An excerpt from the novella by Josh Lanyon
There was something familiar about the man at the airline ticket counter.
Taylor studied him for a moment. Medium height... slightly stooped... medium weight... aquiline features beneath the tweed cap. Nothing unique about an old man in a raincoat. In fact, the very ordinariness of him was part of what caught Taylor’s eye. It was like the old guy had taken inconspicuous to an art form.
“Next!” called one of the agents at the check-in desk. The couple in front of Taylor dragged their children and luggage to the next open space at the long desk. Taylor stepped forward. The serpentine line shuffled and scooted behind him.
Had he remembered the photos of Riley? Taylor double-checked quickly. No. He’d left them on the kitchen table. Damn. He knew how much Will missed that damn dog, and he’d meant the snapshots as a little surprise.
Oh well. If Will wanted to see Riley that much, he could always come home.
Taylor glanced up automatically as the old man ahead of him turned away from the ticket counter.
Dark eyes met his, held his gaze for an instant, then dismissed him. The back of Taylor’s neck prickled. No. No way. It couldn’t be.
But he couldn’t quite ignore that feeling of recognition.
He’d been reading an article in American Cop on the history of modern terrorism in Europe. That had to be why he was suddenly seeing a long-dead Breton separatist in the first senior citizen wearing a beret who crossed his path.
Okay, not a beret, but close enough to trigger the connection.
A ticket agent at the far end opened and nodded to Taylor. “Sir.”
The line behind Taylor breathed a collective sigh. One step closer to the prize.
“Next in line please,” the ticket agent encouraged when Taylor didn’t seem to be getting the hint.
Taylor groaned inwardly. He was probably wrong.
More importantly, he was on vacation. He had a plane to catch. A plane he had no intention of missing. It had been eleven months since he’d seen Will. Eleven months since they’d been together. No fucking way was he missing this plane.
But what if he wasn’t wrong? What if by some crazy coincidence he had just seen a ghost?
Oh, what the hell.
He moved instead to the agent who had assisted Helloco, if Helloco it was. She was busily putting a little CLOSED sign at her place, with the air of someone taking her break come hell or high water.
He sized her up fast. Cute and prim in her navy blue polyester. A girl in love with the rules and regulations. He looked for her name badge. Bridget Martinez.
“Bridget.” She did her best not to see him, but Taylor pasted on his most charming smile and pushed harder. “That guy you just gave a boarding pass to -- where is he headed?”
Bridget looked as surprised as if her ticket machine had asked her to bring it back a cappuccino. “Sir?”
“Your last customer. I need his name and his flight number.” Taylor already had his DSS ID out. He was keeping his voice down, trying to avoid attention, but she was backing away from the counter, shaking her head, doing her best to separate herself from whatever situation he was trying to drag her into.
“I’m sorry but we can’t give out that information.”
Taylor pushed his ID toward her, hoping the problem was her vision. “I’m with the Diplomatic Security Service.”
Bridget stopped backing away, but her expression grew more skeptical. “I never heard of it.”
“I’m with the State Department.”
“You just said you were with the Diplomacy Service. Anyway, that’s not what your badge says.”
“The hell it doesn’t.” Taylor jabbed his finger at the blue and gold ring around the seal on his badge. Department of State. Diplomatic Security Service. “It says it right here.”
Bridget didn’t exactly roll her eyes, but if he thought she’d been born yesterday, he clearly had another think coming. “Anyone can have one of those made.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“It doesn’t even look real.”
As much as Taylor hadn’t wanted to start this, her obstructive attitude hardened his resolve. “Get your manager.” He watched the luggage moving on the conveyor belt behind Bridget. “Did he check a bag?”
He smothered his exasperation. “The guy you just checked in. Do not let any of his luggage go through.”
Bridget was looking at Taylor as though he were a nut. In fairness, working at a ticket counter in an airport probably jaded you as fast as working in law enforcement.
