I didn’t like this angle. I looked around but I could not find a better angle, oh well this would have to do.
Click, click, click.
I played with the settings and clicked away again, three times again. I looked at the screen, better than I thought.
That should do it I thought. I found an empty bench and made notations in my notebook. I put my pen away and sat back and took in the day. It was one of those beautiful sunny winter Florida days. The temperature was in the high 70s, there was a slight breeze and just a few puffy white clouds moving across the sky. I smiled; I had a pretty good life somedays.
Like today, I was doing work that I enjoyed, I was in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and I had a great gal that I was going to be spending the evening with watching a movie. I closed up my notebook, put the large rubber band around it and stuck it in my messenger bag, next to my camera.
I was still getting used to the bag, Millie had gotten it for me at Christmas and I still was unsure how much to put in it, or where to place things in it. My old bag had been a black nylon job designed mostly for a laptop but it was getting kind of ragged, with more repair sewing then orginal stitching. I was grateful, and it looked really cool, kind of like Indiana Jones, but I was still getting used to it.
I walked out to the parking lot and was looking at my phone for where my station wagon was and decided to walk instead of waiting for the tram.
I was a few feet from my car when I noticed someone coming towards me through the cars. “Excuse me do you know where Unicorn is.” I stopped as the man in typical tourist garb came between the two parked cars, that is when I heard a car come down the row of parked cars a bit faster than normal. I was tackled into the van, strong hands grabbed me and put a black bag over my head. After only a few seconds I stopped struggling, when I felt the zip ties go on my hands the sliding door slam shut. My wallet was grabbed, and they unclipped my bag.
Professionals, multiple people, at least four, one the guy in the parking lot, one driver, and two in the back of the van.
I was yanked off the floor and put me on a bench seat between two large people and seat belted. Then a voice. “You will not be harmed if you cooperate and answer our questions, truthfully and honestly.” The voice was a bland mid-western American accent. I guessed it was the guy who asked me where Unicorn was.
“Well, I would have done that without the bag over my head and the zip ties, so we got off on the wrong foot already. I hope you guys did not break my camera.”
There was a pause and then I heard my camera start up and then a few test shots. “It works fine.” A different voice then the one who initially spoke.
“Well, that is good, I am guessing you guys would not have paid for it if you broke it anyways. Hard to put in a claim with kidnappers.”
The midwestern accent spoke again. “Do not think of it as a kidnapping,” there was a pause as he looked at something, “Miles Mitchell, think of it an invitation to a discussion we did not want you to turn down.” I was about to speak when Mid-Western spoke again. “A Private Investigator, no surprise there.”
I was about to say something funny, like ‘take a card, I am always looking for new customers’ but instead I stopped talking and thought. These guys did not know who I was. They did not know I was a private investigator, not even my name. No one had sent them, whatever they wanted me for it was recent, like within the last twenty-four hours, no prep time and with their moves I knew these guys were professionals. So why did they grab me, I was not working anything high profile or high priced right now. In fact, the case I was working right now was downright silly and frivolous and of no consequences to anyone but a very specific person. So, what had I done to make these guys take me on this forced jaunt. I had the feeling they were telling me the truth about not hurting me, but it is hard to convince yourself that with a black bag over your head.
I had been distracted the first few minutes by the bag and conversation now I took a breath and began to concentrate on the movement of the van, making turns and such. We were already out of the parking lot by the time I was paying attention. I could tell we were stopped, and it was longer than a stop sign, it must have been the traffic light right outside the park on Osceola Parkway and Sherberth Road and we made a right onto Sherberth. Then the turn around the power substation. Then we slowed down. Traffic? A little early in the day for traffic on this road. Then we turned off the main road to the right. Were we pulling into the dirt road after the substation?
Maybe they were going to do some violence upon my person.
