Authors: Nichole Christoff
The discovery didn't improve my outlook any. After all, smugglers trafficked in photo-free passports just like this. The thought of my father's involvement in a possible smuggling operation had me squirming in my seat.
I pushed her paw away, flipped through the rest of the document's pages. Each was brand new. Blank.
Except for a visa stamped firmly on a page near the center of the passport.
The visa wasn't just any visa, though. It wasn't the kind that extended the stay of a student. It wasn't the kind that allowed a foreigner to work in the States, either.
No, this was an S visa.
And finding it had me snapping the little booklet shut.
In certain governmental circles, S visas are known by another name. They're called “snitch visas.” And once upon a time, they were granted to defectors escaping the Soviet Bloc.
Nowadays, snitch visas find their way into the hands of foreign nationals desperate to make a new life in the United Statesâand sometimes, to those ready, willing, and able to barter insider knowledge about a regime or a dictatorship to get a chance at that new life.
If my father and his congressional committee had brokered a deal to get such knowledge, that was one thing. But making me and Katie into the mules carrying their contraband was quite another. Her Majesty's Government wouldn't be happy with either of us for bringing bogus British passports into the United Kingdom. If the Brits caught us, they'd express their unhappinessâto the fullest extent of the law.
But possible arrest, incarceration, or deportation were the least of my worries. After all, it hadn't been the British authorities who'd arranged the welcome party that met us outside Heathrow. And that worried me more than anything.
I wasn't done categorizing all my worries when Katie snatched the passports from my hand.
“I'd better take those.”
I watched as theyâand the S visa stampâdisappeared under the jacket slung over her arm.
She dug into a pocket, came up with a Kleenex, and pressed it to her eyes, which were brimming with unshed tears. Her eyes were as blue as the evening sky, but darker somehow. As if those eyes had deepened to hold a lifetime of tears.
“Jamie, I don't know what I would've done if you hadn't been with me back there.”
Her awe rubbed the rough edges off my anger. For one thing, as unhappy as I was about the passportsâand at being jumped at HeathrowâI'd found myself in sticky spots plenty of times. Such an attack and the adrenaline that came with it would be new territory for her, and probably twice as scary.
She said, “I was so grateful when Roger said you were coming with me. I saw all those news stories about you last spring, and how you killed the man responsible for that army scandal.”
“His death was accidental.” And technically, that was true. But the truth didn't stop my throat from closing tight at the memory of that day.
“Well, I didn't expect trouble, but I knew if I ran into some, I'd be safe with you.” Her admission made her blush.
I couldn't hang onto my anger after she flushed a naÃ¯ve shade of pink like that. “Does your ankle need medical attention?”
“No.” She flexed her foot to prove it.
“Good. Because here we are, at the Marriott off Piccadilly.”
“But this isn't our hotelâ”
I silenced her with a glare, paid the cabbie, and nudged Katie onto the sidewalk.
She was right, of course. The Marriott wasn't our hotel. Roger had booked us into a pair of posh rooms in London's newest, tallest, and not to mention shiniest skyscraper, The Shard. That was exactly the problem. Because Roger had booked our First Class seats on British Air, tooâand clearly the Gorilla and his motorcycle-riding friend had known all about that arrangement.
Consequently, Katie and I weren't going to check into The Shard.
But we weren't going to check into the Marriott, either.
If the Gorilla and Helmet Head came looking for usâor for the documents Katie carriedâthey just might look for us at the Marriott. It was the largest American-owned hotel in London. And Americans have a reputation worldwide for sticking to what they know. Case in point? We're the only people who travel to exciting places like Paris or Tokyo only to eat at McDonald's when we get there.
Anyone looking for these particular two Americans at the Marriott, however, would be sorely disappointed, because while Katie and I sailed into the place like arriving guests, we hustled across the hotel's lobby and out the door fronting Regent Street. There, we ducked into another cab. We repeated the process two more times, choosing the Hyatt near Trafalgar Square and the Hilton London Bridge as our cover. At long last, late in the afternoon, we walked into the lobby of a hotel of my choosingâThe Elizabethan Rose.
On my first trip to London, when I was ten years old, my father had taken me to The Elizabethan Rose for teaâwhich was served with white-gloved splendor in the hotel's spectacular dining room. As a girl, I'd been dazzled by the place. And as a woman, I'd never forgotten it.
Situated at the grand entrance to Hyde Park, the Tudor-style hotel sat smack-dab in the middle of London's most exclusive postal code, SW1. The costly shops of Chelsea, Knightsbridge, and the famous Harrods were a short stroll away. So were the power centers of Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing Street, and the buildings of Parliament.
