Authors: Julie Clark
* * *
Out of tasks, with still hours to fill until I can go to sleep, I open a new tab and navigate to CNN's home page and search for news coverage of the crash. There's a small item reporting that they've planned my funeral, scheduled for a Saturday three weeks from now. Plenty of time for Rory to plan something grand, probably in the city, a guest list thick with dignitaries.
Then I click on Kate Lane's picture. Her most recent television segments are there for me to rewatch. I scroll down and click on the news conference from last night so I can listen to the NTSB director answer reporters' questions.
After rehashing the details of what had already been released, he closes the press conference.
We are still in the search and recovery phase. More information will emerge in the coming days. I ask for your patience in this matter. Vista Airlines has been cooperative and is complying with all federal requests.
It's as I expectedâmore questions than answers. But right before the camera cuts back to Kate in the studio, my eye catches on something in the crowd. I back it up and watch the end of the news conference again, hitting pause when I see it. In the lower left-hand corner is a familiar flash of color tucked in among the typical black and brown parkas and navy windbreakers. The blurred image of a platinum-blond woman wearing a bright-pink sweater decidedly out of place for a frigid February evening in New York.
Six Months before the Crash
The man's name was Agent Castro, and over the next few days, Eva began to see him everywhere. She'd thrown away the business card he'd dropped through her mail slot, and tried to pretend he hadn't followed her to her house, walked up her walkway, and knocked on her door. But he kept cropping up. In the parking lot at the supermarket. Driving down Bancroft Avenue as she exited a coffee shop. He even showed up at DuPree's, taking a table in a different section and causing Eva to mess up several orders while he slowly ate a prime-rib dinner and drank a Guinness.
It worried her, how unconcerned he was about being seen. And it made her wonder how long he'd been watching her before deciding to make his presence known.
When Dex finally called her back, she demanded they meet immediately. “How did you get that Brittany referral?” she asked him. They were at a sports bar on Telegraph Avenue, sitting across from each other at a beer-sticky table in the basement dining room next to a pool table while semidrunk students around them watched a preseason football game on the big-screen TV.
“This guy I grew up with moved to Los Angeles. He knows her from down there. When she moved up here, he gave her my name. He told me she'd be a steady client. Why?”
Eva studied his face, looking for any signs of a lie, tension, or a flash of guilt. “I saw her talking to a federal agent after she tried to buy from me. Now he's following me. I see him everywhere.”
Dex set his burger down, his expression serious. “Tell me exactly what happened.”
Eva described how Brittany appeared to be strung out. The jittery way she spoke, and the scabs on her hands. “I guess my question is why you sent me someone you hadn't vetted yourself. That's not the way it's supposed to work.”
Dex's gaze darkened. “What are you suggesting?”
“I'm pointing out that shortly after I met with a client you referred, I'm being tailed by a federal agent.”
“Fuck.” Dex tossed his napkin on the table. “I want you to stop everything. Don't make or sell anything until you hear from me.”
“And how will you explain that to Fish?” she asked.
“I'll handle him,” Dex told her. “My job is to keep you safe.”
Eva stared at him, weighing his words, knowing how this game was played. At the end of the day, if the choice was jail or selling out a friend, people in their business did what they had to do. She didn't delude herself into thinking Dex would be any different, and she wasn't entirely certain she would be either.
And yet, Dex had been the one to teach her how to evaluate risks, to identify who might be an undercover agent or an addict who could expose her. She couldn't picture him leading her into an abyss that would surely pull him in after her.
* * *
They'd been meeting someone, several months after her expulsion, while she was still living in Dex's spare bedroom and making the drugs on old equipment in his kitchen. They saw him, a shaggy-haired student, barely twenty years old, with headphones and sagging pants.
“Watch him,” Dex had said. They were tucked behind a bus kiosk, as if they were checking the schedule. The man had a tic of some kind, shrugging his left shoulder, shaking his head, almost imperceptibly, as he waited. In a low voice, Dex said, “You always watch first. You look for anomalies, like whether they're wearing a sweatshirt in eighty-degree heat. Or if they're wearing a tank top when it's raining. These are clues, and you
to notice them. Check out his headphones. They're not plugged into anything. See the way the cord is tucked into his front pocket, but the outline of his phone is in his back pocket?” Eva had nodded, filing these things away, knowing her survival depended on remembering them. Dex continued. “When you see anything like that, you keep going, because something isn't right. Either he's an addict or a cop.” He looked at her with a grave expression, his gray eyes locking onto hers. “Your number one priorityâFish's number one priorityâis your safety. It's why he's lasted as long as he has in this business.” Dex laughed quietly. “That and the ten people he has working for him inside the Berkeley and Oakland police departments.”
