Friday – 9:00 PM
A row of buttons lines the wall of the foyer. Apartment numbers and a few names are written next to each one. I pick apartment 32, the one from the address, and hit the button. Nobody comes on the little speaker. Instead, a few seconds later, there’s a buzz at the door and I’m admitted to the building.
I decide to take the stairs to the third floor. Getting trapped in an elevator, as unlikely as it might be, would be terrible. In under a minute and a half, despite the broken arm and bruises, I stop in front of apartment 32. I hit the doorbell.
Seconds later, a mousy woman in her early 20s is standing in front of me. She has brown hair and long, sloping, features. She’s wearing a shirt that says, “I made a chemistry joke, but there was no reaction.”
“Are you Lennon?” I ask.
She giggles. “Nope. I’m Emma. But come on in.”
I step through the door. There’s a small kitchen and common room there. The area is cluttered with cheap furniture and cheaper utensils. The surfaces reflect exactly the level of cleanliness you’d expect from graduate students living in shared accommodations. A short hallway extends in both directions with a series of doors leading off of it. I presume that they’re bedrooms.
“Lennon!” Emma calls down one of the halls.
“Yeah?” comes a faint male voice.
“You got a visitor! A girl!” The last word is delivered teasingly.
A door in the hall opens. A young, disheveled, overweight white guy steps out briefly. He seems to be the stereotype of a programmer. He also seems to be wearing giant onesies pajamas.
“Whoa!” he says when he sees me. He pops back into his room. I hear furious sounds of movement and then he comes out again, dressed in jeans and another novelty T-shirt. This one has a picture of a skull with the words “Lather, Rinse, Repeat” beneath it.
I don’t get it.
Lennon nervously walks towards the common room. He wipes his hand on his pants and extends it towards me. “Hi,” he says, not quite making eye contact.
I shake his hand, a little reluctantly.
Emma giggles a bit. “Lennon, you gotta look girls in the eye.”
I ignore the comment.
“Hi,” I say, just like he did. Then figuring I probably have to take the lead I add, “I’m here on behalf of Aji Abakar.”
At that, Lennon’s face lights up. In his sudden excitement, he forgets his inhibitions and looks straight at me. “Seriously!”
“Yes,” I say.
“Oh, man,” he says, “I submitted that offer like a year ago. That’s so cool!”
Emma looks curious.
“What offer?” she asks.
“You know what I’m working on, right?” he asks. It is a half-question for me, half-statement aimed at Emma.
I have no idea why I’d know what he’s working on.
“Nope,” I say, as pleasantly as I can manage.
“Oh, man,” he says, “There was a whole lot of press about it like 6 months ago. They called it ‘the Altruistic AI’.”
Emma snorts. “For complete disclosure, the headline in the New York Reporter was ‘Our New Artificially Intelligent, but Altruistic, Overlords.”
Lennon glowers at her. “Yeah, well, you don’t know why I got into it, do you?”
Emma shrugs. I just watch.
“It’s this guy, Aji. I saw a YouTube clip about him. He was talking about blessing. He said when you bless somebody, you create opportunities for them. And I thought, dude, I can make deepfakes, maybe he can use that to bless somebody. So, I submitted something on his website. Then I just forgot about it. Well, the Aji part anyway. But the whole idea of blessing people? That stuck with me. When I saw that video, I was working on a pretty cool problem for my doctorate. There’s this moral and legal problem with self-driving cars. It is pretty basic: do you prioritize the passengers lives over other peoples’?”
He looks at me, expectantly.
“Uh, I don’t know,” I say, guessing he meant to ask me a question.
“Exactly! Are two people in the car worth more than 2 outside? No matter what the choice, the car company can be sued into oblivion and the engineer who helped design it will live with the horror of his decisions on his mind. Right.”
“Right.” I say.
“Well, I had a cool idea. I decided to use another form of AI to go around the problem. We were building an AI that would look at accident records and compare them against social media posts, job titles, home addresses, car types and lots of other public data. Using this data, the AI model can determine the moral choices the driver would make – based on drivers like him or her who had to make similar decisions in the past. So, even though the car’s owner isn’t driving a self-driving car, their morality would still be steering it, so to speak. We’d cut the car company and the engineers right out of the moral loop. Really, we were seeing how closely we could model the most human of decisions through AI.”
“That sounds pretty cool,” I say, genuinely impressed.
“Yeah, well, then I watched Aji’s video. I was doing some seriously cutting-edge AI work, but I didn’t know how that could help him. So, I decided to offer some deepfake work. I’d just use off-the-shelf software for it – although I’d tweaked it some. Nobody ever got back to me though and his whole idea of blessing was just sitting there, demanding that I think about it.”
Lennon’s voice is picking up speed.
“I thought, you know, I’m not doing enough blessing with this car thing. I want to really empower people, not just imitate them. So, I asked my advisor if I could switch projects. The new project was even more ambitious. I wanted an AI that could bless people. Cool, huh?”
“How can an AI bless people?” I asked.
“First, I had to train the AI to recognize empowerment. That’s blessing, right? Normally philosopher types take the easy way out. They go with utilitarianism: the most happiness for the most people. Then, to make it actually measurable, they use money as a stand in for happiness. They end up looking at incomes to determine utility to determine what provides the most good for the most people. There are all sorts of problems with every one of those steps, but philosophers are not very good at dealing with reality. The cool thing is, an AI doesn’t need to think that way. It doesn’t have to measure things; it just has to recognize patterns. So, we could ask, what is the pattern of empowerment – or its opposite? We looked at economic mobility, children’s education and earnings, crime rates, drug use, mental health, divorce rates, quality of life, book sales, savings and so on. We even correlated survey data on happiness, hopefulness and such with demographic data from those same surveys. The system learned to look at all of this stuff and make a sort of biography for a subject and then ask a simple question: was the subject being looked at more or less empowered than before? Not just financially but socially, mentally and so on. There are actually lots of simultaneous scales. And we validated and calibrated the whole thing with human reviews and surveys of actual people we’d assessed.”
