Monday, February 11, 2008

Decisions


"You want to run that by me again, Spud?" Ryan asked, certain he had heard wrong.

"I'm selling Collins Ambulance, Ryan," Ty repeated, dead serious. "I want out, and I'd like you to buy it."

"Jesus Ty, your parents spent fifteen years building that company!"

"And it killed them both." The pain in Ty Collin's voice was palpable. "I'm not going to let that happen to me. I'm getting out."

"That's grief and anger talking," Ryan advised gently. "Don't make decisions based on how you feel right now. Give it some time."

"Time?" Ty Collins exploded bitterly. "Time? That fucking place took up my entire childhood, Ryan! I've given it sixteen fucking years of my time." He rose from his chair and began to pace back and forth angrily, the veins bulging in his neck, his voice rising with his anger.

"Time," he spat contemptuously. "You know how many vacations my parents took since Collins Ambulance opened? Four. That's four measly weekends in sixteen years, and that's not counting the years they worked for MetroCare before that!"

Ty gripped the deck rail and stared out over the dark water, knuckles white, the muscles in his shoulders bunched as if he were contemplating ripping the entire deck rail loose from its mounts. He went on, his voice harsh and strained as he whispered, "Every damned one of those vacations Dad had his cell phone glued to ear. I've spent my entire life competing with Collins Ambulance for my parents' time, Ryan. I'll be damned if I do that to my wife and kids. I won't do it."

Shocked, Ryan could only sit and watch his tirade. He knew better than to say anything. Ever since he was a child, Ty Collins had possessed a volcanic temper. When he erupted, it was best just to stay out of his way until he was calm and placid once again.

Once, when he was eight, he had erupted in a spasm of fury against his older brother. Trent, six years older and fifty pounds heavier, had been tormenting the kid much of the afternoon. When Ty had finally swallowed enough, it took Ryan and another EMT to pull him off of his older brother. Of course, they let him get plenty of licks in before stopping the fight. Trent Collins had been begging for an ass-whipping for years.

Ryan watched him stare out over the water, stony-faced, for several long moments. Even in the dim pool of light cast by the dock lights, he could see the tears fill his eyes and march slowly down through the stubble on Ty's cheeks. The sobs began with his throat working spasmodically, trying manfully to hold them back, until his grief overcame his will, and he leaned there on the rail, shoulders shaking with great, racking sobs.

Ryan let him cry. After three minutes that seemed much longer, he quietly got up, went back inside and fetched two more beers. He closed the refrigerator door, turned, and thinking better of it, smiled ruefully to himself, re-opened the refrigerator and put his own beer back.

You don't need another one, Hawkeye. As a matter of fact, it's probably a good idea to not buy any more when these are gone.

When he walked back out to the deck, Ty Collins was sitting in his chair, elbows on his knees and head clasped in his hands. His sobs had waned to an occasional shuddering gasp. Ryan walked over and stood in front of his chair. After a moment, Ty opened his eyes and stared at the boots planted in front of him, and followed them up to Ryan's face. Wordlessly, Ryan handed him the bottle and sat down across from him.

Gratefully, Ty drained half the Heineken in one long pull. Ryan let him catch his breath and drag his shirtsleeve across his eyes before speaking. "You know what was the best piece of wisdom Dave Collins ever taught me?" he asked quietly.

Ty Collins shook his head, no.

"I had been working there about six months. Still hadn't gotten my first paycheck. None of us had. I used to drive that ratty-assed old Volvo, you remember?"

Ty smiled, nodded.

"Well, the finance company was on my case because I was three payments behind, and they were making noises about repossessing it. So, I went to your Dad and asked for some of the back pay I was owed, just enough to catch up on my payments. We still hadn't straightened out our Medicare billing, and all of us were wondering where the next box of IV fluids was coming from."

"We're still doing that, fifteen years later," Ty chuckled ruefully.

"Let me finish," Ryan chided. "None of us, not any of the six original crews, got paid for the entire first year. Royce and I lived at the Mason Ferry station, because we couldn't afford to pay our rent. You were too young to remember all that, but I mean it when I say we had no money. The cash flow problems you have now don't even compare, okay? So I go to your Dad, and he cuts me a check, and I wondered out loud how he was ever going to make that place work. And he told me, 'Patients, partners, and profits, Ryan, in that order. If we all take care of our patients and each other, the profits will take care of themselves.' The next day, when I called your house to thank him, the phone had been disconnected. The money he had set aside to pay the bill, he gave to me instead."

Ty shook his head in wonder. "Patients, partners and then profits," he snorted derisively. "Not exactly the roadmap for business success."

"You're not listening, Ty. When he said that, it wasn't just words. He believed it. The proof of that was that recording from the phone company. And because he believed it, we all did. And we made it work. That whole company is testament to the idea that you can put patient care over profits, and still succeed. That's why you shouldn't sell it. It'd be like spitting on your Dad's grave. He'd want someone to continue it."

"That's why I want you to buy it," Ty countered, seeing his opening. "You believe in it as much as he did."

Jesus Christ, are we back to that again? How am I going to tell him no?

