When Time Stood Still
Frank Thomas Smith
It had been a relatively mild winter in Geneva and the ski and ice-skating fanatics had been complaining bitterly. Now that it was colder and the cloudy sky looked threatening, I hoped it would snow enough for them to be satisfied and shut up. I neither skied nor skated and though I appreciated the beauty of new snow in the old city, I preferred to be warm and comfortable. I walked casually into the entrance of the company’s building on the rue de l’Aeroport, ready for another boring day at head office.
“Bonjour, monsieur Frank,” the receptionist said, smiling.
“Bonjour, Michelle,” I smiled back. I glanced at the large clock on the wall behind her and smiled more broadly. “What happened to your clock?” The Swiss are inordinately proud of their clocks and for a foreigner to discover one not functioning would be a national disgrace. Michelle glanced over her shoulder and back at me, puzzled. “Nothing,” she said, “Why?"
My smile froze into a silly grin when I checked my watch – Swiss, of course – and saw that it showed the same time as the clock: 10:50. I shrugged, waved to Michelle and headed for the elevators down the hall. By the time I got there I thought I knew why I had thought it was 8:50 when it was really 10:50. My alarm clock at home must have stopped, its battery dead. It was the same portable clock I always carried when traveling. I thought I’d changed the battery fairly recently but now decided I hadn’t. The alarm had gone off, which seemed strange if the battery was dead or dying, but stranger things have happened.
As I rode up to the fourth floor in the elevator I considered my boss’s reaction to me being late. None. I was, after all, an Assistant Director and one of the company’s star performers. When they called me in from the cold to Head Office only three months ago, I had been given ample time off to find an apartment – not an easy task in Geneva – buy a car, furniture, and all the other little things associated with relocation. They would assume I had some personal business to attend to, or had to go to the dentist.
“Mr. Mayne wants to see you ASAP, Frank,” Jeanne, my secretary said as I passed her desk. I stopped, took off my overcoat and slung it over the visitor’s chair. “OK,” I mumbled and started down the hall to the boss’s office.
“And you were supposed to call Iberia at nine,” she called to my back.
“Oh my God, that’s right.” I stopped in my tracks to decide whether to go to Bryan or to my own office to call Iberia. “Look, Jeanne, tell Bryan I’ll be there in a minute, that I’m on the phone to Madrid. You know, like they called me.”
She smiled, happy to be in on an intrigue of sorts. “Want me to get Iberia?”
“No, I’ll do it. Go charm Bryan.”
I didn’t watch her wiggle her ass down the hall as I usually did. Instead I went into my office, saw the notation on the calendar to call Iberia, checked the number in my computer and dialed the Iberia Commercial Director in Madrid. His secretary told me that the meeting had started a half hour ago and that Dr. Jimenez had been waiting for my call. I asked her to put me through to her boss.
When Jimenez came on he said, in whispered Spanish, “Caramba, Frank, I’m sweating it out here. What the hell happened to you?”
I apologized, making some excuse, and gave Jimenez the information he needed. “Are you sure?” he asked.
After Jimenez thanked me I hung up, sighed one down one to go, and headed for Bryan Mayne’s office. The door was open, as all the office doors always were. I had never figured out why and no one was able to explain it when I asked. The only door closed was mine when I had my fifteen-minute siesta after lunch, a habit I’d picked up during the years in South America. It was a favorite office joke, but no one ever mentioned it to me. They were all jealous, I guess.
“G’day, Frank,” Mayne said jovially when I entered his office. “Glad you’re here. Sorry I forgot to tell you yesterday that D.G. wants to see us ASAP this morning.”
“Oh, sorry about that, Bryan. I…”
“No problem, mate, you didn’t know.”
“Yes, but I should have told you I’d be late.”
“It’s about that Iberia thing. Fill me in before we go into the lion’s den.” I knew that Bryan Mayne’s relative calm was Valium induced. The only sign of his underlying nervousness at keeping the Director General waiting was the constant patting and pulling on his beard.
“I just finished speaking with Jimenez on the phone. I think he’s satisfied, though I still think I should have gone to that meeting.”
“Can’t be in two places at the same time, Frank. Don’t worry about it. Let’s go. Tell me about it in the lift.” Mayne stood up, put on his jacket, straightened his tie, patted his beard a few times and led the way down the hall.
“Sorry about the delay, D.G.,” Mayne said when they got to the inner sanctum. “Frank was tied up and didn’t know you wanted to see us.”
D.G. was all smiles as he greeted us; he’d probably forgotten that he wanted to see us. He glanced down at his calendar and said, “Iberia.”
I bought a new battery for my alarm clock that afternoon as I plodded through the snow on the way to the tram stop. There was no point in taking a car to the office in that weather. I also had the battery in my watch replaced, just in case.
