Washington, DC – Tuesday, Feb. 18, 10:00 a.m. EST
Anna waited for Sasha Bolokov, assistant vice president for international finance and investment at the World Bank Group, to pick up the phone. She hoped he could get her onto the scene.
Right before the fourth ring, he answered. “Hello, Anna! I gather you’ve heard our news,” Sasha said in his proper BBC English.
“It’s all over social media,” she said. “I’m sorry for your loss. Everyone must be devastated.”
“It is a tragedy,” he said, pausing. “But I thought you might call—the silver lining. I’d love to see you.”
“Thanks, I guess. I mean, I wish the circumstances were different, but do you have a little time? I could use your insider’s view.”
“It’s a madhouse around here, and I’ve an important meeting at 1. But how about an early lunch? We could meet here at the Bank. 11?”
“Great. That would be perfect.”
“I’m looking forward to it. It’s always lovely to see you, Anna.”
“You too. Thanks. See you soon.” Anna shook her head. Sasha had always been such a flirt.
Leaning her elbows on the desk and her head in her hand, she rifled through her memories seeking links to the dead man. People with an axe to grind liked to talk—but sources who gained from another’s loss weren’t reliable. Several leads came to mind. She sent emails and left phone messages, and despite Tanner’s scoff, contacted Jennifer Reynolds, one of the Bank’s best PR people, a woman with whom she had gone to journalism school. Anna also scanned the program from the Starlight gala, which included a list of participants. Guessing which individuals may have seen Channarong earlier that evening, she reached out to them too.
Soon it was time to go. She donned her coat, grabbed her bag, and wound through the newsroom past her colleagues’ desks. On one of them stood a name plate announcing Raven Garcia. A pang of anxiety stabbed Anna’s stomach. She tightened her left fist, like her father used to do, then rolled her eyes at herself, and went outside.
The World Bank was a dozen blocks away—close enough that a stuffy taxi ride wasn’t worth it. Walking briskly, she passed one standard twelve-story structure after the other. That so many of Washington’s office buildings looked simple had surprised her once—the first time she had seen DC was during a summer internship after her freshman year. Growing up in a small town in southern Illinois, she had expected more from the capital of the entire nation. Only later did she come to see that the lack of design belied the influencers inside.
Approaching H Street, she caught the Metropolitan Club in view, one of the exceptions. Imposing but not ostentatious, it flew a blue and yellow “MC” flag above the entrance. She crossed the street to walk right next to it, then skimmed her hand along the stone facade, paying homage to her deceased mentor, a well-connected old dog who had made a point of counseling upstarts, no strings attached. She had eaten lunch with him at the club a few times. His integrity and generosity had been unwavering. At the time, she had taken those qualities for granted. Looking back, she thought of them as rare. She wondered, had there always been a paucity of people of good character?
The doors at the main entrance to the Bank slid open automatically when Anna advanced. She placed her coat and bag on the conveyor belt of the X-ray machine, and a stone-faced guard signaled for her to pass through the metal detector. She grabbed her things and proceeded to the reception desk, where she offered the usual information. Expressionless, the receptionist printed a pass and told her to wait.
She sat down on a bench. Sunlight streamed into the atrium, reflecting off the white-washed walls. Anna had read that the architects intended the interior to symbolize light and goodness, and she admired the sentiment. Yet she wondered about the shadowy underbelly, especially in the wake of Channarong’s death. After all, the World Bank office in DC was the global headquarters of what was arguably the most important international financial institution in the world. Its aim was to help poor countries afford development projects. Its detractors, however, argued it failed to alleviate poverty, maybe even stoked it. Protests were likely to flare up again in a few weeks for the semiannual meetings, but for now the demonstrators remained at bay. On balance, how was the Bank really doing?
Shifting her glance, Anna saw Sasha approaching from the far side of the atrium. By all accounts, he was a very good-looking man—and he knew it. He was almost six feet and three inches tall, or “one ninety,” as he would say, and his facial structure was just the right amount of chiseled. He wore his dirty-blond hair slicked back and his beard trim. As always, his clothes were perfectly tailored. Today, he had on a white, collared shirt and a slim-line navy blue suit. A cerulean pocket square and tie perfectly matched his eyes, and his light skin was naturally flawless. Anna knew Sasha was an American citizen, but it was easy to understand why, between his accent and this City of London look, people often mistook him for English.
“Anna, darling! You look amazing,” he announced, as he walked up and kissed her on the cheek.
“Thanks, Sasha,” she said, smiling. “How are you? This is pretty difficult news.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” Sasha murmured as he signaled her to follow. “This way.”
They ambled back through the atrium toward the elevator bank.
Half-way, Sasha stopped. “You were right to come and get a look. The coroner was here. Bomb-sniffing dogs and a homicide unit too. I saw them myself. Quite extraordinary.” Moving again, he continued in a low tone. “It’s been crawling with police—our own security service, the MPD, and a selection of clean-cut mystery men. Probably FBI.” The elevator’s bell chimed. “More outside the lift.”
