Tangara

Wednesday – 6:00 PM

As Marshall Johnson pulls the SUV to the curb outside Aji’s hotel, he looks at me one more time and asks, “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” I say, smiling a bit too weakly.

I told him, as soon as we got in the car, that I was going to meet Aji’s people – alone. Johnson argued that it was a dangerous and stupid move. But I knew it was the only move I had. Aji’s people weren’t going to tell Johnson about Tangara.

As I open the SUV’s door, Johnson has one more question. A little grin on his face, he asks, “What should I do while I’m waiting?”

He asks it almost as if we’d gone to the mall and I’d abandoned him on a convenient bench.

“There’s a great Jamaican folk art museum on 8th,” I say.

“Really?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I say, “Do you like Jamaican folk art?”

“Do you?”

“I wouldn’t know where the museum was if I didn’t.”

“Then,” Johnson says with a grin, “I guess I’ll like it too.”

I close the door to the SUV, and he pulls away.

‘At least that is going well,’ I think with a satisfied smile.

The hotel is another matter. Last time around, the parking lot was empty. This time, a crowd has gathered. They are staring at me. They recognize me and they aren’t happy to see me.

I take a step towards the hotel and the familiar chant begins “Free Aji, Free Aji, Free Aji.” It isn’t a shout, just a quiet, threatening, drumbeat. Every decibel of it is intended just for me.

I keep walking towards the hotel, arm in a sling, bruised and bandaged. As if to accent the point being made, a huge African man emerges from the automatic lobby doors and stands in front of them. He just stares at me. The message is clear. Everybody knows who I am, and I am not welcome.

That doesn’t stop me. I am the one willing to risk my life for justice.

The crowd lets me through. Nobody touches me or threatens me. But their eyes are full of anger and resentment and hate. I am responsible. I have locked up the great Aji.

It seems like minutes pass before I reach the door. The man standing in front of it has not moved. I look up at him and he looks down at me. He doesn’t ask what I want. He just stands there.

“I want to speak to Der’nube,” I say.

He doesn’t move.

I pull out my badge, although he knows who I am. And I say, again, “I want to speak to Der’nube.”

He doesn’t move.

I think for a moment and then I stand up on my toes, drawing as close to him as a I can, and I whisper, “It is about Tangara.”

The man’s face wrinkles in confusion and then surprise. Then, he steps to the side and grasps me gently by my left elbow. Together, we step towards – and then through – the automatic doors.

There are other young African men there, gathered in the lobby. They exchange quick words in a language I don’t understand and then the man holding my elbow guides me towards the elevators. All the others seem to join us, the twin elevators carrying us up to the top floor. Two minutes later, I find myself back in Der’nube’s room.

This time, though, we aren’t alone.

The men crowd into the small space. Instead of sitting on the bed, I’m positioned on the beat-up chair. All around me are the young men. Some sit on the bed, some lean against the wall. Der’nube leans over the small trunk at the end of the bed. Carefully, almost gingerly, he lifts off the African-patterned cloth that lays on top of it. He folds it, sits on the trunk and then lays the cloth across his lap.

I want to ask about the cloth, but I hold my tongue.

Whatever “Tangara” unlocked, there seems to be some sort of ritual behind it.

Finally, Der’nube speaks, “The man is a mystery to me. I have no idea why he thinks you’re ready.”

I don’t say anything.

He pats the cloth on his lap. Then with a resigned shrug he says, “This was my mother’s. She gave it to me right before I killed her.”

I just stare at him. I can’t believe I just heard what he said. The others are nodding though, their expressions dead serious.

“Aji,” says Der’nube, “Rescued us.”

“You killed your mother?!?” I ask, forgetting about Aji for the moment.

“Do you know how children were recruited into the Chosen People’s Liberation Force?” he asks.

“No.” I’d read some things about the group – they’d been in summaries of their asylum applications my team had assembled. They’d never really had any context around them though.

Der’nube continues, “The Chosen, that’s what they were really known as, would show up in a village. Hundreds of boys with guns. The foot soldiers were maybe 8 or 10 years old. The commanders, 14 or 15. Anybody who resisted or ran or tried to go for weapons was instantly shot dead. Sometimes, just to increase the terror, we’d kill a few people randomly. We weren’t there for just anybody or anything, though. We came for two reasons. The first was food. We would steal whatever food the villagers had. Whatever we couldn’t take, we’d burn. One way or another, we’d condemn those villagers to starvation. More important than food, though, were the recruits. Young boys, a couple of years from puberty. Can you imagine how we made them fight for us?”

“No,” I say.

Der’nube is gently working the cloth on his lap. His fingers move with a nervous energy.

“It was simple. Ingenious really. We’d assemble all the villagers together. Naturally, they’d form into family groups. We’d pick the first young boy – somebody who was far from the best of the specimens. We’d pull him aside and we’d put a gun against his head. Then we’d put another gun into his hand. And we’d tell him to shoot his parents. Almost every time, that boy would delay. He’d try to have excuses, to pretend he didn’t know what he was doing with the gun. Something, anything, to avoid our command. So, in front of all the other boys and the other families we’d shoot the boy – in the head so it was as graphic as possible. Then we’d kill the entire family, in the same way. Then we’d move on to the next boy and the next family. Some would suicide, but we’d kill their families nonetheless. Soon enough, there would be tearful goodbyes and parents urging their children to do exactly what we asked. Some parents would steady their children’s hands, holding the gun for them – just so that somebody would live. And they would. Sons would shoot their parents and they’d be inducted into the Chosen. As a reward, we’d let their siblings live.”

“Is that what happened to you?”

“Yes. We saw them coming. We knew what they did. We knew that if we played games or tried to hide which children belonged to which families, they’d always work it out. My mother gave me this bolt of cloth, her own special weave. And she told me to listen and do what the Chosen asked. And when my turn came, I shot her and my father. My older sister was raped. My younger siblings were spared, although I doubt they survived. I became one of the Chosen.”

I can barely believe what I’m hearing.

“All of you?” I ask.

All around the room, heads nod. I’d never really thought of these young men as victims, asylum applications or not.

“You did this to other children?”

Again, the heads nod. “I was one of the commanders,” says Der’nube, “I did it hundreds of times.”

Monsters again?

“Why?”

“That’s where the genius comes in. Nothing is worse than a boy who turns on his family and his village. We were instant outcasts. We were hated and we could never return to the lives we’d had. On some level, I guess, the very act of recruiting others justified the decision we had made. Every time a new boy joined us, every time a new boy made the same decision we had, we felt less guilty about what we had done.”

