Speedy Baggage returned more than 400 misplaced bags a day in San Diego, many of them to irate passengers. Thanksgiving, it was closer to 750. Picking the luggage up from each baggage claim area took Rudy nearly as much time as delivering it. Checking the tags against his list was also a massive time suck. In the old days, he mapped the route out himself. Now Speedy had software to do that, eliminating the one part of his job that held any interest. He was pretty sure within a year or two, drones would be handling the deliveries.
His route was mostly to downtown hotels, and the van was packed to the ceiling tonight. Lots of folks were taking a long weekend for Martin Luther King's birthday. He picked the last set of bags up from Delta.
"Those kayaks going?" he asked the Delta rep. Three blue solos were propped against the wall.
"Sure looks like it to me."
The guy had him pegged as a dope, but he was just making a little conversation in the middle of a long night. Weather was strictly a non-starter for banter in Southern California.
The guy realized this and shot him a guilty grin. "What's the craziest thing you ever delivered?" he asked, making nice.
Rudy thought for a second. "A crate of live parrots. Must've been fifty of 'em in there. One bird says Polly, the rest have to chime in."
He answered a question about unusual cargo on average of twice a day. Sometimes he said a goat (also true) or a cache of automatic weapons (fat lie).
"Paddles in there, right?" he asked, lifting a kayak onto the cart. More than once he'd shown up with an incomplete delivery and had to head back to the airport.
"Duct taped under the seats. Not much to a kayak paddle."
It was 9:30 pm when Rudy left the warehouse. He had fifty-two bags, a baby's car seat, some golf clubs, and the damned kayaks to deliver to eleven hotels, two Bed and Breakfasts, and four houses in the hills above the city. Two bags had to go to a ritzy La Jolla address. The kayaks, with a delivery tag at a storage place in Pacific Beach, would have to be last. They were wedged in, standing at attention over the carefully stacked luggage.
He always delivered to the hotels first because tourists were the most likely to be bent out of shape if they had nothing to get 'em through the night other than the cheap little toiletry bags the airlines provided. No one seemed to understand he was not an airline employee. He had nothing to do with whatever or whoever made their bags disappear. If he was lucky, the passengers had left word (one of the options the airlines gave them) to leave their bags at the front desk. It was quicker, and he didn't have to face their ire. If they signed up online for the option, they even got a photo of him along with his name.
The clerk at the Hotel Sofia nodded as he walked to the elevators. The red leather bags went to a woman answering the door in red brocade pajamas. Opening the door wider, she tried to give him a tip he wasn't permitted to take.
"US Air regrets the inconvenience you've experienced," he said, consulting the tags against his list again. He looked up.
"Vieni a sederite," she said, waving him in. A bottle of wine with two glasses sat on the table.
"They'd can me," he said, pretending he'd even consider it. It was all in the handbook he'd been given when he got the job. "And I'm on a strict timetable. " He held out his clipboard, figuring she'd have no idea what he was saying but was used to translating gestures.
"Non parlo inglese. Parlo solo italiano."
She looked like Sophia Loren or that other one from the sixties."Sorry. Parlo solo Americano."
In a few minutes, he was back in the van, headed for the houses. How desperate did someone have to be to invite a stranger into their room? Was she a pro? Must be. Still, he was thinking about her. He'd give her that. She was decades younger than what was waiting at home. And more eager. He'd barely recognized the signs of interest it'd been so long. Imagine coming home to that. And imagining it was all he could do.
The drops in the hills went quickly. Three of the four passengers had left word online to leave the bags by the door. The fourth opened the door a crack and grabbed the stuff, mumbling something about terrorist ploys. He looked in the rear view mirror. Did he look Middle-Eastern? His father had been born in Corfu but no one spoke anything other than good ole American in his house.
It happened at the second house in La Jolla. There was no text or email telling him to leave the bags outside so he rang the bell. The house was about a block from the beach. Windows all the way around. Orange-tiled roof. Plenty of jungle-like plants he couldn't name. Expensive -looking stone. Boulders here and there -- looking like they might have just fallen that way. Two huge metal sculptures, one of them a muscular arm moving a hammer toward an anvil. House probably cost six million plus. Maybe twelve if there was a pool in back, a tennis court, an outdoor kitchen. And he'd bet there was. He heard the chime ring. It was 1:40 a.m., but the house was completely lit up.