The next morning, as I was approaching the entrance under the sign that read International Air Transport Association, barely visible in the morning mist, I noticed something that hadn’t occurred to me the day before. I was the only one entering the building, when usually there was a crowd at ten minutes to nine. I looked at the clock behind Michelle as soon as I entered the hall: 10:50. “Bonjour, Monsieur Frank.” I looked at my watch, which I had checked before leaving my apartment at eight-twenty. It now read ten-fifty. “Is anything the matt-air, Monsieur Frank?” I was standing in front of her staring at the clock, my mind racing nowhere.
“Wrong? Oh, er.. perhaps there is something wrong,” I said. “Could you do me a favor, Michelle?”
“Of course, if I can,” she said, intrigued.
“Call Bryan Mayne and tell him that I’m ill, nothing serious I don’t think. Got up this morning with an intestinal problem, but came here anyway thinking it would pass. But it hasn’t.” I took the handkerchief from my breast pocket and wiped away imaginary sweat. “So I’m going home again.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” She went to pick up the phone.
“No, wait .. wait till I’m gone.” I smiled wanly. “I don’t want him calling an ambulance. Just give me a few minutes in the lavatory.”
“Very good for that are the charcoal pills,” she offered. “You can get them in any pharmacy.”
“Oh, yes, I’ll get some.” I walked quickly across the hall to the men’s room as though my bowels gave me only seconds to get there. Inside I looked at myself in the mirror, put cold water on my face and looked again. “Am I going mad?” I asked the guy in the mirror. He didn’t answer. I walked out and waved to the receptionist. “Shall I call you a taxi, Monsieur?” she asked. I shook me head and left through the revolving doors.
I had a small but expensive one-bedroom apartment on the rue Dumont in the old city. Once there I dialed the automatic time number and was told that it was eleven-thirty-two. I looked at my alarm clock in the bedroom, which insisted on being two hours late, like my wristwatch. The phone rang.
“Frank,” Bryan Mayne shouted. “You all right?”
“Just a case of the runs, Bryan. It’ll pass. But guess what I feel like.”
“Shit. Listen, charcoal pills are great for that, but get the ones with antibiotics.”
“You were supposed to go to Zurich tomorrow, but I can call Swiss and cancel your appointment. Or do you think Delamaire can handle it?” Swiss Air Lines is the successor to the bankrupt Swissair.
Zurich! Yes, that’s were I’d go. “I think I’ll be OK by tomorrow, Bryan. I’ll get those pills right away.”
“Do you have the papers you need with you?”
“No, Jeanne has them, but I can stop by on the way to the airport and pick them up.”
“Listen, mate, I can send Jeanne over to your place with them right now and she can pick up the pills on the way – my treat.” Bryan Mayne had never been in the field, but things like this, as well as his Australian humor and his being a “fancy dancer”, as he put it, in the halls of Head Office, had long since won him his people’s loyalty. I suspected, though, that he also wanted Jeanne to report back on my condition.
I dialed a Zurich number I knew by heart. Meredith Miller was an American who practiced Jungian psychology there. We had an affair when I was briefly stationed in Zurich several years back and she was still studying at the Karl Jung Institute. She answered after the third ring. “Meredith, it’s me, Frank.”
“Frank! Where are you calling from?”
“Geneva. Listen, I have to talk to you. I’ll be in Zurich tomorrow.”
“I’m fine, too, thank you. What are you doing in Geneva? You could have let me know.”
“I’m at Head Office, for the time being anyway. Can you see me tomorrow – I mean professionally?”
“Professionally?” It wasn’t what she had in mind, but she was a professional and very proud of it. “Well, Frank, you’re full of surprises. But we have rather an intimate history, so it might be better if I referred you to a colleague.”
“That could be, but maybe you could hear me out in order to decide that. It’s urgent, Meredith.”
The urgency in my voice was apparent. “I’m booked up tomorrow, Frank…”
“…but you could come by at lunch time.”
“I’ll be there. Twelve-ish?”
“Thanks, Meredith. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Wait. My address has changed.”
After ringing off I thought of my secretary, Jeanne, on her way with the Zurich papers and charcoal pills. She had been assigned to me before I had even arrived in Geneva, subject to my approval of course. I probably wouldn’t have selected her because she was too attractive, and I was well aware of the complications inherent in having affairs with secretaries – or wanting to. She was also a single mother, which made it more dangerous. Women like that were looking for a husband, a.k.a. father to their child. She spoke the Queen’s English – Victoria, that is – having been born and raised in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. We had danced together at an office Christmas party, when I had considered asking her to come home with me. But, for the reasons stated above and despite the amount of Swiss wine we had both consumed, I decided against it. Now she was coming, an angel to assist a poor mortal in distress. I stripped down to my underwear, put on a bathrobe and slippers and rumpled the bed. Then I drank a shot of brandy and sat down to wait.
