The SAS flight from Copenhagen arrived right on time at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, and disembarking passenger Mark Stewart easily claimed his luggage and cleared U.S. Customs in a jiffy.
The only apparent glitch was when the Customs official smiled at the visa from the Russian Federation in Mark’s U.S. Passport and said, “So, tell me about the women.”
“The women?” Mark asked, missing a breath.
“You know,” the man in the white shirt and dark slacks said, winking conspiratorially, “those amazing Russian women. I’ve heard they put the Amazons to shame.”
“Right. They did'”for sure. Well, are my papers in order?”
“Oh, yeah. You’re good to go. But tell me about the trip you just took. My wife and I are looking for something different, and we never considered Russia.”
“Well,” Mark Stewart said, looking around for the hidden recorders, “I’d recommend the one my mother and I just took from Moscow to Saint Petersburg. We boarded a ship on the Moscow Canal in Moscow as soon as we arrived, and stayed on the ship until we left from Saint Petersburg yesterday, or was it today? I’m not sure, since we never did see any darkness flying back from Copenhagen. The only bad part of the trip was the flight from Saint Petersburg to Copenhagen because they didn’t serve any food. You had to buy it, and I only had Russian money.”
“Yeah, my mother was in first class with the credit card and American money in her purse, and, well, it’s good to be back in Chicago. So I suppose I’d better let you get to the next passenger.”
“No hurry. Well, Mr. Stewart, I’ll have my wife contact the tour company who packaged your trip.”
Mark Stewart gave the customs official the name and number of the company that had packaged the fabulous trip he and his 86-year-old mother had just taken, and then he accepted his passport from the nice man and walked out of the secure Customs area to await his mother’s arrival. She had traveled in first class from Copenhagen, just as she had traveled first class on the two flights to Russia, and she was in a wheelchair, and a fellow traveler and friend, Betty Blaire, promised she would get Mom’s luggage and walk her through Customs with no problems.
No problems at all.
And so Mark Stewart sighed and stood at ease over his carry-on bag and the rickety old suitcase he had claimed as luggage. He was a husky white male with a graying goatee and a well-worn wardrobe of jeans, walking shoes, flannel shirt and heavy green winter coat. It had been ready to snow when they left Saint Petersburg some 12 hours ago, but here in Chicago on the second Sunday of October, it was short-sleeve weather. Folks in the terminal certainly thought it odd that a man would be wearing such a heavy coat on such a mild evening.
Mark deflected their stares and wished he had heeded his sister’s advice and gotten a cell phone. “You’ll need it,” she said, “especially if anything goes wrong.”
Nothing had in fact gone wrong, and, Mark had argued: “They don’t have good reception in most of the parts of Russia we’ll be traveling through. If I need to call you, I’ll call from the ship in Moscow or Saint Petersburg.”
As it was, he didn’t need to call his sister back in Chicago. Not even when his mother bruised her leg while getting off the tour bus after a day tour of the regional capital, Yaroslavl. Mark took his amazing mother, known to one and all as “Miss Maggie,” to the ship’s doctor, and the good Russian physician cleaned and dressed her wound in a most professional manner, and that was that.
No need to call dear sister Susie back in Chicago.
But now, as he waited and waited and waited for his mother and her friend Betty to emerge from Customs, Mark Stewart wished he had a cell phone in his pocket. Betty Blaire had the one cell phone that had accompanied their little threesome to Russia, and the plan was that she would call the limousine company as soon as she and Mark’s mother cleared Customs, and away they would all go back to their respective homes on the far south side of Chicago.
Well, that was the plan.
But the reality of arrival back in the good old U.S. of A. was something entirely different, as Mark Stewart soon discovered.
But not soon enough, because he waited.
And then he waited.
Everyone he could possibly remember from their flight from Copenhagen cleared Customs and came tumbling out into the free world where friends and relatives were waiting to whisk them off to wherever.
The flood of incoming passengers thinned to a trickle and then dried up.
Not a single soul emerged for a good ten minutes and that made Mark one very nervous traveler.
Never one to ask for help, he resolved to break his life-long resolve and actually ask someone'”anyone'”for help.
But whom to ask?
And how to ask?
Mark pondered these and other questions as he scanned the concourse for just the person to ask about the whereabouts of his mother and her friend Betty Blaire. They had to be somewhere, and someone'”anyone'”would know just where they were and what they were'”
“Sir, would you please come with us?!?”
Mark blinked at a tiny blonde creature with the bluest eyes he had ever seen. She was waving some really official looking badge in his face and nodding at her partner, a grim man in a dark blue windbreaker.
“If you would, please,” the tiny blonde said.
Mark didn’t know what to say, so the tiny blonde put a vise grip on his elbow with her little lady hand. Now Mark knew what to say: “Ouch!”
“Just come with us,” the grim man said.
Mark gasped and stumbled, so the tiny blonde squeezed harder for emphasis.
Mark swallowed and went unwillingly with them. Like, he thought, I have have a friggin’ choice.
The unlikely pair hauled the returning citizen of the greatest country in the whole wide world to a dark blue car parked askew in an “ABSOLUTELY NO PARKING AT ANY TIME FOR ANY REASON” zone.
“Watch your head,” the blonde creature said, banging Mark’s head against the frame.
Mark was about to protest when the grim creature sucker punched him in the left kidney. He collapsed into the back seat of their big blue/black American car with a miserable groan and could only focus on the sounds of the evil pair preparing for takeoff.
“Click” went the automatic locks.
“We have the suspect,” went the call into headquarters.
And “zoom, zoom” went the big gas guzzler as they lurched off to some secure location where Mark knew they would water-board him into confessing heinous crimes against the United States of America.
Well, he would have been right had headquarters not radioed back and told the blonde creature and the grim man that they indeed had the wrong suspect.
“Wrong flight, wrong airport, wrong day, wrong moment, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong'””
And so it went, and so they simply pulled over at an area near the airport known as “Hobo Hill” and unceremoniously dumped Mark out of their big taxpayer supported government vehicle and roared off in search of the right suspect.
Mark pulled himself to his feet and gazed around at the long line of black limousine and town cars idling along a chain link fence.
“What the hell is this?” he wondered aloud.
The driver of the nearest limo, a true “hobo” if ever there was one, powered down his window and said in a thick Russian accent, “For one ruble, I give you a ride back to airport.”
“Spasiba balshoe,” Mark said. “Thank you very much.”
And so Boris Pakhomov chauffeured Mark Stewart back to the International Terminal where Boris met the man the man the blonde creature and grim man were really looking for and where Mark Stewart met up with his mother and her friend Shirley.
Mom and Shirley had just been delayed by a long line in the ladies room is all, and when Mom asked Mark what he had done while he was waiting for them, he said, “Well, I was part of some high-level international intrigue, and'””
“Don’t listen to him,” Mom told her friend Betty Blaire. “Mark has always had an overactive imagination. Next thing he’ll tell us is that he was abducted by space aliens and taken to their home planet for testing by some little blonde creature.”
Betty chuckled dryly and called the limousine company on her cellphone and they sent their grim man and his tiny blonde colleague right around in their blue-black American car.