by Frank Thomas Smith
I wasted time, and now doth time waste me;
For now hath time made me his numbering clock;
My thoughts are minutes.Epilog
The three arrested men were carrying false passports and were all wanted in several countries for previous terrorist activities. They were suspected of being al Qaeda operatives. The fourth terrorist got away. He must have decided that he’d never make it to Madrid in time, so he walked away before the German police got word to look for him.
William Shakespeare, Richard II
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, Frank Holder hoped it would snow enough for them to be satisfied and shut up. He neither skied nor skated and though he appreciated the beauty of new snow in the old city, he preferred to be warm and comfortable. He walked casually into the entrance of his company’s building on the rue de l’Aeroport, ready for another boring day at head office.
“Bonjour, monsieur Holder,” the receptionist said, smiling. She pronounced his name old-air.
“Bonjour, Michelle,” Holder smiled back. He 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 Holder, puzzled. “Nothing,” she said, “Why?
Holder’s smile froze into a silly grin as he checked his watch – Swiss, of course – and saw that it showed the same time as the clock: 10:50. He shrugged, waved to her and headed for the elevators down the hall.
By the time he got there he felt he knew why he had thought it was 8:50 when it was really 10:50. His alarm clock at home must have stopped, its battery dead. It was the same portable clock he always carried when traveling. He thought he’d changed the battery fairly recently but now decided he hadn’t. The alarm had gone off, which seemed strange if the battery was dead or dying, but stranger things have happened.
As he rode up to the fourth floor in the elevator he considered his boss’s reaction to him being late. None. He was, after all, an Assistant Director and one of the company’s star performers. When he was called in from the cold to Head Office only three months ago, he 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 he had some personal business to attend to, or had to go to the dentist.
“Mr. Mayne wants to see you ASAP, Frank,” Jeanne, his secretary told him when he passed her desk. He stopped, took off his overcoat and slung it over the visitor’s chair. “OK,” he mumbled and started down the hall to his boss’s office.
“And you were supposed to call Iberia at nine.”
“Oh my God, that’s right.” He stopped in his tracks to decide whether to go to Bryan or to his 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.”
Holder didn’t watch her wiggle her ass down the hall as he usually did. Instead he went into his office, saw the notation on his calendar to call Iberia, checked the number in his computer and dialed. Iberia’s Commercial Director’s secretary told him that the meeting had started a half hour ago and that Dr. Jimenez had been waiting for his call. He asked her to put him 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?”
Holder apologized, making some excuse and gave Jimenez the information he needed. “Are you sure?” Jimenez asked.
After Jimenez thanked him he hung up, sighed one down one to go, and headed for Bryan Mayne’s office. The door was open, as all their office doors always were. Holder had never figured out why and no one was able to explain it when he asked. The only door closed was his when he had his fifteen-minute siesta after lunch, a habit he’d picked up during the years in South America. It was a favorite office joke, but no one ever mentioned it to him. He decided they were all jealous.
“G’day, Frank,” Mayne said jovially when he entered. “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.” Frank 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 them; he’d probably forgotten that he wanted to see them. He glanced down at his calendar and said, “Iberia.”
Frank Holder bought a new battery for his alarm clock that afternoon as he plodded through the snow to the tram stop. There was no point in taking a car to the office in that weather. He also had the battery in his watch replaced, just in case.
The next morning, as he was approaching the entrance under the sign that read “International Air Transport Association”, barely visible in the morning mist, he noticed something that hadn’t occurred to him the day before. He was the only one entering the building, when usually there was a crowd at ten minutes to nine. He looked at the clock behind Michelle as soon as he entered the hall: 10:50. “Bonjour, Monsieur Old-air.” He looked at his watch, which he had checked before leaving his apartment at eight-twenty. It now read ten-fifty. “Is anything the matt-air, Monsieur?” He was standing in front of her staring at the clock, his mind racing nowhere.
“Wrong? Oh, er.. perhaps there is something wrong,” he 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.” He took the handkerchief from his breast pocket and wiped away real 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.” He 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.”