“Well”, she said when I opened the door, “I’m glad to see that you were in bed.” She marched passed me into the living room. “Nice place you’ve got here – small but nice. Now you get right back in bed. I have those pills here.” she rummaged in her bag. ”I’ll make you some tea to wash it down.” She took off her fur-lined coat, threw it over a chair and went into the kitchen. “Do you have any tea? I didn’t think so, so I brought some.”
I smiled to myself and walked slowly to the bedroom, though I felt like running. She came in a few minutes later with a cup of steaming tea in one hand and a small box of charcoal pills in the other. “I had to wash the cup,” she said, as she set both objects beside me on the night table and sat on the side of the bed at the level of my incipient erection. “Take a pill now and then every three hours.” She smiled for the first time. “How do you feel?”
“A little better, thanks. Very nice of you to come.” I fumbled at the pill box and extracted a black pill destined to constipate. “Could you bring me a glass of water?”
“Oh, sure.” When she was gone into the kitchen I pushed the pill under the pillow and pursed my lips. She came back and handed me the water and I swallowed the imaginary pill. “Will you be here to give me the next one?”
“In three hours?” she laughed. “I’m a working girl, you know.”
“It’s almost lunch time, you can stay a while.”
“Are you hungry?”
“That’s a good sign…”
“You must have a fever.” She put her hand on my forehead, then let it slide gently to my cheek. I held it a moment, then kissed her palm. I couldn’t help myself. She stood up and stared down at me. For a moment I thought I’d gone too far, but she picked up my bathrobe from the bed and went into the bathroom. “I’ll be right back,” she said.
After what seemed much longer then the three or four minutes, she came out wearing my bathrobe. “Do you have a condom?” she asked.
“Really?” She put her hand in the robe’s pocket and took out a condom. “What’s this?”
I laughed. “Well, what a coincidence.” I was sure there had been no condom in the bathrobe before she put it on.
She dropped the robe to the floor and… “aahh,” I whispered. She climbed over me and under the covers.
Long after lunchtime she still lay on top of me with her head on my chest and her hair covering my face. “What time is it?” she asked, and looked at my alarm clock. “Heavens, no wonder you were late yesterday. You clock is slow.” She looked at her watch, the only thing she was still wearing. “I really must get back to the office.” She turned back to kiss me, stopped and said, “Frank, you’re not really ill, are you?”
“What makes you say that? But I feel much better now.”
“What’s this?” She held up the black charcoal pill still wrapped in transparent plastic, which became visible when my pillow had fallen to the floor during our love-tussle.
“No, I’m not ill.”
“It’s a long story. Will you come by tomorrow evening? I should be back from Zurich by then.”
“Does it have to do with work?”
“I’ll tell you tomorrow. Er … would you do me a favor?”
“Sure, if I can.”
“Call me at seven tomorrow morning.”
“Yes, I will if you want me to,” she said, looking at me with amusement. “Don’t you think you should re-set your alarm, too?”
Finished with the Swiss Air lines meeting, I strolled down Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich’s main drag. I remembered Solzhenitzin’s depiction of Lenin’s thoughts when both of them had taken the same route separately and at different times: “Some day we’ll come here and smash all this opulence to bits.” But the opulence is still there and Lenin and his ilk are gone. Money apparently speaks louder than revolutions. A huge clock stood on every corner announcing the exact, the truly exact Swiss time: 12:30. If I now walked at a normal pace up the hill to Meredith’s place I should arrive there a few minutes before one.
I skirted the city side of the lake. It had gotten colder but the weather was clear and sunny. The Alps visible on the south side of the lake were majestic and seemed almost touchable. According to local lore when they looked so close it meant something about the coming weather, but I forget what; probably bad news. Then up past the museum and the Opera and the Jung Institute. I turned left on Platten-Strasse, glad that the rest of the way was no longer uphill.
A few houses beyond the Rudolf Steiner Schule, I stopped in front of a three-story house and rang Meredith’s bell. If I could trust my watch, it was five minutes to one, which was just right, for being early in Zurich is considered a virtue.
She rang back and the door clicked open. I walked up two flights of highly polished wooden stairs and when I turned to tackle the third saw Meredith standing in the open doorway to her apartment. She had her hand on her hip and was smiling down at me. “Good exercise, isn’t it darling?” she said.
“I’ll let you know if I make it alive.” I did. We kissed on both cheeks and she invited me into the living room. I knew the “darling” meant nothing; she called all men that. Obviously she’d already had lunch. I realized that I was very hungry and kicked myself mentally for not having eaten at least a sandwich when I was killing time.