“That isn’t enough to drive you to kill, is it?”

“No, it isn’t enough. It was only a part of the puzzle. There was a web that trapped us into that life. There was the simple fact of survival. If we didn’t do what those above us commanded, wewould be killed. All of the horror we’d been through would be for nothing. Our parents’ lives would have been sacrificed for nothing. It wasn’t just about survival, though. Those who refused orders, or failed to win battles, weren’t simply shot, they were tortured for hours or days before they died. There was also physical dependence. We had access to easy drugs. Methamphetamines for battle and recruitment. Heroin for down times. They’d dull our awareness, and our pain. They’d make us dependent. They’d lock us in. The commanders themselves were addicts. But even that wasn’t enough. The final tool was religion. It was the most important one of all. Our leader was the Prophet Mombuto Yogula. He’d come to the African highlands to build the Chosen. He explained to us that we were Chosen by G-d. He explained that the villages we struck had been condemned by G-d. He’d quote from the Old Testament. He’d quote commandments to kill every male, to kill infants, to kill livestock. Most of all, he quoted from the story of Abraham, telling us how Abraham was commanded to leave his people and his family and all he loved behind in order to make a new nation. He said we were walking in the footsteps of Abraham – when we killed our parents, we were forging a new people, blessed by G-d. The Prophet would pick the passages he shared based on what he wanted us to do. Our victories, in our young minds, were enough to validate him. Nobody could challenge us. G-d Himself had blessed us. It all came together. Fear, dependency, desperation for life. And purpose, purpose that could justify the rest. That’s what the Prophet had woven together.”

 The faces are all looking at me. There is no regret or anger. There just seems to be resignation to their collective past.

I suddenly draw a connection that sickens me. “And Aji? Do you just follow him because once you came here you had to find another murderous prophet?”

Der’nube inhales deeply.

“Agent Jackson, you could have found stories like ours just by researching the Chosen online. You could have decided that’s why we’re here. For all we knew, you already had. Tangara doesn’t unlock that. Tangara tells you something you had no way of knowing.”

“What?” I ask.

“Who Aji is.”

“I know who he is. He’s a runaway from California who somehow picked you people up in South Carolina before suddenly rising to national prominence on the back of his intimidation and racketeering gig.”

Der’nube stands up then. “Aji was wrong, you’re not ready.”

Almost as one, the men start to file out of the room.

I try to think of something to say, to bring them back. Even if they’re going to simply cover for Aji again, I want to hear how they do it. I can’t come up with anything. So, I just beg. “Okay, okay – tell me what you think I’ve got wrong. Please.”

Der’nube has already turned to leave. He looks back at me, a skeptical eye. Those with him pause.

“Aji said he chose me because I’m willing to die for justice. Give me a chance.”

“You might be ready to die, but you aren’t ready to listen.”

What do they want from me? I don’t know what to say. Then Der’nube asks a question: “Agent Jackson, why are you here?”

Answers run through my mind. To pursue justice? Because Aji told me to come? That’s why I’m here – in this room. I know that answer. He does too. He has to be asking some bigger question. Like, why I am here – an FBI agent, on this case. Aji had his theories: the pursuit of justice for LaMarcus, SAC Miller thinking I’d be a righteous inquisitor of a supposed man of G-d. But the question could be even bigger, right? Why has everything come together to put me here?

Finally, I answer. “I… I don’t know.”

“Listening starts with being able to ask the right questions.” says Der’nube.

“But I can never answer that question.”

He continues, as if he hadn’t heard me, “Listening continues with being willing to hear that you do not yet understand.”

I nod, confused.

“I’ll listen. I promise. I’ll listen.”

Der’nube considers. And then he takes his seat again. The others come back in.

“Agent Jackson,” says Der’nube, once everybody is back in the room. “Aji was the one who saved us.”

“How? He’s from LA not Garubia?”

“Will you listen?”

I nod, obediently.

He continues, “As far as I know, Aji has broken US law only once. He’s an illegal immigrant.”

“No, his parents came here. He was born here. It all checks–”

“Listen!”

I stop talking.

Michael Abakar is from Los Angeles. He ran away from the foster system. Aji is from Garubia. He came ashore on South Carolina’s Outer Banks. On a lifeboat from a cargo vessel whose captain had given him passage. Aji met Michael and then found him a family that was missing a son. And, in return, Michael gave Aji his identity.”

Is this possible? Have I been pursuing a phantom all this time? I decide not to argue, and just to ask.

“Did you know him before?”

“A good question. The answer is, yes.”

“How long before?” I ask.

I think I already know the answer. Der’nube just confirms it, “I’ve known him since he was recruited by the Chosen.”

Suddenly the image of Aji shooting his own mother comes into my head. I hear words from the interrogation.

I have seen evil you can hardly imagine. I have seen it flourish. And I have seen G-d stand by and do nothing.

“Were you actually there?”

This time isn’t Der’nube who answers. It is another of the men. He is younger, maybe 20. He is rail thin with a gaunt face and sunken eyes.

“I was.” This man’s voice is deeper and softer than Der’nube’s.

“What happened?” I ask.

I don’t really want to know, but I know I need to.

“I was the one who held the gun against his head. He did what we asked. After he was recruited, he was the same as any other recruit. He cried. He called out for his mother. He tried to convince others to join him in some sort of escape. We were used to it all. We’d all done it. Everything was designed to break in new recruits, and if they couldn’t be broken, then to destroy them. But Aji found another path.”

I just wait.

“I was his squad leader,” says another of the men. This man is younger than Der’nube but older than the man who recruited Aji. He’s shorter and stouter than either one of them. “The other boys wanted the drugs. At most, it took a few days to get them hooked. But Aji resisted. He didn’t rebel, though. He didn’t refuse orders. But he didn’t try to vanish either. It was strange, at first. When the time came to kill, he asked to be the one to pull the trigger. A week after we’d recruited him, he was a recruiter. That was, well, really really fast.”

Der’nube steps in, “It might be hard for you to imagine, but there were boys who were too violent for the Chosen. They enjoyed killing so much they forgot about the Prophet. We killed at the direction of the Prophet, to accomplish what he wanted. Not for pleasure. Of course, we didn’t reject or kill those who enjoyed killing. We often promoted them. But they could spin out of control. So, we kept a close eye on them. After all, they might have been serving their own sickness, and not the Prophet’s.”

“You were worried about Aji being one of those boys?”

The squad leader says, “Yes, so I told my commander about him.”

Another man says, “And I passed it up the line.”