“Right, I’ll get some.” He walked quickly across the hall to the men’s room as though his bowels gave him only seconds to get there. Inside he looked at himself in the mirror, put cold water on his face and looked again. “Am I going mad?” he asked himself. The image in the mirror didn’t answer. He walked out and waved to the receptionist. “Shall I call you a taxi, Monsieur Old-air?” she asked him. He shook his head as he left through the revolving doors.
He had a small but expensive one-bedroom apartment on the rue Dumont in the old city. He dialed the automatic time number and was told that it was eleven-thirty-two. He looked at his alarm clock in the bedroom, which insisted on being two hours late, like his 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 was the successor to the defunct Swissair.
Zurich! Yes, that’s were he’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. Holder suspected, though, that he also wanted Jeanne to report back on his condition.
When Holder hung up he dialed a Zurich number he knew by heart. Meredith Miller was an American who practiced Jungian psychology there. Holder had had an affair with her when he 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 Holder.”
“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,” Holder answered, “but maybe you could hear me out in order to decide that. It’s urgent, Meredith.”
The urgency in his voice was apparent. “I’m booked up tomorrow, Frank…”
“…but you could come by at lunch time.”
“I’ll be there. Twelve-ish?”
“Thanks, really Meredith. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Wait. My address has changed.”
After ringing off he thought of his secretary, Jeanne, on her way with the Zurich papers and charcoal pills. She had been assigned to him before he had even arrived in Geneva, subject to his approval of course. He probably wouldn’t have selected her himself because she was too attractive, and he 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. They had danced together at an office retirement party, when he had considered asking her to come home with him. But, for the reasons stated above and despite the amount of Swiss wine they had both consumed, he decided against it. Now she was coming, an angel to assist a poor mortal in distress. Was he, he wondered, in love with her? He stripped down to his underwear, put on a bathrobe and slippers and rumpled the bed. Then he drank a shot of brandy and sat down to wait.
“Well”, she said when he opened the door, “I’m glad to see that you were in bed.” She marched passed him 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.”
Frank Holder smiled to himself and walked slowly to the bedroom, though he felt like running. She came in to him 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 him on the night table and sat on the side of the bed at the level of his 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.” He 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 he pushed the pill under the pillow and pursed his lips. She came back and handed him the water and he 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 his forehead, then let it slide gently to his cheek. He held it a moment, then kissed her palm. He couldn’t help himself. She stood up and stared down at him. For a moment he thought he’d gone too far, but she picked up his bathrobe from the bed and went into the bathroom. “I’ll be right back,” she said.
After what seemed to him much longer then the three or four minutes, she came out wearing his 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?”
He laughed. “Well, what a coincidence.” He was sure there had been no condom in the pocket before she put it on.
She dropped the robe to the floor and… “aahh,” he whispered. She climbed over him and under the covers.
Long after lunchtime, she still lay on top of him with her head on his chest and her hair covering his face. “What time is it?” she asked, and looked at his alarm clock. “Heavens, no wonder you were late yesterday. Your 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 him, 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 his pillow had fallen to the floor during their love-tussle.
“No, I’m not ill,” Holder said.
“It’s a long story. Will you come by tomorrow evening? I should be back from Zurich by then and know more.”
“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 him with amusement. “Don’t you think you should re-set your alarm, too?”
Finished with the Swiss Air lines meeting, Holder strolled down Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich’s main drag. He 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, Holder thought. A huge clock stood on every corner announcing the exact, the truly exact Swiss time: 12:30. If he now walked at a normal pace up the hill to Meredith’s place he should arrive there a few minutes before one.
He 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 he forgot what it was; probably bad news. Then up past the museum, the opera and the Jung Institute. He turned left on Platten-Strasse, glad that the rest of the way was no longer uphill.
A few houses beyond the Rudolf Steiner Schule he stopped in front of a three-story house and rang Meredith’s bell. If he could trust his watch, it was five minutes to one, which was just right, for being early in Zurich was considered a virtue.
She rang back and the door clicked open. He walked up two flights of highly polished wooden stairs and when he turned to tackle the third, he saw Meredith standing in the open doorway to her apartment. She had her hand on her hip and was smiling down at him. “Good exercise, isn’t it darling?” she said.
