Please enjoy the following adventure – leave your comments below!
Copyright 2019 – Chuck Warren
Mark got me involved, I never would have signed us up otherwise. It sounded too easy, and too easy never is. However, it was only our third job and the guy who talked it up was obviously from the government, which meant this job might be a good way for us to make some connections and get the wheels turning for real.
Besides, how hard could it be to retrieve this… box? It sounded like we would be jumping into something unusual – a quiet beach in friendly territory. That sure beat the missions we completed in the Middle East. And Africa. And some other places we were never going to be able to talk about.
I never expected us to get these last few gigs so quickly. I don’t think any of us did. When we hung out our shingle, it was almost a goof. A bunch of vets looking to “solve problems,” like we were the real Expendables.
Just not really expendable.
Some of the guys had managed to stay married, even while running through enemy fire and sneaking through other government’s buildings around the world. Me, not so much. Those guys had wives that wanted them to come home, especially now that we each had a plaque with the words “Honorably Discharged” arcing across the top.
I had a houseplant that might be looking for water.
Like I said, taking this gig would probably be a good way to make an impression on the people who were pulling the bigger strings. The guy who interviewed us was definitely connected, but also not at the top of the food chain.
He talked a good game but was a little too quick to throw around the industry acronyms and the three-letter names of the departments he supposedly worked for.
Yeah, I did think he was really connected, but I also suspected he was just the messenger. Or maybe the salesman. But there were a lot of zeros on the deposit check he waved around.
Half now, half when we were done. With the blessing of the team, I signed on the dotted line as a representative of TacticalTech, Inc.
I’d be seeing the guys at the airport in 28 hours.
Mark was the first to show at the Newark Airport gate, but that was no surprise. He was always pumped about the mission, no matter what it involved.
When we were in the field, he was wound tight and on the ball, with his eyes pinned open and head on a swivel.
Funny thing was, for someone who was such an asset on the job, he loved to sleep so much that a fireman once carried him out of a burning house without waking him up. When he worked, he worked. When he was off, he was really off.
Pat was next, materializing next to me as if out of thin air. Although that drove me nuts when we were home, it was a very good quality to have when you were sliding through someone’s sand castle and trying to go undetected. Pat always went in first, the rest of us followed.
Chili was in the bar, sketching another set of plans for his ”someday” boat on the back of a napkin while sipping a club soda and lime.
He was going to build that boat someday, or at least the rest of us hoped he would so he’d either shut up about it or sail off somewhere so new people could hear his stories and we’d all get a break.
Mick was the next to step out of a taxi at the terminal curb. His sunglasses hid the fact that his eyes never rested on one thing for very long, constantly taking in everything around him and processing it just as fast.
That was the pilot in him, things could change in a heartbeat and you better be ready to adapt when your engine dies over a country that doesn’t appreciate US air traffic.
Fred and Roger wander in together, laughing as they crossed the terminal and light-hearted as if we were going on a Costa Rican vacation. Roger had his black leather motorcycle jacket and duffle bag and Fred, dressed in shorts and a Disney t-shirt, had two changes of clothes in a brown paper shopping bag.
Out of habit, we all walked to a separate spot in Terminal A and acted like we didn’t know each other, except Fred and Roger. However, we all stayed in sight, each taking inventory of the rest of the team as if this was our first mission together.
Truth is, every mission is the first, no matter how many times you’ve done it before. The others are dress rehearsals, the one you’re on is opening night.
You never know exactly what your fellow team members have been up to since you’ve seen them last, and each wanted to know the other still had their back. A quick glance, spot-check, check the arms, the eyes, and the wrists, and more than anything else – listen. Just listen.
Is everyone here? I mean, is everyone really here?
Then it was time to go.
The team spread out in the Terminal while waiting for the boarding call. Each had chosen a separate kiosk or airport store and pretended to shop for souvenirs or shuffle through the latest paperbacks before eventually walking to the gate one by one.
I wandered back the way we came, up the hallway and toward the security checkpoint before parking on a miserably uncomfortable bench and pretending to check my email. I thought I was far enough away from the gate that I would have me a good chance to survey the terminal on the way back, looking for potentially unruly passengers, arguing couples, or even single fliers intently reading a newspaper or book.