Der’nube says, “Eventually they told me. When we raided the next village, I watched him. I watched Aji kill. Because of what I’d been told, I expected to see pleasure. An eight-year-old with a gun destroying lives. I expected to see eagerness and joy. But I didn’t see any of that. I couldn’t understand what I saw though. I decided to let him be.”

The squad leader continues, “After Der’nube went away, I couldn’t help but watch Aji. I watched as he killed. Bit by bit, there was a change. Not in him, but in those he killed. I’ve seen so many people die. When they face death, they will protest, they’ll cry, they’ll fight. Some will simply surrender. A precious few will hold their heads in some kind of victory. Not with Aji though. Step by step, he got to a point where everybody he killed acted as if they had some kind of victory. I can’t even explain it today. It is like they died, with hope.”

“None of us could understand it,” says the man who recruited Aji, “It seemed different every time. Sometimes Aji would act with savagery that made his victims feel better than him. They died convinced of some kind of superiority. Most of the time though, it seemed like he raised himself up. People died knowing what Aji was doing had to be done.  That they were a part of something bigger. But there was more. In actual fights, we all killed. But when we raided villages, Aji alone did the killing for squad. Each of us was only given 5 bullets for a raid, the Prophet didn’t want rebellion. Aji would collect all the bullets and do all the killing. Only later did I realize he was saving us from that killing.”

Der’nube says, “After we came here, I heard a story. During World War I, a soldier was being led to his execution because he froze in battle. He had shell shock, but it was considered cowardice in those days. He was screaming and crying and fighting and protesting. A General saw him. He spoke a few words to him, and the man was led to his execution calmly and with pride. The staff officers asked the commander what he’d said to the man. And the commander said: ‘I told him that I knew his crime was not great but that his execution, by serving as an example, would strengthen all of France.’ That soldier died with purpose. It seemed like Aji could share that same thought, but without saying a word.”

“Then,” says the man who recruited Aji, “He began to focus on us. We felt chosen. We’d felt chosen, of course. But we’d felt like we’d been chosen to be erased in the service of a madman like the Prophet. Aji changed that. With him, we felt chosen to be raised up in the service of something greater. Even if that something greater was absolutely powerlessness. We still followed orders. We still killed. We had no choice. Aji knew that. He told me once though that he thought our suffering was going to make us stronger. He made us see our weakness as a path to strength.”

“He tried that trick on me,” I say.

“You can see it as a trick but I saw him stand tall and raise others up in the midst of hell. It was more than a trick. Somehow Aji can find meaning in everybody around him and he can help them find meaning in themselves. And, he can lift them up.”

“Even those who he killed?”

“Especially those he killed. I don’t know how, but especially those he killed.”

I can hardly imagine such a thing.

The squad commander continues, “We couldn’t help it. We followed our orders and our commanders, but Aji became our leader.”

“And then,” says Der’nube, “He was overheard by an ambitious young man. Aji was talking quietly with one of the boys who had fallen into his orbit. Aji was condemning the Prophet as an evil man. Word got to me and I told the Prophet. Normally the Prophet would have just killed such a boy, but he was curious, he wanted to meet him first. So, I brought Aji to the Prophet.”

Der’nube pauses, like he’s uncertain how to continue.

“And then?” I ask.

“I’m not sure you’re going to be able to believe this part. I was there and I could barely believe it.”

“I believe you said something about being willing to hear that which you can’t understand.”

Der’nube tips his head towards me.

“Okay… We were in scrubland. There were trees here and there but most of the land was dry. The villages were pretty far from one another. The Prophet was sitting on a chair. We used to carry it everywhere for him. All the top commanders were standing around him. He was sitting on his chair and he had his gun in his hand. It wasn’t gold or ivory or anything like that. It was incredibly practical. It was a Russian submachine gun that shared parts with the AK-47. The Prophet’s body was encircled with massive magazines full of bullets. It was like he wanted to be able to single-handedly put down a rebellion at a moment’s notice. We all knew how this would end. He’d meet Aji, he’d ask him a few questions and then he’d kill him. When we moved on, we’d leave his body where it had fallen.”

I interrupt, “Did Aji kill the Prophet?”

Der’nube continues as if I hadn’t said a word. “Aji’s face was hooded. Not for secrecy, everybody knew where the Prophet was. It was covered to shame him. I brought him in front of that throne, pushed him down on his knees and then pulled off the hood. Aji looked up then, straight at the Prophet. He didn’t say a word. It was the Prophet who reacted. He opened his eyes wide and they began to shine with an intense light. I remember looking behind me to see if something was being reflected, but it wasn’t. The Prophet’s eyes were shining. Then the Prophet said, ‘Those who bless you will be blessed and those who curse you will be cursed.’ A moment later, the Prophet pushed his gun up below his own mouth and, a moment after that, he pulled the trigger.”

Der’nube pauses.

“Agent Jackson, I saw prophecy. The only true prophecy I’ve ever seen.”

He’s right, I can’t quite believe what he’s telling me.

“There was chaos afterwards. The boy who had reported on Aji was killed almost immediately. But Aji’s band formed up. They rescued Aji, none of them were hurt. When they fled, I followed them. They didn’t trust me, but I knew what I’d seen. I had to bless Aji in some way, if I wanted to be blessed. The little band – these 14 people you see with me – came to a village. The villages cursed them and hit them and chased them away. They were pariahs. Aji’s little band camped outside the village. They went hungry. That night another little band from the Chosen came to the village. They spent the entire night raping, pillaging and ultimately slaughtering the villagers.”

Aji’s little band moved on. They travelled further this time, gleaning what little food they could from the countryside. When they came to the next village, Aji went on alone. He walked in, a solitary boy, and they welcomed him. Within an hour the others were welcome too. I watched from outside the village. That night, on a midnight walk, Aji saw me and he brought me in to the village. The villagers were scared of me. I wasn’t some young boy who’d been recently drafted. I was older. I was far more dangerous and far harder to redeem. But Aji convinced them to let me stay. He convinced me I was worthy of staying. We stayed for months. And those months, the villager’s plants were unmolested by insects. Their animals were unharmed by predators. There was no sickness and the rains fell at the right times and in the right amounts. It was paradise. They knew we were the source of blessing and we knew that Aji was. They offered to bring us into their families. They wanted us to stay. But Aji refused. He had blessings to share with the world. He decided, in that village, to come to the United States. Whether people love it or hate it, nobody can escape the cultural footprint of the United States. Here, many more people could bless him and many more could be blessed. 

