Protection

Monday – 1:43 AM

When I close the door of the interview room behind me, it gives a satisfying and solid clunk. Aji won’t be leaving. His energy will be contained. Clara is waiting for me. She lays her arm over my shoulder, reassuringly.

“It’s okay, Neisha” she says, “You did fine.”

I expected to feel safe, coming out of the interrogation room. But even with the door between us, I don’t feel safe. Instead, I look at Clara, suddenly worried that she might be one of Aji’s plants. I can’t tell. I have no way of knowing. I have no idea who I can trust.

Clara keeps talking. “I’ve already told SAC Miller about the interview. He’s coming over now.”

A moment later, I see James Miller barreling down the hallway. “Did he threaten you?” Miller asks, as soon as he reaches me.

“It’s all on the tapes,” says Clara. I tell myself that she can’t be a plant if she’s explaining things to Miller, right?

The problem is, I just don’t know.

“They do that sometimes,” says Miller, “but you don’t have to worry. He’s locked up. I can go have a chat with him and remind him of his place in the world if you’d like.”

“I think he knows his place better than we do,” says Clara. “I watched the interview. Neisha didn’t screw it up. He just took over. I think he knows more about us than we know about him.”

I add, “It almost feels like being locked up is part of his plan.”

Miller pauses to think. “Okay, it’s been a very long day. Very challenging. Let’s take some time out and revisit this in the morning. Neisha, do you feel like there’s an actual threat to your safety?”

I don’t want to look like I am frightened. But I am. I’m scared of Clara. I’m scared of SAC Miller. I’m scared of some other agent or janitor or – who knows what – waiting to punish me for not treading carefully. Will Aji try to do anything to me if I haven’t done anything yet? Then again, I have done something. I arrested him.

Clara jumps in, “There is a credible threat, sir. Not only that, but the man clearly has resources inside the FBI. I’m not sure we can protect Neisha.”

“Really?” asks SAC Miller. The disbelief is written all over his face.

“Sir, he’s probably killed over 30 people and we haven’t caught him. He has an active network. He knew who our guys were. He told Neisha to tread carefully for her own sake. He knew she was going to arrest him. He’s a real threat.”

Reluctantly, SAC Miller nods his head. “Okay. The US Marshalls are a block from here. I’ll ask them to cover you for the night.”

“Thanks,” I say. I don’t want to show my relief, but I feel it. Clara and SAC Miller have got to be okay, right? There’s no way either one is setting up with some crooked US Marshalls, is there?

It is disconcerting, not knowing who is truly on your side.

A pair of US Marshalls arrive 15 minutes later. I hear the ding of the elevator and then see them round the corner from reception. They’re wearing blue tee-shirts and light khaki pants. Covering these innocuous-looking clothes are bulletproof vests, utility belts and pistol holsters flamboyantly strapped to their thighs. Silver stars hang from chains around their necks. The two US Marshalls aren’t huge, but they look like they are ready for violence.

I don’t know them. Then again, I don’t really know anybody.

I stick out my hand as they approach, “Special Agent Jackson.”

I want to reinforce my status as a Federal Agent. After all, these guys could take me anywhere they want to, and they could do anything they want when they get there.

In turn, they murmur politely, and introduce themselves. Each one shakes my hand.

Then, we turn and walk to the elevators.

As they guide me through the garage, I watch them warily. I don’t want to insult them, but I’m as jumpy as I’ve ever been. I find myself worried about being trapped when they help me into the back of an armored SUV.

Even then, I don’t relax. I pull my Glock from its holster and hold it in my lap. No matter what’s coming, I’m going to put up a fight. If the US Marshalls notice what I’ve done, they don’t say anything. Instead, the lumbering vehicle pulls out of the driveway and on to Duane Street. A few moments later, we bounce over the tips of the bollards that guard each end of the Federal Plaza.

As we turn north, one question fills my mind. Everything in the interview made sense, given what I know about Aji Abakar.

