Sunday – 5:54 AM
I wake up as the world around us brightens. Then I realize where I am and why and I freak out. In the space of three days, I’ve gone from an FBI agent wrapping up a case against a murderer to a fugitive hiding in an empty lot behind a museum. I have no plans, no ideas. No future. There is no way for me to turn back the clock.
I feel Aji take in a deep breath as he leans against me and just as soon as it arrived, my panic subsides. I don’t want to turn back the clock. I don’t want to go back to being the FBI agent trying to put this man away for the rest of his life. I don’t want to look for his network – if it even exists. I just want to sit here and feel him breath.
So, I do.
I know it can’t last forever, though. I can’t stop myself from thinking, from imagining, from doing something like planning. And so, as we sit there, resting against each other, I begin to survey our surroundings.
In the early morning light, I can see more than I had the night before. I quickly realize our small touches of good fortune. The location is about as secluded as you get outdoors in New York. The fence at the edge of the lot is high. It has a gate, so construction vehicles can eventually enter. But the gate itself is solid – and can’t easily be seen through. It is secured by a thick chain that wraps through two appropriately sized gaps in the material. The side of the row house on the right has a solid brick wall. The one on the left has just a few small windows – probably ventilation from bathrooms. Most of those windows are boarded up.
The place clearly isn’t occupied.
It will probably take a good long while for our pursuers to find us here.
Of course, eventually they will still find us.
In a way, the little space is both a haven and a prison. We can’t leave. We can’t fight back. We can only wait until our executioners come.
I feel my panic coming back. I need to do something. I need some idea I can hold on to. Some small step I can take to push back. In my mind, I make a catalog of our resources.
Allies on the outside, willing to help Aji. I don’t know how I’d use them though. A computer able to watch the world, but not the parts of it that threaten us. A public reputation that might help us – but only if we can stay in public. Once we disappear from public view, it wouldn’t be hard to fabricate a story about suicide or attempted escapes.
And an informant. An unknown informant. But an informant who might be able to see what needs to be seen. An informant who might have resources we can actually use. That is something new.
As I sit there in the pre-dawn light, I begin to turn the question of the informant over in my mind. I need something to stop me from thinking about the inescapable.
What do I know? I know the informant said he or she ‘didn’t join the FBI to do this’. Of course, almost everybody in the bureau is ideologically motivated. The pay isn’t great. That doesn’t mean the clue is worthless. Many people have had a career of actions they have been proud of. This comment suggests, just barely, a more recent recruit.
The comment also suggests a recruit who had a choice. Of course, the FBI doesn’t press men and women into service. As a law enforcement officer, though, the bureau is less of an option than it is an opportunity. It isn’t normal for a police officer to turn down the chance to join the Bureau. It’s an opportunity. The informant, though, seems to have joined for the ideology. For them, the FBI may have represented a step backward in how their career would normally be measured. Perhaps it suggests somebody who took a major pay cut to join the bureau.
The comment isn’t the only clue though. The informant also got his or her hands on a copy of my college essay. I didn’t submit that to the FBI, that person turned it up. It had to be in my personnel file. The informant has to have had access to that file. SAC Miller and the Director would have had that kind of access, but they are certainly not Aji’s allies. People in the Human Resources Branch would, but they wouldn’t be involved enough in my work to care. That leaves two options: people able to coerce or entice somebody in the Human Resources Branch to turn over the data – or people able to steal it.
I flip through the people on my team – those most likely to have felt pressed into a role they did not support.
There was Clara McGuinness, a long-term agent might have friends in the Human Resources department. She told me to interrogate Aji myself. Did she do it because she wanted Aji freed? Then again, she pushed hard for protection from the US Marshalls. Did she know who was actually going to be called? If she did, she was no friend of Aji’s. If she didn’t though? Then she was a genuine friend of mine – and thus no friend of Aji’s. It is hard to imagine her both trusting Aji and demanding protection for me.
How about Bill Riley, the expert of complex conspiracies? He could also have contacts in Human Resources. Surely, in his work with the mafia and terrorist organizations, he’s encountered single-minded pursuits against criminals with few things actually linking them to their crimes. A mafioso can be pursued for years before a successful prosecution can be mounted. I can’t see him imagining Aji in any other light. He wouldn’t be upset by the cadence of the investigation, he’d have been expecting it.
Jason Peters? He’s friendly by default, but no pushover. He is certainly a networker. If he wanted my file, he could have had it – easily. If he was an idealist, though, he kept it under wraps. He also suggested that Der’nube concept of family was about ‘violence, intimidation, group loyalty and following some charismatic religious crazy’. That theory wouldn’t spring to the mind of a man sympathetic to our suspect.
That leaves Matthew Crass. I’m sure he’s able to access any records and I know he took a major pay cut to join the bureau. He’s a new recruit as well, from outside law enforcement. Any of the team might be a possibility, but Matthew seems to be the one most likely to have been the informant. Of course, the informant didn’t have to be on my team at all. It could have been some clerical worker two cubicles over.
