by Linda McMullen
Rock Creek Park in Washington D.C. offers something for everyone: hiker/biker trails, remote copses for gang murders, and strategic dead-drop points catering to the world’s most spy-infested city. Also: birthday party picnic areas.
I’m from the upper Midwest, where sensible denizens sojourn in Vitamin-D-deficit bliss indoors. The park’s multifarious charms are lost on me. Especially in this tarmac-melting weather. But Leila said, “You’re up, Corinne.”
“You’re next on the roster for Saturday duty.”
A polite fiction. I’m the lowest-ranking person in the office.
But I won’t pretend I had better options today. Last month’s air conditioning bill for my off-the-Metro studio meant a month of ramen. If I’m out, it’s not running.
A ludicrously slow jogger. A nanny dandles an infant while reading The Power. A precociously cynical six-year-old and her cone-hatted posse slow-blink at a beleaguered Cinderella. The (presumably rented) silvery-blue dress droops. And her magical warble is gradually succumbing to Friday-night-vaping overindulgence. I slouch on my bench, invisible under a Nationals hat (bandwagon fandom purchase).
I observe a pair of lovers attempting to part, rolling back together; a raging teen; a young man disappearing into the woods. The birthday girl’s Abercrombie-model mom eases the children toward a three-tiered one-way trip to the dentist. Cinderella exhales, slumps toward the restrooms.
Signs of the breach materialized slowly, overseas. A missed appointment. An unanswered phone. A disappearance in Famous-Hostile-Power’s capital. Then: a bloated riverbank corpse.
I sip from my Nalgene bottle and wish newspapers weren’t in decline.
Analysts loathe the term “connect the dots”; it suggests every intelligence puzzle resembles 983 consecutively numbered nodes depicting the Taj Mahal. So let’s say my persevering colleagues pieced an image together. A local mole. Hiding in plain sight.
The sun stands on the slice of neck between my hat and my inescapable collar.
A warrant. A hacked burner phone… “RCP 130.”
Motives: money and ego — likely.
I shouldn’t have drunk so much water. Irrelevant. Better move. I send my text: “Suspect cornered”— and rise, noting the birthday girl’s head is no longer visible past the gift wall.
In the bathroom, I catch Cinderella wedging an envelope behind sink #2.
I cheerily snap her photo.
Startled, Cinderella smashes her head against the sink trap…
…I roll her out like humid dough, cuff her. Her envelope contains documents with classifications longer than my arm.
Local police flank us as I march her through the park. “Sorry, girls,” she lilts toward the party. “My fairy godmother says I’m out of time.”
“You’re a pro,” I murmur.
We reach my car. I’m arrested by her heart-shaped face and mine, twinned in the window’s mirrored glass. “Why’d you do it?”
“Shouldn’t you mirandize me?” she smirks. “I’ve seen CSI.”
I comply. Then: “So?”
“So the dreams that I wished would come true,” she snorted. Then: “I’ve had a ‘good government job’ for years — and I’m still doing kids’ parties to make the rent.”
I cradle her head in my hand to settle her into the backseat.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Department of State or the U.S. government.
Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, diplomat, and homesick Wisconsinite. Her short stories and the occasional poem have appeared in over one hundred literary magazines. She received Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations in 2020. She may be found on Twitter: @LindaCMcMullen.