“How long have you been in Geneva, Frank?” she asked once we were seated across from each other in armchairs. Her abundant red hair fell softly over her shoulder to her breast. It was easily her most attractive feature, and she knew it.
“Nice place you have here, Meredith. You must be doing well.” She didn’t react to the compliment, if it was one. “Three months. I’ve been busy as hell getting settled and with all the work they’ve been giving me at the same time. I meant to call you earlier, but…”
“No need to apologize, darling.” She lowered her head as though thinking, though she already knew what she was going to say. “Just so we understand each other, Karl and I have decided to give it another try” – Karl was her Swiss husband – “and so far it’s been successful.”
“Oh.” I tried to look disappointed. “I hope it works out, Meredith.”
“I do too. Now, what was so urgent as to interrupt your siesta?”
So we were really on a professional level. Good. I told her the whole story, including details – except Jeanne. “So I wonder if I’m hallucinating and if so, what does it mean?”
Meredith had been taking notes. She read them over and asked, “Are you living alone?”
“Does anyone else have access to your apartment?”
“A cleaning woman comes twice a week and the concierge has a key of course. But why would they tamper with my clock? And what about my wristwatch which is always on my wrist or next to me on the night table?”
“You said this happened the past two days,” Meredith said. “What about today?”
“The alarm went off at the correct time this morning, but I had someone call me, just in case.”
“Did you tell her why?”
“No, and another thing. I never sleep more than seven hours, but those two nights I must have slept nine.”
“Meredith read through her notes again, then said, “Do you see where we’re going, Frank?”
“No, I don’t. That’s why I came to you.”
“That if nobody else changed your clock and, yesterday, your wristwatch as well,” she said slowly and with emphasis,” it must have been you.”
I threw my head back and closed my eyes. “God!”
“What have you dreamed lately – I mean the past two or three nights?” Meredith asked.
I opened my eyes. “Nothing, no dreams.”
“Everyone dreams and, if I remember correctly, and I do, so do you.”
“I don’t remember anything, Meredith.”
“OK, now I want you to do as I tell you.” Her voice became softer. “Lean your head back the way you just had it and close your eyes.”
“Come on, Meredith,” I said, pretending annoyance.
“Do you want me to help you or not, macho?” she said, not softly.
After an appropriate moment of hesitation, I leaned my head back and closed my eyes.
“Now relax, but don’t sleep, and remember getting up this morning. Are you doing that?”
“Did you sleep well?”
“Now you’re back in bed. Imagine the process in reverse. What happens?”
I could feel my eyelids flutter; at least a minute passed before I answered. “The alarm clock and the telephone ring at the same time. I wake up confused. I answer the telephone…”
“Who is it?”
“Jeanne, she says Good Morning, it’s seven o’clock, your alarm is ringing. I say thanks, hang up and turn off the alarm. It says seven.”
“Good. Now go into reverse again. You’re asleep. …”Are you asleep?”
“I’m..I’m on an airplane, we’re about to land somewhere, at an airport somewhere. I’m very nervous, afraid.”
“I’m afraid I’ll miss my connecting flight, or… no, more than that. Something terrible is about to happen. We land and I see a 747on the ground at a finger gate. It’s all white, like a ghost, no markings, no windows. But it has a prow, like a ship, with a figurehead on it, like Flash, the comic book character. No, it’s Mercury. I look at my ticket, it’s handwritten, not machine-made like now. I can read the flight number of the connecting flight but not the destination. It’s that white plane, it’s… I’m first out of the plane, I run across to the white 747, but it takes off before I can get to it. I yell, stop! Stop! But it takes off. It’s, yes, I know it’s going to be hijacked and crashed into the Twin Towers, even though I know the Towers aren’t there anymore. I can see through the plane’s skin. Someone is strangling the pilot.” I stopped, my hands were clutching the armrests and I was perspiring.
“What country?” Meredith asks softly.
“That country we were in. I don’t know. I can’t do anything, I trip and fall on the runway … I …” I open my eyes and stare at Meredith as though I don’t know her. She puts her hand on mine. “All right, Frank, you were telling me your dream, that’s all. It’s me, Meredith.”
My eyes focus on her. “Meredith, the flight number…”
“Yes, what about it?”
“..on my ticket. It was 1051.”
“The time I arrived at the office those two days.”
She checks her notes. “You said ten-fifty.”
“I was rounding off. I can see the clock. It’s 10:51.” I stand up.
“It was a dream, Frank,” Meredith said. “Sit down and calm down.”
I remained standing and unclipped the cell phone from my belt. I dialed my direct office number rapidly. “Jeanne, it’s me. Listen, look up flight 1051. Tell me which airline it is, the routings and times. OK? I’ll hold.” I turned to Meredith. “I know it was a dream, but I’ve never had a dream like that in my life. Is there such a thing as a real dream?”
