Short Fiction — 2nd Place
A Good Job is Hard to Keep
by MaryAnn Fitzharris
In San Pedro Sula, in northern Honduras, the festival was in full swing even though it was early morning. On his way to work, Manolo Sanchez drove past street vendors who filled the air with sweet aromas. School children — on holiday for the fair — played on the street. Manolo was heading to his job as a scanner at the busiest seaport in Central America.
He looked at his watch: 7:15. He’d be on time today, as usual. Manolo took his job seriously. When you have a good-paying job in a third-world country, you don’t mess with your buena fortuna.
At Puerto Cortes, he scanned his badge and drove his restored vintage 1964 Thunderbird — white with teal leather seats — past the port’s security guard. “That one’s a beauty,” the guard said to Manolo, referring to the car.
“I love it, too. Tempted to keep it.” A decade ago Manolo fell in love with old American cars and learned to restore them. Now classic-car restoration was his ticket to an early retirement, that and this good job, he thought.
He parked the Thunderbird close to the exit, locked it and headed across the parking lot to the scanning building. Vessels from all over the world lined up to go through the scanners. The blue Caribbean waters shone brilliantly with the sun over this deep, natural harbor.
Manolo clocked in, grabbed some coffee, and walked over to old Caesar. “Hey man. Anything interesting tonight?” Caesar’s night shift was usually as busy as the day shift.
“The Freedom is moving through now. Here’s the papers. Donahue said she wanted to scan this one herself when it came through, but she’s not here right now.” The entire scanning team made the effort to know details about vessels sailing regularly through their port. The Freedom came through every few months.
Manolo placed his coffee cup down and turned to his screen, adjusting his eyes to watch the contents of the huge containers piled high in the bellies of ships that, day and night, sailed through Manolo’s huge scanner. He liked to brag he could scan the contents of a container in forty-eight seconds flat. Of course, the Freedom would have hundreds of containers on it, so he’d be at it for a while.
When a ship left Manolo’s screening station, it moved through other inspections that looked for biological and chemical weapons. A near real-time image was always available for view by CBP officials in the United States. Normally, scanning of an entire ship took a few hours and it was on its way again.
Once, Caesar had told him someone tried to deliver a container full of Chinese immigrant workers, which he discovered on imaging and reported right away. Another time, Manolo spotted contraband stuffed in the middle of some textiles. Two other times, he found drugs. But usually his job was uneventful.
Minutes after he started his routine scans, Manolo became excited. Inside Container Three-Four-Five was a sleek automobile. It was a beauty. Of course, all cars were beautiful to Manolo. The computer said this was a Proton Satria GTi, a right-handed drive car, one of many reasons they weren’t generally exported to the United States. Still, as he stared at the scan, he realized this one was odd.
Manolo looked at the electronic description of Container Three-Four-Five. Contents: One automobile. Departure port: Port Klang, Malaysia. Destination: Miami, Florida, USA. He looked again at the scan and pressed a button to highlight the real-time image, asking customs and border protection officials in Miami for a quick analysis. Manolo had been doing this job for about a decade, since after the terror attacks of 9/11.
The phone rang. It was Erica Roberts, long-time agent in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), one of the biggest agencies in the Department of Homeland Security. She was looking at the same screen remotely in Miami.
“What am I looking at, Manolo? Looks like one of those Pacific Rim cars,” Roberts said. Scanning cargo containers at more than three hundred airports and seaports is part of CBP’s anti-terrorism, anti-crime responsibilities. Roberts was a small cog in this big wheel.
“Can’t you see it? I know cars. And this one’s all messed up.”
“I don’t see it. Walk me through it.”
“It’s the front bumper. Usually a bumper’s an empty sheet of metal, but here, see there’s a short tube wrapped up inside the bumper? It’s made to look like it belongs there, but it doesn’t.” He showed her how the bumper and the exhaust pipe looked suspicious.
“Damn,” Roberts said.
“So you guys want to come take a look at this one?”
“No, you don’t need to come, Erica.” It was Ginelle Donahue, Manolo’s boss, who had just walked in and grabbed the phone from Manolo. “Give me a chance to review this scan, then I’ll call you.”
