Sitting on the cold bench was no fun. The wind from the trains whistling exacerbated it. I checked my package next to me. It was a plain-looking package wrapped in brown paper, about as big as a lunch box. I wondered why they needed our special service. Our cost was fifty times what they'd pay for UPS or DHL. And the customer had to insure the contents. I'm with Talents Unlimited Inc. Although we courier valuable parcels, that's not our primary business. Like our name says, we supply talent most companies can't or won't. From bodyguards to Lear Jet pilots to engineers. An Aussie, Charlotte Jones owned the company. She moved to Ft Worth, Texas and hung out her shutter ten years ago.
This job came from a referral. Charlotte called me that morning to make the pickup. We were to hold it over the weekend. It was a present for one of the client's friend's daughter's wedding. He had to go out of town on business, and the wedding was on Sunday. He wasn't sure he could make it. We agreed to pick it up. It was a small job and not worthy of my skill set but the pickup was in a tough area. That alone surprised me because the client was wealthy. We don't ask any questions about the client's motives or reasons. Discretion was guaranteed, even if it seemed a little squirrely. Our only proviso was we would not do anything illegal or engage in any unlawful activity. We made the client sign a contract to that effect. They would be entirely responsible for any financial blowback.
The place I picked up the package was in a seedy part of town. The house I picked it up was on par with the rest of the neighborhood. When I knocked on the door, a guy partially opened it. He looked like he'd rape your grandmother. Not only was he dirty, but he was also untidy and wearing a raggedy terry cloth robe. His gray, stringy hair was long and unkempt.
"Talent Unlimited," I said, trying to hide my disgust.
"Hold on," he growled. I heard shuffling around, and a minute later, he came back to the door. "Here you go," he handed me a box wrapped in plain brown paper. He slammed the door. The client was rich. This was like finding out Prince Charles consorted with Freddy the Freeloader. I hailed a cab and headed back to the train station.
The station was deserted. I checked my phone and sent a text to Charlotte telling her mission accomplished. I pulled out my book; I was rereading "The Glass Bead Game. "Ten minutes later I was about to put my book down when she sat down next to me. She was a natural beauty. She had long dark-frizzy hair that hung down past her shoulder. She was wearing a black bucket hat, black pants suit, and black lipstick. She reminded me of Lisa Bonet, but she made her look like a beginner. Things were looking up.
"Mind if I sit next to you?" She said demurely. She had a voice that made me flush like a High school kid at a strip club. She was carrying a large Nordstrom's bag.
"No, help yourself," I said. "You waiting for the number five too?"
"Yes, I am, "she said. "I hope I'm not too late?" The way she said it melted all over you like honey on a hot biscuit. This was the varsity. I put my game face on.
"No, it'll be here in five minutes," I said, looking at my watch. I started to put together my line when her hat suddenly blew off. Being the gentleman, I jumped up and gave chase. It took me a minute to catch up to it. When I did and started back, she was gone. I looked around, but there was no trace of her. I was a little disappointed. The train came a few minutes later, and I boarded.
Forty-five minutes later my apartment, I texted Charlotte that I'd bring in the package in the morning. I went to the fridge and took out a couple of veal chops I'd taken from the freezer a couple of days before. I got out a bowl and whisked some butter, put a little thyme and a pinch of salt I put it back in the fridge and waited for it to chill. After having a glass of Pinot Noir, I took the chops out, arranged them on a pan and drizzled them with olive oil. I added the seasoning and sauteed the chops. I made a gravy from the drippings and put a cup of rice in the rice cooker. As I was cooking, I was going over the day's event in my mind. I had the feeling that something was off. What was it?
I looked several times at the brown package while I fixed my plate. I sat down to eat. After I finished and washed everything up, I sat the box on the table. I turned it around several times. I lifted it up; then it struck me. The weight was slightly off from the package I'd picked up from the old man. Not much, but it wasn't the same. I'd fallen for the oldest trick in the book, the old package switch. I thought that went out with Charlie Chan. I texted Charlotte and told her what I thought had happened. I told her I was going to open the package. I opened it carefully. What I saw pissed me off. There were stacks of paper covered with bubble wrap. That meant that Talent Unlimited was liable. With one act of stupidity, I may have managed to bring down the whole company. And I was supposedly the best agent they had.
The next morning in the office was not one of my finest hours. I felt like a schoolboy caught cheating on the exam. Surprisingly, Charlotte was not too mad. She was puzzled more than anything.
"It's obvious You were set up, mate," she said. "Your next job is to find out why."
