Monday, 17 April 2017

Whiteout Blackmail (NYC Midnight Short Story Competition entry)

Ryan Garrett eyed the sky as the bus pulled off the highway and into the airport parking lot. It had been snowing steadily for a couple of hours and the light was fading, although it was only two-thirty in the afternoon. He did not like the fact that the wind was now starting to pick up. He grabbed his luggage and headed to the front of the bus.

‘I hope you make it out before the blizzard hits.’ the driver said, as he opened the door.

‘Me too.’ Ryan waved as he made his way down the steps.

Inside the terminal building, he was sucked into the maelstrom of humanity that is the Reykjavik airport check-in area. He was relieved to see that his flight was still scheduled and on time that, so for once, it didn’t bother him. The plan - get through this lineup and the one at security with time to kill on the other side, where he could relax and grab a bite to eat.

‘Sig’ Sigurdsson was also making his way to the airport. Not for travel, but to his job as a caretaker. Sig hated his job, hated most things about Iceland, and in particular today, hated the weather. His shift didn’t start until six, but he wanted to drive the long road from the city in the daylight. Still buzzed from the pot he smoked earlier, his good mood was fading fast with the horrendous road conditions. The only bright spot, the fact that if the blizzard cancelled flights, he might have a good night relieving tired passengers of their cash and treasured possessions.

Ryan heard the announcement whilst in the restaurant, but checked the monitor anyway. All remaining flights out of Reykjavik that evening were cancelled. Shit! He made his way to the airline desk to get more information. The agent there couldn’t tell him anything further, except that he might want to stay at the airport, because if the weather improved and flights started moving again, his might be rescheduled at that time.

He pulled out his phone and punched the required buttons. His wife answered on the second ring.

‘Hi Charlie.’

‘Hey Ry. Where are you?’

‘I’m stuck in Reykjavik. A blizzard. Nothing is moving out of here tonight. Maybe in the morning. I’m gonna stay here at the airport, ‘cause they say if the weather improves, things could get going again pretty quick.’

‘I’m sorry, Babe. Not a great ending to your conference trip. But I guess it’s better to be safe, right?’

‘Yeah, you’re right. So now… how are you doing? Has junior been good to you, letting you sleep for once?’

‘No! He keeps kicking and squirming. I’ll be glad when he finally makes an appearance, though that better not be until you get home. I don’t want to be going to the hospital by myself.’

‘It’s just one day. Tell him to get comfy and chill for a bit.’ Charlotte laughed from the other side of the world, making Ryan smile, but also causing a pang of guilt.

‘Listen honey, I should probably go. Calls from Iceland probably cost a fortune. Plus, if I’m gonna be here for the night, I should try and find the best spot to get comfy.’

‘OK. Keep me posted.’

‘Will do.’

‘Love you, Babe’

‘Love you, too. ‘Night, Charlie-girl!’

Sig started his shift by sweeping the main shopping area, the perfect way to scope out easy targets. As he had thought, there were hundreds of people from the cancelled flights, all stuck here. He could be patient, he would be here until morning. Those who craved quiet and privacy would eventually separate from the crowd. Tired people made poor decisions. And he would be ready for those opportunities.

Ryan was having a hard time keeping his eyes open. Facebook was not holding his attention and his long soak at the Blue Lagoon, not to mention a beer with supper, made him ready for a nap. His head nodded forward and his hand flopped to his lap.

Sig saw the movement out of the corner of his eye. He made his way toward the passenger sensing a perfect opportunity, but being careful to remain inconspicuous. He watched as the phone slowly slipped out of the guy’s relaxed fingers, swooping in to catch it before it hit the floor, his ‘Good Samaritan’ excuse at the ready if needed.

He stopped to check if anyone had seen him, or if the guy had woken up. No? Good. He was about to pocket the phone when a pretty woman with dark curly hair caught his attention. The phone was unlocked.

‘Time for a coffee break.’ Sig murmured to himself. As he scrolled through photos and Facebook, bank statements, emails and texts, he realized that this guy’s entire life was on his phone. Sig could use this to make the phone worth a lot more than he had originally thought.

