Monday – 9:30 AM
Over the past year, I’ve conducted dozens of interviews just like Sarah Brown’s. True believers who won’t confess anything about what they’ve done and why.
Somewhere in the background, I hear Clara, “We can get a subpoena and look into her private social media messages.” Then Jason, “We can look into when she rented the apartment. Maybe she moved in after you, which would be a red flag.” Matthew, “We can check CCTV to see if she’d acted unusually on her way home from work.”
I ignore them all. My hands are a ball of pain. Johnson is gently cleaning them with a wet cloth, wiping away old ointment with a striking tenderness. As I’d come out of the interrogation room, Johnson had told me not to pull that trick again. The gauze I have is designed to remain in place until the burn has healed. I truly appreciate his concern.
I’m not ignoring my team because of the pain of my hands, or the pleasure of Johnson’s care. I’m ignoring them because everything they suggest is hopeless. I look up and say, “None of these ideas have ever worked before and they aren’t going to work now. Aji’s team is just too good at covering their tracks.”
The group looks defeated.
Clara says, “But we have to try. It’s what we do.”
“We don’t have to be pig-headed about it,” I say, “We need to be smart. We need to be targeted. Doing what we’ve done before has a tiny chance of yielding something useful. We’ll do it. All of it, if we need to. But things have changed.”
“How?” asks Jason Peters, the interagency coordinator.
“We’ve arrested Aji. We have what we need to charge him.”
Bill Riley, the conspiracy expert, says, “That isn’t enough. We need to wrap up the whole group. You’ve said it yourself.”
I want to hold up my hands, to shush them. But I can’t. “Everybody,” I say, “I want to get them all. They just tried to kill me, an FBI agent. I can’t let that go unanswered and neither can you.”
“Okay,” says Bill, “So what do you want to do?”
“Let’s go back to the basics. Motive, means, and opportunity. Maybe our current situation can open something new up.”
“We still don’t know the motive,” says Jason.
“Yes, we do,” says Clara, “These people want money and power.”
“They aren’t making much money,” says Bill, “They raise a fair amount but whatever they don’t spend on cheap hotels, fuel for their bus and inexpensive events is given to charity. There’s no war chest being assembled.”
“That we can see,” says Clara.
“We’ve dug into this,” says Matthew, “We’ve tracked committed donors to see if they’ve been giving money off the books. They haven’t. It isn’t money.”
Clara says, “We may not think it’s money. But you have to consider where they came from.”
I say, “No matter where they came from, if they were doing it for money, they’d be keeping some of it.”
Clara grimaces. She doesn’t agree, but we’ve been through this argument a million times.
“Does what’s happened since Aji’s arrest tell us anything about motive?” I ask.
Clara says, “Well, you thought it was about reputation. But when you offered to keep things quiet, in return for giving up his team, he didn’t bite.”
“Okay, so maybe reputation isn’t the point,” I say.
“Or maybe he figures it’s shot anyways,” says Jason.
“Or… maybe he thinks he can outplay us in the media and his reputation will be fine,” says Clara.
“Maybe. Aside from reputation and money, we’ve got power and influence. Anything else come to mind?”
Johnson looks up from treating my hands. He’s applying ointment to both of them. They hurt like hell, but even the first daubs of ointment are relieving the pain. The gauze is waiting on the table.
“He could really believe it,” Johnson says.
“How could he possibly believe it?” I ask, “That’s absurd.”
Johnson answers, “His people could be the ones behind it. They could have set him up and convinced him he’s got some mystical ability while they run everything in the background.”
“So, he actually thinks he’s a holy man?” asks Clara.
“A mafia don who doesn’t know it,” says Bill with a whistle.
“What a con that would be,” says Jason.
“But why?” asks Matthew, the computer analyst. “Why would they do it, and why would they choose Aji? And I know we’re not talking means and opportunity yet, but how would they pull it off?”
“One question at a time. Let’s start with why they’d choose Aji.”
“That’s easy, he was convenient,” says Bill, the conspiracy guy.
“Well, he grew up in California. He was born Michael Abakar. His parents died in a car crash and he escaped the foster system when he was 12. He’d been on the run for 6 years. I imagine he wanted family more than anything. His parents had immigrated from the Garubia. These new immigrants come along. He runs into them in South Carolina and he gloms on to them. He even changes his name to Aji to fit in. They’re like extended family. He’s an easy mark.”
It’s a solid theory, and a new one. Nobody says anything.
“Why would they do it?” I ask as Johnson finishes with the ointment and begins to loosely wrap fresh gauze around my right hand.
I’m met with blank stares.
“Let’s go over their history. Maybe with this new theory something will pop out.” I say.
“Okay,” says Clara. “Here’s what we know. There are 15 of them. They applied, together, for special refugee status at the US Embassy in Duomba. They were all former child soldiers in the Chosen People’s Liberation Force, a brutal group led by Mombato Yogula. Yogula had died, maybe been killed and his army had broken up. These kids ended up in Duomba, but they were having a very hard time of it. For all the nice things the locals said, they hated child soldiers – especially those from the CPLF. They were harassed and beaten. So, they applied for, and received, refugee status. The US admitted them. Although they were sent to different US cities, they quickly reunited. Almost immediately, they joined up with Aji.”
