He was already in the Priority line when he thought to look at the boarding pass.
“I think there’s been a mistake.”
The toothy staff member glanced at it, passed it beneath the purple light and handed it back to him. “No, that’s correct, Mr. Connor.”
Maybe they’ve re-numbered seats. “Thanks.” He continued across the air bridge with the other Priority passengers. Two flight attendants greeted him at the door of the plane, both female, bony-faced and brittle. “Good afternoon, Mr. Connor,” said one. Her skin was the color of a saddle. “You’re on the right-hand side, row 28.”
“Is that where business class is now?’
The attendant frowned, took the boarding pass back and examined it. “I’m sorry, but this isn’t a business-class seat.”
“Yes it is. It was a business-class ticket.”
“Please be seated and we’ll see what we can do.”
The other one ordered him to enjoy his flight.
Clutching the boarding pass, he made his way down the aisle past business class to row 28, where a narrow slot awaited him. Not only was it in economy, it was in the middle of the long row.
It looked as if the battle was over, but James was not ready to surrender. He grasped the arm of another flight attendant. “I’ve been given the wrong seat.”
The flight attendant said the same things that the other two had said already.
“It’s important that I be seated in business class.”
“Sir, I must ask you to take your assigned seat.”
Acrid-tasting anxiety was flicking at the back of his throat. “It’s a matter of some importance.”
“I’m sorry for the inconvenience, sir, but we cannot change your seat at this time.” James started to protest further, but she had turned away and was stowing things in the overhead compartment. A man and a woman pushed past him and sat down.
Another flight attendant came up behind him and asked him to be seated. Seeing little hope for further negotiation, James clambered over the couple’s knees to seat 28F, apologizing. They made no attempt to impede his passage, but none to ease it either.
He sat in dour, obedient silence until takeoff was complete and the seat belt sign was turned off. The usual announcements were made about altitude, atmospheric conditions, estimated time of arrival and meal choices, and passengers were informed that they were now free to move about the cabin and to use portable electronic devices.
James slid his hand into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and drew his phone out. Then he put it back, reached up and pressed the button to summon a flight attendant.
“I’ve been assigned to the wrong seat,” he said to the person who appeared, a solidly built man with a bleach-blond buzz haircut. “I don’t want to put anyone to trouble, but if there are any spare seats in business class, I’d appreciate being able to move.”
The flight attendant arranged his face in an expression of sympathy and said he was sorry but there were no spare seats.
James took out his work ID card and held it aloft, trying to keep it turned face down so no one else could see it. “Could you … thanks,” he said when the flight attendant finally took it. “I need to speak with someone seated in business class, urgently.”
The man looked at the card, then back at James. His expression didn’t change. “We’ll be there in twelve hours. Is it more urgent than that?”
“Only twelve hours, huh,” said James. “Well, yes, it is more urgent than that.”
The flight attendant said he would be happy to pass on a message to James’s friend or colleague.
“That’s very kind of you, but it’s a confidential matter, as I’m sure you can appreciate.”
The couple he’d climbed over were listening and not bothering to pretend they weren’t.
The flight attendant handed the ID card back. “Then I suggest you text or e-mail the person. Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?”
There was nothing more that James could tell him. He said, “No thank you,” took out the phone again and tapped out a text.
Pls send contact details for Amica.
AMICA was the codename for the president of the Pacific island nation where they were headed. The first two letters, “AM”, had designated Cuba for decades in CIA documents but were now used, perversely and unsubtly, to represent any country or politician with an American connection or American support. “IC” may have stood for “in chief”. The “A” at the end may have stood for the name of the new nation (the cringeworthy portmanteau “Amerinesia”), or it may have simply been an extra letter tacked on to make the cryptonym pronounceable. The fact that the codename could be used interchangeably to refer to a person and to a nation-state was, in James’s view, an instance of obfuscation with no clear payoff.
James looked up from his phone and caught the man in the seat next to him furtively peeking at it, like a kid trying to copy another kid’s math problem. He put the phone down on the tray table very deliberately and maintained eye contact until the guy was sufficiently embarrassed to look away. Finally a reply came.
Were you briefed?
In flight as per brief
The phone stayed inactive long enough to dim the display. James waited, keeping his gaze fixed on the phone. He wished he had a window seat, so he’d have something else to look at.
