“I’m sorry, he wants me to do what?”
Juli Flynn didn’t think to hide the incredulity in her voice. She did, however, think of hiding beneath her mother’s kitchen table. If it weren’t for the memory of her brother wiping boogers there thirty years ago, she probably would have crawled right under.
Juli stared at her mother. Tina Flynn was chopping carrots for a Jell-O salad that would, in all likelihood, hold as much culinary appeal for the funeral guests as the actual corpse.
“You know you were always Uncle Frank’s favorite,” Tina said in the same voice she’d used to suggest her children not stick lima beans up their noses. “I think you should be flattered.”
“Mom. I’d be flattered if he asked me to read a poem at the funeral or look after his cat or take his clothes to Goodwill. But this—this is just weird.”
“Don’t be so dramatic, Juli.”
“Dramatic? Dramatic is making a deathbed request that your niece travel to the freakin’ Virgin Islands to dump your ashes over the edge of a boat near St. John—that’s dramatic. Why not spread them off the Oregon coast or on Mount Hood or something?”
Tina finished with the carrots and began chopping beets, her knife making neat little slivers of purple that scattered over the green countertop. Juli sighed and began hunting in the cupboard for sesame seeds to add to the Jell-O.
“Frank had fond memories of his years sailing over there,” Juli’s mother said.
“He had fond memories of the Polish hooker he traveled with while he was fleeing that federal indictment.”
Tina smiled and set her knife down. “That’s right—what was her name? Olga or Helga or something like that?”
“Oksana,” said Juli, thinking this was so not the point.
Juli closed her eyes, hating the fact that at age 37, she felt like a petulant toddler. She had a sudden urge to stomp her feet and bang her fists on the counter in a full-blown tantrum.
It’s not like she and Uncle Frank had been that close. She’d been living in Seattle for the past six years, coming home to Portland for the occasional holiday. Until last week, she hadn’t even seen Uncle Frank since her birthday party a year ago when he’d gotten drunk on a quart of vanilla extract from Tina’s baking cupboard and spent the evening pretending to be a stegosaurus. The rest of the family had been embarrassed. Juli had been delighted that, for once, she wasn’t the oddest member of the family. That common bond was the reason she and Uncle Frank had always enjoyed a special relationship.
Well, that, and the fact that advanced dementia had led him to believe his niece was Celine Dion.
“You didn’t happen to tell Uncle Frank that I’m—”
“Terrified of the ocean? No, I didn’t have the heart to mention that.”
Juli nodded and watched her mother consult her handwritten recipe before reaching for the Worcestershire sauce.
“Did Uncle Frank say when I need to complete this mission?” Juli asked, grabbing three packets of orange Jell-O and her mother’s fish-shaped Jell-O mold. “Do cremated remains have—um—a shelf life or anything?”
“He didn’t really say. He was choking on his tongue a lot there at the end, so it was hard to understand him. Could you hand me that feta cheese?”
Juli gave her the container and scooted a knife out of the way, aware of her mother’s tendency to drop sharp objects on her bare feet.
“So maybe you didn’t understand him right?” Juli asked hopefully. “Maybe instead of ‘throw my ashes off a fishing boat,’ he said, ‘roll my ass over, you stupid whore?’”
“Those bedsores were sure something! Hand me those Junior Mints?”
Juli sighed, sensing the conversation was going nowhere. Maybe she was arguing the wrong point.
“I can’t just pack up and go to St. John. I have a life.”
Tina beamed at her daughter. “Are you dating someone new, sweetie?”
Juli scowled. “That’s not what I meant. I haven’t dated anyone since—well, for a long time.”
“Oh. Well, you know it can be a little bit intimidating for some men to date a woman with your particular—”
“Mom, can we not talk about this now?”
“Sweetie, I don’t know why you’re always so embarrassed about your special—”
“Please, Mom,” Juli said weakly, feeling her ears flame the way they always did when someone drew attention to the fact that she was—well, different. She touched her fingers to her lobes, trying to cool them. “Could we just stick with the subject of Uncle Frank?” she pleaded.
“Of course, dear. Can you hand me the dill?”
Juli spun the spice rack and located the appropriate jar. “I have a job, Mom. I have a bank account that can’t exactly handle the strain of a Caribbean vacation.”
“Well, Uncle Frank left a little bit of money in his will to cover some of the cost of your travels.”
“OK. That’s half the equation. What about my job?”
