The insistent trilling dragged Stephen out of a deep, dreamless sleep. It took several groggy moments before he identified its source as his cell phone. He carefully cracked one gritty eye open and checked the clock beside his bed: 6:04 A.M. His groping hand found the phone, which came up easily. Apparently, he had forgotten to plug it in last night. He swiped a finger across it and drew it to his ear. "This had better be an emergency," he said by way of greeting.
"Mr. Connelly?" a grimly official voice queried.
Stephen sat up straight, wide awake now. "Yes?" he answered carefully.
"Sorry to wake you, sir. This is Bud Jenkins from United States Homeland Security, sir. Do you know a man who goes by the name of," he paused as though reading from a form, "Ricardo Abdul Moshe William Gunther Fredric… um, this looks like some collection of consonants and a couple of clicking noises… Bremerton Nilsson-Martinez?"
Stephen paused while his still-drowsy brain processed the string of names. Then the first and last names registered. "Oh, you mean Ricky! Yes, he works for me." A horrible realization dawned on him. "You said Homeland Security? You’re not calling from the airport, are you?"
"Yes, sir, as a matter of fact we are. Mr. Nilsson-Martinez arrived this morning on a flight from Denver and was detained for questioning. He tried to pretend that he didn’t speak English for a while, but he gave that up when we offered to buy him breakfast in return for some cooperation. He ate three whole omelets, sir, on your country’s tab," Bud added disapprovingly, as though he suspected this to be part of some free government breakfast scam.
"That certainly sounds like Ricky. Can I ask why was he detained?"
"Suspicious behavior, sir. He arrived wearing a burqa -- "
"Bisht," Stephen interjected.
"Excuse me, sir?"
It’s called a bisht," Stephen sighed tiredly. "I told him not to wear it to the airport."
Bud’s voice was cold. "I resent the implication that Homeland Security would target an individual based upon his style of dress, sir. At any rate, he was wearing a bisht and acting confused. He also kept tugging at his clothing and fiddling with his head covering, as though unfamiliar with how to wear it." He paused for emphasis before saying, "As though it were a disguise. He was immediately tagged by security agents within the terminal as a possible threat. We followed him to baggage claim, where he picked up and discarded three identical black travel bags before settling on a fourth and attempting to leave the terminal with it. At that point, our agents moved in and apprehended him for questioning."
"He sounds like an average jetlagged traveler to me, if an oddly dressed one. What did you suspect him of doing?"
"That’s what they all want us to think, sir," Bud replied with a world-weary air. "We suspected him of smuggling, acting as a scout for a terrorist team, or filming an exposé on alleged Transportation Security Administration abuses. Regardless, we felt that it was prudent to detain him and determine his business in Los Angeles."
Bud paused again, and Stephen could tell that he had returned to reading his form. "Once the suspect started talking, he told us that he was here in Los Angeles to work as a user interface developer for an online talent search application. He told us that it was his job to, quote, ‘give them the glamour of Cindy Crawford before she had children.’ He added that Sergeant Dick would be angry if he was late and that his friends would have to do pushups. He also said that he could see why Stu didn’t trust airport security, and asked us how much change we stole per day from the X-ray machines. Frankly, Mr. Connelly, we found his story hard to credit and more than a little ridiculous. He stood by it, though, and insisted that you could corroborate it."
Stephen shook his head. Bud had just neatly summarized the past several months of his life, and he was right: it was ridiculous. "Sadly, Bud, it’s all true. That’s what we’re working on, and you can watch for its debut during the Oscars if we ever finish it."
Bud grunted doubtfully. "Well, sir, I’m afraid that I’ll need you to come down to the airport and sign some paperwork stating that you vouch for Mr. Nilsson-Martinez, and then we’ll release him into your custody."
Stephen sighed again and levered himself out of bed. "I was afraid you were going to say that. I’ll be there as soon as I can."
