The Third Brother

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The Third Brother Page 2

by Andrew Welsh-Huggins

  LaTasha sat at her computer at her desk in the small, wood-paneled lobby. It being summer, she was in her Egyptian period, meaning ankh earrings and a beaded gold necklace and a tan sleeveless vest adorned with hieroglyphic figures. Executive legal secretary, Queen Nefertiti style.

  “Good morning. You’re looking very Cradle of Civilization today.”

  “Good morning, Andy,” she said, too brightly. There was something wrong with her face, as if she were trying to decide how she felt about the terminal illness of an unpleasant relative.

  “Everything all right?”

  “Everything’s fine. Why do you ask?”

  “No reason, other than you look like you just swallowed a mayfly.”

  “What a thing to say. Besides, it’s June. Burke’s ready for you,” she said, gold bracelets clicking as she waved her right hand down the hall. “Go on in.”

  “Thanks, warden.”

  She laughed nervously. I walked around the corner to Cunningham’s office and stepped inside.

  “Jesus Christ,” I said involuntarily.

  “Oh, very funny,” Freddy Cohen said.

  “What are you doing here?”

  He was leaning against the far wall, favoring his back. He didn’t reply right away. First he glanced at Cunningham, sitting behind his mahogany desk, then at the ceiling, and then at me again.

  “I need your help.”

  “My help?” I said.

  A pause, during which galaxies spun and tectonic plates shifted. “I need help with a case,” Cohen said. He shifted his position. He was standing between Cunningham’s framed law degree and the “Whites Only” sign Cunningham hung up as part of his rotating display of Jim Crow memorabilia. “Lest we forget,” he liked to say.

  “What kind of case?”

  “I’m getting to that.”

  “I can hardly wait.”

  “Don’t take that attitude with me—”

  Cunningham cleared his throat.

  We both looked at him. His hands were folded atop his desk like a pastor at a mandatory counseling session. “Why don’t you take a seat, Andy?”

  I walked to the leather chair to the left of his desk and sat. I knew it hadn’t been a request.

  “Nice weather we’re having,” Cunningham said.

  “Indeed,” I said.

  “Though perhaps a little warm.”

  “Very humid.”

  “You know what they say. It’s not the heat. Good weekend?”

  “Too short.”

  “They always are. Especially when you’re saving damsels in distress. Which brings me to the matter at hand.”

  Before he could continue, LaTasha entered with a silver tray bearing large white porcelain coffee mugs, a tall carafe, and cut-glass containers of sugar and cream. If a plastic swizzle stick or a Styrofoam cup had ever despoiled the inside of Cunningham’s office, I wasn’t aware of it. We sat in silence while LaTasha poured our coffee; mine black, Cunningham’s light, Cohen’s with both cream and sugar. She left as gracefully as she’d entered. My eyes followed her out, admiring the thick, pleated cotton skirt completing her Nile ensemble. I hoped my figure held up as nicely when I was a mother of four someday.

  “Go ahead, Freddy,” Cunningham said.

  Cohen picked up his mug, took a sip of coffee, and placed it back on the edge of Cunningham’s desk beside a carved African fertility statue. He was still standing, which meant his back was bad again. Which was my fault, depending on how you felt about blaming messengers. Thin, gray hair receding, wire-rimmed glasses pushed down on his nose, he’d grown a trim salt-and-pepper beard, heavy on the sodium, since the last time I saw him. He wore a tailored, dark-gray suit, black shoes that uncharacteristically needed shining, and a frown suitable for an infant’s funeral.

  “Hassan Mohamed,” he said. “Name mean anything to you?”

  “No. Should it?”

  “Try reading the news instead of making it for a change. Columbus man killed in Syria last month. Made CNN for five seconds between Cialis commercials.”

  The headline came back to me. Stories of radicalized young men sneaking overseas blurred in my mind anymore. But I remembered the local connection and the two days of news coverage it garnered.

  “Now I recollect. Islamic State?”

  “That’s right. Everyone’s favorite homicidal psychopaths.”

  “Was Mohamed Syrian?”

  “Somali. Came to Columbus when he was four. Parents made it out of Mogadishu during the civil war and spent several years in a refugee camp in Kenya before emigrating.”

  That sounded about right. Columbus had the second-largest Somali population in the country, after the Twin Cities in Minnesota, thanks to its low cost of living, reams of warehouse jobs, and the snowball effect of one outpost of settled refugees attracting others. They’d clustered in large groups on the north and west sides and were now such a common sight they hardly turned a head any more. With some variations to the tale, it was the same reason Columbus once had half a dozen German-language newspapers. I thought of the woman in the parking lot. I’d learned her name since: Kaltun Hirsi.

  “With you so far,” I said.

  “First for everything,” Cohen said. “So, the feds are still putting the pieces together, but it sounds like a pretty familiar recruitment story. Hassan dropped out of high school, sold some drugs, ran with a gang for a while. Agler Road Crips, if you’re counting. Guys like him are low-hanging fruit for Terror Inc. A week’s diet of an extremist imam preaching on YouTube and he was in their pocket.”


