The Third Brother

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The Third Brother Page 5

by Andrew Welsh-Huggins

  “Thank you,” I said, folding the paper in thirds and tucking it into my pocket. “You’ll get back to me about the counselor?”

  “I said I would,” Ms. Paulus said.

  As I headed for the front door I saw the custodian at the far end of the hall, eyes locked on my wax floor–defiling shoes. I tried another wave. This time, as if a tremor had gripped his arm, he waved once in return.


  I DROVE DOWN MCCUTCHEON TO STELZER Road, glanced in my rearview mirror, and headed back toward the highway. I figured I’d give Ms. Paulus-not-Helene a few hours, no more, to persuade the counselor to talk to me before tracking her down myself. It probably wouldn’t earn me any extra credit points with the principal, whose Christmas card list I was assuredly off of after our encounter. Not that I blamed her for her reaction to my visit, or my insistent manner. The fact was, I could imagine how rattled the school community was. The thought of a homegrown extremist in my town was rattling me, too.

  Right before the entrance to 270 I glanced in my mirror again and changed my mind and decided to take the scenic route home instead. I took Stelzer back to McCutcheon and turned right, heading west. A quarter mile down I put on my signal, braked, and turned into a newish-looking subdivision. I slowed to the residential street’s posted limit of twenty-five miles per hour and for the next several minutes drove up and down the lanes of the small suburban neighborhood, taking in the scenery and trying to guess the median age of the houses. Best guess was late nineties, early aughts. Calling them cookie cutter would be implying too much diversity. At last, I ended up back on the street where I’d entered this little slice of real estate heaven. I pulled up to the intersection with McCutcheon. Instead of putting on my turn signal, I placed the van in park, activated my flashers, turned off the engine, and pulled out the keys. I pocketed them as I got out of the van. I walked back to the black Ford Explorer stopped behind me and gestured to the driver to roll down the window. I did that sideways stirring motion, as if using a spatula to scrape out batter from a mixing bowl. One of those anachronisms that everyone still understands, like saying tinfoil or calling a band’s latest release an album. After all, practically no cars have hand-cranked windows anymore. Kind of funny, if you think about it—

  “There a problem?” the Explorer’s driver said. If he had eyes, you couldn’t tell through his mirrored aviators.

  “Not really. Just that you need a buffer.”

  “I’m sorry?”

  “Like a decoy. A car in between.” I took a step back and used my hands to illustrate. “It gives you cover but not so much you lose visual contact.”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Could you just—”

  “OK. How about this? Why don’t you cut the crap and explain why you’re following me?”

  I HAVE TO GIVE the other guy credit. Or gal, as it turned out. Unlike the driver frowning at me from the front seat of the Explorer—who might as well have turned a siren on from the moment he followed me away from the school—I hadn’t spotted the second car at all, a fact I determined as it pulled up a moment later right on cue. Doors on both cars opened simultaneously and four people in dark suits surrounded me. I felt like the first customer on a slow day at a Brooks Brothers outlet.

  I looked at the woman, whom I knew. I said, “I didn’t bring my bathing suit, in case this is the part where you waterboard me. But I am wearing Scooby-Doo underpants, if that counts for anything.”

  “Don’t be an ass,” Cindy Morris said. “Sorry: more of an ass. What the hell happened to your eye?” She took off her own sunglasses. Her expression indicated she’d had one of those days just since breakfast. Her short, dark hair had come down with a mild case of snow flurries since the last time she’d flashed her FBI badge at me.

  I gave her the cue-ball line, which earned me a look several degrees below Kelvin. “You have a funny way of asking me out to coffee,” I soldiered on. “Did you lose my number?”

  “Maybe we could take this someplace less public,” said the driver of the Explorer I’d busted, standing next to Morris. Flushed from his lair, he stood tall and broad-shouldered. I was guessing two parts basketball, one part free weights, with a twist of jujitsu on the side. His stance suggested people usually took his etiquette suggestions.