It finally lit up again.
??? Is Amica not on flight? Pls reply ASAP
James briefly contemplated sending a snarky reply making reference to the indignities of economy class.
Not seated nearby
Thanks for nothing, headquarters.
Good for you, headquarters, thought James, but you still haven’t given me the number.
A phone number was supplied without further comment.
James cupped the phone in his hand, thinking. He entered some text, deleted it, typed in more words, deleted them. Finally he sent the text to the number he’d been given, adding the codename “Sam” at the end.
Pls meet me at the bar in 10 mins? Sam
He waited ten minutes. There was no response. He got up and began moving toward the front of the plane. A female flight attendant – one he hadn’t encountered thus far – smiled at him as he passed the galley, and he smiled back. No one stopped him when he drew aside the curtain and passed into the business class cabin.
The bar was unoccupied. From the back he couldn’t see faces, as the passengers were ensconced in “pods”. He took out his phone again. Still no reply. Then it vibrated.
Who are you?
James stared at the phone in his hand. We’ve been in contact with your people for two years, he thought. Who else could it be, Madam President?
The possibility that she wasn’t up to speed was unsettling.
She must know “Sam” is Uncle Sam. Maybe she doesn’t understand the protocols yet and wants to know exactly who she’s talking to. Well, she’s out of luck on that one.
We need to talk in person.
James had no intention of replying to that question. Electronic communications could be compromised, even if encrypted to the highest security standard. He didn’t want to receive any sensitive information by text message either. Why is she being so evasive?
New developments. Let’s talk.
After a lengthy wait, a text came.
Talk when we land
Unbelievable. She evidently doesn’t grasp the urgency.
He had some uncharitable thoughts about naïve idealism and the advantages of dealing with experienced politicians rather than revolutionaries. There were always difficulties with supporting fledgling regimes, especially ones with courageous and inspiring leaders. Good guys don’t last long unless they learn the ropes, he thought. But then, we’re not usually on the side of the good guys.
If a conversation was to take place, he would have to approach people in their pods until he found her. That might make him unpopular but would probably be no more of a security risk than all this texting. Texts can be tracked more easily than a plane can be bugged, he thought, and these abbreviated messages are not secret, just cryptic.
He sent another one.
Time is of the essence.
Twelve hours would ordinarily feel like plenty of time, but in the circumstances it wasn’t. Even if he had to go back to his seat and endure twelve hours in economy class.
This time the reply didn’t take as long.
Situation under control, thanks for help
What situation? thought James. Either someone else has been in contact with her – headquarters? – or she’s talking about something completely different.
New information to discuss urgently
Info already in hand, thanks
How could she already have it in hand? The only reason James was on this flight was to alert her to what was going on.
He considered the possibilities. Suppose she’s somehow found out through other channels that the rebels were planning a coup. Suppose the new government of Amerinesia had already put counter-measures in place while its newly installed President Sangrila was overseas. Who else knew? Why had nobody told him?
As he fingered his phone, it thrummed to announce a new text message.
It was from headquarters.
Amiga now in New York
James suddenly felt cold and slightly sick.
Then who have I been texting?
AMIGA had been an earlier codename for Sangrila before her party took power. It had never referred to anyone else. AMICA, however, referred to whoever held government in the country currently known as Amerinesia. Two years ago it had been a libertarian regime that had a flat tax and a fifty-page statement of individual freedoms, and allowed commercial entities to serve in its legislature provided they passed a test of personhood. After the government was toppled by Sangrila’s party, the former head of state had fled to the United States and got a job at a software company in San Francisco.
Whoever had been responsible for deliberately swapping a G for a C in a codename should be punished, James thought. Whether or not it had been another misguided attempt to simplify, it practically guaranteed that there would be mistakes and misunderstandings. In the present circumstances, “Amiga” could be a typo, or it could be a signal.
James scrolled rapidly through the texts. The reference to Amiga was the first. Headquarters’ reply to his request for Sangrila’s contact details was Is Amica not on flight?
If Amica is on this flight, but Elizabeth Sangrila is in New York and is back to being called Amiga, then who is Amica?
