Hot Mercy

By Kathryn Johnson

Thriller

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1127
6 mins

Chapter 1

Something evil swept in on the chill March wind that day. An urgent, itchy dread of invisible threat that snatched her breath away. Honestly, she would tell friends much later, it felt as real as the old brass key she gripped in her hand that afternoon. But she turned from the red-lacquered door of Passions Art Gallery and looked along busy Wisconsin Avenue, and saw nothing at all menacing or, indeed, in the least bit remarkable.
Something evil? Nonsense, Mercy thought, that’s how urban myths and campfire horror stories begin. Hook Man stalking lovers in the Maryland woods. Alligators in the sewer. Honeymooners discovering a body under the hotel mattress. Tales intended to scare the bejeezus out of you.
But she’d never been easily frightened. And quaint, prettily historic Georgetown, clinging to the petticoats of Washington, DC, was as safe a place as any in the world these days. So she, Victoria Mercy O’Brien (no longer with a Davis tacked onto the end, now that her divorce was final), locked the gallery’s door, tucked her no-nonsense black leather shoulder purse under one arm like a good city-girl, and set off down the sidewalk. Her edgy mood seemed, after all, no more than par for the course these days.
Everyone in Washington, DC was hyper-vigilant, as though holding their collective breath, waiting for the next outrage to shock and sadden the city. After the Navy Yard shootings, the attack by three home-brewed terrorists on the Marine Corps marathon—a mindless, cruel copycat of the Boston Marathon bombing years before—then the massacres in Syria and now, unbelievably, more school shootings. Sometimes it seemed no atrocity was too terrible for human beings to unleash upon themselves. Why limit the causes of suffering to disease and natural disasters when we can do it so much better to ourselves?
But this Thursday evening, as she began the walk of five familiar blocks toward her stolid brick townhouse, a veritable fortress in 18th-century stone and mortar, the world seemed a perfectly calm and orderly place. There was, of course, the usual date-night parade. Boisterous college students—girls in leggings and tall leather boots, boys in sweatshirts and intentionally faded flannels and jeans—hurtled past her. A few tourists stood with mildly confused expressions, getting their bearings. Checking a street map app on their cell phones, eyeing the darkening sky. Clouds scudded at warp speed across a lemon crescent moon as daylight faded toward velvety dusk. Locals, still in business attire after their work day, speed-walked toward favorite bars. No one so much as glanced her way.
She tugged her coat closed as the wind freshened with an ominous dampness, although not a drop of rain had yet fallen. She hoped she’d make it home before it started; she’d forgotten her umbrella but didn’t want to return to the gallery for it.
Behind sparkling plate-glass windows the cafes, bars, and restaurants were beginning to fill. People sheltered in storefront alcoves, thumb messaging on their phones, hooking up for dinner, drinks, a pre-weekend shag.
Mercy fell into the flow of walkers, passing centuries-old brick homes turned into shops. Georgetown being forever short on parking, she felt lucky to be able to walk to the little art gallery she’d purchased less than a year earlier. It was her baby, her dream haven as well as her business. With one assistant, and occasional part-time help for special events, she already had managed to raise the struggling little business out of the red. Like a cloudless dawn’s promise of a sunny day, she foresaw substantial profit and success for her artists…and for herself.
The wind shifted and the pungent scent of prematurely bursting cherry blossoms hit her like a floral wall, wafting up from the Tidal Basin. A two-day spurt of heat had tricked them into opening weeks early. WTOP radio’s Garden Guy worried frost might cause the fragile flowers to drop from the trees. “No posies, no tourists. Could be a serious loss of income to DC,” he’d said.
If only that were the worst that could happen to us.
She picked up her pace, pulse rising with anxiety—this time with a specific and known cause. She couldn’t think of the cherry trees without her mother coming to mind. Talia loved photographing the annual display of pink and white blossoms. But it looked as though her mother wouldn’t make it to Washington in time this year. Wouldn’t or couldn’t? No one had seen or heard from Talia O'Brien in over a month. Not a single phone call, Tweet, or Facebook update—and this from the woman obsessed with sharing virtually every moment of her life as she traveled the world. The photojournalist that tens of thousands followed through social media had simply vanished.
A bouquet of new aromas momentarily coaxed her out of dark thoughts. The garlic-and-olive oil tang from Paolo’s brick ovens. Busara’s delicious Pad Thai. Her stomach grumbled. Hungry! Are you hungry, Mom? Is food even an issue anymore? The few clues she’d discovered that revealed anything about her mother’s possible whereabouts or condition were deeply disturbing. Was Talia even alive?
As if her own body was reacting empathically, Mercy immediately lost all desire for food. She had to eat something, of course. She would warm up the leftover rotisserie chicken she’d bought two nights ago. She could get four good meals for herself out of one bird and eat bagged salads the rest of the week. That way she didn't need to plan or cook meals. It was hard to think about anything but Talia these days. Not even working in her beloved gallery brought her joy.
