The inside of the airport was a madhouse. Men, women, and children of both genders rushed from one end of the terminal to the other. Some families carried large suitcases and spoke to each other in English, or Spanish, or occasionally just French. Businessmen strode past them, weaving between the crowds with practiced ease, speaking into their cell phones in crisp sentences. Tourists lingered near the entrances and the counters, or simply gaped in awe at the insanity of the terminal. I was one of the only people not taken aback by the rush and fuss of the interior, but who also didn’t seem to have a particular destination in mind. I reveled in the bedlam. Chaos was my best friend and perhaps my only ally at the moment.
I assessed the severity of the problem and quickly built a list of potential solutions. The first possibility, and the easiest, was to find a civilian who had access. I rolled my shoulders and felt a little bit of stress leave the muscles before I found a short line at one of the counters. The clerk was a French lady with a short blonde bob. A customer stood in front of her desk, berating her in rapid-fire French. She grimaced at the tirade and tried to turn the expression into an approximation of a smile. The effort wasn’t entirely effective, but the angry customer didn’t seem to care. He yelled a few more words at her – several of which almost had to be curses, judging from his inflection – and snatched his ticket off of the counter before he stormed away.
“You’ll do,” I muttered. One of the basic rules for dealing with service workers or, really, any sort of employee who has to deal with customers on a regular basis is that they feel unappreciated. Take a little time to treat them like a person, maybe shed a few tears, and most people will inherently want to help with whatever problem you’ve got.
I counted to thirty in my head, before I made my approach. She gave me a purely professional smile as I approached. In turn, I gave her a rueful grin.
“Tell me you speak English.” I injected a little bit of panic into my voice and leaned in to read her name tag. “Audrey, right?”
She flashed her teeth at me. Names were always a good start. “I do, monsieur. How can I help you today?”
I handed her my ticket and, when she took the packet, began to rub my hands together nervously. “I have a friend in Ukraine who had to go to the hospital. He bought this ticket for me last night, but I’m not…I mean, I’ve never really flown anywhere except just small trips across the states, and I’m just worried about missing my flight or…”
Audrey interrupted my rant, as I’d hoped she would. “I am so sorry to hear about your friend. Let’s figure this out, yes?” She glanced at my ticket before she hit a few keys on her computer. “You are on Flight 128, direct to Kiev. That is the flight you would like, correct?”
I fought the urge to roll my eyes. Of course, the flight would be a direct one. “Actually,” I said, making sure to keep up the nervous body language, “he asked me to stop by, uh…” My eyes flickered up, over the clerk’s shoulders, at the board detailing departures and arrivals. One name stood out and I formed an additional step in my growing plan, on the fly. “…by Munich. That’s where his sister lives. She doesn’t know he’s in the hospital yet.”
She typed something into the computer. “Monsieur, we do have a flight on Lufthansa that makes a two hour long stop in Munich along the way. There will only be a surcharge of…” She double-checked the figure. “…one hundred Euros.”
“Oh…no.” Between both pockets, I probably had the equivalent of that price available. I just couldn’t purchase an international ticket without any identification. “I…I don’t have the money for that.” I waited a second and then faked a sob. “I’m just so stupid.”
The clerk glanced to her right and to her left. Her fellow employees were consumed with assisting other customers. “What do you mean?”
“My wallet got stolen,” I lamented, “and I used the last of my cash on the cab ride here. I think the driver might have conned me, but what else was I supposed to do?”
The look she gave me was not a professional one; a glimmer of actual, human emotion shone through her practiced mask. “It is okay, monsieur. That sort of thing happens to tourists here. It is too bad, but it is not the end of the world, is it?”
“You’re right, I know.” I dredged up the saddest memory I could: the image of Sarah’s back, just before she closed the door one of our flats with impunity. The tears that welled up in my eyes were not entirely faked. “It’s just that I wanted to make sure she could be there for him,” I said. “He might not make it, after all. But, she just had to travel and…”
The clerk reached out for my hand and stopped herself at the last moment. I fought back the urge to smile. I had her. “Monsieur, I…” She lowered her voice. “How long have you known this man, your friend?”
“Such a long time,” I said. “But I’ve just been thinking about it so much these past few years. When I heard from him, I just wanted to drop everything and go to see how he’s doing. But…I just didn’t want to forget about the other things. It’s what he’d want me to do, I think. I just wish that I could.”
She checked her surroundings a second time. When no one looked her way, she typed a rapid string of commands into the computer. She reached under the counter and withdrew another packet. “Here you go, Monsieur…” The clerk checked the ticket and raised an eyebrow. “Monsieur Valjean?”
I wiped at my eyes and gave her a weak laugh. “My parents have a weird sense of humor. Are you sure you can do this? I don’t want you to get in trouble.”
“It is no problem,” the clerk said, in a voice only a hair above a whisper. “As far as anyone is concerned, you are flying under my name. It will not be the first time someone has needed assistance, and I am happy to give it.” She looked at her watch. “But you must hurry! Your flight will leave very soon!”
I made a show of checking my pockets and then flashed her a hurried smile. “Thank you so much! I just…I’ll pay you back someday, okay?” Which wasn’t a lie. I made a point of repaying favors, both personally and professionally.
“Do not worry about it,” she said. “It is my pleasure.”