"Terminal 4, sir. Just ask at the information desk and we’ll come and get you. You wouldn’t be able to find our office on your own."
Stephen dressed quickly and rushed out the door, barely remembering to grab his room key and cell phone as he left. While he waited impatiently in the hotel lobby for the valet to run through the soaking rain and retrieve his car, he called Jack. "Ricky’s been arrested."
"Drugs? I knew that would catch up with him eventually."
"What? No! He was detained by airport security. They think he’s either a terrorist or a smuggler, or possibly a TV reporter." Jack’s words finally registered in Stephen’s brain. "Hey, why did you think it was drugs?"
"No one can be that messed up and that mellow at the same time without some sort of pharmaceutical aid," Jack replied. "I was kidding, though. Mostly. What can I do to help?"
"Nothing right now. I have to go down and fill out some paperwork. It’s not clear to me how that proves that he’s not a terrorist, but as long as it gets him out I’ll take it."
"Watch your back, kid, and be polite," Jack growled. "You don’t want those Homeland Security goons to get jumpy, and I don’t want to have to explain to Jenny why you were shipped off to an undisclosed location for several years."
"I’ll keep that in mind," Stephen said. "Car’s here. I’d better go."
"Give me a call when you have him."
"I will." Stephen dropped the phone into his pocket, tipped the soggy valet, and jumped in his car, giving the convertible’s roof a wistful pat as he did so. Will this rain ever stop?
"Hello?" a contralto woman’s voice answered.
Surprised, Stephen stammered, "Oh, sorry, I must have dialed the wrong number."
As he was hanging up, he heard the woman say, "No, that’s OK, St -- ." Keeping one eye on the road, he double-checked the number and confirmed that it was Mark’s. Hmm, maybe he changed phones. At least it’s a Massachusetts number, so I probably didn’t wake anyone up. As he looked, he noted that his battery was running low and he had rushed out of the room without his charger. He turned the phone off and tossed it on the passenger seat. He’d try Frank or Kelvin later, when he was sure they would be awake.
The traffic lightened momentarily near Marina Del Rey and Stephen dashed for the Sepulveda Boulevard exit to take the back route to the airport. Fifteen minutes later, he screeched to a halt in front of Terminal 4. He jumped out of the car and ran toward the terminal, only to be stopped by a police officer.
"You can’t leave your car there, buddy," the officer called, pointing a gloved hand at a sign that said, Active Passenger Loading Only. No Standing. He advanced on Stephen, apparently ready to herd him back to his car if he proved difficult.
"I’ll just be in there for a few minutes. You see, one of my colleagues has been detained by security and they want me to come and sign him out."
The cop smiled grimly. "You think that’s going to convince me to let you leave your vehicle parked in front of the terminal? If you leave it there, I’ll have no choice but to assume that there’s a bomb inside it and have it towed out to a remote part of the airfield and detonated. I would also have to shut down this part of the airport, inconveniencing tens of thousands of travelers because of your unwillingness to follow directions. Now, you don’t want to cause that kind of fuss, do you?"
Stephen groaned and ran a hand through his hair, remembering again that he hadn’t showered yet. "All right, all right," he conceded, "I’ll drive around to short-term parking. I’m going to present my parking receipt to the security desk, though, and ask them to validate it."
"Good luck with that," the cop said, "and have a nice day, sir."
I’d have a much nicer day if I could get through it without having to deal with another cop or security officer, Stephen thought sourly as he leapt back into his car and pulled away from the curb. Twenty minutes later, he ran into Terminal 4, looking around for the information desk. He found it and announced himself to the woman behind the counter, who seemed unimpressed by the fact that he was there to retrieve a friend from Security. Apparently, this was not exactly a rare occurrence.
"It usually takes them a while to get down here," she said, popping her gum as she spoke. "Most people just sit down over there to wait. You want a magazine or something?"
"No, thanks. I’ll just stand."
