Washington, DC – Monday, Feb. 24, 9:45 a.m. EST
When Sara and Giovanni arrived outside Café de Nimes, Giovanni looked at her for guidance.
“Go,” was all she said. He understood, and she followed him inside.
Jean Claude’s face lit up at the sight of her. “Ah, Mademoiselle!” he said. “Your Frenchman has found you!”
“Yes, Jean Claude,” she said, mustering a smile. “Two more café au laits, please.”
“Right away, Mademoiselle!” Jean Claude said.
Sara pointed to a booth in the back. Giovanni went ahead. They draped their coats over the seats and sat facing one another.
“Hang on,” Sara said. She looked at her phone, but had trouble unlocking it. Her fingerprint wouldn’t register. Trying to use her password, she kept hitting the wrong keys. What about this man? What the hell did he want? Finally gaining access to her phone, she checked her texts. Anna had replied. Thank God. She’s on her way.
Giovanni leaned in and whispered, “Your life is in danger.”
“Is that a threat?”
“No!” he said in a louder whisper. “I came to warn you.”
“That doesn’t help Evy!”
“No, but I could help you. Listen to me…please.”
Sara tried to calm herself down. “Hold on,” she said. “You’ve got to slow down. You’re freaking me out. I can’t even think. Shut up for a minute.”
He remained quiet.
Jean Claude startled Sara with the delivery of two giant mugs of café au lait. “Ça va?”
“Ça va,” she replied, deadpan. “Everything’s fine.”
Jean Claude let his glance linger on Giovanni, like a protective father inspecting his daughter’s new boyfriend. He tipped his chin up momentarily. “If you need anything else, don’t hesitate to ask,” he said before returning to the register.
Sara clung to her warm mug. She concentrated on the heart that Jean Claude had formed in the milky foam.
Giovanni leaned forward again and said, “I loved Evy. I really loved her.”
“So? So the hell what!?” she hissed. “What does it matter now, if you loved Evy?” Sara got up.
“Stay!” he said too loudly. He reached out to grab her arm but refrained.
Other customers turned to look.
“There’s something else,” he said. “Please don’t go.”
Sara sat back down. “Hey, I’ve got to go to the bathroom,” she said, jumping up again and walking away this time.
“Please come back,” Giovanni begged.
“I have to go to the restroom,” she repeated.
Sara went to the bathroom, peed and washed her hands. She checked her phone and realized
Anna had sent updates. The latest text was, “2 blocks away.”
Sara texted again, “Come to the bathroom.”
When Anna entered the women’s room, Sara blurted, “Thank you so much for coming!” Then she sobbed. “I,” she gasped. “I. Got. So. Scared.”
Anna gave her a hug. “It’s OK,” Anna said, leaving out what de Jeanbourg had said about the killer after them. “Anyone would be scared,” she added, trying to assess whether they were safe at the café. “What has Giovanni said so far?”
Sara managed to recap the conversation, concluding with, “And he keeps babbling about how he loved Evy.”
“You think he’s still out there?” Anna asked.
“I don’t see why he wouldn’t be,” she said. “He wanted to talk to me.”
“OK. So, assuming he’s there, you go sit across from him. I’ll wedge him into the booth on the same side. I’ll take the lead, OK?”
“Fine with me. I don’t want to talk to him at all.”
The two women went back to the table where Giovanni was sitting and sat down.
Giovanni checked out the space and faced Sara again. “Who’s this?”
“My friend Anna,” Sara said.
“You were waiting for her?”
“Brilliant,” Sara said. “You didn’t think I would talk with you alone, did you?”
“Did you tell anyone else that I’m here?”
“No,” Sara said.
“Like who? The police?” Anna asked.
“Anyone. Anyone at all,” he said. “I don’t want to get us all killed.”
“I don’t want you to get us killed either,” Anna said.
“Any one of us could have been followed,” Giovanni said. “We have to talk fast.”
“Fine by me,” Anna said. “Let’s get this over with.”
“First,” he said. “I want you to know that I loved Evy.”
“Little good that does now,” Anna said.
“I can’t believe she’s dead,” he said.
“Please,” Anna said. “So what?”
“That’s why I’m here,” he said. “It’s the only way I could make things right.”
“Make things right?” Anna snapped. “You can’t fix things! Tell me this: Who do you work for?”