I wiped again at my eyes and ducked away, still murmuring thanks as I went. When I was a safe distance away, I dropped the act. I hadn’t expected Audrey to use her own employee ID to secure a different flight for me. At best, I’d hoped for a little more information about the flight plan; maybe, if the stars were aligned, for a delay that would give me a little bit longer to consider my situation from all angles. Flying under her name, and to Munich no less, was a delightful windfall. Anyone looking for me or, more accurately, my assumed name would have to wait at the terminal in Kiev for hours for a passenger that wouldn’t be there for hours, on an entirely different flight than expected.
An idea struck me, and I smirked. The mysterious “they” didn’t know what I looked like. If I’d had to guess, I’d say that someone had employees placed at key locations throughout Paris, waiting for a phone call or text message to send them after me. The logistics of an operation at that scale were staggering, but the weaknesses of it were obvious, now that I could see the whole of it. Someone didn’t trust their employees with information. That meant there were a lot – possibly a whole lot – of people running blind. I didn’t have to fool all of them; I just had to get them to look in the wrong direction, while I slipped by.
I needed a patsy. I examined everyone around me, searching for a specific body type. I didn’t find one until just before I passed through security. A suited man, carrying a briefcase, cleared the line a little ahead of me. He slipped his passport into his front pants pocket before he greeted a woman on the other side with a passionate kiss. When they parted, he looked around nervously. The fluorescent lighting caught a glint of metal on his hand: a new wedding ring he tried to conceal with his other hand. There was not a matching flash of light from the woman’s hand, and I amended my first thought: not a new wedding ring, but a recently cleaned one.
Security gave me a pat-down and an intensely skeptical look when I placed nothing into the X-ray machine. I gave the stern man a terse recap of the story I’d given Audrey. He didn’t seem to believe me, but he let me pass anyway. I felt his eyes on my back as I walked away, but I kept my own vision fixed on the businessman and his mistress.
“Excuse me!” I called out. They didn’t react, and I tried again in French. “Excusez-moi!”
The woman turned. Her outfit was wildly impractical. She wore a mish-mash of colors and patterns, red and blue and green, with a pair of stiletto heels. As I drew closer, she gave me a withering look over the top of her designer sunglasses. “Est-ce qu’on se connait?”
“Sir! Monsieur!” I aimed my voice at his back and came even closer, picking up a little speed along the way. “Sir!”
The woman sniffed at the air and tapped the businessman on the shoulder. He turned as well, just as I caught up and crashed into him. The two of us, as well as his mistress, went down in a heap of limbs. As he tried to extricate himself, I grabbed his suit jacket and pulled him back down. In the brief struggle, I slipped my hand into his pants pocket and switched my passport with his. When the document was safely in my own jacket, I relaxed my grip. He got to his feet, fuming with anger. He didn’t help his companion up; she struggled a little more to find her balance on her thin heels.
“I’m so sorry!” I said, from the ground. “I thought you were someone else!”
The businessman tugged his jacket back into place and fixed his tie. “Americans.” He pronounced the word with a marked disdain, as if the word was toxic. The woman with him nodded her agreement with the sentiment. They walked away without offering me a hand.
If he had been even a little bit more polite, I might have felt bad about the tail he’d pick up as soon as he touched down in Kiev. As it was, it took most of my limited self-control not to pump my fist at his back. I contented myself with a dirty look. “Have fun with that, asshole.” I stood up again and waved security off when I was on my feet again. The guard who’d seemed skeptical about me before now gave me a downright disbelieving glare; I escaped his gaze before he had a chance to call me over for a “random screening.”
I was past the worst of it, now. There was one thing left to do before I could board my flight, and I had just enough time to do it. I needed to re-establish communications and collect on what few favors I had floating around in the ether. I couldn’t afford to run solo as long as there was someone out there with plans for me. I located a stationary phone and dialed a number I hadn’t used in a long time, even before my prison sentence. The phone rang and rang until it finally clicked over to voicemail.
“This is Alexander.” The voice was deep and its accent was nearly incomprehensible. “Leave your message.” A second passed before I heard a beep.
There were too many possible ways to trace a phone call. It couldn’t hurt to be a little extra paranoid. I forced myself to cough several times until my throat was hoarse. “S-Bahn.” The rasp in my voice hurt, but my voice sounded different to my own ears. “Five hours. Remember Canary.” I paused and checked my borrowed passport. “Berger.” I hung up.
I could only hope that Alex checked his voicemail before I landed, and that he was clever enough to figure out the cryptic message. If not, then I would have a whole different set of problems as soon as I touched down. Either way, there was nothing more to be done about it now.
A polite voice came over the speakers and interrupted my thoughts. “Vol 437 à Munich, embarquement immédiat.” The voice repeated the sentence again in French, before it switched over to English. “Flight 437 to Munich, now boarding. Flight 437 to Munich, now boarding.”
I gave myself a quick check. My stolen passport rested securely in my jacket pocket. There were still a few American dollars in my pants. Other than those two things, all I had to carry with me were my wits. When I started in the business, I hadn’t possessed much more, and I’d done okay for myself. There was every possibility that I could start from scratch once again and make things work.
There wasn’t much of a line to board the plane. The attendant at the gate gave my passport a cursory glance before she waved me through. I was aboard the aircraft inside of five minutes, and seated only a minute after that. I thought that the tension and anxiety of the last twelve hours or so would have kept me awake and wired. I fell asleep, almost as soon as my head touched the seat cushion, and didn’t wake again until the interior lights turned back on and the plane eased itself down into Munich.