CHAPTER NINETEEN: Titanic Utilities Warehouse – Jersey City
Tommy, Kate and Jesse emerged from the cab, and were hit instantly by the smell of New Jersey. The scent was like something caught between the Fulton Fish Market on a hot summer day and mildewed newspaper. Their thick-bearded driver had followed Jesse’s explicit directions without fault, but he was still a little tentative behind the wheel. After four other cabbies on Broadway said, “I no go Jersey,” (and after Tommy subsequently responded with, “I don’t blame you pal”), they finally found a driver who reluctantly agreed to take them to the once-familiar warehouse. The three of them were so calm and stiff along the way; the only signs of life in the taxi seemed to be the empty coffee cups and candy wrappers sliding back and forth across the dashboard.
Without trepidation, Jesse was the first to approach the dark building. The address was exactly the same as the one on Patrick’s business card.
Tommy paid their fare and the taxi sped off back to Manhattan. He shivered as he studied his surroundings, and slung a backpack over his shoulder. His Rangers sweater and heavy hoody would keep him warm, but he still felt a chill under his skin. The large, dark shapes slowly moving around in their vicinity did not go unnoticed by Tommy. They were probably just the homeless and harmless, but he still did not feel entirely at ease standing on the broken sidewalk, directly under a flickering, yellow streetlight.
“Where are we anyway?” Kate asked.
“Feels like the corner of Berkowitz Lane and Date Rape Avenue to me,” Tommy suggested.
Kate looked around, trying to recall the night of Jesse’s art show. “Honestly Tommy, I don’t remember ever being here. This place doesn’t look familiar at all to me. Maybe it’s not the same warehouse after all?”
“Well, you were pretty drunk that night Kate. But this is definitely the place. Trust me.”
“You know I hate it when you say trust me.”
Suspicious that they may have been walking right into some elaborate trap, Tommy called for Jesse to wait up.
Kate groaned, “I still don’t know how you convinced me to come here with you guys.”
“I’m telling you Kate, I had a bad feeling about Patrick from the start. And after his kid tells me he thinks his dad is responsible for his mother’s death, I come home to find my building in flames. Doesn’t that smell the least bit fishy to you?”
Tommy was dumbfounded by the poor response time from the firehouse. Even though Engine Company 47 was right next door to his apartment, it may as well have been ten blocks away, since the fire fighters had to suit up and the great red truck still required those precious seconds to roar to life. Evidently, living right next door to a firehouse does not make things any safer. Neighbors’ reports claim the fire started in 104, and the Middle Eastern man was rushed to the hospital, although apparently just for smoke inhalation. There was no word on whether or not his wooden leg survived the flames. Mrs. Horowitz claimed she heard a bomb go off in the apartment, hoping to substantiate her terrorist claims, but there had not been any evidence of an explosive device. Tommy couldn’t ignore the fact that apartment 104 was where he once lived with Patrick, and it was the address on the letter that had been mailed to him from Seattle, so it was not hard to figure Patrick Kohn may have believed Tommy still resided there. Still, there was enough smoke damage to temporarily force the occupants of the building’s west side out. Tommy ended up crashing on Jesse’s couch for an hour or so before deciding to gather the gang and head to New Jersey.
“Still,” was all that Kate had to say in return.
Tommy continued to present the facts. “And then we’ve got Patrick’s business being run right here? The very same warehouse as Jesse’s art show? I’m telling you Kate, it’s got suspicious written all over it.”
Jesse was already at the front door. The tiniest of signs above the door read: TITANIC UTILITIES. The sign was already peeling and there was a screw missing from one of the corners. Just like the garage door beside it, a burglarproof metal shield was rolled down to prevent any after-hour break-ins.
Kate asked, “You know Tommy, if this was a trap, don’t you think the front door would have been left open for us?”
“That would be way too obvious Kate. I’ve seen my share of slasher movies to know you can’t plan for everything.” Tommy tried the door himself, trying to roll the metal covering up with the palms of his hands. He tried to physically out-muscle the best warehouse security that money can buy, as though he was superhuman. Not surprisingly, he was not met with any success. Kate and Jesse turned to one another and both knew for sure that they would be leaving here momentarily and empty-handed. They probably should have asked the cabbie to wait for them. There was a pipe on the front of the building that only went about halfway to the roof. A rickety wooden telephone pole seemed like the best option, but Tommy questioned the safety of its tangled spider web of wires and nails. Across the street, there was nothing but a large, bare fence and a cold brick building with some undecipherable Chinese characters. “Come on,” Tommy suggested. “Let’s take a look around back.”
