The hinges squealed, the door to the restaurant opened, and yet another party arrived at Ciao Bella not to have dinner with me. Fifteen minutes had stretched to thirty, thirty to forty-five. I had eaten too much bread with garlic-infused olive oil and watched a silent hockey game on the set over the bar. Anticipation had given way to frustration, frustration to starvation, and finally to ravioli. Twenty minutes after I'd finished eating, I was still there and still alone. I gave the waitress a big tip for holding her table so long and went out to Newbury Street.
I'd wasted an entire afternoon clenched in nervous anticipation, pacing around my hotel room, speculating as to who the mystery man was and what he could tell me. I'd worked up a good head of anxiety, and now I had no place to put it. The bright New England Saturday had disappeared, turning first to gray, then to a cold, steady rain that had lasted all afternoon. It wasn't exactly ideal weather for strolling, but it had stopped raining, so I decided to anyway.
Most of the shops on Newbury were closed, but their elegant bay windows up and down both sides of the street were dazzling, especially dramatic on a moonless night. Filled with four-button Armani suits, Cole-Haan shoes, and soft leather Coach bags, the bright lights of commerce lit up the red brick sidewalk as the quaint iron street lamps never could.
I lingered at a few of the windows and stopped at one to look at a pair of pleated slacks. I was trying to remember the last time I'd bought something for myself when I saw-felt, really-a quick, cutting movement out of the corner of my eye. The street was alive with foot traffic, but this was too quick for that leisurely pace, and more furtive, like a rat dashing for its hole. I searched the passing faces, but these were no more familiar to me than the ones at the restaurant had been. Too much pasta, maybe. Definitely too much tension.
I forgot about the slacks and kept moving, bundling up against the gusting wind as I crossed Arlington and headed into the Public Garden. I'd been there a couple of times since I'd come to town. On the one occasion that I'd actually kept an appointment to look for an apartment, the realtor had made a point of walking me through twice, and for good reason. It was enchanting in daylight, even in winter. But at night when you're already edgy and sluggish and overstuffed, it's a different story.
Inside the wrought iron fence, sheltered by the old trees, the wind died down and it was much quieter. Quiet enough that I heard the twig snap behind me. Or did I? It was hard to hear anything over the rising tide of panic pounding in my ears. Yes, someone was there, I was sure of it, and if I couldn't hear him or see him, I could feel his presence the way you could feel a shadow moving across the sun.
A tendril of a cold breeze found some exposed skin on the back of my neck and sent a wicked shiver underneath my jacket. He could be anywhere, behind a tree or a statue. The park was closing in on me, and at the same time I felt completely exposed.
I put my head down and walked faster. I was listening and concentrating so hard that I almost rammed headfirst into a couple coming toward me. I had to pull up short and stop abruptly to let them pass. I turned to watch them. They were arm in arm, laughing and pushing close for warmth. Seeing the two of them together made me feel even colder and more alone.
As I turned to go, a voice came out of nowhere: "You picked a bad place to meet," he said-and he was talking to me. For a moment I couldn't move at all. That's the moment I considered running away as fast as I could. I probably should have. Instead, I turned back to find him.
I scanned the area behind me and couldn't see anything. My hands were stuffed into my pockets, and I could feel my shoulders squeezing together, could feel my body almost on its own trying to get narrow so I could hide in plain sight. I tried to swallow, but the cold air had long since stolen the moisture from the back of my throat.
"That restaurant was too crowded."
"Do I know you?"
"I work for you." When he spoke again I spotted him, at least his silhouette, about twenty feet away next to a large tree and well back in the shadows. He was bulky and solid, built like a ramper and dressed in dark clothing. I couldn't see his face, but I knew I'd heard the voice. I just wished I knew if that was good or bad.
He stepped out of the dark. I strained to see as he walked out of the shadows. He came closer and closer, but I still couldn't see. I was reconsidering the running-away alternative when he finally stepped into the light and I could see his face. It was a face I recognized. "John McTavish, right?"
"Yeah. I didn't mean to scare you. I'm sorry."
I started breathing again; then I took off my glove and offered my hand. He quickly averted his eyes, as if this naked appendage, pale and vulnerable in the dim light, was a part of my body he wasn't supposed to see. He made no move to return the gesture, so I stuck my hand back in my pocket.
