Fiction Drama Contemporary

Joe Freeman, a handsome man in his early forties, and a certified federal building inspector, decided to take the back-road home to Sacramento from Reno. The two-hour drive would take longer, but he needed the time to clear his head. He took his cell from his shirt pocket. There was a message with a direct link to a bank account. He clicked on it and his phone number verified his identity. The money was there. Then he hit the speed dial.

The voice on the other end said, “Freeman’s residence.”

“Is this the lady of the house?”

His eight-year-old daughter, Caroline, giggled, “No. Daddy It’s me. Do you want to talk to mommy?”

“Hi sweetie. No, just tell her I’m going to be later than usual. Ask her not to hold dinner for me.”

“Okay,” then without another word, she hung up. Joe glanced at his cell and smiled. He felt guilty after he called his boss to tell him about the sign-off in Reno. Looking ahead, he dropped the phone on the seat next to him.

The white lines on the desolate road dashed past. My family comes first. What I did was justified. He watched as a row of soft white clouds billowed across the Sierra Nevada skyline. Besides, everything was well concealed, I can argue that the changes must have happened after my inspection. The road ahead gently unrolled like a ribbon through the foothills.

 He whispered, “The money. What if someone traces the money?” The burnt orange sand of the desert seemed to glow in the sunlight. He felt his was the only car on the road. I know what I did was wrong. Did I sell out? Do these people own me now?

As he crested the hill, the road fell away toward the Sacramento River. He took some liberties with the speed limit on the flat two-lane stretch. He punched it. His Outback responded. He glimpsed at his speed, the needle nudged eighty. Then back into his rearview mirror. A good distance back, a black SUV topped the hill. 

Ahead on the horizon, the familiar arch of the Pennybacker Bridge. Looking up again into the rearview, the vehicle was closing the gap in short order. Its rapid approach surprised him. Now right on his tail, Joe slowed. The other driver fell back and hung with him. Joe shouted at the tailgater, “Damn it, come on, pass me.”

As they approached the stretch of road just before the bridge, the SUV pulled alongside the Subaru. Joe glanced over to see a man in a dark ball cap with reflective sunglasses. Unexpectedly, he cut over in front of Joe and tapped the brake. Joe panicked, stomped his brake and yanked on the steering wheel. The front wheels of his car skidded across the white shoulder line. Joe pushed even harder on the brakes. To no avail, the vehicle was off the pavement, headed toward the embankment along the river.

Joe’s jaw dropped. He glanced at the man as he passed. What’s this man trying to do? Kill me? Malice had never entered his mind. The Subaru fishtailed and rocketed up the bank. It kicked up plumes of dust as the tires fought for traction. The horizon suddenly fell away as the Sacramento River loomed directly ahead.

“Jeez!” Joe screamed.

The Subaru flew over the tall riverbank. It clipped the tops of trees as it went. The nose pitched forward and then arched downward. Joe saw his fate in the dark water ahead. Fear seized him as he squeezed the steering wheel and continued to jam on the brake. The feeling of weightlessness gripped his stomach. 

His impending destiny was approaching in slow motion. The Subaru hit the river like a sledgehammer. Thousands of gallons were displaced instantly. The engine block hissed and steam swirled as the hood flew off. A stream of murky green water flowed across the windshield.

Joe pulled away the airbag as he felt his shoes begin to fill with water. The heavy vehicle sank fast and twisted with the current. He unfastened his seat belt and climbed into the back of the car. With the bridge now in full view, he watched as the driver of the black SUV looked on. The moment Joe's car submerged. The driver got into his vehicle and drove away. Joe took a deep breath, dove under and kicked out the back window. He swam up as the Subaru sunk deeper. When he reached the surface, there was no one around.

Just a few hours earlier, Haiyan Chen, an attractive 38-year-old Asian woman, wearing a dark tight-fitting dress and black stilettos, stepped out of a white Jaguar convertible. In the glow of the California sun, her silk floral headscarf glistened. It was snugly tied beneath her chin. Her large Gucci sunglasses reflected the activity on J Street in downtown Sacramento. 

She glanced both ways before crossing to the ATM. Her fourth and final stop. She punched in a code and selected ‘check balance’. $250K appeared on the screen. Walking back to her car, she pulled a phone from a purse and dialed. A man answered, Haiyan said, “They've all been paid, you can eliminate the mark, and pull back the money we paid him.”

The man, on the other end, said, “Consider it done, it'll appear to be an accident.”

“Perfect.” She said, ending the call and tossing the burner phone into the trash. On the freeway, she loosened her scarf and gave it to the wind. She looked up at the sky and smiled as her silky long black hair waved freely.

