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Vacation Week / Born Loser, Chapter Three

Sadly, my vacation week is coming to an end.  But I do get one more day off from the blog, which means it's time for another sample chapter from Born Loser.  If you haven't read the others, catch up with Chapter One and Chapter Two from earlier this week.  And when you're done with all that, go buy the full book from  Only three dollars for a Kindle version!

Chapter Three

I met him at the bar to commiserate when he found out.  He was already nose-deep in his third martini by the time I got there.

“I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” he said, struggling to make eye contact.

“Does Sarah know?” I asked.

He nodded. “She’s the one who got the call.”

“Sorry, man.  That really sucks.”  Fine words of comfort for a fine friend.

He spent the next few minutes breaking down the sales for me in case I hadn’t figured out the gravity of the situation.

Years ago, when they were first starting out, Whittle Enterprises had a more diverse line of products; the intent was to manufacture upscale frozen dinners and sell them to lazy gourmands.  Goulash, salmon with lemon ceviche, broiled asparagus tips served in a bleu cheese sauce with a truffle aioli.  That kinda stuff.  The profit margins were slim since the raw materials were so pricey.  But it was fine because the company was small and didn’t need a huge net to operate.

Then they bought a contract with the farms on the Eastern shore and opened up what they called the Paste Line.  That was where they made all the tasty stuff that you don’t ever want to see being processed: the big bins where they chemically separated every last fiber of meat from discarded chicken bones, the oversized blender that chopped it and mixed it in with salt and sugar, the little squirty machine that fed it out into tiny child-sized portions.  The Paste Line turned out to be the most profitable, so the entire company was built around it.

“The county,” he mumbled, letting his train of thought crash into the slowly-depleting elixir in his hand.  “The county.”

For as profitable as the Paste Line was, Whittle Enterprises remained a tiny business.  They mainly sold their product as the generic brand to various grocery store chains.  But then one day he had a few beers with a buddy who worked in the Director of Finance’s office in Baltimore County.  And suddenly he landed himself a multi-million dollar contract to provide french fries and chicken nuggets to every municipal cafeteria for the next decade.

“Everything has been built around it,” he said, tossing back the rest of Number Three and ordering Number Four.

But there was a problem.  The fine residents of Baltimore County suddenly decided to start making more money.  And with an upturn in income came an upturn in housing purchases and every other taxable offense, which came with an upturn in revenue, which came with an upturn in the budget for food, which just happened to sync up nicely with the Fitness 4 Kidz initiative.

“Chicken nuggets are healthy!” Mark grumbled, his mood shifting from maudlin to rage.  “You don’t think we think about that?  Course we do!  We add vitamins!”

“What about the prisons?” I asked.  “Or hospitals or something?”

“Nothing,” he said.  “It’s all over.”

“Can’t you just go back to making healthy foods?  What about frozen vegetables?”

He shook his head.  “Different equipment.  Different line.  We’d need to buy all new stuff, and even if we did, there’s no guarantee we’ll ever land another contract like that.”

Then I asked, “What about your savings?  Don’t you have enough to buy new equipment?”  As if maybe he forgot he had a huge stash of money somewhere.  A guy like this, you never know.

That hit a nerve.  Mark went off for about fifteen minutes explaining to me how that wasn’t an option.  Something about liquidity, frozen assets, tax liability, unemployment, et cetera, et cetera.  The bottom line was that even after selling off some properties and re-budgeting, he was going to be short at least a hundred grand.

“And the bank won’t loan it,” he slurred.  “They say I’m ‘overextended.’  What the hell do they know?”

My other attempts at some genius solution failed.  I wasn’t a business guy.  So I just drank with him and tried my hand at gentle platitudes like, “You’ll be alright” or “You’ll land on your feet.”

Meanwhile, the gamer part of me was outraged.  Bad strategy, dude.  You never put all your eggs in one basket.  Didn’t you have a backup plan?  An exit strategy?

As we got further into our stupor, I wondered how many people ruin their lives by thinking that things will always stay the same.  Maybe if people played more board games, they’d realize that all plans eventually fail, and you need to be ready to switch up your approach.

Then again, Mark was a gamer.  And it didn’t help him.


We woke up in his living room the next morning.  I’m pretty sure we walked there.  I hope we did, anyway.

Sarah, patient and kind as usual, made us a greasy, starchy meal and let us scarf it down with some aspirin before she picked a fight.  “Enjoy the couch?” she asked Mark.  She had that tone in her voice that said she didn’t have the energy to deal with his drunk ass.  But the truth was that she loved that drunk ass, no matter how angry it made her.

