A Relationship Beckons: Bad News Delivered (#13)
To read this serialized blog of A Relationship Beckons from the beginning, click here: Crisis Averted #1. Then navigate to subsequent posts using the links in the upper corners.
Luca and Il Gigante
Luca Clivio and Lorenzo Esposito a.k.a. Il Gigante had watched Fernando Gomez leave his modest Norfolk domicile ninety minutes earlier. The pair had trailed–at a discreet distance–the commander of the Gomez Familia in Luca’s Mercedes S-class sedan to three locations in the Tidewater area. Twenty-five minutes ago, Gomez and his three bodyguards stopped at a international corner market owned by a Vietnamese couple on the outskirts of the Chesterfield Heights District of Norfolk.
Luca surmised that the Cuban Gomez probably would refer to the the establishment as a bodega. Luca and his new, unwelcome partner watched the tense interaction through a pair of field glasses the mammoth man produced from inside his coat. Il Gigante peered through the glasses for thirty seconds moving his head back for forth slightly taking in the scene. The store’s windows were half-covered with colorful signs over equally colorful inventory. Even without the binoculars, Luca could partially make out the unfolding interaction. Il Gigante offered the glasses to Luca with a solitary word, “Pizzo.” Protection money. Luca had already concluded the same.
Luca nodded once and accepted them. Raising them to his eyes, he was rewarded with a magnified view. Two of Gomez’s bodyguards had taken up flanking positions behind the counter on either side of the petrified couple while the third stood a post outside the door. In the few minutes since the cabal arrived, this man had barred entrance to two potential customers. Just inside the glass door, Gomez partially obscured behind a bread rack was delivering a message. The Cuban leader moved his head in a calm, but authoritative manner. His words were most likely being dispensed in a soothing yet menacing manner. The man and the woman nodded apprehensively in response.
This must have been the Cuban’s first encounter with these “protectees”. His gut roiled as a growing frustration swelled in his rib cage. Luca had come to know the Cuban’s modus operandi. He himself had used it many times.
Right now, Gomez was explaining in his heavily accented English that the bodega was now under the protection of his organization. They would be required to pay a weekly protection fee, probably somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 a week. In exchange, the Vietnamese couple would be assured that no one would bother them or their business. If anyone harassed or stole from them, Gomez’s boys would take erase the problem. If they failed to pay, Gomez could not ensure a disaster would not befall their little enterprise. Luca knew these tactics well. He and his crew employed the same strategies. But Luca also knew that Gomez would ask the couple for one more assurance in exchange for their hard earned cash. Inside the crowded aisles of their establishment, drug deals and money transfers would take place whenever Gomez demanded–out of public view. And the couple would look the other way. Luca had learned this fact from one of his crew. The young man had stumbled upon a shakedown. When he told them they were on Luca’s turf he had been savagely beaten and was now recovering at Sentara Norfolk General.
Luca’s anger was not the result of sympathy for this distressed couple. This area was his territory and Gomez and his thugs were horning in, stealing his protection money and customers for drugs, whores and gambling. They were the reason his profits had shriveled. They were the reason he was in hot water with Big Tommy Romano. And this was why Big Tommy had ordered Luca to eradicate the problem, the infected vermin were to be exterminated.
Luca had not had the stones to come to the conclusion himself. No, instead, Big Tommy had given Luca the mandate, pronouncing that Luca must handle the situation. Big Tommy looked down upon him for allowing the problem devolve to this extent. For all his bluster and chest-thumping to his guys, Luca deep-down was not a killer. He was not a ruffian. He was a drug-addicted member of the Romano crime family who tried to appear tougher than he actually was.
When the Asian couple had handed over their first payment and been thoroughly terrorized, Gomez and his trio departed. They trailed the quartet to two more locations, watching them perform the same song and dance in Virginia Beach and Chesapeake. As they pulled to a stop at the last location, Luca finally summoned the courage to ask the question that had been bothering him.
“You do have some kind of plan, don’t you, Lorenzo? I mean how are we going to get past the….buffones?” Luca inserted a Hispanic racial slur before the last word.