  “Classic case of self-radicalization. First he cleaned up his act. One day he’s running the streets, the next day—well, couple of days, figuratively speaking—he finds religion. Then he became superreligious. Changed his look: beard, robe, sandals, the whole nine yards. His parents were elated.”

  I took a drink of coffee and nodded.

  “That didn’t last long. Before they knew it he was tearing into them because they weren’t Muslim enough. He demanded his mom and his sisters go full-on burka. When the imam at his mosque denounced a terrorist attack in France, Hassan called him an infidel on Facebook. He was asked not to return. He left the country not long after that.”

  “To Syria?”

  “Turkey first, then he crossed over. He tweeted a picture of himself with his new brigade and a pledge to the caliphate. A week later he was killed in a firefight.”

  “It’s awful. But what—”

  “What does it have to do with you?”

  “Is this about the other day? In the parking lot?”

  “I’m getting to that. You can imagine how devastated his family was. It took them by complete surprise. These are basically hardworking immigrants trying to get by while they adapt to a new life. A new country. They had no idea what to do when his switch flipped and he veered fundamentalist. There’s a lot of second-guessing going on.”

  “Who else in the family?”

  “Older brother who works at a Walmart warehouse, and two sisters. One’s a stay-at-home mom, the other’s a teacher at a charter school for immigrant kids.”

  Cohen stopped, reacting to a back spasm. I reached for my cup, took another drink, but said nothing.

  “There’s a third brother. A kid named Abdi,” Cohen continued. “Youngest in the family. If Hassan was the troublemaker, he’s the golden boy. Decent grades, hell of a soccer player, starts at Ohio State in the fall. Wants to be a diplomat.”

  “Must have been hard for him, his brother going off like that.”

  “That’s the impression everyone had.”


  “You heard me. That’s the problem. He’s gone. He disappeared three days after the family got the news about Hassan’s death.”


  COHEN LEANED FORWARD, OPENED A MANILA folder on the edge of the desk, pulled out a picture, and handed it to me. I examined a photo of a rail-thin kid with a smile big enough for three, wearing a Col
umbus Crew soccer team cap while he gave the camera a hearty thumbs-up.

  “Disappeared?” I said.

  “Left school one afternoon, never came home. Week before graduation. Parents didn’t think anything at first, figuring he was at a buddy’s or maybe work.”

  “Which was where?”

  “Bagged groceries at a Kroger. After a few hours his folks started to panic. They called his friends, but nobody knew anything. Eventually they called the police. Next day the FBI’s at their door.”


  “To ask questions. Starting with, ‘Tell us where he is before he does it.’”

  “Does what?”

  “Kill a bunch of people, apparently. He posted something on Facebook to that end after he went missing.”

  “What’d it say?”

  Cohen pulled a sheet of paper out of the folder. “It rambles a bit. Well, a lot. But the main points are pretty scary.” He scanned the document for a second, then started reading. “‘America, stop interfering with other countries, especially the Muslim Ummah. We are not weak. We cannot be ignored.’”


  “Community. Like the Muslim world. Then there’s this: ‘I will kill them in their own lands, behead them in their own homes, stab them to death as they walk the streets.’”

  “How old’s this kid?”

  “Nineteen. And finally this one: ‘I can’t wait for another 9/11, San Bernardino, or Boston bombing!’”

  Cohen handed me the paper. He was right, it rambled. But along the way, like poison ivy on a meandering trail, was plenty of ugly stuff. It wasn’t the kind of thing you wanted to read on Facebook. It made me long for some of my relatives’ screeds about their neighbors’ dogs.

  “Is this all?”

  “A few other posts after that. Next couple of days. Images of the ISIS flag. Videos of suicide bombers, articles on martyrdom, attacks on the American government. The usual stuff.”

  “And the family says this is out of character?”


  “But wasn’t it out of character for his brother, too?”

  “They say it’s different. Hassan was an angry guy. He just shifted the focus of his anger. Abdi was happy-go-lucky, always in a good mood. And he didn’t go through any of the stages of transformation. That’s the key thing. His usual self one day, gone the next, Facebook posts the day after that.”

  “Did he go to Syria?”

  “We don’t think so. There’s no evidence he left the country.”

  “Has he been charged?”

  “Not yet. Right now the feds are just trying to find him.”

  “So how are you involved?”

  “The family hired me, figuring something’s coming down the line. I’ve represented a couple Somalis over the years for khat possession, so they know who I am.”


  “The weed of East Africa. Nasty stuff, but nothing to go to prison for, in my opinion.”

  “So why am I here?”

  He sighed. “The family asked me to bring you on.”

  “The family? Why?”

  He sighed again and shifted his position. “Your little parking lot escapade.”

  “What about it?”

  “Apparently they think you’re some kind of hero. I tried to persuade them otherwise, but they were adamant. They think you can help.”

  “Help them how?”

  “They want you to find Abdi.”

  IN THE SILENCE THAT followed, Cunningham got up from his desk, walked around it, and refilled my cup. He looked at Cohen, who shook his head.

  “I tried to talk them out of it,” Cohen said. “I told them everything you touched you made worse. You’re like a three-legged bull in a china shop with narrow aisles. Should have heard Abukar try to translate that. What were you doing out there, anyway?”

