“Damn it!” shouts Jeff. Sammie, still gripping the side of the door, says, “Oh God.” She unlocks her knees and bends them at a normal angle again.
“You okay?” They are back into the normal flow of traffic. The insistent honking around the stalled bus fades behind them.
She gives him a warning look and says shakily, “Yes … just drive carefully, hon.”
Jeff raises two fingers, motioning her toward him. Quietly, he says, “Text Dom and tell him to stop following us. Tell him this is not a party and he can not mess this up.” When she leans away, he pinches the shoulder of her blouse. “Be nice but emphatic.”
Sammie pulls a pen out of her clutch purse and picks up Jeff’s notebook. She scribbles a note and shows it to him: Are you going to explain why I can’t talk??
Jeff takes the notebook and pen, writes BUGS, and points upward.
“Really?” Sammie asks skeptically. She takes the pen back and writes PARANOID. Jeff shakes his head slowly, telegraphing regret, his eyes back on the road. A moment later, he picks up the pen and carefully writes, We’ll talk when we get there.
Sammie keys a password into her phone. Before she can text Dom, it rings.
Sarah pokes at her phone with her thumb and holds it to her ear. “I hope she’s okay.” She listens for a few seconds, then says with relief, “Sammie! Oh my God! What happened? … What? … I said, what happened? … It’s me. I’m with Dom. Where are you going? … You’re not making any sense! Did Jeff kidnap you? … Do I need to call the police? … Okay! I see what you’re doing, but you’re scaring me. Why won’t you tell me what’s going on? … This is not working. Okay, if you’re in any danger, name a cat breed … Okay, got it. I’m hanging up, but you text me right away or call me as soon as you can and tell me what he’s up to, all right? I’m freaking out. All right?”
She drops the phone to her lap. “What the hell?” she says, bewildered. “Dom, she was like she was having a totally different conversation. I asked her what happened, and she said she wasn’t busy. Then she said it’s fine and it was just a little hiccup, and then she was telling me how to do something on the computer instead of answering me. Like she was frickin’ tech support.” She swipes another tear off her cheek. “I’m sorry. Then when I said name a cat breed, she said I’d be cool as a cockapoo, and cockapoos are her favorite dog, so I guess she was trying to say she was okay.”
The phone buzzes and glows with a pale blue light. “Oh, it’s her!” she says. She holds the phone at arm’s length and reads the message, pressing the brake pedal lightly. “She says she’s okay and not kidnapped. She wants us to stop following them.” The phone buzzes again. Sarah opens the new message immediately. “She’ll tell us what’s going on tomorrow, they have to do something by themselves. She says it’s serious. Ex-oh-ex-oh. Hugs and kisses.”
Watching the traffic in front of them, Dom says, “’Serious’? What, are they eloping?”
“No … I don’t know! I can’t see them or Melissa anywhere,” she says, peering at the traffic ahead of them. “What should we do?”
Dom pulls his phone out of the side pocket of his cargo shorts. “Melissa was right behind them. I’ll check with her.” He selects a number on the phone and waits, tapping the dashboard with one finger. “Hey, babe,” he says, “are you still following Jeff? Sarah picked me up. We’re kinda worried. Call me back and let me know what’s up.”
He hangs up, then bounces on the seat and turns toward Sarah. “Hey, I have another idea. Your place isn’t far from here, is it?”
She glances at him anxiously. “Not real far.”
“And you have a key to Sammie’s, right?”
“And she must have a key to Jeff’s.” Dom smirks charmingly.
“I guess so.” Each of Sarah’s answers is heavier with an implied question.
“So, let’s see if she does, and try to get in there!”
“You are insane,” she declares, turning left onto a cross street.
“Melissa said Jeff thought he might get a call. Maybe there’s something there that could tell us where he had to go.”
“Like what? A note on the refrigerator? I’m sure he was only planning to go back home tonight.” She wedges her elbow against the door frame and rests the side of her head on her palm.
“Let’s just see.” Dom reaches over and shakes her shoulder. “Come on, Sarah – grab life by the ears!”
“Those sound like some famous last words to me.”
Sammie leans over and tells Jeff quietly, “Sarah said she’s with Dom.”
“Are they still behind us?” he asks.
Sammie turns around and shades her eyes with her hand. She leans toward Jeff again and whispers, “Not right behind us, but there’s a truck after that, and I can’t see around it.”
“We have to get on the highway now,” he says, guiding the Jaguar onto the ramp.
The car’s interior has an atmosphere of restraint. The smooth suspension and leather upholstery muffle the sensations from outside. The air feels slightly compressed. Sammie relaxes in her seat. She picks up her phone and reads e-mail messages for the remainder of the trip, occasionally pecking out a brief reply. Jeff, focused on the road ahead, passes the cars in front of him at every opportunity.
