GOODS TO DECLARE.
NOTHING TO DECLARE.
As if anyone ever took the first option. Passengers trailed down the white corridor under the green sign, green for safety, green for health, green for go, green for whatever-the-hell. Poor red got a bad rap. Not that Charles was any different – he let himself be carried along by the hordes of tired, crumpled travellers, mimicking their bored/eager faces and checking his phone for non-existent messages. He couldn’t count how many times he’d done this. Look weary, look faintly impatient, but don’t rush. Never rush.
Billboards scowled at them from the walls, pictures of ziplocs emerging out of coffee grounds like undersea reefs, broken-down prams, little solid balloons of rubber lined up next to a ruler. Fines and warnings and prison sentences shouted in black writing on yellow backgrounds, and red lines slashed across the pictures for those who were still a little unclear. The War Against Drugs was in full swing, although they should have thought the acronym through better. The snootier newspapers never used it, and broadcasters always spieled the name off in full. Less reputable tabloids, as well as plenty of Charles’ associates, had no such qualms.
He straightened his tie as he joined the queue that passed between fingers of benches and tense officials. Used to be that you could walk straight through, no one even paying attention, just some bored-looking junior officer watching you pass with about as much interest as a parking attendant. Now, though, it was no different than going into Australia or somewhere like that, people being pulled aside, bags pawed through, dogs patrolling the queues with their bright black eyes and twitching noses. He put his rolly case in front of him and laid both hands on the handle, one over the other, fingertips finding his pulse. Slow, steady. Good. He was a professional, after all.
Everyone that came in could be subject to random searches, not that they were really all that random. Of course they weren’t. And a mature white businessman with his expensive briefcase resting on his equally expensive rolly carry-on was far less likely to get searched than the young kid over there with his dreads and uncertain ethnicity, stinking faintly of incense. That simple fact said all Charles cared to say about privilege and foolish assumptions, not that he was complaining. He tugged at the cuffs of his jacket, making sure his watch displayed itself just enough. It was a good thing, really. He was too old to pull off the scruffy backpacker look.
The queue moved forward steadily. The officers were efficient, the passengers gripped in that strange forced joviality that seems to beset people when confronted with a uniform. Charles nodded brusquely at the officer with the dog, who ignored him, eyes on the animal. It sniffed Charles’ case disinterestedly, then kept going. The woman in front of him was waved through the doors, trailing two children in various stages of exhaustion and pushing an overladen duty free trolley. Charles started to follow.
“Excuse me, sir? If you could just step over here for a moment.”
Charles’ astonishment wasn’t feigned. Neither was his humph of impatience. But he complied, giving the young officer a plausibly irritated glare.
“Thank you sir. Just to confirm – you have nothing to declare?”
“Nothing at all, ma’am,” he said, his tone conveying just the right balance of courtesy and impatience.
“I’m going to have to ask that you open your case, sir,” she said, indicating one of the bare metal benches. No x-rays? This was – unusual.
“If you have to, you have to,” he said, and gave her a patronising smile. It didn’t ruffle her, of course – she’d have dealt with worse – but she might be suspicious if he acted as anything other than superior. He put the briefcase and the rolly case on the bench, opened them and stepped back, one hand folded over the other as he waited. His pulse had ticked up, which was to be expected. Not much, though.
The officer waved to the animal handler, and as he brought the dog over Charles relaxed. The dog would find nothing. Not with the precautions he’d taken.
Sure enough, the dog barely glanced at the cases, although its handler shuffled through them, holding out socks and a hairbrush and making little encouraging noises. The dog sniffed dutifully, but kept looking back at the queue as if hoping for something more exciting to happen. Charles waited, feeling his pulse easing back down. Everything was going to be just fine. Just fine.
The two officers had a muttered conversation, then the animal handler led the dog away. Charles raised his eyebrows questioningly at the officer that had stopped him, a hint of a smile on his lips, but she ignored him, phone to one ear.
Charles considered the most suitable reaction for a moment, then said, “Not to rush you, but I do have a car waiting.”
The officer held up one finger, still not bothering to look at him, and he felt an unfamiliar crawl of unease in his bowels. This was odd. Very odd. She said something he couldn’t quite hear, then hung up.
“Sir, please collect your bags and follow me.”
