Washington, DC – Wednesday, Feb. 19, 4:00 p.m. EST
Sara Reedman stood in the kitchen of the Georgian mansion in Spring Valley where she was cat-sitting—way out Massachusetts Avenue in Upper Northwest, past American University—and emptied the bottle of cabernet sauvignon into her water glass. She took a gulp and banged the glass down on the counter.
She steadied her gaze on the door to the butler’s pantry. Her phone was in there. She had stowed it in a drawer that morning, after calling in sick and reassuring her mother back home in New Jersey that she was fine—as if stashing it away would hold off both the problems in her head and the events outside. Neutralized, like someone had turned her emotions off, Sara sat stuck, cycling through a series of questions: What am I supposed to do on the day after my boss was found hanging and my best friend was shot? Will the police call me? Will they find the killer? What if they don’t? Am I in danger? Should I leave town? An oblivion awaited.
The orange tabby rubbed against her pajama pants and padded off. Sara had taken the gig to help her aunt’s friend, a recent widow soothing her grief in Sedona. It had seemed like a perfect retreat opportunity for Sara too. Off the beaten path, the enclave of ambassadors, corporate titans and political elites was beautiful. Now, she was thrilled it was well-patrolled, way more secure than her sublet on Capitol Hill.
Still, the butler’s pantry irked her. Something about a whole room of cabinets, cubbies, drawers and containers seemed more absurd than any other aspect of the manor house, a symbol of the lopsidedness of society. I’ll never get used to a kitchen closet the size of a bedroom, she said to herself.
Sara went in and opened the drawer. She stared at the powered-down phone. After a few seconds, she snatched it up, fetched her wine again, and moved to the TV nook at the back of the house, off the chef’s kitchen. The long rays of February’s afternoon sun streamed through the antique windows onto the Persian carpets. Taking refuge in the corner of the sectional, she stared not at the big screen but out the French doors at a slate patio framed by a low stone wall, which doubled as a bench.
Wisteria vines, well-pruned but leafless, snaked up and across a pergola. Even in winter, the garden looked perfect. Despite appearances, however, it was not. She had recently learned the neighborhood was infamous for its contaminated soil, the result of weapons testing at A.U. during World War I—and decades of incompetent, inadequate cleanup. It had been in the news again lately. She was dumbfounded to discover the environmental disaster was in her own proximity. Lewisite, mustard agents and arsenic were lurking in the soil. How could that be? How could influential people of means fail to clean up a poisonous, carcinogenic mess in their own yards? In America?
She picked up the remote and turned on the TV. A news anchor was reporting on the spread of a new respiratory virus that had apparently started near Wuhan, China. She flicked through the options and settled on season 14 of Grey’s Anatomy, her favorite. The theme music played, and she fell under its spell. After a while, she dozed off.
When she woke up, the cat lay on the opposite couch. She fed him his custom-blended chicken-liver mixture, microwaved a can of soup and sat down to watch more episodes. First, though, she turned her phone on. She scrolled through her photos, not realizing what they would unlock.
It was a recent image of Evy laughing that brought the tears. They had been drinking margaritas after work on the roof deck of the District Hotel, across from the Treasury Department. The view was great, even if the guys hadn’t turned out to be. As tears dripped down her cheeks, Sara remembered their silly banter. She didn’t try to stop them. Her chest heaved, and she bawled, fully consumed.
Eventually, her body ran out of steam. Sara wiped her face. Her nose was stuffed up, like when she had wailed as a child, outraged by some infraction that adults could not comprehend.
Yesterday she had met Evy at the mall. Sara put her hands on her temples. In her mind’s eye, she saw herself wearing her comfortable flats with her favorite white pencil skirt and black cardigan.
She had arrived at the souvenir shop shortly after 1 pm. Evy was standing beside a rack of USA stickers, key chains and plastic toys. Sara pretended to shop as Evy had instructed.
From across a rack, Evy whispered, “Thanks for coming.”
“Oh my God, can you believe Nou is dead?” Sara whispered while rifling through the T-shirts.
“Sara, don’t show your emotions here. People will notice,” Evy said.
“This is all crazy. I can’t believe he’s dead. Dead,” said Sara. Her eyes watered.
“Whisper, OK? Hold it together.”
“I guess. I got your note. Why did you want to meet here?”
“Keep looking down, as if you’re on your phone,” Evy instructed, looking around again. “I was afraid. I didn’t want anybody to hear us or know what we are talking about.”
“I don’t even know what we are talking about. Why meet in a store, and at Pentagon City mall, of all places!”
“No one from work would come here.”
“Like why not talk on a coffee run?”
“We might be overheard. Now, listen, someone tried to kill me this morning.”
