Chapter One

"Look lively, here comes Flight 1147." 

We pressed our noses to the one-way glass and the parade began. A trickle at first, businessmen wheeling suitcases, cell phones already pressed to their ears. Then young couples in glitter platform shoes, bopping to Walkmans. Well-heeled families carrying duty-free bags, squinting into the fluorescent light to read the signs and line up in the right queue. 

Then a pause in the traffic, empty spaces stretching out like ellipses. I scrutinized what the airplane's belly had disgorged, scanning for stains under silk armpits, restless eyes, hands clenching bags too tightly. They said even a preternatural calm was suspect, since it was normal to be frazzled after 14 hours in the air, even if you had the patience of a Buddhist monk. Speaking of which, here came five of them, girded in saffron robes that ended in sandaled feet. 

An elbow nudged my arm. 

"Plenty a' room for contraband inside those layers," U.S. Customs Supervisor William Maxwell drawled lazily, watching the monks plod past. 

I fingered my notepad, thinking that the monks looked more dazed than surreptitious. 

"Don't you have dogs for that? Sniff out drugs and explosives and stuff?" 

I realized as soon as the words left my mouth that bombs were a threat for those boarding, not getting off. If you were going to blow up an airplane, you'd do it in mid-air. 

"One day they'll invent robo-dogs that sniff out jewels, cash and illegals, but for now we still rely on good instincts and bad paperwork," Maxwell said, scanning the crowd. 

His eyes shifted to an Asian woman walking behind the monks, and I wondered if his interest was professional. She was tall, with a heart-shaped face and freshly applied lipstick. She wore a pantsuit of raw raspberry silk and carried a slumbering little girl over her shoulder. Behind her came the husband, pushing an elephantine cart heaped with luggage. Balanced precariously on top was a large bag that said "Tokyo Disneyland." 

"You really think those monks are carrying?" I asked, more to make conversation than because I thought so. 

"Prayerbooks, maybe," he said evenly. "But skepticism is a virtue. We caught some grief last week for pulling apart a Mexican grandma's wheelchair. She and the granddaughter got on their cells, jabbering to the Consulate about their rights being violated. Had no idea what was packed inside those hollow metal tubes." 

"Granny was a drug mule?" 

Maxwell snorted. "My black homegirl was hitching a ride." 

I thought I might be missing something because we were both staring out the window while trying to carry on a conversation. 

"My black homegirl?" 

Now some businessmen moved past in trench coats. Tall and blond, with glacier-blue eyes and the slanted cheekbones of the Russian steppes. Behind them sauntered two young Asian men, elaborately casual, their hair iced up. One had a camera around his neck. The other clutched a map of Hollywood. Props, I thought. Way too obvious. Here's a pair I would watch. I looked to see if Maxwell had noticed the same thing, but his gaze swept right past them. 

"Heroin," Maxwell said. "Ten kilos of uncut tar. It's black and sticky and La Eme moves a lot of it across the border. Worth an easy $5 million on the street. They call it my black homegirl to throw off the FBI phone intercepts." 

La Eme was the Mexican Mafia. From the letter "M." I knew that much from growing up in L.A. La Eme's tentacles snaked through the barrios and prisons of California and they laundered their money through juice bars and video stores. 

"What about those guys?" I pointed to the Asian punks. "There's something off about them. Like, if they're so cool, why are they clutching all that tourist stuff." 

But he was watching three Asian women stroll past, big rocks on manicured fingers, strands of pearls, designer handbags. They were young but stout, in elegant, loose-fitting dresses and matching jackets. 

"How much you wanna bet they're Korean and ready to pop?" Maxwell said. 

I studied them. What crime slang was he lobbing at me now? 

"Preggers," said Maxwell. "And loaded. They fly over here to give birth so their babies will be U.S. citizens. Big-time status. Shop and play tourist, stay at a fancy hotel till they drop the kid. Then skedaddle on back to Seoul. There's no law against it, but still." 

"You mean they don't want to stay?" For some reason, I was insulted on behalf of my country. Wasn't this the Promised Land? 

Before he could answer, a large clot of tired humanity poured into the room on the other side of the glass and began to sort itself into lines. This was the last layer of the plane to be excavated, and it revealed the pitiless archeology of overseas travel. First had come the rested countenances of first class, airplane royalty from both sides of the Pacific. Then the still groomed, monogrammed and pampered business class. And now the flying rabble, the pack I joined when I flew, we of the plasticine food and cramped leg space, the great unruly masses of economy -- cranky, disoriented and sleep-deprived. 

My gaze lingered over a swarthy man with black hair. His clean-shaven face bore the unmistakable imprint of the Levant. The plane had originated in Beijing, with stops in Seoul and Tokyo with a final destination of LAX, where I stood now. Would he be pulled aside automatically, I wondered, getting an inkling, for the first time, how difficult it must be to look at people's papers and faces and make split- second decisions that could affect national security. 