One thing didn’t: Why had Aji decided to mention my brother?

Something inside feels like that question is the key to everything.

Killing

Monday – 2:12 AM

I grew up in a place that looked like a completely normal lower-middle-class neighborhood. People lived in small houses. They weren’t that well maintained, but there were cars on the street and a decent majority ran just fine. There were kids who played. There were schools and even playgrounds. There were sidewalks with kid’s bicycles strewn on them.

At first glance, it would seem like a perfectly decent place to grow up.

It wasn’t.

Some people have an early memory of opening a present, walking in some park or holding their mother’s hand. My first memories are of a feeling: fear. It was constant. It was everywhere. You’d walk down the street aware that there could be shooting at any moment. There were robberies, drug deals and fights. You learned, instinctively, to rely on your fear to keep you safe. You learned to recognize danger that an outsider would never even see.

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago and I hated it.

My mother had grown up in South Side. She’d been the daughter of a teenage mother. She’d made some mistakes of her own; I was one. Then she’d put herself through Community College as a single mom and she’d gotten a job. Slowly but surely, she’d risen the ranks. She wasn’t some high-flyin’ executive. What she was was the branch manager of a pharmacy in Chicago’s fancy Loop neighborhood. It was a decent job. It was enough for us to move out of the South Side. We didn’t move though.

I used to beg her to move. I used to beg her to move us someplace safe. She wouldn’t do it. When I was eleven, I got tired of asking. While she was at work one Sunday, I took my little brother, LaMarcus, and we walked over to the G-d’s Miracle Baptist Church. My mom would swear by the pastor of that church, our church. She had that very morning. I figured that I’d just talk to him, explain things to him, and we’d be out of the South Side in a jiffy.

That afternoon, I showed up at the Church and I knocked on the pastor’s office door. When he opened it, I took LaMarcus’s hand and we strode right on in.

He looked at the two of us. I looked at him. Then I said to him, “Pastor, my momma makes enough money to move out of here. It ain’t safe here. You gotta tell her to go.”

He looked right down at me. He didn’t chuckle. He didn’t comment on how cute, or brave, I was. He just asked me to sit down on his beat-up old couch. Then he sat down behind his desk and he said, “Neisha, your mom wants to move.”

I didn’t know that. It shocked me. “Then why don’t she?” I asked.

“Because I asked her not to.”

I just stared at him. What business would a pastor have telling a mom with two young kids to stay in a place like this? I was mad at him. I remember that. But he had an answer.

“Neisha,” he said, “If a place like this is gonna have any hope, it’s got to be built around pillars of the community. Your mom is a pillar of this community. She shows people how things could be better. Judging by how you walked in here today, I think you will be a pillar of the community. You gotta do what you can to raise people up. Then you gotta rely on G-d to take care of the rest.”

My 11-year-old ears heard one message: I didn’t have to worry. I could be safe. G-d was gonna’ take care of us because we were pillars of our community.

He was the pastor and I believed him.

The pastor offered me a ride home. But I didn’t take it. I was full of pride. I wasn’t gonna lean on him. Soon enough, he was gonna be the one leanin’ on me. As I walked out of that church, LaMarcus holding my hand, I felt like I was protecting him, and G-d was protecting me.

For the first time in my life, I felt safe.

I felt safe as I walked past the car with the idling engine and the four young men sitting in it. I felt safe as I walked us towards the house with the too-loud party. I felt safe when I heard the car rev its engine behind us.

It was already too late when I realized that G-d wasn’t gonna take care of us. I shoved LaMarcus down just as the bullets came flying out of the side of that car. The people in the house were ready. They fired back. LaMarcus and I were caught in the middle.

I wasn’t hit. It was a miracle.

LaMarcus was hit once. In the head.

He never even had a chance to say goodbye.