What got me every time I returned to The Elizabethan Rose, however, was not the neighborhood. It was the monument kitty-corner from the hotel. There, in the shadow of Wellington's splendid Arch, stands a memorial of ghostly white stone to the men of Britain's Royal Regiment of Artilleryâand the 50,000 artillerymen who didn't return after the First World War. But it's not the huge Howitzer ready to rock and roll at the top of the monument that blasts me in the breastbone, nor is it the three bronze soldiers resigned to operating the gun for all eternity. No, it's the fourth soldier that nearly cuts my heart out every time I see him. Because he is a fallen soldier, shrouded as he would have been on the battlefields of France, with his greatcoat and helmet covering his face. In bronzed death, he's larger than lifeâand so are the sacrifices of all those who've paid the ultimate price for Britain's freedom.
Without my wanting it to, my mind leapt to think of another soldier. Where in the world was Barrett? Was he safe? Was he furious with me for standing idly by when my father dismissed him like a schoolboy from the principal's office? I didn't know and I didn't have time to worry about it.
I had a job to do.
Plush carpet ate our footfalls as Katie and I approached The Elizabethan Rose's reception desk and the clerk waiting to serve us there.
“I believe you have a reservation for us,” I said, absolutely certain he'd find one since I'd just called from the car. “The name's Sinclair.”
I forked over my own credit card.
Not the one Roger had arranged for me.
The clerk tapped a few keys on the computer keyboard mounted discreetly beneath the mahogany countertop. “Ah, yes. Ms. Sinclair. The Raleigh Room is ready for you.”
The Raleigh Room, as I knew full well, was a complete misnomer. The place wasn't a room at all. It was a lavish three-bedroom suite, with two baths, and a living room that the Queen's butler would've approved of.
Katie tried not to gawk as the porter showed off the layout. I discreetly checked the place over for security risks and tipped the guy handsomely. I also made sure the door locked behind him.
Katie kept busy sniffing the handmade soaps in the powder rooms and pressing the computer-controlled light switches in every room.
I let her have her fun.
And then I said, “So, tell me, Katie. What's a nice girl like you doing with bogus British passports in a place like this?”
“They're real, actually.” She flopped onto the satin sofa, tossed her cell phone onto the cushion beside her, and slipped a tufted pillow beneath her sore ankle. “The Brits sent them to us.”
“What about the snitch visa?”
“That's real, too. So's the other one. There's one in each passport.”
“Because I'm here to make contact with someone, Jamie. About six months ago, the Brits got word that a physicist from a Middle Eastern rogue state wanted to trade secrets about a certain nuclear weapons program in exchange for asylum in America.”
“Let me guess. This rogue state swears they don't have a nuclear weapons program.”
Now, I understood why my father was so interested in seeing Katie complete her errand.
And possibly why he'd asked me along.
“Katie”âI sank into the sofa's neighboring armchairâ“have you ever intercepted a fugitive for the State Department before?”
“Well, no. But I've got loads of related experience.”
When it came to running interference so a foreign national could defy his country's leadership and throw himself on the mercy of ours, I wasn't sure what could possibly qualify as related experience. But I was willing to find out. Katie was willing to enlighten me.
She said, “My sister's a drilling engineer for a big oil company. For the last five years, she's lived all over the Middle East. I've visited her a lot.”
All right. Katie's so-called
really was related. Kind of. After all, who better to meet and greet a scientist from the Middle Eastâand help him transition to life in the Westâthan someone who'd spent time in that region? But there was still one thing I didn't understand.
“Why does this physicist need
Katie swallowed hard. “Would you escape from a dictatorship, known for cruelty to its own people, but leave your family behind?”
Her question made me think about my father. It took me a split second to decide on an answer to Katie's question. Remote as he might sometimes be, and demanding as he always was, he was the only family I had.
I wouldn't leave him behind, either.
And that realization made me want to get my rear in gear.
“When,” I said, “do we leave to meet your physicist?”
Katie checked the time on the face of her smartphone. “Now.”
I still had enough questions to keep the reference librarians at Oxford University's Bodleian busy for a week, but I stuffed them into the back of my brain and got busy doing my job. After the incident at Heathrowâand in light of what Katie had just told meâI made sure no one followed us from the hotel, or waited ahead to trap us along the avenue. And I made doubly sure no one tailed us down the spiraling stair steps of the Underground.