"Bring them inside," a voice said. The guy was holding the door open just wide enough for him to slip through. "And, hey, stick around a minute. I want to check things out."
Lots of people had something valuable in their suitcase and were certain its failure to show up on the luggage belt was part of a scam to steal whatever it was. Once or twice, he'd been accused of nabbing something. But if anyone was going to steal something, it was the baggage handlers at the airport. Who knew what guy it was tossed your bags on the cart? What dope would knowingly deliver luggage with items missing? Not this dope.
He stepped inside, carrying the suitcases rather than pulling them. Ever since he'd been accused of scratching the floor in a foyer, he did this. God, the place was a palace. Make it worth 15 million. It was hard to find the walls holding all the windows up. He averted his eyes from inspecting it too obviously. Some guy had accused him of casing his house only a month ago.
"Set 'em right there," the man said pointing. He was a tall, dark-haired guy, and like all rich men in SoCal, looked as if he worked out. Maybe 50 or so. Laser-white teeth. Whereas once he'd have sported a tan, now he was as pale as a shut-in. Weirdest thing about him was that other than the hair on his head, he was practically hairless. His eyebrows were the merest wisp of hair. Looked like they'd been painted on. His arms, smooth as a baby's. Disease? Fashion?
Rudy set the bags down and turned to go.
"Hey, just a minute," the guy said. "I told you I want to check things out before you take off."
"Look, if you find anything missing, you need to contact the airline. The number's on the brochure they gave you at baggage claim yesterday. Still got it?" He started to reach in his pocket for a copy. "I'm just the messenger."
"Well, Messenger, you're not done here," the guy said, quickly looking through one suitcase. "Your message has not been fully delivered." He kicked the other bag. "This one goes down the road. My wife's. She's staying in a hotel." He gave Rudy an ominous look. "And guess whose fault that is?"
Rudy picked up the untouched bag. "Which hotel?"
"That's okay. I'll come along."
"I'm not allowed to transport customers in my van. Insurance, you know."
"If you want to make me follow you in my car," the guy said, "I will. But I'm coming along. She won't like a strange man at her door. Probably won't even answer it, and then where will you be?"
Why couldn't the guy just take the suitcase to her himself? Rudy thought about this a minute and then shrugged. Sometimes it was just easier to go along with it. It wasn't the strangest request he'd had. "Okay then. You might as well come with me if you can walk back."
"It's like five blocks." The man preened. "Think I can handle it?"
The hotel was pink. He'd been here before. Lots of times. The Valencia.
"But I'm parking the car myself," Rudy said when a valet sign loomed before them. "I still have cargo in here." Would anybody steal a kayak? Why not? The ocean was a hundred feet away.
"Just follow me up to her room," the guy said. Robotically, Rudy did what he was told. Obviously they'd had a fight and it was something to do with that. Maybe she blamed the dude for checking the bags when they could have traveled carry-on. Maybe anything that went wrong was always the husband's fault. He 'd known women like that. Had one.
In the elevator, both men watched the floors light up. No one else got on or off, but it was nearly two-thirty.
On the third floor, the elevator door opened and the man turned right. Rudy followed.
"It's that one," the guy said. "Three-fourteen."
Rudy waited for the man to knock and when he didn't, finally knocked himself.
"Say who you are," the man whispered behind him. "Say Speedy Baggage."
Rudy didn't like that the man was whispering, but now he understood. It was the dude behind him she didn't want to see. Rudy was the screen.
"Say it," the man repeated. Something dug hard into Rudy's back, and he almost lost his balance. "Now."
"Speedy Baggage," Rudy squeaked.
"Louder." Another shove.
Rudy complied, feeling his knees begin to give, his stomach clench.
"Just a minute." The voice behind the door was authoritative, slightly angry, and female. It wasn't scared though.
The door swung open. She was a looker if you didn't mind tiny. Even in her six inch heels she barely reached his shoulder. She was wearing a lime-green, silk kimono that looked nice with her long reddish hair. A large yellow stone hung from the chain on her neck. Your eyes couldn't help following the chain to where it led. You could put your hands around her waist. And damn if he didn't want to despite the gun in his back. Maybe because of it.
