I. Unattended Luggage Alert
He sat at a table in the Madrid International Airport food court. There was a little bit of time before his plane left. A black backpack sat in the chair next to him. A half-empty root beer can sat in front of him. Other than the fact that he was clearly visibly nervous as hell, there was nothing to indicate he was up to anything.
Lots of people get nervous in airports, it’s pretty normal. Most people tend to think they’ll be lucky enough to be in a plane crash even though it’s safer than driving by spades, but it’s unfamiliar so it’s scarier. That’s just how people are, victims of a consciousness they can’t understand or use correctly.
The man at the table had never flown before. He’d also never smuggled 2 million dollars worth of diamonds from Madrid to Philadelphia before. In fact, he’d never smuggled so much as a beer can or nickel-bag past his mom. In the scheme of things, 2 million dollars in stolen diamonds isn’t enough to matter- unless you’re the one who has to carry them around. He really had nothing to worry about. The stones were in a lead-lined pouch stuffed into a pair of socks at the bottom of his backpack, underneath a plastic bag full of dirty laundry, which was underneath two days of t-shirts and underpants. This did nothing to make him less nervous. He couldn’t help but feel that everyone knew what he was doing, that everyone was looking at him and saying: “Tsk tsk, how dare you smuggle diamonds,” to him with their eyes. This feeling of transparency didn’t stop with human travelers; he was sure that a few of the dogs he walked past could tell what he was up to as well.
To make matters worse, he didn’t even want to do it. He wasn’t a smuggler by trade or desire. He was terrified of flying more than of getting caught with the diamonds. If he did get caught, he might get a chance to tell his story to someone who could help him.
His name was Rodger LaMinga. He learned some things he shouldn’t have known and now he was smuggling diamonds to avoid being murdered.
A voice spoke over the loudspeaker, snapping him from his fear-induced trance. Rodger finished his root beer, looked around to see if he was being watched, tossed the soda can into a larger can, and then heeded the boarding call of his flight.
As he settled into his seat several minutes later, his paranoia receded but his fear of flying remained. It stayed with him the entire nine-hour flight and was replaced with paranoia about getting caught again as soon as the plane’s tires hit the runway.
As he exited the plane he tried his best to look like a normal person, and by most accounts did fairly well. Most people just walked past him like they were wrapped up in their own phantoms and fears. They walked past him that way because they were that way.
Vincent Harris had no fears or phantoms of his own, not anymore. He was sitting in the terminal, charging his cell phone, when he noticed Rodger wandering around, looking at things like Tarzan did the first time he went to New York City. He watched as he bumped into an old lady, nearly knocking her over. He watched while he almost jumped out of his skin because a bomb-sniffing dog walked by. Harris found it amusing. He also felt himself starting to feel sorry for him. He always felt pity when he saw normal people wasting time being afraid of things of their own creation.
Harris cringed inside when Rodger tried to find a seat to sit in. He hesitated in front of every empty chair like he was checking it for invisible guilt detectors. All the available chairs seemed unacceptable and Harris started to amuse himself by trying to guess why Rodger had passed up each empty seat he encountered.
“Nice job buddy, I wouldn’t sit there either. Looks haunted,” he thought. “That one looks cursed,” he mumbled while Rodger rejected the second seat he was appraising.
“Has a bomb in it.”
“Ohhh, that one is a portal to the fairy realm.”
“Ehhh, don’t sit there- it’s poison.”
Eventually, Rodger found a seat that met his internal criteria for safety and sat down, pulling a cell phone from his pocket and placing his backpack on the ground in front of him, between his legs, while doing so.
“Wait a sec,” Harris simultaneously thought and said, “I have the same backpack.” When thought and speech sync up like that it tends to yank a person’s attention out of their head and back to what’s in front of them in the real world. He sighed to himself thinking, “Well, looks like my vacation is delayed again.”