I explore the idea of Matthew in my head, holding it and trying to examine it from every angle. It seems to hold. It is not definite, but it is as strong a theory as any.
Of course, I don’t know what to do with it.
At that moment, Aji stirs. He opens his eyes. I don’t want him to freak out. I force a smile and, as normally as I can manage, I say “Good Morning.” Almost immediately, I curse myself for how mundane it sounds.
“Good morning,” he says. I realize in that moment that I’ve only ever spoken to him as the leader of a cult, a prisoner, a spiritual guide or a man on the edge. I’ll have to get to know the Aji who says ‘good morning’ like any other person would. I won’t know him for long though. Maybe this ‘good morning’ will be our only one.
He seems calmer than I had when I’d woken up, almost like he doesn’t realize where he is. Perhaps that’s because he’s a man who wouldn’t mind dying. At least that’s how it seemed the night before.
When I look into his eyes, though, I realize that isn’t it at all.
He’s calmer because he’s with me.
Rather than thinking about tomorrow, he’s thinking about now. I find myself wishing for a coffee then. We could sit at the top of those little stairs and share a coffee. We could just talk, about whatever. We could forget our troubles, at least for a little while.
It’d be nice. There are only two problems. We don’t have coffee, and I’m not that kind of girl.
I find myself speaking before I can filter my words, “I don’t want to lose you, Aji.”
He sits up then. He’s still smiling, but I see a single tear falling from one of his eyes. Otherwise he seems so calm, so peaceful. His voice steady, he asks, “Do you have any ideas?”
I think I hear a prayer in his words.
“No,” I admit, “I’ve been thinking about it and I don’t have any ideas. The fact is, we embarrassed them, and they’ll do anything to make us pay.”
“Can we run?”
“Maybe, but they’ll be looking for us. I doubt we’d make it very far.”
“So, we just sit? And wait?”
I shrug, sadly. I feel tears coming to my own eyes.
He touches me with his hand again, resting it on my undamaged arm.
“I’ve lived a life of blessings and curses. Neisha, no matter how it might feel, I can tell you that this –“ and he grips me just a bit tighter “– is a blessing.”
I smile, on the edge of bawling.
“I figured out one thing,” I say, through the tears.
“Yeah?” he asks.
“Yeah. I think I know who your informant is.”
“Tell me about him, or her.”
“Uh, okay. He’s young. He’s brilliant. He’s a computer guy. He must have taken a huge pay cut to join the FBI.”
My voice peters out, I really don’t know much else about him.
“So, he’s good at his job.”
“Yeah,” I smile, a bit sheepishly.
“Maybe I can help?”
“Go ahead,” I say.
“He’s deeply committed to doing the right thing, but mistrusts ideologues. He believes fundamentally in the importance of law but understands how it can be abused. He is brilliant but is humble about his own knowledge. He’s a good man.”
I think over his words.
“Yes,” I say, “I think that fits Matthew Crass.”
“What work did he do with you?”
“He investigated things online. He ran reports, associated various sorts of data. Tried to draw connections between you and the deaths we were investigating. That sort of thing.”
“Maybe he became my informant precisely because of what he did. He couldn’t find connections and eventually he was convinced they weren’t there.”
“Maybe,” I concede.
“What would he do now?”
“Right now? I imagine he’s looking for us. Maybe a bit half-heartedly, though. I don’t know what else he could do. I mean, maybe he could go public. But with what? He has no evidence of our innocence. All he has is the weirdness that I went from being your greatest enemy to your closest friend. That’s not much to work with.”
“He already made his move. Back when he sent me the email.”
Aji just sits there. I can almost imagine him holding a cup of something hot.
“What are you thinking about?” I ask.
“I’m thinking about whether we should ask him for his help.”
“It could be risky. And I don’t know what we’d ask for.” I say.
“No, that’s not the question I have. Let’s assume he can help. Let’s assume he wants to. Can we let him risk himself for us?”
“If we’re making assumptions, why not assume he knows better than most how to protect himself. Plus, aren’t those who bless you blessed?”
Aji just tips his head towards me. He doesn’t need to say it. But I knew how to protect myself and now I’m hiding in an empty lot and sleeping sitting up. Maybe I have been blessed, though?
“This is all very theoretical. What would I ask him assuming he was willing to help and we wanted him to do it?”
Aji asks, “What would we need in order to spend another morning together?”
The question is so basic, and so essential.
“Vindication,” I say, “Proof that the bartender wasn’t killed by me or that John Buckner wasn’t killed by you.”
“Could Matthew find that?”
“I doubt it. All the relevant records were probably scrubbed by people with a whole lot more access than he has. Like the cameras in the bar were. I doubt there’s any evidence to find.”
