AT 8:00 AM THE HEAD NURSE ON DUTY AT THE intensive care station signaled to Jerry that he could go to Les’s private room, usually available to VIPs only. It was 10:00 Chicago time, and the printing and publishing magnate had been on his mobile phone all morning, talking non-stop with his executive assistant, while waiting for permission to visit Les. Before he went into the room, he checked his watch. Mandy would not be here for another hour, so he could talk to Les about things that were best unknown to the casino manager’s sister.
When Jerry entered the room, Les was sitting up, just finishing a typical hospital breakfast of oatmeal, fruit juice, toast and coffee. Although his head was swathed with bandages and he had a thick and unsightly, slightly-bloodstained gauze covering for his surgically treated shoulder, Les was alert, in good spirits and obviously happy to see Jerry.
“Oh, jeez,” said Les, struggling to sit up straighter. “You didn’t have to come all the way out here. The doctors say I’m gonna be good as new.”
“Yeah, but that won’t be for a month or two.”
“Hell, I’ll be back on the job next week. I...”
“Like hell you will!”
“Oh, c’mon, Jerry. It’s just a couple a scratches!”
“Yeah, sure. Do you have any idea how close you came to being blown away?”
“Shit! That crazy woman couldn’t hit the broad side of a ba...”
“I don’t give a shit! Now listen. I’m still the boss, aren’t I?”
“Sure, Jerry, but...”
“No goddamned ‘buts.’ You’re taking at least six to eight weeks off. Is that clear?” The tone of his voice told Les that this was a command, not a suggestion.
“Whatever you say, Jer,” said the wounded man weakly. He adjusted his position in bed, and got a shot of sharp pain for his efforts. “Unh! To tell you the truth, I’m honestly gonna need some time off. I’m supposedly gonna get back to normal, but I am gonna have to rest up a bit before—y’know.”
“That’s more like it!”
“The thing is—I mean—I really like it out here—managing the casino and everything, but I just can’t see myself—uh—doing nothing out here in this desert. I dig the Hoover Dam and Lake Meade, but how much can I—y’know what I mean?”
This was what Jerry had been waiting for. “I know exactly what you mean, Les. And that’s just what I want to talk to you about.”
“Really, but I thought that you...”
“...want you to take some time off? You bet! But I think I have the perfect place for you to convalesce—to heal up and re-charge your batteries.”
“Oh yeah? Where?”
“Have you ever been to Switzerland?”
“Well, I own this big chalet in Davos. It’s absolutely beautiful there—the scenery, the mountain air—in a month or so you’ll be all healed up and back to your old self!”
“Yeah,” said Les, thinking dreamily about how nice it might be there. Then something occurred to him that brought him back to earth. “Wait a minute! Doesn’t your wife—the one you hate—doesn’t she live somewhere around there?”
“As a matter of fact, she lives in this chalet I’m talking about.”
Readjusting himself and wincing with pain, Les suddenly became very wary of the idea. “Well, I don’t want to be...”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s a big place. You don’t have to live right next to her or the kids, or anything.”
“No. But she’s certainly gonna know I’m there and...”
“That’s right. Like I say, you don’t have to live in close proximity to her, but I do want you to get to know her.”
“I don’t get it, Jer,” said Les, thoroughly baffled by this.
Jerry moved his chair nearer to the bed, and lowered his voice. He then gave Les a brief history of his relationship with Sheila—how he met her, the “miracle” children, how he tricked her into taking a lover of his choosing, and about the recent meeting in his downtown office and Sheila’s abrupt departure.
Then he moved in even closer to Les, and his voice dropped to a whisper. “I’m gonna tell you something now that I’ve only talked about with my lawyer.”
“If it’s that private Jerry, maybe you shouldn’t...”
“No Les. I absolutely trust you. And now you’re gonna see why I really need you to be at that chalet.”
It was a busy day at the Valley Medical Center, and its corridors buzzed with activity, but you could hear a pin drop inside Les Lipscomb’s room. Then Jerry began to talk, not in a real whisper, but his voice was hardly audible.
