Sunday – 6:00 PM
We don’t have time to move. In what seems like an instant, four people rush through the gate. Johnson, Miller, Clara and the ‘US Marshall’ who’d only been around for one early morning.
I have no idea what his name actually is.
All are carrying guns. All are wearing gloves. Miller, who is clearly in command, orders me to close the computer. I do what he asks.
The man whose name I don’t know rushes forward and seizes the computer. He steps back, out of the field of fire, flips the computer on its back and pulls out the battery. I’m guessing he’s trying to make sure it isn’t online and livestreaming whatever is about to occur.
That isn’t a good omen. Not that I need omens to predict my short-term future.
Miller then orders Johnson to search us. Under the protective cover of Miller’s guns, ‘Marshall Johnson’ frisks us for weapons and phones. His smile is lewd as he runs his hands up my legs. I barely notice as Miller steps back outside the gate. He comes back a few moments later with a briefcase in his hand. Thankfully, Johnson’s search is brief. We don’t have any phones or guns.
As Johnson backs away, Miller begins to speak. “You have caused a lot of trouble,” he says I expected his voice to be self-assured. I expect him to be in command. But he’s almost shaking with anger.
He continues, “Your little phone messages have convinced a lot of people. And your breakout embarrassed the FBI. We are going to deal with that. Now.”
“If you kill us, people will still believe our story,” I say.
“Not many,” says Miller, “The way you are about to die will ensure that. What we’re going to do is simple and straight-forward and you will participate in every part of it. You will cooperate. The reason is simple. If you do not… well, Neisha, I know you’re not close to your mother, but I will kill her and I will kill your ridiculous pastor. It will turn out that your mother was stealing from the pharmacy where she works and that the Preacher has been selling her product to his church. Aji, your group of friends will die too. Sadly, a Mexican drug gang will realize that their nomadic lifestyle was cover for an upstart cocaine distribution network. The Mexican gang will ambush and shoot down every one of them. They will die in dishonor. They will be utterly destroyed. Do the two of you understand?”
“Yes,” I say, my voice shaking.
“Yes,” says Aji, “I will cooperate.”
“Good,” says Miller. “I am sorry what is about to happen has to happen. But we have to protect America from the past – from the times when people just closed their eyes and hoped for some mystical force to take care of everything – and for the supposed representatives of that force to decide what was right and wrong. We’re never going back to that. Science determines what is right and wrong, what works and what doesn’t – what leads to the most happiness for the most people. We have advanced so far with science. But people are weak. They often refuse to be happy. That is why charlatans can threaten everything we’ve built. Aji’s campaign of mass fraud and intimidation, and whatever legacy he might leave, is going to end here. We will restore what scientifically known to be right.”
Miller takes a breath, barely containing his fury. Then he continues, speaking to me, “The process will be simple, as I said. This briefcase contains $250,000. It is the money, donor money, that Aji paid you to kill the bartender. You will pick it up. You will open it and you will close it. I need your fingerprints on it. With evidence of the payoff both Aji’s reputation, and yours, will be left in tatters.”
“Why not just put the fingerprints on it afterwards?” I ask.
“We can, of course. It is a bit harder, though. Your fingerprints have changed, because of the fire. So, we need new ones. And, as a forensic pathologist once told me… ‘if you can avoid it, never move the body.’ We want to make everything easy. We don’t want conspiracies and rumors cropping up because of any inconsistencies that might exist. We want street cops and casual observers to be easily satisfied of the truth. So, you are going to handle the briefcase.”
My mother in my mind, I nod dumbly.
Miller picks up the briefcase and walks calmly towards me.
I decide, in a last-ditch effort, to appeal to his morality.
“How could you, the SAC of the New York Field Office, be so willing to break the law?”
He stops short and snorts briefly. “You’re asking me that. You who broke a man out of jail? Who impersonated the Director of the FBI? Who is a fugitive from justice?”
“I never murdered anyone,” I spit back.
“If you’d done your job decently, nobody would have had to die.”
“What does that mean?”
“All you had to do was tie Aji to a murder. A single murder. One out of 30. And none of this would have had to have happened.”
He lays the briefcase in front of me. I pick it up by the handle. I unlock it. I open it. The case is stacked with cash. I close it, lock it and hand it back.
“Aji wasn’t guilty. I couldn’t find what wasn’t there.”
“I doubt it,” says Miller. “You just couldn’t draw the connections. So, I had to do it for you. I had to arrange everything.”
“You had to murder?” I ask, challenging him.
Miller calmly walks behind me and places the briefcase against the building.
“I never murdered anyone before.”
“Oh, you just gave the orders. That’s not murder, is it?”
“You’re asking about Mike, the bartender?” he asks.
“Yeah,” I say.
“His name was Matthew Pienkowski. He had an agreement with us. He knew the terms. He violated them, of his own free will. Yes, it wasn’t exactly a legal agreement. But as you clearly know, sometimes it is necessary to step beyond the law.”
“And John Buckner?” I ask, raising my voice just a touch.
“Nobody murdered John Buckner,” says Miller.
“What?” I ask.