“What kind of people would do that kind of work?”
“Maybe we could ask them for help.”
“Whoever they are, they decided to erase and conceal evidence. They knew what they were doing. I doubt they’re the kinds of people who’d give us a helping hand.”
“Maybe they’d surprise us.”
“I just can’t imagine it,” I say.
“I don’t have to imagine it,” says Aji, “I’ve seen people seemingly wrapped up in such total darkness. And I’ve seen them redeemed.”
Is he talking about himself? About me?
“Maybe we could try. But I have no idea how we’d find any of them.”
“Would they be online?” Aji asks.
“I can’t imagine them talking about what they do online. Not in any public forum.”
“Of course not,” says Aji, “But they might talk about what they believe.”
He pauses, on the edge of another thought.
“What do they believe?” he asks.
“What do you mean?”
“I know why people in Garubia cursed me. They knew what I was. But here? Why do so many people hate me here?”
It’s a good question. I think about it. And then I remember something from years before. “You have time for a story?” I ask.
“I hope so,” he says, with a little grin.
“I remember being at a party once. I told this guy I was studying Art History and he started laughing at me. He was studying biology. He asked me, point blank, who knew more about a flower: some famous biologist or van Gogh. I knew what he wanted to hear, but I couldn’t help myself. I said van Gogh. He got angry. Furious, actually. He told me that irrational thought like that was exactly what was holding humankind back.
“I didn’t really understand what he meant, not at first. I mean, I knew he valued science over art, but I didn’t really understand why that value had to be so total. Then I figured it out. For him, there was just one axis for realizing what value was. The axis of science. Truth was the ability to show, repeatedly, ‘if X then Y.’ That path, alone, offered predictability. And it offered control. If you knew X led to Y, then you could flip it. You could say: ‘If you want Y, then do X’. Van Gogh didn’t offer that. Whatever van Gogh knew couldn’t be measured, much less used.
“For the man at the party, humanity itself had to be put on the scientific axis. The equation was simple: ‘if you want human happiness, then do X.’ Any other way of looking at things inevitably had to conflict with the scientific way of looking at things.
“Aji, we like to think we’re in control. Especially here. We like to think we can beat anything – through scientific focus. It is our superpower. As far as that biologist is concerned, you’re offering ignorance and darkness. His fear isn’t about you as a person – it is about you as an idea. You don’t make sense. You must be a fraud. If you weren’t a fraud, then the world you represent would be an even greater threat.”
“What do you believe?” asks Aji, quietly.
I have to think about that. I could have told him what I thought the answer was a week ago. But now?
“I liked what the biologist was saying. Not at first. He pissed me off at first. But I liked it. It is intoxicating. I liked the simplicity and the power. I liked the sense of control. The idea that we could solve what had happened to LaMarcus. But van Gogh never quite stopped speaking to me. I wanted to believe the biologist, though. I thought I did believe, but…”
I trail off, uncertain when my beliefs had changed – or if they had changed at all.
“I think I’d like to believe him too,” says Aji, “The power and the simplicity sound nice.”
“Maybe you could say it. Claim you don’t believe in blessing and curse. Maybe they’d leave us alone then. The true believers, at least.”
Aji asks, wistfully, “But what would the world be without blessing and curse?”
I let thought hang between us. Using my good arm, I take the computer out of the shopping bag and boot it up. I turn down the screen’s brightness to try to preserve its already substantial battery life. Then, I try to connect to the museum’s Wi-Fi. It’s password protected.
“The password is David Drake,” says Aji.
“What?” I ask.
“The name the woman in the museum said was David Drake. Why else would she tell us that?”
I try out combinations of small and capital letters and spaces between the names. In a minute, I’m connected. Then, I boot up the TOR browser Emma told me to use.
“How do we find them online?” asks Aji.
“We just start looking,” I say.
I spend the next two hours searching endless forums of like-minded people, reviewing articles in magazines with academic explorations of the topics. Trying to find posters named Miller, James, Jim or even Diagoras that might lead us someplace useful.
Aside from learning that Diagoras Johnson doesn’t seem to exist, we don’t discover anything useful. There’s no hint of a group acting within law enforcement – and beyond the law – to defend modernity. Whoever’s involved is careful about what they do. I do learn the story of Diagoras, though. He was a famous ancient atheist. Once, when he was on a ship in heavy seas the crew thought the storm had been brought on them to punish them for bringing such an ungodly person on board. Diagoras asked them if the other ships trapped in the storm also had a Diagoras on board. Had all the crews on all the ships sinned in exactly the same way? The argument was a clever one, preserved for thousands of years.
History aside, though, we have gained nothing.
We sit back, resigned once again to our reality.
“What kind of man was Diagoras?” asks Aji.
“Diagoras Johnson?” I ask.
“He seemed considerate. He seemed deliberate. He was caring, at least up until the point where he killed Mike. He was incredibly competent.”