Then we stopped and continued on but I realized it was a smooth road. So not the dirt road next to the substation. Were we in that private resort right off Disney property? Well, I was born on property and if this was the end, then I only died a couple miles from where I came into the world. Not much of a trip from beginning to end, only three or four miles.
I could see the headlines ‘Private Investigators Body Found Only Miles From His Birthplace’. See what I said earlier about not totally convinced this not a one-way trip.
We made a couple turns, then we backed into a spot, the door slide open, someone said ‘clear’ and I was escorted roughly but efficiently out of the van into the sunlight and into an apartment and seated in straight back chair. I could tell there were people standing around me so I did not try anything. I listened and could tell there was very little furniture in the room or wall coverings because the echo of an empty room. One side of room was warmer so I suspected there was a large patio door on my left side and I was probably facing the kitchen.
I decided to speak up. “Where did the spokesman for your little team go.” I had not heard him talk since we came into the condo and I suspected he went to talk to the big boss.
“So, you guys been here long?” There was no response. “You know I can get you a good deal on a drapes and curtains, I know a guy.” Still no response. “So is the big boss close by, or did the team leader have to go call him?” I heard a little bit of shuffling around the room and was trying not to tense in case I had annoyed them enough to forgo their mostly non-violent approach so far. Being stiff when being hit was shown to increase to injuries, that is why so many drunks survived crashes, whereas awake and alert people got injured so badly, tension.
I heard a person or maybe two people enter the room. Then the hood was taken off my head suddenly. I blinked at the bright light and took in the room. The guy from the parking lot was on my left and an older women in a dark pant suit was on the right. The boss and the team leader I concluded.
“Mr. Mitchell who is your client?” The team leader asked.
“None of your business.” I stated. “But since you know my name, tell me yours.”
The team leader looked to his boss, who gave a slight nod. “I am Scott and this is Ms. Gray.” There was a pause. “Who are you working for that brought you to Animal Kingdom today?”
I sighed. How far was I going to go with this? “I cannot tell you, professional ethics and all that, but what I will say is whatever I am doing has nothing to do with you, or whoever you are working for.”
Scott spoke without getting permission from his boss this time. “You were observed in the vicinity of certain individuals numerous times, taking pictures in their direction and then making notations in your notebook.”
I shrugged, which is not really hindered when your hands are zip tied together. “I am sure there is a lot of overlap with people and where I was today, the park is not that big, but I assure you I was not taking pictures of anyone, you have my camera, go ahead and check it.”
The boss lady nodded to someone behind me. A younger woman dressed similar to the boss, but in a tan pants suit, a little more forgiving in Orlando sun, she had a tablet and handed it to the boss. I pegged her as tech support. The boss looked it over and the room came to a standstill as she flicked through the information. She handed it to Scott who did the same. That is when Ms. Gray spoke directly to me for the first time.
“You have an impressive background Mr. Mitchell.”
I was not sure how to respond mostly because I did not think it was true. “Thank you?”
The unnamed female had been scrolling through my camera. “The principle is not on here, in fact except for a few out of focus people there are not people on here at all.”
Ms. Gray said a simple word directed towards her subordinate. “Explain.”
The woman was about to but I spoke up first. “Frogs, I took pictures of frogs today, real frogs, statues of frogs, carved frogs, drawings of frogs.”
There was silence for a few seconds as the tech scrolled through my camera. “Just frogs, all dated today.” The techie said, putting down the camera on the kitchen bar top. She started looking through my bag. “No thumb drive either.”
“Yeah, I lost my thumb drive a couple of months ago it was a really neat one, it lite up and everything.” The assembled group who were looking at me with blank expressions. “Sorry I overshare sometimes.”
Ms. Gray looked at her subordinates with a look of disgust and slowly started shaking her head. I knew that look, the look of someone that had to clean up the mess of someone else. And this was a big mess, a mess that could land people in jail for kidnapping. Ms. Gray’s unhappiness told me all I need to know about my health for the rest of this meeting, I was going to be ‘okay’. I leaned back in my seat to get comfortable, feet out, crossed them and put my zip tied hands behind my head.