She thought a moment with her eyes lewered. “I’ve never had the experience, but Dr. Jung thought that such dreams exist…I don’t know. Dreams are real, but as symbols. I don’t know to what extent you can act on them.”
“Then the only way to find out is …yes, Jeanne… just a minute. Give me a pen and paper please, Meredith.” She handed me her loose-leaf notebook and the pen she had been using. “Use a new page,” she said.
“Aerolíneas Argentinas flight 1051, ” I repeated as I wrote in the notebook, “departing Madrid 22 hundred for Buenos Aires. Daily? OK, just a minute.” I walked around the room with the phone in one hand and tapping my thigh nervously with the other. Then I put the phone to my ear again. “Jeanne, what’s the next flight from Zurich to Madrid?” I wrote it down – Swiss at 5:30 – and said, “and Iberia?”
“It leaves at three,” Jeanne said. “Unless you’re already at the airport, you can’t make it.” I looked at my watch. It was already two-forty. “Shit! What time does Swiss arrive? Ten o’clock? Four and a half hours to Madrid?”
“It stops in Geneva,” she told me.
“Damn. OK, book me. Now give me Jimenez’s number and Argentine Airlines' number at the airport … no, no, Madrid.” She gave me the numbers then said, “Looks like tonight is off.”
“What? Oh, yeah, sorry about that. Tomorrow.” If there is one. “Thanks, Jeanne.”
Meredith was watching all this with her chin cupped in her hand. “Are you going to tell them you dreamed all this?” she said.
“Argentine Airlines,” I mumbled, ignoring her question.
I dialed Iberia’s number in Madrid. I wanted their backing, as national carrier, with the police and airport people. But Jimenez was out to lunch. Given the length of Spanish lunches there was no telling when he’d be back. The Argentine Airlines airport staff hadn’t arrived yet.
“Are you sure you’re doing the right thing, Frank?” Meredith asked when I finished with the phone and was pacing the floor.
“I have to, Meredith. That dream practically told me there’s going to be a terrorist attack on that flight tonight.”
“Why tonight? How do you know that?
“The Mercury figurehead on the nose.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Look,” I said, “it’s an Argentine airline and the place is Spain, both Spanish speaking, and today is Wednesday – miércoles in Spanish, and miércoles is the day of Mercury. It’s clear as a bell.”
Meredith was thoughtful. “All the symbols are there that indicate what you say. It means that your unconscious got it right, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to happen in the conscious world. It could mean something quite different.”
“I don’t know. We’d need to do depth analysis to find out.”
I walked to where she was sitting and took her hand and looked into her eyes. “If I decided to go into depth analysis with you or some colleague and it happens tonight like my unconscious is telling me, what would I do then? Could I live with myself? Then I’d really need analysis.”
She held my gaze for a long moment, then stood up and embraced me. “Good luck, Frank. I hope you’re right. I mean…well, you know what I mean”
My cell phone rang. It was Jeanne to tell me that the Swiss flight to Madrid was fully booked.
I sat across from the Swiss Air Lines Duty Operations Manager at Zurich airport. “The flight isn’t only fully booked, it’s over-booked, Mr. Smith.”
“How come? It’s Wednesday.”
“It’s because our afternoon Madrid flight stops at Geneva now, so we have the traffic going to Geneva and Madrid from here as well as the passengers boarding in Geneva for Madrid. It’s always full,” the ops manager explained.
“How about the jump seat? I must get to Madrid.”
“We’d have to ask the pilot about that.” He looked at his watch. “I’ll see if he’s here yet.” He dialed flight control and asked in Swiss German if Captain Schleier had arrived. “No, I don’t want to talk to him on the phone. We’ll be right up.”
Captain Schleier and another pilot were standing near a window talking and laughing when we entered flight control. The ops manager shook hands with both of them, then introduced me as the IATA Director of Security. Though I was only Assistant Director, I didn’t mind. It occurred to me that I had only given the ops manager, whom I’d never met before, my business card, and wasn’t asked for any additional identification. I could have been Bin Laden without a beard. Some security. After I asked Schleier for permission to ride in the jump seat with the pilots in the cockpit, Schleier smiled and said he was sorry, but the jump seat was already occupied, and looked at his colleague.
“I see,” I said. “Are you deadheading, Captain?” I asked the other pilot, meaning was he going to Geneva or Madrid to be in the crew of a departing flight.
He hesitated, guessing what was coming. “No, just going home to Geneva.”
“It’s extremely urgent,” I said. “There’s a possible, no probable terrorist attempt against an Aerolineas Argentinas plane in Madrid tonight, and your flight to Madrid is fully booked.”