“Mainly,” he said, sighing. “Myself,” he added. “I have my own company, foreign exchange trading, based in Bangkok.”
Anna sat back in a huff.
“It’s called Cutting Edge Forex,” he continued. “I founded it more than a decade ago. Now I have 11 employees.”
Anna had been holding her left hand in a fist. Now she pounded it on the table. “Cut the crap!”
A few people turned to look at them again.
“It’s not crap,” he said. “It’s the truth.”
“Fine. Whatever. Something is missing here, and…”
“Yes,” he interrupted. He sighed again.
Sara and Anna looked at each other.
“Get to the point!” Anna said.
Giovanni reached into his jacket pocket and removed two small booklets. He placed them on the table in a pile and slid them over.
Anna noted the blue jacket and cover design of the one on top. It was an American passport. The one underneath was maroon, like the passports from the E.U.
Giovanni nodded once and stared at her, a signal to look inside.
Anna took the top one, cracked it open and flipped to the photo page. There she saw a photo of the man sitting across from her, the name Giovanni Salazar, and the usual birth date, place of issue, and date of issue. She looked at him, and he nodded again. She took the second one, which had been upside down on the table. Instead of the European passport she was expecting, she saw Chinese characters on the cover. She flipped it open. The photo inside was the same as the one in the other passport. Giovanni’s face. Instead of the name “Giovanni Salazar,” this one said “Zhang Wei” under “name” in the English translation. “What’s this?!” Anna demanded, sliding the passport to Sara. “You are American and Chinese?”
“Yes,” Giovanni said.
“Is that even allowed? Dual citizenship with China?” Anna asked.
“I was with Chinese intelligence.”
Sara’s mouth fell open.
Anna, too, was dumbstruck at first. “You were working for Chinese intelligence? Why?”
“I am Chinese,” he said. “Well, part Chinese.”
“You are Chinese?” Sara said incredulously.
“I was born and raised in New York. So were my parents. My father’s parents were both from Spain, and my mother’s father was French. But my maternal grandmother was Chinese. The Chinese government took advantage of this when they recruited me.”
More outraged than exasperated, Sara snapped: “Recruited you? You just went and worked for them? No big deal?”
“At first, I didn’t want to do it,” he said. “But eventually they convinced me of my obligation to China.”
“What obligation to China?” Anna said.
“And what about your obligation to the United States?” Sara asked, whirling her hands around.
“What about all this?”
“I didn’t do it right away,” he said, slouching. “But this man—this Mr. Gold—he got to me. He talked a lot about my family in China,” he added, and exhaled hard. “My Chinese roots.”
Sara looked suddenly drained of life, like she might pass out.
Anna asked, “How could you fall for that?”
“He pushed the right buttons,” said Giovanni, hanging his head. “When we met, it was a bad time for me—I had just lost an enormous amount of money on some bad trades, and my grandmother had just died. Mr. Gold played on that relationship. My grandmother pretty much raised me. He talked about her good values—hard work, justice, patience, loyalty. You can say I was a fool or he was good at brainwashing. But the point is he convinced me to help him, so I started working for their military intel agency—the Chinese equivalent of the CIA. I know it sounds stupid now.”
“You’re right. It sounds stupid,” Sara said, crossing her arms and staring at him with disdain.
“What did they have you do?” Anna asked.
“At first, I was only passing information. It seemed harmless,” he said.
Sara put her hand on her temple. A headache ripped through her skull. “And what, one thing led to another, and you started killing people?” she said.
“I didn’t kill people,” he said.
“Except Evy? I mean, I don’t understand,” Sara said. “Why did Evy think you worked for the CIA?”
“Because I told her that—and she believed me,” he said, closing his eyes.
“She bought that?” Anna asked.
“She bought it,” he said, drooping his head
“She’s not, she wasn’t, an idiot. I don’t see why,” Sara said.
“I didn’t think it would work, either, at the beginning,” he said. “But it was my job to keep trying, and then it was, you know, fun, getting her to trust me,” he stammered. “That’s the most twisted part. I figured out what made her tick. I told her the CIA wanted to stop embezzlement at the World Bank, which was good, and cease illegal arms deals, which was even better,” he said, talking faster. “She was into the idea of cleaning up the Bank. And I justified it to myself, because the embezzlement and weapons trades are not fabricated. They were real schemes.”