"What about you, Spud?" Ryan argued. "I hear the rumors. Dave almost put you into bankruptcy with that move into Allemands Parish. You cleaned up that mess, and got them back into the black. It's obvious you can run it yourself."

"We're out of debt," Ty acknowledged, "but we're not profitable. We could be, I think. But that's not the point, Ryan. I want out. I'm tired of stamping out brushfires, trying to keep the place afloat. I'm twenty-six years old, and all I've ever known is EMS. My first car was a retired sprint truck, remember that?"

That beat up old Suburban. Yes, I remember. Hell, you learned to drive on breaks during all those EVOC classes I taught. A fifteen-year old kid, and you should have been out playing grab-ass with your friends. Instead, you got drafted as free labor to set up traffic cones on an old airport runway. One of a million shit details you caught because you were the bosses' kid.

"I'm not sure if I've ever had my heart in it," Ty went on. "Looking back, all I've ever done in EMS was because it was what my Dad expected. It wasn't what I wanted."

And I'm just the opposite. It's all I ever wanted, and just the opposite of what my Dad expected.

"What about Trent?" Ryan hedged. "How's he feel about all this?"

"Trent came to the same conclusion ten years ago," Ty snorted. "When he joined the army, part of the reason was to put Collins Ambulance as far behind him as possible. He'll take half of the money, and be grateful, whatever the amount."

"What about MetroCare?" Ryan asked. "Or Statfleet? Have you approached them?"

"I came to you first. MetroCare and Statfleet won't offer much, and you know as well as I what they'll do. They'll shut down two of the trucks and try to cover the parish with just one. They may just try to push me out instead. Your boy Dickless has been snooping around for a couple of months, talking to Police Jurors, nursing home administrators, that sort of thing. He wants to make a move."

Heh. Even the other companies call him Dickless.

"That's easy to counter," Ryan mused. "Folks in Audubon Parish have long memories. They know what it was like when MetroCare had the contract. All you need do is drop a few reminders in the right ears."

"No, I needn't do anything," Ty said flatly. "You weren't listening before, Ryan. By this time next month, someone else will own Collins Ambulance. After that, I could give a rat's ass what happens. If you care what happens to it, make me a reasonable offer and it's yours. Otherwise, MetroCare or Statfleet can do with it what they will."

"I'll need to think about it," Ryan temporized. "I'm a medic, Ty, not a businessman."

"Neither was Dad, and you made it pretty damned clear that you thought you could run things better than he did."

"Yeah, and he fired me for it."

"And regretted it. That was six years ago, Ryan. How long do you plan to be bitter about it?"

The rebuke cut Ryan to the bone. "How soon do you need a decision?" he sighed.

"By Friday, before the funeral. I've got a prospectus in my briefcase; bank statements, payroll, accounts payable and receivable, physical plant, fleet records, the whole nine yards. The Army is flying Trent back from Qatar, and he'll be here Friday morning. We can all sign the papers then, if you're willing."

"That's three days. You're not giving me much time."

"Mom and Dad started the place over the span of a weekend. They quit MetroCare on a Friday, and were up and running on Monday, with less than ten thousand dollars in the bank. You have millions."

"That was fifteen years ago, Spud. EMS has changed a lot since then."

"So I've noticed, but Dad didn't. So do what he couldn't; adapt."

He's got an answer for every argument I'm going to make.

Ryan sighed. "Where is this prospectus of yours again?"

"In my briefcase, just inside your door," Ty belched, pointing with his bottle.

Ryan stepped inside, opened the briefcase, and pulled out a half-inch thick sheaf of papers bound in a cheap vinyl report cover. He flicked on the deck lights, settled back into his chair, and thumbed through the pages.

"Take your time reading," Ty Collins suggested. "While you're doing that, I believe I'm going to have another one of those awful bitter beers in your fridge."

"Help yourself," Ryan said absently. As he read, Ty Collins pulled his chair to the deck rail, propped his feet on it, and with the help of Ryan's remaining Heinekens, set about getting very, very drunk.


**********


They're in bad shape, Ryan mused two hours later. They're running an average of fifteen calls a day. That's five calls per truck. That ought to pay the bills, and then some. So why are they barely breaking even? They've got an IRS lien against them for $150k, and less than ten grand in their primary business account. If they miss just one week's worth of Medicare payments, they won't even make payroll.

They've got eight ambulances in their fleet, plus four sprint vehicles and four wheelchair vans. So why do they have so many rigs if they only run three 24 hour ambulances?

Exhausted, Ryan closed the folder and rubbed his eyes. He stared balefully at Ty Collins, passed out in a deck chair with his feet on the rail, chin on his chest and snoring loudly.

No outstanding debt to speak of, just like Spud said. But why so many trucks for such a small operation? Hell, the newest of them ought to be at least eight years old…wait, that's it. They have all those vehicles because it takes that many to field just three trucks. Half of them are probably in the shop at any one time.

Ryan's eyes narrowed, and he sat up. He reopened the folder and thumbed through the pages until he found the one he was looking for. After reading the numbers, he slammed the folder shut and pitched it across the deck in disgust. Ty Collins started at the noise, opened his eyes blearily and looked around, then smacked his lips and passed out again.