The passengers I liked to call “problem children” could usually be picked out of a crowd if you know what to look for. Someone reading a paper but spending more time peering across the top than looking at the pages – potential trouble. A fighting couple who were faking it – easy to spot. And, potential trouble.
However, it was December, and the cold New York area weather gave an individual problem child a lot more places to hide gear, tools, or even weapons under their heavy outer clothing.
I stopped at a small food kiosk and pretended to have trouble picking a snack. The distraction gave me a little extra time to scan the crowd.
A steady stream of travelers came and went from the long, thin Terminal hallway, with its arriving or departing flights in the D-shaped seating area. People of every shape, size, and color wandered past – some hustling to make a connection while dragging an uncooperative carry-on. Others strode calmly and confidently down toward the gate, with a laptop bag slung over one shoulder while wrapping up a phone call with repeated I Love You’s or See You Soon’s.
When I realized there were far too many people on the move in that space for me to scan them all, I wandered down to join the others at the gate.
Each man occupied a seat away from the others, with the exception of Fred and Roger. Since they had come in together they sat next to each other and continued their light-hearted conversation, punctuated with genuine laughter and smiles. It would be easy to believe they were two buddies on a golf vacation or fishing trip, especially since their darkened sunglasses hid their constantly wandering eyes.
I walked past Fred and Roger and parked my butt in a seat farther down and across the aisle.
Roger had stopped to pick up a sandwich and drink from one of the nearby kiosks. As he sat listening to Fred, carrying on his half of the conversation and interjecting when appropriate, he put the half-eaten sandwich back into a bag and wiped his hands on a single white paper napkin from the handful he’d grabbed at the stand.
When he finished wiping his hands, Roger nonchalantly folded the napkin in half longways and tucked it under his right thigh so that I could see it hanging down below his seat. It was partially blocked by his bag of food, a bottle of Coke, his backpack, and Fred’s brown paper “luggage.” Most people would never notice the napkin, and even if they did, they would not have given it a second thought.
But, I did. I noticed it as it hung there like a flag, telegraphing its message to me like a blinking, neon sign no one else would see. I tried to scan the crowded seats for the problem child Roger had spotted.
We had a tail.
The speakers in the terminal crackled as the neatly pressed airline employee grabbed the mic and keyed it once. She lifted it to her mouth and hit the button again, this time announcing that boarding preparations for our southbound flight had begun and she would be calling our section numbers soon.
Roger was still acting like his food was the only thing that mattered in the world, while the other guys pretended to read, sleep, play games, and even talked with the other passengers sitting next to them.
I realized that I was hungry myself since it’s almost 6:20 in the evening and the last thing I had was from a gas station refrigerator on the way to the airport. But, I did not want to move from my seat until I am ready to stand in line on our way to the plane.
And, I definitely did not want to take my eyes off the man sitting in the row of terminal seats across the aisle and 25 feet behind Roger and Fred.
Roger pulled the napkin out from under his leg. He knew I would have seen it quickly. We had a system, all of us, to alert the others of problems like tails, threats, general trouble, and any other important info when we didn’t want it to look like we were traveling together.
If someone was really paying attention I’m sure they would realize we were part of a team, but our little game of charades had done the trick for a long time
Besides, if someone was going to put us together, they probably already knew who we were, where we were going, and what we were doing in Newark Airport, boarding a plane for Cartagena, Columbia.
It took me a few visual sweeps of the area to find the person that Roger ID’d as our new best friend, but I found him. And once I did, I had to force myself to stop staring.
The man sat straight as an arrow and facing directly ahead, but he was not looking in the direction of any one of the team. He wore khaki’s and a black long-sleeved shirt, dark socks, and bright white sneakers. He had a newspaper folded neatly in his lap and a small bag that was slung over his left shoulder even though he was seated. He was trying so hard not to be noticed that you couldn’t help but see him.
Normally, I might have thought he was just a little odd, but what really caught my attention was his hat. And his sunglasses.
The man had on a fedora that looked like something straight out of an old gangster movie. It was dark gray with a red accent around it. Even with today’s blurred fashion lines, the hat looked out of place with the rest of his clothes.
