Pete Dwyer Sr. was waiting for me that morning, staked out in the reception area with a newspaper, a couple of bear claws from Dunkin' Donuts, and a big cup of coffee. I knew he'd heard me coming down the corridor, but he didn't bother to look up until I spoke.
"Why is it so hot in here?" I asked, sliding out of my coat. It must have been ninety degrees in the office suite. Pete had peeled off most of his outer layers, and still he looked steamy and flushed, maybe because he was sipping hot coffee.
"Damn heating system," he said, almost spitting the words out. "One more thing around here that don't work."
"Are we responsible or is the airport authority?"
"It's the airport. At least once every winter the heating system in the whole building goes wacky. Usually takes them a week to fix it."
"A week?" A withering prospect.
He folded his paper, collected his breakfast, and stood right behind me as I unlocked my office door. Once inside, he settled into one of the desk chairs, looking more at home in my office than I did, and watched me with those cool gray eyes, cool despite the ambient temperature and the hot beverage.
"I can't believe you're drinking hot coffee."
"I was outside working all night. It ain't this hot out there."
"Then let's go out there." I didn't wait for an answer, just grabbed my coat and walked out. After a stop for hot tea, we went to the outbound bag room, where it was noisy but forty-five degrees cooler than my office. It was also the heart of the downstairs operation at this time of the morning. Bags and boxes came down in a steady stream from the ticket counter and from skycaps on the curb into the cavernous concrete bag room to be sorted, loaded into carts, and driven to the airplanes-hopefully the right ones.
I leaned in toward Pete and raised my voice to be heard over the grinding of the bag belts and the rumbling of the tugs streaming by with their bag-laden carts. "What can I do for you?"
He stuffed the last of his bear claw into his mouth and licked the sugar off his thumb. "Let's go to the office," he said.
I followed him to the far corner where a couple of flimsy Sheetrock walls with glass windows came together to form an office for the bag room crew chief. He took the desk chair for himself, leaving a rolling secretary's chair with a cracked leather seat and one armrest for me. We could still see the action in the bag room through the windows, but the rumbling of the system was muted, the closed door offering some relief from the constant grinding of the belts. It was quiet enough that I could hear the sound of Big Pete's palms polishing the skin of a grapefruit that had suddenly appeared in his hands. It must have been in the office. He took out a letter opener and began to peel it.
"Is that grapefruit yours?"
"You're holding an innocent man out of service," he announced, completely ignoring my question. "Petey was just an innocent bystander in this thing last night."
"I'm learning that no one is innocent here, and Victor's the union president, so why are you talking to me about this?"
"I don't trust Victor to handle the important stuff"- his eyes cut to my face-"and neither do you."
"Why do you say that?"
"It's true, ain't it?"
It was, of course, and though I didn't want to believe I'd been that transparent, I appreciated the respect he showed by telling me that I had been. It meant I could be equally blunt in return. "If Little Pete was a bystander, why would he have twelve stitches in his head? And I don't think Terry McTavish broke his own hand."
"Man jumps you from behind out of the clear blue and throws you down on the ramp, you're entitled to protect yourself."
"I haven't met Terry, but I'd like to meet the man who could sneak up on your son and throw him to the ground."
He suppressed a smile. "Must have been the element of surprise."
"Must have been. Look, I think I already know what happened last night." He drew back and looked at me all stiff-necked and squinty-eyed. "So instead of you trying to convince me it didn't, just tell me what you want."
He threw part of the peel in the trash, then leaned back and propped his feet up on the desk, his heels resting on the old, stained blotter. "All right. I know you're in a position here. You got appearances to think about, and you got to take some kind of action." As the peel fell away and the fresh citrus smell filled the office, I noticed that he had a hard time stripping the fruit because his fingernails were so short-painfully short-and ragged. They were not much more than nubs, and I knew that he was a nail biter because I had been, too. Big Pete Dwyer struck me as a lot of things, but a nail biter wasn't one. I wondered what it was that made him nervous.
