Sunday – 11:48 AM
The subway screeches to a halt as it comes into the station. I glance out the window and see the words I’d been expecting: “Prospect Park.”
The doors open and I walk out, trying to act as if I’m just one of the crowd. It isn’t hard. As a medium-sized black woman, I fit in easily with those around me. I glance around quickly, spotting my team members. There are five of them, all large white men selected by the FBI for their unarmed combat abilities. They’ve been assembled to back me up on this operation.
I don’t really know them, but I’m glad they have my back.
The crowd surges through the warm and damp air of the subway. As a mass, we push through the turnstiles and rise up the stairs at the station’s exits. We emerge into an unusually warm and brightly lit spring day. That’s when I see the first of the minders. He is a tall African man with dangerous looking eyes. He scans the faces of everybody coming up the stairs. His eyes connect briefly with mine.
I think I see a flicker of recognition.
I hope it is my imagination.
There’s a massive traffic circle across the street from the station. The circle is so large, it has a little park in the middle, with trees and a couple paths crisscrossing through the center of it. Where those paths meet, I can just make out a little war memorial; a black granite block surrounded by the rush of cars.
The little traffic circle reminds me of the FBI’s memorial. It is a ridiculous digital kiosk they call the “Wall of Honor.” You can use it by scrolling through the images and stories of those who have died in the line of duty. It has been designed so that it complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It resembles a large ATM.
With an involuntary shudder, I turn away from the little memorial. I don’t want to end up as a photo and story captured forever within the “Wall of Honor.”
The park in the middle of the traffic circle is tiny. But Prospect Park isn’t small, it’s massive. That’s where the crowd is heading. A few policemen have stationed themselves at the crosswalk, between the station and Prospect Park. They aren’t there to arrest anybody, though. Instead, they step into the street. With whistles and hands, they bring the rush of cars to a stop. The people from the subway surge forward, cross the street, and enter Prospect Park itself.
As we walk into the park, the noises of the traffic fade. I can smell the grass. I can hear birds. The sunlight is dappled by the trees. I pick up bits of the excited conversation that surrounds me.
I hear one word, again and again: “blessing.”
I feel a little wave of anger every time I hear it. Anger, and pity. Pity for those who have been blinded and anger at Aji Abakar, the man who has blinded them.
We walk for only a few minutes before we come to a high fence along the left side of the path. I knew the fence would be here. I’ve known for weeks. But, still, it makes me nervous. The fence is in the way. The FBI can bring some heavy backup to bear. An armed response team, complete with rifles and armored vehicles. The fence, and the crowds, will slow them down. The fence makes everything riskier.
I line up with the others and together we walk towards the metal detectors under the careful eyes of yet another African minder. There are no tickets. There is only security. As we shuffle forward, I’m careful not to take any particular notice of my team members. I know they’re there, but I don’t want a simple flick of my eyes to alert event security to their presence.
When my turn comes, I open my backpack for inspection. I’m not carrying a gun. None of my team have guns. In fact, we only have two things the security guards would care about. The first is our FBI badges. I need mine to make the arrest and my team need theirs as a form of insurance – most people will think twice before assaulting a federal officer in a public space. We’re not worried about the security team finding our badges, though. They aren’t checking wallets. We knew they wouldn’t be. We’ve watched them do this before.
The second thing they might find interesting is the tiny radio transmitter that has been inserted subcutaneously in my upper arm. The broadcaster is there so if things go really badly, my location can be tracked. The transmitter is too small for a metal detector to pick up. If you started caring about things that size, you’d have to freak out about every metal button and zipper. The cool thing about the transmitter is that a radio scan won’t pick it up either. When my heart rate is normal, it broadcasts a short burst only about once every 15 minutes. As my heart rate accelerates, though, the broadcast rate picks up. If things are fine, I’d have to be very unlucky for them to detect the transmission. But if I start getting worked up, then I can be tracked far more easily. The technology is brand new; the FBI is taking this case seriously.
As expected, security doesn’t notice my badge or the transmitter. I pass through the gap in the fence without any problems. If the minders actually recognized me, there’s no sign of it.
As I walk into the park, I allow myself another look around. Each of my team members have an assigned spot. I expect to see them walking towards theirs. But I don’t see them. I figure they must be behind me.
I keep walking forward, towards a prime spot just in front of the stage. Then I take a little collapsible stool out of my backpack. I take a seat. I start watching the crowd around me just like anybody else would.
But I still don’t see my team.
Did the minders spot them? I can’t exactly ask. The only transmitter I have is in my arm and it doesn’t take questions. So, not knowing what’s happened, I turn and try to calmly face the stage.
A Latina woman sits down next to me. She has a baby with her, passed out cold. I glance towards her and she smiles back at me. “Bless you,” she says, her smile suddenly seeming to occupy most of her face.
“Bless you,” I say back, as convincingly as I can manage.
Where the heck is my team?
“You’re here early,” she says. I wonder for a moment if she’s part of some sort of secondary vetting system. Sit in the front row and the innocent-looking Latina girl will interrogate you.
“I just needed to see the man in the flesh,” I say. A half-truth is always more convincing than a complete fabrication. It also happens to be the right thing to say. I know this because we’ve recorded thousands of conversations among Aji’s followers. We may not know how they operate, but we know how they talk.
“I get that,” the young woman says. She nods, thinks for a moment, and then asks the question I know is coming, “So, how has he touched your life?”
“He’s why I’m in New York,” I say with a smile.
“Yeah,” I say. “I was kind stuck in my career. I wasn’t going anywhere. I didn’t really know what to do with my life. I started watching Aji and I actually gave a little donation to his organization – I couldn’t think of what else to do. You know? Next thing I know, I caught a big break. I got hired by a major organization here in New York.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a curator,” I say. I do actually have a degree in Art History.
“Really?” she asks, “Where?”
“The Met,” I say.
“Cool,” she says.
