College Park, MD – Saturday, Feb. 22, 10:00 a.m. EST
At the College Park Hotel & Suites, Anna spotted Viktor sitting in a reading nook in the corner of the cavernous lobby beyond a glitzy bar area. He was staring down at his phone and scrolling. He still hadn’t shaved, and she thought the stubble made him look particularly attractive. She reminded herself to pretend she didn’t—the meeting needed to remain strictly professional.
He looked up, caught her eye and smiled.
“Hey,” she mouthed as she walked toward him.
Viktor stood up and nodded, but he didn’t touch her. “Anna, I’m glad you agreed to meet, and I….”
“Viktor,” she interrupted. “Look, I’m still upset about whatever is going on with Raven. I only agreed to meet you this morning, because you said it was urgent, and you have to go back to Moscow.”
“Nothing is going on.”
“You weren’t being honest with me.”
“I left some things out, but I didn’t intend to….”
“You’ll have to leave that conversation for later, Viktor. Here’s the thing. I’m in College Park as a favor to my friend, the one who teaches journalism up here at UMD. I’m supposed to do a lecture about foreign correspondence for her students this morning—despite the circumstances, she said I should still come. So I don’t have a lot of time now, but that’s why I told you to meet up here in the burbs. What couldn’t you tell me on the phone?”
“Have a seat. And I’ll get straight to the point.”
She perched at the edge of a couch.
Viktor returned to his chair. “Jordan Green’s mailbox was full. You couldn’t leave a message, remember?”
“I have a friend at the Mirror—in IT—and I had tried to reach him as soon as I heard about this mess. Well, he got back to me last night. Turns out he remembers Green, set up her laptop and phone. He didn’t want to give out her number—but he contacted her and gave her mine.”
“Great,” Anna stated flatly.
“Yeah. Because this morning, at the crack of dawn, she called me back.”
“And she wants to help. She said she became disillusioned working at the Mirror. The standards they were using—or weren’t using—ran counter to everything she was being taught at college.”
“What can you expect from the Mirror?”
“I know, but she said it was a rude awakening that they didn’t care. They published unsubstantiated stories, made false claims, whipped people into a frenzy—all to sell papers. So, after the fiasco with your story, she quit.”
“Wow. Where’d she go?”
“I don’t know. She’s out of town, said she’s scared.”
“She admitted to making that story up about me?”
“She didn’t make it up.”
“You’ve lost me.”
“Her editor fed her the story and the angle. Apparently, he told her he had the sources pinned down, and that she should trust him. He told her which quotes to use, said she didn’t need to worry about confirmation, substantiation or fact-checking. He was worrying about it for both of them.”
“Which was pretty much not at all.”
“Right. Also, she knew who fed the story to her editor, and you’re never going to believe this, but it was Steven Brown, the communications director in Senator Caleb’s office!”
“Holy,” Anna exhaled in a whoosh. “Given Grace Channarong’s involvement with the Senator, that would be an interesting coincidence. But why would he want to discredit me? Does that help her in some way?”
“I don’t know. You need to figure out more about this guy.”
“Interesting,” she said, pausing, then raising her eyebrows in a quick “huh” motion. “Wow. Thanks. Really, thanks a lot.” She smiled at him and stood up. “But I should go.”
“Wait,” he said, approaching her. “You know, this hotel is great—off the beaten path, yet near downtown and the metro. Surprisingly upscale, yet uncrowded,” he added, moving closer. “The only problem is we don’t have a room,” he whispered in her ear.
“No, Viktor,” she said, flustered at the warmth of his breath on her neck. “We need to sort things out.”
He took her hand. “Let’s sort them out now.”
Her face flushed, and she felt her insides melting, but she did not relent. She pulled her hand back. “This isn’t the right time.”
Viktor withdrew but kept his gaze on Anna. “You are amazing. You are smart and funny and clever. You have chutzpah. You are strong and gorgeous.”
Anna gave him her fed-up look.
“And I don’t want to lose you, Anna.”
She rolled her eyes. “What am I going to do with you, Viktor?”
“Come on, Anna, don’t walk away.”
She hesitated. “You want to escort me to my friend’s office on campus?”
“That’s not what I was hoping for. But I’ll take it,” he said.
