Annie shifted her carry bag from one shoulder to the other. She felt a bead of sweat roll down her cheek. Her breath came in labored gasps. The unmoving moving walkway lay as still and silent as a dead boa constrictor. If she could move either arm, she would check her watch but what did it matter? She either made the flight or she didn't. Her eyes scanned the gate numbers. There it was -just ahead- Flight 4473 bound for Johannesburg, South Africa
Her dream trip finally coming true.
A line of passengers was already shuffling forward. She found one last burst of speed and joined the end of the line.
A bespectacled man turned slowly. "Just in time little lady."
If she hadn't been completely winded, she would have objected to the "little lady." Instead she gave a wan smile as she followed the procession into the belly of the plane.
After stuffing her bag into the last inch of overhead space, she sank into her seat, letting out a deep sigh of relief. She had made it and it was going to be amazing.
She slipped her hand into her jacket pocket and rubbed the box the man had given her. He was the reason she had almost missed the flight. He had sat beside her at Starbucks with a nod and an apologetic smile.
“Mind if I join you?”
She swiveled her head, eyeing several empty tables.
“Ah yes, but this is the table I want. You are the person I want.”
She felt a cold finger of fear slide down her back.
He threw back his head. A warm, gentle laugh. “I’m not a human trafficker. Just a man who needs a helper.”
She narrowed her eyes.
“No, no, not a smuggler or anything like that. I think I can help you and you can help me.”
She knew she should get up and leave but his smile was so ingratiating, his face so open. He held out his hands, palms up, as if to show all was well.
“I was checking the reservations for fight 4473 and saw your name.”
She narrowed her eyes.
“I work for the airline.”
Now she did push back her chair.
He laid his hand on her arm, not grasping or clutching-gentle but firm.
“I looked you up. I looked all the passengers up.”
A low chuckle. “There is no such thing as privacy. Everyone’s information is open for all to see.”
She moved to rise. His hand tightened.
“You are in need of money. I am in need of a courier.”
She gave a huge sigh. “What is this? Some kind of TV stunt? In a few minutes, camera men will appear from behind the counter and zoom in on me accepting a bag of diamonds.”
That gentle chuckle. “Not at all. Not at all.”
He reached into his portfolio and withdrew a small rectangular box.
“Not diamonds, but something very precious to me. I cannot fly.”
“Are you banned or sick?”
A shrug. “Does it matter?”
“What are you offering?”
“Now, that does matter.”
He displayed a printout from her bank. The sum took her breath away.
“Anyone can print anything they want.”
He gestured to her cell phone. “Check you balance.”
She glanced at her watch.
“My flight leaves soon.”
She punched in her code. The balance took her breath away.
“If you put it in. You can take it out.”
“Put a hold on the account. Say your information has been stolen.”
She looked at her watch again.
“Not much time,” he said.
She called the emergency number. “My card has been stolen. I want to freeze my account.”
He slid the box across the table. “Someone will meet you when you are through security. Keep this on your person at all times. I caution you not to open it. You will be sorry if you do.”
Scenes from every thriller she had ever seen scrolled through her mind. Again she wondered if this were a farce being filmed for some game show. But the figure in her account had been real. She had no time to reconsider. She slipped the box in her pocket and sprinted down the concourse.
The box lay heavy in her hand. It looked like it was made from mahogany or some such exotic wood. It was amazingly heavy and surprisingly warm.
“Don’t open the box, the door, the window. Don’t go into the basement.”
Cautions voiced in every horror movie. Yet they always opened the box, the door, the window. They crept down the stairs into the basement, a single bulb swinging overhead, casting dark shadows while ominous music played in the background.
A flight attendant was giving the usual instructions. “Fasten your seat belt. Seat back up. All items under the seat in front of you.”
When the plane was in the air, she removed the box. What if this was for real? What if a mild looking stranger did meet her when she arrived? What if she just took a little peak? How would he or she know?
She turned the box over and ran her hand around the edges. No lock. No piece of tape. No white thread ready to fall when the lid was lifted.
She craned her neck.
All the surrounding passengers were involved with their iPad, iPhone, a book, newspaper or magazine. Some were sleeping.
She swallowed hard and opened the lid. There was no resistance.
Inside, resting on a velvet cloth, a toad. A toad! What the Hell?
Was this an exotic specimen being smuggled into the dark continent, ready to unleash a deadly plague or some kind of sick joke?
The creature rolled its eyes backward and jumped from the box onto her lap. She stifled a scream. It was after all-just a toad-creepy but not lethal. Unless, unless. What if it was poisonous. There were poisonous toads weren’t there?
She didn’t want to touch it. Didn’t you get warts from touching toads? Or was that an old wives tale?
The toad lay in her lap breathing heavily, in and out, in and out.
She looked in the box again. A single sheet of paper folded in half. She opened it. Neat plain handwriting:
I knew you could not resist. No one could have. Your fatal flaw was greed and, I guess, curiosity. You know what curiosity did to the cat don’t you?
Terror gripped her. Had she touched the thing? Could it be secreting poison?
She returned her attention to the note.
This airline ruined me. Now I will ruin it. Kind of a scandal for a planeload of passengers to be poisoned at the same time. Definitely a black eye for the company. I’m sure you are still over land. It will be a spectacular crash. Curiosity, curiosity. Watch and learn.
She stared at the toad. It seemed to be glowing, emitting a haze with a noxious odor. It stung her nostrils. Burned her eyes.
Her seat mate tried to rise, then fell back. The last thing she saw clearly was the toad hopping from her skirt to the carpeted middle aisle then under the seat in front of her.