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It Ate My Dime

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It Ate My Dime

Hunched over his desk at two in the morning - just the way he wanted to spend the night, holed up going over diagrams for a new computer some wide-eyed, barely post-pubescent genius from one of those "I" states near the Great Lakes wanted to build. The budget for this little pet project of DaVinci's clone was up over a billion dollars. Who in hell was going to give a farm boy that kind of money for an über-computer? The insanity behind boy genius' request was truly grating, but there was something fascinating about it. Even that bothered him. He didn't need something like this to fascinate him.

Civilians, like geek-boy, were a ridiculous tribe. They didn't get military discipline and it really bugged the crap out of him. Then add to that the fact that his third wife wanted more alimony and the fourth one informed him that she was moving to Tasmania and taking his dog Chester, the only thing worth keeping in that marriage! It was a lousy night or was it early morning? Damn and then there was that phone message he tried to ignore. Weitzman wanted to meet with him again and this time it wasn't going to be easy to talk his way out of what was happening in his life. Too many wives, too much alcohol, too little sleep, too many nightmares, too much life for a lonely man to deal with without going nutso. Chances were pretty good that he maybe had two weeks left at this God forsaken outpost in the middle of the desert. Hell of a place for a Navy man, but then who said the Navy was going to let a sot stay.

What a sot needed was another swig from the hidden bottle of very good scotch that he kept in his desk. It was a cliché, the forbidden stash in the bottom drawer, but he didn't care. He didn't even care who knew about it and almost everyone did. Polishing off the last of it wasn't going to make the night any better. Three ounces was a lot for a small man who fought hard to maintain minimum weight standards for Navy personnel. He thought that with all the calories in booze he'd be sporting a paunch worthy of a politician, but no such luck. His metabolism wasn't interested in gaining weight and then missing a few yards of intestine didn't help either. The docs pulled 14 feet out of him when he got home from Nam. Too many little critters lived inside him and they had to go. Easy way out - surgery that would keep him too skinny.

He threw back scotch like a frat boy on a dare. The burn from the alcohol trailing down his gullet warmed him all over. Felt damn good - for the moment. It wasn't going to be good for long. Damn Sharon. More alimony? She was bleeding him. She bled every one of her ex-husbands. By now, there were three others and she lived like a queen with income arriving in her mailbox from four different states. Why did he marry that one? Stupid move, but it seemed right at the time. Everything seemed right at the time.

His head was doing a little dance. Over a billion dollars? What was this dim-witted genius's name? He turned to the front cover and out loud read off, “Samuel Beckett, MD, PhD, PhD, PhD, PhD, PhD.” After tossing the 350 page document into the trash, he snarled, “Someone is impressed with himself a hell of a lot.” The admiral could put a few letters after his name, too, but rank was enough for the Navy. So what if he was a summa cum laude PhD in Astronautics. Same thing for his Masters Degrees in Electrical Engineering and again in Quantum Mechanics. You'd think credentials like that would make him top dog educationally, but no. He had a Beckett on board.

His liquor infested head spun. He should be home, if you could call it a home, three rooms on the third floor of a walkup on the edge of the bad part of town. He didn't like home much, so it was enough for him. However, scotch maybe wasn't such a good idea. His stomach clenched and it felt like heaving, but it was good scotch and he wanted the buzz. Dear God in heaven, he needed to calm the regurgitating in his gut.

Standing up wasn't the best idea. His legs weren't cooperating and he slipped, whacking his elbow on the trash can holding Beckett's Folly. Why the hell did they call that absurd nerve the crazy bone? Fortunately, the floor kept him from falling any farther. Shit, his elbow hurt. At least, unlike some past hurts, it wouldn't be smarting for long. With his butt on the floor, the Beckett mega-request stared at him from the metal can. As interesting as it might be, it was an asinine thing to be reading now. Starbright was already too big and adding something like this would . . . hell, he just wanted to stop thinking about it.

Food, coffee, something had to calm down his gut or he'd be upchucking real soon. The damned vending machines were a floor down and he swore that until he was dead or paralyzed, he'd never use an elevator for one floor.

To his alcohol infected eyes, the steps looked like a puzzle in a kid's magazine. Can you help Admiral Al find his way down the stairs? One foot dropped to the tread below. Then the next foot dropped and he felt like a slinky pushed off the top of the basement steps. His feet tumbled from step to step without any help from him. When he reached the bottom, his feet kept going and he ended up on his knees with both hands in front of him keeping the wall at bay. He was way too drunk to be at the project. Someone was bound to see him even if it was approaching three in the morning. Someone was always here. His hands crawled up the wall and helped him get back on his feet. Maybe if he stood there for a few minutes, he could start to feel a little better.