“John Buckner was a brilliant man. A Mensa member, actually. He had it all figured out. But nobody listened to him. He had a blog that nobody read. He was a friend of mine and he asked me for advice. I suggested a sting. He’d write posts attacking Aji and when Aji came for him, we’d get the evidence we needed to put the Dark Ages back where they belonged. Diagoras shadowed Buckner for three months, waiting for Aji. But Aji never showed. Even Aji didn’t care about Buckner’s blog. Buckner, more than anything else, wanted to matter. The whole thing was his idea. He decided he would die for his beliefs and he would stop Aji Abakar cold. John Buckner was a martyr. But he left the completion of his plan up to me. And it is my duty, to my fellow warrior, to see his plan realized. I need to finish what he started. Now, let’s get on with this.”
“Why,” asks Aji, “Didn’t you just assassinate me. Why go to all this trouble? Why hurt all these other people.”
Miller answers, “We used to assassinate people. Only those who were so compelling that they threatened America itself. It turns out, though, that killing a person isn’t the same as killing an idea. We’ve learned that we have to destroy what you represent – whether or not you die in the process.”
Miller pulls a gun from his jacket. “Now, Neisha, this is your gun. As you know, it is a Sig Sauer P320. It would normally be loaded with 17 9mm rounds. Sadly, you fired most of your shots at the Railroad Lounge. It has 3 bullets left. You are going to take this gun. You are going to shoot Johnson in the leg. You are going to shoot Aji in the gut – a fatal shot, but it has to look like an accident. After all, we won’t let him be a martyr. We’re going to make it look like we tried to save him after you accidently shot them. Then you are going to shoot the wall. The story is simple, you fired at us. You killed Aji by accident. And then you died when we fired back. If you miss any of these shots, your mother and the others will die. Understand.”
I nod and taking the gun in my shaking hand.
Now, my new fingerprints are on it.
Miller walks away, his back to me. He’s completely in control and completely calm. I think about shooting him then, in the back. I want to smash his conceit and his certainty. But I don’t do it.
The costs would be too high.
I look at Aji. I need something from him. Perhaps what his own parents gave him before he killed for the first time. Amazingly, I get something. Something remarkable. His eyes seem to be reflect some faraway light. Then he smiles, finding some wellspring of joy, and he says, with complete conviction, “I know that this too is a blessing.”
It is a prophecy, like the one Mumbato Yogula experienced. It is a blessing. I can’t imagine how, but it must be a blessing.
I summon whatever calm I can from my training.
I raise the gun with my good arm and I fire the first round.
Miller doesn’t even flinch as Johnson goes down, screaming in pain and grabbing at his leg. I hope I hit the femoral artery – I was aiming for it.
I fire the second round.
It hits Aji, sitting right next to me, in the gut. Aji barely whimpers, but I feel as if I am about to collapse.
Then, I fire the third round into the wall.
A moment later, I hear Miller pronounce our death sentence. “Return fire.”
“Sorry,” says Clara. She gives an apologetic shrug as she lifts her gun.
I stare at her, accepting my fate.
But before she can pull the trigger, the gate behind her explodes inwards.
The wooden pews of the little church are packed with people. The yellowed walls are lit by warm lights in old sockets. The ceiling is low for such a big space and there are columns everywhere. The church itself is an amalgamation of basements from the houses above.
The whole place smells of old plaster.
It is a place of warmth and welcome and closeness.
Nervously, a young black man steps up onto the stage. He’s maybe fourteen years old. He walks up behind the podium. He hunches behind it, almost like he’s trying to disappear from the crowd before him.
“Hi,” the young man says. Even with the microphone, his voice is barely more than a whisper.
“Bless you, bless you…” murmurs the crowd in response.
“I, uh, I uh, wanna tell a story before I say my prayer. That okay?”
He turns towards the pastor nervously. The pastor nods.
“It was, uh, five years ago. I was, um. Well, I run away from my momma. She was a user, y’know.”
All around the room, heads nod in agreement.
“I was like nine when I run away. But I didn’t want no social services or nothin’. I jus’ wanted to take care of myself, y’know. I know boys like me can be used. We can deliver product and not get arrested. We can take money. We can spot. We can make everything work. We the child soldiers of these, uh, well, the crews ‘round here. Well. I was nine years old and I decided to take care o’myself and I knew how. I got me a job at a house. It was a big house and it was all boarded up and stuff. It looked empty. But they sold stuff in it. Lots of stuff. And I had my job. I sat up in the upstairs window watchin’ the street. I had an iPhone they got off some junky who fell fast. I even had a mic hooked up so I could pick up audio real good. And I’d FaceTime if I saw a cop or somebody who looked like a cop on the block. Y’all know how they walk, right. I was good at spottin’ ‘em.”
The kid’s confidence seems to be picking up with just a touch of pride in his skills.
