When my eyes adjusted to the low light, I saw two people kneeling in prayer-a Delta flight attendant in the last pew to the left, and Dan in the first pew on the right. With his head bowed, he was on his knees below a statue of the Virgin Mary.
I stood in the back and surveyed the windowless chapel. A single spotlight shone on a heavy wooden cross over the raised altar. The only other light came from rows of offertory candles along the walls. The design of the church was slick and modern, but the smell was ancient-of old incense and burning candles, oil and ashes. I hadn't been inside a Catholic church for over fifteen years, not since my father's funeral, but I still recognized that smell. This was a place where people brought their sins.
When I arrived at Dan's pew, I genuflected and made the sign of the cross. He saw me, crossed himself, and slid back in the pew, propping both feet up on the kneeler. Instead of his usual bouncing and fidgeting, he was still. "You're Catholic?" he asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
I looked at the gleaming white marble altar, hard and unforgiving. "The whole deal is presided over by aging, celibate white men whose job it is to tell you how to live a clean and pure life in a dirty and complicated world. It doesn't make any sense to me, and I don't need help feeling guilty. What about you?"
"My kid's always asking me if I go, so I do. Besides, it's the only place on the field where it's quiet enough for me to think." His voice was so low that only the two of us could hear.
"What are you thinking about?"
"My grandmother. She raised me." He tipped his head back and stared up at the ceiling. "She used to tell me that men were put on the earth to take care of women."
"She was a tiny Italian woman, but she was a pistol. Nobody messed with her. 'Husbands are supposed to take care of their wives, and fathers are supposed to take care of their children,' she'd say, 'and that's the only way it works.' "
"Do you believe that?"
"I believed it all my life. And now my wife has left me, my little girl sees me twice a month if I'm lucky, Ellen is dead, and you hate my guts." He rubbed his eyes and focused on the offertory candles burning at the bare ceramic feet of the Virgin Mary. Most of the candles were lit, evidence that there were still people who believed. "I don't think my grandmother would be proud of me." His voice trailed off, and all I could hear was the sound of the flight attendant in back saying her rosary, the beads tapping lightly against the wooden pew. "Ellen knew," he said.
"Vic Venora told her about me, about locker thirty-nine. That was the last conversation I had with her. She did the same thing you did, she stormed off. Only that was the last time I ever saw her. Alive anyway." He stared into the flames of the offertory candles and for a moment seemed transfixed by them, by the light of other people's prayers. "I can't stop thinking that if she hadn't found out or if I'd told her myself, she could have trusted me. She wouldn't have tried to do this thing on her own. I could have helped her. But I never got a chance to explain it to her."
And just like that, it all fell into place. His obsessive pursuit, his endless rationalizing, his reckless disregard for himself: it was all driven by the most powerful and relentless of all impulses-guilt. "Explain it to me, Dan. I'd like to understand."
He stared down at his shoes, his face heavy and his eyes unseeing. He began slowly. "I was twenty-eight years old, still working as a ramper in Newark. I'd been married five years and was still living in my father-in-law's house. I was working my ass off every day, and every night I was taking classes, trying to get into management. One day Stanley calls. Stanley Taub. You know him?"
"He used to be the GM in Newark for Nor'easter."
"Right. He didn't know me from a hole in the wall, but he calls me to his office and tells me he's got a shift supervisor job open on the ramp. Asks me, do I want it? I couldn't fu-I mean, I couldn't believe it. I thought he was kidding. Then he says there might be a few things I'd have to do that I might not like. I tell him I'll clean toilets if I have to. I'll wash his car. I was going to make some decent money for the first time in my life, so I said, fine, sign me up."
Even now he couldn't hide a hint of the excitement he must have felt. "Stanley wasn't talking about cleaning toilets, was he?"
He shook his head. "At first he'd ask me to do stupid shit, like drive him into the city and drop him off so he wouldn't have to park. Then he started telling me without really telling me to stay out of certain areas on certain shifts. 'I don't think you need to be down in cargo tonight,' he'd say, 'I've got it covered.' "
"And you stayed away?"
"I didn't know I had a choice. I thought the deal was to do what he said or go back to slinging bags, and there was no way I was gonna do that. The baby was already two years old, and if I had to kill myself, I was getting us our own apartment. I did what I was told."
"Where did Lenny come in?"
His head hung so low, he was almost talking into his shirt. "Lenny needed someone to run these envelopes up to Boston from Jersey, and Stanley recommended me."
I stared down at my hands in my lap. "Envelopes full of cash?"
"Swear to God, Shanahan, I never looked. My instructions were to fly to Boston and leave the envelope in locker thirty-nine at the Nor'easter terminal, so that's what I would do, then turn around and go back home. I never knew who picked it up. I never heard of Crescent Security. I never even knew what the envelope was for. Didn't want to."
I believed him. Not knowing or wanting to know would have been inconceivable to me, but it was as much a part of his character as loyalty to his boss. "How much money did you make for all this?"
He put his hands beside him on the pew, rocked forward, and stared down at his shoes so that I couldn't see his face. "I got paid extra overtime without working it. It came in my paycheck."
That couldn't have been much, and it was so much like him to sell out at a price that was far too low. "Why did you stop?"
"Michelle." He tilted his head, looked at me, and couldn't suppress the smile. "She was so beautiful, so perfect. One day she looked up at me with those big innocent eyes, and I saw myself the way she might see me and I got scared. I started feeling like I didn't deserve her and that God was going to punish me, take her away from me. I decided I would never again do anything that wouldn't make my kid proud, and I never took another dime."
"Lenny couldn't have been too pleased."
"He told me I'd never get promoted as long as he was drawing breath, but what else was he gonna do? Fire me for not stealing anymore?"
"You were in Boston by then?"
"Yeah. You know, the whole time I was in the union working the ramp, everyone down there was sticking it to the company in every way they could. Every day I had a chance to do it, too, and I never did. I put on a shift supervisor's uniform and I find out management's stealing more than anyone and I'm thinking, If everyone's sticking it to the company, who is the company?"
He sat back with his shoulders slumped and his hands folded in his lap, looking as if he'd taken a pretty good beating from the world, and I realized that in his mind he had never lied to me. He never could have. Everything he was, everything he wanted to be, was right there on his face. If I had known him when he was scamming, I would have known he was scamming, the same way I knew now that he was telling the truth.
"Did you tell Big Pete about John McTavish?"
"On my grandmother's eyes, I did not tell him."
"Do you know how he found out?"
"No, but I've been thinking about it, and I remember now how I found out. Victor Venora. He made a point of tracking me down to tell me."
"That could have been Big Pete making sure that you knew. The real question is, How did those guys find out?"
He looked all around the chapel and then back at me. "Why did you call me?"
"Because I calmed down. I got a little perspective, and I decided I was a jerk for believing Big Pete and not giving you a chance to explain."
"Thank you." he said, his voice hoarse, ragged.
"My pleasure… and there's more. I've spent the past five hours going through every piece of mail, every document, everything I have that belonged to Ellen, and I think I've figured some things out. I need to tell you about it."
"I'm on my way to meet Angelo. Come with me and we'll talk on the way."