“That’s the thing about this city,” said the driver as he parked the limousine. “No one ever really gets away from it.”
“Oh, yeah?” I looked at my watch. All I had to do now was wait in the parking lot, pick up a package, and then let this guy take me back to the airport. Only problem was I wasn’t sure how long I would be there. I knew that we had to be there at noon, but after that…
“You think that people want to get away from this place?”
“What I said before about the city. You think people really hate the place that much?”
“No, not really. But it has its problems.”
He snorted and laughed. “You show me a place that does not have any problems, and I will show you place that only retirees live in.”
The divider was up and I was grateful. When I got picked up, he had my name – the other name – on a card and welcomed me far too loudly in front of the terminal. And he even went all out to look like a fake limo driver. Aviators, gold tooth, cheap suit, and that stupid hat… But I really did not care about that. I thought that it would just be a quick stop and then I had a return ticket back to the base.
This one was a talker. I had been used to certain things after being on job for a decade: frisking, wrong locations, ugly encounters with goons who thought they had something to prove (they never did when they heard who I worked for). But very few of them were talkers. They kept whatever they had to say to a simple greeting and then that was it until I spoke.
I had a talker in my car.
“25, 10 or 5?”
“I don’t think I understand.”
He lowered the divider with a switch at the front and lowered those stupid shades.
“How long do you think we will have to wait?”
Now this was really odd. Why did he care?
“Look, I just…”
“Just to make it interesting. Let’s wager on it. How long it will take… I say, looking at you, maybe 10 minutes. That gives you 25 or 5 minutes.”
I stared at him for a moment. Was this really happening?
“You really want to do this?”
“Okay, I bet you it’s in 15.”
He looked annoyed and stared up at the rear-view mirror. “I said, ‘25, 10 or 5,’ not 15.”
“Sorry, but why does that matter? Time is time.”
He cleared his throat and stared out the left and then the right.
“From my experience, every time I have had to pick someone up, it is always between 25, 10 or 5 minutes, never 15. Not once.”
This actually was interesting to me. “Really? No one ever came at 15 or some other time.”
I was bored, and there was nowhere else I had to be.
He smiled back at me, rolling up the divider.
Well, at least I had not picked 5. We were both in that car and I kept looking at my watch to check the time and wonder what I had done to be stuck in this situation. The weather had been nice and it was not the longest trip from the airport. It was a perfect set up for our drop off. Who would miss the chance to…?
There was a tap on the divider.
“You picked 25, right?”
“Well, five minutes are down. Guess it is gonna be you or me.”
Yeah, let’s see what is going on. Through the windows, I could see that we were at a small mall, one of those places where all the entrances and exits were on one side. Not a busy place, but I think I understood why he had chosen it. Not much to attract the eye or too many eyewitnesses to screw things up for him. Perfect.
And then the driver started again.
“What are we going to gamble?”
“Remember: our little wager. We never said what we would gamble on.”
“Oh, yes.” I really wanted to just go back to the airport. “You made the bet but you did not set the terms.”
“Oh, I like that! Terms. What are we going to actually risk if we take a bet and one of us loses.”
“Or the other guy wins?”
He was silent for a moment.
“Right. Wins. What should it be?”
“I really don’t…”
“You don’t look like you are carrying a lot of money on you. The ticket was free and you are not really here to go shopping, unless it is in the duty-free area.”
Not really relevant when it is not an international flight, I thought, but I did not say a thing.
“You have a watch, but mine is probably more than yours. Rolex meet Timex.”
How had he noticed that?
“Oh, and it is now past 10. Guess you could win, if my theory is correct.”
“Or if it is 15, I could still win…”
Not a word. Why did I say that? He had already acted strangely before when I talked about a number he did not consider possible. And it was approaching 15 on my cheap watch.
Not really cheap, though. I bought the best one I could find because I needed to keep up to schedule with all this going back and forth for packages and people. They told me to get a watch when I first started and no one said a damn thing to me about my Timex. Just as long as I was there, it was okay; just as long as I got the right time.
“I thought I told you what I told you. 15 is right out.”
“Yes, that’s right. I am sorry.”
“Sorry.” I could actually feel the contempt from the other side of the glass. That was also the moment when I considered that not only was the divider tinted, but so were the windows on all sides in the back. No one could see what was going on. No one would know if anything happened.
And was anyone shopping on a week-day now?
“So, look. Remember what I said, we need to decide on what we are going to wager.”
“Oh, right.” I really wanted to check the locks. “I can owe you or you owe me if the 25-thing is right.”
“No.” He did not say a thing. I noticed that the air conditioning was off and how I was beginning to sweat in my own cheap suit and even into my shoes.
“Right. Hey, could you turn the air conditioning back on?”
Both passenger side windows slowly crawled down a crack as I spoke. It was just enough space for the air to circulate; not really enough for an escape.
“Y’know, I said that it is only right that we settle this before you pick up whoever or whatever it was they sent you for. Don’t you think so?”
I really did not know what to say to him at that point. I was beginning to scan through both windows to see if there was anyone around. The mall had these combinations of trees and bushes all around the empty lot. Perfect. A perfect location to not be seen.
“I think that I should not have accepted your bet.”
“But you did! I made an offer and you accepted it. We are in this together and now we have a problem. This is something we need to solve.”
Now I did check the locks. Nice and secure.
“I am really just here to do a job.”
“So am I. I do this very well and that is why I am so disappointed in myself. I am let us both down and now we have this terrible problem. And I feel you should be a little disappointed, too.”
“Why? What? You created this situation but it is nothing big.”
And then I heard a click and gears turning as the divider came down.
“Your birthday is nothing big?”
I looked at his big stupid grin and wondered if I was about to be killed because I forgot about my birthday. Stupid thought for a stupid moment.
“Look under the cushion on your left.”
I still thought this was joke when he said that. My body hesitated, but my eyes turned to the seat and my brain forced me to do something with my hands. I lifted up the seat and found a small white box with a card and a simple blue ribbon around it.
“Your pick up. Your package.” He turned around as the divider went back up. “Your gift.”
I am not sure how long I stared at it. It was at least as long as the trip back to the airport. The driver kept explaining why the boss did this and how he liked to test his staff every so often to see if they were ready “for the right responsibilities and the right time”. But my mind was not focused on him.
I was too busy reading the card:
Thank you for all of your years of service to the group. Accept this as a small token of a bigger reward coming your way soon. Promotion beckons!
No signature, of course, but there was a watch. A golden Patek Philippe, one of the finest timepieces I ever imagined having on my wrist. I waited until I was on the plane before putting it on in first class (my seating had been changed for the return flight).
Was I ready for this?
It was Flight 510.
It would be a 20-minute drive home.
I would decide when I got back.
And I am still not sure if I won the bet.