My mother never spoke to me again. For the years I remained in her house, we lived silently – like two ghosts inhabiting a shared space. My mother was silent, but LaMarcus wasn’t. He’d come to me in my dreams and he’d ask the same question every time: “Why?”

Aji Abakar had brought up my brother. But I can’t understand why. It couldn’t have been a demonstration of his willingness to use violence. Aji was only six when my brother was killed. He wasn’t driving that car or holding the gun. And he grew up in LA, not Chicago.

Was he trying to scare me by showing how much he knew about my background? It was possible. But a public records search would have uncovered the story. If he knew I was coming for him, it wasn’t that surprising that he’d know about LaMarcus.

Maybe he was warning me that he is only part of an older and bigger network? That possibility was truly frightening. But that network wouldn’t have targeted an eight-year-old boy and his eleven-year-old sister. There couldn’t be a connection.

As the armored SUV pulls up to my building at 139th and Lenox – in the heart of Harlem – I can only think of one answer.

For some twisted reason, Aji Abakar was trying to mess with my head.

As the US Marshalls guide me into my building, I imagine I can hear little LaMarcus asking: “Why?”

Smoke

Monday – 4:23 AM

I hear a pounding. It is insistent, dangerous, repeated. Again, and again, like rounds shot out by a cannon– WHAM! WHAM! I’m on a street. I turn, look down and see LaMarcus. He’s looking at me, screaming in terror. And he’s hitting me. His arms pound into me, but I don’t feel anything. But I hear it, his arms flail against me and with every strike there is a boom like gunfire.

I wake up, screaming.

I wake up in total darkness. The room is hot. And everything is silent but the pounding. I’m confused for a moment. I don’t know where I am. There’s a smell in the air. Acrid. Sour. A moment later I see it. There’s a cloud in the room, a dark cloud of smoke hovering in the air. There are no lamps I can see. No illumination from the city outside. Instead there is just smoke, like a blanket slowly being lowered over me.

I’m home. I’m home. And my home is on fire. I scramble off the bed. The floor is hot, very hot, but the air is clearer there. I gasp for something, my lungs burn. I hear the pounding. WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! Then I realize what it must be. The US Marshalls brought me here, to my apartment. I wouldn’t let them inside. I didn’t trust them. I trusted my door, with its deadbolts and crossbars, to keep me safe.

Now that same door may condemn me.

I can’t remember which way I’m facing. But I can hear that pounding. I scramble across the hot floor. My hands smoke as they touch the surface. I scream in pain but keep pushing forward. I can’t afford to stop. WHAM! WHAM! WHAM!

I see it now, the bottom of my door. I draw in one hot breath and then kneel, keeping my head close to the ground. I tear my shirt off over my head. I wrap it around my hands. And I reach up. How many locks are there? I try to remember. Three. There are three locks. WHAM! WHAM! WHAM!

First the cross bolt. There are two steel bars that reach across the door. I have to twist a lever in the middle and they’ll retract. I reach out desperately, trying to find the lever in the dark and the heat.

My hands, burned from touching the ground, are in unbelievable pain. All I can think about is the pain. Then I feel the lever. I grab it. Somehow, I know that my shirt, wrapped around my hand, is in flames. The steel is just too hot. I pull the lever. The crossbars retreat.

I scream and fall back to the ground. The pain is too much. Two more locks. I have to undo two more locks.

That’s my last thought before everything goes dark.

When I begin to open my eyes, I can feel that I’m outside. There’s fresh air around me. I’m on something uncomfortable. I’m bouncing. I must be on a gurney. I can make out the dim shape of a US Marshall’s uniform above me and to the right. Another man is hovering over my left.

“She’s coming to!” the man says. My vision clears some more, and I see the man is in a paramedic’s uniform.

The US Marshall is hovering over me. His face covered in soot and his hair is singed. I see bandages on his hands. He must have been the one who’d been banging on my door. He must have broken through my locks after I’d opened the cross bolt.