“I’ll let you know if I make it alive.” He did. They kissed on both cheeks and she invited him into the living room. He knew the “darling” meant nothing; she called all men that. Obviously she’d already had lunch. He realized that he was very hungry and kicked himself mentally for not having eaten at least a sandwich when he was killing time.
“How long have you been in Geneva, Frank?” she asked him, once they 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, so he said, “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.” He tried to look disappointed. “I hope it works out, Meredith.”
“I do too. Now, what was so urgent as to interrupt your siesta?”
So they were really on a professional level. Good. He told her the whole story, including all 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.”
“A friend from the office.”
“Did you tell her why?”
Why her? “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, it must have been you.”
He threw his head back and closed his eyes. “God!”
“What have you dreamed lately – I mean the past two or three nights?” Meredith asked.
Holder opened his eyes and looked at her. “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,” Holder said, pretending annoyance.
“Do you want me to help you or not, macho?” she said, not softly.
After an appropriate moment of hesitation, Holder leaned his head back and closed his 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?”
Holder’s eyelids fluttered; at least a minute passed before he 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 747 on 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, but I know the Towers aren’t there anymore and when the hijackers find out they’ll crash it somewhere else. I can see through the plane’s skin. Someone is strangling the pilot.” He stops, his hands are clutching the armrests and he is perspiring.
“What country?” Meredith asked softly.
“That country we were in. I don’t know. I can’t do anything, I trip and fall on the runway … I …” Holder opens his eyes and stares at Meredith as though he doesn’t know her. She puts her hand on his. “All right, Frank, you were telling me your dream, that’s all. It’s me, Meredith.”
His eyes focus on her. “Meredith, the flight number…”
“Yes, what about it?”
“..on my ticket. It was ten-fifty-one.”
“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 was 1051.” He stands up.
“It was a dream, Frank,” Meredith says. “Sit down and calm down.”
Holder remains standing and unclips the cell phone from his belt. He dials his 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.” He turns 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 thinks a moment with her eyes down. “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 should act on them, but it could be dangerous to do so".
“Then the only way to find out is …yes, Jeanne… just a minute. Give me a pen and paper please, Meredith.” She hands him her loose-leaf notebook and the pen she had been using. “Use a new page,” she tells him.
“Aerolíneas Argentinas flight 1051,” he repeats as he writes it in the notebook, “departing Madrid 22 hundred for Buenos Aires. Daily? OK, just a minute.” He walks around the room with the phone in one hand and tapping his thigh nervously with the other. Then he puts the phone to his ear again. “Jeanne, what’s the next flight from Zurich to Madrid?” When she tells him he writes it down – 5:30 – and says, “and Iberia?”
“It leaves at three. Unless you’re already at the airport, you can’t make it.” He looks at his watch. It is already two-forty. “Shit! What time does Swissair arrive? Ten o’clock? Four and a half hours to Madrid?”
“It stops in Geneva,” she tells him.
“Damn. OK, book me. Now give me Jimenez’s number and Argentine Airlines' number at the airport … no, no, Madrid, Jimenez, Iberia's Commercial Director.” She gives him the numbers then says, “Looks like tonight is off.”
“What? Oh, yeah, sorry about that. Next time.” If there is one. “Thanks, Jeanne.”
Meredith is watching all this with her chin cupped in her hand. “Are you going to tell them you dreamed all this?” she says.
“Argentine Airlines,” he mumbles, ignoring her question.
Holder dials Iberia’s number in Madrid. He wants their backing, as national carrier, with the police and airport people. But Jimenez is out to lunch. Given the length of Spanish lunches, there's no telling when he’ll be back. The Argentine Airlines airline staff haven’t arrived yet.
“Are you sure you’re doing the right thing, Frank?” Meredith asks him when he finishes with the phone and is 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,” Holder says with excitedly, “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 is 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.”
Holder walks up to where she is sitting and takes her hand in his and looks 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 depth analysis.”
She holds his gaze for a long moment, then stands up and embraces him. “Good luck, Frank. I hope you’re right. I mean…well, you know what I mean”
His cell phone rings. It's Jeanne to tell him that the Swiss flight to Madrid is fully booked.