“Didn’t you say they asked for people in your department to volunteer to take a little time off? That sounds so nice.”
That sounds like a layoff, Juli thought, biting into a carrot as she watched her mother mix the Jell-O.
Not that the idea didn’t hold some appeal. She’d worked in the marketing department of a software company for less than a year and already she was so bored her skin itched. She’d hardly bothered to hide her delight the week before when the vice president had stood at the center of their cube-farm, running his fingers through his comb-over, asking if anyone was interested in a severance package of three weeks’ salary and a scone-of-the-month club membership in exchange for, “taking a little time off. Indefinitely.”
Later that day, Juli had flung herself onto the sofa in her therapist’s office and sighed. “I feel like my career is going nowhere,” she told Dr. Gordon.
“What makes you say that?” he’d asked, looking wise and vaguely constipated on the edge of his orange armchair.
“The fact that my boss told me yesterday, ‘Juli, your career is going nowhere.’”
“Right,” Dr. Gordon said, nodding. “And how does that make you feel?”
Juli shot him a look. “Terrific.”
Dr. Gordon was not amused. Dr. Gordon was seldom amused. Juli had fantasies about pinning him down on the carpet and tickling him until he peed.
“Juli, we’ve spoken before about the social oddities you’ve developed as a coping mechanism to deal with your self-consciousness and your lack of a sense of belonging, which is the direct result of the attention you’ve generated in the scientific community and the media for your—” he stopped and stared at her, then shook his head. “Are you covering your ears so you don’t have to listen, or are you cooling them like you always do when you’re embarrassed?”
“A little of both,” she admitted, lowering her hands.
“I see,” Dr. Gordon said, looking morose. “You’re uncomfortable with this subject. Let’s talk about your career. What did you want to be when you were a child?”
“The Bionic Woman.”
Dr. Gordon didn’t smile. “What was your first job after college?”
“I was a newspaper reporter for three months before an on-the-job injury forced me to change careers.”
“I fell asleep in a City Council meeting and stabbed myself between the ribs with a pencil.” She lifted the hem of her shirt. “Check it out, five stitches right here—”
Dr. Gordon sighed and began to flip through his notes. “Let’s go back over some of the other jobs you’ve held. After you were a reporter, you spent some time as a data analyst?”
Juli lowered her shirttail and sat up straighter. “Oh. Sure, there was that. And marketing, of course. And I got my helicopter pilot license about seven years ago, and there was that stint as a pet store manager, and four months as a scout for forest fires, six months working in that hat shop and—”
“Juli, your employment history leaves something to be desired.”
She nodded, pleased to be understood. “You’re right. I’ve never been a brain surgeon.”
“It’s very typical for someone with your IQ level to—”
“Are those new drapes? I like the little tassels.”
Dr. Gordon sighed again. “Juli, if you’re ever going to have close, intimate relationships with people, you’re going to need to work on grounding yourself a bit more.”
“My mother never believed in grounding—always thought time-out was a much more effective method of punishment.”
“I know. I know. I was making a joke.”
He didn’t smile. “Why don’t you start by taking a step back and reevaluating your career and life choices? Gain some new perspective.”
Perspective. That’s what she needed.
She’d raced home to Portland from Seattle the day she’d heard about Uncle Frank. Now here she was, chopping steak for her mother’s Jell-O salad on the afternoon of her uncle’s funeral, wondering if a spur-of-the-moment jaunt to St. John might not be the best thing for her. Or maybe the worst.
“Honey, could you hand me those Garbanzos?”
No. Not the worst. Not quite the worst.
The post-funeral reception was still going strong back in the house, but Juli was hiding out in the backseat of the limo, listening to the thrum of raindrops on the roof as she lay back against the plush seat. Her eyes were closed, and she was trying not to notice the smell of Old Spice on the upholstery or the shrill memory of her cousins’ voices demanding to know why she was still single.
The limo door creaked open, and someone jumped into the front seat, slamming the door behind him. Juli didn’t have to open her eyes to know who it was. She wrinkled her nose as the smell hit her.
“Sorry my Aunt Gretchen dumped the apple cider vinegar over your head,” Juli said. “It’s a family tradition.”
“Family,” Brian repeated with obvious intrigue. “Family like kinfolk, or family like Godfather?”
Juli sat up and straightened her black wrap dress. She looked at the back of Brian’s head, wondering if he knew he was developing a bald patch the exact shape of Zimbabwe.