“We left the village. We all applied for asylum at the US Embassy in Duomba. Miraculously, our applications were accepted – even mine. But Aji could not apply. Even in his brief time in Duomba people realized what he was. He faced no threats there. Businessmen, politicians, priests and everybody else who heard of him paid him homage. Even a cursory exam by the Embassy would have revealed that he was no asylum seeker. So… we came by air and he came by boat. A ship’s captain blessed him with passage to a place off South Carolina’s coast. Aji used a lifeboat to get to land.

“Aji had another reason for coming illegally, though. The name of that first village, the village destroyed by the remnants of the Chosen, was Tangara. Those who cursed Aji would be cursed. Aji didn’t want Americans to think of him as a foreigner. He didn’t want them to think of him as a killer. He needed to hide who he was. We all studied English intensely – he insisted on it. He even changed his accent, not an easy thing to do. He did it all because he needed to hide Tangara and everything that came before it. Because those who curse him are cursed and he came to bless.”

I still don’t believe in the reality Der’nube and the others seem to occupy. But they do. They care about his reputation. They clearly fear an actual curse.

“Why tell me then?”

“Because Aji told us to. He told you about Tangara.”

I wait, hoping for some answer better than that one.

The recruiter adds, “Agent Jackson, it is one thing to be chosen. You can be chosen and not even know it. Most never do. It is another thing to realize you are chosen. Aji told you that you were. You understood that. You didn’t really know what it meant though – to be chosen by Aji. We knew what it meant because we saw Aji in hell. We saw him rise above the reality of the Chosen. You just thought he was a runaway from California. To understood what it means to be truly seen by Aji, you have to know who Aji is.”

The squad leader adds, “And you’d only be able to hear who Aji is from somebody other than him. If he’d told you this, it would have been impossible to believe.”

“I’ve been chosen, then,” I say. “What for?”

There are shrugs all around.

Der’nube says, “Maybe your job is about more than you think it is?”

“What could be more important than justice for the murdered?”

“Maybe,” says Der’nube, “You know exactly what your job is, but need to understand just how important it is.”

“Der’nube,” I say, “I’ve followed every lead. I’ve chased every clue. I’ve spent a year trying to crack this case. What more could I do?”

Der’nube only pauses for a second before he says, “Listen.”

The word hits me across the face.

Listen.

Be able to ask the right questions.

Be willing to hear that you do not yet understand.

Whether it is mysticism, divine intervention or the skilled manipulations of Aji, I have been chosen. Whatever bond Aji holds over these men, whether he is a demon or an angel, it means something to be chosen by him.

I decide then that I will do something more than what I have already done.

Whatever else happens, I will listen.

I will listen, and perhaps I will learn.

Conspirators

Thursday – 8:00 AM

By the time I hear the gentle knocking on the door, I’m already awake. I’d been waiting for Marshall Johnson to wake me up. He probably has another iced coffee and another reassuring and protective smile.

A woman could get used to this.

The night before, he’d picked me up at the hotel in Brooklyn and driven me back to Manhattan. I’d been feeling amazing. The meeting with Aji’s men left me imagining that a whole new world had opened up to me. I didn’t want to talk about the case with Johnson, though. Instead, I asked him about the Jamaican Folk Art museum and, surprisingly, he really knew his stuff. He’d not only gone to the museum; he’d paid attention when he’d been there. I don’t know if he was genuinely interested in Jamaican Folk Art or genuinely interested in me (although I kind of hope it’s the latter). Whatever the reason, he’d made an effort and I’d enjoyed the conversation. He wasn’t only attractive, he was smart.

I promised him that if we had the chance, I’d tell him about other museums in New York. I admitted, being an art history major, that I was a major museum junky.

When we got back to the office, he checked my burns and my break. His hands were as gentle as ever. He asked if I needed the bruises on my torso examined. I felt like saying yes. I would have liked him to unwrap me. Nonetheless, I demurred. It wouldn’t have been entirely professional. Then, I closed myself into the secure office on the 23rd floor, lay down on my cot and went straight to sleep.

I’d woken up early, anticipating his knock. I wanted to hear it, from the very beginning. When it comes, at 8 AM sharp, I get up from the cot, slip on my shoes, and head for the door.

Just as before, US Marshall Johnson is waiting. Once again, he’s smiling. Once again, he’s got a coffee in a thick paper cup and a large paper bag in his hand. I can’t help my smile. “Iced and every kind of bagel?” I ask.

“No,” he says, “I bought the same iced coffee, but I only bought the bagels you actually ate the last time around.”

He’s attentive too.

We walk, together, to the conference room. The team is there again, gathered and ready to work.

“What’d you learn last night?” Clara asks, as soon as I step into the room.

I’d thought about the question the night before and I knew just what I wanted to share. Nothing is private, of course. I’m a criminal investigator who conducted an interrogation. Nonetheless, it seems like it’d be somehow wrong to share everything I learned.

“They opened up like never before. They told me about their experiences in Africa. They told me they’re drawn to Aji because he makes them feel like they can be redeemed. I think the most important thing I learned is that the attacks and the killings are being driven by a third-party. I think that third-party may well be a young African male.”

“Why?” asks Clara.

“We’re watching Aji’s men and Aji carefully. Neither could have planned, or possibly even ordered, the truck that hit me the day before yesterday. It was a complex operation. They had to know which route we’d take, they’d have to know we’d be driving instead of walking, they probably had to arrange the demonstration. Aji’s men didn’t pull that off. Somebody else did, somebody we aren’t watching.”

Bill Riley, the conspiracies specialist, asks, “That all makes sense, but why an African?”

“You had to be in the room to see it,” I said, “But those young men have a special connection to Aji. They see him as a kind of savior. I don’t know why exactly, but he has a really incredible ability to connect with people who’ve been through horror – maybe specifically African horror. Maybe it is something his father or mother told him. I don’t know. But he’s connected. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more of them. We know about 15 men who came over together. It is possible one or more other former child soldiers came over as well – but were never publicly associated with Aji.”

“Hidden agents?” says Bill.

“Exactly. I want us to look at other young male immigrants from Garubia and neighboring countries – legal or illegal. I want us to see if there are credit cards, travel records or other evidence that can tie any one of them – or even a group of them – to the deaths and injuries.”

Heads nod around the room.

Matthew Crass begins spouting off lists of databases he can access, and the others huddle around him beginning to define the criteria they’ll use to narrow down the list of possible suspects.

I don’t know if the theory will lead anywhere. I have no problem believing Aji could be a killer. If he truly believes that those who curse him are cursed, he may choose to ‘protect’ society from his critics by murdering them. But, based on what I heard, I don’t think he’d have others do the killing unless he had to.

If at all possible, he’d do the killing himself.