First he told Les about the pre-nup, and why Sheila wanted more because of the kids that she supposedly couldn’t have.
“’Miracle’, my ass! I’m willing to give her up to five million to get rid of her and her little snot-noses, but she wants ten! She thought she had me on adultery because of me and your sister, but I told you how I finessed that. But she’s got something else on me that’s potentially a lot worse than adultery.”
Then he told Les about the incident with little Jessica, some thirteen years ago, and how he simply couldn’t remember whether he did it or not. “Jessica, who was a little over three at the time, says I did, and Sheila, of course, believed her. Maybe I did—I had been drinking that night, and I just honestly can’t remember.”
“I don’t believe it Jerry! I know you go for girls a lot younger than you—but abusing your own daughter? I just can’t see it!”
“I don’t think I could do it either—but that few minutes with her—I blacked out from drinking too much. It’s like a lot of people when they overdo it—even a little. They can’t remember driving home or undressing or brushing their teeth...”
“I still don’t buy it. Uh—how come Sheila’s never brought this to the police, or the courts or anything?”
“Sheila cares about Sheila more than anybody. But I’ll have to give her this. The reason why she’s never made a legal issue out of this is because of all the shit Jessica would have to go through with lawyers and testimony and everything. But now that she’s not gonna get a dime more for adultery, she’s threatening to finally bring this Jessica thing to a civil or criminal court if I don’t come across with more money. She even said that I might have to pay her a hundred mill—and damned if it’s not possible for some stupid jury to come up with a judgment like that!”
Les didn’t know what to say, so with some discomfort, he leaned forward slightly, and sipped some of his fruit juice. When it became clear that Jerry was waiting for some kind of reaction, Les asked, “Why are you telling me all this?”
Jerry cleared his throat before answering. “Okay, I’ll level with you. It’s true that I think my Swiss chalet is the perfect place for you to recuperate, but I do have something I want you to do there. Even though you’ll be staying in an entirely different wing than Sheila and the kids, you’re still gonna have contact—probably daily contact—with at least Sheila.”
Les twisted painfully in his bed, anticipating what was coming next.
“Now, what I want you to do,” Jerry continued, “besides basking in this Alpine paradise, and getting over your injuries, is to be my eyes and ears there, and find out just when and how Sheila’s gonna make her move.”
“Gee. How am I gonna do that? Why would she tell me anything anyway?”
“Ask her, for one thing. If I know Sheila, she’s the type that likes to talk about what she’s gonna do to her enemies.”
“It sounds to me like you need to hire a private eye or...”
“Les, what I need is a friend—someone I can trust in there. Get close to her—seduce the woman if you have to, but...”
“C’mon Jer, I’m no goddamned Lothario. I can’t...”
“Les, now listen to me.” Jerry took a deep breath before going on. “A long time ago, you told me you’d do anything to repay me for giving you the opportunity to be a casino manager. Now, I’m calling in my chips. Okay?”
Les nodded silently. It was time to pay the piper.
Just then the door opened and Mandy came rushing in. She stopped in her tracks when she saw the blood on Les’s shoulder bandages. “Oh, my poor brother,” she sobbed, moving quickly to the side of the bed opposite Jerry. She took Les’s right hand in hers and massaged it gently, fearing to touch any other part of the wounded man.
Finally she acknowledged Jerry. “God, Jerry! How long have you been here? Is everything all right?”
Getting to his feet, Jerry replied, “Everything’s fine. My manager here is going to be just dandy, but he’s gonna need a month or two to recover completely. I was just talking to him about that.” Staring pointedly at Les, he said, “Les and I agree that there’s no better place for him to go than my chalet in Davos.”
“Oh yes, I heard it’s wonderful there!” Mandy enthused, then did a kind of double-take. “But waitaminute, isn’t that where Sheila...”
