I’m rudely awakened by loud pounding on my door. Squinting at my phone reveals that it’s 10 A.M. Fuck my life.
Blindly, I grope for a hoodie to put on over my PJs. The pounding resumes, going great with the raging caffeine hangover I gave myself… way too few hours ago for anyone to disturb my beauty sleep.
The pounding stops suddenly. The resulting silence is broken by my neighbor’s dulcet tones. The walls in this building really are too thin.
“Good luck with that,” Perky Kelly pipes up. “Before late afternoon, you’ll never get her out of bed. She’s a heavy sleeper.” Not true, but usually I sleep with my noise-cancelling earbuds in that keep me from having to observe Kelly getting it on with the next best guy she runs into. Too bad I forgot them when I finally dozed off this morning.
I hear a grumbled remark that I can’t quite make out—and the pounding resumes, even louder than before. I picture whoever’s out there like a mix between the Hulk and Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime.
“Anything I can help you with, maybe?” Kelly is nothing if not persistent. And terribly nosy. You’d think that an Instagram model would know a thing or two about the importance of privacy. Then again, she pays me well to make sure her virtual privacy is airtight, so what do I know?
I’m tempted to keep stalling to catch a possible response, but if this pounding keeps going on, I’ll go insane, and there’s the threat of my door actually breaking down. Our super is a negligent asshole and the owner doesn’t give a shit, so unless I want to live with a busted door…
I wrench the door open, coming face to face—well, face to raised fist, actually—not with an impressively powerful male of the species but a woman who’s pushing 5’2 only on a good day, possibly with heels, which she isn’t wearing as a quick check reveals. Her dark pants suit and sensible shoes are screaming federal agent—as does the badge clipped to her lapel. What she lacks in height and general body mass, she more than makes up for in attitude, her dark eyes squinting at me in a way that makes me want to confess all my sins. Which I wisely don’t, but my throat is suddenly parched and my stomach does a few very uncomfortable flips.
Next to her stands a very fine specimen—early twenties, looking very fit in his green-and-brown camouflage-patterned U.S. Army fatigues—that somehow manages to appear unassuming next to the harpy in the suit. His name tag reads “Mason” and he flashes me a quick smile that usually would have made me blush. Quite frankly, I’m too intimidated by his partner-in-waking-me-up to care right now.
“Malory Jay?” she barks out in a clipped tone that translates into “you’d better be her or I’m having you for breakfast”—and not in a sleazy innuendo kind of way.
I nod, momentarily too stupefied to find my voice. What the fuck is an agent from the CDC doing here?
Did I accidentally send them an email complaining about the bad code on their website?
I knew I should have at least slapped a VPN on.
“I’m Amanda Slater, with the CDC.” She doesn’t introduce the army hottie. “Were you at this supermarket late last night?” She then proceeds to rattle off the address of Mike’s Deli.
I blink, rubbing my eyes briefly to force my thoughts to run in tracks that don’t lead straight to paranoia central. As I stall, I try to wrap my head around this. They must have caught me on camera. Or Chatty Marge ratted me out. Yeah, that makes the most sense. She saw me after all, and then sent Dear Agent Pounds-A-Lot up three floors to my humble abode. Nothing suspicious about that. Nothing at all.
“Yes,” I stammer, very eloquently so, but what do you expect at 10 freaking A.M.?! “I got two bottles of coke. I have the receipt right here if you want to see it.”
One smooth operator I am! I want to smack myself in the face. Could I sound any more suspicious than that? As if the CDC cares about possible shop lifting… or weird self-checkout habits. I suddenly see where that asshole guy was coming from. I really did act weird. And I have a feeling that’s going to come biting me in the ass now.
Agent Slater blinks twice—how she can make that appear like the most precise motion ever is beyond me—before she shakes her head, once. “That won’t be necessary. Did you notice anything unusual while you were there?”
Right, the junkie. That makes so much more sense. My mind is still sluggish but a sudden spike of fear sends my heartbeat into overdrive. Shouldn’t it be the ATF pounding on my door if this is crystal meth or bath salts related? You don’t send the CDC—the fucking centers for disease control—out there for someone taking a hit of something that should never get ingested.
The mental image of those damn black cracks in the junkie’s eyes comes roaring back in my mind. That, and all the bloody vomit. The bloody vomit on his breath… that he puffed out right in front of me. That I walked through on my way to the damn fridge.