Il Gigante’s protruding, misshapen lips spread into a malicious smile, moving like giant worms pushing the pock marked skin over his cheeks toward his ears like a living mask. “I have been following this stronzo for the last two weeks,” he grunted. “I know where he’s going next. He goes there every day…same time…same place. We will take him there.” Il Gigante rotated his enormous head to the left and leveled his malevolent pair of dark eyes on Luca. “Do not use that term… again.” Il Gigante dropped a heavy mitt on Luca’s forearm. His meaty fingers squeezed until Luca winced. “It offends me. This guy is a business man. He will be treated with respect. Right up until the time you put a bullet in his head. Capisce?”
Luca felt his Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed heavily. Shit, he thought. If Il Gigante had been following Gomez for two weeks that meant that Big Tommy had ordered him to do it. And that meant Big Tommy had been aware of what was going on for longer than Luca had intimated to Luca. He felt his stock plummeting in Tommy’s dark, evil eyes. Luca nodded once acknowledging Il Gigante. He wrenched his arm free from his grasp and croaked his next question. “So what’s the plan?”
“When they get where they’re going, I will distract the buffones. You will kill…the Spaniard.”
Jake sat in the hard uncomfortable metal and vinyl chair in the medium-sized conference room in the Alliance Pharmacy’s district office in Williamsburg as he waited for Stephan Willings, his manager to materialize. The secretary, a stout gray-haired maven who performed scheduling and other various administrative duties was the gatekeeper and resident pit bull for the five managers at this location, had pointed him to the room to wait in exile. The color scheme was robin’s egg blue trimmed in a faded white. Four inspirational posters dotted the distressed walls professing teamwork, determination and taking care of the customer. Jake found them offensive. He had come to realize that Alliance Pharmacy, his employer, only cared about one thing. Profits.
He had driven north to Williamsburg directly from his breakfast with Caroline Clivio. As he slipped onto Interstate 64, Jake phoned his mother and asked her to watch Lizzie for another couple of hours. “Work had called. They need me to meet with them,” he explained. His mother required no further explanation. She was a saint, he told himself, as he pressed the accelerator encouraging more power from the Tundra’s twin-turbo V-6.
As he left the parking lot of the restaurant, Jake had decided that he wouldn’t ignore his idiot boss, Stephan Willings, any longer. Even though that’s exactly what he wanted to do. Willings would not let the matter of closing the drive thru drop. Jake knew what was going to happen. Willings was going to write him up. He’d decided he would take his proverbial medicine and get on with things. By signing the write-up Jake knew that Willings would stop riding his ass–at least–for the moment. But Jake was not about to take the reprimand lying down. His next step would be to file a complaint with the Virginia Board of Pharmacy. As the Pharmacist-in-charge, Jake was supposed to be in complete control of the practice of pharmacy at his location. Willings–and by extension Alliance Pharmacy telling him he couldn’t close the drive thru–were usurping his authority. The Board of Pharmacy would be very interested in this development. The ever-constant rolling wheels of corporate pharmacy with their labor shortages and payroll cuts and increasing workload demands were at odds with the safe practice of pharmacy. But they weren’t about to let patient’s well fare stand in the way of the bottom line. Pharmacists and their technicians were caught between a demanding public and their even more demanding corporate task masters. It was a problem that had been growing out of control like an untreated infection. Since the start of the pandemic, the crisis had swelled to ridiculous proportions and had failed to subside. The retail pharmacy industry was in deep, deep trouble.
Their efforts to trim and cut in order to cut expenses and save profits were not working. Alliance had been hemorrhaging cash for the last five years. They were ripe to be swallowed whole by one of the pharmacy behemoths like Walgreens or CVS. But the higher ups kept pushing the same old mantra. More shots. More prescriptions. And less hours with which to get them all done.
As he sped along the highway, Jake temporarily forced that troubling work matter from his mind. He spent the remainder of his drive focusing on the woman who’d just bought him breakfast. She seemed to be a very engaged, concerned mother to her son, Peter. She was a knockout. Curvy in all the right places with sharp, intelligent eyes tinged with a malleable hardness that rested just behind her magnetic irises. Her near breakdown was inconsistent with her bearing of composure and strength. She recovered quickly and moved on, Jake recalled. His years in the Corps as an officer had blessed him with an unique ability to read people. Caroline Clivio had seen some shit in her life. And she was stronger for it.