He noticed me staring at his nails and dug his fingers into the fruit, pulling the sections apart. "To my way of thinking," he continued, "Terry threw the first punch. You want to can his ass, we won't fight you. I can guarantee he won't even file a grievance."
"And what happens to Little Pete?"
"He didn't do nothing, so he should come back to work." The grapefruit peel went into the garbage, and a slice of the fruit disappeared into his mouth.
"It's funny how that worked out." I shifted to find a comfortable spot on the cracked leather seat. There wasn't one, so I stood. "You and John McTavish get into a pissing contest the other night. The next thing I know, his brother Terry is in trouble under questionable circumstances. Is Terry aware that his union representative is offering up his job? More to the point, is John?"
"You don't need to worry about what goes on inside the union. You just need to worry about yourself." For a moment he actually made eye contact and held it. "I'm trying to help you out here."
It might have been my imagination, but he seemed oddly sincere even though he was trying hard not to be. There was no question he was trying to help himself and his son, but it was also possible that he truly believed he was helping me, too. "I appreciate the gesture," I said, "but it sounds as if your son is the one who needs help. I understand he has a problem with alcohol."
Pete didn't even stop chewing. "Yeah? Who says so?"
"He's worked under the influence in the past, I think he's doing it now, and I suspect he's the one who instigated the trouble last night, not Terry McTavish."
"My son ain't got no problem like that. If he did, nobody down here would tell you."
His face had betrayed nothing as he sucked another slice into his mouth and spat out a seed, but it wasn't without effort. I heard it in his voice. It was in the measured way he spoke and the precise way he formed his words. The strain was there. It sounded old, scabbed over, and I thought maybe I understood what made him chew his nails. Big Pete was no different than any other father with a screw-up for a son. I almost felt sorry for him.
"How much longer do you think you can cover for him? You can't watch him all the time."
"You don't have no case against my son." He finished off the last wedge and wiped his fingers on a piece of paper from the trash can. "You never will."
"I don't want him working around airplanes," I said.
"If he's working the ramp, he's working around airplanes."
"Then I'm going to have to find a way to make sure he's not working the ramp. What if he causes an accident? Could you live with yourself?"
"You shouldn't even say something like that."
"It scares you, too, doesn't it?"
He stood up slowly, more like uncoiled, and brushed a few wayward flakes of glazed sugar from his uniform shirt. He started toward me and didn't stop until I could smell the grapefruit on his breath. The muscles in my back tensed, and for the first time I felt uncomfortable with him. "My son is my responsibility," he said. "You leave him to me and you won't have no problems. But you push this thing, and you're going to regret the day you ever asked for this job."
I started to breathe a little faster. "Are you threatening me?"
He stepped around me, opened the door, and let the bag room noise come in. Then he leaned down and whispered in my ear. "Think about what happened to the girl who was here before you." I stared straight ahead, fixing my gaze on the letter opener he'd left on top of the desk. "You're all alone out here, just like she was, more alone than you think. I wouldn't want you to get depressed and kill yourself." I turned to look at his face, but he was already through the door and gone. I would never smell grapefruit again without that awful feeling of my heart dropping into the pit of my stomach.
Molly was at her desk fanning herself and looking as if she might pass out.
"Is someone working on fixing the heat?"
"This happens every year," she said breathlessly.
"So I hear. Why don't you go out and get some fans? Charge it to the company."
"It's the middle of winter in Boston. Where am I going to find fans?"
"How should I know, Molly? Just do something."
I went into my office and slammed the door. I went back to my desk and straight to my briefcase, where I found the fax from Ellen's house, the one asking for a meeting at the same time, same place. I smoothed it flat on the desk and wrote directly on the page, "Saturday, 7:00 PM, Ciao Bella on Newbury Street." It was the only restaurant in town that I knew. I signed my name, went out to the machine, and punched in the number to Sir Speedy in Nahant. My finger froze over the Enter button, giving me one last chance to appreciate what I was doing. I had no idea who had sent this message, and it was just my own instinct saying that it was friend, not foe. But I needed more people on my side, and if this was someone Ellen had trusted, maybe I could trust him or her, too.
I punched the button, the machine whirred to life, and the message was gone.