Change at Belmont

Prologue

He was too quiet.

The muted rumble and honk of a winter’s evening traffic seeping through the window from the Via Roma outside couldn’t cover the fact. The soft whir and whine of the life support equipment couldn’t disguise it. The occasional sigh from his mother only emphasized it. His worried father leaned over the side of the hospital bed to listen for his son’s breathing.

“Not too close…”

The father shot a narrow glance at his wife, standing several feet away.

“He’s my son.”

She hesitated, and then, “I don’t want to lose you both. That’s all.”

He snorted and turned back to his son. “He’s my only son.”

The sound of the life support equipment filled the silence that followed.

Then, softly, “It’s not my fault! I didn’t know. How could I know? Nobody knew!” Tears marred her tailored beauty.

“Shut up!” The reminders only made him angry. There was no screening test back then, they’d been told. No one expected a little-known virus to show up in a blood transfusion for a ten-year-old hemophiliac. It had been two years before they had even been notified: the blood their son had received possibly contained something called HIV. When he tested positive, they had done all they could— doctors and drugs, herbs, pilgrimages and healers—every hope Europe or wealth or influence could offer. Nothing stopped his son’s slow, wasting death. Then came the offer of the American vaccine program. It was experimental they warned, but very promising. In the first months, the results were unbelievable.  Their son seemed cured. He was back at school, playing soccer. No symptoms, not many side effects, even. The cost was high, but their finances were more than sufficient. They sold a yacht they seldom used. Life was good. Fortune had smiled once again.

Then the cough began, hardly noticeable at first. After that, a nagging low-grade fever. Soon, it was as if the disease had never left. And soon it returned ten times stronger, as if exacting revenge for delaying it’s rightful prize. His condition worsened quickly. And now, here he was with the best of care and still….

The father walked slowly across the room to his wife. Slowly, gently, he turned her face up to his with a strong, open hand, and then embraced her.

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I know it’s not you. But every time I think of it, I am furious for what that American vaccine has done. It gave us too much hope for….. for this.” He turned and looked again at their only child. And again his anger rose. He couldn’t stand to watch anymore.

“I’ll be outside.”

He went out into the hallway.

 

An hour later, the whir and whine of the life support equipment changed. Alarms went off, feet scurried, shouts,…. then silence.

Then weeping.

Then, “By God! The American will pay!”

 * * *

 “Signore? We have located her.” A pause. “As always, I am at your service.”

After a long pause the answer came.

“I want my son avenged.”

“Signore,…” The pause was long. “My family has served your family for generations, both where you are and here in the U.S. There is nothing we would refuse to do for you, whatever you might ask us. But as a good friend and an advisor on many things, I ask you to think about this a little longer. Consider the possible consequences to your family and your name if this should become public. There are many who would be pleased to make it public, to capitalize on anything you do that might be considered …….rash.”

Silence.

Then, “I will wait. But keep track of her whereabouts. I will not forget what she did to my son…. or my wife.”

“And how is she, your wife?”

“She has some good days. They give her something to help her moods, but she will never be the same, since he is…  gone.”

“Please give her our best.”

More small talk.

“Keep track of her. The time will come.”

“As you wish, Signore.”

 * * *

 A quiet, determined voice, spoke into the phone with an intensity that betrayed strong, negative feeling. “She is booked on a red-eye from JFK into O’Hare, arriving Monday morning.” He repeated the flight info. “Only a carry-on and her shoulder bag.”

The voice of a perfect gentleman thanked him, and asked after his health.

“Feeling much better and responding to the new treatment as expected.”

The perfect gentleman asks after the health of a few others at the University, and concludes with many thanks for the helpful information.

“Hopefully, this episode will be brought to a successful close very soon.”

“Yes!” The venom was clearly evident.

After short goodbyes, they hung up

Chapter 1

The alarm had been beeping for 10 minutes by the time Mike rolled over to swat it. “Shut up,” he mumbled, and rolled back to his side of the king-size bed. Nicole should have been lying there, breathing softly, her hair spread out on the pillow, her smooth skin smelling of baby powder. Instead, her side of the bed, with the alarm clock, was empty as the cold December street outside. He got out of bed and walked toward the kitchen. The clock read 5:42 A.M. The argument followed him.

It had begun last Friday night, Christmas Eve. Nicole had badgered Mike into taking her to an uncomfortably elegant Christmas Party. It was the premier holiday social event on Chicago’s Near North Side, hosted by a prominent family. All the big name restaurateurs would be there. “Look,” she had reasoned with him, “You manage The Fish House, and it has supplied lobster and shrimp for every party these people have had for last 50 years. You’re their best and biggest seafood supplier, Mike! You’re the best in the city, for God’s sake! Use that, for once! Get something for yourself instead of for that, that store of yours.”