At the same time, somebody did arrange for my apartment to burn and my armored truck to be T-boned by a delivery van. Between simple coincidence, divine intervention, and a hidden agent the last option seems like the most reasonable one to pursue.

Despite that, it isn’t the angle I’m going to pursue.

I stand up from the conference table. My team’s faces turn towards me.

“What’s up?” asks Clara.

I don’t tell her that I’d told Der’nube that I’d listen. I don’t tell her that that started with being willing to ask the right questions.

Instead I just say, “I want to look into something else.”

My team’s faces are confused and concerned. But it doesn’t matter. I have a question I need to answer: I need to know why John Buckner was different than all the other victims.

I don’t tell them that, though.

Somehow, I know I’m meant to find the answer on my own.

Hunt

Thursday – 8:04 PM

The SUV is cruising down the Grand Central Parkway leading from Queens to Hunts Point. Agent Johnson is driving, his eyes attentively watching the road and continually scanning for threats. I glance at him, wondering what is going through his head. He must have some idea of what I’m doing. He must be curious. It must take tremendous self-control not to ask.

My laptop is open in front of me. Johnson had removed the wrap from my hands earlier in the day – I can just painfully control the rugged little machine with my left arm, the one that isn’t broken. Layered in the different windows are my various attempts to understand what made John Buckner different. So far only one reality sticks out: Aji took unique risks in John Buckner’s case. We never, in any other case, encountered Aji paying anybody off – much less being separated by only one intermediary from the death or injury being investigated.

Aji stuck his neck out, and it still unclear why.

The day’s investigations have already established that John Buckner wasn’t especially prominent or influential and examinations of his computers showed that he wasn’t working on some big or embarrassing story. I went by the remains of his house in Queens, the Fire Marshall’s report in hand. The only thing I learned was the Elvis might have been telling the truth. While he’d cut the gas line, the explosion had been triggered later and possibly remotely. The light in the kitchen, a computer-controlled smartlight, turned on. It apparently wasn’t screwed in perfectly and it sparked, triggering the explosion. I hadn’t paid attention to it before, but the FBI computer forensics team had looked into it and found nothing of value. They believed John Buckner himself probably turned on the light.

That aspect of John Buckner’s death was more like the other cases – seemingly accidental and tremendously hard to trace.

Elvis, though? Elvis still bothered me. Why did Aji meet him, face to face, to pay him to kill? Why pick somebody who wasn’t entirely reliable? And why do it when, as far as we could tell, he’d never done anything like that before?

I spend the entire day looking for answers to that question: reviewing reports, talking to forensic investigators, reading the entirety of John Buckner’s published works. Nothing had turned up. Nothing set John Buckner apart from the others who had died. Nothing but the payoff itself. I wonder if maybe Aji had a disagreement with a hidden agent. Maybe the agent didn’t think Buckner needed to die. Maybe Aji disagreed. I don’t know why, though.

Nothing seems to set John Buckner apart.

Now I’m heading to Hunts Point itself – the site of that payoff. I’d been there before, but maybe this time – by listening – I’ll learn something new.

Until then, though, I’ve got nothing else to review or to read. I’ve got no more buttons to press or leads to pursue. Reluctantly, knowing there’s no purpose in keeping it on, I lower the lid on my laptop and turn my full attention to Marshall Johnson.

“How long have you been a Marshall?” I ask.

He glances at me, ever so briefly. He pauses in his answer.

“5 years,” he says.

“Was that too personal a question?”

“I am trying to keep it professional, ma’am,” he answers. There’s a hint of humor in his voice.

“Trying?” I say.

A tight smile. Contained mirth.

“Trying,” he says.

“Can I ask you a very personal question?”

He nods.

“What’s your first name?”

His eyes flick over again. “First name?” he asks.

“I’m guessing it isn’t Marshall.”

“No, not Marshall.”

Another smile.

“Should I just run through the most common names in America?”

“Can you?” he asks.

“James, John, Robert, Michael, William, David, Richard – stop me if I get it – Charles, Joseph, Thomas…”

“Any more?” he asks.

“Those are the 10 most common. I didn’t memorize the list after that.”

“Why’d you memorize it at all?”

“I thought it’d be helpful to have some idea of when a name is so common that it is of absolutely zero use in an investigation.”

“Wow.”

“So?”

“It is none of those.”

“Can you tell me what it is?”

“Well, I am afraid that might be a little too personal.”

We cross the short bridge from Queens to Randall’s Island.

“Too personal?”

“Well, I could tell you later. But… now? Now, it wouldn’t be terribly professional.”

“Later as when you’re no longer protecting me.”

“That’s right.”

“Then you can get personal?”

“That’s right.”

“Then you would want to get personal.”

“That’s right, ma’am.”

I smile and press my advantage.

“What if I need your name, though, professionally.”

“Why would you need it?”

“Maybe there will be two Marshall Johnsons around and I’ll need to call out for the right one.”

“Despite it being a common name, I’m the only Marshall Johnson in the New York Office.”

“It could be an inter-regional situation.”

The man keeps driving. We cross an even shorter bridge into the Bronx. A full minute later, he says, “Okay, but only because you might need it. Professionally.”

I sit in my seat, waiting.

“Diagoras,” he says.

“Diagoras?” I say.

“It’s Greek,” he says.

“I figured that out,” I say, “But it isn’t anywhere close to the top 10.”

He grins, “If it’s any comfort, my parents named me John.”

“John Johnson?”

“Yeah.”

“I can see why you changed it. Why Diagoras?”

“He was an ancient philosopher, and the name is basically as far from John as you can get. Outside of work, I’m an interesting guy.”

I nod and smile. I like that. Moments later, we take the exit to Leggett Ave. I put the laptop on the seat behind me. A few blocks after that, when we get to the street where Aji and Elvis met, I ask Johnson to let me out.

“By yourself?” he asks, concern once again in his voice.

“Nobody knows to expect me here, and I think you’ll intimidate the heck out of any witnesses.”

I give him a wink and a once-over as a consolation prize.

He nods, his smile broad.

“I’ll be watching from afar,” he says as he pulls to a stop.

“Kind of you,” I say as I open the door and hop out. As the SUV pulls away, I know Marshall Johnson will park nearby. If I call, he’ll be there to rescue me. For now, though, I take in my surroundings. The street I’m on is lined with walkup apartments and pavement broken through by patches of grass. There are small commercial establishments folded into the ground-floors of some of the buildings. A beauty salon, a bodega, a bar. We’d seen both Aji and Elvis enter this street, but the street itself doesn’t have any cameras. The cameras in the bar and the bodega are inside-only and the beauty salon only has one on the cash register. A few of the apartment buildings have cameras, but, again, they’re inside. They can’t make out what’s happening outside the buildings’ doors.

