Washington, DC – Monday, Feb. 24, 1:00 p.m. EST
When Anna arrived home, she was still seething at de Jeanbourg. She knew he was capable of hanging up on her, but when he actually did it, her blood boiled. She jumped out of the car and rushed upstairs without so much as a glance at the lobby lounge. It was as if the people playing billiards, debating the latest social media storm and staring at their laptops weren’t even there.
Entering the apartment, she dumped her bag on the floor and went to the bathroom. She needed to clean up as much as she needed to rest. After a long hot shower, she wiped the fog off the mirror with a hand towel and ventured a peek. There were rings under her eyes, but all her stitches were intact. She fixed the bandage on her leg, put on her silk robe and made a pot of Georgian black tea, which she brought to her desk.
For the next two hours, she combed through Salazar’s flash drive and got her mind around his files. Pulling the pieces together, she made notes on all that had happened the whole crazy morning. When her mind became too foggy to process, she set her alarm for a twenty-minute cat nap, but the moment she sank into a deep sleep, the phone rang.
Angry at herself for failing to mute it, she held up the blasted device and stared at the display screen—an unknown DC number. She considered not answering, but too much was at stake, and her adrenaline was already rushing. There would be no napping.
“Hello,” she answered. “Jones.”
“Ms. Jones?” a man asked tentatively.
“Yes, this is she, Anna Jones.”
“My co-worker gave me your card,” he said. “By our loading dock?”
Anna flew into a seated position. “Oh!”
“Can we meet?” he continued.
“Sure,” she said, thrilled her groundwork had finally borne fruit. “That would be great. Tell me when and where.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “You tell me.”
“OK,” she said, as non-threateningly as possible. “What’s convenient for you? Somewhere near the Bank?”
“There’s an alley where the food trucks park at GW, a couple of blocks from here, over toward the Foggy Bottom metro station. You know what I’m talking about?”
“I do,” she replied.
“I could be there in a half an hour,” he said. “By the taco truck.”
“Great. See you soon,” she replied.
Thirty minutes later, Anna was sitting on a stone ledge a few feet away from the taco truck, wolfing down shredded pork and pickled onions in homemade corn tortillas. She was surprised how hungry she was. Another half hour after that, she was still alone. GW students in fashionable-yet-casual clothing shuffled past her in a steady trickle. A contingency of passers-by wearing scrubs probably worked at the hospital a few blocks further west. Mixed in were government workers and a sprinkling of the well-heeled embassy/international agency crowd. But no sign of loading dock guy. Anna tried calling him back on the number he had used, but the phone rang and rang.
Then a man pitched a taco wrapper into a garbage can pivoted toward her. “I’m the guy who called you. Can we go for a walk?”
“No problem,” said Anna. His hair was short and brown, he wore coveralls, a plain winter jacket and construction boots, and he had five-o’clock shadow.
“My name is Mike.”
“Nice to meet you, uh, Mike. You saw my picture online?”
“No, it’s fine. Everybody does it,” she said, nodding in encouragement. “Thanks for getting in touch.”
“I have something for you,” he said.
“Alright,” she said.
He took off his backpack and unzipped it. “It’s hard to talk about,” he said. “Because I was the one who found him.”
“Professor Channarong. I am the one who discovered his body.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. That must have been awful,” she said. “But I thought it was a woman? I mean, the police told my boss a woman found him.”
“Right, Maria reported it,” Mike said. He reached into his bag and pulled out two letters, which he shoved in Anna’s face. “Here. Take them. I think the professor wrote them the night he died.”
“Oh my goodness!” Anna exclaimed. In beautiful hand-written script, the top envelope was addressed to “Evy Poole.” Anna pulled the bottom one out. She made a face. “It says my name!”
“Yes,” Mike said. “I’m delivering it to you.”
“Where did you get them?”
“That night, the night he died, I saw Professor Channarong in the hallway around one in the morning. He was going to his office—he often did that late at night, you know, to think. Our crew was running late. I told him we could clean his office later. He thanked me, as usual. I’ve done it before—flipped the schedule. It’s not a big deal. In the early morning, I would go back to finish, and sometimes we would have longer conversations. He was nice, always asked about my family. Sometimes, he gave me advice.” Mike trailed off.
Anna waited for him to finish.
“He clearly wanted to be alone. When I left, though, I was worried. He seemed shaky. I smelled alcohol, which was unusual,” he said. “So, when we were finally at the end of our shift, I was anxious to check on him, and….” Mike stopped talking.
“And?” she whispered.
“And he was—dead. We were too late.”
