“It’s this god damned school that’s put me over the top. It costs me more a year to send this kid to middle school than it cost me to go the college.” Kurt Brackett said to his father over the telephone. He was seated at his desk in front of his computer in his cinderblock office at Dane Foster Engineering. Kurt was the manager of the graphic department.
“If you ask me, that school’s wasted on the boy,” Russell Brackett told his son. “It’s the girl you ought to invest in.”
Kurt stewed for a moment in uncomfortable silence. “Why don’t you like Russ, Dad?” Kurt asked his father finally.
“I do like him. He’s a good kid. He’s fun to be around. He’s got Sharon’s beauty. But he doesn’t have your imagination. He’s not going to do particularly well in a school like that. You tell the truth! Is he?”
“He’s passing all his subjects,” Kurt said defensively.
“Passing!” his father said. They both knew what that meant. “See! Gail would thrive in that sort of place.”
Kurt groaned inwardly at the mention of his daughter’s name. What his father didn’t know about his beloved granddaughter would fill an encyclopedia. “She’s very high strung,” he said at last.
“As you were,” his father remarked.
“I dread sending her to Florida with Sharon. I swear if she’s not getting laid now, she will be by the time she comes back. Then there’ll be an abortion which will be a nightmare or a baby which will be another expense.”
His father let the silence run a little long that time. “So talk to her,” he said at last.
“I may as well talk to the television,” Kurt sighed.
“You do,” said his father.
“So do you!” Kurt retaliated
They both cracked up in laughter, dispelling the tension.
“As you know, I own this place free and clear,” Russell told his son. “I can take a mortgage on it if you want, but you’ll have to pay it. My veterans’ checks just keep me going and since the accident I’m not making shit around here.”
Russell Brackett had been a prisoner of war in Viet Nam for twenty months. He’d made it home with no more than emotional scars, only to have his legs paralyzed in a tractor accident when he was 47 and Kurt was at college. Kurt’s mother, Melissa, bore the trials as long as she could. Kurt took has father into town one afternoon when he was home for a school vacation. When they got back, Melissa had packed and left. Her Christmas cards indicated she was living in New Mexico. Russell made no effort to find her. He fitted the farm out with wheelchair ramps and got a Scoot-about. His primary interest now was oriental philosophy. He’d learned Chinese and Vietnamese during the war. Kurt looked on his father’s obsession as prolonged Stockholm syndrome, but the studies seemed to keep his father more-or-less sane in an insane situation.
“Thanks for the offer,” Kurt told him. “I’ll exhaust all my other options first.”
Kurt had long since given up trying to convince his father to sell the old farm and move into housing in which he could be more easily provided. After all, Kurt had grown up on that farm and was, himself, attached to the forest and the brook and the secret haunts of his childhood.
“Russ and I will be out to see you this weekend,” Kurt promised segueing to end the call.
“Bring Gail, too,” the old man suggested.
“If I can find her,” Kurt said, joking. “She’s fifteen now, you know.”
They each laughed, said goodbye, and hung up.
Kurt, who had been facing the window during the entire conversation, now looked out it. The sky left him with the impression it might snow at any moment. Dirty piles of last week’s snow fall still clung to the edges of the parking lot in the sterile office park that housed Dane Foster Engineering in Chelmsford, Massachusetts.
There was one aspect of the problem he had not spoken to his father about. In fact, Kurt’s wife Sharon and he no longer spoke about it, either. In the spring of 2002, real estate sales gal, Sharon, had won a $5,000 bonus. The two headed south to Connecticut’s famous Indian casinos to blow it for fun. But they hadn’t blown it. On a $50 slot machine, Sharon won $20,000. When the casino interviewed her about winning, Sharon told them how disappointed she was. She’d had the opportunity to put in two $50 chips, in which case she’d have won $80,000. “Don’t play cheap,” she warned perspective gamblers.
It felt as though they were on top of the world; like they’d discovered a latent talent they didn’t know they’d possessed. Between 2002 and 2005 they went through $59,000 and had had to use Kurt’s 401k, at a terrible tax penalty, to get out of it. Now, all they had was debt. By 2007, even their house had been refinanced beyond what they could hope to sell it for on the current market.
Kurt lifted the phone again and dialed his secretary’s extension. “Eve, will you assemble everyone’s slides before the close of business and print me a paper copy of what we have right now? I have an errand to run. I’ll be back before seven.”
Kurt did not have an errand, nor did he intend to work with the night crew at seven. He wanted to be home in Newbury before it started snowing if the forecast was right.
He walked briskly out of his private exit after pulling on his herringbone overcoat and leather gloves, and twisting the plaid scarf around his neck. He crossed the parking lot and climbed into his maroon Cherokee. Today, Sharon drove the Volvo. With business falling off and gas prices rising, Kurt didn’t know how he was going to maintain two expensive vehicles. Sharon was doing less than half the business she’d done last year.
