Read Air Time Online

Authors: Hank Phillippi Ryan

Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women

Air Time (4 page)

Chapter Four
 
 

I

’m starving. I’m exhausted. But my eye is on the prize.
Josh
. Grabbing the curlicued wrought iron railing with one hand and my keys with the other, I drag myself up my front steps. The motion detector flips a spotlight onto the red-lacquer front door, where someone’s placed an elaborately twisted wreath of flaming orange bittersweet and a blaze of amber maple leaves over the brass lion knocker. Pots of tiny golden chrysanthemums in concrete urns flank the front stoop. In the entryway, a slender cherry table holds a crystal vase of red gladiolas. My condo fees at work. I clamber up the zigzag stairway, fueled by hunger, lust, my airport idea, and the knowledge that this day could possibly have a happily-ever-after ending. What was Josh getting at this morning? Am I almost—engaged? I pause on the second-floor landing, stopped in my tracks by the weight of my own question. What if?

One way to find out. One more flight to go. Maysie will go bananas. Mom, too.

I can hear Botox before I even hit the landing. She’s probably been in full-blown feline pout mode, clawing open paper pouches of cat food, knocking over wastebaskets and flipping kitty litter as far as she can. The
meowing gets louder as she hears my key turn in the lock.

“Hey, baby cat,” I say. I bend to pick her up, but after a baleful glare, she flips her calico tail at me and flounces into the kitchen.

“Fine, be like that,” I call after her. Amy, the cat sitter, has piled the mail on the dining room table, an outrageously expensive mahogany antique cleverly converted to a staging area for my embarrassing stack of definitely-going-to-read-them-soon
Vogues
and
New Yorkers
. It’s also a handy storage spot for to-be-paid bills. The curvy navy silk-upholstered dining room chairs are gorgeous, too. Those I use as coatracks.

Mom’s wedding album—the new one—also currently lives on the dining room table. She and Ethan sent me my personal copy soon after they got home to Chicago last month, fresh from their honeymoon. With a note. “You next. Love, Mrs. Mom.”

Honeymoon.

With a burst of energy, I sprint down the hallway, past my gallery of family photos, as always, saluting the framed shot of Dad in his cub reporter days, and head into the spare bedroom I’ve cleverly converted into a walk-in closet. I peel off my tired white T-shirt, now permanently infused with two days of stale airplane air. Pants, too, wrinkled beyond redemption, into the hamper. I can’t even imagine wearing either of them again.

I’ll shower. Twist my hair up and ignore my salon-needy brown roots. Throw on my good Levi’s. No. Dammit. They’re in my “lost” suitcase.

The blast of hot water and foaming grapefruit shower gel erases my annoyance. I continue mapping out my unalterable plan. Shower. Clean clothes. My second-best jeans, high-heeled black boots, a black cashmere
v-neck with a lacy come-hither camisole underneath. Grab a power bar. Sneak past Botox. And then, I’m going to Josh. After all. This morning I made a vow.

 

 

Just as I have my hand on the doorknob, finally headed for some potentially life-altering answers and a memory-making night, the phone rings.

Answer it
. It might be Josh. The phone rings again.

Don’t answer it
. It’s undoubtedly a telemarketer. It rings again. I can’t stand it. And I can’t resist.

Rule one in journalism, every phone call might bring a good story. Rule two, it most likely won’t. Rule three, if you don’t answer the phone, refer to rule one. Another ring. I dash to the kitchen and grab the receiver from the red wall-mounted phone.

“McNally. I mean, hello,” I say. But I’m too late. My voice mail has started. I hear my recorded self saying “We’re not here to take your call right now…” Now the machine and I are both talking, in a double-talk babble that must be annoyingly confusing to whoever is on the other end. “Sorry, hang on,” I say, raising my real voice to compete with my recorded voice. “The message will be over in a second.”

When there’s just one of me, I continue. “Hello?”

“Charlie McNally, from Channel 3 News?”

The voice is low. Almost gruff. And unfamiliar. Which is strange, because I’m obsessive about keeping my home phone number private.

“May I ask who’s calling?” I say. Don’t need to confirm who I am.

