Washington, DC – Tuesday, Feb. 18, 7:00 p.m. EST
Anna was pacing in the lobby of the E Street Cinema, when one of its six doors flew wide open and crashed into a tall metal garbage. A stunning young Black woman tumbled into the place. She had long straightened black hair, dark brown skin, arched eyebrows and bright brown eyes, and she was visibly out of breath, as if someone had been chasing her. Wearing a black thermal puffer jacket and ripped stone-washed jeans, she looked like a supermodel ready for an outdoor photo shoot.
Looking around, the woman mumbled, “Sorry, sorry,” and then rushed toward Anna. “Excuse me, I’m so sorry. Could I use your phone to text my boyfriend? My phone died,” she said. The woman stood there doe-eyed.
“Sure,” said Anna, shrugging. She unlocked the phone and handed it to her. “Here.”
“Thank you so much,” said the woman, who began texting.
Anna drifted up to the three sets of double doors and gazed toward the old FBI building for her friend Mel—still no sign of her. Mel hadn’t warned Anna she would be late, but that wasn’t really unusual. Mel refused to conform to the norms of constant electronic communication. Anna thought about leaving, but after a long afternoon of open questions and unresolved leads, she stuck with the plan to meet Mel in hopes an outing would clear her head.
Movie posters in gilded frames decorated the lobby. A Norwegian spy movie, coming soon, seemed promising. The box office attendant chatted with the trickle of customers as he swiped their credit cards. Still no sign of Mel.
The model was still using Anna’s phone, and she was emanating a nervous vibe.
Anna wondered what was up with her boyfriend. Second thought, I don’t want to know, she said to herself. I have my own boyfriend troubles—if only Viktor weren’t a ten-hour flight away.
“Thanks!” said the woman, interrupting Anna’s thoughts and handing the phone back with a flourish, as if presenting a prize.
Anna took the phone back. "No problem," Anna murmured.
“Thank you so much,” the woman repeated, squinting, cocking her head, wrinkling up her nose.
“I really appreciate it. I guess he got held up. I’m going to wait outside,” she said, smiling more, backing off and rushing away.
“No big deal,” Anna said. Why so coy?
The woman left as quickly as she had arrived, just as Mel’s spikey hair and excellent posture came into sight.
“Who was that?” Mel asked, first thing.
“That woman you were talking to.”
“Some woman. I don’t know. Hello to you too.”
“What do you mean? Some woman? She had your phone,” said Mel, giving Anna a hug. “I saw her.”
“A random woman whose phone died. She had to text her boyfriend.”
“Are you sure? I saw her leave with a woman.”
“That’s what she said.”
“She’s quite the specimen,” Mel said. “Goddess-type.”
“Do you need a matchmaker?” Anna asked.
“I’m still officially single, but no, not really. Things are going well with Saloma.”
“Duly noted. So, ‘Mayhem,’ is it? Are you sure about this film?”
“It got great reviews. Why?”
“I don’t know. I feel pretty wound up.”
“Want to skip it?”
“Kind of. I’m sorry.”
“No worries,” Mel said, raising eyebrows expectantly. “Karl’s?”
“Thanks,” Anna said, spotting a couple waiting on line. “Hey!” she said, holding the tickets up. “Want mine?”
The couple accepted the tickets, and Anna turned back to Mel, who was already halfway out the front door. Anna appreciated how Mel knew what she was thinking. Hanging out was never straining. Ever since they met playing soccer at Illinois State, it had been that way. Mel called Anna the “perfect sibling,” the kind that didn’t exist in real life, because they didn’t fight. She was one of only a few people in the city who knew Mel’s real name was Tiffany Melissa Allen.
“Do you mind if we walk?” Anna asked.
“No, it’s fine.”
They passed Ford’s Theater where Lincoln had been shot. A group of high-schoolers herding toward a tourist-trappy rock-n-roll café engulfed them and ebbed, like a human flood.
“Rough day?” Mel asked.
“Need to clear my head,” she said.
“The World Bank story, I presume. Want to talk about it?”
“Yes. And no. Not yet. Let’s talk about Saloma.”