The gray fedora sat low, as if it was too big for his head. The underside of the hat met the tops of his sunglasses as if they were keeping the fedora from sliding further down. He wore aviator-style shades which were dark enough that I couldn’t see his eyes. They also seemed to be too big.
The overhead speakers crackled again and the airline desk announced that it was time for us to board. We all began to gather our stuff and slowly make way to the line, each falling in a few passengers ahead or behind the others with the exception of Fred and Roger.
The man also stood and walked over to the line, with his hat looking like it’s open mouth might swallow him whole at any minute. I intentionally hung back, pretending to get myself together so I could stall long enough to get in line behind him.
Once there were a few people behind him, I took my own place in line. Once again I looked him over and once again he seemed even more strange than my initial assessment led me to believe.
Short, with a slight build, and badly dressed with a hat three sizes too big. I might have mistaken him for a runaway child. At least, right up until the moment he took off his sunglasses.
As he pulled them off, he turned in my direction and gave me a clear view of his face. This was no child. He had the weathered, wrinkled skin of an 80-year-old man.
And. when our eyes met, I felt as if I saw straight into his soul.
As the line began to move, the little man turned away and replaced the sunglasses so I could no longer see those haunting eyes. I was grateful. When he looked at me I felt like a laser was burning a hole through my forehead. I could only see the back of his gray fedora as the line moved toward the aircraft door.
Most of the other guys were in line ahead of me, with Mick a few people behind. We still made no contact with each other at all, even avoiding accidental eye contact. We hoped no one would see us as a group when we landed since a traveling group of American males with shorter hair, a single duffel bag, and similar clothing would most likely be ID’d as military or contractors in the country we were headed to.
That was the kind of trouble we did not need.
I tried to keep my eyes on the back of our little friend’s head as we made our way down to the aircraft door and through the plane towards our seats. He was never more than three or four people ahead of me at all times, with his gray hat still pulled so low on his head I could only see a tuft of gray hair that hung down from underneath it.
As he worked his way toward the back of the plane, he smiled and nodded to every passenger he encountered. I began to think he was just someone’s wise, old uncle.
Probably named Bob.
Uncle Bob took a sea about half-way through the plane on the right side of the aisle. I strode past a few more rows and found my seat on the left. I could see the back of his head and hat, but little else since he was short enough for the headrest to mostly blocked him from view.
I couldn’t see him clearly, which made me a little nervous. I almost pulled out one of my fake sets of government credentials and asked to be moved further forward, but I did not want to increase our visibility. Or attract the attention of a Sky Marshall if one was onboard.
As the door closed and we began to taxi, everyone on the plane had their face in a book or tablet. Our group was no different. Several minutes later each of us had a tablet in their hands as well.
I tapped my screen, used my PIN code to signed in, then opened an app called Telegraph. I knew the others had done or would soon do the same, and at 1 minute, 12 minutes, or 35 minutes after the hour, a connection would automatically be live and ready for our conversation.
When the tablet screen was open, an empty box appeared on the top half of the screen and a smaller square box would appear in each lower corner. Those three boxes were invisible to each of us, and to anyone who could see the screen on our tablets. If anyone’s eyes strayed to my screen, they would see an open digital book.
I took a pair of glasses that looked like cheap drugstore readers from my shirt pocket and wiped them from left to right across my shirt. Each of the other guys would do something similar over the next few minutes; either remove the glasses they wore, or the sunglasses hanging from the front of their shirt and clean them with a cloth. Or wipe them on their shirt. Or use a napkin to remove an imaginary spec.
Each pair of glasses would be wiped in one specific direction to turn them on. Since we were not sitting close together, that action would hopefully not be noticed.
I didn’t have to wait long for our conversation to start. I placed the reading glasses on my face and the three boxes appeared in clear view on the screen of the tablet, although they would remain hidden from anyone without the holographic lenses we each carried or wore.
I placed my left thumb in the box at the bottom left corner. appearing to hold the tablet and read the book that was open behind the Telegraph app. My thumb was my password, and as long as I held my right or left thumb in one of the corner boxes the conversation would remain open for me. If I removed it for more than two seconds, I would be kicked out until the next window for conversation opened and the rest of the team would be alerted that I was no longer connected.
Taking a stylus from my other shirt picket, I began writing info in the larger box. My first message was, did you all see our new best friend?