“Okay, Ginelle. Get back to me.”
Ginelle turned to Manolo. “Finish the rest of the scanning while I review these.”
In ten minutes, Donahue called Erica Roberts. “I don’t think this is anything …”
Roberts said, “I disagree. Manolo knows cars and he thinks this one is messed up. I’m coming with a crew to check it. Hold that ship.”
Damn it. Donahue really screwed up just because of an unscheduled bathroom break. She was fighting a digestive disorder and knew she’d spend half of today on the toilet, but this was not the time for it! Now the American feds were involved. She needed to do damage control damn quick. But what could she do?
“The scan shows there’s no radioactive material,” said Bob Boettcher, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) representative who came down to Honduras with Roberts from Miami.
“That’s a relief,” said the third companion, a director from Homeland Security.
Erica Roberts scratched her head as she looked at the various scans of the Proton automobile. She motioned to Manolo. “So what do we have here?”
Manolo moved closer to the screen. “Check this oversized exhaust pipe. It’s too straight, too wide, and it’s about five feet long.” He pointed to the scan. “And this bumper has something short and pointy in it.”
“You’re right. Looks pointy, like a warhead,” the DHS man said as he studied the magnified image.
“What I thought,” Roberts said.
“The exhaust pipe looks like a rocket launcher tube,” Boettcher said.
“I agree. So we’ve got the components of a missile launcher?” Roberts asked. “We need to know who it’s for and what they’re planning to do with it.”
Boettcher asked, “But where’s the bomb?” He looked perplexed.
“Can’t find one. The warhead looks empty.”
They examined the scans of every part of the car. All the obvious spots — the trunk, the radiator, the tires, the muffler and the interior — were intact with no additions.
“If there’s no bomb, what else could they put on this warhead?” Roberts asked Boettcher.
“They could make a bomb easy enough,” he said. “Crowds, buildings and large commercial planes are the obvious targets. And we’ve got a hell of a lot of each of those in the States.”
Everyone was quiet for a minute, considering the horrible possibility.
“What are we gonna do about it?” Roberts finally said.
“Confiscate it,” Boettcher said.
The DHS man spoke up. “Then spend two years trying to find out what it was for? Meanwhile, they just get another one, but we don’t know about it?”
Boettcher nodded. “Or disable it. Let it go through and follow it. See who picks it up in Miami. We’ll have them by the balls!”
They looked at each other and nodded.
“Can we put a tracker on this thing?” Boettcher asked.
“Damn straight! We’re not letting this go on its way without a tracker,” Roberts said. “But since these guys intend to dismantle the car, won’t they find it?”
Manolo spoke up. “I know a place on the car they won’t look.” He described his plan, and they agreed it would work.
“Good man,” Roberts said, and patted Manolo on the arm. She turned to his boss. “Donahue, alert the cranes. And the captain. We need access to this container.”
Even though it was near the top of the ship, it took a while to unload Container Three-Four-Five. But soon they had a crew going over a vehicle clearly never intended to be driven because of its missing exhaust system. With Manolo’s help, the men attached a special GPS tracking device to the air conditioning unit, and the battery pack and radio transmitter snuggled up against the radiator water overflow dispenser.
“I’ve disabled the trigger,” Boettcher said. “And I messed up the fuse assembly where they wouldn’t notice it. This thing’s not detonating anytime soon.”
Donahue had been out of the room on another emergency break. When she reentered, she said to Erica Roberts, “How much longer will you be? The captain of the Freedom is demanding an answer. He has a schedule to keep.”
“Not too much longer now,” Roberts said. “But we need a MATTS tag.”
“I’ll have my guys put one on the container,” Donahue said, although she had no intention of doing it. She saw the quizzical look on the faces of the two visitors and explained. “A Marine Asset Tag Tracking System. About the size of a deck of cards, but it’s got a sensor, mini-computer, radio transceiver and GPS tracking device.”
“What will it tell us?” Boettcher asked.
“It’ll let you know when this container arrives in Miami. You’ll have a heads-up when someone picks up the car,” she said. “Your GPS can take over after that, following it all the way to its destination.” Shit. She realized then she didn’t know where the GPS was installed on the car.
