I slammed my fist on the counter. “I’ve got to get on this plane. I’ve been in this god-forsaken terminal for 14 hours.”
“Sir, we’re doing the best we can. This flight is full, you’ll have to wait for flight 60 that leaves at 8:00 tonight.”
“Aren’t there any other flights going to New York?”
“Flight 60 is the next and last flight of the day.”
I jerked my paperwork from the counter and walked away trying to control my desire to murder the smug Italian clerk behind the counter. I looked down at my phone: it read 5:15. Then the silhouette of my battery that had been blinking for the past five minutes disappeared, and the screen went blank. I grabbed my carry on, pulled out my phone charger, but realized I’d packed my converter in my checked luggage.
I walked over to one of the pay phones, and punched in my mother’s number, but the line rang, and rang. Finally, the answering machine picked up, and I heard my mother’s nasally voice start giving me instructions. I hung up. I’d be home before she ever checked her messages. She was terrible about that.
I walked back to the gate, sat on a mahogany colored seat, and glanced out the window, watching fresh snowflakes float to the ground, graceful assassins of my travel plans.
“Is this seat taken?” A lyrical voice asked.
“No,” I said as I loosened the grip on my papers and peeled my eyes from the frosty scene outside. A slender woman, blonde with a creamy complexion and full lips stood over me. My heart seized as she smiled and sat down next to me.
“Some weather, huh?” She said as she set her suitcase down, which was the same dark red of her lips. She turned to me, and her perfume gripped my senses and dragged me hopelessly under her spell.
“Tell me about it,” I said with dissipating ire in my voice. “I just got bumped from my flight.”
“Where are you headed?”
“Dallas. It’s my grandmother’s 90th birthday tomorrow.”
“That’s pretty special.”
I nodded. “I promised her I’d be there.”
“Promises can be so tricky,” she said as the edges of her mouth suggested a smile.
“Don’t I know it.” My thoughts drifted back to grandmother’s recent diagnosis of cancer, and its prognosis, and my face flushed with anger as I thought about missing her last birthday.
The musical voice next to me continued sharing her thoughts on promises. I didn’t mind. She had the kind of voice that you could listen to for a long time. “We make them all the time without thinking about whether we can keep them or not. Promises usually depend on things outside our control.”
Though I didn’t feel amused, I chuckled. I could see the snow in the background thicken, seemingly by the minute, which made me feel trapped inside some cosmic snow globe that someone had just shaken. “You’ve got a point.”
“Do you really believe this place is ‘God-forsaken’?”
The question puzzled me. She must’ve heard my antics at the counter. That’s too bad. But, where was she going with this question and why was she getting religious on me? “Aren’t most airports?” I said.
She smiled again and her smile warmed me, and an odd sense that things were going to be fine came over me. Creepy sounding, I know, but it’s one of those things you feel, and can’t really explain. It was strange.
“I’ve told you where I’m going, where’s you’re destination?” I asked.
Her eyes sparkled like emeralds. “New York. I’m a student at Columbia.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Columbia. What are you studying?”
The blonde woman set her red alligator skinned purse at her feet next to her matching suitcase. “Social anthropology.”
“Social anthropology,” I repeated. “What’s that?”
“It’s the study of human interactions, conflict resolution — basically, how we treat each other.”
I felt my face flush again. “I’ll bet that’s pretty interesting,” I said, then I held out my hand. “My name is Jack Rozman.”
“Nice to meet you, my friends call me Emma.”
Her hand felt like velvet and eyes beamed like exotic waters along a secret tropical island. There was an awkward silence that filled the distance between us as we approached the limit of our introductory conversation without finding anything to plumb deeper. As a traveler, I experience this all too often, but I didn’t want to with her. Unfortunately, she pulled her phone out and punched at the keys, leaving me to wonder who she was texting. I’d just met her but I already felt envious of the person on the other end.
I shifted my eyes leftward to find Emma staring at me. Those eyes. “Yes?”
“Could you watch my bag while I grab something to eat?”
“Sure. You’re not some terrorist are you?” I laughed a little too hard as a frown flashed across her face.
“Hardly,” she said as her expression quickly transformed to a smile. “I’ll be back.”
My imagination ran wild as I dreamed of traveling to New York to visit my beautiful Swedish girlfriend. She never told me she was Swedish, but she certainly looked it, and I’ve always wanted a Swedish girlfriend. As my mind returned from my juvenile fantasies, I looked down at my watch: thirty minutes.
