THE PLANS THEY MADE by Graciela Kenig
Re: Post July 19, 2003 Incident
No significant activity reported in or surrounding the apartment building on Russell Square since the above-referenced incident. Landlord picks up mail, draws curtains daily. Lights come on and off at different times each day, as programmed.
Nothing new to report all week
Nothing new to report all week
Landlord reported that an American woman inquired about the subject today. No name or description provided. Will investigate.
The American woman returned at 1300 hours today. Asked landlord about the subject again. Sat on a bench at Russell Square, the park facing the building. Unable to say for how long. Targeted surveillance will begin tomorrow.
Woman returned today at 1600 hours but did not enter the building. Sat on a park bench and took notes while frequently looking up toward the window of the subject’s apartment. Stayed for thirty minutes. Then walked across the square to an apartment building on Coram St. When asked about the American woman, doorman at said building wouldn’t talk. She may be staying at that location while in London. Description: Shoulder-length brown hair, 5 foot 5, 110 lbs. (Snapshots attached. Will attempt a better angle to improve quality.) Carried a large handbag.
Woman returned today at 1400 hours. Sat on the same bench for 10 minutes. Took notes and used her cellphone. Looked up toward the subject’s second-floor window several times. Walked to the Holborn tube station. Lost track of her in the crowd. Still unable to determine the woman’s identity. Pictures too grainy and distant. Will retake when possible.
Woman’s name is Kate Brennan, Chicago-based investigative journalist turned novelist. She hasn’t returned to the area since August 15. Nothing new to report.
London, August 20, 2003
Kate heard the news indirectly. That morning, she’d been doing research at the London Metropolitan Archives and had lost track of time. At first, she tried to ignore the noise that seeped into the reading room from the reception area, even though it was unusual in a library. She merely lifted her eyes from the black and white photographs she’d spread on the table and returned to her only task: Pick one castle. Just one. She had put it off long enough because of Ruby.
But the glass wall made it impossible. The din grew louder and more annoying. And the people on the other side looked like zombies: mouths agape, eyes bulging, heads shaking. It was as though they had fallen under a spell.
Without a second thought, Kate joined the crowd in the reception area.
"What happened?” she asked.
The tall clerk who’d been so helpful that morning rubbed the base of his neck. “A suicide bombing,” he said. “It happened a few hours ago in Baghdad.”
“I see.” Only months after the US president had declared the war over, Iraq remained a chaotic and violent place. “What was the target?”
“The UN headquarters.”
Kate’s heart sank. “The UN? Did you say the UN?”
The man’s forehead wrinkled. “Do you know someone who works there?”
She nodded. “But I don’t know if she was in Baghdad.”
“My best friend.” Kate felt faint. God, Ruby. Is that what you didn’t want to tell me?
Even before she transferred to London three years earlier, Ruby had never said much about her job. The projects she’d handled in Washington, D.C., fascinated her, but ultimately bored everyone else. Or so she often said when they talked on the phone. If Kate ever wanted to know more, Ruby veered their conversations into the mundane. Like one of her boys had been sick, or the other had won a science award, or their father had done yet another despicable thing. When they discussed the details of Kate’s visit—after she’d booked the flight from Chicago—Ruby wouldn’t commit to a specific reunion date. There were some details to nail down for the upcoming school year… and a possible business trip that couldn’t be avoided. But she’d sounded happy that Kate would be in London for six months. “You’re gonna love the apartment I found for you,” she’d said. “Just across the park from mine. I wish you could stay with us, but Julian and Jason are messy, typical teenagers, you know? And you’ll need a quiet space to work on your novel.”
That had stung. I would’ve stayed with you and the boys even if I couldn’t write one chapter. It’s not my first novel, for God’s sake.
“When did you last speak to your friend?” The clerk’s deep voice gave Kate a slight jolt.
“I’ve been trying to reach her for a couple of weeks… more, maybe. I think it has been three weeks… We were supposed to meet here in London, but—”
“Please have a seat Ms.—”
“Brennan, Kate Brennan.” She lowered her body without checking if there’s was an actual chair to catch her.
“Oliver McNeal.” He held her arm, perhaps expecting her to miss the chair otherwise. “I’ll fetch you some water.”
As if by magic, once Kate felt the seat’s cushion underneath her, the crowd dispersed, allowing her to see the small television set that had brought about all the commotion.
A BBC reporter spoke to the camera against a background of dense, black smoke and lingering flames that obscured the cavernous hole in Baghdad’s United Nations building. As usual in such circumstances, the footage was repetitive. Mangled metal, naked tree branches, and debris. Each time the images reemerged on the screen, Kate noticed different details. The broken left headlight of an early nineties Chrysler covered in layers of black dust. The crushed hood and trunk of a yellow VW Bug, its driver’s door abandoned ajar. Flat tires, missing hubcaps, windows devoid of glass. They had the look and feel of empty eye sockets.
A female voice recited the names of some victims. Though she didn’t hear Ruby’s, it was too soon to tell.
All the people who were just there doing their jobs.