Lennon’s eyes are glowing with excitement.
“Here comes the AI overlord bit,” says Emma.
Lennon grins, “Yeah. Because then we connected government policy to those shifts in empowerment. The AI, and we’re still working on it, is being trained to recognize when policies bless people, and when they don’t. It is like a Congressional Budget Office but for personal achievement. It is seriously hardcore stuff. We’re really pushing the boundaries of AI, but we’re all learning a lot from it. The system has already spit out some pretty cool ideas. There’s a long way to go though. I mean, take me. I’ve been empowered because I watched a five-minute video of Aji. He doesn’t even know me. You can’t measure that. Even so, if this AI works, Aji could be blessing entire societies because of that video. I mean, that’s cool, isn’t it?”
“Uh, yeah,” I say. I mean it, but I’m still trying to track everything he’s said.
“While we work on the AI,” Lennon adds, “That whole blessing thing has become like my moral guide. Before I make a decision, I ask which choice will empower people more. And that’s the choice I make. Well, most of the time – I still get greedy. It is a really cool way to think. But up until now, I didn’t even know if Aji got my submission. Now you’re here! I’m probably boring you. A lot of people say I bore them. So, what does Aji want?”
Lennon looks like an excitable puppy.
“Well, this is going to be a doozy of a question for your moral calculator.”
“What is?” asks Lennon, excited.
Emma looks a bit worried.
“Did you know Aji was arrested?” I ask.
Lennon looks at me, incredulous. “What? What for?”
“Murder,” I say.
“Whoa!” says Lennon, “I didn’t see that coming.”
“Oh, he didn’t do it,” I say.
“Yeah, you’d say that” says Emma, with a bit of a sneer.
“Do you know who I am?” I ask her, hoping I’m not walking myself into serious trouble by bringing yet another person in on my identity.
“I’m guessing you’re like some kind of errand girl for Aji,” she says.
“Not quite,” I say, “I’m the FBI Special Agent who built the case against him and arrested him.”
“Whoa!” says Lennon.
Emma looks sideways at him, “I didn’t see that coming.”
I can’t help but smile.
“Now I really wanna know why you’re here,” says Lennon.
“Last night I was talking with a witness and I realized that my boss set Aji up. I worked out how he did it. I worked out how he fed me the evidence. I was just putting it all together when somebody else who was in on his conspiracy came in, shot my only witness and tried to kill me too. Now, I’m a fugitive accused of murder. You can read the news and find out all about it. I want you to help Aji and I want you to help me too.”
They just stare at me. It is their turn to try to catch up. Then after a few seconds, Lennon puts it together. He smiles, “You want the deepfakes to penetrate their conspiracy.”
He’s pretty bright.
“Yeah,” I say.
“To do what?” asks Emma.
“Aji isn’t guilty. At least not of this crime. But the conspiracy against him is willing to kill those who know about it. I want to break him out of prison before he disappears forever. Once he’s out, we can use his network to deal with the conspiracy.”
“Whoa,” says Lennon.
Lennon closes his eyes. He starts rapidly muttering to himself, like he’s doing calculations in his head. Then he flashes his eyes open, looks me straight in the eyes and says, “I’ll do it.”
Emma asks, “Why?”
“If I can help Aji establish his innocence, then lots of people will be blessed. If he isn’t innocent, then he’ll be tracked down and the criminal justice system will be reinforced. It’s a win-win – so long as we don’t get caught.”
He seems to be winking at her.
Emma bites her lower lip, thinking. Then she smiles and says, “Well, okay, I can help with that.”
A few minutes later, I’ve handed over the USB chip, and laid out the basics of my idea. With that, the three of us start in on the hard work of making it actually happen.
Saturday – 1:30 PM
We listen as the phone rings. A moment later a pre-recorded voice asks, “FBI New York Field Office. If you know your party’s extension, please enter it now. Otherwise…”
I enter SAC Miller’s extension. He’s almost certainly at work, even on a Saturday afternoon. If he isn’t, his extension will ring through to his cell.
It seems odd, calling SAC Miller. It seems even odder considering our surroundings. When I’d thought of the work of a hacker, I’d always imagined people chugging Mountain Dews and Red Bulls in darkened basements. But Emma, Lennon and I are sitting in a café just a few blocks north of Foley Square. We’re enjoying lattes served up by a smiling and friendly barista. And we’re breaking more laws than I can count.
We had been up all night, working to set this into motion. It wasn’t a simple operation. Luckily for me, Emma’s chemistry T-shirt was her boyfriend’s. She’s actually getting a Ph.D. in cybersecurity. She’d spent the entire night setting up the relays that would hide our tracks and scramble the FBI’s response. Star Wars jokes aside, and there were a few, I got the impression that the good guys in cybersecurity were never far from the dark side. That done, Lennon set up the deepfake itself. He downloaded hours upon hours of recordings of our target and used them to train an AI to speak just like the target. The fact that we’d be doing this over the phone helped, it cut out lots of frequencies the AI wouldn’t have to master. It also meant the system could just learn what it needed to in the little time we had.