Sarah’s car crunches through the gravel in her driveway. She takes the keys out of the ignition and looks at Dom. “Dom, I’m tired,” she pleads. “Come inside and we can watch some TV. I’ll make us banana splits.”
Dom levels his eyes at her, undeterred. “Go get the key.”
“You’re asking a lot.” Sarah gets out and trudges up to her weathered wooden porch. The car’s engine ticks as it cools. Dom punches out another message on his phone.
When she slides back into the car a minute later, Sarah says, “You owe me twenty-four dollars for dinner. Maybe you should pay for Melissa’s too. What are you going to do about your Jeep?” She looks over her shoulder and swings the car into the street.
“I’ll catch up to her eventually,” Dom says curtly. “I don’t know why she won’t answer me.”
“Half of the servers followed me outside. I had to swear to the maitre d’ that we’re honest people. It was so embarrassing.”
“I said I’m sorry,” he says, without bothering to hide a quick smile. “I had to make a snap decision. We still don’t know why Jeff took off the way he did.”
“I know,” Sarah says. “I tried Jeff and got his voice mail. It could be real trouble.”
Sammie stirs herself out of a light doze as the Jaguar sweeps around a curved exit ramp. A few quick turns later, they glide to a stop in a quiet residential area. Jeff steps out and opens the car’s trunk. Sammie grabs the notebook from the console, tucks her blouse into the waist of her jeans, and gets out. Jeff slips a light jacket around her shoulders.
“Thanks. You aren’t going to carry me this time?” she asks.
“No cameras here,” says Jeff. “We’re just two lovers out for a late walk.” He takes Sammie’s hand and walks with her at a relaxed but steady pace. At the next corner, they turn right, passing a yellow “No Outlet” sign.
“I have to tell you something while we’re alone for a few minutes,” Jeff says finally. Excepting a couple of bedroom lights and a flickering television on the other side, the short street is dimly lit.
“Okay,” Sammie says warily.
“I wish I didn’t have to do this right now, but I’m asking a lot of you here, and I feel like we’re at a point when you should know more about my life before I met you.”
“Lifting the veil?” she asks in a mildly teasing tone.
“Sammie … Jeff isn’t my real name.”
Sammie doesn’t change her stride, but her arm stiffens perceptibly, and her eyes betray her apprehension when Jeff looks at her for a reaction. “What is it?” she asks.
“Well … it’s hard to say if I have a real name now.” His eyes drift down to the weeds sticking up between the cracks in the sidewalk. “Until about a year ago, I was Andrew Wisniewski. Andy.”
“Andy,” she repeats. “Why aren’t you any more?”
Jeff swallows. “I was working with Phoebe’s team.” A note of defensiveness colors his customary polish. “I got careless, and I put the team at risk. We agreed that I had to leave and that Andy Wisniewski had to disappear. It was a bad couple of days.”
They pass the last house on the street and step off the sidewalk into a featureless field. Jeff’s dark green dress shirt barely stands out against the grass behind him. Sammie stares at him. The insistent sawing of crickets fills the night air.
“They needed me to stay close by, though,” Jeff continues, “as a kind of insurance. I was supposed to take custody of certain things if they ever had to break up the operation. So I didn’t come to town to find my sister.”
Sammie bites at her bottom lip for a moment. “And you don’t have a dead aunt who willed you all that money, do you?”
“No. No dead aunt. I have an aunt, but I’m definitely not in her will.”
“So who are you?” Sammie demands. “I thought dating a mystery man was romantic, but you’re not even that! You’re just a shell.”
‘Sammie, you saved me,” Jeff says earnestly. “The condo and the suits and the fancy dinners, all of that was really for you. I’ve spent the last year erasing my old life and filling in the lines of a new one. You’ve kept me going every day since we met.”
Sammie opens the notebook and flips through it. All of the pages besides the one with their notes from earlier are blank.
“I know this is a lot to absorb,” Jeff says. “I love you, though, truly. Are you still in?”
“I’m here,” she says noncommittally. She steps up to him and points to the numbers and letters he wrote when he got the call at dinner. “What is this?”
“It’s an encryption code, for emergencies. Phoebe sets up a new one every week.”
Sammie searches his face intently. “You don’t even look like an Andy.”
Jeff smiles for a moment, for the first time since dinner. “I know. I never did. But maybe I can’t be Jeff Harmon much longer, either.”