Rather than zipping to the stately streets of Whitehall, though, and meeting someone in the shadows of a government building, we emerged from the Tube to find ourselves in the hustle and bustle of Covent Garden. As twisted as in Queen Victoria's era, the paved lanes of Eliza Doolittle's stomping ground still swept uphill from the Thames to brush elbows with London's trendy theater district. Katie had brought the damaged diplomatic pouch, which I expected. She hadn't put it inside a satchel or other bag, however, which I didn't. Instead, she'd folded the handles down and tucked the whole thing under her arm like a fancy evening clutch.
So, with her bag under her arm, we fell in with the relaxed crowd strolling the sidewalks. They were shopgirls and errand boys, stock traders and bank tellers, and they were all glad to be done with another day's work. As we drifted along, sequined peasant blouses winked from boutique windows and the heady scents of Penhaligon's, perfumer extraordinaire, wrapped enticing tendrils around me. Cobblestone streets hooked up with the main drag, forming intersections as crooked as a dog's hind legs. At one corner in particular, thirsty patrons filled a pubâthe Skull and Crossbonesâand spilled out into bistro tables lining the sidewalk.
Katie claimed a seat at one of these, checked her phone for messages.
She frowned as if she didn't like what she saw.
“Bad news,” I asked, “from the powers that be?”
Katie rushed to rearrange her face. “Oh, no. It's nothing like that. It's just that once we got to London, I'd hoped to hear from my sister.”
She flagged down a barmaid and put an end to our conversation. We ordered half-pints of regional lager and a platter of English cheeses, crackers, and fruit. While we ate, Katie and I kept our eyes on the passersby.
The area was packed with people looking for a good timeâbut not a fast time. Foot traffic was thick and slow. Anyone in a hurry would stand out like a jet plane at a hot-air balloon festival. And that made this the perfect spot for a rendezvous. Because both parties could spot trouble coming from a mile off.
When an unseen church bell clanged seven o'clock, Katie announced, “There he is.”
On the sandstone doorstep of a bookstore that had seen better days, a little man dabbed his forehead with a bright green pocket square before tucking it in the breast pocket of his khaki blazer. He did it again as Katie and I wove our way toward him, and that's when I realized his act with the hanky was some kind of signal. And that Katie had been watching for it.
Her smile was as dazzling as a Colgate commercial as she stepped up to the doorstep to meet him. “Welcome to London, Doctor Oujdad.”
Like a grizzled garden gnome, Dr. Oujdad's white beard was trimmed close to his chin and ended in a point. It arrowed toward his chest as he bowed to Katie. The move was gallant and quite Continental, although he himself appeared Middle Eastern through and through.
Still, a French accent clung to his English as he said, “Please, call me Armand. Also, allow me to introduce my daughter. My Bijou.”
Behind him, through the open door of the bookshop, dusky shadows stirred. A young woman emerged. She had a pretty, heart-shaped face, but she kept it closed as if a single smile or a frown would convey too much to the wrong people. A simple brown hijab covered her hair. Only one wavy, black lock escaped it. The curl swirled across her forehead before she caught the end of it and crammed it under her head covering again.
“Well,” Katie said, “now that we're all together, let's get you back to the hotel.”
The daughter's eyes darted to her father's, then to the diplomatic pouch.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but do you have the papers promised to us?”
Katie patted the bag under her arm. It dawned on me that was her signal to him. “Come with me and tomorrow morning your photos will be added to the documents and stamped. Then we'll have a plane to catch.”
This time, the father glanced at the daughter. Bijou nodded ever so slightly. And the old man relaxed.
I left the cover of the doorway, stepped to the curb to hail a cab. I didn't get very far. As soon as I raised my arm, I saw him.
Somehow, the Gorilla from Heathrow had followed us hereâand he was stomping up the sidewalk toward us. Streetwise Londoners gave him a wide berth. Which didn't bode well for me.
I whirled to order Katie into the bookshop, to hustle the Oujdads out the back. But she'd seen the Gorillaâand so had the physicist and his daughter. He gripped his daughter by the arms, tried to drag her into the musty old store.
“Run!” I commanded them and planted myself squarely in the Gorilla's path.
His fist swept past his hip, came up with a semiautomatic handgun. But he didn't point it at me. He opened fire on Katie and the Oujdads.
They cringed and ducked, throwing up their hands as if flesh and bone could shield them. At their backs, the glass in the bookshop window shattered with a cascading crash. Along the street, Londoners screamed, ran every which way for cover.