“They could be looking for family too,” says Jason. “The whole ruse could be about creating what they had, a family. But it’s twisted, because they were child soldiers for a religious whack job. For them, a family is about violence, intimidation, group loyalty and following some charismatic religious crazy. They chose Aji because he was convenient and didn’t have all their baggage. He was American enough to be accepted.”
It’s a dark picture, but perhaps a plausible one.
Bill chimes in, “They don’t mind killing people. They’re used to it. They’re just carrying on the legacy of Mombato Yogula,” says Bill.
“What if they lied on their immigration application?” says Jason.
“Think about it,” says Jason, “They were African child soldiers. They know how to shoot people with AK-47s and machete them if they’re out of bullets. Carefully covering their footsteps while running a massive conspiracy in the United States would not fall within their skill set. How’d they get good enough to hide what they’re doing from us?”
“Holy cow,” says Bill Riley, whistling loudly.
We all know what he’s talking about. Duomba is a center of any number of failed state issues. Yes, there are recently disbanded groups of child soldiers. Yes, there is the occasional military coup. But there is also a flourishing Islamic insurgency. Both the Islamic State and Al Qaeda are active in the area.
“They’re terrorists?” asks Jason.
“Maybe,” I say, “But what does Aji give them? Why go to all the trouble?”
“Travel,” every voice says simultaneously.
Bill spells it out, “They can go everywhere in the country, they can assemble terrorist networks, they can fundraise. It’s the perfect cover. They can hide in plain sight. All they need to do is arrange a few miracles and a few curses and they have a free pass.”
“That’s a hell of a conspiracy,” I say, “But they don’t have a free pass. We’re trying very hard to find out what they’re up to. So, what are they gaining? I can’t imagine they’d be any less able to travel, fundraise and organize without Aji as a front man.”
“I guess nothing,” says Bill.
“Maybe a combination is true. Maybe they were some kind of specialists trained by Yogula. Maybe he’s carrying on some sort of crazy plan from beyond the grave.”
“You should write fantasy novels,” says Matthew. His face is deadly serious. “That’s some good stuff.”
A chuckle goes around the room.
“Wait a moment,” says Clara, a smile spreading across her face. “Bill’s theory doesn’t have to make complete sense to be useful?”
“How?” I ask.
“Why don’t we use the Islamic terrorism story to trigger their network. And then we can see what happens and see how they communicate.”
All the around the table, heads nod in appreciation of the idea.
Monday – 3:00 PM
It is five hours later, and I’m being driven back to Brooklyn. This time the destination isn’t Prospect Park, but “The Worst Hotel in Brooklyn.” The neighborhood around the hotel is populated by a mix of low-slung and run-down looking apartment buildings and even more depressed-looking stucco townhouses. The place is both too far from Manhattan to be desirable, and too close to be attractive. The whole area is dominated by the Belt Parkway, a rumbling freeway that passes several stories above the ground. Every day, commuters pass over this neighborhood, reading billboards at the tops of buildings. They never see what lays beneath. It is the kind of place defined by laundromats, self-storage units and, yes, motels. The motels cater to NYU Langone Hospital or out-of-town visitors on low budgets. Given their customer base, rooms are cheap, and appearances are largely unimportant.
Aji’s hotel, the one his group and their followers have overrun, is a five-story affair with 68 rooms. They’ve taken up the top two floors, 24 rooms in all. We’ve read the online reviews, trying to get a picture of the place. Poor room service, deceptive management. Low prices. Of course, we doubted anything was lacking in the service provided to Aji and his people. People seemed to really believed that if you did right by Aji, the universe would do right by you.
We hadn’t just looked at the rooms online, of course. In the five hours since our conversation in the conference room we’d pulled schematics from City Records. We’d set up cameras with telescopic lenses facing every window in the place, watching for signs and signals. We’d even parked a special FBI van, loaded with systems derived US Air Force surveillance systems, to watch for non-standard radio, IR or other broadcasts from the small building. Because we didn’t know what was going on, we wanted to be ready for anything.
Only then did I call Aji’s second in command, a man named Der’nube. He had only one name – I guess it was rare enough that that didn’t matter. I told him I needed to meet with him, to interview him after the attack I’d suffered the night before. It wasn’t the first time I’d met him – we’d interviewed him time and again, looking for connections to the murders and mysterious injuries. The team wanted me to go in heavy, but I decided against it. Aji’s people specialized in the unclear and the hidden. Nothing was going to be unclear in this case. I was walking into their world, not in a park full of partisans but a hotel with booked rooms and known IDs. FBI agents would be posted in the lobby and outside. It would be clear who was responsible if anything happened to me so I could assume nothing would happen to me. Johnson would stay with me the entire time.
As I enter the lobby, every eye seems to pass over me suspiciously. I’m not wearing an FBI vest, but Johnson is clearly armed and serving some protective role. The place is full. There’s a noxious smell wafting in from what is normally a breakfast room. I assume it is wet fufu, a nasty smelling food from Central Africa. I can feel the thrum of the nearby freeway radiating through the concrete of the building.
I see a tall black man in his early 20s standing near the elevator. He gestures for me to follow him. Wordlessly, the three of us enter the elevator. He punches the button for the top floor. Shortly after, we enter a poorly lit hall and are guided to Room 506.
The door is opened by another tall African man, Der’nube himself.
“Hello again, Neisha,” he says with a grimace. His accent is thick.