“You think you’re on to something, don’t you, hotshot? You and your hotshot buddy.” The voice continues. There’s a sound in the background, like a clicking? But I can’t place it. “I’m going to warn you just once,
hotshot. Knock it off. We saw you at the airport. Got me? And that’s not all we know about you.”

Clutching the phone, I look out my third-floor window, through the birch tree leaves and past the glare of the streetlight to the well-tended square of garden and sidewalk below. Scanning. Searching. Nothing.

I have to be smart. Keep whoever it is on the line. I can call 911 from my cell phone. If I can keep this guy talking, the police could trace the call.

I guess.

“Who is this? What do you want?” I ask. I try to sound afraid, which isn’t actually that difficult, but I figure my “weakness” could convince whoever it is to keep threatening me. And buy me some time. Problem is, the tote bag with my cell is in the other room, still parked by the front door.

Of course I’m on my landline. Stretching the curly cord around the corner, pulling it to the limit, and then stretching out one arm as far as I possibly can…I still can’t get to my bag. “Just tell me what you want,” I say. My voice is as taut as the phone cord.

“You know exactly what we want,” the voice says. It’s muffled and raspy, but definitely a man. And there’s that sound again. “We want you and your hotshot pals to stay away from our business.”

I stretch one leg backward toward the bag, manage to hook the heel of one boot around the loop of a handle, and drag the black canvas across the sisal rug toward me. Got it. Tucking the kitchen phone under my chin, I dig through the bag for my cell. Got it. I check the window. Now a dark-colored car is pulling up. My eyes widen, contemplating who that might be. And why they’re here. I flatten myself against the pinstriped wallpaper, away from the window, out of sight.

“I’m so sorry, I just don’t understand,” I say. Suddenly I can’t hold back the genuine tremor in my voice. Then I frown at myself, regrouping. This is just some jerk. I’ve handled worse. And I have a plan. Just keep this guy talking. “Your business? What’s that, exactly?”

I get the cell open. Smash the green on button. Finally, finally, I hear tim-tee-tum of the power up music. And so does he.

“Smart,” he says. “Cell phone.” And the line goes dead.

 

 

“Call the police,” Josh demands. “Now.”

I’d waited, staring out my window, waited until I saw his pale blue Volvo pull up under the streetlight. Watched him, holding my breath, as he opened the car door, got out, walked to my front door. For the brief moment he was out of sight, I know my heart stopped beating.

Then his footsteps, running up the carpeted stairs. His key in the lock. And then he was inside and I was melting into his arms, protected, relieved, safe.

And now. He’s angry. After almost a year together, I’ve seen him tired, almost drunk, in bed with a fever, bored, passionate, cheering for the Red Sox, playing Twister with Penny. I’ve seen him annoyed, suspicious, and briefly unhappy. But I’ve never seen him this angry.

“If you don’t call the police,” Josh says, unwrapping his arm from around my shoulders and leaving me, longing, on my midnight-blue leather couch, “you’re simply allowing yourself to be in danger. That’s not ‘intrepid tough reporter.’ That’s absurd.”

He goes to the bay window overlooking Mt. Vernon Square, and pulls aside the delicate oatmeal muslin curtain. “You were planning to notify the cops when—whoever it was—was still on the phone, correct?”

He’s holding the curtain open and facing out. Directing his questions to the window. “So what’s the difference with calling them now?” His voice is arch, critical. The voice I’ve heard him use on the phone to Victoria.

I’m simmering a bit myself. Shouldn’t he be comforting me? Isn’t this the part where Prince Charming is supposed to draw his sword and protect me from evil-doers? Why do I have to defend myself and my actions? I’m the one who, apparently, just got threatened. I don’t need Josh’s advice. I don’t need him to tell me what to do. I just need a reliable friend.

But maybe he needs something, too. Coming up behind him, I prop my chin on his shoulder. “I’m so glad you came over, sweetheart. I must say I had a few freaked-out moments. And I wasn’t happy about going outside just then, so thank you for coming over. You’re right, I was going to call the cops when the guy was on the phone.