The other pilot stared at me a moment, then shrugged. “At least I can read on the train. Good luck, Sir.” He shook hands and left for the train station.
Between Zurich and Geneva I finally reached Jimenez on his cell phone. I asked him to alert the Madrid airport police and the anti-terrorism squad to a possible attack against AR 1051 that evening. An excessive number of uniforms should not be visible, however, only plainclothes. I also asked if he knew the name of the Argentine Airlines station manager. “Jaime Villanueva? Good, I know him.” Finally, after take-off from Geneva, I got Villanueva on the phone. I asked him to hold the flight until I arrived. I had to add that it was a matter of life or death, because I would be landing at the same time the Argentine flight was scheduled to depart and no station manager likes to take a delay.
“And, Jaime,” I said, “tell them to be extra careful at security control. Anything suspicious in carry-on bags should be stopped and reported. Checked baggage should be inspected as well.”
“La puta, Frank, that will take hours.”
“Can’t help it, Jaime. And I want to see all the passports and tickets.”
“There’s a danger that your airplane will be crashed into some public building, like September 11. Isn’t that worth a delay?”
“Está bien, Frank, whatever you say.” I was supposed to say that I couldn’t order an airline to do anything, only recommend, that the decision was the airline’s – in order to avoid responsibility if what I said was wrong. But I didn’t say it this time.
“By the way, is anything going on in Madrid tonight, something that will attract a lot of people?” There was no way of knowing what the terrorists’ target might be – if indeed there were terrorists with a target – but the September 11 suicide bombers took over the planes almost immediately with nearby targets. This reduced the chance that they would be intercepted. And there was no reason to think this tactic would change.
Villanueva didn’t have to think long. “The Madrid-Barcelona soccer match. It will be a full house: 60,000 people.”
“Okay – special attention to middle-eastern types, right?” Ethnic profiling is frowned upon, but this was the real world.
“See you soon, Jaime.” I gave him my cell number before ringing off.
Captain Schleier and his co-pilot had been listening attentively to my side of the conversation. “Anything we can do to help, Mr. Smith?” Schleier asked.
I thought a moment. “Yes, you can ask the tower for priority landing, at my request – but without giving details. Just say it’s a non-mechanical emergency.” Control tower transmissions could be heard by all other aircraft in the area and I didn’t want to tip off the terrorists, however unlikely such an eventuality was.
We landed at Barajas airport in Madrid ahead of three other arriving flights. I was first off the plane. Jaime Villanueva was waiting for me in the finger-gate entrance and we went at a lope to the waiting area of the Argentine Airlines flight. Luckily it was in the same terminal. “How do you know there will be a terrorist attack, Frank?” Villanueva asked as we went. It was a question that had been bothering him since he’d spoken to me on the phone.
“A tip,” I answered. “No time for that now, Jaime. Anything suspicious?”
“No. Some Middle East passports – Saudi Arabia and Egypt – but they look all right.”
“Three. We have all the passports and tickets at the departure gate.”
“Good. Is the aircraft fitted with a new cockpit security door?”
“No, the Argentine government hasn’t made it mandatory yet, so…” He shrugged. A good reason to pick a small under-funded airline, I thought.
“There are two tourist groups, one Spanish and the other Argentine,” Villanueva said, puffing now. “We can probably discount them.”
“Probably,” I agreed.
“The tour leaders are griping about the delay and our holding their passports.”
“Can the waiting area be sealed off?” I asked him.
“Hardly. There are several other flights departing from the same area.”
I cursed himself for not thinking of that. I could have had the flight switched to an individual waiting area. Too late now.
When we arrived at the departure gate we had to squeeze through hundreds of nervous and angry passengers. At the Argentine Airlines desk the two tour leaders, a man, Spanish, and a woman, Argentine, were berating the Argentine Airlines agent. “I never heard of such a thing,” the woman was saying. “Why are you holding our passports? Is this a police state, or what?” The employee saw Villanueva coming and sighed with relief. “Here comes the chief,” he said.
“See here …” the Spanish tour leader started to say to Villanueva. I took him by the arm and pulled him behind the desk and into the space before the finger-gate. I gestured to the woman to follow. I showed them my credential. “Do you want to get to Buenos Aires in one piece, or would you rather be blown up?” I hissed at them in Argentine intonated Spanish. Their jaws literally dropped. It was a rhetorical question, so they didn’t answer. “Then just shut up and keep your people quiet – and don’t repeat or imply what I just said. Understood?”
“Yes,” the woman said. “Sorry, we didn’t know…”
“OK, just go out there with your groups.”
