The Third Brother

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The Third Brother Page 6

by Andrew Welsh-Huggins

  “Could Hassan have influenced Abdi, in your opinion?”

  “It seems the most logical explanation. What do you know about the boy?”

  I recalled what Helene Paulus told me. “Decent grades. Very good soccer player. Lots of friends, or at least well-liked. Popular. Was going to college to be a diplomat.”

  “He’s also a loyal person,” Sammy said. “Dedicated to his family. He’s closer in age to Hassan than his older brother. He spent time with him when other people in the family dismissed him as a lost cause. And he’s a hard worker. Of course, he has to be.”

  “Meaning what?”

  “The family has little money. Even with his scholarship he had expenses to think about at Ohio State. I know there was a question about whether he could afford it. Isn’t that right?” The last question directed to Abdulkadir.

  “It is possible,” he said. “I know it’s something he didn’t like to talk about.”

  “Could his disappearance be related?” I said. “Ashamed he couldn’t pay for this great opportunity?”

  “I do not think so,” Abdulkadir said quickly. “We have no indication of that.”

  The imam said something in Somali. Sammy and Abdulkadir both nodded.

  “He says the boy was too smart to follow his brother,” Sammy said. “He thinks something happened to him against his will.”

  “Hassan hung out with boys in a gang,” I said. “Could they have been involved? With Abdi’s disappearance, I mean?” Like almost every city these days, Columbus had a vicious gang problem, with black-on-black shootings a weekly if not daily occurrence. Often it seemed like one person was just in the wrong place and in the wrong crosshairs at the time.

  “It’s a possibility,” Sammy said, translating my theory to the imam. The elder nodded, frowning.

  “If that is what happened, perhaps it’s for the best,” Abdulkadir said.

  Now it was my turn to stare at him. “What are you talking about?”

  “I do not mean it like that, Andy Hayes,” he said, sitting up straighter. “Of course I want Abdi found safely. But it would be a comfort, a small one, to know that he had not turned down the wrong path.”

  “Very small comfort if he’s been murdered.”

  “Our community is accused of so many bad things these days,” Abdulkadir said. “For some outsiders, the path of extremism is less forgivable than breaking the law by committing street crime. That is what I meant. I have noticed—”

  “Noticed what?”

  “That Americans will turn a blind eye to many things that shock us. Like the guns. Everywhere, guns, guns, guns. For us, who lived through war, it is hard to understand. Constant death on the streets. That is accepted. But if someone expresses opinions the way Hassan Mohamed did. Or the way Abdi is accused of? It is considered a far worse offense. It is a funny thing in this country. You have people who go to church every week who don’t seem to mind the gun violence. Those same people criticize our religion, which is a faith of peace. That is all I was trying to say. That depending on what happened to Abdi his story could have very different meaning. Even though for us, the loss is the same. But either way, I want what everyone wants. For Abdi Mohamed to be located and returned to his family.”


  I LEFT THE MOSQUE ALONE A FEW MINUTES later, pondering Abdulkadir’s concerns. It was a harsh way to look at the situation, to say the least. To conclude that dying by Columbus gang violence was a more genial fate than becoming a self-radicalized extremist. Yet according to Abdulkadir’s thinking, the former would lead “merely” to city-wide headshaking, the latter to condemnation with far worse ramifications. It was a cold calculus, and it saddened me for what it said about the state of our society right now.

  I sat in my van and checked my messages: among them was a text from Ronald J. McQuillen with his address. I thought about his parting words. These people are a lot more dangerous than you think. Still considering that, I called for Helene Paulus to see if she’d had any luck getting ahold of Barbara Mendoza, Abdi’s school counselor. After the way we’d left things that morning, I was doubtful I’d get past the secretary. A bit to my surprise, Paulus took the call. But the news wasn’t good.

  “She doesn’t want to speak to you. She said the whole thing has been too traumatic. The FBI interviewed her at length, and that was hard enough. She’s not sure what else she could tell you.”

