching chin stubble. From the restaurant side, neat and tidy older couples, she with wire-brush hair, he with scotch plaid trousers, were exiting, having enjoyed the early-bird special.
The bartender returned with a bottle of 1994 Stonestreet Cab in hand. “Some guy used to bring in his own wine, by the case. Then he didn’t come any more. It’s yours if you want it. It costs . . .”
“It doesn’t matter,” she interrupted. “Two glasses.” She nodded my way. There was more breath in her words than there were syllables.
While he carefully uncorked the bottle, she entertained herself by gently bouncing on the toe of her crossed upper leg, a Jimmy Choo pump, 2 ½ inch covered heel, kid leather uppers. The meatball had a Blackberry, she’s wearing Jimmy Choo. Maybe I was where I wanted to be.
Two proper Cab stems were placed on the bar. He held the bottle over her glass. “Let the gentleman,” she again nodded my way.
I had nudged my largely untouched beer glass down the bar so it would seem it was someone else’s. The bartender poured. I swirled.
I sniffed. I sighed. I sipped. I soliloqued. “The granddaughter of a Spanish conquistador rode through these vineyards. It was an unusually warm day. Beads of perspiration gently dropped from cheeks perfumed by a homemade crush of aloe and fuschia onto the gravely soil, soaking deeply such that the roots of the ancient vines absorbed both her scent and her vibrancy.” I swirled a few more times in contemplation. “Other than that, just an ordinary auction-worth Cabernet.”
“We must make do,” she said as she nodded toward her glass.
The bartender filled our glasses much too full, obviously more accustomed to pouring pink stuff in martini glasses.
She swiveled toward me. Her knee came to rest on my thigh. I turned at the hip.
She canted one eye and toasted, “Love the one you’re with.” We clinked.
“If this isn’t love, I don’t mind. ‘Cause this feels just fine,” I countered. Our eyes were connected by a laser. We clinked again.
“That’s not bad, Trix,” Elaine said.
“More practice, I’ll improve.”
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Finding a body mutilated by an alligator in the hole dug for your swimming pool can change your plans. Dr. Dan Trix was hired to conduct a management audit in exchange for a big paycheck and a deep discount on a home in a country club development. Then a local real estate economist is found shot in his office. Trix, Elaine and his war buddy Lester signed the economist’s guest book that day. Detective Rodriquez is convinced that all this is not just a coincidence. Trix suspects there is more at play than a management audit. To test that suspicion, he and Lester will have to confront a Lithuanian who learned his management style from Russians who held a gun to his head.
“It’s the free puppy protocol. If people get something for free, it has little value. Payment is a sacrifice. Sacrifice engenders loyalty. Give away puppies and they’ll be abandoned in the park the first time they poop on the carpet. Sell that puppy for five dollars and the new parents will feel a sense of ownership, a connection. Funny how money does that,” I said in an annoyingly pompous fashion. I was annoyed that he would ask me to do this for free. Hoped to annoy him in return.
“That’s very interesting,” he said. The guy wore a stiff white shirt with his initials on French cuffs and a blue Hermes tie dotted with little green owls. The bottom end of the tie had flipped over. I could see the label. The cuff links were gold sandhill cranes.
“Interesting and true. You can bet on it,” I replied.
He held my embossed business card in his left hand and snapped it with his right index finger like he was considering whether or not to call the bet. “Dr. Trix, perhaps we could arrive at an understanding,” he said, his chin slightly raised.
“Sounds like the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939,” I said sounding insufferably haughty.
He turned his head a few degrees.
“Non-aggression pact between Russia and Germany. An understanding. It didn’t work,” I said.
I think the squint in his eyes meant, “What in the hell are you talking about?”
He leaned forward, his elbows on a black walnut desk that sat on a black walnut floor that nicely displayed black leather and chrome chairs, in one of which I sat.
“Let’s try this another way. I need an outside consultant. I need a management audit. Broken Shore is, depending on how you measure it, either the biggest or one of the biggest developers in Florida. For you to have us on your resume would bring you work and revenue such that you could choose your projects to match your lifestyle. Our gift to you is letting you put your name on the project.” The guy wore rimless wire frame glasses. His thin blonde hair was so fine and closely cropped that he appeared bald.
“Let’s try this another way,” I said. “You need an outside consultant. You need a management audit. Broken Shore is, depending on how you measure it, either the biggest or one of the biggest developers in Florida. For you to have me on your resume would bring you work and revenue such that you could choose your projects to match your lifestyle. My gift to you is letting you put my name on the project.” I paused. “For a price.”
He leaned back in his swivel chair and crossed his legs. Initialed socks.
“You’re very good,” he said with a smile. It was a smile the same way a vision slit in a combat tank is a smile.
“I’ve been told that,” I said with a smile. The same smile that Brad Pitt used to entrap Angelina. Or so it seemed to me.
He snapped my card, looked at it, turned it over. “Not much of a business card.”
“It’s a calling card not a Facebook page.”
“You have a phone number?” he asked, with a don’t-call-us-we’ll-call-you tone.
“That’s how you reached me.”
“That’s how my administrative assistant reached you. Where are you staying? Is this a short vacation?”
I had wandered into the Broken Shore sales office to look at the diorama of a community that had been recommended; Black Forest Country Club, it was called. Every mini-community within the club was named as a tribute to a tree or a forest or wood. One of the developers had been enraptured with the rain forest when he was on a barge trip on the Amazon. Somehow it gave him a sense of proximity and comfort to name the communities in the development as an echo of that experience; Pepper Tree Estates, Golden Pine Gardens, Black Oak Lanes, Swaying Palm Drive, Twisted Pine Circle, Shady Woods Lane. You get the idea.
The friendly but insistent receptionist required my name and number before I could wander. She was one of those academically displaced persons. She had a master’s degree in marketing, had taken this job while in school, and got enough pay raises over time that it was easier to be a first class receptionist in a hot-damn organization than an expendable marketer in a not-for-profit. She also recognized my name. I learned all this because she was a warm and chatty as she guided me around the showroom. With legs like that they should buy her a glass desk. That’s just good business.
“I’m renting in Black Forest Park,” I said.
“Our community bylaws require that rentals be for no less than thirty days,” he added, answering his second question.
“Oops,” I said.
He raised his eyebrows. It was obvious he wasn’t an outdoor guy. He hadn’t squinted in the sun, burned the back of his neck or had skin crud removed from his cheeks. Lamplight is not terribly destructive.
“I think we can overlook that in this case, Dr. Trix.”
He didn’t have a nameplate on the front of his desk and I hadn’t quite gotten the guy’s name. Brand, or Bland. Something like that. “That’s thoughtful. Thank you.”
“Let me give this some thought. I’m quite certain we can come to an arrangement. I’ll be in touch.”
He stood and shook my hand. I was six feet and with my brown hair wet, one hundred and ninety pounds. If he stood on a couple bricks, we’d be eye to eye. He had the hands of a guy who knew what a hammer looked like but had never actually held one.
As soon as I was out of his office, the administrative assistant, whom I had mistaken as the receptionist, was beside me. She hadn’t been behind her desk when I arrived. “Nice to see you again, Dr. Trix.”
“My pleasure, Rebekka,” I said not glibly, as I glanced at her nametag. “I only use the honorific if I’m trying to talk to a physician.”
“That doesn’t mean I can’t,” she said. “You deserve the respect. Is there anything I can show you? Would pamphlets be helpful?”
“Lot prices and some model home choices and prices would be interesting. I forgot to ask …” and here I took a guess, “Mr. Bland for that info.”
“How did you know that?”
She leaned a little closer. Something floral. Maybe lilac. “How did you know that Mr. Rand’s nickname is Mr. Bland?” she said in a quiet, conspiratorial tone. We were buddies.
“I’m a doctor, remember. I know many things.”
She had tiny Klieg lights behind ten-carat emerald irises. “Were you as irreverent when you were teaching?”
Before I completed my dark and bumpy transition from married, distinguished, research-assistant rich, endowed chair, oft-published and quoted, professorship at the University of Nebraska, to a damp stone cottage in the Cotswolds in England where I moped and mulled the causality of my divorce, became nearly translucent from lack of sun, lost weight because of an intolerance for deep fried everything, identified with folk songs about sailors lost at sea and miners never found in cave-ins, to my current resurrection as management consultant with embossed calling card, name recognition, and a lady friend insistent that commitment is the cement of any relationship, before all that I was college teacher. What a long strange trip it’s been.
“Irrelevant, I’d say.”
“The brochures are in my desk.”
She fetched them, placed them in a nice folder, the cover of which featured happy people with good dental care admiring blue herons on a pond at sunset. You have arrived, the caption would read, had there been one.
I thanked her. She turned and ambled toward a back room as though hesitant to leave the runway, slightly stretching the high V-cut in the back of her knee-length black skirt.
Maybe buy her a lightly smoked glass desk. Don’t want the place to seem like a brothel.
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Dr. Dan Trix didn’t remember the traffic or the architecture on the ride from the Bucharest airport to his hotel. He did remember machine gun bullets raking the side of the car. Also in the limo were an old friend hired to confer with political opponents of the Prime Minister, and a physician dedicated to fighting corruption in the medical profession in Romania. Was the attack from those intent on maintaining the status quo in the medical industry? Was it someone determined to keep the current political party in power? It was suppose to be a simple job advising prospective buyers how to proceed when acquiring a Romanian winery. But corruption is so imbedded within the business and government culture in Romania such that nothing is simple. Certainly not selling a winery to foreigners.
I was thinking, in a world gone crazy, will the crazies think the world is normal?
Something similar happened in India a few decades ago. The U.S. sent shiploads of wheat without providing the equipment required to remove the grain from the docks. We also gave them computers destined for villages that had no electricity.
Bucharest’s Henri Coanda International Airport, also known as Otopeni since the airport lies inside Otopeni city limits, was inaugurated as a base for the German Air Force during WWII. Romania’s primary airport has been constantly upgraded and enlarged over the years, most recently the expanded and sparkling airside concourse that was inaugurated in 2011.
The place is bright and modern.
And the village has no electricity.
There are dozens of self-check-in kiosks but no one thought about technological support. Finding one that works is cause for rapture. There’s an acre of assisted check-in counters but only a few have attendants. Queues are so long they blend into one another and people are not sure which line they’re standing in.
But the place looks great.
I was standing in line at passport control with passengers who had arrived nearly simultaneously on other flights. It was an easy two-hour flight on Lufthansa in business class from Munich to Bucharest. I wouldn’t have flown business class if I were paying. It wasn’t obvious that the wait was going to be any shorter than the flight. The docks and electricity bit again.