Mark just shrugged and said, “It was okay.”

Apologize to her, you dummy.  I tried to tell him through bleary eye signals.

Mark just bit into his hash browns and said, “This could use some salt.”

Ugh.  I excused myself before he made things worse.  He had a long afternoon of getting yelled at to look forward to, so I figured I’d slip out and enjoy the Saturday morning as well as one can when their guts feel like somebody’s squishing them in a vice.

As bad as I felt, I was still up for a couple of rounds of Gloom.  I decided to drop by Top-Table Games for a quick fix before heading back home to sleep off the rest of the pain.

It was dead.  Not a single customer – not even any browsers.  Clara was reading a magazine at the counter while David was in the rear office, shouting something at the TV.

“Slow day?” I tried to downplay the obvious economic struggle.

Clara acknowledged me with a miffed grunt.  Without looking up from her magazine, she asked, “Looking for a table?”

I glanced at the empty shop.  “Guess I’m out of luck.”

“You’re free to set up and wait if you’ve got the patience.”

The customer-facing side of the shop was divided into a neatly-organized library where they kept their stock and a small gaming lobby in the back.  In many ways it resembled more of a cafĂ© than a store.

I pulled their social copy of Gloom off the table in the common area and took out the cards, arranging the board for a two-person game.

“Care for a match?” I asked aloud.

She tossed the magazine aside.  “I guess there’s nothing else to do,” she said, making her way back to the table.

Perfect.  My presence rates only slightly above doing nothing.

“You think David’s in?”

“If you can get him,” she said, taking her seat.  “They’re showing Red Dawn and Delta Force back to back on TBS.”

Right on cue, we heard David shout, “Eat it, Khrushchev!”

It was a forgone conclusion that he would not be joining us, but I figured I’d give it a shot anyway.  I went to the rear office – rather, the closet they had stuck a computer, a surveillance system, and a filing cabinet in and then called an “office” – and gave him a quick greeting.

David was wearing his fatigues again.  It was hard to tell whether it was a single pair that he wore constantly or if it was one in a series of a half dozen identical sets.  Wouldn’t surprise me either way.
The little nook where he was nestled was likewise decorated with whatever military memorabilia he could afford on eBay.  The centerpiece was a spent WWII mortar shell that glowed from its stately home on an accent shelf, adorned by dog tags from David’s grandfathers.  Knowing David, I suspected he had the gun that fired it, too.  Probably buried in his basement with all the other weapons he collected.

“You up for a game of Gloom?” I offered.

He glanced away from the television only long enough to scrunch up his face in bafflement.   “They’re about to liberate the town,” he said, borderline whined. Patrick Swayze’s dense face ballooned in the frame and pouted at me.

“Alright,” I surrendered, leaving the office.  David was a friendly guy, but even so, I have a policy about not annoying people with guns.

I sat with Clara and we played for about twenty minutes without getting into any kind of real discussion.  But eventually the overwhelming silence – the Wolverines’ lamentations aside – got to me.

“What is going on today?” I asked.  “Where is everybody?”

“It’s been like this lately,” she said, reviving one of my characters, thus putting her back in the lead for points.  “Each weekend it’s been getting worse.”

“I’ve never seen it this bad.”

“Today’s actually better than last week.”


She met my eyes, a weary and half-hopeful look.  “Because you’re here.”

After a display like that, I was obligated to buy something.  I didn’t have much cash on me, but I committed to a used copy of Seven Wonders.  Right after I finished losing the present game.
We talked a little more about the general decline of the business.  The obvious questions:  Why?  What are you going to do?  You holding up okay?

She had few good answers. Not enough word of mouth. A few failed experiments.  Competition from online shopping.  She finally settled on, “There’s not really any special secret.  Sometimes businesses just fail.”

“But everybody loves Top-Table Games!” I said.  “You guys are the best!”

“If only you had another thirty friends who felt that way.”

David emerged from his war cave, his keys in his hand.  He surveyed his store and said, “Still booming, huh?”  Then, motioning to the door, “I’m going to head out for a quick walk.”

“Where the hell are you going?” Clara snapped.

“I got a text from an army buddy.  I’m going to meet him for a drink.”

“It’s the middle of the day!”

He dismissed her with a hand wave.  “I won’t be long.  God….” Then he was out the door and on his way.

Clara pulled back her rage as best as she could.  “He’s not helping any, either,” she said.  “I don’t think he takes it seriously anymore.”

It’s hard to ask the things you want without being a nosy prick.  But I tried, anyway.  “Are you guys doing alright?”

