Washington, DC – Friday, Feb. 21, 6:30 a.m. EST
Anna dried off, wrapped herself in a towel and gazed into the bathroom mirror. She tenderly removed the two damp bandages on her head and inspected her new stitches: thirteen in all—five on her right eyebrow and eight above her hairline, complete with a sliver of shaved hair. Having lost a full 24 hours in Miami due to the car accident, she was glad to be home.
She splashed water on the stitches and patted them dry with a clean towel. Then she parted her hair to disguise the wound. The doctor had said a bandage would not be necessary, as long as Anna kept out the dirt. She figured she could pull that off, at least in a literal way.
They had been lucky, she knew. Both she and Raven had been discharged by dawn the previous day. Raven’s hand was sprained, not broken, and Anna’s lacerations weren’t too deep. Anna had caught a late flight to DC, but Raven decided to rest with Apollo and her family in Miami for a few days.
As Anna considered what to wear, the phone rang. Tanner’s number flashed.
“Morning, boss,” Anna answered.
“The DC Mirror,” Tanner said. “Their headliner. How much truth is there to that?”
“I haven’t seen the news yet today,” she said, booting up her laptop.
“I don’t know what game you are playing, Jones, but I don’t like dirty pool,” he hissed. “Get in here. We need to have a meeting with editorial—and I don’t mean the usual one. Executive conference room! 8 a.m.!”
As Tanner hung up, Anna read the headlines on the webpage of the DC Mirror. One of the leads included a photo of her standing near Nou Channarong during the reception at the recent Starlight gala. It was by a reporter she didn’t know, Jordan P. Green, and the headline read, “Daily Journal Reporter in Cybertech Deal with Dead World Bank Exec.” The article stated:
Documents reveal that World Bank economist Nou Channarong, recently found dead, formed a consulting firm with Daily Journal reporter Anna Jones and computer science professor Lois Canter Wang six months ago. The LLC, known around Washington as a “lobby shop,” may shed light on the reasons behind Channarong’s death, which was officially ruled a suicide but continues to raise questions.
Neither the authorities nor Channarong’s family have offered further information about his state of mind or health history. In a brief press release, his employer stated, “The World Bank Group regrets the tragic loss of a talented economist. Channarong, a native of Thailand, was a steadfast champion of rural development in South East Asia.”
Channarong’s new company, officially named Baltimore Export Assistance Team (BEAT) LLC, “supports foreign information technology firms in navigating the complexities of US export control and intellectual property laws and streamlines the legal environment to maximize cooperation,” according to its mission statement.
Financial and family problems had been piling up for the economist, according to sources at the World Bank, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs.
Former colleague, Rose Gibson, said, “What happened to his son was sad.” Robert Channarong was admitted to the Lindenflower Center for addiction recovery last year, sources said.
BEAT would have brought in significantly more revenue, relieving him of financial pressures, the sources said.
“If he left the Bank, he could have avoided these persistent personnel conflicts and earned ten times as much, and things would have been much easier for him,” said Walker E. Maslow, an economist in London, who had also previously worked with Channarong.
BEAT was the pet project of Channarong, who apparently approached Jones and Wang more than a year ago. With the venture, he said he intended to capitalize on their complementary skills. BEAT opted for a soft opening to give the principals time to line up clients. It was due to launch officially in three months, according to Jeannie Fields, a realtor who was working with Channarong to secure a K Street office suite.
Jones, an investigative reporter with experience conducting long-term research projects and Freedom of Information Act requests, also holds expertise in terrorism, arms trade, foreign affairs and international finance. Previously a foreign correspondent for the Daily Journal in Moscow, she has long-standing ties to Channarong, as the two have moved in the same international finance circles for years.
Lois Canter Wang taught computer science at Hudson College in Upstate New York until last year. A Chinese national with “green card” permanent residency status in the US, she is currently an independent consultant living in Rhinebeck, NY.
Neither Jones nor Wang could be reached for comment.
Anna laughed out loud when she read it. What a lousy story! Someone was indeed playing dirty pool! But who?
Confident Tanner didn’t actually question her integrity, she calmly finished getting ready. Careful not to jab her stitches, she smoothed her hair into a low ponytail and stared at the clothes in her closet. Her royal blue blouse, black trousers and favorite Italian booties called out to her. After dressing, she took the time to eat a bowl of cereal and carefully apply her eye makeup and lipstick. Then she collected her things and left.
When Anna arrived at the bureau, she headed to the top floor, where the meeting was set to take place. Tanner sat at a conference table with a local editor and two higher-ups based in New York—she could see them through the glass walls. They must have hopped on the 6 a.m. shuttle. Getting such an early flight was not a good sign. They’ve wasted no time, she thought. Worse, no one was smiling, and the door was closed. Mouths were moving, but no voices penetrated the walls. Anna paced in the hallway.