Finally, I fine-tuned the plan as the two of them taught me about the powers, and limits, of their hacking and deepfake capabilities.
Now, we’re here, sipping Lattes with headphones plugged into a single laptop I purchased with Alejandro’s cash in Midtown. Picking the laptop was easy. As I’m a fugitive who might not know when I’ll have a chance to plug in, we bought the computer with the longest battery life.
While the deepfake was being trained to speak like the target, we pre-loaded a list of expected phrases that I could activate with a touch. But the unexpected could happen. To deal with this, Lennon set up a system that will recognize my words and then speak them in the target’s voice – almost instantaneously. It wasn’t perfect, the delay would seem a little unnatural, but we had to make do with what was possible. What we were doing, even with the considerable computing resources Lennon had at his disposal, was not exactly easy.
Initially, I’d wanted to have a few voices to work with. We couldn’t do that though. The AI needs a library of recordings from the subject. At one extreme, the deepfake target couldn’t possibly be Marshall Johnson – not unless we tapped his phone. At the other extreme, it could easily be the President of the United States. The only problem with that was that the possibility of her calling SAC Miller was low.
Thankfully, there was a useful target right in the middle: Sheila Markoff, the politically cut-throat Director of the FBI.
After a few rings, SAC Miller picks up the phone. “Director?” he says. Emma’s relays have successfully managed to spoof the caller ID. Apparently, that isn’t as hard as it should be.
“Good morning, Miller,” says the voice of Director Markoff, after I tap the prompt on the screen.
“What’s going on?” asks Miller.
Another tap, “You need to move Aji to the MCC.”
The MCC is the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a detention facility a few blocks from the FBI offices. It has housed some of the most dangerous prisoners in Federal History, including terrorists, drug lords and mobsters.
None have ever escaped.
“Why?” asks Miller.
Another tap, “We’ve gotten some recent chatter on channels related to Aji’s organization. They’re planning something big for this afternoon. I think Neisha is going to try and break Aji out of the FBI offices. We need to move Aji, quickly, to someplace more secure.”
There has been chatter. We’d generated it. We’d broken Aji’s publicity list into three parts. The FBI identities, which I recognized, were bundled with a host of less involved Aji supporters. I recorded a message for them, telling them both Aji and I were innocent and asking them to gather at Battery Park at 1:45PM for a 20-minute protest march up to Foley Square. I asked them, if possible, to wear African robes in solidarity.
Thousands of people have already shown up at Foley Square. If I were Miller, it could certainly look like cover for something audacious.
Miller says, “Come on, Sheila –“
I suddenly panic. First names? Does Director Markoff call Miller James or Jim? I write out a quick note on a notepad, asking Lennon to change all the ‘Miller’s to ‘Jim’s. I hope I got it right.
Miller is still speaking, “Given what you really know about her, do you really think Neisha suddenly going to try to break into the Federal Building?”
The suggestion of my innocence in that sentence gives me chills. Is the Director part of the conspiracy?
That’s not good.
Thankfully, it was one of the possibilities we’d mapped out.
“Jim,” Director Markoff’s voice says calmly, “We’ve pushed her to the wall. We don’t know what she’ll do. Remember, Aji has a mole in your office so she might just be able to pull it off.”
I hear SAC Miller sigh. At least he doesn’t seem to have responded badly to the Jim. I guess we got it right.
“Okay. I’ll get it done.”
Another tap. “When?”
“Well, it sounds like the marchers will be here in about 45 minutes. I’ve got to get things ready here. Maybe 30 minutes?”
“Okay, one more thing,” says the Director’s voice, “Don’t use Foley Square. We believe they’re planning on gathering there.”
“Got it,” says SAC Miller.
A moment later, the line goes dead.
Just in case Miller decides to check whether the real Markoff has called him, Emma has rerouted the Director’s cell and office phone. If he places a call to the Director, it’ll go straight to us.
“Whoa,” says Lennon, “That sounded an awful lot like the Director of the FBI is in on this conspiracy you’ve been talking about. That, and the conspiracy actually exists.”
I ask, “Any response to the other messages?”
The other messages were to a stronger group of Aji supporters. People we hoped would be willing to break the law. They were sent only to those with secure messaging apps. The other messages didn’t tell people to gather at the hotel. They told them to keep a low profile and to come directly to the area surrounding Foley Park.
They’d get further instructions when they got there.
“Yeah,” says Lennon, “About 500 people agreed to show up.”
I smile. No matter what ‘Director Markoff’ claimed, I couldn’t break Aji out of the FBI offices. The FBI, though, could.
I finish my coffee, pack up my laptop and stand up to leave.
“Thanks,” I say, “For everything.”
The two of them nod and I walk out of the café.
If the plan goes as well as I hope it will, I’ll go from being ‘just’ awanted fugitive to being public enemy number one. Once Aji is out, Emma and Lennon will do everything they can to burn any trace of what they have done.
As interesting and as impressive as their work has been, I doubt I’ll ever see either one of them again.
Saturday – 1:50 PM
I walk the few blocks down to the corner of Duane Street and Broadway. I’m standing directly across the street from the Jacob Javits Federal Building and I feel incredibly exposed. The FBI is looking for me and, at this very moment, SAC Miller could literally look his window and see me, standing here, waiting.
It can’t be helped though; this is where I need to be.
I’m dressed in a raincoat wrapped tightly around Dr. Abedi’s African robes. Nothing suspicious there, right? I’m not terribly worried about being picked up on camera. It turns out hackers and AI specialists know even more than I do about fooling facial recognition systems. Lennon and Emma not only worked on my appearance, they tested their work on a facial recognition system they had set up in their apartment. People aren’t AI’s though. What fools a computer won’t necessarily fool a person.