The small parking lot to the side of the warehouse was easy enough to get into. There was another door, but it too was secured with a metal screen. A large, green dumpster was pressed against one of the walls. Tommy assessed the situation, and figured if they could push the dumpster far enough, the three of them could scale the building’s three tiers to the rooftop.
“And then what?” Kate asked. “Crawl in through an air duct maybe?”
“Maybe.” Tommy tried his best to cover up his exuberance. The possibility of crawling through an air duct actually sounded pretty cool. If nothing else, the night’s adventure might serve as some excellent first-hand research for another novel.
Jesse remained as quiet as he could. The parking lot was the very last place he had seen Edie, where her husband dragged her away through the snow and tossed her into the car that would later lie burning within the Holland Tunnel. The smallest of flakes began to drift down from ominous clouds.
“I didn’t really bring my best climbing gear Tommy,” Kate noted. She was wearing her famous purple cow patterned leggings under a long, woolen sweater and a bright blue ski jacket. She looked like a homeless vagrant, but she claimed it to be her “New Jersey Drifter” outfit, which, at the time, was enough to get a smile out of Tommy. For now though, he was only frustrated at her attempts to back out of the plan.
“Why don’t you stand out there then,” Tommy suggested, pointing back out to Fairmount Avenue. “We should probably have someone on patrol duty anyway.”
“Patrol duty. Riiiiight.” Whatever Tommy wanted to call it, Kate assumed it would be better than climbing to the top of a warehouse on a freezing October night. “Should I walkie-talkie you or fire the flare gun if there’s any trouble afoot?”
Tommy did not appreciate the humor. “Don’t make fun Kate. This is serious shit. I’m not about to do any jail time for this.”
“Jail time?” Jesse asked, snapping out of his melancholy. “We couldn’t actually go to jail for this, would we?”
“It’s B-and-E, Jess. You’re in the big leagues now.”
Kate meandered back to the sidewalk and Tommy directed Jesse towards the dumpster. Their fingers nearly froze to the metal, but the two men managed to heave the steel receptacle close enough to the wall so they could climb up and grab onto the rooftop’s edge. Tommy scrambled up first and then gave Jesse a hand. From there, the second tier was easy to grab onto individually, and they both ascended to the next level. “All right Jess,” Tommy said, not nearly as out of breath as Jesse already was. He held his hands on his hips boastfully, as though he was about to reach the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro. “Now you’ve just got to give me a boost to the top.”
“I don’t know Tommy. I think I’m starting to reconsider this whole thing.”
Tommy’s arms fell limply back to his side. “Are you kidding me? Don’t wuss out on me now Jesse!”
Jesse looked up into the night sky as an airplane soared into sight; he noticed how it seemed to be slowing down. The plane vanished behind a thick cloud but it refused to reappear, as if it had come to a complete stop midair. Impossibly, even the distant roar of its engines had silenced. It was happening again: Jesse was second-guessing himself. He had to crouch down and brace himself on the rooftop. He looked back to the parking lot below him and out to the sidewalk. Kate was looking right at him with her arms spread wide, wondering what was going on.
“Hey!” she yelled, not caring a whit about their mission of stealth. “Don’t wuss out on us, Jess!”
Jesse was once again being led by Tommy. When would the inevitable separation occur, he wondered? When would he find the strength and the courage to follow his own conscience?
Tommy placed a hand on Jesse’s shoulder, just as the plane re-emerged from the clouds. “I know it’s hard for you, but I need to do this Jesse. And I need your help.”
Jesse stood back up. Without saying a word, he gave Tommy a lift to the rooftop. Perhaps there were still demons within the warehouse that Jesse needed to exorcise? If Tommy was going to be so selfish, maybe, just for once, Jesse should take the opportunity as well?