She popped her gum again. "Suit yourself."
Stephen waited anxiously, not comforted in the least by the woman’s matter-of-fact response to his situation. He had a growing sense of anxiety about this morning and his chances of quickly and peacefully extracting Ricky from the clutches of Homeland Security. What if they decide that I’m an accessory to whatever they imagine he’s doing and decide to keep me here for questioning? he thought. Great, now I’m nervous. They’ll pick up on that right away. It’s what they’re trained to do, right? They’re definitely going to think something’s fishy. I might as well just put on the orange jumpsuit right now. Will my beard grow in full or patchy, I wonder?
Seeking a distraction from these increasingly wild thoughts, Stephen fished his phone out of his pocket and realized that he had forgotten to turn it on again when he got out of the car. When he did so, he was surprised to see that he had several voicemail messages waiting.
The first message was from Mark, still sounding hoarse. "Stephen, I think that you called me just a few minutes ago. Listen, I need to explain about the voice you heard when you called, and I’d prefer to talk before we get to the office. Can you call me back, please?" Stephen smiled as he listened. Was there a lady in Mark’s life? No wonder he’d been so eager to protect his weekends! He could hardly wait to give Mark a hard time about his new friend. Respectfully, of course.
The second message was from Thomas. "Um, Stephen, you should call Richard right away. He’s really worked up about something and keeps yelling, ‘Where is he? Where is he?’ I don’t know why he’d be so upset about you coming in a little late, but maybe he’s just looking for a reason to take over the team again. Anyway, call him, please." Stephen rolled his eyes. It didn’t take long for Dickie to start looking for ways to get me in trouble with ‘Poppy.’ I’ll have to deal with that as soon as I get back.
The third message sounded like a crank call. A hoarse voice whispered, "Stephen? I need your help. Call me as soon as you can." The caller left a number that Stephen recognized as a CouldBU extension, though, so if it was a prank it was a poorly planned one. Puzzled, Stephen saved the message and hung up. He was about to dial when a burly man in a uniform approached him.
"Stephen Connelly?" the man wheezed, clearly winded from his walk.
Stephen locked his phone, the number forgotten. "That’s me. Are you Bud?"
"No, sir, I’m Gordon. Bud’s inside the terminal. Would you follow me, please?"
Gordon turned and walked slowly toward the security screening area, talking over his shoulder to Stephen as he went. "Our main office and holding area are inside the terminal. It keeps us closer to the jetway, but it has the added benefit of sending everyone through security before they come to us. We also have an external area for talking to airport guests who haven’t passed security yet, but since your friend got through in Boston," his tone suggested that he didn’t think much of the screening procedures there, "we decided to keep him in the internal area."
"I don’t suppose you have an idea of how long this will take, do you?" Stephen asked. "I just got a message from my office and it sounds like there might be a problem there that I’ll need to address fairly soon."
Gordon led Stephen past the envious stares of the passengers waiting in the long security line to a special lane, marked Restricted. "If everything’s on the up-and-up then it shouldn’t take long at all, sir. Please remove your shoes and any metal items you might have and step through the metal detector. I’m sure you know the drill."
"Of course." Stephen emptied his pockets, throwing his phone and keys into a bowl and sending them through the scanner. The ritual was somehow less soothing today, feeling less like an act of benevolent governmental protection and more like an invasive search. He reminded himself forcefully that he had nothing to hide and, therefore, nothing to fear.
"Thank you, sir," said Gordon as he came through on the other side. "Now, as soon as you get your shoes back on, I’ll take you to the interrogation – er – reception room." He smiled briefly, though with little humor. "I still have trouble with the new terminology."
