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Authors: Glen Robins

Off Kilter

 

 

Off Kilter

 

 

 

By Glen Robins

 

Text copyright © 2015 Glen Robins

 

All Rights Reserved

 

This is a work of fiction. Any use of names or their description, as well as events and that may coincide with real world people or events is purely coincidental and unintentional.

 

To my wife for all of her support and for reading and re-reading and critiquing. And to my kids for putting up with my long hours away, hard at work on this manuscript.

 

Chapter One

 

London, England

April 30

 

Adrenaline made his hands shake, but he forced them to remain steady. Fear made his breathing ragged, but he forced it to slow down. Apprehension made his body rigid, but he forced his muscles to move. When prompted, he stepped forward and gave the uniformed guard at the security line his passport and boarding pass. He had done this dozens of times over the past six months in more airports than he could remember. But today was different. Today he had actually seen them. They were real and they were there, somewhere, hunting him.

James Stevens, as the passport read, was a thirty year old Canadian national. His real name, however, was Collin Cook, and he hailed from Huntington Beach, California. He was a man on the run. From many things. For now, he just wanted to get out of London, out of England, and on to the next unfamiliar hiding place. Without anyone following him or recognizing him.

Clad in dark jeans and a black North Face rain coat, Collin did not stick out of the crowd. Standing five feet ten inches tall, he had a trim, athletic build. With two days’ stubble on his face, he was just another harried traveler moving through London’s Heathrow Airport.

The cold, pale, marble floors were smooth and polished and reflected the bright, white lights from above, filling the space with a sense of cold modernity. A veritable buzz of activity echoed against every hard surface surrounding him. The thick, arching steel beams above were white, clean, and shiny, awash in brilliance from the fist-sized spotlights attached to them. Everything felt high tech, fast-paced, and efficient. There was no darkness, no shadow to hide in. Collin was exposed in open space, so he picked up the pace to catch a group of American tourists ahead of him in line. The blue, stretchy nylon ribbons and the three-foot-tall metal poles holding them in place, though easily kicked over, might as well have been steep canyon walls, transparent and illuminated. There was no subtle way to exit. To do so would surely garner attention.

Collin tugged at his collar and exhaled, keeping his face toward the shiny floor as he inched forward at a sloth’s pace. His legs shook. Coaxing them to relax took constant monitoring. He checked his watch repeatedly. That, too, had to stop, so he jammed his hands in his hip pockets.

There were so many faces in this vast transit hub. So many eyes. Which ones were watching him? He never stopped scanning the crowd as he moved forward with the group, searching for signs of recognition or surveillance. His attempts at nonchalance were unnatural, but he had to appear cool and calm. Just another guy boarding a plane. Two faces emerged across the massive corridor. Lots of gleaming marble between him and them. They looked oddly familiar, despite the fact that they were wearing shades. That was it. The shades. Thick, black frames, extra dark tint, square-ish lenses. Fashionable but distinct. And exactly the same. He had seen them earlier this morning as he left the Albert Museum. They were the reason he had felt the sudden need to get out of London. Something about them and the men who wore them wasn’t right. One glance at them this morning, and Collin went straight back to his hotel and packed.

Now they were here, in the airport. Freely roaming and searching while he was caged by nylon barriers only three inches wide. And they were moving ever closer.

His pulse quickened, as did his breathing. The echoing of thousands of jumbled voices and hundreds of clacking roller wheels and the whirring of dozens of machines added to his nervousness, making it more difficult to think. His shoulders tightened, his back straightened, and his right eyelid began to twitch, as it often did when he was stressed. Ignoring it, he pushed his hands deeper into his pockets. Taking two deep breaths, he turned his face away from the men in the shades.

But he had to know. He pulled out his iPhone, thumbs dancing expertly across the screen. Using one thumb and one index finger, he pushed out from the center, as if he was inspecting something on the screen. The well-groomed men with the fancy sunglasses were closing the distance, examining every passerby. His camera was trained on the first one. He zoomed in and snapped a couple of photos. Finding the second member of the set, he repeated the process. Turning away again, he hastily worked the phone with his thumbs and sent the photos via text message to his friend, protector, and security consultant, Lukas. 10:48 a.m. in London meant 2:48 a.m. in Los Angeles. A normal person would be fast asleep. But Lukas wasn’t normal, so it was just as likely as not that he’d be awake, working to keep Collin, and the rest of the world, safe.