The commissary at Starbright was not known for cuisine of any kind. If it wasn't wrapped in cellophane and squished into a shape completely not reminiscent of anything edible, then it wasn't available. Stuff to eat was packed into vending machines keeping it cold until the microwave turned it into landfill. Off in the corner, housekeeping was mopping the floor, tossing a few orange "wet floor" signs around. The tables glistened with swirling remnants of disinfectant cleaner. Metal chairs sat tucked under the tables. A maintenance man was working on repairing some leaky pipes in the ceiling near the vending machines. A toolbox sat on a table and the workman, sitting on top of a stepladder, disappeared into the acoustic tiles, leaving his legs still visible.

Off in the corner, only one staff member was using the room for its original purpose. The young Dr. Beckett sat there wolfing down some kind of sandwich, possibly ham and a petroleum product claiming to be cheese, along with a can of Diet Mountain Dew. He wanted the caffeine. Five manila folders sat under his left forearm and a sixth was open in front of him. A pencil in his right hand scribbled note after note after note. He was consumed with his science and barely heard the stumbling footfalls of the project administrator, a man he had yet to find the courage to meet. Despite his recent Nobel Prize and touted as the world's most intelligent human being, having to talk to Albert Calavicci was scary. The Admiral walked on the moon only 18 months after release from six years of torture in a Vietnamese prison. Then he gets a PhD and some other advanced degrees. There's no way a man like that would bother with a kid from Indiana who liked computers and physics.

Sam looked up to see what was making noise at the vending machines. There he was, the man whom he was too star struck to talk to. There he was, muttering to himself, weaving around, obviously drunk and embarrassing the young scientist, though he wasn't sure why.

The admiral slid a few coins into the slot on the coffee machine. His hand completely missed the button he wanted. A second attempt got him there, but nothing happened. He threw out a string of expletives and hit the button again. Nothing happened. A clenched fist pounding over and over didn't bring him the coffee he needed. The expletives grew in volume scaring off the housekeeper and making the maintenance guy poke his head out from the ceiling.

His angry muttering was louder than he thought. “You mother fucking piece of crap! I don't need this tonight!”

The folder under Sam's hand closed and, as he tried to follow the housekeeper out the door, he heard the crash. Admiral Calavicci had found the maintenance guy's toolbox, grabbed a hammer and started trashing the machine. Each time the mallet came down, another round of swear words exploded. Some were Italian. Some Vietnamese. Most were English and having to do with how one was born and to whom.

The admiral threw his hand back to take one last huge hit. On the top of his backswing, the hammer slipped from his hand smacking against a table halfway across the room. He was too drunk to stop the forward motion his arm wanted to make. An open hand smashed into the broken glass of the vending machine and blood splattered over the drunken man's shirt and face. “Shit!” was the only response he had. “Shit!!”

Sam saw the blood and even from his vantage point, he could tell the cut was bad. Whether this was a good time or not, he was going to meet Al Calavicci. He put his folders on the nearest table and ran to injured man. “I'm a doctor.”

Al looked at the kid in front of him and figured it had to be that Beckett guy. He was in no mood to talk to him. Half the reason he was there so late was on account of that ludicrous request for a billion dollar laptop. Words were not his friends at this particular moment, so he just shut the fuck up. No need to get into any conversation with this piece of work in front of him.

A few slivers of glass imbedded themselves in his palm and a jagged, raw wound crossed dangerously close to his wrist. Sam winced when he saw the damage. “We need to get you to the infirmary. This is going to need stitches.” He grabbed half a dozen paper napkins and gently wrapped them around the injured hand. “I hope you got a key because if you don't, we need to get you to a hospital.”

Keys? Yeah, he had keys. His good hand rummaged through his pocket and found the key ring he needed, but the kid seemed to think control shifted. He was Calavicci. No whiz kid from Iowa (one of those “I” states) was going to take charge. He held his bloodied hand and stormed off toward the infirmary at the other end of the hallway.

Al managed to get there two yards ahead of Sam. The key missed the lock and fell to the floor. Sam dove for it, his patience waning. “I got it. You just relax a little. That has to hurt.”

Once inside the infirmary, Al sat on a chair and plopped his bleeding hand on top of the tray table. Sam gathered the things he needed and eventually sat on a wheeled stool across from the hero who, at the moment, didn't look particularly heroic to him. A small bowl of warm water sat next to the throbbing hand. Under other circumstances, it looked like Sam could be giving the Admiral a manicure.

Sam didn't know what to say, so he didn't say anything. Al didn't want to say anything, so he didn't until Sam started preparing a local anesthetic. “No pain killer. I can take it.” The comment was to prove he was muy macho. Al Calavicci wasn't a weakling. He was a man. Pain wasn't a problem for him, no sir.

The hand was unwrapped and washed gently. Sam noticed that his patient wasn't looking at the damaged hand or at what Sam had planned for him. Under a bright light, a magnifying tweezers helped pull out four glass shards. One found its way far deeper into the Admiral's hand than Sam thought. Pulling it out brought a small grunt from the Admiral. “Sorry. That one didn't want to cooperate.”

“You think?”

Again, Sam felt a combination of aggravation and embarrassment. This guy was tough and considering the next sliver Sam pulled, this guy was lucky, too. A thick ridge of tissue stopped the largest shard from cutting into an artery. When he finally realized how the Admiral got that scar, he felt his stomach churn. Shackles, iron bands locked around his wrists left Calavicci with scars that wouldn't ever let him completely let go of his tortured past.

The raw edges of the wounds were trimmed up nice and neat and the stitching began. It took five little black knots to pull things back together. After a bath of Betadyne, Sam cleaned up the tray. He returned with gauze pads and tape. As he heavily padded the wounds, he told the Admiral, “You may get another scar from this.”

The knives in the Admiral's eyes sliced deeper than the glass. Just what he needed - more scars to explain to people who didn't care. “Aw gee, that's number 463. I'm hoping to break 500 before I die. Think I will?”

Sam's comment came out wrong and was understood wrong. “I didn't mean anything. It's just that you already have some scars on your hands.” He could taste his foot poking farther into his mouth.

“Noticed that, did you?”

Sam tossed the empty gauze packets into the trash. “Sorry.” He deposited the scissors and tweezers in the cleaning unit. “If that starts to hurt, take a couple of aspirin and then you should see your own doctor tomorrow.”

The Admiral closed his eyes. The kid was trying to be helpful and all he wanted to do was clobber him. No reason to want to do that. Anyhow, the kid was more than half a head taller and had about 40 pounds more muscle than he did, but he figured that he could take the civilian scientist. Maybe not. All of a sudden, he seemed to recall that Beckett knew all that Asian martial arts crap. Hell, even so, there was no reason to be a smart ass, so in keeping with the evening, he went for smart ass. “You're a doctor.”

“Yes, but your own doctor should follow up to be sure you don't get an infection.”

“You a good doctor?”

That question never presented itself to him before. His mother Thelma would tell him not to be boastful, but Papa John would tell him not to minimize his capabilities. To placate both, he said, “Some people think I am.”

“Good. Then you're my doctor.”

“Me?” He stammered, “I don't have a practice.”

The Admiral wanted to see if this Beckett kid could stand up for himself. “So, you're not a good doctor, then.”

“But I am!” He was surprised to hear the words pop out so quickly.

“Okay then. Meet me in my office tomorrow afternoon at two.” He never could leave well enough alone. “You can check out my new scars.” Standing up was easier than it should have been. Amazing what adrenalin, pain and some sobering reality could do. “Now, go home. You should have a life that doesn't keep you here till four in the morning.”

He thought he said it quietly, so quietly that only he could hear, but the admiral turned around with a snap when Sam said, “You should, too.”

“Yeah, I should.” Before he opened the door to leave he said, “Get out of here and don't come back until two.” He walked out and climbed back up to his office. His hand was starting to throb which either meant his adrenalin was exhausted or the scotch was wearing off way too soon. Didn't matter. The couch in the conference room would have to suffice for a bed. He wasn't about to drive home feeling like he was. His eyes could barely stay open, but before he made his way to the conference room, he spied the document he threw out earlier. Beckett's computer really did fascinate him. Pulling it from the trash bin spent all his strength. He folded the bent-up corner of the cover back into place. After dumping it on his desk, he took off for some sleep before his 8:30 meeting that was only four hours away.

Meanwhile, Sam returned to the commissary to retrieve his folders. He tucked them into a backpack and decided to go home. Calavicci was right. He needed a life, but this seemed like the only kind of life he'd ever have. Orders were orders, though. The head man told him not to come in until two in the afternoon and with that, he left Starbright for three rooms on the third floor of a walkup building on the edge of the good part of town.

The End