November 1977—Somewhere Over the Adriatic Sea
The Egyptian Khamsin (sand storm) and the ghosts of the past remained at the American Embassy Cairo. I was headed to Athens on Thai International Airlines via Rome. Al, my cohort at Am Consul Karachi, had recommended it. Why not a straight flight to Athens? That’s what I asked the Egyptian travel gal at the embassy. Her response was a shrug followed by, “You said you wanted to fly Thai Airways.”
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Ahhh, Athens… the land of the Acropolis and Greek Moussaka. I reclined in my seat. Boisterous Muslim voices of my previous Pakistani Air flight had been replaced by the delicate caresses of Thai stewardesses’ silk dresses as they careened along the aisles.
A somewhat overweight fellow sat next to me in the window seat. Sandwich-wrapped in a wrinkled suit, he read the International Herald Tribune. His worn Clark shoes gave evidence of travel. Given the incidence of terrorism in the Middle East, slapping a Department of State insignia on his briefcase might not have been wise. He had poked a new notch in his belt, further evidence of recent weight gain.
We had a short flight to Athens. The plane was less than half full. No one sat in the middle seat.
The familiar looking gentleman laid down the newspaper. “Are you an American?” I asked.
He lowered his head and nodded.
“Do you work at Am Embassy Athens?”
His droopy cartoon eyes flopped at my Foreign Service reference.
I introduced myself.
“Victor Rothman,” he said.
We shook hands.
I explained that I was a CEO, a Communications Electronic Officer working for the Office of Communications out of Am Consul Karachi. I mentioned I would be on the road in the Middle East sixty per cent of the time. He identified with that.
The Diplomatic Courier Confesses
Rothman expelled a long, slow breath and said, “I’m a Diplomatic Courier.”
Of course he was. “I ran into one of your guys in Paris. I did a non-pro courier run from Paris to Berlin last year during a SECSTATE (Secretary of State Vance) visit.”
Any Foreign Service Officer with a diplomatic passport could be called upon to be a non-professional diplomatic courier when the need arose.
“We’re running short of staff right now,” he said. “I’m headed to Berlin tomorrow, followed by several Eastern European stops before I return to D.C. in two weeks.”
“Wow, I thought I traveled a lot.”
He gazed in front of us. We had bulkhead seats—no one behind. I noticed that there wasn’t anyone in front of us nor were the seats directly across from us occupied. On the other side of the cabin to my starboard, a cute brunette girl had been napping since we left Rome.
Rothman grimaced. “I’m not looking forward to touching down in Athens.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t mean to sound paranoid, but can I see your black passport?”
This guy had something he needed to say. “Sure, I understand.” I reached down and pulled my passport out of the briefcase.
“Thanks,” he said, as he caught the stewardess. “Coffee with cream and sugar.”
I said, “So you aren’t keen on Athens? Why not? I hear it’s a neat place.”
The stewardess leaned across in front of me. I breathed in her exotic scent. Lithe fingers delicately placed the coffee in front of the courier. The courier nodded to her.
After the Thai smile bounced down the aisle Rothman declared, “I don’t know if I should be broadcasting this.”
Now he had me hooked. “Look, I’m not one of those guys with a cavalier attitude. Believe me, whatever you tell me is strictly confidential.”
Was I too eager? Conversely, Victor seemed to lack energy (an occupational hazard for someone who travels a lot?). The image of diplomatic couriers as globetrotting adventurers portrayed in film might have missed the mark.
Rothman stared straight ahead into the seatback and said, “My superiors believe a Foreign Service Officer at Am Embassy Athens is abetting a criminal element to smuggle valuable articles—contraband—in and out of post.”
Here we go again.
“High crimes,” he added ever so slowly in synch with lazy folding eyelids.
He turned and placed his hand on the arm rest. Wearing a hangdog expression Rothman said absently, “The FSO is using my diplomatic pouch to smuggle extremely valuable articles.”
Despite my doubts, I muttered, “What do you mean by valuable articles?”
“My superiors didn’t elaborate. Said it was to my advantage to know as little as possible. The powers that be want me to exercise extraordinary caution into and out of Athens. They’re planning an operation upon my arrival in Berlin tomorrow… Unless… ”
He shook his head.
I leaned across to Rothman. To confirm my understanding I said with a lowered voice, “Do you mean to say there are valuable articles in the diplomatic pouch in the belly of this aircraft?”
Rothman gave me that, “Does a bear shit in the woods?” look with raised eyes.
(To be continued)