“He is an actor in a war. Was he a general, a soldier or a spy?”
“What do you mean?”
“Did he give orders? Did he take them? Or did he act on his own initiative?”
The answer is obvious. “He was a soldier.”
“Did he plan to kill you when you went to the bar?”
I think back. “No, I don’t think he did.”
“There were easier and safer ways to pull it off. He didn’t need to have Mike involved. I think he killed Mike, and tried to kill me, because of what Mike told me. It had to be a decision made while I was in the bar.”
“How did he know about it?”
“Maybe my phone was bugged. Or maybe the bar was. When he overheard the conversation, he came barging in to clean up.”
“But he’s a soldier.”
“You mean he needed to be ordered to attack.”
“Yes, exactly. How long was it before SAC Miller was on TV – with a cover story that seemed to be adapted to you getting away?”
“I don’t know, maybe 15 minutes.”
“Miller had to be told what happened.”
“Neisha, how are they doing that? How are they communicating with each other?”
“By phone, I guess.”
“Yes, but on what phone?” Aji is smiling as he continues, “Could you make these sorts of calls on your FBI phone? Could you order murders?”
“Maybe,” I say.
“It would seem stupid to me,” says Aji, “When I was a soldier, we never transmitted orders by radio. We used runners. You never knew who was listening.”
“Runners wouldn’t be fast enough,” I say. Then the solution hits me, “But burner phones would.”
“Burner phones?” Aji asks.
“Pre-paid phones that don’t have an official owner.”
“Can we track those?”
“Not directly,” I say, “They don’t have owners. And you can’t just see where phones are, not without special access.”
“Does Matthew Crass have that sort of access?”
The answer is obvious. “Yes, yes he does. It’s called the Ghost Report. It can associate burner phones and people. We can see who they called. We can figure out who’s in the network and maybe we can find some sort of weak link?”
“Somebody who’s willing to do what’s right – but just needs a little help – isn’t weak.”
“You’re right, you’re right,” I admit, “How do we get ahold of Matthew though? If I call his desk…” I trail off and ask, “are you suddenly okay using him?”
Aji grins. “To rescue us? Probably not. But to rescue somebody else, trapped in darkness like I was? Yes, I think I am. Who knows, maybe we’ll be rescuing Matthew too. How do we reach him?”
“I, I don’t know. We don’t even have a phone, much less a phone number we can actually call. I mean I’m sure there’s some phone software we could load on the computer, but this is the FBI we’re talking about. It’ll get flagged and he won’t be able to do anything for us.”
“He does have a burner email,” says Aji, “He emailed me.”
“Do you remember the address.”
“No,” says Aji.
“The only way to reach him is through the FBI. That seems crazy. We can’t just email him. Same problem as the phone.”
“Can you email the entire FBI a message only he’ll understand?”
“How?” I ask.
“Well, only my informant knows what he emailed me. Maybe we can use that.”
I smile at the ingenuity of it. Then, one-handed and with fingers that still hurt when I type, I open the anonymous TOR browser and set up an anonymous account on a free web service. I give it a name: theRailroadLounge@anonmail.com.
Then, I start my message:
I have the footage from the Railroad Lounge and I know what happened.
That will be sure to get SAC Miller’s attention. He doesn’t want anybody to know what happened. It might also prevent other computer guys from getting involved. Witnesses have to be suppressed, not discovered. It is the rest of the message that speaks to Aji’s informant. My words imitate, and obliquely refer to, the message Aji received.
I’ve spent a year helping Aji cover his tracks. He’s made random patterns. This isn’t why I joined his organization. I’ve found Aji’s real biography. I could write an essay about it. He’s a fanatic on some mission. I know where Aji and Neisha are. I want to tell you, but I need some kind of immunity before I do.
“Does that sound like his message to you?” I ask.
“Yes, it does,” says Aji, impressed.
I enter the email address for the FBI’s tip line and then I hit Send.
Almost immediately, I recognize what a stupid thing it was to have done. Everything has to go perfectly. The message has to be flagged by the FBI. Matthew has to be called in to help trace it, he has to work out it’s for him and he has to actually be the informant. Otherwise, we’ll just sit here waiting until they find us. Or worse, somehow the message itself will lead them to us.
Oh, and Matthew has to decide he’ll help Aji for the second time in three weeks.
I put the computer down but leave it on. I want to live in the moment, to enjoy my time with Aji, but the fear and uncertainty are too great to keep at bay. We don’t talk. We just sit and wait, all the bad outcomes running through my head in ever more detail.
Then, a little over an hour later, two messages pop up on the little computer. I jump towards the computer. Aji watches me, his eyes expectant.
The first message is from an official FBI account:
We can offer you immunity. Where can we meet?
I ignore that one, replying would just give them more to follow. That and SAC Miller doesn’t want to offer anybody with footage from the Railroad Lounge actual immunity.