Every team member replied, Yep.
I sent the mission info to each of the team members for review and fielded a couple of preliminary questions. We were headed for Panama by way of Colombia. We would meet our contact when we landed in Cartagena, a local guide who would bring us a van to use for the job.
Once equipped and ready, we would head across the border into Panama to retrieve the box. We exchanged information about the job, including the target home’s floor plan, alarm system, dogs, and of course, images of the box we were to liberate from its current place of rest.
Once the body of info was distributed, our conversation turned to our new friend. After throwing around both extreme and non-violent solutions, I decided to move to the row just behind him and introduce myself. He looked like an 80-year-old man sitting quietly on a plane, what could possibly go wrong.
Info, pictures, names, and places all exchanged, we all disconnected from Telegraph and I moved back to the aircraft’s bathroom. After a few minutes, I came out, walked past my seat, and took up residence in an empty seat just behind our tail. I leaned forward to whisper to him through the crack between the seats.
I know who you are, I said quietly to the back of his head. I could see the dark gray fedora pulled down low, touching the tips of his eyeglass frames. He still had on the black long-sleeved shirt and appeared to be working on a crossword from the paper he had been carrying.
A little louder this time, I spoke again – I know who you are.
I whipped backward in my seat and stared in disbelief when a younger woman stood up and turned around with her hands on her hips, and glared at me.
“Well, that’s just awesome.” Jabbing a finger in my direction, she said, “And who might you be?”
The woman stood in the aisle, staring at me like I just kicked her dog. Her look was accusatory, but… there was something else. Something I couldn’t put my finger on. I sat back in the seat and tried to regain my composure.
I’d been stared down by angry women plenty of times in my life, so that didn’t bother me. But something was wrong. I saw the man take that seat. Unless I was slipping a bit, no one had moved on that side of the plane since we took off.
The bigger issue was that she was dressed in the identical outfit as the older man that tailed us from the airport terminal. This could not be a coincidence.
However, if it wasn’t a coincidence, what was it?
I had a very hard time believing I could have mistakenly whispered a semi-threatening comment into the ear of an attractive woman because I thought she was an 80-year-old man.
She was also sitting in the exact seat that I saw the older man occupy not 20 minutes earlier. She even had a newspaper folded in half and slid under her left arm just as the man had carried while we both stood in line to board the plane. I assumed the shoulder bag was under the seat ahead of her.
Although her stare slowly softened, I tried to meet her gaze with a look of defiance and confidence. I didn’t really feel confident, I felt confused. And, I felt a little self-doubt since I knew damn well I’d seen the old man take that seat.
How could I have lost him, I thought? How could I have been so careless that I let her take his place and didn’t notice? If she had taken his place, it had to have happened directly in front of me and the rest of the team so quickly that I lost sight of a potential threat.
The very first potential threat, that my team of trained operators had encountered, and before we had even left the United States.
I sure hoped the guys who hired us weren’t watching. I knew I’d get control of things, but few things looked worse than a bunch of hired guns appearing over-trained and under-prepared.
Desperate to regain my composure and some kind of control,. I leaned back in my seat and said “I’m so, so sorry!” while displaying my very best puppy dog eyes. “I thought you were an eigh… um, I mean I thought you were an old friend of mine and I was just joking around.”
The woman’s sudden outburst and backward stance piqued the flight attendant’s interest.
“Is everything alright here, ma’am?” she asked, while glaring at me as if I’d just burned down her house on Christmas Eve.
I maintained my puppy dog eyes as I addressed the attendant. “Yes, I’m sorry. Please. It was just a case of mistaken identity.”
The woman still stood, but she was now half-turned away from me to chat with the flight attendant. I couldn’t hear what was being said, but the head bobs and hair flips made it obvious that I was the main subject.
Once the conversation was over, the attendant returned to the front of the plane. The woman in the gray fedora kept glancing back suspiciously in my direction, as if she was sizing me up. Then, her face softened a bit and she turned her back to me once again. I watched as first her dark hair, and then the top of my gray fedora disappear below the headrest between us.
It was obvious that she was not buying my story, but that didn’t mean anything would come of it. No police cars would meet our plane on the tarmac, and no one would prevent our entry into the country. At least, I didn’t think so. Still, the image of a small, institutional-green painted room in a concrete building with my naked butt handcuffed to a table in the center suddenly flashed through my head.