I’m not the most emotionally available person but I’m sure that some of the turmoil going on inside of me is painted plainly on my face. I’m also not that good of a liar. There’s a part of me that wants to get it all out and beg for Agent Slater to take me along to get tested and whatnot. Thankfully, I’m able to cut that bitch and make her shut up before she can doom us all. Well, me.
Damn, it’s too early for this kind of BS.
“There was some kind of commotion in the back of the store, I think,” I offer, trying to talk slowly to lend some self-assuredness—and boredom—to my statement. “Everyone was rushing back to see. Including Mike, so I couldn’t get him to fix me a pastrami sandwich.” Without a doubt, that’s the vital information she must be looking for. “I didn’t see what the fuss was all about. I had work to do, and I was already running late. So I checked myself out and left.”
Agent Slater keeps staring at me as if that will make me instantly revise my statement. Mason—following our exchange with what must be practiced polite relaxation—cracks a small smile, without a doubt aiming to accomplish the same. I only allow myself to focus on him for a second before looking back to the agent. Behind her, I see Kelly still hovering in her doorway, eager not to miss a single word.
“You had no physical contact with the patient whatsoever?” Slater asks in her clipped tone. That woman must be a joy to work with.
I don’t miss the “patient” part as I numbly shake my head. “No. As I said, I didn’t even see what was going on back there. Just that everyone was staring.”
Her mouth snaps open but before she can bite my head off, her phone goes off with the most annoying of annoying ringtones known to man. She grimaces as she turns away and walks down the hallway, out of immediate earshot, before she takes the call. While Kelly and I look after her, Mason reaches into his pants pocket and pulls out a card.
“If you can think of anything else, please don’t hesitate to call Agent Slater, even late at night. That’s her personal phone number.”
Why do I get the sense that he doesn’t simply mean it in the this-is-important way but also a chance to get back at her?
I take the card with zero intention of doing any of that. “Thanks. I will. If I can think of anything else, I mean.” Smooth, Mal. Real smooth.
Mason flashes me another grin. Damn, that guy’s got a lot going on. Makes me wonder why he’s in the army, and why the fuck they sent him to play Slater’s arm candy.
I’m about to smile back when a thought flashes through my mind. He looks a bit young to have finished a higher-education degree, but doesn’t the army have an entire branch similar to what the CDC does for us civilians? I’ll be damned if I can think of the name right now. Some ridiculously long acronym. There are some patches on his uniform arm that could likely tell me all about his history—if I could make sense of any of it. Which I can’t, because I come from a family that only talks about the military when it’s all about money wasted that could be better spent on education, yadda yadda yadda.
I’m instantly suspicious when Mason reaches into his pocket again, only to produce another card and a small, stubby pencil. “Can I ask for your number?” He does that with a dazzling, bright smile now that makes something inside of me melt. And other things, because it’s been a while, and clearly, my sleep-deprived mind is a slut. “If we need to contact you about the developing situation, of course.”
“Of course,” I hear myself echo as I reach for the card and pencil like the lemming I am.
I consider giving him false details, but if they know where I live, they likely already have all my contact details, too. My, isn’t that a nice thought.
I end up scribbling my real number down before I hand it all back. I don’t miss how warm his fingers are as they lightly touch mine. Ugh. Mal, snap out of it!
“Mason! Stop dawdling!” comes Agent Slater’s shout from the top of the stairs. I bet she’s super happy the elevator isn’t working, too.
Mason nods—not that she sees it but I get the sense she’s so used to her orders being followed that she’s not looking for acknowledgment—and turns to go.
“Wait!” I call out, because I’m an idiot. When he pauses and glances back at me, I can’t help but frown. “How did you get my address?”
“It’s connected to the credit card you used at checkout,” he explains. When nothing further comes from me, he leaves, but only after giving me another small smile before he disappears out of sight down the stairs.
“Yum!” Kelly enthuses way before those two are out of the stairwell. There’s hoping Mason knows he’s a smooth mofo and doesn’t mind chitter-chatter like that. “Looks like someone got herself a hot date in the future! I can help you with makeup, if you want.”
I wait several seconds until the sound of the door closing downstairs reverberates through the hallway.
“Yeah, thanks, but I don’t think so,” I tell my neighbor and promptly close the door in her face.
Too late I realize that the important questions I should have been asking are what the fuck is going on, how concerned should I be, and why do I still have virtually no data connection on my phone?
I’m tempted to open my window and check if I can still see Slater and Mason down there, but that would let in a blast of unwelcome heat that I’m not prepared to battle.
With luck, I’m just being super paranoid over nothing.
With luck, this is the last I’ll see of either of them.