"I take full responsibility," I said. I should have noticed the weight difference in the packages. I should have also seen the slight difference in the wrappings despite the fact they were both brown."
"Probably, but by the time you did, it would have been too late. I should have vetted Hugh Johnson more carefully. But since he was recommended by one of our premier clients, I didn't feel it was necessary."
One way or the other, I had to redeem myself. Now I know how the lion feels when a pack of hyenas takes him down. The first place to pick up the trail was at that house I picked up the package.
An hour later, I was back at the house. I knocked on the door; the same old man poked his head out.
"What do you want?" He growled.
"I need to talk to you," I said.
" Buzz off," he said, trying to close the door. Before he could shut it, I kicked it in. It hit him in the face and he sprawled on the floor. I looked around. To call it a rat's nest would have been a disservice to rats. It looked like ground zero for the collection of supplies for the zombie apocalypse. He still had that same dirty terry cloth robe on. I grabbed him up by his collar. It felt like a greasy towel.
"I'm only going to ask you once before I kick your teeth in," I said. "Who gave you that brown package?"
"I don't know the guy," he sputtered. "He gave me five hundred dollars to give the package to Talent unlimited. That's all I know, I swear."
"Where'd you meet him?" I yelled at him.
"At Finnegan's Bar, down the street!"
"If you're lying, I'm coming back to burn this pigsty down." I let him go, and he slumped to the floor.
Finnegan's was one of the most unsavory places I'd ever been in. the bartender had a dirty, greasy white apron on that made Mel's apron in "Alice" look like Ivory Snow. I pulled out the picture of Hugh Johnson and showed it to the bartender. He recognized him. I asked him when the last time he'd seen him.
"About two seconds ago," he said, pointing to a booth in a dark corner by the emergency exit.
"What's he drinking?" I asked.
"Scotch and water," he said.
"Let me have two."
"He only drinks Glenfiddich," he said.
"Let me have two."
I grabbed the drinks and headed toward the booth. Hugh was a big guy. Although he was sitting, I estimated him to be about six-four, around two-hundred forty. He looked solid. I estimated his age at forty-plus. His hair was discordant with the designer clothes he was wearing. He sported a marine buzz cut. His dark grey sports coat and black slacks screamed Joseph Abboud. He wore a gray Polo shirt underneath. I couldn't tell what his shoes were, but they looked like Saks'. What would a monied guy be doing in a place like this? I slid into his booth. If he was surprised, he didn't show it. I set the drink in front of him.
"I'm Dave Wilkerson from Talent Unlimited. I tracked you down through the old guy at the house. Listen, we were wondering if you could pick up your package a little early. The whole office is going to be out of town for the next couple of days. Can you do it tonight?"
"Sure," he said. "I just got back to town. I was going to come by tomorrow and pick it up, but I could drop by this evening."
"Swell," I said. "we'll expect you in an hour."
I got to the office an hour later. Charlotte was sitting at her desk staring at the package. She had a solemn look on her face and looked every bit of her fifty years. Charlotte was still an attractive woman. She was fit, and her gray hair complimented her complexion. Ten minutes later, we heard a knock on the door. He went straight to the package, picked it up, and tore the brown wrapper off the box. He wasn't pleased with what he found,
"Alright, where is it?" He screamed.
"What?" I said calmly.
"The bonds stupid. There were 2million dollars in bearer bonds in that box." Bearer bonds are different from registered bonds, and the IRS is not notified about profits received from them. Great for money laundering and hiding assets. He pulled a 9 mm P226 MK25 handgun. The kind the Seals carry. Our door burst open, and there she was—the woman at the train station. Be still my heart.
"Hugh Johnson?" She screamed. "Special Agent Susan Horowitz, US Treasury. You're under arrest for trafficking in stolen bonds. Two burly agents behind her slammed Hugh's face onto the desk and handcuffed him. They hauled him away. She turned and faced us.
"What-?" I said before she interrupted me.
"We've been tracking Hugh for three years; he uses couriers to traffic these bonds for drug cartels. We could never get the goods on him because he distanced himself from the couriers. We finally got him on tape acknowledging his ownership of the bonds."
"You switched the package?" I said.
"You've been tailing me all along?" I spoke.
"Every step of the way. Hugh is a small fish. He'll make a deal to out his bosses."
"Then he'll get Witness Protection and a new identity," I said. "Hardly seems fair."
"It's not," she said, "But we have to take what we can to get to the top of this pyramid." With that, she turned and left the room.
About the author
Consultant geologist. Seattle native now living in Texas. Have lived in Europe, Asia and Africa as a working geologist. Graduated from the University of Washington. married with three daughters and five grandkids.