The crowded line consisted of a blend of busy-looking European business people, clumps of Middle Eastern transplants, scurrying hoards of American and Asian tourists, and groups of loud and exuberant youth, presumably heading off to some exotic location for holiday. Together they inched forward into an area with a lowered, paneled ceiling, interspersed with evenly spaced track lights.

Light was still abundant, but the space was more defined, less exposed, although more restricted. Collin hunched his shoulders, adjusted his backpack with an elbow, and shuffled forward. He reached the end of a long metal table with stacks of plastic trays of various sizes. It was time to entrust his few possessions to the conveyor belt that fed the scanner.

He had nothing dangerous in his bags, but if searched, their contents could raise some serious security questions. Multiple passports. Stacks of cash wrapped in duct tape. Colored contact lenses. Hair dye. Prosthetic teeth. Being stopped by airport security could spell an end to his freedom and lead to a dizzying barrage of interrogations, none of which he wanted to deal with. He just wanted to get away and hide somewhere else. Hide, that’s all he wanted to do right now.

The contents of Collin’s pockets, including his iPhone—the all-vital link to Lukas and his protection—were unloaded into a padded, oblong dish; his laptop was pulled out of its case and placed in a black, rectangular plastic tray. He clung to the tray until the woman sitting in front of the monitor said, “Sir?”

Collin uncurled his fingers from the edge of the tray and then laid the computer bag and backpack in tight formation on the conveyor belt. If he walked out of here with nothing else, he knew it would be that laptop and the iPhone. Everything else he could replace, some at a steep cost. But not those otherwise ordinary portable wonders. His obsession with that computer was justifiable. It contained all of his travel plans, passport information for each of his bogus identities, PINs, bank account and routing numbers and balances, as well as a list of trade and transfer orders. That computer held the key to managing his increasingly complex life and the 30 million dollar fortune he needed to hide from the likes of these two miscreants, whoever they were, and the boss who sent them. Without it, he was a goner.

Just as important, though, was the gift contained on its hard drive. The consummate labor of love and the only real gift he could give his beautiful wife.

Likewise, the iPhone provided secure access to Lukas, the only man he trusted to guide him through the dark and dangerous world and help him evade those who would take the only thing of value he had left: his freedom.

Collin watched the two trays like a parent watching a toddler take her first steps. At the same time, he had to keep track of his pursuers. Every fifteen to twenty seconds, he stole a glance back toward the wide-open concourse to see what the two sets of shades were doing. They had split up. One was looking through the lines in front of the ticket counters, thirty yards away. The other was searching the neighboring security line ten yards from where Collin stood. Collin’s muscles locked up. It felt like his blood turned to ice and froze in his veins. It was now his turn to go through the body scanner. If his legs would function, he would be through to the secured area, where only ticketed passengers roamed, away from the probing eyes behind the dark glasses.

Hesitating for a protracted moment, his legs came back to life, but not before the ruddy-faced security agent motioned to him a second time. First one step, then another, until he was walking almost normally again. He got through the body scanner and received the nod from the irritated guard on the other side. He started to breathe again. Shaking his head just a few degrees to each side, Collin moved forward and collected his things. He was only a few paces away from the relative safety of the boarding area. The goons with the glasses would need tickets to get to him now. This, of course, was not out of the question. Although one of the men looked in his direction, there was no immediate sign of recognition or movement toward him. Collin strode away from them, fighting the urge to look back.

He was now in another immense, bustling corridor. People jabbered and tussled and scurried every which way. Scents of curry, stale cigarettes, and London’s unique urban air mashed as it were into a cloud that filled his nose, seeping from the clothes and bodies that scampered around and past him. Everyone was in a hurry, so Collin sped up. As he walked, he switched on the phone, slung the computer bag over one shoulder, the backpack over the other, and adjusted the load. He heard the familiar chime of an awaiting message. It was Lukas.