I mumble something. I want to know what happened. I try to move. Almost immediately, I’m hit by a wave of nausea. I turn to the side and vomit. The feel of it screams up my throat. The US Marshall reaches forward just in time, pulling an oxygen mask from my face. I see a mass of dark crud spill on to the pavement rushing below me.

“Can you breathe?” The paramedic asks.

I nod.

“Can you speak?”

“Yes,” I say.

The paramedic turns to the US Marshall. “Does she sound hoarse?”

“No,” he says, “Not really.”

“Good.”

“Ma’am,” says the Paramedic, “The Harlem Hospital is only a few blocks from here. We’re going to get you there now.”

We hit something and then the gurney slides forward. Now, I’m in an ambulance. There are two paramedics here, including the one from before. One of the US Marshalls climbs in a moment later.

“What’s your name?” I ask.

“US Marshall Johnson,” he says, “Sorry I couldn’t get you sooner. I couldn’t get through the damned door.”

I nod at him. Johnson. I’ll remember Johnson. He’s one of the good guys. I know that now.

The ambulance starts moving. “We’ve given you morphine,” says the paramedic, “The pain won’t go away, but it ought to get fuzzy.”

I nod. Vomiting helped. I’m feeling clearer headed.

“Do I need to go the hospital?” I ask.

The Paramedic just looks at me.

“Do I need to go the hospital?” I ask again.

“You were just in a major fire, ma’am?”

“Yes, but do I need to go the hospital?”

“You’re breathing okay. You have burns, but they look like 2nd degree burns on your hands and knees. You can treat them with antibiotic ointments. You’re might also need a bucketload of antibiotics and painkillers.”

“And?”

“You should see a doctor.”

I see the US Marshall think for a moment. Then he decides something. “Stop the ambulance,” he calls out to the driver.

“What?” asks the paramedic.

“Stop the ambulance,” says the Marshall.

“Why?” says the paramedic.

“This woman is an FBI Special Agent. I’m guarding her because of a credible threat against her person. While I was sitting outside her apartment door, there was a fire. She believes, and I believe, she may have been the target of that fire. I don’t want her in a public place if she doesn’t need to be.”

The Paramedic just looks at the two of us.

“Stop the DAMNED VAN!” shouts Marshall Johnson.

I feel a jolt as the driver hits the brakes.

A moment later, Marshall Johnson has the back doors open. I feel the rush of fresh air. I inhale. It burns, but it feels so much better than the air in the apartment had.

“Can you sit up?” Johnson asks.

“I really recommend against it,” says the Paramedic.

“I know what I’m doing,” answers Johnson.

“But we’re almost there!” comes a voice from the front of the ambulance.

I begin to sit up. I’m still dizzy. I feel nauseous. But I’m far better than before. Marshall Johnson takes my hand as I gingerly lower my foot to the floor of the ambulance. Still holding my hand, he jumps down to the ground. I see the armored SUV is stopped right behind us. We’re parked right in front of the hospital. The lights of the ambulance are flashing over everything.

I lean forward. I feel suddenly overwhelmed by dizziness. I topple forward. Johnson catches me easily. He tosses me over his shoulder.

“Can you trust the other guy?” I ask, feeling helpless.

“Yeah,” says Johnson, “You can trust him.”

As we walk away, I hear the paramedic call after us, “Keep her awake! Get somebody in to see her as soon as you can! Get those burns treated!”

“We got it!” says the Marshall.

I’m curious why he’s so confident.

My stomach is in knots. I hear the ‘other guy’ jump down from his seat and open the back for me. Johnson lays me carefully into my seat and belts me in. The other guy hops back in the front. Johnson doesn’t. He opens the back of the SUV, grabs something and then slides in next to me.

I look over and see a massive Khaki Green bag with a large red cross on it.

“What’s that?”

“Combat First Aid,” he says, “I was a medic in Afghanistan.”

The other guy turns back to us and asks, “Where to?”

I mumble, exhausted, “Javits.”