"What the hell," she said, spotting the man behind Rudy. "I thought I made it clear you weren't welcome. And put that thing away." She gestured toward Rudy. "Are you going to shoot both of us, Fritz?"
So he did have a gun.
"Open the suitcase," Fritz said.
Rudy offered her the suitcase, but she didn't move.
"In your dreams."
"I could've just broken the lock, but it's Swaine Adeney Brigg." Fritz said the name carefully as if he'd only read it before now.
"And it was your five thousand dollars that bought the bag, right? Your bribe to me for something. Can't even remember what. Why don't you do it anyway? Break it open. Show me you have money to burn." She smiled. "Little good it would do you though. You never did figure out my password, did you?"
"I want you to open that damned suitcase, and then the computer, and show me what's on it."
Their eyes locked, and Rudy thought this might be a good time to inch toward the door.
"You're not going anywhere, Buddy," Fritz said, putting a foot out to stop him. "I need a witness."
"A witness to what?" the woman asked.
"To whatever it was you scanned in Brussels, Kara."
"Are you kidding me? Do you think this guy here from Podunk would have any idea what he was looking at?"
"I don't read English," Rudy said suddenly.
"You don't what?" Fritz said, wheeling around.
"I mean I can read name tags and addresses but not much more. I read Arabic."
"You're an Arab?" His voice sounded skeptical but not incredulous.
Rudy nodded, praying neither of these two spoke Arabic. "My name is Ruhi but people find it easier to call me Rudy. Ruhi Baba." That name had jumped into his head and he spit it out without thinking. He profoundly hoped the name Baba wasn't just a joke.
"Like Ali Baba," the woman said, stifling a laugh.
"Sure." He was trying to affect an Arab accent like the guy in Detroit had. His pal's first name had been Ruhi, which became a joke with the two of them working together so often. But his last name eluded Rudy. "Just like the story. Except we're not thieves. My family."
"Why be a thief when you can deliver suitcases?" she hooted. "You might as well let this guy go, Fritz. Let him go before he has anything to tell someone. Anything other than we were both alive when he last saw us. Just sparring a bit. That ought be enough for both of us, scoundrels that we are. That he left with us standing. Unblemished."
Fritz stood there frozen. Probably trying to decide if Rudy or Ruhi was of any use to him. Silently he walked to the hotel door and threw it open. "All right. Get out of here, you camel jockey."
"How original, Fritz. A slur for the ages. Your lack of cleverness is one of your best traits. Hey, did you give him a tip?" Kara called out, laughing again. She'd slipped off her heels and was as tiny as Rudy'd thought. But somehow she still carried weight.
"A what? I should give him a tip for losing our bags."
"Give him a twenty for his trouble. Making him come all the way down here at this time of night."
Fritz started to dig for his wallet and then paused. "You want him to have a tip, you give it to him."
"We're not permitted to accept tips," Rudy said quickly.
"There you go," Fritz said. "Why should he get a tip for losing our bags anyway? Which reminds me you should check it over for scratches. That bag cost..."
"Has a day gone by in the last two months when you failed to mention its price?"
Rudy was soaked with sweat as he waited for the elevator and debated going into the restroom to clean up. But sticking around for another minute in this sherbet-colored asylum seemed impossible. Plus, he was running late. The airline would have to pay penalties.
The kayaks banged around in the back of the van as he headed down Prospect Street to La Jolla Boulevard. He knew he should've secured them now that the luggage was gone, but he wanted to put this night to rest. He'd had nights like this before, nights where he tiptoed across a tightrope with too much slack in it. Should he have alerted someone about the couple he'd just left? He was almost more worried for Fritz than Kara. But he was pretty sure both could take care of themselves. And really who cared about a man brandishing a gun anymore? Only the person at the wrong end of it.
He looked at the address again. It looked like the storage facility was just off the ocean in Pacific Beach, only a few miles away. Made sense if it was a place to store kayaks. Probably a security guard waiting for him. Just a few miles away. It was now nearly three o'clock, and putting his foot on the gas, he took the ridiculous roundabouts between La Jolla and P.B. so quickly that he banged the van's left side against a concrete embankment. He listened as the kayaks toppled over. 1-2-3. Damn, he'd better straighten them out in case someone was waiting outside at the storage place.
