The Frequent flyer
by Frank Thomas Smith
My affair with flying is an ambiguous one. Leaving home again after having just unpacked is a bore. Nevertheless, once settled in my seat, usually First Class -- not because I am rich or insane enough to pay for a First Class seat, but because most airlines let me have one for nothing -- I experience a sensation of peace in the knowledge that this is part of some larger journey. It is an opportunity to recognize the triviality of whatever problems were left behind on the ground or are waiting at the destination. Just think -- some three hundred human beings hurtling along through the firmament, which was once the exclusive province of angels, with no guarantee of ever setting foot on solid ground again. I used to be afraid of flying, until I did it so often that fear became ridiculous. I am no longer afraid, I am comfortable. I feel something watching me with a calm, half-smile on its lips. This must be the cause of the mystic love of flying unconsciously felt by aviators. I, however, am not an aviator, only a frequent flyer, a First Class freeloader. Economy class passengers cannot, I fear, realize such enlightenment -- not, at least, until they accumulate sufficient frequent flyer miles to be upgraded.
Business Class is acceptable, though not enlightening, even for a twelve hour flight, while Economy or Tourist class over that length of time is not only physical torture, it is an insult to human intelligence. I have often wondered why passengers don't organize and go on strike against Economy Class. The airlines would scream bankruptcy if they weren't allowed to cram people into spaces which make dog kennels look commodious; and some would, but not because of legroom. The reason airlines have such fragile profit margins is that air transportation is treated as a competitive business instead of as a public service. Airlines need to be regulated, protected against unfair competition and made to give all passengers the equivalent of Business Class space and service. Well, space at least; they can compete as they like with service.
But I worked for the airlines, so I kept my mouth shut.
After one glass of champagne I took out a book and read until it was time to sleep. Unfortunately, all long distance flights from Argentina to Europe or the United States depart at night in order to reach their destinations early in the morning. I prefer day flights because I sleep badly on airplanes and find the spectacular views of clouds and the distant earth below to be spiritually encouraging. I find myself thinking another kind of thought in daylight at 35,000 feet. Like why am I doing what I am doing. Answers are as hard to come by at that altitude as they are at sea level, but at least the question is asked.
It was just as well that I wasn't in First, I thought the next morning as we were landing in Madrid. Barkarian and Wilson would think I was persecuting them, following them at least, for they had no way of knowing that I was a passenger on their flight before I ever heard of them. The First Class passengers disembarked first, as is their right as Brahmins, then Business. When I stepped into the finger gate I saw an airline employee standing at the exit holding a sign with my name on it that looked as though it had been painted with lipstick. Ramirez must have sent a VIP message to Madrid asking them to meet me. It was the first thing Barkarian and Wilson saw when they stepped out of the plane. I identified myself to the young lady -- a Spanish version of Veronica -- and we passed the mob on the immigration line into the VIP lounge, where she took my passport and had me stamped through in two minutes. Barkarian and Wilson would be first on line so they wouldn't be far behind me, but they would have to wait for their checked baggage then go through a baggage and body search, assuming that my colleague Ricardo Rico was in Madrid and received my message in time. If they were clean they would be very careful anyway, knowing I was their fellow passenger. Or they might panic. I didn't know which was worse.
Ricardo was leaning against an unattended rent-a-car counter in the arrival hall behind the crowds waiting for the flights that all seem to arrive at the same time. It was nine-thirty a.m. local time. I adjusted my watch from Buenos Aires's five-thirty and yawned. When Ricardo looked up from his newspaper, El País, and spotted me, I could feel him preparing for a Spanish embrace. I frowned and shook my head so he went back to the paper. I placed my briefcase on the counter, opened it and pretended to be looking for something in it.
"One of them is fat, middle aged, curly graying beard, the other young, taller, both well dressed, blue suits. Can you see them?" I said to Ricardo in English in case anyone wanted to eavesdrop.
"Not from he..here," Ricardo answered from the side of his mouth. "I'll ha..have to get closer. The customs guy will call me when they're f..finished searching them. What's the problem?"
"They tried to travel from Buenos Aires with stolen tickets. I think they're involved, not innocent passengers".
His cellular phone rang and he answered, then rang off.
"Want me to f..follow them?"
"I don't know. They know I was on the flight so they'll be very cautious."
"What the h..hell, you got me up at an ungodly hour anyway, might as well see what h..happens. When I spot them I'll wave the newspaper over my h..head." He smiled at nothing. "Going right on to Geneva?"
"No," I said, "Hotel Mindanao. I expect a message there from Pierremot about their tickets. I'll call Ian and tell him I'll go to Geneva tomorrow morning."
"H..he won't like that, too tight. I'm going tonight. See you there or at the Mindanao."
I had no formal authority over Ricardo Rico, but he knew I didn't want to lose track of those guys, and he thought he owed me something. He pushed into the crowd and elbowed his way toward the plate glass windows through which you could see the passengers waiting for their baggage. He waved El País over his bald head in a perfect imitation of someone greeting an arriving passenger. Ricardo was very thin, tall, handsome, prematurely bald, physically graceful, a world-class marathon runner. His stutter was more pronounced in English than in Spanish; he especially had trouble with his aiches. I had hired him ten years previously when we were looking for someone to cover the Iberian peninsula and North Africa. He worked for Iberia in Bogotá as city ticket office manager and helped me with an investigation, which I appreciated because no one in Colombia ever wants to help for fear that everything illegal might be related to drugs, and that can get you killed. Ricardo was Spanish, not Colombian, which made him a good candidate for the Madrid job.