Jesus Christ on a pogo stick, Dave! Ryan fumed. How the hell did you ever let yourself get raped so bad, by so many people? Fifteen years in business, and you're still one hiccup away from bankruptcy. For what you pay one mechanic in a year's time, you could hire another crew, and pay the notes on a couple of new trucks! So why didn't you?

Answer: because you have no credit. That's why you're not in debt. All your accounts are paid up because no one will extend you credit, and without it you just keep hemorrhaging cash. Spud's right. He got your bills paid up, but it's just one damned brushfire after another. So you pay this unscrupulous grease monkey to keep those rolling wrecks on the road, and still one of them got you and Barbara killed. If MetroCare moved in right now and siphoned off only ten percent of your run volume, you'd fold in six months. If the IRS had decided to freeze just one month's worth of Medicare checks, you'd have folded right then.

Ryan leaned forward and cradled his head in his hands and stared blearily at his shoes. Shit, shit shitshitshit…I can do Roger Dickles' job with both eyes closed and one hand tied behind my back, and do it twice as well, but I'm not sure I can do this. Dickless has a Fortune 500 company behind him, and the corporate office with their army of accountants and lawyers to handle all the niggling details. Billing, contracts, insurance, taxes…I'd have to do all that myself, on top of all the clinical stuff.

One thing's for sure, he yawned sleepily. I need fresher eyes than mine to look this over. I'm beat.

Ryan got up, padded across the deck, and shook Ty Collins from his stupor. Against his protests, he drunk-walked Ty inside the cabin, installed him on the couch, and covered him with a blanket. Then he walked back outside, picked the prospectus up from the deck and walked back to his bedroom. He collapsed backwards onto the bed and slept dreamlessly until the sun woke him the next morning.


**********


Ty was still asleep on the couch, mouth open and leaking a sizeable puddle of drool on the cushions when Ryan stepped out of the shower feeling, if not great, at least reasonably human. Chuckling at Ty, he padded quietly around the galley and did his best to avoid disturbing him. Ty stirred briefly at the smell of coffee, rolling over onto his back and yawning, and Ryan thought for a moment that he might wake up and join him for breakfast. That notion was dispelled five minutes later by the sound of snoring from the living room.

Ryan ate a quick breakfast of toaster pastries and coffee, got dressed and headed outside. He disposed of the empty beer bottles scattered on the deck, and took out the trash to the marina dumpster. He fetched the prospectus from his bedroom, refilled his coffee cup, and settled into a deck chair outside to finish reading.

The numbers looked no better by the light of day, but as he read, he began to get a better sense of Collins Ambulance's financial picture.

Okay, they own their office and three stations outright. Those are hard assets, and that office building is prime real estate. Half of it isn't even in use. Unless Dave has had a complete personality transplant in the last six years, one of those buildings is bound to be filled with junk he can't sell and won't throw away.

The office is worth something. It was a strip mall when we bought it, and Fort Sperry has grown considerably since then. The stations are the same ones they had when I was there. Dumps, all of them.

They have twenty seven full-time employees, running three trucks 24/7. That means there are…damn, he's got more people in the office than he does on the street! Supervisors out the wazoo, and all this for a company that does less than six thousand transports a year.

Shaking his head in consternation, Ryan walked back inside, found Ty Collins still passed out on the couch, and scribbled a quick note:


Spud, I had to run some errands. Stay as long as you want. There's breakfast stuff in the fridge, and fresh coffee. I'll be in touch.

- Ryan


His first errand of the day was to the cellular phone store. Ryan had long insisted on using his personal cell phone rather than the one MetroCare issued to supervisors, because he knew that a work cellular would leave him at the beckon call of the company. At least with his personal cellular, he could turn it off or ignore it on his days off. Not like it mattered much. They still called him anyway.

The salesperson, a stylishly dressed woman in her late twenties whose engraved nametag read "Amanda," smiled and beckoned him to her desk.

"Welcome to ExCell," she purred, offering him a soft, well-manicured hand. "What can I do for you this morning?"

You can start by telling me how anyone can concentrate around here with that perfume you're wearing, Amanda.

"Well, I need a new phone. I lost my old one," Ryan explained sheepishly.

Amanda clucked sympathetically and tapped Ryan's cellular number into her computer system. "Well, your phones are insured against loss or damage," she smiled brightly, "and you also qualify for a free upgrade. Would you like to choose from our selection of smart phones?"

"Not unless it's waterproof and floats, and encased in an indestructible titanium alloy," Ryan chuckled. "Actually, Amanda, the same one that I had is just fine."

Amanda adopted a little pout, looked at her computer monitor and asked hopefully, "And how about Mrs. Pierce? Perhaps she'd be interested in one of our – "

"Mrs. Pierce and I are separated," Ryan interrupted, "and while I'm here, I think it might be a good idea to cancel her phone. She never uses it anyway."

"Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that!" cooed Amanda in a tone that said quite clearly that she wasn't sorry at all. She tapped more commands on her keyboard, clicked her mouse a few times, chewed adorably on her bottom lip, and flashed Ryan a megawatt smile. "Okay, done," she purred. "Is there…anything…else I can do for you?"

That sounded like an offer.

"Try as I might to think of something," Ryan winked, "That oughta do it. For now."

"Wait right here, and I'll go get your phone," Amanda assured him. As she rose from her chair, she leaned far more forward than was necessary, giving Ryan a view of her cleavage.

Nice tits, Ryan chuckled to himself. I wonder how many men she's shown them to this week?

In moments, Amanda was back with a new phone. While she programmed it and activated it, she asked Ryan conversationally, "So how did you lose your old phone?"

Tossed it into the river in a drunken fit. Isn't that how most people lose their phones?

"Lost it on a wreck scene," he lied. "At least that's my best guess. There was a shooting and a cardiac arrest that day, too. God only knows where it fell off my belt."

"Ooh, you're a paramedic," she gushed. "I just love you guys. What you do, it's just…heroic." She leaned forward and put her elbows on the desk, giving Ryan another view of her cleavage. When his eyes dropped, she smiled knowingly. "So tell me," she whispered, "What's the worst thing you've seen as a paramedic?"

"Well, that's a tough question," Ryan said quietly. "I guess it was…this is hard to talk about…there was a little girl who had fallen into the pool…who knows how long she was down before the babysitter found her…pretty little girl with blue eyes and blonde hair. We worked her for over an hour. To this day, I can still see those blue eyes and the barrettes in her hair…" Ryan's voice trailed off, and his eyes moistened. He swallowed hard and turned away.

"Oh, that's so sad!" Amanda cried, anguished. Her eyes too were moist. "Did she live?"

"Damned if I know," he grinned wickedly. "That's just a story I tell to pretty women to make them think I'm sensitive."

"Oh, you're baaaad," Amanda chuckled throatily.

"I have my moments," Ryan allowed. "So, are we all done?"

"Yep, you're ready to go. Be sure to charge the battery fully before you use it."

"Thanks for your help, Amanda. I appreciate it." Ryan stood up and offered his hand. When she shook it, she held the contact far longer than was necessary.

"My pleasure," she smiled winningly. "I put my card in the bag, with both my work and cellular numbers. If ever you should need anything…"

"I'll be sure to give you a call," Ryan winked. He turned to leave, then, thinking better of it, turned back. Amanda looked up at him invitingly. "Now that you mention it, there is something else you could do for me. Do you have any brochures for your business plans?"


**********


Ryan's next stop was Citizen's Bank and Trust. Citizen's occupied the bottom floor of the Oneida Tower, a large downtown office building. With branches only in Oneida, Audubon and Allemands parishes, it was not the largest bank in the area, but Ryan had been doing business with them since he had opened his first checking account. He rarely went there, preferring to do all of his banking and bill paying electronically, but the staff there were not likely to forget the face of one of the bank's biggest depositors. Being the best friend of the vice-president didn't hurt, either.

"Well good morning, Ryan!" one of the tellers greeted him. "What brings you in today?"

"Morning, Cathy," Ryan smiled. "Is the boss in?"

"Sure is," she confirmed. "Is he expecting you?"

"Nope, but I need a few minutes of his time, if he's available."

"It shouldn't be a problem, Ryan," Cathy assured him warmly. "Let me check." Cathy walked from behind the counter to an office door, knocked on it and poked her head in. A few seconds later, she opened the door wide and beckoned him over.

"Thanks, Cathy," Ryan grinned. "Remind me to tell Scrooge to give you a raise."

"Make it a big one," she laughed as she walked back to her position behind the counter. "I deserve it."

"She already makes too much!" Jeff Layton's voice boomed from the office. Ryan winked at Cathy and stepped inside, closing the door behind him.

"Long time no see, brother," Ryan greeted him cheerfully. "How's your wife and my kids?" That was normally Jeff's line, but Ryan said it first, to head off any questions about Dawn. Jeff ignored the hint.

"Damn boy, but you're a sight for sore eyes!" he blurted emotionally, coming from around his desk and enveloping Ryan in a bear hug.

Time had made Jeff Layton older and heavier, and his hairline was in full retreat, but his personality had not dimmed in the slightest. Jeff had worked at Citizen's Bank and Trust since his college graduation, and it was expected that he would take over the reins when his father retired. That day was not too far off. The senior Layton had suffered two heart attacks in the past six years.

"It's good to see you too," Ryan agreed, returning the hug. Jeff Layton pounded him on the back heartily and then waved him to a chair.

"You look like shit, Ryan," he observed. "Ain't you sleeping at all?"

"Some," Ryan lied. "It's an adjustment."

"Bullshit," Jeff snorted. "You're a wreck. You need to swallow your pride and work things out with her."

What pride do I have left, Jeff? Should I beg? I've already done that.

"She ain't coming back, Jeff," Ryan said flatly. "She's got a new boyfriend and everything. I suggested counseling and she won't even do that."

"She served you with papers yet?"

"Nope."

"Well then, that's something," Jeff pointed out hopefully.

