Happy Sunday everyone. I hope you are enjoying this gorgeous weather! Today it is my turn on the tour for The Cutaway and I get to share a gripping extract with you to tickle your tastebuds. Enjoy.
ON THE DRIVE back to the station, I put in another call to the number Bradley Hartnett had left. This time he picked up. He had borrowed a friend’s phone, he explained, in case someone was monitoring his. “Like what happened to Evie,” he said.
That had me easing my foot off the gas pedal and looking for a place to pull over. “What are you talking about, Professor?”
“Didn’t detectives tell you? Evie thought her phone was hacked. This fellow, Detective Miller, wanted me to keep that tip to myself. It was to protect the integrity of the investigation, he said. After your report about that prosecutor, I can only think he was looking to protect something else. I think Evie got caught up in a conspiracy, and it looks like it involves the feds.”
Hartnett was agitated, not at all like the man I’d spoken with at his club last week. Who drank expensive brandy and listened for lions in the morning, and though he’d spoken romantically about Evelyn, had been down to earth, no nonsense. Not that I was dismissing him, but . . .
“A conspiracy?” I pulled into a lot for a convenience store and parked under the light. I dug a pen and reporter pad from my satchel and said:
“Start from the beginning, Professor. I’m ready when you are.”
“Evie dropped by my office a week before she disappeared.”
“I remember,” I said. “You told me.”
“She suspected someone hacked her phone. She worried she was being followed.”
“Why would she think that?”
He hesitated. “She told me she’d made some kind of mistake. At the time, I’d assumed she meant at work and was too ashamed to say, after I’d put in a good word for her. Anyway, she wanted an expert to look at her phone, so I called my friend who heads up IT for the university. She was supposed to take her phone to his office for a scan, but she never showed, and then she disappeared.” He was breathing heavily now, as if struggling with emotion, and then he said, “We have to find her phone.”
I thought of Evelyn in the river, what the river had done to her, how it had washed away her purse and coat and taken everything, except her ATM card and a boot.
“Professor, I’m very sorry, but everything she carried that night was lost in the river.”
“Did you specifically ask about her phone?” he said angrily.
“Then you don’t know what they have.”
“Did you ask about police surveillance? You know, the Justice Department doesn’t need anything physically to put on your phone.”
He went on a rant about IMSI catchers, a controversial device used by law enforcement that acted like a fake cell phone tower, but was small enough to hold in your hand, like a police radio. The device locked in on a phone number or range of numbers, capturing data and eavesdropping on conversations. According to his IT expert, some IMSI catchers could override the phone’s commands, turning the phone on or off from afar. This haunted the professor. What if Evelyn had tried to call him? What if she’d needed help?
“Back up a second, Professor. Why would the United States government—”
“Not the entire government,” he said.
“All right. Why would someone from Justice, FBI, or whatever put a first-year lawyer at a top law firm under surveillance?”
There was a swift intake of breath before he blasted me: “For the goddamn soon-to-be US Attorney for DC. So they could track and grab her off the street. So Ian Chase could kill her.” He was crying in loud gulps. “Sorry, I’m just so furious about what that bastard did to Evie. That bold, beautiful girl.”
“Okay, Professor, I hear you,” I said, and then gently: “The story was upsetting, and made you consider some theories that we don’t have evidence for? Or can you back up any of those claims?”
As he tried to get control of his voice, I got the basics: he had a couple of screen shots of Evelyn’s phone and some documents that she asked him to keep safe for her. “But I can’t make sense of them,” he said, sniffing.
“They appear to be some kind of spreadsheets, maybe financials, except they’re in code. Maybe you could take a look at them?”
“Can I see them tonight? I’ll take the screen shots, too.”
He blew out a breath. “Yeah, that’s good. I’d feel better if you held them anyway. Nothing feels very safe with me.”
“You feel vulnerable because you’re alone.” How well I understood that sentiment. “Give me some time to get across town. There’s a diner by the Avalon Theater on Connecticut. You know it?”
“I’ll borrow my buddy’s Pathfinder. I’ll be there, thirty minutes.” ————
The diner was south of Chevy Chase Circle, in a neighborhood of expensive restaurants and trendy shops and grocery stores. In the District, that’s how you knew you were tucked in a nice upper-class enclave—you got a grocery store. This neighborhood had two.
I parked on the street and walked to the diner. When I opened the door, I glanced around for the professor, who hadn’t yet arrived, and then above the metal counter at the hands on the neon clock. It was 9:07. That’s when I heard the gunshots.
A woman behind the cash register put her hand to her throat. “Fireworks?” she whispered.
“Call the police,” I said.
I jotted the professor a quick note and left it with the hostess before I went outside to call Isaiah. “Send a camera crew to”—I spun around, looking for a street sign—“fifty-five-hundred block of Connecticut, cross street McKinley or Morrison, I can’t tell. Shots fired.”
“On Connecticut Avenue?” Isaiah said sharply.
“I’ll check it out. If I don’t call back in five minutes, send a live truck and Ben.”
“He’s out of town.”
Still? Christ. “Send whoever,” I said through my teeth. “Then call the police. Make sure they know.”
“Police aren’t there yet? Virginia.”
I hung up and ran across Connecticut Avenue, my phone in my hand. Some asshole BMW swerved around me in the crosswalk, putting a hitch in my stride, but I stayed the course in the direction of the grocery store. South of it was an Exxon station. The gunshots came from that direction. A holdup or a street robbery, I figured. Either made sense. A waist-high brick wall enclosed the parking lot of the grocery store. At the far end of the lot were two very young men: both medium height and narrow in that way of men in their late teens or early twenties, one wearing his hair in long braids, the other in basketball shorts and flip-flops, in mid-March. For some reason, the flip-flops engrossed me rather than the behavior of the teen waving his hands in obvious distress. Maybe because my mind couldn’t accept—it seemed utterly implausible— what I was seeing as I crossed the blacktop.
An older-model green Nissan Pathfinder had backed into a parking space. Across its windshield there was a dark cloud of what appeared to be blood spatter. My feet became heavy, my pace slowed. My breath tingled behind my teeth.
Through the gaping hole of the shattered glass of the side window, I could see a large man lurched forward in the driver’s seat, his cheek pressed against the steering wheel. His hair was wet with blood. It was Professor Bradley Hartnett. The back of his head had been blown off.