The Frequent Flyer
By Frank Thomas Smith
The new IATA head office building is at the Geneva airport next to the terminal building. The setting of snow-capped Alps as backdrop is a beautiful one, whereas the building itself is a gray structure of glass and concrete without windows that open. From inside you can see the beauty of nature but not feel, smell or touch it.
I greeted Ingrid, the receptionist, as I did once or twice a year, with kisses first on the right cheek, then the left, then again on the right, as is the crazy custom there.
"Hello, Mr. Jacks, back again, are you?" she said as she always does to the field men.
"Yes, Ingrid, here I am again. Anything I should know before venturing into the pit?"
"No, you'll survive, I hope. When are you coming back for good?"
"You know the answer to that."
"Not if you can help it?"
I nodded and she smiled and gave me a security card which I first inserted into the turnstile slot to pass to the elevators and then snapped onto my jacket lapel.
The fourth floor was a maze. A plastic map hung on the wall, indicating the various divisions in different colors. Fraud Detection was in red and was located off to the rear-right. I picked my way through carpeted alleys between workstations, lost my way only once, which was an improvement, and finally found my division. I should have dropped peas or something in order to find my way out again.
I pecked Ian Payne's secretary's cheeks and was admitted immediately to his workstation, a corner one with two windows, as behooves a Director. We talked for a good hour, but not about anything that couldn't have waited until the next day. I suspected he only wanted to be sure I would be at meeting.
"...and if we assign an average value of one thousand dollars per ticket, I would not be exaggerating in the least if I say that our Latin American operation saved the air transport industry well over a million dollars during the past twelve months. I might add, not immodestly I hope, that it has been accomplished by myself, Lila Popovich in Caracas and my secretary, who doubles as assistant, the two ladies being grossly underpaid by the way." (I didn't mention that I considered myself overpaid--not one ever said that.) "We could be much more effective with more personnel and a bigger budget."
I switched off my microphone to approving murmurs from my colleagues, about forty of them, seated around a rectangle of light-green, cloth-covered tables. Craig Handley shifted his Australian bulk and boomed, "My sentiments exactly, mate." It was his turn to speak, so he switched on his microphone and launched into a tale that would have made James Bond blush. His message was that he had single-handedly saved the airline industry from annihilation by ticket fraud. Well, maybe he did, maybe we all did. There is no doubt that before the Fraud Detection Division was born a few years before the fraudsters were taking the airlines to the cleaners. They still were, but at least we were making it harder for them. The people around the table had all worked for airlines before coming to IATA as investigators of tariff violations. But the free market philosophy had ended that; there are no more tariff violations. So we were in fraud detection and dabbled in security – bombs and hijackings, to be exact. We had been quite successful in that area, however, so we had little to do except insure that airlines and airports maintained their standards. Fraud Detection was still a big item though, and our jobs looked secure for some time to come.
Claude Pierremot's cell phone peeped. He mumbled an apology in the MD's direction and slid off into a corner to take the call as Craig Handly boomed on. Craig was a funny guy, but I had heard all his jokes before – often. The MD smiled and Ian roared with laughter, although he had heard them before too. Claude came back to his seat and raised his eyebrows at me, whatever that was supposed to mean.
When we had all finished with our reports, Ian said that Ricardo Rico was engaged in an investigation in Madrid and was probably delayed by the snow. I looked out through the glass walls between an opening in the wall-to-wall curtains. Big heavy flakes whirling like miniature helicopters. I could still see the control tower looming like part of an ancestral castle, so the visibility wasn't too bad yet--enough for take-offs, but landings were probably cancelled, which meant that there would soon be no planes left to go anywhere. On the path below a pilot walked with his head down clutching a stewardess's hand--pardon: flight attendant. The snow didn't seem to bother her, her head was up and her hair flying. There is no more beautiful city in the snow – or after it - than Geneva. Perhaps it was the snow that made me decide to call María Luz and take my chances on the pain that was likely to result.
"If you like I can give you a rundown on Rico's activities on the Iberian peninsula, Sir," Ian Payne was mouthing.
The Managing Director, a hawk-faced Irishman, stood up, which didn't put him much closer to the ceiling. He spoke in short, chopping sentences: "No need, Ian." Then to us: "I must say that I am impressed, gentlemen. Several of you mentioned the need for a budget increase. I regret to inform you that in the current financial environment an increase is out of the question. I will try to keep you as close as possible to you present level. More I cannot promise. Keep up the good work." After what passed for a smile he slid out.
"Big deal!" Craig said when he was sure the MD was far enough away not to hear.