Holder sits across from the Swiss Air Lines Duty Operations Manager at Zurich airport. “The flight isn’t only fully booked, it’s over-booked, Mr. Holder.”
“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 explains.
“How about the jump seat? I must get to Madrid.”
“We’d have to ask the pilot about that.” He looks at his watch. “I’ll see if he’s here yet.” He dials flight control and asks in Swiss German if Captain Schleier has arrived. “No, I don’t want to talk to him on the phone. We’ll be right up.”
Captain Schleier and another pilot are standing near a window talking and laughing when Holder and the ops manager enter. The manager shakes hands with both of them, then introduces Holder as the IATA Director of Security. Though he is only an Assistant Director, Holder doesn’t mind. It occurrs to him that he had only given the ops manager, whom he had never met before, his business card, and wasn’t asked for any additional identification. He could have been Bin Laden without a beard. Some security. After Holder asks Schleier for permission to ride in the jump seat with the pilots in the cockpit, Schleier smiles and says he's sorry, but the jump seat is already occupied, and looks at his colleague.
“I see,” Holder said. “Are you deadheading, Captain?” he asks the other pilot, meaning is he going to Geneva or Madrid to be in the crew of a departing flight.
“No, just going home to Geneva.”
“It’s extremely urgent,” Holder says. “There’s a possible, no probable terrorist attempt against an Aerolineas Argentinas plane in Madrid tonight, and your flight is fully booked.”
The other pilot stares at Holder a moment, then shrugs. “At least I can read on the train. Good luck, Mr. Old-air.” He shakes hands all around and leaves for the train station.
Between Zurich and Geneva Holder finally reached Jimenez on his cell phone. He 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. He also asked if Jimenez knew the name of the Argentine Airlines station manager. “Jaime Villanueva? Good, I know him.” Finally, after take-off from Geneva, he got Villanueva on the phone. He asked him to hold the flight until he arrived. He had to add that it was a matter of life or death, because Holder 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,” Holder 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.” Holder was supposed to say that he couldn’t order an airline to do anything, only recommend, that the decision was the airline’s – in order to avoid responsibility if what he said was wrong. But he didn’t say it this time.
“Special attention to middle-eastern types, right?” Ethnic profiling is frowned upon, but this was the real world.
“See you soon, Jaime.” Holder gave him his cell number before ringing off.
Captain Schleier and his co-pilot had been listening attentively to Holder’s side of the conversation. “Anything we can do to help, Mr. Holder?” Schleier asked.
Holder 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 he didn’t want to tip off the terrorists, however unlikely such an eventuality was.
They landed at Barajas airport in Madrid ahead of three other arriving flights. Holder was first off the plane. Jaime Villanueva was waiting for him in the finger-gate entrance and they went at a lope to the waiting area of the Argentine Airlines flight. Luckily it was in the same terminal, Switzerland not being a European Union member. “How do you know there will be a terrorist attack, Frank?” Villanueva asked as they went. It was a question that had been bothering him since he’d spoken to Holder on the phone.
“A tip,” Holder answered. “No time for that now, Jaime. Anything suspicious?”
“No. Some Middle East passports – Saudi Arabia and Egypt – but they look all right.”
“Four. 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, Holder thought.
“There are two tourist groups, one Spanish and the other Argentine,” Villanueva said, puffing now. “We can probably discount them.”
“Probably,” Holder agreed.
“The tour leaders are griping about the delay and our holding their passports.”
“Can the waiting area be sealed off?” Holder asked him.
“Hardly. There are several other flights departing from the same area.”
Holder cursed himself for not thinking of that. He could have had the flight switched to an individual waiting area. Too late now.
When they arrived at the departure gate they had to squeeze through hundreds of nervous and/or 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. Holder took him by the arm and pulled him behind the desk and into the space before the finger-gate. He gestured to the woman to follow. He showed them his credential. “Do you want to get to Buenos Aires in one piece, or would you rather be blown up?” he 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 one,” Holder said, "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. Holder went up to him and shook his hand. “How many are you?” he 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, using the public address system, called the UN passport holder by name to come to the boarding area.