Since cell phones aren’t allowed until exiting customs, there were some nervous people milling about. A few would have appreciated the opportunity to phone drivers or relatives, advising them of their status. That’s the nervous minority. The nervous majority was suffering from cell phone withdrawal. They fondled their phones and tapped blank screens and pushed unresponsive buttons and chewed on the corner of their lips, some on the corner of the OtterBoxes. These were desperate people, not easily engaged in conversation.
I was slowly panning the crowd, an idiot’s delusion.
Being raised in a small town where you recognized everyone everywhere, I live with this indelible notion that no matter where I am, no matter how preposterous, I’ll see someone I know. It has happened.
When I was routed by the Department of Defense through Bangkok on my way to Budapest—figure that one out—a lady in my hometown advised me that her son, a schoolmate, was a dentist in Bangkok and I should look him up. That was it. He’s a dentist with the military in Bangkok. Look him up. It was then a city of four million
With a twelve-hour layover, I headed for Patpong. Before the Vietnam war, it was a lazy shopping area on the outskirts of town. Then came the war. GIs on R & R discovered a couple nightclubs in Patpong. Soon after that, the place became a profit center unto itself.
There are a lot of attractions and distractions in Patpong. Various services are offered at competitive prices. I walked the area as a tourist would a museum; only to look, not to touch, not to buy.
I had just exited a bar where the featured attraction was a naked Thai woman and a stack of one-baht coins. Not the sort of thing you see in Nebraska very often.
I was looking over my shoulder and smacked into someone who must have been looking over his shoulder.
That someone was the dentist.
Things like that give you faith in your delusions.
It felt very late summer or early autumn, I wasn’t sure about nature’s climate schedule in Romania. From the look of the crowd it was the dead of a dismal winter; dark, heavy clothing on everyone.
Then again, it could have been a fashion statement.
You can stroll through Romanian history and find that geographic area occasionally conquered and occasionally inhabited by Goths and Huns and Magyars and Tartars. You stir and mix that DNA legacy in a hot cauldron in a cold castle over time and what emerges is a something closer to Amy Weinstein than Lady Gaga. For those who gave up on movies and music when Elvis died, closer to Elizabeth Taylor than Marilyn Monroe.
Although the covers in women’s magazines would lead you to conclude that the majority of women in the country are sandy blondes, that conclusion is not verified in the airports. The look is shaved anthracite and sun-blanched olive oil. Combine that with black leather jackets and black boots with lots of buckles, and four-inch heels and silver rivets on large purses that compliment silver loops and necklaces and maybe it’s not autumn; maybe it is a fashion statement.
I panned the crowd as slowly and thoroughly as David Lean had the Arabian Desert when the guy ahead of me stooped to set his briefcase on the floor. I only saw his profile. That was enough.
“Garry,” I said.
He turned, slightly confused and surprised.
“Company F-2 leads by example,” I said.
“Trix, what the hell are you doin’ here?” We shook and hugged.
“Waiting for the tide to roll,” I said.
“Ain’t we all,” he said in that deceptive ah-shucks Kansas-culture dialect. That’s the one where the lower jaw is frozen in place and the tongue does all the work.
“I’m here on a consulting project,” I said.
“Well, we ain’t in the same pod but looks like we’re both peas,” he said. He wore a light wool navy-blue-and-white herringbone topcoat, the kind common to gentlemen who emerge from Savile Row tailor shops. Though I am not a frugal man, I’d guessed the cost of his charcoal suit with dark blue pinstripes might equal the cost of my sport coat collection, including the Brooks Brothers I was wearing at the moment. The thread count in his periwinkle blue shirt surely exceeded mine by a factor of two. Top button open, his tie was probably in his rust-colored leather Tumi briefcase with the shoulder strap.
“Who are you consulting?” I asked as we inched forward. Inched was literal not figurative.
“Hell, I don’t know. I open the envelope, call a limo, drop the check off at the bank, get on the airplane and hope to hell there’s someone at the other end to tell me what I’m doing there.” He slapped my back and chuckled. “When people pay me a shitload of money to hear what I have to say, they listen. Doesn’t seem to make much difference if I know what I’m talkin’ about.”
Garrison McKenzey III was my Recondo buddy in OCS, Officers Candidate School. Recondo is a few days of sleeping wet and cold, constantly hungry, getting lost, stumbling around groggy and exhausted, and learning that even when you’re wet and cold and hungry and lost and groggy and exhausted, you had damn well better find something inside you that allows you to rise above all that because a lousy decision doesn’t lead to a stubbed toe, it leads to a kid without a dad, a woman without a husband. Garrison had found it.
“What are you going to be telling these people that you don’t know anything about? Did you understand that?”
Garry nudged his briefcase forward with his foot. I kept my leather backpack on my shoulder and tugged my carryon forward.
“Sure did. That’s the way I talk all the time. Long-term economic growth,” he said.
“A retired lieutenant colonel lecturing on long-term economic growth?”
“I sit on twenty-five boards, work in fifteen different countries. I listen. I look around. Amazing how much you can learn when your eyes are open and your mouth ain’t. Get down to it though, I got a good booker, like having a good pulling guard; he opens the hole, I run through. I got the easy part. What brings you to this part of the world, Trix?”
“Wine,” I said.
“Drinkin’, sellin’, buyin’?”
About that time a chiseled guy in a dark uniform with chevrons on his sleeves and gold braid on shoulders said, “Excuse me. General McKenzey?”
“Thanks for the promotion. I’m McKenzey,” Garry said not as ah-shucks Garry, but as Lt. Col. McKenzey, Retired.
“If you would come with me, sir,” he said and motioned to an unattended kiosk with no line.
“Dr. Trix is with me,” he said.
We followed the guy. After we had passed the counter and were alone, he said, “If I may, sir?”
He collected our passports and quickly stepped into the kiosk. We heard a muted thunk as both were stamped. He emerged and returned our passports. Total time from our hands to his and back: twenty seconds, tops.
“Your luggage claim checks, sir?” Garry fished in his pocket and handed them to the guy. I pointed at my carryon.
“You travel with just carryon? How do you do that?” Garry asked.
“No operas, no galas,” I said.
“Gentlemen. Follow me please.”
Garrison McKenzey had a career that was easy to follow. As a hot-damn first lieutenant in Desert Storm, he caught the eye of a one-star general who made him his aide-de-camp. His next assignment was the Pentagon, where he was known as being both outspoken and well informed, a rare combination in that building. As a major, a three-star requisitioned him to his staff during the invasion of Iraq. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel below the zone, i.e., a year before he was normally eligible. He said thank you and promptly resigned. He was pissed at the way the U.S. was handling the post-invasion transition and rather than stuff a sock in his mouth and obey orders, he fled to the civilian sector.
He was hired by General Dynamics, which does something like twenty-four billion plus change annually in defense contracting with the government. He moved up the ladder like an eager fireman.
About then the good folks in Kansas thought he’d make a fine representative, and he did, serving in the House every bit as outspoken and well informed as he was in the Pentagon. He found divisive politics odious, declined running for a second term, hired that great booker and became a celebrity consultant and a news item.
When Fox, or Joe and Mika on Morning Joe needed a quote or an interview on progress in Helmand province, the logistics of supporting Benghazi, or the composition of the army needed to fight the wars of the next decade, he was the guy. His public persona was that of an apolitical honest broker who thought a handshake and a man’s word were still the way to do business, that cooperation and moderation were required for political stability and economic growth. That made him a valuable unofficial spokesman for political potentates who couldn’t afford to take an honest position on a contentious social or economic issue.
Off camera, get in his face, and he’d stick a chopstick in your eye while chewing on a wheat stem. I’d seen him bite the head off a snake and rip the heart out of a live rabbit. The man was in touch with his atavistic side.
We’d stayed connected over the years, a Christmas card, a dinner here, a burger there, a phone call expressing condolences; my divorce, his sister killed in a car wreck. Every time we met, we imagined what happened the night we graduated from OCS; we got catatonically drunk and with no camera phone, or known witnesses, the facts remain elusive.
As we walked through the doors into the reception hall, referring to that night Garry said, “I was on a Ferris wheel with Julia Roberts. I’m sure it was. Difficult yes; but I am nothin’ if not athletic.”
“Was the circus in town?”
“I’ll have one of my guys check on that. I think we’re onto somethin’.”
As we emerged into the reception hall, three shaved anthracite and olive oil guys moved quickly forward. Two had probably made the Olympic trials for the wrestling team. One was lean and wore glasses with thick transitional lenses. He’s the one who introduced himself. “Mr. McKenzey, I am Bela. I am your driver.” By the time we had finished shaking hands, two more guys arrived.
“These are my guys,” Garry said as he stepped forward and shook their hands. More dark suits and ties. One was Chuck and the other one Charles, which was confusing because Chuck looked like an accountant and Charles the social chairman for a fraternity. In fact, Charles was the booker who arrived two days in advance to plan the meetings, and Chuck was on the staff in the U.S. Embassy.
“Where you stayin’, Trix?” Garry asked.
“Carol Parc Hotel.”
“I know it,” Bela said from the side. He had a skinny tie, sunken cheeks and deferred dental care.
“We’ll give you a lift. Any problem, Charles?”
“Sir, we need to wait for Dr. Georgescu. I was hoping Chuck could brief you on your meeting with the ambassador,” Charles the booker said.
“I know what that meetin’s gonna be. Who’s corrupt, who can we trust, and the train’s on the track but how do you get the damn thing movin’,” Garry said.
“Well, yes, sir, that is the essence.”
“Essence is wheat, the rest is chaff. I’m briefed. In one car it’s Trix and me and Bela and who’s that doctor?”
“Cristina Georgescu,” she said from behind. “I have seen you on TV, Mr. McKenzey. You are even more presentable in person.” She held out her hand to Garry.
“Presentable? I’m not sure I rightly know what that means,” ah-shucks Garry said.
“I thought it too forward of me to say handsome. There are protocols,” she said.
“Any time a striking woman thinks I’m handsome, I’m pleased as punch.”
“Striking?” she said.
“There are protocols,” he said.
She smiled. She was at the other end of the dental care spectrum from Bela. “Pleased as punch?”
“I been sayin’ that since I was a kid and it never did make any sense. These are my guys, Charles and Chuck. This is my old buddy Dan Trix, Dr. Dan Trix.”
She shook with each of us; long delicate fingers, a gold watch, diamond ring on her left hand. She wore a black and dark-green flecked suit that made me think her tailor enjoyed the fittings. She had cute knees.
“What is your specialty, Dr. Trix?” she asked as she nudged oversized lenses in a cinnamon frame up a ruler-straight nose.
“A PhD”, she said.