We’d looked at every camera there was, of course. But we’d found nothing. Aji had either stayed on the street or gone to one of the apartments; he hadn’t visited any of the businesses.

Nonetheless, it couldn’t hurt to ask around a second time.

The Beauty Salon is the obvious first choice. It’s closed, though. I walk over to the windows and glance in. It looks like any other beauty salon with one exception: there’s a little photo of Aji in the window. There’s a chance they know him. Maybe he had a key to the place. I decide to come back tomorrow to ask about that.

I head across the street to the bodega. The awning is lit up from behind. It displays the keywords a pedestrian might be drawn to. LOTTO, SANDWICHES, WIC & FOOD STAMPS, ICE CREAM. It looks like any other bodega in the city.

I pull out my phone one-handed (the arm in the sling isn’t terribly useful) and open a picture of Elvis as I step into the little store. Aji is famous. This Elvis isn’t. Despite the name, he’s a non-descript, middle-weight, black, homeless guy. People need a photo of Elvis to know if they’ve seen him around.

I turn the phone in my hand as I approach the counter. There’s a cashier sitting there, a rail-thin middle-aged Hispanic guy.

“Seen this guy?” I ask the cashier. He looks up from the show he’s watching on a tablet computer. He takes a glancing look at my phone and says, “Yeah, Elvis.”

I hadn’t expected that.

“He a regular here?”

“Sure, up until a few weeks ago he came by pretty much every night. You a cop?”

“FBI.”

“An FBI Agent interested in Elvis. Huh.”

“Huh? Why Huh?”

“Oh, Elvis was a conspiracy nut. I guess a lot of homeless people are. He used to hang out in the magazine area and just read stuff. He didn’t smell bad and he was good company, so I just ignored him. You know.”

“I get it,” I say, conversationally. “What kind of conspiracies was he into?”

“All sorts. Roswell, government antennas, 9/11 as an inside job. The whole gamut. One of his favorites, which is pretty funny with you here, is that the FBI was out to get him.”

“Out to get him, how?”

“He claimed the FBI used to visit him. Tell him they’d kill him if he didn’t do what they wanted. All sorts of crazy stuff. It wasn’t just the FBI, though. He thought there were aliens in Hunts Point too. I guess I’d also think it was pretty interesting if you said you were from Alpha Centauri.” He chuckles a bit.

“You ever see him with Aji Abakar?”

The Aji? You know about that?”

“About what?” I ask, suddenly more excited.

“Well, Aji – when he’s in town – would come up here. He used to walk by the store. Sometimes he’d stop in. He spent a lot of time in this neighborhood.”

The Aji Abakar?”

“Yeah, what other Aji do you know?”

“I don’t know. It might be a pretty common Indian name.”

“I’m talking about Aji Abakar. The Aji.”

“Any idea why he came up here?”

“Nope. Maybe he has a girlfriend on the block or something,” another chuckle.

“Why’s that funny?”

“It’s just kind of hard to imagine Aji with a girlfriend, you know?”

I don’t.

“So… a boyfriend, then?”

“No, no, nothing like that. It’s hard to imagine Aji finding somebody who has enough in common with him to have, you know, a real relationship.  Love him or hate him, he’s pretty unique.”

“I get that,” I say. Even his relationship with Der’nube and the rest of the former Chosen is hardly normal.

“He ever meet Elvis?” I ask.

“Not that I saw. I mean, they could have run into each other. But I never saw it. I do know Elvis never talked about him. And Elvis would talk about everything. It was strange, having Aji in the neighborhood and Elvis not even noticing.”

“Maybe he was trying to pretend he didn’t know him because the two of them were up to something together.”

“Elvis?” the cashier laughs. “He could have used a little blessing, but he wasn’t a terribly reliable kind of guy.  I can’t imagine him being in cahoots with anybody. I wouldn’t be in cahoots with him and my standards aren’t terribly high.”

“Would Elvis have told you if they were up to anything?”

“Maybe, but I don’t think so. Elvis talked about a lot of things, but he was real private about his own situation.”

“Except when the FBI visited him.”

“You think that was real.”

“No.”

“So, there you go. He was real private about his own reality.”

I can’t think of any more questions, not right now. I thank the man and ask him to give me a call if he figures out anything else. Then I buy a Snickers, picking it up and paying with my one good hand. I find people are more helpful if they feel like you’ve given them something, and not just taken up their time.

A moment later I’m back outside the store. There’s only one place left, the bar. I walk down the street, taking the place in. It is a rundown establishment named “The Railroad Lounge.” I’d been there before. It has no posters promising live music, there’s just a few neon ads promising cheap beer and booze. It is not a classy establishment.

I push open the door. As my eyes adjust to lighting that somehow seems dimmer than that of the nighttime street, I remember the distinct décor of the place. Whoever built it tried to stick with a theme. An actual railroad track runs up the wall. A door from of an old boxcar takes up an entire wall. The bar itself is made up of railroad ties laid out in rows and covered in plexiglass. Antique railroad signal lights hang over the bar, provided a distinct glow to the whole place.

The neighborhood is known as a nexus for distribution and logistics operations. Rail lines used to run out from here to places all over the city. I guess the bar’s owners glommed onto that. They put a lot of effort, and very little money, into making the place unique.

There’s one other customer in the bar. I take a seat as far from him as I can manage. The bar stools are train wheels mounted on railroad ties and covered with plexiglass. The stools aren’t terribly comfortable, but they fit right in with everything else.

I order a beer.

The bartender, an older white guy with a scruffy face, slides one over. I know him. I’d interviewed him during the initial investigation. I show him my phone, with the photo of Elvis on it.

“Hello again,” I say.

“Hi,” he says.

“Can you tell me again what happened, you know, the night I was asking about before.”

“Nothin’,” comes the reply, “Nothin’ happened. It was a normal night. Aji didn’t come in here, or that other guy. You have the video tapes.”

“Yup,” I say, sipping my beer, “I was just curious if you’d remembered anything else.”

“Nope,” says the bartender.

I go back to sipping my cheap beer.

“You ever seen Aji?” I ask.

“Nope,” he says, again.

I nod. Aji must have been visiting one of the apartments. Or conducting some business in the closed beauty salon.

The other customer is at the other end of the short bar. Unexpectantly, the bartender leans in close to me.

“I doin’ okay, right? I don’t got nothing to worry about, right?”