“Thank you for volunteering your limo service for Uncle Frank’s funeral,” Juli said, giving Brian’s shoulder a squeeze. “And thank you for letting me hide out in here while my family holds the leg-wrestling tournament in the dining room.”
Brian loosened his tie and leaned back against the driver’s seat. “No problem. Anything for my favorite ex-girlfriend.”
Juli gritted her teeth. “You know, we split up seven years ago. I think your wife would appreciate it if you stopped calling me that.”
“And if you stopped patting me on the butt when we run into each other.”
“Mandy says she doesn’t mind that,” Brian mused, tugging his tie all the way off and setting it on the dashboard. “She says she’s never considered you a threat.”
Juli pressed her lips together and tried not to be annoyed by that. “Anyway, thanks for staying late,” she said finally, shoving her feet into her black patent leather Via Spigas and smoothing her hair. “I’ll get out of here so you can be on your way.”
“No rush, actually. The limo’s stuck in park, and I can’t get a mechanic out to look at it until after Wheel of Fortune. You can sit here all evening if you want.”
Juli sighed and held out her hand. “Give me the manual.”
Brian reached over to the glove box to dig out a leather-bound book the size of a dictionary. He dropped it into her lap and grinned. “You’re the best,” he said, sliding around on the front seat to look at her. “Why did we break up, anyway?”
Juli flipped the book open to the first page and tried to ignore him. She began to read, starting with the history of the car and progressing quickly to the recommended octane ratings. She felt his eyes on her, knew he was still awaiting a response. She planted her index finger on page 242 and looked up at him.
“You threw my Scrabble board out the bedroom window and yelled that board games weren’t considered foreplay even if I spelled dirty words.”
“Right,” Brian said. “I forgot.”
“The neighbor didn’t. He’s still mad about the vowels in his pond.”
“Sorry about that.”
Juli returned her attention to the manual, reading faster now that she had reached the section on oil viscosity. “Anyway, it’s fine. We weren’t right for each other.”
Brian chuckled. “You’re too much woman for most men to handle,” he said. “But there’s someone out there for you, Jules, I know it.”
Juli gritted her teeth, focusing hard on being pissed off instead of wounded. She did that a lot these days. Sometimes she even believed it.
She got to the end of the book and slammed it shut. She leaned over the seat and handed it back to him.
“The electronic release for the transmission is controlled by the same fuse as your backup lights,” she said as she picked up the little black clutch she’d carried to the funeral. “It’s a safety feature that disables the transmission if those lights aren’t working. Check the fuse.”
Brian grinned and set the manual on the seat beside him, his expression amused. Amused, but not aroused, Juli thought, knowing she didn’t care about his arousal anymore, but feeling stung just the same. It wasn’t like she’d had a future with him. It wasn’t like she’d had a future with anyone she’d dated.
The story of my life, she thought.
She watched him reach beneath the dash and pry the panel off the fuse box, poking around inside as the rain sputtered against the windshield outside.
“I’ll be damned,” he said as he pulled out the dead fuse and held it up for her to see.
Juli popped the door open and stepped out into the rain. “Thanks again, Brian,” she said, wrapping her arms around herself as she turned away. “Give my love to Mandy.”
3,400 miles away, Alex Bradshaw stared at the yellow piece of paper in his hand. Beyond the stuffy, peanut-scented air of the barroom, the Key West sun bathed an army of sailboats bobbing merrily in the bay.
For once, Alex didn’t care about the boats.
“It’s not pink,” Jake Grinshaw muttered beside him, holding an identical piece of yellow paper as the bar lights glinted off his bald spot. “That asshole in Human Resources pointed out the color at least three times. He said yellow is more soothing.”
Alex crumpled his own yellow pink-slip and took another sip of beer. “I feel soothed.”
Over the top of his mug, he watched as Jake wadded his own yellow pink-slip and stuffed it in his pocket. Alex tried not to notice the way his friend’s hand shook as he hoisted his beer. Even 20 years ago, Jake had been doughy and awkward when the two of them had started work the same day at Kranston Shipping Enterprises. Over the years, Jake had risen to the top of the accounting department, while Alex had become one of the chief executives for what was now the largest shipping firm in the world.
For all the good it had done them.
On the other side of Jake, Phyllis Prescott sat looking like a startled albino rabbit with great biceps. Catching Alex’s eye, she held up an envelope. “Did everyone else get the gift certificate to Sir Loins Steakhouse?”
