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CHAPTER TWENTY

Dan's sneakers squealed on the varnished floor as he looped under the basket and in one fluid motion rolled in a left-hand runner.

"High school ball?" I asked.

"Yeah, but that's not where I really learned to play." His perimeter shot was equally good. He knocked it down, grabbed the ball, and stood in front of me, sweating in an old hooded sweatshirt and what appeared to have been sweat pants at one time. They were cut off at the knees. "Playgrounds in Newark. Me and my cousins played for money."

"Hustler, huh? In Newark, no less. You're probably lucky to be alive."

When I dropped my backpack and pushed up the sleeves of my sweater, he handed me the ball and cut to the basket. I passed it back and he sank a twelve-footer.

"How was your trip?"

"Good."

"Why did you come back last night?"

"I thought the weather might get bad here. Besides, Sunday is family day down there. They all go to Mass and come home and put on a big spread, and everybody wants the kid around for that." He shrugged. "I'm not part of the family anymore." He bounced the ball to me. "You didn't have to come over here," he said. "I would have met you somewhere."

I dribbled a few times and hoisted a shot that banged off the rim. I used to do it better in seventh grade, but at least I didn't heave it underhanded. "My hotel room was closing in on me. I'm just glad you take your beeper to the gym. Or whatever this is."

"This is my neighborhood rec center."

"How come there aren't more people recreating?"

"This place will be jammed this afternoon with a thousand screaming kids, which is why I come in the morning. But when I get more time, I'm going to coach a kid's basketball team."

"Teach them how to hustle?"

"Sure," he grinned, "why not?" He looped up one last shot from under the basket, missed, and followed the ball as it bounced over to a row of wooden bleachers. I followed him, and we sat on the bleachers in a wedge of sunlight that came through a row of high windows. With the mint green cinder-block walls, the heavy double doors, and light mildew odor, I could have been back in gym class.

"I've got to ask you something before I forget," I said. "You haven't talked to Angelo yet, have you?"

"I was going to call him tonight, tell him to get ready to get his ass back to work. He's got Sunday-Monday off, so he wouldn't be in until Tuesday. That's what you wanted, right?"

"I changed my mind. I don't want to bring him back yet."

"Why not?"

I really wanted to tell him the whole story about how Ellen set up Angelo. I wanted to tell him about the package and ask him what he thought Angelo might know. But I couldn't. "I want to wait another day or two and see what happens." I watched for a reaction, wondering if that reply sounded as tepid as it felt. But if he was any more curious than that, he didn't say.

"We've got no problem with Angie because he's already terminated, but we have to do something about Little Pete and Terry McTavish. Wednesday night will be a week, so I have to either start termination proceedings or bring them back."

"I don't suppose Vic might agree to an extension."

"I can talk to him, but if I do they're going to be pissed. They know that Terry hasn't said a word. They know we haven't got jackshit and they're going to want him back. Not Terry, but Little Pete."

"Ask him anyway."

"All right."

"He came to see me last night."

"Victor?"

"Little Pete. He was waiting at my hotel when I got back from dinner."

"I'm going to kill him," he fumed, squeezing the ball until I thought it would burst. "I'm going to go over to his fucking house-"

"Good, Dan, that's all I need, to be working on this by myself." I unbuckled the pack and started unpacking. "At least wait until you see what I found yesterday in Marblehead. I was very busy up there yesterday." Exhibit one was his Nor'easter procedures manual, and exhibit two was the merger file. "These were in Ellen's locker at the health club."

"No shit." He threw the towel around his neck and grabbed the manual. "You're pretty good at this, Shanahan."

It was nothing but a throwaway comment, but it still gave me a lift, the kind I seemed to get from any pat on the head for any reason. "Guess what else was in there?"

I whipped out the porno video box and he grabbed it, eyes wide. "Jesus Christ, Shanahan. What are you doing with this?"

"It was in Ellen's locker with all this other stuff."

"She had this? No way. Ellen was a Catholic, and a good one, too. Not like me. I never even heard her swear." He popped it open. "Where's the tape?"

"I found it that way."

He turned the box over a few more times, reading everything that was written on it, which wasn't much, then set it aside with a look of complete bewilderment. Still shaking his head, he reached for the merger file. "Anything in here?" The check stub from Crescent was right on top. He glanced at it and went on. "Anything in this file about fish?"

"No fish. And no answering machine tapes, either." I reached across, pulled out the stub, and showed it to him. "Have you ever heard of this company?"

"Means nothing to me."

"When did you say you came to Boston?"

"May 23, 1995."

"Just a month after this check was issued. But it doesn't ring any bells?"

"Nope. Why?"

"Ellen had a copy of an invoice from Crescent Security in her follow-up file. Here it is again popping up in the merger file. A couple of things are starting to feel significant to me, even if it's just because they keep coming up, and the Majestic-Nor'easter merger is one of them." I slowed down and reminded myself not to reveal things I'd learned from John, things I wasn't supposed to know. "First, Ellen came to work in Boston fresh off her assignment on the Nor'easter acquisition task force, which might not mean anything except that a few weeks ago she pulled this file," I tapped the manila folder on his knee, "and ended up hiding it under her gym socks. At the same time she developed a keen interest in your Nor'easter procedures manual-specifically the Beechcraft-and also stashed it away with the socks. She contacted a colleague from the merger project and asked him where to find documents that had to do with the deal."

"What kind of documents?"

I explained what I had learned from Matt. "She was explicit about what she wanted. These were schedules having to do with a certain kind of pre-merger expense, something called purchase price adjustments, which is a fancy way to describe a list of vendors and how much we paid them for services related to the deal."

"What would the merger have to do with Little Pete?"

"I have no idea."