  “She’s standing by her suspicions? That Abdi went down the same path as Hassan?”

  “Apparently. As I said, she’s devastated.”

  “I think it would help if I spoke to her myself. Could I get her number?”

  “I’m afraid not. She specifically asked me not to pass on any of her information.”


  “She’s upset, Mr. Hayes. She’s been through a lot. I have to honor that.”

  “You understand I’m trying to help, right? The FBI wants to put Abdi behind bars. For a long, long time. If he’s innocent, I’m somebody who might be able to stop that from happening.”

  “I understand you perfectly well, believe me. I looked you up.”

  “That’s nice. Wikipedia or LinkedIn?”

  “You have a checkered reputation. I don’t know whether to trust you.”

  “Trust, but verify, is my motto. I didn’t look you up, but I appreciate anyone with George Bellows paintings on their office wall. Summer Night, Riverside Drive is one of my favorites—the interplay of shadow and light. You know he’s from Columbus, I assume?”

  “Fascinating. You read books and appreciate art too?”

  “Now who’s being rude?”

  “My humblest apologies. I’ve just never met a private investigator before. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t sure they existed.”

  “I hear that all the time. Us and boy wizards. So now that we’ve got that out of the way, perhaps you could give me the counselor’s number?”

  “Barbara was adamant. She wants to be left alone.”

  “I don’t have to say where I got it.”

  “I would never do that to her.”

  “How about doing it for Abdi?” She was unmoved, and sounded offended as she said goodbye, like someone who’d been asked for money after first receiving happy birthday wishes.

  It didn’t matter. Even on my phone, it took me less than ten minutes to find out on my own where Barbara Mendoza lived. It was the kind of computer database search I could perform without spending money on Bonnie Deckard’s services, which tended to involve Internet probes of places beyond my capabilities and not always 100 percent legal. I pointed my van in the direction of her house. I didn’t think a cold call would cut it in this situation.

  THIRTY MINUTES LATER I was parking beside Mendoza’s house in Pickerington on the far east side. Her neighborhood was another cookie-cutter collection of pastel split-levels planted atop what had been a soybean field a decade or two ago. The house was the light blue of a washed-out early summer morning, with a lawn that looked as if it should have been mowed three or four days earlier. Weeds poked through patchy mulch on either side of the front door. One of the house numbers, a 2, was off-kilter by a half inch or so. The property wasn’t ill-kempt, but it had a distracted air, like the house of someone on a long vacation, or as though Mendoza—or her husband, or someone—was having a hard time keeping up with everything.

  The door opened a crack after my second knock. A small, dark-haired woman looked up at me suspiciously. I explained who I was and what I wanted. A factory farm lobbyist might have gotten a warmer look from a vegan keeping gluten-free.

  “I told Helene I didn’t want to talk to you. Did she—?”

  “She didn’t tell me where you lived. She refused to, actually. So none of this is on her, just to be clear.”

  “How did you—”

  “I’m sorry to intrude. It’s just that I thought you might have some information about Abdi. Something that could help me find him. Or find out what happened to him. Helene—Ms. Paulus—said
you worked closely with him.”

  Lines of worry warped her forehead. She glanced behind her, back into the house.

  “I can’t help you,” she said, turning back to face me. “I told the FBI everything. There’s nothing more to say.”

  “Do you have any idea where he could be?”

  “I . . . I have no idea.”

  “Did he ever mention anyone who might, you know, be influencing him? Or talk about any plans? Was he angry about anything?”

  “I’m sorry. I can’t talk to you. Please understand.” Tears filled her dark eyes. She started to close the door.

  “Ms. Paulus said you believe the allegations. Is that true?”