“He just acts like it’s no big deal that we’re going under.  He used to be more passionate about the business, you know?”  There was evidence of some bittersweet memory dancing in her mind’s eye. “Lately it seems like he’s given up.  He won’t go to conventions to pass out our card.  He doesn’t host anymore tournaments.”

“Maybe he’s got a secret business on the side,” I said.  Then, with a half chuckle, I said, “Have you checked if he’s growing pot in the back?”

Clara wasn’t in the mood.  She set her head in her hand and finished the game with a persistent glum look hanging on her face.  Even when she won, victory barely registered.

“I wish I could just buy the business from him,” she said.  “He’s a better boyfriend than he is a partner.  At this point, I wouldn’t even need that much to get him to sign it over.”

I had no comment.  Just another one of us schmucks dreaming for a richer life, and my head wasn’t getting any better.  As I grabbed my copy of Seven Wonders, a customer – probably another Hopkins student – came inside to browse their display of Dominion expansion sets.

“Maybe it’s looking up,” I said on my way out.

Clara wasn’t as hopeful.


We all met again later that day for Game Night at Mark’s place.  It was starting to feel like another one of those weekends where I lived there.

Sarah had – perhaps reluctantly – offered to spend the night looking over their expense reports, so she was sitting this one out.  It was going to be another night with the Crime Club: Mark, Lacey, Clara, John, Drew, and me.

You could feel the weight of money troubles on the table.  When half of your gamers are facing a looming financial crisis, things tend to go sour quickly.

“How about a game of Viva Java?” I asked.  It’s a game where you compete to see who can put together the best coffee business in the world and make a bunch of money, so… no, nobody was interested.

“Okay, what about Crunch?” I tried again.  Let’s see… this one was an investment banker-themed game where you dick over your friends to see who can extort the most money from fantasy customers via one-sided loans.  Drew was pretty psyched about that one.  But nobody else was.

Around that time Lacey gave me a look that said, “Are you going to suggest Monopoly next, you jackass?”  So I kept my mouth shut.

Drew scoffed and grabbed Mark’s set of Jenga.  “Get out of your heads,” he said as he put the bricks together.  “What’s wrong with everyone?  Who died?”

There was a long, sitcomish silence where we waited for somebody to raise their hand and say, “Actually, my brother just died,” but that didn’t happen.  We just sat in morbid, angry silence while pulling wooden bricks out of a hastily-cobbled tower.

When I pulled the last one and made it collapse, Mark, Lacey, and Clara all said, at the same time, some variation of, “We’re going out of business.”

Then there was an exchange of accusing glances.  Mark was surprised that Lacey had tried to say it before him, Lacey was upset that Mark hadn’t said it sooner, Clara was relieved/horrified that she had company, John was terrified that he’d lose one of his favorite haunts, and Drew just arched a single, unimpressed eyebrow.

Questions were thrown back and forth in a panic.  Lots of hows and whys and whens.  Then it all settled down and we started putting together a game of Red Planet.

“I can put in a good word for you at the bank,” John said aloud to no one especially.  “If you want to look for a business loan.”

“Or we can rob it,” Drew laughed.

There were some light chuckles – the polite golf clap form of laughter.  Drew made a funny.  Good job, Drew!  Who else would like to make a funny?

And then Mark said, “I’m in.”

“In what?”

Mark just shrugged.  “Why not?  Let’s rob it.”

“For the last time!  We’re not robbing my bank!” John whined.

“We already have a pretty decent plot,” Mark said, patting the air in front of John’s shoulders.  “We have a team, we have the brains… the only thing we were missing before was the motivation, but it looks like we’ve got plenty of that.”

Drew smiled that horrible douchey smile he had whenever he was winning at something.  “Alright,” he said.  “You want to try it?”

“I’m in,” said Clara.  “I can’t deal with any more debt.  I’d rather go to prison than make another interest payment.”

Lacey’s eyes met mine.  I saw that joyful twinkle that always tugged on my heart.  “I’m in, too,” she said.


“Alright,” I said, still looking straight at her.  “I guess I’ll help.”

And then all eyes were on John.

He sputtered and snapped, “You bastards.”  Then, rubbing his eyes, “I guess I’m in.  But I swear to God, if you guys land me in prison, I’m going to make sure you get shivved.  I don’t care how many cocks I have to suck – you’ll go down.”


It still took a little while to put things together.  Even with the bare-bones scheme we had in our back pocket.

“We need the right opportunity,” Drew kept saying.

And then either Clara or Mark would say something like, “By the time we get the opportunity we’ll be bankrupt.”