“Yeah, you may not believe this, but I used to curate the Penguin Museum in LA.” I laugh a little, “We had 30,000 penguin-themed and penguin-related items. People loved it, but I wasn’t really giving them anything worthwhile. Now… well now I see those kids in the museum and I feel like I’m connecting them to thousands of years of culture and history and – well – it has to open their eyes and broaden their worlds, right?”
The young woman nods. “Yeah, I think so.”
She pauses again for a moment. As if considering her next question. She tips her head towards the baby in her arms. “How old do you think he’d have to be to get something out of a visit?”
“Oh, any age will do,” I say, “You never know what little minds learn when they’re exposed to art and culture.”
She purses her lips and nods in agreement. “Maybe I’ll see you later this week.”
“Oh, you probably won’t see me,” I say, “I mostly work in the back; with the collections that aren’t on display. I’m hoping to work on the active exhibitions, I’m just not there yet.”
“Oh, okay,” she says. She’s a little disappointed.
We sit there for a moment. I sneak another glance around, hoping to see at least one of my team members. But nobody is there. It has been five minutes. Somehow, they’ve been detained for five minutes. Do I abort? Can I abort? If the event security knows who I am, I may not make it out of the park.
I turn back towards the young Latina woman.
“How did he touch you?” I ask.
She smiles down at the bundle in her hands.
I get her meaning.
“A baby? How’d he manage that?” I ask, trying to suppress the subversive tone in my voice. The dirty joke just wants to leap out.
She doesn’t notice my tone. I knew she wouldn’t. She’s all in.
She’s smiling now, a bittersweet smile. I see tears come to her eyes.
“My husband was a cop,” she says.
“Yeah…. He was killed in the line of duty. Some kid walked up next to his car and just shot him.”
“That’s horrible,” I say. And I mean it. I am, after all, a cop.
“Yeah… I had all my family around afterwards. But I still felt all alone. My mom watches Aji. I didn’t know what else to do. So, I did too. I saw his show. I wanted my husband back so bad. I said that if I could have my husband back, I’d share that story with everybody I knew. I’d praise the Lord and I’d share Aji’s message with everyone.”
“Well, it turned out I was pregnant. I learned it two weeks after my husband died. This boy is my husband’s boy.”
She pauses, drawing in a deep, shuddering, breath.
“We’d been trying to have a kid for years.”
I can’t help but smile with her. I reach over and give her a little hug, trying not to squish the baby.
As we pull apart, she giggles. “It’s crazy, isn’t it. Here I am hugging a total stranger – a curator at the Met no less – in a park. And it’s all because of Aji.”
“It’s crazy,” I agree. That isn’t a half-truth. As far as I’m concerned, it’s crazy that coincidence breeds blindness.
I glance around again, but my team still isn’t there. I know now that they aren’t coming. They must have been blocked by security. This leaves me with a question: do I get up and walk away? The park is filling up. I’ve got five hours more before the main event and then there’s Aji’s show. Six hours of danger, without backup, to make a single arrest.
The other options run through my mind.
Trying to arrest him on the street wouldn’t work. We’d wanted to do that. We’d been tracking him for a year, waiting for the day we had enough evidence to pick him up. He’d been taking long walks almost every night. We figured it’d be easy to pick him up on any one of those nights. But then, the night we finally got the goods on him, he stopped taking those walks. He hasn’t been away from his men since. Somehow, he knows something went wrong. Otherwise, our window wouldn’t have closed just when we needed it to stay open.
If I abort now, I know we won’t be able to grab him on the street. He’ll never be on the street again.
Our next idea was to arrest him at his hotel. For this trip, he and his entourage rented two entire floors and then some at a crappy cinderblock structure in Sunset Park that reviewers had labeled “The Worst Hotel in Brooklyn”. The place had become very popular since he’d started staying there. His men man the lobby and the elevator doors on his floor. But his followers occupy pretty much every other room in the place.
We didn’t want to create another Waco in the middle of New York City. It would actually be worse than Waco. David Koresh had under a hundred dedicated followers. Aji, the man I’m after, has tens of millions. The cost in violence, FBI budgets and the career paths of high-level bureaucrats ruled this approach clean out of the picture.
It still does.
When we’d felt like we’d run out of options, I’d suggested arresting him at one of his events. It was meant as a joke. I’d claimed that it’d be a way of balancing the PR playing field. If we went in quietly, but in a public place, he wouldn’t be able to stop us. It would make him look bad to make a scene or to turn out his thugs in force. Somehow, the Special Agent in Charge of the New York field office decided to glom on to that idea. It was incredibly risky though. If Aji’s guys were good enough, they’d whisk our guys away and those watching would be the none the wiser. Aji’s guys might just be good enough. We know they are capable of terrible things.
It was our only option, but it was a damned dangerous option nonetheless.
That’s why we decided on a team of six agents. Aji has fifteen thugs – actual former child soldiers – in his inner entourage. Six unarmed, but highly trained, agents aren’t enough to look like a massive show of force. But it is enough to cause quite a disturbance even if 15 guys try to quietly disappear them.
As the planning had unfolded in one of the New York field office’s sterile conference rooms, I’d thought of Black Hawk Down. In order to look peaceful, the US military had down-armored our soldiers in Mogadishu. Predictably, they got slaughtered. I was worried exactly the same thing would happen to us. Six unarmed agents in a huge crowd could find themselves in a whole lot of trouble.
And now? Now, there aren’t six of us. Somehow, Aji’s guys stopped the other five from getting into the Bandshell Pavilion. We’d planned for one or two guys not making it. If any Agent got turned away, he wouldn’t flash his badge or make a scene. We were concerned that if one of us did that, then Aji himself might not even show up at today’s event. We were even more concerned that he might stop doing public events altogether. Then, we might be back to invading the fourth floor of a five-story cinderblock hotel in Brooklyn filled with hundreds of devotees of a tremendously popular guru.