“Yes. Sheila and the kids live there, but Les is gonna be in a whole ‘nother wing of the place. You know how big it is. Chances are he won’t even see Sheila except on rare occasions,” Jerry lied, as Les looked down at his food tray.
Jerry moved to Mandy’s side of the bed and embraced and kissed her. “I gotta leave now, Baby. Someone’s gotta run that casino,” he half joked. And then he grasped Les’s good arm. “Hang in there, champ—and get better will ya? I won’t see you for a few days, I have to be back in Chicago tonight. Anything you need?”
“No, Jer, I’m fine now that my sister’s here.”
“Good. I’ll call you tonight. I’ll make the arrangements for my plane to fly you to Switzerland next week—or whenever they say you can get outa here.” And with a wink to Mandy, Jerry left the brother and sister alone.
“MY GOD, WHEN I HEARD THAT YOU’D BEEN SHOT I almost died,” said Mandy sitting down next to Les. “The pain must have been excruciating.”
“Y’know, Sis. It happened so fast that I don’t remember anything. It hurts now, though, I can tell you that.”
“Oh, my poor boy.”
And their conversation went on in that vein for a while—Mandy expressing her remorse and wanting to know all the details of what happened—Les assuring her that he would be all right eventually, and that he would be spending some time in Switzerland while healing up.
Satisfied that her brother was truly going to get back to normal after a time, Mandy took a few beats before getting on to the subject that she had been dying to talk to him about on the phone—it seemed like years ago.
“So—uh—you saw Doug?” began Mandy tentatively.
Initially caught by surprise, Les thought for a moment and answered, ”Yeah. We went out and shot some pool. Y’know he is one hell of a pool player. If...”
“Did he ask about me?”
“Actually, I think he did. He asked me if you were still with ‘the rich guy.’”
“So what did you tell him?”
“I told him that you were still with Jerry, and that I thought you were happy and all that.”
“Is that all?”
Les told her that they hardly discussed her at all in the course of the evening. Inferring that Mandy was hungry to hear anything about Doug, he told her about as much of that evening’s events as he could remember—about the rundown neighborhood Doug was living in, how they met this half-starved little Russian programmer at the pool hall, how they went to Mr. Adams to eat, and how Doug and the Russian kid talked computerspeak that was way over his head.
“I got the feeling though, that Doug was at least thinking about getting back into the Internet game. I dunno—there was just something about the way he talked to this kid—the way he seemed to get excited about what this kid said he could do. It—uh...”
“So you think he might be thinking about starting his own company again?” asked Mandy, barely hiding her excitement.
“Who knows? I wouldn’t bet one way or the other on that one. I’m just telling you what happened, that’s all. Why do you want to know, anyway?” A mischievous gleam lit up in his eyes. “Are you still in love with him?”
“Of course not,” said Mandy, perhaps a little too quickly. “I was just—uh—y’know—interested. Nothing else.”
For the remainder of Mandy’s visit they talked about Les’s upcoming “convalescence” in Switzerland, and how neither of them believed that Jerry was capable of abusing his daughter—not back then or ever.
“Maybe when you’re over there, you might get a handle on what really happened—y’know—just coincidentally.”
The irony of Mandy’s words could not escape Les, who said, “Hey. All I’m gonna do over there is to try to get back to normal.”
“DOUG, IT’S FOR YOU,” SAID SVETLANA Krilenkov, as Doug was walking briskly through the outer office of Riordan Design one late afternoon, on his way to help one of his salespeople close an order. As befitted her formidable artistic skills, Svetlana was the graphics honcho of Riordan, but she still answered the phone most of the time, just as she did when the fledgling company was getting off the ground. It was mainly out of habit for her, but Doug also liked the idea of someone answering the phone with a thick foreign accent. It added a hint of mystery to his operation—and an allusion to technological magic.
“Just tell ‘em I’m out, Svetlana,” said Doug, over his shoulder, without slowing down.
“It’s Mary O’Reilly,” persisted the graphics guru. “She says it’s important.”