"So, how are Danielle and the kids?" Ryan asked, changing the subject. Danielle Layton, nee Hoskins, had married Jeff in their sophomore year of college. Ryan had dated her first in high school, and had often teased Jeff that he had ruined her for other men.

Theirs was the fairy tale romance, where homecoming queen marries the big man on campus. The problem was, Jeff had a hard time remembering he wasn't still in high school, the stud quarterback of the football team. Their first child had arrived barely seven months after the wedding. Jeff and Danielle pretended that he was he was premature, and their parents bounced their healthy, seven-pound grandson on their laps and pretended they didn't know how to count. Everyone stayed happy.

Three more children arrived in quick succession, as Danielle hoped in vain that the next child would be the one to convince Jeff to stop drinking and womanizing. When she tired of that, she had kicked Jeff out of the house and threatened divorce. Surprisingly, Jeff's parents had backed her up on that.

Jeff Layton had taken a personal inventory, and found himself wanting in too many areas. So, he checked himself into rehab and devoted himself to winning his wife back. After a long while, he had succeeded. When Jeff Layton had told his friend he looked like shit, he was looking at him through the knowing eyes of a recovering alcoholic.

"They're fine," Jeff smiled. "Jeff Junior made varsity. He'll be starting quarterback by his sophomore year," he boasted.

"Just like his old man," Ryan marveled. "Damn Jeff, we're old enough to have kids playing high school football. Can you believe it?"

"He'll be better than I was. He's got a good tailback, and two Division I prospects at receiver. Our only other offensive weapon was…you."

"I would have been a Division I prospect too, if my quarterback hadn't thrown like a girl," Ryan countered with a dig of his own.

"So, what brings you up here today?" Jeff asked, cutting short the pleasantries. "Shouldn't you be out saving lives and stamping out disease?"

"How much am I worth these days?" Ryan asked, dodging the question. "Have you embezzled me into the poorhouse, or what?"

Jeff answered with an extended middle finger. "You're rich," he said simply. "You get richer every day, mainly because you insist on pretending you're not rich."

Ryan replied with a raised eyebrow and an extended middle finger of his own. "How rich, Jeff?"

"Roughly 4.2 million in liquid assets," Jeff said levelly. "With real estate and investments, a good bit more."

"How much more?"

Jeff sighed and placed his elbows on his desk blotter and steepled his fingers. "Okay, your mom had all the big money. When she died, your dad got half her estate, and you and Renee split the rest. That was roughly 1.2 mil in liquid assets, and another eleven mil in real estate. Your dad set up a trust for each of you with the cash, and you haven't touched any of that money. Renee was going through hers pretty quick, had blown about half of it before your dad had her declared incompetent. He was named conservator of her estate, and doled out the rest on rehab and psychiatric care. There was still about forty grand left when she died."

"He should have used his own fucking money to take care of her. He was the one responsible."

"Do you want to hear this, or don't you?" Jeff asked pointedly. Ryan waved for him to go on. "Okay," Jeff continued, "so you had close to three hundred grand in the bank, plus quarter ownership of your mother's real estate holdings. When your dad died, he left you everything; the house, his assets –which come to almost two million – your mother's real estate, part ownership in the Chest Pain Center, a couple of –"

"Wait a minute," Ryan interrupted. "He owned part of the Chest Pain Center? How?"

"No, you own part of the Chest Pain Center," Jeff corrected. "plus a small life-insurance policy where you were named the beneficiary. You missed out on the big one. His main policy would have paid two million, but your Dad insisted on flying that light plane to every little pissant airfield in the South. When you bungee jump, fly light aircraft, skydive or run with the bulls in Pamplona, big insurers get kind of pissy about paying out if you get killed doing it."

"Let's go back to the Chest Pain Center," Ryan ordered, "because I'm having a hard time getting my head around that."

"Your dad didn't simply retire," Jeff explained. "What he did was sell his practice to St. Matthew's. He sold the office and the land it was on, and Pierce Cardiology Associates became the St. Matthew's R.H. Pierce Chest Pain Center. He was named Director Emeritus, and gets fifteen percent of the profits. And it's very profitable, Ryan."

"Okay, so how much, total?"

"Like I said, roughly 4.2 million in cash, scattered among various trusts and CDs. Most of the CDs have rolled over at least once. Your dad's tech stocks have taken a major hit, but that's just a small fraction of what he had invested. The real estate is the real value."

"How much real estate?"

"One hundred acres in the West Oneida Economic Development District, abutting the industrial park. The city is drooling over that. Another four hundred acres on the east bank of the Oneida River, about ten miles north of town. All that's undeveloped. There was a push to build a barge terminal and rail spur there in the early nineties, which is why your mother bought it. The city eventually built the terminal south of Oneida, so the bank has been leasing that land to an outfit that calls themselves the Ten Mile Creek Hunting Club. There's an apartment complex in Fort Sperry with forty units, and a strip mall adjoining Allemands Centre that's at eighty percent occupancy. Altogether, the real estate is worth upwards of thirty million. That's not counting what the timber is worth."

"Thirty-four million," Ryan breathed. "Hard to believe."