I just nod. He notices my hands. I see his face shift slightly from anger, to genuine concern. It is like a shadow of Aji’s face; care in the service of menace.
“I’m sorry about your hands,” he says softly, “I guess that’s why you’re here.”
“Yes, I need to ask you some questions.”
He stands inside and gestures me into the room. We’re the only people there. I notice, alongside the small TV, old chair and beat up mattress that there is a small trunk covered in an unusually patterned cloth. I’ve seen it before, on previous visits. I wonder if something inside the trunk is core to their communications. Nothing else in the room holds the least bit of mystery.
By the time I sit on the edge of the bed, he’s gotten over his concern. “So, you have more questions? You intimidate, harass and badger a man of G-d and those who stand with him. It continues day and night. You watch our events, follow our people and bug our phones. All because of some looney conspiracy. Now you’ve arrested Aji himself. And now you just have some questions? I’ll talk to you, but I’m not happy to do it.”
“That’s okay,” I say, “Officially I’m here to ask you about your connections to Sarah Brown. But you’ll deny everything. I really came here to gloat.”
Der’nube doesn’t say anything.
“I’ve got Aji in a cell. We’re arraigning him at midnight tonight. We’ve got his case locked up tight. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to get rid of you guys when I got a phone call this morning.”
“Who from?” he asks.
“A friend at Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It turns out they believe you’ve lied on your immigration application?”
“Lied? They have a box asking if you’ve been part of a terrorist organization. I checked ‘yes’. They asked if I’ve been arrested? Yes again. Trafficked in any controlled substance, been a member of a totalitarian party, engaged in genocide, tortured, injured, raped. ‘yes’, ‘yes’, ‘yes’, ‘yes’ and ‘yes.’ We were all kids in a vicious militia. We did terrible things. I admitted it all. What could I possibly have wanted to lie about?”
“What?” he asks.
“You could have lied about which militia. And you could have lied about whether you left.”
The accusation hangs in the air. His face turns ashen. He knows what I’m implying.
“They might not just deport you,” I say, “They might send you to Guantanamo, or worse. I’m done with this case. They’ll handle you from here on out.”
I get up from the bed and walk to the door.
“It’s been a pleasure knowing you, Der’nube. I’ll show myself out.”
With Johnson following me, I make my way down the hall, to the elevator and out of the lobby. A large black SUV picks me up outside the front door. I sit in the back and pop on a headset to listen to the live feed produced by the many eyes watching the motel.
I expect to wait before Der’nube makes his move. He doesn’t. We haven’t even reached the corner when a voice comes online. “He’s picked up his phone.”
I listen to the live description of the man’s actions.
“He’s looking up a number on his phone. It is the number for an Adam Killingsworth.”
Another voice comes on, “I’m cross-referencing now. Mr. Killingsworth is an officer at Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”
There’s a ringing noise. “Playing the call now,” says the first voice.
“Adam here,” comes a business-like voice.
“Adam, this is Der’nube.”
“Oh, hi,” says Adam, cheerfully.
“Listen, I’ve heard a rumor that you guys are going to come and deport us. Is it true?”
I hear a clicking of keys. Adam seems to be checking something. After a minute, he says, “Der’nube, I haven’t heard anything. Of course, you understand that even if I had, I couldn’t tell you. Right?”
“Right,” says Der’nube. A pause. “Thanks for the help.”
“No help, no problem,” says Adam.
A moment later, they hang up.
Over the next three hours, Der’nube circulates through the rooms of his compatriots. But they make no suspicious calls. They wave no flags from the windows and they emit no unusual electronic bursts. We tail those who leave the hotel, but they engage in no suspicious meetings. There is nothing but a phone call that we traced, easily.
We’ve accomplished exactly nothing.
It is time to shoot the hostage.
Wednesday – 8:00 AM
As I step into the interrogation room, Aji looks up at me with that same enticing smile. He seems almost completely unaffected by his days in holding.
I haven’t been imprisoned. Nonetheless, I am a physical wreck.
We’d held the ‘shoot the hostage’ press conference the day before. We made a big deal out of everything. There was a purpose to it. It was simple: we’d reach out to the public and they’d tell us what we needed to know. They’d give us the evidence of coercion, racketeering and organized intimidation that must fuel Aji’s organization.
The presser had been staged in Foley Square, almost adjacent to the Federal Building. We were on the steps of the massive monument there: The Triumph of the Human Spirit. It’s a 300-ton black granite sculpture celebrating the perseverance of Africans through the trials of slavery. I remember standing in front of that monument and looking at the gathering crowd. To my left was the Federal Building and to my right the New York Supreme Court. I put them all together in my mind and realized that I was standing at the nexus of government, justice and humanity.
It was a good place to be.
Even as we waited for the 11 o’clock start of the conference, things were tense. Yes, reporters had assembled – dozens of them. They were not alone though. Thousands of Aji supporters had shown up, crowding the space between Lafayette and Center streets. There were also a few hundred anti-Aji activists. The two groups formed like-minded clumps. When they drew close, I could see the friction between them. Shouting, gesticulating. Argument. Nobody was fighting, but it seemed like it could turn violent at the drop of a hat.
I asked SAC Miller if we should take the conference inside the Federal Building. He said no. We couldn’t let the protestors, especially ones from a movement as influential as Aji’s, see themselves pushing the Federal Government around. We were going to stay, and by staying we’d be making a statement about the power and position of law and order.