But now, that same ping of awareness she’d felt on leaving the art gallery intensified to a clawing sensation deep down in her chest. Like a big cat—leopard, not house—scratching its way out. Maybe it wasn’t just worry over her mother. Steinbeck might have been right when he wrote: “Maybe ever’one in the whole damn world is scared of each other.” This dread of the next bad thing soured everything good, if you let it. She was determined not to let it. She had to believe that people, sooner or later, would return to sanity. That goodness could win out over violence and meanness. And she had to trust that she’d find her mother. Alive. Somehow. Somewhere.
Only two more blocks until she was home. Mercy attempted to distract herself from further bleak thoughts by recalling stories she’d loved since childhood. Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty were wimps. What she’d adored were the legends—many of them true tales. While other fathers read fairytales to their children, her dad wove epic stories of espionage, deception, heroism and political mayhem. She’d continued to collect spy stories into adulthood and found them strangely comforting—a lasting connection with her father, the powerful, larger-than-life U.S. Senator who, sadly, was no longer of this world. All along these chic old-town streets one could find infamous sites of clandestine meetings and secret dead drops.
At the quaint little bistro, Au Pied de Cochon, KGB colonel and defector Vitaly Yurchenko slipped his CIA guard and made a dash for the nearby Russian embassy. “A cagey bartender at Cochon took advantage of the publicity,” her father had told her, eyes twinkling. “He invented the Yurchenko Shooter—equal parts Stolichnya vodka and Grand Marnier, chilled. Brought in a ton of business.”
He’d also told her about one-time Chief of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s Soviet counterintelligence branch, Aldrich Ames, who used a standard blue mailbox at the corner of 37th and R Streets, not far from where she now walked, to dump more than seven pounds of classified documents in a single day. Ten of the men Ames fingered were rounded up by the Soviets and summarily executed. A terrible loss for the agency and U.S. security.
In the gardens of Dumbarton Oaks, Jay Pollard of U.S. Naval Intelligence met clandestinely with his Israeli handler Avi Sella. Until the FBI caught up with Pollard. And La Nicoise, the tiny French restaurant she had just now passed, had been famous as a hangout for retired spooks, CIA directors, and station chiefs. Just for fun she sometimes lunched there, and wondered who among its customers that day might be a modern James Bond.
It seemed ironic that only months ago she of all people, an artist and gallery owner, had become involved—albeit unwillingly—in a mission to uncover a ruthless human trafficking operation in Mexico. That experience had nearly cost her life and failed to secure the help she’d sought to locate her missing parent. It also marked the end of her troubled marriage and the beginning of a relationship with a man as mysterious—dangerous?—as he was achingly handsome. But even Sebastian Hidalgo with his underworld connections had been unable to help her find the one person in the world most dear to her.
Fighting back a wave of emotion, Mercy turned the final corner before Reservoir Avenue and home. No longer protected by the row of buildings, she caught a blast of icy wind in the face. She ducked her head, trudged on. It began to rain. Hard, icy prickles bit into her cheeks and the backs of her hands. She tweaked up the collar of her rust-colored leather coat and cursed her missing umbrella as she picked up momentum, a hand steepled over her eyes to better see the uneven sidewalk beneath her feet.
The sudden intensity of the deluge knocked lacy blossoms from overhead cherry tree branches. Pink snow rained down on her. Mercy broke into a run, as fast as her heeled pumps and slick cobbles underfoot allowed. The street glittered ebony under coach-lamp style street lights. The world felt suddenly wintry again. Every raindrop stabbed with a sleety knife tip.
She looked up and saw the comforting front of her house, gray stone and weathered blue shutters against a smudgy backdrop of nature’s worst. Only the white window casements stood out in the half-light. It was at that moment she caught the first acrid whiff. Cigar smoke? She peeked from beneath her dripping hand.
No one along the street in front of her.
She glanced back over her shoulder. Below, on the main street, people often stood outside a restaurant to smoke. Less often on the residential street. But who smoked in the rain?
Half a dozen paces ahead of her, a shadow shifted within the black space between the stone retaining wall alongside her neighbor’s driveway and her house. Too big for a cat, she thought. A figure stepped out onto the sidewalk and into the murky light. A big guy, wide-shouldered, hatless. Something metallic in his hand caught the nearby street light’s amber glow.
Her mind flashed possibilities: Cigarette lighter? Car keys? Knife?
Mercy’s gaze locked on his eyes then dropped to fleshy lips as one corner lifted a fraction of an inch, as if in recognition.
But she didn’t know him.
Before the nasty business in Mexico she would have ignored her gut feelings, stepped around the man without speaking. Muggers didn’t lie in wait less than a hundred feet from her house, two blocks from pricy restaurants where valet parking attendants sometimes doubled as impromptu bouncers. But Mexico had taught her to react first, rationalize later.
Instinct took over.
Mercy turned and ran.



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