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It was the best day of my life. After twelve years in the army, I was out. First order of business was a train ticket to Connecticut to move in with my Louise. In the last six weeks, all we did was talk on the phone, and that was six weeks too long. We’d discussed moving into her place until something larger came along. Believe me, being close to Louise would not be a problem. It was 11 a.m. as we rolled out of the station with an arrival time of 4:54 p.m. in
Louise and I met in North Carolina just before she moved to New England. We hit it off right away. To help her get started, I bought her luggage and a bauble or two. And so, she went on ahead to take a job working for a startup. Hartford seemed a strange choice, but when she told me it was chosen because it’s between New York and Boston it made sense. Anyway, I was off to Hartford to move in with Louise.
As the train rolled north, I phoned her, but got voice mail. Her voice sounded good. “Louise, it’s Red. I’m on the train arriving Hartford at 4:54. Just in time for dinner. Talk to you soon.”
My phone needed charging, but it was lunch time. So, I stuck the cord in my pocket and went off to find the dining car.
After lunch, I plugged the phone in and called again. Wouldn’t you know it? Voice mail. “Louise, it’s Red. I’m on the train arriving at 4:54. Looking forward to having dinner with you. Call me.”
So, I could read, take a nap, or look out the window. I opted for the window because I didn’t bring a book and I wasn’t tired.
I changed trains in New Haven and arrived at 4:54 on the dot. Out on the platform, and no Louise. So, I walked downstairs and out to the street. Not there either. She answered on the second ring.
“Louise, it’s Red, just got in. Can you pick me up? I’m at the train station.”
“Red?” she said, like she didn’t know who I was.
“Red Decker. Your boyfriend? The guy you’re going to live with. That Red.”
“Red. I … I never thought …. Thought I’d hear from you.”
“I told you I’d call. We agreed to move into together. How could you forget something like that?”
“Red. My situation changed. I can’t see you. I’m sorry. Please don’t call me again. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Red. Don’t call me again. I’ve got to go. I’m sorry.”
“What? Louise, wait,” I said to empty air. She was gone. Tears ran down my face as my world turned black. I came here to be with her. And now? She was just gone. I had no Louise, was alone in a strange city where I knew no one. I’d been alone before, but never like this. How could this happen?
Now what am I going to do? I thought. It had been a long ride and I was tired, hungry, feeling sorry for myself, and more than a little angry. Tears ran down my face when I saw a young woman carrying two grocery bags while struggling to help a little girl walk.
Then I heard a voice that I hadn’t heard in years, it was my drill instructor, “Help those civilians, soldier. we don’t leave nobody behind.”
“Sir, yes sir,” I said out loud.
My misery could wait. They needed help now and my heart went out to them. I walked in their direction.
“Good evening, ma’am, may I offer you some assistance? I’d be pleased to carry your bags, so you can help your daughter,” I said. Assuming the child was her daughter.
“Thank you. We’re fine,” she said, keeping her distance.
“Ma’am, with respect, you’re not fine. Let me help.”
“Thank you, but you’ve got that heavy bag,” she said, dismissing me.
“Ma’am, this bag’s nothing. Nothing at all.”
Then, seeing I was six foot eight and three hundred pounds, she smiled.
“You’ve nothing to fear from me, ma’am. Let me carry the bags and you can carry your daughter,” I said with a smile.
Looking at how far the parking lot was, the bags, and how her little girl was struggling, she nodded. “Okay, thank you. My car’s in the lot over there and I’m late. Got to get Maria to the sitter and then to work.”
To another job? She looked beat, I thought, as I slung my bag over my shoulder and took the groceries, “You lead, ma’am. I’ll follow. Red Decker, ma’am, just got in town. First day out of the army.”
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Red Decker. Jennifer … Jen … Peterson. My daughter, Maria,” she said nodding at the little girl in her arms. “Thank you for helping us.”
“You’re welcome, ma’am.”
“Where’d you get all those muscles?” She asked, as I carried the groceries and my luggage with little effort.
“Came with the package, ma’am,” I said, seeing Louise in my minds eye and forcing my self to not think about her.
“Were you a physical fitness instructor?”
Thinking of Louise, “Sorry, ma’am, what was that?” I said, pushing Louise from my mind again.
“What did you do in the army?” She said, making conversation.
“Nuclear weapon’s specialist.”
That got her attention, “Really? Sounds ominous.”
“Most people think so,” I said, knowing how it sounded.
“Smart and muscles, too,” she said, making a little joke, but I could tell her mind was elsewhere. “Tell me, Mr. Decker, do you glow in the dark?”
