Chapter 8: Local Customs


I felt a moment's euphoria after making that rather dire pronouncement. I had done it! I had actually done it! I stood there next to the phone booth for several seconds, not moving—until suddenly the full import of what I had done and said came crashing in on me, like some monstrous tidal wave on a defenseless hermit crab.

I'd committed a felony.

I started to shake.

Then I started walking. Once more, I wasn't thinking very clearly, but this time I was lost in a panic of fear rather than in a swirl of conflicting imperatives. I was, however, thinking clearly enough to know that the authorities (whoever they were) might have been able to trace my phone call somehow. How, I didn't have a clue—I'd been on the phone no more than fifteen seconds—but it seemed wisest to get as far away from that telephone as possible.

I descended the escalator, then wandered aimlessly up and down the vast airport concourse, as paranoid a fellow as you have ever met. I saw security guards mobilizing. Men in uniform were speaking into walkie-talkies all over, as were men not in uniform, and they were all hurrying this way and that, very purposefully. No average visitor to the airport would have realized that anything strange was happening—the activity was quite low-key for all its urgency—but I, of course, had inside information. I was careful as I wandered not to look too closely at any of these security personnel, because I was unreasonably certain that all one of them would have to do would be to look in my eyes and then he would know beyond a doubt that I was the person who had made the telephone call that had started all the quiet uproar.

After about twenty minutes of my furtive meandering, I had to talk to someone. I was going nuts. There was no longer much of a security presence in evidence, but I still felt extremely exposed. I found a pay phone way off down the concourse, dropped in my coin, and dialed up the sister missionaries. Again.

And thus made my second colossal blunder of the evening.

"L.D.S. missionaries," said Sister Roper.

"It's Elder Shunn," I said.

"Oh, good," said Roper. "Has President Tuttle made it there yet?"

"I haven't seen him," I said.

"Are you someplace where you can see the entrance, so you'll know when he gets there?"

"No," I admitted, "I'm not."

"Well, find a place where you can and then call me back." Again, Roper's tone brooked no disobedience.

So I headed back down the concourse to a stand of phones near the front entrance, where I also had a good line of sight to the Customs gate. I dialed the sisters again. "Okay," I said, "I'm in position." (All right, that's probably not exactly what I said, but it does lend a nice caper/espionage/thriller feel to the narrative.)

"Good," said Roper. "Still no sign of the President?"


"How long until Finn's flight leaves?"

I checked my watch. "Only about five minutes or so."

"Did you call the airline?"

I hesitated. "Uh, yes—yes, I did."

"And what did they say? Are they going to hold the flight?"

"I, uh—I'm not sure. But they're certainly considering it."

"Well, let's hope they come through. Where's Finn right now?"

"I'm not really sure. He's gone through Customs already. He may have boarded by now."

"You're kidding," said Roper in obvious exasperation. "He's gone through Customs?"

"Of course he has." In my own exasperation, I prudently refrained from mentioning that it was only the prudent thing for him to do—after all, he did have a flight to catch.

"Well, is President Tuttle going to be able to talk to him when he gets there?" asked Roper.

Hmm. There was something I had overlooked. Beyond the Customs gate was what is known as a "sterile area." You can only get through the gate if you have a valid passport or visa, plus a plane ticket to the United States. Effectively, this sterile area was American soil. You're only allowed there if you're leaving the country. Even if President Tuttle did make it to the airport before Finn's flight left (an event the probability of which I believed I had raised by at least an order of magnitude), he still wouldn't be able to get through the Customs gate. He wouldn't be able to talk to Elder Finn. "I doubt it," I said.

"Then you're going to have to go clear the way, Elder Shunn," said Roper firmly. "Go to the Customs gate and explain the situation and make sure President Tuttle can get through without any delays when he makes it there."

Like an obedient fool, like a lemming following the rest of the crowd over the cliff, I did what she said.

Now, had I been thinking clearly, I never would have gone near the Customs gate, not with everything else that had happened that evening. But I'll cheerfully admit that I was not in my right mind, breaking the law not being something I made a habit of. Like a lamb on its way to the slaughter, I said goodbye to Sister Roper and then ambled on over to the Customs gate.

By my watch, it was about time for Flight 789 to be jetting off into the friendly skies. Two young women stood behind the Customs gate, which looked more like the admittance gate to an amusement park than anything else, with the kind of turnstiles that count the number of people who pass through. I explained to these two women that I was a missionary from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (it seemed necessary, since in my jeans and sweater I probably didn't look much like a missionary), and that one of our other missionaries was quitting his mission early, just running away, and that our . . . well, our clergyman, our minister, was coming to the airport to try to talk the runaway into staying, and would they please let him, the minister, through Customs when he got there so that he could do it—um, talk to the runaway?

Yeah, I know. Highly suspicious. I wouldn't have trusted me either.

The two women looked at each other nervously, then said that they were just closing up for the evening and wouldn't be able to help me. They said I would need to speak to their supervisor, then invited me to wait just inside the gate while one of them went to get him.

After a few moments, we were joined by a tall, bearded fellow with an obnoxious, supercilious attitude. He wore a bright orange windbreaker, and he looked a lot like Stephen King (though Mr. King has always seemed much more personable than this fellow was, gory fiction aside). I repeated my story for the bearded fellow, who very rudely told me that I was an idiot. (He didn't use those words, of course, but his words combined with the tone of his voice said that very clearly.) Then he said I would have to speak to his supervisor.

After a few more moments, we were joined by a gaunt, older woman with nicotine-stained fingers who reminded me a lot of Bette Davis. After listening to my request, she went off in search of someone else for me to speak to.

I was getting pretty nervous by now, I must admit, and I became even more so when a short, balding, middle-aged fellow joined us. He wore a plaid shirt and a tweed jacket with elbow patches, and he looked just like Bob Newhart, but with slightly lighter hair and a neat mustache. He introduced himself thus (though I regret to say that I can't recall his name): "I'm Constable X with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Why don't you come with me so we can talk for a few minutes?"

“Terror on Flight 789” is a very early, much shorter preliminary draft of what would eventually become my full-length memoir The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary. If you enjoy this story, you'll like that thoroughly revised and expanded version even more. Available now!

About This Story

“Terror on Flight 789” is a very early, much shorter preliminary draft of what would eventually become my full-length memoir The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary. If you enjoy this story, you'll like that thoroughly revised and expanded version even more. Available now!

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