  “Good idea. How about Capitol Square, in front of the Dispatch office, downtown? There’s a decent bagel place next door. I’m buying.”

  Morris looked up the street. A minivan had pulled to a stop behind the line of parked cars. The female driver eyed the vehicles and the five of us standing in the road. Morris nodded at another of the men in black, who happened to be black, and he stepped back and signaled for the woman to drive around.

  “There’s a Wendy’s up the street,” Morris said.

  “A local restaurant. Trendy of you,” I said. The fast-food chain was headquartered just up the highway in suburban Dublin. “I’d heard the bureau was very farm-to-table these days. Unfortunately, I’m comfortable right where I am. This traffic stop feels like my second home, without the patio. And I apologize for my slip of the tongue: it’s the CIA that waterboards, not you guys. You just psychoanalyze people to death. To repeat: why are you following me?”

  “It really might be easier—”

  “Actually, I think I can guess why. How about I tell you what I’ve been up to and save us both some time?”

  “Listen, Hayes—”

  “I started with a good breakfast, since that’s the most important meal of the day, as I’m sure they taught you at Quantico, where you probably grilled rabbits over bonfires. After that, I drove to Maple Ridge High School to meet with Helene Paulus, the principal, whose social security number I didn’t manage to snag but I’m thinking you already have that, plus all her pin numbers. We had a nice chat about the country’s opiate epidemic and cooperation and the fact that if Abdi Mohamed wasn’t a Boy Scout, he was the next closest thing and therefore a highly unlikely recruiting target for Islamic extremists. Unless they’ve started infiltrating Kroger checkout lines. From here I’m headed to the house of worship Abdi attended for some palavering with the elders there, although I’d wager my last Sacajawea dollar they won’t tell me much. After that, I fly to Istanbul to meet a guy named Ahmed parked in a black Mercedes under the third streetlamp down from the Hagia Sophia mosque. Hope to be back in time for Sunday dinner with my folks.” I stopped and pressed both forefingers against my temples in a thinking pose. “Oh, I also need to pick up kibble for the dog. OK. I think that about sums it up.”

  Special agent Morris was not amused. The look on her face made my conversation with Helene Paulus seem downright convivial in comparison. Without breaking eye contact, she took out her cell phone, glanced for a fraction of a second at the screen, power-typed a message, and replaced it in her coat pocket. She trained her baby blues on me like a predator weighing which limb to tear off first.

  “Listen carefully, Woody. We’re not screwing around here. You’re interfering with a national security investigation.”

  I bristled at her use of my nickname. For a Feebee Morris was all right. But she wasn’t on the short list like my new best friend, Otto Mulligan. “I don’t go by Woody anymore. It might be more effective to throw in my middle name instead, the way my mom does. As for interfering? I’m not even at hindering—”

  “By rights I could have you arrested. Questioning government witnesses on a terrorism case.”

  “And I could have you slapped with a bar association complaint. Let’s see—harassing an officer of the court during the lawful conduct of his duties. How’s that for starters?”

  She snorted. “Officer of the court? Give me a break.”

  “I’m working for Freddy Cohen. Cohen is representing the family of Abdi Mohamed. Ipso facto, that makes me an extension of Cohen.”

  “You’re working for Cohen?”

  “Don’t tell me you didn’t know that. Or did your surveillance drone run out of petrol already?”

bsp; “You and Cohen. That’s amazing, I have to say, even for you. After what you—”

  “Careful, Agent Morris.”

  My tone caught the attention of the tall agent, who shifted his feet in a manner that suggested a flying tackle was a misplaced adjective away.

  “I’d be sensitive about it too, I were you,” Morris said. “But the fact you’re working for Cohen doesn’t change anything. You’re still tramping around where you don’t belong. Per usual, I might add.”

  “Now see, that’s where you’re wrong.”


  “The way I see it, you’re carrying out your duties as a law enforcement agent tasked with investigating federal crimes. I’m helping Freddy find a man presumed innocent under the U.S. Constitution. We’re really two peas in a pod, don’t you think?”