“Haven’t heard that one in a while,” I said, as we laughed. Even Maria was laughing. “Which car’s yours?”
“Beat up blue one, over there.”
It was beat up all right. A twenty year old rust bucket.
As we walked over, I said, “Maria’s gorgeous, ma’am. She’ll be a heart breaker. How old is she?”
“Five in November,” Jen said sadly.
I didn’t ask why Maria couldn’t walk because it was none of my business and Jen looked worn out, like she carried the weight of the world on her shoulders. I guess, she did.
“Here we are,” she said, buckling Maria into her child seat while I held the bags. “I’ll take those.”
I handed her the groceries.
“Thank you, Red. We appreciate your kindness,” she said, while twisting her ring. I noticed that she didn’t wear a wedding band, no wonder she was tired. Alone with a sick child and working two jobs was a tough road.
“You’re most welcome, ma’am. Happy to help,” I said, turning to go.
“Wait. I’ll give you a ride back.”
“Thank you, ma’am, not necessary,” I said. Knowing she was just being polite. And besides the car was too small for me. “If I get in there you’ll need a can opener to get me out,” I joked. “Really, ma’am, I’m fine.”
“Thanks again, Red. Stop by the coffee shop under the train station. Coffee’s on me,” she said, meaning it.
“Thank you, ma’am. I just might take you up on that. Bye Maria.”
“Bye, Mr. Red,” Maria said in her little girl voice, waving a tiny hand.
As I walked away I heard the engine turn over as it tried to start. I was about to go back when it caught belching blue smoke. Alone with a sick child and low skill jobs. And here I was feeling sorry for myself? I thought.
“Hey,” I said, to the first guy I met, “Where can a guy get a drink around here?”
“Two streets down, take a left, Andy’s on your right. Middle of the block.”
“Thanks,” I mumbled, as I heard Louise’s voice telling me she never wanted to see me again.
Pretty soon, I saw it. ‘Andy’s Bar’ in red neon was a clue.
Walking in, I said to the bartender, “You must be Andy.” As I climbed up on a comfortable bar stool. Dropped my bag on the floor.
“The same,” he said, smiling. “Looks like you just got in town. What’ll it be?”
“Rye and ginger,” I said, thinking of Louise, her long hair, great figure, and that I wouldn’t be sharing … my life with her.
“You got it,” Andy said. Then looking at my haircut and jacket, “Just out of the service?”
“Fort Bragg. Came to Hartford to be with my girl, but she’s got other plans … that don’t include me,” I said, through pain and loneliness mixed with anger and whisky.
“Thanks for your service. First one’s on the house. Sorry to hear that. She just told you? After coming all this way?”
“Yeah, just like that,” I said, taking a long drink.
He must have seen the look on my face and didn’t want a guy my size getting emotional because he knew I could clean the place out. Like any a good bartender, he changed the subject. “So, you’re Army. Fort Bragg, I mean, army base.”
“Right again. You’re batting a thousand. You know, Andy? My rate won’t do me a lick of good in the civilian world. I mean nothing, zero, zip.”
“Why not? What’d you do for Uncle Sam?”
I finished the drink. “Again,” I said.
He built me another.
“Nuclear weapons specialist, thermonuclear warheads. Hydrogen bombs. Know anybody needs an H-bomb tuned up?”
“Um, not off hand,” Andy said, with a straight face. “Bad for business I hear,” he quipped. “Not a lot of ‘em in town. Sorta glad of that. So, what’ll you do?”
“Well … got some money saved. Enough to go into business, I guess.”
“What kind of business?” Andy asked, sincerely interested.
“Weight loss clinic. It’s the only thing I’m any good at. Other than working on bombs,” I said looking at my empty glass.
This time he didn’t ask.
“Weight loss? From bomb tech to weight loss guru?” Andy said, shaking his head at the incongruity of it.
“Yeah, I know how it sounds, but I’m really good at it. Helped a couple hundred people lose weight. Officers, enlisted, civilians, men, women. Even children.”
“Well, I’ll be. Going to settle here in Hartford? I’ll be your first customer,” he said, slapping his belly. “Lot more
like me. Most of my regulars for a start. Red, I’ve tried to lose weight so many times I’ve lost count. Gets disheartening.”
“I know, being heavy can be hard. Some of the people I helped were at their wit’s end. But I was able to help ‘em. Every last one,” I said, swirling the amber liquid, then finished the drink. “Got another one of these?”
He nodded, made the drink and put it in front of me, “Red.”