The second message is from another anonymous mail service.
It reads, simply:
Sunday – 10:23 AM
Instead of reassuring me, Matthew’s email – if it is Matthew’s – just worries me more.
“Are we sure we want to do this?” I ask Aji.
“What else can we do?” he asks.
“We’re hoping, somehow, to find somebody strong enough to help us. To get us evidence that we need to beat back Miller and the rest. It is not very likely to work. And whoever is on the other end of this message, it might not be Matthew. It might be some sort of trap.”
“It must be the informant. How else would he know Aji sent the message?” says Aji.
The argument makes sense. It has to be Matthew, or whomever the informant actually is. I still don’t know if we can trust him though. When he’d emailed Aji before, nobody had been indicted for anything – much less been broken out of jail. The stakes are a whole lot higher now.
“He wants to do what’s right. Just tell him we need help.”
Aji and I are here. He told me how he got my essay. We need your help.
The reference to the essay will tell Matthew (but nobody else) he’s emailing with me. A few seconds ‘Matthew’ responds:
I saw Neisha was with Aji on the news. If you’re helping them, I can’t help you. Neisha crossed a line when she killed that bartender.
I feel myself wanting to argue. I want to claim, outright, based on our friendship, that I didn’t kill the bartender. But Matthew and I don’t have a friendship, do we? Matthew betrayed me to Aji. Friendship and trust won’t work. Without asking Aji, I write.
Miller only told you about the message, right?
Just me. How’d you know?
Because he doesn’t want anybody seeing the footage from the Railroad Lounge. He knows what actually happened there. He just wants you to find whoever sent my message so he can shut them up.
There’s a delay then. Matthew is thinking.
You thought Neisha had a vendetta. Miller thought so too. Why else would he put a brand-new agent in charge of the task force? He wanted somebody with an axe to grind and he wanted it to look good.
What does he have against Aji?
“What do I say? I don’t know that Miller ever talked to Matthew like he talked to me.”
Aji asks the question he seems to ask quite often, “What kind of man is Miller?”
I think back. Miller is perfectly packaged and perfectly confident. He exudes order and the proper way of things. It extended even to his desk – it was always clean, precisely laid out and under control. I type, in response,
Aji is chaos.
Matthew’s response doesn’t come right away. Finally, he says,
I’m sorry, I need more.
I realize then that I have one more thing to offer.
Check whether Marshall Johnson is legit.
It takes only thirty seconds for Matthew to reply.
He’s there, but he looks nothing like Neisha’s guy… Tell me what you need.
I type out my almost impossible request:
I need access to the Ghost Report.
Three minutes pass before he replies. Maybe somebody has been looking over his shoulder at work. Then a message comes.
I’ve attached a virtual access program that will connect you to the server.
I was hoping for something cleaner, although I can’t imagine what.
“If I open this and it’s a setup,” I say to Aji, “He’ll be able to figure out where we are.”
Aji doesn’t hesitate. “Open it,” he says.
“How are you so confident?” I ask.
“Because my informant is an honorable man.”
I lean forward and open the little icon. I don’t tell Aji, but if I don’t see the Ghost Report, then we’ll leave the laptop here and try to find someplace else to hide.
A spinner opens and I feel like my heart has stopped. I don’t know what to do. Is it real or fake? It is just a delaying tactic meant to freeze us until they can find us? Then, 30 seconds later, a login page appears. It looks legitimate. It wants an FBI ID and password, though. Matthew can’t give me his. That’s simply too much to ask.
Is it possible he has a spare?
It’s asking for a login.
His answer comes almost immediately:
Are they just trying to prove who I am before they move in?
How can that possibly work?
Welcome to the Federal Government. They locked Neisha out of the building and out of her laptop. The Ghost Report will take another day or two.
It seems like it could be true. I enter my ID and password. The system opens to another screen. This one is asking for a case number. I’d never actually used the Ghost Report. That was Matthew’s job. I’d always thought the warrant-based access was based on logging. You’d see how people used it and if they abused it, it would come out afterwards and you’d get disciplinary action.
Apparently, I was wrong.
I need a warrant even to open the application.
“What’s a case number?” asks Aji.
“To open the system, I need a case in which a judge has authorized access. I can’t possibly get it.” I say.
“Why would Matthew send it then?”
“Maybe as a delaying tactic while they located us.”
“Or maybe he has a work around?”
We can only hope. I send another message:
How do I hack it so it will work without a case number?
Matthew, or whoever it is, answers:
I look at Aji. He still doesn’t seem worried. So, we wait. I barely notice my hand tightly gripping his arm. As the minutes pass, I get more and more nervous. I begin to wonder how long it would take a team from the FBI to get up here. 15 minutes with sirens blaring? 5 minutes by helicopter? Is all of this just a delaying tactic?