The message was simple. “Not in db.” That meant the faces he’d sent photos of were not in the database, so there was no information on them. Lukas had access to databases used by the clandestine intelligence community, both government and private. There could be three possible reasons these two didn’t produce a hit in the database: they were so expert and elusive that no one had yet put together a file on either of them; they were rookies, gaining experience on what they surmised to be an easy target; or they were just two dudes who happened to be in the same place at the same time as Collin—twice in one day. Coincidence? Probably not. At least, it was too risky to assume. He had to evade them.

He hurried to the food court to find a lookout spot where he could watch for the shades. Lots of people, random movement, and chaos would provide contrast with the calculated search of the two men he was sure were following him. There were very few places that offered good food at Heathrow Airport, but on the far side of the row of concessionaires, which were lined up in a semi-circle at the intersection of several corridors, there was a pizza counter tucked away from the main flow of foot traffic. It was always full of travelers. A perfect place to hide out and watch the crowd until his flight was ready to board, so that’s where he headed.

At the counter, he spoke for the first time that day. “Two slices of pepperoni and a Diet Coke, please.”

Finding an open table in a darkened corner, he dropped his computer bag and backpack into one chair and himself into another. No one paid him any attention. Good. He devoured the pizza, the only food he had eaten since early that morning.

Collin opened the first newspaper from the stack he had purchased at the international newsstand. All he wanted was to be left alone, but he had to watch his back. They were out there, Lukas had reminded him, coming for him. Relentlessly. Doggedly. The stress was exhausting. When would it end? Why couldn’t they just leave him alone?

After reviewing the third newspaper in the pile, his eyes began to close and his head began to droop. He shook his head from side to side, rubbed his eyes, and took a long drag on the Diet Coke. Maybe the caffeine would help. He returned his focus to his work, scanning every page of every section before moving on to the next paper. It took him nearly an hour and two refills to look through them all. He skimmed each page, occasionally reading the first half of an article under a headline. The newspapers kept his face concealed and his mind working. Two key elements to maintaining control over his fractured mind—staying hidden and occupied. He checked over the tops of the papers periodically to keep track of any developments among the throng, watching to see if the shades had come through security. Nothing. At least not yet.

He turned his attention back to the newspapers. He had to know if anyone was looking for him, still interested in him. At some point, maybe, there would be another follow-up article, perhaps only a small blurb, about him and his story. Just months ago, his saga dominated the local papers in both Northern and Southern California because of his ties to each. If anyone was still writing about his plight, it didn’t print on this day in any of the four papers he had bought:
USA Today
,
The New York Times
,
Los Angeles Times
, or
San Francisco Chronicle
.

In a way he was pleased, but in another way he was disappointed.

He finished his pizza and took the Diet Coke with him as he worked his way through the crowded terminal to his gate, arriving just in time to hear the boarding call for rows twenty-five through thirty-five, where his seat was located. Before entering the Jetway, he glanced back through the boarding area. His stomach dropped, his heart practically leapt to his throat. The two well-dressed men with the designer shades were walking toward the boarding area, looking determined.  How’d they get here? Collin ducked out of sight down the hallway toward the plane, his pulse racing. His eyelid twitched unabated now. With one hand he massaged it to make it stop fluttering. With the other hand, he steadied himself on the railing, struggling to maintain balance.

The Jetway was full of noisy, bustling people who also wanted to get somewhere. It seemed like a hundred conversations were happening all around him, but he couldn’t hear a thing. Fear of his imminent capture gripped him and forced out all distractions. The line was at a standstill. People near him craned their necks and peered down the line to see what the holdup was. No one paid Collin any mind. Before the line started moving again, he regained his wits. He stabilized his breathing and steadied his balance, but his eyelid still contracted involuntarily. He kept glancing toward the opening through which he had entered this moveable hallway, but the shades didn’t appear. Maybe they didn’t see him after all.

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