Not that I was here on anything quite so exalted. I was a reporter for the L.A. Times, and after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, inquiring minds wanted to know how the government screened passengers. So U.S. Customs had set me up with a high-ranking official named Maxwell. I was shadowing him for a day before demystifying the process for Times readers. And there would be plenty of art. My star fotog, Ariel Delacorte, was out there among the disembarking passengers, shooting away. Weighed down by cameras and the shapeless khaki vest that all shutterbugs love, Ariel still managed a casual elegance, her posture erect as a ballet dancer's, her wavy black hair cut smartly to her sculpted jaw. 

I turned to ask Maxwell about the Middle Easterner but he was halfway out the door, speaking into a crackling two-way radio. 

"Yeah, that's them," he said. "Pinkie and the luggage coolie. Remember it's hands-off. Send them through with a smile. I'll be right over." 

I took two steps after him. "Stay here," he said. He pushed me back and I saw his hand go to his belt. "I won't be a minute." 

The door closed behind him. By the time I recovered enough to run and yank it open, the hallway was empty. 

I turned back to the one-way glass window. One of the blond businessmen was gesticulating to a U.S. Customs inspector. He dug into his bags and pulled out some papers, which he threw down. The inspector shook her head. 

The man looked around, as if enjoining his line-mates to commiserate. People were packed in tight, blocked by suitcases and carts, restrained into orderly lines by shiny black nylon ropes, children running around. 

Then without warning, he pushed through the crowd, elbowing other passengers aside. At the same time, I saw lights flash and felt the glass rattle in sharp staccato shivers. Someone out there was shooting. 

As bodies crumpled to the floor, I wondered whether they had been shot or were just taking cover. The crowd surged and shoved as people tried to break loose of the immigration holding area. On the other side of the glass, a jeweled hand rose up, vermilion nails clawing two inches from my face, before sinking back into the roiling mass. I saw a flash of raspberry as the smartly-dressed Asian woman and her husband floated past, propelled by the mob. They slammed momentarily into the other blond businessman, then bounced apart. I noticed the woman no longer held her child. 

On the other side of the glass, people were stampeding past the kiosks as security guards sought to push them back. One guard brandished a gun, then got down on one knee, sharpshooter style. Good Lord, they can't shoot into a crowd of people, it's going to be a massacre, I thought. The glass rattled again, and I ducked instinctively, hoping it was bulletproof as well as one-way. 

Now here came one of the Asian punks, doing the Olympic high hurdles as he sailed over mounds of luggage and passengers, who shielded their heads in 1950s duck-and-cover style. 

The second Asian punk came into view, running for the exit. He had a gun and was yelling something. Nobody paid any attention. People pushed through the door, faces contorted in terror. After the July 4th LAX massacre at the El Al counter, no one was taking any chances. 

I realized I had been crouched at the window, peeking through my hands like a frightened toddler at the pandemonium on the other side of the glass. But I was a reporter, I needed to get in there. I ran to the door, threw it open and stepped into a corridor only to find a mass of people fleeing toward me, wild-eyed and disheveled. 

"No," a man panted, grabbing my arm. "Go back. Terrorists. Shooting." 

Ignoring him, I ran the way he had just come. Bursting through a set of double doors into the large room I had just been observing from the one-way glass, I saw a middle-aged man with blood on his face and a dazed expression. A teenaged girl sobbed and knelt on the dirty floor by a woman who looked unconscious. Sirens split the air and a recorded voice calmly urged passengers to keep moving in an orderly manner. 

On the other side of the room, I saw several crumpled bodies. I recognized the Slav man who had bolted. He lay on the ground with one arm outstretched, as if felled while playing tag. A morbid curiosity propelled me closer. Bright red blood matted his flaxen hair. One cheek was pressed against the linoleum, and I noticed grayish gunk splattered across the pale skin and clinging to his suit lapels. With a start, I realized it was the man's brains. 

Five feet away, the second Slav businessman lay in a tangle of limbs and blood, entwined with the pretty Asian mother. It looked as though they had collided while trying to flee. The front of the woman's raspberry silk outfit was spotted with blood, fibers charred where the bullets had gone in. My eyes flickered over to the man. An explosion had detonated on his chest. I forced myself to stare, to record every detail, ignoring the prickles of fear radiating outward from my spine. The ‘bolt' reflex was coming on strong. More than anything, I wanted to flee, to run out of this terminal, back to my car and out of the airport. What if at this very moment someone with a dirty bomb was preparing to detonate it? Part of me did run screaming out of that airport, shaking with fear and babbling incoherently. I let her go. Then I stepped forward. I had a job to do. 

Where was the little girl this dead woman had been carrying just moments earlier as she stepped blithely toward Customs? I prayed she was still alive. There were more police and security now, their bodies beginning to block the carnage, but as they moved and space opened in odd geometric angles, I looked for a snub nose. A tiny arm. A head I could cup in one palm. And saw nothing. 

