The Courier

Short story by Sara Gabriella

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Jumping from one climate to another always intensified her jet lag. The arid heat of the Las Vegas desert had none of the soupy moisture of Panama’s tropical humidity. Entering under the cover of nightfall, this was her first time stepping out of the hotel and into the bright, Panama sun. Readjusting her sunglasses, she updated her plans. First order of business was now a strong coffee. Dark, aromatic caffeine was the only drug she allowed herself, not counting the occasional ibuprofen to reduce the inflammation after an especially brutal sparring session. She downed the black liquid over ice in just three gulps.

Those who required ultimate discretion over their banking transactions had this Central American haven for untraceable funds on their radar.  Panama’s bank confidentiality laws were known and loved by those who inhabited the same world as Marina. The caffeine pulsing through her veins now, she shook off the lethargy of yesterday’s time zone. Her eyes darted, scanning the upcoming street. Bam. There was the bank she would backtrack to later to deposit her clandestine delivery. Panama City had more banks than a U.S. city had McDonald’s. She could return a few times a year and never go into the same bank twice in a decade. But before the bank, she had to pick up the identification that was waiting for her at a different hotel.

It was basic procedure for Marina, her birth name but the one only a handful of people knew her by, to check into three different hotels and have packages delivered to each desk. She would need the i.d. for this trip’s alias in one package, matching wardrobe and wig in a second, and any specialized tools, gadgets, or documents in a third package.  She would only sleep in one of the rooms she had booked under an assumed name; occasionally she would not sleep in any of them, but book a last-minute room in a neighboring town. Marina knew precautions were not a paranoid waste of time or effort. They were the reason she was still alive, and that she would live long enough to enjoy a well-deserved retirement.

“Buenos Dias, I won’t be checking in just yet. I want to explore the sites. By any chance has a package been delivered for me?” she asked the front desk attendant. The charade was so ingrained it was like brushing her teeth. Marina could perform it while simultaneously going over ten other details in her head, without missing a beat. “Si, Senora Prieto, aqui esta. Lo quiero ahora?”  “Yes, I’ll take it now, Gracias.” “Por su, puesto, Senora.”

Marina headed to the concierge desk to book a sight-seeing tour. She found tourist attractions provided optimal cover for her to change into a new identity without arousing suspicion. Walking into her hotel room a redhead, sporting a trendy bob, and leaving a brunette with hair tied securely in a bun, would raise an eyebrow if someone was paying attention. But in a gaggle of tourists, barely looking up long enough from their brochures and camera phones to avoid bumping into one another, no one was ever the wiser when she slipped into a remote bathroom stall as one character, and emerged as someone else.

Paying for her tickets to the next tour of the Panama Canal that famously ushered ships between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, she caught a glimpse of the movie on the lobby television. “But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career,” Liam Neeson warned the kidnappers that had his daughter.

Marina occasionally caught Hollywood movies on long flights. Actual movie theaters were only places she ducked into to change wardrobe or make a private call if she had to be sure her cover or communications were not detected. But this movie was close to her heart. For she too, had a set of skills unique to the majority of men and women on the planet. She also kept these skills hidden from the straight world.

If you contacted Marina you needed something delivered, and Fedex was not going to cut it. Her services included: paying ransom for kidnap victims of high net worth individuals and their progeny, transporting high-level trade secrets that could sink a company’s patent, or profits, if they fell into the competition’s hands, or safe receipt of jewels, heirlooms, art, and other irreplaceable valuables.

In Vegas, she paid off kidnappers for the release of the son of a Middle Eastern royal family. He drew the attention of the wrong type of people when blowing half a million dollars from the craps tables in the casino, to the bottle service tables in the nightclubs–making a scene at every stop. He was snatched while nightclub security was busy policing tourists in drunken sex-capades in the back booths, and sharing lines of designer drugs in the bathrooms. The rent-a-cops were no match for an organized, professional, snatch and grab.

When in need of someone you could trust not to double cross you, and was certain not to get played by whoever was on the receiving end of your goods, you fell into the area of specialized skills Marina had built her seven-year career upon.

A couple more jobs and Marina was going to retire. If after a few years she became restless, maybe write a memoir, on an old-fashioned typewriter, and publish it under an assumed name. In her line of work you did not aim for longevity. You got in and got out…while you still could.

Two taxis and a quick backtrack later, she sauntered up to the hotel desk. Her relaxed demeanor a ruse to cover the urgency lurking beneath the cool exterior. “Hola, I’m checking in later today after I do some shopping. Would you please check if any packages came for me?” She accepted the parcel with her change of wardrobe. Her nonchalance was so well practiced, it exuded off her effortlessly. Throwing the package in an empty shopping bag, she headed to the pickup spot for the tour.

On the short bus trip to the Canal, Marina’s thoughts danced a mile a minute. She visualized every step she would take in her mind’s eye, like watching a ballet. She would exit the bus, walk up to the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center, take a few moments to pick up a souvenir and inspect it, as if considering a purchase. She would proceed to the museum that tells the story of the building of the canal, and then happen to stumble upon the bathroom she knew was located toward the back, near the visitor center’s eatery.