"How'd you know it was me?" he whispered.
"I didn't know it was you," I said, matching his whisper, "but I know who you are. I would remember anyone who stood up to Big Pete."
He was perfectly still, as I'd seen him in the ready room, the only movement coming from his eyes, quick and alert, locking onto the faces of occasional strangers who happened by, making sure, I presumed, they were strangers. It was disconcerting to see him this nervous.
"Then why'd you send the fax?"
"On a hunch. I found your note to Ellen on the fax machine at her house."
He thought that over. "You took a big chance."
I didn't even want to think about all the chances I'd been taking. "Could we go someplace where it's warm and talk about this? My ears are so cold they're burning. I think that's a bad sign." I took a hopeful step in the direction of Charles Street, but he didn't budge. He didn't even turn in my direction.
"Why'd you want to meet?" he asked.
"I want to know why Ellen Shepard killed herself."
"Is that what you think? That she did that to herself?"
I walked back and stood right in front of him, sniffling. My nose was starting to run from the cold, and I didn't have any tissues. "Do you know otherwise?"
He still wasn't moving, and I knew what he was thinking. If he knew or he didn't, why tell me? I reached back for what I'd been feeling the moment I'd sent that fax. "I'm having a hard time with the union, with Big Pete, and maybe even with my own boss. I'm feeling overmatched and I'm looking for help. That's why I sent it. I need help, and I thought that if you were willing to help Ellen, you might help me, too."
He stood for a moment longer in his zippered jacket, T-shirt, and jeans, an ensemble that struck me as lightweight for the conditions. Then he offered his hand, big and callused, and I grabbed it. He wasn't wearing gloves, but his skin was warm anyway. For the first time he looked me in the eye. "Let's go," he said. "You shouldn't be out here by yourself."
"Too many windows," he explained, referring to Ciao Bella. "We would have been sitting right out on the street in one of the busiest parts of town."
"Would it be that bad to be seen with me?"
"By the wrong people, yeah, it would."
No one was going to see us here. We'd tried two other places before he'd approved of this one, a basement space off Charles Street with exposed brick, a big fireplace, but no windows and only two patrons besides us. I noticed how tiny the coffee mug looked in John's hands. I remembered his quiet confidence as he'd stood in the middle of the ready room and stared down Big Pete. And now he was telling me there was something at the airport that scared him. We were sitting in front of the fire, but I couldn't seem to feel its warmth.
"I told you why I sent the message," I said. "Why did you respond?"
He set the mug aside and rested his arms on the table, making a solid piece of furniture feel rickety. "My brother, Terry… I heard Big Pete offered him up in a deal for Little Pete."
"I also heard you didn't take him up on it, so I figured you would maybe listen to the whole story before you made a decision."
"I'm more than willing to hear your brother's story, but he's not talking. I'm beginning to wonder if he was even at his own fight."
"He was there, and it's a good thing."
I sat back and studied John's face. It was a big face with a slightly crooked nose, a wide forehead, and a look of disgust that he was trying unsuccessfully to hide. "Little Pete was drunk, wasn't he?"
"They didn't do the test. How'd you know that?" He looked at me hard. "Is someone else talking to you?"
"No. I hear things. And next time, if there is a next time, there will be a test. The supervisor is being disciplined."
"For all the good that will do."
"Tell me what happened. If you want help for your brother, I need to know."
He let loose a long, dispirited sigh, then began, reluctantly, to tell me the story. "Little Pete was tanked up when he got to work that night. He sat in the bag room for a few hours drinking, from what I hear, about a dozen minis straight up. Myers's Rum-dark, that's what he likes. Then he got in a tractor, and while he was driving across the ramp, he fell out."
"He fell out of a tractor?"
"That's how he cut his head."
My chest started to tighten as if something were squeezing the breath out of me. Sometimes I threw my anger right out like a fishing net, catching what and whoever happened to be in range. But I couldn't be angry with this man. How could I? This time the anger seemed to settle in my chest and stay there like asthma. "Did Terry tell you this?"
"Yeah. But I also checked with enough guys I know it's true."
