Washington, DC – Friday, Feb. 21, 9:00 a.m. EST
Clenching her teeth, Anna peered inside the top drawer of her desk to look for anything she might need during her hiatus. She grabbed two flash drives and slammed it shut. From the paper files in her lower locked drawer, she extracted her lease, passport and birth certificate, originals she stored at work, figuring it was safer inside the multiple security layers of her office than her own home. She tucked the only other items of merit on her desk in her bag: a small rock from the grounds of a winery in the Kakheti region outside Tbilisi, and two framed four-by-six photos, one of her family and one of her boyfriend Viktor. Then she glanced at her books, promising them she’d be back soon, and walked down the aisle, passing all the other desks, including Raven’s.
In the main lobby, the security guard wished her a nice day. She mustered a “thanks, you too” with a half-smile. After the revolving door discharged her onto K Street, she headed to the Proving Ground and ordered a latte to go. The other people requesting extra creamy macchiatos, dirty chais, and skinny iced double soy Americanos got on her nerves. Her mind raced. Why did it take this long to prepare a simple order? Why do I mind if other people want sweetened, adulterated, complicated caffeinated drinks? So what, if it takes all day, since no deadlines are looming and I might lose my job for no apparent reason?
When her latte was finally ready, she grabbed the cup and left without sampling it. She continued up 19th Street toward Dupont Circle, crossed into the park and sat on a bench facing the fountain at the center—her favorite spot in DC. Her shoulders relaxed. She finally tried the latte, but it was no longer hot.
Resting the cup on the bench, she stared at the white marble Beaux-Arts fountain. It was like a giant vase. She recalled how in warm weather, water flowed from the basin at the top into the pool at the base. The trickle would spray onto passersby, annoying office workers and delighting children. At the moment, though, the fountain was dry. One of the three classical figures that flanked the vase stood across from Anna. The nude female looked downward demurely and cradled the globe in her left arm. She represented The Stars, one of the three allegorical figures called The Arts of Ocean Navigation, along with The Sea and The Wind—Anna knew this, because she’d looked it up after discovering the spot a long time ago. But much of the carving perplexed her. Why didn’t The Stars look up? Why a globe and not a star—or a baby? What was Henry Bacon thinking when he designed it? Why did the women have to be naked? Anna could relate. Having just been put on leave for unknown reasons, she felt exposed too. Who had taken her picture at the gala?
Anna stared a while longer. She forgot about her own predicament and got back to Evy. What about Evy’s friends? Where were they? None of the assistants at the Bank had called back. None of the people Anna had found on social media with the same or similar name seemed to be the right Evy Poole.
Wanting to vent, she called Sasha. As the phone rang, a flock of pigeons swooped in. Cooing, they swooshed over to a young mother and her toddler, who were feeding them bread crumbs. Other people in the park were going about the usual—eating, talking, playing chess, sleeping, riding scooters. One guy was standing under a tree and singing. Sasha’s voice mail at the Bank picked up, so she dialed his cell.
Sasha answered on the first ring, explaining he was working at his condo on California Street in nearby Kalorama Heights. He was hurrying to finish a project. Making it quick, she asked if he could do lunch. He needed a little time, but suggested the Greek Place, half way between them, a plan to which Anna gladly agreed.
Anna killed some time at a used bookstore, then went to the café a little early. Feeling ravenous, she ordered a gyro platter, took her tray out the back door and scored the only empty table left on the deck. The warmish DC weather had propelled people outside. Two twenty-something women and a scrawny man wearing headphones were pecking at laptops at the tables next to her. She looked down the alley—parking spots and garbage cans. She ate a fry and watched a rat sniffing the air in the alley. Most normal days, she would have been disgusted, but today she didn’t care. She took another bite.
Anna had finished the fries and most of her gyro, when Sasha finally arrived carrying a Greek salad with extra feta and a lamb kebab.
“Anna, darling,” he said, pointing at her stitches and placing his tray on the table. “I’m relieved. Your injury doesn’t look that bad.”
“Thanks,” she replied, standing up and swapping air kisses with him on both cheeks. “I hope you don’t mind I started.”
“Of course not,” he said, sitting across from her. “The plot thickens.”
“You heard what’s going on?”
“I saw the DC Mirror, if that’s what you’re wondering,” he said. “I hope it was worth it. How much did you get?”
“Very funny,” Anna said.
“Let me guess. The newspaper is totally behind you. The editorial board released a statement refuting all that nonsense.”
“Yeah, right. A couple of big shots from New York kicked me out. I even had to hand over my laptop.”
“Bloody hell,” Sasha said, taking a bite of his lamb. “Does that mean you can’t proceed?”
“Depends. I still have all my research, which I back up obsessively—lost some important material once, never do that again. Of course, they don’t own public information.”
“You backed it all up?”
“Nor do they own my thinking process,” she continued. “But it’s the principle that drives me nuts. They threw me under the bus.”
“Not exactly. Tanner seems to have staved that off. I’m on leave.”
“Is that good?”
“It’s good. But it still pisses me off.”
“So, what you’re saying is that you weren’t in the venture with Channarong?”
“Of course not. If you have to ask that question, why are we even talking?”
“Just checking. You know, trust but verify.”
Anna made a face.
“What’s your next step?”
“Analyzing these documents, talking to the idiot who wrote that story, this Jordan Green guy, and following up with his other sources. Who would do this? It’s all messed up. Meanwhile, I have to keep on top of the Channarong story, and Evy, and figure out how it fits together.”
“You don’t think the Mirror story about you has anything to do with Channarong, do you?”
“How could it not? All hell broke loose after I started covering this story.”
“How’s your colleague?”
“Raven? Fine. Her wrist is sprained—something with the airbag. She can still type, though.”
“Maybe you should drop the story.”
“Gotta love that English sarcasm.”
“I’m quite serious.” Sasha finished his bite of salad and put down his fork. “It’s plainly dangerous. I thought you put danger behind you when you left Moscow. You don’t earn enough to put up with this.”
“I’m glad you’re concerned with my welfare, Sasha. But this is my job. It’s what I get paid for, even if not much.”
“Risking your life for a newspaper article!”
“Where have you been, Sasha?” Anna snapped. “Journalists risk their lives for the truth all the time.”
“Maybe, but you might be the last man—woman, person—standing.”
“Not at all. The bureau is full of people with a profound respect for the truth. Just not those in charge of my future, apparently.”
“Like finding the truth is even possible. The truth is elusive, my dear—a moving target.”
“Sasha, you’re supposed to be helping me.”
“Face it: Your job is interesting. You get to travel and meet important people. But you also need to survive. And right now, you need a reboot and a living wage. This is a sign, Anna! There’s a PR position opening up at the Bank—perfect for ex-journalists. No risk to your person.”
Anna held up her hand to speak her mind, but thought better of it. “I’ll think about it, Sasha,” she said instead. “Let me know about the post, sure. I’ll check it out. Maybe you’re right. I’ll consider it. But, meanwhile, I need to figure out who Evy’s friends were and what other people think happened. Can you keep your ears peeled for me? Help me get around the gatekeepers? I haven’t heard back from Jennifer Reynolds.”
“You’re pursuing the investigation, even if the paper screws you over?”
“Of course. But don’t look so worried—you’re white as a sheet. I’ll be fine.”
“Given the risks, it’s not worth it, Anna,” he said. “I mean, why?”
“You know why, Sasha,” she said. “People need to know the truth.”
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.