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These sealskin boots are never going to fit in the overhead cabin. And they smell. Oiled by hand, they have a ruddy musk that emanates from every part, toe to the matted fur that pokes out at the knee. They served me well in the flats, cutting every gust that blasted against them as I charged through snow drifts from the badlands beyond the fjord where Dagmar and his men kept camp.
That rustic bullshit really is all for show. I can see their tents glowing in the distance under the dappled northern lights. It was beautiful, but full of ugly men with expensive portable cots. I was alone when I made it to camp, these boots a size and a half too big. What could I tell Aunt Heikke? It was a precious parting gift and I was grateful. I doubled my socks to keep my feet from sliding around too much, and I managed.
In the tents, I can hear the men hooting and swigging, late enough into their gin rummy they’d let down their guards and stopped listening for bears. I should listen for the bears. I am the bear. I creep closer to camp, my boots inaudible in the powder, my face wrapped to the bridge of my nose, and I back up flush with the tent pole, casting no shadow.
I point my lips together into a tidy whistle. “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” is the sound of it, if it were words. Dagmar will know the code. I hear a rustle inside, and a gruff voice clears his throat to excuse himself from the game.
The tent flap opens and I catch a glimpse of an oil lamp, a cluster of boots, a few canvas sacks. Are they keeping the bounty in there? I lack the disguise to get in the tent myself – the men will catch my scent – but I have Dagmar. At least, I have him enough to feel useful to him. I don’t mind being a double agent. We all have our reasons.
“Dagmar,” I whisper, harshly to meet the wind’s arctic rush.
“Northern star,” he whispers.
“Yes,” I answer, and wink. No one winks at Dagmar but me.
With his rough fingers, nails bitten to the quick, he grabs the scarf that covers my lips and shoves it out of the way. He presses his course whiskers against my mouth, filling my lungs with a gust of smoke and pickled herring.
I pull away. “Now give me what I came for.” He stares into my eyes and I wonder if they’ll freeze if I don’t blink soon. “Give it to me,” I insist.
He shoves his hand into his parka and pulls out a roll, tied in leather. I hold out my hand, and he places it on my palm. I grip my fingers around it quickly in case he changes his mind.
“The owl flies at midnight,” I say. “I have to go.”
“Thank you,” I say.
He says nothing.
“Until we meet again,” I say, and turned toward my snowmobile, parked several paces in the dark beyond the cast of the lanterns. From the lack of sound, I can tell he stands there watching me walk away. As I sling my leg over the seat without looking back, and eventually hear what must have been the snow crunching underfoot.
In the airport, I unlace the cord that fastens the sealskin to my calves, and peel off my parka. I leave it hanging on the hook inside the steel door of a bathroom stall. Someone will use it, or the cleaners will toss it. I cannot concern myself with things like this right now.
Underneath, I am wearing a neon camouflage-print string bikini, white cargo pants with a drawstring waist, a canary yellow windbreaker, and a neon green visor. I fold a pair of aviator glasses over my eyes, and head toward the standby line.
The future of the mission will depend on one passenger, now welcome to line up with Budget Plus ticket group C.
The people mover is broken, so I sprint down the corridor to the atrium where I bang a left for the escalators, to the level with the rental car desks. I have a Trusty reservation waiting – something slick, I’d asked – and I should be in and out of there in a flash. I check in to pick up my convertible Lamborghini. Red. No need to be discreet. This job will be quick enough. Anyway, I’ll fit right in with the tourists.
“I’m getting an error for your card,” the clerk whispers over the counter.
“I’ve been traveling a lot — I’m sure it’s just a read error. Can you swipe it again? Should be fine!”
“I’ve already swiped it twice. It says…” She lowers her voice even further. “Insufficient funds.” She glances over at the next terminal, and shifts in her chair.
“Maybe you’d be interested in one of our more… economical models?”
I gape at her. She gapes back. Sometimes gaping works. It is not working now. Much more of this and I’ll miss the handoff on Seven Mile Bridge, more than two hours from the airport.