Joe collapsed on the muddy riverbank, exhausted after fighting the current and swimming for over 100 yards. A random car crossing the bridge reported seeing a man’s body along the river. In and out of consciousness, Joe heard the pounding of helicopter blades. Paramedics and firefighters struggled to strap him onto a stretcher. As he felt himself being lifted away, his head throbbed, and arms ached.

“Mr. Freeman, I’d say you’re lucky to be alive. If you'd been knocked unconscious when the car went down, you would have drowned.” said the doctor. “You have a slight concussion. Most likely from the impact. Some minor bruises and abrasions, but apart from that, you're okay.”

“Daddy.” Caroline shouted as she rushed into the room. She was thin, pale and her cheeks slightly sunken. Her dainty nose was spattered with freckles. From the light above the bed, her brown eyes sparkled. She leaned over and squeezed him tightly in her arms. In the doorway, Regina, her mother, a petite strawberry blond, looked on with wet eyelashes. Tears streamed down her cheeks. She rushed to the bed, and threw herself around them both, kissing Joe on the head.

“Oh, Joe, I was so worried.”

“He’s going to be fine, Mrs. Freeman. Just watch him closely tonight, he might become nauseous.” He smiled and brushed Caroline’s hair and patted her cheek.

Just two days later, Joe, fully recovered, stood in the AT&T store as the clerk set up his new cell phone. It immediately came to life with several unheard voice messages. Obviously, someone had been desperately trying to reach him.

Several months before the road incident that almost killed Joe. He sat alone in the hospital waiting area to hear about Caroline's latest cancer treatment. Regina was in the room with Caroline. She so loved her only daughter that she’d given up her career as a commercial interior designer.

They met ten years ago while Joe was assigned to do inspections on a federal courthouse annex. Regina was designing the new courtrooms. They dated for a few months before deciding to marry. Both of them wanted to have a big family, but as fate would have it, it hadn't worked out.

During Caroline's painful and lengthy procedures, Regina always stayed at her side. Joe sat and held his face in his hands in the waiting room. The door slowly opened. He never bothered to look. An attractive Asian woman with a porcelain complexion stepped in. She wore a knee-length black trench coat and high-heals. Strolling over to Joe, she stopped in front of him.

“Excuse me, is that seat taken?” She said, pointing to the seat next to Joe. She stood before him with a coy smile, her dark eyes glistened, her crimson lips slick and wet.

Joe, confused, looked up through his dangling chestnut hair. “Uh, no. Of course not, the place is empty.”

She eased down next to him. Then provocatively crossed her slender legs. The underside of her thigh was exposed. She placed her tiny hand on his. Her radiant red nails complimented her lips. “You’re Joe Freeman, right?” She asked, “I know we don’t exactly know each other, but I'm sure we can find a way to communicate.”

Joe jerked his hand from under hers. He turned and said, “Yes, I'm Joe Freeman. Why? Who are you? And, what do you want to communicate?”

“My name is Haiyan Chen. I’m with the–– Bureau.”

“What Bureau?”

She smirked, “I understand your insurance doesn’t cover these procedures. They’re expensive, aren’t they?”

“How did you know that?”

“Oh, Mr. Freeman, we know a lot about you.”

“What are you talking about?”

“We’re aware you’ve been willing to–– Shall we say, overlook some inconsistencies in your building inspections? That is for a small fee?”

“Hey, you’re way out of line.”

“Am I now? How about the Wilson Construction Company’s work on the county office annex? Or––”

“Okay, that’s enough.” Joe said, dropping his head back into his hands.

She leaned in close, “What if I told you the Bureau could help with all your unexpected medical expenses? That is–– in exchange for some inspection oversights that are of critical importance to us. Their eyes met, she stared without batting her dark lashes. Her stare was so hard it could break concrete. She scraped her blood-red finger-nail across the ginger stubble of his cleft chin.

Joe felt a tingle of electricity run through his loins. “I’m not sure––”

She moved her fingers to his lips. “Shh…”

“I mean,” he moaned.

She gently brushed his chest with the back of her fingers as she slipped a card into his shirt pocket. Then she stood and stepped chilled and calm to the door. Slowly opened it and turned to whisper, “Call me.” She blew him a kiss and vanished from sight.

Weeks later, Joe sat at his home office desk. He slowly unfolded the bill from the hospital. His eyes widened. He slumped down in his chair. In total disbelief, he saw ‘Claim Denied’ stamped in red on the bill. His eyes moved down the numbers on the right to the bottom line. The amount due was $249,847.00.

He pounded his fists on the desk. “Jeez, where am I going to get that kind of money?” He shouted.

Regina ran into the room. “Joe, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing— I’m okay.” He whispered.

Caroline cried. “Mommy.” Regina turned and walked away.

Joe rummaged through his top drawer until he found the card from Haiyan. “I’m going out.” He yelled as he grabbed the car keys.

“Hello, this is Haiyan Chen.”