We’d be back to Waco, only a million times worse.
Sure, we’d get Aji eventually, but the cost would be very high.
What we hadn’t planned on was only one of us getting through. The possibility hadn’t crossed our mind. We hadn’t decided what to do in that case. Now that I’m alone, nobody would blame me for pulling out. Nonetheless, I have to stay. I have to use this chance. I can’t let it slip away. I’ve got to get this guy because if I don’t, I’m not sure anybody else will have the guts to do what needs to be done.
A risky plan has become a stupid one, but I’ve still got to get through it. So, I do. I spend the next five hours trying to keep my heart rate down by talking to the woman next to me. Her name is Mia. We talk about our lives and our families. I pad a few real elements of my own story with a whole lot of nonsense. I can talk about the Met for days.
Eventually, long after the park is chock full of people, the lights go up on the bandshell.
The crowd’s chatter had been growing in volume and excitement. Now, like a candle being blown out, the voices behind me die away in a sudden rush. Two huge screens have been set up on either side of the stage in front of me. Fields of faces flash by in a rush, representing a few hundred of the millions watching the event. And then a Hebrew phrase is projected on one screen, with English, Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog and Vietnamese translations on the other.
It is the Priestly Blessing:
יְבָרֶכְךָ יקוק, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ
יָאֵר יקוק פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ
יִשָּׂא יקוק פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם
May the Lord bless you and keep You
May He make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you,
May He lift up His face unto you, and give you peace.
The word bless is highlighted, as it always is.
The crowd’s silent anticipation grows and then, a moment later, Aji Abakar steps onto the stage. He’s a slight man with a close-cut afro, a broad nose and heavy lips. He has no fancy religious garb, just a white cotton shirt and trousers. They contrast sharply with his dark brown skin. I know he’s in his early 20s, just a bit younger than me. Nonetheless, he carries a sense of experience with him that suggests a far older man. It’s the first time I’ve seen him in person. An uncontrolled thrill runs through me as I look at him. I remind myself that he uses that charisma to overwhelm the gullible.
Aji’s act doesn’t follow the preacher’s usual script. He doesn’t open his arms wide, grin a sh-t-eating grin, and embrace his people. He’s too good to be that obvious.
Instead, the lights from the stage swivel around. They shine on the crowd. I know the camera feed is doing the same. People look up towards the lights, where they know the cameras are. And they smile, sharing how happy they are to be here. I watch Aji himself. As always, he’s holding a microphone in his hand. It is an unnecessary object in a world of headsets and sound guns. I wonder if it’s real – or if it is some sort of backup weapon.
Then the light shifts and I’m in the middle of it. It’s like I’m in an interrogation from some old movie. I can’t see anything. But I know Aji is looking straight at me. I know the world is. I know the Special Agent in Charge is. He’s probably wondering what the hell I’m still doing here.
Then, while the camera is still on me, Aji looks right at me. He seems to pause, as if surprised by something. I see him take a sudden breath. Then, he speaks his first words. His voice is soft and buttery. He has just a hint of a foreign accent – inherited from his immigrant parents. He says, “May the Lord bless you all.”
His emphasis is on that final word. Like I need a special blessing. Like he knows why I’m here. A chill runs down my spine; a stupid plan has become damned near suicidal. At the same time, I want him to say something more.
When the lights shift back to Aji, I find myself embracing the sudden darkness. Mia, sitting next to me, is resting her hand on my arm. “He blessed you!” she says in an awestruck whisper.
In the back of my mind I hear myself responding, in a stunned voice, “He blessed me.” Mia will think I’m enthralled, not nearly overcome by fear. She won’t know I’m freaking out.
The crowd waits, silently. There are no shouts of “Praise the Lord!” or “May G-d bless you!” or anything else. They just sit, ready to listen.
Then Aji begins to speak.
“Last week, we were in Philadelphia. We had the chance to hear the prayers of a few honored people – young and old. I would like to share clips from those heartfelt requests today. Later, we will talk to those same people and see if they have seen any blessing in their lives.”
He turns to the screens. A black teenaged boy appears. It’s video from the week before. He’s on another stage, this one a far larger space in Philadelphia’s Fairmont Park. He looks exhausted.
“Aji,” the boy says, “I want a car.”
“Why?” asks Aji, his gentle voice carrying through the recording.
“I got a special scholarship for talented inner-city kids. I take the bus for three hours every day from West Philly to Chestnut Hill and back. With a car I could save two hours a day. The way things are, I’m afraid I’m gonna need to drop out. I love the school, but it’s just too much. So, I’m prayin’ for a car.”
The video fades away. Another takes its place. This is of an older white man. He looks run down and beat up. His face is grizzled, his skin leathery. “A house,” he says, in response to an imaginary question we can’t hear.
“Why?” asks Aji, in that same voice.
“Why does anybody want a home? They want someplace to call their own. They want their pride. They want their dignity. That’s okay to ask for, right?”
The video fades away. There’s another and another and yet another. 5 requests, one after the other. Every week, there are 5 requests.
Barely 5 minutes later, they come to an end.
“We’ll talk to these people later,” Aji says, “But now I want to talk to you.”
The lights refocus on the crowd. As they sweep across it, people raise their hands, eager to speak. Eager to pray. Eager to be blessed. Even Mia has her hands up.
Despite myself, I feel the energy in the crowd.
“You,” says Aji, pointing. A man stands up, surprised to be chosen. He walks towards the stage, seeming to grow more and more nervous with each step. When he’s finally standing alongside Aji, he’s almost shaking.
Aji touches his arm, seeming to calm him.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“Jason… Jason Boyle,” the man blurts.
“Okay Jason,” says Aji, “Tell us about yourself.”
“Uh…” the man is frozen.
“What do you do for a living?” asks Aji.
The man reacts like he’s been thrown a life preserver.
“I’m an accountant. I work in Jersey City.”
“Big firm? Little place? Little shop in a mall?”