"You blokes did great, he was impressed, he said so himself," Ian Payne said. "If we get off with a ten per cent cut we can carry on as usual." He droned on for another five minutes, but by that time we were all gazing out at the snow. I wished he'd shut up so I could ask Claude what he'd found out about the tickets. He hadn't seen my telex because he was interviewing a new secretary in her bed - he said he was on a hot investigation - then took the midnight TTT train to Geneva in order to avoid weather problems. When I told him the situation just before the meeting began, he'd phoned the BSP manager in Paris and the call during the meeting was the reply. The tickets had been assigned to a travel agent in Paris and when the BSP manager queried him, he looked in his safe and discovered a batch, including those my friends Barkarian and Wilson traveled with, missing. He also discovered that the back of the safe, probably the cheapest model on the market, had been bored through. The thieves knew what they were doing: they didn’t take all the tickets, only the highest numbered ones, in order to insure that the theft wouldn’t be discovered until the tickets were used.
* * *
Rachel Blumgarten and Dr. Hans Niedermaier were huddled over a map of West Berlin in a small basement room with no windows. A long florescent light on the ceiling hummed constantly, but they were so used to it that it no longer bothered them. They were preparing a list of objectives that the Soviet Mission Military Patrol was to photograph on its next rounds. Hans Niedermaier, a robust middle-aged man with a goatee and rimless glasses, was doing the selecting and dictating to Rachel, who made notes in German and Russian in a stenographer's spiraled notebook made in West Germany. She was young and pretty and intense; there was a certain hardness about her which would have seemed unusual in one so young, if we did not know that they were in the building in East Berlin that housed the STASI -- Staats-Sicherheit -- State Security.
A phone rang in an adjoining room and a young man yelled from there: "Fräulein Baumgartner, it's for you." She sighed as though annoyed, but was relieved to escape from her companion's halitosis for a while, excused herself to him and went into the next room. It was the Director's secretary, who told her to go directly to the boss's office. The secretary waited only for her to confirm: "Jawohl, Frau Schmidt, aber..." and hung up before Rachel could ask why she was being summoned to such lofty heights. She walked quickly back to Dr. Niedermaier, considered taking her purse and coat, decided to leave them. She surely wouldn't be long. "I have to go upstairs, Herr Doktor. Sorry, I'll be back as soon as I can."
"Anything the matter?" he asked, noticing her nervousness, but also curious.
"No." If she said that the Director wanted to see her it would be all over the office in a matter of seconds. She hurried off to the "paternostro", the ancient but reliable dumbwaiter-like elevator, and stepped in like the experienced passenger she was. The Paternostro fit only one in each compartment, so she could wonder in private what the Director, Herr Dr. Wolff, could possibly want with her. She hadn't done anything wrong that she was aware of -- but she knew that one was not always necessarily aware of one's own wrongdoing. The paternostro was slow, for safety reasons, but it arrived on the fourth floor too soon for her. She wished she wasn't wearing those ugly, but warm, wool stockings. She knocked on the Director's door and heard Frau Schmidt's hoarse cigarette voice calling her to enter.
Frau Schmidt, a dumpy fiftyish, rose and opened the Director's door behind her. "Fraülein Baumgarten," she announced. Instead of telling Rachel to wait, she stood aside as the Director himself came out smiling and took Rachel's hand. She thought for a moment that he might kiss it. He was a tall, handsome, middle-aged man with crows-feet behind his eyes from smiling. He wore a double-breasted suit, obviously western made, and was as elegant as any capitalist CEO.
"I'm very pleased to meet you, Frl. Baumgarten," he said, in a surprisingly high voice. "Won't you come in.”? Why should he be pleased to meet her? Rachel thought. Well, at least he didn't sound as though he was about to fire her. The office was as elegant as he was, and warm. How? Ah, a fireplace -- and burning wood instead of coal. He invited her to sit on a couch near the fire. "Coffee or tea?" he asked. Real coffee? "Coffee, please."
"Bring us two coffee's, please, Frau Schmidt," Wolff ordered as he closed the door.
"Now," he said as he sat in an easy-chair across from her," you must be wondering why I sent for you."
"Ja, Herr Direktor, I was wondering that."
He looked at her for a few moments before going on, studying her pale face, untidy hair and proletarian clothing. "I knew your father," he finally said.
She nodded and smiled.
"I was a student of his before...actually when the Gestapo got him."
"In Leipzig?" It was a stupid question, because it must have been Leipzig, but she felt she had to say something.