“But now,” I step back, turn his shoulder so he’s facing me and take both his hands. I try a tentative smile. “But now, what could they do? Besides, if an investigative reporter gets flummoxed by a crank call—well, I’ve handled worse. Right? I’ve gotten dozens over the years. Nothing has ever come of them. It just means I’m on the right track. Of whatever it is. And that’s a good thing. Right? Listen, I promise I’ll tell the news director about it tomorrow. Kevin can notify the cops if he wants. Right?”

Josh is silent, so maybe I’m succeeding.

“And now you’re here,” I continue, “and now it’s fine, and now let’s finish our wine and maybe even finish the evening we were supposed to have when we were so rudely interrupted. This morning, you were saying?”

I scan his face, gauging my attempts at reconciliation.

“The last time you had a ‘good story,’ you were chased down the interstate by murdering thugs,” Josh replies, ignoring my question. His voice is cold. “Then held at gunpoint. Twice. A ‘good story’ almost got your own mother killed, just two months ago, and now—”

“Well, no, that’s not quite accurate.” I take a step back, and I can feel a frown creasing my forehead.

“It is accurate.” Josh shrugs, then looks down, slowly shaking his head. “I know you’re devoted to your job. And getting the bad guys, as you always say. And that’s admirable. And scoring yet another Emmy.” He looks back up at me. “But if someone is calling you at home, threatening you, how can I protect you? How can I protect any of us? And you’re calling it a good thing?”

“Well, in TV news, you know,
‘good’
is kind of relative, and—”

“Let me finish. If we’re a team? You and me and Penny? You can’t be putting us all in danger. If they know where you are, they’d know where she is.”

“But they’re not going to—”

“Who are ‘they’?” Josh says. “You have no idea what ‘they’ would or wouldn’t do, because you have no idea who ‘they’ are. And for you to just dismiss a threatening phone call, not even report it to police, seems irresponsible.”

Josh steps away from the window. I see him eyeing the front door.

He’s going to bolt? Without even having a real conversation?

“Honey?” Then I stop. He’s displeased because I’m not doing what he says? I’m not one of his errant students, a kid who disobeyed orders or passed notes in class or whispered or cheated. I’ve been fine on my own for all these years. Which used to worry me. Now I see
why being on my own might have been much, much easier. But do I want to be on my own anymore?

“Honey?” I say again. I’m teetering on angry, but trying to soften my voice. “Maybe we should really talk about this. Not fight. I mean, I give my opinion, then you give yours. And we discuss it. But if I give my opinion, and then you say I’m wrong, that’s not a discussion. You know?”

“It’s not just about calling the police,” Josh says, ignoring my question. “Covering that plane crash was more important to you than coming home. To me. To Penny. She relies on you now. Her mother left us. She chose her job. And now, you—”

“I wasn’t choosing my job in Baltimore,” I interrupt. My hands are on my hips. I didn’t decide to put them there. “I chose it twenty-five years ago.”

Botox pads into the room, then stops. She eyes us, her tail waving. She hops onto the couch and begins daintily licking a paw. As if the entire world wasn’t about to fall apart.

“I see,” Josh says. In three controlled paces, he’s in the dining room. He yanks his leather jacket from the back of a mahogany chair, thumbs it over one shoulder and marches toward the front door.

“Josh?” I say. My hands drop to my sides. My chest turns to ice and my eyes swim with tears of indecision. What do I do? What do people do? People disagree, don’t they? Sometimes?

“Let’s talk tomorrow,” he says. In a voice I’ve never heard.

“Whatever,” I say. In a voice I’ve never heard.

The front door opens. And closes. And Josh is gone.

I’ve lost my luggage. That I can handle. But now, what if I’ve lost the love of my life?

Chapter Five
 
 

M

 
y mother is going to kill me
. Maysie will be so sad. They’re both happily married. Maysie about to have kid number three. I’m apparently the only one who is unable to balance my personal life with my professional life. Mom’s twenty years of fears and warnings are now confirmed. I’m raggedy and raw this morning, and my eyes sting whenever I think about Josh and Penny, which is all the time. I can’t even imagine how Josh will explain to her what happened. I can’t really explain it myself. I yank myself back into the real world. I can always count on work. And Franklin.
Right
. He and Stephen are also in a committed and fulfilling relationship. I’m the only loser.

