Read Air Time Online

Authors: Hank Phillippi Ryan

Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women

Air Time (5 page)

She points to me. “You been practicing? You were quite a prodigy.”

Lattimer clears his throat, cutting off our nostalgia and reminding us he’s the man in charge. He leans back
in his cordovan vinyl leather swivel chair, and waves us to our seats. Keresey stands, looking more cover girl than cop, next to Lattimer’s desk. “I brought Agent Stone in because she’s the primary on our local undercover operations.”

So Keresey’s now with the counterfeit squad. That’s promising. Maybe we can convince them to let me go undercover with her. Double team.

“You know, I’m wondering…” I stop myself, mid-sentence. If we tell them we’re going undercover, what if they order us not to? I’m pretty sure they can’t do that, but it’s a legal tangle I’d rather avoid.

“Never mind, sorry. Go ahead.” I smile apologetically at Lattimer. “Lost my train of thought.” Maybe Keresey will tell me more, off the record.

“We have one squad targeting supply side,” Lattimer continues. “Agent Stone and her crew target demand. We’re laying groundwork now, seeing if we can follow the trail backward. See where these ladies are copping their product. Trace it back to the source.”

“It’s like dealing drugs,” Keresey adds. “We know the big fish are hiding somewhere. They distribute to the street dealers regionally, and they in turn, distribute to Internet dealers, and of course, the house parties.”

“Exactly like drugs, actually,” I say. I pick up a Chanel knockoff, examining it. “Except those women are addicted to fashion. Addicted to labels.”

“And these ass—sorry, these guys, provide a cheap fix,” Lattimer agrees. “All the bag at half the price. That’s what they say. And it’s a gold mine. All cash.”

“I’m still interested in your raids,” Franklin says. “Where they were. What the results were. What you seized.”

“Let me just say,” I add, “if we make a public records
request, even for redacted material, I think legally you’d have to give it to us.”

“Negative. Exemption 7. Investigative sources and methods. Investigation’s still underway.” Lattimer’s shaking his head, signaling subject closed.

I don’t think so.

“How about if you just blacked out the specific places?” I persist, going for the “see, we’re going to make you look successful so you should help us” gambit. “Just to show the public you’re making some progress? Getting the goods?”

Lattimer’s confident posture suddenly seems to sag. He leans forward, arms crossed on his desk. He’s wearing a mammoth Rolex and a chunky ring with a square blue sapphire. “Kere—Agent Stone?” he says. His voice seems to sag, too. “As we discussed, this will be off the record.”

“Off the—?” I say.

“Off the—?” Franklin repeats the dreaded words at the same time. We both know if we agree to “off the record” it means what’s coming is something we’d love to know and that probably no one else knows. A news tidbit made frustratingly unusable because we’re not allowed to put it in our story. We’re dying to hear it because it’s undoubtedly major-league info. Not being able to use it, however, is a major-league pain. Sometimes, there’s a compromise.

“What if we go for modified off-the-record,” I offer. “We could say: ‘we have learned.’ Or: ‘sources close to the FBI say.’ Something along those lines. Not reveal where we got the information, but still be able to use it.” It’s juggling bubbles to haggle over information we don’t have. Make the wrong move and it all disappears.

“Sorry, Charlie,” Keresey says.

Franklin hides a smile with what I know is a fake cough. He knows I hate the tuna-fish line from the old TV commercial.

“But—” I say. I still have more compromises in mind.

“Take it or leave it,” Lattimer points to his watch. “I’ve got another meeting.”

What is this, ultimatum week?

“Okay.” I wave a hand. Defeated. I quickly confirm with Franklin. “Okay?”

He shrugs, and gives me the floor.

“Okay,” I repeat. “Deal. We won’t use it unless we can find out about it on our own.” I mentally cross my fingers. At least that will be easier now because we’ll know what to look for.

“What we can tell you, and this is all we can tell you,” Keresey begins, “is our focus is on the distribution system. The middle men. How the bags get to the parties and to the street dealers. And that’s what we haven’t cracked.”

“Yet.” Lattimer interrupts.

“Yet.” Keresey agrees. “As of this date, there have been two E-As. Both based on CIs. Not in Massachusetts.”

I nod. Enforcement actions. Confidential informants.

“They were both no-go’s,” Keresey continues. “Empty warehouses. Both times. Old barns. Nothing inside. The informant’s info was bogus.” She swallows, then her face goes uncharacteristically somber. She looks at Lattimer.

“We lost two of our agents,” Lattimer says.

“One was killed. One was—”

“Classified.” Lattimer brusquely interrupts her.