  She didn’t speak for a moment, casting her eyes downward. When she looked up again I saw she was now trembling, as if I’d shouted an obscenity at her. I took a step back. I was walking the edge of harassment and I knew it. It was one thing to joust over information with Helene Paulus and another to show up uninvited at Mendoza’s house. I didn’t know how much a counselor in the city schools made. But I was guessing that no matter how generous her salary, it didn’t cover the ordeal of seeing a beloved student surface in the middle of a terrorism investigation, and then answering questions from every Tom, Harry, and private dick that came along. There was also something else bugging her, a sense I got that someone was in the house, listening in on our conversation. Someone she didn’t want me to know about. Wildly, I wondered: Abdi? Could she be hiding the boy inside? But that seemed improbable at best. And if I’d thought of the possibility I knew damn well it had made Agent Morris’s punch list, and that would have been that.

  So instead of pressing further I thanked her and handed over my card and asked her to call if she thought of anything important. From the look on her face and the click of the deadbolt sliding into place after she shut the door, like the snap of a bone, I was guessing the card was in the trash before I made it back inside my van. It was OK. It wouldn’t be lonely once it hit the landfill. There were a lot more there just like it.


  Are you coming or not??

  I puzzled at the text from the unfamiliar number as I got back into my van and checked my phone. Coming where? Then I remembered. Ronald J. McQuillen. The hate group consultant, whatever that meant.

  Why not? I thought after a moment. It could be novel talking to someone interested in helping me.

  I IMAGINED MCQUILLEN LIVING in a home way out in the country bristling with antennas and high-tech surveillance equipment and protected by dogs that eviscerate first and sniff later. It turned out that he lived in an altogether normal-looking two-story stone-and-stucco house on Eddington Road in Upper Arlington, the tony old suburb on the northwest side of the city. I strolled up the walk and lifted my hand to push the doorbell. But the door swung open first.

  “’76 Sentries,” said the man standing before me.

  “I’m sorry?”

  “Your parking lot guys,” he said. “I’m guessing 1776 Sentries. Private militia, offshoot of an offshoot of an Aryan Nation group that was active in the eighties in eastern Ohio, out between Newark and Cambridge. It’s also possible they were 1861 Copperheads. Been seeing signs of activity from them as well. Sometimes hard to differentiate. One of the Sentries married a Copperhead sister’s niece, which adds to the confusion. Copperheads were Democrats in the Civil War, opposed—”

  “Opposed to the war and supporting immediate peace with the Confederates. Not to be confused with scalawags, like I did on my sophomore year midterm. OK, just to stick with the niceties here, you are, ah, Ronald McQuillen?”

  He seemed to consider the question. He wore red Converse high-tops, black socks, faded jeans shorts, and a gray T-shirt emblazoned with the words “This is your brain on bacon” and an illustration of the self-same organ doing a happy dance. His right hand held a half-full two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew. Probably midforties, medium height and stocky, shaggy brown hair retreating on top, with gold-rimmed glasses and the beard of a folksinger whose last album did OK but not enough to take him off the road for more than a month or two.

  “Ronald J., yes,” he said, finally. “Sorry. Been a long day already.” He stuck out his hand. I expected cold fish and got hail-fellow-well-met instead. He stood to the side while I came in. “Garden’s back here,” he said, gesturing for me to follow.


  Though it was bright outside and getting hot, the house was dark and cool, with curtains drawn and blinds down. We walked to the rear and stepped down into an office with the lights turned off. In front of me was a desk dominated by a keyboard and three wide computer monitors, each alive with graphs, charts, videos, documents and message balloons, as if I had stumbled across a trading desk in the New York Stock Exchange. Beside that impressive setup, another monitor was split into four closed-circuit TV views of angles around the house, including the front walk, where McQuillen had no doubt spied me before I had a chance to ring the bell. I glanced at a wide-screen TV hanging above his work station and saw soldiers running through plumes of dust somewhere. The embedded station icon said BBC World News.

  “Sorry,” McQuillen said. “I work better in the dark.”