Within minutes of the motley group’s arrival, she neared the bathroom door.  Her sixth sense fired when she saw a group of three men glance her way and exchange nods. Her heart plummeted to her stomach with a heavy thud. She had maybe 60 seconds before it would be too late. Not to tip them off, she continued casually into the bathroom. She entered a stall, and pulled up her blouse to expose her wrist.

They would seize her cell immediately and assume they neutralized her ability to contact help. She found the app. It wasn’t even Masood or CIA, she had found it in the iPhone app store, for Chrissake. “Send encrypted, private, and self-destructing texts and photos” she had laughed when she read it. As long as the recipient had the same app, the message would send, and then disappear once read.  She had about 20 seconds now, she took a photo of the brochure, uploaded to the app, then typed the letters “XNVTU” and finally “kidnappers unknown”. Send. She flushed the toilet and opened the door. Then everything went black.

The taste of salty air on her tongue, she reentered consciousness. The accents said Russian, the dress and demeanor said mob. This would not be the first time her services were requested by organized crime. The Sinola Cartel, the Yamaguchi Gumi (commonly referred to as Yakuza) and India’s D-Company had all heard of her particular acumen in getting valuables safely where they needed to go.

To those in the know, she went by the title, “The Clandestine Courier.” The first time she heard  the nickname through the grapevine, a robust laugh, with a tinge of pride, escaped her. But an instant later, her ego and whimsy aside, she realized that being famous in these circles was not a badge of honor. It amplified the danger already inherent in her life. In these circles, there was no such thing as fame, only infamy. All three organizations had propositioned her specialized courier services. But money and power were not a temptation. The objects she was regularly entrusted with would provide more than enough of both, if she ever decided to go rogue. But she wasn’t a degenerate. The tallish, lithe, woman with almond shaped eyes and a full pout was the daughter of a psychiatrist mom and a cop dad. Her moral code was cut and dry. Her life may be lived in a shadow world of intrigue, where deception was the norm, but her values were surprisingly conventional.

This life coursed through her blood. Dad had taken down one of the biggest international child porn rings when leading Washington D.C.’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, and mom profiled serial killers for the FBI. It was not in Marina’s DNA to engage in the nuances of office politics or make small talk over the unfolding drama of this season’s Bachelor.  Her moral code meant she never stole from her clients, got involved with people who made a living exploiting or hurting other people, or got in business with spooks. It wasn’t that she had anything against serving her country, but she found agents to be too paranoid, even for her overly cautious taste. Living undercover will do that to you. See had seen first-hand the toll it took on her dad when he was on the job. She blamed the stress for his heart failing ten years ago.

“She’s awake.” The three men focused their attention on Marina. She had to stall until he could get there. She blushed when the butterflies fluttered in her stomach at the thought of seeing him again. It was the closest she ever came to love, to the type of relationship normal people ride down the alter into wedded bliss.

They met on a job. It was the first, and last, time she ever broke one of her rules. She only delivered money, objects, and documents, never people. Never. But she owed someone a favor, owed them huge; so she had made an exception. She agreed to transport a scientist that worked for a global pharmaceutical company to a conference where he was to speak. With a patent still pending, the data for the wonder drug they spent tens of millions in Research and Development to produce, and represented potentially billions in profit loss if another company got their hands on it, existed only in their proprietary corporate documents…and in his brain. This made him a most tempting target.

Things went sideways and he was abducted by the taxi the “doorman” hailed them for a ride to the convention hall. When her handler brought in Judah her embarrassment and anger melted like butter on just-off-the-griddle pancakes. Later that night, his kiss tasted as delicious.

Judah, or Jude as she called him when they were cuddling in bed, was an extraction specialist. You hired him to go into jungles where counter-insurgents kept prisoners of war, military compounds where compromised double agents were held until there secrets could be unlocked through torture, or covert hideouts where kidnapped victims who were worth exorbitant amounts of money to those who wanted them back, were being concealed.

After Judah found and rescued the scientist, he caught up with her. They spent what would be the most blissful week of her life together. Their jobs prohibited dating in the usual sense of the word, but they were undeniably, palpably connected. And whenever they were on the same continent at the same time they would arrange to meet, if only for a night or two. Judah would have read her text by now. He would drop everything and run to her the minute he saw she was the one in need of extraction.

Their accent suggested Solntsevskaya bratva, Russian mob out of Moscow. “I don’t know what…” They stopped her mid-sentence. The hairiest of them, which is saying a lot, they were a trio of menacing bears, stared into her eyes and a smirk traveled across his lips. “No need to play game. We know of your distaste for doing business with us types” he said in broken English. “We need something delivered. We can’t use anyone that will be tracked back with us. Has to be someone no one will connect to us. Has to be you” his stubby finger pointing to her chest.

His smirk chilled her spine. She started to stammer, but he stopped her mid-sentence again, this time by sticking a phone in her face. She resisted the urge to faint. The face staring back at her was her mothers. ”If you not do it for money. You do it to save your mother’s life.”

Oh, God. Judah better find her soon. Then they had to find and safely extract…her mom.