“Do you think you received counterfeit information?” I say. “You think someone was trying to lure your agents into a trap?”

“Your question is duly noted,” the SAC replies. “But, I repeat, classified. But now you know Operation Knockoff is no walk in the park. It’s deadly. We’re following big money. International smuggling. Child labor. Legitimate companies ripped off for millions. These bags may be beautiful on the outside, but that’s the ugly reality.”

He picks up what looks like a Burberry shoulder bag with the trademark red-and-camel plaid. Holds it out with two fingers, as if the touch of it is poison. “Greed rules the world,” he says. “It’s a dirty business.”

Franklin and I exchange silent glances as Lattimer turns back to his secret safe. I raise an eyebrow, and know Franklin understands. A dirty business is just what good journalists are looking for. We’re the ones who can help clean it up.

Bring it on.

Chapter Six
 
 

I

spear a piece of lettuce, consider it, then reject it. I’m just not hungry. And I can’t remember the last time that happened. Franklin and I are discussing our FBI info in the lunchtime bustle of the Kinsale Restaurant, a faux Irish burger and salad joint favored by clerks, lawyers and blue-uniformed officers from the New Chardon Street Courthouse around the corner. Walking here from FBI headquarters, the Josh-fight memory slithered unpleasantly back into my brain. Now I’ve got my sunglasses back on.

“We’re in a window seat,” I explained unnecessarily to Colleen, our server. As if she cared. “There’s glare.”

Franklin’s focused on his usual double cheeseburger, squirting concentric circles of ketchup on his toasted bun. He arranges the tomato, then the lettuce, then carefully places the bun on top of the whole teetering stack. If I tried to eat that, rivulets of ketchup would drip onto my silk blouse, followed by splurting tomato seeds and oozing cheese hitting my pearl necklace then splattering down onto my just dry-cleaned black wool skirt.

Franklin picks up his creation and takes a bite. Nothing happens to his pristine yellow shirt. The charcoal cashmere sweater tied around his shoulders remains immaculate.

“Let’s say, okay, we can doll you up—or doll you down, I suppose is more like it—so you won’t be recognized,” Franklin continues. “And I agree, Great Barrington is so far west, almost to the New York border, it’s out of our viewing area. And that does make our odds of pulling this off even better. But, Charlotte, are we contributing to the problem? If we give them money?”

We’re silent, considering this.

“What if I just don’t buy anything? Just get the video?” I offer. “That’s one solution.”

I push the lettuce around on my plate, half my mind consumed with my impending attendance at tomorrow’s purse party, the other half consumed with my impending lifetime of loneliness. I shake my head. Back to the present.

“Look, look, look,” I say, waving off Franklin’s concerns with my fork. “How many women do you know who have fake purses? I mean, it’s everywhere. Walk down the halls at the station. Check out the women here at lunch.”

I take off my sunglasses, and follow my own instructions, pointing as I pick each one out. “There’s a fake Prada, there in the red booth. That bag doesn’t even come in that color. That Fendi coming through the door? Look at the strap. No tassels. Phony as they come.”

Franklin and I scan the room. I’m right. Counterfeit couture is as popular here as an afternoon cappuccino.

“Plus…” I’m warming to my own argument now “…the feds buy the purses. Right? Keresey must be handing over cash—taxpayers’ money—to make her undercover buys. So if they’re saying payments for fake bags are contributing to terrorism, which I must say I have my doubts about, doesn’t that mean our own government is doing the same thing?”

“And they would answer, it’s all about stopping the flow.” Franklin nods, picking up a forkful of french fries. “Like Lattimer said. ‘It’s a dirty business.’”

I push my plate away and deposit my napkin on top of it. “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if Keresey were undercover at the same party I’m going to? Or someone else on her team? I mean, she’d recognize me. And I’d sure recognize her. I considered telling them our plans—”

“Me, too,” Franklin says. “But—”

“Right,” I interrupt. “They’d clearly try to stop us. Huge can of worms. And they don’t need to know what we’re doing.”

“Still, though, Charlotte.” Franklin looks uncertain. “A dead FBI agent.”

“It’s a purse party, not a raid,” I reply. “You don’t hear about suburban homemakers getting killed because they bought a fake Chanel tote bag. We’d hear about it, you know? It’s perfectly safe. This is the little-fish level.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Franklin agrees.

“As always,” I say.

 

 

A few hours later, Franklin appears in my office with a miniature suitcase, aluminum with a black handle. He places it on the corner of my desk, and flips two snaps on the side. He opens the cover with a flourish.

“The new Sony HC-43,” he says. “Tiny, silent, almost invisible. Your new best friend.”

