The afternoon shift had already begun by the time I finally made my way downstairs to meet Kevin, the operations agent who had been so helpful the night before. Compared to the bright, soaring spaces reserved for paying customers, little attention is paid to employee-only areas at an airport. For the most part, the spaces down below were rabbit warrens, and this one was no exception. Graffiti covered the walls, trash overflowed the bins, and flattened cigarette butts littered the concrete floor. A door left open somewhere let in a cold draft that carried the smell of jet fumes in to mingle with the bitter aroma of burned coffee.
Kevin was on the other side of a door with a window labeled operations. He stared at his monitor, with a phone balanced on one shoulder and a radio clutched in his other hand. He looked as capable and businesslike as he had sounded. When I saw that he probably had a few years in, I wasn't surprised. The Operations function is Darwinian-survival of the calmest.
When he heard me come in, he nodded in my direction and kept talking into the radio. "We need to hold that gate open for the DC-10. It's on final."
I couldn't make out the response, but whoever was talking sounded confused. Kevin wasn't. "Because it's the only gate I've got left that will take a 'ten. Everything else is narrow-body only."
While I waited, I reacquainted myself with an Ops office. This one, rectangular and about ten paces long, had what they all had-weather machines, printers of every kind, monitors, radios, phones, and file cabinets. It also had a bank of seven closed-circuit TV monitors. According to the labels, there was one camera for each of the six gates, Forty through Forty-five, and one for Forty-six-a slab of bare concrete used for the commuter operation, which was ground-loaded, no jetbridge. On the wall was a picture of our leader, the Chairman and CEO of Majestic Airlines. It was a black-and-white head shot that wouldn't have been out of place if this were 1961 and it was hanging next to an eight-by-ten glossy of John F. Kennedy. He stared out at me, and I stared back, knowing how insulted the great Bill Scanlon would be to hang in such a cheap plastic frame. I tried not to linger over the photo, to look away, to move on. But I hadn't been able to move on for the better part of the last year.
Normally, the only thing that makes the end of a relationship bearable is that many of the painful reminders of the person you are trying to stop loving can be removed from your life. You can throw away pictures, burn letters, and give all those books he gave you to the used bookstore. But as long as I worked for this airline, Bill Scanlon would always be gazing down from the wall in some office, reminding me of the way he used to look at me. Or I would come across his signature on a memo and remember the way his hand used to feel resting lightly on my hip. His imprint on this company-indeed, on the entire industry-was so broad and deep, I would never really get away from him. After all, he was, according to Business Week, "The Man Who Saved the Airlines." Looking at the image of his face, I felt what I had felt almost from the first day without him in my life. I missed him.
Kevin finished his call and stood to greet me, bending slightly at the waist and extending his hand in a gesture that felt oddly formal given the setting. "Welcome to Boston, Miss Shanahan. Kevin Corrigan, at your service."
I shook his hand. "Call me Alex."
"Thank you, I shall with pleasure." The glint in his clear blue eyes suggested a wry intelligence, and the Irish accent I'd heard over the radio was even more charming in person.
"You saved the operation last night, Kevin. But don't tell anyone because I'm getting all the credit."
"As well you should." He sat back in his chair and swung around to face his computer, raising his voice to accommodate for having his back to me. "It's good of you to come down. Usually I toil in complete obscurity, unless someone wants to yell or complain. In that case," he chuckled, "I'm far too accessible. How are you settling in?"
"Good. I'm over at the Harborside Hyatt until I get a chance to look for a place."
"Doesn't sound too homey."
"Based on what I saw last night, I need to be close to the airport for a while. I'm hoping that was the worst of it, that it can only get better."
"Not necessarily, but that's why you're here, isn't it?" He swung around and grinned at me, eyebrows dancing. "After all, you did ask for this assignment."
"How did you know that?"
"Everyone knows. In fact"-he reached over to rip something off the printer-"everyone knows everything about you."
My neck stiffened as I thought about the hangman's drawing in the closet last night. I didn't think I wanted everyone to know everything about me, particularly where I was at all times, but I was hoping that's not what Kevin meant. "I'd be really embarrassed if everyone knew my shoe size."
"Shall I give you the rundown?"
I rested my hips against the long work counter that served as his desk. "Give it to me straight."
"You've been with the company fourteen years, all on the Majestic side. You started out as an airport agent and worked your way up from there. You've lived and worked in a dozen different cities. Somewhere along the way you managed an MBA by going to night school. You've spent the past eighteen months at headquarters getting staff experience. That done, you're on a fast track to VP, maybe even to be the first woman vice president in the field."
I secretly loved hearing that last part. "You should write my resumes. Who's the detective?"
"There are no secrets here. One day someone knows. Before long everyone knows, and then it's as if we've always known."