“What are my options?”
“I have one more reservation today for our more modest packages…” — she retracts the flyer on the counter in front of me, and replaces it with a second brochure, which features a family with young children on their way to Disneyland — you can tell because they are all wearing mouse ears.
“We place a $300 hold on your card for a deposit which will be returned to you after your rental. Is that ok?” she raised an eyebrow, obviously concerned for my limit.
“Can you take a debit card?”
Fifteen minutes later, she passes me a set of keys over the counter, and shortly after that, I am peeling out of the parking lot in a beige Chevrolet with an outdated gear shift and the faint smell of cigarettes seeping from its velour interior.
But I’m on my way. Everything is just Duck Key, as I like to say down here. When I make it to the handoff, just in time, I use the hand crank to roll down the window and toss. It’s kind of a clumsy maneuver. A convertible would have been easier.
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In Praha, we stroll along Parizska, sipping Kofolas.
“What are you hearing from Dagmar’s people these days?’ I ask Kamila, my confidant here.
“Not a lot, to be honest.” She runs a hand through the silver hair that tops the close-cropped shave above her ears.
“Does that concern you?’ I ask.
I have no immediate reason to think Kamila is lying. But I have nothing to gain from trusting her.
Our boot heels click on the cobblestone, and pigeons scatter as we make our way toward the fountain in the center of the square.
“When was the last time that you heard from Dagmar, or any of his associates?”
“It’s been about a month,” she says, looking at the cobblestones, dappled in cigarette butts and pigeon droppings. “I thought it was best to let the sleeping cat lie.”
“What?” she asks.
“You let a sleeping dog lie,” I said. “Not a cat.”
“Ok, yes. The dog.” She took a long drag of her cigarette, her lips printing a bright pink ring around the shaft. She turned toward the fountain and seemed lost in her thoughts for a moment.
“The last time I saw him, Dagmar kept mentioning Arjun. Two or three times. I think I even heard him say it in his sleep.”
I startle. In his sleep? Why would Kamila hear Dagmar in his sleep? The dog indeed.
I know Arjun. He runs a not insignificant export business outside of Delhi. It was one of Dagmar’s favorite places to stash large quantities of supply. But he hadn’t told me he was dealing in bulk.
I know where I have to go.
“Kamila, can i ask you something?”
She glances up from the cobblestones, and looks nervous.
“I just want you to know—“ she begins.
“Kamila, no.” I hold a finger to her mouth before she can speak. “No. Don’t say a word.”
“I’m not going to ask what you think I’m going to ask. This question is much, much more important.”
“Can I leave a suitcase at your house? Where I’m going, there’s no checked baggage.”
She exhales, and looks relieved.
“Yes, of course.”
“Thank you,” I say, and I mean it.
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I know I’m in the right place when I get to the office building, and a woman in a frilled dress leans against the door, smoking between tandas.
“Tango, such a beautiful dance,” I say in Spanish, nodding knowingly.
The woman ignores me, exhaling a plume.
“I love Piazzola. He’s the best,” I say.
“Nobody dances to Piazzola,” she nearly spits at me, before pivoting on her heel and marching back inside down a dimly lit hallway.
I give her a moment, and then head in after her, dropping a fistful of pesos in the basket at the entrance. As I make my way down the hallway, the scratchy bandoneon grows louder, and deep inside this office building, I turn into the oldest milonga in the city.
I change out of my street shoes and into a pair of leather-soled heels. An old man is pulling records from the sleeves, lining them up on a card table to prepare for the next set. The room smells like smoke, sweat and leather.
A vibrant dance of eye contact plays out across the room, and I wonder which bureau employs so many of these people, skilled in saying so much with so few words. Taking a seat in a folding chair on the perimeter, I scan the dancers around the room, when my eyes lock with a man, boring his gaze straight through me. I nod to politely acknowledge him, and he launches himself toward me.