I glance across the street at the cop sitting in a hardened post next to a row of bollards protecting the FBI’s side of Duane Street. I nod at him and he nods back. I’m try very hard to look like I’m waiting for somebody. I hope he doesn’t pay me too much attention.
Ten minutes later, a man walks up to me. He’s young and black. He’s carrying a Walgreen’s bag. I lean forward and greet him like I’ve known him for years. I even give him a little kiss on the cheek. Then, hand in hand, we begin to walk slowly, very slowly down the block. I slip my laptop into the plastic bag and then take the bag itself from the man. I don’t have two working arms; I can’t carry two things. Out of the corner of my eye I see a large, armored, van pull to the bollards. The cop in the little bulletproof hut hits a button and the bollards lower.
I don’t have a phone because I’m trying to keep myself under the radar. I can imagine exactly what’s happening, though. We’d picked one of the highly motivated Aji supporters at random. We’d asked him to text Emma and Lennon when a potential prisoner transport van exited the parking lot. We couldn’t work out a way of knowing whether any particular van has Aji in it. So, we had to ask. When they got the text, Emma and Lennon would use the deepfake again to call SAC Miller and check on the status of the transfer.
If the first possible prisoner van is our van, then SAC Miller will confirm it – happily informing the Director of the FBI that the van has just left the building. If not, then we’ll go with the next van – and take our chances that there aren’t too many prisoners being moved on a Saturday afternoon.
Thankfully, SAC Miller told the “deepfake Director” that this was the van. I know this for a simple reason: As the van pulls past the bollards, a crowd seems to emerge like a fog from the side streets. It is particularly dense at Reade Street, one block down.
I know that text messages are being sent to each of the 500 people here. Like chess pieces they are being told to converge on the block. A few hundred will block the van at Reade Street and a few hundred more will come up behind the van and block its retreat near Duane Street. At any normal part of Broadway, the van might be able to drive up on the sidewalk or take advantage of the road’s width to find a weak spot in the crowd. This, however, is not a normal part of Broadway. Heavy concrete barriers have been placed specifically to block off the lanes on the side closest to the Federal buildings that line the road. Additional concrete dividers protect the opposite sidewalk. In the interests of stopping car bombs and vehicular attacks, the normally three-lane Broadway has been reduced to only two lanes with concrete barriers preventing any vehicle from deviating from this narrow path. 500 people can block two lanes of traffic.
The van pulls onto Broadway. As it proceeds lazily down the street, the crowd suddenly surges in front of it. The driver can see what’s happening. He pulls to a screeching halt and slams the vehicle into reverse. He’s too late though. Hundreds more people are jumping the concrete barriers and crowding the road at the intersection of Duane and Broadway. The driver might be willing to run down a few people to deliver his prisoner. Killing dozens is another matter, entirely.
Within 30 seconds of turning onto Broadway the van is trapped.
The cop in the booth is already calling in reinforcements. I can see him do it. The Federal Building has a special contingent of police and hundreds of other officers can be mustered pretty quickly. We need to move fast.
We are moving fast.
Just as the van was identified, text messages were sent to the marchers coming up from Battery Park. Thousands more protestors will be joining the 500 hard-core supporters who have trapped the van. Press coverage will come with them.
The hope is that a hard and sharp operation against peaceful religious protestors would look very bad indeed.
On cue, the crowd surrounding the van begins to shout: “FREE AJI! FREE AJI!”
I maneuver near the rear door of the vehicle.
Less than two minutes later, the dedicated force at the Federal Building rushes out and takes positions north of us. I also see the first of the African-robed protestors join the crowd around the van. Less than a minute later a dozen cops have arrayed themselves a few hundred feet from the crowd in preparation for something. Of course, in the same brief time period, we’ve gone from 500 people to more than 2,000.
Our advantage won’t last long. We have maybe 15 minutes before hundreds more police show up. They’ll form riot-control lines and, with tear gas support, begin to move through the crowd. One way or another they will disperse the crowd and they will arrest a fair number of people along the way. The concrete barriers will work against us and everything we’ve done will have achieved nothing.
That isn’t really the deadline though. In perhaps five minutes, the police will have a large enough cordon to stop anybody they want – myself and Aji included – from leaving the scene.
Realistically, we have fewer than five minutes to get Aji out of the van and on the move.
“FREE AJI! FREE AJI!”
The crowd is growing in size and volume. I can imagine the press filing their first reports. I can imagine notifications reaching SAC Miller, Director Markoff and the rest of the conspiracy. I can imagine SAC Miller looking out his window and seeing us gathered here.
I can only hope the rest of the plan is coming together. Director Markoff must be trying to call SAC Miller. Emma couldn’t do some precise rerouting of her attempts to reach the Special Agent in Charge. The protections around her communications were too extensive. Instead, she messed with everything on the local side of the FBI communications. Any call to the FBI in New York from outside of New York will reach some random extension. She’d have to get very lucky to actually contact Miller. The real Director Markoff could email SAC Miller. We can only hope that she wouldn’t do that in an emergency – at least not quickly.
The “deepfake Director” has no such issues. Right now, I hope, SAC Miller’s phone is ringing. Our deepfake of Director Markoff is on the other end of the line. She’s explaining to “Jim” that she’s afraid this is going to be another Waco. That we need to let Aji out of the van before the FBI takes a major public-relations hit.
Given that I’m still waiting, I’m guessing he’s not going for it. He wants to wait for the riot police. I can appreciate his argument: time is on his side. More cops seem to be showing up by the second.
I hope the ‘Director’ is patiently explaining that in China the government gives protestors everything they want – and then arrests them a few weeks or months later. Once the heat has died down. I’m hoping she’s arguing that nobody denies the power of that state.
But it seems that SAC Miller is not convinced.
A policeman points at me. They’ve recognized who I am. A small contingent begins to push its way through the crowd, towards me.
The clock is running out far faster than I’d imagined it would.
I hope our last resort works. I hope the ‘Director’ is ordering SAC Miller to let Aji out. I hope, in the world of the conspiracy, that he’s not the one in charge.
I hope it works because if it doesn’t, things will get very bad very quickly.
The cops are 20 feet away, trying to push through the crowd. It is then that the back door of the van opens. I glance inside. My heart jumps when I see Aji standing there, his shackles off. I’m shocked by the strength of my reaction. Aji is wearing an orange jumpsuit, designed specifically to make it hard to disappear. I don’t see Johnson. I would have thought he’d be assigned to this prisoner transport. Maybe he’s on sick leave due to the hit he took.
Aji strides towards the door and then steps to the threshold of the van. The crowd erupts in cheers.
“Get down here!” I say, urgently. He steps down from the van. I put the Walgreen’s bag on the pavement and with my one good arm I pull out an orange-dominated Agbaba (a West African robe). I hand it to him. He slips it over his head. The overwhelming color of the jumpsuit fades away behind the bold patterns of the African fabric.
In that instant, he is made almost indistinguishable from the rest of the crowd.
I pick up the bag (which still has my computer) and start running from the police. Aji follows. We race through the crowd. It clears for us, just a bit. It doesn’t seem to have cleared for the police though, and we quickly put distance between us. Then I kneel once more, put down the bag and take off my raincoat with my one good hand. I stuff it into the bag. By the time I stand up again, I am just another dot in a crowd full of color.
Then the final planned text message comes: “Disperse!”
I know it does because moments later, the crowd heads off in every direction. Robed, plain-clothed, black, white and just plain numerous. They jump the barriers. They push past the outnumbered police. We join them, two people in an untraceable mass. Just in case, Emma was going to try her hand at messing with the video surveillance in the area.
Five minutes later, we’ve left the scene far behind.
I can only imagine what we’ve left behind: an empty van on an empty street and both a legitimate organization and an illegal conspiracy trying to piece together what happened. I can imagine the accusations that are beginning to fly.
We’ve done it though. I’ve got Aji.
Finally, I can rely on his network. His contacts. His people. I won’t need to keep pulling miracles from inside an invisible hat.
I’ve got Aji! I feel almost giddy with the realization.
When we reach the corner of Canal and Lafayette, a few blocks from the scene, Aji turns to me.
His eyes are dark with anger.
His voice barely more than whisper, he says, “You really shouldn’t have done that.”
I’d expected gratitude. Maybe even a touch of awe. But anger?
I can’t even begin to understand why Aji Abakar would be angry.
Saturday – 2:30 PM
“What?” I ask, too shocked, disappointed and angry to form a more complex thought.
Aji continues, “After everything you’ve learned you haven’t worked it out? I’m a curse. People who curse me are cursed. Now, they can watch video of me breaking out of jail?!? They can see me defying the rules and attacking the justice system. Who is going to bless me for that? Only the people who already liked me. But the rest? They’ll curse and they’ll be cursed. How could you do that?”
“You being locked up; it wasn’t justice.” I say.
“What wasn’t justice? That a man who’s killed more people than you’ve known ends up in jail? That a man who continues to be responsible for suffering, suffers?”
“You didn’t kill John Buckner.”
“So what? Somebody did. And they did it because of me. How does breaking me out of jail help with that?”
“I thought you said you wanted an angel of justice.”
“I want an angel of justice. That doesn’t mean somebody who comes to mydefense.”
“Maybe it does. Somebody decided to set you up for the murder of John Buckner. Don’t we have to deal with them? Don’t they need justice?”
“They’ve cursed me. G-d will take care of them.”
For a moment, I’m flabbergasted. Then I shoot back, “So, you just want to stand back and do nothing and hope G-d balances the scales.”
“Balances the scales? I said whoever set me up cursed me and will be cursed. I didn’t say they would deserve to be cursed. There’s no balancing that I can understand.”
I want to shout, but it would attract too much attention.
“Listen, Aji, I’m simple. I don’t work in crazy riddles like that. I can deal with one thing at a time. You didn’t kill John Buckner, so I needed to set you free.”
“You’re simple? Rallying thousands of people to break me out of a police van at just the right time and place is simple? If you have your evidence, present it and get the charges pulled. That’s simple. And nobody would curse me for it. Everybody wins.”
“That’s what I wanted to do. Except my boss is the one who set you up.”
“So, go to the press. Make your case there.”
“Then he had my bodyguard charge in and shoot the only witness who knew about it. He meant to kill me too. I escaped so he did the next best thing he could and set me up for the murder. My boss went on TV and everything.”
Aji’s anger seems to fall away. “They killed Mike?” he says.
“The bartender? I think that was his name, yeah.”
I’ve never heard Aji swear.
“Mike was a good guy. A very good guy. If you really want justice, shove me in front of a truck and end this.” he says.
“Aji, you didn’t kill him. They killed him. They ordered it. They pulled the trigger. We need justice.”
“Oh, and how are you going to get it?”
“That’s the other reason I broke you out.”
“What are you talking about? How does breaking me out help?”
“Aji, I can’t deal with this alone. I’ve done everything I can. But I need your network.”
“Yeah. The way I figured it, your conspiracy might just trump theirs.”
He snorts. “Neisha, I don’t have a conspiracy.”
“Aji, stop playing games on this. You had an informant on my team. Inside the FBI. You got ahold of my college essay. You have incredible people in incredible places.”
“I never said I had a conspiracy.”
“So how in the heck did you get my college essay?”
“Somebody in your office messaged me the night you found the so-called evidence against me. They didn’t give their name; the account was anonymous. But they talked about you. They said you’d spent a year chasing phantom leads in an effort to make a random pattern into a crime. They said that wasn’t why they joined the FBI. So, they got ahold of your file, read it, and became convinced you were on some sort of unholy vendetta. The message said you were a fanatic. They had proof. The proof was your college essay. That’s it. That’s my mole in the FBI.”
“One anonymous message?” I ask.
“A long message, but just one message.”
The window of hope seems to shrink in front of me. I won’t let it close though. “Maybe you got other messages from other people. Maybe we can reach out to them. Maybe we can create a conspiracy.”
He just shakes his head, “Neisha, I don’t even know who this person was. There is no conspiracy, and I can’t build one. More importantly, I won’t.”
“What do we do then?”
He doesn’t reply. Not at first.
Then he says, “You shouldn’t have broken me out.”
“I had to,” I say, “You’re innocent and they never would have let you go.” I don’t add that I wanted to rescue him; and that I desperately wanted his gratitude.
He doesn’t answer. He doesn’t need to. I know what he wants to say. As we keep walking, no destination in mind, I look around and notice a remarkable thing. More and more people seem to be coming out into the streets dressed in African clothes. Women, children, whites, blacks, Hispanics and even Asians.
All of them trying to stand with Aji.
As we pass one old white woman in an ill-suited African dress, I turn to Aji and say, “They are dressing up in solidarity with you.”
“They will be blessed,” he says. But there is no warmth in it. No appreciation. For him, it is just a statement of fact.
We just keep walking.
We are in midtown when I hear footsteps rushing up behind me. I feel a brief jolt of fear. Just as quickly, it melts away. I suddenly don’t care. Hopelessness has become acceptance, as if I have reached the end of a process of mourning.
I don’t run. I don’t prepare to fight. When I feel a tap on my shoulders, I begin to lift my hands to my head.
“No, no,” says the voice behind me in some sort of Indian accent.
I turn around. There’s no Special Agent there. No policeman. No Marshall. There’s just a middle-aged hotdog vendor. In his hands are two hotdogs with all the fixings.
He says, “You forgot your food.”
He thrusts the hotdogs towards us.
“We didn’t buy hotdogs,” I say.
He just smiles, winks, and says, “Free Aji.”
Aji reaches forward and takes his hotdog. I do the same.
Then the hotdog vendor turns and walks back to his cart.
The man has committed a crime: aiding fugitives from justice. And for what? Is there any point to any of it? We keep walking, but I still don’t know where we’re going or what we’re trying to achieve.
At around 75th and Madison, Aji says, “Der’nube told you about the Prophet, right?”
“Yes.” I say, “He was the leader of the Chosen.”
“When I was in the jungle, I thought he was more than that. I thought he was a Prophet of G-d.”
“How could you, when you saw what he was doing?”
“Have you read the Book of Numbers? The killings, the genocides? The ideas are there. Not that that proved anything to me. I didn’t know anything about the Bible before he chose me. What I did know, what we all knew, was that the Prophet was always victorious. If he claimed G-d delivered his victories, how could I argue? For us, the rest was just window dressing.”
He laughs bitterly. “We really seemed to be building a chosen people, too. We were blessed with victory in our holy endeavor… but I loathed every moment of it. Neisha, I killed my own parents so that I could survive. It doesn’t matter that the Chosen told me to. I did it. Then I took the lives of so many others – so I could survive. I hated myself as much as I hated G-d and His Prophet.”
I turn towards him. The pain on his face is obvious.
“It wasn’t your fault, Aji. You didn’t have a choice. If you hadn’t lived, some other child would have taken your place. Nobody would have had their lives spared.”
“Neisha, you can see the mathematics of it. You’re far from it. You can count lives. But I lived it. Yes, if I hadn’t chosen to kill then my victims still would have died. But I wouldn’t have been the one killing them.”
I remember the other child soldier’s talking about the way he killed. The way those who died were uplifted by him. “Aji, others slaughtered but you tried to end lives with honor and dignity.”
“Is that what you heard from Der’nube and the others?”
“They didn’t understand, then. They never understood. I wasn’t trying to make those I killed feel better. They were better. Every time I took a life, I was just learning how much better. They were better because they died and would never become killers. Their deaths showed their greatness, in and of themselves. My soul, though, was corrupted the first time I pulled that trigger. If I had been better, I would have died with my parents. Instead, each time I took a life I kept telling myself I’d eventually find some kind of salvation.”
“So why did you do all the killing for your squad. Why not let them do their share?”
“Neisha, that was one of my justifications. I was trying to protect their souls from my horror.”
A question strikes me, “What kind of salvation were you hoping for?”
“One that almost came,” he says with a grimace, “Der’nube told you about the Prophet summoning me?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Well, even Der’nube doesn’t know the whole story. The Prophet thought he was going to kill me. His men thought he was going to kill me. But I was the one who was going to kill him. I believed he was a prophet of Almighty G-d and I was going to kill him anyway. Can you imagine that?”
I try, but I can’t. I can’t imagine any of it. I just shake my head.
“That was the last time I held a gun. The Chosen didn’t have pistols. Only the Prophet did. He was afraid of us, really. The lack of pistols was a way he kept himself safe. It is hard to hide an AK-47 on the body of a 12-year-old. But I’d found a pipe which was the perfect size. The body of an AK cartridge fit in the pipe, but the rim didn’t – just like on my rifle. When I came to the Prophet, I held that loaded pipe in one hand. In the other, I had the firing pin. I’d practiced slamming one against the other, again and again until I knew I could do it perfectly. When they brought me to the Prophet, they didn’t search me. I wouldn’t be close enough to use a knife and I couldn’t possibly have had a gun. Instead, they shoved me to my knees a safe distance in front of him.
“I was going to kill him. Then I was going to die. But I didn’t do it right away. I held back. Maybe, I didn’t want to die. I know I didn’t want to die. That time, when my own life was at risk, I didn’t kill. That time, he looked in my eyes and a moment later, I’d lost my chance.”
“He died though.”
“Yes, but I didn’t take him. I didn’t act. Instead I got that prophecy. His only real prophecy: “Those who bless you will be blessed and those who curse will be cursed.” I didn’t believe any of it. All I knew is that I’d missed my chance. My squad rescued me. As I’m sure they told you, the first village we came to was cursed but the second was blessed. When I saw that, I thought I could be redeemed. Not in some small African village, though. It wasn’t big enough. I thought maybe I could come here and I could spread blessing all over the world. I could make something right. But that was the worst decision of all.”
He stops and takes in a long and ragged breath. “I didn’t know my curses has led to hundreds being wounded and over 30 people being killed. You told me that. I’d only known about 4 people. When you told me about 30, I couldn’t help but ask myself: ‘Who didn’t she discover?’ I kept wondering how much deeper I’d dug my own hole. In Garubia it was life or death. If I didn’t kill, I would have died. But I didn’t have to come here. I could have stayed in that village. And now you’ve broken me out the curses will spread.”
We’ve almost reached 110th Street, but I still don’t know where we’re going.
I can’t help but ask, “What happened to the confident, wise, man in the interrogation room? To the man on the weekly broadcasts? To the one who seems to have all the answers?”
“Special Agent Jackson, it was all an act. A desperate attempt to bless and empower and enable. I can’t quite explain it, but I even wanted to protect and enable and empower you – the fanatic bent on destroying me. I didn’t want you to go after me because you would have been cursed. The very idea pained me. When I had my chance, I made up a different interpretation of that college essay. I even convinced you of it. Not because I wanted you to rescue me. But because I wanted you to be blessed.”
I’m stunned by that. “You convinced me I was chosen. You convinced me I’d put my life on the line in the service of justice. How could you not have believed it?”
“Neisha, look at where we are and what we’re doing. Whether or not I was right about you, I am now.”
As I think about that, I realize it’s true. Whether it was some sort of elaborate bluff or not, Aji tests and interpretations have defined me.
Aji continues, “I lift up others just because I’m desperate to escape what I have done.”
I imagine he’d lift up others even without that reality. Maybe, though, he’s in the middle of his own test.
“Did you drink to destroy yourself?” I ask. I can imagine Aji in that bar, spilling out his soul to Mike – the only man who knew his pain. I ache with the sadness of that image.
“No,” says Aji, “I can’t destroy myself. People can’t see my weakness. Even before the curse they couldn’t see my weakness. In the jungle, with the Chosen, I took the drugs. I just didn’t let the others see me do it. I had to let them think there was a better way, despite the fact that I wasn’t strong enough to take it. No, I drink for the same reason I took the drugs. To dull my reality.”
Escaping reality was the last thing I’d expected from this man.
“If you need everybody to think you’re strong, then why show me you’re weak?”
Aji waits a long while before he answers. “Do you know what a Sonderkommando was?”
“No?” I say.
“A Sonderkommando was a Jew who was forced to help operate the gas chambers during the Holocaust. A Sonderkommando would lead untold thousands of people to their deaths. He couldn’t tell them a thing. He was complicit in every part of the process. If he didn’t perform, then the Nazis would kill him.”
“You think you’re like a Sonderkommando?”
“I read a book about a Sonderkommando – at least I started it. In the book, the Sonderkommando comes back to haunt the dreams of a woman he’d never known. He came to her because he wanted her to seek judgement for his actions. For better or worse, Neisha, I want judgment. Not G-d’s, not the FBI’s, but yours.”
That final word stands alone. Somehow it is not judgement, but my judgement that he seeks.
I can’t wrap my head around his world of fate and blessings and prophecies. It frightens me. And somehow the implications are just too great for me. I know what I know. I know Aji is being framed for a murder he didn’t commit. The criminal justice system is being bent in order to destroy him. Whether he deserves it or not, I will do what I can to defend him.
That is a justice I can understand.
I’m not going to be his angel of justice, I’m going to find us a place to hide. My mind scans through the same list of options I’d had while fleeing the bar. I rule out rooftops and empty apartments, just as I had before. I can’t go to somebody’s home, Aji wouldn’t be willing to endanger them. Perhaps we can try to sleep in the park, although I’m sure a regular police patrol would find us.
Then I remember. There’s a museum not far from “the Railroad Lounge” – the bar in Hunts Point. It’s a little place, the Museum of Slave Art. I’d been there a few times. The last time, they’d shown me a weed-filled plot of fenced-in land where they were planning an extension. Maybe we could hide there.
I decide to keep walking, rather than taking the subway. The subway is riskier, and the museum isn’t that far.
As we walk, the medium-rise office buildings are sporadically replaced, with housing projects, walk-up apartment blocks, a few empty lots and even single-story commercial buildings. We walk past an increasing number of little NYPD guard towers, hoping the cameras within won’t recognize us.
I watch Aji the entire time, remembering what he’d told me: G-d seeks beauty in souls. Pain is just a tool in His hands.
I see pain in Aji. Pain I can hardly imagine. But I also see beauty.
As we cross the Harlem River, I realize that I know him better than anybody in the world. He might be the only person who knows me at all – even if the ‘me’ he knows is the one he seems to have defined.
I realize that all we have is each other.
That isn’t what compels me though, as I reach my hand out to grip his. I reach for him out of loneliness or desperation. I reach out because I want his touch. As my fingers touch his, his hand wraps around my hand and he holds me tightly. Pain rushes through my burns, but I welome it. There’s a desperation I realize I should have expected. But there’s also a need I’m delighted to find.
It is almost six by the time we come to the front of the museum on a quiet side street at the upper edges of Hunts Point. The sun has already gone down by the time we walk up the short flight of stairs to the front door. The woman inside sees me. Thankfully, she doesn’t seem to recognize either of us.
As I push open the door she says, “We’re closing soon.”
“I just want to quickly show my friend something,” I say.
She looks doubtful. I reach into my pocket and hand her a $20 bill. It is one of the few bills still left from Alejandro’s generosity.
“Okay,” she says, with a can’t-help-the-stupid shrug.
The two of us, unrecognized, walk right past her.
“What is this place?” Aji asks.
His eyes are roaming over the pottery, the paintings, the fine wooden furniture and even the rare examples of silversmithing. All of it is work done by slaves. Most of it was done for masters, although a good portion was intended for sale. Only a few pieces, like the pottery gods inspired by West African religion, were made by the slaves for the slaves themselves.
“It is a place to hide,” I say.
I head straight for the back of the building. The museum isn’t large, it doesn’t take long. The rear door, though, is locked and alarmed. There’s a little sign over it: The Future Home of the Slave Art Experience. I pull Aji aside and I pretend to look over one of the exhibits as I think about how to get through the door.
It is then that a woman walks up next to me, acting as if she too wants to admire the exhibit. She’s a white middle-aged woman in an immaculate dress. She also the founder of the museum. She’d showed me around before.
Silently, she lays her electronic pass on the little shelf in front of us. She says one name, “David Drake,” and then walks away. Drake fashioned the pottery we’re admiring. I have no idea why she brought him up.
I pick up the pass, and head to the back door once again. I wave it over the little reader and the door clicks open.
Aji opens it and holds it for me. I slip through it and he follows close behind me.
The lot behind the museum is still empty. It is still fenced in. The only thing that has changed is that there are now little red flags marking where the rest of the building will soon be.
Aji closes the door and a moment later, we take a seat on the narrow steps leading down to the lot from museum. Our legs touch again, but unlike the night I arrested him, I allow the thrill to pass through me unchecked.
“What is this place?” Aji asks, a second time.
“It is a place to hide,” I say, “But we’re not the first to hide here.”
Aji just waits for me to say more. We have nothing but time, so I begin to tell the story.
“The woman inside, the white woman, is a collector of folk art. She was a partner at a major investment bank. About 10 years ago, she bought a strange little porcelain doll. It was strange because it was of a grown man and because it was unbalanced. It couldn’t stand up. It had belonged to a young slave girl who’d been killed trying to run away. Another slave had taken it off her body and kept it and over a hundred and fifty years later, one of that slave’s descendants sold it online, family story and all. The woman inside bought it. Just another piece in her collection.
“A few years after that, she came across another doll. This one had been found by a servant’s kid in a collapsed shanty in Hunts Point. This was from back when Hunts Point was home to mansions, not distribution centers and seedy bars. The kid had kept the doll. It was of a little black girl. It was also unbalanced. His descendants sold it too – family story and all. They didn’t think much of it. The woman’s husband bought it for her – he thought she might like it.
“Only after it was in her home did the woman notice how similar the two dolls were. She put them up against each other and they fit together. They supported each other, like some sort of 3D jigsaw. She dug into both stories and she worked out that the dolls were of a father and a daughter. Before his daughter had been taken from him, the father had made two little dolls. She kept his doll and he kept hers. If they ever met again, they’d know each other – no matter how many years had passed. They never did see each other again, though.
“The man escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad. He fled here and built himself a little shanty. This was the place where he’d hidden. His daughter, yearning for that same freedom, never made it. When all the pieces of the story were brought together, the woman in museum bought the site of the old runaway’s shanty. She brought the dolls here. She brought them together after over a hundred and fifty years. And she resigned from the bank, dedicating the rest of her life to preserving the voices of those who had been powerless.”
I glance at Aji. His eyes are tearing up. He breathes out the words, “They were reunited after a hundred and fifty years. And now, they inspire others. The Lord preserves lovingkindness for thousands of generations.”
“Exodus 34,” I say, my unique Sunday School education reflexively triggered. “Destruction lasts for a few generations, but kindness can be preserved forever.”
We sit there for a long moment, thinking about that. Then I say, “Aji, you had to come here. There are those who will be cursed, yes. But your kindness, even your kindness in killing, will be sustained forever.”
Aji glances over at me and I see something remarkable in his eyes. I see just a hint of salvation.
And possibly something more.
We fall asleep there, together, propped up against the backdoor of the Museum of Slave Art.
It is a place to hide, yes.
But it is so much more than that.
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