Bridget waved to another airline employee in a navy suit. “Mr. Yousef! Mr. Yousef, can I see you please.”
Maybe she was trying for discretion, but the overall impression was clean up on aisle three! Bored passengers were staring their way, and the man who might be -- but probably was not -- Yann Helloco was now a quickly disappearing tan raincoat in a crowd of tan raincoats heading for the security screening lines.
Mr. Yousef, big, black, and bald, with an unexpectedly charming smile, joined Bridget at the counter. He silently examined Taylor’s ID as Bridget filled him on the details.
“This customer is trying to get personal information about another customer. He says he’s a secret agent.”
“What?” Taylor spared her a startled look before turning back to Yousef. “I’m with the DSS. That’s a division of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.”
“Sure.” Yousef spoke in a deep and melodious bass. “You’re the guys who protect foreign bigwigs when they visit.”
“Right.” It was like the relief of finding someone who spoke English in a foreign country. “Among other things. Bridget here just processed a passenger who I believe might be wanted by Interpol.” He was trying very hard not to use the T word.
“Might,” Yousef repeated as the conveyor belt behind him lurched forward again.
“Please don’t let that bag go through without screening it,” Taylor told Bridget, who was waiting hopefully for Yousef to chop him into mincemeat. She ignored him.
“Bag? Every bag we checked is screened.”
Mr. Yousef turned to Bridget, who said with a tight little smile, “I tried to tell this gentleman that the other customer didn’t check any baggage.”
Taylor opened his mouth, but really…bigger fish to fry. He turned to Yousef.
Yousef said, “Bridget, did you not see this agent’s identification and badge?”
“Well, yes, but you can get those made anywhere. And it doesn’t look real.”
Mr. Yousef shook his head apologetically at Taylor. “Let’s get the information Special Agent MacAllister needs.”
Bridget returned to her computer and tapped the keys in quick, irritated strokes.
She moved aside for Mr. Yousef, who read aloud, “Yannick Hinault. He’s on his way to Paris on Delta Flight DL67 departing from Gate 57.”
Yann Helloco and Yannick Hinault. Not exactly case closed but surely too similar for coincidence?
“I’m leaving my stuff with you.” Taylor unloaded his suitcase and carry-on bag, ignoring Bridget’s instinctive protest. “Can you call the gate and have them hold that flight? And have security meet me there.”
“I can try,” Yousef said. “But you better be sure this is your guy, or I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes.”
Taylor was already moving in that easy law enforcement lope that covered a lot of ground without giving the public the impression that there was cause for alarm. Even so he was moving way too fast for anyone in an airport, and security officers were moving to intercept him as he headed for the screening tables.
A quick survey of the lines of shoeless and coatless passengers confirmed there was no sign of Helloco or Hinault or whoever this asshole was who was already starting to interfere with Taylor’s much-needed vacation.
Then the unis were blocking his view. Taylor flashed his tin, doing his best to explain the situation without triggering all the alarms in the place. It was his bitter experience that getting airport security involved was usually more trouble than it was worth, but there was no way around it. It was at times like these he missed Will. Will was so much better at finessing... well, everyone.
“Are you armed, Agent MacAllister?” a short, squat guy with a face like the Great Pumpkin questioned.
Taylor shook his head. “No. I’m on my annual leave. My weapon is secured at my place of residence.”
The rent-a-cops began to ask him the usual stuff: Had he been drinking?; Was he on medication? Did he look like a guy who had been drinking or was on medication?
In the back of Taylor’s mind he could hear Will cautioning him to be cool, to play the game, so he bit back his immediate retort. He knew the ritual was partly departmental flexing of muscles and partly the fact that these jokers considered snagging a pair of nail scissors off old ladies a coup for law enforcement.
Another uniform joined the crowd surrounding Taylor. “He checks out.”
“Sorry for the hassle, but we have to follow procedure,” the Great Pumpkin told Taylor. “You know how it is.”
“Yeah. No problem. Can we move?”