Mel told Anna about her recent date. They turned north and passed the ice hockey/basketball arena in Chinatown. The surrounding stores and restaurants announced themselves in English and Mandarin. Chinese New Year animals looked up from the “zebra stripes” of the crosswalks.
“It’s a good thing they put these signs up in Chinese,” Anna said.
“Now who’s being snarky?” Mel replied. “It’s worth paying homage to this old place. Besides, it draws people in. It’s reassuring to see the old businesses thriving, even if they have evolved into tourist attractions.”
In a restaurant display window, an elderly man rolled, cut and stuffed dumplings with the precision of a celebrity chef. A line had formed in the narrow entryway, as a couple of hostesses escorted people down the steps.
Anna and Mel zigzagged, continuing northward on 5th. Talk of Mel’s job carried them to the former industrial yard where the lights and picnic tables of Karl Maria Schachholzer’s Restaurant and Beer Garden sprawled along the railroad tracks. Nestled near three universities—east of Howard, west of Gallaudet and south of Catholic—Karl’s was the baby of a German economist and an American TV journalist, Lisa Markelli, who had covered the White House. At first Karl and Lisa had offered only coffee and booze, but they rigged the place with free high-speed wifi. When they stabilized, they served the German basics—sausage, potato salad and strudel—and later added the best finger foods the world has to offer—falafel, samosas, kebabs. People couldn’t resist. In summer, they put up umbrella tables. In winter, they erected a tent and outdoor heaters. Instead of barges floating by on the Rhine, their customers watched trains trundling along on the rusty tracks.
Karl’s quickly became a home-away-from-home for an incestuous in-the-know crowd.
“Maybe we’ll catch Garrett Zarribe again,” Anna said.
“The guy who used to work on Iran at the National Security Council?” Mel asked.
“Yeah. I’d like to pick his brain on where the White House is going with that new so-called carrot-and-stick approach. He’s at that think tank now, the one in Georgetown.”
“He won’t tell you anything of merit.”
“Why not? He doesn’t work at the NSC anymore. He can share an opinion—based on his own current independent research and analysis. I’m not asking him to divulge anything he’s not supposed to. He’s allowed to give us his general understanding.”
“He’s not the type to talk in public. And he wouldn’t tell the Daily Journal—even on ‘deep background’ in a completely secret cave.”
“No, he would. He’d be helping me stay informed, which helps him too in the end.”
“He’s a horse’s ass. He doesn’t care about educating journalists.”
“But he has to keep up his reputation—you know, maintain status as an expert.”
“I don’t trust him. He has all kinds of ulterior motives—especially with a blonde bombshell like you,” she said. “Come to think of it, he probably would talk to you, but what would he want in return? Do you want that type of information?”
“What is that supposed to mean? Blonde bombshell? Ulterior motives? You sound like my grandfather.”
“I’m realistic. You shouldn’t ignore the fact that people are attracted to you.”
“That’s not a good enough reason to avoid him. His perspective could be valuable, especially if I keep ulterior motives in mind. You know I won’t take his word for gospel. I’ll double, triple check, corroborate. Besides, we have mutual friends.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Mel said. “Wait, who?”
“Your old boyfriend—from freshman year? How would they know each other?”
“Rick was best friends with his son, Coho, at boarding school.”
“Gross. When was the last time you saw Rick? I didn’t know you kept in touch.”
“We don’t. Not really. Just social media, holiday greetings, that sort of thing. But Rick works in DC. He heard I had moved here and called me. Since you told me about Karl’s, I suggested we go there—and that’s where we ran into Coho’s dad, Garrett Zarribe. Coho is a lawyer now, and he and his dad recently took a giant tour of China. They were pretty informative. I told you about it, Mel. What’s the matter with you?”
“I didn’t catch that, Anna. Sorry. Rick was not my favorite person. Maybe I wasn’t listening.”
“Whatever you think of Rick, Coho’s dad is a solid contact.” Anna glanced at her phone. “Shoot.”
“What’s the matter?” asked Mel.