We weren’t just going to stand there though. We were going to demonstrate that power. SAC Miller made a few calls and a few minutes later, ranks of riot police were already beginning to assemble the edge of the square. A line of them formed behind the reporters – keeping the press conference separate from the mob. Finally, an FBI armored truck pulled up behind us – giving us a quick getaway in case things got ugly. That was our only sign of weakness.
I’d come to the square reflecting on how different my second appearance on national media would be. The first time, Aji had been in control. The first time, he’d been toying with me. This time, we’d be the ones conducting events.
Now, though, I wasn’t so sure. Between the riot police, the truck and US Marshall Johnson, I knew I’d be safe. But I didn’t feel like I was in control.
By the time 11 o’clock came, the press was beginning to get a bit nervous. The crowd behind them was getting louder and more animated. The whole square was crackling with an ugly energy. Normally we would have waited a few minutes to build up tension for the press conference itself, but not today. So, only a few seconds after 11, SAC Miller stepped up to microphone. Despite the tension in the air, Miller’s demeaner was confident, capable and completely self-assured. The press, largely sandwiched between us and the crowd, calmed noticeably.
Then he began to speak. “Good afternoon – “
Then, as if on cue, the massive crowd launched into a loud chat “Free Aji! Free Aji! Free Aji!”
Miller seemed unaffected. He kept reading. But even I couldn’t hear him clearly. The speakers were being drowned out by the crowd. We were there to tell people what the kind of person Aji actually was – but despite the police presence, it seemed like the crowd might just stop us from doing so. A few inaudible sentences in and Miller stopped. He looked around, just a little desperate.
“FREE AJI! FREE AJI! FREE AJI!”
The crowd, sensing victory, had gotten louder.
It was Johnson who came up with the answer. He held up his phone and nodded at it. SAC Miller got the hint. He called over one of the technicians. They had a quick, barely audible conversation. A few phone calls followed. Then the technician began to reroute the cabling. Instead of going to the speaker system, it was routed into the SAC’s phone.
A few minutes later, somebody came dashing out of the FBI building with a stack of papers. They made their way to the steps and then began handing the papers out. They were directions to an online meeting.
It was a weird set up. We spoke into the microphone and our words were broadcast onto the online meeting. The reporters, standing right in front of us, could then listen in on their phones. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it wasn’t surrender.
Ten minutes after 11, we were able to start again.
The whole crowd of reporters, and the people on the stage, were holding their phones to their ears. Then the SAC began to speak again. I hadn’t called into the conference. I didn’t hear a word he said. I knew the gist though, he was just setting the stage and introducing me.
He gestured towards me, and I stepped forward, surrounded by the chants. I leaned towards the microphone and began to read my prepared statement. I spoke slowly and loudly. “Good morning, I am Special Agent Neisha Jackson. I head a task force that was assembled just over a year ago to investigate a pattern of deaths and injuries related to critics of Mr. Aji Abakar. We looked into a number of incidents but we were unable to connect them directly to Mr. Abakar.
“However, two weeks ago, we managed to connect Mr. Abakar to the death of John Buckner using witness testimony as well as fingerprint and DNA evidence. We received an arrest warrant and executed it late Sunday night.
“While Mr. Abakar will be charged in this case, we believe he and his associates have been involved in many other physical attacks against his critics. We believe he is operating a complex racketeering operation using the public conceit that those who bless him are blessed and those who curse him are cursed. In fact, we believe, he arranges favors for those who support him and directly arranges the injury or death against those who oppose him. For this reason, we are asking members of the public to come forward.
“If you have information that could uncover the means by which either benefit or harm are arranged, we need your help. It is our belief that the incarceration of Mr. Abakar’s confederates is critical for public safety.
“For this reason, the FBI is offering up to one million dollars for information that leads to the arrests and convictions of his confederates.
“If you have any information, please call us at 1-800-CALLFBI. Thank you.”
I looked up to see the reporters pulling their phones from their ears and frantically typing questions into them. I looked at the SAC’s phone. Dozens of questions are cueing up.
“Answer whatever you’d like,” said the SAC in an almost shout.
I nodded and picked one question from the list: “Can you provide more details about how you connected Mr. Abakar to the murder?”
I stepped back up to the microphone. The assembled press, still almost overwhelmed by the chants, lifted their phones back to their ears. “Somebody asked if we could provide more details on the connection between Mr. Abakar and the murder. I can. We had assembled a list of possible targets due to online content produced by those targets. Mr. Buckner was on that list. When there was a gas leak and explosion at his house it triggered automatic follow up. We investigated as part of our task force’s regular operations. We discovered the man who had caused the leak, a transient named Mr. Elvis Brown. We worked backward from Mr. Brown to Mr. Abakar.”
My answer had been rehearsed. I shared only the outlines of the story. I didn’t mention that although the killer successfully hid his face from CCTV cameras near the house, we still managed to follow him until he was no longer so careful. I didn’t mention the interrogation and his claim that Mr. Abakar had sent him. I didn’t mention Elvis’ attempt to escape murder charges by claiming Abakar had only asked him to cut the gas line, not trigger the explosion. Finally, I didn’t mention that CCTV and Metro Card records showed Mr. Abakar in Hunts Point earlier that same evening, with ample opportunity to meet with Elvis Brown in a blind spot outside a bar called the Railroad Lounge.
