The Third Brother

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The Third Brother Page 9

by Andrew Welsh-Huggins

  I was finishing breakfast, trying to figure out my next move, when my phone rang. It was Freddy Cohen.

  “We’ve got a problem.”

  Tell me about it, I thought. But what I said was, “Abdi’s in Syria?”

  “It might be better if he was. Because otherwise, it looks like he firebombed the church down the street from his family’s mosque.”


  “You heard me. I need you to get out there. Figure out what’s going on.”

  “No problem. Which church?”

  “It’s called Mount Shiloh Baptist.”

  I GOT AS FAR as a strip mall a quarter mile from the scene. I knew I was in the right place when I saw reporters from three separate TV stations doing stand-ups at the far end of the parking lot. Even from that far away I could smell the acrid stink of smoke in the air. I got out and strolled casually toward the media throng. One of the reporters, the best-looking by far, wrapped up her shot, did a double take and marched straight toward me.

  “What the hell are you doing here?”

  “You know me and conflagrations,” I said, retreating. “I just can’t stay away from them.”

  “You are so full of shit. Spit it out.”

  Under normal circumstances Suzanne Gregory was hard to say no to. I should understand this better than anyone: not only was she the muckraking-est TV journalist in town, with a shelf full of Emmys to prove it, she was also my ex-fiancée. She was cursed with cover-girl good looks that routinely lulled hapless bureaucrats and politicians into complacency as she used her relentless reporting to nail them for screwing taxpayers. There was even an expression for it: getting Suzy-Q-ed. She was back on the job after maternity leave, although you wouldn’t have guessed she’d just had a baby, I thought, eyeing the way she fit into her sleeveless heathered gray dress. I powered up my defensive shields and gave her the movie trailer version of my involvement with Abdi Mohamed.

  “You’re looking for Hassan Mohamed’s brother on behalf of Freddy Cohen?” she said when I was done. “I truly think I’ve heard everything now. Didn’t you—?”

  “I caught his wife having an affair with someone in their synagogue, yes,” I said, doing my best to avoid looking directly into her stomach-flipping blue eyes. “There’s more than one person in town who thinks she was completely justified, by the way. Next question.”

  “Fine. What can you tell me about Abdi?”

  For the next couple of minutes we jousted a bit the way old lovers do, which is to say with affection and more than a bit of rancor, until we’d exhausted our mutual goodwill.

  “How’s Isabella?” I said as she turned to walk back to her post.

  “Crabby, beautiful, and perpetually hungry—”

  “Just like her mom,” we both said at the same time.

  I limped back to my van, staggered by the wry smile that that cute exchange had won me.

  I called Cohen. He explained that Abukar was hearing rumors about witnesses identifying Abdi as the culprit. In turn, I filled him in with what Suzanne told me, starting with the report of a fire called in about ten o’clock the night before.

  “Always with the media,” he interrupted. “She going to put you on the noon news?”

  “No,” I protested. “We were just talking.”

  “You always say that, and the next thing I know I’m staring at your mug on a screen.”

  “Are you coming out here?” I said, ignoring him. “Or going to see the family?”

  I decided for now to leave out the minor detail that Abdi may have attacked the church pastored by his girlfriend’s father. I needed to wrap my head around that concept further before telling Cohen something that might make his noggin up and explode.

  “Neither. My back’s not good this morning.”

  “I’m sorry. Is there anything I can—”

  “Yeah, right. Call Abukar. See if he’s heard anything else.”

  He hung up before I could reply. I punched in Abdulkadir’s number, got him in two rings, and explained my whereabouts.

  “I’ll be right there.”

  Sure enough, he pulled up a couple of minutes later. Though it was barely nine o’clock, he was dressed in his usual suit. I wondered idly if he was ever out of it. I started to open the van door, but he signaled me to stay inside. He climbed into the passenger seat and stared out the window in the direction of the church. “This is everything we dreaded,” he said. “Two brothers like this. The repercussions we could face.”