I looked up.
“You won’t find any answers in there,” he said quietly, meaning the drink. “Believe me, I’ve looked once or twice. Lots of other people have, too. Nothing good ever come of it.”
I got the message.
Andy kept talking, not skipping a beat, “You’re going to need a place for your meetings. Got just the thing. Wheelchair access, small office, high speed Internet, free parking, holds 40 people, tables and chairs. Even got a smart TV you can project to. You get this weight off me, I’ll give you a six months free rent.”
“Andy, you’re on. Let’s see the room,” I said, liking this man who cared that a stranger didn’t drink himself to death. Good man this Andy.
Turning around, he raised his voice, “Ella, would you watch the bar for a few minutes, please?”
“Cost you a quarter,” came a voice from the back.
Looking sheepish, Andy shrugged. “Always says that. C’mon, it’s this way,” he said, leading me behind the bar and down a hall and through a door.
As I looked the place over Andy kept up a stream of conversation “When I bought the bar, this was empty space. Well, storage, really. Anyway, I thought it would make a dandy conference room for, you know? passive income. Redecorating, furniture, TV. All first rate. Been home to a business networking group, some writers, web geeks, but just
now, it’s free, so you won’t have to share.” Shrugging his shoulders, “Oh, yeah, lights are included. The offer of free rent is legit, you get the weight off me.”
“Andy, you’re on. Get ready to lose some weight.”
After a few more drinks, Andy gave me a key to the my new office and directions to a hotel on Main Street. Then he said, “I’ve got another key, I’ll find it and get it to you in a day or so.”
Getting to my feet, Andy saw I was a little woozy, “Let me call you a cab.”
Walking into the hotel and up to the desk, “Good evening, ma’am. I’d like a room, please.”
“Didn’t think you come for a tan. Rooms by the day, week, month. Cash, credit, or debit. No checks,” she said, looking down her nose at me.
“A month, please,” I said, handing her my credit card.
“A month? Pricey. Well look at that,” she said, when the card cleared. “Will wonders never cease? You got yourself a room.”
“Thank you, ma’am. Appreciate your kindness,” I said, ignoring her attitude. She could use my weight loss clinic, I thought. “Would you be kind enough to tell me where I can get something to eat, please?”
She was getting up another remark, when a man walked behind the desk. she thought better of it, “Right out the door, two blocks, take a left. Eatery’s on your right.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“Just get out of the service?”
“Yes, ma’am. How’d you guess?”
“Manners. Haircut. Bag,” she said. “Eatery’s open till midnight. Plenty of time to grab dinner.”
“Thank you, ma’am, appreciate it,” I said, meaning it. “Red Decker, ma’am” I said, extending my hand.
“Mrs. Gustafson,” she said, with a limp hand shake. “Good to know you’re not using a stolen card.”
That’s when I knew she was just plain nasty.
I put my bag in the room and left for the Eatery where I had an excellent dinner. Little did I know that it was one of the best restaurants in town.
The next morning I was out at 7:00 AM. I needed to buy a laptop, business software, and a medical scale like the one I used at Bragg delivered to Andy’s Bar. As my Captain always said, “No time like the present.”
Walking out, I stopped to speak with the guy at the front desk, “Morning, my man, would you be kind enough to tell me what time the coffee shop opens in the train station?”
“Six a.m. Through the main door, under the arch, turn right. Delicious bear claws,” he said, patting his belly.
“Thanks, you’ve answered that before.”
“Few times,” he said, smiling as he turned to help another lodger.
As I walked towards the station, I noticed that the skies were threatening and was glad to see taxis waiting. Walking under the arch, there was the coffee shop. They had every kind of coffee you could imagine and fantastic looking pastry.
“Good morning, Jen. We meet again.”
“Red, hi, I’m so happy to see you,” she said, giving me a dazzling smile. “What’ll it be?”
“Large black coffee and a bear claw, please. I hear they’re terrific.”
“You got it, soldier” she said.
“Looks like I’m staying in Hartford. Opening a business, so today I’m off shopping. Oh, I’ll take a newspaper, too, please.”
“On the house,” she said, handing my order over the counter. “Thanks for stopping by. Just pick up a paper.”
“I will, thanks.” As I handed her a five dollar tip, “For you.”
“You don’t need to do that?”
“Do what,” I said innocently, no way would I stick her with my bill.
“Thank you, Red, come see us again,” she said, holding my order just a second longer than necessary and making serious eye contact. “Maria and I are glad you’re staying.”
There were others waiting, so we couldn’t talk, “Stop again. I’m here from six to noon.”