Standing atop Jesse’s shoulders, Tommy stretched his long arms far enough to reach the top of the warehouse. His fingers clasped the ledge and as he dangled, Tommy couldn’t get Patrick’s ominous warning out of his head: Everybody falls. Still, he laughed the words off, confident that he would not fall now, nor would he ever. Rachel may have left him; his novel might have been an astounding failure; he may have even been smoked out of his apartment, but Tommy was certainly not on the verge of falling. If for no other reason than to prove Patrick Kohn wrong.
Jesse pushed up on the bottoms of Tommy’s feet until Tommy had enough leverage to pull himself the rest of the way. From the very top of the warehouse, Tommy turned to see the glow of Manhattan in the distance. The brilliant blanket of light could scarcely conceal all of the dreams, desires, feats and triumphs that lay within. And yet, Tommy now felt as though the radiance was reaching out for him, begging him to relieve the city from the darkness that Patrick Kohn had brought. And he wasn’t simply being dramatic. He wasn’t being selfish or idealistic. His friends could think what they wanted to, but Tommy knew they would thank him later. New York City was not meant for everyone. It did not welcome anyone but a handful of the world’s chosen few. Tommy felt that Patrick had already been chosen once. But he was now deemed unfit to tread the pathways of the world’s greatest metropolis.
Jesse was not even aware that Tommy’s attention had drifted away for the moment. “I said, how am I supposed to get up now?”
“Don’t worry so much. I already thought of everything.” Since Tommy couldn’t enter his apartment, he had the prudence to pick up a backpack and some other supplies before coming to out tonight. Kate and Jesse wondered what was in that SpongeBob SquarePants backpack but not enough to actually ask him. From the bag, Tommy pulled out a length of rope. He tossed one frayed end down to Jesse. “Grab on, Jess. It’ll be just like Batman and Robin.”
“Am I right to assume that I’m supposed to be Robin in this scenario?”
“Correct again, old chum! You’ve always been my Boy Wonder.”
“Which version? Dick Grayson, Burt Ward, Jason Todd or Tim Drake? Which one am I?”
“What? Whatever, Jesse. I’m not about to pretend I know the difference.”
It didn’t really matter all that much to Jesse which role he was going to be playing; he just wanted to get up to the roof. As unmovable as Lady Liberty, Tommy held the rope tight while Jesse rappelled up the side of the building. Once on the roof, Jesse brushed himself off. “One of these days I’m going to teach you everything you need to know about superheroes.”
Tommy only grunted an answer under his breath before noticing the stairwell door to his left. It definitely lacked any of the security measures of the building’s ground-level entrances. Tommy had written enough warehouse scenes in his Detective Broome novels to know his best back-up plan would be the rooftop access. Without a second thought, Tommy pulled a crowbar from the backpack and wedged it into the door frame.
“Where did you get a crowbar?” Jesse asked, stupefied.
“Hardware store on Columbus. Haven’t I always said you never know when you need a crowbar?”
“I don’t recall you ever saying that.”
Using the crowbar to bend the handle off, Tommy forced the door open. Jesse shook his head, letting Tommy know he had little desire to enter first. The stairs led straight down onto a small catwalk, overlooking the warehouse floor. Through the darkness, they could make out a few rows of shelves below them, less than half-full of stock. Without hesitation, Tommy continued down the stairs, switched on the overhead lights and began to peruse the shelves.
When the lights came on, the memories instantly flooded Jesse’s mind. He gripped the railing of the catwalk. Even though a year had passed since he’d been inside the building, Jesse could still visualize everything. Every last miserable detail. He recalled the exact way that everything had been the moment John Galloway entered the warehouse. Kate drunkenly flirted with some guy at the open bar. The DJ reached for another disk. A cute photographer from the Village Voice slithered her way through the crowd. Comic books had been strewn across the floor as decoration, eventually trampled into a colorful, crumpled carpet. Edith Galloway watched Jesse with a sparkle in her eyes that he’d never noticed until that night.
From the catwalk, Jesse could see himself on the stage. He was wearing those flashy red gloves and domino mask. Jesse spent a full year working on the pieces for the exhibit, all with the financial compliments of Edie Galloway, and he wanted to be sure he looked as super as the show itself. Along one wall stood three unique twenty-foot pieces: from a distance, they appeared to be an exact duplication of three authentic and carefully selected comic book pages, but each was a finely constructed collage made up of much tinier images. Like a photomosaic image for posters and puzzle games.
