It was a few minutes before one in the morning when I left Operations and headed to the ready room. My version of the bag room bomb speech was going to be a pale imitation of the chairman's, but I still owed the midnight shift a face-to-face meeting. I touched the face of my watch. Bill had left on the last flight to Denver. He should be getting in about now. It had taken months for me to stop thinking about him this way, wondering in any random moment where he was and what he was doing. It was funny-maybe scary- how quickly and how vividly it had all come back. It was almost as if he had never gone from my life.
Thinking of him made me feel good, good enough to bypass my usual moment of insecurity and push through the ready room door without hesitation. I was thinking that I was where I belonged. Too bad all that self-confidence was wasted.
The spicy aroma of a microwaved burrito lingered in the air. The door behind me squealed as it swung back and forth on squeaky hinges, and the room where I was supposed to be holding a meeting was completely empty. And in case that message was too subtle, the one written on my flip chart with a thick black marker was more direct. It said, "Fuck you, Shanahan." Anonymous, of course. I could almost feel my skin thickening as I stood there. This kind of stuff was losing impact with me. I was more upset about having stayed up this late for nothing.
I went through the swinging door and straight back to Operations.
"Pete Dwyer, midnight crew chief, Pete Dwyer, please respond with your location. Over." I released the button on the radio and waited. Kevin had gone home and the Ops office was quiet. I called again, and waited again. The third time, I called for anyone knowing the location of Pete Dwyer. Lo and behold, someone responded. Whoever it was suggested the bag room.
"Outbound or inbound?"
I'd check the outbound first, but the inbound bag room was still under construction and off limits to employees, reason enough to believe that that's exactly where Pete would be.
Kevin's Majestic ramp coat was hanging where he always kept it, on a hook by the door. It was about a foot shorter than my shin-length skirt and bulky as a fireman's gear, but it kept me warm on the long, gusty walk across the open ramp.
As I suspected, the door to the inbound bag room was open, pinned against the wall by a heavy brick. From outside the doorway, I could hear the quiet shuffling of what I knew were heavy construction tarpaulins hanging from the ceiling inside, but the lights were off and I couldn't see a thing. It was unsettling and I probably should have turned around right then, but more unsettling was the fact that the light switch was not in the obvious place by the door and dammit, I had no clue to where it was. I hated being in a new job.
I called into the bag room for Pete. The only answer was the swishing of the tarps as a rogue gust of wind kicked up, scattering old bag tags and finding all the parts of me that weren't covered by Kevin's coat. He still wasn't responding on the radio, and the longer I stood out in the mostly deserted operation calling Pete's name, the more duped and idiotic I felt. Best to go back to my hotel and deal with Big Pete Dwyer and his recalcitrant shift mates in the light of a new day. Or evening.
When I turned to go, my heel stubbed against something hard, and I tripped into something-no, someone who was standing behind me. Jesus, right behind me. I bounced off, stumbled back, and almost bolted.
"I hear you been lookin' for me." His face was hidden under the hood of a cotton sweatshirt that came up from under his coat and engulfed his entire head. But the raspy voice was unmistakable.
"Goddammit, Pete, what the hell are you doing?" I was tingling from a delayed surge of adrenaline, and my stomach felt as if he'd stomped on it with that heavy boot I'd tripped over.
"Lookin' for you."
"Why didn't you answer my radio call?"
"I was answering nature's call."
"You didn't have your radio with you?"
"I said, I was taking a leak. I had my hands full. Besides, I'm here now, ain't I?"
"And as respectful as ever."
It was eerie the way his voice floated out of the black hole where his face was supposed to be. He was like a sweatsuit version of the grim reaper. It bothered me, bothered me a lot, that he'd sneaked up on me and I'd been oblivious enough to let him.
"Let's go to Operations," I said, "I want to talk."
"We can talk in here."
