It was already warm in the terminal. Rudy loosened his tie in the reflection of the broad window between him and the tarmac outside Gate 6A of Southwest Florida International Airport. The sun’s first rays reflected off the jet bridge extending to the Airbus 319 carrying him north in less than forty-five minutes.
He stepped back to check himself in the reflection. The cleaner had taken his suit jacket and pants the day before and dropped them off at his hotel in three hours flat. At least that went right.
Toasty as the terminal might be, he expected a much warmer reception in Atlanta. The Trinity would want blood. To make matters worse he woke that morning with the old heaviness. With the anger inside him still hot and bright. As he’d feared, the ruined beach exorcism from the day before had provided no relief from the poison inside him so long.
He pulled up Slick’s number on his phone. His earlier message to the VP of sales hadn’t yet provoked a response. It rang twice before Slick answered with the enthusiasm of a man on his third martini.
“Slick, I only have a second. Tell me about the jammers.”
“Tell me something I don’t know. What’s the chance we can save them?”
“No chance at all.”
“There’s got to be some chance.”
“Two, actually. Slim and none. We’d heard rumblings for the last month. Then yesterday the guys at China Lake got a final call from the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Budget. How’d you like that title? Anyway he told them to push it back. Cost containment, budget overruns, et cetera. We’re basically fucked.”
“You heard rumblings a month ago?”
Slick said nothing. A month was an eternity. Rudy felt a wave of relief. All he had to do now was slide around to the Trinity’s side of the table. They’d all been deceived by Slick. It was only fair to let him know which way the guns would be aimed.
“Slick, you know you can’t sit on risk that long.”
“That’s a joke, right?”
“Not that I’m aware.”
Slick snorted. “Just run up the white flag? Give me a break. Warning that it might not happen is second cousin to giving up. You know damn well what I’m talking about. That’s a bullet in the head.”
It was true, of course. Rudy had seen responsible disclosures of risk backfire on the messenger. Still, he couldn’t throw Slick that bone. Any conversation between them could be replayed in the conference room as Slick became desperate. It was time for Rudy to lay groundwork for his own safety.
“If you miss,” Rudy said, “the bullet comes next month anyway.”
“That’s two paychecks from now.”
In his mind, he saw Slick hanging from the ledge on the 18th floor. Doomed or not, he’d resolved to cling to it until the Trinity stomped his fingers and sent him falling to his Pax-Jupiter death.
“I only put it in the Q4 number because you said it would happen,” Rudy said. “This gives me a black eye.”
“You’re breaking my heart. I get a bullet in the head. You get a black eye. Would you like an apology?”
That was exactly what he wanted. An apology was akin to a statement of responsibility. It justified the bullet.
“I just wish you’d mentioned it to the group,” Rudy said.
“You wanted me to say something?”
“Slick. Again. About a thing like this? Of course.”
“Fine. I’ll say something. The meeting isn’t over until someone lies.” The man on the other end of the line was becoming breathless. “I don’t get out of the room until I say it’s all fine. Don’t tell me you haven’t been there. Don’t fucking tell me you think it’s that easy.”
It was true. There was no point in belaboring the discussion or making a condemned man feel worse.
“I’ll see you in a couple of hours,” Rudy said, disconnecting the call. He didn’t feel great about it but at least they’d reached a consensus. Slick was the witch.
No sooner had he slipped his phone into his trouser pocket than it buzzed. He fished it out, glancing at the screen. Mom. He always took her calls. More times than not it meant a call from Augustine.
He took a deep breath and let it out, tapping the green button on his phone and standing up to make his way to the gate door.
“Rudy Hardwick,” he said.
With any luck she was calling to confirm his arrival time and did not have Augustine waiting to add to his thoughts. It was neither.
“Max is dead,” she said.
She let the three words hang there. Though Rudy knew better, he allowed himself to think, Max who. Mom must have been reading his mind because she followed up with, “Max from maintenance.”
The plane was boarding priority passengers. That meant him. He didn’t have time for this.
“For godsake,” she said. “The Max who changes your fucking lightbulbs.”
It was the first time Mom had cursed in his presence.
“I know who you’re talking about,” he said.
“I’m sorry! I’m just upset.”
“It’s okay. How did it happen?”
“In his garage. He used his car exhaust.”
The words stopped him halfway to the gate door. He’d expected her to say it was heart attack. A stroke. That he fell from a ladder cleaning out his gutters.
“About an hour ago.”
“I can’t believe it.”
“No one can.”
“Wait. An hour ago? He would already have been at work.”
“He called in sick.”
The conversation with Max played in his head. The man hadn’t taken a sick day in forty-six years. Had he been thinking it sitting in Rudy’s office?
“First he called in,” Mom said, her voice beginning to tremble. “Then he went out to the garage like he was going to work so his wife wouldn’t suspect anything.”
“But he was retiring. He had it made.”
“I’m sorry. I know you and Max were sort of friends.”
It jarred him. “Why would you say that?”
“I just thought—”
“Never mind. Does anyone know why?”
Mom’s voice cracked. “There were two things on his lap.”
“A Pensacola real estate guide.”
Rudy felt himself start to perspire. “Pepsacola,” he said.
“Pensacola,” Mom corrected.
“That can’t be.” He hadn’t meant to say it out loud.
“That’s nothing,” she said. “The other thing on his lap was the intercompany memo.”
Rudy sat down and lay the phone on the seat next to him. It wasn’t real. This news didn’t process like other input into his sharp mind. Somewhere, someone was saying his name.
His phone. He picked it up. “Mom?”
“He did it,” Mom said, “because we’re cancelling the insurance.”
“We’re not cancelling it,” he snapped. “People can keep their policies if they choose. We’re just not paying for them anymore.”
“What’s the difference?”
Obviously Mom didn’t care what he thought of her objection to his rationalization. She told the Pax-Jupiter executives what she thought. He’d always liked that about her. Now he just wanted her to shut up. He wanted the travelers at the gate to shut up. He wanted the whole world to shut up. The ceiling was coming down around his ears. He needed to think about something else.
“I want the full record of communication between us and the Navy on the jammers.”
“You heard me.”
“Max is dead and you want to talk business?”
“Just get Slick on the phone,” he said. “Can you do that, please?”
“You’ll have to talk to him later.”
“They just called him in to fire him.”
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