"So there were witnesses."
His back stiffened and he stared into his coffee cup. "I'm not giving any names. I'm only speaking for my brother here."
"So Little Pete's down on the ramp bleeding, but the tractor is still going. It misses the aircraft on Forty by about a foot and rams a bag cart instead. Also runs over a B727 tow bar. Terry sees all this and tells him to get somebody to drive him home. Little Pete says go to hell and starts staggering for the tractor. Terry tries to stop him and that's when Little Pete jumps him. You can check it out. The maintenance log will show a tow bar out of service that night."
I didn't need to check. He was telling the truth.
"And that's not even the worst of it."
"It's not?" I was almost afraid to hear the rest.
"Little Pete was running a crew that night, and one of his guys figured out while they were loading the airplane that he'd reversed the load."
I sat back in my chair. I couldn't even find the words to comment.
"Fortunately," John said, "they caught it before it ever left the gate. His crew sent him inside while they fixed it."
I felt numb just thinking about what could have happened. It's one thing to lose a bag or delay a flight and ruin someone's day. It's quite another to put them on an airplane that won't stay in the air because the load's not properly balanced and the load is not properly balanced because the crew chief was so drunk he couldn't tell the front of the aircraft from the rear. That would be hard to explain.
"Terry has to give a statement, John."
"He's waiting to see what you'll do to him if he won't."
"I'll fire him."
He nodded. "That's what I told him. If he says what happened, will he keep his job?"
"It's the only way he'll keep his job."
"And Little Pete gets canned?"
"If it's the last thing I do."
He angled toward the fireplace, turning his entire upper body, moving the way heavily muscled men have to move. His eyes were fixed on the dying flames, and he looked tired. More than tired, bone-weary. It was the same look I'd seen on Dan a few times. I waited. I knew he'd talk again when he was ready.
"When I first started at the airport," he said, still staring into the fire, "I was working down on the mail dock. My second or third day on the job, the union sent down a steward to tell me to slow down. He told me I was showing everybody up and if I wanted to keep working there, I should ease off. I told him to go pound sand."
"How'd they take it?"
"They gave me one more warning. Then one night in the parking lot, these two guys come up from behind and jump me. The one tried to grab me, I broke his arm. The other one ran away when he heard the bone snap."
The fire popped and I winced. "You broke his arm?"
"He had a baseball bat. They didn't bother me much after that."
I checked out the bulging biceps underneath his T-shirt and wondered what had possessed anyone to come at him in the first place. "Is this job that important to you?"
His chair creaked ominously as he leaned back. "I worked on my pop's fishing boat when I was growing up, me and my brother both. Out in the morning when it was still dark, home after dark. Miserable, cold, and wet, and you worked all day long. Pop didn't pay us much, but he taught us one thing-someone pays you to do a job and you agree to do it, then you do it. That's it." He turned back to the fire. "We get good money and benefits for throwing bags a few hours a day and sitting around in the ready room watching TV the rest of the shift. On top of that, you and your whole family get to fly around basically for free. It's not like we're skilled labor. This is a good job for someone like me. It's how I'm going to put my kids through college, and nobody's going to run me off."
"You have a family?"
"I got a wife and two kids, three and seven."
"It sounds as if they tried to run you off and failed."
"I can take care of myself. But it's different when it's your family, and I'll tell you something else, Little Pete scares the shit out of me. There's something wrong in the head with that kid. He's okay when he's around Big Pete, but when he's not, it's like he goes crazy or something. And when he's drunk, forget about it. When he's sober you never know what he's going to do, and when he's tight it's getting so it's tough even for his pop to deal with him."
"Do you believe he could kill someone?"
The lines in his forehead deepened. "If Petey'd been one of the guys who jumped me that night in the parking lot, he wouldn't have run off. I can't watch Terry all the time and no offense to you, but I'm sure as hell not going to count on the company to protect him. The company's just as likely to cut a deal and bring Petey back to work."
I wanted to say that that would never happen. I wanted to assure him that once Lenny had all the details, as I had now, there would be no way we'd bring Little Pete back to work and no way Terry would be fired. I couldn't tell him that because I didn't know it. Lenny was still a mystery to me. "Tell your brother to sit tight while I figure out what to do. I'll find a way to work all this out."