So they’d bicker.  Then they’d think about ways the robbery could fall apart, and they’d discuss exit strategies.  They’d accuse each other of being self-serving.  They’d throw a fit when things didn’t go their way.  I guess what I’m saying is that Game Night didn’t actually change all that much.

But you don’t want to hear about that part.  So let’s skip ahead to two weeks later when Drew told us he had found a good lead.


“I’ve got it,” Drew said.  “It’s perfect!  You see, it’s not really the bank we’ll rob.  That’s the beauty of it!”  He leaned back and explained the rest of the plot with his feet up on the table.  “We keep talking about keeping things low stakes.  And if you go after the bank, they’ll come after you.  So what we want to go after is a safety deposit box.”

“Those are still secure,” said John.  “That’s kind of the point.”

Drew threw a dismissive wave.

John went on, “And you’re on camera the whole time.  Plus, it’s not like you get to go into the back room and open up whatever box you want.  You just open the one that belongs to you.”

“Or the one that belongs to your target,” said Drew.

We waited.  Lacey shivered with anticipation.  “Yeah?” she prodded.

Drew reached into his jacket – did I mention that he always came to Game Night in a sports jacket?  Slimy son of a bitch.  What kind of prick goes around wearing Armani to hang out with a bunch of mouth-breathing neckbeards like us?

Anyway.  He reached into his jacket and pulled out a packet.  Then he tossed it on the table for dramatic flair and folded his arms.

When nobody did anything, John asked, “Am I supposed to open that?”

Drew sighed and picked the packet back up.  Unfolding it, he slid out a manila folder that he handed to John, then he slid out a stack of paper-clipped forms that he handed to Mark.  While they flipped through their important-looking documents, Drew fished out one more surprise: an 8 x 11 glossy photo of a well-groomed late-thirties man hunched over in a thoughtful pose.

“You guys know who this is?” Drew asked, holding up the photo for all to see.

Nobody did.

“His name was Jason Marlowe.”

Still nothing.

Drew snapped, “Jesus, don’t any of you read the news?”

Then Clara said, “The name sounds kind of familiar.  Didn’t he die?”

“Yes.  Just a week ago.”

“I think I read about it.”  Clara rubbed her chin on that, chewing the thought into mulch, and then added, “He was like a tech guy?”

Drew clicked his tongue.  “Right you are.  Tech guy.  Jason Marlowe was Baltimore’s own little mini version of Steve Jobs. Specialized in medical software and robotics.  His net worth was something in the neighborhood of fifty million.”

I scoffed.  “You call that low stakes?”

He ignored me and said, “The problem is that Marlowe’s will isn’t especially clear.  He gave power of attorney to his wife and asked for all of his assets to be divided between four or five beneficiaries, but he didn’t give any other description of what those assets include.  And there’s the rub.”

He sat down and continued his story.  “Despite presenting himself as a young and hip guy, Marlowe was actually something of a shut-in.  Paranoid as hell.  He didn’t trust banks and he liked having backup plans.”

A gamer at heart, I thought.

“So he split up all of his money and possessions and scattered them all over the place.  A hundred grand here, half a million there – that kind of thing.”

“So we’re going after some of his spare change,” I said.

I think Drew was angry that I stole his thunder.  He glared at me for a while before he went on.  “Since it’s such a mess, the probate court brought me and a whole bunch of guys in to help figure it out.  I gotta tell you – the guy was certifiably insane.  He’s got random pockets of cash stashed all over the place like Easter eggs.  So far we’ve found over ninety different accounts and deposit boxes, and we’re learning about new ones every day.  Twenty of them are just inside of Baltimore alone.”

“It’s perfect!” Lacey suddenly shouted.  “With that much money to track down, you can slip in and clear one out and nobody would ever notice until it’s too late!”

“Exactly.  We find one with a decent payout and we’ll be set.  For a while.”

Drew fetched another stack of papers from the packet – this one a series of printouts from the web.  There was a Google Maps search of downtown Baltimore, with one building circled in red.  Premier National Bank.

John’s bank.  He just scoffed at it.  “D’ya think I forgot where to find it?”

Drew tapped his finger on the circle and said, “He has a safety deposit box in there with three hundred grand.”

That stopped the room cold.  I imagine that we were all thinking the same thing.  I could really use fifty thousand dollars.

Once the awe wore off, Clara was the first one to ask the next obvious question.  “How are we going to get into his deposit box?”

Drew grinned.

“We’re going to need a volunteer.  Who wants to wear the wig?” he asked.