Scott, Mr. Midwestern Accent Man, the lead kidnapper, began to look uncomfortable.
The woman who had gone through my camera just looked embarrassed out of association.
I decided to let everyone off the hook quickly, because I am just a nice guy and I travel light in life, I don’t carry grudges. Besides I never knew when I might need a favor from some professionals.
I looked directly at Ms. Gray. “Let me guess, you guys are probably State Department, maybe Homeland Security or some other alphabet agency which is allowed to work on American soil but is not too flashy about it.”
Ms. Gray did not react which was what I expected so I was probably right so I continued. “Someone important is visiting Disney covertly, maybe with a very small security team, but you guys are doing a covert overwatch to ensure they don’t do something stupid.”
There was a brief flash of surprise on Ms. Gray’s face, very brief but it gave me all the confidence I needed to continue.
“The target’s security team spotted me taking pictures, I am guessing they were talking about me on their comms which you guys are eavesdropping on.” Ms. Gray had regained control over her face not letting me see anything else. “They were going to take action on me, but you decided to beat them to the punch when you saw me being tailed out of the park.” I guessed at this last part, I had not seen anyone tailing me, but then again, I was not looking as I had not done anything lately to warrant any counter surveillance.
Ms. Gray held up her hand to get me to stop, but one more question had popped into my head. “So, this tail I picked up sees me get tackled into a van and reports what to the rest of his security team?”
Ms. Gray spoke in a perturbed manner. “You are more impressive than your file says.”
I simply shrugged. Then another idea jumped into my head and my mouth opened in shock and I spoke without really thinking about it. “The guy following me, the guy from the target’s security team is working for you also.”
Scott spoke up confirming what I had just theorized. “He is going to report back to the security team whatever we want him to.”
Ms. Gray walked over to me and motioned for me to put my hands in front of me. I did and a folding knife flashed into existence and she cut the zip ties, freeing my hands.
“Sit here Mr. Mitchell while I confer with my team. I nodded. I had been talking enough, I should probably shut my pie hole before I said something stupid. As soon as they little group left the room I stood up and wandered around the room looking out the patio doors, and then I checked my camera for myself and saw that it was working fine. My cell phone was nowhere around, they trusted me, but did not trust me that much.
A few minutes later they came back into the room. The tech woman did not return with them, just Scott and Ms. Gray.
“I understand you are very familiar with Walt Disney World.” This was not a question, but a statement.
“Born and raised here.”
“Indeed.” She looked uncomfortable but proceeded. “We would like to hire you as a consultant, a local guide as it were, but you will have to sign some non-disclosure paperwork and you will only be paid in cash, do you understand?”
“Cash is good.” I said simply
Ms. Gray looked me dead in the eye. “If you thought the threats about talking about Operation Cashmere were serious Mr. Mitchell, those consequences would be a walk on the beach compared to what I will do to you if your employment with us leaks out.”
I gulped. Even the name Operation Cashmere was classified if she referenced it so casually in this setting, I knew this was some serious stuff. “Totally and one hundred percent clear.”
“You will be reporting directly to Scott.” She said this last part and then turned and left the apartment without another word.
I nodded and turned to Scott. “So can you guys take me back to my car or what?”
It had been two days since I had been dropped off at my car, Scott, no last name given, gave me my cell phone and my wallet and an envelope containing a stack of hundreds. He instructed me to keep my phone on and answer it when they called, and with that he was gone. I kinda hoped they would not call again, the less I had to do with the government the better but I knew I was not that lucky. I intentionally stayed away from the parks so I would not trip over whatever operation was going on. So, there I was lying in bed at eleven am reading a book on Antarctica and I was interrupted by the phone, I did not recognize the number but it was a Washington D.C. area code. I answered it on the third ring.
“Meet me at the safe house in an hour.” The voice of Scott said without preamble.