Maybe she’s eating at the food court. I picked up my book and opened it to the dog eared page, stared at the same paragraph I’d been reading for the past fourteen hours. Thirty more minutes went by and I put the book down.
“What’s going on here?” I said to myself. “Where could she be? I hope she’s not in some sort of trouble.” Then I looked down at the suitcase and considered its content. “Calm down, Jack, she’ll be back soon.”
After two hours of second-guessing what I should do, I rose from my seat to inform one of the security guards that a blonde woman, whose name was probably not Emma, left her suitcase and it should probably be searched. That’s when I noticed three Italian police officers walking with purpose down the main lane of the terminal. My pulse thumped in my ear as they turned the corner and headed straight toward me.
“Mr. Rozman?” One of the men said in a very thick Italian accent.
“Sir, could you step over here, please.” An elderly man, dressed in a stilted, black beret and navy uniform said as he pointed to a darkened gate that was shut down for the night.
“What’s this about?”
“We just have a few questions.”
I watched a man in a metallic gray suit and red tie walk up and whisper something in the senior officer’s ear.
“I’m just waiting for my plane to New York.” I explained to one of the other officers who was staring at the two men. “I don’t want any trouble.”
The senior officer asked me a question in Italian to which I shrugged. “I don’t speak Italian.” The four men proceeded to have a conversation in Italian, going back and forth, right in front of me! Then, the man in the gray suit began getting rather animated which made me very nervous. I looked at my watch, 7:30 pm.
I heard the attendant at the counter announce overhead, “All passengers that will be leaving Italy for New York, please begin lining up for boarding Flight 60.”
Then two of the officers broke off from the conversation and began collecting Emma’s and my suitcases. I started to run after them but the senior officer’s thick right arm held me, and pushed me down into a nearby seat.
“You’d better stay here,” he said.
“Look, I don’t know what’s going on, but you just took my suitcase.”
“So you admit those are your suitcases?”
“Well, one of them is. The other one I was watching for a woman named Emma.”
One of the other officers returned, a tall, lanky man, and began speaking in Italian, which brought a chuckle from the senior officer. I watched the line boarding Flight 60 grow smaller. “Look, I don’t know what the problem is but my plane is boarding, and I need to go.” I stood again, intent on walking to the gate.
“You’re not going anywhere until we clear this up.”
“Clear what up?” I strained my voice. “What is the problem?”
A voice crackled over the miniature mic attached to his left epaulet. The officer nodded as he listened, then turned to me. “Follow me.”
The two officers walked briskly through the busy Leonardo da Vinci airport and approached a door that had a large yellow sign, which read, Authorized Personnel Only. As I entered the door, I could see a long hallway with multiple doors aligning both sides and I wondered what the rooms were used for. Then, we stood before a door that had a title on it, Customs Interrogation, and I didn’t like the implications that entering this room had. I wondered if this was because I’d tried to smuggle out a bottle of Barolo wine from my trip to the Piedmont region.
“Sit down and someone will be here shortly.” They had brought me into a small postage stamp size room with one table and three chairs. There was barely enough room for the furniture. For what seemed like hours, I sat there wondering what this was all about, thinking about my Grandmother’s party, which I knew I’d never make now, and then I became angry at Emma, or whoever she was, for all the trouble she’d brought me. The mysterious contents of her suitcase was the obvious offender.
The door opened and in walked another tall, slim-figured man. He had slicked-back, black hair with a thin scar over his left cheek. The word mafia popped into my mind. He turned one of the chairs around backwards, sat down as if mounting a horse and flashed a smile at me, but I knew this smile had malice behind it after I met the man’s dark eyes.
“You have some interesting things in your suitcases, Mr. Rozman.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, I think you do.”
“The red one.”
“That’s not my suitcase.” I said, my fears growing. I continued, “There was a woman — ”
“Isn’t there always a woman at the center of things.” I wasn’t sure how to take this comment, but he wasn’t finished. “I have heard about the woman.”
“Okay. So you know about her. Great. So, the woman — “
“Mr. Rozman, what would you say if I told you that the woman, Emma — I believe her name is – was the one who directed us to you.”
I sat there unsure what to say. My face, no doubt, displayed my emotions because the interrogator snickered with his eyes.