  I thought about my conversation with Faith Monroe’s mother. Her denial of the suggestion that her Christian daughter was dating the brother of a martyred Muslim extremist.

  “Why would Abdi do that?” I said, carefully. “Attack a church?”

  “I can’t answer that. It’s not the boy we know. That the community knows. But—”


  “There was a lot of tension with Mount Shiloh. Boys were always throwing rocks at the mosque. Taunting our children. That’s why we had to put the fence up, you know. Believe me, it was not something we wanted.”

  “Boys from the church?”

  “Some of our children play basketball at the mosque, in the evenings. If the boys from Mount Shiloh see our youth they come over and start things. The two groups don’t get along.”

  “Which groups?”

  “The African Americans and the Somalis. And of course everyone hates Muslims now.”

  “Not everyone.”

  “Perhaps not you, Andy Hayes. But everyone else.”

  I let that one go for now. “It really could have been anyone. A coincidence.” But even as I said it, I wondered if it were true. If I really believed that.

  “From what I am hearing, the witnesses seemed sure it was him.”

  “Like, recognized him?”

  He nodded.

  “That doesn’t make sense.”

  “No, it does not.”

  It didn’t make sense for a lot of reasons. Why would you disappear, only to reappear and attack a church in practically your own neighborhood? Especially this church? It seemed like someone intent on doing harm would take the opposite approach. If you’re already under suspicion, why do something to increase the scrutiny? Ramp up the search for you? Or was this the attack that Abdi’s Facebook post hinted at? Had we escaped with nothing worse than a firebombed church and, to judge by the reports I was seeing pop up on my phone, no injuries? And how did his relationship with Faith Monroe—or perhaps more to the point, with her father—fit into all this?

  We talked a few minutes more about the history of tension over the mosque, before movement on the street distracted me. I looked up and saw three black Ford Explorers roll past the strip mall, speeding toward the church.

  “Looks like you’re not the only one drawing conclusions about Abdi,” I said.

  “What do you mean?”

  “Those are feds.” I explained about my encounter after meeting Helene Paulus.

  Panic filled Abdulkadir’s face, as if he’d just realized he’d lost track of a friend’s child in his care.

  “I should go,” he said, and opened the van door.

  “Everything all right?”

  “I will talk to you soon, Andy Hayes,” he said, getting out and slamming the door shut. He walked to his car without turning around. A moment later he was gone.


  I TOOK ON A NEW ASSIGNMENT LATER that morning. The FBI wanted to question Abdi’s parents again, and this time they wanted them at headquarters in the Arena District north of downtown. Cohen insisted on being there, but his back was so bad he couldn’t drive. He told me to pick him up at his house. He made it clear that under no circumstances was I to come inside, or even step foot on the property.

  Instead, I sat in my van on the street on Bullitt Park Place in Bexley, the well-heeled suburb parked like a comfy couch between two gritty spurs of Columbus’s east side. I tried not to gawk as Cohen hobbled out the front door. He descended the stairs slowly, one hand
on the railing, the other on the knob of his cane. He approached my Odyssey like a man twenty years his senior. I thought I saw someone standing inside watching him leave, but I couldn’t make out who it was. Ruth? Unlikely, since the last I’d heard they were separated, perhaps divorcing. Thanks to me, according to the one and only shouting match Cohen and I had had after it all came out. At the time, Cohen was still in denial that his wife’s lover might have been just the teensiest bit responsible too, even though the relationship hadn’t survived the glare of discovery.

  I decided against getting out and opening the passenger door. I knew the Driving Miss Daisy thing would be hard enough for Cohen without me underlining his infirmity.

  “What’s wrong with your eye?” he demanded when he was in and buckled.

  “Poked myself with my toothbrush. You OK?”

  “Just drive.”

