You don’t see me, but I see you.
Two summers ago, you and your husband hurried past me, so absorbed in each other you had no clue I was framing and storing you in my mental database. Anniversary trip? Excellent idea. Marital relationships also need nurturing. Too often we neglect those we love the most.
Not your adorable children, though. Naturally, you dote on them, kneeling to tie their shoes and wipe their little noses, thereby providing me with an unobstructed view of the cherubs. Gotcha! Two more for my catalog, no upgrade required.
They may be six and four now, but I’ll be able to recognize them when they’re eighteen, twenty, thirty, sixty. (Something facial-recognition software can’t do, I might add.) I don’t envy you having to fly with them whining from here to Disney World, which would drive me up a wall. Still, you know what they say about parenthood: the minutes go by like years and the years by minutes. Treasure every moment.
Are you taking care of yourself? I’m a little concerned about the dark circles. Even with the new highlights (gorgeous!), you look drained. I suppose Christmas did you in, not to mention your job. Talk about stressful. Remember when you had to fly from Atlanta last spring and there were storms up and down the East Coast? You were as white as a sheet getting off that flight. I don’t blame you. Turbulence. Is. The. Worst.
“Where the hell is Delta?” your husband bellows, squinting at the signs above the endless rows of airline counters, as if you’d know. As if you live at the airport. It’s sweet how he trusts you.
Do you trust me? You should.
I am what stands between you touching down in sunny Florida and ending in pieces scattered among floating fuselage. Those scanners? The metal detectors and pat downs and X- rays you find so annoying? They’re all useless. If we had to rely on them, we’d all be cooked. They’re simply for show, to keep people like you flying and the stock market booming.
You knew that, right?
Because it’s not what you see that’ll save you, it’s what you don’t see. Me.
Who am I? Well, yesterday, I was a mother like you, in yoga pants and a Red Sox cap, complaining on my cell about the never-ending construction at Logan. A classic. The week before, I was a gambler on my way to Las Vegas. Leather jacket. Tight jeans. Sparkly pink carry- on. That one’s good, too.
Today, I am a sales rep waiting for a company car, my dark hair in a neat ponytail at the base of my neck. My makeup is a palette of understated natural hues. My suit is navy. One hand rests on the handle of my luggage that happens to be completely empty. The other flips through a phone that is not a phone.
If you notice me at all, you might feel pity for a pretty young woman traveling alone. No boyfriend. No husband. No children. How sad.
Don’t be sad. Be grateful. Be glad that instead of cashing in on my unique talents by surveilling for a ruthless private military firm, I spend my days and nights roaming the bowels of Logan, identifying suspects merely by the shapes of their heads, collaring potential terrorists based on nothing more than a glimpse of their eyes.
Thanks to me, they don’t even get a chance to fake their way through security. I will alert my point person in the TSA who will send an undercover agent to tap our unwanted traveler on the shoulder, politely directing him, or her, to what might seem like an expedited security check, but which will in actuality be a gateway to their final departure. Their DNA will be tested and matched, validating my identification. Because I retain ninety percent of the faces I see, not because I choose to, but because I have no choice.
After what I’ve seen, you would not want to be me.
“What’re you getting Erik for Christmas?” Renee asks in my earpiece as I cut the interminable line at Customs, two passengers behind my target, a white supremacist nicknamed Radix.
Last week on BitChute, Radix transmitted a coded call to arms urging his followers to cause national havoc by “disrupting” air travel, whatever that meant. Clearly, he didn’t blow up the plane that brought him here, but that doesn’t mean he’s given up. He remains in the midst of a very crowded airport packed with holiday travelers. Lots of potential for mayhem and death.
I flick a thumb to the US Customs and Border Protection agent monitoring camera #9. “A turkey.”
“Doesn’t sound like much of a present.”
“Not just any turkey. It weighs twenty pounds and it’s covered with a mat of woven, hickory-smoked bacon and filled with a sriracha-infused chestnut stuffing. I mail-ordered it from a gourmet restaurant in Kentucky and it drained my bank account. Erik and I are gonna be living on ramen for weeks.”
She bursts out laughing. “That’s if you don’t end up in the E.R. Hope it comes with a defibrillator.”