Mike’s eyes teared up. “I feel like it was my fault. I mean, I had a feeling, maybe I could have helped him—but I was too late.”
“No,” she said. “It wasn’t your fault. You can’t blame yourself. He had a lot going on. And I’m sorry to push you to talk about this, but who’s ‘we’? Can you tell me again, what happened, exactly?”
“I was with my co-worker Maria. I was carrying the vacuum, and she was pushing the supply cart—for his executive bathroom, you know. I unlocked, so I saw the body first. I told her not to look. It’s not a good image to have in your mind. She’s the one who called the police. They spoke to her first, but we were together. After, they talked to me too.”
“What about the letters?”
“They were in his out-box. I saw them sitting there. I don’t know why I took them, but I shoved them in my shirt. I never told the police, and Maria never knew.”
“Why tell me now?”
“Maria is friends with that woman you met at the loading dock, and she was talking about you. When I heard the name from the letter, I had to bring it to you.”
“No, I mean, why not open them, or throw them out?”
“Because it’s not right,” he said. “I wanted to help him, like he used to help me, but then I thought it might look like I stole the letters, and I got scared.”
“Thank you for contacting me. I won’t tell anybody how I got them.”
“At least they’re off my hands now.”
“Do you want to read them with me?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “I don’t. You figure it out, Ms. Jones. I have to go.”
As soon as Mike had disappeared, Anna marched across campus to a coffee shop she knew would be open but uncrowded. Inside the law school, the place was next door to the World Bank, and yet a world away. She would be invisible there. Anna bought a latte at the counter, sat down at a flimsy bistro table and took a minute. Convene with Tanner? Give the letters to the police? Open them right away?
Maybe it was the jolt of caffeine, but the next step became obvious. One of the letters is addressed to a dead person, and the other is to me, she thought. I have every right to read my own letter. And, given the circumstances, I can argue it’s OK to read Evy’s too. Reporter’s privilege is on my side.
Anna grabbed a plastic knife sitting on the neighboring table and carefully slit open the envelope marked “Evy Poole.” Inside, she discovered a tri-folded letter on World Bank letterhead. In beautiful hand-written script, it said:
You are a brilliant researcher, a thorough analyst, a true friend. You also possess that rarest of gifts—an independent mind. With so many assets, you are well on your path to becoming a global leader in sustainable development and a significant advocate for the poor. Stay the course. For now, keep working with Anna—I believe you were right to trust her. Together, you are sure to expose the wrongdoing. Once the scandal blows over, do not look back. None of this was your fault.
Forgive me, Nou Channarong
Anna put it down and sat back. Channarong thought Evy would continue his work? He would have been devastated to know her star had burned out. But does it confirm suicide?
She picked up the knife and opened the other envelope. Inside it, too, was a hand-written letter, signed in Channarong’s careful hand. She read:
Dear Ms. Jones,
People will say I should not have taken my own life, but only each soul can truly comprehend his own lot. In my case, it is for the best, I assure you. My wife has left me, my children are grown, and my life’s work has been destroyed. I am a pawn in a new Great Game, for which I lack the rulebook. You could say I stood up for the poor. God knows, I tried. But on balance, it doesn’t matter, because I failed miserably at detecting schemes unfolding beneath my nose.
Ms. Poole tipped me off. She came to me with her documents and data sets and suspicions. She desperately wanted to figure out what was happening and fix it. She took a big risk—I could have been an enemy. Her instincts were good, though. I wanted to help her. But I didn’t understand any better than she did. One thing was clear: someone had already set traps for me. Of course, I knew my own truth, that I was innocent of any machinations, but I was not innocent of the mismanagement. Now, I cannot bear the shame or guilt any longer.
You may wonder why I am sending this letter to you. My wife has not cared about me for a long time. Nothing good would come of revealing this to her. As for the Bank administration, I could not be sure whom to trust. It was Ms. Poole who chose you. She is convinced you are a brave and honest person of integrity, someone who will not back down until the truth emerges. By now, she will have told you everything, fed you every last statistic, and I am glad. You are a well-known correspondent, and I remember meeting you several times. As I leave this world, I do so knowing you will work with her to discover and report the full and complete truth. Feel free to share this letter with whomever you see fit. Godspeed.
Anna carefully refolded the letters and returned them to their envelopes. Doing so felt like paying respect. What a terrible mess. Poor Evy! And poor Channarong, too. His death was equally pointless. That he believed Evy would set the record straight only deepened the tragedy. Anna marveled at the strange fate that had thrown them all together.
Her grief mixed with excitement, though, as she pictured getting the truth out. She had to find Tanner.
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.