November 1977—Somewhere Over the Adriatic Sea
As the morning Thai Inter flight from Rome to Athens sailed over the calm Adriatic Sea I suddenly found myself caught up in a maelstrom of conspiracy at thirty-some thousand feet. Diplomatic Courier Victor Rothman, sitting next to me, had just confessed that he had firsthand knowledge that a Foreign Service Officer at the American Embassy Athens (my destination) was smuggling “valuable articles” currently in Rothman’s diplomatic pouch in the belly of this aircraft.
<feature photo by pinterest.com
The revelation of such proportion had removed oxygen from the air inside the cabin of the Thai International 747 aircraft. My lungs searched for air while Victor confronted the gravity of the situation. His coffee cup slammed down on the tabletop. He smothered his face with hands worn by gripping diplomatic pouches by the necks.
Flying high in the stratosphere accelerates everything. When Victor acknowledged that there may a fortune in contraband inside his diplomatic pouch in the belly of this plane, I suddenly had to urinate. I got up and hurried to the restroom.
It had been unnecessary to hold my breath in the lavatory. The Thai stewardesses maintained perfectly clean restrooms. I did my business, terminated by the supersonic toilet’s familiar WHOOSH. One of our crypto techs at RCO Karachi had told me that the 747 toilet blasts had put the fear of Allah in the hearts of Middle East pilgrims headed to Mecca in Saudi Arabia (most of them had never flown before).
I slowly made my way back to my seat, trying to memorize the few faces. Why? Wasn’t it obvious? There might be a fortune in contraband on the flight. Victor might not realize that a perpetrator on this flight could be looking after his or her interest. Or, could it be Victor’s paranoia rubbing off on me?
Unbelievably, Victor Rothman, the globetrotting diplomatic courier, holder of suspense, keeper of secrets, snored away when I returned. I sat down and requested another coffee from the stewardess. My lips passed so close to her ear they almost brushed her lobe.
The model of efficiency (and not bad looking either) returned immediately with my coffee. While I sipped on it I began to wonder if Victor might be so bored with life that he fabricated this “war story” to generate some jollies with his courier buddies. I glanced across the cabin. The cute brunette in the window seat had been eyeing me. When I smiled, her eyes flashed an angry warning. She raised a newspaper in defense.
What was that was all about? Could she be privy to this conspiracy?
The subtle decrease in speed signaled that the pilot had begun his descent. Another twenty minutes and we’d be on the ground.
The lights came on. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain speaking…”
Victor stretched his arms and yawned, like he had just awakened in the Waldorf Astoria penthouse suite. He surprised me when he said casually, “Where are you staying?”
I told him the name of the hotel, and sure enough Victor had a reservation there, too. This flabbergasted me given that it was a small boutique hotel that the RCO techs all recommended. “How did you find the hotel?”
“Diplomatic couriers always stay there. It’s close to the embassy. Listen, I have to drop my diplomatic pouch off at the embassy first,” he said. “You want to share a taxi?”
“Didn’t the embassy schedule a courier van for you?”
“They told me it broke down.”
That sounded fishy. “I’ve got a lady friend picking me up,” I said, a fabrication.
With a brief suspension of disbelief Victor actually laughed and said, “Aren’t we the lucky one.”
“Maybe we can meet up for dinner later on,” I blurted out.
“Your girlfriend probably wouldn’t appreciate me tagging along.”
“No, she’s visiting her mother on the coast this evening.”
He gave it some thought and said, “Just between you and me, I smuggled a few cans of Starkist tuna fish in my luggage. I think I’ll visit a market and buy some bread and mayo for tuna fish sandwiches. You’re welcome to stop by my room.”
Sorry, Charlie. I let out an unforced chuckle and said, “I don’t think so Victor. Thanks for the offer.”
Moussaka, Baklava, Greek Salad… delicious food… and this guy’s content with canned tuna fish from Charlie the Tuna?
I said, “Take it easy on the local beer, huh.”
“No, no, I’m not drinking anything tonight. Tomorrow’s D-Day, a potentially dangerous one. My Lufthansa flight to Berlin leaves early.”
I thought about RSO Childress in Cairo. He would want me to report this “matter of security” ASAP upon arrival at Am Embassy Athens. “Victor, is the Regional Security Officer aware of your dilemma?”
“State Department security is handling it. S.Y. reportedly will have a team on the ground in Athens this afternoon.”
The wheels touched down on the runway, smooth as silk. I turned to Victor. “If I don’t see you, have a safe trip, huh.”
“I hope so,” he said, his voice a dreadful tone.
After the plane came to a halt I grabbed my briefcase and dodged passengers down the center aisle. Charlie the Tuna told me to get as far away from Victor Rothmans as possible.
When I exited the plane the sun blinded me. An image of the OC Bandits (my cohorts back in Northern Virginia) surfaced. They were all laughing at me.
Passengers trampled down the portable stairwell toward the two awaiting buses that had ample seating.
After an eternity the land transports ambled along to the Arrivals gate. The passengers seated around me seemed lost in thought. I wondered about Victor the diplomatic courier whose slow gait put him in the second bus. His espionage revelation was so real, yet so unlikely…
The image of the OC Bandits returned. Could they be part of some farfetched prank in cahoots with a member of the Diplomatic Corps? That sounded farfetched…
The tuna fish smelled rotten.
(To be continued)