“What were you doing in Madrid, Ms. Hazziz?” Holder asked her. Holder had seen from her passport 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 they spoke, behind them a female security person was going through her carry-on bag. She was just poking a plastic gloved finger into a jar of cream, so Holder thought he’d keep her attention until at least that was over. “You’re observant,” he 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,” Holder smiled back and waved her forward where the security person was now waiting to frisk her.
The middle-eastern passport holders were next – businessmen, and they were clean. “Let’s do the Argentine and Spanish last,” Holder said. “They’re the majority, I presume.” Villanueva nodded and began calling the half-dozen U.S. passport holders. The second one to reach Holder had a passport showing his birthplace as New York City. As U.S. passports are among the easiest to forge, Holder 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?” he 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,” Holder 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, Holder thought.
“You still follow baseball then?” Holder said with a huge smile.
“When I can.”
“Then you must have been happy when the Mets won the pennant again last year.” Holder 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. Holder 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?” Holder said.
Chalen walked over to them 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 Holder that if the box contained some kind of plastic bomb, this might be the last box he’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. Holder carefully took it out. It was about a yard long. “What is it?” he asked Chalen.
“It is an example of Persian art.”
“Iranian, you mean?”
“If you prefer,” Chalen answered. “The original design, however, 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 gave him the names, and Holder nodded to Villanueva, who went back to the public address mike to call them. Holder pulled both ends of the cord to test its strength. It hardly gave at all so there must have been something inside supporting it. He began to inspect it closely and found an almost invisible seam running the length of the cord where the symmetrical designs met. He placed his thumbs on either side of it and pressed outward. The silk opened to reveal a thin wire underneath. He stripped the whole silk sheath off and held 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.” Holder ignored him.
Meanwhile the other two passengers had arrived. Holder checked their tickets and saw that one had been on his flight from Geneva and the other had connected from Paris. They both had identical boxes in their attaché cases. Argentine passports.
“Any missed connections from other places, Jaime?” Holder 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 Holder, “H’ram, Ali.”
“Cover these guys,” Holder 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 motioned Holder aside and said, “What are we arresting them for?”
“This wire is like a garrote. It could take half your head off in a split second. It’s meant for the pilots,” Holder 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. He had no choice.”
After the suspects were taken away, Holder stayed to watch the rest of the passengers board. The first were 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 name. As they passed Holder the boy stopped, placed his hands together and bowed before Holder. “Gracias, señor,” he said, and continued through the finger-gate to the aircraft. The monk, seeming as surprised as Holder, bowed and followed the boy. Holder watched them as they approached the door of the airplane, where the boy turned and smiled at him.
“Who was that?” he 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, Frank Holder’s head rested serenely on Jeanne’s lap in his living room. A half a bottle of Chilean red wine stood on the table alongside them and a Bach concerto filled the room. The telephone rang. Holder picked it up from the table without moving anything except his 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?”
Holder 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.”
Holder 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 his forehead.
“Do you need a shrink?”
Holder thought a while looking into Jeanne’s gray-speckled blue eyes. “Do you know what I need?"
An outbreak of security and fraud violations suddenly occurred in Zurich and Frank Holder was transferred there temporarily to deal with them. He attended courses at the Jung Institute at night and underwent analysis with one of Meredith Miller’s colleagues. He was found to be relatively sane, but possessing certain rare supersensible psychological capacities. When his company wanted to transfer him to Canada, he resigned, stayed in Zurich and spent the next three years completing his studies at the Jung Institute, finally earning a diploma as an analyst. This was partly financed by his savings, but mostly by Meredith, with whom he was living.
After his graduation they moved to New York City, where they established a successful husband-wife practice. They also collaborated on several highly regarded books about the relation of Buddhism to Christianity. They became famous (and rich) however, due to their best-selling esoteric thriller, Lost Time.
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 Argentina (far from Australia, but at least in the antipodes, as Bryan was quick to remind his down-under mates), where they opened a flower shop in a Buddhist community and lived happily ever after – which is more than can be said for Frank and Meredith, but that’s another story.
© Frank Thomas Smith