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Mile Markers

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Enjoy Chapter Seven of The Blessings of Mr. Watson

Chapter Seven
New Balance

The carved, wooden storefront sign announced:

Williams and Thomas
The Finest Clothes in the World

   The owner was a man perhaps two or three years Ronan’s senior and eager to make his acquaintance.

   “Mr. Sutton,” he said, enthusiastically offering his hand as he, Lee, and Jordan walked in. “A great, great pleasure. Jace Williams.”

   Ronan took his hand.

   “You must be Mrs. Sutton; it’s wonderful to meet you,” said Mr. Williams, shaking her hand when he released Ronan’s. To Jordan he said, “It’s always good seeing you again, Mr. Page.”

   “How’s the biz?” smiled Jordan, who stepped in fully as Stan came in behind him. The shop was located in a smaller building in Dublin’s wealthiest shopping district. Strangely, it did not have a front entrance, only a large display window. Customers had to enter from the back.

   Jace Williams returned Jordan’s query with a quick but significant up-and-down glance at Ronan. “It’s ... intriguing, to say the least.”

   An older woman of Indian or Pakistani heritage came up behind him. “Nur, would you see to our guests, please?”

   “Certainly, Mr. Williams,” she answered.

   “Come this way, if you would, Mr. Sutton.”

   Ronan followed him. Lee and Jordan came up behind.

As Mr. Williams measured Ronan, and as Lee sipped coffee, and as Nur assisted, Jordan spoke.

   “After Jace gets you sized up, let’s grab some dinner, then head back to your place so I can take down your bank account info, whaddya say? We can take care of getting an account set up for you and depositing your commission tomorrow morning. Sound good?”

   “I’m confused,” said Lee. “He hasn’t done any work for you yet.”

   “That’s not totally true,” offered Jordan with a cryptic smile. “Let’s say it’s ninety-nine and seven tenths percent true, but not a hundred.”

   She blinked. “Ninety-nine point seven? I don’t understand.”

   “You will. In any event, the money is yours to do with as you please. Even if Ronan doesn’t do a lick of work for us, you still get to keep it. All right?”

   The concern on Lee’s face deepened ten-fold. “A hundred thousand pounds—for free?

   Jordan nodded. “If you wish.”

   Lee gazed with horror at him, then at Ronan, who turned from the mirrors to look at them. He brought his attention to bear on Jordan for a long, uncomfortably silent moment. “It’s all right, babe.”

   Her mouth went slack. She closed it, then peered at Jordan. “I’m sorry, Jordan—Mr. Page. I really am. But ... I mean ... you aren’t going to make Ronan do something ... I don’t know ... I mean ... he’s not going to be a hit man, is he? Or smuggle drugs? I don’t understand any of this.”

   Credit Jordan: he didn’t try to humor her. He seemed to intuit that Lee was the wild card in this arrangement (which she was), and so addressed her with all seriousness. Ronan watched him with as much eagerness to hear his answer as he admired Jordan’s practiced people skills.

   “Mr. Watson ...” Jordan began, glancing at both of them “... he’s a different sort of fellow. He’s looking for someone who might, just might, be a little like him. I know this isn’t something that will make sense to you, but please understand: the money isn’t for anything illegal. Do you know how many hundred thousands are in one-point-three-six trillion dollars, his estimated worth?”

   She shook her head blankly.

   “One-point-three-six million,” he answered. “In other words, Mr. Watson could give every single man, woman, and child living in Dallas, Texas, a hundred grand before he ran out of money. Ronan is not going to be a hit man or smuggle illegal substances, no.”

   “Then,” asked Lee, clearly flustered, “what’s he going to do?”

   “He’s going to represent our company at the very highest level. That’s really all it is. He’s going to have mentoring—from me. On-the-job training, if you’d like. The money really isn’t a big deal. I know it’s asking a lot, but please don’t worry.”

Measurements done, they left for dinner. Not at a fancy restaurant or club, but in a small, modest diner downtown named Dempsey’s. Stan joined them; and so did Jace Williams, who showed up half an hour after they sat down.

   (Nur had been invited as well, but wanted to return home to her family.)

   Ronan noticed that Lee had relaxed a little. He got further proof when she ate normally. Anytime she was on-edge, she didn’t eat. She sat between Jordan and Mr. Williams and laughed at their banter, sometimes adding her own, and then at Stan, who occasionally carried the conversation with stories about growing up in St. Louis’ slums before moving to New York. Beyond that, the conversation never steered into serious territory. Stan parked the car in front of the apartment building two hours later, and Jordan accompanied them back into their flat. He had somehow managed to set Lee at ease, enough for her to take his arm as they walked down the hallway after getting out of the lift.