“Good morning, Scott.” I said being a wise guy.
There was silence on the other end.
I decided to stay annoying. “And how is your mom?”
The line went dead. These government types had no sense of humor.
An hour and five minutes later I was back in safe house. They had been busy, there was a whole cork board up on the wall, with surveillance photographs, a few blown up passport photos, and some printouts. All with circles and arrows in different colors denoting god knows what because I was not told the code. There were also maps of each of the parks in each of the corners.
Scott was on the phone when I came in and motioned for me to sit looking at the cork board. I yawned and tried to look disinterested in the display before me.
“Things have changed we are no longer simply conducting surveillance; we are going to help the Emil and his son, defect.”
“Emil huh?” I was sure it was not his real name but it was good enough for me. “Emil is going to defect? Defection are so Cold War.” Scott did not laugh at my joke. I shrugged no sense of humor.
“We need some input on getting our target away from their bodyguards and into a vehicle.
“These bodyguards,” I said looking at the muscular gentleman who did not look happy in their passport photos.
Scott mentioned they were from a covert intelligence agency that were known for not being nice. I shuddered.
Scott continued. “We were thinking about doing it in Epcot near the International Gateway.”
“Well, that would be the park I would pick, but you are still pretty far away from any vehicle traffic.” I looked at the map of Epcot. “I take it this is without the cooperation of Disney Security.”
Scott looked uncomfortable. “We would rather not involve them at this time.”
I looked at the board now. “Which one is your inside man on the protection detail?”
Scott shook his head. “You are not authorized for that information.”
I rolled my eyes in exasperation. I sat down and thought while looking at the board. Then I noticed a dry ease board next to it. I looked for permission to use it and Scott nodded and I wiped it down and began to draw a map from memory.
It had taken two days to set this up, almost an entire day do recon and refine the plan. Then another day to get the pieces into place. It came down to the appetite of a little boy and his love of ice cream. I looked around where I was sitting, waiting to see if Emil had convinced his eleven-year-old to attempt to consume a Kitchen Sink Sundae at Disney’s Beaches and Cream Resort. It was a challenge I would have rose to as an eleven-year-old, 8 scoops of ice cream with all the toppings, whipped cream all in a collectible red plastic bowl that looked like Mickey’s pants.
I had no comms with the team, no one was going to come to my rescue if the bodyguards got their hands on me. I had driven my own car on the operation, and I did not know anyone’s name except Scott and Ms. Gray. They had complete deniability if something happened to me.
Not that anything was going to happen to me, this was my home turf, besides, I was just going to draw attention to myself, a diversion.
I watched the Emil the hopeful defector, and his son in matching red Mickey shirts with the primary bodyguard walk past my hiding spot near the volleyball court, followed by three bodyguards trying to be inconspicuous. I joined the parade.
I was wearing the exact same clothes I had been wearing at the Animal Kingdom when they bad guys security team thought I was doing surveillance on them. I had another camera this one with a large telephoto lens. I was not going to risk my own camera getting smashed by the bodyguards, so I borrowed this government prop with no battery and no memory. The team did not want any record of what we were about to do.
Our little parade would reach Beaches and Cream Ice Cream Parlor for Emil’s four o’clock reservation and when he ordered the Kitchen Sink in the collectors souvenir bowl our plan would kick off. We already knew that did not have weapons as they had come through EPCOT which meant they had been checked by Disney Security for things that went bang.
I held back allowing the bodyguards time to take up positions on the porch near Beaches and Cream and along the edge of the pool, Stormalong Bay. I had picked this place because of Stormalong Bay. The pool for the Yacht and Beach Club was immense and impressive, almost a water park in its own right, with a lazy river, and a really long water slide from a beached sailing ship along the lake shore. It was so amazing that Disney had to institute control measures to keep outside guests from crashing the pool, mainly brightly colored wristbands that changed from day to day.