"I have no idea. And tell him thanks."
I sat quietly while he found a poker and tried without success to get the fire going again. When he'd settled back in, I asked him if he wanted more coffee.
"I'm working a shift starts at four in the morning. I gotta get some sleep tonight."
That may have been a clue that he wanted to go home, but I liked sitting with him. In spite of how I felt about everything else, I felt safe with him, and that was something I hadn't felt for a while. "John, you said something outside about Ellen's death not being a suicide. Do you believe she was murdered?"
"I don't know." He said it in a way that made it clear we weren't going to talk about it that night, or maybe ever, and I had to respect that. I tried something easier.
"How did you hook up with Ellen?"
"I was trying to get my brother a job at the airport."
"That doesn't seem so hard."
"The union didn't want another one like me around, so they poisoned him with the supervisors. They said if Terry got hired, they'd slow down the operation, set something on fire. I told her about it, and she interviewed him personally and made them put him on. After that, I told her if she ever needed help to call me."
"And she did."
He did yet another visual sweep of the restaurant, but no one we knew was there, including our waiter. "There was something she needed… this package."
I sat bolt upright, nearly tipping the table into his lap. "What kind of a package?"
"I don't know, about this big"-letter-sized-"a plain brown envelope with tape and dust all over it."
"What was in it?"
"She didn't say I should look in it, and she didn't open it in front of me, so I don't know what it was."
In this one case, I wished he'd been a tad less principled. I couldn't ask the questions fast enough. "Why did she need you to get it?"
"It was in the ceiling tiles in the men's locker room. Dickie must have tossed it up there sometime when he was working here."
"He's the one told her where it was."
"Why was it in the ceiling?"
"Guys use the ceiling for a hiding spot when they're in a hurry."
"Doesn't seem all that convenient."
"Say they're helping themselves to the catering cart, stealing minis. After cocktails, they don't want to walk around with empty bottles knocking around in their pockets, and they don't want to leave 'em lying around in trash cans, so they toss them up there. The ceiling has rattled around here for years, decades even."
"But no one ever came upon this package?"
"It was way off in the corner. You wouldn't find it unless you knew what you were looking for."
"That means it could have been up there for a while. And you can't even hazard a guess as to what this was about? She never said?"
"No, I don't know. But I think Angie might."
"Angie as in 'Angelo'?"
"Yeah. He had something she needed, and she wanted to put the squeeze on him."
"DiBiasi?" I had to pause for a moment and regroup. I had clearly hit the mother lode, and I was having a hard time assimilating all the new data. "I thought Angelo was small-time. An afterthought. Wrong place, wrong time, that whole story."
John shook his head. "Angelo was the target all along. That whole stakeout thing was just to make it look like they grabbed him up by accident. I gave her some help on the thing."
"Ellen set him up?"
"As far as I know, the whole thing was her idea."
"I'll be damned." I sat back and let this new information settle over everything else that we knew. It added whole dimensions to what I knew about Ellen. And it forced a new appreciation for how deep the swamp was getting. Packages, setups, stakeouts. Missing files, missing tapes, missing videos. Maybe a mystery lover. I didn't know if we'd ever find the bottom or what we'd find if we got there. What I did know was that I was following Ellen's tracks right into the depths.
"This Angelo thing," I asked, "was it before or after the package?"
"So he might be connected somehow to that envelope. Maybe that's why the union's pushing so hard to get him back," I said. "And Lenny, too, I suppose. They're trying to take away my leverage. I didn't even know I had leverage. John, I know you don't know what was in the package, but did Ellen ever say anything about the Beechcraft?"
He looked puzzled. "No. Not to me."
"How about fish?"
"Fish?" More puzzled still. "Like scrod?"
"I don't think so, but I don't know. Crescent Security?"
He shook his head.
"Ellen seemed to be working on something, collecting information. It may have something to do with the Majestic-Nor'easter merger or the Beechcraft. We were even thinking Little Pete might have been involved in drug running."
"No. That I would have heard about. Besides, Big Pete would kill Petey with his bare hands if he found out he was into drugs. He's already close to killing him over the booze."
