Authors: Julie Clark
At a table near the edge of the yard, I set my tray down to gather dirty glasses and empty plates, and let my eyes linger on the horizon. San Francisco is shaded in deep blues and purples as the sun begins to set, the lights on the Bay Bridge becoming more vibrant against the darkening sky, a stream of cars traveling into the city, their red taillights a bright necklace. Behind me, the party goes on, voices mixed in with pockets of laughter, the clink of glasses and cutlery, and beneath it all, low classical music smoothing out the edges.
I heft my tray back onto my shoulder and make my way carefully toward the house. As I cross the threshold, one voice lifts up above the others. A woman's, bright with surprise and joy. “Oh my god, Claire! Is it really you?”
Heat zips up my spine, spreading outward, growing into a white-hot panic as the party swirls around me. My eyes dart toward the exitsâfront and backâmeasuring which one might be closer, but people press in on me with no clear path of escape.
I should have left when I had the chance. And now it's too late.
Seven Weeks before the Crash
Cold January wind and a resolutionâone way or another, she was done. Either Agent Castro was going to help her escape or she'd do it herself. They were meeting in a deserted beach parking lot in Santa Cruz, an hour and a half south of San Francisco. Eva hoped Fish's reach didn't extend so far. She'd driven slowly, watching her rearview mirror for anyone following her. The road that wound through the low hills separating the 101 freeway with the coast was only two lanes. Several times she pulled over and let cars behind her pass. No one appeared to notice her. No cars doubled back. By the time she pulled in next to Agent Castro's car, she felt confident they were alone.
They walked down the stairs that led to the beach without speaking. Wind blew her hair around her face, and the pounding waves seemed to vibrate through her. She wondered what they looked like to outsiders, walking on the beach in the middle of winter. Would people think they were a couple, hashing out an argument? Or perhaps siblings, come to scatter the remains of a loved one? She was almost certain they would never guess drug dealer and DEA agent.
“You're making the right decision,” he said.
Eva stared out at the ocean, salt spray misting her face. She resented the word
, as if she were choosing between a sofa and a chair, deliberating between options, weighing the pros and cons.
She felt time slow down, forcing her to notice the moment that separated before and after. The last time something had split her life so cleanly, the consequences had bled far into the future, staining everything. “I haven't decided anything. But I'm willing to listen to what you have to say,” she said finally.
Agent Castro shoved his hands in his pocket, his eyes squinting against the wind. “Felix Argyros is someone we've been tracking for a long time. As I'm sure you're aware, his reach in the Bay Area is extensive and deep. And he's dangerous. We have at least three active murder investigations that we think are connected to him.”
Eva gave him a sharp look. “You're wasting your time trying to scare me. I know what he can do to me, which is why I won't agree to anything until you can offer me protection.”
Agent Castro's brown eyes studied her face, and she held his gaze, digging deep to hold it, to show him she was determined to do this her way. She had what he wanted, and if he wanted it bad enough, he would agree to her terms.
“Of course we'll offer you protection. We'll be with you twenty-four hours a day until after you testify, and I've been authorized to offer full immunity.”
Eva laughed and looked down the beach, where in the distance, a lone woman threw a stick for a golden retriever into the ocean. “âImmunity' is a meaningless word. I'm talking about witness protection. Giving me a new identity, setting me up somewhere else.”
Agent Castro blew out hard, thinking. “I can ask,” he said finally. “But I can't make any promises. It's not as common as you might think, and we don't usually do that for people of Fish's caliber.”
Eva knew he had to say that, to try to direct her to what was simpler and cheaper for his bosses. But she wouldn't be deterred. “I know how hard it is to make a conviction stick on a guy like Fish. I know how likely it is he'll get off on a technicality. And if he does, what do you think will happen to me? Your immunity won't help me then.”
“I understand,” Agent Castro said. “All I can do is assure you we know what we're doing.”
“Like you knew what you were doing getting Brittany involved?”
“Brittany was a mistake,” he conceded. “But it wasn't a complete disaster, since she led us to you.” He turned his back on the ocean to face Eva, and his coat billowed out like a parachute. “You have to trust us.”