I was hoping to draw off two bodyguards, three if I was lucky. Meanwhile the female agent had checked into the hotel and would be stationed with purloined entry bands for the resort pool so Emil and son could get into the water park directly from Beaches and Cream, stripping them of the remaining bodyguards.
Walking the porch between the hotel and the pool area I rounded the corner and made a big show of taking photos of the first bodyguard. Then I just kept strolling right past the guy. I swear I heard his nostrils flare as I walked by, he mumbled something in a foreign language into his earpiece as I went by. Right outside entry door to Beaches and Cream was number two bodyguard I stopped, took ten fake photos from about twenty feet away and kept on stepping.
I glanced into the water park area, there was the female tech in a modestly cut one piece bathing suit ready for part two as I completed part one of the plan.
I could hear muscle head crack his knuckles as I sauntered by. I spotted number three hired muscle on the porch and did my thing with the camera again and ambled by him. This guy was quiet which unnerved me a little bit more than the other two, but I kept walking.
I was able to take a quick peak over my shoulder and saw I had collected a tail of two gorillas. Maybe number three was just slow. I walked with purpose away from the porch towards the boat dock. I hoped to get my new tails on the boat with me, taking them out of the equation fully so they could not chase Emil and his son.
Before I got to the boat dock the two muscle bound creeps grabbed my arm. I did not think these guys were going to be as gentle as the government agents had been a couple of days ago. Well, no plan ever goes perfect. I dropped my faux camera and jerked my arm away and started to sprint away not making the turn onto the dock but towards the Swan and Dolphin, I did not want to be stuck on the boat dock with guys who had already put hands upon me. I hated to do it but I turned my head and saw only one was chasing me, the other one was recovering my fake camera.
If all was going according to plan, Emil had navigated through Stormalong Bay, past Hurricane Hannahs and was on a previously parked electric scooter with a pair of oversized sunglasses, a new Goofy hat with ears and Mexican poncho to hide his kid in his lap. So instead of two people running away, they were going to present as one heavy person on a scooter slowly driving back towards Epcot. I also had instructed Scott to guide them to drive underneath the bridge towards the Boardwalk hotel instead of up the ramp. The ramp and the tunnel under the bridge went to the same place, but my thinking was ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ besides no one running away would take a narrow path when a wide-open path was in front of them. From there they had two options, go back into Epcot, or take the Skyliner to the Caribbean Beach resort. I like the Skyliner option the best; the father and son could get a quick rest and leave the protection detail behind by a good margin.
At least I hoped that was how things were going. I had my own problems; I was being chased by a bodyguard who wanted answers as to who I was working for. I was not going to tell him if he caught me, but I had no intention of being caught. I was halfway around Crescent Lake when I snuck a glance over my shoulder to see if the bodyguard was still following. He wasn’t. In fact, I spotted him jogging back the way he came, with his finger in his ear. Probably getting yelled at by his boss for getting pulled out of position and being told to look for Emil and his kid.
I stopped on the bridge to catch my breath and gave a half wave salute to the guy who was glaring at me, he responded with a not so Disney hand gesture. I took a deep breath and began walking towards the Dolphin where I had left my car.
I got into my car, checked underneath my seat for another envelop full of hundreds and drove off. As far as I was concerned my responsibility to the government was at an end. I did not expect to hear from Scott or ‘Ms. Gray’ again, and any future contact with the feds I hoped would be limited to tax time.
But I did hear from federal government again, sort of.
I got a plain white envelope with no return address, but post marked for the Foggy Bottom area of D.C. containing a printed article. It seems a task force was assembled by the State Department on the evidence provided by a single eyewitness who was providing huge amounts of firsthand evidence and of human trafficking around the world.
I smiled as I assembled an e-mail with multiple frog pictures. A dad with a daughter who was absolutely crazy about frogs and Disney had hired me to take a picture of every Disney Frog I could find. I found thirty-five in Animal Kingdom alone.