"They'll know," she thought. "They'll take one look and they'll see right through me."
Irene hurried along the sidewalk, uncertain whether she was walking too fast or too slowly. The occasional pedestrians paid her no particular attention, but she was certain that some of them were watching her.
"Don't think like that," she told herself sternly. "You've got to relax. You're a junior assistant going home early from a business trip, and that's all you need to remember."
It was a brisk March day, and springtime seemed a long ways off. Gray clouds scudded quickly across the sky.
Irene came to a turn in the road. One the edge of the sidewalk stood an enclosed bus shelter, and as soon as she reached it she stopped abruptly. She stared at a glassed-in advertisement poster, just as shed been trained to do. But she focused her eyes on the dim reflections in the glass, rather than taking in, and envying, the curvaceous supermodel depicted within.
No one stopped short behind her; in fact, no one was paying her the least bit of attention.
"That just proves how good they are," Irene told herself darkly. She took advantage of her reflection to comb her straight, brown hair back, as the wind had blown it loose, as it had been all that afternoon. "That empty-headed woman in the poster wouldn't last an hour, doing what I've been," she thought, hoping to bolster her spirits.
It didn't work. She hugged her coat around herself and started off again.
The airport terminal was getting close. Over the years, the sight of its long, curved, concrete facade had evoked many feelings in many hearts, but for Irene it represented her greatest hope: a passage to safety, and to friendlier lands.
In front of the terminal she fended of the rapacious taxi drivers, obsequious porters and various other local denizens, and made her way inside to the ticket counter. At many of the other airports shed passed through in recent months, there had only been one counterfor there had only been one airline. Here, however, there were dozens of counters, though most were staffed by locals.
Many of Irene's countrymen found the locals interesting, even exotic. Some of the youth back home actually sought to imitate them! And she herself had been drilled for months in their curious mannerisms. Now she just wanted was to leave it all behind.
"Please, business class," Irene told the woman at the ticket counter. "A window seat, if possible." She clutched her attaché case to her side, and kept her purse over her shoulder. "This is all the luggage I have," she told the clerk. "Ill just carry it on."
She made her way towards the departure gates. Now came the hard part, the one shed practiced more than anything else. In the past shed gotten though Passport Control easily, her identity as a businessmans assistant hardly drawing any comment. But this was her most important assignment yet, and she was getting very nervous.
The uniformed man in the booth was young, and surprisingly nonchalant. He took her passport in one hand, and fingered it open, eyeing the first couple of pages for a few seconds each. He paid a little more attention to the visa stamp and her entry documents, though his bored expression remained fixed.
Mechanically he stamped her passport, scribbled something illegible on her papers, then handed them back to her without even looking up.
She didnt allow herself to feel relief, for she still had to get through the Customs inspection.
Here she faced a florid, heavy-set woman, backed up by several staffers, including an armed guard. She placed her attaché case on the counter and opened it. The purse she kept over her shoulder.
As shed hoped, the woman asked to see her purse, and then proceeded to empty it, minutely examining each item within. The attaché case, still lying open on the table, received a much more cursory look.
The woman examined her "financial and purchases" paperwork. "Didn't buy much, did you?" she said to Irene. "Most of you people really stock up while they're here."
"I'm with the trade delegation that's in town," Irene explained. "One of my children has fallen ill, so I'm leaving a bit early."
"I see," the woman replied, in a tome that implied that she didn't see at all. "Are they going to sign the trade agreement, do you think?"
Irene was surprised at the womans question. Not that many people paid attention to such goings on, even here in the capital.
"Yes, I believe they will," she said. "My boss is even going to stay on an extra day to work out the details, I think. He'll just have to manage without me, I guess."
"They can do some amazing things with those computers these days," the woman commented. "Especially with that new chip that just came out here."
Irene nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
"Go on, then." The woman closed Irene's purse and attaché case, and handed them back.
As Irene turned to leave the Customs inspection room, she finally noticed the young man from the passport booth. He'd come in sometime during the inspection, and was sitting with his back to the woman in charge, idly sipping a cup of coffee. Irene assumed hed just gotten off shift.
As she walked away, she clutched the attaché case tightly under her arm. She could almost feel the brand-new computer chips concealed within, as if they were peas and she a princess.
She reached the boarding gate in time to see her plane roll up, and disgorge its incoming passengers. Below, service people swarmed around the fuselage. She sat near the gate, then noticed a an shed seen earlier, coming down the concourse. He sat nearby, and buried his face in a newspaper.
Irene stood, and walked into a nearby souvenir shop. The man also stood, and walked slowly to a spot where he could see her. She exited the other side, and headed for a bank of pay phones farther along. Again she was followed.
Then the boarding announcement came over the loudspeakers. With no further need for pretense, she turned and hurried back the gate. The line was already forming.
Just as she was about to present her ticket, she felt a tap on her shoulder. It was an airport security officer, a grim looking young woman, and she had backup. The officer lead Irene away, opened an unmarked door, and took her down a narrow corridor. She was deposited unceremoniously in a small room, and left alone. She sat down on one of the plain, folding chairs.
Irene had desperate visions of prying the purloined computer chips from their hiding place, and throwing them away. Or maybe swallowing them. But before she could do anything, the door opened, and her Agency boss stepped into the room.
She hadn't seen him for two weeks, when hed debriefed her after her last assignment, and that had been a continent away. As the implications of this sank in, she turned icy cold inside. If he had betrayed her, that meant he was a traitor. Then she would never be allowed to go free, not knowing what she did now.
His expression betrayed none of this. In fact, he was smiling amiably.
"This is sick," Irene thought, even as he sat down beside her.
"You have done well, Irene," he said. "Look, we already have them."
He stood up and walked to a large, silvered window. With a flick of his fingers the room fell dark, and they could see through the glass. In the room beyond, two men were sitting at a long table. Both were handcuffed.
Irene recognized the young man from the Passport Control booth, and the man who had been following her in the concourse. Both were in handcuffs.
"I don't understand," Irene said feebly.
"They work for an international terrorist organization," Irenes boss told her. "That official, he called his contact in the city center. They were going to kidnap our trade representative. The other, he was going to kill you, and take the chips you are carrying."
"But, how . . . " Irene sputtered.
"I'm sorry, but you could not know," Colonel Nabukov told her. "You had to act naturally or they might have suspected a trap. They say the Cold War is over, but we can never rest. We and the Americans hoped they would follow you, and so give themselves away. And they did, for the stolen microchips were too attractive a bait."
He lead her back to the concourse.
"Final call for Aeroflot flight 228, boarding for Moscow," the loudspeaker said.
"You go on now," Nabukov said. "And take the chips with you. The trade agreement was signed an hour ago. You are no longer a smuggler."
"I'll see you when you get back home," Irene said gratefully.
© 1997 by Paul Carlson