“I think that’s complimentary.”
“By the way, your target is in the gray sweatshirt with the eagle. He’s got his phone out and appears to be communicating. Might want to make your move.”
I listen to Renee, who’s an actual detective, holed up in a back office surveying passenger data on her computer. As a natural super recognizer with added training in forensic facial analysis, I’m a grunt in comparison. Any information I gather is likely to be struck down in a court of law as too subjective. Instead, my job is to avert an immediate disaster by identifying passengers I recognize as disguised high-value threats so they can be detained and questioned before entering the United States—or, if I’m working with the TSA on the domestic side—an outward-bound plane.
“Gotcha.” Turning off the mic to save Renee’s hearing, I yell in an exaggerated Boston accent, “Excuse me! This is my spot. I went to the ladies and now I’m back so move!”
An older woman in front of my target purses her lips in disapproval. I know what she’s thinking. My generation has no concept of decorum. We are sooo rude because of cell phones. Little does she know that her life might hang in the balance depending on what the guy next to her has up his sleeve—literally.
Unfortunately, the target is bobbing his head to a silent beat streaming from his Air Pods, oblivious to my caterwauling.
“What are you looking at?” I bark at the poor woman. “How about getting off my case and minding your own damn business!” I punctuate this with an extended middle finger.
My flailing catches his attention. He turns and I get a clearer shot of his features, noting, with irony, that he happens to possess a disarmingly pink baby face with pinchable cheeks. And while he could be Radix’s younger brother, he is not the infamous white supremacist attempting to pass himself off as another college student heading home for Christmas break. He simply is another college student heading home for Christmas break.
“Learn some respect,” the woman hisses. “I’m so sorry,” I reply, because I am. Sort of.
Wheeling my bag out of line with apologies to the people behind me, I head for my usual post by the restroom. “That’s an AC on 15,” I tell the CBP agent at Counter 5, where College Boy will be directed.
“Delta 405 from Paris,” the CBP agent returns. “Alert on number 27 with the green backpack. Originated at BGW connected through CDG.” Originating in Baghdad, the airport ranked #1 on the Global Terrorism Index, is the kiss of death.
Who would leave Paris for Boston the week before Christmas? People smuggling in cheese, wine and jewelry, that’s who. Bless ‘em. I pull out my iPad—just another sales rep checking the next day’s calendar—and call up the twenty cameras zooming in on the maze of stanchions as the rear doors open and the passengers of Flight 405 trudge out. They look none too pleased to have to wait in these holiday lines. It’s a long flight and they want to get out of the airport and home to sleep off the jet lag. Gosh, it’s almost ten their time and a lot of them probably had connecting flights, like our number 27. First class is, of course, first. Easy and familiar. While I wait for 27, I watch the parade entering ahead of him. There’s the couple who fly to Paris monthly and then there’s the businessman with the mole on his cheek. Haven’t seen him in a while. (I bet she ended the
affair.) Whoa, there’s that supermodel who was on the cover of Vogue awhile back. Man, she’s tall. They head straight to Global Entry and the fast pass to freedom. No tedious questions for them.
In what is bound to be a futile effort, I conduct a quick sweep for Kit, checking each passenger for any one of the trifecta of quirks that can’t be surgically altered—her swanlike neck, the unconscious hair flicking, the way she favors her left leg, the one she broke at sixteen. No match. As always, I feel a fresh pang of disappointment. I don’t know why I put myself through this torture.
Because she might be out there somewhere, an inner voice whispers. Right. I take a deep breath and refocus on my duties. There will be another flight, another group of passengers, another remote possibility. I must never lose hope.
Now comes economy class. Families. Grandparents. Students. I enlarge number 27, my backpacked target from Iraq, and clear him right away. He’s some sort of environmentalist, if I’m not mistaken. He was in a group from MIT on their way to the Arctic last spring.
“AC on 27,” I tell CBP.
“You sure? He seems kind of sketchy.”
I have to resist the temptation to inform CBP for the umpteenth time that just because a man has a beard and dark hair and dark skin and comes from the Middle East does not mean he has come to this country to detonate a car bomb during rush hour on Storrow Drive. “He’s a scientist. Recently returned from an expedition in the Arctic to protect endangered ring seals or something.”