  He picked up a remote from the desk and pointed it at a wall panel pulsing with red and green lights. Above us, recessed lights running along the back and side walls like runway markers slowly brightened. McQuillen grabbed a chair on wheels on the other side of the office and slid it my way. I sat down, looking around. The contrast of the electronics-heavy room with the rest of the drab house was striking, like finding a chemistry lab aboard a clipper ship making a tea run to Cathay.

  “Garden?” I said.

  “Garden of Eden. The nickname I gave it.”


  “In memory of my father, I guess. Ironic, given that I’m an atheist, but what are you going to do?” When I didn’t respond he shrugged and continued. “I thought I could at least try to figure out where the evil originated. As a way of trying to contain it. And what better place to study evil than in the garden. Where it all began. You know?” He took a pull from his Mountain Dew. Seeing the look on my face, he added, “Garden of Eden, like in the Bible?”

  “I’ve only been east of there. You said your father?”

  He nodded. “He would have loved all this technology. It was still mostly paper in his day.”

  “His day? I’m not sure I’m following—”

  “You are an investigator, correct?”

  “So the license tells me.”

  “And you didn’t check me out? Or are you more a bodyguard type? I always thought—but never mind. Or”—he paused, a worried look crossing his face. “Sorry, I don’t mean to pry. But is it a memory thing? All those concussions? From your junior year, mostly, right? The one at Wisconsin especially. It’s called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, if I’m not mistaken. Getting clocked like that probably doesn’t help, either.” He pointed at my eye. “The parking lot guys do that?”

  I felt like a man who’s walked into the wrong cocktail party on the wrong continent, and in dungarees to boot. I thought of Otto Mulligan’s memory of my meaningless, two-decades-old play. What was it with people in this town and college football?

  I said, “I don’t have CTE, though I know quite a few people who think I do—or maybe wish I did. You’re right about junior year, but it was the Penn State game where I really got my bell rung. My eye’s none of your business. But in any case, I’m still not sure I know what you’re talking about. Your father died?”

  “John McQuillen. I figured you knew all that.” He gestured to the far wall before turning around and attacking his keyboard. I got up and walked over to examine a framed newspaper article.

  “Prosecutor Killed in Car Bomb Attack,” read the headline. The clip was thirty years old. I skimmed the first couple paragraphs:

  A veteran federal prosecutor died Tuesday in southern Ohio after an explosion tore apart his car in what investigators are calling an
assassination with a car bomb. Jonathan McQuillen, an assistant U.S. Attorney based out of Columbus, was investigating right-wing hate groups and was on his way to interview a witness when the attack happened, according to several sources.

  “Your father. Got it. I’m sorry.”

  “No worries. Just figured you’d know.”

  I should have, I reflected. I recalled the case now, though just barely. I said, “So, forgive me for asking this, but what happened? Was someone arrested?”

  “Arrested, no. Not enough parts left.” Picking up on my puzzled stare, he continued: “The guy who did it accidentally blew himself up in his garage two days later. Maybe planning another attack. So there’s some comfort there.”

  “Who was it?”

  “Guy named David Derwent, may he rest in hell. So, your guys.”

  “My guys?”

  “The ones in the parking lot.”

  “What about them?”

  “One of them had a tattoo. The younger guy. It’s a ’76 Sentries design.”

  “How do you know that? I mean, about the tattoo.”

  “It’s in the police report.”

  “You have that? The investigation’s still open.”

  He rolled his eyes. “Let’s just say I obtained it, OK? But that’s beside the point. What matters is who these guys are, and what they’re up to.”

  “You’re farther along than the cops, if what you’re telling me is true. I’ll give you that.”

  “That’s only because I do this full time and don’t have to stand and squeeze my butt cheeks together every time somebody with more stripes walks into the room. One of the things that drove my dad crazy. So, anything else about these clowns? I have to say your description was pretty good.”

  “Thanks,” I said drily. “That’s about it, I guess. Well, that and JJ’s.”


  I told him about the older guy’s command, based on what looked like a text he’d gotten in the middle of the assault.

  “That wasn’t in the report,” McQuillen said, frowning.


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