Natalia inherited it after her father Nikolai was killed in a hit-and-run accident just one year ago. It was a custom Spanish-style 3-drawer desk; an anniversary gift her mother had given to her father five years earlier, just prior to losing her own life to cancer. When Natalia received the desk she knew her study would be the perfect place for it. She ran her fingers over the hand-carved apron before pulling open the top drawer. From it she retrieved an old black and white photo of her parents on their wedding day. She had been meaning to get it framed.
The ringtone of her phone snapped her back into reality. Natalia placed the photo back into the drawer. However the drawer would not close. She tried again, but the ringing of her phone seemed relentless.
“Rhyzkov,” she answered as she always did.
“Good morning Agent Rhyzkov,” the stern voice greeted. “This is Special Agent Aaron Hunt with the FBI. It is imperative I meet with you this afternoon. I need to talk to you about your former husband, Sergio De Luca.” As the voice on the other end continued, Natalia’s stomach turned a few knots. The meeting was scheduled for three o’clock that afternoon.
Hanging up the phone, Natalia let out a deep sigh and looked again at the fall foliage in front of her. In that moment the changing of the seasons seemed to resonate with Natalia. She thought about the many changes she herself had made over the past ten years. And like the leaves, the more changes she had made in her new life the more she felt she was slowly falling and drifting from her past; which was actually a good thing.
“No regrets.” Natalia could almost hear the words of her father in his thick Russian accent. It was as if he were right there - encouraging her, guiding her. He was her biggest supporter and often reminded her that she held her own destiny in the palm of her hands. “If you’re going to make a mistake,” he used to say, “go big. Then at least you can learn from it and never look back. No regrets.” She missed her father.
As Natalia pondered her father’s words in her mind, she wondered what exactly it was that she was supposed to “learn” from her former life; the life she left behind in New York. She desperately wanted to move on so she could never look back.
Natalia met Sergio while studying at Loyola University in Baltimore. Although her father jokingly warned her about getting involved with a Sicilian, the two were engaged quickly and married shortly after graduation.
Following their marriage, Natalia & Sergio moved to New York City. Sergio was glad to be back home as all of his family lived just across the bridge in Jersey. They welcomed Natalia, the first “outsider" and only blonde, to the family. However, it didn’t take long for Natalia to discover that Sergio and his family were involved with the infamous Mobs of New York and she filed an annulment.
Natalia had often pondered why she was attracted to Sergio to begin with. Why hadn’t she been able to see through him like she could so many others? Although she tried to live by the “no regrets” sentiment, she was slightly disappointed in herself for not having been a better judge of character. Her father had been teaching her to read people her entire life and she always felt she was good at it.
Natalia’s father used the family travel agency in Bethesda, Maryland as a cover for his work with the Central Intelligence Agency. His work was primarily dedicated to the Special Activities Division, heading up covert operations in his Russian homeland. He took great pride in serving his “adopted country”, as he called it. Nikolai told Natalia the fact she was born on Memorial Day meant something special; that if she would honor her family and her country she would become something great. It was through the events of her marriage and divorce Natalia finally felt this patriotism begin to pump through her own veins. Truth and justice were things her father had taught her to value and she wasn’t about to throw away her integrity for anyone, not even the man she thought she loved.
Natalia once again made an attempt to push the drawer closed, but it would not budge. Getting down on her knees, she pried the drawer from its track and pulled it out completely. She reached her hand as far back as she could and upon feeling the obstruction, pulled out a small pocket-sized manila envelope. She unfastened the clasp and turned the envelope over to produce a small brass key. The key was engraved with the initials W.F.S.B. Natalia turned the key over and over in the palm of her hand, wondering if it belonged to the original owner or placed there by her father.
The chiming of the grandfather clock in the hallway reminded Natalia of the reason she came into the study to begin with. Natalia slid the key onto the chain around her neck, opened her laptop and began to focus on the case in front of her. As a United States Marshall with the Witness Security Program, known as WitSec, Natalia would be relocating some new witnesses due to arrive at the Reno airport that evening.
Natalia felt a sense of anxiety while preparing for the witness transport. It wasn’t that the assignment was unlike anything she had dealt with before. It was the scheduled meeting beforehand, with Agent Hunt that had her stomach churning up into her throat.