   Once inside, they went on a hunt for their bank information. It took some time, as a lot of the documentation was buried in cardboard boxes they never unpacked after moving, and which were piled inside the bedroom closet. Jordan helped with the unpacking, and then with going through the documents.

   Later, as they sipped tea, he instructed, “Think of a password—make it a good one—and tomorrow after work we’ll get you to the bank so you can talk to the manager about what you want to do with the money. Sound good?”

   Ronan nodded as Jordan handed him his Smartphone. Lee looked nervous but expectant. “We’ve gone through dozens for this job,” said Jordan as Ronan punched his password in. “But this is the first time that I feel truly comfortable with a candidate.”

   “Thanks,” said Ronan, feeling a little awkward. He handed the phone back.

   Jordan looked him up and down. “And don’t worry about the office duds from now on. You didn’t need to wear them today. That’s on me. Sorry, my friend. Wear what you want, what’s comfortable, all right?”

   He left them at the door. “Goodnight, you two. And Lee? Have a little faith. Sometimes good does come to good people.”

   “What was your password?” she asked once they closed the door and gave themselves a moment to look at each other. Ronan could see her barely contained panic. It was a credit to her recovery that she hadn’t totally freaked out by now. It didn’t take a tenth of the momentousness of this day in the past to get her to reach for a bottle. She had reached for his hand at points the past four hours, and he felt their cold clamminess. The smile she wore those moments was entirely fake, and he damn well appreciated it.

   “I chose ‘Celtic Survivors.’ ”

   He didn’t let her respond, but bent and kissed her.

“What are you going to do with the money?”

   He went to answer, “Uh ... get out of debt?” but stopped. Something clutched his heart and made it ache. Paolo watched him patiently.

   He had almost laughed when asked if he needed two weeks to quit a minimum wage petrol station attendant job, but stopped himself just short.

   He was suddenly there, in the station. Mack was shaking his hand. “Made me feel like a proper executive-type there, Ronan. Thanks.”

   Mack was a good man, a hardworking one. He brought in something like thirty-five thousand as manager. He worked sixty hours a week. Bloody salary work. The owner was a right tosser named Wayne Shrader, a bigoted, bloated pig Ronan met once. The station wasn’t pulling its weight, and he heard Shrader laughingly threaten to close it and put Mack and the employees out of work. Mack had spent seventeen years working for the pig, and was genuinely worried. His wife suffered health problems, and his oldest son was battling heroin addiction.

   Mary McFilbrish, suddenly sitting across from him, looked him up and down like nuns did on occasion during his school years. “You are irresponsible, Mr. Sutton,” she scolded, staring down her nose at him from over her glasses. Her desk was even more imposing than he remembered it. “Responsible adults don’t default on their mortgages. Responsible adults don’t get fired from their jobs. Responsible adults don’t drink on the job!”

   A rain-soaked alley. Lee was at his feet, clutching at his legs. “Please! Just a drop! A little contribution!” She was dressed in rags, and had dried vomit on her shirt. She was so skinny as to be almost unrecognizable. She licked her cracked lips and shook violently as she held him.

   He bolted upright in bed.

   He climbed out, his heart racing, and heaved. Covering his mouth, he ran into the bathroom just a moment before vomit exploded out of him into the toilet. He heaved again, then again. Coughing and breathless, his grabbed some toilet tissue and wiped his face, then reached for the handle. He shook violently as he got to his feet.

   He glanced back into the dark of the room. Lee hadn’t stirred. The red digital display of the clock next to her read 3:17.

   When he was certain that he didn’t need to puke again, he turned and went to the shower. He was covered in sweat.

   Standing under the hot water in the rank dark, he wept. He knew that image of Lee would never leave him.

He was twelve the last time he puked. He’d eaten some leftover stew at his grandparent’s house with meat that tasted, to him, suspect. That night he began vomiting. It got so bad that his mother took him to emergency, where they hooked him up to an IV. He spent the rest of the night in the hospital. Oddly, neither his parents nor his grandparents got sick.

   The experience was so nasty that he swore he would do everything possible never to vomit again. For twenty years he had been successful. Until now.

   He emerged from the shower shaking with chills that went far deeper than the steamy cold of the bathroom. He found the oral thermometer in the cabinet and stuck it under his tongue while sitting on the toilet. The red line stopped at thirty-nine. He pulled the thermometer out. “Jesus feckin’ Christ.”

   Normal was thirty-seven.


   He crawled back under the covers. Lee still hadn’t moved.

She pulled out the thermometer, inspected it, and shook her head. “Thirty-nine-point-seven. Any higher and I’m going to take you to emergency. You are very sick, love. You’re burning up.”

