Story by Jane Lavigne, Ron Herring, Mary Zeise, Deborah A. Olevano, Katherine Gascon Weaver, and Charles Levin
Written by Charles Levin
[Reader’s Note: Last month, I asked readers to suggest “What happens next” as a much-requested sequel to the story Zombie Phone. Thanks to all those who contributed their creative and fun ideas. I chose five suggestions from readers, Jane, Ron, Mary, Deborah, and Katherine, whose contributions work with my characters and elevate the premise into an even stranger mystery. The story features DHS Agent Renata Fermi, who is a significant character in my thriller NOT SO GONE.]
Sunday, 2:00 PM – West Potomac Park
It was a mild, sunny day. The early spring breeze caressed my face. The fragrance of the brilliantly blooming cherry blossoms hung in the air. Just as Renata and I planned, I was waiting by the railing across from the Jefferson Memorial. We agreed to meet there after our date yesterday, brunch at Café Cucina. The truly odd thing about that date was that I discovered a black cell phone hidden in a planter next to our table. Renata explained that it was a Zombie Phone, placed there to silently answer someone’s incoming call, so they could listen to our conversation. But who?
Renata coaxed me to meet her again today, knowing we were being overheard. Where is she? I thought. I worked for the National Institute of Health, she for Homeland Security. Knowing that someone was listening, we pretended I was going to hand over to her a deadly virus sample or some other valuable, highly classified substance. Now you know as much as I knew, except Renata promised she’d have surveillance at the arranged meeting and she’d catch whoever bugged the prior day’s conversation. I checked my watch, 2:16. Still no Renata.
Leaning on the rail, I gazed at the reflection of the grand rotunda dedicated to Thomas Jefferson. In God We Trust, everyone else pays cash. Not sure what made me think of that. Maybe it was the creepy sting operation Renata somehow sucked me into. I didn’t even really know her that well.
As I turned around to lean back against the railing, a tall, striking woman with wild red hair approached me flashing a wide smile. Who is this? She gave me a tight embrace and said, “Oh, I missed you so much, It’s wonderful to see you again.”
My arms, hesitant at first, seemed to have a mind of their own as they wrapped around her waist. Then she planted a long, lingering kiss on my willing lips. Her lavender perfume intoxicated me. And as quickly as this encounter started, it ended. She stepped back and said, “Gotta go now. I’ll call you later.” Just like that, she turned and left. I watched her confident stride as she receded into the distance, that red hair flying and waving in the wind.
Huh, what just happened? I wondered. Some innate reflex made me pat my back pocket to make sure my wallet was still there. It was. I rubbed my other pockets. To my surprise, In the right pocket of my coat, I felt a lump. Inside the pocket, there was something smooth and round that wasn’t there before. I hadn’t put it there. The woman, the redhead? I wanted to look at the small cylinder, examine it, but not there in public. If there was surveillance, me extracting a vial from my pocket could blow the whole thing. Wait, maybe the redhead was setting me up, placing a vial of something dangerous, insidious, classified even, in my pocket and then–.
I saw two men rushing toward me. They were both wearing black coats with dark sunglasses, a barely visible wire curled from their collars to their ears. The taller man said, “Would you come with us, please?” They each firmly grabbed one of my arms.
“That wasn’t a question,” the shorter man said, tugging me forward.
“Wait, what’s going on? I didn’t do anything,” I protested.
Neither man responded. They forcefully led me to a waiting black Chevy Suburban and pushed me into the back seat. Out the dark-tinted window, I saw Renata emerge from behind one of the cherry trees. Her lips were moving. She seemed to be talking into her wristwatch. The Suburban gunned it, whipping my head back.
Looking at the back of the two men motionless in the front seat, I asked, “Where are we going?”
No answer. I was screwed.
We arrived at a five-story granite building on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Another man and woman, also in dark suits, emerged from the building. The woman opened the car door and said, “This way, sir.”
I didn’t move. She seized my arm with a vise-grip and yanked me out. I tried to pull my arm free, but her powerful grasp didn’t give. It was foolish to fight my way out of this Kafkaesque situation. I thought I’d be better off attempting to talk my way out. I’ve always been good at that. Since I was not a physically powerful child, I quickly learned that persuasion and humor were my superpowers. But these guys in the dark suits seemed in no mood for jokes.
They left me alone in a dimly lit, green-tiled room. The only furnishings were a metal table bolted to the floor and two metal chairs. The room smelled like Lysol. After waiting a minute alone, I turned the doorknob. Locked.
Breathe. I struggled to calm my racing heart. I sat. I paced. There were no windows and they had taken my watch, so I couldn’t tell how much time had passed. It seemed like hours. I was thirsty. I needed to pee. Banging on the door brought no response. I pounded on the door until my hand hurt. Nothing.
I’d pee in the corner if I had to. I slumped down in one of the unforgiving steel chairs. Closing my eyes, I drifted off… I was back at the Jefferson Memorial, still impatiently waiting. A woman approached, but this time it was Renata. Her welcoming brown eyes and pouty smile moved something inside me.
“I’m so sorry to be late,” she said. “We just needed to get everyone in place. We think we know who was listening on the Zombie Phone yesterday.”
“Just kiss me and it will all become clear,” she said.
I looked into her penetrating eyes. There was so much there I didn’t understand but longed to know. I wrapped my arms around her and kissed her hard. An electric warmth seemed to come through her lips and fill my whole body. I have known other women, but never felt this way before, this intense.
Suddenly, a man burst from the trees running toward us. He had a gun and fired, one shot, two. We ducked to the ground. I put my body on top of Renata’s protecting her. More shots. I turned my head as the assailant crumpled to the ground like a rag doll. Three more men appeared from the woods, guns drawn. They approached the fallen, lifeless man. After kicking his gun away, they holstered their weapons and looked in our direction.
I slowly rose. Then I saw it. A red plume of blood on Renata’s white blouse. I rolled her over and listened to her chest. She was still breathing. “Renata? Renata!,” I cried.
Her eyes flickered open. “Did they get him?” She whispered.
“Yes, who was he?”
“My Ex. He was a dangerous man and a Russian spy,” she muttered.
“Don’t talk,” I said and waved an arm at the three agents.
“I’ll be OK,” Renata’s voice trailed off. Her eyes closed and her head lolled to the side.
A loud noise woke me from the dream. The door to the green-tiled room swung open. It was Renata. My heart skipped a beat. “Thank God, you’re OK,” I said.
She furrowed her brow and said, “I’m OK, but you’re in big trouble.” She studied me and shook her head. “I knew I should never have married you.”
To find out more about ZombiePhones and other vulnerabilities that inspired this story, check out Is My Cell Phone Bugged? by Kevin Murray.
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