“Here you are, Ms. Brennan.” McNeal said.
Kate yelped as though somebody had attacked her.
“So sorry.” He attempted to hand her a glass but stopped in mid-air. “Oh, you can remove the gloves now. You only need to wear them to handle our photographs.”
Kate looked at her hands. She recalled being annoyed at having to sift through actual photos that should’ve been turned into slides. But instead of removing the vinyl gloves, she took a sip of water. It made her shiver.
“Is there someone you could ring?”
She gazed into his eyes, the color of molasses, and smiled. “Oh no, I’m feeling much better now. But thank you.”
“I meant… about your friend… perhaps a coworker who might know if she was there?”
Kate tried to stand up. But the effort made her dizzy all over again and she had to lean against the man who towered over her, and whose body was sturdier than it looked.
This is so embarrassing.
McNeal just swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing as though he needed extra air.
“I tried a few things already.” She’d called the UN offices in London, but no one there recognized Ruby’s name. Even Kate’s boyfriend Scott, a television anchor in Chicago, had turned nothing up through his extensive network of contacts.
“I left messages in her answering machine… thought she might check them remotely, but nothing.”
Kate winced. Ruby only communicated with her ex-husband through lawyers or friends who took on the role of mediators. “I could call her sister, but she lives in Ohio and, and… I just don’t want to alarm her.”
“If your friend wasn’t in Baghdad—”
“But if she was...”
It was a natural next step, yet Kate had been avoiding it for days. What am I afraid of finding out?
McNeal shrugged. “Let me know if you change your mind. We can give you some privacy in one of our back offices.”
“You’re so kind, Mr. McNeal.”
His cheeks turned pink, erasing the paleness that had blanketed his face. As he walked away, Kate noticed a slight hunch, a common feature of people who are tall. Ruby had it too, but it only showed when she wanted to make a point through direct eye contact with Kate. Otherwise, her posture was perfect, like that of a model’s.
Kate had chosen to do research for her fourth novel in London, mainly because Ruby lived there. They had never been physically apart that long since they met in high school, and it seemed like a good way to reconnect. But nothing had worked out the way they planned. Even if Ruby wasn’t in Iraq, something had happened to her. Kate felt it in her gut.
I need to know.
She stood up, removed the vinyl gloves, and tossed them into a wastebasket.
“Thanks for the suggestion, Mr. McNeal. Yes, please, I would like to make some calls if it’s still okay.”
She sat behind a cluttered desk in a room made up of file cabinets and blank walls. But Scott’s cellphone number went straight to voicemail. So did his desk phone at the television station and all the others she called when she had to reach him in the past. At last, a receptionist picked up and took a message.
Kate swallowed hard and dialed Helen in Ohio but had to leave a voicemail there as well.
The phone was already ringing when Kate opened the door to the apartment on Coram Street. She ran all the way to the kitchen and snatched the white receiver on the tiled wall like her life depended on it.
“Kate?” A familiar woman’s voice allowed her breathing to slow down.
“I was about to try your cellphone next—”
“Oh, Helen.” Kate recognized Ruby’s sister’s twang. “I’m so glad you called back… thank you!” She reached for a cardigan sweater she had draped over one of the kitchen chairs. Though it was stifling hot outside, she felt a sudden need to cover her bare shoulders.
“I know it’s been a while since you and I—”
“Ruby wasn’t in Baghdad.”
The abruptness of Helen’s words made her sit down. And when she understood their meaning, Kate let the tears stream down her cheeks as though she’d never been so relieved.
“Phew… Like I said in my voicemail, I haven’t been able to get a hold of Ruby since I came to London. Do you know—?”
“Oh, Kate—” Helen’s voice cracked, and Kate could’ve sworn she heard a sniffle or two coming through the line. Then again, transatlantic connections were not always clear.
“Ruby wasn’t in Baghdad because… because she was already dead.”
Kate’s heart stopped beating. Or at least it felt that way for a second. Whatever Helen said was absurd. Not true. No way. She stood up and paced the small kitchen, wrapping the telephone cord around her fingers.
“What do you mean?” Kate held her breath.
“My sister died in a motorcycle accident.”
She closed her eyes to avoid picturing something that gruesome, but it was too late.
“Did you say she was in a motorcycle accident?”
“Ruby doesn’t ride motorcycles.”
“Apparently, she did. At least since she transferred to London.”
Kate’s mouth went dry. “When?”
“A month ago.”
“And you didn’t tell me?”
“Your phone number has been disconnected. And the email I sent you bounced back. I also wrote a letter. I didn’t know how to—”
Kate rubbed her temples. She had moved in with Scott a year earlier and could no longer use her work email after she quit her job at the Chicago Tribune. But something about what she heard still made no sense.
“I can’t believe this… I just can’t… Ruby’s quite the daredevil… but a motorcycle?”
“I thought the same thing.”
Kate’s old self resurfaced as though she’d just changed hats. “Did you get a police report?”
“They faxed it to me. Well, they faxed it to my parents—”
“Oh, God… Your parents. How did… how are they dealing with this?”
