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November 12, 2015

This week I gave both my creative writing classes the same exercise: ‘Write something in response to this picture.’ 

Briefcase Picture Trigger

What’s in the case? The responses were wonderfully various, ranging from a smuggled cat to a bomb (never mentioned, only implied).  For my own microstory, I chose to keep the answer vague until the last possible moment. There are three more lines to this piece, but before I reveal them, I’d like to hear your theories. Please feel free to write an ending to this story in the comments. 


He tightens his grip on the briefcase and sets his face into a relaxed, neutral expression. The aim is to look as unremarkable as possible. He’s passed the first hurdle but there’s a long way to go yet; he can’t let his guard down. Sloppy people get caught. He joins the army of black-suited men marching toward the executive departures lounge.

Once there, he sits with the briefcase on his lap and gets his phone from his pocket. It’s switched off, of course – can’t have GPS tracking him – but it gives him something to do with his hands. To pass the time, he mimes texting someone, but this quickly becomes tedious. Finally his flight is called.

On the plane, he orders orange juice, even though he’d dearly love a double shot of vodka in there. Sweat is seeping through his shirt under the arms, and his tie feels as though it’s strangling him. He tugs at it, but this just makes the sensation worse. When was the last time he wore a tie? His cousin’s funeral, maybe. That was months ago – nearly a year.

He realises he’s breathing rapidly, almost panting. The woman in the seat next to him is glancing discreetly sideways in his direction, edging away. He goes to the bathroom and splashes his face with cold water, frowns at his reflection, hating how his hasty, recent haircut reveals his prominent ears.


‘Are you here for business or leisure?’

‘Leisure. Business.’

The customs official raises an artfully-plucked eyebrow.

‘A bit of both. I’m here for a job interview, but I thought I’d do a bit of sightseeing while I’m here.’

‘What’s your line?’


‘Your line of work.’

‘I’m kind of between things, you might say.’

She sighs. ‘Well, what’s the interview for?’

‘Um, marketing and distribution.’

‘Okay.’ She swivels his case around to face her. ‘Did you pack this bag yourself, sir?’

‘Yes.’ What made him think he could get away with this, in New Zealand of all places, where they’re paranoid about every foreign speck of dirt and forbidden fungal spore?

She snaps the clasps on the case, and he can’t restrain himself, crying out,’Don’t!’

She meets his eye properly for the first time. ‘What’s in the case, sir?’

‘Nothing. Honestly, nothing.’

Her eyes still on his, she opens the case, then glances down. Her face empties of expression. ‘It’s empty.’

‘I told you.’

She turns, calls out over her shoulder. ‘Barry! Could you come here for a minute?’

Another official joins her and she explains the situation. Barry nods, produces a Stanley knife and slits open the case’s lining with a practised gesture. He shrugs. ‘Nothing here.’

They send the briefcase away for testing. They make him strip, X-ray him, administer a breath test, then a cavity search. Finally, they tell him he’s free to go and return his briefcase. Now that the worst is over, he feels light, insouciant. He holds it open and shows them the eviscerated lining. ‘Are you going to reimburse me for this?’

‘Get out of my sight,’ snarls Barry, ‘before I get a security guard to do it for you.’


He walks out through the sliding glass doors and joins the queue at the taxi rank.

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