“Breathe,” says Aji.
I look at him and see total calm.
“We’ve made our decision. We haven’t been stupid or irresponsible. The rest isn’t up to us.”
“Is G-d going to take care of us?” I ask.
“I have no idea. I just know it is out of our hands and so there’s no point in panicking.” he says.
Aji delicately lays his hand on mine and I feel my fingers loosen. I want to ask for an update, to send ‘Matthew’ another message. But I don’t want to lose Aji’s touch.
Miller’s men might be gathering outside the lot. They might already be in the museum. Our time might be up. But Aji’s right. There’s nothing I can do.
Reluctantly, I close my eyes and try to focus everything on Aji’s touch. It’s easier than I’d imagined it would be.
Finally, the computer beeps. It’s a message:
I move my hand from under Aji’s and type it into the application. An instant later, the screen fills with data and options. Even given the delay, Matthew isn’t good enough to have created this in the time he had. Thisdoesn’t feel like a trick.
I have to ask, though. I open the email again and ask Matthew,
What took so long?
I thought you knew. I had to get a warrant. It was odd it hadn’t already been applied for.
Matthew applied for a warrant? What warrant could he apply for without attracting all sorts of unwanted attention?
Then I see it, simple black text in the upper left corner of the screen:
Purpose of Warrant: Aiding fugitive apprehension
Subject of Warrant: Neisha Jackson
I almost laugh at the irony. I’m going to use a warrant for my own apprehension against those people who most want me apprehended.
Monday – 1:29 AM
Sunday – 10:57 AM
The very first thing I need to do is get my bearings. I know the Ghost Report is powerful, but I don’t actually know what it can do. That reality is brought home almost as soon as I look over the newly opened program. It turns out it isn’t even named the Ghost Report. Instead, it is called the Global Online System Tracker. ‘GOST’ for short.
I’ve got a lot to learn.
I skim over the various parts of the screen and bit by bit, I figure it out. There’s a map with a little phone icon labeled “NJ FBI”. Using a timeline slider at the top, I can track where it has been. I can also see who has called it and who it has been used to call. That’s not terribly useful. But I do have one more tool at my disposal. Using the timelines slider, I can track the locations of everybody I’ve called for three days prior to, and after, our contacts. I look at Miller’s record and see that he is in Brooklyn, not far from Der’nube’s hotel. It feels a little unfair, knowing where they are when they don’t know where I am. But I’ll take it. It is certainly reassuring to know they’re nowhere near Hunts Point.
Unfortunately, I can’t go much further. When I try to see Miller’s call logs, I’m informed that the warrant doesn’t authorize that data.
I dig further through the app. I see numerous “Unknown” and “Known” phones that I can’t track. They are beyond the warrant’s limit. Finally, though I find something labelled: “Possible Subject Communication’s Devices.”
I click on that, hoping something will appear. To my surprise, I see three entries. Each is labelled Possible. Each has a “probability of association” score next to it, ranging from a high of 74% to a low of 47%. Each has a “time of last known proximity”.
I look at the history of the top device, Possible 1. The time selector at the top of the screen shifts and the map shifts as well. Now I’m looking at the area around the Railroad Lounge at around the time Johnson ambushed me. I begin to slide the time backwards. NJ FBI and Possible 1 separate, but only by a short distance. Possible 1 was waiting at the end of the street. Then they come together and move towards Queens along the Grand Central Parkway. I remember driving up with Johnson.
I point at the paired icons and say to Aji, “That’s Johnson’s phone.”
I see the call log. Apparently, I can track the Possible phones as if they were my own. It has a short list of two numbers, each labelled Unknown. I look at their locations. One, a number he called dozens of times, didn’t move at all. It stayed in a single location in Minnesota. The second was only on for a few minutes before Johnson called. It seemed to have been coordinated with him.
I scroll to the present and see that Johnson is in Brooklyn as well. There’s no immediate threat there.
I look at Possible 2’s history. It flashes back to the time of the press conference in Foley Square. It could be any number of people, but I’m pretty sure it belongs to Miller. I scroll backwards, watching the phone move towards and away from my known device. I scroll back almost two weeks before I get a definite and unique hit. The phone was in the Railroad Lounge with me when I first interviewed Mike. It belongs to Miller.
I look at the call log. What appears next is a huge list of calls. Where Johnson seemed to have laser-focused communications, Miller seemed to reach out to a broad range of people. The number of them, Unknown after Unknown, surprises me. Are all these people part of the same conspiracy?
I pick one in DC and run through its history. I’m trying to line up a possible home address. I get a likely hit, a place in Chevy Chase, Maryland where the phone spent the night. I open another browser and try to find out who is at that address. The information is blocked. Home addresses tend to be blocked for people who work in law enforcement.