A swirl of coffee-swilling subway commuters bustles around us as we stand on the sidewalk in the midst of the Government Center Station crowd. Our destination this morning is the curved stone facade of Two Center Plaza, the Boston office of the FBI. We’ve got ten minutes until the meeting.

“The purse party’s tomorrow, out in Great Barrington,” Franklin says. “Four in the afternoon, the voicemail message said. Like a tea party, I guess. Only without the tea. And with contraband.” Franklin’s eyeing a little map on his latest phone gizmo. “GB’s about a three-hour drive from here.”

“They certainly called back quickly,” I say. I’d left our undercover phone number on Regine’s Designer Doubles Web site just yesterday. It’s our private line, not hooked in to the Channel 3 phone system, and it has caller ID blocking. We give it out whenever we need to stay anonymous.

Franklin and I ignore the crosswalk and scuttle through the middle of Cambridge Street traffic. “But why not, I guess, when it’s all about the money,” I continue. “So here’s the plan. You put together the hidden camera equipment today. Tomorrow I’ll hop on the Turnpike and pay a visit to the purse ladies. I’ll come back with some knockout video and some knockout evidence.”

“Charlotte—” Franklin briefly puts his hand on my arm as we step onto the sidewalk. “We need to talk this over. What are you going to do at this purse party, wear a paper bag over your head?”

My brain is so absorbed by my collapsing universe I’m barely keeping up with what Franklin is saying. I used more than my quota of under-eye concealer this morning. And I’m grateful that September has provided just enough sunshine so I can logically wear sunglasses. They’ll at least prevent Franklin from focusing on my certainly still puffy-from-crying face. FBI Special Agent Marren Lattimer has never met me, so he’ll just have to live with it.

“Wear what? A paper bag over my head?” I’m confused. Then I get his point. “Oh, come on, Franko, no way the women at the purse party are going to recognize me, way out in western Massachusetts.”

We revolve through the front door of the anonymous-looking gray stone building and show our station ID cards to the front desk guard. Self-important in his blue
blazer and packing a two-way radio, he shows us how conscientious he is, holding up each card briefly and matching our faces. He doesn’t ask me to take off my Jackie O sunglasses, though. So I could be anyone.

“Channel 3’s signal doesn’t carry out to Great Barrington,” I continue. “They get TV from Albany, New York, someplace like that. Not Boston.”

Franklin and I sign the loose-leaf notebook, as instructed, struggling with a pen attached by a tangled and too-short strip of plastic. “I’ll leave off all my makeup, pull my hair back, wear my glasses, some dumpy outfit. They won’t suspect a thing.”

I lower my voice, so the guard won’t overhear. “They especially won’t suspect that I’ll be carrying a hidden camera.”

Ignoring us, the guard is now comparing our sign-in signatures with the ones on our ID cards. My signature is illegible, so he’s just matching scrawls.

“I still think, Charlotte, that you may be taking an unnecessary chance.” Franklin says, shaking his head. “If you get recognized, you’ve blown our story. Maybe we should think of another way.”

Somehow Franklin’s tone clicks the “upset” button in my brain and tears well in my eyes again. Why is everyone suddenly criticizing everything I do?

“I hardly think I’d put our story in jeopardy,” I say, hearing an unusual haughtiness creep into my own voice. “I have thought this through, you know. It’s not like I’m some kind of novice.”

The guard shoulders his way between us to slip a glossy white key card into a slot outside one chrome elevator. With a ping the door instantly slides open. Motioning us in, the guard taps a five-digit code on a number pad, then pushes the button marked sixteen. He holds
the door in place, looking stern. “Someone will meet you on sixteen,” he instructs. “Wait there until they arrive. Don’t leave the sixteenth-floor lobby until they escort you.”

He looks up at a corner of elevator, gestures with his head. “Surveillance cameras. They’re watching you.”

As the doors slide shut, I push my sunglasses onto the top of my head, which knocks the reading glasses I’ve perched there onto the elevator’s carpeted floor. This is the last straw.

“Dammit,” I hiss. I snatch up the glasses and stuff them, without putting them in a case, into my bag. I hear Franklin make some sort of sound of disapproval.