They'd stepped out from under the cover of the kiosk and turned away from the man without making the sale, leaving him on the curb, waiting for drugs that would never show up.
* * *
“Did you sell her anything?” Dex asked Eva now.
“No. She was off. Crazy. I told her she had me confused with someone else and got the hell out of there.”
Dex nodded. “Good. You're taking a vacation until we figure out what's going on.”
“It's like this guy wants me to see him.”
“He probably does,” Dex said. “People make mistakes when they're nervous, and he obviously wants to make you nervous. The fact that he's so visible means he doesn't have anything on you and he's getting desperate.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Let him follow you. He won't see anything, and eventually he'll look somewhere else.”
Dex tossed a couple five-dollar bills onto the table for a tip. Around them, the room erupted in cheers, all eyes on the television, where someone had just scored a touchdown. Eva started to rise, but Dex said, “You should stay a little longer.”
Eva sat back and watched him leave, fighting down a growing panic, like someone waiting her turn to get on a lifeboat and realizing she was going to be the only one left on the sinking ship. Dex was already trying to distance himself.
Around her, the college kids drank and laughed, their biggest worry whether Cal would go to a bowl game. She had never in her life felt that relaxed. Even when she was a student, she'd been guarded. Quiet. Growing up in a group home, she learned from a young age that it was safest to observe rather than jump in with loud laughter or a witty joke. The sisters at St. Joe's encouraged them to be studious. Respectful. Which Eva had become, all the while figuring out how to break the rules more quietly.
But it wasn't a home. The sisters were older. Strict and uncompromising. They believed that children should be silent and compliant. Eva remembered the cold hallways of the dorm, tucked behind the sanctuary, smelling of candle wax and damp. She remembered the other girls. Not their names, but their voices. Harsh and bullying, or soft and scared. She remembered the crying at night. How, at the end of the day, each of them was alone.
Eva took a final sip of her beer and stood, weaving her way toward the stairs that led up to the main dining room. She eyed the emergency exit, imagining the sound of the alarm, which was already screaming inside her head. But she bypassed it, knowing now was not the time for anything so desperate. Not yet.
* * *
As she pulled into her driveway, she saw Liz locking her door and heading down the front walk toward her car. Eva glanced up and down the street, forcing herself to slow down and act normal.
“Hello!” Liz called.
Eva had grown curious about Liz since that first afternoon in Liz's apartment. She found herself listening for her. Watching her come and go. The sound of Liz's voice still reverberated in her mind, and Eva couldn't deny she felt drawn to the woman.
Eva locked her car and turned to her with a smile, pointing at Liz's New Jersey plates. “You drove all the way from New Jersey?” She tried to relax her shoulders and focus on Liz and not on the possibility that Agent Castro's car might turn the corner at any moment.
But today was not a day for talking, and she breathed easy when Liz said only, “I thought it would be a fun road trip, but already I'm dreading the drive back.” She rounded her car and slid into the driver's seat with a wave, and Eva continued up the walkway, unlocking her door and slipping inside.
The silence was a relief. She made her way over to the couch and lay down, forcing herself to take several deep breaths, but she couldn't relax. She could feel Castro's presence like an audience, watching everything she did. Every coming and going, to the market, to DuPree's. Every interaction like the one she'd just had with Liz, recorded in someone's field notes.
4:56 p.m.: Eva chats with older neighbor on lawn.
She stared at the wall that separated her apartment from Liz's and wondered if Liz might be a useful person to have around. Become part of the story she wanted Castro to believe about her. That she was just a server who lived a small life filled with mundane details too boring to record.
Eva spends evening out with neighbor friend.
Eva and neighbor friend do a guided tour of Berkeley Rose Garden
. What might bore them the most?
* * *
Later that evening, there was a knock on the door. A quick peek through the window revealed Liz on the porch, holding a casserole dish. “I don't know when I'm going to remember to cut a recipe in half,” she said, though Eva suspected Liz preferred to have someone to cook for.