Amid the usual churn of her news feeds, emails and messages, Anna saw an unexpected text. She shook her head. What the hell? Do a simple good deed, screw yourself over. “Check this out. It’s from that ‘goddess’ of yours.” She showed her phone screen to Mel.
Mel looked at the text.
“Need to see you in private,” it said.
“You are such an idiot,” Mel told her.
“Ugh,” Anna said, dragging out the word. “You know I never give out my private number. Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
“Maybe it’s a game, a secret-admirer thing.”
“Come on, Mel. Even you don’t think that.”
“Maybe she hacked your phone, inserted malware and tracking.”
“Here I thought she was a lost puppy.”
“But she was actually a troll.”
Anna showed her phone to Mel again. “Look. She sent a message that says, ‘Hey, at the theater. Hurry up. I’ll get tickets.’ But then she sent this other message back to me from the same number that she texted. So was she texting herself? Or is she using someone else’s phone?” Anna shoved the phone in her pocket.
“Have tech check it out,” Mel said. “And get a new phone.”
“It’s not that nefarious.”
“How do you know? Anna, have the tech department look into it. Maybe she’s benign, but maybe she’s not.”
Anna tilted her head.
“Look, I can’t believe I’m saying this, me of all people, but you need to be more careful. Don’t forget all that hate you collect in your social media feeds—‘bitch,’ ‘whore,’ ‘slut’?”
“You forgot ‘wench’,” Anna said, rolling her eyes and moving her hand in quick circles. “And ‘stupid idiot,’ ‘fucking snowflake,’ ‘dumb blonde’…”
Mel made a face. “You’re a complete fool, Anna, but you’re also the guru running the global conspiracy!”
“Yeah, that’s why I should be raped and shot, right?” She shrugged. “People say it so often, I’m getting used to it.”
“Might as well admit it, Anna. You’re an omniscient moron, a slut and a hack for an international cabal.”
Anna’s phone vibrated just as Mel said “cabal.” Both of them flinched.
Anna laughed and pulled out the phone again. “This time she tells me to meet her—like now.”
“We’re almost at Karl’s.”
“True, but check this out,” she said, showing Mel her phone display again. “She says, ‘Really urgent. Have info 4 U’.”
“Oh, come on!” Mel laughed. “She has in. for. ma. tion. And it’s uuuur-gent!”
“What’s your name?” Anna typed.
“Doesn’t matter,” the woman texted.
“Does matter. Who are you?” Anna asked.
“Evy. Hurry up.”
“Evy what? What info?” Anna wrote.
Standing still now, about a block from Karl’s, Anna and Mel waited for a reply. A few moments passed, but nothing came.
“Hang on,” Anna said to Mel. “Let me check something.” Anna typed and stared, typed and stared at her phone.
Mel made a face.
“Hang on,” Anna repeated. “Another text popped up, and it’s from her. It says, ‘You work for the NYDJ’.”
“She knows who you are,” Mel said, raising her eyebrows.
“So what?” Anna texted as Mel looked on.
“It’s about New deals,” Evy wrote. “URGENT!!! Meet me on the patio at the Egyptian.”
“New deals?” Anna texted.
“Nou & sketchy deals” Evy replied.
“Why didn’t you talk to me at the theater?” Anna texted.
“Will explain. PLEASE NOW! Meet NOW,” Evy replied. “I’m being followed.”
Anna turned to Mel. “She says ‘n-o-u,’ as in Nou Channarong—my story.”
“She could be bullshitting you.”
“True, but even a lie might turn out to be useful. And maybe this is important. I won’t know if I don’t go. Besides, let’s face it—you want to go to Karl’s, but you weren’t going to hang out with me. Saloma will be there.”
For once Mel was quiet.
“I don’t want to be a third wheel,” Anna told Mel. “On my way,” she texted to Evy.
A car pulled up, and Anna raised her hand to it.
“You already ordered a car, didn’t you?” Mel asked.
Anna nodded and gave Mel a quick hug. “Thanks for hanging out,” she said, jumping into the back seat.
“You go get that scoop!” Mel yelled, as Anna sped away.
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.