Another wall of the warehouse held a life-sized corner of a city block, constructed out of wood and covered with layer upon layer of comic book pages. Black and white windows fashioned exclusively with word balloons. Gaudy sidewalks of brightly colored, jagged explosions of onomatopoeia. Billboards and newsstands of intricately layered cover pages. A darkened alley was composed of the most nefarious of images. Store mannequins dotted the street scene, each one posed as and plastered with specific character images. Some were engaged in battle with one another. Some seemed to cackle menacingly. Some simply patrolled the rooftops searching for signs of trouble. And yet, none of them seemed to take notice when trouble eventually manifested itself.
Jesse was standing on the colorful sidewalk, stumbling through his ill-prepared speech when John Galloway entered, creating such an uproar and eventually throwing his wife into the wall of giant comic pages. The party came to a sudden stop. The crowd separated itself from the commotion. Even Jesse’s friends were of no help. Kate was too drunk to do anything about it, and thanks to Rachel, Tommy had yet to show up. Even the heroic mannequins remained motionless. It was the moment in which Jesse forced himself to make the decision he had.
“I punched him,” Jesse said. His words quietly echoed inside the near-empty warehouse. He finally released his sweaty hands from the railing.
“What’s that?” Tommy asked, still picking his way through some boxes on the shelves below.
“I punched John that night. I’d never hit anyone in my entire life and then I go and punch an old man.”
Tommy came out into the light and looked up at Jesse. “I know. Kate told me all about it. You wouldn’t believe how pissed I was that I missed that. Stupid Rachel and her stupid being late all the stupid time…” He picked up one of the boxes and shook it hard. Something heavy rattled around within.
Jesse sat down now, on the edge of the catwalk. “When Sharona asked me what had happened I told her I didn’t do a thing. I told her I just stood there and watched. I didn’t move a muscle when John threw Edie into the car and killed her.”
Tommy moved to the foot of the stairs. He didn’t know why Jesse was still up there, why he wouldn’t come down to where it was safer. Perhaps Jesse thought it was safer? Just a little bit further away from his past. “Sharona? Who the hell is Sharona?” he asked, with his hands on his hips.
“Sharona was the girl I went out with a couple of weeks ago.”
“Ah. Wing King’s and Wicked.”
“That’s the one.”
“And her name is really Sharona? Like the song?”
“I think that’s her real name. To be honest, I never asked her that.”
“Why didn’t you tell her about the fight?”
“Well first of all, I obviously didn’t want to brag about punching an old man in the mouth.”
“But I think the real reason was because I actually enjoyed the moment. That fight with John…it was the most incredible feeling I’d ever had Tommy! When we were throwing punches on that stage, in the fantasy city that I’d built with my own hands…it was awful, but also amazing. I mean, he was my arch-enemy, my evil nemesis. I was even wearing a superhero costume for Christ’s sake! And we trashed it all. Everything I’d created was ruined but I didn’t care. I threw a fake garbage can at him. He knocked me through a papier-mâché wall and I hit him with a cardboard lamppost! It was so surreal, like everything I’d ever dreamed about as a kid was coming to life.”
At first, Tommy didn’t suspect coming to the warehouse would have much of an effect on Jesse, but he realized then that he probably should have seen it coming. Jesse had bottled up so much of the past year that it had to come to surface eventually, as easily as bubbles in a water cooler. But Tommy also understood that no matter how fantastic that moment might have been for Jesse, it could not possibly cover up how he still felt about Edith Galloway. “I’m sorry I missed it Jess,” he spoke solemnly.
“Am I a bad person for feeling like this, Tommy?”
Tommy didn’t have an answer for his friend. He wondered if there was anything wrong with finding a little bit of pleasure in something awful.
“And yet, the more I think about it now, the harder it is to believe any of it ever happened in the first place. The harder it is to remember what my life was like with Edie. Does that make sense?”
Tommy didn’t want to, but he couldn’t help thinking of Rachel again. “You were happy,” he discerned. “Even if she’s gone now, that’s the important thing.”
