New York City
This trip is going to change us forever, Jeff Griffin thought as the jet descended into LaGuardia.
He looked at his son, Cole, age nine, excited to be on his first plane and marveling at Manhattan's skyline poking through the clouds. Then Jeff glanced at his wife, Sarah, at her hand, her wedding ring.
Until a year and a half ago, they had been living a perfect life in Montana, where Jeff was a mechanic and a volunteer firefighter and Sarah was a schoolteacher. They'd come to New York for Cole because he'd always dreamed of seeing Manhattan. It seemed like the best thing to do, given all that they'd been through.
"It's always going to be hard for us, Jeff," Sarah had told him. "But we just can't give up."
While Sarah lived in hope, Jeff couldn't help but think that this vacation to New York was a requiem for the life they once lived.
The landing gear locked into position with a hydraulic thud.
Jeff exhaled slowly and turned to Cole.
"Wow, Dad, this is so great! I can't believe we're really doing this!"
Jeff looked at Sarah. She gave him the promise of a smile and he held on to it, thinking that maybe, just maybe, he should reconsider.
After their plane landed, the Griffins moved through the arrival gate and joined the rush of passengers heading to the baggage claim area.
The air smelled like industrial carpet cleaner and pretzels.
Cole was energized by the bustling terminal as they made their way to the crowds at the carousels. Sarah went to the restroom while Jeff and Cole got their bags.
Jeff shouldered his way to the conveyor, plucked Sarah's red bag from it, then his own. Cole had followed him and hefted his backpack from the carousel. Sarah had bought a new one for him, for the trip.
"Looks like the one." Jeff gave it a quick inspection, black with white trim and mesh side pockets. He glanced quickly at the blue name tag without really reading it; blue was the right color for the tag. Then he helped Cole get his arms through the straps.
As they waited for Sarah, Cole tried counting all the carousels in their area but there were too many. He loved the blurring pace as people jostled to heave their luggage onto trolleys before wheeling them out through the main doors.
"I wish Mom would hurry up, Dad. Can we see the Empire State Building from here?"
"Maybe on the cab ride to the hotelthere's Mom."
"All set." Sarah smiled, joining them.
They left the terminal through the automatic doors.
Jeff spotted a row of news boxes. They reminded him that the travel agent had mentioned that a major event would be taking place when they were to arrive. The headlines shouted about it. UN: Whole World in the City Again! said the Daily News. Tighter Security for World Leaders Means Gridlock for All! blared the New York Post.
As they queued up for a taxi in the ground transportation pickup zone, they didn't notice that among the throng of arriving passengers, one man had taken an interest in Cole.
He was in his late twenties, a slender build with wild blond hair. His face was void of emotion. He looked European, a youngish student bohemian traveler. As he walked by them, slowly and unseen, his attention locked onto Cole's bag.
The man hesitated.
The Griffins got into their cab. He stopped and watched, his face suddenly darkening with concern as they drove off.
His backpack was black with white trim and mesh side pockets.
It was identical to Cole's backpack.
New York City
Their taxi merged onto the Grand Central Parkway and the driver lifted his head to his rearview mirror, which had a rosary hanging from it.
"Welcome to the capital of the world. Where are you coming in from?"
"Montana," Jeff said.
"Cowboys and land spreading out to the mountains," the driver said.
"Is this your first time to the Big Apple?"
"No, I've been here for a few conventions over the years, and" Jeff glanced at Sarah. "We were here together, a long, long time ago."
"Well, you picked a good time to return."
"Why's that?" Jeff asked.
"We got the president and about one hundred world leaders coming into town over the next few days for the UN meeting. Lots of security, sirens and helicopters. Messes up traffic."
"Yeah, we saw that in the newspapers."
"The president and helicopters, wow," Cole said.
"It's a huge show and a glorious pain."
The road clicked under the taxi's wheels as they moved onto the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Sarah looked out her window at the endless flow of apartment buildings, warehouses, factories and billboards. One showed a laughing baby's face next to a smiling young woman in a graduation cap and she thought of their daughter, Lee Ann.
