Piss. Beer. Smoke.
Graham was bombarded by the familiar smells as he walked into the neon haze of the Rockets Red Glare. The bar, called Red Glare, for short, was a place he only too well, a legendary watering hole near the Cape catering to NASA staff and bikers, making for an interesting mix of patrons. Bikers, it seemed, had a healthy respect for anybody at NASA and there was always a contingent present for a launch. In its heyday, Red Glare had hosted astronauts with household names and whose photographs adorned the Wall of Fame. There were more photos of John Young than any other astronaut, being that Young was a native Central Floridian who had ridden one of the last Apollo missions and piloted the first Space Shuttle. He had a highway named after him in Orlando, too; you couldn’t get around the city without getting onto John Young Parkway at some point.
Graham was tired and pissed off.
He’d had just enough time to get back to the hotel, pick up his bags and flight back east. He’d had to race from Orlando International to make it to the Red Glare by midnight, and he didn’t like it. But his reporter’s tickle had told him to look into this, and he always listened to it.
The bar was dead tonight, but being a Tuesday and with no launches imminent, Graham was surprised. There were a few bikers huddled at the bar, and some blue-shirts, as NASA staff was called. No one took notice of him as he slid over to the bar. The bartender, a skinny kid who didn’t look old enough to drink let alone serve alcohol, was not one of the usual bartenders Graham knew and infrequently paid for story tips.
A Blue Shirt a few stools down abruptly pounded the bar with his fist, spilling a bowl of peanuts. “God damn it!”
“What the hell?” the bartender said.
Another Blue Shirt, just emerging from the men’s room, came up to the first and put a hand on his shoulder to ease him. The two of them weren’t twins in the physical sense, but they were absolutely NASA siblings – middle-aged, balding, weary-eyed and persistently irritable from a career spent battling bureaucracy.
“Sorry,” the peanut abuser said.
“He got laid off today,” the second Blue Shirt said.
“His whole division was shuttered.”
“Sorry to hear it,” the kid said. “Don’t go messing up the bar.”
“Twenty years,” the peanut abuser said.
“Come on, Dan, it’s time go.”
“Which division?” Graham asked.
The two NASA men looked at Graham as if he’d just called them a foul name. “What do you care?”
“Well, Just Curious,” said the peanut abuser, “mind your own damned business.”
“Sorry again,” his friend said to Graham and the bartender, and he pulled the peanut abuser out of the bar.
When they were gone, the bartender turned his attention to Graham. “What can I get you?”
Graham put a twenty on the bar top and said, “My name’s Graham. Did someone -- ”
“Yep,” the kid said, snatching the bill and slipping it into his pocket. He reached under the bar and handed Graham a big padded envelope, sealed shut. Written in felt marker on the front was Graham’s name. “Got a hundred to make sure you got that.”
Graham took the envelope. It did not feel weighty. In fact, it felt empty. “He give you a name?”
“Messenger service,” the kid said, drafting a beer from the tap. “I got a call ten minutes before he showed up. The messenger had a separate envelope for me with the cashola.”
“Did you get a receipt or remember which messenger service it was?”
The kid leaned into Graham a bit. “I did my part. Really don’t want to know what yours is, you feel me?”
Graham smiled. “I feel you.”
The kid pushed the beer over to Graham. “On the house.”
Graham sighed and nodded his thanks. He knew enough about human behavior after being a reporter for two decades that to know when he’d hit the wall, and this kid wasn’t going to be of any more help. The bartender moved on, polishing the bar top with a ratty cloth, and Graham opened the envelope. Inside was another, letter sized envelope, sealed, no markings on the outside.
Graham opened it and pulled out an Easter card. Easter had been a few weeks ago. He opened the card and saw a single word scrawled in the same black ink that adorned the big envelope: Dumpster.
Graham, increasingly irritable and jet-lagged, was beginning to feel like a fool. He’d driven around back and waited to see if anybody else was watching him, but he’d seen no signs of life except for insects circling the one lamp post, which was inconveniently positioned right over the dumpster like a spotlight.
At least he wouldn’t need a flashlight.
Looking around one more time, Graham climbed up the side of the dumpster and looked down, hoping for an obvious sign with his name on it. No such luck. Just a deep pile of black trash bags and flattened liquor boxes. Graham slid down inside the dumpster, breathing through his mouth to minimize the sour stench, and rummaged. Something wet and sticky seeped over the lip of his shoes. He kept going. After a few minutes, he found it – another jiffy pack with his name written on it. This one was heavier; the bulge inside was small, flat and rectangular.
Back in his car, very aware that he smelled like the dumpster now, he opened the package and slid the contents into his hand. It was a disposable cell phone, one of those credit-card sized things with prepaid minutes that could be bought just about anywhere. Untraceable, unless the purchaser had paid for it with a credit card. Graham bet that whoever he would be calling on this device would be answering on the same kind of phone. A noted taped to the phone said, “Autodial 1.”
If nothing else, the theatrics were intriguing. He’d rarely had any potential story lead develop into such clandestine deep-throat antics so quickly. But it still didn’t mean anything yet. Graham made the call. It rang five times before there was an answer.
“Mr. Graham.” The voice was muffled but definitely male, middle-aged, probably white.
“It’s me. You mind telling me what the – ”
“There’s a Publix plaza five miles south. Drive around to the back and park by the dumpster. I will meet you there.”
Graham felt a wave of irritation. “More dumpsters? I just traveled – ”
But the line was already dead.