As they boarded, Anna nodded to the occupants—three well-dressed women, roughly her own age. The one on her left was petite, and wore red-framed glasses and a long brown braid down her back. She was feverishly typing on her phone with both thumbs. The second, a tall dark-haired woman in the middle carrying a stack of reports, nodded back at her, and the third, who had the white-blond hair of the Icelandic girls that Anna travelled with during college, stared down into the right corner, seemingly lost in her own thoughts.
Anna and Sasha turned their backs on the women, according to the demands of elevator etiquette, and faced the door. On the next floor up, all three women filed off. As the doors closed, they glommed on to one another, whispering as they walked. Anna wondered if they knew Channarong.
At the top, Sasha and Anna headed to the executive dining room, where Sasha had reserved a table. As soon as they were seated, a waiter offered wine and announced the daily specials at the buffet—grilled fresh wild Alaskan salmon with mango chutney and Swiss chard, pot roast of 100% grass-fed beef with French beans, and Rajasthani curried lentils with brown rice.
Anna scoffed at the prospect of mid-day alcohol, while Sasha ordered a Malbec. The two of them walked over to the buffet, and as she served herself, Anna computed what it would cost the newspaper to subsidize such an elaborate buffet for its employees. When they returned to the table, Sasha’s wine glass was waiting. Classical music played in the background.
“It’s good we’re here early,” he said, looking around. “No big ears.”
“What about big eyes?” Anna said. “Are you sure this is OK? Being seen with me?”
“I can handle myself,” Sasha said, smiling at her. “And you.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“Besides, whatever I tell is on deep background,” he said, drinking a sip of wine.
“Of course,” she agreed. Sasha would never speak on the record about such a sensitive topic.
“Well,” he said, voice faltering slightly. “It does…throw things off around here.”
“I’m sorry. Were you two close?”
“No, no,” Sasha said. “It’s just, he was such a brilliant fellow. You’ve seen his c.v.?” he continued, pausing for a bite. “I mean, Phi Beta Kappa undergraduate, PhD in finance at the ridiculously young age of 24, five years at a top-tier investment bank in New York. Ten years in London, where he cinched his reputation as a star. By 40, he could have chosen to work at any hedge fund he wanted—could have easily founded one—maybe held a central bank or cabinet post at home. But he chose to come here! Settled in Georgetown.”
“He was a scientist too, no?” Anna commented as she ate. “His bio says he had a double major in finance and environmental ecology, undergraduate. After he came to the Bank, he earned a master’s degree in fisheries science.”
“Agriculture is not my field,” Sasha said. “But anyone could see he was the rare bird who could both walk the walk, and talk the talk. Agricultural development. Poverty reduction. Clean water and all that. He went around lecturing about giving back to community and country. People loved to hear him gab. People believed in him.”
“He was here about eight years? I guess he was pushing 50?”
“You know, I heard him speak at the Starlight gala—last night. Last night! Bizarre.”
“I know. Huge event. I was there too. Everybody was.”
“But what’s the scuttlebutt around here? Does his professional prowess relate to his death?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it does. Maybe it doesn’t. But that’s the thing. His c.v. was sterling, and yet, contrast that with his private life. A total cock-up.”
“A total cock-up?”
“A total cock-up,” Sasha repeated, looking straight at Anna. “It was an open secret he was having an affair with his assistant, for example. Like the women in the elevator.”
“What are you talking about? Was she in there with us?”
“No, no. There are a lot of young women around here.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Anna cringed. “What are you trying to say? That they are sleeping around? Or that Channarong pressured his assistant? Or what?”
“All of the above,” he said, shrugging. “You don’t have to have much imagination to wonder.”
“Ew,” Anna protested. “But…”
“Look, I’m just saying,” Sasha interrupted. “In private life, he was a one-man soap opera.”
“Such as: His son is a heroin addict; his wife Grace is the mistress of Senator Caleb.”
“What! Senator Lucas Caleb? What does she see in him?”
“What does anyone ever see in situations like this? Think about that governor and his mistress from Argentina.”
“He’s estranged from his daughter, who went back to Thailand or something. A brother at home is involved in human trafficking. It could be basic child labor, without the sex trade piece.”
“You wanted to hear what people say. There are lots of reasons why such a man might get in trouble.”
“Or maybe lots of reasons why people are jealous and make things up.”
“What if it’s all true?” Sasha said.
“Sasha, the man is dead. Have some respect.”
“It’s easier to assume it’s true.”
“I’m sure you don’t believe this stuff, at least not everything.”
“Look, it’s clear he had a dark side, his marriage was on the rocks, and he had financial problems.”
“Any more details—either on the wife or the financial problems?”
“That’s your job, I’m afraid.”
“Mm-hmm,” Anna said. “What about the investigation?”
“Have you gone to his office?”
“I peered down the hallway, but I didn’t try to pass.”
“Can we go there now?” Anna asked.
“By all means,” Sasha replied.
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 email@example.com. 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.