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The Last Place You Look
Book Seven of the Bradford Exiles Saga
Wes Boyd
©2012, ©2014

Chapter 1

The boss doesn’t get the easy decisions – after all, that’s why he’s the boss, John Engler reflected to himself as he stared at the notes on the Tomtucknee Regional bid. Tomtucknee had decided to replace all their advanced life support monitors in one fell swoop, so that was a good half million dollars’ worth of business sitting there – enough for the salesman to ship the question up to the boss for his decision.

The hell of it was, he thought, that he knew about how far Voss would go in their competing bid, and they pretty well knew how far he could go in discounting it, too. What with the way this business worked, they were pretty well locked in, so the big sale might well depend on issues other than price. Was there some other angle that Voss might not anticipate? Whatever, he had to make a decision pretty soon.

Annamaria’s voice made for a welcome break in his concentration. “Mr. Engler,” she said in her faintly Cuban-accented voice, “you have a call on line one, Don Paxton. He says it’s personal.”

The name was more than familiar; Don was his former father-in-law. Well, one of them, the first. John knew he lived north of the bridge in St. Pete. Why would there be a personal call? Oh, well, only one way to find out, he thought. “I suppose,” he grunted into the intercom.

“Just a second,” Annamaria replied. She had been one of the best things that had come with the wreckage of Suncoast Medical Supply when he’d purchased it years before. She was beautiful, but married. What’s more, he’d often reminded himself that it’s not good business practice to foul his own nest. But still, a man could dream . . .

In an instant, the phone on his desk rang, and he picked it up. “Hi, Don,” he said by way of introduction, “how are you doing?” Don was Mandy’s father. While it was a reach to say that he and John were still friends, they still had a cordial relationship, even though it had been some time since they’d seen each other. “It’s been a long time.”

“Yeah, it has,” Don agreed. “Look, John, I’ll get right down to what I wanted to ask you. Have you heard from Mandy recently?”

“Not since last summer when she called and told me she was getting married to some guy whose name I don’t remember and that she was going to be living in DC or someplace. Maybe I got that last part out of the class Christmas newsletter, I don’t know.”

“Not in the last few days?”

“Not a peep,” John said, a little curious if this was really trouble.

“Damn, I thought she might get in touch with you,” Don said. “I had a call from Joseph this afternoon. He got home and found her gone with her clothes and stuff, no note or anything.”

“Well, if her clothes are missing she probably wasn’t abducted,” John offered. “Remember, that’s pretty much what she did to me. She left me a note, though. “

“Yeah, I keep telling myself that,” Don told him. “She hasn’t, uh, hasn’t said a lot, but I get the impression that things could have been going a lot better, if you know what I mean.”

“Probably better than you do,” John nodded. “Been there and done that. Sorry, Don, I can’t be much more help than that.”

“If she does get in contact with you, tell her to call me. Then I’d appreciate it if you’d call us anyway.”

“Sure, no problem. I’m not going to be real high on her call list, though.”

“Don’t be so sure,” Don said. “She’s said any number of times that she regrets what she did to you and wishes she’d stuck it out a while longer.”

“Yeah, I wish she had too, and she’s told me that. But too much water down the river, I guess.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if she shows up in Florida again,” Don told him. “Every time she’s called for the last six months she’s complained about how cold the weather is and about how lousy the winter is.”

“Right, and DC gets it mild compared to Michigan,” John grinned. “I’ll have to admit, most of the time I think that her twisting my arm to come down here was one of the better things she did. The other times are in the summer when the temperature and the humidity are both about ninety-eight and there’s a hurricane offshore.”

“I like Florida except for that, too,” he could hear Don grin. “Well, I don’t have a lot of other ideas.”

“The only thing I can think of is to ask Emily Holst if she’s heard anything, and you might not want to do that right away.”

“I know that,” he snorted. “If I told her what I told you it’d be all over town in short order, and all over the class. I’ll put that off for a few days, I guess. Like I said, give me a call if you hear anything.”

“Sure will,” John said. “Really, Don, I wouldn’t worry too much, she’s a big girl and she’s done it before.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t keep her from being my little girl,” Don said. “Thanks anyway, John.”

“You take it easy and take care,” John told him.

John put the phone back on the hook and leaned back, just thinking. For the moment, the Tomtucknee Regional bid was the furthest thing from his mind. Once again, he was thinking about Mandy, wishing that things had worked out with her. If she’d stuck it out just a little while longer until things had turned around, it probably would have worked, might still be working. But when he thought of that, he’d learned to remind himself, as he often did, that like he’d told Don, it was water down the river. And, the way things had turned out, it was a hell of a lot of water down the river since then, too.