“The lowest of the castes,” I said.
“Which accounts for your humility,” she said.
“We can jabber in the car. Who goes where?” Garry asked as we walked to the street. The cars were parked next to a couple red signs that undoubtedly meant no parking; one was a recent vintage black Mercedes with smoked glass windows, the other a Range Rover of similar vintage, color and windows.
Garry pointed at the Range Rover. “Trix, the doctor and me in the Rover. I like to see the guy that hits us. I’ll get in front. Don’t get to ride up there much anymore.”
Either Chuck or Charles, I already had them confused, opened and closed doors for each of us, except for Bela, the driver.
If you only looked at the buildings while driving into the city from the airport, you would conclude that the conventional wisdom regarding Bucharest in particular, and Romania in general was correct: a poor country, one in which Sherwin-Williams had not made inroads. It’s a low-slung gray city with ornate public buildings and stodgy commercial and apartment buildings. When Ceausescu built the twelve-story Palace of the Parliament, originally named the House of the Republic, it was one of the tallest buildings in Bucharest. Excluding the new hotels and financial buildings, it still is.
Look carefully and you can see a crack in the crust of that conventional wisdom: the black-smoke-belching two-cylinder Dacias from the communist era have been replaced by hybrid Mercedes and BMWs.
“There’s a lot I should probably know but I don’t. One of those things is what you’re doin’ here, Doctor,” Garry said.
“As a woman raised under communist ideology, I learned that to acknowledge an insult can be fatal.” There was a lot of room in the back seat of that Rover. She crossed legs just as cute as the knees.
“As a kid in Kansas, I learned to apologize even when I didn’t know what the hell I did to require an apology,” Garry said.
“As a kid in Nebraska,” I joined in.
“You learned how to unzip your trousers with either hand. Not much more, far as I can tell,” Garry said.
“I’m scheduled in meetings with you, the ambassador and Mr. Zeklos from the Ministry of Health. Given the critical nature of these meetings and how they impact my work and the future of this country, I would expect you to be prepared.”
There was no emotion in her voice. She wasn’t rallying the peasants to arms; she was ordering the torpedo into the tube.
“If you start now, maybe I will be by the time we get to wherever you’re goin’. You tell Bela where you’re goin’?”
“I did. I’m here at the request of a society of medical doctors,” she emphasized the word “medical”, “who are committed to rooting out corruption in the health care system,” she said.
“Sounds noble. What qualifies you to stick your nose in? As a man whose sole source of income comes from stickin’ his nose in, I’m often asked that question,” Garry said.
“I am a physician. I have an MD/MBA from Boston University. I am Romanian. My mother died on a steel slab in a hospital while the doctor waited for my father to arrive with the bribe money. I hate corruption as much as I hate the communist mentality,” she said.
Open starboard torpedo tube.
“That reads well in Brussels, but from what I know about folks here …”
I didn’t see them. None of us did.
I thought it strange that sledgehammers would be pounding on the windows. It wasn’t sledgehammers.
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Dr. Dan Trix and Elaine Newman are attending a musical event in a church. Then the pulpit explodes. Had Trix and Elaine been sitting in their assigned seats, they would be as dead as the pastor. A preacher on a hunting trip is killed by a stray bullet. Students at a local Catholic university are shot to death. Christian bloggers and pundits are suggesting this is an attack; a religious war has begun on U.S. soil. Trix had no idea that discovering opioids in the dead pastor’s office would lead he and Lester to Gdansk, Poland to learn that they may have two lethal problems, not just one.
The sound of sirens didn’t alarm me at first.
Sirens are usually white noise, as are Jake Brakes, barely muffled tricked-out Hondas, the occasional impatient car horn, rap music through after-market speakers and open windows. University Parkway in Sarasota isn’t exactly a stone’s throw away, more like a solid five iron. So if the wind is blowing toward the Parkway, the fountain is spraying in the pond behind the house, the ceramic Buddha frog is spitting water into our swimming pool, and the birds are regaling one another, you have to listen to hear it.
I was sitting on the lanai, reading a review in WSJ of a $2.4 million Bugatti Veyron Super Sport thinking owning that car would be like buying a German shepherd then keeping it in the bathroom, when the siren caught my attention. An EMS vehicle had pulled off the Parkway onto the quarter-mile access road to Black Forest Country Club.
Black Forest CC is sufficiently distant from either local or private schools that it attracts few working couples with school-age kids. Two-thirds of the homes are owned by northerners and foreigners who escape their winter igloos for the golf courses, biking trails and beaches of Florida. The remaining third live here permanently, maybe half of those in the latter stages of their careers. The retired occupy themselves by complaining about the Federal Reserve when the market retreats and the conditions of the greens when their putts go astray. The sound of an EMS siren is not a complete anomaly in the community. Which is why it’s often white noise.
Usually it gets a little softer, as our home is close to the front gate and the destination is normally somewhere farther down the two-mile road to the back gate. This time it got a little louder.
We had been fully moved in−and I pause here. I felt as though we had been fully moved in for six or was it seven months. Elaine rearranged and added and subtracted with sufficient rapidity that it was possible for me to walk into a given room and wonder if I was in the right house.
During those several months we had met most of the neighbors. It was a short street, some twenty-five houses. The demographics in the larger community applied to Naughty Pines; half were snowbirds, a few were foreigners, and the rest of us waved politely to one another when we set out the recyclables on Tuesday evening.
The permanent residents on our street were still in the workforce mending broken bones, managing client investment accounts, acquiring attractive clusters of rental units, facilitating a new-acquisition integration into a major aerospace company, or leading the charge at a major philanthropic foundation.
That last one was Elaine. These people weren’t of an age where body parts commonly cease to function without warning. They were, however, in positions of responsibility and therefore susceptible to the ravages of stress. Stress isn’t age related.
It was quite possible that a weekend handyman had fallen off a ladder but my first thought was a heart attack. It’s that stress thing.
I laid the paper aside and wandered to the front door. I had spent the day in front of the computer wondering if I should reallocate some of my index funds from foreign to domestic, from intermediate-term bonds to equities, from money market to broad index funds, or various combinations of the above. In the end, all I did was wonder.
Experience has shown that whenever I try to manage my market expectations, it’s a certainty a monkey with a dart could do as well. Nay, better. I’m always pleased then when, after an exhausting day of wondering, I have done nothing more than wonder.
Business casual in my home office is somewhat more casual than in Elaine’s foundation office. My requisite couture is that t-shirt with the curious hole in the sleeve that I fully intend to throw away after a couple more wearings, and the shorts that really haven’t faded that much and will definitely be thrown out with the t-shirt.
The same way a parent counsels a well-loved child who has erred through ignorance and not through malice, Elaine explained to me that inside the castle, with no expectation of visitors, I could wear whatever suited my mood. However, we all live with dreams, with expectations, with objects of adulation and respect. It simply wouldn’t be fair to the peasants for the knight to cross the bridge with a rusted breastplate, rivets missing from his gauntlet, dented and missing bars in his visor, his plume tattered and askew. Take away from them the image, the expectation, and those who have little would then have so much less. We have obligations, she confided.
I detoured into the bedroom, then walked out the front door in a nice aloha shirt and pressed shorts.
The EMS vehicle had turned onto our street and headed our way.
The guy to our left was an engineer who had never found a home project that he couldn’t do better than a professional. Put in new windows, re-screen the pool cage, jackhammer the tile and put wood floors in the study, he was the guy. He had no more fear of a ten-foot ladder than a model does six-inch spikes. Maybe he had finally cut the green wire when it should have been the red.
The fellow on our right was a consultant to east coast union pension funds. His normal vocal volume was loud. If you are going to deal with union guys, you gotta look like a union guy. He was an XXL. Scotch and steak were his idea of health food. Maybe his heart finally disagreed.
Both houses across the street were empty; one family snowbirds from the Midwest, the other still in England.
The vehicle turned off the siren and braked as it passed. Then it backed into our driveway.
We were a new neighborhood, a new street. Depending on which GPS system you have in your car, sometimes you find us, sometimes you call and we give subsequent directions. Probably inaccurate GPS.
Then it occurred to me, I know these EMS people do takeaway, but maybe they also deliver.
Could something have happened to Elaine?
I hustled down the steps toward the vehicle. The driver hopped out, jogged to the back. “Is this 8146 Naughty Pines Lane?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Is this the Trix-Newman residence?”
“Didn’t want to get this one wrong,” he said, then threw open the doors.
“Surprise!” Elaine said.
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Dr. Dan Trix is considered for the presidency of a prestigious university in Berlin− until he is charged with sexual abuse of a board member. Elaine Newman’s foundation sponsors a seminar to recognize the philanthropy of a local company. A woman who attended suddenly dies. Elaine is considered culpable. Lester Ponzolli invests heavily in a speculative company. The company declares bankruptcy. Penelope Rinaldi-Goldman helps a fellow Wall Streeter broker a bitcoin deal that goes bad. She’s suspended and investigated for illegal currency trading. All a coincidence? Is someone trying to ruin Trix and those dear to him? As Trix, Lester and Elaine struggle for answers, not only are their livelihoods in jeopardy, so are their lives.
The lady beside me bought her perfume at Dollar General and had once bungee jumped off a bridge in Arizona.
That’s the sort of thing you learn in an ice breaker. You know, a sharing, where you discover particulars about other attendees and complete a scorecard. This was shared at a presentation for philanthropists sponsored by my fiancée.
Then it got worse.
The Star Attraction came to the podium. “I guess I’m the last speaker of the day,” she said.
The audience thought that was a real belly buster.
I’m not a chronic malcontent, eager to vilify anything and everything that doesn’t entertain or educate. As a former college professor, I have credentials in public speaking; how to lecture, how to seminar, how to present, how to do it right. I also know how to do it wrong.
As a hard-charging assistant professor, I was responsible for a segment in a faculty orientation program. Something to do with improving teaching skills, I was told. My clever idea was to record a classroom lecture that was quintessentially awful. In the debrief, the audience would enumerate the mistakes, pinpoint the failings, highlight the atrocities, belittle the hubris. The problem was finding someone to present a bad lecture on camera. Some of my colleagues insisted they didn’t know how to give a bad lecture. Others were concerned that the audience would misinterpret their professional standards, and some contended that the focus was inappropriate; we should exemplify excellence.
I was left with no alternative. I became the producer, director and actor. I rehearsed my class. We all performed terribly. I mumbled with my back to the class, ignored them while I scribbled illegibly on the white board and insulted them when they didn’t pinpoint an answer. It was a truly awful, seldom subtle performance that was shown to the assembled academy. The point here is that great lessons can be learned from the truly dreadful.
We were learning a great lesson that day.