He takes out a thin metal rectangle, about the size of a playing card, attached to a narrow black electrical cord. He points to a glass dot in the center of the card, smaller in circumference than a pencil eraser.

“See this dot? It’s the lens,” he says. “You tape it in position so it shows through, say, a buttonhole. Maybe wear a work shirt with a patch pocket? And we can tuck
this card into the pocket. Then we’ll make a little hole in the shirt behind it, and snake the cord down underneath.”

He holds up the cord, and I see it’s attached to a camera, miniature, no bigger than a paperback book. “You can wear the guts of the camera, the recorder, in a fanny pack or something,” he says. “No one will ever see it.”

“A fanny pack?” I snort, my eyebrows headed toward the ceiling. “A fanny pack? Oh, Franko, not a chance.” I burst out laughing, and realize it’s the first time today anything has seemed funny. “Next you’ll want me to wear gaucho pants. Or tube socks with my strappy sandals.”

Franklin winds the cord back around the lens card with a little more flourish than necessary, not amused.

“Oh, I’m not making fun of you,” I hurry to apologize. “And the camera is great. Much better than the ones I’ve used before. Much smaller. It’s just that, you know, I’m going to a place where the focus is fashion. I can’t slog in looking like a refugee from Geekland.” I raise a one finger. “Wait a second.”

Getting down on all fours, I peer under my desk, moving aside a recycled gift bag full of plastic silverware I keep just in case there’s a spoon emergency, three pairs of rubber rain boots and about six umbrellas. With a yank that topples the boots, I pull out a black canvas purse, covered with D-rings and flap pockets on both sides, vintage 1995 or so. I figured I would need it someday. Right again.

I swipe the dust from my knees as I sit back in my chair, holding up my under-desk find. “This’ll work. We’ll put the guts of the camera in this bag, make a hole in one of the pockets.”

I open the bag and confirm my hidden-camera hiding
plan will work. I put the bag over one shoulder, and stand up, posing casually, one hand covering the place where the hole would be.

“See?” I lift my hand, demonstrating. “When I do this, the camera lens is open. I put my hand down, it’s covered. Open, covered. Open, covered. See?”

Franklin shrugs. “Sure, that’ll work. You just can’t ever put your purse down.”

I hand him back the high-tech contraption. “Just make sure I have tapes and batteries.
Charged
batteries. Remember when the batts failed in the middle of that drug bust? Disaster.”

“Not as bad as when you got caught with the camera at the cult church. When that phony minister hauled off and tried to hit you? And grab the camera? Now, that was unpleasant.”

“Yeah, well, we got it all on tape,” I reply. “Great video. All that matters.”

Franklin puts the camera back in the case and snaps it closed. He puts it on his desk, not mine. “You sure you don’t want me to go with you tomorrow?” he says. “I could be your cute gay purse consultant. Totally believable.”

“You just want some new purses,” I say, teasing. “Seriously Franko, I’ll be fine.”

 

 

The message machine is empty. No flashing message light, not even one. Maybe it’s broken, I think when I get home that evening. I punch in my code, hoping.

“You have…” the mechanical voice pauses “…no new messages, and—”

I hit the off button, disappointed. But maybe Josh called and didn’t leave a message. Maybe I should call him.

I plop down on my bed, and pick up the receiver from the phone on my nightstand. Or maybe not.

I put the receiver back and lean into my pillows, stretched out on the puffy down comforter, not caring if I wrinkle my silk shirt, not caring if I wrinkle my just-dry-cleaned skirt. I kick off my suede slingbacks. One shoe tumbles, toe over heels, into the wastebasket. And there’s the metaphor for the day.

Sighing in defeat, I get up to retrieve my shoe. I’ll get through this, one step at a time. Wearily, my thoughts flailing and random, I peel off my work clothes and cuddle into my sweats.

My apartment has never felt so empty. My flip-flops echo down the hall toward the kitchen, where I pour a glass of Australian Shiraz. “Josh’s favorite,” pops into mind before I can prevent it. With Botox trailing after me into the dining room, I decide to torture myself.

Picking up Mom’s wedding album from the dining room table, I curl up on the living room couch. “Where Josh and I sat” pops into mind.

The handsomely textured black album, thick metal-edged pages bound together, is the size of a Manhattan phone book. It opens with a creak, fragrant of leather, showing Mom and Ethan, smiling as only newlyweds can, on the first page. Her gossamer dove-gray dress, elegantly couture; Ethan, blissed out, one arm around his new bride. I turn the page, knowing what’s next. Steeling myself to see it. Unable to resist.