"That's a conservative estimate," Jeff grunted. "The housing boom is over, but the majority of your holdings are industrial property, which is almost certain to appreciate dramatically in the next ten years. Interest, stock dividends…the annual income from the Chest Pain Center is close to a hundred-fifty grand a year. My old man figures by the time you're fifty, you'll have a million to show for each year of your life."

"Holy Christ."

"No, you can just call me Jeff," his friend intoned solemnly. "Although, for managing all your assets so expertly, it wouldn't be out of line to get down on your knees and worship me now and then." Ryan chuckled, and Jeff's expression rapidly changed to a curious grin. "Why all the sudden interest in your finances, Ryan? For eighteen years, you've stayed as far away from this stuff as you can. I'll bet you haven't even opened The Letter."

"Opened it," Ryan grunted. "Haven't read it."

"Technically, you haven't met the terms of your dad's will until you've read that letter."

"So forget you heard that. As far as you know, The Letter has been read. The seal has been broken on the envelope and everything."

"You've ignored The Letter, and ignored the money," Jeff repeated. "Do you even read the bank statements we send?"

"I bought the boat with some of it," Ryan pointed out, "and I read the statements for my personal account. Right now it has twelve hundred bucks in it. I'm in high cotton."

"Don't even mention that boat around here," Jeff warned, half-seriously. "My old man almost had you committed for dumping that house. When he found out about the boat, he damned near had another heart attack. So, once again, why the sudden interest?"

"This," Ryan answered, retrieving the prospectus from his briefcase and tossing it onto Jeff's desk.

Curious, his friend picked up the binder and opened it to the first page. His eyes widened, and his eyebrows marched up his forehead. "You have got to be fucking kidding me," he said incredulously.

"Nope," Ryan answered. "So try to talk me out of it."

"That's easy. You'd be a fool to invest money in this. It's a great, big steaming turd, and all you're going to accomplish by trying to polish it is smearing shit all over yourself."

"What do you know about them?"

"Probably more than you do," Jeff answered. "They came to me six months ago, begging for a loan. If I'm not mistaken, this is the same prospectus they gave me then."

"So I take it you turned them down?"

"Cold," Jeff sneered. "They had some payroll snafu after they first started, and the IRS socked 'em with a big lien for unpaid payroll taxes. They don't pay their bills on time. Everything they have is second hand and falling apart. No one will extend them credit. No collateral to speak of. And, if I may say so, a pretty unsavory reputation."

"How so?"

"I hear things, and they do their banking here. They've had payroll checks bounce twice in the last quarter. Their best medic, they fired six years ago. Now, they're the place to go when you've been fired by everyone else."

"New employees are easy to find. You just have to pay them what they're worth."

"Yeah, and they just lost two employees a couple of days ago. Is that why they're getting out?"

"The people they lost were the company owners. Their kids want to sell it, and cheap."

"Not cheap enough, unless they're giving it away," Jeff argued. "Besides, the estate hasn't even been probated!"

"So we loan them enough money to keep it running until the estate has been probated, and deduct that from the purchase price."

"And already you're talking about an unsecured loan, with absolutely no guarantee you'll ever get it back!" Jeff flared.

"They have decent cash flow," Ryan pointed out. "They're just bloated. They run enough calls to support four or five trucks, if someone came in and trimmed the fat."

"And you think you're the one to do that?"

"Maybe."

"Ryan, I'm begging you. The place is a money pit. Even if you could turn a profit, you'd never recover your initial investment. It'd almost be cheaper to start another company from the ground up, and bid for the ambulance contract in Audubon Parish when it comes up in six months."

"But that wouldn't preserve the current company."

"So? What's that to you?"

"Personal reasons."

"Personal reasons?" Jeff parroted incredulously. He leaned back in his chair and covered his face with his hands. "Jesus, please don't let my best friend throw good money away on some misguided attempt to rekindle the happy memories of his youth," he crowed in a credible imitation of a television evangelist. "Let him come to his senses, Dear Lord, and abandon this foolish and wasteful enterprise. Let him reconcile with his beautiful wife, and somehow regain his sanity. Let him take his friend to lunch, where I will do my best to do Your work and lead him back onto the path of financial righteousness. In Your name we pray, amen."

"I'll buy you lunch," Ryan grinned, "but you had best pray to someone you know. As I recall, Jesus chased your kind out of the temple."


**********


They had eaten at Canard's, an upscale restaurant on the top floor of the Oneida Tower. The restaurant logo was a stylized outline of a duck's head, indicating the French meaning of the word, but Ryan had teased Jeff that it was only fitting to take a banker to a restaurant whose name meant Lies. His friend had not been amused.

They argued for the better part of an hour, and finally ended at what Jeff thought was a stalemate. He had extracted from Ryan the promise that he would allow the bank to audit the Collins Ambulance books prior to the sale, and that he would sign no contract without first allowing the bank's lawyers to scrutinize it. In return, Ryan had pressured him into retaining a tax lawyer who could begin work immediately on negotiating a settlement of Collins' tax lien.

