The last cherry tomato in my salad was rolling around in the bottom of the bowl, slick with salad dressing and eluding the dull prongs of my little plastic fork. No one was watching, so I plucked it out, dropped my head back, and plopped it into my mouth. At least I thought no one had been watching. I looked up to find my office filling up with men in deep purple Majestic ramp uniforms.
"Can I help you gentlemen?" I asked, dumping the plastic salad bowl into the garbage. It had felt like more, but it turned out to be only four guys. Even so, as I watched them mill about my office, I began to appreciate for the first time the value of having a desk the size of an aircraft carrier. It gave me the opportunity to peer steely-eyed across its vast, cherry-stained horizon at people who barged in unannounced, uninvited, and apparently unencumbered by any respect for my authority.
"We're here for the meetin'."
The man who'd spoken was fifty-ish with a pinkie ring and hair too young for his face. It was jet black and worn in a minor pompadour.
"I don't remember calling a meeting," I said, "and I don't know who you are."
"I'm president of Local 412 of the International Brotherhood of Groundworkers. This here's my Business Council, and we come for Little Pete's hearing."
The youngest of the four men was posed against the wall, staring vacantly out the window and looking like an underwear model. No one had mentioned that Little Pete was not little at all, and not just because he was well over six feet tall. He had a thickly sculpted, lovingly maintained bodybuilder's physique, which was shown to good effect by the shrink-wrap fit of his uniform shirt. He was an intimidating presence, more so when I thought about Dan's belief, Dan's fervent belief, that this man had killed Ellen. When he glanced over at me and we locked eyes, my mouth went dry.
The other three men were smaller, older, and resoundingly ordinary by comparison. I addressed myself to The Pompadour. "You're Victor Venora."
He neither confirmed nor denied, simply gestured to his right, "George Tutun, secretary," and to his left, "Peter Dwyer Sr. He's the vice president. Like I said, we're here for the meetin'."
I stole a quick look at the senior Dwyer, the man Dan had referred to as "Shithead Sr." Just as Little Pete wasn't little, Big Pete wasn't big. "If I'm not mistaken, Victor, Dan's the one who's chairing the hearing for Pete Jr."
"He ain't around."
I checked the clock on my desk, a more discreet gesture than looking at my wristwatch, although why I cared about being polite, I couldn't say. "Perhaps because you're three hours early. That meeting is set for four o'clock."
"This time worked out better for us."
"I see." Ambush. Instead of sending one steward with Little Pete, which would have been routine for a disciplinary discussion, all the elected officials of the Boston local of the IBG had shown up. To up the ante, one of the council members was Little Pete's father. Either they'd had success in the past with such brute-force tactics, or they took me for a spineless moron.
"Well, I'm delighted to meet you, all of you. If you'll excuse me…" I moved out from behind my desk, stepped between Victor and Big Pete, and poked my head out to find Molly, who was just coming back from lunch. "Molly, would you beep Dan and ask him to come to my office?"
"He's with the Port Authority," she said, peeking around me to see who was there. "You want me to interrupt?"
"Please. When he gets here, ask him to come in, but first tell him his four o'clock meeting arrived early."
"So that's what's going on," she said, shaking her headful of heavy brown curls. "Don't let them rattle you. They do this all the time." Which meant they didn't necessarily believe I was a spineless moron, but they were there to find out.
The humidity level in the small office was on the rise as I closed the door and settled back in. All the warm bodies were throwing off heat. They'd also brought with them the earthy smell of men standing around indoors while dressed to work outdoors. I didn't mind. It reminded me they were on my turf.
Victor was droning on as if we were still in mid-conversation. "…unless you want we should wait for Danny…"
"Why would I want that?"
"Maybe you'd want to let him handle things from here on out.".
My audience was watching, even Little Pete, waiting to see if I would scurry to safety through the escape hatch Victor had just opened. Somewhere in the back of my brain, Kevin's warning was rattling around. "Don't take on the union," he'd said. I looked at the elected officials of the IBG standing in front of me and considered his advice. For about half a second.
"Dan will be joining us shortly, and if you'd like to wait for him, I'd certainly respect that. Otherwise, I'm ready to proceed. Pete Jr."-I gestured to the chair across the desk from me-"would you mind sitting here?" He began to stir himself as I surveyed the others. "Which one of you is his steward?"
"Big Pete." Victor apparently spoke for everyone today.
"Okay. Not to be rude, but why are the rest of you here? I only ask because I'd like to know if things work differently in Boston than everywhere else in the system."
"We just thought this being your first disciplinary hearing and all-"
"This is not my first disciplinary hearing, but if you want to stay, you're welcome."