“If you say so. He also visited Iran last year. Never heard of seals in a desert.”
There are no deserts in Iran, a piece of geographic trivia that’s not worth explaining to this numb nut. I sigh and text him all clear on Delta 405.
Five minutes later, the rear doors open again and passengers from JetBlue 924 enter, most of them in short-sleeved Hawaiian shirts, shorts and sandals because it’s eighty degrees in the Dominican Republic. Wait until they get outside and find the skies are raining ice water.
They dutifully weave through the maze. Only half of these faces are familiar to me. Many of them belong to children whom I haven’t catalogued before. Even so, I have to study each one, hitting pause on my iPad, expanding, resuming play and working down the line.
Wonder why customs takes so long? This is why.
“How come you’re working that side today, anyway?” Renee asks in my earpiece. “Don’t tell me DHS understaffed the holiday rotation again. Honestly, they’ve got to get their shit together, budget cuts or no.”
“Who knows?” I flick the screen and text CBP: All clear on 924. There are four hours left in my shift and I’m already counting the minutes until I can hop the Blue Line to the Orange Line and then hike the eleven blocks from the Sullivan Square stop to the top floor of our East Somerville triple-decker to feast on congealed leftovers from last night’s Chinese takeout.
“Intel reports there’s a Level Five incoming from Bogotá,” Renee says. “All I get from CBP is it’s a potential high-security risk. No further details.”
“That’s helpful.” I still have no idea if the Level 5 is a VIP or a drug lord. CBP can be sloppy that way. “Anything else?”
“Lemme check the manifest and see if I can find out more,” Renee replies.
I can hear her artificial nails clicking on the keyboard. She lets out a whistle. “Definitely a VIP. I don’t know why he didn’t fly private, especially if there’s a security concern. Not like he can’t afford it.”
“Politician?” I ask, standing on my tiptoes for a clearer view.
“More like a pretty-boy trust funder whose daddy made a fortune investing his millions as a hedge-fund manager into his wife’s influencer empire. He is super cute, though, so maybe there’s something to be said for the coffee enemas they’re pushing on everyone.”
“Eww!” Relaxing slightly, I slide onto a plastic seat and kick off my flats, grateful for the break for my feet. “Can’t wait to see this Adonis.”
“Yeah. He’s definitely gorgeous.”
“Copa 311 from BOG incoming,” CBP interrupts. “This is our Level 5.”
So much for the respite. Hopping up, I flex my knees, making a mental note to buy new insoles. “I don’t know, Renee, sometimes I wonder what I’m doing here. It’s not like I’ve ever helped catch a terrorist.”
“You don’t know that. Even I don’t know that. We just have to do our jobs to the best of our abilities and hope our colleagues do likewise. Besides, you’re getting a decent salary, nice bennies. Those are key until Erik lands a full-time job.”
“If he gets a job.”
When it comes to academic openings for M.D./PhDs. in psychiatry who want to do research instead of actually analyzing people, you’d have better luck winning Megabucks. And even if Erik did land one of these plum positions, research pay would barely cover his student loan debt. I just wish he’d join a practice and rake in the money shrinking depressed Back Bay socialites. But, no, he says that’s not why he invested seven years in grad school. Meanwhile, here I am, keeping us both afloat by making sure bazillionaires like our VIP don’t get harassed while dirtying themselves among the masses.
Speaking of which, the rear doors open and first class from Copa 311 enters. I call up the cameras on my iPad, flicking through the faces: a pair of doctors who fly to Colombia quite frequently. A few men in golf shirts and a handful of small businessmen who are not themselves particularly small. A beautiful couple straight from the pages of Town & Country. Two hikers in muddy boots.
Hold on. I go back to the power couple, numbers six and seven. These must be my VIPs. I zoom in on the trust funder Renee’s so gaga about. He is definitely model material. Expensive haircut close on the sides, full on top with natural sun-kissed highlighting. Square jaw peppered with stubble. Thirty-ish, rich, confident and…disturbingly familiar.
I’m supposed to be scrutinizing those around him for his safeguarding. But I can’t stop staring. I’m riveted.
