"Airport Pickup"


Balthuzar al-Muhammed tried to lock with the icy blue eyes of the interrogator. But the man, who had never introduced himself, looked just past Balthuzar’s head while asking questions in a monotone drawl. With his finger, Balthuzar rubbed his thin mustache. He was seated across a table from the interrogator in the windowless room, reached through an unmarked white door in Concourse 3.

Then he heard a couple of words he had been waiting for and he moved forward on his seat.

“Al-Qaida? Bomb?” said Balthuzar. “That’s crazy. I don’t know anything about bombs. You searched me. You searched my pack. The dog sniffed all over my pack. You know I don’t have a bomb.”

An undefiled yellow pad of paper was on the metal table, in front of the man with the black-rimmed glasses.

“Why did you approach Miss Banner?”

“I just said to her, ‘I like JFK. They make it so there’s plenty of access.’ What I meant is there’s lots of internet, many electrical outlets to recharge your phone. Access. That’s all.”

“Or it means plenty of access where you can sneak a bomb onto a plane. Have you been to Afghanistan in the last 10 years? Or Iraq?”

“No.”

“Maybe Syria? Don’t lie. We can check. It’s all in a file that’s easily found.”

“Yes,” said Balthuzar, a slender man. “That’s what I mean. Good access.”

“Why would you say such a thing to a young woman from Pennsylvania that you don’t know?”

"I thought she was being friendly.”

The man squeaked the legs of his chair as he leaned back from the table.

“C’mon. She looked friendly?”

“Honestly. I found her attractive. Is she from Philadelphia?”

“Mmmm,” said the man, who wore a black suit with a plain brown tie. “That’s something. Balthuzar, we are going to have a deal, you and me. We are men of our word. If you will tell me if you know anyone in an ISIS network, what their name is and cellphone number, I will tell you what city in Pennsylvania Miss Banner is from. It’s not Philadelphia. It’s not South Philly, either.”

“ISIS?” said Balthuzar. “I thought it’s called ISIL. That’s how much I know about it. You think every young Muslim person with a ponytail is a terrorist. I’m just a college student from Ohio. A boring guy. I grew up in Detroit.”

“There’s plenty of radical mosques there, my friend. That lets you off no hook.”

An older woman entered the room, scowling. She did not introduce herself. She had a slender build but fat pink cheeks around a button nose. All the calories went to the cheeks somehow. She wore a blouse with a geometric repeating pattern of yellow and green trapezoids. To Balthuzar, it looked like an Arab mosaic.

She said to the man while watching Balthuzar, “We’re starting to get somewhere.”

“Aieee,” said Balthuzar. “I think we’re getting nowhere.”

“C’mon, Balthuzar,” said the man. “There are a lot of cities in Pennsylvania.”

“How can I convince you that I am not a terrorist? How can I prove a negative? I was just attracted to the girl. I bet she’s from Pittsburgh.”

“Who is your primary contact in Michigan? Or maybe it’s Ohio, yes? You met an imam at college?”

“You’re barking up the wrong tree. You’re looking for an oak, and I’m a spruce. I was just trying to pick her up. It’s as simple as that. You didn’t rule out Pittsburgh. What about Scranton?”

“Why is it, Balthuzar,” the woman said, drawing her syllables out, “that you know so many cities in Pennsylvania? Have you ever been in Scranton?”

“Yes. It is a city of large green lawns and ugly industrial buildings that have been closed for 50 years. Is it a crime to visit Scranton?”

“So you really know Scranton,” she said. “You know its neighborhoods. Is there a mosque you have prayed at in Scranton perhaps? Don’t lie. We have a file on the mosques there.”