“Uh, a big firm. I actually have a pretty senior position.”
“Okay,” says Aji, “Where’d you grow up?”
“You came down here for college.”
“Yeah, uh no. I, uh, got a Ph.D. in accounting at Cornell. I came to New York because that’s where the best jobs are.”
“Okay,” says Aji, gently.
“Okay,” says the man, girding himself.
“You know what I’m going to ask next?”
“Yes… yes, I know,” says the man.
“But you don’t want to tell me. You don’t want to tell all these people what you’re praying for, do you?”
“I’d rather not,” says the man.
“It’s a good choice, Jason. You know the saying?”
“No,” says Jason, “No, I don’t.”
Aji smiles, warmly. It unnerves me. “Honor, love and happiness are best sought indirectly. If you seek them too eagerly, they’ll flee from you.”
The man nods, but he doesn’t look like he understands.
“We’ll talk next week,” says Aji.
The man steps down from the stage. And then I realize what his prayer was. He has honor – a good job, a senior position. He wants love, he needs love – and with it, happiness.
The process continues just as I would have expected. Three more people are chosen. We learn a little bit about each of them, we learn and understand what they’re seeking.
It would be a wonderful, life-affirming, experience if I didn’t know what Aji actually was.
Then the spotlight turns to me.
Out of the thousands of people who are there, the lights turn to me – for the second time that night.
My hands aren’t up. Mia’s are. But mine aren’t.
This is not coincidence.
“Your turn,” says Aji. His voice is inviting, enticing, welcoming. Like he’s saving these words especially for me.
“My blessing has already been granted,” I say. The sound gun picks up my voice and broadcasts it around the world.
“Your turn,” insists Aji.
I imagine the Special Agent in Charge watching me walk up to the stage. My legs feel like jelly.
I don’t have a prayer.
“What’s your name?” Aji asks.
“Alison,” I say.
“Alison,” he repeats, slowly, as if he knows I’m making it up. “Alison, where are you from?”
“Why’d you come here?”
“An opportunity,” I say, “I work for the Met. I’m a curator.”
I don’t know how well the lie will work when millions are watching. Certainly, somebody at the Met will know I don’t work there. I don’t know what else to do, though.
Aji says, “You were blessed, and that’s why you came here?”
Damned, I forgotten the key word. I say, “Yes, I was blessed.”
Aji nods. “And now you have a prayer?”
“No, no,” I say, “My prayers have been answered.”
“You have a prayer,” he says again. This time, it isn’t a question.
I scramble for something. But I don’t know what Alison who works at the Met would want. I blurt out, without thinking, “I want those who are evil to be stopped.”
Aji doesn’t flinch. “That’s an unusual prayer for an Alison who works at the Met. More importantly, it’s a very general thought – like asking for world peace. It isn’t your prayer. I want your prayer. I want to know what you want.”
The lights are on me. The crowd is watching. The cameras are capturing every moment. I can’t think of anything else. I can’t put myself in Alison’s shoes. I imagine my heart rate is so high the radio in my upper arm is making the cameras flicker. I need something.
I almost shout out, “I want to stop those who are evil!”
Aji says, “Now that is a prayer. We’ll hear from you next week.”
One way or another, I know that isn’t happening.
I walk off the stage, as coolly as I can manage. I take my seat next to Mia, the Latina woman with the baby. She’s smiling at me, glowing. But I’m shaking.
What kind of game was Aji playing?
And what the heck is going to happen now?
“Let’s revisit our prayers from last week.” says Aji.
A face appears on the big screen. It is the young man who wanted a car. He’s live on some video conferencing system.
“What has happened in the last week?” asks Aji, “Did you get your car?”
“No,” says the teenager. His face is glowing though. The exhaustion from the previous week is gone. There’s an energy in him now.
“Something happened though,” says Aji. It is a statement, not a question.
“I met someone, on the bus.”
“A girl?” asks Aji.
“No,” says the boy, “A kid. He rides the bus a couple times a week, in the morning. His dad lives in West Philly. His mom in Germantown. They have joint custody, but no car. He’s only 10 and so his dad brings him up to his mom on the way to his job in Chestnut Hill.”
“Okay,” says Aji.
“Well, the kid is struggling in school. With math. But he really wants to do well.”
“Where do you come in?” asks Aji.
“Well, I can help him. I’m only 16 and I can help him because I’m going to that elite school. Oh, and because I’m on that bus. Three times a week, while ridin’ on the bus, I’m tutoring him. And I’m gonna change his life.”
Aji smiles. He turns from the screen and back to the crowd.
“That,” he says, “is the core of blessing. A blessing isn’t a thing. It isn’t money or power or health or a car. A blessing is an opportunity, and it can come in any form. And the greatest opportunity is the opportunity to bless others.”
“Amen,” says the teenager in the video. For the first time, the crowd utters something. An “amen” ripples through it.
The screen changes. The older man is there now. The one who’d been praying for a home. This man is also smiling. He’s shaved – at least as well as he could, given his leathery skin.
“Has anything happened in your life?” asks Aji.
“Yes,” says the man.
“Did you find a home.”
“I did,” says the man.
“An apartment? A room?” asks Aji.
“No,” says the man, “The homeless shelter.”
He’s bursting, eager to share.
“You’re living in the homeless shelter, but you found a home?”
“Yeah,” says the man, “A new position opened up. They needed a night manager for the shelter. When I was younger, I used to manage a motel. I told them that. And they hired me. The job comes with a private room, but I’m not even gonna use it.”
“It’s what I said last week. I wanted a home, so I’d have someplace to call my own. I wanted a home, so I’d have pride and dignity. I didn’t even have to move – and I’ve got all of that!”
“You found something more important than dignity then. You found purpose.” says Aji.
“Yeah, I guess I did,” says the man, his smile somehow growing bigger. “I’m staying with the men because I want to be there to help them out.”