I look straight into his eyes. There’s fear there, mixed with some measure of hope. It’s like he’s appealing to me for his own safety.

“What do you mean?” I ask. Is the bartender following some kind of script?

“You know… I don’t want to say because, you know…”

He’s following a script, and he’s scared?

“Ah, of course,” I say, “The other guy.”

I give him a wink.

“Yeah, because of the other guy,” the bartender says.

“Yeah, I’m just checking up on you,” I say, “You’re doing great.”

“Whew,” says the bartender. He shakes himself and smiles deeply. A moment later, though, the smile disappears.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“Oh, I dunno. It just don’t feel right. And I can’t tell nobody why. Is it okay if I talk about it with you? I mean, I won’t get in any trouble, right?”

“No trouble,” I say, raising my hands in mock salute. “I’ll do whatever I can to make it easy for you to do what you need to do.”

I’d never had a bartender confide in me before.

The guy seems a bit nervous. He bites his lip.

Then he says, “Do we really have to do this?”

I think about asking, “Do what?” but he thinks I know. Maybe he’ll think I’m setting him up for some kind of trap if I play stupid.

“I’m afraid so. It’s important.” I say.

“Yeah, that’s what the other guy said. But it just don’t feel right.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I know you guys told me Aji is a killer and all. But… I’m just not seeing it.”

“He has that effect on a lot of people.”

“Yeah, but they don’t know him like I do.”

“What do you know that’s different?”

“He talks to me, you know.”

I don’t say anything.

“I don’t really want to break his confidence.”

“Bartender-drinker privilege?” I ask.

“Something like that. I mean, sometimes that can be like a holy thing. It was with Aji.”

“Holy? How?”

“He used to come here, whenever he was in New York. He’d be wearing a hat pulled down low. Most people probably wouldn’t of recognized him. He’d sit in the corner and he’d order drinks. He’d get really drunk. But he didn’t want people to know he was here, so I pretended not to notice who he was. After a few months, well, he started talking to me. You know?”

I nod, briefly. Then I just wait. People like to fill silence.

“He told me things. He said he came up here to drink because he had to pretend to be tougher than he was – because those around him couldn’t see him being weak. He couldn’t really handle it though. The stuff he went through. That’s why he got drunk like he did. I mean, he wasn’t drinking to forget. He was drinking to hurt himself. He hated himself. He told me he felt like people died because of him. He claimed that they were cursed because he couldn’t be good enough for them to bless him. I mean, I felt he didn’t tell this stuff to nobody. But he was telling me. The man was good. I mean, I know a lot of low-lives – comes with the territory. This guy was no kind of low life. I just don’t think he deserves to be set up.”

He pauses, looking to me for some kind of judgment.

I can’t let the bartender know what I’m thinking. I’d never really thought Aji was hurt by the death and injury that seemed to follow him. Or that he’d be ashamed by it; so ashamed that his own men couldn’t know what he was going through.

If there is a hidden agent, then Aji might also his victim.

I keep playing my role, acting as if I’m a part of what’s going on.

“We do know he’s guilty,” I say.

“Well, I didn’t want to do it. Okay. I didn’t see that part of him. I know you guys only wanted me to do one small thing. But I can tell you, I wouldn’t of done it – even though y’told me it was important.”

He pauses. Then says, “Truth is, I only did it cause that other guy told me he’d kill me if I didn’t.”

Kill him?

The bartender continues, “You know, the other guy said he could make the evidence look like I attacked him. He told me the medical examiner was a good friend. He said he did it whenever he needed to. But that he didn’t want to do it to me. You guys can do that, right?”

“Of course we can,” I say.

“Yeah. This country is screwed. Anyway, he said all I needed to do was do what he asked and tell the story right, for whoever asked about it afterwards. Then I’d be okay. You came in, twice, and I told it right. So, I’ll be okay, right?”

“You sure did,” I say. “What actually happened, though? You know, because you’ve never told me that.”

“Oh. It was a simple thing. The other guy came in and asked me to keep Aji’s bills separate. He said he’d pay me for them. One night, while Aji was here, he came in and picked up the money. Paid me for it fair and square. I asked him if he wanted me to erase the video surveillance or anything and he said it’d already been taken care of. And that was it.”

It all clicks together. Aji’s bills had been saved. With fingerprint and DNA evidence on them. The cash used to pay Elvis had been planted. To make it work, the bartender was threatened. Elvis was too. Elvis Brown may have cut the gas line, but he didn’t want to.

Aji didn’t know anything about any of it.

Somebody else made it seem like he had.

But who?

SAC Miller was the one who suggested we fingerprint the bills.

“You see me on TV?” I ask, hoping to draw out some revealing comment.

“Yeah,” says the bartender. “It’s weird that you can kill whoever you’d like, but you can’t control a crowd of peaceful protestors.”

There’s a hint of bitterness in his voice.

“Yeah,” I say.

Just then the guy at the other end of the bar lays a few bucks on the counter and gets up to leave. The bartender doesn’t say anything more. The TV gambit didn’t work.

I say, “You know, the FBI has a lot of bureaucracy. We gotta file reports on everything, even the ‘off-the-books’ stuff, if you know what I mean.”

“Yeah,” says the bartender, uncertainly.

“I wasn’t really sent here to check on you. I was sent here to double-check the people who set this all up.”

“Okay…”

“So… I need to know which ‘other guy’visited you. We got a lot of them. It’s for my report, you know?”

“Uh, yeah. It was that older white guy you were on TV with.”

“SAC Miller?”

“Yeah, that’s what the TV said.”

“Well that checks out with our records. And you told your story perfectly. I know you feel bad about Aji, but we’re doing what’s best, I assure you.”

“Okay,” says the bartender, still sounding uncertain.

Then he glances up and towards the door. His eyes widen in complete panic. I don’t know what’s happening, but almost instinctively, I push up with my left arm and vault over the bar. The sound of the shot in the enclosed space is deafening.

Another rings out as I clear the bar, safely ducking behind the thick iron railroad ties. I look up and see the bartender falling to the ground in front of me, his eyes still open in shock. He hadn’t even had a chance to scream.

For a moment, I stare at the lifeless body. It is the first time I’ve seen someone killed since LaMarcus.

What in the heck is going on here?

I pull my gun with my left arm. I keep it chambered. There’s no need to pull back the slide with my broken right arm.

Quickly, I dart to a spot farthest from the door. Then I pop up, gun aiming towards the door. Then I see him. Marshall Johnson, with two guns in his hands.

Marshall Johnson?

Protective Marshall Johnson?

I don’t hesitate. I aim, single-handed, and fire.

All I hear is a click.