“You heard the lady,” says Johnson. As he opens his kit and begins to pull out ointments and gauze, the other guy floors it and we take off down Lenox Avenue.

I want to feel safe, surrounded by armor and men willing to risk themselves to protect me.

But I don’t feel safe.

Even as Johnson gently wraps my burns, my mind frantically searches for the source of the next attack.

I am almost overwhelmed by fear.

Arson

Monday – 8:00 AM

The knocking that wakes me up is incredibly gentle. At that light prompting, I open my eyes and see light streaming through the office blinds. I’m laying on a cot taken from the holding area. My hands and knees are killing me.

I feel like crap.

I roll off the cot, stumble upwards and head for the door. I’d locked from the inside.

“Who’s there?” I ask, my voice almost a mumble.

“US Marshall Johnson,” comes the reply. “It’s eight o’clock ma’am.”

Eight? As we drove down to the Javitz Federal Building, SAC Miller arranged for some unfortunate doctor to get summoned to the office in the middle of the night. He checked me out and 15 minutes after getting to the building, I was passed out cold in an empty office (with the good Doctor’s blessing). I asked to sleep until 8. I’ve got to get up. I’ve got to fight back.

Right now, though, I don’t feel like I can manage it.

I unlock and open the door. US Marshall Johnson is there. His hands are also bandaged – although not as extensively as mine. There’s a smile on his face. I notice he also has a coffee in a thick paper cup and a large paper bag in his hand.

“For me?” I ask, looking at the coffee.

“Yes,” says Johnson, “I figured you’d need it.”

He extends the coffee and the bag. I look at them. My hands are bandaged and in incredible pain. I don’t think I can pick up the bags.

He notices and pulls them back. He says, “I’ll set it up for you in the conference room.”

I follow behind him. I am disheveled. There’s smoke in my hair, my clothes are charred. As I walk the short distance to the conference room, everybody’s eyes are tracking me. This is the FBI; everybody is already at work and everybody already knows what happened to me.

Johnson turns his head as we walk, “If you’d like, I can take a sip of your coffee and a bite of one of the bagels. You know, to make sure they aren’t poisoned.”

I smile at that. “What kind of bagels did you get?”

“All of them,” he says, “I wasn’t sure which you’d like.”

There’s something in his voice that brings me to a stop. Johnson turns back to me.

“Do you flirt with all your protectees?” I ask.

A blush comes to his face. In that moment, I see him in a new light. He’s almost six foot tall, he’s strong and confident and toned. He’s calm under pressure, he’s dedicated to his responsibilities. And he’s already saved my life once. A woman could do worse.

“No, ma’am,” he answers, with the hint of a smile.

“Good,” I say, feeling a little special despite myself.

We keep walking. A moment later, he opens the conference room door and I shuffle in. My team is here. I take a seat at the table, remembering that somebody in this group is probably working for Aji.

Johnson puts the coffee in front of me.

“It’s iced,” he says. That’s thoughtful, I tell myself. After all, I had burned my throat the night before. Johnson steps back and I look up at the group gathered around me.

“Where are we?” I ask.

Jason Peters is the Special Agent who has been spearheading our coordination with other agencies. Although fit, he’s a slight man who projects an air of friendliness and conciliation. He can turn tough, but his default attitude tends to open doors.

“Immediately after the fire, I spoke with the New York Fire Department. The fire started in the apartment directly below yours. There were noodles on a pot in the kitchen. They were left on too long. The NYFD said it was likely an accident but given the circumstances, we arrested the woman. Her name is Sarah Brown and she’s in holding down the hall.”

“Has anybody looked into her background?” I ask.

“Yes,” says Clara, “We got a warrant and searched her apartment, phone records, public social media posts and Metrocard records. Her apartment was far less damaged than yours. The fire went up. She also left the apartment sooner. She wasn’t injured. She didn’t get any unusual messages yesterday; her routine was normal for a Sunday. She’s a janitor at a hospital. She’s commented several times on Aji. Her comments have always been negative. She’s suggested that the people he brings on stage are pre-selected and that Aji does it because he loves the attention. Aside from the circumstances, nothing seems amiss at this time.”