That went well, Ryan mused as he drove to the physical therapy center to pick up Caitlin. This might be doable after all. At least I won't break the bank doing it. All I'm out right now is the money for a legal retainer.

When he pulled into the parking lot, he saw Dawn's car there.

What the hell? She knows I'm supposed to pick Caitlin up today.

Inside, the receptionist pointed him to a room. He found Caitlin's therapists, Miranda and Kristin, putting her through her exercises as Dawn watched. While Kristin worked on her stride and her balance, Miranda focused her attention on Caitlin's left arm and hand. "I'm wearing my Delly Suit, Daddy!" his daughter greeted him cheerfully.

The Adeli Suit, originally designed to keep Russian cosmonauts from losing muscle mass in a prolonged stay at zero gravity, had found a new use in cutting-edge physical therapy. Its system of harnesses and rubber bands did an excellent job of mimicking the action of opposing muscle groups.

"I see that, Stinkerbell!" Ryan grinned, stooping to give his daughter a kiss.

"I've been calling you for two days," Dawn said shortly.

"I lost my cell phone," Ryan said evenly. "Is there a problem?"

"I left several messages, but you never called me back," she accused. "I wasn't even sure you were going to pick up Caitlin, so I took off work to come get her."

"Since when have I ever forgotten to pick up my daughter?" Ryan asked with an edge to his voice.

"Children, children," Kristin chided mildly without even taking her eyes off of her task, "are you going to behave, or am I going to have to put you both in Time Out? That's what we do here when children refuse to play nice together, isn't it, Ladybug?"

Caitlin nodded solemnly.

Shamed, both Ryan and Dawn blushed. Miranda broke the tension with good news. "Okay folks, here's something new," she bragged as she peeled Caitlin out of the Adeli suit. Holding out a Froot Loop in her palm, she offered it to Caitlin, who reached out and slowly, painstakingly, reached out and picked it up between the thumb and forefinger…of her left hand. Grinning triumphantly, she immediately popped the Froot Loop into her mouth.

"Way to go, Caitlin!" cheered Ryan and Dawn in unison.

"That's not all," Kristin pronounced. She pointed Caitlin to a set of wooden stairs leading up to a small plastic slide. "Go do it, Ladybug," she ordered, "no hands this time." Obediently, Caitlin lifted her left foot and planted it on the first step. Tottering unsteadily, with her arms splayed for balance, she shifted her weight over her pelvis, leaned forward…and lifted her right foot onto the step. Speechlessly, her parents watched as she repeated the process until she was at the top of the steps. Both of them had tears in their eyes when Caitlin turned around.

"Way to go, Stinkerbell!" Ryan roared as he picked his daughter up and swung her around by her arms. Caitlin giggled and begged to be thrown into the foam pit, a request Ryan reluctantly refused after seeing the looks of disapproval on the faces of Dawn and both therapists.

Foiled again by the Safety Nannies.

Outside, Ryan carried Caitlin on his shoulders while Dawn lugged her purse and Caitlin's overnight bag. "She's doing so well," Ryan gushed. "You know, we made a pretty special kid."

"Yes, she is," Dawn agreed absently. "Are you going to the funeral on Friday?"

"Yes."

"Aren't you working?"

"MetroCare is sending me," he lied. He lowered Caitlin to the ground and tried to take the overnight bag from Dawn. She didn't let go of the bag.

"I have a favor to ask," she began hesitantly. "I know you have Caitlin for the next two days, but Billy got tickets to Dora the Explorer Live. It's tonight at seven. I can bring her to you tomorrow morning, if that's-"

"These are my days with her," Ryan said flatly, cutting her off. "I don't get to see her enough as it is."

"You get her exactly half the time, Ryan," Dawn sighed. "What more do you want?"

"I want all the time. I want my family back together. I'm not willing to settle for being present for only fifty percent of my daughter's life, and I damned sure ain't sharing those moments with your boyfriend. It's not his right, Dawn. I'll take her to see Dora."

"You can't. It's been sold out for a week. Billy got the tickets because his brother's kids have the flu."

"Daddy Billy's taking me to see Dora!" Caitlin chirped happily. Mortified, Dawn shushed and corrected her, but she could not miss the stricken look on Ryan's face.

"She's just aping his kids," Dawn explained, ashamed. "They've been visiting for a couple of days, and they call him Daddy. She doesn't know any better."

"Of course she doesn't," Ryan said tightly. "I suppose I should be thankful that it was just 'Daddy Billy' and not plain old Daddy."

"Don't be like that, Ryan," Dawn pleaded. "Nobody meant to hurt your feelings."

"Oh, I'm fine," Ryan answered, his face a mask of stone. "Can't let her miss something like that. It's Dora, after all."

Yeah, and don't forget Daddy Billy, sneered the voice inside his head.

Ryan forced a smile, bent down to hug Caitlin and whispered, "Have fun, Stinkerbell. Bring me a picture of you and Dora, okay?" Caitlin nodded happily, and Dawn opened the back door of her car and strapped Caitlin in the car seat.

"Sure you're okay with this?" Dawn asked, searching his eyes.

With your boyfriend replacing me in my daughter's heart? No, I'm not okay with that.