They were moving west toward the Midtown Tunnel when they came to a gently sloping segment. The tip of the Empire State Building emerged in the haze ahead as Manhattan's skyline rose before them.
"Look at that! I gotta take a picture!" Cole said. "Oh, no, Mom, I put my camera in my backpack and it's in the trunk. That was dumb, oh, no!"
"Here, use mine."
Sarah fished her small digital camera from her bag. Cole, a technical master, clenched an eye, took a photo and showed his parents.
"Oh, this is awesome!" Cole said.
Moments later the taxi slowed. An overhead freeway sign guided three lanes to the great stone mouth of the Midtown Tunnel. Lines of traffic moved through the tollgates. The tunnel gleamed in brilliant orange and yellow as it curved under the East River to Manhattan.
Cole took more pictures until they surfaced somewhere near Fortieth Street and Third Avenue. As they looked at the skyscraper-lined canyons and the shining high-rise condos, Jeff's cell phone rang. The call was a 646 area code with a number he didn't recognize.
He heard nothing and after several seconds of static he hung up.
"Who was that?" Sarah asked.
"Wrong number, I guess." Jeff shrugged.
The sidewalks were a bazaar of action with streams of people hurrying, waving at taxis amid sirens, horns. Steam plumes curled from the hot dog stands. People panhandled and street merchants argued with delivery truck drivers while motorists screamed at jaywalkers who blocked streets.
They were a world away from Laurel, Montana.
Their hotel, the Central Suites Inn, was on West Twenty-ninth Street in the two-hundred block, not far from Madison Square Garden. They checked into their twelfth-floor room. It was large with two double beds.
"I need to freshen up," Sarah said.
"All right, Cole and I will unpack and get changed," Jeff said. "Then we can go out for dinner and maybe walk to the Empire State Building."
Cole claimed the bed nearest to the window. He unzipped his backpack at the foot of it and dumped its contents. T-shirts, shorts, a chocolate bar, a bag of potato chips, maps of New York, a hoodie and socks fell out. All of it was unfamiliar, especially the man's shaving kit.
"Uh, Mom, Dad?" Cole said.
Sarah set her things down and surveyed the heap. "Oh, for goodness' sake, he's got the wrong bag." She inspected the backpack. The luggage claim bar code was torn. The blue name tag was faded and smudged. "I thought you guys checked this?"
"It looks exactly like Cole's bag." Jeff looked it over.
"A little, but the zippers are different."
"What are we going to do, Mom?" Cole said. "I need my stuff."
"We'll call the airline, don't worry, honey." Sarah pulled a printed page from her bag and went to the room's desk. "See, I put this paper inside all our bags. It has our hotel and cell phone numbers, so whoever has your bag can call us."
While Sarah and Jeff searched their airline tickets for a lost luggage number, Cole turned to the strange belongings. One item drew his interest.
A tiny plastic toy jet.
He pushed a small button on top of it, lights flashed and it made a jet engine sound. Cole loved it. He moved behind the curtains, pressed the toy against the window, taking it on a flight over Manhattan's tall buildings.
"I can't find a claim number on my part of the ticket," Sarah said just as Jeff's cell phone rang.
"Hey." Jeff looked at the display before he answered. "It's the same number that tried to call me when we were in the taxi."
"Mr. Griffin? Jeff Griffin of Laurel, Montana?"
"This is Hans Beck, I tried calling you earlier. I got your number from your backpack. I have it, there was a mix-up at the airport and I was hoping you'd have mine? It looks just like yoursit has some clothes, snacks, maps and my razor inside."
"Yes, we have it."
"Good, can we trade them as soon as possible? I am running late for a train. According to your information, you're at the Central Suites that's near Penn Station?"
"Yes, we can exchange the bags now if you like." Jeff nodded to Sarah, who smiled with relief and indicated that she would take a quick shower. After a few more minutes Jeff had worked out the bag trade with the caller.
"Cole! Let's go get your backpack, son!"
Startled by his dad, Cole, who'd been running the plane up and down the curtain, let the toy slip to the lower end as he pushed the curtain aside.
"Really?" Cole stepped from the window. "Now?"