Reluctantly, Mike had arranged for the invitations through the couple that catered the event, giving them a great deal on their live lobster order as a thank you. Nicole had then hounded Mike into going and taking her best girlfriend along with them and then goaded him into the argument when he didn’t enjoy it. Maybe he had over-reacted, he thought. Maybe he deserved some of the blame. It didn’t matter now. The result remained the same: Nicole was gone.

“Shut up and make coffee,” he said to himself aloud. And silently, “Find out how bad that incoming snowstorm is. If we get socked, it’s going to make deliveries a nightmare.” He filled the pot with water and flipped on the TV for the early news and weather. The weatherman wore a smile and a bow tie. Both irritated Mike. “Good Morning! It’s Monday, December 27 and the big news this morning is the weather!” He sounded excited. “A winter storm that stretches across most of the Northern Plains has dumped more than a foot of snow in the Chicagoland area and it’s still coming down!”

Mike swore. Monday mornings at the Fish House were always hectic, but the snow-filled alleys downtown would slow the hotel deliveries to a crawl. Orders called in last Friday would change, too. The inevitable fight over which account got the best product and service would be doubly intense among the salesmen. And Mike always ended up the referee. Worse, if the storm hit the East Coast on Tuesday it would jeopardize their live lobsters deliveries for New Years Eve.

This was a very important week, business-wise. For the last 50 years most of the hotels downtown had bought their specialty fish from the Fish House. But a new seafood wholesaler had opened, wooing away many of their best old accounts. The Fish House’s informal way of doing business with old friends needed to shift to excellent service and specialty products sold to more accounts, to people the salesmen barely knew. Great product and great service had become everybody’s job security, including Mike’s. After all, he didn’t own the place.

The sputtering coffeemaker brought Mike back to the present. As he poured a cup he pulled back the kitchen curtain. Below, the street was asleep under at least eighteen inches of snow. The end of the block disappeared in a soft snowy haze, dimly backlit by streetlights. Real pretty, he thought, except on a Monday. Cars lined one side of the street, parked bumper to bumper and marked with chairs and other large, odd objects to warn the snowplow of their hidden existence. The other side of the street, where he’d left his Jeep, was empty.

“Oh Hell No! They can’t tow cars for a snow emergency in the middle of the night!” Even as he said the words, he remembered they had announced it last night, and warned everyone to observe snow emergency rules. By the time he had realized it, the ‘safe’ side of his street was full, and he had been too tired to get out and move it to another street. His Jeep Cherokee had been towed. That was at least seventy-five bucks! And he would have to take the El to work. He’d be late.

After that, he got ready for work as fast as he could. Before he left the apartment, he left a voicemail for the receptionist that he would be late, decided not to say why. And he left one for Phil, the Sales Manager, specific instructions about route changes and what a few specific salesmen could not have for their clients. “Use your judgment about anything else, Phil. I’ll see you when I get there. Bye.” A half hour later, Mike began the long, dark walk in the cold to the El stop.

Chapter 2

Get the Jeep out of hock first, Mike thought as he trudged through the snowy darkness of early Dawn. Four-wheel drive would be a necessity today. The tow lot, he had discovered, was close to the Red Line, and the nearest Red Line station was at Howard Street, a long, cold walk from his apartment. He realized it wasn’t often he rode the L any more. When he started at the Fish House, , back in High School, it had been his only way to work. “God, that’s a long time ago!” he thought. “Ten years in the same place! Maybe Nicole is right. Maybe it is time to look around and move on, move up.”

The Howard L platform was full with other commuters not willing or able to drive to work. All kinds of people, from yuppies to bums, huddled in small groups near the stairs for protection from the wind. The regulars arrived from the street just before the train pulled in. They waited along the platform at regular intervals, where the train doors opened, opting for a better chance at a seat. The weatherman had said it was going to get worse before it got better, so many who would have braved the drive otherwise decided to take the train. Some just stayed home.

The platform at Howard stands about 30 feet above the ground, open on both sides. The wind was blowing 15 miles per hour and the temperature was in the 20’s. The snow falling on the already-salted platform had been trampled into ice in a few spots. As Mike huddled near the stairs, he saw two or three people slip and nearly fall down, rescued from the embarrassment by helpful strangers. Mike shook his head. This was better than driving?

The train that rattled into the station wasn’t crowded. Mike stepped quickly onto a car and slipped just inside the door. His coffee spilled on the man who caught his arm and steadied him. To look at, his rescuer was a Mafioso straight out of the 70’s. The man smiled kindly and Mike thanked the man and apologized, feeling like a like a fool.

By the time they got to Belmont, the train was full. A flood of people got off to change trains and there was a little room to breathe. The northbound train pulled in before Mike’s southbound had left and one train waited for the other. A woman got off the northbound. After asking a brief question to a passer-by, she walked straight into Mike’s car. She was wearing a coat that was the spitting image of Nicole’s favorite and she even looked a little like her. In her hand, she had a brief case and dragged what looked like pull-behind luggage. As both trains began to close their doors, a man quickly stepped off the other train and got on Mike’s, but one car further forward. Mike never saw him; he was too busy looking at the woman.