I realize I could ask Matthew more, but I don’t need to get him even more involved. Anything he does on official FBI systems will be logged. Perhaps more critically, even law enforcement personnel are allowed to own burner phones. Definitively identifying them won’t help bring them down unless I have some evidence of a crime. Or unless one of them somehow turns on the others as Aji seems to believe is possible.
I check in on Miller and Johnson’s current position (they’re still in Brooklyn) and then I begin to methodically work backward through Miller’s call logs.
Aji asks, “Can I help?”
I think about the task in front of me: Guessing where various influential people may live and work, assembling a network of communications and correlating events I know about with phone activity. Aji can’t help with any of it. But he can help with the most important task of all – trying to understand who might be willing to step out of the dark.
I go back to the phone that had been in Chevy Chase and we just start talking. We don’t know who lives at the address, but we can see the house is a beautiful one. We can see the cars being driven. We can compare the sales price to that projected by real estate software – perhaps detecting the trading of favors. We can look for court records that reference the address, suggesting legal issues. And we can see six days of commuting to and from the FBI Headquarters in Langley. I try to guess who the recipient of Miller’s calls might be. And I wonder why the phone’s owner live in Maryland while they work in Virginia. Do they have a spouse who works someplace else? Do they have family in the area? Do they drive their kids to school?
We realize, quickly, that identity will often be hard to pin down. Nonetheless, as Aji points out, we can still learn about the target. We can determine whether they went to church this morning, to a bar on Friday night or to some other apartment or hotel on the way home. Do they change their commute, perhaps indicating paranoia or legitimate fear? Do they take the scenic route to enjoy the views? We can look for hints of guilt, infidelity or instability. We agree that if the subject is promising enough, we’ll find some online phone software and call them. We do, after all, have their number.
We talk about each subject, trying through our very narrow lens to understand the life of a person we cannot identify. We try to understand what forces we might manipulate. Family? Children? Religion? Shame?
We talk each one through and then we go on to the next number.
As we pass through person after person, I find myself wondering what a life with Aji would be like. We’re both in our mid-20s. If we escape this, could we get married? Could we have a house in Chevy Chase? Would I commute to the FBI while he leads a congregation in Maryland? Would our life have humor, or would he always be brooding in the other room, thinking about the heaviness of the world? Would he scream at night, reliving his life’s horrors? Would he drink himself into an unending stupor? Would he be able to hold on to some part of his public reality? Would I be able to rescue him? I can’t answer any of that.
We’ll just have to make it there.
As we work, the scale of Miller’s connections begins to overwhelm me. He seems to be in communication with prosecutors, forensics specialists, police officers, congressional staffers, intelligence agents, a prominent journalist, judges and at least one very wealthy businessman. A conspiracy like this must be built slowly. Each new member must be encountered and then slowly brought in and recruited. One wrong step and the whole thing could be exposed. For the group to be as strong and stable as it seems to be, it must have been built over years – or even decades. It wasn’t built for Aji.
The thought is dispiriting. We aren’t up against SAC Miller and a few of his friends. The network of burner phones is national and the owners seem like powerful and influential people. It is likely that all of them are true believers.
This is not fertile ground from which to draw informants.
I’d always thought of Miller as confident and directed. He had to be to be in charge of the New York Field Office. If anything, digging through his secret calls leaves me even more impressed.
His secret influence extends far beyond his public role.
As we move down the list, I realize that we have seen no chinks in the armor. Not only that, but we have found no evidence of any crime. Just a man with a remarkable network.
I find myself wishing I could have access to that number in Minnesota. The number Johnson called. The number that must be some kind of nexus, coordinating activities across the country. It is, however, out of reach. All I can see is those links directly connected to Special Agent in Charge James Miller.
As we work, our hunger and our thirst growing, I slowly submit to the reality that despite all the information we have, there is no way out of our predicament.
A few more hours in, we take a break and scroll back to look at the present location of Johnson and Miller. They’re in Queens. They still pose no immediate risk. I flip to a news site, just to see what’s up. We discover that, as we expected, there is a huge manhunt for us with officers deployed all over the city. The reporters share that law enforcement appears to be focusing on two areas: The Sunset neighborhood in Brooklyn (near the hotel where Der’nube is staying) and Harlem, where my apartment used to be.
It’s what I would do, if I were looking for me. After all, you generally run to the places where you can find help.
A protest movement has also arisen. Throughout the country, “A Ribbon for Aji” is now a thing. Somehow people know Aji’s goodness. Perhaps they have experienced his blessings. In New York, huge numbers of people have been seen in public wearing Central and West African robes and dresses. Every reporter seems obligated to share that the evidence against Aji and me is overwhelming and that the public should not impede our apprehension. I wonder if any of the reporters are a part of Miller’s organization. I wonder if any of those who aren’t realize that they are following a script that’s been crafted for them.
I flip back to GOST, in order to check on Johnson and Miller’s positions before getting back to work on the list.
They are still in Queens.