"Yes. He was a brilliant man and a dedicated Communist."
"I know," Rachel, agreed, "and a good man."
"And that combination -- good, a Communist and a Jew to boot, was what doomed him." Rachel didn't know if he was being cynical or simply stating an obvious fact. He certainly didn't sound sympathetic. She wondered what saved Wolff from the same fate. Perhaps he had been none of those things her father was.
"I had no reputation and wasn't a Jew," Wolff said, as though divining her thoughts. "So I was drafted, but deserted to the Russians." He smiled. "It's an interesting story, but I won't go into it now." Did he intend to go into it later? she asked herself as Frau Schmidt entered carrying a silver tray with the coffee things. She poured while they sat in silence. Rachel knew from the aroma that the coffee was real.
When his secretary had left, Wolff said, "I'll come right to the point, Fraülein...May I call you Rachel? Somehow as your father's friend and the difference in our ages, it doesn't seem incorrect." Rachel Sie or Du? No, that would be too much. "Of course, Herr Dr. Wolff," she said, wondering what he was a doctor of.
"Good, thank you," he smiled. "How long have you been with us, Rachel?"
He must know that, she thought. "A little over a year," she answered.
"Already a year? And I know from the records that you did very well in training and have been doing well in your work as well."
"You know, of course, that we have people in the west."
"And, as you can imagine, we don't send just anyone there." He paused as though expecting a reply.
"Of course not."
"There are many temptations there -- if one isn't a good socialist." she decided not to say yes and of course to everything he said, so she waited. "Are you a good socialist, Rachel?"
She sighed. "You know that I am, Herr Director."
He laughed. "How should I know that? Socialism isn't necessarily inherited, you know.
"In my case it is," Rachel answered seriously. "I loved my father very much and admired his ideals."
Wolff raised his eyebrows: "Admired?"
"I loved them," she clarified.
"You are speaking in the past tense, Rachel."
"I meant when he was alive. I still do and I am a committed Socialist, Herr Direktor," she answered, returning his gaze.
"I believe you are, Rachel," he said. "Do you take sugar?"
"No, thank you."
Well, then, please." He picked up his cup and sipped. She followed suit, glad that her hand wasn't shaking. And why should it be? They understood each other and she knew she had passed the test, for whatever purpose it may have been posed.
"Are you really fluent in English?" he asked in fluent English. "Forgive my asking, but I've found that fluency is relative where our people are concerned."
"I don't think I am," she replied in English
He frowned. "Explain, please."
"My English is from studying. I have had little practical experience in the language."
"But it sounds very good to me." He reverted to German. "I didn't expect you to sound like a native speaker. More coffee?"
"It's very good," she said and smiled for the first time.
"Yes, it is." He poured another cup for her. She noticed that he hadn't touched his own.
“Your file says that you also know some Spanish.”
“Yes, but also from studying.”
“How good is it?”
“Quite good, I think.”
"I have a job for you, Rachel," Wolfe said. He put three heaping spoonfuls of sugar in his cup and drank it down in one gulp.
"In the west, Herr Direktor?" she asked.
"Yes, my dear, in the west," he answered in English, probably because it wouldn’t do to have said “my dear” in German. He went to his desk and pushed a button.
"Ja, Herr Direktor," Frau Schmidt answered.
"Is Herr Cornelius there?"
"Ja, Herr Direktor"
"Send him in, please." He stood facing the door, which opened immediately and a young, tall, well-dressed man entered. He was handsome, too handsome to trust, Rachel thought. He stood ramrod straight before Wolff: “Guten Morgen, Herr Direktor Wolff”. Wolff smiled and held out his hand. The other took it, but did not return the smile.
“Now I must introduce you, Stasi style”, Wolff said ironically. “Frau Cornelius, meet Herr Cornelius.” Both young people stared at Wolff more in confusion than surprise. Wolff had of course expected that reaction, and he played his histrionic hand to the hilt. “I must apologize for springing this on you so formally, especially since you, Frau Cornelius, have never heard your new name before and Herr Cornelius learned it, and nothing more, this morning. But please, let’s relax and sit here.” He indicated a couch and easy chairs in the corner of his office. They both hurried to occupy single-seating chairs. “Would you like another cup of coffee, Frau Cornelius?” Rachel nodded and Wolff pressed the intercom button on his desk and told Frau Schmidt to bring three more coffees. “And please don’t be so stingy with the sugar, Frau Schmidt.” He then sat on the couch, crossed his legs, spread his arms over the back of the couch and smiled, almost warmly, at them.
Continued in the next issue of SCR