If I had learned to say “no”, I wouldn’t have been in this predicament. My fiancée, Elaine Newman, the executive director of the Unbroken Shore Foundation, had a job where social obligations were rarely distinguishable from professional. She wined and dined and cuddled and schmoozed and had the admirable conviction that if you spent time with people and just listened, you would always find something you respected.
I don’t know if she had found that something yet with Vida Loosmann. I certainly hadn’t. Ms. Loosmann thought it was engaging to stand in front of the podium instead of behind, thought it would bring her closer to the audience, more one-on-one. I am a model for the casual, extemporaneous speaker, she was implying. Hear me roar. All went fine, until it didn’t. She had tried to memorize her credo. Flying high, no net. Then a rope broke. She forgot where she was.
A pro would have treated this like part of the act. Pause for a moment. Return to the podium. Have a glance at the notes. Continue beguiling the audience. She snorted a smile, stumbled around the podium, rummaged through her notes, couldn’t find her place, finally realized she had to say something then started at the top of a page that had nothing to do with what had come before. Great stuff for YouTube.
Finally it ended. Elaine planted the heels of her palms one against the other and tapped her fingers together. Maybe there was some noise. It looked polite.
“I’m not sure. Was that the hard sell or the soft sell?” she asked out of the side of her mouth while smiling at Ms. Loosmann.
“That was a seminar on how not to seminar,” I said.
“Is this New Marketing in Action?” she said. The audience was either extremely unsophisticated, extremely tolerant or in need of a miracle in their lives. They smiled and waved as they stood. Ms. Loosmann pointed at each and mouthed a few words as though recognizing old buddies.
“The premise being it doesn’t make any difference if it’s great or terrible as long as it’s memorable?” I said.
“Not soon to be forgotten,” Elaine said.
“What I forgot is why we’re here,” I said.
We were interrupted by acquaintances saying hello; most were genuinely pleased to speak with Elaine, as she was with them.
“Someone forgot to tell the Big Dog about the composition of the audience,” she said. “This was supposed to be a presentation in front of a philanthropic audience about the good works that Sun Goddess nutritional products does in the community. We got an infomercial. Somebody screwed the pooch,” she said.
“Not necessarily,” I said.
Sarasota, Florida, is a county of some three hundred thousand, depending on the season, largely populated by the elderly of pan-European descent and their landscapers. Elderly here denotes those over sixty-five, but certainly doesn’t describe their vitality or their income level.
Many have the good fortune to be able to play golf and tennis at private clubs, sail boats on the bay, dine on scallops topped with crab and have conversations regarding the quality of the latest facelift.
Their problem is not inactivity but overscheduling. They have season tickets for the opera, the symphony, Florida Studio Theatre, pre-season baseball. They complain about the parking surcharge at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall but absolutely loved that Tony Bennett concert. Any new restaurant is a tough reservation. The far reaches of the parking lot are popular. That’s where you find the Mercedes, the Maserati, the Ferrari and the occasional McLaren Viper, none parked close to the door of the other.
The philanthropic crowd drinks inexpensive wine, eat salads at lunch, donate thousands to charity but are giggly-pleased when they find a nice gala ball gown at a consignment shop.
They have health problems and many have a massage therapist, a chiropractor and an acupuncturist or at least a friend who can recommend one. They aren’t certain of the benefits of aromatherapy but adore the fragrances.
Which takes us to why Ms. Loosmann might not have screwed the pooch but instead provided some intriguing foreplay.
The hinges on the medicine cabinets of these philanthropists are replaced as often as their putter grips. They have pills to make it go away and pills to make it come back. Pills to open, pills to close. Pills to make it big, pills to make it small. Red, blue, oblong, round. If then, nitrized flaked barracuda fin fortified with rusted acacia berry and aloa-fortin seven will provide full spectrum support for their increased cardio-vascular needs, why hell yes, I’ll take a bottle of that.
The philanthropic community is a society without the secret handshake. Their clubroom is the bar at the Ritz. I should emphatically note that I do not denigrate them or their habits. Those who bemoan the wealth of the one percent are oblivious to the magnitude of their generosity. They enjoy giving. They enjoy being coaxed to give. They are humbled by the good born of their giving. They enjoy learning of the giving of others.
Which is why most of them had come to that small ballroom at the Hyatt Regency in Sarasota. As a bonus, they were now aware that lactobacillus bulgaricus imbedded in a supernatant was the key beneficial bacteria in any potent and focused probiotic.
The Hyatt was formerly a place where you expected naughty things to happen in bathroom stalls. Then management realigned their priorities, refocused their objectives, redecorated the rooms, reeducated their associates and out the other end came a Hyatt that didn’t require an apology. If the Ritz was fully booked, your reputation was not tainted by staying at the Hyatt. Their catering and banquets manager was eager to book seminars and speeches and focus groups and a Neil Sedaka Q & A. She was a lively pixie and Elaine was happy to promise that her next event would be at the Hyatt. This was that next event.
Elaine grabbed my arm and directed me toward Ms. Loosmann, who happened to have some small sample packets. She was explaining to an attentive lady in gold lame, with notable scoliosis, how cortisone was derivative but often helpful. Her potion, however, was based in nature and cultivated only in the rain forest of the Amazon, unique in that it was a calcium product hydrogenated from the fiber of a rare succulent. The lady in lame was effusively thankful.
The stately fellow with macular degeneration was fortunate because she happened to have a sample of Nipatriad Vision Stabilizer, in soft gel format, specially enhanced with Omega-5 and Zeaxanthin. Only one capsule per day required. No thanks to me, she said. I’m thankful to be able to help.
After a couple more of those, Ms. Loosmann turned to us and said, “You two look so healthy. Let me guess. psyllium husk powder, glumatine capsules, an enhanced opti-vitamin and maybe a colon cleanser.”
“I’m Elaine Newman, the executive director of the Unbroken Shore Foundation. This is Dr. Daniel Trix. It was our mailing list that generated your audience.”
“How nice to meet you,” she said as we shook hands. She was of sturdy Germanic stock; broad at the shoulder, broad everywhere, but all in proportion. I’m certain her ring size was larger than mine.
“You have a passion for your product,” Elaine said.
“I have a passion for health and well-being,” she said. One of her minions cuddled next to her. She excused herself for a moment while she retrieved more order forms from her alligator briefcase.
“What do you take to maintain that wonderful glow on your complexion?” Elaine asked.
“These.” She jiggled a bottle and handed Elaine an order form.
“I think you had a very attentive audience,” Elaine said.
“It’s simple but true; the older we get the more help we need. It’s so satisfying to be able to help those who need help.”
“I only know about Sun Goddess through their philanthropy in the community. The Hike for Health on the Legacy Trail was very well-attended.” We had been sent a flyer for the event. It was a family walk/ride on a trail that had been converted from a railroad bed. An event sponsored by Sun Goddess to heighten awareness of the value of everyday family exercise. Free veggie burgers and un-reconstituted fruit juices at the end. No doubt some sample packs of kids’ vitamins and order forms lying about.
“Our studies have shown that the healthier you are as a child, the healthier you’ll be as an adult,” she said.
“Ceteris paribus,” I said.
“All other things held constant,” I said.
She looked confused.
“He’s a doctor,” Elaine said.
“What’s your specialty, Doctor? Are you in wellness management? Is that your interest here?” she asked.
“Organizational mismanagement,” I said.
“He has a doctorate in business. He was a professor. That kind of doctor,” Elaine intervened.
“Oh, I see. Not a real doctor.”
“Who was it that assigned you to this presentation? I’d like to relay to them what a splendid job you did,” Elaine said.
“I’m not sure. They’ve been shuffling people between Berlin and the U.S. The company started in Germany. Sonnengottin it’s called over there. They want the Berlin people to understand the U.S. market. They have new people in the chairs now, and some new chairs as well. I received an email telling me to be here. So I am here,” she said.
“Your English is superb,” Elaine said.
“Yes, it is. I should see if I can help my colleagues. There are still people waiting with questions. Thank you for sponsoring this event,” she said as she moved toward a circle of people.
“Actually, we didn’t sponsor it. We just …”
She was off before Elaine could finish.
“Pay to play, lady. You ain’t buyin’, she ain’t talkin’,” I said.
Several in the audience, now with either bags or order forms in hand, nudged beside Elaine and thanked her.
“I have such a time controlling my statins. This may be the thing.”
“I’ve consulted three doctors and they all have a different story on my fibrillation. And to think all I need is this one little pill.”
“If this works for my arthritis, I’ll buy the company. You’re a gem, Elaine.”
There was a small bottle of something left on the table. Elaine read the label. “‘Extract of wild salmon oil with D-Aspartic Acid. For the enhancement of the sexual experience, only.’ Do you think it works?”
We didn’t have a control group that night so there’s no way to tell.
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Most people don’t open the front door and find a son they didn’t know they had accompanied by a police detective. Dan Trix did. Trix and Elaine’s wedding plans are disrupted when Zook disappears. He feared he would be linked to the man found murdered behind the butcher shop where he worked. Trying to find the killer and trying to redeem Zook become synonymous. When all else fails, Trix and his buddy Lester tromp the broken streets of Buenos Aires. Zook was living there while doing research on corruption in Argentine business and government. Trix and Lester become immersed in the seamy and steamy lives of those who knew a man named Myklos. Then who was Zook? There are violent people with much to protect who don’t want Trix and Lester to know the answer to that question.
I get nervous when our doorbell rings at sunset.
The protocol in our community is to call in advance. That is not our preference. It is simply the protocol of an older generation. Black Forest Country Club is primarily inhabited by retirees. They did well in their work life. They believe retirement is the opportunity to be a kid again, only with more money. They golf and play tennis and cruise and have season tickets to the Van Wezel and the symphony and love to offer opinions on the latest hot restaurant. They nap, morning and evening. They wear makeup. They do not want to wake anyone from a nap. They feel uncomfortable if someone answers the door without makeup. Thus an unexpected doorbell creates suspicion.
Elaine got to the door first. She opened it without looking outside. That also makes me nervous. Who knows who’s there? The fact is, she can handle herself. A couple assholes who challenged her are now ashes in jars.
“What a pleasant surprise. Trix, it’s for you,” Elaine said.
It was Detective Clifton Rodriquez of the Sarasota Police Department.
“Detective. Tell me it’s good for me to see you,” I said.
“You can bet big against that,” he said.
I’m not certain there is a record for such a thing, but my guess is that we had spent more time engaged with the police than had most new arrivals in Florida. Although I was for hire as a management consultant, a few unfortunate people involved in my assignments in Sarasota had died. Detective Rodriquez thought that more than a coincidence.
