Monday, September 12, 2005

Suspect Suspect

Fort Braggart Multi-Cultural Airport. Gate 12. 1330 hours.
I yawned and checked my watch again. Damn. Two more hours until my flight left. As usual, I had gotten to the airport early, at 0900 hours--the day before. The only thing a merc shows up late for is a peace negotiation, and I had war on my mind.
I was on my way to yet another hot spot, in this case the terrorist-friendly confines of Encino, California, where my cousin Rafe, the choreographer, lived. He wanted me to watch his compound while he took some R&R in Hawaii.
Encino's a suburb of L.A., for those of you who aren't world travellers, and like the rest of the City of Angels, it's dangerous. I'd heard Michael Jackson's mother lived there. I hoped it wasn't true.
Airport security was out and about, doing recces of the passenger lounge. I drew no attention as I was dressed conservatively in my desert camo, leather vest, and ascot. The security guys kept checking out the bar, where they'd pretend to drink shots while keeping an eye out for terrorists. They were pros--some of them even appeared drunk after a few hours of their charade. I yawned again and turned back to the Gentleman Survivalist magazine I'd been reading. Two hours.
"Flight One-Niner-Eightish-Seventy...four...hundred..." The PA woke me up. " Encino, now boarding at gate twelver. "
I stood, stretched, and picked up my combat bag. I travel with only a carry-on, and I've done it often enough to know to pack light. For the week's stay I planned, I knew I could get by with twelve sets of BDU's, four ascots, a couple of cans of mustache wax, and a pair of underwear. As for socks--I'd learned long ago that fishnet stockings were the hosiery of choice for professional operators, and I had plenty of those tucked away in my ballistic-nylon rucksack.
I got in the line for the security checkpoint and began taking a close look at the other passengers around me, checking for tangos. I saw two possibles--a kid about nine or ten with a suspicious-looking package attached to his wheelchair, and a female, mid-twenties maybe, who didn't look as nervous about flying as a woman should be. I'd keep a good eye on both of them.
The guy in line in front of me kept muttering to himself in what sounded like German.
"Bismilla-Hir-Rahma," he said, and then something about Muhammed Ali, all the while passing a string of beads through his hand. Catholic, then. I nudged him to get his attention.
"Hey buddy," I whispered, leaning close to him. "Keep an eye on that kid in the wheelchair. That oxygen tank he's got could be holding anything."
"What?" He looked surprised, obviously not used to spotting terrorists. He clutched his bag tightly to his chest, his eyes wide. Poor guy. I had probably scared him.
"Don't worry," I said. "If that kid's a tango, he'll be dead before they turn off the seatbelt sign."
This seemed to reassure the German, and he went back to his prayers, his voice a little bit shakier than before. Sometimes I forget that not everyone's as hard as me.
The line moved slowly, each passenger having to stop at the metal detector, remove his or her shoes, and get the ol' magic wand treatment before stepping through and sending their bags down the x-ray belt. With any luck, they would strip search someone, preferably the hot blonde I had noticed giving me the eye earlier. As we got closer to the checkpoint, the German turned around to face me, looking even more nervous than before.
"Ah...Maybe...Maybe you go first," he said. He stepped aside, eager for me to take his place.
"Why would...? Oh." I smiled. The kid with the suspicious respirator was right in front of the German now, and it was obvious the Kraut was scared turdless. "No problem, Fritz," I said, and traded places with him.
The kid, who I had designated Tango One, was let through the checkpoint with barely a glance. I hoped the screeners wouldn't end up regretting that. My turn.
"Remove your shoes, please," the TSA guy said, and I began unlacing my combat boots. The guy seemed to get a bit impatient as I worked at the laces--my mom had double-tied them, and they were a bitch to get undone. I didn't care--the rent-a-cop had probably seen about as much combat as I've seen opera. What would he know about war wear? I got the boots off and he gave them a good look.
"Sir," the screener said, "can you empty your pockets, please?" He handed me a little plastic bowl, and I began filling it with the contents of my BDU pockets. Keys. Cigarette lighter. Flint and tinder. Hexy blocks. Compass. Back-up compass. Pepper spray. Combat knife.
Someone grabbed me from behind. Another TSA guy helped him out, and they held my arms pinned behind my back.
"Don't fight us!" one of them barked, and they started walking me away from the gate.
"Guys! It's okay, it's okay," I said. "I'm a mercenary."
I noticed the German being waved through the gate as they drug me away.

Homeland Security office. 1800 hours.
The interrogation room was tiny, with barely enough room for the scratched linoleum table and two folding chairs. I sat in one of the chairs, my hands cuffed behind my back. The airport's head fed sat in the chair across the table from me, projecting a dark scowl from his weathered, angular face.
"One more time, McFab," he said. "And if I don't hear some truth real soon, we're gonna search your rectum again. With two hands this time."
"I've told you the truth!" I said. I was getting angry after hours of the same questions. "I'm not a terrorist, I'm a mercenary. I'm an American patriot, damnit, and if a real American can't take dangerous weapons on board a commercial airliner, then who the hell can?"
"No one can!" the fed barked. He began putting on a fresh rubber glove. "I guess we're just gonna have to do this the hard way," he said.
"You've been up my rear three times," I said, "and my wallet was the only thing in there. I have rights, you know."
"Rights? You've got the right to go to Federal prison, you bastard. Now, let's just have another look-see..." Just then, his cell phone rang. "Goddamnit,"he muttered, and picked up. "Agent Proctor here, what the hell is it? Say again?" His face went white. "Shit...What do you mean, we waved him through? Well, we were busy dealing with this McFab prick...Yemen! Aw, shit...No, no, I'll be right there." He hung up and parked his face inches from mine.
"McFab," he said, "your partner hijacked the plane. He's demanding they take him to Yemen and drop him at a Starbuck's. You've got less than five seconds to start filling me in with the details."
Hijacked! Jesus Hotel Christ, that kid really was a tango. I should have taken him and his wheelchair down as soon as I'd spotted him. The fed looked like he was ready to kill me, so I reached out for the only ally I had.
"I'd like to call my momma," I said.

Two months later. Festering Springs Trailer Park. 2300 hours.
I lay on our couch, halfway listening as my mom talked to her friend Alma on the phone.
"That's right," Mom said, shaking her head sadly, "Guantanamo Bay. Poor Randy...Yeah, I know, he's a forty-year-old baby, in there with all them terrorists--"
"I'm not a baby!" I said.
"Shh Randy, I know you're not honey...What's that Alma? Oh, yeah, poor thing. I didn't think them Arab men was into that sort of thing, but..."
I sighed, got up, and went to my room. Thanks to God, an attorney, and my psychiatrist--who lied for me, saying I was "incompetent," I'd gotten out of custody a lot quicker than the twenty years I'd been threatened with. Still, the episode had left me scarred.
I lay down on my bed and stared at the poster of Dick Cheney on my ceiling. For the first time, my Dick didn't seem to have the answers.
Would I ever be the same?