  “Who’s Abukar?”

  “Abukar Abdulkadir. He’s a community liaison of some sort. He’s the one who reached out on the family’s behalf. Answer the question.”

  “Out where?”

  “On the west side, where you helped that woman.”

  “I was grocery shopping.”

  “You live on the other side of town.”

  “I’d just wrapped up a job. I needed some things for the weekend. My boys were coming the next day.”

  “What kind of job?”

  “I was following someone.”

  “In a grocery store?”

  “At the casino.”

  “That makes more sense,” Cohen said. “Who were you following?”


  “Someone like who?”

  “Freddy,” Cunningham interrupted, taking his already deep baritone down a notch. “Perhaps we should stay focused on your situation.”

  “Of course, of course. It’s just that the wanderings of Junior Lew Archer here always fascinate me.”

  “I’m sure they do, but—”

  “First off,” I said, “I see myself more the Continental Op type. Secondly, I was following a man who’s having an affair with one of the blackjack dealers. I needed a picture of them together when she took a break. Satisfied?”

  Cohen looked as if I’d punched him in the nose. The fact we both knew he’d been more or less asking for it didn’t make me feel any less bad.

  “Did you get it?” he snapped.

  “Get what?”

  “The picture?”

  “Yes.” It was one of my better efforts, in fact, the two of them holding hands over sodas at the bar like middle school kids at the roller rink.

  “Good to hear,” Cohen said.


  “Don’t,” he said, putting up a hand.

  Cunningham cleared his throat again, but this time he meant it. “You were saying the family wants Andy to look for the boy.”

  Cohen made a face as if he’d just sniffed sour milk. “To find him, were their exact words. They’re determined it has to be Andy. They said you kept helping the lady even after one of them jumped you. They said you were the only person to intervene.”

  “I was the first. There’s a difference.”

  “They don’t see it that way. They said”—he frowned and paused to cough, as if suddenly tasting bile—“they said you’re a great man. That’s why they want to hire you.”


  ABDI’S PARENTS LIVED IN CAPITAL PARK Village, a complex of putty-colored two-story apartment buildings off Agler Road on the north side. A pair of little girls in bright orange dresses playing in what passed for a front yard eyed me curiously as I found a space in the half-filled lot near the Mohameds’ unit at four o’clock that afternoon. I glanced over at Cohen, who’d pulled in right ahead of me. He refused to make eye contact, staring instead at the pants and shirts and multicolored scarves drying on the fence surrounding the apartments. Fortunately for both of us, our host arrived a minute later.

  “See tahay? How are you? I am Abukar Abdulkadir,” he said, introducing himself with a string of precisely clipped syllables. “You are the wonderful Andy Hayes. I recognize you from the TV. You’re a very brave man.”

  “I did what anybody else would.” We shook hands. He was thickset, with short-cropped hair starting to gray, a slightly rounded head, and an engaging smile, wearing a suit and tie that made me feel hot just looking at him.

  “That’s where you are assuredly wrong. Kaltun said you were the only person to help her. She’s very grateful.”

  “How’s she doing?”

  “Much better, thanks be to God.” Kaltun Hirsi had turned out to be a married mother of six—two other kids were at home with her husband at the time—studying to be a social worker. She’d been at the store picking up a few things for dinner when Tweedledum and Tweedledee approached and started taunting her.

  “Have the police found those men?”

  A cloud crossed Abdulkadir’s face. “Not yet.”

  Cohen got out of his car and joined us, moving even more slowly t
han at Cunningham’s office that morning. It was hard to tell whether he shook Abdulkadir’s hand to greet him or to keep his balance.

  “How are you doing today, Mr. Freddy?”

  “I’ve been better. Let’s get this over with.”

  The woman who met us at the door introduced herself as Farah, Abdi’s older sister. The schoolteacher, I deduced. She was dressed in tan slacks, a white blouse, and purple sandals that matched her headscarf. She showed us inside. Her parents were seated on a couch in the living room. A soccer match played out on an enormous TV on the other side of the room. An aroma of simmering meat filled the air.

  Abdi’s father was thin, wearing a long-sleeve white shirt and gray slacks. Abdi’s mother was a heavy woman, enveloped in a black scarf and dress. They both smiled and nodded but didn’t speak. As Abdulkadir and I sat down, a girl, high school age, introduced as a cousin, appeared with cups of Somali tea. I had come to appreciate the sweet, cardamom-flavored drink the few times I’d had it. Cohen took his as if he’d been handed a witches’ brew and sat down carefully on a folding chair beside me.

  Abdulkadir said something in Somali to the parents. They nodded and replied. He turned to me.

  “The family appreciates your help finding their son. Are there any questions you’d like to ask?”

  I took a sip of tea and considered my approach. I made eye contact with Farah briefly before she lowered her gaze. “I’ll start with the obvious one, I guess. Do they have any idea at all where he could be or where he went?”

  They conferred for a moment. I waited for Abdulkadir to translate. But it was Farah who spoke next.

  “None at all. He just vanished.”

  “No one saw anything?”


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