Confused, I crash back towards the floor behind the bar. There’s another boom in the confined space; another gunshot. A bottle explodes, right behind where I’d been standing.

Special Agent Johnson is trying to kill me? My gun doesn’t work? Why doesn’t my gun work?

I look behind the bar, for anything I can fight back with.

I see a wooden bat. It seems weak, surrounded by the iron ties that make up the bar. Unlike them, though, it isn’t welded to anything else. I grab it and then begin to move extremely slowly from my position. I move towards where Johnson had been, closer to the front of the bar. The floor is made up of old wooden boards, it is very hard not to let to squeak. As I move, I listen.

I can hear Marshall Johnson moving. He isn’t as careful as me. He knows he’s armed and he knows I’m not.

When I hear him directly across from me, I rise upwards already swinging the bat with my left arm. I put all of my aching body into the swing. His gun is up, but it’s aiming at where I had been, not where I am now. He moves, adjusting his aim. But the bat moves faster. He squeezes the trigger on his pistol a moment before the bat connects. I feel a sharp pain as the bullet grazes my right arm.  My swing continues, the bat connecting, hard with his head.

He tumbles down. I don’t know if he’s dazed, unconscious or dead.

I stand there for a second, uncertain what to do. Then the realization hits me: I’m unarmed and I’m very very alone.

I do the only thing I think I can do.

I run.

Run

Thursday – 11:00 PM

Run. That’s the first thought that goes through my head. My second thought is that I am good at running. I could have been a college athlete. If running is all I need, then I’ll be fine.

But my third thought is that I’m no super spy. I passed my qualifications at Quantico. I can shoot, which would matter if I had a gun. I can run, but I don’t know where to run to. And I can follow procedure, but there aren’t any procedures for this.

I don’t even know what this is.

I see an ATM. Cash suddenly seems like a very good idea. I veer over to it, pull out my bank cards and withdraw as much as I can. $400 from each account and $1000 in cash from my credit cards.

As the bills flit out of the machine, I realize that Marshall Johnson somehow heard the bartender. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have known to barge in. He wouldn’t have known to kill the bartender, or me. Somewhere on me there’s a microphone. Maybe even a locator. The cash is new, though. The cash is safe.

Standing right there, I drop my wallet and cell phone on the ground. I almost hope it is stolen – people using my credit cards all over the city will make it harder to find me. I take off my sling, gingerly. Then I take off my jacket, wincing with the pain. The arm is covered in blood.

I leave it all there, on the ground.

I can’t take off everything though. I need new clothes.

I glance around, but I don’t see anything that could help. So, I stuff the money in my pocket and I start to run, again.

A few blocks away I see a thrift shop, the kind that sells second-hand clothes. It’s closed. I try to jimmy the door, but nothing happens. I need new clothes, though. I take out my useless gun and smash the glass door. I reach through and open the door from the inside.

Security isn’t great at second-hand clothing stores.

There is an alarm though. It starts blaring almost immediately.

I burst through the door. I reach the first rack and pull of the first clothes that seem like they might be large enough for me. Then I pull $200 out of my pocket and drop it in the floor. I don’t need something that suits me well. I just need something that can cover me up.

Seconds later, I dash back out of the store.

A half a block later, I duck between buildings. As quickly as I can, given my arm, I strip out of my holster, my shirt and my pants. I rip a part of the shirt off and tie it around my arm, to staunch the bleeding. I wonder how much I should take off. I decide on everything. I just leave it all on the ground and I grab the clothes I’d stolen.

I hadn’t grabbed a shirt and pants though. I hadn’t even grabbed a dress or a skirt. I’d grabbed some long bolt of cloth. I struggle to put it on, trying to wrap it around myself. I don’t succeed. In the dim light of the alley, I try to look more closely at what I’d stolen.

I see a pattern, and I realize I have an African robe just a little like the one Der’nube’s mother had given him.

I try to remember the pictures from school and the images I’d seen in various museums. Then I try again, wrapping the cloth around myself in the closest approximation to what I’d seen before. I know it isn’t right, but at least the clothes aren’t just falling off.

I’m ready to leave now, but do I take my gun? Even a gun without a firing pin can scare people. But the only people I need to scare will know that the pin is missing.

I’ll lose the gun.

I look at it closely though, before I toss it aside.  It is a Sig Sauer P320, just like mine. It weighs the same. It feels the same. It probably has the same ammunition. I wonder if it is my gun, just disabled. Then I look at the side of the receiver, expecting to see the familiar serial number stamped onto it. The serial number, though, has been rubbed out. This is a black-market weapon. That’s when it hits me. Johnson had two guns. One was probably mine. Ballistics will show that I killed the bartender.

That sobering thought in mind, I wipe the black-market gun clean with the remainder of my shirt and drop it in the alley. I emerge, with $1,600 and some clothes I know I’m not wearing quite right.

I have no idea how much time I have left before Johnson and whoever he’s working with figure what’s happened. I have no idea how much time I have until they catch up with me. I do know the resources they have at their disposal. They can track my phone. I’ve gotten rid of that. They can track my credit cards, but they’re gone too. The next thing is cameras. Cameras all over the city loaded up with facial recognition systems. I have to deal with the cameras.

I see a pharmacy that’s open. I step inside and buy cotton balls, putty, makeup, a new sling, gauze and a hat. My purchases complete, I head to the restroom.

The sling and gauze are for my arm. I tuck the cotton balls into my mouth, above my teeth. They’ll change the shape of my jaw, so the facial recognition systems won’t recognize me – at least not as easily. I use the putty to change the shape of my nose and eyebrows. Finally, I apply the makeup to make it all look somewhat realistic.

The hat goes on last, so the store’s cameras won’t capture my new appearance. When I walk outside, I’m a new woman. I’m not just black, but African. My clothes hang reasonably well, and my facial features are more prominent than they’ve ever been. It might just be enough for me to hide.

A few blocks later I walk past another bar. I see the TV inside. SAC Miller is on it. I stop and watch for just long enough for him to explain that one of his agents, Special Agent Neisha Jackson, killed a witness who was going to testify against Aji Abakar. As he explains it, the FBI believes Special Agent Neisha Jackson took a bribe from Aji Abakar’s organization and then earned her fee by killing an innocent man. Thus, Special Agent Neisha Jackson is a dangerous fugitive from justice. My picture, from my badge, is flashed up on the TV.

I walk away from the bar. I can’t lurk anywhere for too long. Everybody will be looking for me.

Somehow, I’ve got to figure out what’s going on and who is ultimately behind it.

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Keep Reading with Part V!