“You have company. Is this young man a junior detective with whistle and a plastic badge shadowing the legend of Crimes Against Persons?” I said. The kid was probably early twenties. He looked at the floor. He reminded me of a cheese that needed mold cut off the edges.
“If you make us stand here, I’m gonna rub my nuts,” the detective said.
“Sounds good. Nothing on TV tonight,” I said.
“Trix. Don’t be a boor. Please, Detective, you know you’re always welcome,” Elaine said.
Over the course of several encounters, Elaine had charmed the detective. That created moments when he was quite tolerable. A good chance he was also a bit smitten.
“Perhaps a glass of wine on the lanai, Detective. We can muse over Rorschachs created by the clouds, reflect on the influence of terroir on the wine, compare prices at Publix and Target,” I said.
“When I rang the doorbell, I was feeling sorry for you. Now I’m feeling sorry for this idiot,” Detective Rodriquez said as he grabbed the young man by the elbow. He jerked his arm and shook off the detective’s hand. We moved to the lanai.
“I know why you feel sorry for me. It’s because I’m me, and to you that’s one damn sorry state of existence. Why are you sorry for this junior detective, undercover I assume,” I said as I tweaked my ear. He had a stud in his.
“Introduce yourself,” Detective Rodriquez said.
The young man said, “Dr. G. Daniel Trix?” He ran a hand over his sandy buzz cut.
“Hi, Dad.” If I hadn’t heard petulance before, now I had.
There are different types of silence. There’s the one when you’re lying in the grass listening to crickets in the night. There’s the silence when your honey opens the big box at Christmas to find inside a little box with an unexpected gift. There’s the one after you accidentally brush the Riedel wine glass onto the floor, she thinking you should be more careful, you thinking it shouldn’t have been there in the first place, both thinking one word might pull the finger from the dyke. There’s the silence when the song is so beautiful you’re too choked up to speak. It’s a long list. But somewhere in there is the silence when you’re introduced to a son you didn’t know you had.
Elaine went for wine glasses. The detective, the young man and I sat on the lanai. I nodded them into chairs that looked across the blue-lit pool to the lazy reeds surrounding the quiet pond, over verdant moguls on the sixth hole on the golf course to the moss-laden trees beyond. It was a splendid view. I hoped they would subliminally associate me with the view, a splendid guy.
The kid and I glanced at one another. He tapped his fingers on the armrests. I tried to tongue that non-existent peanut speck out of my teeth. The detective enjoyed the view.
Elaine returned first with four glasses, then with some slices of gruyere and thin crackers. She poured the sassy Malbec.
She raised her glass. “Gentlemen, this is one toast I think we’ll all remember. This morning we were just a household. Tonight we’re a family. I am certainly eager to hear how that happened. To family, Trix.” Evidently petulance was contagious.
Elaine, the detective and I held our glasses forward to toast. The young man sat there and shook his head.
“I’m a bit curious myself,” said the detective as he straightened his black tie. He was always a study in black, his slick-backed hair included. Sometimes in more frivolous moods, maybe charcoal.
“I been waitin’ to hear this,” the young man said. He had a sturdy chin and a gold stud in one ear. It wasn’t obvious whether you should trust the clear blue eyes or the scar outside his left eye socket.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Zook Haber,” he said.
“Zook?” I said.
“You live with Trix. I can sure as hell live with Zook,” he said.
“How do I know who you really are?” I said.
Zook snorted. “That’s good. Are there so fuckin’ many you don’t know which one I am?”
“I’d be happy to throw your ass in my jail. Any more of that language and I will, I fuckin’ shit you not,” the detective said.
“California doesn’t have open adoption records. But they do on a county-by-county basis. I was born in a county with open records. I got your name. The rest was easy,” he said, then drank half his glass. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then wiped his hand on loose fitting polo shirt with no logo. He wore rimless glasses. His jeans were clean and snug. He was maybe a half size smaller than me, which put him at close to 6 feet, a solid 185 pounds.
“I’ll tell this as best I can. I was a graduate teaching assistant. Your birthmother was one of my students. The rules on teachers fraternizing with students were different in those days and certainly different for teaching assistants. She was bright, curious, pretty. She asked questions in class. She asked questions after class. We chatted a few times over cheap beer in a loud bar. Then one night, well, it was just the one time. I wasn’t looking for a future and neither was she. Then came the end of the semester. She had a summer job as a camp counselor. I stayed in town to work on my dissertation. Early fall she came to my office, announced she was pregnant. I was stunned. She was calm. She’d already decided. No abortion. She was Catholic. She couldn’t keep the child and she didn’t have any illusion that we would marry and be a happy family. The remaining option was a cousin in California with whom she could live till you were born, then adoption. I didn’t know if you were a boy or a girl. She refused to tell me. I don’t know why. That’s what happened,” I said.
“Did you ever see her again, talk to her?” Zook asked.
“I never saw her. After your birth she stayed in California for a few months to regain her emotional balance. When she returned the next fall, I was gone. We did talk on the phone a few times both while she was pregnant and after your birth. She thought logic would make the situation tolerable. It was the rational thing to do. She wasn’t prepared for the maternal instinct that overwhelmed reason. Holding you after your birth was the warmest, most joyful thing she had ever experienced. When they took you away, she dissolved into a suffocating deep purple funk. It took months for her to resurrect herself. I don’t know if she ever really did. After that, she was somebody different, at least she seemed different on the phone. Have you met her, spoken with her?” I said.
“That would be kinda hard. She’s dead,” he said.
“Ah hell. What happened?”
“She died. When that happens you’re dead,” he said.
“When I put my heel in your mouth you lose teeth, that’s what happens. Answer the damn question,” Detective Rodriquez said.
“I called. They said it was cancer. If she were alive, I would have talked with her. But since she was dead, I didn’t give a shit about her life. She didn’t care about me. I sure as hell wasn’t going to care about her,” he said.
“I think it would be nice to pause for a moment,” Elaine said. “It’s not important how we got here, now, together. The fact is we are. Beginnings can start anywhere. It’s a myth they have to start at the beginning. Time isn’t segmented. It’s a continuum. We can label where we are on the continuum any way we see fit. I see fit to call this a beginning. Beginnings are fresh and new and not soured by the past. We can make it that way if we want to. All we need is the will to do that.”
“I haven’t heard that kind of happy horseshit since the last time I was in church. You a preacher?” Zook said.
The detective slapped him on the side of the head. He barely flinched.
“Don’t say it. Don’t even fuckin’ think it,” the detective said.
“No, Zook, I am not a preacher. Do you know who I am?” Elaine asked.
“Not a clue,” he said.
“I am Elaine Newman. I am Dan’s fiancée. And I am absolutely thrilled to meet you. You are welcome both into our home and into our lives. Please stand up,” she said.
She gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
When he sat, his cold blue eyes were a little less cold. The warmth of one human for another can change the world. There was a possibility it might even change Zook.
“The cheese, the wine. Please gentlemen,” she said.
We nibbled and sipped and glanced at the view and realized there are a lot worse situations in the world than this one. At least I did.
“This is what polite, civilized people do. They eat cheese. They’re polite,” Detective Rodriquez said.
“I’m happy to sit here and be part of whatever we are. We don’t have to talk. But if you’d like to tell us about yourself, Zook, we’ll be attentive,” Elaine said.
“They eat cheese. They’re polite,” the detective said as he stared at Zook.
“I was adopted by a young couple who had no business getting married let alone adopting a kid. My dad was a Swiss immigrant who died young. Bad heart. He said I always ran around the house like a runaway train. They started calling me Zug, German for train. It became Zook. Mom was an administrative secretary for a company that made gauges for the oil business. Her boss was a real …”
“The guy was an Alpha Hotel. How’s that?” he said to the detective.
“An asshole,” Elaine said.
“The company kept getting bought out. The new owners would move her boss around. He took Mom with him, and therefore me. She was professionally great. But the reason he kept her was so he could have sex with her whenever he couldn’t find it anyplace else. She didn’t ever tell me that but a blind man could see that was the deal. She gets to keep her responsible, well-paid job if she …”
He paused again.
“You’re learning,” the detective said.
“We were in Boulder my senior year of high school. I applied to the U. of Colorado so I could live at home, save on expenses. The Alpha Hotel didn’t like me anymore than I liked him. He decided to pay my rent on an apartment to get me out of the house, told Mom it would be a better collegiate experience for me, force me to socialize more with my peers. He just wanted his nooky available whenever he was in the mood,” Zook said.
“Are you still in college?” Elaine asked.
“You don’t know if you’re still in college?” Detective Rodriquez said.
“You don’t know any way to act except pissy?” he replied.
“Timeout,” Elaine said.
“Cheese. Polite,” I said.
“Maybe you could clarify that for us, Zook,” Elaine said. She had her brown hair in a ponytail that bobbed up and down encouraging his agreement. The cinnamon scrunchie that held her hair matched a linen blouse that clung more like spandex than linen. It was enough to make me agree to anything.
“My senior year I got tired of college, tired of the classroom. The business finally realized the Alpha Hotel was an Alpha Hotel. He got fired. The company kept Mom but moved her to another job. I didn’t want to move back home but I couldn’t afford the apartment. I was ready to say to hell with it and quit. My advisor recommended working with him on a project. He had money from a grant. It was practical research, fieldwork. Why not? I’d get credit for the work and get some experience,” he said.
“Where did you go? What did you do?” Elaine said.
“Spent the better part of a year in Argentina. Did the research. Sent in the report. Most of it. Decided I’d stop here for a while. Look you in the eye,” he said to me.
“Don’t forget the punch line,” the detective said.
“What would that be, Zook?” Elaine said.
Again he shrugged his shoulders.
“He started dealing drugs,” the detective said.
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What would you do if you found your dentist dead in his chair when you arrived for an appointment? Detective Clifton Rodriquez convinces Dr. Dan Trix that the answer is simple: find out who done it. The trail leads Trix and Lester to the beer halls of Lima, Peru and the colorful markets of Otavalo, Ecuador where they find well-guarded streets and closely guarded secrets. When people close to a Florida State agency are soon found dead, the suspicion is that all these deaths are not a coincidence. How are they related? Who did it? Can it be stopped? Trix, Elaine and Lester are racing against an invisible clock. Will they be in time?
There was someone dead in the dentist’s chair.
A patient? Maybe. Sometimes when I hear the drill and see vaporized enamel erupt from my mouth, I do a full body isometric sufficient to stop my heart.
A dental assistant? Doubtful. People don’t hate them. They are little more than the devil’s disciples. They tend the molten pitchforks and the sizzling needles that dentists stab into the delicate nerve bundles cuddled under our gums. Like good soldiers, they just follow orders. They sleep well.