He was past me, through the door, and behind the tarp before I had a chance to react. I heard a heavy snap and the lights came on. Pete knew where the light switch was located. When he emerged, his hood was down, revealing a face that was unshaven and a head full of thinning gray hair that stood up in uneven tufts. Hood hair. Looking at his face, I couldn't understand why he covered it at all. His leathery, lined skin struck me as adequate winter protection.
"This is a hard-hat area, Pete."
"I won't tell if you don't."
The ramp behind me was empty, and I could feel the isolation. We were in a godforsaken spot in the middle of a cold night, and no one knew I was out here. I hesitated.
"I ain't gonna bite you," he said, recognizing his advantage. "I just want you to see something, that's all."
He stood waiting with the tarp pulled to one side. Eventually, my curiosity trumped my cautiousness, and besides, Big Pete wasn't going to bite me. From what I'd heard, he might tell someone else to bite me, but he would never do it himself.
"After you," I said, stepping through the plastic portal, "and show me where the light switch is, if you don't mind."
"Sure." He led me to an open fuse box in the corner. "The switch on the wall ain't been fixed yet, so you got to use these." One breaker was thrown. He flipped another as we stood there. Nothing happened.
"What was that for?"
We continued through the maze of hanging blue walls, moving circuitously toward the north bag belt. The inbound bag room was smaller than the outbound and served a much simpler purpose. Two oval carousels- racetracks we called them-wrapped around the wall that separated the concrete from the carpet. The moving belts carried bags from the rampers in the bag room to the passengers in claim. The belts were controlled by a panel of buttons on the wall, which is where I found Pete when I caught up with him.
"Ready?" he asked.
He pushed a button. Three warning blasts sounded, the gears began to grind, and the ancient conveyor mechanism sputtered to life, complaining against the cold. This would explain the second circuit breaker he'd thrown.
"Watch the security door." He pointed with one of his stubby fingers to the opening in the wall where the bags fed through to the passenger side. The heavy security door had lifted automatically when the belt had started to move, leaving nothing but a curtain of rubber strips that swayed with the motion of the belt.
"Are you watching?"
He hit the emergency shutdown switch. The alarm blasted again, the belt lurched to a halt, and the security door dropped in a free fall from its housing, crashing onto the belt with a force, both thunderous and abrupt, that made me jump about a foot off the ground. "Jesus Christ."
"I hope so."
He was right next to me, once again standing too close for my comfort. I took a step away as he propped his foot up on the belt and took out a pack of Camels-unfiltered. The belt was off, the bag room was quiet, and the sound of his lighter snapping shut was loud in the strange stillness that followed the resounding crash.
"One of my guys got his foot almost took off by that thing about six months back. He was trying to kick a jammed bag through when some idiot over there hit the emergency stop." He nodded toward the wall, indicating that "the idiot" had been a passenger in the claim area.
"Is he all right?"
"He's on long-term disability and his foot don't look much like a foot no more. But thank God he didn't lose it."
I stood, hands down in the gritty pockets of Kevin's coat, shifting from foot to foot, trying to keep feeling in my toes. The cold from the concrete was seeping up through the thin leather soles of my pumps and I shivered, but not from the cold. I was imagining what a bone-crushing force like that could do to a man's foot. It was exactly the reaction he was hoping for and we both knew it.
He was leaning forward on his knee and looking at me pleasantly, as if we'd met in a bar to talk over old times.
"Why are you showing me this?"
He stared at the burning end of his cigarette. "I hear the McTavish kid is coming back."
"So what?" Not a snappy comeback, to be sure, but no one had told me, officially anyway, that Terry was coming back and it ticked me off that Big Pete was continually better informed than I was. "Besides, Little Pete's coming back, and the only thing Terry did was save him from an even bigger screw-up than the one he actually caused."
"I don't know what screw-up you'd be referring to."
"The one where he reversed the load on one of his trips because he was drunk."
The fact that I knew one of his secrets didn't seem to bother him. He offered a nod in my direction that was almost deferential. "That was a ballsy move, going around Lenny the way you did. I gotta give you credit for that. Lenny's a piece of shit, but he ain't easy to push around, neither." He took another deep drag, his cheeks hollowing out as he inhaled, then exhaled slowly, directing the stream up toward the ceiling.