Their encounter had been awkward, polite and–intriguing. He had mentioned the possibility of a lunch meeting at Schooners in the future just before taking her to the second restaurant. It was something one usually said to mollify a person who was upset. A reflexive response. Perhaps, not one’s true intent. During breakfast, Caroline had asked him if he’d allow her and Peter to become his patients. It was a compliment. And Jake had to admit, he was intrigued at the thought of seeing her again even if it was professionally. The man in him was curious about this woman. The objective part of him warned to keep this potential entanglement at arms length. She had also picked up on his offhanded offer for a second meeting. The internal conflict inside him had only allowed him to manage a lukewarm response. She had also deftly managed to bring up the subject of Jake’s wife. Jake had not corrected nor informed her about the true circumstances. But she had not seemed deterred by the possibility. Caroline Clivio But his interest had been piqued–
His thoughts were quickly interrupted when two individuals breezed into the conference room. Their gait, scowls and hurried yet serious bearing struck Jake immediately. The first through the door was Stephan Willings. The slight, hunch-shouldered weasel with the crooked nose Jake had quickly come to despise. The second appeared ready to crawl up Willings’s backside. She was a tall, lithe black woman, Althea Downs, the regional vice president for pharmacy operations. In his six years at Alliance, Jake had met her only twice. About five-seven in three inch heels, she carried herself with a regal air and walked as if her spine were a steel rod. She was polite but possessed an edge when challenged could produce a razor-sharp response that withered the unprepared. When she asked questions, she demanded direct, short to-the-point answers. She had no time for unnecessary chatter. And like most of the corporate muckety-mucks at Alliance and throughout the industry, she wanted to hear what she wanted to hear. The frontline pharmacists and technicians were motivated to comply because when these entourages made their quarterly visits to inspect operations, they had prescriptions to fill and registers to ring. Their visits always put them farther behind than they already were and adding to the stress.
Downs’s oval face was set in perfect cocoa skin with large round piercing eyes beneath a tight-curled blonde hairstyle. Her no-nonsense comportment was amplified by her sharply-attired female physique. A stark white pants suit over a lavender blouse with the aforementioned black three-inch pumps. Both wrists sported what appeared to be a dozen metallic bracelets. When she moved her expertly-manicured hands as she spoke, they rattled like the dreaded jangle of a prison guard’s key chain.
“Good morning, Mr. Murphy,” Downs said in a silky smooth but firm tone as she dropped a file folder on the table. She lowered herself gracefully into the seat beside Jake.
Jake wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible. “Look,” he began. “I closed the drive-thru because patient safety was at risk. I was down a technician and the environment was not conducive to safety. I told Willings here exactly that yesterday.”
Downs placed the knuckles of one hand against her pursed lips. “You know the company’s policy against closing the drive-thru–”
“I’m well aware of the company’s policy,” Jake interrupted. “My policy,” he emphasized the word “my”, “is the provide a safe work environment for me, my staff and my patients. An environment that reduces the chances that we will make an error.” His eyes whipsawed between Downs and the weasel Willings, finally settling on Willings. Jake held the skinny man’s gaze until the coward looked away.
“I understand your concern–”
“No you don’t.”
The vice president bristled. She paused then said as evenly as possible. “I’m a pharmacist too, Jake. I’ve been where you are. We all have.” She cast a quick glance at her subordinate, Willings.
“Then what are you doing to fix the problem?”
“You can’t close the drive-thru. You have to increase the wait times. The drive thru must stay open. Patients depend on that service. If you wanted to close it, you need to get permission.”
“I don’t have time to wait for you or–him–” Jake pointed at his boss, “to give me permission.” Jake sighed and shook his head. “You’re here to write me up for closing the drive thru. Just give me the form. I’ll sign it and be on my way.”
Downs made a gesture of surrender. She opened the folder and produced a typewritten document. Jake had seen the likes of it before. It was the Alliance Pharmacy corporate documentation form. It was neatly filled out with several paragraphs of text. She slid it over to him along her with a fancy fountain pen.
Jake read quickly but carefully. It contained all the legal mumbo-jumbo about failure abide by corporate policy. And if it happened again, it would potentially lead to more documentations up to and including termination. Jake picked up the pen, poised it over the paper for several beats the scratched his name on the signature line.