Outside the hotel, they crossed Baltimore Avenue near a mowed field where students were playing Frisbee. Walking across the dry winter grass, Anna glanced at Viktor and thought about their relationship. Their chemistry was great, but sometimes there was also negative tension. Even before her move to DC, it had been rising. A competitive element had always been present—they had been working for rival companies, after all. But six months ago, when the Daily Journal had poached her from the wire service, the strain had intensified. Officially they were encouraged to cooperate, but the paper also demanded scoops, which pitted them against one another. Now, with his connection to Raven, it was all worse. It was like being on the high school soccer team when the coaches said to pass the ball for the good of the team, but the only girl who got any credit was the one who made the goal.
Then Anna’s eye caught the mammoth new building next to the university’s main gate, and it prompted her to wonder who paid what for what. “So, is this Steven Brown flying solo, or is the Senator in on it?” she asked without expecting an answer. “And did he do it for himself, or did someone pay him to smear me?”
“I can check that out, if you want,” Viktor said.
“If you can figure out what’s going on with Brown, I admit that would be helpful.”
They approached a traffic circle and followed the flow of students past concrete construction barriers, and around and up the hill toward the student union.
“I should have driven out here,” Viktor said. “It would have been much easier.”
“No. Walking is good. And the campus is pretty.”
“College Park is hardly Paris,” Viktor scoffed. “Up here, a bunch of boxy academic buildings and work zones. Down there, a patch of chain restaurants and tattoo parlors. Frat row. Decorative cabbages.”
“You’re such a snob,” she said, flashing her dynamite smile. “There’s a meadow, a church on a hill, and innovative architecture.”
“I’ll try to be more appreciative. There’s certainly a lot of construction.”
They continued up the hill, navigating the pylons and wire fencing.
After another block, Viktor added, “Hey, if you don’t want me in your apartment right now, that’s fine. But you have to let me help you get your job back. It’s stupid if we don’t work together this week.”
“Where did you stay last night?”
“That hotel down on K Street by the office—you know, by the steak place.”
“We can talk about Raven, or whatever you want. Working together, we would be more efficient in the investigation.”
“We’d be more efficient, would we?” She laughed.
“Look, with or without me, I know you’re going to untangle this web. It’s how you are. You’ll get to the bottom of it.”
“Thanks.” She smiled at him.
As they passed the student union, people came from all directions, zigzagging across the road, while a dump truck in reverse beeped its shrill, rhythmic warning.
“The J-School is coming up,” Anna yelled above the din, as she noted a silver SUV with Virginia tags slowing down on their left.
A pasty balding guy was at the wheel, while a similarly pallid woman with a brown-blond bob and bangs rode shotgun. An empty baby seat filled the middle of the back. The woman zipped down the window and smiled. More students flooded the crosswalk. It appeared classes were changing.
Jostled by someone’s backpack, Anna smiled back. Nice periwinkle blue scarf, she thought. Anna opened her mouth to ask the woman if they needed directions, but she caught her breath. The long barrel of a silencer, balanced on the door frame, was pointed right at her! She wanted to scream some kind of warning—students were everywhere! But before she had time to blink, the gun went off—thunk, thunk! Anna felt something bump into her, her leg buckled, and she collapsed on the cold ground.
Yelling in fear, the students ran helter-skelter like startled mice, as the car melted into campus as anonymously as it had come.
Anna felt stiff as panic rose in her body and her left leg burned. Where was Viktor? Her head throbbed. She reached her right hand up to check her stitches, which seemed to be intact. She reached down. Blood was seeping through her pants on the left side. A man in a black trench coat and a bucket hat crossed her field of vision, and a siren blared.
“Viktor?” she called. On her left, he was lying on his stomach. He didn’t answer. “Viktor!” Anna’s head throbbed harder. She leaned over and placed her right hand by Viktor’s ear. He was breathing. “Viktor, don’t worry. I’m here,” she said, stunned and unsure what to do.
Police cars raced up, sirens wailing, followed by two ambulances. The man in the bucket hat told Anna she would be alright, as one EMT looked at her leg and another examined Viktor.
Consciously forcing herself to pay attention to detail, something that usually came naturally, Anna surveyed the scene. Bystanders were staring. A woman with a bike was crying. “Did anyone see the car or the shooter?” Anna asked the EMT.
“I don’t know, mam,” the EMT said.
“Where are we going? Which hospital?” Anna asked.
“Dispatch will let us know.”
Anna realized Viktor was being strapped onto a stretcher. They were taking him away! Anna reached for him, but the EMT held her back. “Where are they taking him?”
“One step at a time,” the EMT said. “Let us do our job. Both of you need to get into an ambulance.”
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.