"Does he really care about him as much as it seems?"
"Yeah, he cares about him, but part of it is he feels guilty, too, like he passed on the disease. Big Pete was a boozer himself until just a few years ago-the whole time Petey was growing up, anyway. He's always trying to get him to go to A.A. meetings with him. The kid won't go."
Big Pete's chewed-up fingernails started to make some sense. We sat for another few minutes in silence before he started fidgeting, making it clear he wanted to leave.
"John, would it be all right if I contacted you again?"
"Do you have something to write with?"
I found a stubby pencil in my jacket, down with the pocket lint and old movie ticket stubs.
"You can leave a message at this number," he said, writing on a cocktail napkin, "and I'll get in touch with you."
The number was familiar. "Where is this?"
"Sir Speedy up in Nahant. My sister works there."
One mystery solved.
Charles Street, still damp from the rain, was threatening to freeze over, and the brick sidewalk was slick and precarious. John offered to drive me back to the hotel, but I knew he didn't want to be seen with me and I wasn't keen on lying in the backseat under a blanket.
"John, did anyone know you were talking to Ellen?"
"Not even my brother. And you can't tell anyone. Even Fallacaro."
"You don't trust Dan?"
He didn't answer, so I put my hand on his arm and made him stop walking. "Are you saying you don't trust Dan?"
He looked away for a long time as if trying to find the words. "Here's the way I see it," he said. "If she had trusted him, she would have had him get her the package, right?"
He didn't wait for an answer, which was good because I didn't have one. I watched him disappear down a side street and into the shadows; then I turned and started for a cab stand. I was still trying to digest that last thought when it occurred to me that the address on Julia Milholland's postcard was somewhere on Charles. One-forty-two… 146, maybe. I went from door to door reading labels on buzzers and peering through plate-glass windows into dry cleaners, drugstores, and gift shops. I came to 152 Charles Street and found it occupied by something called Boston-in-Common. An article written by Ms. Milholland herself was posted right in the window. It was advice on how to find your perfect mate. Boston-in-Common was a dating service.
The cab dropped me off in front of my hotel. I reached through the window to pay, and when I turned around, I felt him out there, felt him before I saw him standing off to the side in a leather jacket with the collar turned up in front of his face. I didn't need to see his face to recognize Little Pete.
"What are you doing here?" I asked, trying not to show surprise. Or anything else.
"I came to see you."
It had stopped raining, but it hadn't stopped being cold, so the perspiration dripping down his face was disturbingly out of place. Rivulets tracked around the ugly, swollen row of stitches that snaked through his right eyebrow. The thought of how he had gotten them made me even more nervous, and I wondered if he was drunk again.
"If you want to talk to me, do it at work." I hoped I was sounding annoyed and in command.
His fist shot into the air. I flinched and stepped back, almost stumbled backward, certain that his arm, like a tree limb, was about to crash down on my head.
"I can't come to work," he whined.
The blow never came; it was only a gesture of his frustration. No matter. My pulse was racing. I wasn't nervous, I was scared. He wasn't staggering and I didn't notice any slurring, but he was wasted. I could see it now that I could see his eyes.
"That's what union reps are for," I said, inching backward and plotting my path to the front door of the hotel.
"I don't need my fucking pisshead union rep mouthpiece talking for me." A man coming out through the door of the hotel reacted to Little Pete's harsh tone- or maybe the harsh language-with a grim scowl. I reacted by moving closer to the door.
"What happened," he said, his voice elevating with each of my steps back, "wasn't my fault. It's that fucking McTavish."
It was there, that flash of rage, the one I'd seen in his eyes when he'd looked at me during his hearing. I still had no idea where it came from or why it had anything to do with me. All I knew was that seeing it in those dull, drunken eyes sent a cold shiver right through my soul.
"Don't ever approach me like this again."
I turned and headed for the door. Thankfully, he didn't follow, just yelled after me. "I'm not losin' my fucking job over this. You're not takin' my fucking job."
Inside the elevator I reached out and pushed the Door Close button. When it didn't close fast enough, I pressed again and again and again. I don't think I took a breath until I got into my room and locked the door. I know that my heart rate didn't come down until hours later when I finally fell asleep.