Ryan’s nose twitched. The combined aroma of stale sweat, pot smoke and coffee pried him from sleep. He opened his eyes, the stranger’s face in front of him, making him jump.

‘Hello Ryan.’ The stranger smirked at him.

‘Who…? Wait, how do you know my name?’ Sig held up the phone, waving it. Ryan reached for his pockets instinctively, but realizing his loss.

‘You’ve been a bad boy, haven’t you? Charlie… she doesn’t know that you’ve been in Reykjavik for the past three days, does she?’

Ryan blanched.

‘Oh, I read all the emails and texts. You told her the conference finished yesterday, but it was actually done three days ago. How would she feel about that, being pregnant and all? That’s a pretty big lie.’

Ryan’s brain caught up to his reality,

‘What do you want from me?’

‘Well, for a start, you’ll give me one thousand euros. If you don’t, I’ll call your wife and tell her what she’s missing. Maybe follow up with an email and photos of your visit.’

Ryan’s mind was not processing logical thought. Beneath his consciousness, rage and fear fought each other for dominance. Words eluded him.

‘I can see this has taken you by surprise, so I’ll give you some time to think about it, come ‘round to my way of thinking. You’re not going anywhere. I’ll be watching and if I see you talking to anyone, well… I would be connected to the lovely Charlie before you could even point me out in the crowd.’

Sig got up and started to walk away. ‘I’ll be back in twenty minutes. Maybe there are more juicy tidbits in here that Ryan Garrett doesn’t want the world to know.’

 Ryan slumped forward, head in his hands and took a deep breath. He was being blackmailed. He needed to gather his wits, focus and come up with a plan. But all he got were dead-ends. He wanted to cry with frustration.

Work boots filled his vision while the unique personal aroma once again filled his nostrils.

‘Who’s Joanna?’

‘Joanna?’ The apparent change in direction left Ryan feeling wrong-footed.

‘Yes. Joanna Halloway. She seems to be a friend of yours.’ Sig air-quoted the word friend. ‘Lots of photos of her recently. Who is she?’

‘She’s a co-worker. We were at a conference together – for a project we’re working on.’

‘Maybe Charlie would like to know about her. Perhaps Joanna was here with you, on this secret vacation she knows nothing about.’

‘Charlotte does know about Joanna. We’ve worked together for years’ Ryan was momentarily indignant at the implication that he was being unfaithful. ‘She wasn’t here with me at all. She went straight home.’

‘You think Charlie will believe that, after discovering you lied about where you’ve been?’ Ryan opened his mouth to protest, but closed it again, realizing how na├»ve he would sound.

‘Time to up the ante. My silence now costs five thousand euros.’

‘But I don’t have that kind of money, certainly not accessible from an airport ATM.’

‘Don’t try to kid me Ryan.’ Sig waved the phone again. ‘I’ve seen your bank statements.’

Ryan slumped again, deflated. He didn’t want to give in to a criminal, but had no idea what to do next.

‘I’ve got some other business to take care of, so I’ll check back with you in a while. I’ll be here until six a.m. and you’re not going anywhere anytime soon. I’m sure you’ll have a change of heart. Same rules apply though… I see you talking to anyone… well, you know the drill.’

Ryan watched the janitor make his way through the crowd. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t noticed him earlier, when now it was so obvious that he was staking out victims. He wondered how many had already fallen prey to his ‘business’. If only he could get word out, maybe send them a note… Wait… that was it.

He checked his breast pocket for a notepad and pen. He had the tools. Now he just needed a place to jot something down.

He scanned the room, searching for inspiration. Where could he go, to write unseen? The washroom - of course! He couldn’t be followed into a stall. A concrete plan formed in Ryan’s head. He sat for a few minutes more, getting clear on the details.

This was the only plan he had thought up that had a remote chance of success. Knowing he was being watched he didn’t want to hurry, raise suspicions and give the game away. A quick check of the clock told him that neither could he afford to wait too long. Six a.m. was still hours away, but he had no idea how long it might take for his plan to execute.