All of those details will come out in court.
I looked back at the phone.
This time the SAC was looking over my shoulder. He stepped up to the microphone. “Somebody asked why we didn’t protect the possible targets – instead of waiting for them to be attacked. The answer is that there were simply too many to protect. We had over a thousand names and we had no way of knowing which were under imminent threat or how they might be struck. However, FBI teams did visit each of the targets we identified to inform them of the possible danger and review their personal security. John Buckner was visited just two days before his death.”
Back to the phone and then another answer, “The FBI uses a sophisticated statistical analysis tool to determine the likelihood of coincidence in a pattern of attacks. Despite there being thousands of possible targets, the likelihood of these attacks being coincidence has been determined to be very low.”
I saw a question I hadn’t expected: “Was Special Agent Jackson picked as head of the task force because the FBI didn’t want a white man or woman arresting a prominent young black leader?”
The question stuck with me. Was that why I was selected? Was it all about optics? I thought about answering, but the SAC scrolls right past it. Another question, a predictable one: “Is Special Agent Jackson afraid of the curse?”
I stepped up to the microphone for this one. The phones go back to the ears. “One of you has asked if I’m afraid of the curse. There is no curse. What there is an organization dedicated to harming critics of Mr. Aji.”
I held up my hands.
“There has already been one attempt on my life since the arrest was made. It is possible there will be more. I am under protection from the US Marshall’s service. Nonetheless, when dealing with a sophisticated and violent criminal enterprise, risk is unavoidable. Our desire to rapidly bring this group to justice is partially driven by the danger they pose so long as they remain free.”
Another volley of questions followed but SAC Miller held up his hands and declared that that would be it for now. That didn’t slow the crowd though. Sensing our departure, the chanting got even louder. Then the crowd began to advance towards the stage. They weren’t throwing rocks or Molotov cocktails. They were simply moving forward, pushing against the line of riot shields.
The riot police tried to hold their line, but the mass of people was too great. They were being pushed slowly backwards. The reporters scrambled towards us in a near panic. It was then that we retreated. SAC Miller, Marshall Johnson, myself and the technicians all made a dash for the armored truck.
We scrambled in the back as the noise outside grew ever louder. Johnson closed the doors – dampening the chanting just a touch – and the truck began to roll forward. It didn’t have far to go. We’d just turn right on Reed Street, drive two blocks to Church, make two quick rights and pull into the underground parking lot at the Federal Building. It would take five minutes, tops.
We sat in the bench seats, safe and secure. I was on the right of the truck. The others were seated opposite me. There was plenty of space.
We made the turn on Reade. Quickly, the sound of the crowd was erased by the buildings between us. We stopped at Broadway. I assume the light was red. Nobody was following us.
Then the truck moved forward.
A moment later everything turned sideways.
I was thrown into the air. I knew, instantly, that we’d been attacked. But I knew more than that.
As I flew between one side of the truck and the other, I was struck by a simple insight. We knew Aji’s African minders didn’t order the attack – we were watching them too carefully. We were watching Aji too. Even with an informant in the FBI it was unlikely he’d ordered the attack.
That left one option.
As I drew close to the opposite wall of the truck, I tried to catch myself with my right arm. I saw it snap in front of me.
In that moment, though, I knew there was a hidden agent; somebody we didn’t know about was calling the shots.
That was the last thought I had before the rest of my body slammed into the side of the truck.
I passed out, for the second time in three days.
We found out later what had happened. We’d been hit by a delivery truck. The truck’s own data systems told us the driver’s foot had jammed onto his accelerator. Video footage had confirmed that he’d run into us at close to 50 miles an hour. He’d had a history of epilepsy, but medication had successfully controlled it for years. Online, he’d been a prominent critic of Aji’s. We never got the chance to question him though. He’d been killed instantly at the scene.
I’d been in the hospital for the rest of the day. Marshall Johnson had been hovering over me. My team kept me informed though. We never got any credible calls from the public. We learned nothing from the press conference itself. That didn’t bother me. I’d learned a lot from that attack itself.
I knew now that I wasn’t dealing with Aji and I wasn’t dealing with Aji’s crew. Somebody else was calling the shots.
There was a hidden agent, and my task was simply to find them.
Wednesday – 9:05 AM
The hidden agent is the reason why I’m sitting on a flimsy plastic folding chair in Aji’s holding cell. Aji himself is sitting on his small FBI-issued cot. His knees are just a few feet from mine. Despite myself I feel an energy bridging the gap between us. I want to be further from him, but it’s hard to get further away in a cell that is only 8 feet by 8 feet.
I pull my eyes away from Aji and watch as Marshall Johnson steps up onto a small stool. In his hand is a wide roll of black electrical tape. Carefully, he begins to apply it to both the lens and the tiny patch of microphone that make up the surveillance system.
I’d wanted to apply the tape myself. But between my hands and my broken arm, it wasn’t an option. Also, while I may not want to admit it on the eve of the most important interrogation I’m ever likely to perform, it is, well, pleasant, to watch Marshall Johnson work.
I glance around the room, as the Marshall works, taking in the thick coat of sterile white paint that seems to cover every surface. The smell of that paint, applied months or years before, seems to hang oppressively in the still air. As if the paint weren’t enough, harsh white LED lights in protective metal frames shine down from the ceiling. They are accompanied by a patch of intense sunlight poking through a tiny semi-opaque east-facing window. The sunlight is the only evidence of a world outside. Even sound is kept at bay by the thickness of the walls and thickness of the paint.