This was accomplishing exactly nothing, he thought. I’ve got to get my mind back on business. Maybe some enhancements to the service agreement?

His mind was just starting to settle on the bid when the phone in the front office rang again. He heard Annamaria answering it without giving it much attention, but she called to him a few seconds later by saying, “John, it’s Russ Yager over at Bradenton Municipal.”

Now what the hell could that be all about? John wondered as he reached for the phone. It couldn’t be a service call, their equipment was pretty new. “Hi, Russ,” he said. “It’s John.”

“John, I hate to have to call you at this hour of the day,” Russ said, “but we’ve got several guys off at a school, and we’ve had several calls. Any chance you could come over here and help out for a bit? Half a shift, no more, I promise.”

John would have liked to have said no. Even if he ignored the Tomtucknee Regional bid, he still had a pretty full plate for the afternoon. But, there was a business ethic involved here, too. He owed Russ a significant number of favors, for one thing, dating clear back to when John took over Suncoast with nothing much but an idea and a piece of information that his old boss had known about but ignored.

One of the ironclad rules that John had taken from Harry Morris, who had owned the company before he did, was that everyone on the staff had to be an EMT or paramedic. It was a hell of a good idea, and John saw no reason to mess with it. Even now, the majority of their sales were to Emergency Medical Services; the administrators who signed the checks for medical equipment purchases may have just been bean counters, but the people who made the go-to decisions on what to buy from Suncoast were almost always EMTs or paramedics. It just worked better if someone could talk EMT to them. An EMT had the basic knowledge to understand the units and what they were supposed to do, and had almost certainly used them under fire. That counted for a lot; it was a major leg up that he had over Voss Medical, his prime competitor. Even Annamaria, who worked the office phones, was an EMT who made runs for a rural volunteer department, and John kept current and filled in a shift or two here and there.

Thanks to his father, who was still an EMT on the Bradford Fire Department, John had been a Medical First Responder while still in high school and started on his EMT training before he left Bradford. He’d finished up EMT-1 in his first year at Eastern, then worked his way through college at Wayne State as a fill-in for several services around Detroit. At the time, it was as good a way to learn to handle gunshot wounds and ODs as well as heart attacks. Even before they graduated, Mandy made it clear that Northern Michigan University had burned her out on Michigan winters, and the remaining winters in Detroit just stirred the ashes. In the winters they’d spent every minute in Florida they could, and on spring break their senior year they both started seriously looking for jobs there. When John saw “EMT” in an ad for a salesman he figured he had something; right on the first interview it became clear that EMTs with a BA in Business Administration were pretty rare birds, and Harry snapped him up eagerly.

Three years later, as things were headed seriously downhill with Mandy, things looked pretty bleak. Suncoast Medical’s primary stock in trade was a regional sole distributorship for Ven-Churs Electronics, who made Automatic Emergency Defibrillators (AED) and Advanced Life Support (ALS) monitors for heart patient emergency treatment, in fact, they had been one of the pioneers of the business. Then Ven-churs got bought up in a stock-trade deal, and whoever it was that bought them decided there was more money to be made in dismantling the company than there was in building medical electronics. All of a sudden with nothing to sell, Suncoast lost ninety percent of their business; several salesmen headed off to other things, and Harry was ready to quit. John made a ridiculously low offer for the business, more for the name and goodwill than anything else, and Harry jumped on it like stink on shit.

John knew one thing Harry didn’t – and he’d told Harry, who’d ignored him. His father told him that the Bradford department had just received a new AED – not a Ven-churs or a Sollarian, their new main competitor, but a Murasaki, which John had never heard of before. But his dad put him in touch with the Murasaki rep, and within a couple days John was in the air headed for Japan.

Murasaki, it proved, was a decent-sized company that had much of the ALS monitor and defib business in Asia; they had stayed out of the US market to this point because Ven-Churs and Sollarian seemed to have it sewn up. Bradford winding up with the Murasaki defib had been a fluke; it was a gift to the department from a Japanese businessman who’d had a heart attack out on I-67, and the Bradford men saved his life.