This made Doug freeze like he hit an invisible brick wall. He turned and took the phone from Svetlana, not waiting to go to his private office. It must be a lead!
“Mary? How’re you doin’ sweetheart?”
There had been a time several years ago when Doug could have had a romantic relationship with Mary, but he was so much in love with Mandy back then that there was no way he would have cheated on her. Now Mary was happily married (although she used her maiden name for business) and she and Doug were strictly good friends.
“I just met with Rex Fowler of V. V. Fowler—actually I had about ten drinks with him before he signed a nice ad package for the next year.”
“Yeah, I heard he liked to tip a few.”
“That’s putting it mildly,” drawled a slightly tipsy Mary. “I also had to keep taking his hands off me. But anyway, I think he might have a notion to put the Fowler catalog online—the whole thing.”
“The whole thing? Jesus! That’s about 200,000 products isn’t it?”
“The whole shootin’ match. At least that’s what he was talking about—but of course he was drunk as a skunk. I told him about you—recommended your company and everything. I’m not sure, in his state, how much he remembers, but I bet if I called him, he’d give us an appointment—for ‘lunch’ naturally.”
“Mary, doesn’t Rand do his print catalog?”
“I think it’s Rand’s biggest publication by far.”
“You call him. I’ll be available for lunch anytime at all. Just let me know—and—uh—let’s us talk before we see him. Okay?”
“You got it!”
SORRENTO’S ITALIAN-AMERICAN FAMILY restaurant on Milwaukee Road in north-suburban Wheeling was virtually empty every afternoon. It never got full at any other time, and was probably some kind of an Outfit tax dodge or money-laundering operation. On an idyllic summer afternoon, about 1:00 PM, the Wednesday following their phone conversation, Doug Riordan and Mary O’Reilly sat at a table in the darkened recesses of the establishment waiting for Rex Fowler, VP of Marketing for the V. V. Fowler Corp.
“He’s late,” said Doug.
“He’s never right on time,” said Mary, “but he won’t be too late when free drinks are involved.”
“How long you known him?”
“Over five years. It’s the same deal every time with him. He orders veal parmigian’, which he hardly touches. And right away he starts in with the vodka-and-tonics. Last week I think he had about fifteen.”
“Yeah! I had ten myself and could hardly move. Anyway, once he’s loaded to the gills, he always gives me a nice spread. Kahn pays for the booze so...The only thing is, the drunker he gets, the more he paws me—yecch! I always wear a short skirt, like today—y’know—to help get him in the right mood, but even so...”
“Well, I don’t have to tell you, Mary, how much I appreciate this...”
“Forget it. I’ve always liked working with you—you know that. And I truly believe this thing is right for Fowler—to put their stuff online. And, of course, I know there’s something in it for me. Ahem! That helps.”
“You bet your ass, there’s something in it for you!” Then in a much more businesslike tone, “Now. Here’s the contract,” said Doug, opening his attaché case and pulling out a single legal-sized piece of paper. “And here’s a couple of copies—one for him and one for you. That first one, when I give you the signal, pull it out of your purse and put it right in his face—I’ll shove a pen in his hand. As soon as he signs, I’ll grab it and you can give him a copy—if he’s able to take one, that is. If he’s not, we’ll fold one and stick it in his coat.”
They had set their trap just in the nick of time, because at that moment, their prey had arrived in a suburban taxi. Rex Fowler paid and tipped the cabbie, and strode into Sorrento’s like he owned the place. (He probably was their best customer!) He took a few beats, as his eyes got adjusted to the place’s relative darkness, then smiled broadly and wolfishly at Mary when he spotted her. The bartender, the waiter and the busboy all greeted him royally, as he made his way to the table shared by Doug and Mary, nodding benevolently to the restaurant staff.
Rex Fowler was a tall, thin man, very expensively dressed, befitting a Vice President of a Fortune 500 corporation. As he approached the table, however, Doug stood up politely and could see that very haggard appearance on Rex’s face that resulted from over-indulgence. He appeared so drawn and frail, that at first it seemed impossible that he could endure the kind of drinking affair that had been cooked up for him. But he was in very high spirits as he shook hands with Doug and kissed Mary wetly on the cheek, before sitting down.