“Wait,” Anna said. “What real schemes?”
“Embezzlement of World Bank funds, used to purchase and ship arms to rebels along the western Chinese border.”
“The Chinese knew about that?” Anna asked. “How?”
“China is constantly sifting through data, all the data, everybody’s data, right? And by the way, the Chinese government is not the only one to do so, which you probably guessed. But anyway, China is analyzing data from its own citizens as well as foreign governments, NGOs, international agencies, everybody—whether the apparatus admits it or not. Chinese analysts were running routine reviews of international financial transactions, including the World Bank’s, and anomalies popped up.”
“Anomalies?” Anna asked.
“With the inflows and outflows. Something didn’t add up. There were anomalies. That’s how they detected the embezzlement. Even they never expected something this huge, though, a treasure trove in their lap. So, that part was the truth, and I told Evy that by ending the financial games and the arms deals, she could put a stop to considerable instability and violence.”
“Sort of a tall order. What was she supposed to do?”
“Leak the story to the press.”
“For that, you were going to pay off her student loans?”
“It may sound small to you, but it wasn’t. Had Evy completed her mission, the entire balance of power would have shifted. The Chinese government was fixated on stopping the unification of the rebel groups, and it would have gained enormously if they prevented that. You see?”
“Wow,” Anna said.
Perking up as she considered the veracity of his confession, Sara nodded. “A classic ‘divide and conquer’ strategy.”
“Yes. The key was, by working with Evy, the Chinese could implement a ‘rebalance without detection’,” he said, using air quotes. “She was about to go to the press, be the perfect source. Had she done so, everything would have taken its natural course.”
“Journalists love a good story, and the American public hates spending on international development. And secret arms deals,” Sara said.
“Yes, and the World Bank is dominated by the United States. Thus, the Chinese would have killed two birds with one stone. They wanted the scandal to cripple the World Bank,” he said.
“Manipulating the virtues of the American media against America,” she said. “Nice.”
“And do you see?” he said. “If the World Bank is plagued by scandal, it would have paved the way for China’s Asian Infrastructure Bank to singlehandedly develop the entire region. This is no small goal. China has been fixated on replacing the World Bank with its AIB for a long time. All the AIB projects are developed according to Chinese specs—so afterward, Chinese supplies, parts and training are obligatory. This type of planning secures Chinese contracts indefinitely, while freezing out American and European companies.”
“Wow,” Sara said. “I see what you mean.”
“Second, publicizing the scheme would prevent the arms flow, paralyzing the insurgency. The rebels would be as lost as they ever were, and China would cement its dominance in the region—over the natural resources, rivers, pipelines, everything throughout Myanmar all the way to the Indian Ocean,” he said. “Do you get it? Evy’s whistleblowing would have been invisible, silent—and revolutionary.”
“But why involve Evy? Why not leak it yourself?”
“Evy asked the same thing,” Giovanni said, smiling wistfully. “But the Chinese side felt that would not work. After I thought about it, I understood their point. Western journalists consider their sources carefully. American editors would have to believe the story, and American journalists would not take information blindly from either a guy at the Chinese embassy or a random informer. If it fell in their laps anonymously, they would have been just as suspicious. There had to be a strong source, someone legit, believable, morally upright, someone reputable and without conflicts of interest—like Evy.”
“That fits, then,” Anna said. “So it’s true. You didn’t kill her.”
“No,” he said. “I didn’t. You understand? The Chinese government didn’t protect her well enough. That’s true. Now that she’s dead, their whole scheme is falling apart.”
“What are you talking about, Anna? I thought he did it,” Sara said, pointing at Giovanni.
“No,” Anna added. “It wasn’t him. Right before you texted me this morning, I met with a source who said Sasha Bolokov hired someone to kill Evy, and his story made sense. I believed him.”
“Sasha? From the Bank?” Sara asked.
Before Anna could explain further, Giovanni interrupted: “And Sara, I must tell you something else. Now, the Chinese want you to take Evy’s place.”
Sara hit the table with both fists. “You must be joking! Giovanni Salazar or Zhang Wei or whoever you are,” Sara spit out. She leaned forward on the table and shoved her face in his. “I am not doing anything of the sort. I don’t want to be a source or assist Chinese intelligence, and I don’t want to get myself killed!”
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.