‘WHAT CAN I offer you?’ She asked once we were inside her flat.
It wasn’t a very big apartment I could see. The living room walls were papered with a fly-away pattern, toned down by the earthen colours of what furniture there was in the Spartan arrangement: a three-seater, a loveseat, and two couches crowding around a solid-looking wooden coffee table.
‘I’d have a coke please’ I supplied and she disappeared into the kitchenette, returning with a diet coke.
I suppose she stacked up only on diet coke because of her overweight son and I found the idea remarkably foolish. It was sugar in a can; calories all the same, irrespective of whatever brands they were touted by. She should be weaning him off unhealthy eating habits and monitoring how much sugar he ingested, but I wasn’t about to tell her that. I noticed also that she had a safety latch on the window. A safety-conscious Mom.
‘I’m sorry about your wife’ she said finally.
I nodded and told her: ‘I think she was murdered. And I was hoping you could tell me by whom, and why.’
She took in a deep breath and exhaled.
‘And I want to know who truly my wife was. Apparently there’s little common ground between the woman I thought I’d known and who she really was. And I was hoping you’d make things clearer.’
She regarded me coolly, fixing me with her large dark eyes. She had a round face that was as stern as it was maternal, and an air of calm authority about her: economical with gesture as with words.
‘How did you find me?’ She asked.
‘Is that important?’ I shot back.
‘Not necessarily.’ She leaned back on the couch and crossed her legs.
‘Adrienne told me about you’ I lied.
‘Did she now?’
‘Yes. She had told me to come to you if anything went wrong.’
‘And you waited two months to follow that directive? Didn’t even bother to get the lowdown on her history, did you?’
I was silent.
‘Adrienne wouldn’t have known where I live, or what I even look like. We had never met. But yet you recognised me’ she said finally, watching me intently.
I shrugged. And she chuckled, amused.
‘Its lucky for you I did recognise you Mr. Sam Cohen’ she said ominously, ‘but I’m not the one you are looking for. John is.’
‘Oh I see your wife missed out that little, important detail’ she drawled tauntingly. ‘Excuse me’ she added before I could think of a thing to say, and disappeared out of sight, thumbing in digits on her phone as she went.
She returned after a few minutes and sat down quietly, crossing her legs again and watching me in a way that made me uncomfortable. She was silent for the most of it, except when she cleared her throat and thumbed through her cell phone.
I had no idea who she’d just gotten off the phone with, and my wariness was heightened by the uncomfortable silence. I’d seen enough blockbuster movies centred on conspiracy theories in top echelons of government and massive cover-up measures by their agencies, to be suspicious. And the wait and quiet was becoming unbearable, but I was going to seat this one out I decided.
If anything happened to me Murdock Kempers knew my whereabouts. He was thousands of miles away but the thought was a comfort.
The silence was finally broken by a knock on the door.
Jennifer rose and went to answer it and I watched her do so while searching the apartment for anything I could use as weapon. There was a candelabra on the small dining table that looked like it could do some major bone restructuring.
Jennifer unlocked the door and let in man with a full head of silver and piercing blue eyes that enlivened the rest of his wrinkled face. Eyes that watched me intently as he shrugged off his overcoat and made his way towards me.
‘John’ Jennifer said, motioning to the old man with the silver mane, ‘this is Mr. Sam Cohen… His wife was Adrienne Cohen.
‘Mr. Cohen meet former FBI Supervisory Special Agent John Quincy’ —I rose and shook his hand, noting that for someone his age he had a very firm grip —’I believe you have a few questions for him…’
Later on in my rental car, John Quincy told me all about Adrienne: the woman I had married and the girl she had been.
He had known Adrienne as a child, when she had been known by another name. Before fate had stripped her of the life she’d had, and her history…
Adrienne C. Cohen had been born Katherine P. Woodridge in the year 1949, which made her five years older than I’d believed she was, and one year older than me.
Her parents had owned a farmhouse in Florida, with an expansive orchard where they grew valencia oranges also known as summer oranges, and Kat and her older brother Martin would spend the summer holidays playing and climbing trees in the orchard with the boy John Quincy from next door.
The Woodridges were a upper-middle class family, and Kat and Martin wanted for nothing. They went to an expensive private Catholic school and usually had on some of the best clothes of all the neighbourhood children at Sunday church service.
The Woodridges seemed to have it all rosy, up until one fateful day in the summer of 1962 when neighbours were awakened in the wee hours of morning by a bright fiery glow coming from the Woodridge farm.
It was a fire, engulfing the Woodridge house in one ball of bright orange heat and fanning out towards the orchard, igniting everything in its path.