Natalia knew what she needed was a good long run in the mountains. She quickly glanced at her watch and went through her mental checklist of everything she had to do for the day. She decided she would only have enough time for a quick run on her favorite trail. Her long legs and lean body mass made her a natural for long distance.
One of the reasons she bought her Southeast Central home in Carson City, Nevada was because of the proximity to the trails. A quick run would mean she could leave her three-bedroom Spanish-style home on Avalon Terrace and head right up the trail in the mountains behind her house. As she made her favorite 5 mile loop in 5400 feet elevation, Natalia breathed the fresh air into her lungs. She especially loved the smell of sage brush.
Upon returning home Natalia was surprised to find her front door ajar. She entered her home with caution, feeling sick to discover it had been ransacked. Unsure if the break-in had something to do with her new case, the meeting with Agent Hunt or completely coincidental, Natalia made a few phone calls; first to her supervisor, second to Agent Hunt and third to the local police. The police surveyed the scene and took an official report. Her supervisor immediately reassigned the transport to a different team and Agent Hunt had informed her to stay put until he arrived.
“I assume you know about the murder of New York’s Assistant D.A.,” Agent Hunt began, as he sat across the kitchen island from her that afternoon.
“I read about it a few months ago,” Natalia replied, noticing the seriousness he held in his brow.
“Then I assume you know that members of the Italian Mob are suspects in the case,” Hunt continued, his thin lips pursing as he spoke.
“Yes,” Natalia confirmed. “I read that too. Sergio’s name was listed in the paper.”
“Correct,” replied Agent Hunt. “It is the Agency’s understanding that the ADA discovered Sergio and his crew were involved with the extortion of many of New York City’s public officials, including one powerful judge. We believe that the mob learned of his discovery and put a hit out on him.”
“While I understand the seriousness of this matter,” Natalia began, “I don’t understand what any of this has to do with me. I’ve been estranged from Sergio for almost a decade now and have had no contact with him whatsoever.”
Agent Hunt crossed his arms in front of him and leaned forward with all manner of seriousness. “I realize that. But it is also the Agency’s understanding that your father was the one who tipped off the DA’s office to begin with. It seems that your father had evidence of the extortion and was planning to turn it over to the DA’s office but was killed before having the opportunity to do so.”
Natalia’s heart sank so far deep into her chest she felt like she could not breathe. “What are you saying?” she asked, somehow already knowing the answer.
“We believe that your father’s death was no accident,” stated Hunt. For the first time since being there, his face softened as he waited for Natalia’s reaction.
Natalia sat in shock while she struggled to comprehend the things Hunt was telling her. Finally she looked at him to continue. Nikolai had began investigating Sergio as early as her engagement to him. He then used his connections to keep tabs on his new son-in-law and did not like what he had learned. Knowing that his only daughter was as stubborn as any Russian, he knew she would never believe accusations against her husband unless she discovered the truth herself. Nikolai made certain that just enough specific information was revealed to her, allowing her to draw her own conclusions resulting in the annulment of their marriage.
Following the annulment it was Nikolai who had contacted an old friend in the US Marshall Service and requested they offer his daughter a job. He wanted his daughter to have a fresh start and to put as much distance between her and Sergio as possible.
“But,” Agent Hunt reassured her, “the Agency would have never moved on the recommendation had they felt you did not exemplify the right qualities and skills.”
Natalia looked up to see an encouraging smile sneak across Hunt’s face. She began to think perhaps he wasn’t as gruff as she had initially believed.
Agent Hunt suddenly cleared his throat, his face sobering up once again. “Now that you’ve had this break-in, I can’t help but think it is all related. Sergio must think that you know where this evidence is or that it is somehow in your possession.”
“But I don’t know anything about it,” argued Natalia.
“Understood,” Hunt acknowledged. “But, Sergio doesn’t know that, which is why we think he’s here in town. My team is flying in tonight. Sit tight and I will contact you once we have a strategy in place.”
Natalia lay in bed that night tossing and turning over the news she had just been dealt. How could Sergio have put a hit out on her father? Or worse – killed him with his own hands? Without realizing it, she began stroking the key around her neck. W.F.S.B. What can that possibly mean? Unable to sleep, Natalia went into the study and began an internet search of the initials. She found the call letters for a weather channel in Hartford, CT. After a page full of weather-related entries, she came across the “Waste Facility Sitting Board” for the state of Wisconsin. Natalia knew neither of those was correct. After about five more pages of searching, she finally found it. This had to be it, she was sure.