The doors closed and the train lurched ahead. Everyone standing stumbled, one or two slipped on the snowy floor, but there was no place to fall. The car was full again. Beside Mike, a thin, homely woman with big teeth swung around with the lurch and almost landed in his lap. She smiled, wrinkled her nose, and motioned Mike not to get up, pointing ahead, as if her stop was the next. He barely noticed. The more Mike tried not to look at the woman who had just gotten on, the more he felt compelled to. Her face, her manner, even the clothes she was wearing-as far as Mike could see-everything reminded him of Nicole. She noticed him staring and didn’t seem to like it.

Well, Mike thought, the day has gone wrong so far, I suppose there’s nothing wrong with asking her if she wants to sit down. Not the most original opening line, but not the worst. He looked square at her, stood up and motioned to his seat. She shook her head slightly and turned her face away. The thin woman standing next to him slipped into the seat and smiled up at him. “Thanks,” she mouthed, and wrinkled her nose and smiled at him again, as if she had given him the perfect excuse t go over and talk to this second Nicole. He politely smiled back and turned to face the woman who so reminded him of Nicole.

His mind drifted back to Nicole. He realized he hadn’t talked to her since Friday. This wasn’t their first argument, by far, but she had always called by now. Or if he was convinced it was his fault, he had called her, always within 24 hours. It was one of the few rules they had agreed on at the very beginning almost 3 years ago. Normally, she would have called to find out if there were any messages for her. There never were: her friends didn’t like to talk to Mike or him to them. She got all her personal calls on her cell. But she would stop by to pick up some clothes or some work she’d brought home, and they’d begin to talk and end up in each other’s arms, apologizing.

His thought was interrupted by a blast of cold air and the noise of the wheels on the rails. He glanced at the faces in front of him and saw every eye looking intently past him. He turned. Three feet away, the doors on the car were wide open as the train clattered along at 50 miles an hour, twenty feet above the street. The doors had never shut. The wind whipped the falling snow hard enough to sting Mike’s face. This has to be the day of all days, Mike thought, as his anger began to rise to replace the initial shock of the sight.

The train began to slow for the next stop. When they had fully stopped, many left through the still-open door to squeeze onto other cars. “It’ll shut this time, Mike thought. They must get a warning light or something, wherever the driver is.” Sure enough, after the passengers finished re-packing the car as tightly as it was before, the loudspeaker crackled “Fullerton,” the conductor cycled the doors open and shut a few times, and the train began to move.

The doors in front of Mike hadn’t move more than a half inch either way.

Self-consciously, he kicked them, knowing the whole car was watching. But the doors stayed open as the train picked up speed. As before, the crowded car waited nervously as they watched the neighborhood going by at almost fifty miles an hour, 30 feet above the streets. The next stop was North and Clybourn. Again, people got off to get away from the unclosing doors, only to be replaced with others, ignorant of the danger. Again, the conductor cycled the doors and the doors didn’t move. The train took off.

The train left the North and Clybourn station with the door wide open. There was no stop now until Clark and Division. The engineer would have them going at least 50 MPH. The tracks here were rough and the cars lurched from side to side. Several passengers were obviously scared. Mike was out of patience. It had been rotten a weekend and a rotten a day. Now he was freezing.

“That’s it,” Mike thought. “Not putting up with it anymore.” He lurched over to the door, holding tight to the railing and pulled down hard on the red handle labeled “Emergency Brake” that hung from the ceiling beside the door. Wheels screeched and everybody was thrown forward as the train came to a panic stop. Mike used the momentum to swing himself away from the open door and landed up against the Mafioso that helped him at the Howard stop. His strong grip was welcome this second time and without embarrassment Mike thanked him again.

The train halted where the L tracks turn to parallel Division St. This was a banked turn, which gave the car a steep slant right toward the open door. Mike could hear the conductor and the engineer shouting back and forth to each other. He wanted to stick his head out and tell them to get back here and fix their friggin door. Apparently, they spotted the problem, stopped shouting and began to move back through the crowded cars to correct the problem.

As the conductor made his way back, the crowd jostled on the wet, snowy floor, trying to somehow move away from the door. Mike glanced around, looking for his mystery lady. As the train had stopped, the crowd shifted and she was left three feet away from Mike, luggage in front of her, facing the open door. She looked directly at him and pulled her drag-behind closer. Mike wondered what she was doing with airline luggage on the L. This line didn’t even go to O’Hare.

He hadn’t given up on meeting her yet and was about to ask if she needed some help when, at the far end of the car, the conductor opened the door between cars. The corresponding surge in the crowd bumped his mystery lady. Before Mike could react, she tripped over her luggage and lost her balance. In the slow motion of calamity, she fell forward, slid headfirst across the snow-covered floor and disappeared out the door into the storm.

 

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