Alex nodded and took another sip of beer. “I think $25 in bad steak is fair compensation for 19 years with the company.”
Phyllis frowned down at her amber ale, her silver-blonde hair falling over one eye. A former Olympic record holder in the steeplechase, Phyllis’s 50-something physique had never surrendered to the squishy curves and motherly bosom of most women her age. Hard-edged and steely, Phyllis looked like she could tear off a grown man’s leg with her bare hands if the need arose.
Her perpetual scowl suggested the thought had crossed her mind more than once.
“Sir Loins makes their own croutons,” offered Cody Wilkins from the other side of Alex. “They’re really good.”
Cody’s expression was so earnest, Alex’s spleen hurt. He patted Cody’s massive shoulder. It felt like slapping a ham.
“You’re right, Cody, they are,” Alex said as he watched Cody dip a cherry in and out of his Roy Rogers.
Looking pleased, Cody lifted his drink. At six-foot-five and 275 pounds, he looked exactly like an NFL tight end. Not surprising, since he’d been one for three years before a shoulder injury forced him to leave the Seahawks for a safe desk job managing accounts for Kranston Shipping. The irony of it wasn’t lost on Alex.
Cody would have been safer getting his head stepped on by linebackers.
“So what are we going to do, Alex?” Jake asked, his voice wilted with desperation. “Did you talk to your lawyer about our pensions?”
Alex nodded and tried to wash down the lump in his throat with a swallow of beer.
“We all signed the same clause saying we’d take the stock options for the bulk of our retirement funds,” Alex said. “And we aren’t fully vested in the remainder of our pensions until we’ve worked at Kranston for 20 years.”
“Convenient,” Jake muttered. “Since we’re two months from the 20 year mark, and those stock options went belly-up last week.”
“But Alex, that can’t be right,” Phyllis protested. “I mean, surely it’s obvious to anyone that we signed those forms when we were too young to know better. It was almost 20 years ago! And they were supposed to be rewritten during that reorganization in ’03, but then–”
“We still signed the forms, Phyllis,” Alex said. “That’s binding. And besides, they cut a wide swath so it wasn’t obvious they were gunning for people closing in on retirement. They took out younger employees, too, like Jim in Sales, and Sarah in Marketing and Cody here.”
“But there has to be something we can do,” Phyllis said, sounding as close to tears as she had since she’d dropped a Buick on her foot during a power-lifting competition. “Without our retirement savings, what are we supposed to do?”
No one said anything for a minute. Alex returned his attention to his beer, wondering if it had been a wise idea to invite the others to join him. Maybe he’d be better off alone drinking whiskey in his underwear in the kitchen of his air-conditioned condo. Certainly he’d feel better staring out the window at the ocean instead of at a broken neon bar sign advertising cold, refreshing Bu Ligh.
He wished like hell he could do something to fix this. Not the sign, his life. His colleagues’ lives. These guys had been more than just his co-workers. They’d been friends. Good ones.
“I just can’t believe it,” Jake said, shaking his head as he sipped his beer and wobbled a little on his barstool. Alex put a hand out, ready to catch his chubby pal if he had to. Phyllis patted Jake on the arm, the first time in 19 years that Alex had seen her display any sort of maternal gesture besides slapping a Hershey bar out of Jake’s hand and yelling that it would give him zits.
“I’m real sorry about this, guys,” Cody said at last, dropping his cherry into his soda.
Alex turned and looked at the hulking figure on his left.
“Why are you sorry?”
“I dunno. I feel like it’s my fault. I was walking in from the parking lot this morning and I saw a penny on the asphalt. I just left it there.”
Alex stared at him, waiting for the rest of the story. When none was forthcoming, he tried gentle prompting.
“What does that have to do with the layoff, Cody?”
“You know the saying. See a penny, pick it up, all the day you’ll have good luck. See a penny, leave it lay, bad luck you’ll have all day. Only I was in a hurry this morning, so I didn’t pick up the penny. It’s all my fault.”
Alex felt the lump welling in his throat again. “It’s not your fault, Cody,” he told him. “It’s not anyone’s fault except fucking Tom Portelli.”
“You think the owner of the company ordered the layoffs?” Phyllis asked.
“Of course he did,” Alex said. “Portelli’s always bitching about the bottom line. This time, we were it.”