Eva nearly laughed out loud. Trusting others had never turned out well for her, and this would be no different. “If you can't offer me witness protection, I don't think I can help you.”
Castro's eyes softened, and she noticed the laugh lines that framed them. Someone, somewhere, must know what he looked like when he was happy, and she found herself wondering who that was, what it was like to love a man who spent his days chasing shadows.
“Look,” he said. “I've been doing this a long time, and I've seen a lot. Of all the people I know in this business, you're the one who doesn't fit.”
Eva looked beyond him, out across the churning waves and whitecaps to the horizon line, knowing that it was just an illusion, that it would always be out of reach no matter how far you traveled, how hard you tried to get there. “You don't know anything about me,” she said.
“I know you grew up in a group home. I know what happened to you at Berkeley, and I know you shouldn't have been the only one punished.”
She bit back a response, angry at him for knowing her secrets. She'd needed someone to say that years ago, when it could have actually helped her. Now? They were just empty words.
He continued. “I think you're a good person who was forced to make an impossible choice. Help me help you.”
Eva stared at him, trying to make him believe she was still considering it, letting the silence spool out between them. She knew enough about life to know that the minute you agreed to somethingâwhether it was making drugs for a football player or a drug dealer, or turning evidence over to the fedsâthey stopped trying to take care of you as soon as you said yes.
Agent Castro continued. “If you don't cooperate, we will prosecute you. Immunity will disappear, and I won't be able to do anything for you once that happens. You'll go to jail, for a very long time.”
Eva thought she had enough for Castro, but the minute she handed it over, he wouldn't have to promise her anything. “If you can give me what I'm asking for, we might be able to come to an agreement,” she said.
“I'll do my best.”
Eva hugged her arms tight against her body and said, “I assume you'll keep following me. I have to ask that you not make things difficult. You seem to think Fish is a midrange dealer, but if he finds out we talked, he'll kill me, and then you'll have nothing.”
* * *
She barely registered the return drive to Berkeley, her mind taking over, sifting through her options and next steps. Regardless of what Castro might be able to do for her, she needed to be ready to walk away from all of itâBerkeley, her house, her job. And Liz.
Eva arrived home after dark, the lights in Liz's apartment warm and inviting. She paused to touch the soft branches of their tree, empty of decorations now, waiting for another Christmas that would never arrive. Would Liz imagine Eva here, decorating it alone? Would she try to call Eva and wonder why she never answered her phone? Come back to visit friends and find Eva gone, her apartment abandoned? Eva knew what that was like, to feel the ragged strands of unanswered questions, tickling the back of your mind, tormenting your quietest moments with
As if she'd conjured her, Liz appeared, opening her door and peering out at Eva, still standing next to the tree. “What are you doing out there?”
Eva looked at her, framed by the bright rectangle of light, and didn't answer.
Liz took a step out onto the porch, her smile fading as she caught Eva's expression. “Are you okay?” she asked. “You look upset.”
“No, just tired.”
Liz looked as if she wanted to say something, but hesitated. Finally, she said, “When are you going to tell me what's really going on with you? Whenever I ask, you give me nonanswers. Or tell me you're tired. But that's not it. Why won't you talk to me?”
“I talk to you. All the time.”
Liz shook her head. “No. You tell me things that have already happened. That are already over. But I know almost nothing about your days. Nothing about what you struggle with. What worries you. Why you're not sleeping. Out of nowhere, a man appears, fighting with you. Then I never hear of him or see him again.” She took a deep breath. “No, Eva. You don't talk to me. You don't even trust me.”
“You're reading too much into things,” Eva said, hating how she sounded. Patronizing. Dismissive. When what she wanted, more than anything, was to throw herself at Liz's feet and beg her to fix it. To help her.
Liz's voice was low as she stepped all the way onto the porch and crossed her arms over her chest. “I thought we were friends. But you lie to me. All the time. About where you go. What you do. Who you spend time with. I'm not stupid. I pay attention. I hear you at night, on the phone sometimes. Arguing. With that guy?” Liz gave a thin laugh and said, “Don't bother answering. I already know you won't tell me the truth.”