To their credit, they did hustle their asses, leading the way through a complex maze of backdoor corridors until they reached Gate 57 where by now flight DL67 was boarding. Taylor strode quickly through the waiting area, scanning the seats and lines of bored passengers. There was no sign of Hinault.
He began studying body types and facial structure. If Hinault was Helloco, he was one cool and clever customer, so Taylor was putting no trick in the book past him.
The airline agent behind the customer service station spoke into the microphone. “Will passenger Yannick Hinault please report to the customer service desk? Passenger Yannick Hinault, please report to the customer service desk.”
Taylor moved to the edge of the waiting area and watched for anyone trying to slip away. No one came to the desk, and no one showed any interest in missing their flight.
Taylor swore inwardly. He turned to the milling security officers. The Great Pumpkin raised his arms in a beats me gesture.
Taylor took a couple of angry paces. What now? Nine passenger terminals connected by a U-shaped two-level roadway: Los Angeles International Airport was one of the largest airports in the world.
He checked his iPhone. He was going to miss his flight. Shit. Where they hell did they even s--
“Uncle Taylor.” Skinny arms wrapped around Taylor’s waist. Taylor spun around.
A dark-haired boy of eight or so was smiling up at him in delight. Taylor experienced one of those worlds-colliding moments as he belatedly recognized his eight-year-old nephew, Jamie.
“What are you doing here?”
He must have sounded pretty sharp because Jamie’s face fell and he turned scarlet, suddenly aware of the armed and uniformed men surrounding him. He let go of Taylor and retreated.
Taylor spotted his sister Tara approaching. She carried her younger son Jase on her hip, and she was staring at Taylor as though an eyesore had appeared on her horizon. Looping an arm around Jamie, she pulled him close.
“Taylor? What’s going on?”
Taylor said at the same moment, “Are you on this flight?”
“We’re meeting James in Paris. What’s happening? Is there a problem?” Her gaze traveled from Taylor to the phalanx of security officers behind him.
James MacDonald, Tara’s husband, was an executive for Geo-Gulf Oil, one of the companies owned by Taylor’s and Tara’s stepfather. James worked and lived a large part of the year in Bahrain. Tara and the boys traveled back and forth from California.
“I don’t know if there’s a problem or not,” Taylor told her.
“You don’t know?”
That was the trouble being the youngest child. No matter how old you got, how good you were at your job, or what a well-known badass you turned out to be, you were always the nutty kid brother to your siblings.
Other passengers were watching them suspiciously. Taylor led Tara to the side. “I think they’re going to cancel the flight, but if they don’t, don’t get on that plane.”
“Cancel the flight?”
Taylor winced. Tara would never make a poker player.
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“Probably nothing. But just I don’t want to take any chances.”
Jase reached out and tried to grab Tara’s hoop earring. She automatically shifted him to the other hip. “Taylor, you can’t just drop a bomb like that and not expect any questions.”
At the word bomb, a collective shudder went through the security people who were now watching brother and sister as much as the general boarding area.
Tara glanced back at them, did a double take, and turned to Taylor. She’d lost color. Her arms instinctively tightened around Jase. “Oh my God.”
Taylor said quickly, “Nothing’s been confirmed. Not even close. I’m probably way off base here. But let’s not take any chances.”
Tara stared at him. “You don’t think you’re wrong.”
He admitted wearily, “I have no idea if I’m wrong. All I know for sure is I just missed my own flight.”
“Where are you flying to?”
He shook his head. “Different flight.”
Tara bit her lip, gazing at the crowded lounge area where the restless passengers were now beginning to openly share their irritation at the delay. “Maybe your guy took the other flight?”
Taylor shook his head. “He can’t have boarded another Delta flight using that name. He’s been flagged. Or... at least...”
“What?” Tara was watching him closely.
Taylor shook his head again. “I’m not sure. It’s a long shot. I’ve got to go talk to these cowboys. Just wait here. They’ve got instructions to hold the plane.”
