Fred Andersen at Bay Area Book Festival this weekend

Oakland Airport

I saw them as soon as we walked into the terminal. More important, they saw us.
I didn’t think we could drive back and still get to school tomorrow. So I used Willy’s desktop to buy us four airline tickets online, and we slipped out of Tracy hunched down in the back of Willy’s Tahoe. My car was left at Willy’s to pick up later. As we got out at the departure drop-off at the Oakland airport, Willy said, “I’ve got a guy inside. He’ll keep an eye on you.”
But the eyes we’d caught were a couple of not very subtle Latin gangbanger types, one in a green nylon Eagles football jersey and one in a black shirt with the sleeves rolled up. They began to move toward us as we walked through an arcade of restaurants and gift shops heading to the boarding gates. My heart sank and anger flamed in me, so hard and high I almost could not move. I was bloody sick of being chased and threatened by Mexican thugs.
Cristian pointed at a bright red and yellow sign. “In-N-Out Burger. They’re good.”
Brenda glanced at me. “The boys are hungry. Is there food on the plane?”
“On Southwest?” I said, irritable.
Brenda slowed down. “We’ve got plenty of time.”
She obviously had not seen the two men. I wished I had gotten details from Willy as to who was waiting for us. Bringing the boys had been foolish. I should have stood my ground. Now we were stuck.
“What’s wrong?” she said.
“Nothing.” I tried to regain my composure. “They have the same kind of shops on the other side of the security,” I said. “Let’s get that over with.”
She gave me a look.
“Just, I’ll feel better when we’re in a security area.”
We walked around a sort of mezzanine where the escalators were partitioned off by a short wall. I took advantage of the little ripple in traffic to hitch up the strap on my bag, half turning and glancing back. They were there, easily within sight, but I did not catch them looking at us.
We came to the line for the security check. It wasn’t a very long line or a very crowded area. Ahead of us, uniformed people directed passengers through the familiar routine: shoes off, objects into tray. Armed officers stood on either side of the corral, attentive and calm. I felt better already. Standing in line I turned and glanced back again. Our new admirers had disappeared. I scanned left and right for them, trying to stay casual. Nothing. If they were still watching us they were well hidden. No one else looked suspicious either.
I began to relax a little, conceding that I was just a bit on edge, and could have misconstrued the glances of a couple of Mexican-looking dudes. In fact, what kind of reaction might my red-eyed glare have produced in them? If they were illegal aliens, or even if they weren’t, a visual going over by an old man with an attitude might have made them at least a little uncomfortable.
Someone was giving directions. A slim, exotic looking woman in a blue Southwest Airlines shirt spoke to the couple ahead of us, pointing to her left. “Gates thirty-six, thirty-seven, thirty-eight, and forty, forty-one, forty-two, you have to take the elevator. Yes sir, it’s construction. Yes, the elevator will take you down one floor, then you just follow the passage. Los Angeles, yes.”
We were headed to gate forty-one. As my eyes followed her pointing finger, I saw a large group of people crowded around a single elevator. That couldn’t be right, yet it clearly was. I looked at the woman. “We haven’t gone through the security gate yet.”
“That’s right,” she said. “They have security down there. Just follow the passage.”
“Oh, great.” Brenda growled under her breath.
“We’ve still got two hours,” I said.
“Of standing in line.”
But there was nothing we could do. And there was plenty of annoyance around. As the crowd swelled behind us, more people noticed that there was only one elevator, no stairs, and the elevator held maybe a dozen people at a time. No one was happy.
Something poked me in the back, the corner of a suitcase or something. I flinched badly. That could have been a knife. A man and a woman just ahead of us jabbered in a foreign language, not Spanish. A tall hipster dude next to them stared at me with eerily bright blue eyes. What was he staring at? I looked around for the two men who had followed us, for a green jersey, a black shirt. I didn’t see anything. But in truth, anyone around us could be an assassin.
I leaned to Castellon’s ear. “I don’t like this.”
She gripped my arm and gave it a pat.
We shuffled slowly forward, hemmed in by people and their luggage. Suddenly the jam broke free for a moment, and the boys were moving ahead without us. Brenda let go of me and snared Adam’s jacket. But Cristiano kept moving ahead, oblivious. She said, “Cris—”
He didn’t hear her, but the movement stopped, and he turned and look at us. As the crowd shifted he wormed his way back.
“Don’t get separated,” Castellon whispered.
We were stalled again. It was hot. The tall guy was not looking at me, but I could sense his awareness. He had edged closer, and now stood an arm’s length from Cris, hand inside his leather jacket, like Napoleon. What the hell was he doing? He fumbled with something in there. I gently pulled Cristian around me and eased toward the man.
Beneath his jacket, the man’s thumb pushed something repeatedly. His hand withdrew from the jacket. Empty. As the coat settled around him, I glimpsed a phone, and saw the thin wires that ran up past his collar to the buds in his ears.