I read the paper, sipped my coffee, and definitely intended seeing Jen again. Leaving the paper for the next guy, I got a cab and arrived at the stationery store just as they opened. They had everything I needed, except for the medical scale, of course. I taxied back to Andy’s and dropped everything off at my office.
Walking into the bar, “Andy, my man.”
“Red, how’s it going?”
“Never better. Been shopping. Oh, hey, I need to have a medical scale delivered. Once I buy one, I mean, what’s my address?”
“That’s easy,” he said, handing me a slip of paper and the second key.
“Thanks Andy, forgot about the key.”
“You’d of remembered. Get everything you need?”
“Everything but a medical scale. Any idea where I can find one?”
“Let me make a call. One of my regulars sells medical equipment. He’ll know. Want a coffee while you wait? Fresh pot.”
A few minutes later he was back. “Here you go,” he said, handing me a piece of paper. It had the address of Medical Supply on it. “And they deliver.”
“Thanks Andy. Appreciate it. I’ll head over there directly. Oh, who does your ads and website?”
Andy chuckled, “On the back. And you’re welcome. You’ll want to be an LLC, I think, so I added my lawyer, too.”
“thank you, I appreciate all your help.”
“Ain’t nothing, I mean?” He said, embarrassed at the compliment. “You’re welcome. Glad to help,”
A week later, I was in business. Andy was my best customer and we were both doing well. I faced the same problem everyone is this business does: motivation. Despite my success in the army, I struggled with some of my clients. As with many things in life, the answer came wrapped in a problem.
“Hello? Anybody home?”
“Jen, hey. Come in,” I answered. “What a pleasant surprise. Sit down.”
“Red, Andy tells me you run the weight loss clinic.”
“I clean Andy’s place and I’ll clean your’s, too. Want a price?” She said, twisting her ring.
“Sure, can you send me a written estimate?” As I said that, she handed it to me.
“Twice a month should do it.”
Looking at it, “You’re hired.”
“Thanks, Red. I need the work, and it’s a good contract for both of us. I mean? I’m here anyway, so ….” The tired look on her face told me why.
“Let’s make it once a week,” I said. “If I’m prying, I apologize. Is Maria why you work so much, forgive me if it’s none of my business.”
Nodding, “It’s okay, it’s no secret that she’s not well. As to what you didn’t ask? Eighty thousand dollars the doctors tell me.” Then looking at the floor, “I work all the time. Coffee shop, clean offices, homes, cars.” As she said this,
she twisted her ring.
“Here’s a check.” I said, handing it to her.
“Thanks, Red. Appreciate your business,” she said. Looking at it, she blurted “But, it’s too much. Six months, once a week? You don’t need to do that.”
Actually I did, but this wasn’t the time to go into it. “I’m going to be getting busy and a weight loss clinic has got to be clean. Like you said, it’s a good contract for both os us.” What I didn’t tell her was that I bought meals for them that was hungry. Paid for a young family’s groceries more than once. Helped wherever I could. Thinking our business was
done. I would have chatted with her longer but thoughts of Louise kept intruding. Jen was a lovely woman, raven black hair, blue eyes, and a great figure. But today? Talking to her reminded me of Louise. So, I got back to work.
“Look at these nails,” Louise said to herself, as she lifted Ken’s credit card. “The Spa then lunch. And I’ll take his car. I look good driving it,” she said, picking up the keys. Then glanced at her diamond Rolex™ with a frown thinking, who bought that? Oh, I know that big army guy. Putting it out of her mind, she bubbled, “I’ve time for a latte.”
The latte was delicious. The spa divine. Then pampered and perfect she left for the Eatery.
“Let’s see, where to park? Not there, no one will see me. Not there either. Ah,” she said, parking the red sports car. Unfolding herself from its plush interior, she strutted into the Eatery, giving everyone a show of her expensive shoes, hair, nails, and tight outfit. While making sure that her sunglasses dangled just so.
“Louise, welcome, you look lovely,” the owner gushed, as he showed her to a seat by the window. “May I get you a coffee while you peruse the menu?” He didn’t treat everyone like this, only those who tipped lavishly. And why not? It wasn’t her money.
“That would be lovely, Bobby,” moving aside the paper someone left in the booth to make room for her designer bag.
Soon, he was back with coffee. Black and hot, just the way she liked it. “Have you decided?”
“The fish, steamed vegetables, rolls and butter. I’ll decide on desert later.”
“Excellent choice,” he said, nodding and went off to place her order.
While she waited, her attention was drawn to a quarter page ad.