“What?” I look at him, challenging. They’re
my
glasses. I can put them in my purse however I want. If everyone wants to fight, I’ll fight.

Franklin’s face evolves from surprise to concern. “Charlotte, are you okay?” he whispers. He reaches out and touches my shoulder. “The sunglasses? And you look, uh, tired. And as for the paper bag thing—we always discuss story strategy. I’m just brainstorming. You know? What’s up with you today?”

Leaning against the brass railing of the elevator, I try to figure out how to answer him. The car slowly carries us past floor 5 to 6, and then to 7. I press my lips together, realizing how close to tears I am. And Franklin’s gesture, his offer of comfort, pushes me even closer. Glancing at the elevator buttons, I measure our progress to the top. Eight floors to pull myself together.

“Yeah, Franko, I’m sorry,” I say softly. “Josh and I had a fight. A downright real fight. And he left, went home. At about one in the morning.”

Seven, six floors to go.

“You’ll see each other tonight, as usual, right?” Franklin interrupts, gently. “And you can talk it out.”

Five, four.

I sigh, briefly considering whether he might be right. I feel a flutter of hope attempt to break through to the surface. Franklin and Stephen have what they call “tiffs,” I know. They even joke about it later. But I fear this is different. The wisp of hope evaporates, destroyed by reality.

“I don’t think so,” I say. And with that, I recognize what I’m feeling. My heart is breaking.

Two, one.

And the door opens on the sixteenth floor. I struggle to manage a fragile smile, attempting to reassure Franklin that I’m tough. I’m a reporter. Don’t have to worry about me. And then I remember I haven’t even mentioned last night’s anonymous phone call. Too late now.

I hitch my tote bag higher on my shoulder, but it catches on the shoulder flap of my new camel suede jacket and falls back into the crook of my elbow, yanking the sleeve out of shape. Now even my own purse is fighting me. I glare at it, then take a deep breath. Edward R. Murrow would not be defeated by a few emotional bumps in the road.

“Let’s catch some bad guys, Franko,” I say. “It’s Emmy time.”

 

 

“Profits? Two billion dollars a year. Maybe three.” FBI Special Agent in Charge Marren Lattimer is spewing stats, staccato, almost faster than Franklin and I can write them in our spiral notepads. I’ve got three pages covered already and we’ve only been here two minutes. “Terrorists make more money selling counterfeit than selling dope.”

Lattimer’s as hard-nosed and craggy as a recruiting
poster for the Marines. White shirt. Boring tie. His navy blazer falls open to reveal just a corner of under-the-shoulder holster.

“Recognize this?” he asks, pointing to a framed photo on the wall. “They haven’t got all my stuff on the wall yet, just moved into the place of course. But I said, make sure this one goes up asap. Top priority. Keeps my eye on the target. So. Do you know where this is?”

I look up from my notebook, examining the black-and-white poster-sized photograph hanging beside an array of eight-by-tens. Lattimer piloting a helicopter. A younger Lattimer, before the gray hair, with a former president. An even younger Lattimer, tallest in a group of crew-cutted young men and determined women, all holding diplomas. Lattimer posing in a leather bomber jacket, tough guy, with a huge machine gun. A stack of framed pieces, probably more Lattimer nostalgia, leans against the wall.

“It’s, um…” The shot isn’t wide enough for instant context. Only the first floor is showing. I see smoke billowing from the front of a stone-and-glass building. Cops. TV cameras. I know it perfectly. But I hate pop quizzes.

“World Trade Center, 1993,” Franklin answers.

“Correct,” Lattimer says. “And how do you think those assholes—excuse me, Ms. McNally—how do you think that operation was financed? With the ill-gotten gains from counterfeit goods. Those women who think they’re picking up a bargain deal on a knockoff Prada?” He taps on the poster again. “Think they realize they may have paid for this?”

“Brass brought me up here to clean up this mess.” Lattimer leans toward us, palms down, over his expanse of government-issue, beige metal desk. “Organized
crime. In on it, too. Guys with names like Billy the Animal. Kurt the Russian. That’s who’s selling this stuff. And that’s what Susie Suburban doesn’t know. She thinks having one purse party for the gals in her neighborhood won’t hurt anyone.”

