On the FrontLine
No one had to remind Wally Friedman when break started. That clock above the Frontier station kept consistent if inaccurate time, always an exact minute slow. On his first day on the job, six months and three days earlier, he’d monitored that clock until he teased out its one-minute defect. Wally started breaks precisely on time, returned from breaks precisely on time. The Frontier clock called him a minute late both starting and ending, but he knew better.
After this morning’s break, he was assigned to review travelers’ carry-ons advancing on the conveyor belt and through x-ray. Some people were efficient packers, underwear neatly folded, socks tucked into shoes, toiletries and medicine bottles secured in zipped plastic bags. Others? They probably didn’t know what they’d packed, their bags were such a jumble.
Wally was the most methodical of the FrontLiners, pulling more cases off the conveyor for hand inspections than anyone else. Most times, the pullouts revealed nothing alarming. A half-full water bottle. A camera lens. A package of frozen cupcakes. Who left town with frozen cupcakes? Every so often, though, the pullout was critical. A person could never predict critical. All he could do was observe closely.
He’d already made a number of finds that had coaxed compliments from other team members, Lydia being the most effusive. Nothing so far today, but today wasn’t done.
The flowered bag belonged to an ultra thin woman in beige stilettos who shrank alarmingly when she removed those to walk through screening. The shoes hadn’t earned a pullout but still caught his attention. A woman intent on deceit deserved extra monitoring.
Most observers, trained or not, would’ve seen nothing even with x-ray assistance. This was where Wally excelled, catching the most minute details no matter how intense the distractions from the colors or patterns surrounding them. When he’d been a kid, those I-Spy picture games had been no fun because he spotted every object instantly, baffled by how baffled others were.
A long-bladed knife threaded through a comb, the comb tightly wedged in a bundled sweatshirt. Slowly, Wally stood, raised one arm, signaling Cal to his side, telling the other FrontLiners this was big. Be ready, that raised arm announced.
Others continued supervising placement of carry-ons on the conveyor belt, ushering people through the scanner, pulling out a few travelers for pat downs. But no matter the assignment, they each attended to that raised hand, stopping their processing, if only briefly, to look Wally’s way. He still wasn’t accustomed to calling attention to himself like that but found it less disturbing than when he’d started the job.
Cal left Lydia scanning passengers on her own. He didn’t seem to hurry but in seconds was at Wally’s shoulder. “What have we got?” Cal Lantz, team leader, never raised his voice, didn’t raise it now.
Wally pointed at the screen, waited for Cal to see what he’d spotted instantly.
After several long seconds, Cal had it.
The line was backing up, travelers growing impatient. Not worried. Why should they worry? No one paid them to worry.
Cal carried the bag to the table where suspicious items were processed. “Ma’am.”
She was wearing those heels again and for the moment, the restored height puffed her up. “My plane,” she demanded. Did she think they’d deliver the craft to her if she were arrogant enough? “I can’t miss my plane.” Even from where he sat, giving another bag the once-over, that voice was a squeal of irritation and Wally rubbed an ear.
At the table, Cal drew out the KU sweatshirt, unfolded it slowly, pulled out the comb, disentangled the blade sparkling under the overhead lights.
“My flight,” she said, her voice in retreat now despite that regained height.
“Yes,” Cal said. “Your flight.” He repacked the bag, knife laid flat across the rest of her belongings before he zipped it shut. “This way, ma’am,” he said and led her to the back room where she’d have a chance to explain herself.
She wasn’t arrested, despite the interrogation lasting just under an hour. That plane of hers? No chance of making that plane. Still, she had reason to be thankful, looking at a large fine and nothing more. She didn’t see it that way, her expression anything but thankful as she harangued the Frontier rep trying to rebook passage on another flight. Even Wally could tell that face held no glimmer of gratitude.
Family heirloom, she’d kept repeating, according to Cal later. Family heirloom? What kind of family passed blades to the next generation? That’s what Wally kept asking himself as the day wore down.
He stared at his empty screen, kept both hands palm down on his thighs while he waited for the next flurry of passengers. From the corner of his eye, he caught Lydia’s enthusiastic thumbs up but didn’t know what he’d done to earn that. The knife had been hours earlier. Still, he answered with his own thumbs up. Lydia always thought he did a good job.
By the time his afternoon break rolled around, Brick was more than ready, though he thought he did a good job hiding his impatience. He unwrapped two squares of peppermint gum after exiting the secured area and strode down the terminal towards baggage claim, as purposeful as if he’d flown somewhere and now had luggage to retrieve.