“Red Decker Weight Loss? Are you my Red Decker?” She mumbled, as she typed the web address into her phone. “You are my Red Decker. And just in time,” she said. She’d taken Ken for about all she could get. And nothing’s easier than picking up an old boyfriend. Like I always say, she thought, do the stupid ones twice.
Lunch was delicious. She was about to tear out Red’s ad when, thinking better of it, added the information to her phone. Better safe than sorry, she thought, I’m not done with Ken just yet. Speaking of which, ear rings that match this watch would be nice.
As she walked out, Andy’s eyes followed her every move. What a fox, car’s not bad either. I wonder if she’d go for an fat old barkeep? Not likely, he thought, laughing to himself, eyes sparkling with mirth.
It was late afternoon and Jen was cleaning Red’s office while he sat on the floor playing with Maria.
“Jen, how about I take Maria for a walk to the hotel. I need to pick up a thumb drive. That okay, with you?”
“Oh, yes, mommy. Yes, please. Please mommy,” Maria quickly added, clapping her hands.
“You sure you can handle her? She can be a handful.”
“No worries. If there’s any trouble we’ll wrestle it out,” Red said, tickling Maria’s chin. She giggled.
“Maria, you be good girl. Uncle Red’s being nice to you.”
Wow, I thought, Uncle Red, I’m coming up in the world. That kind of comment is reserved for special friends.
“I will. I will,” Maria squealed, holding up her arms for me to lift her. “Bye mommy.”
“We won’t be long Jen.”
Outside, I lifted Maria up on my shoulders as we made our way to the hotel.
Walking in, whose on the desk? Mrs. Gustafson.
“Where’d you get the brat?” She sneered.
Maria turned to face Mrs. G, a look of dismay on her face.
“You’re a mean old lady,” she said, right to Mrs. G’s face.
“Yes, she is,” I agreed. “Well said, Sweetie. Well said.”
Gustafson turned white. She can dish it out, but can’t take it, I thought.
As we were leaving, I said, “Nice seeing you again, Mrs. Gustafson,” laughing in her face. Maria glared at her under black knitted eyebrows.
Mrs. G didn’t say a word. Not a word.
Back at the office, who do you think was there? Louise. And looking good she was. I mean really good.
“Louise tells me you’re old friends,” Jen said. “We’ll get going and let you two catch up. C’mon, Maria. Say goodbye to Uncle Red.”
“Bye, Uncle Red.”
“Jen, you don’t need to leave ….”
“Thanks Red, but I’m done and it’s maria’s dinner time. Nice to meet you Louise,” Jen said, as they left.
“Louise, what are you doing here? I mean, it’s good to see you, but you said you never wanted to see me again.”
“I said no such thing,” she lied. “What I did was wrong. It was a rotten thing to do to you and I’m sorry. I was leaving to take a job on the West Coast wanted to end things quickly and as painlessly as possible. Let me buy you dinner. It’s small recompense, I know, but at least we can part friends.”
“Okay, let’s go to the Eatery. The food’s great and we can chat on the walk over. Can you make it that far in those heels?” I asked, happier than I’d been in a long time. Louise, my Louise, was back.
“Yes, I can make it that far in heels,” she said playfully mocking me as she took my arm.
As we walked in, I saw Andy and Ella. Andy waved at me, pointed to his salad and smiled. I gave him a friendly nod. Ella looked hard at Louise, said something to Andy. He shrugged. Then Bobby showed us to the best table in the house and I forgot about Ella.
Seated, we got lost in each other’s eyes and I hoped this was the beginning of a rekindled relationship. Thoughts of getting back with her swirled through my mind.
I ordered rye and ginger and vodka tonic.
“You remember my drink?”
Nodding, “Tell me about this West Coast job you almost had.”
“Seattle actually. Gaming company. Was going to be a model for a character.” Shaking her head, “A warrior queen, believe it or not. Lots of digital photography. Wearing these metallic things that track your movement. Heard about it online. Sent them photographs. You know? Girlie shots. They paid for the shots, but dumped me at the last minute. By then my car was gone, utilities cancelled, lucky to keep my place. Cell phone gone lost. Packed somewhere
maybe? Took a while to recover from it all.”
“Well, I’m sorry you lost the job, but glad you’re still here. Why didn’t you call me?”
“Red, my sweet Red, do you think I could have left if I’d seen you again. I thought what I was doing was best for both of us. And when things fell through. I … just couldn’t face you. Took me a while to work up the courage to visit today.”