   Headache kept him from focusing fully on her. “Thanks for calling Mack.”

   “I’m going to call Jordan too. You aren’t going anywhere, probably tomorrow and the next day as well.”

   He thought of telling her about the nightmare, but decided against it. Instead he coughed.

   “I’m sure he’ll understand,” she added.

   He caught his breath while fighting off another round of chills. “Why don’t y-y-you go? It’s our account, after all. You can take the m-money just as easily as I can.”

   “I’m not leaving you here! Not like this! No way!”

   “I’ll be fine. You go. Seriously. Just go. It’s just a bloody flu. It’ll make me feel better, imagining all that dosh going into our barren savings account.”

   “I’m not sure I will.”

   “I’ll just lie here and wish for a speedy death.”

   “Speedy would’ve meant last night. I’m afraid you’re in the flu dungeon, Ro, and the guy with the black hood is just getting started with ya.”


   She stood and went to the kitchen after closing the bedroom door. He could hear her talking. She laughed uneasily; a moment of silence followed; and she came back in.

   “He’s coming by in an hour.”


   “If things get worse between now and then,” she continued, stepping back to the bedside, “I’m going to cancel. I’ll give you the phone so that you can ring me should you need to.”

   More coughing. “Fair enough.”

   “You looked like death warmed over, dearest.”

   “Thanks. I’m pretty sure I look ten times better than I feel.”

   She bent and kissed his head. “Then you really must feel like shit.”

She showered and dressed—not in business attire, but a casual skirt and top. It had begun raining; she glanced out the bedroom window and sighed as she waited. Jordan was due any time.

   He turned over to watch her. “You look good.”

   She continued staring out. “What is it about rain, you think, that’s so depressing?”

   Ronan was in too much misery to think deeply about anything, so he shook his head. “Don’t know. Are you depressed?”

   She smiled briefly. “Oddly, no. I was just thinking out loud. I mean, is it really depressing, or were we just taught that it’s depressing, and so we come to think of it as depressing? Everybody thinks it’s depressing, and so we do too. But is it really? It’s just rain.”

   He croaked, “ ‘Rainy days and Sundays always get me down.’ ”

   She snickered. “That may actually be the worst rendition ever sung, ever.”

   “I’m sure the Carpenters would agree.”

   She glanced out the window again. “I think perpetual sunshine would be just as dismal as endless rain. There’s something in me that likes the rain. I hate thinking I’ve always thought it gloomy and forlorn because everybody else does. That seems really ... I don’t know ... pathetic?”

   They both heard the sudden, muffled rumble that was the lift. “That’s probably him,” she said, and went to the front door and opened it. A few moments later he heard Jordan ask, “Is our hero on his death-bed? May I go in and say hello?”

   “He’s probably contagious,” Lee warned.

   “I’ll take my chances,” said Jordan, who appeared in the door a moment later, fashionable long-coat on and scarf around his neck. He took off his gloves as he looked Ronan over. “Frankly, I’ve seen better-looking road-kill.” He laughed and approached the bed and held out his hand. Ronan reluctantly took it.

   “I don’t want to get you sick, Jordan.”

   “Don’t worry about me, my friend. The last time I got the flu, I was forty-one. I don’t plan on getting it again.” He grinned. “Mind if I take your gal out and give her a hundred thousand bucks?”

   Ronan coughed. “Just no making out in the back. She’s putty in limos.”

   Lee, who had come up to the foot of the bed, shook her head, then reached and gave his covered foot a squeeze. “Do you have any desire to do something extravagant with the money?”

   “Just ... put it in our account,” he murmured.

   “Mind if I take her out afterward for a little lunch?” asked Jordan.

   He shook his head. “Not at all. I’ll be okay by myself.” He glanced at Lee, who looked as though she were about to veto the idea. “Seriously. I just need rest.”

   “Get some, partner. See you in a bit.”

   “Will do.”

   Lee bent and kissed his forehead. “Still pretty hot. Don’t forget that there’s some broth in the cupboard. Just sip it.”

   “I’m not hungry, but thanks anyway, love.”

   He heard them walk to the front door, and out. He heard the door click shut softly.

   In just a half hour, maybe a little more, they would have a hundred thousand pounds in their account to do with as they pleased.

   It was so far beyond anything he could visualize that he forced it out of his mind. He pulled the covers higher, closed his eyes, and tried to sleep.

Lee took a steadying breath as the limo glided along the avenue towards the bank. Jordan, to her immediate right, patted her hand. “ ‘There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance.’ ”

   She gazed at him.

