She hurries to cross the street, just catching the tail end of the light. Reaching the curb, she glances back, trying not to appear obvious. The man has a very bad haircut, he's wearing a navy blue suit, and he's still there. She first noticed him four blocks ago and she was pretty sure he was behind her before that. Is he following her? Maybe he is, but maybe they're just headed in the same direction. Manhattan is huge, after all.
She turns left at the next corner, choosing a random street, still highly populated. After walking two blocks, she pauses to admire a display of jewelry, and catches a glimpse of the man in the window's reflection. He's still behind her, almost hidden in the crowd, but definitely there. This could no longer be a coincidence. She needs to acknowledge he has that aura of the old KGB, the secret police. These are the men of her nightmares, and one is now following her on the street. A frisson of fear runs up her spine, a reminder that her instincts are reliable and she should trust them. She is only alive today because she learned early to follow her gut, and it has served her well.
She hasn't seen a man like this since she moved to the United States over twenty-five years ago. Her last party before leaving her homeland was with a group of American businessmen, rich and willing to pay well for young girls to do disgusting things. The work sickened her, but provided a needed visa and funding to escape the poverty and ugliness that was her life. After all this time, she thought she'd left everything behind, but news stories lately made her wonder if perhaps she is in danger of being pulled back. Not to perform services, she's much too old for that, but possibly there are those who would like her to reveal long-hidden secrets about her experiences, information that would be embarrassing, even dangerous, for some extremely important people. Of course, there are others who desperately want to keep those secrets hidden forever and may be willing to do whatever it takes to maintain the status quo.
She wonders which group this man belongs to. Her instincts tell her the first; he's so obvious, he must know she realizes he's there. If he were planning to kill her, she would never see him coming. She thinks he's looking for an opportunity to approach her, try to get her to confirm his information.
Still, her guts clench at the thought she could be wrong. He might be obvious because he knows it won't matter if she sees him. He may think she'll be dead soon enough, so why bother to hide. Bile burns her throat; she swallows and keeps moving.
She always knew something like this was a possibility. She was aware people might come after her. Many years ago, she prepared for this exact contingency, hoping she'd never have to follow through with a safety plan that will rip her current life to shreds. None of her friends or family knows anything about her former occupation. If her past is revealed, her children will be shocked and embarrassed. Her husband may leave her. She pauses at the corner, feigning interest in the new fall fashions adorning the windows. Maybe she should wait. If the man following her is just after information, she can put him off without risk. She catches another glimpse of him in the window. His image is distorted in the reflection, and she can't get a read on him at all. She shivers in the warmth of the afternoon sun. It's too dangerous. If this man isn't here to kill her, the next one will be. Following her scheme may cause humiliation, but she'll be alive. She looks at her watch and sees she has enough time to get to Chase Manhattan. She moves forward.
She arrives at the bank thirty minutes before closing. Plenty of time. She hurries through the lobby to a desk staffed by a young man. Tom, his nameplate reads.
She smiles to cover her anxiety. "I'd like to get into my safe deposit box please."
"Of course." Tom brings the required paperwork. He fills it out, signs it and leads her into the vault. Using their keys together, he pulls out the box, hands it to her, and directs her to a small room where she will have privacy.
She opens the safe deposit box, thinking of the appropriateness of the name. This container, she believes, holds her safety. When she participated in sexual activities with rich Americans, she knew she could be in danger someday, so she made documentation whenever possible. This was long before cell phones were ubiquitous, but she was lucky to secure a small, easily hidden device from a KGB agent who found her attractive. She used it to make a video recording of her final assignment. More recently, she transferred the old footage onto a small digital drive, which she placed here as insurance. Now she picks up the drive and holds it briefly to her lips, a kiss for good luck.
She closes the box and leaves the room, nodding at Tom waiting outside. She feels sweat trickling down her sides and holds her arms close to her body. The most dangerous time is coming. If he's going to kill her, he'll do it when she leaves the bank. She's certain he guesses she came here for a specific reason. He probably even guesses it's something hidden in a deposit box. He'll be watching her closely, and if violence is his aim, she may not be able to escape. She briefly wonders if there's a back door, but realizes that won't help, not in the long run. He needs to see what she's going to do next. He needs to know she has no more secrets; all her information is public.
She pauses in a corner of the lobby and catches a glimpse of the man, waiting outside the glass doors. She pulls her phone from her purse and enters a number she memorized many years before, praying it hasn't changed.
"This is Tanya. I have something for you. I'm two blocks away." She hears a stifled gasp, then a quiet voice.
"I'll meet you inside, by the front doors."
She breaks the connection and hurries through the lobby. This part of the plan is crucial. She has to walk two blocks, just two blocks, avoiding the man in the navy blue suit. If he's going to stop her, kill her, he'll do it now, before she reaches her destination. She's almost certain he knows where she's headed, and, if he's intent on keeping her silent, he can't let her get there. She takes two steps back, closes her eyes, and leans against the wall, praying the man is not sent to murder her, but to convince her to share her secrets. When she opens her eyes and notices the bank guard staring at her, she uses all her remaining strength to shove the fear aside and stand up straight. Her shoulders flung back, she pushes the door open and leaves the bank, hoping to find safety in the middle of the afternoon crowds long enough to reach her objective.
She's clutching the small drive so tightly her fingernails cut into her palm, but she doesn't loosen her grip. This is her lifeline, her safety, her future. She can't let anything happen to it. She takes quick steps, merging with the throngs of people, and for two minutes, she loses sight of the man. Could he be gone? Her quick burst of hope fades as she reaches for the door of the New York Times building and feels his hand on her arm. Her knees start to buckle. He jerks her upright, pulling her near. They stare at each other. After a minute, he looks up at the sign, back at her, nods, and walks away.
She feels relief cover her as a warm shower. Whatever his original motivation, he's gone. Her guts slowly untwist. She walks into the building and hands the digital drive to the reporter. By tomorrow, the Ugly American's secrets will be seen by millions of people around the world, and she'll no longer have information of any value. She knows she's traded privacy for safety, but she exhales, suddenly grateful she will no longer have to be afraid of men who have bad haircuts and wear navy blue suits.
Alice Benson lives in Wisconsin with her partner and their two dogs. Alice recently retired from a job in the human service field; previously she spent over thirteen years working with a domestic violence program. Her published works have appeared in a 2016 Main Street Rag Anthology, Epiphany, Cliterature, Scrutiny Literary Journal, Shooter Literary Magazine, and Diverse Voices Quarterly. Alice’s first novel, Her Life is Showing, is set in a domestic violence shelter and was published in January 2014, by Black Rose Writing. Visit Alice’s website www.alicebensonauthor.com.