The last thing I pulled out was the handwritten paragraph. After he took it from me, he read it so fast you would have thought it made his eyes burn. Then he flipped it over to check the back. Finding nothing more than I had, he folded it up and thrust it back without a word.

I took it back and unfolded it. "That's Ellen's handwriting, isn't it?"

"So? You don't know how old it is. It could be ten years old."

"Why so defensive?"

"I told you she wasn't seeing anyone."

"Let's just postulate that it's current, shall we? I think Ellen was seeing someone in secret, Dan. I believe that's what the travel on United was all about. She could have been flying around to meet him and didn't want everyone to know." The postcard from Boston-in-Common was in one of the side pockets from my backpack. I pulled it out and handed it to him. Thank goodness I'd brought visual aids, because he was turning into a tough audience. "Ellen belonged to a dating service."

"C'mon, Shanahan," he said, stuffing the card back into my pack. "That's not what that card says. It doesn't say anything."

"The address from that card matches the address of a place called Boston-in-Common on Charles Street. I saw it, and it's a dating service. Maybe she met someone there. Maybe she fell in love. Is that so hard for you to believe? It's possible she got dumped and having cared so deeply for this person-"

"Are you saying she killed herself over some guy?"

"Listen to what she wrote, Dan." I read him the last line. " 'Without him I'm afraid I'll disappear, disappear to a place where God can't save me and I can't save myself.' She sounds as if she's afraid to live without him."

"Why would she keep it a secret?"

"I don't know, Dan. Ellen had lots of secrets. I'm going to Boston-in-Common tomorrow when they're open to see if they'll give me any information, although I doubt that they will. They strike me as discreet beyond belief, these people."

Dan jumped down to the floor and began pacing back and forth along the front of the bleachers, dribbling the ball as he went. "She didn't kill herself over some guy." He punctuated the thought with one hard bounce of the ball.

"You already said that."

"But you don't agree."

"I don't think we need to agree on that point. I'm curious enough to keep digging, no matter how she died, and I'll share everything I find with you, just as I have so far."

"But you do think that, don't you? That she climbed up on that locker and put a rope around her neck and jumped off."

I finished buckling the backpack, set it aside, and tried to figure out exactly what I did think about this woman.

"I believe there were two Ellens, Dan-the one she showed to the world, and the one she kept to herself. That's why we continue to find things that surprise you. Since I didn't know her at all, it's possible I can see things you can't, or at least see them differently. That paragraph she wrote, it's the truest, most authentic thing I've found so far about her. The dating service, her mother's suicide, these feel like the real Ellen to me, and the real Ellen feels very sad. And I don't know why she kept that from you."

The bleachers rattled as he climbed back up, dropped down to the bench beside me, and wedged the ball between his old-fashioned high-tops. "Do you know when she joined this dating service?" He spat out the word "dating" as if it were an anchovy.

"Hopefully I can find out tomorrow."

He leaned back on his elbows and squinted up into the windows. "The reason I can't believe she had any kind of relationship going on was because of something she said to me once. She was always talking about how great it was that I had a kid and how I should never take it for granted. So one day I said something stupid like, 'It's not rocket science. You can do it, too.' She said it was too late. Here she is thirty-five years old and she's talking like she's eighty-five. She just laughed and said, 'What am I going to do? Quit my job, get married, and raise a family with someone I haven't even met?' I said, 'Why not? People do it all the time.' She said she'd made her choice a long time ago without even knowing it. And she said I wouldn't understand because I'm a guy."

"Did you understand?"

"No."

"She was saying she chose work."

"But that's not a choice she made without knowing it."

"I would say it differently. To me, it's not the choice that's unknown, it's the consequences. Like choosing a path you think is going to… I don't know, Paris. But you end up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and you can't figure out where you made the wrong turn. The truth is, you've been on the road to Tulsa all along, and the day you wake up and figure it out is probably a day too late."

"It's never too late for anything."

"You begin to feel that it is, and that's all that matters. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

"She could have quit her job."

"That's easy to say, but I love what I do, and I believe Ellen did, too. When I dispatch an airplane every night that's going to be in London the next morning, or reach up and put my hand on the side of an aircraft engine, I still get the same charge I got the first time I ever did it. I love this business. I love the moving parts and every different way things can get screwed up. I love how hard it is to put it all back together, or to just keep it together on any given day. I love Majestic Airlines, and being part of a great company, even with all the demands that come with it. It's my home. It's more of a home than I ever had. I don't know who I'd be if I wasn't the person who did this job."

I took the ball from between his feet, stood up, tried another shot, and missed again. "Maybe that's why Ellen joined the dating service."

"Why?"

"To find out who she was outside of this job. Could be you talked her into believing it wasn't too late."

I walked across the court to retrieve the ball. My arms felt heavy as I leaned down to pick it up. It was the same heaviness I always felt when I allowed myself to think about my life, my choices, and the things I wished I'd done differently.

"You gonna tell me you feel that way, too?"

"I'll be thirty-two in a few months. I have no husband, no kids, and no prospects. I don't even have a dog. My apartment in Denver is filled with boxes I never unpack. Boston is supposed to be my new home, but I've been here two weeks and I've spent about five minutes thinking of finding a place to live. If it were up to me, I'd probably stay in temporary housing until it's time to move again. It makes it easier to leave that way."

I squared to the basket, dribbled twice, and really focused. If Ellen had believed that it wasn't too late, I envied her. When I let the shot go, it arced perfectly, angled off the glass, and swished through the net. The bank was open, as my dad always used to say. I looked over at Dan. He was watching me with his chin in his hands, elbows on his knees.

"No," I said, turning back to face the basket, "I don't think I'll be seeing Paris. But maybe Tulsa's not such a bad place. At least that's what I tell myself."

The ball rolled into a corner and died.


CHAPTER NINETEEN | Hard Landing | CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE