Friday – 1:00 AM
The night is remarkably calm as I walk. The moon is full, and the stars shine in a cloudless sky. The air seems crisp and clean, freshly blown in from some place other than New York City.
As I walk, I realize that I’m not running. I’m not heading north. I’m not leaving the city and trying to escape. I’m heading towards Harlem and after that Lower Manhattan. Or even Brooklyn. Without even thinking about it, I’m heading towards trouble.
I need to figure out what I’ll do once I get there.
I begin to sort things out in my head. As I walk, putting one step in front of the other, my thoughts form into theories and the beginnings of answers.
I know my gun was replaced. The only time it could have happened was while I slept. My ‘secure’ overnight room wasn’t secure. At some point, when I was exhausted from my injuries, Johnson – or somebody else – snuck in and replaced my gun. They took the firing pin out of the weapon they gave me. They disarmed me without me even knowing it.
I ask myself what I know? I know SAC Miller set up Aji. He could have done it because he was tired of the case not progressing. He could have done it to protect the innocent lives of future critics. It would be understandable. Criminal, but understandable. Almost like the idea that Aji had been killing detractors because he honestly believed he was protecting people by doing so. Or a mentally ill man killing people he believes are demons.
With this theory, SAC Miller hadn’t meant to kill the bartender. He hadn’t wanted to, until the man revealed his secret to me. Like a man covering a small fraud with a huge one, SAC Miller had killed the bartender when the bartender had threatened not only his case but his career.
The idea makes sense, except for one element: Marshall Johnson. US Marshall Johnson isn’t in the FBI. He wouldn’t have been frustrated by the case. He hadn’t known about it until a few days ago, right? It was US Marshall Johnson who pulled the trigger, not SAC Miller. It was US Marshall Johnson who tried to kill me.
Is that the only reason why he’d flirted with me? To slow me down? To catch me off-guard if he needed to attack me? Was he just trying to get to know me better so he could keep track of what I was looking into and what I was learning?
I can’t help it, but I find myself hoping that he had been genuinely interested in me. At least, up until the point where he tried to kill me.
Why was Johnson involved? Whatever it was that triggered the bartender’s death, it wasn’t just frustration with the case.
I think back to my interview with Aji. Aji had said I was chosen by SAC Miller. Not because of my expertise, but because I would be vengeful in my pursuit of Aji. I’d be single-minded in my desire to bring down a so-called Holy Man.
That’s why I’d been selected. That has to be the motivation behind everything I’ve seen. I hadn’t paid much notice to it, but when he’d first suggested I take over the case, SAC Miller himself had said that if people started believing in Aji’s so-called miracles, the remarkable social advancements of modern America would be completely undermined. Reason would be replaced with blindness. I’d agreed with him, but left it at that.
I suppose he might have been waiting for something more. Maybe he was inviting to whatever group he and Johnson belong to; a group willing to break the rules in an effort to protect society from men like Aji.
It explains why SAC Miller wanted publicity. He wanted to destroy Aji publicly, while dragging his character through the mud. He wanted the press conference. He wasn’t going to retreat because for him the whole point had been to show the power of the state.
I’d simply been his tool.
I’d been a useful tool. From the beginning I’d believed that Aji had to be guilty – and that all I needed to do was to find the evidence to put him away. Of course, I don’t know that Aji isn’t guilty. He is able to kill. Perhaps the delusion of a curse has driven him to do so. Even the bartender’s story doesn’t rule that out. Nonetheless, I do know he did not kill John Buckner.
I wonder why Miller and Johnson hadn’t used a real insider. Why rely on me, a somewhat unknown quantity? The press conference, again, provides the answer. A reporter had asked whether I was chosen because I was a young black woman. Maybe that was part of the character assassination. They wanted to destroy a young, up and coming, black man. Who could do that more completely than a young, up and coming, black woman? No charges of racism would taint the accusations. It hurts, but they’d chosen me not only because I had an axe to grind, but because I was a young black, inexperienced, female agent.
They figured I’d be easy to manipulate. And up until a few hours ago, they’d been right.
I walk across the bridge into Manhattan, seeing the water lazily float beneath me in the boxed-in Harlem River.
That’s why Johnson had gotten involved. They’d gotten worried after my first interview with Aji. I’d emerged angry, worried that Aji’s concern was simply a threat. But they’d seen another possibility – that I’d see that concern for what it was.
They knew that they needed insurance.
That’s why Johnson had been assigned to me.
He was there to kill me if I learned too much.
Who had suggested him, though? Was it Clara or Miller?
Is Clara also involved?
I can’t exactly remember.
As I keep walking, I realize how little I actually know. I know Johnson and I know Miller. Maybe Clara too. But who else is part of the conspiracy? Other members of my team? Others even higher up in government? Beat cops?
I’m being pursued and I have no idea who my enemies actually are. There must be more though. Miller had told the bartender the Medical Examiner would find what he wanted him to. That had to be true. Otherwise, whatever had just happened at “The Railroad Lounge” couldn’t be covered up. A competent investigator would know I wasn’t alone with the bartender when he was shot.
The conspiracy must be huge. I just don’t know how huge.
I keep walking, glancing nervously – waiting for a nightmare to come rolling down the street in a dark SUV. I don’t see any dark SUV’s though.
The conspiracy continues to grow in my mind. Elvis cut the gas line. The smart house turned on the light in the kitchen. Who, though, unscrewed it just the right amount? Who triggered the smart house?
The press conference answers that question as well.
A team had been sent to assess John Buckner’s security. That same team must have unscrewed the lightbulb. Whoever was on it, at least one of them is involved.
How the hell am I going to survive this?
As I cross 110th street, exhaustion suddenly overcomes me. I feel completely overwhelmed. There is no light at the end of this tunnel and I’ve already been through a high-risk arrest, an apartment fire, a near-riot, a car accident and a shooting. Now I’m trying to hide myself as I walk the streets of New York – the most surveilled city in America. All of which says nothing about my conversations with Aji and my realizations about LaMarcus.
I’m exhausted. I need to rest. But I don’t know where.
I could go to a public park. But if the police see me, they won’t just roust me. They’ll report me and somebody will arrange for me to disappear.
How about my old apartment? I can walk the 30 or so blocks to that burned out husk, but I’m sure it is under surveillance.
It isn’t worth the risk.
Some random rooftop? I might be able to slip into a building, but it’s unlikely at two in the morning. People tend to be suspicious at two in the morning. They might call the police or FBI. Even if I get into a building, roofs tend to be locked. A rooftop isn’t worth the risk.
I just keep walking, the exhaustion rising unstoppably.
I stop thinking. I just keep moving. Literally one step at a time.
Up ahead, I see a middle-aged black woman in scrubs. She’s walking towards me. I ignore her, but she doesn’t ignore me. She walks right up to me, blocking my path. I pull to a stop. I’m too tired to run from her. If she called for help, I’d never be able to get far enough to matter. In that moment, I realize that I’ve already surrendered. All those who stood with me have abandoned me.
The conspiracy will overwhelm me. It is inevitable.
I can’t begin to fight back.
I can’t even run anymore.
I see a name tag on the woman’s shirt. It reads “Dr. Abade”.
As she stands there, she looks me up and down. I’m about to be identified and there’s nothing I can do about it. I mean, I could hurt her – but for what? She doesn’t deserve to be hurt just because she’s doing what she thinks is right and I probably wouldn’t get far anyways.
Instead I just stand there, passively, awaiting my fate.
Then she says, “Dear child, you’re wearing that all wrong.”
“What?” I ask, suddenly confused.
She chuckles. “Oh, and you are no kind of killer.”
I let Dr. Abade lead me up and into her apartment. She bandages the place where the gunshot grazed my skin. She examines my break and my burns. She feeds me. And then she lays me down in her bed. She explains that she’ll take the couch.
I’m exhausted but I’m not worried that she’ll call the police. I know she could have done that without stopping to help me.
Today has brought fear and tomorrow will bring terror. Right now, though, I am at peace.
Just before I close my eyes, I find myself thanking G-d for Dr. Abade.
Friday – 8:00 AM
I am exhausted, but I don’t sleep well. The image of the bartender falling keeps running through my mind. I imagine that Johnson didn’t miss me. That I’m laying there, alongside the bartender as SAC Miller’s forensic investigators create their stories. I watch my body from over their shoulders, watching them bend what they see to fit the narrative they need.
Then, I dream that I’m lying on the floor of my ‘secure’ FBI office. I smell coffee and fresh bagels. I open my eyes. I see the sterile gray of the office ceiling. And then Marshall Johnson steps into view. He’s standing over me, pointing my own gun at my face.
He pulls the trigger.
I scream, sitting up in a sudden panic.
Johnson isn’t there, though. I’m on Dr. Abade’s bed. The ceiling isn’t a sterile gray, but an earthly yellow. Reddish curtains filter the light from outside. I’m safe.
I smell it then. Fresh coffee and bagels. They aren’t a source of threat and danger, though. They are a source of safety and security.
A moment later, Dr. Abade appears in the doorway to the bedroom. She looks in, her face kindly and concerned.
“Are you okay?” she asks. She has a slight West African accent.
“Yes, yes. Just a bad dream,” I say.
She nods, knowingly.
I get up from the bed. The sheets are wet with my sweat. “I can change these,” I say.
“No need,” she says, “I can manage it.”
I stand up.
“Come to the kitchen, I’ve got some breakfast for you.”
I get up and go to the restroom. Then I follow her down the cozy hallway. The floors are decorated with the geometric patterns of West African weaving. The walls are decorated with tapestries and masks. I follow her into the tiny kitchen. The appliances are shiny and new, but little pottery containers line the surfaces. The room smells most strongly of chilis. However, laid out on the little table, are a pair of coffees and a small bag of bagels.
I somehow doubt this is Dr. Abade’s usual breakfast.
I take a seat at the small table.
“Why did you help me?” I ask.
Dr. Abade selects a coffee and passes it to me. “I saw the news. I thought you might have done what you’re accused of. When I walked up to you last night, in the street, I looked at your face and… I saw myself. I just knew you weren’t guilty.”
“You saw yourself?”
Dr. Abade inhales deeply.
“I had to run once,” she says.
I nod, pretending I know what she’s talking about.
I take a sip of the coffee.
“What now?” I ask.
“I figure that I’ll help you with your disguise. Maybe you can hide here until you figure something out.”
I think about that for a minute, opening the bag of bagels.
“No,” I say, “They aren’t trying to arrest me. They’re trying to kill me. I would appreciate your help on my disguise. But then you need to send me on my way. You can’t hide me for long and the risks are just too high.”
“I’m willing to try,” she says.
“I’m not,” I answer. “This story isn’t going to end well.”
I take a deep breath, and I know that I do need one more thing from her.
“You can do one very important thing for me, though.” I say.
“What is that?”
“I need you to hear my story.”
I think she understands. She says, simply, “I would love to.”
So, we sit in that little kitchen and I tell her. I tell her about Aji and Johnson. About SAC Miller and the bartender. About Der’nube and the other child soldiers. I tell her about the fabric and the tragic story behind it.
As I speak, I realize how totally alone I am. I’m estranged from my mother and from my team. I’m cut off from any world I know. I’m running towards trouble, with no idea of what to do when I get there.
An hour or two must have passed before I come to the end of my story. The doctor reaches for one of the cupboards and pulls out a tablet computer. She types a few things into it. Then, she touches my hand gently.
“A young boy fell while running yesterday evening. I’m a plastic surgeon. That’s why I was out last night. When this is all over, maybe you should thank him.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Come with me,” she says.
She rises from her chair and walks back to a second bedroom. I follow her. There is no bed there, though. Just racks and racks of fabric and clothing. All have African patterns, bright, strong and geometric. The room is a blaze of design. Dr. Abade moves through the racks and then selects one garment and pulls it out. It is almost the same weave as Der’nube’s. A near perfect match.
“Is this the cloth you saw?” she asks.
I nod, surprised.
“It is a Central African weave, from one of the Sara people.”
“Are you Central African?” I ask.
“No, no,” she says, “But Aji and Der’nube are.”
I look at the cloth. “Can I touch it?” I ask.
“More than that,” she says, “You’re going to wear it.”
I raise my eyes, sharply, “What?”
“I was raised in West Africa, part of a small pastoral tribe. I was about 6 when we were overrun by another tribe. I crawled into some weeds and hid while my people were massacred. When the attackers had left, I just started walking. Like you, in a way, everybody I’d had was gone. That’s what I saw in your eyes. I saw the eyes of a refugee. I ended up at an international relief camp. I learned how to read and write there. I started preserving there. That’s what I call it, collecting the echoes of people. Like Der’nube I kept bolts of fabric. I moved out of the camp eventually. I ended up going to medical school and then immigrating and requalifying here. But I never stopped preserving. There are others like me, but most are Westerners. For them it is an academic exercise. For me… it is something more. I don’t only preserve my own people though. There’s so little I remember of them. I preserve others too.”
She holds up the tablet, “This is a dictionary. When I hear about a tribe that has been destroyed, I search for dictionaries – those academics provide them. I go further, though. Language is important, but it is – more than most things – empty without those who speak it. My focus is art. Most of all, I collect fabric. I have a whole warehouse of fabric. This room is only a tiny sample of what I’ve collected.”
She smiles, bittersweetly.
My eyes wander around the room. At all the fabrics gathered there. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
“This is a museum of lost peoples,” I say.
Dr. Abedi doesn’t say anything.
She glances down at the cloth and says, “Do you know what Aji, means? In the Sara Kaba language?”
“No,” I say, wondering why my team at the FBI had never asked this.
“It means ‘salvation’.”
“And Der’nube – do you know what that means?” she asks.
“No,” I say.
“It means ‘shield of G-d’.”
“Why do they have those names?” I ask.
“I don’t know. But when they left the Chosen, they were blank slates. I imagine they chose their own names. They see themselves as saviors and shields.”
“Or it’s all a con?”
“Very, very few people speak these languages. I had to look up the words on my tablet. This is a message they meant only for themselves.”
“So what does it mean for me?” I ask.
Dr. Abade smiles.
“When I ran, I found another people. You have lost your people. They haven’t simply disappeared though. They have turned on you. What you need is another people. Then, perhaps, you can survive.”
I understand her. I’m not alone. I have Aji’s people. I am thankful, once again, for this woman.
Over the coming hours, Dr. Abade uses putty to reshapes my eye sockets and jaw. She darkens my face and hands with makeup. She slings my arm with the fabric, but in a way that does not suggest an injury. Her movements are precise and careful. When she is done, I can barely recognize myself.
Finally, she dresses me in the weave of Der’nube’s people.
I walk out into the street, restored and renewed.
I have no idea if I will survive.
I know, though, that I will never simply surrender.
Monday – 1:29 AM
Friday – 1:00 PM
My disguise is good enough to take the subway. Even so, I’m not willing to get off at the stop closest to Der’nube’s hotel. Instead, I take it to Prospect Park, where all this seems to have started. The police I encounter look past me without a second glance. The disguise is excellent. I’m thankful that I ran into a sympathetic plastic surgeon.
As I start up the little street the hotel is on, I notice the surveillance. It isn’t subtle. There are SUVs on the street, men on the roofs and ‘pedestrians’ milling around from place to place. I walk past them all, slowly and confidently. I’m sure they have my description. If I were to turn towards the hotel, they’d almost certainly pick me up. But walking past? Walking past I might just be able to do.
As I stroll by, I feel the eyes of the FBI and police all around me. I hope those of the fifth floor are as well. I take my time, both so that those in the hotel can see me and so that they have a chance to follow me. There’s no point to any of this if they don’t get my message.
A full two minutes after passing the hotel, I stop in front of the bodega. I’d seen the place on Google, at Dr. Abade’s apartment. Even with the picture in front of us, we hadn’t been able to decide where to leave the note. It needs to be found. Somehow, Aji’s men need to know where to look. There’s a stack of fruit and vegetables outside the store. I imagine there are cans and spices and milk inside. Nothing grabs my attention.
I don’t have much time. My eyes scan the produce, looking for someplace only obvious to the right people. And then I see them, tangerines. The word is spelled out and it almost seems to echo Tangara. I grab a little paper bag. As I slip two of the fruit inside, I surreptitiously slide my note against the side of their little crate. Then I go inside, add a bottle of water to my little collection and pay.
When I step back out of the store, my peripheral vision picks up a young black man exiting the hotel parking lot. I recognize him as Aji’s squad commander. I turn away from him and leave, hoping he’ll be able to find what I’ve left him. The connection between tangerines and Tangara is a thin one. Maybe, though, he’ll be able to draw it. When he does, he’ll see my simple note: “Der’nube, meet me at the African Cultural Expo. Now. Dress appropriately.”
I reach the end of the block without looking back. A few minutes later, I board a bus heading for Queens.
As the bus makes its frequent stops, I imagine what is happening all around me. Aji’s followers, moving en masse to the subway. A fleet of surveillance personnel tracking and following them – trying desperately to be discrete in crowded and tight spaces. I imagine the entire hotel emptying, hundreds of people crowding out. I imagine them choosing different routes and different destinations.
The FBI can track a few people perfectly, but 150? That’s not so simple.
An hour and two busses later, I’m at the entrance to the expo. Ahead of me is a world of confusion. People wearing clothing of every pattern and color weave and move through the enormous open space that makes up most of the exhibition. As I pay for my ticket, I smile. Tracking people in a place like this will be next to impossible. Not only that, but unless the FBI has a large store of African textiles on hand, it will be very hard for the surveillance to pass unobserved.
I pass through the gates, hoping I have a good lead on Der’nube. Even in this crowd, I want the best chance for privacy. I don’t want to be seen. Somehow, SAC Miller will ensure that I don’t survive if I am.
I’m barely through the entrance when I notice the Special Agents. Dressed in solid and bland colors, they stick out from all who surround them. I look at where they’re looking and I see Der’nube, waiting patiently for me.
He must have taken a cab.
I walk right past him, as if he isn’t there. But I know he isn’t ignoring me. He can’t help but see me, despite the riot of color and pattern, and despite my disguise. He can see me for the same reason you can hear your name called in a crowded room. I’m wearing hismother’s pattern – it is a clear signal, even when surrounded by noise.
I walk slowly through the exhibition. I take in the smell of it; the chilis and the fried plantains and the dozens of other foods I can’t even identify. I keep walking. I need to get Der’nube away from his surveillance and I have no idea how I’m going to do it.
I pass an exhibition of Igbo masquerade dancers, their incredible masked heads resting atop intricately costumed bodies as a heavy beat coordinates their movements. A crowd is watching them perform, but there is no place to hide. I continue, passing examples of nomadic huts constructed just for the expo. If I were to disappear into one of those, and Der’nube were to follow, I might never get out again. I keep walking.
I come to a booth selling textiles. I buy a large scarf, almost at random. Perhaps I’ll throw it over Der’nube and conceal him.
I see him approaching out of the corner of my eye.
I stuff my purchase in a plastic bag and keep moving.
I’m running out of open space. The school building that houses the indoor parts of the expo looms ahead. It is one of those massive brick edifices first built during the Great Depression. Signs on the outside promise museum-quality exhibitions within. Knowing Der’nube is following, I keep walking. I push through the main doors. The stairs are blocked, everything is on the ground floor. Nonetheless, an array of options open to me. Galleries with southern African art, galleries of contemporary art. Galleries with pottery, masks, textiles and sculpture. I turn right, down the main hall. I flow through a mass of people. The doors on all the classrooms are open. As I look in each one, I just see traps; entrances without exits.
And then, up ahead I see my chance. An emergency exit. I keep walking, looking into the classrooms, checking that Der’nube is close behind. As I look into one classroom, I subtly gesture my head towards the emergency exit. I hope he notices, and his surveillance doesn’t. He doesn’t react, which is either good or bad.
Then I keep walking. I pass the last classroom and continue casually to the emergency exit. I come to the door and, as if by mistake, I push it open.
The fire alarm sounds. At that moment, Der’nube rushes forward and through the door. I step through right behind him. I whip the scarf I purchased out of my bag. Der’nube pushes the door closed and moments later I’ve tied the cloth into bowline knot around the exterior door handles.
I’m glad the FBI didn’t only teach me how to shoot.
That done, the two of us dash from the door and disappear into the crowd. We slow down, but we both know we only have time for a brief conversation.
“Why did you want to talk?” asks Der’nube.
“I’ve been set up, Aji’s been set up. We need your help,” I say.
“How can I help?”
“You have a network. People working behind the scenes, right?”
“No.” he says, simply.
“Come on,” I say, “I know you have a network. You had a customs officer on speed dial.”
“He was our case officer. We’ve kept in touch. Anyway, after the lies about the Department of Homeland Security why should I believe a word you say.”
I don’t have an answer for that. Then, suddenly, I do. “Der’nube, I swear on the soul of my brother that this is not a setup.”
He looks at me. He sees my face. He nods and then he says, “Okay. But I still can’t help. There is no secret network.”
“There must be,” I say, “Aji has an informant on my team in the FBI.”
“Niesha, I swear, on the soul of my mother, that I have no idea who his contact is. If there is an informant, only Aji knows about it. The same goes for any sort of secret network.”
I look up at him, in desperation. “I need to find people who can help me. Who can help Aji? Is there anything at all you can do?”
He closes his eyes for a moment, thinking.
Then he recites an address in Jackson Heights.
“What’s there?” I ask.
“Our web manager, Alejandro Juarez. He has a list of all the people who have volunteered their services online. It’s the best I can do.”
And then, just like that, he turns away.
I walk briskly out of the expo. The FBI will be analyzing the video of Der’nube’s escape from the ground floor of the school. My disguise has only got about 20 minutes of life left.
Friday – 7:00 PM
I stop into a store near the expo and buy men’s jeans, a very loose hoodie and a bit of make-up. At a busy bathroom in a transit center, I transform myself into a young African American man, my robe carefully folded into a plastic shopping bag. I adjust my makeup, adding highlights below my eyes to further confuse the facial recognition systems. Finally, I consciously modify my step – so that I walk male. The gait feels unnatural, but it further disguises who I really am.
Five minutes after walking into the restroom as an elegant African woman I walk out as a young black man in a hoodie. My broken arm rests within the hoodie’s oversized pocket. It is better than nothing, but it still hurts. Despite my incredibly anonymous disguise, I try to hide my face from street cameras as I get on the subway and navigate my way to Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights. At seven o’clock on a Friday evening, Jackson Heights is a crowded hive of activity. I grab dinner at a hole-in-the-wall Colombian joint – my hoodie close to my face in order to hide from the shop’s cameras.
I turn up 86th Street and a few blocks later, the apartment buildings and stately houses near the main thoroughfare yield to modest freestanding homes lining a quiet and open street. Something seems eerily familiar about it; not in a good way.
As I walk, I start shaking involuntarily; just as I did when I arrested Aji. I think I know why. Up until now, I’ve been doing my best to hide. Now, I’m about to knock on the door of a stranger and introduce myself. The man will have every reason to turn on me as soon as I leave his house. The risk is total.
As I keep walking, I realize there’s something more. It is when I come to a stop in front of the website manager’s house that I realize what is really going on.
The houses on this street, in Jackson Heights, looks almost like the ones where LaMarcus was murdered on the South Side of Chicago. There is no nature strip between the road and the sidewalk, and the New York street feels a little more closed in – but the houses are unnaturally similar. There’s something more, though. The web manager’s house seems like an exact copy of the house LaMarcus was killed in front of.
When I lived on the South Side, I could ignore streets like this. They were just streets, streets I was going to escape from. But this place? I wasn’t ready for this place. I wasn’t ready to be reminded of the worst moment of my life.
My legs wobble underneath me. I grab onto the fence for support and just try to breath. I still have options. I can still turn around, hop on a train out of the city and, step by step, make my way as far from New York as possible. The odds of success as a fugitive are probably higher than the odds of overcoming SAC Miller and whatever cross-agency network he has at his disposal.
The fact is, the street is screaming warnings at me, just as another street had been when LaMarcus died. That time, I ignored the warnings. It seems reckless, at best, to do it again. I straighten up, deciding to run.
It is then that the pastor’s words come back to me:
You gotta do what you can to raise people up. Then you gotta rely on G-d for the rest.
Knocking on this door would be stupid. It isn’t the same as it had been with LaMarcus, though. Walking home with LaMarcus, I’d ignored danger for no reason other than my own pride. Now? Now I’m ignoring it because I’ve gotta do what I can to raise people up.
Not only Aji, though. I’ve gotta raise up LaMarcus. I have to live for a purpose.
I breathe deeply.
Then I open the little gate and walk up the short path to the house. My heart is racing.
‘I’m doing what I can,’ I tell myself, ‘I need to rely on G-d for the rest.’
I steady myself and then I knock on the door.
A few moments later, I hear a man’s voice from behind the door.
“Who is it?”
I don’t know what to say. Do I just blurt out that I need his help? Do I give my name? Would either one lead to an open door? After a long pause I say, “Mr. Juarez, Der’nube sent me.”
I hear the latch on the other side of the door move. Then, it opens.
The man holding the door is Hispanic and in his 50s. His face is weather-beaten, as if he’d worked for decades in the sun. Nonetheless, he is wearing a tailored shirt and expensive-looking glasses. Altogether, he gives off an air of extremely rugged sophistication. He’d do well in a commercial for some sophisticated but rough-edged alcohol.
“Who are you?” he asks.
“Can I come inside to tell you?”
“No.” he says. The answer is flat and definitive.
“Okay,” I say.
I don’t know what else to do. I’ve got nowhere to go, not really. So I go all in. I pull my hood off and announce, “I’m Special Agent Neisha Jackson.”
I see the emotions run over his face. Confusion. Recognition. Fear. Then, panic. He grabs me by my broken right arm and pulls me into his house. He’s remarkably strong and the pain is overwhelming. I stumble in through the door, trying not to cry out.
Once inside, I manage to glance at my surroundings. The inside of the house isn’t anything like what I’d been expecting. Sure, there’s a little staircase that leads upstairs, there’s a living room and there’s a short hallway with a kitchen at the end. Every house on the street must have the same layout. But I am sure that not every house on the street has walls covered with massive murals in earthy tones of red and brown and gold. The murals themselves are lit up with museum-quality lighting. In the face of the overwhelming images and colors, the house itself seems to fade into the background. The effect is mesmerizing.
I hear voices from the kitchen. A woman and a few children. We don’t go there, though. Instead the man shoves me to the right and towards a door. He opens it and pushes me through.
We’re in a small study. The parts of the walls not covered by bookcases or cupboards are, again, painted over with murals. A computer workstation sits in the corner.
The man roughly pushes me into a chair. He stands over me, dominating me. Then he asks, “Why are you here?”
“I want to help Aji,” I say. I had thought this guy would wait until I was leaving to call the police. Now, I’m worried he’s going to knock me out and call the police while we wait in his house.
“Yeah, I guessed that when the FBI announced you were wanted for murdering a witness.” he says. In his case, it seems, being a friend of Aji’s isn’t enough of a reason for him to help me.
My mind scrambles for a better answer.
“Did you know the FBI has had it in for Aji?”
“Lady,” he says, “I just manage the website.”
I look him over. Alejandro Juarez is in his 50s, but he’s powerfully built and seems like he’s about to violently explode. He doesn’t seem like a website manager.
“I was the lead investigator on his case. We were trying to pin something on him for over a year – like he was Al Capone. I had a whole team working on it.”
“Well, I thought we were investigating him because of a series of unexplained deaths. That was the reason I was investigating him. But I never found anything tying him to the murders. Until a few weeks ago. That was when we managed to draw a clear connection from Aji to the death of John Buckner.”
“I saw that in the news conference, what about it?”
“Well, last night I decided to follow up. Instead of strengthening the case, though, I discovered it was all a setup.”
“Yeah, what’d you find?” Alejandro’s voice is disbelieving.
“The bartender they framed me for killing… He told me Aji was set up. Moments later, the man who was supposed to be guarding me burst through the door and shot and killed the bartender. He tried to kill me too.”
Alejandro doesn’t shift or speak. He is far from convinced.
“Can I move my arm?” I ask. I don’t want to set him off.
He nods, watching me carefully.
I pull my hand from the pocket of my hoodie. It is empty. Then, using my other arm and moving gingerly with my still burnt hand, I pull the hoodie up and over my head. As I do so the man asks, “What the heck are you doing?”
The hoodie is off before I answer. Using my left arm, I point at my right, where Dr. Adabe had bandaged me.
“I was shot there.”
“Show me?” he says.
“Take the bandage off.”
I don’t really have a choice. I pull the bandage away from my skin. The little trench dug by the bullet begins to flow with blood.
Alejandro looks closely at the wound.
“Okay. You were shot. The news didn’t say anything about that. Let’s say you’re telling the truth. Why the heck are you here?”
“Can I get a new bandage,” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says. He steps out of the room and returns with a first-aid kit. He asks, again, “Why are you here?”
“They intend to put Aji away forever. Or, kill him and kill me along the way. There’s a powerful conspiracy which includes my boss at the FBI. I need to fight back.”
“Lady, I’m just his web manager. I’ve got a family and a neighborhood that depends on me. I’ll bandage you up, but beyond pretending you weren’t here I’m not going to break the law for you – or for him.”
“You’ve broken the law before, though, right?”
He stops wrapping and looks at me sharply.
“No.” he says. He sounds deeply offended – almost like I’d assumed he was criminal because he’s Hispanic and dresses in expensive clothes.
It is my turn to look doubtful. “You knew what a bullet wound looked like. Is that just from TV?”
“I had cousins who broke the law.”
“Ah, and you’re the world’s strongest web manager because?”
“Because I was a landscaper for 30 years.” The answer is flat and angry.
I suddenly feel deeply embarrassed. “Sorry, sorry for making assumptions.”
He draws in a deep breath. “It’s okay. I was trying to look like exactly the man you thought I was. You only drew the assumptions I wanted you to.”
It is a surprisingly reasonable response. I’m not sure I would have given it, in his shoes. He finishes wrapping my arm and I pull my hoodie back on.
“How’d you go from a landscaper to a website manager?” I ask, hoping to build some kind of positive repartee. Our relationship seems to have turned a corner. The fierce monster of a man has been turned into something far more friendly.
“Oh, I’m more than a website manager. I run the IT department at a boutique Wall Street firm. I loved landscaping, but my body couldn’t take it anymore – even just as a supervisor. I ran into Aji on the street. We got to talking. He said I spoke about landscaping the way some computer people he’d met spoke about what they did. Turns out he was right. That and I’m a darned good and experienced manager. I manage his website as a favor, that’s all.”
“Impressive,” I say. And I mean it. Aji’s only been in the US under three years. Pulling off that sort of career switch in that sort of time is pretty amazing.
I can see he’s proud. Nonetheless, he says, “Ms. Jackson, you can butter me up, but I need you to get to the point and tell me why you’re here.”
“I need information, nothing illegal. Der’nube said you’d have a list of people who’ve registered on Aji’s website and the services they’ve offered him. I need to find people, other people, who can help me.”
“What kind of people are you looking for?”
“I don’t know. I’ll have to know it when I see it, I guess.”
He thinks and then he goes to his desk, opens his laptop and logs in. “Should I just text you the list?”
“I don’t have a phone,” I say, shrugging. “I’m a fugitive, remember.”
“Ah. Well, it’s too long to print. So, come over here and take a look.”
I hover behind him at the computer. He has a spreadsheet open.
“The list is simple,” he says, “Name, address, phone, whatever they supplied. Then comments. That’s where people offered things. There’s one more column, which indicates whether we reached out to them. Not like mass mailings, but personally.”
“Like if Der’nube asked for services.”
“How many entries do you have?”
“But we can filter it down.”
A few clicks later, Alejandro says, “About 103,205 put comments in.”
“Still a heck of a long list.”
“Let’s start with those Aji’s people contacted?”
“Only 467 of those.”
We scan through the list quickly. Sound engineer. Stage builder. Social media coordinator. Bus driver. Composer. All the sorts of people who can help with a road show. And nothing the least bit helpful.
Just then, there’s a knock at the door. A woman pokes her head in. I presume she’s Alejandro’s wife.
“What’s going on in here?” she asks.
Alejandro gestures towards me with his head, “She’s helping Aji. I’ll get back to dinner soon.”
The woman looks concerned, but she nods her assent and then backs out and closes the door.
“Let’s get this done,” says Alejandro.
“Okay,” I say.
“Can you filter down on people who used words like ‘can’ ‘make’ or ‘do’?”
A few clicks later the list is only 8,954 entries.
“Let’s just start reading, okay?”
Alejandro starts scrolling through the list. People have offered a lot of different services. Some are just ads for things like communications services or website redesign. Others are lawyers or doctors. A few of the entries are sexual. Some offer violence. I ignore them all, I’m not going to seduce or overpower the FBI.
A few minutes pass and then I hear Alejandro take in a deep breath.
“What is it?” I ask.
He points at the screen, like he’s afraid to say it. I read “If you need deepfakes, I can make them for you.”
The address given is in Manhattan.
“What’s a deepfake?” I ask.
“It’s where you use AI, artificial intelligence, to create a video or a sound that looks like it came from somebody it didn’t.”
“Yeah, but a whole lot more convincing.”
“Why would that be useful?”
“You’re trying to get inside a conspiracy, right?”
“Well, what could be better than pretending to be a member?”
“I could make a phone call and pretend to be somebody else?”
“I didn’t tell you this, but, yeah.”
Alejandro looks me over carefully. I can see him considering some kind of important decision.
I just wait.
Then, he stands up suddenly, moves some books from a bookshelf and opens a small safe. He pulls out two thick envelopes.
He hands me the envelopes. Inside are stacks of cash.
“It’s $5,000. I keep cash so I can help people out when they’re in trouble. I only make the kind of money I do because of Aji, so giving some to you kind of makes sense.”
“Thank you,” I say, genuinely grateful. Between transport, disguises and food my own resources had been growing thin.
Next, Alejandro reaches into his desk and grabs a USB drive. He plugs it in to his laptop. “I’m going to copy this list onto this drive. We also have a publicity network. People we send messages to about events and such. I’m going to put that on the drive too.”
A few moments later, he hands me the little stick.
“I need to go back to dinner. Before I go, you need to know that if you get caught and they find out about me, I’ll say you threatened my family. I don’t have any other choice. Got it.”
“Okay,” I say.
The man shows me to the front door. I step outside. He closes it behind me, the world of his fantastic mosaics replaced with the mundane reality of his Jackson Height’s street.
As I pass his little gate I look back at the house.
I hear the pastor’s words in my head.
“You gotta do what you can to raise people up. Then you gotta rely on G-d for the rest.”
I hope G-d remains reliable.
Take a moment before you click Next and consider sharing. The address is josephcox.com/agent