The custodian found the key to the medicine cabinet and discovered too late he was intolerant to Novocain? Low probability there.
Best guess, it was the dentist. If it was the dentist, he was a man too busy to buy decent clothes.
My father was mostly blind. When I would visit him I’d throw away bundles of shirts with holes burned by cigarette ashes and pants stained by desserts, replaced by shiny new work pants and shirts on sale. He knew his clothes felt different. I told him it was a new miracle ingredient in the detergent.
Put a bag over the head of the guy in the chair and he could have been my dad. Except for the blood. Dad nicked himself occasionally while shaving. But that didn’t lead to a bloodstain the size of a waffle over his left shirt pocket.
My forte as a management consultant is assessing the cause of imbalances between cash inflows and outflows, proposing reorganizational initiatives, recommending acquisition strategies, cautioning about the perils of integrating disparate corporate cultures.
I do not pause quietly, peruse the crime scene, consider options, deduce meaning from miasma then conclude it was the butler in the kitchen with the candlestick.
I tried to exit quickly and quietly. I didn’t make it.
One of the dental hygienists arrived as I was executing my escape. I had made it to the waiting area where patients read how to make a fifteen-minute chicken-chili casserole the whole family will enjoy. She was disconcerted when I stood firmly in front of the door leading to the dental area. So was the hygienist who arrived seconds later apologizing and complaining about the idiots who text and drive.
“Dr. Trix, but what are you doing?” Rosalita said. The few times I had been there I had been playful with the hygienists, some might say flirty. This was not the flirty me.
“I’m protecting you,” I said.
“This is not funny. We need to prepare, right now. I’m sure you know how irritated people get when their appointment is delayed,” Rosalita said.
“I myself am a role model for how to be righteously irritated when my appointment is delayed.”
“Dr. Trix, please,” Rosalita said as she moved to step around me, followed closely by Tristy. I put my arm firmly on the doorframe.
“Describe Dr. Kovich,” I said.
“He’s shorter than you. A little overweight. Dark brown hair with a receding hairline.”
“Dresses like a slob?
“When he wears his lab coat, it’s not noticeable. Why are you asking these questions?” Rosalita said.
“Ladies, would you sit for a moment, please?”
They did. Trying to not to be nervous is like trying to not be thirsty. Doesn’t make any difference what you do, you still are. They were.
“Dr. Kovich is dead. It’s messy. I promise you, you do not want to have that image tattooed on your brain. I’m going to call the police and we are going to sit here, calmly, until they arrive. Then you can get hysterical if you’d like. I wouldn’t recommend it. Police tend to respond physically to hysterics.”
“How do you know he’s dead? What were you doing back there?” Tristy said. She was bouncing on her chair. Freckles that were dormant under normal conditions emerged on her cheeks, complimenting her strawberry blonde ponytail. The flirty me noticed that.
“I believe arriving early for an appointment is arriving on time. If the party starts at ten o’clock, I’m there by nine,” I said.
“You’re not answering the questions. You had something to do with this,” Tristy said. Not only was she bouncing, she was clenching and unclenching her fists.
“Tristy, give me your hands.”
I knelt, grabbed them and held them firmly. The back of her chair kept her from pushing herself out the window.
“No one was at check-in. I rang the little bell. I called out. No response. I went through the door. I found the doctor. I was going outside to call the police when you two arrived. Lousy reception back there. Now if you can sit here calmly, both of you, I’ll make that call.” I passed along one of Tristy’s hands to Rosalita, who patted it gently, an understanding, nervous older sister.
When an ostensibly law-abiding management consultant has a detective in the Crimes Against Persons unit of the Sarasota Police Department on speed dial, frankly, it’s a damn sad state of affairs.
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Dr. Dan Trix is scheduled to give the commencement address at his high school in Mirage Flats, Nebraska. He refuses to have his speech vetted and is promptly replaced. His replacement, a U. S. Senator from Nebraska, is assassinated at the podium. A Nebraska State Senator is killed in Montreal while attending a jazz festival. The Lt. Governor of the State of Colorado dies in the restroom of the Performing Arts Center in Parker. The Sheriff of Mirage Flats needs an arrest. As a man impatient to live up to his image of himself, being noticed is more important than being right. Trix and Lester need to discover whether these deaths are random and coincidental or if there is a sinister commonality that portends explosive social consequences.
The Sandhills of western Nebraska are a unique geographical area. They stretch roughly 250 miles across the state, encompassing an area, were it a square, that would be about 150 miles on a side. That’s a lot of sand.
Driving through the Sandhills is a mantra, a rhythm of sameness that subtly changes constantly. The landscape is interrupted only by cows chewing cud, coal trains that stretch for miles and pickups that drive slowly for fear of bruising the wind.
The dunes have elevation sufficient to tire grouse hunters. New Yorkers think they’re driving across a hell of a long parking lot. Were it not for the grasses and sage, the land would be appropriate for camels and Bedouins.
The area sits atop the Ogallala Aquifer. This accounts for the surprising number of low-lying lakes and ponds that provide rest stops for geese, cranes and ducks migrating from Canada to the south and returning. The birds share space with the half-million head of cattle that rely on windmills and lakes to mitigate the effects of the hot summers and cold winters.
The sandy soil was considered uncultivable until the advent of center pivot sprinkler systems. Agriculture has since encroached on the fringes of the dunes, but little more than a nibble.
Although there is no recorded history to substantiate how Mirage Flats got its name, you’d join the consensus when you curl to the top of a high dune on Highway 385 south. Five miles in the distance is a plateau of trees and greenery. Given the uniformly stark nature of the landscape, if you were slapping reins on the flanks of a team pulling a Conestoga when you came over that rise, you’d think it was a mirage. The truth, whatever it is, withers before that fable.
After Five Mile Dune there are a few modest single-story homes with origins as uncertain as the name of the town. There are rusted farm machines in the yards and garages in need of paint. Maybe the people inside are there for the privacy, maybe for income reasons, maybe because they inherited the place, maybe because they didn’t have the spunk to leave.
Maybe there are reasons born of generations tied to the land, unwilling to concede the horizon, or to concede that a mini-mart is a convenience, or to agree that the sound of TV game show is more soothing than the sound of the wind chimes on the porch.
There is a large feedlot where small heifers and steers become large steaks. Many of the billboards were erected fifty years ago. Many of those have been repainted or repapered in the original as the business has been inherited twice over, name and address unchanged. Juxtaposed next to those billboards are calls for residents to subscribe to one of several internet and TV service providers, which tells us that if there is competition for this market, there are few bones left to be picked.
There are opportunities to buy propane, to lease a winch, to secure window frames, to satisfy your welding needs.
Set back from the highway, some jolly joker has stacked square bales of hay in the form of a large couch. On the hay couch is a toilet next to an easy chair. A sloppy hand-painted sign on the side of an overturned refrigerator reads, “Rest Stop.”
“If that is the hallmark of Mirage Flats, I’m going to adore this town,” Elaine said.
Old timers in town rock and squeak and roll a toothpick from one side of their mouth to the other as they recall the days when the gas station at the corner of Highway 385 and Third Street (Highway 2) was named Terrible Terry’s. Gas was two bits a gallon and everybody chipped in a quarter on Saturday night so they could go cruising. Since then the station has had more name changes than Larry King has had wives. No matter the name, it still attracts locals who appreciate no-frills discount gas, and tourists on the way north to the Black Hills and Mt. Rushmore.
We turned right onto Third Street. Over the two blocks to the motel it was confirmed that if you allow people freedom, innate entrepreneurship will chart the movement of the economy as naturally as do the stars the sky; bird feeders, chicken feed, a chainsaw, a Smart TV, a sandwich the size of a brick, irrigation equipment. All that was in the first block.
The Panhandle Express is the Ritz of Mirage Flats. Better than the Ritz. Breakfast is included. If you don’t like Raisin Bran or biscuits and gravy, you can walk across the street for a breakfast burrito, or next door for a breakfast pizza. A drive to the other side of town is required if you want ham and eggs.
The sign outside the motel read, “Welcome to Mirage Flats. Gateway to Wherever Your Going.”
“The cookies just came out of the oven and the coffee’s fresh,” said the young woman behind the counter. She had been either an outside hitter on the volleyball team or a forward on the basketball team. Maybe both.
“You don’t even know if we’re staying here,” I said.
“People rolling their suitcases behind ’em don’t just want directions,” she said. She had sunshine highlights in her long brown ponytail, a commercial-bright smile and happy eyes.
“You go to school here?” I said.
“Yes, sir. K through 12.”
“They done ya good,” I said.
“This is Dr. Daniel Trix. I’m his wife Elaine. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Constance.” The ladies shook hands.
“They actually call you Constance?” I said, nodding at her nametag.
“They call me Connie till they’re tired of the bruises on their shins,” she said.
“Give her your credit card, Daniel,” Elaine said.
“I know who you are,” Constance said.
“Wanted poster outside the sheriff’s office?” I said.
“Is he always like that?” Constance said to Elaine.
“Even when he talks in his sleep,” Elaine said.
“You’re giving the commencement address to the graduating class,” she said.
“I was flattered to be asked. I’m surprised anyone knows. I’m certain they don’t care,” I said.
“Why would you say that?” Constance said.
“Who was the speaker at your graduation? What did he or she have to say?” I said.
“I see your point,” she said.
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Her tailor had skimped on the material between the bodice and the neck. The slit in her dress up the thigh certainly wasn’t a wardrobe malfunction. He hadn’t seen or heard from her in years. Why the hell was Dan Trix’s ex-wife sitting at the peninsula in his kitchen?
Pamela had left Trix, a man who earned nicely into six figures, for a man who earned very nicely into seven. Bronco J merged and acquired and sold companies. He was missing. She had been threatened and beaten by men eager to find him. When the same happens to his wife Elaine Newman, Trix and his buddy Lester Ponzolli focus on Bronco’s last deal, the acquisition of a private for-profit university.
When the owners of the university begin to die from other than natural causes, Trix and Lester know they have little time. Pamela is one of the owners.
A few people in Black Forest Country Club have dropping-in rights at our home in Naughty Pines.
We’re fond of an English couple who are easily beguiled with a cult Pinot Noir or a bush-flavored gin from Tanganyika. We’re good friends with a couple who administratively reign over Naughty Pines. She’s the neighborhood intermediary between the country club administration and fools such as I who failed to get permission before removing an oak tree whose aggressive roots ate into our water line like a scythe into peanut butter, causing both a mess and expense. They favor Chardonnay.
Coincidentally, such drop-ins normally occur about cocktail hour.
The doorbell rang. It was almost 09:30.
