They met in a coffee shop off Grand Avenue, the smell of roasting beans filling the air. Espresso machine hissing in the background. Bottles of flavored syrups, red and purple and green, lining the back wall like something you’d put on the mantel at Christmas. All the same to Carter, who was pretty much a Folger’s guy when and if he drank the stuff, but it’s not like they were there for the beverages. And truth be told, it was nice to be out in public again. Four of them at the table. Langford, who was running the show. A big guy, Fritz, who didn’t say a lot. And Dr. Zhang, waiting expectantly but not over anxiously for the meeting to proceed.
“Any problems?” Langford said.
“None,” Carter said, patting the upper right pocket of his tan utility vest.
“And nobody …”
“Nobody,” Carter said. “Why you’re paying me.”
“Great. In that case, I think we’re all set?” Langford nodded at Fritz. An envelope just over half the size of a burnt clay brick appeared atop the table. They were seated at the back of the coffee shop, just in case, but this time of day, early morning rush past, the crowd inside was thin and nobody was around to notice.
“Fujian Province?” Carter said to Dr. Zhang, ignoring the envelope.
“That’s right,” she said, a look of mild surprise on her face. “You’ve done your research. Most people think I’m from Hubei, because of my work in Wuhan the last time.”
“I like seafood,” Carter said. “Fujian cuisine is spicy, but not overwhelming. Sea cucumber is one of my favorites. It’s a specialty in Xiamen, of course. You must miss it.”
“It’s true,” Dr. Zhang said. “As much as I like Iowa, it’s nearly impossible to get here.”
“A good thing.”
“Good?” Dr. Zhang said, puzzled.
“Good, because aren’t you deathly allergic to seafood? Or should I say, isn’t Dr. Ying Zhang? I don’t know about you.”
The woman froze, staring at Carter for two long seconds before glancing at Langford.
“What are you talking about?” Langford said in a low voice.
“I’m talking about the seafood allergy of Dr. Ying Zhang of Drake University. Which means the person sitting across from me is someone else, which I could have told you anyway because of the difference in their photographs. The situation is a little insulting, to be honest, because it implies you thought I couldn’t distinguish between them because they’re Chinese and they all look alike to Westerners.”
The table was still. The envelope disappeared, replaced by Fritz’s hands, each the size of a small catcher’s mitt, placed palms down on the table top.
“What do you want?” Langford said.
“I want to wrap up this delivery and get going, is what I want. I’m due in Rapid City tomorrow and my schedule is tight. Even tighter now, apparently.”
“I have your money. You have the information. We’re both saving lives. What difference does it make at this point?”
“The difference is that the invoice is clear. Delivery directly to Dr. Ying Zhang. No one else.”
“We could just take it from you,” Langford said quietly. He looked at Fritz and then back at Carter, and the implication was clear. Fritz, who towered over Carter to begin with, might not have been twice Carter’s weight, but close enough. Not to mention his hands, one of which Carter was pretty sure could cover both of his and leave room for another body part or two.
“Maybe,” Carter said. He picked up his spoon and slowly stirred his coffee. “Or maybe I could take this spoon and gouge your eyes out lickety-split and just walk away. Because I really need to get to Rapid.”
Ta-ting, ta-ting, ta-ting, went the spoon as he stirred, scraping it in repetitive circles against the porcelain mug’s interior.
“In your dreams,” Langford said.
Carter removed the spoon and set it on his napkin, watching the coffee stain bloom outward like a small, brown aneurysm. “You’re probably right,” he said. “But just so we’re clear, I don’t actually have it on my person.” He unbuttoned the utility vest pocket, pulled out an eraser the approximate size and shape of a flash drive, and set it in the middle of the table.
“Where is it?”
Langford and Fritz locked glances.
Good story I really enjoyed it.