Liz handed her the dish and stepped inside, causing Eva to falter as she carried the casserole into the kitchen. She had just closed the refrigerator and turned around to see Liz bent over, reading the titles of the books on her shelf in the living room. It unsettled her, to have someone in her space, looking at her things. But she took a deep breath and smiled through her discomfort.
7:45 p.m.: Neighbor brings Eva food. They chat for twelve minutes.
She could do this.
“You're interested in chemistry?” Liz asked.
Eva shrugged. They were mostly old textbooks from her last year of college that Eva hadn't opened in years. Yet she couldn't bring herself to get rid of them, as if doing so would toss away a critical part of herself. “I studied it for a little while. In school.”
“These are college texts,” Liz said, pulling one out. She flipped it open, looking at the stamp of the Berkeley student store on the inside cover. “You went to Berkeley? You never mentioned that.”
“For a bit,” Eva said. “I didn't graduate.”
“Why not?” Liz asked, as Eva knew she would.
“Stuff got in the way.” Eva hoped that her half answers and deflections would end the conversation there.
On the counter, Eva's phone buzzed, lighting up with a text from Dex. Eva snatched the phone, pressing the Save for Later option on the screen before shoving it into her pocket.
Liz watched her, waiting for her to say something, and when she didn't, Liz pointed to the open can of Diet Coke on the counter. “That stuff is poison,” she said.
Eva checked her watch, the charade suddenly draining her. How long would she need to entertain this woman? “I'd better get in the shower. I'm working a shift at the restaurant this evening.”
Liz waited a beat, as if trying to read the truth beneath Eva's words, before saying, “You know, life is long. Lots of things can go wrong and still end up all right.”
Eva thought about her lab, hidden beneath the room where they stood. And she thought it was a fitting metaphor. Liz saw only what was in front of her, while Eva worried about everything hidden beneath the surface that might float to the top, where Agent Castro waited to collect it.
“Thanks for the food,” she said.
Liz replaced the textbook on the shelf, dismissed. “You're very welcome.”
After she left, Eva pulled out the phone and read Dex's text.
Fish is dealing with it. Take a couple weeks off and this guy will be gone
Relief flooded her. Like a missed collision, Castro would barrel past her, leaving her weak and shaky but in one piece.
“It's going to be fine,” she said out loud to the empty room. Next door, Liz had turned on some music, and the faint sound of jazz wound its way around Eva, calling out to her, offering her a glimpse of a life she could have for a little while.
* * *
Later that night, she entered DuPree's from the alley and hurried to her locker, hoping Gabe, her manager, wouldn't notice she was late. When she emerged again, she found him directing a busser to clear some tables. “Finally,” he said. “You're working section five.”
Eva grabbed her notepad and ran through the specials with the sous chef in the kitchen before heading out into the large dining room.
She soon lost herself in work. Taking orders, chatting with patrons, delivering food. For a little while, she could be exactly who everyone thought she was. Just a server, working hard and saving her tips for a long weekend in Cabo or a new leather jacket. A lightness zipped through her, making her feel buzzy with anticipation, like a child released from school for the summer.
Gabe found her in the kitchen, giving directions to the cook for a vegetarian order. He was in his midforties, balding, with a shirt that always seemed to be straining at the edges. He was a fair boss who seemed gruff and impatient with his employees, but always gave them time off when they needed it. “Eva,” he said. “When are you going to let me schedule you for more shifts? I need you more than twice a week.”
“No thanks,” she said. “It's too hard to pursue my hobbies otherwise.”
“Hobbies?” Gabe said, perplexed. “What hobbies?”
Eva leaned against the kitchen wall, grateful for the short break, and ticked them off on her fingers. “Knitting. Ceramics. Roller derby.”
One of the dishwashers snorted, and she winked at him.
Gabe shook his head, muttering under his breath about how no one appreciated him.
Someone called from across the kitchen. “Eva, table four looks ready to order.”
She headed back into the dining room, emptier now that it was nearing nine o'clock. When she arrived at table four, she pulled up short. There sat one of her best clients, Jeremy, flanked on either side by what had to be his parents.
Jeremy was a third-year communications major whose father demanded straight A's in order to continue funding Jeremy's tuition and lavish lifestyle, which included a BMW, a loft apartment in downtown Berkeley, and the drugs Eva made. And unlike Brett, Jeremy always paid in full. Cash on delivery. It was a pleasure working with him.