“Did you run a Ghost Report?” I ask Matthew Crass. The Ghost Report is a phone tracing system that tracks whether a particular phone has had a burner phone near it for extended periods of time. We use it to associate devices, and thus burner phones and their actual owners. We need a warrant to use the system as even users of burner phones have a right to privacy.

“Yes,” says Matthew, “The woman doesn’t have a burner so nobody called her on one.”

“She wouldn’t really need to,” I say. “Aji probably knew I was going to arrest him. After I did, the woman could have received a pre-arranged signal, like somebody waving at her from across the street.”

Bill Riley, an expert on complex conspiracies like organized crime or terrorist syndicates, jumps in, “It’s possible, but it will be very hard to find evidence of it. And we need evidence to keep holding her.”

I nod and gingerly pick up my iced coffee in bandaged hands. The cold liquid provides a mix of pain and relief as it rolls down my tender throat.

“Okay,” I say, “I hate to do this, but there’s strong evidence Aji knew I was coming yesterday. That suggests somebody in this office is giving his group information. It is probably somebody outside this particular group. Because of this, I want you holding information close. Don’t share it. Even in the office. Just in case it is one of you, I want you looking over each other’s shoulders. You’re looking for two things: the passing of information and the failure to do a complete and thorough job. Matthew and Jason, I want the two of you checking each other’s work. Clara and Bill, the same for you. To be sure, we’ll rotate the reviews each day. I want this to start retroactively, so please share your notes from this morning with each other.”

I look at them, hoping I haven’t insulted them. Nobody seems offended. They seem to understand why I’m suspicious of even them. I won’t catch Aji’s team with this kind of supervision, but at least I’m less likely to have my own people undermine me.

I continue, “Okay. Sarah Brown seems like almost every other Aji related case. We have a suspicious situation and no way to tie it to Aji or his team. I assume we haven’t seen any special movement from Aji’s people, right?”

“Nothing,” says Jason, “No calls, no unusual visitors after the arrest. They went back to their hotel and that was it. Radio silence until this morning and even now nothing out of the ordinary is going on.”

“If we don’t get something connecting them to Sarah Brown, we’re going to have to release her,” says Clara.

“Has anybody interrogated her?” I ask.

“We talked to her a bit. We didn’t get anywhere. She’s probably asleep now.”

“Okay,” I say, “I’ll go talk to her. Maybe seeing her victim will get her to open up.”

Five minutes later, I open the door to the interrogation room. Sarah Brown is a short and compact black woman. She’s slumped over the table in the interrogation room. She isn’t handcuffed. Instead, her arms are wrapped beneath her head, providing an ad-hoc pillow. The lights are on their standard brightness setting: bright and very uncomfortable.

We probably should have moved her to holding. She could have lain down there. Nonetheless, a little discomfort can help prod some witnesses. Plus, we know we can get away with holding her in the interrogation room for a few hours.

As I walk into the room, the woman lifts her head from the table. Her skin is the color of milk chocolate. Her eyes are red and puffy with exhaustion. As she sees me, she says, “I told them I want a lawyer.”

“We’ve called a public defender,” I say. “He’ll be here in a few minutes. In the meantime, you don’t have to answer any questions or say anything. Understand?”

The woman nods.

I sit across from her. I’ve got to get her to talk voluntarily.

I begin to unwrap the loose bandages on my right hand. “You were arrested last night on suspicion of attempted murder. I was the woman you tried to murder.”

As I pull the layers of tape off, the lower layers, covered in puss and ointment, are revealed. The pain is shocking, but I keep going.

The woman is trying to look me in the face. But she can’t stop herself from stealing glances at my hands. There’s a sense of panic in her eyes. I keep unwrapping.