This is a space completely separate from the world. It is meant to frighten those who occupy it.
Thirty seconds after stepping up onto the stool, Johnson steps down. His handywork, a patchwork of black tape, is like a scar on the surface of the pure white walls.
I turn back to Aji, watching his face, hoping for some sort of relief. I don’t see anything. Instead, just as before, he is smiling. His eyes almost seem to be drinking me in. Their calm and their intensity disturb me.
“Thank you, Marshall Johnson,” I say, “You can wait outside.”
Johnson looks at me, uncertain. Then he steps from the small cell and closes the heavy door behind him.
Aji just watches.
“It’s just us, now,” I say, stating the obvious.
“Yes,” says Aji. I’m hoping for more. But there is nothing more.
“Aji,” I say, “We’re alone because I realized there’s a hidden actor at work in this case. Somebody other than yourself or your lieutenants tried to kill me yesterday.”
Aji seems genuinely surprised upset. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he says. I might just be on the right track.
“You’re a tough young man. You were homeless and on the run for six years. But somebody else is a whole lot scarier. They convinced a delivery truck driver to risk his own life to attack me. I don’t know how they did it. I covered the cameras, so you’d feel safe. We’re alone and we can work together to go after those who are really responsible for John Buckner’s death.”
Aji says, “Covering the cameras won’t change anything. I hope the truck driver is okay, though.”
I don’t answer his question. Instead, I glance around the room, theatrically, “Don’t you want to breathe free air again?”
There is no answer.
Unbidden, an idea pops into my head. “If you want. I can remove my shirt and slacks and you can verify that I have no kind of wire or recording device.”
I don’t quite know what I want him to say. His breath catches almost involuntarily. Then, his eyes locked on mine, he says, “That isn’t necessary.”
“What will it take for you turn on whoever is actually running things?”
Aji doesn’t answer, he just continues to smile.
“I have the power of the United States Federal Government behind me. I can bring whoever it is to bear. Just help me out.”
I try to square the Aji I see with one cowed by some other party. Aji acts like a leader. He sees himself as a leader. He doesn’t seem frightened or cowed. Is it all just an act? Or is he doing his best to lead despite the situation he finds himself in?
“I can protect you.” I say.
He says nothing. I want him to speak. I want him to reach out to me. I want my theory to be right and I want to protect him. But he says nothing.
I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know what other plan to implement. I thought this would work. I thought I could separate Aji from his confederate.
But the man isn’t budging.
As we sit there, I find my perspective changing. There may well be a hidden agent, but Aji will not turn against him. Aji may not be alone, but he is still a part of the problem. He won’t help me. Fear is not the reason why.
I sit there, wondering what I can do to break him open – to unlock the truth. As the minutes pass, the silence becomes its own reality. It seems like a challenge. I have to overcome this man. I can’t let him control me. I have to win, no matter else happens.
That’s when I realize that I will sit there until the man in front of me finally begins to speak. I will have that little victory.
As more and more time passes, my mind begins to fill the unnatural emptiness that defines the space. I actually begin to hear the ticking of a clock that isn’t there, marking the passage of time that I cannot measure.
Aji says nothing. Our knees almost touching, he just sits on his cot. Watching me. Somehow, he seems fundamentally content.
I know, though, that he’s going to speak.
Eventually he will speak.
I imagine the minutes have turned into hours. But I can’t tell. All I know is that I’m feeling the first pangs of hunger. Our silence might be broken by circumstance. I can’t starve the prisoner; it could invalidate our whole prosecution.
When he asks for food, I have to provide it.
I don’t want to provide food, though. His confederates have hurt me. They’ve burned me and battered me, and I want some bit of retaliation.
I want Aji to starve.
Aji seems to sense it, but he doesn’t shift uncomfortably. He doesn’t squirm. Instead, the warmth in his eyes, the projected care and concern (and even admiration), seem to dial up – like he has the levels programmed into his interpersonal interface.
He is displaying warmth, but I know he wants me to be afraid; like I was when I first interrogated him. This time I won’t bend. I won’t flee. So, we sit. In total silence. Alone. Locked in combat.
If nothing else, when he finally asks for food or water, I will have won something.
My hunger grows, but he does not speak.
Aji is no monk, sworn to silence. Eventually, he will speak. I know it.
As the day passes, the sun’s light weakens in the east-facing window. It is slowly being supplanted by the unnatural glare of the LEDs.
Still, Aji does not move or speak.
Hours must have passed. As the light in the window begins to reveal the first touches of night, I realize I must be running out of time. Whether or not he asks, I have to feed him.
I feel my anger rising, surging, charging up through me. I will defeat this man. I will destroy this man. I feel my conviction rising to a crescendo. The ticking of the imaginary clock disappears. The white walls disappear. My sense of time vanishes.
There is just me and him. And I will destroy him.
I find that I want to stand. I want to shout. I want to rise up and strike him, hard. I want to wipe the façade of warmth from his hateful face.
The urge is growing, even though I know giving in would hand Aji yet another victory. The cameras are off. Nobody would know if I hit Aji. I could say he fell. I meant to break him down, but he is breaking me down.
I resist the temptation.