A full flight from L.A. had just landed, so the area was congested, travelers staring at the conveyor belt as they always did, willing it to start moving. Eventually the technique worked. As soon as the belt rumbled to life, the crowd surged forward, all eyes on the bags spitting out, tumbling every which way. A scraggly-bearded man, stationed next to the chute, now assigned himself the task of straightening each item, positioning handles for convenient grabbing. Some people were like that, always lending a hand, wanted or not.
A black suitcase, not quite small enough to fit in the overhead, the type passengers were always trying to sneak through boarding, fell out. Before the man could straighten it, a girl with a full sleeve tattoo of falcons grabbed a handle and swung the case to the floor where it landed with a loud thud. What was in there anyway? No worry of Brick’s as she hustled towards the nearest exit.
He admired people like that girl who didn’t want a stranger’s assistance. Mind your own business. This was one of his favorite mottoes—he’d been collecting them since grade school—and she looked to favor it too. A man without worries had no need for clichéd reminders to keep him tracking in the right direction. Too bad that didn’t describe Brick.
A few people shot him second glances. What was security doing at baggage claim? Danger afoot? He paced slowly around the carousel, eyes on the unclaimed bags going round and round.
Now more travelers were giving him looks. What was he up to? What was going on at the baggage carousel at Terminal B at KCI? The man who’d been straightening bags gave it up and stepped back. If an explosive device rocketed down, he wasn’t going to be there to catch the worst of it.
Don’t be idiots, Brick thought. If there were danger here, passengers and nonessential personnel would be evacuated. Although this airport was one of the few where TSA contracted with a private company to do screening, protocols were in place, same as everywhere.
Same standards. Same training. Only difference was KCI security worked for FrontLine instead of the feds. If they were faced with a crisis, Cal knew what to do, same as senior security at any airport. If that crisis came after Cal retired, Brick might be team leader and expected to figure things out.
The promotion would demand more training, require completion of more papers. Despite this being the age of online everything, security clung to hard copies. He’d have to use his legal name, Dwayne Evans, on that application, same as he had when he first got into this business. No matter. He was Brick now and what he wrote on a few forms wasn’t changing that.
He’d traded in his birth certificate name years earlier at a job fair. Never got called but ended up with something better, a name that commanded respect. Brick. Solid, dependable. It had come to him of a sudden as he’d made his way to the registration building, the only brick structure in the complex. By the time he stepped through the door, he’d decided. Why stick with a name you never liked, some days hated? Dwayne “Brick” Evans he’d signed on those forms. These days, he was more accustomed to Brick than Dwayne, which he only heard around his mother, insisting she knew who he was and no use trying to fool her. But at work or when writing a check or signing a credit card receipt, the name was Brick. Dwayne? Dwayne who?
With break almost over, he headed back to his station, enjoying the last of his gum, not allowed on duty, and stopped at the entrance to the gates. “You catch a jihadist while I was gone?”
Wally glanced down at the podium where he waited to clear travelers, looking as if he had no clue what he’d been asked. Brick had intended a joke but saw he’d missed the mark and now tried a friendly shoulder punch instead. Wally scrunched into himself as if he’d been zapped with a stunner. Others jacked around with each other. Why not Brick too? He looked down the terminal. Nothing to catch a security man’s eye. Cal and Walter never fooled around. Not everyone had to be a jokester. “Never mind,” he said as if in answer to an objection. He looked down at his loafers, polished twice weekly, and was pleased to see Wally’s shoes not looking nearly as good.
Back at work, Brick called out orders—place metal items in the bins, remove liquids, empty the pockets, take off the shoes. He never tired of telling people what FrontLine wanted, though this wasn’t his favorite assignment, that being the scanning booth. When someone got pulled out for more thorough inspection, Brick often made the person wait while he checked the no-fly list. He’d never caught a creep up to messy business but might one day.
Lydia’s shift ended and she stepped to the window, hoping for more entertainment but catching only a few yawns, actors slouching through this last part of their day. The afternoon had started with a full-fledged crash drill, the first she’d witnessed, though Cal said they came every three years. The plane still lay nose down on the tarmac across from the terminal. At the start of the exercise, firefighters had doused the craft but made little headway on thick smoke pouring across the scene. EMTs had made their way among the injured, searching for signs of victims they could save, while other rescuers snaked through the crowd with stretchers, stopping now and then to carry off an injured passenger.