“Dad will never get over it. He hasn’t gone back to work yet. And Mom… well, you know Dora Cunningham. She was never a fan of Ruby’s. Her own daughter.” Helen cleared her throat. “At first, she kept saying that Ruby brought it all on herself. That she always made bad choices, and this was her final one. But now… now she seems inconsolable.”
Kate shook her head. She always knew, or hoped, that Dora would eventually regret being such a bitch to her oldest daughter. But not like that.
“Anyhow, the police report says it was an accident. Case closed.”
“Were there any witnesses?”
“Another rider, a woman. But she said Ruby was already… gone… by the time she arrived at the scene.”
“It wasn’t in the report… well… it was, but it was blackened.”
Something snapped inside Kate’s chest. “This is so… strange… so… out of character… don’t you think?”
“It surprised me too. But what could I do? My children are young, and I live in Ohio… I can’t just pick up and go to London.”
Helen stopped talking, and Kate realized she was sobbing.
“Forgive me, Helen. It’s the old reporting instinct in me.”
Helen blew her nose. “You became quite the star, Kate. The whole town was so proud of you when you won those awards.”
Kate's cheeks warmed up. “Oh… that was a while ago… but thank you.”
“And how are you doing?”
“I manage.” Helen said, breaking down again.
“I’m so very, very sorry, Helen.” Kate could no longer hold back the tears.
“How long had it been since you two saw each other?”
Kate wiped her face with a towel and swallowed hard. “Four? Five years? Even before she moved to London, we never seemed to find a time to visit each other. Our jobs, the boys, the ex-husbands, the boyfriends… it all seems so stupid right now.”
“Her job was very demanding.”
Kate thought about Ruby, her long blond curls falling every which way, and couldn’t imagine a world in which the two of them wouldn’t share something important the next time they talked. She couldn’t accept that there wouldn’t be a next time. How could her best friend be gone? Forever?
“Was there a funeral?”
“A memorial service here in Toledo. But we buried her in Virginia. Near Ralph, you know?”
“He is the children’s father. And they’ll live with him permanently now. With him and his third wife, of course… the kids were in Virginia when Ruby died, you know? Spending the last few weeks of summer with Ralph. In a way, that was a blessing.”
Kate’s grief morphed into disgust. Once, she had been Ralph’s biggest fan and had loved him like a brother. It seemed so unfair that the boys would end up living with him.
“How many more divorces will he put the boys through?”
“I’ve no idea. But it bothers me to think about that. Ralph has always been too busy sleeping around to care for the kids. And I’m sure he thinks having them full-time is more of a burden than a plus.”
“Sick.” Helen was probably right. At least both boys were already in high school. Living with their father was at worst a short-term arrangement.
Kate could hear Helen’s labored breathing again. Or perhaps it was a long hesitation that seemed odd.
“You know?” she sighed. “I think there is something suspicious about the way Ruby died. I’ve felt that all along.”
“Is there a way you could—?”
“Do a little digging around?”
“Oh goodness, Helen. I know how to investigate, but I don’t have—”
“I can forward the police report. It’s a place to start, isn’t it?”
“But I haven’t been a journalist for quite some time. I write novels now.”
“Isn’t it like riding a bicycle?”
“Maybe. But this is too personal.” Kate caught her breath. “Besides, I have no credentials here in London, and no contacts of the type I need.”
“Ruby was working with a guy ... Nigel. Nigel Williams. I can give you his phone number.”
“But what? Don’t you want to know what really happened to Ruby?”
“I do, of course I do.”
“Great.” She sounded relieved. “But Kate, there’s something else you should know about Ruby.”
“She changed her name.”
“In London, she was Annie Henderson.”
“Why on earth?”
“Her job was… complicated.”
“She worked for the UN for heaven’s sake. What was so complicated? Ah… Scratch that. Even the UN is a target now.”
“Yes, I know. That was awful. But listen, Kate. I gotta go now. Need to pick up my kids at summer camp. Nigel Williams should be able to fill you in. Have a pen handy?”
Kate jotted down his phone number.
“I’ll email you the report later tonight.”
“You got my new email address?”
“It was in your voicemail. But Kate, whatever you do… just be careful… okay?”
“You just have to.”
Kate heard a click, immediately followed by the repetitive sound of a busy signal. Through her tears, she stared at the receiver as though it was a foreign object that had landed on her hand.
What am I to do now?
The busy signal turned into a recorded message urging her to hang up. Kate obeyed and thought about her last conversation with Ruby. She had never sounded more comfortable with her life.
“I have so much to tell you,” she had said, immediately having to cut their chat short so she could tend to something else.
What were you going to tell me? What was going so well for you at last?
Kate shook her head. She and Ruby had come a long way from awkward teenagers, through even more awkward first boyfriends, terrifying abortions, controlling ex-husbands, career highs and lows and heart-wrenching goodbyes. While Kate had accepted that they might never live in the same town again, in her mind, their friendship was forever. Without Ruby, Kate’s life would not have been the one she’d live thus far.
She looked at her notepad and dialed Nigel Williams. ###