Jesus, did I need a break.
Once down the elevator—one floor—we entered a crowded makeshift security checkpoint. Unlike the calm scene upstairs, this was chaos, with security people directing groups from one line to another, and doing baggage checks on the floor by the wall. A female officer looked at our tickets and double-checked our driver’s licenses, which didn’t match each other in any way other than showing the same home town.
“These your kids?” The woman watched us for a reaction.
“No,” said Brenda. “My sister’s. We’re taking them while she and her husband go on a cruise.”
The kids stood there placidly, obviously with us. The woman handed back our IDs, already dismissing us from her attention.
We walked away, free of the crowd at last.
“Your sister? On a cruise?”
“Whatever. She just wanted to hear something normal. Not, we’re running from a drug gang.”
“You are a cool customer.”
Her eyes flashed merrily. “Just trying to keep up with you.”
We followed a windowless hallway to a junction where a makeshift sign showed arrows pointed right for gates 36 and 37, and left for the others. Most of the people turned right, we turned left, came to a stairwell, and went up to a broad concourse that smelled of new carpet and paint. It was almost deserted, and you could see spaces where shops and restaurants were going in. None of them were open.
“There’s nothing here,” said Brenda.
I had promised them something to eat. “Are you really hungry?”
“No, no. It would be a hassle to go back now. As long as there’s a bathroom.”
There were people movers—horizontal escalators—running down the side of the concourse. Cristian and Adam lit up at this minor thrill and pulled Brenda and I onto the belt. The boys cackled as they strode ahead.
“Don’t run!” I said.
They passed unaided walkers in the concourse as if winning a race. Then they went into reverse until Brenda and I caught up, then took off again, matching giant steps. Fortunately there were few other passengers on the belt, so the hijinks didn’t bother anyone.
The concourse stretched out past one gate, then another, and into the distance. A burst of passengers came out of gate thirty-eight, heading inbound. As their excited chatter diminished behind us, I could see the passageway ahead was almost deserted. Having no one around relaxed me a little.
We arrived at our gate. The area was so empty I double-checked the tickets. Yes, five-thirty flight to L.A. and Phoenix. Yes, the same flight number. But it was only three forty-five.
After the two days I’d just had, I should have relished the chance to sit, relax, maybe even catch a few winks. But I couldn’t quite get there. What if those two Mexicans showed up again? What if I’d been distracted by them, or the crowd, and missed our real pursuers?
We took seats among the rows of connected chairs. The sun slanted through the glass wall behind us. The boys walked up to the glass, drawn by the jets and baggage carts moving around on the concrete apron and the taxiways beyond.
I walked back to look down the concourse. Still largely deserted. I wished for food, but there was not even a vending machine. I took another longing glance up the concourse as I turned to go back to my seat.
Someone was coming. Someone in a black shirt, coming at a trot. I walked over to Brenda, in a fit of indecision. Should I tell her of my fears? But I didn’t know who was coming. And what were the odds he came here to kill us? Pretty low, but should I be measuring the odds?
As I walked up to Brenda, a door next to the boarding gate opened, and a young black man in the blue button-down Southwest Airlines shirt came into the room. He wore a friendly-looking goatee—some goatees can be fierce looking or squirrelly. He glanced at us, then looked again. Perhaps sensing my anxiety, he walked toward us. If there was an out, I wanted to take it. Maybe my fears were groundless, but maybe not. This guy had to help us.
He stopped in front of me. He smiled. “You doing alright, folks?”
“No, actually. We may be in danger.”
Brenda gave me a sharp, surprised look.
The ticket-taker, or whatever he was, appraised us for a moment. “All right. You can come with me.”
“Boys!” Brenda called softly, and gestured.
Adam and Cristian came over, still energized by the novelty of the airport.
To the man I said, “Where are we—”
“Security.” He nodded confidently. “Just right this way. It’s right down here, by the restrooms.”
I couldn’t believe our luck. A security station, right at hand. I felt a little bit of my anxiety draining away. And it didn’t hurt that it was a brother helping us. We walked up the concourse not more than a hundred feet. The man in the black shirt was closer now, but not running, and he did not look at us. I couldn’t tell if it was the guy I’d seen before or not.
The airline man opened the door. “Right down the stairs.” We trooped down the metal stairs. “Just at the bottom there,” he said.
Three men stood on the landing in front of a door which seemed to go out onto the runway. I turned to ask the man behind me what to do.
And got clubbed in the face by something very hard.
I sagged against the banister, head spinning. The men grabbed Brenda and the two boys.
The ticket taker was holding a gun now, and jabbed me with the barrel. “Just come along,” he muttered. “Or I’ll pepper them right here.”

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