After dinner and coffee it was time to go. True to her word, Louise picked up the check. All I could think of was a long night. All too short.
“Well, my dear, I’d drive you home, but I don’t have a car,” Red said.
“Me either,” she said. “Help me find a cab?”
“You bet. Who knows, you might not get away.”
“Yes, I will. I’ll use my feminine wiles.”
We’d played this game before. I hailed a cab, saying, “I’ll ride with you.”
“Not tonight. Let’s do this slowly,” she said, her eyes pleading. All the while thinking, oh sure bring you back to meet Ken, don’t think so.
“Okay. How do I reach you with your phone gone?”
She shrugged her shoulders, “I’ll get back to you in a day or two,” she had the answer ready for the obvious question.
“Here Lou, let me give you my number,” I said, writing it down.
“Thanks Red,” she said, tucking it into her bag. Then she kissed me her signature kiss.
I watched the cab drive away. The night hadn’t ended as I hoped, so I headed back to the hotel.
The next day I was in Andy’s Bar to discuss marketing when he said, “Hear about Maria?”
“No, what happened. She okay?”
“No, fell last night and Jen had to hospitalize her.”
“How is she?”
“She’ll recover from the fall, but her condition’s worse. What caused her to fall. She can’t walk anymore. If there was only a way … some way … any way … to raise the money.”
“I know. I’m glad she wasn’t hurt worse.”
“We all are. On a happier note, who was that beauty I saw you with last night?”
“My old girlfriend.”
“The one dumped you?”
“Seen her at the Eatery before. Looked great. So did her car. Whatever she does pays good.”
“You’re sure? With a car? She had a car?”
“Am I ever,” Andy said. “Am I ever,” Andy said. “Convertible, whatever she does pays good.”
But I wasn’t listening. I was replaying our conversation. I was sure Lou said she sold her car.
As I was leaving, Ella stepped in front of me, blocking my way. I wasn’t paying much attention and almost ran into her.
“We need to talk,” she said in a no nonsense tone of voice.
“Okay,” this surprised me, as she hadn’t said two words to me. “What can I do for you?”
“That girlfriend of yours is a gold digger looking for a sugar daddy.”
“What are you talking about? No, she’s not,” I shot back.
“She lives with a guy. His car is what Andy saw. She’s got nothing and will always have nothing.”
“How do you know?”
“I know the life. It almost killed me. Now, I work in a bar and have friends and it’s a better life than what I had. What your girlfriend is living now. Well, I told you, not that it will do any good, but my conscience is clear.”
Pausing, she started to turn away, then said, “You’re a good man, Red, but you best be careful she’ll take you for everything you’ve got.” Then, spinning on her heel, was gone, leaving me with my mouth open.
I was upset for the rest of the day thinking what Ella said. I wasn’t thinking about Jen and Maria or about how to motivate my clients to lose weight.
Then, at three in the morning, I awoke from a dead sleep, shouting, “That’s it! That’s it!” My motivation problem was solved. I had to talk to Jen.
At 6:00 a.m., I was waiting when Jen opened the coffee shop. “Can we talk?”
“I’m rather busy,” she said. “Can it wait?” She was not overjoyed to see me.
“It about Maria and funding her medical care, but first how is she. I heard she fell.”
“Funding her care? What? She’s back home. I’m off at noon,” she said.
“See you then. I’m glad she’s okay.”
At 12 sharp, I was back and we took a table to talk over coffee. “I think I’ve got a way to pay Maria’s medical bills.”
Here eyebrows shot up. She was speechless.
“It’s like this, I charge my clients a monthly fee, you know? to attend my clinic. In addition, they pay twenty dollars for every pound they lose. I’ll donate the twenty dollar fee to a get-well fund for Maria. Well, I say get-well find, it’s technically a charity fund. That’s what they called it at the bank.”
“Why would you do this? Maria is not your responsibility.”
After a moment, I said, “Jen, I was in trouble once and a man saved me from a … a life of gang banging. I was just
a kid. Ran with some bad people. Very bad people. They liked cause I was big and could … well, because I was big. I did things I’ll always regret. My next door neighbor saw me going the wrong way.”
I looked away remembering.
“One day these guys came looking for me. My neighbor met them with a baseball bat. Told them to get lost. Not come back. They left. Never saw ‘em again.”
“When I asked him why he did it, he told me someone helped him once. And told him to pass it on. To do good things for others. And he did that every chance he got. So, you see, for me … it’s passing on what was given to me when I needed it.”
“Maybe it’s time this to move on,” I said, opening my wallet and taking out a piece of well worn paper. “Your’s now,” I said, handing it to her.