As soon as he was seated, he buried his sparrow-like face in one of Sorrento’s cheap, cardboard menus. “Have you guys ordered yet?” he mumbled. Not waiting for an answer, he addressed the waiter, who stood right next to him preparing to write Rex’s selection immediately. “What kind of soup you have today, Marco?” he inquired, although the answer was always the same.
“Homemade minestrone, Mr. Fowler,” replied the waiter.
“Okay, I’ll have that up front. And today I think I’ll have the veal parmigian’.”
Even before he took Mary and Doug’s order, Marco asked, “Something to drink, today Mr. Fowler?”
“You know what, Marco? Why don’t you bring me a vodka-and-tonic while I’m waiting for my lunch. When that’s ready, we’ll have some red wine.” Looking up at his companions he asked politely, “You guys mind if I choose the wine.?”
“By all means—uh, Rex, is it?” responded Doug quickly. “I’m sure it will be fine.”
Doug and Mary were perusing their menus when the waiter brought Rex his first drink. Just as soon as it was put on the table, Rex said, “When you get back this way, bring me another one, will you, Marco?”
“Of course, Mr. Fowler!”
After Rex’s second drink, while waiting for the third, and after Doug and Mary had ordered their appetizers and lunches, the three began a round of small talk—about the Internet and advertising in general, the weather, politics, etc.—that lasted until they were finished eating.
The only remarkable thing (from Doug’s point of view) that happened during lunch was the disposition of the wine—“Let’s have a bottle of that nice Amarone you have, Marco.” When the wine was brought, Marco professionally uncorked the bottle and poured glasses for all three diners. This proved to be the only taste of wine that Doug and Mary would have. Rex consumed the remainder of the entire bottle without missing one vodka-and-tonic, brought to him in a steady stream by Marco.
As Mary had observed to Doug, Rex had only a couple of bites of his veal parm, before signaling to the busboy to take it away. He was obviously more interested in drinking. Once his food was gone, Rex gave out a contented sigh, indicating it was time to talk business.
For his opening salvo, Doug said, “So Rex, Mary tells me that you’re interested in putting the Fowler catalog online.”
“I did say something like that,” replied Rex. “As you know, V. V. Fowler is the Numero Uno in industrial supply. It’s my job that this is made clear to the whole world,” he said, with a wide sweeping gesture of one arm. “As far as I’m concerned, we’ve been dragging our feet on this Internet thing, and it’s high time we did something about it.”
“I’m glad...” began Doug.
“Just the other night, one of my uncles (I can’t remember who) was sayin’ that we ought to have a web site. Now, I’m sure—positively—that he didn’t mean putting the whole Fowler catalog up, but—ah—burp!—that’s why they got me—to make the right marketing decisions. Thanks, Marco,” he said, as the waiter deposited another drink in front of him.
“Well, Riordan Design can...”
“Sometimes, I really wonder how the company got so big without me. Y’know?”
“I bet they’re glad that you’re...”
“You bet your bippy they’re glad. Y’know how much Fowler grosses each year?”
“No, how much?”
Rex paused briefly to gulp down the remainder of the drink Marco had just brought him. Out of the corner of one eye, Doug could see that Marco was already hustling over to the table, vodka-and-tonic in hand. “What was I saying?”
“I think,” said Mary, “that you were about to tell us how much Fowler grosses each...”
“Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah!” assured the tipsy VP. as he regained his wobbly train of thought. “Well, the truth is,” he said in a suspenseful tone, “I don’t have a clue! Ha, ha, ha!" laughing himself silly. Then, gathering as much composure as he could, and with as much dignity as he could muster, he said, “The main thing is, it’s millions and millions and millions of dollars. How many millions, I don’t know. But the main thing is—since I took this job around five years ago—they’re takin’ in more millions than before—ev’ry single fuckin’ year. Oh, excuse me, Mary!”