Villanueva had the passports and tickets arranged on a desk according to nationality. One was a UN passport. “Let’s start with this,” I handed it to Villanueva, then the Middle Eastern ones. Where are the anti-terrorist people?” Villanueva nodded toward a young man in a dark suit standing behind the check-in desk watching them. I went up to him and shook his hand. “How many are you?” I asked. “We have a dozen men amongst the passengers,” he answered. “Can you tell me what we’re looking for?”
“I have information that an attempt will be made to hijack this aircraft, so we can only look for the hijackers.” The man nodded as though that were sufficient. Meanwhile, Villanueva called the UN passport holder by name to come to the boarding area.
“What were you doing in Madrid, Ms. Hazziz?” I asked her. Her passport indicated that she was born in Cairo.
“I’m connecting from Geneva where, as you must know, we have an office. I work for the High Commissioner for Refugees. I was on the same Swiss flight as you.” While we spoke, behind us a female security person was going through her carry-on bag. She was just poking a plastic gloved finger into a jar of cream.
“You’re observant,” I said.
“Not very,” she smiled. “You were like a dog straining at the leash to get off once we landed. Everyone noticed it. What’s going on here anyway?”
“Spot check. By the way, are there refugees in Argentina?
“Not that I know of. I’m visiting my daughter, who lives there.
I waved her forward where the security person was waiting to frisk her.
The middle-eastern passport holders were next – businessmen, and they were clean. “Let’s do the Argentine and Spanish last,” I said. “They’re the majority, I presume.” Villanueva nodded and began calling the half-dozen U.S. passport holders. The second one to reach me had a passport showing his birthplace as New York City. As U.S. passports are among the easiest to forge, I wanted to pay special attention to them, especially if the bearer had a middle-eastern name and a beard had recently been shaved off, as was evident from the white skin it had covered.
“Where in New York are you from, Mr. Chalen?” I asked the passenger.
“I was born in Brooklyn,” he answered with a pronounced accent, “but left the United States when I was a child.”
“I see,” I smiled. “No point in asking you the names of the two New York baseball teams then, is there?”
“The Yankees and the Mets,” he said deadpan. Like he learned it from a book, I thought.
“You still follow baseball then?” I asked with a bigger smile.
“When I can.”
“Then you must have been happy when the Mets won the pennant again last year.” I felt a bit silly trying such an obvious trap, but any baseball fan would know that the Mets finished mired in last place – and Villanueva was looking at his watch and tapping his foot.
The passenger thought a moment, then said, “Yes, of course.”
“Señor,” a security guard who had the passenger’s attaché case open in front of him said to Villanueva, and motioned him over. I made eye contact with the anti-terrorism guy to keep an eye on Chalen and stepped over to the guard with Villanueva. The guard had removed some papers and notebooks, so the only thing left in the case was a square wooden box covered with carved repeating designs. “La caja está cerrada con llave,” the guard said.
“Do you have the key, Mr. Chalen?” I asked.
Chalen walked over to us with his hand in his vest pocket. He extracted a small key and inserted it in the lock. Villanueva and the guard instinctively stepped back. It also occurred to me that if the box contained some kind of plastic bomb, this might be the last box I’d ever see opened.
“Nothing very dangerous here,” Chalen said.
Resting in the box was an intricately and beautifully designed silk cord curled around itself like a snake. Gold colored tassels were at both ends. I carefully took it out. It was about a yard long. “What is it?” I asked Chalen.
“It is an example of Persian art.”
“Iranian, you mean?”
“If you prefer,” Chalen answered. “Although recently made, the original design goes back many centuries. Pure silk. Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Why do you have it?”
“I sell these works of art to collectors and museums.”
“Are you traveling alone, Mr. Chalen?”
“No, two of my colleagues are also on this flight.”
“What are their names?”
Chalen told me the names, and I nodded to Villanueva, who went back to the public address mike to call them. I pulled both ends of the cord to test its strength. It didn’t give at all so there must have been something inside supporting it. I inspected it closely and found an almost invisible seam running the length of the cord where the symmetrical designs met. I placed my thumbs on either side of it and pressed outward. The silk opened easily to reveal a thin wire underneath. I stripped the whole silk sheath off and unwound a flexible wire with small aluminum knobs at both ends.
“Sir, that is a very valuable piece of merchandise that you are ruining,” Chalen said. ”I hope that you are prepared to make restitution.” I ignored him.
Meanwhile the other two passengers had arrived. I checked their tickets and saw that one had been on my flight from Geneva and the other had connected from Paris. They both had identical boxes in their attaché cases.
“Any missed connections from other places, Jaime?” I asked Villanueva in Spanish.
“One passenger from Frankfurt. They’re snowed under up there.”
Villanueva asked the check-in agent, who looked at the computer screen and put her finger on it. Villanueva whispered to me, “H’ram, Ali.”