  “I think I’d like to know what Helene Paulus told you.”

  I thought about the names of the students in my pocket, and about the school counselor’s close relationship with Abdi. Her feeling, according to Paulus, that the suspicions against the boy were warranted. Surely Morris knew all that already. I said, “She told me Abdi’s hiding under her desk along with two of Osama bin Laden’s drivers and an Islamic State player to be named later. In other words, go ask her yourself.”

  “I’m serious.”

  “So am I. But like I said, I’m under attorney-client privilege.”

  “You think this is a game? There are lives at stake here, Woody. We’re lucky Abdi’s brother died overseas. The alternative is these people coming back home carrying grudges and trained to do something about it.”

  “These people?” I said, cocking an eyebrow.

  “Terrorists,” Morris snapped. “Real or wannabe. You know what I mean. Don’t try to misconstrue my words.”

  “Let me guess. Some of your best friends are Muslims?”

  Between the murderous look that flared in Morris’s eyes and the intake of breath from the tall, dark, and muscle-bound agent beside her, there was a good chance I might have ended up in the backseat of a bureau-issued car in the next few seconds had Morris’s phone not gone off just then. Eyes never leaving mine, she planted the cell against her right ear and listened to someone on the other line for a full thirty seconds without speaking. “All right,” she said at last, cutting the connection without saying goodbye.

  Maintaining her vacuum-locked gaze, she said, “As much as I’d love to continue this conversation, something’s come up I need to attend to. You’re free to go.”

  “Oh goody. So what’s up? Two peas in a pod, remember?”

  “Don’t flatter yourself. We’re not even in the same garden.”


  TEN MINUTES LATER I WAS SITTING IN THE parking lot of Masjid Omar, the mosque that Abdi’s family attended off Sunbury Road. I was reviewing the encounter with the agents when I was interrupted by the sound of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” coming from the passenger seat. Caller ID blocked. I answered the phone anyway.

  “You’re lucky to be alive.”

  “Excuse me?”

  “You heard me. Those guys don’t fool around.”

  “Who is this?”

  “Name’s McQuillen. Thought you could use some help.” His voice low and conspiratorial, like someone passing along a horseracing tip.

  “What kind of help?”

  “Finding those guys.”

  Confused, I thought of the three agents acting as Cindy Morris’s backup band just now. “What guys?”

  “The ones in the parking lot who rolled you. I might know who they are. Depending on what you can tell me.”

  “And how would you know that?”

  “I study guys like them.”

  I get this kind of call a lot, which doesn’t make them any less annoying. Most of the time I waste precious minutes explaining why I don’t look for lost cats or collect video evidence of ectoplasmic trails. Usually. I looked out my van window. Abukar Abdulkadir pulled in three spaces away. I waved. He nodded, a look of distraction on his face.

  “Back up. Tell me again who you are. And why you’re calling.”

  “Told you. Name’s McQuillen. I analyze those people.”

  “What people?”

  “Right wingers. Hate groups. Citizen militias. Three percenters. The lot.”

  “McQuillen your first name or last?”

  “Ronald J. McQuillen. Ronald, not Ron.”

  “And you analyze these people? Like, as a hobby?”

  “I’m a consultant.”

  “For who?”

  “For people who know less about these groups than me, which is pretty much everyone.”

  “Does that include the police?”


  “Anybody else?”

  “ACLU. Southern Poverty Law Center. Anti-Defamation League. NAACP. Others.” His voice got even lower, as if he’d stepped back into the shadows after spying someone from the state racing board. “I know what I’m doing. I might be able to help you.”

  “OK, Ronald J. McQuillen. I’m in the middle of something right now. Any chance I could call you back?”

  “I’ll text you my address. Come by and we’ll talk. Just not before ten. I’m usually not up. And not after two or three in the afternoon. I’m working.”

  “Where do you live?”

  “Watch yourself, all right? These people are a lot more dangerous than you think.”


  It was too late. He’d hung up. Which also happens to me a lot.