They continued through the terminal, past the ubiquitous chain restaurants and airport bars that made it nearly impossible for jetlagged travelers to separate one city from another. One bar had several televisions blaring, though it was too early for any sports other than a replay of a European soccer match on one of the 24-hour channels, which was dutifully shown on one screen. The other TVs were all tuned to a cable news station, and as they walked by the words "Santa Monica" caught his attention. He slowed and craned his head to see the screen. Shaky footage indicated that they were seeing a feed from a news helicopter, showing an aerial view of a sprawling office building with several police cars drawn up in front of it.
Something about the scene pulled Stephen to a complete stop. Gordon walked on for several strides before realizing that he’d lost his charge. He turned and retraced his steps while Stephen strained to hear the newscaster’s words.
"That looks like my office building," Stephen said as Gordon joined him. He called to the bartender, "Hey, turn that up for a minute, would you?" With a glance at Gordon’s uniform, the bartender hurried to oblige.
" -- word of this breaking news from our affiliate in Los Angeles," said a smooth yet mildly excited female voice. "Police have received word of a bomb threat in this building, which houses the production offices of several independent movie studios as well as the headquarters for a local taco restaurant chain. We have few details at this time, though police received a tip that security video showed a bearded man entering the premises early this morning with what looked like a homemade explosive device. Homeland Security has also been alerted and is exploring any connections between this threat and international terrorist organizations. As we know, there have been reports of increased ‘chatter’ in terrorist communications networks in recent months, which might indicate a pending attack on US soil or American interests abroad."
"Ah, I wouldn’t worry about this, even if it is your building," offered Gordon. "We get one or two of these a month around here." He leaned in close and spoke confidentially. "It’s all this sunlight. Makes people crazy. I grew up in Minnesota myself, and we never had problems like this. Nope, no bombings or crazy stuff like that. Lot of suicides, though," he sighed, "especially in the winter months. Not enough sun, that. Yep, you need just the right amount of sun, that’s for sure."
Stephen ignored his rambling as best he could and peered at the screen, trying to find some detail that would confirm whether this was indeed the CouldBU office building. As the shaky camera zoomed in on another police car pulling in behind the building, he noted a strange-looking machine leaning against a railing. He lunged forward and leaned over the bar, examining the object as closely as he could before the camera moved away. The closer look confirmed his suspicions. That was Stu’s recumbent. The hoarse voice on his voicemail came back to him.
"Oh no, Stu, what have you done?" he moaned under his breath.
Gordon leaned on the bar next to him, his coffee-laden breath filling Stephen’s nostrils. "Friend of yours?" He examined Stephen thoughtfully for a moment. "Your friends and mine seem to have a lot in common. We may have to talk a bit more than I thought before you and Mr. Nilsson-Martinez leave. I’ll leave that decision up to Bud, though." He laid a hand on Stephen’s shoulder. "We should go, sir. It doesn’t look like anyone at work is going anywhere for a while, so let’s go have a chat."
The security office was nearby, conveniently located, Stephen suspected, near the coffee shop and a small bakery kiosk. Gordon led him down a nondescript hallway to a door at the end. If he hadn’t known better, he would have assumed that it led to a maintenance storage closet, and in fact the rooms that lay behind the door did have a lingering smell of wet mop about them. The first room was small, barely large enough for a steel-framed desk and two uncomfortable-looking guest chairs. The wall beside the desk held nine security monitors, each flicking from one camera view to another every few seconds, but none at the same time. Just looking at it gave him a headache. An overweight man in an ill-fitting TSA uniform sat behind the desk, sipping coffee while he stared at the screens. He glanced up disinterestedly when they entered, but quickly waved them through and returned to his survey of the video feeds, taking a noisy slurp of coffee as he did so. Gordon indicated that Stephen should precede him, so Stephen squeezed past the video watcher and through the door in the far wall.
Ricky sat between two hard-eyed men in too-tight suits in the dimly lit room, his robes gathered in his beefy fists. Another man sat in front of him in the only other chair, leaning back with his arms crossed, studying Ricky silently. He turned his head when Stephen and Gordon entered, but didn’t rise.