My after-dinner uniform is ritually a snappy pair of boxer shorts in bold checks, striking stripes or stamped with macho symbolism like yachts, train engines, space rockets or corncobs (Go Cornhuskers). Accompanying the shorts you’ll find a unisex T-shirt bought on our/my travels that doubles as a nightshirt. One is stamped with the flag of Lithuania, another with a wine label from Argentina. We’re fond of the city map of Berlin. There is fierce competition for the red one with the giant yellow corncob. (Go Huskers.)
Since these dropper-in-ers are good friends and easily bemused, I answered the door without slipping on walking shorts.
Elaine would not have allowed such behavior. She considers clothes to be a sign of respect for those who are witness to what we wear. If we wear torn sackcloth and tattered slippers, we announce our lack of regard for those we encounter in particular, for society in general. Appropriate couture says we attempt to make the environment visually pleasing for those in our presence. Like flowers in a vase, we are a modest enhancement of their day.
I challenged her to open Vogue and explain how such frantic regalia enhances anything other than the cash flow of the designer. She was not amused.
“Corncobs? You poor bastard. You need counseling,” she said as I opened the door.
I wasn’t at a loss for words. There were too many available. I didn’t know which ones to choose.
“Pamela,” I finally said.
“I expected something more,” she said.
“You look great.”
“The hell I do. Are we going to stand here exchanging banalities or are you going to invite me in?”
“Of course. Come in.”
“Do you need to introduce me to anybody?” Pamela said.
She shook as would a dog that had just rolled in the sand. Thankfully, without the same effect.
“It’s cold in here. Maybe it’s so damn hot and humid outside, it feels cold. Where to?” she said.
I pointed toward the peninsula in the kitchen. It was the gathering place.
“Not the den with your computer, telephone and bookcases filled with erudite resources? Of course not. That would be like humping by the front door without even a kiss. Maybe you’ll show me the den later. We do need foreplay.”
She gave my cheek a gentle pat.
“I do hope you still have your sense of humor,” she said.
Pamela was one of those women who could barely disguise her sexiness in a spacesuit. She wasn’t in a spacesuit.
“Where should I leave this?” She nodded at her carryon.
“Right there.” I pointed to a spot near the front door.
“For a quick and easy exit?”
She shrugged and left it between the front door and the peninsula.
She slid onto one of the bar stools as would the Queen of the Silver Dollar. She crossed her legs. Her dress designer had skimped on material between the neck and the bodice. The scarlet dress had a slit up one side to just above the knee. The less-is-more effect.
“You didn’t drink a lot or well back then. I hope you’ve matured,” she said.
“Full service,” I said.
“Something opaque would be consistent with the zeitgeist of my life.”
With her little fingernail, she loosened something in her teeth. A silver cigarette holder tipped with a Gauloise and she could have been a poster in a French bistro.
I returned from my wine room with a Chilean Carmenère that was intended for a special occasion. This qualified.
“You have graduated. Congratulations,” she said after a sip, then held her glass for a clink.
“Nothing but the best for the best,” I said.
“Trix, you’re not running for office and I’m not a voter,” she said.
“Just out for an evening stroll with your carryon, thought you’d knock on the door, see how things are going?”
“That’s pretty much it. And by the way, I think someone is trying to kill me. I’m looking for a place to hide. Thought maybe I could crawl under your bed.”
“How ’bout them Huskers?” I said.
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Dido Book knocked on Dan Trix’s door in Sarasota. Dido was a home handyman Trix met while doing expert witness work for the Jonsons in Lincoln, NE. Marietta Jonson had been killed and Trix was the consultation for the civil suit to financially recover for loss of economic life.
Trix asked why Dido was there.
“I’m here because the same thing happened to my wife, Lees."
“Your wife was electrocuted by her washing machine?” Trix said.
When Trix discovers that Dido and Marietta Jonson had been having an affair, he wonders if Marietta’s death was really an accident. When he investigates KwiKleen appliances, he’s led to elder care facilities and is astounded at the size of the appliance sector serving such facilities.
Was there a connection between the deaths of Marietta and Lees? When his life is threatened and one of his confidants is killed, it's obvious that someone doesn’t want him to pursue the matter. What started as a curious tort case becomes a case where little decisions have big consequences.
Trix needs to take care that he doesn't become a consequence.
“I thought it would be hard to find you. It was a long time ago,” he said.
“Even so, I remember you,” I said.
“It is not a pleasant thing to remember,” he said.
Expedido Book had been working as a handyman, gardener and other duties as required for a wealthy family in Lincoln, Nebraska. I only met him once; to talk with him about the death of Marietta Jonson, the lady of the house.
“I worked for the Jonsons for four years. I saw her so many times. But when I see her now, it is lying on the floor. Why do I not remember her putting flowers in a bowl?” Expedido said.
“There isn’t any pill. There is only focus,” I said.
I’ve seen bad blood spilled in bad places. Somewhere along the line I developed the ability to take a bad thing, put it in a closet and lock the door. I have a lot of closets.
“What does that mean?”
“You have to train your mind to think about other things,” I said.
“Train my mind? My mind trains me.”
Expedido was a handsome young fellow when I first met him. He had matured into a distinguished middle-aged man. Salt-and-pepper over the ears, smooth complexion and a part in the middle of his dark hair. His semi-crossed front teeth, rather than being distracting, were endearing. A small gold cross hung around his neck. He could be the charming Hispanic in a low-budget movie featuring mermaids and coconut drinks.
“Please come in. Let’s sit on the lanai. Coffee? An espresso?”
It was the kind of day that makes locals forgive all their personal failings because they had the genius to move to Florida. Water birds trolled for brunch. Spanish moss waved as would a patient Queen. Bumpy clouds dappled the blue sky and golfers across the pond rummaged through palmettos in search of their golf balls as though finding them was actually important.
It took a few minutes to heat up our Lavazza espresso machine and fetch a couple homemade brownies from the fridge.
We initiated the warm-up protocol. Him: Not so humid these days. Me: Cornhuskers look promising this fall. Him: Heard downtown Lincoln is dying if not dead. Me: Used to go out to Waverly on Sunday night to drink beer and listen to a local three-piece band—drummer, violin and accordion. Wonder if that little town is still there. Him: Yeah, I know that place. His face changed from a smile to a grimace.
“Gracias, señor. Muy amable,” he said.
“De nada. This isn’t something we could discuss on the phone? It was a long way for you to travel,” I said.
“Not so far. I live here now.”
Expedido—call me Dido—explained he had graduated from household handyman to owner of a Florida business that specialized in landscaping three seasons a year and hothouse flowers and plants during the winter. He had employees and trucks with his name stenciled on the side: Book Your Landscaping with Book.
“You didn’t mention that when we spoke. Why did you leave Nebraska?”
“Winter is two seasons up there. Also, I don’t want to talk on the phone. I like to see someone when the talk is important. You can see a better answer than just in the words,” he said.
“What is so important?”
“You remember why you talk to me back then?”
“You found Ms. Jonson.”
“Yes. How could anyone expect such a thing,” he said.
“You cannot. That is the definition of an accident.”
“And after it happens once, it cannot happen again, such an accident,” he said.
“Hard to imagine.”
“Not hard, impossible. But yet it happened. To my wife, Leess.”
“Your wife was killed by her washing machine?” I said.
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Drake Bauer is a man who believes the world owes him. And he has a deadly plan to collect. Jumbo Good Shot is an American Indian who refuses to concede to the tyranny of racism. Alvie Kincaid has just finished an overseas tour of duty in the Army and wonders about fences and green grass. His highly respected father, Wooster, is the foreman at the cemetery and lives by the credo that the good life is the simple life. Maralou Bauer is an accomplished pianist shackled by motherhood, family, and the persistent sameness of small town life. Lakeside is a town where these people and their ideals collide with the steamy impact of a splitting atom.
Drake Bauer was a glad-hander, a backslapper with a ready smile and a well-rehearsed repertoire of clichés. He was everybody’s buddy. He also cheated at golf.
The 9th hole of the Lakeside Municipal Golf Course had one pine tree in the middle of the fairway. For the arid sand-hills of the Nebraska Panhandle, it was considered heavily wooded. Drake’s drive was a bounding scuff that rolled well on the dry fairway and snuggled up at the base of the pine. It was only his second drive that day that had stayed in the fairway. The other two guys in the three-some were young unmarried railroaders who played without their shirts, wore jogging shoes and consistently sliced their drives. They were also lucky.
Bingo-bango-bongo for $20 a mark, low hole for $20 and low total for $50 were the stakes. Drake had to suppress a giggle when the wager was suggested. Candy from a baby, he thought. He almost felt guilty, but what the hell, if they wanted to give it away, he would certainly take it.
On the lst and 3rd holes he shanked his drive, on the 2nd and 7th his approach shot hooked into a sand trap, and he missed short putts on 4, 5 and 8. His par on 6 was the only hole that had gone right all day. He mentally added and re-added the scores as he walked quickly to his drive on 9. If he won the hole, and got a couple marks, and they played like they should instead of like they were, he could escape losing $250, maybe $300. If not, he could drop $500, easy. That was too much, too damn much. He couldn’t afford it. But then, he couldn’t afford not to play for whatever those bums suggested. I mean, after all, he was the high school principal, he wore ties to work and damn it, he wasn’t going to have those punks snicker behind his back because he couldn’t afford a couple bucks on a golf game. He wasn’t going to have it said that Drake Bauer was a cheapskate, no siree. Drake Bauer was in the fast lane. High School principal at the age of 29. All right, so he’d been there for 15 years; that wasn’t his fault. He would have moved, should have moved, but it never seemed to be the right time, never seemed to be to the right place, what with the kids and all.
Drake made it to his Dunlop x-out well before the other two guys reached their balls in the barren sandy rough. He always walked quickly, drove fast, and washed half-chewed cheeseburgers down with a chug of beer rather than waste all that time chewing. He acted like a man with a purpose, a man with responsibility.
He knew he was professionally stagnant, but he refused to accept the fact. If you act like you’re somebody, you are somebody. If you act like you’re moving, you are moving. So he lifted his knees high as he jostled along on the treadmill. It was an act all right, but one he needed, and needed badly.
Not again, he thought as he approached the ball. Another three inches to the left and he’d have a clear shot at the green. Three lousy inches. “Lady luck finally smiled on me,” he shouted to the railroaders as he flashed an OK sign. He watched them carefully. Then, just as the tall one took his backswing, Drake nudged his ball. Just right. Clear shot at the green.
“Nice shot,” Drake yelled as the guy’s ball hopped and bounced toward the green, stopping just on the fringe. The other kid’s 4-wood sliced off further to the right and 20 yards short of the green.