By striking while the iron was very hot for a number of reasons, John and Suncoast wound up with the sole, protected southeast US distributorship for Murasaki. Success was not a foregone conclusion; there was a lot of resistance to the foreign “Jap” units by people who preferred American made. The huge risk with their tiny savings and the hard times until sales built back up had been the final straw for Mandy, who moved out one day without warning. The last time he’d seen her she’d admitted that she should have held on; a decent price differential, along with performance that was as good as the Sollarian and better and more flexible in some respects had grabbed back a lot of market share. A cheaper and somewhat less-capable but very easy-to-use Murasaki defib had also come along about that time, aimed at people with known heart problems to keep in their homes. Those were an increasing part of the business; that was all wholesale to medical supply houses, but again, the EMTs making the calls knew exactly what they were talking about.

While John wasn’t on the paid staff of any of the local ambulance services, he was on the unpaid call list of half a dozen, partly to keep his hand in and certification current, but partly just for the good word of mouth it gave. If Russ said he was in trouble, then he was in trouble; he wouldn’t have called John unnecessarily. “Yeah, no problem,” he answered after only a moment’s hesitation. It would be good to get out of the office for a while anyway; sometimes getting away from a problem for a while was enough to let it solve itself. It wasn’t as if he exactly had to finish the Tomtucknee Regional bid today, after all. “I’ll be there as quick as I can, but it’s probably going to be half an hour.”

“Thanks, John,” Russ said. “I thought I could count on you.”

It wasn’t going to be such a bad deal getting out of the office today, anyway. He told Annamaria what was happening, not that she didn’t already have a pretty good idea, and headed out to his Toyota. It was a nice day, not too hot, not too cold – the kind of day that kids came to Florida for to enjoy spring break. There was a lot of that going on over on the east side of the state right now, especially around Daytona Beach. That always produced a lot of ambulance calls, some of them not very pretty, not that any ambulance call was, but booze and young stupidity made the ones over there worse than they had to be.

As he’d told Russ it was about a half hour drive over to the garage that Bradenton Muni operated out of. John parked the Toyota out of the way, pulled a generic EMT uniform out of the bag in the trunk, and headed inside.

“Wow,” Russ said as he walked in. “Thank God you’re here. The place is going crazy this afternoon. It always seems to happen when I’ve got people off for training.”

“Murphy has something to do with that,” John said as he headed off into the locker room to change his shirt, with Russ trailing along behind. “It always seems to work that way for me, too.”

“No shit,” Russ replied. “Anyway, you’ll be working with Chad Gumble this afternoon. You know him?”

“Yeah, we’ve worked together before. Good man.”

“Really good,” Russ said. “He was nice enough to come in on his time off to fill in.”

Probably the overtime didn’t hurt, John thought, although he knew that Russ was right – Chad was a good EMT, a pro. He wasn’t going to mind letting him take the lead if something happened, which seemed likely, the way this afternoon appeared to be going around the place.

John’s prophecy proved to be right – it was a busy afternoon, although not crazy busy, nothing that really tried his skills, but just enough to keep his mind active and not thinking about the Tomtucknee Regional bid. A couple chest pains, a difficulty breathing, a couple of minor PI accidents – none of it particularly emergent, and in every way routine. Still he and Chad were kept busy. It was just before the evening shift was due to come on that they had to go to another call, this one a car accident out off of I-75 on State Route 70.

This one proved to be a bad one – a load shifted clear off a semi and right into the path of a following car, which had two women in it, a mother and her young teenage daughter. The mother, who struck John as a typical cheap blonde, was ambulatory but frantic, while the daughter was pinned in the car, with obvious broken legs and in quite a lot of pain. While it wasn’t exactly a life-threatening situation, the girl obviously hurt like hell. The car was a total disaster even before the local rescue squad started in with the Jaws of Life to extract the kid.

Fortunately it didn’t take too long, and in a few minutes Chad and John were easing the kid out of the car and onto a gurney. From there on, it was pretty normal; they loaded the two and transported them to Cocalatchee General. The mother was still pretty frantic, but at least settled down a little when they got under way, with Chad at the wheel and the overheads going. John did what he could to settle the woman down, although it wasn’t particularly easy – and that was perfectly understandable; he’d been there before. “There’s no reason she shouldn’t be all right,” he told the mother, “but she’s probably going to have to be on crutches for a while.”

“Yeah, but shit, why did this have to happen to us now, after everything else?” the woman sobbed.

John had heard the question before and it was one that he’d never been able to figure out an answer to. “Stuff happens,” he said, his attention more on the girl. She was a fairly decent-looking young girl, just at that age when they quit being kids and started becoming teenagers. “At least this could be a lot worse.”

“But what’s going to happen to us?” the woman sobbed. “Everything we own is in the car, and the car is junk! I could see that!”