"Hello, Mr. Connelly," he said in a voice that Stephen recognized from the phone. He managed to make even that basic greeting sound as though it were being read from an official operating manual on how to greet the supervisors and/or friends of suspected security risks. "Thank you for coming down on such short notice. I hope that you had time to grab a bite to eat."
"No, actually, I didn’t. I drove directly here so that Ricky wouldn’t have to spend any more time as your guest than was strictly necessary."
"I would offer you something, but Mr. Nilsson-Martinez has eaten everything we had on hand for today." Bud paused as though momentarily confused by the tangent before regaining his mental place in procedure. "We’ll get you on your way as quickly as we can, sir. We just have a few questions, a few forms to fill out. It shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours."
Momentary panic gripped Stephen. Within a couple of hours, his entire team could be arrested, blown up, or shot by overzealous members of the Los Angeles police department. His mind racing, he said, "We don’t really have that kind of time. You see, I just learned that there’s a bomb scare at the office where the rest of my team is working right now and we need to get there right away."
Gordon, who had not yet been able to squeeze his considerable bulk into the crowded room, poked his head around Stephen’s shoulder to add, "He seems to think that one of his team members might have something to do with it, Bud."
Stephen raised his arm slightly, just enough to bump Gordon’s nose and force him to withdraw. "I never said that. I am, however, very concerned for their safety, and I can’t do much to help them from here. So if there’s a way that we can skip some of the documentation, or perhaps take it with us and send it back later, then I would really appreciate it. These are clearly extenuating circumstances, wouldn’t you agree?"
Bud leaned back further in his chair, which creaked alarmingly as the front two legs left the ground. "Extenuating circumstances? We don’t really care for that phrase around here, Mr. Connelly. Most of the time, ‘extenuating circumstances’ is someone’s way of saying, ‘I have a perfectly reasonable explanation for how those five kilos of heroin ended up in my lower intestine.’ And usually, you know, they don’t. Have a good explanation, that is." He peered at Stephen, as though hoping that he would break down and confess to a plot against America on the spot.
Something inside Stephen snapped. The lives of people he cared about were at risk and he didn’t have time to waste waiting for this hopped-up security guard to decide that he wasn’t a threat to national security. Drawing a deep breath, he said coldly, "If anyone is going to be making explanations after this event, Mr. Jenkins, it will be you and your airborne collection of Keystone Cops. My firm has a stable of lawyers on retainer who will be drooling when they hear about this clear case of racial profiling. I haven’t bothered to call them yet, because I was hoping that we could deal with your mistake quickly. They have a tendency to get… overzealous, and I didn’t want to spend another couple of years embroiled in a case with them. You see, the problem is that they never want to settle. Always go for the jugular. To tell you the truth, I think the senior litigator just likes to see his opponents cry after he crushes them. I find it a little distasteful, but then, I’m not a lawyer." He tried to gauge the effect of his words on his audience. Bud was listening, though not exactly looking cowed yet. The two men standing behind Ricky had stiffened at the mention of airborne Keystone cops, so he could only assume that they were air marshals. He sincerely hoped that he never had to share a flight with either of them after this was over. Meanwhile, he charged ahead, fully committed to his course.
"I assume that one of those TVs out there in the front room gets cable when no one’s looking, so you might have a sense of what Boston lawyers are like. We’re talking about the real ones, though, not the skinny women lawyers who worry about turning 30 and sing in the bar downstairs after work. These are guys who will do anything to win a case and have two publicity firms of their own to make sure that the whole world is watching while they do it. How many more embarrassments can Homeland Security take, Bud? How many grandmas have you felt up in the past week in the name of ‘random searches?’ Better yet, how many Latinos, Indians, and Arabs have you dragged into this sweaty little room because they looked like your picture of a terrorist? Shall we find out together?"