I liked him, and I had once liked his wife even more. In my informed opinion the most beautiful women in the world – not counting Orientals, who are in a class by themselves – are Colombians and Chileans. Mariana was a classic Colombian beauty, and promiscuous to boot. I didn't know that then, just thought I was so attractive that she fell for me after one sighting at an airline cocktail party that happened to coincide with my visit to Bogotá. The next day was free because there was no flight to Buenos Aires. She offered to show me the city, which I knew very well. After the Inca gold museum and lunch at the best Italian restaurant in town with plenty of Chianti, we spent the afternoon in my room at the Tequendama Intercontinental Hotel between the sheets. One of the reasons I hired Ricardo was, I think, partly due to a guilty conscience and partly in the hope of repeat performances with Mariana. Yes, I liked Ricardo, everyone liked him and pitied him because of Mariana. He must have known what was going on but he was so obviously in love with her that he chose to ignore it. I wasn't in love with her and when I found out that every IATA investigator (Pierremot from Paris, Habegger from Frankfurt, even Evens from Sydney) who had occasion to be in Madrid took time out to fuck Mariana, I bowed out. The only one she drew the line at was Fats Sandown from London because, she said according to Claude Pierremot, she had nothing against fat men but she couldn't stand little pricks. Somehow, though, the story sounds apocryphal.
I took a taxi to the Mindanao, a five star hotel that retains some of its original distinction, pretentious but with a minimum of Hiltonesque kitsch. It was a few miles from the city center, at the Plaza Cristo Rey, so you almost never needed a reservation. Once ensconced in my room I showered and shaved, then carefully cleaned and prepared my pipe before telephoning Claude Pierremot – there was no message from him at the desk – and my boss in Geneva, Ian Payne. I like to have a lighted pipe in my hand when telephoning.
Pierremot's secretary finally answered after the seventh ring. She seemed out of breath and I imagined her as having rushed into the Paris office when she heard the phone ringing from the hall, where she was shooting the breeze at the water fountain. None of us field men kept regular office hours and some secretaries took advantage of it; not mine though.
She said that Claude hadn't come in yet and, as he was going to Geneva later, she didn't know if he would come to the office at all that day. Telex? She would check the machine, please hold. Pierremot changed secretaries like socks, discarding them when they no longer interested him. They were all knockouts but not necessarily secretaries. This one at least spoke passable English. I asked her to call Claude at home – or at her place, which I didn't say though – and read him the telex. If he wasn't at home she should ask his wife where he could be located. He should call me at the Hotel Mindanao. If she couldn't locate him she should call me back immediately.
She called back five minutes later saying that Monsieur Pierremot's home phone didn't answer and she had no idea where else to try. While waiting, lying naked on the king-sized bed with a towel over my privates to protect them from pipe sparks, I had foreseen, or at least considered, this eventuality. I could ask her for the BSP-France manager's number and ask him directly for the information I needed. (BSP means Bank Settlement Plan and is the office responsible for distributing and accounting for all IATA neutral tickets. Every country has one.) I decided not to though, mostly for appearance's sake. It would be like Pierremot phoning the BSP-Argentina office to request information that I should be requesting. The BSP-France Manager knows Pierremot and he doesn't know me. It would look funny. The embarrassment would be justified if it was truly urgent, but there was little difference if I had the information now or this afternoon or even tomorrow in Geneva.
My pipe had gone out so I relit it and phoned Ian Payne on his direct line. He was there; he was always there, speaking sotto voce as they all did in Geneva since IATA moved to a new building at the airport that had workstations instead of individual offices with walls. Ian was a self-made London lad who still retained traces of cockney in his often colorful speech. He had no field experience but was a fancy dancer in the halls of bureaucracy and had succeeded in keeping the Fraud Detection Division afloat by skillfully navigating the shark infested waters of cost cutting. Indirectly he owed his job to me because I turned it down in horror when his predecessor died of cirrhosis of the liver – in horror at the thought of being subjected to head office intrigues, ambitions and regular office hours. Ian ate it all up though; more power to him.
"Hello, Marvin, where in hell are you?"
"Madrid, got a hot case going." I gave him a quick outline of the events. "So I thought I'd give the meeting a skip..."
"You must be out of your effing mind. The Managing Director will be there and all that Irish fucker thinks about is cutting our budget. If we can't convince him otherwise you blokes won't be investigating nothing."
"And you've got star billing."
"Because you don't exaggerate like the rest and you can at least speak English without a wop accent."
"An American accent doesn't bother you?"
"Sure it does, but the perverted Irish like it."
I laughed. "Okay, Ian, I'll take the early morning flight."
Which was what I was manipulating for. I knew I couldn't avoid the meeting.
"No go, Marvin. They're forecasting a snowstorm here tomorrow morning. There's a flight this afternoon so please place your arse on it. The meeting starts at nine-thirty, so be in my office at nine. I want to talk with you first."
There was no point in arguing with Ian when he was so determined. "Ricardo's following those guys and..."
"Ricardo can take the morning flight. He sounds like Porky Pig giving a presentation anyway. Have a nice day, Marvin. (click)"
The phone rang immediately.
"They're he..here, Marvin."
"In the ho..hotel. I'm in the lobby".
"I wonder who the hell is following whom."
"Co..coincidence probably. They took a d..double room. Do you think they're g..gay?"
"No idea. What are you going to do now?
I waited for him to read my mind.
"I'll wait around a wh..while to see if they go out, I guess."
"Good. They seemed in a big hurry to get to Madrid, so they'll probably go wherever they're going real soon. I have to go to Geneva this afternoon but Ian said you can go tomorrow morning if you get tied up."
Ten minutes later Ricardo called again. "They rented a car, waiting for it to arrive. I follow."
After telling the desk to wake me in time for the flight to Geneva, I tuned into my siesta. Perhaps I should have told Ricardo about the forecasted snowstorm in Geneva, I was thinking. Yes, I should have -- definitely.
Continued in the next SCR