“You almost succeeded. I was moments away from being trapped and dying.”

The first raw skin is revealed. Even I can barely look at it. It is red and raw; patches are actually charred.

The woman is horrified. “I’m so sorry,” she says, “I just put the noodles on the pot, and I fell asleep by accident. I didn’t think I was that tired, but I guess I was. I didn’t want to hurt anybody.”

I keep unwrapping.

“Ms. Brown, do you know how I became an FBI agent?”

“No, why would I know that?”

“I was a campus police officer at the University of Northern California in Eureka. The FBI recruited me. Do you know how unusual it is for a campus police officer to make the jump to the FBI?”

“No,” she says. She looks worried and scared.

“One day I heard a rumor about a video for sale online. It showed the violent rape of a woman. One of our students. I heard about it and then I went and found it. It was easy to get. I just went online and looked for UNC rape video and there it was. I bought that video. I watched part of it. Enough to identify the woman being attacked. She was in fact a student. She led an anarchist group. She had a reputation as an extremely tough person.”

I start unwrapping my other hand, the burnt tips of one hand pulling at the bandages at the other.

“I brought her in. To talk to her, privately. I asked her who raped her. She wouldn’t say anything. I asked who she was protecting. Nothing. I asked why she – who had spoken up many times about pushing back on the patriarchy – would allow her rapist to walk free. I wanted to help her confront her own horror. But she said nothing. Then she smiled. I remember it so clearly.

“I have a degree in Art History. I’d spent an extraordinary amount of time analyzing and the discussing the faces of men and women in art. I’d spent so much time figuring out why the Girl with the Pearl Earring has her lips as she does. Or why the Apostles in the Da Vinci’s Last Supper each have the facial and body language they do. When I saw that woman smile, I knew something else was happening.”

Sarah Brown is watching my hands, her focus is not on my words. She looks up at me, unable to ask “What?” but I can see it in her expression.

“I let the woman go. And then I spent the next week tracing the activities of her group. When they travelled, they rented cars and hotel rooms. They purchased body armor for protests and riots. They bought military-grade clothing and gear for their operations. They were very well funded. I followed the money and realized that she was the one who ran the website I’d bought the video on.”

Sarah Brown looks confused.

“I asked her about it later. I just stopped her on one of the campus walks and told her what I’d found. She smiled again. Same smile. She was triumphant. She said she was using the violent rape culture of the patriarchy against it. Men who fantasized about violence against women would pay to see her supposedly being attacked, and she would use their money to overthrow them. There was no crime. When the FBI came to investigate her, I shared what I knew. They were impressed and encouraged me to apply for a job.”

Sarah Brown knows she shouldn’t talk, but she does. “What does that have to do with me?”

“Ms. Brown,” I say, “It is a felony to lie to a Federal Agent. If you lie to me, I will work it out and you will go to prison.”

She looks at me, her eyes full of fear.

“Ms. Brown, were you instructed to set that fire?”

“No,” she says, her composure failing her completely. She starts crying, huge wracking sobs. “I didn’t want to start a fire. I just fell asleep. I’m so so sorry you’re hurt. Please, please, please believe me. I’m not lying.”

I’ve gotten nowhere. I know she has to be involved, but I’ve got nothing to work with. Her conviction is so convincing that I’m even beginning to doubt myself.

I hate these damned fanatics.

Just then the door opens and the lawyer, a public defender I know, steps in.

“What are you doing to my client,” she asks, her voice brusque. Part of it is just to show Sarah she’s standing up for her. She won’t really push things too far. While she’ll deal with Sarah Brown for a day or two, she’ll be dealing with us for the rest of her career.

I stand up, gingerly gathering my bandages back together.

“We were just talking,” I say, “Now, she’s free to go.”

Sarah’s eyes track my every step as I walk out of the room.

Same question, take 2. 
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Keep Reading with Part III!