Now it was working. He could see the doubt in Bud’s eyes, the discomfort in the stance of the air marshals. He had also heard Gordon’s wheezing stop for a moment at the mention of the grandmothers. That must have hit a twisted nerve. It was time to close the deal and get out. "I’m going to give you two choices, Bud: either you let Ricky go with me now or I will call down the full wrath of Brinkman, Goldstein, Farmer, and Gray and their assorted PR firms upon you. Within hours, you’ll have so many attorneys crawling all over you that you’ll need a court order to take a dump." He waited for a moment, watching a bead of sweat run down Bud’s forehead. Ricky sat in stunned silence, and Stephen silently prayed that he would stay that way, at least until they were out of the room.
"What’s it going to be, Bud? Do we go, or do I make the call?" Stephen’s phone buzzed in his pocket, and he slapped a hand down to silence it. Not now.
Bud sat up straight and stared at Stephen. For a moment, Stephen was afraid that he was going to call his bluff, but then Bud slouched back down again. "There are still discharge procedures to be followed," he muttered sullenly. "We need the paperwork completed properly, per regulation."
"Send it to our attorneys," Stephen replied, fishing a card out of his wallet and handing it to Bud. "I’ll contact them and tell them how helpful you’ve been in clearing up this whole misunderstanding. They’ll follow up with you and ensure that all regulations are followed to the letter."
Bud glanced down at the card briefly, then placed it in his pocket and nodded. "It’s a little irregular, but I think we can do that." Now that he had made his decision, he seemed eager to have both Stephen and Ricky out of his office. He stood up. "I apologize for the misunderstanding, Mr. Nilsson-Martinez. I’ll show you out and we can grab your bag on the way." He squeezed past Stephen, pushing Gordon backwards to make room for them to exit.
Stephen looked at Ricky, who was still seated, and jerked his head, indicating that it was time to go. Ricky jumped up, grabbing his robes to keep from tripping over them, and hustled after Bud. Stephen nodded to the air marshals, who only stared impassively in return, and followed. Once they had all maneuvered past the video monitors in the anteroom and out into the hallway, Bud reached for a large bundle of keys at his belt and unlocked another door. The door opened to reveal a small storage closet containing Ricky’s bag. Bud grabbed it and handed it to Ricky.
"There you are, sir. Once again, my apologies for the mix-up. Obviously a case of mistaken identity, but I’m glad that we were able to straighten it out." It was clear that Bud was already rewriting the report in his head. Stephen suspected that no paperwork would ever be sent to the address on the business card he had handed to him. "Good luck with that other… situation, and I hope everything turns out OK there." And that, if anyone gets sued, it’s them and not me, his eyes silently added. He shook both of their hands and turned back to his office, shutting the door firmly behind him.
"Let’s go," ordered Stephen. "We need to get to the office ASAP."
"Why, what’s going on there?" asked Ricky as they started to move.
"Talk later. Walk now."
Ricky shrugged, clearly glad to be going anywhere. "OK. Hey, all that stuff you said in there: do we have a bunch of lawyers on retainer?"
"I’m sure we do," Stephen replied, chuckling. Now that they were in the clear, a giddy relief was washing over him and he found that he was shaking a little bit. "They’re probably more of the intellectual property and patent type lawyers than the bulldog litigator type, though."
"What about that card you handed him? Was that real?"
"It was a real attorney’s name on it. I gave him my tax attorney’s card. I’ll have to make sure to call him and tell him that he might be receiving some paperwork from Los Angeles airport security."
"Wow," Ricky marveled, "you lied to Federal agents."
"I did not lie," Stephen corrected him. "I redirected. I got him thinking about the consequences of his actions instead of yours. The decision he made as a result was his own to make." He spotted a Starbucks ahead and veered toward it, with Ricky in tow.
"I thought we were in a hurry," Ricky said.
"We are," Stephen responded, reaching for his wallet as he signaled for the largest available cup of bold roast. "But I haven’t had any coffee yet, and I have a feeling that I’m going to need it."