DFE had been paring down the graphic department for four years. Graphics, which in the year 2000 had employed 22 workers, now employed 7. Kurt was confident that he would be the last to go, but the writing was on the wall. Since Clinton signed the NAFTA bill in 1999, most of the work was coming in via e-mail from India. Kurt sometimes wondered if they’d be going to India to do their engineering, too, or if they expected Americans to hire engineers, without out jobs to pay them?
People who hire engineers don’t have jobs, Kurt thought as he put the car in gear and headed toward Rt. 495. The air was cold but it held a dead calm and you could feel the storm blowing in. It was a Wednesday afternoon, not quite 3 pm, so the roads were almost empty. On 495, though, the wind was high and even the big Cherokee was buffeted around, doing 60. When he came to the 213 turn off, Kurt decided to stop by his Dad’s just to make sure the old guy had everything he needed if he were to be snowed in again. Kurt could then take the back roads home through Haverhill.
Kurt slowed to take the exit ramp when he noticed a battered, black Mercedes in his right, side-view mirror. What the hell was he doing? The car was running at an uneven speed. As Kurt looked at it in the mirror to see what was going on, the car suddenly drove over the curb, plunged down a steep embankment and disappeared into a grove of pine trees.
Kurt pulled the Cherokee onto the shoulder, pushed the hazard lights on, pulled on his gloves which he’d removed when the car warmed up, grabbed the big flashlight from the glove compartment, and his cell phone, and headed on foot down the embankment to find out what happened to the Mercedes.
The car, engine still running, was stopped at a steep angle against the trunk of a heavy fir tree. Kurt was already on the cell pone calling 911. He gave the operator the location and told her what had happened. By then he was standing beside the passenger side window.
The driver of the Mercedes was a bald, over-weight man between 35 and 55 years-old; it was hard to say for sure. He wore a black leather coat and he seemed to have had some sort of seizure. His nose and mouth were frothing.
The passenger door was locked and the driver’s door was wedged against other trees. Kurt swung the heavy flashlight, smashing the passenger side window, popped the door lock and swung the door open. A large suitcase with a tweed shell which had been propped against the door fell on him, striking his shin. Kurt let out a cry and a curse. The latches of the suitcase were unfastened and Kurt was barely able to prevent the contents from tumbling out. Kurt held his breath as he recognized what it was. The suitcase was packed tight with about 12 clear plastic two-pound bags of what looked like sugar but could only have been cocaine.
Kurt turned on the flashlight and played it over the man’s face. He appeared to be dead. The police would be here any second.
Kurt fastened the latches on the case, took hold of the handle and ran quickly as he could down the embankment to the valley floor. There were patches of ice around the frozen tree roots, but the floor of the little forest had no snow on it. He found a tree with three low branches, and wedged the heavy suitcase in their crotch, thick needles offering concealment. He could hear the police sirens wailing above him. With some difficulty, Kurt headed back to the Mercedes and tried to haul the driver across the passenger seat. Pulling at the man’s coat, Kurt knew certainly that he was dead. Suddenly, thick flakes started falling and a strong wind rose. Kurt could hear a police radio and now the officer’s legs in blue cloth were visible as he descended the embankment.
“Are you the guy who placed the call?” The cop was a hefty young man wearing a Yukon style hat with the earmuffs down. A silver badge was attached to the turned-up faux fur visor. Kurt was bare-headed and wished he had a hat, himself.
“Yeah,” he said. “I tried to get him out of there. I’m afraid we’re all too late.”
“Do you know him?” the cop asked, peering into the Mercedes, his own flashlight held high in his fist.
“No,” Kurt said. “I slowed for the exit ramp and noticed him in my rear view. He was speeding up and slowing down. It looked strange. Suddenly he jumped the curb and went over the embankment.”
Two more officers and a tow-truck driver joined them and made preparations to haul the car back up to the road.
“You break the window?” the first cop asked.
“Yes, I did,” Kurt confessed. “I was hoping to save his life.”
“Touch anything else?” the cop looked calmly at Kurt.
Kurt shook his head solemnly. “I tried to pull him out.”
The cop asked Kurt for his identification and copied his name and address from his drivers’ license. Kurt gave him his home and office phone numbers.
Back in the Cherokee, the road was already covered in a thin layer of snow that was falling fast. Kurt called his father on his cell phone and asked if he could help him at all, but the old man told him to go home. Kurt took a right turn toward Haverhill and wondered about the suitcase. If they found it, they’d know he must have moved it, but they couldn’t prove it. He’d been wearing gloves when he handled it. On the other hand, they had no reason to look for it. He’d left no foot prints. And what was the likelihood of their going out in this storm to scout around the accident scene? He just might get away with this. That had to be a million dollars worth of cocaine. How the hell was he going to unload it? Hell, if he could sell it for half a million dollars all his problems would be solved. When he was a kid he’d have known how to get rid of it. He and Sharon hadn’t done drugs in years. You can’t with teenagers around the house even if you want to, which they didn’t. Still, this was a much needed opportunity. He’d come back tomorrow evening and grab the case.