“For how long?”
“For however long it takes. They’re telling me no luggage was checked, so it’s probably fine. Even so, don’t board this flight.”
“What are you talking about, don’t board this flight? We can’t just waste these tickets. Do you have any idea how expensive it will be to try to --”
He wasn’t listening.
Was it possible that Hinault or Helloco or whoever this guy was had made him in the check-in queue?
If so, would Helloco have a backup plan? What would that backup plan be?
Will was always telling Taylor what a devious bastard he was. Okay, what would another devious bastard do in this situation? Assuming -- and it was a big assumption, after all -- that Taylor’s imagination wasn’t running away with him and that he had really seen Yann Helloco.
The more he thought about it, the more doubtful it seemed. The coincidence of the similar names and destination -- Paris notwithstanding.
“We need to do a full sweep of the airport,” Taylor told the Great Pumpkin.
The Great Pumpkin laughed.
“I’m not kidding around. We need to conduct a full search of all the airport terminals.”
“If you’re not kidding, then I want whatever the hell it is you’re smoking. We can’t authorize that kind of operation based on your say-so. There are procedures. There are channels.”
“Fine. Let’s initiate whatever those procedures are through whatever channels necessary.”
The other man stared at him for a long, grim moment. “Have it your way. But you better be right.”
* * * * *
He was not right.
“Better safe than sorry, sir,” Taylor said to Assistant Field Office Director Cooper when he was summoned, forty-five minutes later, to the phone in Security. It was what Will would have said, for sure, in the same position. Not that Will would have got himself into the same position.
“That’s true, MacAllister,” Cooper replied. “Provided we’re talking about pool safety or learning to use the crosswalk. It’s not true when we’re talking about the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of dollars it would have cost to mount a full-scale search of the LAX and ground all those flights you wanted grounded. I’ve got the FAA and TSA and Homeland Security all screaming for your head on a platter. I’m tempted to give it to them.”
It was difficult, very difficult, to substitute the things he really wanted to say for a restrained, “I’m sorry, sir. I had to make a judgment call.”
“Judgment is the last word you should be using, MacAllister. You’re not even sure it was Helloco. The odds are you did not see Helloco. “
Taylor held his tongue. Cooper was right.
“By rights I ought to cancel your leave and drag you back here for a full inquiry, but as you clearly need this vacation time, we’ll postpone till your return.”
Taylor struggled within himself. “Thank you, sir.”
Cooper hung up. Loudly.
* * * * *
“Better safe than sorry,” Tara reassured him before she boarded her own much-delayed flight. “You did the right thing.”
Taylor nodded. He ruffled Jamie’s hair. “Be good, sport.”
Jamie beamed up at him, adoring once more. It was not a generally shared view.
Hinault’s flight was the one plane that had been held. Every piece of luggage in its cargo hold had been searched, but nothing had been found. Every piece of luggage matched perfectly to another irate passenger complaining about missed connections and lost hotel reservations and blown business meetings and the general inconvenience.
In fairness, Taylor had also missed his flight, and although the consensus was that he had done the only possible thing in reporting his suspicions, he could feel his lack of popularity in the apathetic effort to get him rebooked.
When he found out the next flight to Paris was not until midnight, he had to fight the urge to punch something. Ideally Yannick Hinault, but Hinault seemed to have vanished into thin air.
After he watched Tara’s plane depart, Taylor found a pay phone and dialed the number of the US Embassy in Paris. Before the call went through he remembered the time difference. It would be one o’clock in the morning. Saturday morning at that. He disconnected and redialed Will’s apartment from memory. He’d be waking Will out of a sound sleep to tell him the whole story and admit that his overzealousness had cost them a full day together.
The phone rang on the other end with a perky jangle that sounded peculiarly French. The receiver picked up on the second ring, and a crisp male American accent that was definitely not Will’s said, “Hello?”
Copyright 2000-17, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.