Kat’s entire family had died in that fire that had as well razed their orchard. It was a miracle the fire had been contained, doing very little damage to neighbouring properties.
Kat had been visiting with her maternal grandparents in California at the time. And it was a trip she had been very excited about: her first time leaving home and her first time flying.
That trip had saved her life.
Police investigation revealed the fire had been started intentionally, and that the Woodridges had been the victims of arson.
It was the first time John Quincy had ever heard the word used: arson. And he’d wanted to help the investigating officers best he could. That unfortunate incident had spurred his interest in law enforcement.
The perpetrator of the crime was never found and the “Woodridge incident” as it was then known by locals became another cold case.
Word through the grapevine at the time was that the fire had been started by drifters, but John Quincy would discover as he grew up that the Woodridges had had a lot of enemies, for crimes consisting chiefly of being a wealthy, happy family. This, and the realisation that the fire could have been started by any one of their neighbours in a jealous rage, had left him fascinated with the human condition.
Kat had moved to California with her grandparents after the charred remains of her family had been interred at the Woodridge family plot.
A funeral service had been held at the local parsonage and the church had been filled to capacity. Friends and neighbours of the Woodridges mounting the lectern to say what a wonderful family they had been.
John Quincy would never forget the way Kat had looked that day. Frozen. Like she was cut out of stone. He had been seated in between his parents three pews away from the chancel, and had watched Kat walk past in the company of her grandparents to sit in the front pew.
That day was the last he saw of her for a very long time, but they maintained correspondence, sending each other letters, and in Kat’s case postcards from some of her travels to Africa and India with her grandparents who were both Presbytarian missionaries.
The next time they had met it had been in New York. He’d just joined the FBI and Katie was about to leave for Iran for the summer as part of an optional Iranian Studies Program at Syracruse University’s School of Citizenship and Public Affairs where she’d studied International Relations.
They had lunch at an Italian restaurant on Fulton Street in Brookyln, and over the course of pasta and meatballs, Katie had gushed about her plans for the future. Reccurently tossing such names as Afshin Marashi, Mehrzad Boroujerdi: people whom she considered mentors; and saying how she was going to bag her MA in International Relations and go on to work for the United Nations or even the CIA.
That was the Katherine John Quincy recognized from all those summer days of tree climbing in the Woodridge orchard back home in Florida: intelligent, intuitive, spontaneous, adventurous and full of energy.
There was an aura of uniqueness about her and it didn’t matter what she was doing: gesturing with her hands or tossing her hair; there was just always something special about the way Katherine did things. Special and endearing; moreso for her childlike innocence and naïvete.
All those qualities that had in the end become her undoing.
The summer holidays had come and gone and Katherine didn’t return. She had sent John just this one letter on arrival and that had been all for a very long time.
Naturally John had been worried, moreso because she had abandoned what study had taken her to Iran in the first place, and when he’d tried he’d been unable to glean any useful information as to her whereabouts from any of her coursemates with whom she’d made the trip.
Her second letter came as a surprise and a relief, but more than anything it was a shock.
In the letter Katherine had informed him she’d met a young Iranian man, Nasir Al Assad and that they had wedded under Islamic Law. She had converted to Islam and had assumed the Muslim name Nadira, which means rare or extraordinary.
Enclosed with the letter was a photograph of Katherine —or Nadira as she then wanted to be known —donning a hijab and posing beside a man of slight build who had no more than an inch on her: Nassir her husband, John surmised.
What he found more perplexing however was the obvious baby bump poking out from beneath Katherine’s loose and concealing clothing in the photograph.
John Quincy had known Katherine Woodridge to be a lot of things, but until the receipt of that letter stupid hadn’t been one of them.
Regardless of his sentiments however Katherine remained Nadira Al Assad and two years after that she had returned to the U.S with her one-year-old-plus son Kazeem, and her husband whom John discovered was the son of a former ambassador of Iran to Switzerland.
Nassir was fluent in English, French, Russian, Dutch, German and Arabic, and had attended schools in Russia, France and Albania.
John and Katherine never saw each other on her return, even though she lived in an upscale neighbourhood in Upper-Eastside Manhattan —and he was usually in the vicinity —until this one time when she’d called and said it was her son’s birthday in a few days and she needed help with some of the arrangements.
Her husband was out of town and she had chosen to call him. John thought she was probably lonely, but the reality had been much worse.
She’d met him at the door, looking older and more agitated than he’d ever seen her.
‘I think Nassir is about to do something bad’ she had said to him, pacing the family den. ‘Something very very bad…’
‘Something bad?’ John had echoed. ‘How do you mean?’
And then she showed him…
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