“I’d say she’s a liar. Whatever she said.” The words flowed desperately and I knew I was in deeper trouble than I originally thought. I stammered, “okay, so she sat down next to me and we chatted a little. Idle conversation, really. Then she said she needed to get something to eat and would I watch her suitcase for her.”
“So you agreed to watch a total stranger’s suitcase?”
I grimaced. Emma’s beauty had clouded my judgment, which was now obvious, but it sounded really bad the way he put it. “I can see that was a mistake but she seemed innocent enough and she said she’d only be gone for a couple of minutes.”
The interrogator shook his head. “So, how long was she gone?”
Oh, boy. I didn’t want to answer the question. Each question made me feel more ridiculous than the previous one. “Over two hours.” I slumped as the incriminating words settled around me.
“Two hours and you just sat there watching her suitcase. I have to say,” he paused briefly as a smile curled across his smug face, “that you are quite a patient man. Didn’t you have suspicions at anytime during those two hours?”
“Of course, I just didn’t know what to do. I guess I convinced myself that she was coming back.”
“Mr. Rozman, why don’t you tell us the truth? We have your bags. We know what you did. We just want to know how and where.”
“Did what? I didn’t do anything!”
The man slapped the table with both hands, palms down, which made me jump, and then he pulled in a deep breath, and exhaled it quickly. It was kind of weird, but so was this whole situation. “I see you’re going to be difficult. Well, let me lay a card on the table, and then you can tell me about it.” He lifted his eyebrows looking for me to consent to the game.
“Let’s start with the ‘flagellation of Christ.’”
I felt two sharp pains in my chest that stabbed deeply, and then flittered away. My mind kept mumbling: this is bad; this is bad; this is bad, and though I didn’t know what he was talking about; I knew I was in the deep end. I stared at him, hoping he would explain it, praying he would yell, ‘surprise, you’re on some goofy show that makes you look like an idiot so people can laugh at you.’ But I knew I couldn’t be so lucky.
“It’s a painting by Caravaggio from the 17th century. A masterpiece stolen from a museum in Naples about two years ago.” He pulled out a piece of paper, and looked at it for several long seconds. “Have you been to Naples, Mr. Rozman?”
My pulse spiked, and I began to feel nauseous. I nodded.
“I see.” He said as he looked up from his paper.
Afraid of the answer to my next question, I whispered, “What does the painting have to do with me?”
He smiled, a sardonic smile. “We found it in one of your suitcases. The red one.”
I felt my heart banging against my ribs. My hearing dimmed as a high-pitched sound pierced my brain and the room began to spin. 17th century artwork? Did he say the red suitcase? I steeled myself. “I told you the red one is not mine.”
“Come on, Mr. Rozman. We have the evidence.”
“Is there any identification on the suitcases?” I knew I was on thin ice here, if the Italian government wanted to, they could easily put some identification on the suitcases and I could do little to refute the planted evidence.
“Not the red one.”
“Then how can you prove that it’s my suitcase?”
“It was in your possession after we received the tip.”
“Have you checked out your source? Have you considered that it could have been planted like I have explained to you?”
“Of course. We wouldn’t bring baseless accusations against you, now would we?”
“I want asylum in the American Embassy.” I cringed at how guilty these words made me sound but it was the only thing I could think of. I mean, it worked in the movies.
My interrogator pulled out a cigarette, lit it, and then blew out a plume of smoke toward the ceiling. He said: “this is a customs matter. You’re under our authority.”
“I have a right to representation. It’s illegal for you to hold me here without representation.”
“You American’s are all the same. It’s always about your rights.”
A rap at the door interrupted him. The senior officer from earlier walked in and whispered in the interrogator’s ear. I tensed because I’d learned that things always worsened with his whispers. What now?
“Well, Mr. Rozman. It appears today is your lucky day.”
I scrunched my brow, hoping I’d heard him right.
“The art inspector has examined your paintings …”
“They are not my paintings! That is not my suitcase!”
He waved his hand. “That’s not my concern, now. The art inspector tells us the paintings are cheap imitations. Next time, you can spare yourself some trouble by simply reporting any works of art you will be taking out of our country.” Then, holding up his index finger, he said, “Oh, and one more thing, we found a bottle of Barolo, a 1954. That’s a rare bottle of wine. Too bad it was unreported. We had to confiscate it. Regulations, you understand. I will hate to pour it out.” He winked at me and then said as he stood to leave. “Antonio will take you back to your gate.”