Eva was tempted to throw the truth in her face. To spit the words at her, like bullets, piercing Liz's belief that she could carry what Eva was hiding. She imagined rolling back the shelves in her kitchen and leading Liz down into her basement lab.
This is where I make the drugs
, she'd tell her.
I cook them up on that camping stove over there and give half to an incredibly scary man who might have me killed if I stop.
Eva thought of Castro's words from earlier.
Of all the people I know in this business, you're the one who doesn't fit.
“I live in a world where I don't belong,” she finally said.
Liz stepped toward her, but Eva backed away, needing to maintain the space between them. “Why would you say that?” Liz asked. “Look at what you've done. What you've accomplished, despite all the odds against you.”
“And there it is,” Eva said under her breath. What she'd been running from her entire life. Eventually, everyoneâeven Lizâviewed her successes and failures through the lens of pity they felt for her.
A pressure began to build up inside of Eva, all the things she wanted to say but couldn't. She pressed her fingers to her temples and stepped toward her door, needing to get out from under Liz's gaze, needing to escape inside where she could think clearly, where she wouldn't have to hide and obfuscate. “I can't do this. I'm sorry.”
Liz reached out, closing the distance between them, and laid a hand on Eva's arm. “You can't run from what's hurting you. You can't bury it and hope it will go away. You have to face it. Look at it. Talk about it.”
Eva yanked her arm away. “Please stop. You can't fix this with a fucking pep talk about honesty and self-reflection.”
Liz recoiled, but her gaze was fiery, her voice rising to meet Eva's. “Then tell me. Whatever it is. Just say it.”
Again, Eva fell silent, the words simply too big to speak. She looked through Liz's window and into her living room, remembering the first time she sat there, terrified that her entire world was about to crumble because of Castro. Not understanding that Liz would be the one to pull it all apart. To dismantle Eva's walls enough to shine light into her darkest corners. To make her yearn again for something more. To force her to want to be someone better.
When it became clear Eva wasn't going to say more, Liz pulled away, letting Eva unlock her door and step inside. But as she closed and locked it, Liz's voice floated in from the porch. “When you're ready to talk, I'll be here.”
Eva made her way to the couch where she curled up in a ball, wishing she was already gone. That this part was already over.
Sunday, February 27
I'm frozen, waiting for the owner of that voice to find me, grab my arm, and look into my face. To call me out and snatch what little bit of freedom I have left.
From across the room, Kelly's watching me and mouths the words
Are you okay?
I nod and force myself to keep moving. I slide between guests until I'm out of the center of the room, keeping my tray elevated near my chin, high enough to partially obscure my face, or to tip it forward onto someone else if I have to.
Our hostess enters, arm in arm with a woman I don't recognize. The two of them talk, their heads bent toward one another, when someone else from across the room calls, “Claire, over here. Paula wants to tell you about our trip to Belize.”
And I realize our hostess's name is Claire. My hands begin to trembleâshake, reallyâmy arms and legs suddenly turned to jelly, unable to support me. I make my way over to Kelly and hand her my tray. “I need to use the restroom,” I whisper.
“You look like shit,” she says. “What happened?”
I shake my head, brushing off her concern. “I'm okay. I didn't eat enough before work, and I'm a little woozy. I just need a minute.”
“Hurry,” she says, though I can tell she doesn't believe me.
In a small downstairs powder room, I splash cold water on my face and stare at myself in the mirror. I can change my appearance. Use someone else's name. Go to another city. But the truth will always follow me. No matter how careful I am, how guarded, I will always be one mistake away from discovery.
I dry my hands and slip back to the party, picking up a new tray on my way. I give Kelly a nod and plaster a smile on my face. Around me, conversation swirls, and I'm back to being invisible again. But my ears catch on the name Claire several times over the evening, and even though I know they're not talking to me, I still flinch. By the end of the evening, I'm battered and jittery, ready to leap into Eva's car and go.