And then I falter.
My muscles tense, readying me for a leap forward. A leap and then a strike with my good arm.
Just before I rise, Aji speaks, “I will never forgive that man. His words of comfort misled me. His words, delivered in hope of gathering followers from among the weak and fearful, killed my brother. I will never forgive him. But vengeance is not my path. Instead, I will show that there is a better road. Rather than building my life on the quicksand of superstition, I will establish it on the firm rock of reason. I will rise above that man. My vengeance will be his shame.”
I stare at Aji, shocked at his words. Silenced.
“How did you get that?” I ask.
He ignores me. He says, “I think you got it wrong.”
“HOW DID YOU GET THAT?” I demand.
“I have a source.” Of course, he has a source.
“That essay is none of your business.”
“Neisha, you’ve opened every record of mine that has interested you. So why can’t I do the same?”
I feel like telling him that I’m The Law and that gives me the right. But an argument about The Law won’t get me victory or information. But just quoting the essay has given me something. Whoever his informants are, they would have left a trail when they found that essay.
Aji says, again, “I think you got it wrong.”
“It was my college essay,” I say, “about my life. You can’t say that I got it wrong.”
“Is that an argument based on reason or superstition?”
“How the hell did you get it?”
“It was in your file, Neisha. Your FBI background file. I simply read the records that others collected. That’s not what’s important. What’s important is that you got it wrong.”
“This is ridiculous,” I say, “How can you possibly know me better than I know myself.”
“You live in Harlem,” he says.
“What? Why does that matter?”
“Why do you live in Harlem?”
I don’t really know the reason. “I just do.”
“You ran from South Chicago. As far from South Chicago as you could imagine. You were running from the day LaMarcus died. You went from being a middling student to valedictorian of your high school. You went from watching others run to becoming one of the top high-school sprinters in the state of Illinois. You did everything you could to get out of South Chicago.”
“I just wanted to succeed.”
“No, you didn’t just want to succeed. You had a compelling life story as well as fantastic grades and superb athleticism. You could have gone to any college in the country. You could have gone to the Ivy League. But you didn’t want to go to Yale or Penn or Columbia and live in the midst of broken urban neighborhoods. You even avoided Cornell, perhaps fed up with freezing winters. You chose the University of Northern California, Eureka. You chose Eureka, one of the whitest schools in the United States. You chose European Art History. You chose a bland northern Californian accent. You were running from everything South Chicago represents. So why are you living in Harlem?”
“I don’t know why.”
“So, maybe I do know you better than you know yourself.”
“Okay, Mr. Holy Man, why do you think I live in Harlem?”
“I think you live in Harlem because you know, in those hidden parts of your soul, that the pastor was right.”
“Right? He promised me blessing and my brother died.”
“But he was right.”
“Right about what exactly?”
“Neisha, you live in Harlem because you know that all the European Art History in the world couldn’t cover up the truth he shared.”
“The truth of his mission. His mission was to raise up his community. You know,beyond any reason, how important that mission is. His means was to hold onto whatever human pillars he could, your mother included. And you know, beyond any reason, that communities are built on human pillars. That’s why you live in Harlem. To lift up that community.”
Am I really following in the path the pastor set for me?
“You live in Harlem because you’re done trying to run from who you really are. The pastor was never really the target of your hatred. You stopped running when you became a cop. And you became a cop because you hate the kind of men who killed your brother. Evil men. They are your true target.”
“There, Aji, your information is lacking. I’m only a cop because nobody would take a black woman from South Chicago seriously as a curator of European Art.”
“Really? From Art History to police work?”
“That was pure coincidence. I was looking for a job. I read an article about Art History and policing. It talked about police going to galleries to learn how to observe and interpret little cues to understand a bigger picture. Things like expressions, brush strokes, lighting or the positioning of limbs. I thought, maybe I could go the other way and be an art historian who became a cop.”
He just looks at me, like he’s expecting me to take the next step. I say, “Are you about to suggest G-d put the article there to guide me on this path?”
“No,” he says, “I’m suggesting that you reacted to the article the way you did – by applying for jobs in law enforcement – because, deep down, you already knew you wanted justice. You made coincidence into reality. If it hadn’t been that article, it would have been something else.”
Is he right? Is that why I became a cop?
“You’re becoming the pillar that pastor saw.”
“I hate that pastor. You know why I hate him.” Even as I say it, though, I begin to doubt it.
“You don’t hate the pastor. You’re following the path he showed you. His path is righteous. Your hatred is for those who are truly evil. The kinds of men who killed your brother.”
“I hate the pastor,” I say, weakly.
“No,” says Aji, “You hate G-d.”
I don’t know if I even believe there is a G-d. But if there is some force behind what has happened, then I do hate it. G-d, if there is a G-d, should have protected me. He should have protected LaMarcus. We were His servants, and we were betrayed.
There are tears coming to my eyes.
“It’s okay,” says Aji, quietly, “I hate G-d too.”
I look at him, and I feel a sudden wave of kinship. I hate the man, and yet there is kinship.
“Why?” I whisper, “Why do you hate G-d?”
“Neisha, I have seen evil you can hardly imagine. I have seen it flourish. And I have seen G-d stand by and do nothing. What else can I do but hate.”
I have no answer. Silence returns to the room. But it is not heavy. In this silence, nothing is muted. The room feels like an exposed nerve, pain hovering right below the surface.