I watched the flight attendant carefully to make sure she wasn’t going to grab the cabin telephone and chat with the pilot. Once things looked clear, I leaned back to where I could just barely see the woman in the fedora ahead of me by peering through the cracks between the seats.
When the attendant made it back to her row, the woman turned her head to order a drink and I tried to mentally catalog her facial features. I watched for any unique scars, birthmarks, or even jewelry that might help me identify the mystery woman in the future.
If she really did switch places with the old man I needed to be ready to pick her out of a crowd. And quickly.
I found nothing. Her skin was flawless, and no jewelry hung from her ears. or adorned her fingers. She wore no makeup as far as I could tell and there wasn’t even the faintest scent of perfume. Although she was very attractive, I wasn’t sure that I’d even be able to pick her out of a police lineup.
At least she was unable to slip away while we jetted south toward the tropics and our ultimate destination, so I returned to my assigned seat and settled back in.
Looking forward, I spotted the other guys spread around the cabin, reading papers and magazines, watching in-flight movies, and sipping from drinks. I put some heavy metal music on my old, beat-up MP3 player and tried to relax.
I thought I might even fall asleep for a few minutes, but I couldn’t help sneaking a quick glance every so often to see if the pretty lady in the gray fedora was still seated across the aisle.
She was. She sat reading her paper and napping quietly right up until the Captain announced we’d begun our descent. When I looked up to see what she was doing, she was just plain gone.
We began a wide, slow bank into the approach pattern, dropping slowly out of the sky and cutting through the cover of wispy, white clouds that separated Earth from the constellations above.
The plane was relatively quiet aside from the overhead speakers, which crackled to life every few minutes with a safety and security message requesting that passengers return to their seats. The message was salted with static and repeated twice – once in English and once in Spanish – before the overheads went silent again.
I had already returned to my seat, stowed my tray table and placed my seat back in the upright position, but not before hastily searching as much of the cabin as possible for the gray fedora. Cruising up and down the aisles under the guise of a restroom trip, I glanced across every row of seats for evidence of the woman who had angrily stared me down.
Before leaving my seat, I used Telegraph to send a short message to the rest of the team, who were spread around the cabin, in order to get more “eyes on” the situation. I told them who to watch for, but kept the “why” to myself. I didn’t have time to explain the disappearing act earlier, and to do so now would have surely made me sound crazy.
My message simply stated – “Potential problem child – 40-ish woman – black shirt – gray hat”
My barely disguised but hasty search had aroused the flight attendant’s suspicions, so once I had covered as much of the passenger space as I could in the short time allowed by our descent, I sat upright in my seat watching for the reappearance of the woman in the hat. She never came back.
She could not have gone far. There was just no way. The only exits were thousands of feet off the ground and moving hundreds of miles per hour. If she hid in the bathroom, the Occupied light would be on. I checked them all, even checked under seats. For a few minutes, I even had the idea that she had switched places with the flight attendant, but, they looked nothing alike.
One of us had to get close to the exit and watch for her attempted departure. I wanted her followed.
The aircraft touched down on the runway, tires barking against the pavement before the earth pushed back against the heavy weight of the plane. There was still no sign of the woman in the gray hat, and her seat remained empty.
Fred was closest to the plane’s exit door, so gathering the few belongings he’d carried aboard, he slowly made his way forward. He pushed through the other people who had begun to spill out into the aisles as they grabbed their luggage from the overheads.
As he inched forward, he was the target of several steel-tipped glares from the flight attendant before positioning himself to reach the exit door the minute the plane came to full stop. Two minutes later, he was in position.
I waited toward the rear of the plane, making sure nothing off the wall took place, like someone desperately grabbing an exit door release and sliding down an emergency chute. In the years I had been working with the team, I had seen crazy things happen.
The passengers shuffled out past the attendants and pilots, leaving “nice landing’s” and “thanks again’s” hanging in the air around the flight crew. As I made my way up the aisle and through the door, I saw Fred positioned part way up the jetway pretending to wrestle with his bag.