Again, Aji turns to the crowd.
“Pride and dignity don’t come from the material things we have. They come from the purpose we’ve discovered. We’re all here for a reason, we just have to let ourselves find it.”
“Amen,” says the man.
“Amen,” echoes the crowd.
The process continues. One through five. Prayers answered, in unexpected ways. Amens flowing through the crowd.
Then Aji gets to the core of his presentation.
“As I said earlier, blessings are not about physical goods. Blessings are about opportunity. Yes, physical goods matter. They are the fabric on which everything else is built. So I welcome your charitable gifts to my ministry. Far more important than cash is the mission itself. Share the blessings of the Lord. Share my message. Bless me in that way and you, in turn, will be blessed.”
I’ve seen him say it before. It is remarkably clever. Money is just a currency. A currency that can be traced. Like a Mafioso who trades in favors, Aji knows that you can build influence and power without relying on cash.
We, the FBI, have had a hell of a time trying to trace his trail of influence. Now, though, we’ve got him.
The televised show draws to a close. The act isn’t over, though. In a rush, people move towards the stage – eager to talk one-on-one with Aji Abakar. They are eager to be blessed.
Aji steps down from the stage. Minders appear on either side of him, huge African men with dangerous eyes. Legs shaking, I join the line. I’m about the twentieth person. That’s why I got here early, so I’d be sure have a chance to see him one-on-one. That was how I was supposed to make the arrest. Get close, show my badge, and arrest him. My five backups would ensure things wouldn’t go too wrong.
Somehow, despite the lack of five backups, my plan hasn’t changed. I shuffle forward, feeling the stares of the minders on me. But I keep going.
I’m alone. They’ve disappeared my team. I know they can make me vanish – at least long enough to quietly add me to the Wall of Honor.
Nonetheless, I keep going.
The woman in front of me finishes her brief conversation with Aji. She is guided off to the right by a young lady. It is my turn to step forward. I’m visibly shaking as I step up in front of Aji.
Aji smiles as I step up. He seems truly happy to see me. Then he says, “Special Agent Niesha Jackson.”
I freeze. Now I know, for certain, that he knows I’m not Alison.
“Don’t be frightened,” he says, “I’d just like to do this quietly.”
“Do what quietly?” I ask. Is he threatening me?
“You’re here to arrest me for the murder of John Buckner, right?”
“Yes,” I say, by now only moderately surprised that he knows.
“I’d like you to do that quietly. After these people leave.”
I stare at him, wondering if there’s some sort of trick. I know I can’t exactly shackle him and guide him out through this crowd. I’d never make it to the fences. I also know that once these people leave, the area outside the fences will be dominated by my people. Without human shields, Aji Abakar will no longer hold all the cards.
I nod my agreement and the young woman guides me off to the right. Rather than leaving, I stand there. I watch as Aji talks to his hundreds of supplicants. I remember my childhood Bible classes and the story of Jethro. Moses would stand from dawn to dusk, judging his people. But this man is no Moses.
It occurs to me that he could still take me hostage. Once the crowds are gone. Scenarios run through my head. But something in me dismisses them as unnecessary fabrications. Some voice tells me that this man will go quietly.
It is after midnight by the time the crowds are gone.
By the time I step forward again, a cool evening breeze is flowing through the park. I decide against the handcuffs. Instead, I take his arm. A little buzz runs through me. I tell myself it is simply the excitement of arresting this man after all this time. “Aji Abakar,” I say, “You are under arrest for the murder of John Buckner. You have a right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have a right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.”
Then, as his minders watch my every move, I guide Aji Abakar to the tall fences.
An FBI Suburban, and a small army of men, are waiting for us.
Aji steps inside the SUV, calm and smiling and without any sort of resistance. I sit down next to him, our legs just touching. I force myself to remember, that no matter how charismatic the man is, I’m sitting next to a killer. We drive off towards the FBI Field Office in Lower Manhattan.
First, he disappeared my agents, then he questioned me in front of millions. After all that, he came quietly and without resistance.
I can’t figure out what kind of game he thinks he’s playing.
Monday – 1:03 AM
All of us have pulled our chairs up behind Matthew Crass’ desk. “All of us” comprises of five Special Agents and Crass. Crass isn’t a Special Agent, he’s just a computer genius. The FBI somehow managed to recruit him despite the monetary attractions of Silicon Valley or Wall Street. You know he’s a computer genius because it’s one o’clock on a Monday morning and he’s the only person who doesn’t seem either tired or like he’s about to OD on caffeine.
Crass’ natural home is behind a screen, churning through terabytes of data and unknotting a complex money laundering investigation. That’s not what we’re doing now. Instead, all of us are watching a pinwheel on one of his many monitors. The system for matching prints, the Next Generation Identification system (or NGI for short) is pretty fast. It was “next generation” in 2010. Just like with the 737NG, the Next Generation thing stuck far longer than it actually had any right to. The system took minutes to run a print. Minutes isn’t long, but when you’re looking for confirmation of a year’s hard work, a few minutes can feel like forever.
As soon as we’d brought Aji Abakar into the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building, we’d taken him up to the 23rd floor, our floor, and booked him. Photographs, essential data, bank account information, the whole nine yards. We knew all that information, of course. What we hadn’t had before was his biometric data. We’d needed probable cause to get that. The testimony of the guy he paid to kill John Buckner gave us the probable cause. That man, a transient actually named Elvis Brown, claimed Aji Abakar had approached him in a dark alley and offered him $1000 in cash to kill John Buckner. As Elvis might not have passed a psychological examination, his testimony would not have been enough to convict Aji. It was enough to arrest him though. We were hoping the biometrics – Aji’s fingerprints and DNA – would get us across the line.