“Haiyan, this is Joe, Joe Freeman. We met about a month ago at the hospital where my daughter was being treated.”

“Oh yes, Joe, I’ve been expecting your call.” What can I do for you?”

“The bill, the insurance didn’t cover it. It’s nearly a quarter of a million dollars. I don’t have that kind of money, and my daughter still needs more treatments. She could die.”

“Let’s meet for a coffee, shall we? I’ll text you the location from another number in a few minutes.”

Joe looked around the coffee shop and spotted Haiyan at a table in the back. She looked up at him and smiled as he drew a chair next to her.

She started, “So, Joe, here’s my proposal.”

When she finished explaining, Joe rubbed his forehead and stared at the table. His reflection wiggled back at him from his coffee, “The FBI office improvements in Reno. Look, that’s pretty serious, I’m not sure.”

“All you have to do is overlook–– the improvements our people will make. You'll sign off that the building meets all the security guidelines. The camera’s and microphones we'll install are simply not mentioned in your report. All we’re asking of you is to sign off that the building meets the required specifications. It’s that simple. Just one signature and this current and any future medical bills are covered.” Haiyan said, as she ran her dainty hand up his inner thigh. Her eyes locked on his. “It’s easy. I can feel you’re up for it.” She brushed her leg against his.

Joe sighed. “It was difficult for Regina to get pregnant and after Caroline was born. Well, the doctor said she couldn’t have anymore. It would devastate Regina if anything happened to her.” He dropped his head into his hands. Then he looked Haiyan in the eye. “It’s one thing to overlook a few minor violations. I mean, a builder cutting corners is no big deal. But what you're asking is beyond corrupt. It might be treason.”

“Is it?” She said, her tone provocative. “What do you care if some FBI agents spy on each other? You should consider it a service to your country, checks, and balances.”

“I’m going to need some time.” He grimaced, then stood and stared down at Haiyan before walking out.

Just as Regina was about to call Joe, he stepped through the door. “Where have you been?”

“Out. I met a friend for coffee.” He replied, tossing the car keys on the counter, unable to look her in the eye.

“Joe. I saw the bill.” Her eyes filled with tears. “We can’t stop now. Caroline needs more treatments.” She wiped her eyes, “I can go back to work. We have to do something, anything. Can we take out a personal loan or a second mortgage on the house?”

“I don’t know–– I’ll figure something out.” He said, looking down at the floor, feeling totally defeated. He trod purposefully into his home office and slammed the door.

The next morning, on his drive to the office, Joe looked over at the cell on the seat next to him. He grabbed it and punched in the number that Haiyan had texted him from. A man answered in Chinese. “Haiyan Chen, please. I need to speak to Haiyan,” Joe said. The call dropped.

As he sat in his car outside his office, he waited for the jitters to pass before going into work. His cell phone started to ring. Invisible spiders ran up his spine. It was Haiyan. “Hello Haiyan.”

“Joe, did you call?”

“Yes–– I’ve decided to do what you asked. But know that I have to sign off on the inspection in Reno early next week. So, get your people in there and do what you have to do.”

“Our people will know once you’ve signed off on the inspection. The money will be deposited immediately. For any future medical expenses, text the amount to the number you used to call me earlier.”

“The one with the Chinese guy?” He questioned.

“Yes!” She ended the call.

Another FBI Field Office had detected some suspicious transactions between The Bank of China and banks in Sacramento. Agent Thompson from the Los Angeles FBI Field Office decided to call Jim Reagan, the Special Agent in Charge of the Sacramento Field Office, to alert him, “Yes sir. We've confirmed that four payments of $250K were wired directly from the Bank of China to different banks in the Sacramento area. Each into an account opened on behalf of agents in your office.”

“Good work, Agent Thompson. Let's keep this under the radar for now.”

Agent Thompson paused, “One other thing, sir, there was a deposit for a Joseph Freeman. But oddly enough, an hour later, the deposit was reversed.”

“Understood.” Reagan ended the call. He glanced over at Haiyan Chen on the passenger side of his white Jaguar convertible. Her silky black hair neatly gathered in a tight bun. She sat with her willowy legs crossed, wearing her close-fitting rose-colored flight attendant uniform. Her dark eyes sparkled as the car came to a stop. The sign above read: Terminal A – China Airlines – Departures. He leaned over and gave her a peck on her voluptuous red lips. “Until next time.” He smiled.

“Jim, you know the mark hasn’t been handled, correct?” She said, opening the car door to step out. Jim released the trunk latch.

“That will be taken care of today.” He smirked. She retrieved her bag from the trunk. Then she flashed a shrewd smile over her shoulder before she slithered through the automatic door and vanished into the crowd.

Copyright © 2022 by Chandler Wilson

December 16, 2022 20:01

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