For a long moment, Jesse took another look around him. “Did you know that tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of her death?”
“I don’t know what to tell you Jess. Kate would probably say something like: ‘You’ve got to remember the good stuff from any relationship.’ I’m not sure if I believe that myself, but I guess it beats focusing entirely on the bad stuff.”
Jesse couldn’t comment on Tommy’s words, but it did sound like something Kate might say. Finally, he walked down the steps to the warehouse floor, planting his feet firmly. Maybe that was enough for now.
Tommy went back to the shelves, although he was obviously frustrated by whatever it was that he found. Or what it was he didn’t find. A few hundred toilet seats in various models and colors filled the shelves. All of them were innocuous though, and did not seem to be hiding anything suspicious. Disappointed, Tommy kicked the steel frame of the shelf unit. “Maybe there’s an office in here,” he suggested. “You know, where we can find some paperwork or something.”
“How about a business license?” Jesse suggested.
“Nice thinking, Boy Wonder! If there’s no business license that would mean there’s no business. And if there’s no business this warehouse is just a front for something else.”
The two of them froze suddenly when they heard banging at the front door, but they loosened up a little when they remembered Kate was still outside.
Tommy pointed to the front door. “Do you think we should let her in?”
“I think she’d kill us if we didn’t,” Jesse responded.
Strangely, there didn’t appear to be any sort of alarm system on the door. If there was one, it hadn’t been armed. Jesse rolled up the metal guard on the outside and unlocked the door. Kate was shivering on the other side; the hood of her ski jacket was pulled tight around her face. “About time,” was all she said as she pushed Jesse out of her way and crossed the threshold. “I think I saw Gene outside.”
“I’m not sure, but I’m certain I saw his car drive by.”
Tommy was quick to close and lock the door behind her. “You’re not sure or you’re certain? That’s two completely different perspectives Kate.”
“Oh, shut up Tommy. Did you know there are hookers out there too? I had to hide behind a fence when I saw the JCPD coming down the street.”
“I don’t think prostitution is illegal in New Jersey,” Tommy said. “It’s pretty much a lawless state. Besides. I doubt you could pass for a hooker in that outfit. New Jersey or not.”
Kate ignored Tommy’s comment. “What are the chances that Gene’s driving around Jersey City picking up whores?” she asked. “What if he’s been doing it for years?”
“I think you’re probably just imagining things Kate,” Jesse said, acting as the voice of reason. “Didn’t you say Gene was working late tonight?”
“That’s exactly what she said,” Tommy intimated, emphasizing all the wrong words. “Can we just focus on why we’re here without creating new problems? I don’t know if you two have forgotten, but we’re supposed to be looking for clues.”
Kate tried to warm up by rubbing her hands together. “Just for the record Tommy, I think you’re totally nuts. You might have convinced Jess that Patrick’s intentions are reprehensible, but I just don’t see it.”
“Hey,” Jesse started. “I never said I was convinced. I’m just examining the particulars of the situation.”
“Right,” she said. “Like there’s a difference. You’re the easiest guy in the world to convince of anything, Jess.”
“My point proven,” Kate smiled.
Tommy ignored her and found a small office around the corner. The door was slightly ajar, making it easy to reach in and flick the light on. The office was nearly bare: a computer, a coffee mug and an empty file folder were all that sat atop the desk; there was a shelf unit with nothing but a ream of blank paper and a stuffed moose; the only additions to the white wall were a small I Hate Mondays poster and a free calendar from a New Jersey real estate agent that featured a monthly selection of classic cars. October was the cherry red 1963 Corvette.
“Look at this place,” Tommy said. “I couldn’t stage a fake office worse than this if I tried. It’s obvious he’s hiding something in here.”
Jesse picked up the coffee mug and inspected it closely. There was some cartoon printed on it with a golf joke that he didn’t understand. The inside of the mug had the familiar brown stains of dried coffee. “I thought Patrick didn’t drink coffee anymore?”
There was an unlocked drawer on the desk and Tommy slid it open. He ruffled through the newspapers and fliers he found inside, but again there was nothing of interest anywhere. He looked up, exasperated.
Jesse wondered, “Maybe you don’t need a business license for a warehouse?”