The DNA will take a few days to process, even though this is a seriously high-priority case. But the fingerprints can be run immediately. That’s why my entire team is sitting watching a pinwheel on Crass’ screen. We’re all watching as the FBIs ‘Next Generation’ computer systems slowly compares the prints we just got off of Aji Abakar with the library of physical evidence from a series of thirty-one suspicious deaths and hundreds of possible assaults we suspect Aji Abakar has directed. The system is fastest when you’re comparing perfect prints to perfect prints. That’s not what we have. We’re comparing perfect prints to a broad range of imperfect prints taken from all sorts of crime scenes – no two sets of which seemed to match.
It’s only going to be a few minutes, but even Crass looks like he’s getting tired.
While we sit there, five pairs of eyes eagerly awaiting our confirmation, my phone keeps going off. I’m getting short little messages: “Congratulations”, “Wow”, “What a coup!” and so on. Everybody’s acting like we brought down John Gotti.
Even people I know outside the FBI are texting me. “Hey, Allison 😉” or “Nice turn on the Abakar show!”
My team doesn’t congratulate me, though. Even though I’m remarkably young to be leading a task force, I’ve earned their respect. They know we haven’t got Aji yet and they know that Aji isn’t even my target. I want Aji and his entire organization.
Because I’m not about to celebrate, they aren’t either. Not yet. Instead, our hearts to stop each time the pinwheel shakes or pauses.
My phone vibrates again.
This time, I don’t bother checking it.
“Anybody want coffee?” I ask. Nobody says anything.
I’m hoping that as soon as I walk away, the computer will “bing” and we’ll get our result. I stand up and make my way towards the lunchroom. But I don’t hear a “bing”. It doesn’t matter. The fact is, I need the coffee anyway. I’m exhausted. I burned through my adrenaline at the park and I’m going to need something else to keep myself going.
I pop my cup under the machine and slot in one of the off-brand pods the FBI is willing to pay for. Then I hit the little coffee button. As the dark liquid splutters out, I wonder how we’re going to use what we find.
The prayer I uttered on that stage was real: “Iwant to stop those who are evil.” The question always is: how do I get there from here?
My phone keeps vibrating.
The coffee stops spluttering, and I pick up my cup and begin to head back towards the others. That’s when I hear the “bing” of the computer. A millisecond later, I hear the shouts of excitement – “WE GOT A HIT!”
I rush towards the group, as fast as I can manage without spilling anything. The carpet is an anonymous shade of industrial brown for a reason, but I don’t have to make it worse.
They all look towards me and then usher me forward and towards the monitor. Nobody says a thing. They’re waiting for me to see it. And then I do. At the top of the screen is the rendering of the tenprints – the perfect set of fingerprints taken at booking. There’s also a little table at the bottom of the screen.
“Record ID” is one header, “Score” is another. Below it are two lines. The first is the record we just created at booking. The second is another record. The first record has a score of 100, it matches itself perfectly. The next line is what’s important. I look at the score. It is a 95. It may not be enough for a conviction, but it is certainly enough to push things forward.
If it came from someplace useful.
I grab the mouse and click on the second line. A blown-up set of three prints joins the tenprints at the top of screen. Little yellow streaks and red dots indicate points of comparison. I click on another link to open the description of the record.
And there I see it:
CASE ID: 1217954235
CASE NAME: John Buckner (Murder of)
EVIDENCE ID: 4537795478922
EVIDENCE SOURCE: Elvis Brown
EVIDENCE TYPE: US $5 Bill
The people around me let out an involuntary “whoop!” We haven’t won the war, but this is a mighty fine step forward.
Normally, prints can’t be lifted off of cash – the material is too absorbent. We’d gone the extra mile though. As soon as the killer said he was paid in cash, the head of our Field Office suggested we ask the FBI Laboratory if they had something that could help. They told us not to handle the money any more than absolutely necessary. Then they sent down a special portable laser scanner and every bill was scanned in situ. Dozens of usable prints were turned up. We ran them all. The killer had a few and a few other known individuals had some too. But most were unknown.
Now, we can recognize one of those unknown prints. Aji Abakar’s prints were on the money.
We have what need to keep moving forward: Aji handled the cash that Elvis Brown claimed he was paid. And Elvis Brown definitely killed John Buckner.
My phone is still buzzing.
I know we’ll need confirmation by a fingerprint technician. We might even get some DNA that would further strengthen the case. But what we have is enough to get started. I drain my coffee, shoot up from my chair and begin to head towards the interrogation rooms. The team follows behind him. It is time to push Aji further and leverage what we’ve got to shut him and his crew down.
Just then, my phone starts ringing.
I pull it from my pocket and see that the Special Agent in Charge (or SAC) James Miller, is calling. The SAC runs the Field Office. In Miller’s case, it is the New York Field Office, the most important in the nation. SAC Millar probably wants to congratulate me too. And maybe himself along the way. After all, he recruited me from my dead-end job in California. He put me in charge of this task force. I owe him. I hit the green button and put the phone to my ear.
“Where are you?” he asks.
“About to interrogate the prisoner.” I say.
“I’ve been texting you frantically. We need you in Conference Room 3.”
“Neisha, the Director of the FBI is here. She’s waiting for you.”
“I’ll be there in a minute,” I say. I hang up and slide the phone back into my pocket.
The Director, Sheila Markoff, is the first woman to head the Bureau. She looks the part of a perfect senior law enforcement officer. She’s fit and lean with dark hair, brown eyes and slightly browned skin. She looks like an older version of a Special Agent from a movie. The rumors in the agency is that she was picked because she combined a reasonably credible career history with perfect optics.
Respect for her does not run high.
Of course, respect and respectfulness are two different things. She is considered a political wizard and so nobody is eager to get on her bad side. I may not want to talk to the Director, but I don’t exactly get to ignore her summons.
“I’ll meet you there,” I tell the team. Then I veer off towards the conference room.
As I push open the heavy door into the secure, windowless space, I see three faces turn to look at me. Only one, SAC Miller, is actually in the room. The other two are only there by video conference.
I don’t feel as bad about ignoring my phone.