Thank God, I murmured. My fingers hurt from gripping the pen so tightly. Unclenching them, I jotted down what I had seen. First impressions were important, even scattered and disjointed ones. Later, we'd unravel them for clues. Something teetered in the upper corner of my vision and I flinched. But it was just Ariel, who had climbed atop a pile of suitcases for a better shooting angle. As the machine gun patter of her film advanced, people dove behind luggage and covered children with their bodies until they realized that the noise came from a camera. 

On the other side of the room, Maxwell was screaming into his two-way. I walked over and saw that his men had the Asian punks on the ground, hands cuffed behind their backs. They writhed on their bellies, heads cranked sideways, jaws gaping like some weird pupa begging to be fed. Seeing this, Ariel leapt off her luggage mountain and ran to photograph them. This seemed to enrage the men, who hollered at her to stop and averted their faces. 

"Three dead," Maxwell was saying urgently into his radio, "Asian female and two Caucasian males. We're checking. Yeah." 

There was a long pause. Part of me expected Maxwell to blow his whistle any minute now and announce that the emergency preparedness drill was over. Then the "bodies" would get up, dust themselves off, strip off the shirts with the paintball "blood" and go back to their usual business. 

"Don't know about the males," Maxwell said into the radio, "but Interpol Tokyo alerted us about the family. I called INS but then all hell broke loose. And now Mom's dead and Crypto-Dad's MIA." 

"Are you charging them with murder?" I asked, looking at the guys on the ground. 

Maxwell ignored me. 

He listened as a faint voice crackled on the other end of the two way. His lips drew together into a thin line and he seemed to whiten under his L.A. tan. 

"Son of a bitch," he said softly. He hooked the radio back onto his belt, turned slowly and glared at the captives. Then he shook his head. 

"Help these gentlemen up," he ordered, drawing the word out with a sneer. 

"Are they terrorists or what?" I asked. 

I knew al Qaeda didn't just recruit Middle Easterners. The South Asian archipelagos were said to be awash with Muslim fundamentalists. 

Maxwell focused on me. It looked as if he was trying to remember who I was. He scratched an ear. 

"We are in the middle of a triple murder investigation as well as two undercover criminal operations. You'll have to leave. And you," he turned to Ariel, "will have to hand over that film." 

Ariel Delacorte removed the camera from her face. Her eyes were a deep, translucent green. She slid the camera into her shoulder bag, tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and said "You'll get their names for the captions, won't you, Eve." Then she turned on her booted heel and strode out the door without a backward glance. 

"Fine," Maxwell yelled after her. "We'll let the lawyers duke it out." 

He turned back and I nodded, eager to appear more sympathetic than frosty Ariel. I would never do such a thing. 

"What happened back there?" I asked, shifting nervously as the customs police roughly hauled up the two Asian men. They wore a look of angry vindication that confused me. Here I was, a reporter, an eyewitness, but I had no idea what has just gone down. All I knew was that suddenly the place had exploded into gunfire and chaos. 

Maxwell regarded the men. 

"Let ‘em loose. Yeah, that's right," he told his startled colleagues. "You heard what I said."

One of the freed men brushed off his jacket, took a step forward and jabbed the air with a forefinger. 

"That was fucked-up, Customs," he said. "Real fucked-up. Your career is over. Starting tomorrow, you'll be lucky to find work as a $6 rent-a-cop." 

Maxwell jeered. "That's your future, G-boy, not mine. Bigfoot blew it bad." 

"These guys," he said wearily, turning to me, "are not terrorists. They are not murderers. They are undercover agents for the FBI. Fucking feds were tailing two mobsters from Vladivostok who are now lying here dead and they neglected to inform us. Little lack of inter-agency communication by Bigfoot. Who doesn't care who they stomp on so long as they get theirs. Meanwhile we're doing our own tail, some nasty folks out of Bangkok traveling with a kid. Couple weeks more and we'd a taken down the whole operation. But these cowboys," he hooked a thumb at the FBI men, "blew everything sky high when their guys tried to run. And now one of my little chickens is dead and the other's flown the coop. God damn it!" 

He swept his cap off his head and hurled it onto the linoleum floor with a slap that made me start. 

A heavyset woman in a white uniform and a nametag walked toward us. She was holding the groggy toddler with the designer clothes who belonged to the dead raspberry lady and her missing husband. 

The child couldn't have been more than two. Her pale cheek lay against the woman's blouse and she observed us with slack eyes. Her breathing was thick and rheumy. When she coughed, her thin frame shook and her plastic diaper crackled. But that was the only sound. Separated from her beautiful and dead Mama, witness to the massacre that had just erupted, held tight by a total stranger, the child didn't cry. She didn't wail. She didn't utter a word. One impossibly small hand curled around the woman's neck. In the other, she clutched a teddy bear. 

"She'll have a Japanese passport, but my guess is she won't speak a word of Japanese," Maxwell said. "Her papers will show she's traveled widely in the last six months, but never stayed anywhere long. She jets around with loving parents who give her anything that money can buy, but she don't look too happy to me. 

"Who are you, little girl?" he asked softly, "and why did they leave you behind?" 

© Denise Hamilton