The watermelon saved my life. It was starting to slip out from under my arm as I left Bob’s, so I left it by the entrance and took the rest of my groceries out to the car.
I get kidded about my car. Friends tell me a six-year-old Civic with bald tires is not the kind of car a secret agent drives. Well, I'm not a secret agent. I take pictures for a government agency in Langley, Virginia.
I placed the bags on the back seat, leaving the door open to let the pent-up heat of a Virginia summer escape. The phone rang as I was starting the car, a reminder of a dental appointment. I left the phone on the passenger seat and got out to close the back door.
Don’t forget the watermelon.
I left the engine running, telling myself the car would cool a bit, and walked back for the watermelon. I bent down to pick it up as a woman in a pink sundress stepped up to the door sensor. For an instant I was confused. The door should have made a humming-sliding sound instead of a loud KA-BAM.
Pressure wave. A giant hand pushed me headlong into a display of potted plants. Plastic flower pots swung wildly around my head, flinging orange and yellow petals that floated for a moment before falling. A thin mist of black dirt settled over me like a shroud.
Motion at the top of my peripheral vision. The big window was moving in and out, like a madman was pushing on the glass, daring it to break. As I watched helplessly, the motion subsided and the fluttering paper signs announcing the price of canned hams and diet sodas slowly returned to their resting place against the glass.
For a moment it was very quiet, and in that moment I knew I had been the target.
I stood up on shaky legs and brushed off some of the dirt as a man emerged from the store wearing a white apron. He had a price label machine slung from his hip like a gunfighter.
“Jesus, will you look at that,” he said, pointing in the direction of the parking lot, “The gas tank must have blown up.”
I nodded in agreement, but I knew otherwise. Twisted burning chunks of my car were scattered over the parking lot. Pungent black smoke drifted toward us, scented with gasoline and rubber. A teenage girl was taking pictures with her phone, standing too close to the flames.
I had ignored one of the rules for parking a vehicle.
Park as close to the entrance as possible, so your vehicle will be covered by security cameras. This makes tampering more difficult.
Someone had definitely tampered with my Honda, but I didn’t have time to speculate on the motive. A fragment of conversation from the cafeteria floated into my consciousness: “There’s always a backup shooter, covering the escape route.”
The grocery store was connected to the mall, so it would be safer to escape through the store, maybe. I walked to the back of the store, exited into the shopping mall, and started looking for a phone.
The interior of the old mall was quiet. Most of the shops were closing. Yellow sunlight reached through the windows near the ceiling, illuminating specks of dust. I smelled mustard and warm buns as I walked past the hot dog stand. A man wearing a paper cap was taking a rack of potato chips off the wall, preparing to shut down. A group of teenagers wearing black clothing and dark attitudes slouched around an empty fountain with chipped green tiles.
Now that the initial shock was wearing off, I was starting to think a little. I switched into work mode, where everyone and everything needs inspection and analysis. As my friend Tom says, “In this business, you’d be crazy not to be paranoid.”
I walked past an open doorway and jumped as another explosion went off next to me, followed quickly by a space laser and more explosions. The kid was hardly big enough to reach the video game, but he was racking up points.
There were no phones on the main level. I checked for tails and descended to the lower level. The gray hallway was long and low, with a children's dance studio on one side and a hair salon on the other, both closed.
The phone was located at the end of the hall, next to the bathrooms, and it was in use.
An older woman, probably a grandmother, was trying to hold her purse, a shopping bag, and a baby while she talked on the phone. I stood a little closer than normal to give her the message that I needed to use the phone; she turned her back to me and continued her conversation. The baby smelled of sour milk. The woman wore cheap perfume and cigarette smoke.
The woman put her shopping bag on the floor. It was going to be a long call. I held out for another ten seconds before anxiety drove me into the men's room. Anything was better than standing at the end of the long hall waiting for someone to come down the stairs and pretend I was a duck in a shooting gallery.
I looked in the mirror, surprised to see that I didn't look as scared as I felt. My hair, short and blonde from my last assignment, was peppered with dirt. As I bent to finger-comb the dirt out, a yellow petal dropped into the sink. Full of adrenalin, I heard it fall.
I cleaned up a little, used the urinal, and washed my hands again. I was on my third paper towel, mechanically drying my hands, when I heard the woman hang up the phone. I hurried out the door, only to stand waiting while the woman slowly rearranged the baby's blanket, checked in her purse, and picked up her shopping bag.
Grandma gave me a self-satisfied look and headed down the hall. I had my work number half dialed before I remembered there was a special number to call for “unusual occurrences,” everything from getting propositioned in a bar to being asked to appear on a talk show. I replaced the phone and dug out my wallet, nearly spilling the contents onto the floor.
I dialed the number, which seemed to ring forever. Apart from my own breathing, the only other sound was the music oozing from the ceiling speaker, a de-fanged version of “Born to be Wild.”
The authentication was my employee number combined with today’s date, using fancy math. I was in no shape to do math, so I just said my employee number. The duty officer had probably heard scared people call in before, so he let it go.
“Are you injured?”
Red means visible bodies. Green means a scene hidden from the public, and thus the police.
“Copy, yellow. Incident time?”
“Sixteen forty-one. Eastern Daylight.”
“Bob’s U-Bag-Em, Colonial Mall, Arlington. Parking lot, north side.”
“Copy. Can you speak freely about the nature of your occurrence?”
Translation: was anyone holding a gun to my head. If they were, I had to work the word “urgent” into the conversation.
“I can speak freely.”
There was a pause. I thought I heard a click on the line.
“Accidental explosion or hostile act?”
I was on hold, alone in the long hallway. One of the fluorescent lights was burned out, another was buzzing. I smelled sweat, but it took a moment to realize it was mine. I was holding my breath, so I exhaled slowly. The voice was back on the line.
“Do not return to the scene. Report immediately to the duty officer. Take a taxi. If you do not have the fare, ask the taxi to wait. Someone will pay the cabbie for you. Repeat back.”
“Report to the duty officer. Take a taxi.”
“Correct but incomplete. You must report in immediately. Acknowledge.”
While I was trying to think of the proper way to end the bizarre conversation the line went dead. I was hanging up the phone when I saw the man coming down the stairs.