Wild Fire - Chapter Two
I turned onto Chambers Street and entered Ecco's, an Italian restaurant with a saloon atmosphere-the best of both worlds.
The bar was crowded with suited gentlemen and ladies in business attire. I recognized a lot of faces and said a few hellos.
Even if I didn't know anybody there, being a good detective and an observer of New York life, I could pick out the high-paid attorneys, the civil servants, the law enforcement people, and the financial guys. I bump into my ex here sometimes, so one of us has to stop coming here.
I ordered a Dewar's and soda and made small talk with a few people around me.
Kate arrived, and I ordered her a white wine, which reminded me of my weekend problem. I asked, "Did you hear about the grape blight?"
"What grape blight?"
"The one on the North Fork. All the grapes are infected with this weird fungus that can be transmitted to human beings."
She apparently didn't hear me and said, "I found us a nice B and B in Mattituck." She described the place based on some tourist website and informed me, "It sounds really charming."
So does Dracula's Castle on the Transylvanian website. "Did you ever hear of the Custer Hill Club?"
"No . . . I didn't see it on the North Fork website. What town is it in?"
"It's actually upstate New York."
"Oh . . . is it nice?"
"I don't know."
"Do you want to go there next weekend?"
"I'll check it out first."
Apparently, this name didn't ring any bells with Ms. Mayfield, who sometimes knows things she doesn't share with me. I mean, we're married, but she's FBI, and I have a limited need-to-know, lower security clearance than she does. On that note, I wondered why Ms. Mayfield thought that the words "Custer Hill Club" referred to a place to stay, and not, for instance, a historical society, or a country club, or whatever. Maybe it was the context. Or maybe she knew exactly what I was talking about.
I changed the subject to the memos about Iraq, and we discussed the geopolitical situation for a while. It was Special Agent Mayfield's opinion that war with Iraq was not only inevitable, but also necessary.
Twenty-six Federal Plaza is an Orwellian Ministry, and the government workers there are very attuned to any slight change in the party line. When political correctness was the order of the day, you would have thought the Anti-Terrorist Task Force was a social service agency for psychopaths with low self-esteem. Now, everyone talks about killing Islamic fundamentalists and winning the war on terror-grammatical correctness would be "the war on terrorism," but this is a newspeak word. Ms. Mayfield, a good government employee, has few politics of her own, so she has no problem hating the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and UBL one day, then hating Saddam Hussein even more when a directive comes out telling her who to hate that day.
But perhaps I'm not being fair. And I'm not totally rational on the subject of bin Laden and Al Qaeda. I lost a lot of friends on 9/11, and but for the grace of God and heavy traffic, Kate and I would have been in the North Tower when it went down.
I had been on my way to a breakfast meeting there in Windows on the World on the 107th floor. I was late, and Kate waited in the lobby for me. David Stein, Jack Koenig, and my former partner and maybe best friend in the world, Dom Fanelli, were on time, as were a lot of other good people and some bad people, like Ted Nash. No one in that restaurant survived.
I don't get shaken up very easily-even getting shot three times and nearly bleeding to death on a city street didn't have any lasting effect on my mental health, such as it is-but that day shook me up more than I realized at the time. I mean, I was standing right under the plane when it hit, and now, when I see a low-flying plane overhead-
I turned to Kate. "What . . . ?"
"I asked you if you wanted another drink."
I looked down into my empty glass.
She ordered me another.
I was vaguely aware that the news was on the TV at the end of the bar, and the reporter was covering the congressional vote on Iraq.
Back in my head, it was 9/11 again. I had tried to make myself useful by helping the firemen and cops evacuate people from the lobby, and at the same time, I was searching for Kate.
Then, I was outside the building carrying a stretcher, and I happened to look up and see these people jumping from the windows and I thought Kate was up there and I thought I saw her falling. . . . I glanced at her standing beside me, and she looked at me and asked, "What are you thinking about?"
And then the second plane hit, and later I could hear this odd rumbling sound of collapsing concrete and steel, unlike anything I'd ever heard before, and I can still feel the ground shaking under my feet as the building fell and shards of glass rained down from the sky. And like everyone else, I ran like hell. I still can't remember if I dropped the stretcher, or if the other guy dropped it first, or if I was actually carrying a stretcher at all.
I don't think I'll ever remember.
In the weeks following 9/11, Kate became withdrawn, couldn't sleep, cried a lot, and rarely smiled. I was reminded of rape victims I'd dealt with who lost not only their innocence but part of their soul.
The sensitive bureaucrats in Washington urged anyone who'd been involved with this tragedy to seek counseling. I'm not the type to talk about my problems to strangers, professional or otherwise, but at Kate's insistence, I did go see one of the shrinks hired by the Feds to handle the large demand. The guy was a little nuts himself, so we didn't make much progress in the first session.
For my next session and subsequent sessions, I went to my neighborhood bar, Dresner's, where Aidan the bartender gave me sage counsel. "Life's a bitch," said Aidan. "Have another drink."
Kate, on the other hand, stuck to her counseling for about six months, and she's much better now.
But something had happened to her that was not going to completely heal. And whatever it was, it might have been for the better.
Since I've known her, she has always been a good company girl, following the rules and rarely criticizing the Bureau or its methods. In fact, she used to criticize me for criticizing the Bureau.
Outwardly, she's still a loyal soldier, as I said, and she goes along with the party line, but inwardly, she realizes that the party line has done a 180-degree turn, and this realization has made her a little more cynical, critical, and questioning. To me, this is a good thing, and we now have something in common.
Sometimes I miss the starry-eyed team cheerleader I fell in love with. But I also like this tougher and more experienced woman, who, like me, has seen the face of evil, and is ready to meet it again.
And now, a year and a month later, we are living in a state of perpetual color-coded anxiety. Today is Alert Level Orange. Tomorrow, who knows? For damn sure, it's not going to be green again in my lifetime.