"I also gotta ask myself, how is it you seem to know so much about what's going on down here with us."
"I'm well connected."
"Either that or you got a snitch…"
Something in the back of my neck began to tighten.
"…Which means we got a rat."
The smoke from his cigarette drifted up toward the ceiling, a ceiling still black with soot from the bombing this man had most certainly engineered. I was starting to get the idea. That tightening in my neck twisted a little more. "Say what you mean to say."
"All right. I know about Johnny McTavish. I know he's been feeding you information. I know that's part of why his kid brother got his job back."
I held perfectly still, which was just as well since all sensation had long since abandoned my feet.
"Is that what this demonstration is all about? Is this a threat to make me stop looking for whatever it is you and I aren't looking for?"
"This ain't nothing more than a friendly reminder that the ramp is a dangerous place. Accidents happen all the time, and even though you ain't out here that much, other people are." He looked at me with those chameleon eyes. "We don't like rats down here. That guy who got his foot flattened, he was a rat, and he was lucky it wasn't his head got caught in that bag door. Johnny Mac's a pretty tough guy, but his bones break just like everybody else's. Just like yours." He stepped a little closer. "Just like hers."
My heart thumped against my rib cage. "What are you talking about?"
"I hear that's how she died-broken neck." He snapped his fingers. "Just like that. That's how quick it can happen." He pressed his lips into a thin smile that to me was the equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard. "Can you imagine that?"
"You sick, sleazy bastard."
"What happened to that woman should never have happened," he said, "but it did. It's done and nothing you can do will change that. Nothing. This ain't your fight, and what you're looking for, nobody wants you to find it. Nobody."
For the first time I felt real panic, as if I was in over my head, as if something I'd started was about to spin dangerously out of my control. I wanted to run to a phone to call John, to call Dan, to call everyone I knew and make sure they were safe tonight. And I wanted to get out of there. "I'm leaving."
He dropped the cigarette on the cement floor and crushed it out under his boot. Then he stood in front of me, this time at a polite distance, with his hands in the pockets of his coat. "Listen to me. There's nothing happening around here that ain't been happening for a long time, and by the time you figure that out, that it ain't worth it, it's going to be too late. I hate to be the one to tell you, but you got no friends here, including that asshole Fallacaro."
The numb feeling in my toes began to creep ever so slowly into my calves, my knees… "What about him?"
"He's been lying to you right from the beginning."
…my thighs, my hips, and my stomach…
"Who do you think told me about Johnny Mac being a rat?"
"What you're saying about John McTavish is not true. But even if it was…" My words couldn't keep up with my brain. "What would be in it for Dan to tell you something like that?"
"He didn't tell me. He told your boss."
"Why would he tell Lenny something…" The cold, dry air was sticking in my throat, and it was getting painful to breathe, almost impossible to talk, and now I was completely numb. I didn't feel cold. I didn't feel anything. "Dan hates Lenny. He wasn't even in Boston most of the time that Lenny was here."
"You know about Crescent Security, I know you do. But do you know where it was located?"
I opened my mouth to answer and closed it.
Pete was watching me closely, nodding. "Crescent Security was run by Lenny's brother-in-law in Elizabeth, New Jersey, which is just down the road from Newark." He used it for payoffs. He needed to pay someone off, he made them a Crescent contractor. He needed to collect, he'd send a bill from Crescent. But sometimes he needed to move large amounts of cash in secret, and that's where your buddy came in. It was the Danny Fallacaro delivery service-Jersey to Boston, hand-delivered. Better than FedEx. That's how he got into management. He was just another bag slinger before that… one of us."
I tried to find some equilibrium, because the concrete floor was falling out from under me. I wanted to say I didn't believe him, but I couldn't find my voice.
"If you don't believe me, ask him." Pete lifted his hood over his head, and when he turned to go, I could no longer see his face, could only hear his voice. "Ask him about locker thirty-nine. He'll know."