"Sure, why wouldn't I be? Caitlin loves Dora."

"There's something else I've wanted to ask," she ventured, "but there hasn't been a good time. I don't suppose there ever is a good time for this." She sighed explosively, ran her fingers through her hair. Unconsciously fiddled with the ring finger of her left hand as she always did. "I want a divorce, Ryan. There's a new thing; they call it collaborative divorce. We both use the same lawyer, we work out the agreements between ourselves, and the lawyer mediates and files the paperwork. It seems like the easiest way, for us and for Caitlin."

"You're quitting," Ryan acknowledged, his voice toneless, drained of emotion. He kept his eyes focused six inches above her head, and his face was outwardly calm. Only his hands shook, and Ryan silently cursed them for betraying his emotions. "You're giving up on me, and our marriage. Fine, quit. Make an appointment with the lawyer."

"Next week?"

"Sooner the better," Ryan agreed. "No sense waiting, right? The quicker we get it done, the quicker you'll be rid of me."

"You're not the man I married, Ryan," she said softly, her eyes wet with tears, "and you're never going to be that man again. I still love that man, but I can't live with the one you are right now."

"Hey, it was a good run while it lasted, right?" Ryan smiled. "People fall out of love all the time."

Dawn was silent, eyes searching his own as Ryan gently reached out and wiped a tear from her cheek. He smiled reassuringly, but the smile ended at his eyes. "Now there's the Hawkeye Pierce everybody knows and loves," Dawn said bitterly as she turned to leave. "No emotions at all. A real fucking Ice Man."

Ryan said nothing as he watched Dawn drive away. He got in his truck, put the key in the ignition and sat there, staring at the dash with his hand poised on the switch.

Sighing bitterly, he picked up his new cellular phone and made two calls. The first was to Amanda, the salesperson at the cellular phone store, to ask her out for dinner and drinks. The conversation was brief, and a bit awkward to Ryan's thinking, but Amanda readily agreed to meet him after work for drinks. She knew a place.

The second phone call was even briefer. "Ty, it's Ryan," he said at the beep. "The answer is yes. Call me tomorrow and we'll discuss the terms."

21 comments:

anonymous said...

A minor proofreading note or two:

"...at the beckon call of the company. At least with his personal..." should read "...at the beck and call..."

The cereal product mentioned in the story is known as a Froot Loop, not a Fruit Loop.

Aside from that, quite captivating.

Evil Lunch Lady said...

Great Job again! Keep it up!

Froot Loops aside, you've made me late for work;)

The best reason so far!

Ambulance Driver said...

Thanks, Anonymous.

Actually, the difference between "beck" and "beckon" is a source of disagreement amongst etymologists.

Many hold that "beck and call" originated from mishearing "beckon call."

"Beck and call" is probably the more common usage these days. Although most etymologists agree that the word "beck" is a shortening of "beckon," it is rarely used outside of that phrase.

Fixed the Froot Loops part, though. ;)

Kaeto3 said...

Love it!

Mama Mia said...

This is a great story. It is driving me NUTS not to be able to just read it start to finish!!!

Fire Fox said...

Absolutely awesome.

angell said...

Abosolutely captivating. I can't wait for the next installment.

Ben said...

HAAAAAAA...

I love it!!!

It's tough not being able to read the next chapter right now..

next one, funerals I assume?

anonymous said...

Although this verges on beating a dead horse, the following link may be illuminating:
http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/beck-and-call.html

rookie bebe said...

WONDERFUL! I had school today and couldn't wait to get home and unwind while reading it.

PresterSean said...

Must Write Faster, must write FASTER!!!

Scott said...

Wow! There was a lot to this chapter. Why can't I ever bump into great slutty salesgirls like that?

Kate said...

Wonderful, AD.

julie said...

Wow. More, please!

Strings said...

Scott, I'm guessing it's because you're not worth $34 million...

Great work, AD. When you publish this, I want a signed copy!

Spook, RN said...

Divorce huh? :-(

willandleigh said...

Its a good thing this is NOT afull story, I really don't have the time to get locked into it right now!
Which I most definately would. Great story!
Will

Dedicated_Dad said...

Superlative, as always.

Since I can't put the shaddup on my inner grammar-nazi...

$0.02:

(1) Froot Loop -- didn't use a real cell co name, who cares about a cereal name?

(2) Beckon Call -- whether or not its obscurely, antiquely (is that a word?) correct, it seems wrong, and will to everyone who reads it. Most will assume you're wrong, even if you technically/probably/obscurely aren't. I'd change it.

Thanks again for this -- I seriously drop what I am doing to read when I find there's a new one up...

DD

Nate said...

Simply amazing AD, been reading it since I discovered you blog courtesy of Ahab.

Always a great read and draws me right in with no way to resist

Cassanndre said...

It's great!
I'm impressed that you know about the Adeli suit. Most people just say, "huh?"
Keep writing!
And-- I agree with the previous commentors- I'd buy it if you published it!

Bernice said...

Phenomenal. I haven't enjoyed reading something this much since I was a kid. Keep it coming, because I am addicted.