  THE MOSQUE WAS A cement-block building painted a drab green, with a basketball court on one side and a small playground of slides and climbing structures on the other. A tall chain-link fence ran around the perimeter, concluding with a rolling gate at the entrance, which had been open when I pulled in. Inside, I followed Abdulkadir’s lead and slipped off my shoes, grateful that I was wearing matching socks for a change. I placed my shoes in a cubbyhole built into a set of floor-to-ceiling white shelves, where they joined a few other pairs.

  A young man introduced as Sammy, the mosque youth coordinator, gave me a tour. It didn’t last long. The carpeted prayer room looked to have capacity for a couple of hundred worshippers. You could tell the community had worked hard to create a functional sanctuary, installing wood wainscoting around the room and painting the cinderblock walls a slightly less drab olive than the outer walls, but it didn’t take a lot of imagination to see it as its former incarnation: a central warehouse storage area filled with whatever equipment had once been housed here. A kitchen opened up to the right and classrooms ran down a hall next to it. On the other side of the prayer hall was a recreation area with some workout equipment. An electronic sign by the entrance noted the upcoming prayer times.

  The tour finished, we walked back to the front of the mosque and sat around a table in a conference room whose walls were lined with explanatory posters about Islam and travelogue images of a pristine and no doubt long-ago Mogadishu. Abdulkadir served me coffee in a paper cup from a drip machine sitting atop a dented file cabinet in the corner. Settled, I was introduced to the imam, a man whose gray hair partially covered by a prayer cap put him in his late sixties or seventies. He nodded, glance lingering on my black eye.

  “Thank you for meeting with me,” I said, after Abdulkadir made the introductions. His suit and tie set him apart from Sammy and the imam, who both wore robes. Abdulkadir smiled as I spoke, though it seemed like he was making an effort to stay positive. I explained who I was and why I was there, knowing full well I was giving them information they already had. “Do you have any idea where Abdi could be?” I said, ending my short speech.

  Sammy glanced at the imam before responding. “Aren’t you going to ask if we think he was radicalized?”

  “I guess not. Should I?”

  “That’s what the FBI wants to know.”

  “And for good reason, don’t you think? But I was hired to find him, not figure out his theology. If you think that will help me, then tell
me by all means. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter one way or the other. Does it?”

  Abdulkadir roused himself and stared at me like a man who’s brought himself up short just inches from the edge of a cliff. “Of course it does, Andy Hayes,” he said. “It matters most of all.”


  THE IMAM INTERRUPTED, SPEAKING TO Sammy for a minute or two. When he was finished, Sammy said, “What will you do if you find him? He faces arrest, correct?”


  “So regardless of what happens, his future is uncertain.”

  “Well, he’s got a good attorney.” I hesitated. “A very good attorney. If I find him—when I find him—Freddy, Mr. Cohen, will handle everything. He’ll make sure Abdi gets a fair shake, right from the beginning. He knows his stuff.”

  Sammy said, “And if Abdi is innocent?”

  “If there’s a good explanation for why he disappeared, and for what he’s been posting on social media, he might not face charges. That’s a stretch, in my opinion. But the explanation could go a long way toward resolving the case in his favor.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Well, let’s say there’s nothing to the threats. That he just got carried away. Maybe he disappeared because he was upset after Hassan died. Maybe he was worried about guilt by association. Maybe he posted those things and then panicked. He wouldn’t be the first nineteen-year-old to do something he regretted later. That would all need sorting out. But none of that can happen until we find him.”

  Sammy nodded thoughtfully. Before he could speak again, I said, “Did his brother come here? Hassan?”

  “Rarely. Perhaps during Ramadan a few times.”

  “How about after he changed? Got religion?”

  “He came more often, yes. But he was disruptive, shouting things during services. We asked him to leave and to stay away.”

  “Things like what?”

  Sammy smiled sadly. “He accused Imam Ali of kowtowing to American imperialists. If that’s what you call being grateful for the refuge he was offered here by the government, then I guess we’re all guilty.”


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