With police in Brooklyn and Harlem – and Johnson and Miller in Queens – we’re safe.
As I watch Johnson and Miller’s little icons move around a small area in Queens Aji asks, “What are they doing?”
“Who?” I ask.
“Johnson and Miller,” he says.
“They’re looking for us,” I say.
“Yes, but where?”
I point at the screen. It’s obvious, isn’t it? Maybe African child soldiers are never taught how to read maps.
“No,” he says, “I mean: why are they looking there?”
I suddenly feel stupid that I hadn’t bothered to ask.
“Good question,” I say. In my head, I rephrase it: why are they in Queens when nobody else is?
I scroll back through their history, seeing them explore a single location extensively and then jump to another. What process or information would lead them to these seemingly random places?
As the Ghost Report doesn’t label locations, I pull up one of the addresses in a browser window.
Then, I freeze.
They are searching a museum.
“Oh, no,” I say.
“What?” Aji asks.
I start flipping through the other locations. Now that I know what I’m looking for, I don’t need the browser to know what I’m looking at.
I know these addresses.
The pattern is clear.
“I told Johnson that I loved museums,” I say.
“And now,” says Aji, completing the thought, “They are searching museums.”
I nod dumbly. The police have rolled out a massive dragnet, but it is Johnson and Miller who are going to find us.
They’re going to find us, and then they are going to kill us.
Monday – 1:29 AM
Sunday – 3:00 PM
“We have to move,” I say, urgently.
“Where to?” asks Aji.
“Anywhere,” I say, “We have some time, we can think about it.”
Aji doesn’t answer, not right away. Then he asks, “Do you remember the hotdog vendor?”
How could I forget the hot dog vendor? His food is the last food we’ve eaten. I ask, “You want to ask him for help? He’s 60 blocks from here.”
“No, no,” says Aji. “When he fed us, he broke the law, didn’t he?”
“Yes,” I say.
“And if they found out, he could face criminal charges.”
“Probably not for a hot dog, but in theory, yes.”
“And there are thousands of people out there eager to help us?”
“Yes,” I say, “That’s why we have a chance if we leave the museum.”
“But that’s why we can’t leave,” he says, solemnly.
My mind comes back to Matthew. Aji hadn’t wanted to use Matthew. He hadn’t wanted to risk him – even though he was informed and capable.
Aji is continuing, “If any of them provides us with shelter, or if they lie to the authorities, then they could face prison. And if they see something they shouldn’t, they might end up dead. Like Mike. We can’t run.”
“Maybe we’d be helping them, like we helped Matthew. You know, giving them a chance to escape.”
“Neisha, the vast majority of people aren’t trapped. Not like that. They don’t need us to find their way forward.”
Even before he says it, I know it is true. Aji cannot risk others to save himself. I both love and hate that reality.
“So, what do we do?” I ask.
“How much time do we have?” asks Aji.
“They’re searching museums of particular interest to African Americans. They’ll get here in a few hours, at most.”
“And what happens if we turn ourselves in? To the regular police?”
“If we get lucky, they’ll arrest us. They’ll charge us with everything from murder to hacking Federal databases to fleeing prison. We’ll spend our lives in jail. If we make it that far.”
I add at the end, almost as an afterthought, “And we’ll never see each other again.”
“We’re in a back lot, maybe they won’t find us here.” says Aji. His tone is more hope than realism. He knows how unlikely that is.
I think about the place. Perhaps our final place. My thoughts turn to the slave who ran here and lived the rest of his life waiting for his matching porcelain doll.
“It is a beautiful place,” I say, quietly. Aji nods, not even looking at the weed-filled lot.
“It is a beautiful place,” he says. I lay my hand on his arm, my burned fingers sparking with the love of it and say, gently, “I pray that it is a place of salvation.”
We sit there, together, for hours. We ignore our hunger and our thirst and our growing weakness. We focus only on capturing the time we have together. I ask him about his mother, and he asks me about my brother. We talk about our pasts and even allow ourselves to share a few hopes about the future.
As we talk, we watch the little dots move on the computer. We watch them eliminating possibilities. We watch the almost inevitable make its way towards us.
Finally, we see them come to Hunts Point and arrive at the Museum of Slave Art. We hear their feet as they walk through the museum. Holding each other closely, we watch their dots as they explore the little place. Aji grips me and I grip him. I find myself whispering verses I learned as a child:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
When they leave the museum, I look at Aji and he looks at me and we smile together. Both of us, together, are crying with relief.
Then there is a sound – the sound of a chain being rattled.
I turn towards the fence opposite us. I turn towards the gate. Then I see it swing open, just a crack.
In that instant, I know that our prayers have not been answered.
The clock is running out! If you’ve already shared, step it up a level. Go from social media to, you know, actually mentioning the Hidden Agent to a friend. You know, like in a speech-based-conversation. The address is josephcox.com/agent