Tommy didn’t know much about running businesses, but he knew enough about the situation to know he didn’t like it. He walked outside of the office and surveyed everything at once. “I think this is a bust,” he finally admitted.
“I don’t know what you were hoping to find in the first place Tommy,” Kate said. “You shouldn’t let Patrick intimidate you so much.”
“He doesn’t intimidate me,” Tommy said, clenching his teeth.
“Is it really so bad that he’s back in New York?” she asked. “Why does it bother you so much?”
“It’s that letter,” Tommy reacted. “That letter scared the shit out of me. We were all so pissed when Patrick disappeared, but I thought we’d gotten over it.”
“I got over it,” Kate said, wasting no time with her response.
“Me too,” added Jesse.
“Well, I didn’t. Maybe I took it more personally than you two did. So when I got that letter in the mail, I knew I didn’t want to have to go through all those feelings again. And then there was the plane crash. The possibility of avoiding those feelings was almost too thrilling to ignore. But when he showed up at my door…well, obviously things have been getting worse ever since. Maybe you guys can get over it, maybe you can look beyond the warning signs, but I’m not prepared to. I don’t know why I hate Patrick so much, and maybe I wish I didn’t. But I do. And I don’t want to have to make apologies for that.”
Jesse and Kate tried to comprehend Tommy’s feelings, but they couldn’t. “Let’s just get out of here,” Kate finally suggested, and she made her way back to the front door.
Tommy pulled a toilet seat from one of the shelves. It was the HyGenieSeat-3000 with a Perineal Spray Attachment. “Might as well take a parting gift, huh?”
Kate was already outside. She looked back at Tommy, confused by his temerity. “You’re not seriously stealing a toilet seat, are you?”
“I am. You guys should grab one too while we’re here.”
“This isn’t a shopping spree Tommy,” Jesse pointed out. “I don’t think any of us deserves a prize for what we’ve done.”
“Suit yourself Jess,” was Tommy’s only response.
The two men were slow to exit the warehouse, knowing that any haste was certain to not make a difference anyway.
However, Jesse slowed a bit more when he reflected upon Tommy’s counsel from a few minutes earlier. “You know Tommy, you were happy once too. Isn’t that the important thing?” He continued past Tommy, abandoning his waning memories in favor of the cold outside. But Jesse had no idea that Tommy was close to answering the offered supposition. He was so incredibly close to admitting Jesse was right.
The three of them sat on the curb until their taxi came. It didn’t matter how cold the wind was since it had started to feel even colder inside the warehouse. None of them had uttered a single word for a few minutes. There was a prostitute sitting alone on the curb across the street, but she did not seem nearly as lonely as they.
Tommy was still clutching the stolen toilet seat. “You know,” he finally said. “Picking up hookers may not actually count as having an affair.”
“Thanks Tommy. That sure helps a lot.”
A police car coasted by listlessly, but its occupants didn’t appear to want to get involved in whatever it was Tommy, Kate and Jesse were doing outside the dark warehouse at that time of night. Tommy waved at the car, but it turned the corner and disappeared.
Tommy continued, “I’m just saying. If you’re looking for something to blame Gene for, I maybe wouldn’t try the affair card. It’s just a hooker.”
Kate didn’t feel like thanking him for his constructive insight a second time.
Jesse meanwhile, simply wanted to change the subject. “So what did we learn from this Tommy? Do you still think Patrick’s up to something? Is there an ulterior motive here?”
But Tommy wasn’t sure anymore if he did have cause for suspicion. He felt like they were so close to putting all the loose ends together and now all of the parts weren’t adding up like he hoped they would. He had every piece of the puzzle, but the only thing they seemed to form when put together was nothing more than a coincidence.
Thankfully though, the cab pulled up before Tommy had any further opportunity to admit to anything.
Each of them sat quietly during the drive back to Manhattan. They tried to put the evening’s adventure behind them, and considered their own personal circumstances. Kate would have to talk to Gene eventually, wouldn’t she? Jesse knew he needed to visit Edie in an attempt to find some closure and finally move on. And Tommy decided, maybe the first time in his life, that he would start to take a look at his own mistakes and failures, rather than pick apart everyone else’s.