“Any updates?” asks SAC Miller, expectantly. SAC Miller has a well-defined face, a solid jaw, piercing blue eyes and the pepper gray hair of a man with experience and more than a bit of wisdom. He seems almost like a President or a Senator, perfectly packaged and wholly confident in his own capabilities. With the exception of the blue eyes, I sometimes like to imagine myself in his position.
“Yes, sir,” I say, “We got a fingerprint match on the money Elvis Brown said he was paid.”
SAC Miller does a little celebratory fist pump – like he just won a tennis set. I think I’d be a little more expressive, if I were in his position.
“We got the bastard,” he says. He continues, half to me and half to the people on the video call, “I just have to say, that was an incredibly gutsy arrest. We were all watching remotely. You kept up that conversation with that woman next to you – cool as a cucumber. You went on stage and got through that. And then you just walked up and arrested the man. It was incredible. It was a real testament to the quality of the New York Field Office.”
SAC Miller is no political slouch. With a few sentences, he managed to use me to make his entire office look good in front of the Director of the FBI.
I don’t join in the congratulations, though. It all misses the point. The evidence isn’t there just to “get the guy.” I want to use the evidence to get “all the guys.”
The Director looks out from the monitor and asks, “So how do we play this?”
I have my answer. I am by far the most junior person in the room, though. So, I don’t say anything.
The third person ‘here’ via videoconference does. He is a polished looking middle-aged man with just a hint of gray hair.
“In case Special Agent Jackson doesn’t know me,” he says, “I am the Assistant Director of the Office of Public Affairs. I want to lay out the basics of the situation. The simple issue is this: Aji Abakar is a wildly popular spiritual guide. Remarkably, he is popular among both Christians and Jews. He even has Muslim followers and quite a few non-religious folks who’ve been attracted to his message. When we charge him, the agency will run the risk of being seen as anti-religious, not anti-crime. He can, and almost certainly will, cast himself as a martyr. For all sorts of reasons, we need to mitigate that.”
“All sorts of reasons” is a euphemism for political careers and Bureau budgets. I haven’t been around long, but I still understand that.
SAC Miller jumps in. “You are absolutely right, Roger. To me the answer is simple. We need to throw everything at him. Show the evidence to the public, show the pattern to the public and let the public condemn him as the dangerous charlatan he is. And, we need do it fast. We don’t want his camp framing the story. Somehow they’ll make him look like the innocent victim of D.C.-based persecution.”
I clear my voice. I may be a minnow in this crowd, but I care about this case. The three senior operatives’ faces turn towards me. I’m still standing by the door.
“Director, if I may. We have an opportunity here.”
“What opportunity?” asks the Director. She seems relieved to have something other than risks to think about.
“We seem so focused on Aji Abakar, but we actually have a chance to bring his whole organization down.”
“That doesn’t change how we handle the public,” says Roger Cox.
“It may,” I say, “Aji said he wanted things done quietly. And – “
SAC Miller cuts me off, “He’s a criminal, we’re the FBI. He doesn’t call the shots.”
“Oh, I know,” I say, “But he wants things done quietly. That means we have a hostage.”
The room is silent. Nobody is willing to admit they have no idea what I’m talking about.
I continue, “So long as we haven’t gone public, we can threaten to go public.”
The faces are still blank.
Maybe they need a little more context. I say, “We suspect Aji’s involvement in 31 separate deaths. We got him on one. Just one. And none of his team were implicated. There’s a network here. A dangerous network. If we get rid of him, one of his lieutenants might take over what we know is a lucrative and powerful operation. We’ll be back where we were a year ago with a whole new guy who might not make the same kind of mistakes. This is the chance to bring the whole thing down. We can work with Aji to minimize his role, so far as the public is concerned. In return, he can give us his people.”
“Why would he do that?” asks the Director.
“Because the man is obsessed with his image. He’s always implying that people should bless him. He has a track-record, although we can’t prove it, of murdering his critics. If we agree to hold off on arraigning him, and then ask the judge to keep things under seal until trial, we might be able to get him to cooperate. We could even take it further and publicly blame what has happened on his overly aggressive deputies while charging him with murder nonetheless.”
“But if his people talk first, they’ll control the story,” says SAC Miller.
“Have they talked?” I ask.
“No,” says the Roger Cox, “They haven’t released any information.”
“They knew I was coming. If the plan was to talk, they would have had a press release ready to go. Aji wants quiet. As soon as we mouth off, we lose the single biggest piece of leverage we have.”
SAC Miller doesn’t look like he agrees. Nonetheless, he turns towards the Director. She’s going to make the call.
“I agree with Special Agent Jackson,” she says, after a moment’s consideration. “We don’t want Aji’s cancer to spread just because we failed to cut out the entire tumor.”
“But Special Agent Jackson,” she adds, “Keep in mind your position in the FBI. You’ve earned the right to call some shots here, but that comes with risk. If this goes well, you’re on the podium when we make the other arrests. You get the boost. You could have an incredible future with the Bureau. But if it goes wrong – if the FBI looks bad – nobody will ever know what you pulled off today. You understand?”
I nod towards the camera. “Yes, ma’am,” I say.
I care about stopping the bad guys and I know this is the best way to do it.
“Can I go now?” I ask.
“Yes,” she announces.
I turn around, open the door again and walk out. Behind me, the discussion continues although I have no idea what else there is to discuss.
As I charge down the coffee-brown hallway towards Interrogation 2, my thoughts are focused on Aji Abakar.
My prisoner is waiting.
Monday – 1:29 AM
I stop in at the observation room before going in to interrogate Aji. In theory, I just want to get a sense of his mental state and prepare myself for the interrogation. In reality, I want to ask Clara McGuinness whether she’d handle the interview. I am worried Aji will somehow overwhelm me. Clara is in her late 40s and has almost 20 years of experience under her belt. She’s seen every move a suspect could try to pull; nothing seems to faze her. I’ve only been an agent for a year and half, and I am not sure I’m up to interrogating someone of this caliber.
