Aug 12, 2011
Returned to his stateroom, Gregg was surprised to see that, in the few minutes it had taken to traverse the narrow, spartan galleries of the ship, through the porthole, the first rays of sun had begun to kiss the sky, adding their glow to the mist hanging over the harbor and making a few, light clouds stand out against the rapidly withdrawing night. It had the look of a muggy day in New Jersey.
'With the light of day,' he thought while tugging a single case out from its stowage beneath his berth, 'there is always renewed hope.'
'Hope for what?' was, he knew, the more pertinent and pressing question. With a shake of his head, Gregg discharged the uncomfortable query from his mind and addressed himself to packing. In the head, he gathered few items of toiletries – toothbrush, toothpaste, a dull razor and bottle of shampoo – and these he quickly wrapped and put in the case. His wardrobe was limited; a few pairs of trousers, an equal number of khaki shirts, dress and casual shoes. The clothes were, with the precision of years of practice, folded and placed in neat piles, the shoes alongside. He opened the narrow, netted, rear compartment of the case and gently hung his single, black, business suit – a severe Armani affair – folding the jacket and trousers carefully so they would not wrinkle. Done but for one thing.
Gregg looked up toward the porthole again as the ship bumped the pier and, from the narrow view, he saw mooring ropes launched to the scurrying, blue-clad, dock workers far below and, overhead, the long arm of a crane on deck began to swing languorously, preparing to unload containers of cargo.
Gregg turned away and quickly scanned the room for left personal effects. He sighed, knowing that there was only one which he still needed to gather up.
The book was sitting, paper bound and the covers curled, on a narrow shelf above the head of his berth. He fetched it down and, running his thumb over the cover, felt the creases and the raised lettering that proclaimed:
'New York Times Number 1 Bestseller!
Rotten to the Core
Institutionalized Corruption and
the Undermining of America's Economy
This needed only the courage of writing – Washington Post
It was about time – Chicago Tribune'
Gregg's thumb paused over the second name and he felt the pang of sadness and desperation that, even with the passage of so many years, never seemed to lessen. He placed the book, face down, in the case and closed the lid, fixing the latches with finality.
Tom's car had blown up when he put it in gear. It had taken the firemen a full day to hose what remained of him off the street. That was when Gregg knew it was time to leave.
The book – which they had affectionately referred to as 'the tome' once it grew past 300 pages – was the product of seven years investigative reporting and spanned two presidencies. What began as, in journalist's terms, a 'straight up' investigation into mob kick-backs to certain congressmen had, as they continued to dig, finding more and more evidence, developed into a vastly incriminating document of illegal practices that, on 'the hill', had become routine and, even, 'normal'.
When finally published in '95 – only partially expunged by the publisher – Washington shook to the foundation and took notice. There were three, notable suicides in the first week. Senate committees were instituted and both writers were subpoenaed to appear. The witch-hunt – never their original intention – was on and heads began to roll.
If anything had changed substantially in the intervening years, Gregg did not know. He had become too old and jaded to care after fifteen years of hiding in so many places that he could not remember them all: Saigon, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Cairo – the list went on and on.
Gregg hefted the case from on top of the berth and placed it upright on the floor. He checked his pockets for documents and realized that his hands were shaking. His knees were trembling, as well.
“That's either too much coffee or not enough, Gregg,” he said out loud to the stateroom, now sanitized of the comfort of human occupation. He breathed deeply several times, attempting to cast off his tension and regain a veneer of control. Dismally satisfied that it would get no better, he opened the door and, with the case trundling on tiny, plastic wheels behind, he left the room. The door, on its pneumatic piston, whispered shut and closed with a click.
He had given more than seven years of his life to that book. It had become, in so many ways, the 'key' to understanding who he was and the man he had become. He was, in some way of twisted reckoning, as much a product of the book as it was of his and Tom's labor. He had given life to it and, in return, had lost a friend and colleague.
'And ended a marriage,' came the whispered addendum from his mind.
“Yeah, that too,” he acknowledged. Emerging into the day, he paused by the rail and lit a cigarette, inhaling deeply and waiting for the disembarkation to begin.
Kerri and he had been loyal friends in high school – a kind of 'two musketeers' – going to movies, swimming at the local pool or helping each other with homework, never realizing the depth of the interpersonal foundations that they were forging for, after high school ended, and they met again in journalism college. Gregg still remembered that day.
The girl in front of him in the line for coffee had a familiar cast and a cascade of dark, blonde curls. Before he knew what was happening, he said, 'Kerri?'
The girl that turned, smiled and, then, threw her arms around his neck whispering, 'I missed you', had nothing to do with the wiry girl who had been his constant companion before. Summering with her parents in New Hampshire, she had changed – grown and blossomed – becoming a beautiful, poised, young woman. Two years later, they were married.
'The tome', however, had seen to that, as well.
“You're not there anymore,” was the accusation that she had flatly launched at his from the door of his study. He looked up at her, his eyes bleary with strain from the computer screen, and responded.
“I know,” he said simply. “I'm sorry, Kerri... for both of us.”
Gregg stepped carefully down the long, steel steps to the pier, his hand gliding for balance on the blistered and whitewashed railing. Once on the scarred pavement, he tested his legs and found them to be reasonably solid. He again took the case by its handle and walked the short distance to the taxi stand. A yellow cab rolled out to greet him.
“Where you goin'?” The driver stubbed out a cigarette as Gregg got in the back.
“You got it,” responded the other, raising the flag and starting the meter.
A half hour later, Gregg, feeling dazed from the changes he had witnessed in the city that he used to call 'home', slid the security card through the mechanism and heard the lock reset. He entered the pastel appointed room and placed his case near the closet. He shivered – either cold from the enthusiastic air-conditioning or drawn by tension – possibly both.
He knew the number by rote but did not know if it had changed. He slumped on the bed feeling, suddenly, weary beyond words. His finger poked automatically at the digits on the number pad and he held the receiver to his ear. When the line clicked through, it was responded almost immediately.
“Hi,” he said, his voice become a croak. “It's me... Gregg.”