“So, this, uh, crew. They paid me good. I had food. I had a place to sleep. Nobody bothered me. Then, one day, these two black folk stumble out the back of the building next door. It was early in my shift and I’d seen people come and go through that door – but never just sit out there, y’know. So, I turned my mic to ‘em. I kept watchin’ the street, I knew my job. But I turned my mic to ‘em. And I listened to ‘em. And I watched ‘em fall asleep. They didn’t see me. I was peaking between the boards over my window. But I knew they was in trouble. The next day, after I got up, I watched ‘em all day. I saw ‘em talking. They loved each other, clear as day. Don’ see that often. And I saw they was scared. And then late in the afternoon those cops came. But I knew – I mean I seen it – I knew they weren’t clean cops. They were righteous all right, but they weren’t clean. I knew somethin’ was goin’ down. So, I started recording and I put it up on LiveBlast.”
“I didn’ know who those people were. But y’all sure did. The video spread, fast. Aji and Neisha. That was their names. Y’all know ‘em. And y’all know who said what and when. Y’know ‘cause of that tape. ‘fore long some other cops, clean cops, showed up. They banged through the gate wit they cruiser. They saved Neisha. But they was too late for Aji. Y’all know, Aji died. Whatcha all don’ know is that just before he died, he looked right at me. He was lookin’ right at me when he said, ‘I know that this too is a blessing.’”
“People was too busy chasin’ their tails to go knockin’ on the crack house. So, nobody messed wit’ me. But that blessin’ thing shook me up real good. I mean the man’s dead. Shot by the woman that loved him. That’s a blessing? I just thought, ‘that brother’s messed up.’”
“But y’know what… I began to think different. I mean, I looked him up. I remember him sayin’ blessin’ is an opportunity and the biggest one of all is be able to bless others.” I saw these prayer sessions spread, where one of y’all gets up and says what they prayin’ for and everybody else goes and blesses ‘em. And, bit by bit, I realized Aji greweven after he got shot. Maybe he was right, for him at least.”
“But I saw Neisha on TV. She was mad. She lost her job at the FBI and it all seemed to be fallin’ apart for her. When things all quieted down though, she goes and opens the Museum of Lost. She dedicated it to her brother and to Aji. They all is dead, but she’s blessin’ ‘em. So, she’s blessed. It’s messed up.
“Bit by bit, y’know, I thought maybe iPhones and money and being able to stand tall isn’t all there is. Problem is, I ain’t blessin’ nobody. That’s why I’m here.”
The boy pauses. Suddenly uncertain.
Then he says, “I’m here to pray. My prayer is nothin’ special. I just want a little of what those two had. They was part of something bigger, y’know. That’s it.”
The boy looks out over the crowd, uncertain how he’ll be received.
Nobody seems to respond. There is just silence.
Then a voice in the back says, almost inaudibly, “Maybe I can help.”
As every head turns, a black woman in her early 30s stands up.
The woman is Neisha Jackson.
Postscript & Personal Notes
This book was sparked by a conversation I had with a woman in my community. Her son had lost faith. The reason was simple. He could not understand the horrors in the world. In particular, he could not understand the Holocaust. She wanted me to speak to him. I didn’t get the opportunity to do so, so I decided to write a book instead.
It is my hope, that in time, my own children will learn from it.
· The ‘Ghost Report’ technology was most publicly applied in the case of the assassination of Rafik Hariri: https://www.the961.com/cell-networks-hariri-killers/
· The New York Times ran an article about art helping police do their jobs better. That inspired Neisha’s career path: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/27/arts/design/art-helps-police-officers-learn-to-look.html
· The anger Aji expresses at G-d reflects my grandfather’s anger at G-d. My grandfather would hold a Passover Seder and curse G-d. He saw the Exodus – the mass death followed by redemption – as mirroring the Holocaust.
· I have some personal connection to the idea of Neisha’s life being remade by the death of a child. My own brother died in an accident at 7 years of age. I wasn’t born yet, but his death shaped our family from then on. Others have told me that he died so that my parents would leave the backwoods of Idaho where they lived at the time.
· The story about the soldier’s execution for cowardice can be found at the link. I originally heard it on Hard Core History: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/world-history/history-of-the-first-world-war-in-100-moments/history-first-world-war-100-moments-french-general-and-deserter-9256651.html
· The description of the Prophet’s prophecy (and Aji’s) comes from the death of Kalman Packouz, a family friend in November 2019. As was shared with me: “Friday night, at about 8:30, his wife Shoshana went to check on him. As she stood there he opened his eyes and stared to a spot over her shoulder and uttered his first words in days (and his last words on this earth) “Hi Ma!” (his mother had passed away a few months earlier). He then opened his eyes really wide and they began to shine with an intense light. Startled, his wife turned around, for she was sure that his eyes were reflecting some light behind her but when she looked there was none. He then passed away.”
· I actually removed the firing pin from a pistol so I could disarm someone without them knowing.
· The book about the Sonderkommando is Returning from Yael Shahar. I confess I didn’t have the stomach to finish it.
· My mother used to ask who knew more about a flower. In a way it was the basis for her magnum opus: Reflections on the Logic of the Good. Many ideas in this book started with her. She used Monet as her example. I’ve never been a big Monet fan, so I used van Gogh.
· Growing up, our family doctor was a forensic pathologist. He always told us that if we killed somebody, we should never move the body.
You even read the end notes. You gotta share it now, right? The address is josephcox.com/agent