“I promise you. This is not over. As the pharmacist on-duty and the pharmacist-in-charge, I am supposed to have complete control of what happens in that pharmacy when I’m filling prescriptions and so does my partner.” Jake’s partner was the other pharmacist assigned to his store who worked when Jake was off. Her name was Gretchen Collins. Jake dropped the pen with finality. “The Board of Pharmacy is going to hear about this.”
Downs replied without hesitation as if she had been expecting this statement from Jake. “I’d be careful about doing that. It could be bad for…you.”
“Why?” Jake shot back. Then it occurred to him that he had also made the same threat about going to the Board when he handed Willings the Pharmacy Working Conditions Document yesterday. Willings had obviously shared it with Downs. Jake’s eyes bore holes into him. He addressed the next statement to Downs but kept his eyes on Willings. “Are you threatening me?”
“I’m just saying be careful how you handle yourself, is all.”
“Because you are going to want the company behind you in the next days, weeks and months.”
Jake furrowed his brow. His question was unspoken but nonetheless hanging between them.
Downs smile curtly and continued. “You see, Jake. Another issue has come up.”
“Okay.” Jake turned his hands toward the ceiling in a gesture that said, “I’m listening.”
“Jake, there’s been a drug error. A serious drug error that was reported just yesterday. It appears there has been injury to a patient. And it was your drug error.”
Deb Perry, Luca’s girlfriend, vixen and surveillance expert, sat slouched in her BMW in her driveway, holding her phone and wishing it could transport her to another dimension and away from this sordid, surreal affair. She could feel everything on the verge of spiralling out of control. With great effort, she alighted from the car and trudged to the front door of the north building of the Windward Towers on the northern shore of the James River a stone’s throw from the shipyard. Exiting the elevator on the sixth floor, she needed four tries to slide her key in the lock. Exhausted, every fiber in her body craved sleep.
But she had to do one thing before her head hit the pillow. She had to make the dreaded call to Luca. Inside, she dropped her bag on the sofa, toed off her ankle boots and walked into the kitchen and pulled a bottle of water from the fridge, oblivious to the gorgeous panorama for the James River bridge and the historic river spreading out beyond her large windows.
She pulled Luca’s number up from her favorites list and thumbed the call to life. It rang several times before she heard Luca’s strained, hoarse voice. “It’s about f-cking time,” he hissed.
“Where are you?” Deb asked, trying to deflect his anger.
“I’m taking care of some business.”
“Tommy Romano’s business. Are you–you know–doing it–today?”
By the background noise, she could tell Luca was in a moving car. “What did you find out?” Luca demanded.
Deb sighed. “It’s not good.”
“I’m in no mood for games, mi cara.” The term of endearment held no love in it. The sarcasm hit her like a slap in the face. He was sobering up. His words were no longer slurred. There was a keen, desperate intensity in them.
“Well, it’s like this.” She skipped the part about following Caroline to the hospital and the pharmacy. Luca had already shown up unexpectedly after she’d informed him that Caroline had taken Peter to the emergency room after leaving the pharmacy. For three minutes, she laid out what she’d over the last twenty four hours explaining that Caroline had stopped at a lawyer’s office carrying a manila envelope. She hesitated letting that information sink in and all that it implied. Luca only grunted. The sound of his breathing seemed to quicken.
“And she had breakfast this morning…with a man,” she explained. The breathing stopped. Only the distant sound of rubber on the road coming through the phone. Deb had ventured into the pharmacy yesterday following Caroline after she entered Alliance Pharmacy in a panic. She pretended to look at greeting cards as she eyed the events outside the pharmacy. The pharmacist administered a breathing medicine to Luca’s son, Peter. During the hurried chaos, she’d gotten a good look at the pharmacist. Deb plunged ahead. “It was the pharmacist that helped your son with his asthma attack.”
The silence stretched endlessly. When Luca ended it, his next words were lethal and ominous. “Figlio di puttana.” This was followed by a lengthy, sinister tirade in agitated and speedy Italian that Deb did not understand. Unfortunately, she knew exactly what the words meant.
-To Be Continued-
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