   He smiled. “John Lennon. I’m a big fan of his. I was twenty when I saw my first Beatles concert. The Fab Four made a lasting impression on me, like millions of others, I suppose. You’re scared. I know. All of this is completely out of bounds. But does that mean it’s necessarily nefarious?”

   She glanced away and shook her head. “No. It doesn’t. I’m sorry, Jordan.”

   “For many years Mr. Watson chased money, fame, and glory. He got rich. Then very rich. And then scientists from his company discovered the Alpha. And then he got very, very rich, the king of the world, King Midas himself.”

   The Alpha was a battery—the battery. Once released to the market, it put every other battery maker out of existence within two years. A single AA Alpha battery used five hours a day in a flashlight would last nine years and provide nearly three times the power an ordinary AA could. Alphas were so powerful and long-lasting that generic specifications for batteries had to be changed. To add massive insult to deadly injury to those soon-out-of-business battery companies, Alphas were easily disposable, easily recycled, and did less than half of the environmental damage of regular batteries.

   Alphas powered everything now. They even powered spacecraft, solving many intractable problems concerning getting payloads into orbit and with spaceflight, so much so that because of the Alpha, NASA had been, at least before Donald Trump stole the presidency of the United States, busily building the very spacecraft that would take the first human colonists to Mars. Trump canceled the program almost immediately after taking office.

   Alphas had revolutionized every industry on Earth. They had especially revolutionized medicine—her field.

   Ronan had by the wildest of chances changed the tire of the very man responsible for creating the Alpha. And now that man had hired him and wanted to give them a hundred thousand pounds—for shits and giggles. It wasn’t “out of bounds,” no. What it was was so far beyond “out of bounds” that Lee couldn’t wrap her mind around it.

   It wasn’t original or intelligent; but it was all she could think to say: “I can’t imagine.”

   “ ‘The world is powered by Karl Watson,’ ” said Jordan, glancing out the window. “That was the headline on the cover of Time magazine the year he won Man of the Year.”

   “I remember,” said Lee. “I remember that article. It was in the waiting room in the hospital I worked at.”

   Jordan continued gazing out the window. “The world is a cruel, dark place. Mr. Watson was always aware of that. It became many times worse however after his discovery. He withdrew and became a virtual recluse. Can you imagine? The man who gave the world the means to illuminate itself like a supernova went and hid in the shadows. It was a very sad, angry, and crazy time for all of us close to him. It was filled with uncertainty and doubt. We were all very scared for our jobs, our futures. Rumors swirled that Mr. Watson had become the next Howard Hughes and was going crazy.”

   Lee nodded. “I remember those articles too. I remember the recession that was blamed on him a few years ago.”

   He peered at her. “What did you think when you read those articles?”

   She shook her head. “Not much, truthfully. I was ...” She shrugged shamefully.

   “You were numb.”

   She gave a single sad chuckle and glanced down at the floor. “That’s one way of putting it.”

   “So was Mr. Watson,” said Jordan. “That was the word he used—numb. He gave the world his very best, and the world, as the world always does with authentic gifts great and small, shit all over it.”

   “I can’t imagine,” she said again.

   She waited for him to respond. When he didn’t, she glanced at him. He was staring right at her.

   “Yes, you can,” he said simply.

He sat with her as she spoke with the bank manager, upon her insistence. She watched as Jordan made the transfer electronically using Ronan’s password, and tried not to gawk as the manager handed her the slip of paper that read:

New balance: £100,000.00

   With a shaking hand, she folded it up, put it in her billfold, gave Jordan a nervous smile, and walked with him out of the office and into the waiting limo.

   “He gets it,” said Jordan after five minutes of strained silence.

   She glanced at him, confused. She had avoided his eyes ever since she shook hands with the manager.


   “He gets it,” repeated Jordan. “Ask him. He’ll tell you.”

   “Gets what?”

   “Ronan is flawed just like I am, just like you are. He could have driven by that day. He could have left Mr. Watson out there in the rain. Mr. Watson was in real trouble. In his ever-more reclusive state, he has repeatedly ‘gone dark’ from his people. We were frantic looking for him. Ronan found him first.”

   “I don’t understand,” she said.

   Jordan’s smile held. He reached for her hand and took it between both of his. “You will. Talk to Ronan. He’ll explain.”

   He accompanied her up the lift to the door, but did not come in. He had wanted to take her out for lunch, but she insisted on returning home.

   “Hot tea with honey,” he offered. “Chicken soup. Let him fast if he wants. Making sick people eat is ridiculous.”

   She grinned. “I agree.”

   He bent and kissed her cheek. “See you tomorrow, Mrs. Sutton.”

   She watched as the lift doors closed.

Chapter Eight