Franklin and I exchange uneasy glances. I’m sure we’ve just thought of the same two things. And we should have thought of them earlier. One of them I’ll bring up now.

“Is, uh, buying the purses illegal?” I ask.

“Time to call your congressman,” Lattimer replies. Scornful. “Why? Because it’s perfectly legal to buy the things. And to own them, just for personal use. Until they change the law, that’s what we we’re dealing with. What we’d like to do? Swoop down on one of those unsuspecting housewives and cart her and her purse-happy friends off to the slammer.” A brief look of conquest crosses his face. “That’d send a message.”

“But you can’t now? I mean, you’d think you could arrest at least the hostess,” Franklin puts in. “Selling the stuff is illegal, right?”

I grimace, picturing that. And the complications that would ensue. “I guess the headlines might be pretty unpleasant, though: ‘Fashion Police Feds Collar Neighborhood Moms.’”

“I get my orders from the top,” Lattimer says. “Brass says, we’re going after the big guns. The source. Cut off supply, you kill the demand.”

Now he’s talking. This is the kind of nitty gritty information we came here to get.

“So you see our situation,” he continues. “We can’t go to China, close down the big fish there. No jurisdiction. Our U. S. Customs teams intercept what they can at the border. But once these bags get into the States, that’s what we’re targeting. The distribution chain.”

“So, just for background for our story, may I ask how you’re tracing the products?” I turn to a new page in my notebook, hoping for some inside scoop. “You see these bags all over Canal Street in New York, Downtown Crossing here in Boston, people selling them right out in the open. Where do they get them? Are there warehouses someplace, full of purses? Have you raided them? How do they get to the little fish? When? Where? Who?”

“Are there records of the raids?” Franklin adds. “If we could analyze, say, your database of searches and seizures…”

“Classified.” Lattimer says, making a
no way
gesture with both hands. “No can do.”

He lifts the World Trade Center photo from the wall, revealing what looks like a wall safe underneath, a number pad imbedded on the wall beside it. He plants himself in front of the pad, ostentatiously blocking our view as if there’s some possibility we’re going to come back into his office later and open the safe. I can tell he’s entering in a code. He moves aside as the metal door clicks open, then reaches in and pulls out a purse. Then another and another and another. He piles them on his desk, a mound of designer logos, camel-and-red plaid fabric, elaborate initials adorned with painted pastel flowers. Susannah would drool over the sleek black quilted-leather pouches and their silver-embroidered interlinked
C’
s.

“All these?” says Lattimer, waving a hand over the contraband. “All fakes. And all purchased at suburban purse parties. All in Massachusetts. Our undercover teams are—Well, stand by.” He pushes a buzzer on his desk phone.

“Yes, sir,” a voice instantly answers.

“Send in Agent Stone, please,” Lattimer says.

 

 

“When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.” Agent Keresey Stone sweeps into the SAC’s office, managing to look about as masculine as a centerfold in her FBI regulation man-centric dark blue trousers, white oxford button-down and navy blazer. Her leonine hair threatens, as always, to escape its taut chignon, and she wears her gold badge, encased in plastic and hanging from a government-issue aluminum chain, with the flair of a Tiffany necklace. She’s pushing the limits with her sturdy shoes. They’re not standard issue, but no one else in the Bureau will recognize Ferragamo.

“This is—” Lattimer begins. But Franklin and I are already on our feet.

“Hey, Keresey,” I say. Even in this professional environment, I feel comfortable giving her a quick hug. “I didn’t know you were on the—”

“Hey, Keresey,” Franklin says, at the same time. He holds out a hand, but I’ve gotten to our old friend first.

“I see you’re already acquainted,” Lattimer puts in. He frowns. “Agent Stone. I’m certain you haven’t discussed Operation Knockoff with the media without going through the proper channels.”

“No, sir, Chief. Charlie and I know each other from way back. When I was still in Firearms. I taught her how to shoot a Smith & Wesson—” she pats her hip holster as she continues her explanation “—for a story on illegal weapons and women’s self-defense. Took her to the range at Fort Devens, in fact.”

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