Without a word, he sweeps me into the tango embrace, and I am grateful for the lesson I took this afternoon. This one dances with such a close grip around my body, it hardly matters what I remember, because my stiff and formal practice instincts are overtaken by his firm twirls and dips, driving me with his rib cage. His shirt is unbuttoned to the mid-chest – and has he oiled his chest hair? He smells of bright green cologne. His gold chains clatter against his breastbone as he swings me left, right, dipping back, forward.
“You are the one I’m to meet tonight?” I say into his ear, which is, already, nearly jammed in my mouth.
“This dance has always been our destiny,” he says.
“When would you like to do the trade?” I ask, dipping my leg back to practice an ocho.
“This is the trade. The trade of the dance.” I listen for the pulses in his arms and torso that signal me to step forward, back, left, right. Tango is, really, just like taking a walk together.
I know these songs are short and I am tired of Dagmar’s tendency to instill his men with theatrical penchants. They have way, way too much fun doing this. And I have been following Dagmar’s footsteps for too long.
“Dagmar’s envelope, señor. Please.” Another twirl, and I step into a sacada, our feet playfully trading places on the floor.
“In tango, we trade in love — we trade in power. The cabeceo, when you nodded to invite me to dance just now, is just the beginning,” he says, just before sending me into a final twirl, his chains aloft, landing me firmly onto a leg bent like a table, and me, sitting in his midair lap.
The final two notes of the song ring out — BOM BOMP — and the entire room freezes in a conclusive moment, all but one. Over a tangle of shoulders, I see Dagmar slip through the crowd and disappear out the exit.
“Who’s awake?” I whistle.
I hear the return verse snake through the window from the alley outside like a fume before his footsteps disappear into the night.
Damn it, Dagmar. Damn it.
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Do you know how slippery cowboy boots are on ice? There is not one cowboy who wears these things in the snow. I’m standing outside an empty skating rink in a suburb of Calgary, and I wish these boots were hockey skates just to make it to the door.
There’s no other car in the parking lot. I never agree to meet on these terms — the maple cartel has eyes in every tree trunk, and I need to know who I’m meeting with — but Dagmar said to trust him, and trust him I did.
That’s not always easy to do. But I keep doing it.
I shimmy my feet across the ice slick to make my way to the side door and try the lock, my suede fringe whapping back and forth with each move. The door handle clicks open, and I let myself in.
It’s a low tier farm team arena, lined with a few hundred upholstered seats, an unmanned snack bar, and a digital display screen suspended from the middle. On the ice, a single skater practices slapshots. I squint to make out his face, but his goalie’s mask is lowered.
I walk the dingy carpet around the perimeter, kicking stray kernels of popcorn with my red leather boot, and I help myself to a large fountain soda behind the snack bar. A splash of cherry cola, a splash of regular, extra ice. I slam a plastic straw through the lid and keep walking.
There’s no one else here. I would have expected at least an afternoon hockey practice, or a few figure skaters on a lesson. But the ice is frozen, and I can see my breath. I miss my sealskin; suede is no insulator.
It occurs to me to ask the skater if he’s seen anyone head into the back offices. At least that would be a clue. I walk to the edge of the rink and let myself on the ice.
“Excuse me!” I call out, and the skater swishes to a hockey stop. “I’m looking for my son’s coach; have you seen anyone else here?” I’m lying.
The skater turns to me, and strides forward a few yards. With a gloved hand, he lifts his mask: Dagmar!
That mustache is a sight as sweet as the maple syrup he’s been smuggling around the globe for months. I feel an urge to rush to him, and then hold myself back. I have some dignity.
“How did you get here in time?” I ask. “I had two layovers and missed my connection, and…” I trailed off, remembering months of abandoned costume changes left in the overhead bin.
“My dear,” said Dagmar, “I flew direct.”
Lindsay Crudele is a writer based in Boston (Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, public radio, more). Her work has received a James Beard Award (and second nomination) for radio storytelling. She also works with nonprofits on their digital strategy in order to help them expand their impact in the world. She is accompanied in this world by her husband, two hound dogs, two cats, a quail and several thousand bees, among others.