His brief was to accompany Sangrila back to her country and warn her of the insurgency. But now headquarters was telling him she wasn’t even on the plane. Or headquarters thought she was in New York but in fact she was on the plane, texting him. Or headquarters had no idea that someone was on the plane pretending to be Sangrila, and CIA oversight of regime change was about to go pear-shaped.
Before he had formulated a response, the phone lit up with another text from headquarters:
Now go relax
James let his breath escape quietly through his nostrils.
Am I the chump here, or is the U.S. government being played, too?
He scanned the cabin. With all the passengers in their pods, it was as quiet as a mausoleum.
He decided to conduct a test by making reference to something that Sangrila would know, but an imposter wouldn’t.
Some months earlier, a senior-level CIA agent named Bennett had nearly torpedoed the discussions with Sangrila’s ascendant faction by getting blind drunk at a formal dinner. His first indiscretion was to suggest in conversation that some struggling democracies would have been better off as American colonies; later in the evening he made industrious efforts to seduce a prospective cabinet minister, a visiting diplomat, Sangrila’s personal assistant, and finally Sangrila herself. For a time it looked as if profuse apologies and an assurance that Bennett would be dealt with swiftly and decisively might not be enough to rescue the American effort to be involved in nation-building. When Sangrila agreed to let the shambolic episode go into the sealed vault of history, the CIA breathed a collective sigh of relief. Bennett somehow escaped being sacked but was moved into a desk job conditional on his never leaving Washington until retirement.
If the story has in fact been buried, James thought, it would be known only to the parties involved, or at least to no one beyond trusted associates. Though of course if her trusted associates shouldn’t have been trusted, or if somebody has leaked, we’ve got a problem.
He scrolled back to the mobile number that had been provided to him earlier for “Amica”.
Change of meeting time tomorrow to 4pm, pls confirm.
There was no meeting scheduled for tomorrow.
The reply took just long enough for his anxiety to creep up another notch.
Should be OK. Talk when we land
Apologies but need to know now. Bennett can’t make it earlier. Other party still in NY.
She would certainly remember Bennett’s name. Bennett didn’t have a codename, even before he got demoted. Even if there were a meeting on the next day’s agenda, Bennett’s presence would have been inexplicable and extremely surprising. The sentence about the “other party” was risky, but if it was an impersonator texting him, he’d have more to worry about than having disclosed that he knew.
It isn’t her, James thought. Or maybe it is her, but she’s too smart to ask what meeting I’m talking about and who’s coming. But then why would she refuse to talk to me until we land?
As he was trying to think of another test question, his phone vibrated again with a text from the same number.
Thanks for confirming
He replayed the possible scenarios. Sangrila’s in New York, someone on this plane is impersonating her, and headquarters doesn’t know it. Or she’s on this plane but headquarters thinks she’s in New York. In either case, we are in a seriously unstable situation and the proverbial shit is about to be launched at the proverbial fan by catapult.
He looked down at his phone just as another text from the same number announced itself.
Good to know you’re in the loop re: other party. Are we good to go?
A horrible possibility had been slowly taking shape in James’s mind since the first text exchange.
The fledgling regime of Amerinesia and its courageous and inspiring leader are not now and maybe never were backed by us, he thought. We’re backing the rebels and they’re about to mount a coup. Headquarters either doesn’t know that I was unaware, or they knew the whole time but wanted to keep me in the dark until now. The person on this plane who is not Elizabeth Sangrila is either with the rebels or works for the CIA.
Or maybe there was simply a communication failure. But he wouldn’t want to bet on that as the most likely explanation.
James looked up when someone entered the business class cabin. It was the steward with the platinum buzz cut, and he immediately recognized James.
“Hello,” said James. “Good to see someone up here at last. Could I have a Scotch on the rocks, please.”
The steward looked as if he was about to remonstrate, but then his lips twitched with a suppressed smile. “Certainly, sir. Are you sure?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like a dry vodka martini, shaken not –”
“No,” James said. “Thank you.” He ordered his favorite Speyside.
The CIA had survived for a long time by pretending that its botched stratagems were all planned and its questionable ones only succeeded by accident. He had been doing this job long enough to have learned how to survive in exactly the same way.
The steward had filled a plastic cup with ice and twisted the stopper out of the whisky bottle. “In a glass, please,” said James, not looking up from his phone as he typed a reply to AMICA.