The quiet moment that follows is punctuated by a faint clink. A man in a hooded sweatshirt is leisurely walking a dog up the street. He stops at the edge of the field. The spaniel goes off to explore while the burly man stands still, looking back down the street. He gives no sign that he saw Jeff and Sammie. There is a tiny orange glow at the end of his cigarette.
Jeff asks Sammie, “Do you have a cigarette?”
Sammie looks at the hooded man, then gives Jeff a puzzled look. “No! You know I quit.”
She opens her small clutch and confirms, “I don’t.”
“All right, give me the notebook, then.” Jeff takes it and tears off a page with a swift yank. He rolls the paper into a tight cylinder. Turning toward the man, he tells Sammie, “Stay here.”
“Jeff,” Sammie calls. He stops and looks back at her. “If we make it through this, you and me – “ she wags her finger back and forth between them – “IF we make it, you can have my last name. You’re staying Jeff, though. And I want a chocolate fountain. And a string quartet! Hear me?”
Sarah’s brakes stutter as she stops her car in front of Sammie’s apartment building. “Want me to come?” Dom asks.
“No. I think I know where the key is. If anyone asks, I can say I’m picking up her mail.” Before she closes the door, she looks at Dom and says, “This is still a bad idea.”
Dom flicks his fingers at her, urging her away.
In the tiled foyer, before she goes up the steps, Sarah sends a quick text message: I’d feel a lot better if I knew where you are.
Jeff approaches the man casually, gesturing with the dummy cigarette. “Hey, you got a light?”
The man glances at him and says, “Nah, I used my last match.” His voice is gruff, and he has a strong Mexican accent.
Jeff steps in front of him. “Here I am,” he says.
“Uh-oh,” the man comments, raising his eyebrows. He takes a puff from the cigarette and squints hard at Jeff.
“How are things?”
“Touchy,” the man answers, exhaling. “Who’s the girl?”
“A friend,” says Jeff. Sammie is walking in loose circles where he left her, poking aggressively at her phone.
“A girlfriend … a conspirator?”
Jeff remains cool. “She has skills that I don’t. She has no connection to what you and Phoebe are doing. She knows how to leave no trace, and she knows how to keep her mouth shut. You need someone who can do that, right? Who isn’t me? She’s doing me a favor.”
The man considers him for a moment. He flicks the ash off the end of his cigarette. With his other hand, he withdraws a small booklet from his sweatshirt pocket and hands it to Jeff. “That’s hers.” He looks toward the field and whistles sharply, ignoring Sammie. “We have to hurry, kid. I gotta go. I’m supposed to be getting my boy a cigar. But I’m really not supposed to be outside the house, even.” He nods toward the last house on the other side of the street. “That blue house there, you can get their wireless signal from out here if you need it. They don’t check it.” He throws the cigarette butt away from him. It rolls briefly on the sidewalk, releasing a final stream of smoke. “Let me know. We have to make a decision pronto, if she’s really gone.”
As Jeff walks back to Sammie, the man strides through the field toward the streetlights on the other side. He slaps his thigh and calls, “C’mon, puppy!” The dog bounds back to him happily.
Sammie puts her phone away when Jeff reaches her. “Andy.”
Jeff ignores the taunt. “They have to figure out what to do soon. Let’s go.” He starts walking back down the sidewalk.
“Who was that?” Sammie asks. Her breath is visible in the cool air.
Jeff thinks for a moment. “Ralph. One of Phoebe’s partners.”
“He’s the one who called you?”
“Yes, but he doesn’t want me here.”
When they get back to the Jaguar, Jeff opens the trunk immediately and pulls a musty canvas duffel bag toward him. The bag’s zipper jingles softly as he takes out a stained denim shirt, which he unfolds to reveal a laptop computer. He hands the computer to Sammie and assures her, “This is clean.”
“What did that guy give you?” she asks.
Jeff pulls the dark blue booklet from his pocket, holds it sideways, and opens the cover. “Phoebe’s passport. It’s part of her protocol. They’re supposed to give it to me if she’s out of communication for more than twenty-four hours.” The photo shows a pretty, serious-looking young woman with short black hair.
“I’m the only one she trusts to take it. That was part of the compromise when I left.”
Sammie takes Jeff’s hand and gives him a false smile. “I’ll never forget this date.” Her voice grows dreamy. “‘The Time He Swept Me off My Feet and Drove Me to the Middle of Nowhere to Hack for His Shady Friends Who Apparently Couldn’t Do Their Own Hacking.’ Oh, ‘and Told Me His Real Name Was Andy.’”
Jeff groans and rests his forehead against the roof of the car. “Ohhh – what an idiot.” He takes a breath, stands up straight, and looks at Sammie. “It’s Phoebe’s birthday. I forgot again!”