There was still no sign of the old man or the younger woman among the throng of people who scurried through the long, articulated hall, although I was not quite sure I’d recognize either without the hat. As Fred’s eyes met mine, I could hear his questions ringing in my head. His own thoughts would include the same questions I would be asking if our roles were reversed.
I had a few immediate questions of my own – such as how and why. How had the man disappeared from a plane while 30,000 feet? And how had the woman appeared in his place? More importantly, how had both managed to elude a group of men trained to spot, track, and capture difficult targets in some of the most hostile environments in the world?
Once off the aircraft, Mark, Pat, Mick, Roger, and Fred each took separate paths down to ground transportation where they would hopefully take different shuttles to our downtown hotel as well. I brought up the rear, still on guard and searching for that damned gray hat.
Outside the terminal, I found the guys milling around together, but not, trying hard to pretend they didn’t know each other.
The nearest information desk was closed and a sandwich board stood near the curb that stated local strikes had left this particular airport terminal with only one operational shuttle.
As we waited for our only ride, a familiar sound erupted in the distance and surprise flashed across the faces of each member of our little team. We were no strangers to gunfire, but fully automatic rifle chatter did not belong here anymore. Cartagena was somewhat civil these days.
It was growing dark outside as the shuttle pulled up with the name of our hotel flashing above the windshield, we each boarded through the door that scissored open on the right rear right side and planted our butts in the hard plastic seats. Onboard, each man pretended to fidget with phones, buttons, and luggage as we rolled us out through the Central American countryside.
The sound of gunfire grew louder as we left the airport grounds, but as we turned onto the highway and took the ramp for the city, the sound was slowly suppressed by my subconscious to make room for more pressing matters.
Staring forward, I watched the road disappear beneath the hood of our complimentary shuttle, until movement near the front of the van suddenly caught my eye. Our driver worked the steering wheel back and forth as he navigated the shuttle down the Colombian highway. When we were pointed in a straight line, he crouched forward to hunt for something on the floor near his feet.
I couldn’t decide to laugh out loud or lunge for his throat when he brought his hand up from the floorboards and placed a sharp-looking gray fedora down low on his head.
When we boarded the shuttle just outside of the airport terminal, our driver was sitting in the front, partially shielded from view by a luggage rack that ran along the left side of the van. When the rear-entry door opened and we climbed in to find seats around the inside of the shuttle, only the driver’s shape was truly visible where he sat at the wheel.
The distant gunfire created enough distraction that each of us kept squinting through the dirty shuttle windows as if we might discover the source of the sound. We all should have been paying attention to the inside of the van instead, inspecting our surroundings for potential dangers and watching our driver for any unusual activities, such as hushed phone calls, hidden texting, or even patterns flashed with the headlights.
Although every one of us looked the driver over briefly, no one made their way forward to sit near him where we could keep him in plain sight.
As I sat quietly, a feeling of unease perched on the power lines pulled tight across the back of my subconscious.
I shook my head from side to side a few times, trying to clear my head. We had not even started our mission yet, not really, and already I had far too many unanswered questions. I made it a rule a long time ago to trust my gut, and my gut was telling me to bail out and return the substantial deposit paid to us by some trust in the Cayman Islands.
I had no problem with the secrecy, that was part of the game. Envelopes left behind after meetings, packages full of cash delivered from fake addresses, lawyers, couriers – no big deal. But this… something about this situation was just… different.
As we made our way toward the city, I scanned the inside of the shuttle to survey our current situation. I also wanted to see how alert and on point the rest of the team was. Each man was watching out of the window but occasionally shifted his gaze to sweep the van out of habit. Once satisfied that nothing was wrong inside, each returned his stare to the passing landscape and approaching city outside.
I forced myself to turn my attention back to the man up front. He sat in the driver’s seat with the gray Fedora perched low on his head, twisting the vehicle’s wheel back and forth as he navigated through the Colombian landscape. I could still hear the chatter of gunfire, but it was far enough away that I felt comfortable ignoring the muffled snap and crack of the automatic weapons.
Although it had grown dark in the van, I could still see his features softly highlighted by the shuttle’s gauges and courtesy lights. His features were definitely Central American, just like the woman on the plane and the man who had been sitting in the terminal hours ago.