Natalia’s heart pounded heavily as she grabbed her credit card, cell phone and keys. If she left now she knew she could make the red-eye flight to New York. Natalia knew there was a Washington Federal Savings Bank in the heart of New York City, just off Broadway. In fact, she remembered when her father took her there to open her very first savings account. Her father had banked there for years. It would make sense that he had a safety deposit box at that same branch. She had to go and see what was inside.
The entire flight seemed like a daze to Natalia. She didn’t sleep like the other passengers. All she could do was replay Hunt’s words over and over in her mind. Sergio had killed the Assistant District Attorney and Sergio had most likely killed her father.
What are the odds that I found this key on this very day? She asked herself. What are the odds? Natalia felt certain that her actions were being guided; guided by her father from the other side. After landing she stopped only for a minute in the airport restroom to freshen up and then made her way to the subway.
As she exited the subway she couldn’t help but feel as if someone were following her. The hairs on the back of her neck began to rise ever so slightly, and if there was one thing that Natalia learned over the years it was to trust her gut. As Natalia turned the corner she looked over her shoulder and made a quick mental note of those she saw behind her. She noticed a man in a dark suit. She casually glanced behind her with every turn and noticed that the same man in the suit was gaining on her. As she entered the bank, she looked once again behind her. The man in the suit seemed to have disappeared. Natalia quickly made her way to the teller and requested access to the safety deposit box.
Suddenly, a hand grabbed her wrist and Natalia turned to see the man in the dark suit. “Come with me,” he said in a commanding tone as he began to pull her away from the teller. Just then the front doors of the bank flew open and Natalia turned to see Sergio and his men rush in. Everything seemed to be happening in an instant and yet moving in slow motion at the same time.
Sergio called out her name while he and two other men with guns came towards her. Then several other men, one of whom was Agent Hunt, also rushed the scene.
Sergio and his men were yelling. Hunt and his men were yelling. Bank customers were screaming and crying. Sergio pointed his gun directly at Natalia. She caught her breath in her throat. But lacking the guts to pull the trigger, he quickly changed course and pointing the gun directly at Agent Hunt fired a shot into his chest. Hunt fell to the ground.
SWAT swarmed the building and took Sergio down so fast there was no time for any other shots to be fired. Within mere minutes the scene had been controlled and Sergio and his men taken into custody.
“Are you okay?” Natalia asked, kneeling over Agent Hunt.
“Thanks to the vest I am,” winced Hunt as he patted his chest. “And you--,” he continued, shaking his finger at Natalia like a father scolding his child. “You were supposed to wait for further instructions.”
“I know,” Natalia confessed. “But I just couldn’t sit by and do nothing.”
“I figured,” Hunt also confessed, slightly rolling his eyes. “That’s why I had you followed. We had been following Sergio and knew he was following you.”
“You had me followed?” Natalia asked, her eyes wide opened.
“Affirmative,” Hunt replied, nodding in the direction of the man in the dark suit. “I was afraid you might go and do something stupid.” He added with a smirk on his face.
“Like this?” Natalia laughed sheepishly.
“Like this,” Hunt confirmed, also laughing.
Both Natalia and Agent Hunt were pleased to discover the lockbox held the evidence they were looking for. This would not only avenge the death of the ADA, but also of Natalia’s father. Hunt said she would probably have to testify but that with the new evidence the trial should go smoothly. Quite frankly, Natalia smiled to herself, if it meant getting to see Agent Hunt again she wouldn’t mind.
Just two days later as Natalia was back home heading up to her favorite trail it began to rain, enhancing the smell of the sage brush. Natalia breathed the fall air into her lungs and let the light rain wash over her face. The rain was like a sign for her; a sign that her past was finally being washed away and that she was now heading towards something better. There was a newness of life pumping through her veins with each stride. She finally felt renewed.
“No regrets,” Natalia smiled.
COPYRIGHT 2011. Emma C Miller. Any reproduction of this story may not be made without express written consent of the author.
COPYRIGHT 2011. Emma C Miller. Any reproduction of this story may not be made without express written consent of the author.