Washington, DC – Monday, Feb. 24, 10:00 a.m. EST
Sara jumped up and headed to the front door of the café, planning to bolt just like she had done at the Portrait Gallery.
Anna rushed after her. “Sara, wait!” she pleaded. “Please sit down. We need to make a plan.”
Giovanni trailed as well. “I didn’t mean I thought you would do it.”
Pausing by the entrance, Sara glared at him.
Filling the silence, Giovanni quickly continued. “They gave me a few days to convince you, but instead I came to warn you. Chinese intelligence anticipated many things—but they didn’t foresee someone eliminating Evy. Since you are her best friend and work at the Bank too, the killer will assume you know something. Understand? You’re in danger!”
Sara stood there frozen by fear, grappling with the ramifications of what he was saying.
“Please talk about this with me,” Giovanni begged. “I even made this for you,” he said, holding out a flash drive. “Let’s sit down again, Sara.”
Sara grabbed the flash drive and handed it to Anna, who tucked it in her coat pocket. Then Sara relented and returned to the table, with Giovanni and Anna following.
Seated again, Giovanni said, “Proof of everything I’ve told you is on there.”
“Why would you help me?” Sara asked.
Giovanni studied his coffee. “Evy’s death is already on my conscience. I don’t need another.”
Sara made a retching sound.
“Evy wanted to make the world a better place,” he said. “Rule of law, fair elections, freedom of speech. Those things meant something to her, and now I want to stand for them too. I have to.”
“Oh my God, you and your clichés!” Sara said, motioning her hand in the air, as if she was swatting a fly. Her breaths became shallow.
Anna waited, but Giovanni said no more.
All at once, Sara jumped up again. “I’ve got to get out of here. Fresh air,” she gasped.
“Now what’s wrong?” Anna asked, but Sara was already escaping.
Anna threw a twenty on the table, and she and Giovanni chased Sara out. Frowning at the commotion, Jean Claude waved goodbye as they left. Outside, Sara took quick breaths and tapped her hands on her thighs.
“You OK?” Anna asked. “Should I get something for you at the pharmacy over there?”
“No. Just wait. It’s happened before,” Sara said, still breathing audibly. “Pain down my left arm,” she said haltingly. “Panic…attack.”
“Should we walk?” Giovanni suggested, holding out his arm in a chivalrous gesture.
“This is such a nightmare, so hard to understand,” Sara whispered, making an effort to inhale deeply. “Sasha, a bad guy? Why did Evy have to die? And Nou?” As she exhaled slowly and deliberately, Sara looked straight at Giovanni, assessing him. Then, the combination of his beaten-down demeanor, the stories he told about Evy, which rang true however corny they seemed, and the remorseful look in his eyes convinced her he was telling the truth—and she decided to take a chance on him. Looping her arm through his, she allowed herself to be led by the man whom only an hour before, she had believed was a killer.
“Aren’t you too cold out here?” Giovanni asked her.
“No, the cold air is good,” Sara said. “I’m feeling a little better. Come on, Anna. Let’s go.”
“Yes, we need to find a better place for Sara to lie low for a while,” he said.
“One sec,” Anna said, shuddering. “I have a funny feeling.”
“What do you mean?” Sara asked.
“Oh. I don’t know. I think I forgot something inside,” Anna reassured her. “I’ll be right there. You go ahead.”
“Well, OK. We’ll go this way,” Sara said, pointing. “Don’t be long.”
“I’m coming. Don’t worry,” Anna said, looking around for the source of her unease.
Traffic was humming along Massachusetts. On the other side of the wide avenue, a dark-haired middle-aged woman in a parka with a fur-lined hood was walking a handsome hunting dog. Closer in, a young man carrying a brick-like law book rushed by, and in the parking lot, a fit, grey-haired man was getting into an electric vehicle with a bike rack, while a health aide was trailing a bundled-up grandma inching along with a walker. It all seemed pretty run-of-the-mill.
But Anna did a double take as she suddenly noticed another woman closer to her. Standing between two cars, the woman had on glasses and frumpy clothes—a dark green cloth coat and light grey sweatpants—and her hair was in a bob with bangs. She bent down to pick something up, when Anna said out loud, “Ha! The shooter from UMD!” But it was too late. The woman had already stood back up and was pointing a handgun.
A loud popping sound pierced the air. Someone screamed, and the dog barked. A man shouted, “Run! Active shooter!”
Across the parking lot, Giovanni pushed on Sara’s shoulder. “Sara, get down!” he yelled. “Down! Take cover!”
Sara fell flat, and the cold concrete scraped her cheek. A second shot rang out. As a third one exploded, Giovanni draped himself over Sara. She felt his warm breath on the back of her neck.
“Shouldn’t we run?” Sara asked. “What if there’s another shot? What if they come closer? Giovanni, you’re too heavy.” Her right ear and cheek pressed against the ground. “Are you sure we should stay here?” Terrified, she clamped her eyes shut. “We’re going to die!”
A fourth shot exploded.
What Sara couldn’t see was Anna tackling the assassin from the side. Using the Krav Maga skills she had practiced faithfully for a decade, Anna thrust both of her hands forward beneath the shooter’s outstretched arm, looped them around and hung on, weighing her arm down and redirecting the line of fire. Then she flew up, and with all the fury that had accumulated since spying Evy’s lifeless body on that patio, Anna engulfed her in a defensive bear hug. The woman fired again, but destabilized and surprised, she lost control of her aim, fell to the ground and loosened her grip.
Anna grabbed the gun, flipped it and pummeled her opponent in the face. As the assassin fell slack, two police officers swooped in and grabbed her. Anna backed off and collapsed to a seated position on the ground. Pumped full of adrenalin, she propped her elbows on her knees, held her head in her hands, and tried to calm herself.
Meanwhile, Sara’s own body plus the weight of Giovanni’s crunched her right hand, which tingled beneath her chest. “What’s going on? Where’s Anna?” she asked him.
Giovanni shifted to the side, removing the burden of his weight from her back, though his warmth still radiated against her side.
“Thanks. You were so heavy,” Sara said. A gust of wind chilled her face, and she saw Jean Claude coming closer—as if in slow motion, like a cartoon.
The café owner rushed forth. “Mademoiselle,” he said. “You are OK! And, boy, can your beautiful friend fight!” he laughed, offering his hand to hers. “Here, let me help you sit up.”
Sara pivoted to sitting. “What?”
“You seemed so scared back at the café,” Jean Claude said, placing his hand on Sara’s back. “I thought it was this poor French man. I thought he was threatening you. So I called the police. That’s why they were here when that crazy woman started shooting.”
Sara struggled to comprehend. “Giovanni?”
“Mademoiselle Sara,” Jean Claude said, kneeling at her side and bending down to meet her face. “You will be OK now.”
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.