  To fill the silence, I went over what we knew so far. According to Abdulkadir, Mount Shiloh Baptist, along with neighbors in a small nearby subdivision, had filed complaints with the city when the Somali community purchased an old paper products warehouse, intending to convert it into a mosque. The complaints predicted problems from increased traffic along the road and challenged the commercial zoning code waiver that would allow the mosque. The words “Islam” and “Muslim” were never mentioned, though the subtext was clear. Meetings between the imam and Faith Monroe’s father smoothed things over, and for a time everything went fine. But boys will be boys, particularly boys from religious congregations equally ignorant of the other. Tensions flared into rock-throwing and fistfights more than once. Taking a breath, I concluded by telling Cohen about the apparent romance between Faith and Abdi. He looked at me, incredulous.

  “Abdi was dating the daughter of this church’s minister?”

  “Dating might be a little strong. Allegedly involved with? That’s according to one of his friends. The girl’s mom did a bad job denying it.”

  “And you didn’t think to tell me?”

  “It didn’t seem that significant until today. It was just one more piece of the puzzle.”

  “You’re a real piece of work, Hayes,” Cohen said. He shook his head and looked out the window as we passed Franklin Park Conservatory going east on Broad, the greenhouses just visible through the foliage of the park’s trees. “Every time I think you’ve hit rock bottom, another trap door opens up.”

  “That’s not fair. I just didn’t think it was relevant enough to call you up out of the blue. Obviously, the fire changed all that.”

  “You think?”

  We didn’t speak again until we reached the FBI building, a bland, stand-alone brick edifice that might have doubled for the IT annex of a midlevel insurance company. Farah Mohamed and her parents were already there. Cohen opened his door after I parked and killed the engine.

  “Stay here,” he said.


  “I threatened to pull Judge Rafferty off the fourth hole at Muirfield just to get in on this interview. There’s no way in hell they’re letting you in too.”

  “Can I at least help you to the door? It looks like you can barely—”

  “In your dreams. I’ll text you when we’re finished.”

  And that was that. I watched while Cohen inched his way toward the Mohameds, pegging the asphalt with his cane like a novice mine hunter. I considered what I knew of the circumstances that led to his back injury, related to the affair—but yet a different mess, too. I looked and caught Farah staring at me, confusion written on her face. I shrugged. She scowled and reached out an arm to Cohen. After a moment’s hesitation he took it. They all went inside.

  I LOOKED AT MY watch: nearly noon. One thing was for sure. I wasn’t going to just sit there like an ersatz chauffeur, no matter Cohen’s order to stay put. Instead, I locked up and walked down the street to Betty’s. The usual sign was on the door of the bar: “Open when I get here, closed when I leave.” I went inside. I guess she was there. I ordered a Bud and a hamburger and sat at the bar and thought about Freddy Cohen and Abdi Mohamed and Anne and my ex-fiancée and whether I’d paid the water bill this month.

  I was on my second beer and starting to wonder if I was going to lose the entire day to chaperone duties when my phone went off. The number was blocked.

  “What is it with you?” the voice on the other end said. “You’re not busy enough ruining marriages? Now you’re getting beat up by white supremacists?”

  My mood darkened. It couldn’t be good that Henry Fielding, a Columbus homicide detective, was calling like this.

  I said, “I wouldn’t say beat up, exactly. And for the record, it’s not me having the affairs. I just expose them.”

  “A real social worker, you are. So back to your Ku Klux Klan guys.”

  “That might be giving them too much credit. They seemed a lot lower market than that.”

  “Not according to Ronald McQuillen. He made them sound like trouble.”

  “You talked to him?”

  “That’s what we do over here, in case you ever need some tips. It’s called legwork. Yes, I talked to him. I recognized the name from your message. I met his father, briefly, when I was first on the force. Good man.”

  “It sounds like it. And of course it’s always a delight to hear from you. But mind if I ask why I’m talking to you and not the detective assigned to the case? Nobody got killed here, as far as I can tell.”

  “No one yet, anyway. It’s always a game of chance with you, isn’t it?”