I slid as close to the front of the van as the bench seat would allow, which put me to the right and slightly behind our driver. I looked for any telltale signs that he might be carrying a weapon, such as unusual bumps or shapes in the folds of his clothes.
I also watched his hands to see if he would casually adjust an unseen object at his belt line or under his arms. I saw nothing that made me alarmed, but that didn’t mean I would stop watching for trouble.
Sitting on the bench, I watched through the windshield as we made our way between the airport and the city where were would meet our contact somewhere downtown once a time and place were chosen. I kept my eye on the road while watching the driver in my peripheral vision.
The rest of the guys were pretending to read emails or listen to music. I know they were also watching me for any potential signs of trouble. I dropped my left hand down along the outside of my left leg and made a fist. After counting to five, I laid the flat of my hand along the outside of my leg, with my thumb resting at the top of my other fingers with all of them pointed in a straight line.
One by one, each man answered my question. My gesture had asked – “Five by Five?” or, all good?
In return, I received a different sign from each member of our team. No two were alike, which guaranteed that someone might duplicate the All Good sign from any one team member but would never be able to guess the rest.
I saw two fingers touch the third button down on the front of a shirt. A pinkie swiped a left eyebrow as if brushing something away. Another thumb made four taps on the top of a thigh. Both of someone else’s cuffs were straightened, and the last man yawned, shaking his head twice as if to clear the cobwebs.
Satisfied, I went back to watching the road. And, of course, our driver.
A few miles passed before something new, and of course, unusual, caught my attention and the alarm bells started going off all over again. The soft glow of the dashboard lit the drivers face well enough to see his features clearly. Too clearly to dismiss what I saw as a trick of the light, or as my own eyes playing tricks on me at the end of a long day.
As I watched, the hair on my arms and the back of my neck stood straight up and I fought to keep my composure. I did not want to alarm the others just yet, and I did not want the driver to realize I was paying attention either.
Headlights played across the windshield as oncoming traffic flowed in the opposite direction, seeping through the glass and mixing with the soft, amber glow from the gauges. As the light ebbed and flowed, the driver’s features softened and shifted, as if his face was a canvas upon which the details were being projected.
The driver changed from one… “identity,” to the next from minute to minute. His face was almost fluid, melting and reforming into new features as we made our way over the road and toward the city.
At first, he was simply the man who had just picked us at the airport. Then, his face subtly softened like melted wax, until it re-congealed into the features of a much younger man with a more pronounced nose. As I continued watching, trying my best not to let on that I was, his face took on the softer edges and subtle beauty of the woman on the plane.
At least three more identities appeared and then faded away, some repeating themselves and some half-forming as if he changed his mind before selecting the face he would project. It wasn’t long before I finally witnessed what I began to anticipate part way through the unusual slide show.
No longer disguising my interest, I was facing the man with eyes wide open, suddenly aware of every detail around me as the driver turned his head.
Another set of headlights lit up the inside of the van and the light and shadow play across the ceiling created an alien, upside-down landscape in the sagging headliner. Below that alien world, I found myself face to face with the old man from the terminal where we boarded our flight in Newark.
He smiled at me, and I suddenly felt like I had known him for a thousand years. I also felt as if he saw into the deepest recesses of my mind. His gentle smile pushed my fear and unease away.
His eyes were so blue they seemed to emit their own soft light, and when he winked at me, I knew he was the reason we found ourselves in Central America.
I sat back in my seat and closed my eyes, wanting a few minutes to process all of the details that suddenly hit me head on. I really didn’t know how to react.
I had to tell the others, but… tell them what? What did I really know? The only thing I could say for sure was that our driver was the same man we saw earlier in the terminal back home. I could not tell them that I had seen him “magically” change into the woman on the plane, or that I’d watched his identity change from minute to minute. They would see for themselves soon enough that he was the same man from the Newark Airport Terminal.
For all I know he switched places with the woman, and did something similar while we boarded the shuttle. I had truly seen nothing. And yet, I had seen everything. I knew he has all three people, and I saw his features change to many other faces as well.
I also knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that the same “entity,” the old man, had been present in all three physical bodies. But, how could I share this with the rest of the guys and still seem rational?
We’d been through some serious trouble over the years. Several had come inches away from losing their lives. Each of us had saved one of the others from certain death. And through it all, I’d been at the head of the team and the guy who gave the orders. I know that was worth something.