“Cover these guys,” I said to the anti-terrorist agent, “and get some more of your men in here to arrest them.” The agent drew his pistol and his cell phone at the same time. He pressed a button and spoke. Almost instantly two other agents came running in with their guns drawn. The first agent said, “What are we arresting them for?”
“This wire is like a garrote. It could take your head off in a split second. It’s meant for the pilots,” I answered.
“It could also be support for the cord,” the agent said.
“Doesn’t Spain have an anti-terrorism law?”
“Yes, now we do.”
“Well, arrest them on suspicion of committing a terrorist act and then check them out, passports, fingerprints, real professions. That museum story is bullshit. I never heard of a museum buying new stuff.”
“Villanueva was listening with his mouth open. “How did you know there’s another one, Frank?” he asked.
“Chalen is the only one originating in Madrid, the others connected to the flight from other places. So I just figured that three is a weak team for a job like this. Which reminds me, call the Frankfurt police and have them arrest this Ali guy – if he’s still there.”
“I wonder why he identified the other two,” the anti-terrorist agent said.
“He knew we’d spot the boxes anyway, so he played innocent,” I said “He had no choice.”
After the suspects were taken away, I stayed to watch the rest of the passengers board. The first was a boy of about eleven accompanied by a young oriental man with shaved head dressed in an orange robe. The boy’s Spanish passport bore a common Spanish name and the monk’s Indian passport indicated an unpronounceable one. As they were passing me the boy stopped, placed his hands together and bowed. “Gracias, señor,” he said, and continued through the finger-gate to the aircraft. The monk, looking as surprised as I was, bowed and followed the boy. I watched them as they approached the door of the airplane, where the boy turned and smiled at me.
“Who was that?” I asked Villanueva.
“VIPs. The kid’s supposed to be the reincarnation of some Buddhist guy. It’s been on TV all week.”
“Yes, I guess so. Just a kid from some town outside of Madrid and those monks decided he was their boy. But why did he thank you … how could he have known?
Two days later, a Saturday night, my head rested serenely on Jeanne’s lap in my living room. A half bottle of Chilean red wine stood on the table alongside us and a Bach concerto filled the room. The telephone rang. I picked it up from the table without moving anything but my arm.
“So you were right after all,” Meredith said.
“How did you …?”
“It was on CNN. I taped it. I’ll send you a copy.”
“Thanks. Did they mention the boy?”
I told her. “What do you think?”
“First of all, the clock and my watch. Do you still think that I…”
“Yes, Frank, you must have changed them yourself. You just weren’t conscious of it. So it looks like your job is safe, nuts or not.”
I didn’t laugh. “And the boy, do you think that ..? Well, what do you think about him?”
“I wonder why he was going to Buenos Aires, of all places.”
“I don’t know. I also don’t know why he thanked me.”
“If you’re asking whether he was behind everything, I mean your crazy clocks, and was letting you know, yes, it certainly looks like it."
“So he’s really the reincarnation of some Buddhist lama?”
“What do you know about Buddhism, Frank?”
“Next to nothing.”
“During your next visit we’ll discuss it, all right?”
“So I’m not nuts after all?”
“It sounds like something far worse … or better. When will you be here?”
“I’ll call you.”
“Who was that?” Jeanne asked, stroking my forehead.
“Do you need a shrink?”
I thought a while looking into Jeanne’s gray-speckled blue eyes. “Do you know what I need?
The three arrested men were carrying false passports and were all wanted in several countries for previous terrorist activities. The fourth one got away. He must have decided that he’d never make it to Madrid in time, so he walked before the police got word to look for him.
An outbreak of security and fraud violations suddenly occurred in Zurich and I was transferred there temporarily to deal with them. I attended courses at the Jung Institute at night and underwent analysis with one of Meredith’s colleagues. I was found to be relatively sane, but possessing certain rare supersensible psychological capacities. When the company wanted to transfer me to Canada (too cold), I resigned, stayed in Zurich and spent the next three years completing my studies at the Jung Institute, finally earning a diploma as an analyst. This was partly financed by my savings, but mostly by Meredith, with whom I was living. After graduation we moved to Buenos Aires, where we established a successful husband-wife practice. We also collaborated on several highly regarded children’s books and one for adults about the relation of Buddhism to Christianity.
And Jeanne? The say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. In real life, however, that is seldom the case. Jeanne married Bryan Mayne and they quit IATA and moved to Australia, where they opened a flower shop and lived happily ever after – which is more than can be said for me and Meredith, but that’s another story.
© Frank Thomas Smith - Copying allowed if source given.
More ...er...true stories by this author are included in an Amazon kindle ebook. Click here on the title story: Paternostro's Promise