“No problem, Rex,” Mary responded quickly.
“So anyway—uh—where were we?” asked Rex, honestly lost.
Doug tried to best to get his prospect back on track. “You were saying that one of your uncles thought it was time to get a web site, but not necessarily the whole catalog, but you...”
“Okay, okay!” Then changing his direction slightly, Rex asked, “Do you guys know who Jerry Rand is?”
Mary nodded, while Doug said quietly, “Yeah, I know who he is.”
“Okay. Well, he’s the guy who prints n’ publishes our catalog, that’s who he is. Well, I don’t like him!
Good! This is better than I thought! “Why, doesn’t he do a good job?” said Doug aloud.
“I guess so,” slurped Rex, sucking at the swizzle stick in his now empty glass. “Anyway, he’s real tight with my uncles. But he treats me like shit—like I’m good for nothing or something!”
“No!” exclaimed Doug in fake sympathy.
“Can you believe it? And I’m the goddamned Vice President of Marketing, for Christ’s sake!”
“And here you are makin’ the company bigger every year!”
“Yer goddamned tootin’!—Thanks, Marco.—And you know how much that Jerry Rand charges us for that catalog?”
“No, Rex. How much does he charge?” asked Doug, truly interested.
“Well, I don’t really know, to be honest. They never really told me. But you can believe that it’s millions and millions! Up to now, my uncles have dealt with him on that. But I always have to sign off on it. As a matter of fact I got an agreement form (without the money amount) sittin’ on my desk right now. But if I put our stuff online I wouldn’t need to do that, would I?”
Doug took a few beats, then said, “Rex, I’m not sure that they’d shitcan the whole catalog—at least right away. But we could set up this thing so that people could actually buy your products online. After a couple of years and they started to save millions in production and distribution of the catalog, and all the time and paperwork that goes into the ordering and sales process as it now stands, who knows?”
Rex stared at Doug blankly. “Could you run that by me again,” he slurred.
Doug kicked himself mentally. This guy can’t understand...”The thing is, Rex,” said Doug, out loud, “by going with us on this, V. V. Fowler will save untold millions over the next few years, which all goes right to the bottom line!”
Rex belched loudly as he seemed to grasp this epiphany. “That’s what I was sayin’. And my uncles’ll realize just what a great businessman I am. And that scumbag Jerry Rand—they won’t need him anymore! Marco!” he yelled, holding up an empty glass.
As he signaled to the waiter, Doug nodded very subtly to Mary. Now!
Immediately Mary pulled a contract out of her purse, set it in front of Rex, as Doug pushed a Mont Blanc pen in his right hand. “Just sign right here, honey,” purred Mary sweetly.
“Huh?” mumbled Rex. Then he looked at Mary and obediently signed the document. “Here you are, sweetie.”
“Thanks, Rex,” said Doug, as Mary handed him a copy. “Now just a couple of small things. You guys have already registered the web address www.vvfowler.com. I need to have that URL pointed to one of our servers right away. Who do I talk to in the company to get that done?”
“Wha’?” said Rex, clueless as to what Doug was talking about.
Doug proceeded to explain web addresses and DNS in the very simplest terms until Rex gave him a contact in the IT department. He also gave Doug the name of the person who kept the directory of production people at all of Fowler’s customers.
Within minutes of getting the drunken VP’s signature on a multi-million-dollar order, Doug and Mary announced that they had other business to attend to and had to leave. Assuring Rex that Mary would definitely be taken care of for the sale, Doug paid the check and he and his pretty hench-lady walked quickly out to the restaurant parking lot, both squinting from the bright, outdoor sunlight.
After Mary had driven away and before he even got into his car, Doug called Dimitri Sokolove on his mobile. “Okay this is what we’ve been waiting for and what I hired you for!” Then he gave the programmer the contact information of the key Fowler personnel with the command to “get something up as soon as possible.”