Until the approach to Rio de Janeiro, the eleven-hour flight from Miami was uneventful. With Sunny beside me, I actually enjoyed myself. I didn't expect to with her six-month-old baby accompanying us, but little Hallie handled the flight better than I ever dreamed. An ideal cover -- the finest I've ever had. That landing, though: Whew! I thought we were goners!
"Did you expect it would be so crowded, Tom?" Sunny looked up with those adoring eyes in absolute trust. A single mother, it was easy to hook her with a few compliments and a little interest shown to her kid. In the eight weeks I'd known her, she never once questioned my motives -- or my background.
"Don't worry, it'll be okay," I reassured her. Better than okay, crowds make it easier. "We'd better go left -- it looks like a separate immigration line for foreigners. Keep your travel papers handy; you'll need them."
"Are you sure everything's in order, Tom? My friends couldn't believe how quickly you arranged this trip. I just told them money talks, when you've got great connections like yours."
"Everything's fine, Sunny: it's all in who you know." I eased the baby carrier from my shoulders. "Why don't you take Hallie for awhile?"
"She's just restless. We'll come right back!"
If she only knew. But that was the point: I outsmarted all of them, using fake documents for years to handle business wherever needed with no one the wiser. Great connections? Yeah, I had them. No one could match Eddie's work: he was a master. I could switch identities faster than most women switch clothes. Slowly, I inched my way forward.
"Right on time, huh?" Sunny returned with Hallie just as the immigration officer finished with the couple in front of us and directed them to the right.
"Papers, please," he asked solemnly as he scrutinized our party. "What's your purpose here?"
"Just visitors," I answered quickly. "Relax," I whispered to Sunny, in response to her anxious frown.
"Visitors? No wonder you're nervous," the official responded bluntly.
Odd thing to say, I thought to myself, but I smiled and winked at Sunny.
"Are you traveling together?" he questioned next.
"Certainly! Wherever he goes, we go," Sunny answered brightly for herself and Hallie.
"As you wish, Ma'am, but you can only speak for yourself. Anything to declare?"
"I thought we'd do that at Customs, after we collect our baggage," I replied.
"I'm sorry, Sir. No baggage comes in here. Have you anything to declare?"
"What do you mean, no baggage? What are you talking about?"
"No baggage allowed here, Sir. Do you have anything to declare?" He stared at us expectantly, as if prompting a particular response.
"Why do you keep asking that?" I asked. "How can we have anything to declare if we don't even have our baggage?" Something isn't right: mustn't panic. I breathed deeply, flashing a disarming smile in hopes the official was only fishing for a bribe.
"Let me put it another way, Sir: why should we let you in?" he asked.
Sunny looked up at me with those expectant, trusting eyes. I thought I knew all the answers, but this had me stymied.
"Just a moment, Sir," the officer said as he turned aside to leaf through an enormous book. He shook his head, then checked our passports with a magnifying glass.
"Excellent workmanship," he said, glancing up at us: "My compliments. Nevertheless, you must leave with these gentlemen."
Sunny looked at me in panic. "What does he mean?" she asked. "Is something wrong with our papers?"
"Calm down! I'm sure it will be okay," I said, but I knew in my heart something was very, very wrong. "They just want to ask a few questions."
"Ma'am?" the official called as three men conducted us away. "Leave your baby here."
"What do you mean?" Sunny asked, bewildered.
"We always welcome babies, Ma'am: they're too young to be responsible. But you and this man? These officers must escort you to the exit. No one enters here on forged papers, you know."
"What makes you think they're forged?" I challenged.
"It's obvious to us," he replied. "No watermark, and no names in the registry. Surprising how many like you think they'll get in anyway." He dismissed us with a shrug, then smiled: "Next?"
"Tom! What does it mean?" Sunny gasped.
As the officers moved us toward the exit, suddenly it was all too clear: Maybe my connections weren't the greatest, after all.
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