They looked at each other, but no one left, so I began. Pete Jr. was now sitting in front of me, making his chair look small and picking at a scab on his forearm. The expression on his face was lazy and dull, and I almost wondered if there was anyone home in there.
"Where were you between five and nine p.m. on Sunday?"
"Working my shift," he mumbled.
"Why couldn't anyone raise you on the radio?"
"I don't know."
"He didn't have a radio," said Victor helpfully. "That's on account of you people not buyin' enough."
I ignored Victor and concentrated on Little Pete. He somehow managed to look hard and coddled at the same time. He wore his dark hair in what I think they call a fade-longer on top and buzzed short on the sides. Something like you might see on a quasi-skinhead. But he also had curving lips that seemed frozen into a pampered sneer. When Victor spoke for him, he'd look down and pick at the crease in his pants or the arm of the chair. But when I spoke to him, he'd look straight at me, and behind that bored, dullard expression his eyes would be on fire, as if the very sight of me set him off. There was creepiness behind those eyes, residue from some long-smoldering resentment that couldn't have anything to do with me, but felt as if it had everything to do with me. It was unsettling.
"Even without a radio," I said, "if you were working your shift, then you can explain to me what happened that night and why your crew was not around to clean the cabins."
"He don't know nothing about that," Victor said, louder this time.
"You'd have to be comatose not to have noticed those problems. Either that or absent altogether, and I'm not talking to you, Victor."
I looked up at him and knew immediately that I had made a mistake. Victor was breathing faster, his cheeks puffed out, and his voice rumbled up from someplace way down low. "We ain't got enough manpower. We ain't got enough equipment. We can't spend no overtime. How do you people expect us to do our jobs?"
Manpower shortage. Jeez. The oldest, most tired argument in the industrialized world. "First of all, stop yelling at me. Second, the afternoon shift may or may not be understaffed," I said evenly, "I don't know. It has nothing to do with the fact that Pete Jr. as crew chief did not answer his radio all night. He wasn't in his assigned work area, nor was any member of his crew." It was an attempt to bring the discussion back to where it belonged, but the guy who was supposed to be the subject of the meeting had found another blemish to inspect, this one on his elbow. I stared at him, feeling frustrated and trying not to show it.
"Petey"-the elder Dwyer smacked his son on the back of his head with his glove-"sit up, boy. Show some respect."
I was regarding Pete Sr. in a whole new light when Victor erupted again. "You got guys running all over the ramp trying to keep up. Someone's gonna get hurt out there, and it'll be on management's head." He took a quick breath, "On top of that, you got Danny Fallacaro sneaking around all hours of the night spying on your own workers. Spying on good men trying to do an honest day's work. George, what do they call that… that thing they did to Angelo?"
Holy cow. George could speak after all. "What's wrong with a manager visiting one of his shifts?" I asked. "That's his prerogative."
"That's not what he's doing. He's-"
Victor stopped. Pete Sr. had laid a discreet hand on his arm. "You're absolutely correct, miss. Danny's got a right to go anywhere in the operation at any time. Just as you would. The thing is," he paused for a pained smile, "an unexpected visit kinda sets the guys off. Makes everybody nervous. Makes 'em feel like they're doing something wrong even when they're not."
"That ain't the thing, Pete."
"Shut up, Victor." Big Pete's voice was low and calm and raspy, and it cut through Victor's blustering like a scythe through tall grass. "Do you mind if I sit?" he asked me, making it clear that the real meeting was about to begin.
"Not at all."
Without having to be told, Little Pete sprang up like a jack-in-the-box, leaving the chair vacant for his father. I was now staring across the desk at Big Pete. He had his son's square face and hair the color of my mother's silver when it hadn't been polished for a while. Between gray and brown, the color of tarnish, and it looked as if he cut it himself. Maybe without a mirror. His skin was weathered but reasonably unlined for a man who had spent much of his life on the ramp. Being out in the elements worked on people differently. Usually it aged them, but with this man it seemed to have worked in the opposite way, wearing away all but the hardest bedrock of bone, muscle, and gristle.
"The problem I see," he began, "is the men are starting to feel nervous. And when the men get nervous, there's no telling what they'll do. The whole situation becomes"-he tilted his head one way, then the other as if the right word would shake out- "unpredictable."
There were lots of people in the office, but Pete's manner, his tone of voice, the way he looked at me, excluded everyone but the two of us.
"Look at it this way." He tapped-my desk lightly with his index finger. "Boston's a high-profile city, high visibility-especially after what's just happened. You got a lot of people watching you. What I'm sayin', if things go good, all credit to you. If things go wrong, well…" He sat back, resting his hands lightly on the arms of the chair. "There's been some sat in your chair who didn't deal so good with that kind of pressure. But then, they didn't have your experience, neither."