“I was at Fort Totten waiting for the Red Line, and this guy rammed into me. Really hard. I’m telling you, he tried to push me onto the tracks—when the train was coming.”
“Are you sure?”
“Maybe it was a mistake. He was probably texting or something.”
“It was supposed to look like that. But it was not a mistake.”
“How do you know?”
“I could tell. Trust me. I saw his expression. And it was a major shove exactly when the train was coming.”
“How come you didn’t fall in?”
“I tripped—too soon, I guess. I ended up half-on half-off the platform. I screamed. I was scrambling,” she said, faster. “A random guy grabbed me out of the way.”
“That’s horrible,” Sara said, assessing an American flag T-shirt. “This is so messed up, Evy. I can’t shop and talk about this at the same time.”
“I have to go soon. Listen.”
“But did you see the guy?” Sara interjected. “Like, what did he look like?”
“Brownish hair. White. I don’t know. He was big, like a football player. Casual clothes. He disappeared—and that’s the thing. If he did it by mistake, he would’ve stayed.”
“Yeah. Maybe. I don’t know. I’m sorry. What about the other guy, the one who helped you?”
“I was upset and had smashed my knee. I glanced at him, and then he was gone. He was older, 50 maybe, Black, short hair, no grey, wearing a suit. That’s all I remember.”
“Not much to go on,” Sara whispered.
“Listen. What if it has to do with this new gig? Maybe I shouldn’t have taken it on.”
“Not to say I told you so, but…it sounded weird from the get-go.”
“I’ve got to get in touch with Giovanni. I’m waiting for a call back.”
“Why not go to the police? Tell them someone tried to push you. Maybe a security camera caught something. You don’t have to say anything about the side job.”
“I already did that, Sara, and guess what? My problems aren’t the biggest ones on their list. I am not injured or dead. I don’t think they even believed me. For now, I have to investigate myself, and gather evidence. What am I missing? What’s at stake? Who’s paying for what—you know—‘follow the money’?”
“Can’t someone at the Bank help you? What about Ko?”
“Or you. I need you to do some things for me.”
“Me?” Sara said. “I don’t know.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Call my old grad school friend Charles de Jeanbourg. Ask him what he knows about Giovanni.”
“Now I’m lost,” Sara said. “Like, why? I thought you were in love with Giovanni.”
“Yeah. We’ve had a pretty good run. But I don’t have time to explain everything now. Look, I wrote Charles’ number down for you,” Evy said, crumpling up a receipt and dropping it under a clothing rack.
“Why ask Charles about Giovanni?”
“Charles is our connection.”
“Why don’t you do it yourself?” Sara asked, bending down to pick up the paper.
“I’m being watched. I’ve got viruses on my computer, and I think my cell phone was hacked. My texts get dropped, and it randomly cuts off calls.”
“I’m on your side, Evy, but you sound kind of…crazy. If it’s so weird, why don’t you tell the police that?”
“What? That my phone is tapped or a guy follows me sometimes? That I am suspicious of my boyfriend—who treats me well? For God’s sake, Sara, guys beat their girlfriends to death and the police don’t lift a finger. They’re not going to believe me if I tell them I have a bad feeling, or if I think someone tried to fling me into the metro tracks. I have no proof at all. None whatsoever.”
“When you put it that way,” she said, tilting her head. “So, walk away from the job, from Giovanni, from all of it, even the Bank. Go teach English in Spain or something.”
“No,” Evy said. “There’s too much at stake. I will figure it out, and I need you to help me.”
“By calling this guy Charles?”
“Please do this for me. OK? Trust me.”
Evy swallowed hard. “Charles told Giovanni about me, right? The connection was supposed to be for work, but you can tell him we’re dating. Tell him you’re helping me check out my new guy. Say you think Giovanni is strange.”
“Fine,” Sara sighed. “I’ll see what I can find out.”
“And I might need you to come with me on an errand—tonight.”
“I’ll let you know. I’ll get another note over to you, OK?”
“How did you do that, anyway?”
“Easy. The cleaning staff. I talk to them all the time—they’re super nice. You’d be surprised what they know. They are privy to pretty much everything, but most people don’t notice them. It’s like they’re invisible,” she said, catching Sara’s eye as she walked away. “Just call Charles, OK?”
Sara brought her mind back to the present. Outside, beyond the pergola was a yard, complete with a towering oak, fire pit and mini-Victorian playhouse. It was symmetrical, tidy, tucked in. And yet. Was the soil safe? Or were there still blister agents festering under the ground? People could be like that too—harboring toxic messes below the surface. What might Charles dig up?
Copyright © by Wolf Bahren. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher with “permission requests” in the subject line at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.