Right. They would think I lost my mind.
After a few minutes, I opened my eyes again and leaned forward. I immediately noticed signs being sent my way from Pat and Mike – All good? I could see the concern on their faces even though they were not looking in my direction.
I knew the driver was aware that we were a team now, but I kept up the game anyway. I was not ready to explain our situation just yet.
All good, I signed back.
When I looked forward again, we were entering outskirts of Cartegena and headed for our hotels. We wound through side streets and slums, with makeshift shacks propped up next to broken down houses with dilapidated cars parked along the edge of the muddy road. Eventually, pavement began to appear.
We wandered toward the towering buildings of the city’s center, entering the thriving metropolis as the night settled in tight across the steel and concrete. The 6 of us were staying in three different hotels, broken up into smaller groups to maintain our cover (we thought) and also to ensure that an attack on any one building would leave options for backup and rescue from the others.
At the first hotel with its old, ornately decorated façade majestic in the lights that lit up the front, the driver pulled past the door, parked, and announced he would escort Mick and me inside. He claimed he needed to use the restroom but I knew what he was really doing. He wanted to talk with me.
Roger, Pat, Fred, and Mark sat upright, looking slightly uncomfortable as I left the shuttle. I caught sideways glances and a couple of “What the…” signs as I exited through the shuttle’s folding front door and walked toward the front of the hotel.
I gave them a “Just wait” in return just before I passed through the hotel’s revolving front door and disappeared from their view.
We had long since left the popping noise of the distant gunfire and were now surrounded by the normal city soundscape.
Cars and trucks merged together into the parade of evening traffic that snaked through the streets, while a steady stream of foot traffic marched alongside.
Noisy, tricked out Hondas were followed by new Corvettes and old, rusty Toyotas. Booming subwoofers were matched by failing mufflers, and the occasional Rolls Royce or Bentley drifted past as silently as a ghost.
The guys stayed in the shuttle while I followed the old man into the old, majestic hotel with Mick in tow. The man had removed the gray hat before leaving the driver’s seat, placing it back on the floor beneath the dash. Without it. I thought I might be the only person who knew who – or, the word “what” briefly crossed my mind – he was.
He walked slightly ahead of us as we passed through the building’s front doors. I did my best to stay between Mick and the man, trying hard to prevent a sudden and potentially violent reaction to the strange situation in the slim chance that Mick recognized him from Newark
In the lobby, the man motioned to the overstuffed chairs and couches spread around the waiting area. Without questioning his silent directive, I dropped into a chair.
Mick looked confused, but he followed my lead.
Our driver exchanged a glance with the well-dressed man behind the counter who then disappeared through a door. Our driver walked over to a painting on the nearby wall and stood with his back to us, apparently studying the art.
Just as I began to fidget, the hotel clerk returned with another man who looked as if he could be the same age as our driver.
The new man let himself out from behind the counter and went to stare at the painting as well, as if it held some universal secret.
Mick was watching the door and scanning the room, facing the opposite direction so we could have 360-degree coverage. The two men were behind Mick, so he only saw the look on my face when my composure slipped for a split second.
What he did not see, was why.
I couldn’t understand why I didn’t see it right away, but as the two men stood talking at the foot of the large painting, I suddenly realized there were wearing the same black shirt. Then, I noticed the same pants on both, and then their shoes of course.
When they turned around to face me, I was looking at two identical men, right down to their neatly trimmed hair.
I felt the color briefly run out of my face when I saw the twins standing side by side.
When the two men started toward Mick and I, a wave of panic hit me for a minute like a hot flash in the middle of a cold night.
However, I knew an overly excited reaction could bring attention we did not need or want. I decided to just let things happen as they may.
The two men stood directly behind Mick when he suddenly caught a glimpse of my face. His own brand of confusion set in for just a minute before he jumped to his feet and turned around. He snatched at his belt, where a pistol would hang if we were out “at work.”
Backing away slowly, his hand repeatedly closed around the absent pistol’s imaginary grip.
He nearly tripped before regained his composure, stopping dead still next to my chair. Suddenly, the two men pointed as if they were mirror images, and in perfect unison, said, “sit”
Mick dropped into the chair directly to my right. He sat.