Make-up artists and set designers from a local college theater department had gone all out. If she hadn’t known better, she would’ve sworn those play-acting students with their bruises and bloody bandages were in serious need of medical attention, that the smoke bombs and fog machines weren’t a professional production but a tragedy horrific enough to make national news.
By now, though, after the initial excitement of portraying injured passengers, the acting students were ready for more. One actor, supposedly nursing an injured leg, looked more like a swimmer lounging poolside. Then again, even Meryl Streep could milk just so much feeling out of being laid out on a stretcher.
Lydia sympathized. Didn’t boredom describe most of her days? The stiletto-heeled blade carrier, nicely spotted by Wally, had provided temporary escape from the humdrum but in the end fizzled to nothing, as these events always did.
She’d pulled up stats for the last five years. The numbers said she could stay at KCI until she retired without involvement in a single terrorist incident. If you added human error and mechanical malfunction to those numbers, the results were higher, but a significant percentage of those clustered at certain facilities where, she guessed, workers were accident prone or careless. She’d passed this info to her mother and sister, neither of them impressed by more numbers from Lydia.
On the tarmac, a woman with hair nearly as red as Lydia’s, though straight not curly, gathered everyone around her and read from a clipboard, every so often pointing it at a student.. Critiques? She came to the end of her notes, an apparently welcomed sign of dismissal. Performers, suddenly energized, tossed bandages, slings, splints into a barrel. One wanna-be actress unwrapped her blood-soaked bandage, twirled it around her head before dropping it in that barrel. Another cast member jumped from his stretcher to join her. Their arms around each others’ waists, they gallivanted around, steps in such perfect alignment, they must’ve done this often, maybe daily, if never on a tarmac. By the time they tired of waltzing around the plane, most of their classmates were gone.
As soon as she stepped outside the secured area, Lydia calculated how many steps she’d need to reach her car then started her count, making her way to the exit closest to the employee parking lot. She’d parked at the far end of the lot, so the number would be high. Quite high.
Numbers relaxed her. They always had. Her sister said Lydia didn’t know what she was doing half the time because she had her head wrapped up in those dumb numbers of hers.
75, 76, 77. Out of the exit and on to the sidewalk.
Here was the thing about numbers. Numbers never, absolutely never, let you down. If you were looking for stable, for never changing, for 100% reliable, pick numbers any day.
97, 98. She saw her car in the distance but still a number of steps away.
118, 119, 120. She’d be short today, hit 140 easily when 127 had been her estimate. Her sister would say the numbers had let her down, but that would be wrong. If anything, Lydia Paley was the one who’d let the numbers down.
The place and procedures are familiar. Empty your pockets. Take off your shoes. Place carry-ons in a bin or directly on the conveyor. But if you’re a screener, those are just first steps. So much to observe and no easy way to distinguish innocent from guilty. That wide-eyed stare. Just another odd expression or a show of fear? Repetitive yawning. The price for a late night or nerves over what’s coming? That young man’s pale face. Recently shaved beard or just pale? A woman’s outsized eyeglass frames. Storage for microelectronics or a fashion statement? How do you gain or lose trust? How can you trust others if you can’t trust yourself? Trust Me Now explores those questions.
The security officers directing passengers wear the same uniforms but beyond that similarity, they come to their positions via distinctive pasts which pushed them to jobs where trusting is the integral challenge. Cal, betrayed by his ex-wife and manipulated by his sister, believes no one is entitled to be trusted, not even passengers claiming disability for early boarding privilege. Brick, carrying the residuals of two childhood betrayals, will do almost anything to fit in. Walter, too young to be in charge of his little brother when their mother abandoned them, worries that if his best wasn’t good enough then, it won’t be good enough now. Wally misses almost every social cue but not passengers’ attempts to board with camouflaged contraband. Keeping planeloads of passengers safe is Lydia’s chance to walk away from her guilt at failing to save her depressed father.
Despite their flaws, these five are charged with keeping travelers safe, relied upon to do their jobs when failure can be catastrophic. To succeed they must resolve past failures and learn to trust themselves and each other.
A stand-alone chapter, “Messy Business,” was a short story finalist in the Dana Awards and short-listed for the finalist list in the Faulkner-Wisdom competition.
A longer excerpt was a finalist in the novella category of the Faulkner-Wisdom competition.