“It’s lovely, Red.”
With tears behind my eyes, I took a breath. Steadied myself, “For me, it’s about giving back. Whenever I’ve needed a hand, there’s been someone there for me. I can’t repay everyone that helped me, but there’s something I can do for you … and for Maria.
“I talked with the bank manager. He recommended setting up a charity with a dual signature checking account. That way I can’t take money out without your permission, but I can make deposits. This will help me and you and Maria. It helps me by keeping my clients motivated. That’s a big deal. Believe me.”
In the end, she agreed to it all. So, over the next few days I opened the checking account and got a lawyer on board to do the paperwork.
That night, Louise called and I was so excited that I told her about my plan to pay for Maria’s medical care.
“Oh, Red, that’s such a lovely thing to do, but how much money can you raise. I mean, her care will be terribly expensive.”
“About eighty thousand.”
“Wow,” she said. “Where will you keep it? Not at your business surely,” she asked, probing for information.
“In the bank. I opened a dual signature checking account and have a nonprofit charity set up. We get started this Saturday.”
“Exciting? It certainly is. What a wonderful idea, but then you’re a wonderful man,” she said, while thinking, I’m just two forged signatures away from an eighty-thousand dollar pay day. “But, my love, how will you raise so much money?”
She called me ‘my love.’
After a deep breath or two, “I’ll donate the twenty dollars per pound lost my client’s pay. I can raise the money in six months.”
After that conversation, our relationship took off.
Some days later, I saw Ella and Jen talking at Andy’s. Smiling as always, Andy walked over to join them, but an evil look from Ella sent him back behind the bar. They were friends and I heard Ella say, “Men are all alike. I’m only glad the money’s in the bank where she can’t get at it.”
Seeing me, Ella looked disgusted and turned her back on me, saying, “I told him she’s a gold digger. For all the good it did.”
“What’s with them?” I asked Andy.
“Beats me. You need something or just passing through?” Andy said, not liking being slighted in his own place. I couldn’t blame him.
“The extra key you gave me has gone lost. Can I get another one?”
“Yeah, it’s marked – Do Not Duplicate – so don’t worry about it being copied. Gimme a couple days.”
* * *
On Saturday our charity began, I called Jen to remind her to arrive a little arrive before the two o’clock class.
Standing in front of the group, I said to them, “You know I’m always here for you. Now, it’s time for us, myself
included, to be here for someone else.”
They were confused, wondering what I was talking about.
“I charge twenty dollars December 14, 2020for every pound you lose.”
Now they were really confused.
Jen walked out carrying Maria.
“Hi, Sweetie,” I said.
“Hi, Mister Red.”
“This is Maria, and her mom. Maria needs medical care, so, here’s what I’m going to do. At twenty dollars per pound, four thousand pounds will pay for her care. From now on, your twenty dollar fee goes to charity to help this beautiful little girl walk again.”
No one saw Louise slip into my office. She was dressed in drab loose-fitting clothing, wore a dark wig, cheap sunglasses, and gloves. She knew where the checkbook was, found it, and photographed a cancelled check. She now had our signatures, the account number, and the routing number. Then she saw it. How could Red be so stupid, she thought, as she photographed the login ID and password. Saves me the trouble of wheedling it out of him, she thought.
She did all this in less than three minutes closing and locking the door soundlessly behind her with the missing key. Then she nonchalantly walked away, caught a cab to the airport where she would catch another cab to where her rented car was parked. After she scored, the cops would look into anyone associated with the charity. As the cab drove away, she figured Red would take the blame.
It became evident to Red that motivating his clients was no longer a problem by the way they were losing weight. For the first time, he saw Jen worry-free. She looked lovely, and a pang of guilt tugged at his heart. If Louise hadn’t shown up again …?
Over the next weeks Red continued making regular deposits to Maria’s charity fund, which was well on its way to paying her bills. Jen and Red logged on every Friday night, from his office, to see the current balance.
Louise planned to transfer the money to an off shore account. Then she’d transfer it again and again until it was untraceable. All she needed do then was lay low. She’d stay in town, because to leave too soon would draw attention to her. And she couldn’t have that.
Tonight, she would empty the charity account.
It was ten p.m. when Louise logged into the bank using Ken’s laptop and WiFi.
Big mistake number one.
Next she logged into the charity account using its bona fide ID and password. What she didn’t know was that the bank’s computer checked the IP (Internet Protocol) address and MAC (Media Access Control) Address of machines logging in and compared them to an authorized list.