An August breeze had lifted my layers of ice-pink chiffon, not as Pepto-Bismol as I’d feared, into a graceful flutter, and the photographer had caught just the moment when Josh and I had locked eyes, laughing.

I turn the heavy page with a sigh. Penny, her first time as flower girl, showing off the pearlized Mary Janes she’d refused to take off for days. My best friend Maysie,
five months pregnant, watching her husband, Max, and the kids lead a rambunctious conga line at the reception.

Me, catching the bouquet.

The photograph taunts me. I look happy. Which suddenly now is the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.

Maybe this is payback from the universe. Maybe I’ve already gotten my happiness in my career and it’s greedy to want more. A confident and blazingly attractive man, who respected my work and couldn’t keep his hands off me. An adorable daughter, part of life I thought I’d missed. Instant family.

Maybe I wanted it too much. And so I misjudged Josh. Focused on fantasy instead of reality. Mom knew what she wanted. And Maysie.

I slam the album—and all it represents—closed. How do you know it’s the real thing? Maybe if you have to ask, it isn’t.

The last word I said to Josh was “whatever.”

I feel one tear straggle down my cheek. And then, the doorbell rings.

 

 

I slide back the chain and open my front door. Slowly. With each click of a link, I wonder if I’m doing the right thing. Detective Christopher Yens of the Massachusetts State Police had introduced himself through the still-chained door. He keeps holding up his gold statie badge and ID card as he eases his lanky frame into my entryway. He’s wearing a leather jacket, jeans, a tiny radio clipped to his shoulder, and what I read as an apologetic smile.

“Sorry, Miz McNally, to bother you so late,” he says. He flips his badge wallet closed and tucks it into an inside pocket, then pulls out a tattered spiral notebook. He pats a pocket with his palm, then another, then
brushes back a shock of almost-auburn hair. Another apologetic look. Adorable schoolboy who needs another hall pass and knows he’ll get it. “May I bother you for a pen?”

“Sit here, I’ll get one,” I say. I turn down my CD of
Puccini for Lovers
and wave him to a dining room chair, pushing today’s pile of mail to the other end of the table.

“May I bring you a glass of water?” I ask. I can get one for myself at the same time. It’s probably more my fraying emotions than the glass of Shiraz that’s making my brain fuzzy, but whatever. I’m uncomfortably aware I’m not at the top of my game. I sneak a peek at myself in the microwave glass, but it’s impossible to tell the extent of the damage. Maybe it’s better not to know how tear-stained I am.

I search the fridge for two unopened bottles of Poland Spring. It’s possible I shouldn’t have let this Detective Yens inside, but there’s an iconic, unfakeable navy-and-gray car with Mass State Police decals on the top and sides parked on the street below. So I’m certain he’s a real statie. I’m considering whether I should call Toni DuShane, the station’s legal Amazon. Maybe I ought to get her over here before I say anything.

But it’s late. And I’m too curious to be that time-consumingly careful. Yens told me over the intercom it was about an investigation. Is someone dead? Or hurt? I’d blurted the question through the speaker, fearing a calamity of the worst kind. Josh killed. And our last words had been a battle. The whole bleak soap opera played out in my mind before the cop could even answer. But then he’d said no. So, it’s nothing terrible. Plus, I can always end the interview if I get uncomfortable. Or I can lawyer up.

“What can I do for you, Officer…” Damn. There
goes the short-term memory. I place two clear plastic bottles of water on the table, mine on the back of an old
New Yorker,
his on this week’s J. Crew catalog.

“Yens,” he says. “Detective Christopher Yens. I need to talk to you about Katherine Hockins. When was the last time you spoke to her?”

I cross my arms, pursing my lips, thinking. Botox hops onto the table, and I brush her back to the floor so Detective Yens won’t think I allow my cat on the table. As if
“allow”
is in her vocabulary.

“Who?” I begin. “Hockins?” Then I get it. Boston accent. “Oh, Harkins. Katherine Harkins. Katie Harkins. The Prada P—I mean, does she work for Prada?”

Yens doesn’t respond. “When was the last time you spoke to her? When was the last time you saw her?”

“Well, never,” I reply. “I’ve never spoken to her and I’ve never seen her. She’s only—”

Yens is flipping through his notebook as I respond, glancing between me and his notes.

I stop talking. He stops flipping.

“Why?” I ask. “Why are you asking me about Katie Harkins?”

Yens, who I’m noticing is completely attractive in a good boy/bad boy kind of way, is suddenly completely bad boy. “I’ll ask the questions if you don’t mind, Miz McNally. Like I said, when was the last time you saw her?”

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