Tanner spotted her and came over. “Jones,” he said, holding the door open.
Anna went in.
“You know Paul Eng from this bureau, and these are our colleagues from New York, Angela Derwint and Boris Painter,” Tanner said.
Anna shook hands with each of them, all of whom she’d met previously. They greeted her with mechanical nods and “mornings,” as if they had never seen her before. Tanner gestured toward one of the chairs, and she sat down. Despite the beautiful panoramic view southward toward the White House, the atmosphere was claustrophobic.
“Jones,” Tanner said, containing the anger that had spilled into their phone conversation. “We trust that by now you have read the Mirror’s piece.”
“You can’t possibly believe there is any truth to it,” Anna said, turning to look each of them in the eye.
“We would like to think not,” Tanner said.
“This meeting should be about countering this nonsense,” Anna said.
“Are you saying you are not involved in this ‘venture,’ shall we say?” Painter said.
“Of course not,” Anna said.
“You don’t need extra money?” Derwint said.
“What kind of question is that?” Anna asked.
“Answer it,” Derwint demanded.
“Of course, I could use more money,” Anna said. “Who couldn’t? But I’m a journalist, not a lobbyist. I would never even work for a place like BEAT, no less co-found such a thing. It’s out of the question.”
“Jones, you have to come clean,” Tanner said. “No bullshit.”
Anna did a double take. Was Tanner hot under the collar, or was this for show? Did he have to speak that way?
Derwint took over. “There are some complications with your version of the events, Ms. Jones.”
“Complications?” Anna asked.
“Look at these,” said Derwint, passing over a pile of documents.
Anna pulled them toward herself along the table. They were articles of incorporation for the company Channarong had supposedly formed, and Anna’s own name was indeed on the associated paperwork. Her signature looked reasonably accurate.
“These are falsified, obviously,” she said. “Where did you get them?”
“Why should we believe they are fake?” Derwint said.
“Because they are! Because you know me!” Anna said. “Where did you get them? That should tell you a lot.”
“They were dropped off at the editorial office in New York yesterday,” Painter said. “They stand up to our authentication process.”
“We need to update our authentication process, then, because these are forgeries,” Anna said.
“Who dropped them off?”
“You don’t need to know that at this time,” Painter said.
“Oh, right,” Anna said, gazing at Tanner, who was studying his hands. “My professional future and personal reputation are on the line, my editors are betraying me, and I don’t need to know who is trying to ruin me. Is that all?”
“No,” Painter said. “I would not be flippant, if I were you, Ms. Jones. You have put yourself in jeopardy by mixing sources and business associates. We may be living in ‘the gig economy’ now, but in our line of work, your involvement with BEAT is a conflict of interest—which is strictly off limits.”
“You think I don’t know what a conflict of interest is?” Anna shot back at him.
“Ms. Jones, when you recede into the dark recesses of some sleazy internet café, and put your earbuds in and lick your wounds, we will still have a problem. You have put our venerable newspaper in jeopardy, and that we can’t allow….”
As Painter droned on, Anna zoomed in on his face. The skin on his forehead creased into four or five windrows. Red pouches buoyed his eyes. His hair was thin and grey. Had this man ever been interested in the truth? Anna’s heart pounded, but her mind was laser-focused. Derwint and Painter might be idiots, but they were in charge, she thought. I’ll have to get around that.
Painter stopped talking. Anna heard an echo of what he had last said: “Bank statements show $20,000 was transferred to your bank account three separate times, once each month since these documents were finalized—the retainer stipulated in the documents.”
“I don’t know anything about that,” Anna said.
Derwint and Painter scoffed.
“Don’t you think I would notice $20,000 extra in my account—three times?” Anna asked. “All you have to do is verify the account. It’s not mine.”
“Look,” Tanner said. “We’re not going to come to an agreement now on your involvement in Channarong’s venture, Jones. You’re being put on leave.”
“Leave?” Anna said.
“Under the circumstances, we don’t have a choice,” Tanner said. “To protect the reputation of the newspaper, we have to do something. Be happy you aren’t being fired.”
“I’m supposed to be happy I’m not being fired?”
“Yes,” Tanner said, standing up. “I’ve spent the last hour convincing our New York colleagues there must be some explanation. For now, pending the investigation, you have to be happy you are not being fired. You have a half hour to clear out your personal effects. Leave the laptop on your desk, or you will be charged with theft.”
“This is a joke, right?”
“I am afraid not,” Tanner said. “Don’t worry about your books—I’ll watch over them—but otherwise you have to clear out.”
“What the heck, people! You should be ashamed of yourselves! You want my freaking phone too?” she yelled. “Oh, I forgot,” she said under her breath. “The company’s too cheap to distribute phones. Guess I get to keep it, huh? After all, it’s mine!”
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.