Big mistake number two: Her IP address and MAC Address didn’t match the machine authorized for the charity account.
The bank’s computer immediately sent an alarm to the security company and locked the account. It did not send Louise a message, her computer continued to look – to her – like the transfer was pending. This was to keep her in place until the cops got there.
The security alarm included her physical address, data on her computer, and WiFi system. Ten minutes later, three police cars arrived.
Through the dining room window, the cops saw Louise bent over a laptop. They pounded on the door, “Police, open up!” Then pounded again, “Police, open the door.”
Louise checked her makeup in the hall mirror thinking, just some men to manipulate. Then it’s back to the computer.
The cops burst in when she unlocked the door. Two of them kept her away from the computer while the third checked it. Yes, it was accessing the bank. Louise was arrested. While two cops ran her in, the third waited for the forensic computer tech who would take charge of the laptop in such a way that its value as evidence was preserved. The tech would also interrogate the WiFi router, as its make, model, and configuration were also evidence. The computer and router were bagged and tagged. Ken would be questioned later.
It was past midnight when the phone rang.
“Hartford police calling for Red Decker,” a voice said.
“Speaking. What’s going on?”
“Mr. Decker, we’ve arrested a woman for attempting to steal funds from your charity.”
I left for the police station and found … Louise.
“Louise, you were going to steal that little girl’s charity money? How could you? Who are you, Louise?”
She could see that I knew the truth about her, saying, “I want to speak to my lawyer.” That she had her lawyer’s number on speed dial was telling. And I got the message.
Leaving, I thanked the police, understanding now what Ella tried to tell me. When I got back to the hotel, there was an email from the bank’s security company. The charity’s account was locked and would remain so until approved for activity by the bank’s security personnel. Until then, no money would be released or transferred and no checks would be paid.
The next day, I asked Jen to meet me at Andy’s after she got off work. Before Jen arrived I went in back looking for Ella.
“Ella, would you be kind enough to give me a few minutes of your time?” I asked.
She looked at me, “Sure, why not,” as she wiped her hands.
“You were right about Louise. I’m sorry. You can’t imagine how sorry I am that I didn’t believe you. Did you hear she tried to steal Maria’s charity money?”
“Well, she was not successful and has been arrested. She’s in jail.”
“No, she’s not,” Ella said. “Guess you didn’t hear that, did you?”
“No, no I didn’t. How’d she get out?”
“Made bail. All you got to do is track her down and move in together. Just like old times,” Ella said.
“Yes, lovely idea. Thank you so much. When I came in here I hoped we be friends.”
“Red. We are. We are friends. I’m sorry.” Then she smiled, “I hear that Jen wants to be friends, too. Just thought I’d mention it. Just saying.”
“Best news I’ve had all day,” I said. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Speak of the devil. She just walked in,” Ella said, looking into the bar. “Why don’t you go say, ‘Hello?’ Let’s see if you can fix anything other than bombs.”
Giving Ella a wry smile, I walked out to sit with Jen.
Although I couldn’t see it, Ella was smiling as I left.
“Jen, I want you to know how sorry I am that I allowed Louise to play me like that. I’m embarrassed and ashamed that I didn’t see it coming. I thought she cared for me, but all she cared for was money. Had she been successful ….” The thought of Maria’s funds being stolen made me shiver.
Jen said, “I saw her running for the New Haven train before I opened the coffee shop. Don’t think she’ll be back.”
“That’s okay with me,” I said, to a smiling Jen. “Don’t forget on Saturday we meet with my clients at the clinic.”
“I won’t,” she said.
On Saturday, I was talking with my clients when Andy raised his hand to get my attention.
“Red,” he said. “I just want to say how happy I am with you and this fantastic clinic. I’ve lost twenty-five pounds and couldn’t be happier. Thank you, I mean it. Thanks, Red.”
“Thank you, Andy. You folks lost more than four-thousand pounds and funded Maria’s medical care. Come on out,” I said to Jen and Maria, who was now walking and running.
“Because of you … all of you … this beautiful little girl can walk. I’m proud of each and every one of you. And I can see that you’re proud of yourselves. As well you should be. You worked hard in a hard place and won through. For Maria … and for yourselves.”
As I was saying that, a little boy in a wheel chair was pushed toward me by his mom and dad. Maria scampered over to him and held his hand.
“This is Brian,” I said, “He needs an operation….”
About the Author
Wayne A. English has published four books and has numerous publications in magazines, newspapers, and online. Wayne is a locally, nationally, and internationally published. See his work at WayneAEnglish.com