Then Aji speaks again, “I think the greatest people start with hate. Then, somehow, they find trust and love. But I don’t know how they do it. I don’t know how you can see past the pain.”
“All I see is pain,” I say, “LaMarcus is dead. He died walking home with me. He died because I wasn’t careful. If there is a G-d, why would G-d do that? Why would He lead me down that path? Why would He kill that beautiful little boy?”
I don’t mean for Aji to answer. I just want to ask. Time and again, in my dreams, LaMarcus has asked me, but I’ve never asked anybody else.
Aji smiles again. That warm smile. But this time it is bittersweet. “Neisha, I can’t understand. I don’t think we’re meant to. The best I can offer is this: We use the physical, the rational, the reasonable, to build and define our world. We work with the concrete. But G-d exists in another reality. The reality of the spiritual. Where we fashion our physical reality, G-d fashions souls. For Him, bones and blood and pain and joy are simply tools. They are like chisels striking marble to uncover the beauty within.”
I let the Aji’s words hang there. G-d is fashioning souls, like the soul of LaMarcus. Finally, after a long difficult pause, I say, “LaMarcus was beautiful.”
“I know,” says Aji. Then he whispers, barely audibly, “So are you.”
For a second, I think he’s talking about me as a woman. The idea excites me. Then, a moment later, I understand what he’s actually saying. The idea hits me like a slap. He’s saying that LaMarcus died to raise me up. I want to argue. I open my mouth, but no words come out. If LaMarcus had lived would I have been valedictorian? Would I have been an FBI agent? Or would I have been managing a CVS like my mother.
“It wasn’t worth his life,” I say.
Aji nods. “And that is why you should be angry.”
Did LaMarcus die for me? I picture his young face, looking up at me. I see him trusting me, his superhero of an older sister. And then I break apart. Sobs overwhelm me. Huge wracking cries. Aji reaches out. He lays his hand lightly on my shoulder, offering me some tiny bit of comfort.
The pastor used to do the same.
I’m thrust back to my childhood Bible lessons in the pastor’s little church. We lived in a dangerous world, and so our pastor brought us a Bible that matched it. Even as children, the pastor told us that Abraham had lost his brother. Abraham knew pain. That was why he could not accept the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah without resistance. And Moses? Moses kept pleading with G-d and Pharaoh to stop the destruction of Egypt. He resisted G-d’s plan. He could not accept it. But Abraham and Moses were chosen by G-d as leaders. The pastor told us to question. He told us to think and to challenge. He didn’t tell us simply to accept.
He told us that G-d wants leaders who push back.
“I believe you’ve been chosen,” says Aji.
“I don’t want to be chosen.” I whisper back.
Aji lets out a small chuckle, “Well, it seems like everybody is choosing you.”
I wipe away the tears with my sleeves. His statement has broken the moment.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Your boss chose you. You’re very young to head a task force.”
“I know,” I say, “He chose me because he believed I could understand you and get inside your head. Because of my religious background.”
“That is only part of the story,” says Aji, with the confidence of a man who knows. “Your boss read the same essay I read. Only he believed it. He thought you would hate me like you hated the pastor. He thought that hatred would fuel this investigation.”
“He wasn’t wrong.”
“No, he wasn’t.”
The silence returns, for just a moment.
“How about you?” I ask, “Did you choose me?”
I want the answer to be yes.
Aji seems to hesitate before he answers. And then he says, “I created a test. I’m just happy that you were the one who passed it.”
I look at him, wanting to know more.
“On Saturday, if somebody had asked, you would have said that you might have been willing to put your life on the line to do what is right. But today, that is your truth. It is the truth because, on Sunday, you stayed at the Bandshell even though your team had disappeared. You were in fear for your life, but you stayed. You are willing to risk your life for justice. It is now a fact.”
“Yes,” I say, “I need justice.”
With that, the case rushes back into my mind. The fingerprints, the gas leak, the charred body. The 31 dead. The hundreds wounded. Then, afterwards, the fire in my apartment.
The man I’m facing is behind it all. He shares the pastor’s magic, that gift for religious gab. That talent for creating some kind of personal thrill. But that is all and I have to remember it.
The pastor didn’t mean to kill, but Aji did. At the least, Aji is protecting another who is behind the violence.
“Why would you, a killer,choose an angel of justice?” I demand, suddenly angrier than I know I should be.
Aji seems taken aback. Then, his breath almost ragged, he says, “Because your justice, one way or another, will set me free.”
“I need to know about the hidden agent,” I say, as if declaring my intent will make him tell me what I want to know.
He clears his throat, seeming to summon the distance I’m trying to establish. Then he says, “I am not the one to tell you, but my people will. Just tell them that you are ready to hear about Tangara.”
I just stare at him, uncertain what has changed. Or what ‘Tangara’ means.
“Why are you giving me information now?” I ask.
“Because,” he says, “You are ready to hear the answers to your questions.”
I don’t understand. Nonetheless, I stand up, my body aching from the hours in the chair. Aji doesn’t move.
Seconds later I pull open the door and step outside the cell.
My whole team is assembled outside. They’ve been waiting for me. They see the triumph on my face and they ask, as the door closes behind me, “What did you learn?”
But I don’t tell them. I still can’t trust them.
Instead I say, simply, “I have to go back to Brooklyn.”
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