“Okay, let’s close her up. Get her reloaded.”
Hours later the Freedom was on its way to Miami with all its cargo, with the head administrator of Porte Cortes expressing his sincere apologies to its captain for the long delay.
“We have a problem,” the first mate on the Freedom said into the satellite phone.
The man on the other end was a terrorist in New York who had paid for this shipment. He had paid off a lot of people and didn’t want to hear any bad news.
“The vessel was delayed at the port. We weren’t told why.”
“Many hours. They unloaded the container, went inside, had people coming and going, and then reloaded it. Doesn’t look like they changed anything.”
The terrorist took a deep breath. “Is it on its way now?”
“Yes, they apologized for the inconvenience, said it was a precaution, and everything was okay.”
When the first mate hung up, the terrorist placed a call to Donahue in Honduras. She explained how she didn’t put a MATT tag on the container, so there’d be a mad scramble in Miami to find the container. But the car could be long gone before anyone figured it out.
“Good. We’ll get rid of the GPS tracker. You better take care of loose ends there,” he threatened.
Five hours later, Manolo Sanchez was leaving his home to meet up with friends. He laughed as he dodged a group of youngsters dancing wildly to the street music. The weather was perfect, as people of all ages were eating their dinner from street vendors. Manolo was ready to party all night. Then, sobering up the next day, he’d go to church and get ashes on his forehead as a reminder of his mortality.
Two men walked up to him on the street. “Whoa, amigo, what’s up?” they said to him, grabbing his arms. Manolo laughed.
“It’s party time,” Manolo said, smiling. Then he was on his knees on the ground, gasping for air. Someone had punched him in the stomach. The men pulled him to his feet, but he was too breathless to fight. They each took an arm and dragged him to a waiting vehicle.
During the short drive, the two men refused to speak. When the car stopped, they placed a weapon in his back and ordered him to enter the warehouse door.
“Now, my friend, you will tell us what we want to know.”
Manolo was ready to talk. He was frightened. He was also tied to a chair.
“Where do you work?” asked one of the men.
“At Porte Cortes. As a screener.”
“Very good. See. Tell us what we want to know and you’ll be free to party with your friends.”
“What do you want to know?” Manolo was eager to be helpful.
“What did you see on the scanner today? In the car.”
“Oh, that,” Manolo’s heart sank. He did know something after all. “I work on cars and I thought the bumper and exhaust systems looked bizarre, so I did what I’m supposed to do. I called the customs agent.”
“Who came to see the car?”
“Border patrol from Miami, Homeland Security, and a nuclear energy guy.”
“They took the container off the ship.” He was hesitant to say more, realizing how serious this topic really was.
“They saw some strange things in the car. But then they packed it up and let it go through.”
“Why let it go through?”
“They put a tracking device on the car.”
“Ah. Now we’re getting somewhere. So tell us, where is the device?”
“I don’t know.”
The tall man pushed the handgun into Manolo’s stomach. “You do know. Tell me now.”
“It’s a GPS attached to the air conditioner and windshield wiper fluid dispenser.”
“Good. Have you told us everything?”
“Yes, I swear. Everything.” He forgot the feds had disabled the rocket launcher or he would have mentioned it. He was terrified.
“Good. Now relax and you’ll be free in no time.” His interrogator nodded to the man behind Manolo, who injected a needle into the young man’s arm.
“Heroin, to make you feel good.”
“Get it away from me.”
“You’ll like it. I promise.”
For the rest of the evening Manolo’s arm became a pin cushion, as he lost consciousness, overdosing, needle prick by needle prick, on a drug he had never once even considered trying.
“He’s had enough to kill three times over,” the shorter man reported by phone to Ginelle Donahue. “He’s unresponsive.”
“Good. Get rid of that garbage,” Donahue said. She placed a call to New York. “It’s done,” she told the terrorist who had paid her. She told him where to find the GPS unit.
Manolo’s body was found when street cleaners finally made it to the alleyway a day later.
And the rocket launcher was safely on its way to the terrorists waiting for it in Miami, where they would quickly remove the GPS unit and place it on another vehicle traveling to the Midwest. They could transport the Proton Satria undetected to New York, and make it ready for their planned attack.