"So I'm finding out." I pulled down a clipboard hanging on a nail and checked out the tour report. I hadn't seen a tour report in the entire eighteen months I'd been in headquarters, so now I was taking every chance to look at one, to remind myself that I was back in the field, and every time I did, it gave me a little boost. It was like hearing a favorite old song that comes on the radio after a long absence and being reminded of how much you liked it. This evening looked more promising than last-skies were clear, at least for now, all equipment was in service, and no crew chiefs were on the sick list. I hung the clipboard back on its nail and drifted back over to the window, a chest-high rectangle that ran the length of the office.
Directly outside, two rampers were loading bags onto a belt loader and up into the belly of the aircraft. Their movements were slow, disinterested. Not far away was a cluster of carts and tractors painted in Majestic's deep purple colors. Paint was peeling, windows were cracked, and parking was confused and disorderly. In the distance, Delta's operation gleamed. Even from where I stood, their safety markings and guidelines in reflective white and yellow paint were bright and visible. Every piece of equipment was in its proper place, and everyone was in uniform. I turned back into the office. "What's going on around here, Kevin?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Crew chiefs are walking off their shifts, Dan Fallacaro looks as if he's just stepped out of his own grave-"
"Don't blame Danny. He's a good man and it's not his fault. He's the best operating man around."
"I'd like to think so, but to put it kindly, he's been a little hard to pin down. Everyone is whispering, no one is doing any work, this place is a mess, and no one here seems to notice."
"No one does notice. We're all accustomed to it."
"Are you saying this is normal?" I walked around so that I could see his face because it looked as if… he was. He was smiling. "Did I say something funny?"
He glanced up from his screen. "Oh, no, I'm sorry. It's just that you sound like all the rest when they first get here. People who come into this operation from the outside are always shocked and amazed. Don't worry, it will wear off."
"I don't want it to wear off. I'd rather fix the problems." Jeez, was I really that pompous and self-important? "All I'm saying is-"
"I know what you're saying. What Ellen found out and what you will, too, is that nobody wants this place fixed or else it would have been done a long time ago. The game is rigged."
"I don't believe that."
"Maybe it was true during the Nor'easter years, but the merger makes it a new game with new rules."
"That's what Ellen thought, too," he said.
"Maybe Ellen Shepard wasn't the right person for the job. The field is a whole different story than staff, and she had no operating experience. Everyone in the field wondered how she even got this job. And we all resented her for getting it, at least until she killed herself.".
"It would be nice to think that, wouldn't it? That she succumbed to the pressures of the job?"
"I've heard that the pressures were pretty intense."
"No doubt about that. I came to work one day and the freight house was on fire. A week later, all of the computer monitors in the supply room were smashed to smithereens. One night a full twenty-five percent of the entire midnight shift called in sick. And you couldn't keep track of all the stuff that was stolen off this field. Worse than that, she was getting phone calls at home, threats and warnings of a personal nature." He shook his head. "Terrible stuff. Very sad if you liked the woman, which I did." The phone rang and he paused before picking it up. "Ellen Shepard wasn't under pressure, she was under siege."
I'd stared out the window long enough, so this time I checked out the bulletin board. Most of what was up there was old enough to have turned yellow and curled at the edges. Kevin finished his call.
"All this harassment," I said, "was because she was trying to change around a few shifts and cut overtime?"
"Ellen Shepard is not dead because she tried to cut overtime, and it's not because of any personal problems she may have been having. That's just the convenient party line. Her problems were all right down here on the ramp. One of them in particular just got the better of her that night, that's all."
"I keep my beliefs to myself," he said. "That's the secret to my longevity."
"Don't tell me you're one of the conspiracy theorists."
His expression didn't change.
"That is an absurd rumor," I said, with a little more passion than necessary. "The police ruled Ellen's death a suicide. And besides, if Ellen was murdered by one of her employees, what possible motive would the company have to cover it up?"
"I've been at Logan a long time," he said, "long enough to know that every rumor has some seed of truth, no matter how small."
There was just enough calm rationalism in his tone to unnerve me. If I believed he knew how to optimize gates and which aircraft to dispatch and when, why wouldn't I believe him about this? "You're really starting to disturb me, Kevin."
"You should be disturbed." He stood up, walked over to the closed door, and mashed his cheek against the glass window, peering first to the left and then to the right. He came back to me and whispered in a tone that was urgent and serious. "This is not a safe place, especially for a woman, and if no one told you that, they should have." The twinkle had gone out of his eye. "Don't try to take on the union. Don't try to be a hero, and don't expect to make your career in this place. Just put in your time and get out in one piece. That's the best advice I can give you."
Then he turned around and went back to work as if the conversation had never happened.
I went to the window and watched the rampers working their flight. The sky, still clear, was already darkening in the early winter afternoon. I saw more winter gear on the ramp. Heavier coats. Gloves. It was getting colder, and I wrapped my arms tightly around me to keep from shivering. Low clouds were gathering in the western sky and I wondered, if I were outside, could I smell snow coming?