Lucky suckers, Drake thought as he addressed his ball.
He swung quickly, before he had time to think about how important the shot was. It worked. The ball landed and stuck 10 feet above the pin.
The railroaders complimented the shot. “Knew it was in the bag somewhere,” Drake replied. That was bingo, first on the green. Probably not much of a chance for bango, closest to the hole, but good shot at bongo, first in the hole. A birdie, which was worth double money, with two marks, and he could hold the losses to $200. But 200? It was a bad month for that. Seemed like any month was a bad month anymore - mortgage, taxes, kids writing home for money, car bills, medical bills, country club and golf club dues. Just never seemed to end. Wouldn’t be so bad but the damn school board thought that painted window sills and student lockers with combination locks were more important than salaries. Easy for them, hell yes. Two of them were railroaders and the two women had railroad husbands, and between them they had only one kid in high school. I mean, what the hell is really important, educating the youth of this country or riding nowhere and back on a coal train.
The guy who had sliced to the right chunked his next shot, then scuffed one onto the green about a yard further away from the flag than Drake’s ball.
“Nice shot,” Drake acknowledged. Great, now if the other guy muffs, I could get bango. Make the putt and I get bingo, bango, bongo and double low hole. Finally. Now we’re distributing the income the way it’s supposed to be. For Drake, losing a dollar to a railroader was worse than losing $100 to a lawyer. They came to Lakeside like kids to candy after ‘74 when the coal companies went back into Wyoming and Montana for cheap fuel. The miners dug it, the railroaders moved it and Lakeside was made divisional headquarters of the Burlington Northern Railroad.
It was bad that the school board didn’t increase his already low salary. It was worse that the young, unskilled, dope-smoking railroaders earned more in one year than he earned in two, and it was enraging that they flaunted it.
The kid on the fringe stood awkwardly over his ball as smoke from a dangling cigarette curled past his squinted eyes.
He wagged his wedge back and forth stiffly, then chopped down hard at the ball. It darted across the green, headed for the far fringe. Drake’s jaw dropped simultaneously with the ball as it slammed into the pin and plopped down into the cup.
The railroaders whooped and jumped. Drake shook his head in disbelief. Ain’t fair, just ain’t damn fair, he thought. “Nice shot,” he said enthusiastically.
He surveyed the green. It was a straight downhill putt. A touch shot. A $100 touch shot. A minute ago it was a $200 touch shot, Though he didn’t actually think about the fact that he couldn’t afford to miss the putt, he felt it, down in his churning, twitching gut.
Just a tap, that’s all. Body steady, wrists stiff, just the arms, just tap it easy, an easy little tap. Drake’s backswing was smooth, his head steady, the green was smooth and fast. The ball rolled lazily toward the center of the cup - and teetered, then stopped on the lip, like a gawking tourist on the edge of a canyon.
“Win some, lose some,” Drake offered philosophically as the rage and disappointment boiled within him like piss and vinegar. “Maybe they’ll fall for me next nine.”
“Sorry, man. We’re going out on #47. Gotta grab the lunch pail and get down to the yard,” said the tall kid.
“No problem,” said Drake casually. They added up the totals in the clubhouse and Drake’s hand shook slightly as he wrote out the check. Luckily there was no one around to watch. Hopefully Maralou wouldn’t need any money till the first of the month.
Drake slapped them both on the back and congratulated them on their game as they left, then sulked back to the Panhandle Men’s Clubroom for a much-needed beer. Thankfully the room was empty. He clunked his two quarters in the beer machine and slouched onto a vinyl couch. It just keeps getting worse, he thought. Every time I turn around I get smacked. I’ve been waiting for my luck to change for a long time now. Too damn long. What the hell is the world coming to when a high school principal gets ulcers cause his checkbook has more red in it than black and 21 year old railroaders who hit nothing but banana balls can afford to play bingo-bango-bongo for $20 a mark. Priorities in this town just aren’t right. Aren’t right at all. I shouldn’t have to count my pennies, damn it, and that’s all there is to it. Something has got to change around here. If it doesn’t change, I’m going to change it. Can’t take this much longer. Not much longer at all. But what the hell do I do about it? What do I do?
Five minutes later Eldon “Jack” Hammer had a suggestion.
The Texas Trail Open was being played in Lusk, Wyoming that weekend and why not drive on over. Jack had won the Calcutta, an auction-wager on hi and low score combinations of championship players, two out of the last three years. Hell yes it was easy. “Just watch ‘em putt, that’s all. Drive for show, putt for dough. Besides, there’s a whorehouse there I’m real fond of,” Jack added. “Real fond.”
“Hey, Alvie, you can ride along. Glad to have you,” Jack said to the young fellow watching golfers come in on 18.
“Say, have you gotten a letter from that son of mine lately?” Drake asked. “You have? Bring it over sometime and we’ll show you some pictures he sent not long ago.” Split gas three ways, instead of two, Drake thought happily.
So Friday afternoon, Drake Bauer anxiously drove off to Lusk, Wyoming to try and win a few hundred dollars betting on a golf tournament. Young Alvie Kincaid went for a blowjob and Jack Hammer went for both.
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One A Day: Bites to Better Business is a compilation of mostly wry, often whimsical observations on business and the people and personalities that inhabit contemporary organizations. From “Don’t Ask a Cucumber to be a Tomato”, which skeptically examines the wisdom of appointing lawyers to manage government units or faculty to manage colleges, to Calgary and Butte as lessons in local economic development, to “Integrity as a Corporate Value”, the book is organized in small digestible bites. The insights are presented in several arbitrary categories: Communication, Government, Leadership, Management, Organizational Behavior, This-and-That.
The Art of Conversation
I was once hired for a job simply because I was able to participate in a conversation. It was a job teaching economics in Europe, primarily on military bases. The interviewer had flown in (late) and was both busy and behind. No matter. I always kept a novel at the ready so as not to become impatient. He bustled into the office having just finished with another candidate, glanced at my resume and began the small talk portion of the interview. “Nebraska. Maria Sandoz country,” he glibly remarked as his finger slid down the page. With some deliberation I replied, “Don’t just judge Nebraska by Maria Sandoz. Also judge it by Willa Cather.”
It took a moment for that to process as he flipped the page. When the message finally made it, he looked as me as though I had spoken in the lost language of the Incas. He laid aside the resume and we began a conversation that started with literature’s portrayal of Nebraska and ended with our collective agreement that one needs to read many perspectives before you can appreciate the whole elephant. A head poked in the door and reminded him he was late for his next candidate. The business portion of our conversation then consisted of him asking to what address he should send the contract.
It is rare to actually have a conversation these days. There are assorted verbal interactions that occur, but let’s not confuse these with conversation. There is for example, the monologue. Some monologists need a topic to begin their blather. Inquiring about their health is usually sufficient. Some can continue, like a snake swallowing its tail, finding sustenance in their own verbiage, hopping for one topic to another of their own accord. Others will pause for you to ask another question, or for comment before they continue. Some will even believe they are participating in a conversation because they ask you a question as they pause for a sip of wine. When you arrive at your first comma however, that is their signal to intervene and fascinate you with their perspective, or trip, or gossip, or grandchildren.
The soliloquy varies slightly from the monologue, the soliloquy being the highest form of the monologue. This requires no listener, or none in particular. Should you excuse yourself to the bar, and a wise trip that is, they will continue without pause by simply turning to the nearest person available. I once ask a question of a soliloquist, then exited to the kitchen to begin the marinade, knowing he would seamlessly shift his attention to others at the table and I had a good fifteen minutes before he would wander back to the substance of the question.
There are also those who confuse story telling with conversation. You answer their opening query, assuming they have the courtesy to query, by replying that you were on a Bedouin camel safari in the Sahara last month. As you pause, allowing them time to formulate their initial question about your intriguing journey, they respond not with a question but with a half-hour detailed verbal diorama depicting the time their car broke down in the Mojave on long weekend to Las Vegas. One story follows another experience follows another story.
I would caution care around those who immediately introduce a political and/or social topic. Trump’s response to Covid, immigration, both social and political. People who usher these strawmen onto the stage are not interested in conversation, but rather debate. They are rarely trying to clarify their thinking on a matter by gathering varied perspectives, but rather seeking to vent an accumulated anger, or impress with their political righteousness, in summary, to blast a frog with a 12 gauge.
And then there are those who have never had a conversation because they only know monosyllabic responses to open ended questions. Does the new Disney movie transcend the bounds of what constitutes family entertainment? Yes.
What then is conversation? What then is art? Conversation is a mutual interaction, where something new is created that did not exist before. It can have as its foundation, something or nothing, a topic of substance or an exchange of witticisms. But beyond the foundation, something is built, something is created. Maybe one did the plumbing, the other the dry wall, and both help raise the rafters. It’s a favorite aunt showing you how her grandmother canned peaches, or an afternoon with a new puppy. In any case, you leave the event with more than you came. And you contributed.
The reasons why people no longer know how to converse may be many: too much MTV, too many video games, too much Facebook, too many bad examples of commentators screaming and interrupting. But the good thing is that there is value in scarcity. When you encounter a good conversation, it is so rare and welcome as to be enjoyed and remember for some time to come.
And every now and then it will lead to a new friend, a new customer, or a new job.
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One a Day: Bites to Better Business
One A Day: Bites to Better Business is a compilation of mostly wry, often whimsical observations on business and the people and personalities that inhabit contemporary organizations. From “Don’t Ask a Cucumber to be a Tomato”, which skeptically examines the wisdom of appointing lawyers to manage government units or faculty to manage colleges, to Calgary and Butte as lessons in local economic development, to “Integrity as a Corporate Value”, the book is organized in small digestible bites. The insights are presented in several arbitrary categories: Communication, Government, Leadership, Management, Organizational Behavior, This-and-That.
Rodney Romig has a BA in English and a PhD in Economics from the U. of Nebraska. He lived and worked in Asia for two years (Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand) and Europe for ten years (Germany, England, Belgium, Holland, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Scotland, Italy). For nineteen years, he lived and worked in Hawaii, where he served as the Dean of the College of Business Administration and Professor of Economics at Hawaii Pacific University. He was a regular columnist for Pacific Business News for several years and served on numerous local not-for-profit boards, including the Hawaii International Film Festival. He still travels extensively from his home in Sarasota, Fl. to South America, the Middle East and Europe.
The Dr. Dan Trix travel-mystery novels are available as both Kindle ebooks and paperback. Lakeside, a noir suspense novel, was award the 2013 Royal Palm Award for best published literary novel. One A Day: Bites to Better Business, a compilation of mostly wry observations on business and the people that inhabit contemporary organizations, is also available.