Pete Sr.'s eyes were an interesting shade of gray, an anti-color. They were cunning and observant and, I was sure now, conveying a message only I was meant to receive. Little Pete was all heat, but I understood now that I had far more to worry about from his father, who was ice cold. And at that moment, delivering a big fat threat.
"It's like this thing with Angelo," he said. "You know about Angelo, right?"
"I know what I need to know about Angelo."
"The thing of it is, Angie's got forty-two years in-"
He smiled graciously. "I stand corrected, but can you imagine that? One night he's working his shift, doing his job, and he gets scooped up in some kind of a sting operation and fired over what amounts to some misunderstanding."
"Which part was the misunderstanding? The part where he took a TV out of the freight house or the part where he was loading it into his car?"
Pete was unfazed. "If he's left alone, you don't know but that misunderstanding coulda been cleared up to everyone's satisfaction without no one losing his job. That's what the union's for. But that's not my point. What the men out there are thinking is what kind of a place we got here when management sneaks around in the middle of the night laying traps for us? I don't think that's how you want to handle things."
"How would I want to handle things?"
"First off, we can forget about this manpower problem for now. We'll work with what we got. Then maybe, as a goodwill gesture to the men on the ramp, you could see your way clear to bringin' Angie back to finish out his forty-second-excuse me, forty-first year. And one more thing… Danny Fallacaro starts going home to bed at night."
I leaned back in my chair and tried to figure out how that deal was good for me. Then I tried to figure out how we'd arrived at the point of talking about a deal for Angelo instead of reviewing Little Pete's lousy performance. It had happened when Big Pete had taken over the negotiation, and when had this become a negotiation, anyway? I scanned their faces. They were all watching me, but Big Pete was the only one who gave me the feeling he could read my thoughts.
"Let me see if I can understand what's going on here," I said. "You show up in my office uninvited at a time when you know Dan is somewhere else." I nodded toward Victor. "Bad Cop here sets the table by making a demand for additional manning, something you know you're not going to get. Then you, Good Cop, graciously withdraw the request if I agree, as a 'goodwill gesture,' to bring back Angelo the thief, and by the way, keep Dan off the midnight shift. And nowhere in there is any acknowledgement of the fact that Pete Jr. spent most of his shift Sunday night somewhere else besides the airport."
He smiled, letting me know that I had nailed the situation, and he didn't much care.
"The problem I'm having is, I don't see your leverage," I said, "unless you're implying that a certain element of disruption will occur in the operation if you don't get what you want."
By the time I was finished, the room had fallen completely silent. No coughing or shuffling or sniffing. I could smell the pungent vinegar dressing floating up from the salad plate in the bottom of the garbage. Big Pete was squinting out the window. "I didn't say nothing like that."
"Good, because I'm not prepared to simply bring Angelo DiBiasi back on payroll because you threatened me." Given what had just transpired, I was inclined to never bring him back, no matter what Lenny wanted.
Big Pete was wistful. "If that's what you gotta do…"
"As for Dan, I've been here three days, he's been here three years. You can see how it would be difficult for me to question his judgment. That being said, there is something I want."
Big Pete turned away from the window suddenly very interested.
"I want the jokes about Ellen Shepard's death to stop. I want every cartoon, every drawing, and every sick reference to disappear from the field. Forever. If that could happen, then maybe Dan and I would both sleep better at night."
"And he'd be sleeping at home?"
"That can be arranged. But I really think you should reconsider on Angelo. It would mean a lot to me personally."
"And I think you should consider that leaving the field in the middle of a shift is as much grounds for termination as stealing a television." I glanced over at Little Pete, who was studying his thumbnail, and I was almost relieved when he didn't look up. I turned back to his father. "Let's call that friendly reminder my goodwill gesture."
Big Pete heaved a great, doleful sigh. When he stood, I noticed he was less than six feet tall, much less physically imposing than his son, but still a man who commanded all the attention in the room when he wanted to. When he started to move, so did everyone else. Before he walked out, he leaned across my desk, offering one hand and putting the other palm down on the glass. It made me think of the palm print I'd seen there on my first day. When I took his hand, it felt cold. "Welcome to Boston, miss. Working with you is going to be a real pleasure."
After they'd left, I stood for a long time with my arms wrapped around me. I couldn't tell which had given me the chill, Big Pete's cold hand or his gray eyes, which seemed even colder. I looked down at the palm print he'd left on my desk. Then I leaned over and, using the sleeve of my blouse, wiped every last trace of it away.