They all sat in silence for another minute, listening to Jimmy Buffett on the jukebox. Someone had picked “A Pirate Looks at 40” and Alex listened to Jimmy croon about being drunk for over two weeks. Alex could see the appeal. He was 42 years old, unemployed, unmarried, and without the pension he’d counted on to keep him in sailboats and cheap beer in his old age.
Between the money he’d just sunk into his boat and the recent market crash, he was pretty much wiped out.
Alone and broke.
Isn’t that what his ex-fiancé had said 20 years ago? You’re going to die alone and broke if you don’t learn some goddamn provider instinct! That’s exactly what Jenny had yelled as she’d walked out the door and into the arms of her dentist. Apparently that guy had provider instinct. As Alex had learned later, the dentist had been providing a lot more than root canals long before Jenny had actually walked out.
Not that he was still bitter. And not that he had trust issues, despite what his last three girlfriends had suggested.
The sound of Jake clearing his throat brought Alex back to the present. “Can you guys keep a secret?” Jake asked.
“No,” Alex said and took another sip of beer.
“Don’t listen to him, Jake,” Phyllis said, turning toward Jake. “You say whatever you need to get off your chest.”
Jake eyed Alex dubiously. Alex stared back.
“What?” Alex asked finally. “You going to tell us you knew this was coming all along?”
“No, no,” Jake said, shaking his head so furiously Alex thought his double-chin might catch fire rubbing the starched collar of his shirt. “It’s just—I know something about a little side project Tom Portelli has going on. A personal one.”
Alex raised an eyebrow and took another swig of beer. “You’re privy to a lot of the company owner’s private business?”
“This one’s not exactly on the books,” Jake said, grabbing a fistful of peanuts from a dish on the bar. “This one’s not even entirely legal.”
Phyllis leaned closer, her interest piqued by the prospect of hearing gossip about the man who’d just bitch-slapped the whole lot of them.
“We’re listening,” she said. “Go on.”
“Well, besides all the legitimate shipping operations at Kranston, Tom Portelli has a few side jobs he likes to keep on the down-low.”
“Down-low?” Alex snorted. “You make him sound like a gangster instead of an aging executive with bad taste in ties.”
“He is!” Jake insisted, almost knocking his beer over as he flung his hands up. Alex made a grab for the beer, setting it safely in front of Cody, who would sooner drink turpentine than Budweiser.
Jake kept going with his story. “Once a year, Tom Portelli sends a cargo ship out of Monaco loaded down with Krugerrand. They head across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal, and over to the Galapagos Islands where they rendezvous with some guys who illegally export exotic animals. They swap the Krugerrand for the animals—”
“What’s Krugerrand?” asked Cody, looking confused.
“Gold coins,” Alex answered. “South African, but they’re valuable worldwide since they’re made of actual gold.”
“Anyway,” Jake continued, “they swap the Krugerrand for the animals and then head over to Japan, where they trade the animals for a whole lot more Krugerrand than they started out with. Then they proceed to South Africa and swap the Krugerrand for diamonds—tons of them, about $48 million in all.”
Alex stared at him. “That’s the most fucked up money laundering scheme I’ve ever heard. No one bothers to say, ‘hey, fellas, where’d you get the crates of gold coins?’”
“Or the Komodo Dragons?” Phyllis added.
Jake shrugged. “You can pay off a lot of people with a boatload of gold coins. People are willing not to notice things. Besides, they fill the ship with legitimate cargo and they have the paperwork for that. It’s a pretty smooth operation, really.”
They all sat digesting the information. Phyllis looked distressed. Jake looked drunk. Cody looked blank. Alex ordered another beer.
“Do you think we should call the police?” Phyllis asked.
“And say what?” Jake asked. “Hi, I’m a disgruntled employee who got laid off this afternoon. Just wanted to let you know that the owner of our company is running gold coins and diamonds and illegal tortoises all over the globe.”
“What’s wrong with that?” Phyllis argued.
“Who the hell is going to believe it?” Jake shot back.
Jake and Phyllis continued bickering, but Alex had stopped listening. An idea had begun to form in the back of his mind. A crazy, juvenile, dangerous idea.
The idea of a desperate man.
Alex leaned back on his barstool and surveyed his former co-workers. One by one, they looked up at him, their eyes unfocused and a little shell-shocked. Alex took a sip of beer.
“You guys know anything about boating?”
Phyllis rolled her eyes. “Until two hours ago, we were all employees of the world’s largest shipping company. I think we know about boats.”
Alex shook his head. “Maybe not like this.