“Something will work out,” John said, trying to be hopeful. “The cops will have your car towed to an impound lot, so you’ll be able to get your stuff back.”

“Yes, but where will we go? What will we do now?”

“Something will work out,” John promised again, although he had no idea what it could be. There was something about this woman that seemed familiar, something he couldn’t put his finger on. It probably wasn’t important; he’d known plenty of bottle blondes over the years.

Fortunately it was a quick trip to Cocalatchee General. They got there, and unloaded the two, with the girl on the gurney, and her mother limping along beside as they headed inside. There was some paperwork that had to be done, fortunately not serious, and since Chad was the regular, John let him take care of it. This ought to be the last run of the day, he thought. At least, if Russ was right, the new shift would have come on by the time they got back to the shop. Maybe, he thought, he could run back out to the office and get some work done while it was quiet.

He mostly stood back while Chad took the IDs; it looked to John like it was going to be a charity case but all the forms had to be filled out anyway. As expected, she had no health insurance, but from what John knew of the dynamics of the accident, in time the trucking company might be made to pay the expenses. John wasn’t paying any attention to the two, but his mind slipped out of a mental idle when he heard the woman give her name as Sally Hanson.

The name rang a little bell. He’d gone to high school with a Sally Hanson, back at Bradford, what seemed a long time ago. He hadn’t known Sally well back then, but nobody had known her very well, as far as he knew. He remembered the girl he’d gone to high school with: slender, about five-foot-six, light brown hair down below her shoulders, flat-chested and plain, but not bad looking. The Bradford Class of ’88 had been a small one, only eighty-some kids, so he knew everyone, but some less well than others. Sex is an underlying force in any high school, and like most classes, there were kids who Did and kids who Didn’t. Probably more than almost any other girl in the school except one, Sally had been a Didn’t; she came from a rather conservative religious family. Girls like Sally who Didn’t had rarely been close with guys like John who Did – even if the guys were big, strong, handsome, dark-haired football players like he had been.

Could it be? There were those bells that had been jingling in his mind even before he knew her name. It had been fifteen years, after all – people were likely to change in that length of time. The face could be hers, through the fog of memory; that hair color certainly came from a bottle, and while he remembered Sally as having had the next thing to no chest, that was something that could be changed with a little surgery. It could be her – but probably wasn’t, he thought.

There was one way to find out. He waited till Chad was done with taking the information, then said quietly, “So are you hearing anything from Bradford recently?”

“No, thank God,” she said almost automatically – then realized what she’d been asked. She looked at John, did a double take, looked again – and finally said in a small voice, “John? Is that really you?”

“Yeah, Sally,” he said. “It’s really me. I didn’t realize it was you for sure until just now myself.”

“Oh, my God,” she said. “I haven’t even thought about you in years. What are you doing here?”

“I live here,” he said. “Over ten years now. I’m just a volunteer as an EMT. They were a little understaffed this afternoon and they called me in.”

“Oh, my God, I don’t believe it. John Engler, of all people. John, I, well, I . . . I don’t know what to say. After all that happened, the car getting wrecked, Teresa getting hurt – my God, I just don’t believe it.”

“It’s going to be all right,” John told her. “You’re going to be OK, and your daughter is going to be OK, too. Now, where are you living?”

“Right now, nowhere,” she said. “We were on our way to Atlanta, I have sort of a job lined up there. My job in Miami . . . well, it was time to get out of there so we did. Now I don’t know what to do.”

“Hey, John,” Chad piped up, “we really need to be heading back.”

“OK, Chad, in a minute,” John said. “Look, Sally,” he said, “I have to go, and you’re going to be here for a while. You stay here and look after . . . Teresa, you said her name was? I’ll be back in a while, I don’t know how long, and then I’ll see what I can do to help.”

John and Chad headed out to the ambulance, which was parked near the emergency room door. “John, do you know her?” Chad asked.

“Well, sort of,” John replied. “At least I used to know her a little. We were in the same high school class, and that’s getting to be a while ago. We were never really friends, and I haven’t seen her since we got out of high school, but, well, there’s this little tradition of people in our class taking care of each other in times of trouble.”

“I hate to say it,” Chad said, “but if ever there was a gal that looked like she was going to be trouble, she’s the one. I mean, she looks like trouble on two legs.”

“I can’t say as I disagree with you,” John nodded, wondering just why the hell he’d made the offer. “And God knows I’ve had enough woman trouble in my life to be able to recognize it when I see it.”

Forward to Next Chapter >>

To be continued . . .

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