Clara’s answer? “Neisha, you’re going to have to learn how to do this. You might as well start now.”
I know that, of course. Just like a surgeon has to practice on people they don’t want dying, an FBI agent has to practice on people they don’t want getting away. I don’t want to learn with Aji, though. I just want to put him and his crew away. Something about him, and the hypocrisy of what he has done, seriously pisses me off.
These are the thoughts that are going through my head as I push open the door to the interrogation room itself. I have the case file, thick with papers, under my arm.
Aji looks up and smiles broadly as I enter. He is still wearing his white cotton trousers and shirt. His arms, though, are shackled to the table.
“I’m glad to see you, Neisha.” His eyes seem to sparkle with some unexplained pleasure. I ignore his greeting. The light is harsh in this room, all high-power UV and nothing soft or inviting.
I get right to it.
“As I told you when you were arrested, you have a right to counsel. Do you have a lawyer you would like to contact prior to this interview?”
“You can ask me anything you’d like, Neisha. I don’t need a lawyer,” he answers.
I’m surprised. A lawyer is a very good idea when dealing with the FBI. Lying to a Federal Officer is a Federal offense. Eventually, in an extensive interview, everybody either lies about something or screws something up. That alone can be enough to send you to prison.
Nonetheless, I’ve asked. I’ve given him the chance to lawyer up. It’s not my fault that he, with all his resources, hasn’t summoned someone top-notch. Maybe he’s hoping his personality will get him through this.
“Okay,” I say. “Let’s get started.”
I’m about the wipe the smile off his face.
“Do you know the story of Al Capone?” I ask.
“No,” says Aji.
“He was a mobster in the 1920s. He covered his tracks, almost perfectly. They couldn’t get him on murder or bootlegging. But he was suspected in the murders of hundreds of people. Eventually, they got him on tax evasion.”
“Why are you telling me this?” asks Aji. He looks worried. I feel a little thrill of triumph.
“Aji, I know you’ve killed dozens of people,” I say.
“What?” he asks. Suddenly, Aji’s face seems overcome by shock. The reaction is stronger than I’d expected. Pretending to be surprised won’t get him out of this.
I ignore him and continue, “But you’re very good at covering your tracks. In your case, though, we aren’t going to do what we did to Capone. Because we finally caught you red-handed. You’re going away for life.”
“Dozens?” he asks, seemingly not caring about John Buckner.
I push ahead.
“John Buckner was an internet blogger who criticized you continually. He said you were a charlatan, a fake, a criminal. You know all this, don’t you?”
“Yes,” he says, in a wavering voice.
“John Buckner’s house suffered a gas leak three weeks ago. It exploded shortly thereafter. Because of the pattern of violence against those who criticize you, we immediately looked into it. We found video footage of a transient white male leaving the property. We found him and interrogated him. He claimed that you paid him to blow up the house.”
Aji just looks at me, his expression serious.
“Today, we ran your fingerprints. We found your fingerprints on cash in the transient male’s possession. It is clear you paid him. We’re going to charge you for the murder of John Buckner.”
Aji looks at me. He seems worried about me.
“Neisha –” he says.
I cut him off.
“I am Special Agent Jackson. We aren’t friends.”
His hands pull up against the shackles like he’s trying to wave them in submission. “Special Agent Jackson, I thinkyou’re a remarkable person.”
“I don’t care what you think.” I say.
“Special Agent Jackson, please tread carefully. I don’t want you to get hurt, or worse.”
It takes me a moment to realize what he’s doing.
“Are you threatening me?”
“No, no,” he says, his eyes seeming to plead, “I’m praying for you.”
I look into his eyes then and I see care and compassion. Like he actually believes he’s praying for me. I’m almost drawn in. I almost feel like I want to protect him because he wants to protect me. The control he shows is chilling. I can’t let him take control of the interview.
“We can keep this quiet,” I suggest, trying to get back to my original plan.
“That would be best,” he says.
“In return, you can tell us how it all works.”
“I’ll tell you how it works, even if you don’t keep it quiet. It’s simple: G-d blesses those who bless me, and curses those who curse me.”
I know the verse. It is from the Bible. G-d promises Abraham He will bless those who bless him and curse those who curse him.
It is nonsensical. I’m happy about the distance it puts between me and him.
Aji isn’t done. “Don’t curse me, Special Agent Jackson. I don’t want you to be cursed. Instead, arrange to release me under my own recognizance. Then, we’ll work this out in the most positive way possible.”
I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I feel anger beginning to boil up within me.
“You do realize I’m an FBI agent. You can’t threaten me. I have the power of the Federal Government behind me.”
“I’m not threatening you,” he says, “But you’re dealing with a force you can’t understand, much less challenge.”
His confidence is unsettling. It might even be justified. Aji’s people found the other 5 FBI agents. They probably knew who they were. Aji knew who I was, even as he interviewed “Alison” the curator in front of millions of people. Aji knew when the FBI got its arrest warrant, which is why he stopped going out by himself the same night we had the evidence we needed.
I want to get claws into his organization, but after a year of trying, I don’t have any. At least, none that have led anywhere. But Aji has claws in mine.
In that moment, I realize I’ve lost control of the entire situation. I arrested Aji, but he let me do it. The man sitting in front of me is dictating everything that happens. And his network is far deeper that I’d even imagined it could be. He’s willing to kill, he knows everything I know, and now he’s warning me to tread carefully. One of my team members, on a special FBI task force, might even be working for him.
He’s toying with me.
I’m shaking as I stand up.
“Are you okay?” he asks, that same frightening concern in his voice.
I don’t answer, I just pick up the case file.
“One more thing,” he says, “It’s about your brother.”
I turn to him, shocked.
“I just want you to know that I believe G-d has a plan.”
I almost stumble out of the room.
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