Harris had flown out of Washington D.C. earlier that day, after having gotten his boss fired and blackmailing the President of the United States. It went well and he left the negotiation table with a paid month off and a new boss of his own choosing. He picked Philadelphia for his vacation because he liked the smell of hoagies and cheesesteaks, even though he didn’t eat them. He didn’t eat them because he couldn’t; it went against his training regimen.
He could smell as much of whatever he wanted to though, and he chose to smell giant sandwiches made from Italian luncheon meats whenever the opportunity presented itself.
It was clear to Harris that this man he’d been amusing himself with was nervous beyond reason. It was the kind of nervous normally reserved for when you run a stop sign and suddenly find yourself surrounded by a SWAT team. He didn’t have the demeanor of a weary, innocent traveler overwhelmed by the unfamiliar. There’s a sense of wonder that goes with being somewhere new that was missing here. The man was up to something for sure, but from the way he was behaving, he was as inexperienced as it gets. He couldn’t be a spy or a professional drug mule. Those people walk around with a sense of purpose. There’s no way his handler would let him off his leash in this state. When it’s your job to lie or present yourself as something other than what you are, quiet confidence is key. And this guy had none. He might as well be wearing a sign above his head asking to be questioned.
Harris waited for a seat to open next to the nervous man. When that happened he gathered his things and walked over to it. He didn’t approach directly. He also slowed his thoughts and his breathing while thinking happy thoughts. He sat down and said a polite “Hello” to Rodger and smiled. Rodger flinched, surprised at the stranger’s attention and nodded nervously. He then looked at his phone in order to avoid further interaction.
Vincent Harris tapped the man on the shoulder and whispered “Hey buddy, check her out,” while he gestured in a vague direction with his thumb. When Rodger turned his head to have a look, Harris switched their backpacks. When the nervous man turned back to look at Harris, he was gone. There was a business card in his place. The nervous man picked it up and read it:
The card had a drawing of an angel holding a sword on it. Harris was originally against the design when he ordered them. He thought the angel was too much, but he wasn’t going to pay for another batch when these were perfectly good. He passed them out to people who looked like they were in a tight spot. Sometimes they called, sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes he’d see them on the news and sometimes he wouldn’t. If they called, he would help them. It was his way of making peace with all of the horrible things he’s done over the past decade. It also made him feel like a one-man A-Team, which was a bonus.
Harris was delighted with himself as he checked into his hotel room. He couldn’t wait to see what was inside the backpack. He’s seen the switched-luggage bit play out in plenty of movies and television shows, but he had never had the chance to be a part of an actual, real live, switch-a-roo. “Depending on what’s in the bag, this might turn out to be way more exciting than smelling hoagies for a month,” he thought to himself while taking the steps to his sixth-floor room four at a time.
He eagerly dumped the contents of the bag onto the bed as soon as he’d shut the door to his room and fished around for what was making the nervous man so nervous. He noticed that one pair of socks weighed more than the others and quickly withdrew the pouch hidden within.
Spilling the diamonds into his hand he thought, “Oh man, jackpot. Obviously stolen jewels and a luggage switch-a-roo?” He was in the process of settling his thoughts and planning the next move when his phone rang. He knew it was the nervous man because the only other people he’d given his special business card to were dead.
“Go time,” he thought before answering. “Hello,” he said while trying his best to sound like a composite of all the action heroes he’d ever seen.
“Hi, yeah, uh…this is Rodger, the guy from the airport.”
“Oh, hey- glad ya called. How’s it going?”
“Um..uh…not well, thanks for asking,” Rodger sounded like he was about to burst into tears anytime now. “I think we switched bags. Thing is, I really need my bag back. It’s important.”
“I know,” Harris replied. “It had a ton of diamonds in it. Where did you get them?”
“Umm..well, I found them?” It puzzled Harris that what the man had said was not a question, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d been asked something. Before he could say anything the voice on the telephone said, “My name is Rodger LaMing…” the sound of a pistol going off obscured the man’s voice. This was followed by the sound someone makes when they fall over. Harris could hear the man take his last few breaths before the line went dead.
“Oh man,” Harris softly whispered into the phone he was still holding. “I thought this time would be different.”