Washington, DC – Monday, Feb. 24, 9:00 a.m. EST
Sara reviewed the security-system keypad, verifying the windows and doors of the widow’s house were closed. She pushed “arm,” and ensured the heavy front door locked behind her. Hurrying toward the Spring Valley Plaza on Massachusetts, passing mansion after mansion, she tried to get her mind off her troubles by considering which home she would buy, if she had enough money. She remembered Evy had said you couldn’t pay her to live in Spring Valley, with all its cigar-smoking lobbyists and golf-clubbing politicals. But the villas with trimmed bushes, hundred-year oaks and three-car garages pleased Sara. Evy didn't know about the owners’ circumstances or charity work, she thought. Damn! Evy’s in my head again. Evy!
When Sara reached the main road, just north of American University, she stopped on the corner by a doctor’s office, waiting for the light to change. She looked forward to the Café de Nimes, anything to avoid being alone, all the more so since she wasn’t going to the office. Her mouth watered in anticipation of her daily brioche and café au lait, especially after her sleepless night.
She crossed Massachusetts and traversed the parking lot. The sleigh bells on the door jingled as she entered. The familiar sound and the warm, coffee-scented air offered her a sense of relief. A few other customers had already settled in. Engrossed in their laptops, they paused now and then to eat and sip. Things were normal.
The owner Jean Claude, face frosted in grey stubble, greeted her with a “Bonjour, Mademoiselle!”
“The usual,” she said, smiling at him.
“You are late today,” said Jean Claude. “Working too hard?”
“Stressed out, I guess,” Sara replied. “Things have been…busy.”
“Oh! Perhaps it is that new French boyfriend who is distracting you?” he asked.
Sara stiffened. “What boyfriend?”
Jean Claude made puppy-dog eyes. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you, Mademoiselle.”
“It’s OK, Jean Claude,” she said. “But, please, who are you talking about?”
“Alors,” he said. “A man came in here yesterday evening looking for you. Tallish. Dark hair. Polite. Charming. And French!” he said. “He wanted to know if you had been in lately.”
“Did he know my name?”
“But of course!” Jean Claude said. “That’s how I knew he was looking for you!”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“He said he was an old friend, told me your colleague…ah, what’s her name? She told him he could find you here,” he said.
Weird, Sara thought. Bad weird. Should I leave now? Hide? Exit through the back?
“Evy!” Jean Claude shouted. “That’s the name. He said Evy told him to find you here.”
Oh no. Evy. “What did you tell him?”
“Nothing. I don’t know you.” He shook his head and smiled.
“Thank you, Jean Claude. I appreciate your covering for me. Is the café au lait ready? I’ve gotta run."
“Yes, mademoiselle! Here,” he said, offering the drink in a to-go cup and brioche in a bag. “Pay me tomorrow. I have kept you talking,” he added.
“Great. Thanks,” Sara said, bounding out the door. She had to think fast. Where to go? The Spring Valley house seemed too isolated, her apartment on the Hill too dangerous. What would Evy do? Maybe duck into the furniture store across the street and pretend to shop? Too early—not open. Evy would call someone. Evy would tell Anna.
Sara took out her phone, which she had set on mute to reduce anxiety. When she unlocked it, she was surprised to find two missed calls from Anna. There were no voicemail messages, but she had sent four texts. At 7:41 a.m. Anna said, “We have to talk ASAP!!!” Another text came at 8:00 a.m. “Need to bring you up to speed.” At 8:15 a.m. she wrote, “Call me right away!” Finally, at 9:00 a.m., only about 20 minutes prior, she had texted, “Where are you???”
Panicking, Sara continued along 49th and dialed Anna as she took the usual path toward the metro. Her voicemail picked up. “Anna! You’re asking me where I am, but where are you? I’m freaking out! You’ve got to help me. I don’t know what to do. I was at my coffee place, Café de Nimes, and I found out this guy had been there looking for me. What if it’s someone trying to kill me? Like someone killed Evy? What if they want to kill me too! Call me!” Sara hung up and sent a text. “Freaking out!!!”
Sara speed-walked northward on 49th, right again on Albemarle toward the A.U. Tenleytown station. Maybe I can wander around the Healthy Foods Market or the Galleria, where there’s safety in numbers, she thought.
Reaching the corner of 48th, she glanced right. A dark-haired man was approaching from the south. The sight of him gave her a start—knee-length camel-hair coat, black slacks, nice shoes, and a beige-black-red plaid scarf. Attractive face. Expensive-looking. She noticed him noticing her, so she picked up her pace.
“Sara, please!” he yelled.
Sara's stomach turned at the sound of her name, but she started running as fast as she could toward Wisconsin. Panting, she berated herself for not going to the gym more often. Should I ditch my bag? She glanced behind again and saw the man catching up. She prayed she wouldn’t slip on the ice.
“Sara, I need to speak with you!” the man yelled. “Please,” he repeated, gaining ground.
She kept running, kept panting. Bang on a door? Escape into a backyard? Push a garbage can in his path? Flag down a driver? But the man was grabbing her coat, and Sara stumbled.
“Sara, I’m Evy’s friend, Giovanni Salazar. I need to speak with you. I won’t hurt you. Please!”
She slowed to catch her breath, but kept going. “Don’t touch me!” she yelled.
“Can we sit in that café back there? Or somewhere up ahead?”
“You are not her friend! Some friend! Evy is dead!”
“That’s why you have to talk to me,” he pleaded. “You are in danger, and I can help you.”
Sara trembled. “You! Help me? You got her killed! Or did you kill her yourself?” she screeched, instantly regretting it. What if he was the killer? How stupid can I be? Still, what if he is telling the truth?
“You are right,” he said, holding both hands upward in front of him, like he wanted to give someone a hug. “It is my fault that she died. But I didn’t kill her. Please, listen to me. That’s why I have to help you—it’s all I have left.”
Standing still now, Sara stared at the man. He had tears in his eyes. Was he acting? What would Evy do? Frozen with fear, Sara deliberated, and the man stood there. He did not grab or lunge. “Walk toward the café!" Sara spit out. "And stay ahead of me!”
He skulked like a beaten dog.
When he was several paces ahead, Sara followed. “How do you know who I am? And how the hell did you know I was at that café?”
“Evy told me!” he shouted toward the emptiness in front of him. “She showed me pictures! She said you were cat sitting in Spring Valley, and if I needed to find you, you liked a French place with good brioche up on Massachusetts. It wasn’t that hard to find.”
“Go! And shut up,” she stammered, unable to remember what she had and hadn’t told Evy.
Sara took out her phone to contact Anna again. She texted, “URGENT: Meet me at Café de Nimes NOWWWWW!” Then she typed in 911. She didn’t hit “call,” but she held the phone out in front of her, in case.
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.