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.”
I feel ridiculous, taking a subway to make an arrest.
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.
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