“What’s the ID on our VIP?” I ask Renee, though I already know the answer. “William Pease. Family owns Love & Pease lifestyle empire. Hot, right?”
Didn’t you break up with him right before you went missing, Kit? “I know this guy.” “You know everyone. It’s your job.”
“This has nothing to do with my job.”
I close my eyes and let the memories rush in of warm summer evenings when Kit would sneak home past curfew, her blond hair slightly disheveled, her neck flushed with excitement. “We’re just having fun,” she’d said, perched at the end of my twin bed, jiggling her tanned bare foot. “I’m not like the others who go crazy for him. Some of those girls are psycho.”
A week later, she’d be gone. My only sister, vanished from a deserted Cape Cod beach on a moonless night leaving me with nothing but questions. The first one being, who was that girl with her when she disappeared?
I suddenly focus on Will Pease’s female companion in the winter-white belted coat. She is slim with long black hair and cherry-red lips, her skin as pale as Snow White’s. She barely resembles the frightened teenager who ordered me to run, hide, and never tell anyone what I saw.
It’s her, I think, dizzy. Can it be?
“Who’s number seven?” I ask Renee, shakily.
“Um. She’s down as Isabella Valencia. Hey, you ok? You don’t sound too good.”
Isabella flashes a smile at Will and pivots on her heels. At that moment her dark eyes meet mine and we freeze. All movement around us slows. Distance and time cease to exist. For what could be seconds or hours, we explode in a silent burst of recognition.
Then, she swiftly gathers herself and matches her steps to Will’s as they head toward Global Entry and out of my life. I want to shout, but I can’t. My arms are heavier than concrete, my legs leaden and when I open my mouth, I am mute.
Don’t let her get away! my conscience cries. Do something! “Stop six and seven!” I holler to CBP. “Fast!”
“What?” he replies.
“Six and seven. At Global Entry. Detain.”
“Are you out of your mind?” Renee says. “They’re not the threat, they’re the VIPs.”
My fingers tremble as I enlarge Isabella Valencia on my iPad, assessing her image from all sides. The pointed chin. The heart-shaped face. The long, aquiline nose. Check. Check.
Check. I have never been so certain of a hit in my entire career.
Slipping the iPad in the interior pocket of my blazer, I speed-walk toward the front counters, not caring that I’m blowing my cover.
“Agent Ellison….Jane!” Renee cries into my earpiece. “You are way out of bounds.” “Seven is a 1073. She needs to be detained ASAP.”
“You’ve made a mistake. I told you, she’s with the VIP.” “She’s wanted for felony murder.”
“Where you getting that? It’s not in my….”
I’ve stopped listening to Renee. My heart is thudding hard against my chest, pumping out adrenaline. I am an animal. I want to run and pounce, attack and capture.
Oh, no. You’re not slipping from my fingers this time.
I am almost at Global Entry. CBP has pulled Will and Isabella aside. Will is angry, gesturing madly as CBP opens a side door and ushers both of them into the interrogation room before the scene gets any more chaotic. I’m not sure if he’s sequestering them for their privacy or their safety, because Renee is right.
I am out of my mind.
“Stand down!” A massive hand materializes inches from my nose. It belongs to Kurt, a CBP officer, who has struck the pose, legs spread, right hand on his holster. He’s treating me like a threat.
“Number seven is a fugitive from justice,” I blurt. Kurt doesn’t budge and I can’t get around him.
Order the Book
Jane Ellison is a “super recognizer” able to identify strangers by the slightest facial details—the curve of a head, the arch of an eyebrow. When she spies human rights activist and heiress Bella Valencia in a crowded Boston airport, Jane’s convinced she’s found the person responsible for her sister Kit’s disappearance and presumed death eleven years earlier. But her attempt to detain the suspect ends with Jane herself fired and humiliated.
As Bella prepares to marry Will Pease, scion of the uber-wealthy, influential, and ruthless Pease family, famous for their wholesome wellness and lifestyle brand, on their private Cape Cod island, she grows increasingly anxious that her dire secret will be revealed and used against her by—of all people—the man she loves.
She has reason to fear: Jane is ready to risk everything for the chance to publicly expose Bella’s crimes at her upcoming celebrity wedding. But the more she digs into what happened that night, the more she questions her own assumptions.
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