Taking a deep breath, he got up and walked towards the bathroom, fighting to stay calm. From the corner of his eye, he saw the caretaker stop what he was doing, then head back towards him. But Ryan knew he would make it to the washroom first.

Inside the stall he scribbled the note he had rehearsed in his mind. He knew he couldn’t be in there too long. Outside the stall, the bathroom grew quiet. A knock on the door made him jump.

‘’You alright in there sir? You’ve been a while.’ The caretaker was checking up on him.

“I’m fine. Just doing what people do in here.’ Ryan shoved the note in his jeans pocket, handy. He flushed, left the stall and went to wash his hands. He checked around for anyone to hand off his message to, but realized that, in here it would be impossible to do so without alerting his stalker.

Swallowing a rising panic, Ryan dried his hands and made for the exit. His blackmailer was about to fall in behind him when another passenger approached.

‘Could you please check on a toilet down there that seems to be overflowing? There’s water all over the floor. Maybe at least clean it up, so that no-one slips and hurts themselves.’ The janitor found himself being led away by the elbow, his face black with rage.

Out of the washroom, Ryan was free for a few seconds. He scanned the people around him, selected a middle-aged man and almost threw the note into his lap as he kept on walking, back to his seat. He watched as the man unfolded and read.

‘My name is Ryan Garrett. My phone was stolen while here in the airport, and I am being blackmailed by the thief. I suspect I am not his only victim here today.

Please check your own possessions to see if you are missing something. If you are, please report it to the gate agent or a security officer, but PLEASE be discreet. If this man suspects that I have communicated with anyone, he will fulfill his threat against me and my family.

Please forward this note, to alert as many people as possible. Keep an eye out for this man. He is in his twenties with fair, reddish hair and is a member of the janitorial staff.

Thank you!’

The middle-aged man reached into his travel bag and pulled out a pen, added something to the note then leaned across to his nearest neighbour. It was possible he handed off the note, but Ryan couldn’t tell for sure. He allowed himself a moment of hope that the plan might work.

Sig came barrelling out of the washroom, certain that he would find Ryan talking to a security guard. He stopped, surprised at finding him back in the same chair. He scanned the room, checking for anything untoward. Everything seemed normal, but he sensed that something had changed.

He made his way toward Ryan. He had no idea what could have changed in only minutes, but wasn’t taking any chances. Perhaps now was the time to prove he meant business, time to collect his money.
The public announcement system bonged into life.

‘Would passenger Ryan Garrett please come to the Icelandair information desk? Passenger Ryan Garrett to the Icelandair information desk.’

Ryan’s heart sank. They were paging him just as his blackmailer was headed right for him. Surely, he would suspect something! Behind, he could see the middle-aged man watching them both. He glanced at the caretaker as he got up, shaking his head slightly, denying his involvement in this latest turn of events.

‘There seems to be some problem with your seat selection. You did it online, is that right?’ The agent was looking at her computer screen.

‘Yes… yes, that’s right. What… what seems to be the problem?’ Ryan stuttered. The agent slid a sheet of paper across the counter.

‘Part of your transaction didn’t go through, no worries. Just have a look at the current seating plan. Here’s a pen. Circle which seat you want, then if you could sign underneath, so I have something on file.’

Ryan read the page in front of him.

‘We were alerted to your situation by a fellow passenger, and have received several reports of missing property. We believe we have pinpointed the suspect. If possible, can you identify him now, in this area? If you can, we will conduct a spot-search immediately.’

The caretaker lurked in the background, there to make sure he did nothing stupid, Ryan had no doubt. He faked a review of the plan then scrawled a note and handed the page back.

He’s to my left, over by the window.

‘Thank you, Mr. Garrett.’ She smiled, and nodded slightly over his left shoulder.

Two security guards materialized, seemingly from nowhere. Within seconds, cash, cigarettes and small electronics, including his phone, were emptied out of pockets and on to the table. Relief turned Ryan’s legs to jelly.

As a guard walked it over to him, Ryan had never been so glad to see such a small, inanimate object.

He was also never going to lie to his wife again.

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