"Yes, really, yes, now. So put all that stuff back in the bag. Everything and let's go." Jeff had unfolded a map on his bed and studied it. "The guy who's got your backpack is going to meet us now, so move it!"
Overjoyed at getting his possessions back, Cole forgot about the plane and gathered all the items as fast as he could, shoving them hastily into the backpack while his dad glanced at the map.
This Hans Beck had a German-sounding accent. Maybe he was a student, Jeff thought as he and Cole walked toward Madison Square Garden with his backpack.
They were to meet in front of a diner on Thirty-third Street across from Penn Station. Beck said he was twenty-nine, five foot eleven with blond hair. Jeff gave a description of himself and Cole, noting they would also recognize each other by the backpacks.
About twenty minutes after Beck had called, they spotted him on the street at the appointed location. Beck's hair was unkempt, his clothes disheveled. He was dragging anxiously on a cigarette, his face taut.
This guy's either on drugs or under some sort of pressure, Jeff thought.
"Are you Hans Beck?"
Beck blew a stream of smoke skyward and nodded. "Jeff and Cole Griffin." They traded handshakes, then backpacks. Immediately Beck began rummaging through his. "Everything's in here, right?" Beck said, snapping his head around at the sound of car horns from the traffic.
"Sure. We didn't take anything, if that's what you mean," Jeff said.
"No, no, man." Beck focused on Cole, then winked. "Because you're too young to use my electric razor, right?"
"That's funny," Cole said. "The airplane you have in there is cool."
"What airplane? You looked inside?"
"Sorry." Cole glanced at his dad, then at Beck. "It was when I thought it was my backpack. I saw the little toy plane."
"Everything's in there," Jeff said.
"What? Okay. I'm really late." Beck looked around to the street, closed the bag, then hoisted it onto his back. "Yes, I packed it so fast, I'm not sure what I put in there. Well, I have to split. Thanks."
Beck disappeared into the crowds entering Penn Station. Jeff's attention followed him with a ping of unease before he turned to Cole.
"Let's get back to the hotel, son."
New York City
H ans Beck gripped his backpack and pinballed through Penn Station.
For a fleeting moment he considered boarding a train, any train, and getting away.
No use. They're watching, waiting. And I need the money.
Beck had lied to Jeff Griffin about having to catch a train. Instead, he had to meet his contact and complete this delivery.
He'd nearly blown this job.
How could he have been so stupid to have picked up the wrong bag? In his time as a courier he'd never screwed up like this. His customers were enraged. He'd never had contacts so intense. He didn't know who they were, or what they were involved in.
He didn't want to know.
When he'd given them the Griffin backpack in error, they took no comfort in his assurance he would retrieve the misplaced bag.
Well, he did it, just as he said he would.
So everyone should relax, he told himself. We've got the right bag now. Soon this would be over and he'd be on a plane to Aruba awaiting a large deposit in a numbered account.
Beck left Penn Station and hurried by the post office and deep into the heart of the Hudson Yards. He moved quickly beyond the Long Island Rail Road maintenance tracks, where Thirty-third Street dipped into a wasteland near the Hudson River.
He was nearly jogging now as he hurried along a chain-link fence that surrounded a site where a massive foundation, reaching down several stories, was under construction. The sun had set, the entire area was deserted. He heard the hum of a motor, then brakes, and a panel van stopped suddenly beside him.
A side door slid open and he got in. It was crowded inside because several men were in the back working. A couple of them were talking on cell phones. Two others were working quickly on laptops.
The men had already acted on the information sheet they'd found in Cole Griffin's bag and had quickly searched the family. They'd also taken pictures of Jeff and Cole on the street, making the exchange with Beck.
Everything had unfolded with urgency.
The men seized his backpack, dumped its contents, probed them, then tore through the empty backpack.
Whatever they needed was still missing.
For the first and last time in his life, Beck had failed to make a delivery.
His final thought was that a plastic bag had swallowed his head and his struggle against the forces holding him was in vain.
Everything went black.
His corpse was wrapped in a plastic sheet and hefted into the construction site. It was concealed under a layer of gravel at the base of a footing that would be filled with fifty cubic yards of concrete the next day.