“Ma’am, I really -”
“I recommend that you cooperate, sir.” Her voice was flat and hard, and Charles subsided. He closed his cases with fussy care, tutting at how his shirts had been half-unfolded, but it was all automatic, all part of the persona. His mind was screaming alarms and warnings, contingency plans and questions, because why? Why had he been pulled aside? Why hadn’t the dog been enough?
He put his rolly bag on the floor, placed his briefcase neatly on top, and nodded at the officer. “After you,” he said, and there was no tremor in his voice. They had nothing.
The officer led the way to a door marked AUTHORISED PERSONNEL ONLY, and he didn’t bother checking his pulse. He could feel it in his forehead.
The room was cramped, white, windowless. There a door opposite the one they entered through, and another bench flanked by two rather large uniformed men. The officer that had escorted him in said, “All yours,” then left again, leaving him clutching the handle of his case a little too tightly. But that was okay. Nerves and anger would be natural.
“The dog already checked my bags,” he said. “I’m not sure what you think you’re going to find.”
“Please put your cases on the bench, sir,” the larger of the two officers said, “And remove your clothes.”
Charles heaved an entirely genuine sigh, and complied.
They didn’t find anything. He didn’t have anything on him to find. One of the officers left through the interior door, while the other watched impassively as Charles dressed again. He let his movements be angry, rushed, and muttered a few dark things about missed meetings. Play the game, play the game. But he could still feel that doubtful little beast crawling through his belly. They had to have a reason for this. Had to. So someone had talked. Who? He was going to be doing some investigating of his own once he was out of here, and it wasn’t going to involve tidy white rooms and pretty rubber gloves.
“Are we finished here?” he asked, voice sharp.
“Not yet, sir. We have one more check to do.”
Charles sighed, and sat down on the bench. The epoxy-sealed compartments in the rolly frame might keep the dogs out and hold up to x-rays, but they weren’t impossible to find. Nothing’s impossible.
The inner door opened, and the second officer walked in, a big man with a shaved head that gleamed in the fluorescent lighting. Charles caught a glimpse of the hall beyond, but it was as featureless as the room – no muzak or potted plants, no posters or movement. They were in some tiny pocket of stillness amid the roar of the airport, insects in amber.
“Please move away from the bags, sir,” the bald officer said, and Charles got up wearily, wondering what was next. The officer touched his forehead respectfully as he looked at the floor just inside the door, out of sight to Charles. “It’s ready for you, SCC.”
SCC. Charles felt the strength leave his legs. S goddamn CC.
A burly tabby cat with a disgruntled expression leaped from the floor to the bench, giving Charles a dismissive glance before it started nosing around the cases.
SCC. Charles didn’t need to check his pulse, it was thundering in his ears and pushing surges of darkness across his vision. SCC. Superior Cat in Charge. S goddamn CC.
The cat looked at him, as if hearing his panicked, yammering thoughts, then snuffled at the handle of the rolly case. It paused, ears pricking, and Charles barely heard the first officer say, “Well, now,” as the cat rubbed its face against the metal, purring. He could hear it purring. Its goddamn purring and his heartbeat were the only things in the whole world right now. He took a staggering step back, groping for the wall, for any support before his legs gave out completely, horrified eyes on the cat as it flopped onto the case, wriggling in delight at the scent even the dogs couldn’t catch.
“What will find in these handles then, sir?” the bald officer asked, sounding amused.
Charles took a gulping breath, certain he was going to vomit.
“Wouldn’t be catnip, would it, sir?” the first officer said.
Charles wondered if he was going to pass out before he threw up.
“Because that’s a controlled substance, sir,” the shaven-headed officer said, watching the cat writhing on the bench, its pupils huge. “Last of the Class A drugs, sir. A corruption to the feline race, it is.”
Charles had reached the floor, and he covered his face with his hands, considering the manner of his execution. Adrian might be the top cat in Manchester, but he wouldn’t step in. What was one courier more or less to him? God knew, he probably had another dozen breezing through arrivals right now. He was done for. It was cat food factory for him. He knew it.
On the bench, the slightly stoned SCC sat up and purred loudly. The officer opened the door and bowed his head respectfully when it walked past him and back to its office. It didn’t speak to them. The master race has little need for chatting to slaves.