Rudy pulled onto a side street off Mission Boulevard and went to the rear of the van. All three kayaks lay in a heap. His flashlight picked up a nasty scratch on one. As he shone the beam on the others to check their condition, he spotted a small ziplock bag lying on the floor. What the hell. The deck hatch on one kayak had popped open. Reaching in gingerly, he found another four bags. The second deck hatch turned up four more. Between the three kayaks, he pulled out twenty-eight bags. Had to be meth, he thought to himself. Or cocaine? It certainly wasn't baby powder. Probably smuggled in from Mexico. But it was coming from everywhere these days.
The thought occurred to him within seconds. He'd ditch the van, packing the bags in one of the large canvass sacks stored in the van for spillage and mishaps, and hit the road. His brother lived up north, he could be in Fresno in hours. Or any place. Sans his old lady.
Trouble was, everyone at Speedy and at the airport knew he was the driver with the three kayaks. He'd made himself noticeable when he joked with the Delta guy. They'd track down his brother before he could get there. Hassle his wife. And if it wasn't Speedy or the cops that came after him, it would be whoever was waiting for these drugs. Surprising that no one had called him, wondering what was holding him up. He reached for his phone, then reached again. Not in either pocket. It could be on or under the front seat, but he doubted it. It would've rung half a dozen times in the last fifteen minutes. It always did. Dispatchers checked in constantly.
Maybe that skirmish at the Valencia sent it flying. Why hadn't he noticed the quiet on the ride down here? How could he not have felt the lighter pocket, realized the dearth of rings, buzzes, vibrations. The sounds of his life. Because he'd been still under the sway of that crazy couple. Thinking about what he should've done. Picturing her between the sheets.
So he'd have to drop the kayaks off. Give up on the idea of a nice life, and not just a nice one, a freakin' deluxe one. He already pictured some seedy guys waiting impatiently outside of a dark building. A pile of butts at their feet. The way it always happened in movies. They'd be Bosnian or Latin American or Arabs.
But why mess with him? As long as those hatches looked untouched, Rudy was in the clear. He made sure of that, driving slowly toward the storage facility. He wasn't farther than a block or two, when he saw the cop lights, doing their loopy dance. A wave of relief spread over him. Dealing with cops would be at lot less dangerous than dealing with drug lords.
He pulled up confidently, or almost confidently, and stepped out of the van, figuring he'd keep quiet until he saw the lay of the land. A large blond cop half-ran over to him. Guy looked like he had gone from his surfboard to his police vehicle and probably had.
"About time you turned up," the cop said. "What the hell have you been up to?" Several cops descended on his van, quickly emptying it of the kayaks. The door slammed and he jumped a little. Just like that, his dream of riches was quashed.
Rudy looked towards the facility where another dozen or more kayaks stood side by side, hatches open like mouths agape. Three guys were handcuffed, heads down, at the side of the building, one cop supervising them. Two dogs sniffed menacingly at their feet.
"So just how do you fit into all this?" the cop asked, shining the light into his eyes. "What was your role?"
Rudy thought about his fingerprints on the bags, on the hatches. He thought too about the length of time he'd taken showing up here. His interlude in the Valencia. Did he want the cops looking into that? Perhaps one of those two idiots was dead by now. How could he extricate himself from all this? What a day. First the Italian dame...what was it she said to him?
"Non parlo inglese. Parlo solo italiano," he blurted out. His accent was probably atrocious.
The cop looked at him, his face changing from frustration to anger to resignation. "Who speaks Italian in San Diego nowadays?"
Rudy thought he was probably speaking Spanish not Italian, but the cop had already turned away as an argument broke out inside the storage unit. Dogs were barking, a car alarm went off, someone was yelling something in another language. The cop said something into his cell, waving Rudy away as he walked toward the door. Rudy took advantage of the melee and eased out of the driveway, taking it slow.
He was headed for home where a large, angry, snoring, shrill woman was waiting for him. Stretching down the middle of their small double bed. The smell of cooked cabbage and the noxious cold cream she used flooding the room. Probably a note on the table scolding him for some misdeed.
There had to be some way to salvage the night. Hotel Sofia popped into his head. Would that Italian woman answer the door at this hour? He had nothing but hope as he hit I-5.