My mouth hung open as the interrogator disappeared without giving me the chance to tell him what I thought about his regulations, not that I was brave enough, given what I’d just escaped. In a matter of minutes, I was walking out down the long hallway back to the gate I’d been at an hour earlier. My flight was long gone, and I knew it was going to be an uncomfortable night in the terminal. As I approached my seat where a guard stood watching over my luggage, the dubious red suitcase mocked me.
What do I do with that thing?
At this point, I didn’t really care. It had done nothing but brought me pain, and disappointment. I set my watch for my morning flight, and popped an Ambien, hoping to erase the past twenty-four hours from my mind.
The next morning finally arrived. I massaged the crick in my neck, trying to work the knotted muscles smooth. My clothes were rumpled from a night of lying on segmented chairs, and my muscles complained as I dragged my carry on behind me when the airport attendant called for boarders to enter the plane.
“Sir, you left one of your bags,” the attendant called out.
“It was never mine.”
“But sir, you cannot leave it here. If you don’t take it, I’ll have to call security.”
I bristled. The thought of interacting with security a second time made my stomach lurch, so I grabbed the red suitcase and brought it with me.
Then the attendant said, “Sir, you can only bring one carry-on onto the plane.”
My blood pressure must’ve jumped two-hundred points, because my head started throbbing with each heartbeat.
She saw my frustration, because she quickly smiled, and said, “No problem, Sir. We’ll check it here at the gate.”
As the sun set the day after my grandmother’s birthday, I climbed into a taxi from the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. It was a miracle I’d made it this far, because I almost missed my connecting flight to Dallas. I hate running through airports. Everybody thinks you’re that idiot who never checks the gates to be sure your gate didn’t change.
I gave the driver my parent’s address since I’d already missed the party, and my mother was probably worried since I hadn’t been able to get a hold of her from the airport. My weary body sunk into the back seat of the tattered cab as I watched the skyscrapers of downtown Dallas streak by.
A half hour later, the cab stopped in front of my parent’s house, but something didn’t seem right — there were cars everywhere. The cabby double parked as I collected my suitcases, and I wondered if they’d delayed the party. As I stood in front of the polished oak door, I pushed the doorbell. The door flew open, and Uncle Harry’s eyes almost bugged out of his head, kind of like one of those Rodney Dangerfield expressions. He began yelling for my parents, and I heard a great commotion in the house. I didn’t know what to think.
My mother appeared in the doorway, and her eyes said it all. They were red and glassy and puffy. She threw her arms around me, and squeezed my neck tightly as her tears ran down my neck.
“Mom, what’s wrong? What’s going on?”
“Oh Jack, I can’t believe it.” She sobbed into my neck.
By this time, the owners of all the parked cars around my parent’s driveway poured out of the door like ants from an anthill and circled me. All of them, friends and family, hugged and touched me as if I’d been long lost.
“Will someone please tell me what is going on?”
My father stepped forward and said, “Son, we thought you were dead.”
“Italia Flight 60 crashed yesterday. There were no survivors.” My scalp tingled, and I felt my legs go limp. My father caught me before I fell to the ground. “You’re alright,” he said as he helped me to the ground. “I’ve got you.” After several minutes, he said, “When we couldn’t get a hold of you on your phone, we called the airlines. They told us you were booked for Flight 60, and so we thought …”
Many hours later after the house had cleared except for my parents, I sat at the kitchen table, my senses bolstered and equilibrium restored. My father pointed at the red suitcase, and said, “Nice luggage.”
At that moment the red suitcase seemed to glow. Once, an object of scorn, it now appeared to me an unheralded life preserver, a reminder of the very reason I was alive. My energy peaked, and curiosity spiked as I suddenly desired to crack open the suitcase. I hopped up, unzipped the suitcase, and pulled out the two covered frames that were in it. The covering was black vinyl with a zipper at the top. I unzipped the first one and pulled out a picture of Christ tied to a column, in the process of being flogged. “It’s called the flagellation of Christ,” I said.
My mother said, “How interesting.”
When I unzipped and pulled out the second picture, I dropped it to the ground as if it had scorched my hands. Staring up at the ceiling was a blond haired, green-eyed, creamy-skinned woman. I could smell the expensive perfume surround me as it had a day earlier. There was no mistake.
It was Emma.
I looked closer, and noticed a plaque at the bottom of the picture which read, “My Guardian Angel, Emma.”