* * *
On the ride back to Eva's, I give in to the exhaustion, the flush of adrenaline still seeping out of me. The wad of bills Tom gave me pokes a sharp corner through my pocket. Two hundred dollars, which brings my savings up to nearly eight hundred dollars. With the help of Eva's car and her debit card, that can carry me a long way from here.
“You ready to go?” Kelly says, breaking the silence. We're only a few blocks from Eva's, one light and a couple stop signs between now and goodbye.
“Yeah,” I say.
She passes me a scrap of paper. “My number. Call me if you need anything. If you're comfortable doing so, let me know where you land.”
“I will,” I say as she pulls up to the house and stops.
She gives me a sad smile. “You won't. But that's okay.”
I hesitate before reaching across to give her a tight hug. “Thank you for being my friend. For helping me.”
She looks into my eyes and holds my gaze, her brown ones steady on mine. “You're welcome.”
* * *
Inside, I go upstairs, needing a shower to wake me up for the long drive ahead. I let the steam fill me up, remembering the last time I prepared to leave a place, gearing myself up for a very different kind of departure. I emerge and dress quickly, tidying up the bedroom as best I can, making sure whatever or whoever Eva was running from won't find a trace of me when they finally show up. I hesitate in front of Eva's dresser, the note I'd found still tucked into the mirror.
Everything you ever wanted is on the other side of fear.
I have no way of knowing what this meant to Eva, or why she might have thrown it away. But I feel the need to take something of her with me. Not the legal paperwork that outlines the space she filled in the world, not the clothes she wore, but something from her heart. I slip it out of the mirror and tuck it into my pocket.
I enter her office, picking up the stack of papers I'd collected and sliding them into my purse. I check the Doc, the time stamp at the top showing no activity since that morning's exchange. What a waste of time this has been, a useless distraction. Rory and Bruce are almost never apart. Anything they have to say to each other can be whispered across a quiet room. Whatever Charlie Flanagan knows about the weekend Maggie diedâ¦it doesn't have anything to do with me.
I want to let go. Disconnect. But a tiny voice inside my head warns me that this isn't over. That with the video out there and the search and recovery still active, I need to use every resource available until I'm certain the danger has passed.
“And when will that be?” I say into the empty room. I wait, as if I might get an answer. With a sigh, I close my computer and slide it into my bag, then click the light off, plunging the room into darkness, trying not to think about how flimsy my plan feels. Paper-thin and already ripping along the edges.
Downstairs, I set my bag by the couch and go into the kitchen to put away the last of the dishes I'd washed that afternoon. Inside the refrigerator, a lone can of Diet Coke sits on the top shelf, and I grab it, popping it open, eager to get as much caffeine into me as I can.
The window over the sink is a black square, reflecting the room back at me, so I tug the curtains closed and take a long swallow, the bubbles reigniting my energy. Behind me, Eva's phone buzzes with a call.
I pick it up, the screen flashing
. That woman again. Still worried. Still hoping Eva will call her. I wonder how many more times she'll try before she gives up and assumes Eva doesn't want to talk, that the friendship must not have been what she thought it was. I feel sorry for her, whoever she is. Tossing her worry into the void, never knowing that it's landing in the wrong place.
After a few seconds, the screen lights up with a new message. I'm tempted to ignore it, to delete it without listening, but curiosity pushes me forward. A part of me wants to hear her voice again, to pretend the worry she feels is for me. That there's someone out there hoping I'm safe. Happy. I press Play.
But it's not the woman looking for Eva. It's a voice I recognize, one I've heard hundreds of times, speaking directly into my ear.
Mrs. Cook. It's Danielle. I know you didn't get on that flight. You need to call me.
A loud rushing fills my head, my heart slamming against my chest in a rhythm that seems to say
They know. They know. They know.
The Diet Coke can slips from my fingers and crashes to the floor.
I stare at the phone, unable to breathe. How many messages have I listened to that began exactly like this? It shoots me straight back in time, tension and fear twisting me into a hard knot.
With questions about my failures, or things I forgot to do.
Always pressing me, watching me.
And she's found me. Which means it won't be long until Rory is on his way. Below me, the can lays on its side, dark-brown liquid pooling out, a growing puddle that resembles blood.