  Fielding was a tall, skinny cop with a shiny, Mr. Clean pate whose appearance had earned him the nickname Voldemort among fellow cops and perps alike. I guess I was the Harry Potter he’d always wanted to obliterate. He’d had it in for me from the day we met and he found out where I lived. His great-grandparents had dwelled in German Village back when the language was actually spoken there. They’d been forced to change their name from Feld to Fielding when anti-German sentiment swept the city during World War I, a loss of cultural identity which apparently Fielding—like Cohen with his wife’s affair—blamed me for personally. He couldn’t get over the fact I lived in his ancestral ’hood, one of the priciest zip codes in Ohio, while he was forced to shack up in a suburban nightmare of nice lawns and good schools. My explanation for my address, that my landlord cut me a deal in thanks for rescuing his heroin-addicted daughter from a pimp a few years back, fell on deaf ears. Which were rather prominent in Voldemort’s case, though I tried not to point this out.

  “I repeat. There’s no homicide involved,” I said. “So why are you calling?”

  “Departmental policy.”

  “Regarding what?”

  “Straight from my commander. Woody Hayes’s name shows up on a case file, I get called. Lucky me.”

  “I go by Andy now.”

  “So you keep telling me, Woody. Anyway, the reason I’m calling is we got a possible hit on your Nazis.”

  “Go on.”

  “It looks like you weren’t the only one scoping out the casino that day.”


  FIELDING WENT OVER WHAT THEY KNEW. They’d taken a number of reports in recent months of casino patrons robbed by people too lazy to play the tables themselves but more than happy to relieve winners of their own proceeds after following them home.

  “There’s security camera footage of a couple of guys hanging around inside the casino that fit the description you gave. Somewhat annoyingly, you were right on the mark with what you told the patrol guy. If I send you a screen shot can you check it out?”

  “Sure. Did they get a plate number?” I knew the casino garage and surface parking lots also seethed with cameras.

  “They got a plate. Not that it helps us any.”

  “Why not?”

  “The tattoo the kid had, the one that jumped you?”

  “What about it?”

  “That’s what’s on the plate, if you can call it that. It’s a fake, not real. I’m told it’s a Sovereign Citizen thing, to refuse to license y
our vehicle. Gotta give them credit for balls, driving around like that. But it’s nothing we can trace.”

  “So if they were stalking people in the casino, how’d they end up at the grocery store? Was it just a coincidence they harassed Kaltun Hirsi?”

  “Who knows? You keep telling me these guys weren’t rocket scientists, right? And the grocery store was a five-minute drive. Maybe Nazis need milk and eggs too. Give me a couple minutes on the picture.”

  There was no mistaking it when the photo arrived. The two guys who’d harassed Kaltun Hirsi and cost me eighty dollars in lost groceries had definitely been hanging around the casino an hour earlier. I might have walked right past them as I trailed my philandering mark. I called Fielding back and confirmed the information.

  “We’re running this stuff past our intelligence unit,” he said. “We’ll see what they dig up. And we’ll put out the word. Maybe somebody in eastern Ohio has run into these clowns, since that’s home sweet home.”

  “Maybe,” I said, doubtfully.

  “What’s up with your terrorist, while I’ve got you? Burning churches now?”

  “How’d you know I was working on that?”

  “Please. Woody Hayes carrying water for Freddy Cohen on a homegrown extremism case? It’s the talk of the town. I take it you haven’t seen the kid, or you would have told somebody.”

  I confirmed his analysis.

  Fielding said, “You happen to run into anybody along the way who mentioned gang affiliations?”

  “Affiliations for who?”

  “For Abdi.”

  I drained my beer and shook my head as the server swung by. It wouldn’t win me any favors with Cohen to show up with three drinks under my belt. I said, “Are you kidding? He’s a soccer player with good grades going to Ohio State.”

  “Nothing about the Agler Road Crips?”

  I recalled my conversations with Helene Paulus and Mike Parsell, Abdi’s soccer teammate. I mentioned DaQuan or LaQuan. I said, “He was friendly with a lot of kids. Sort of fearless. But in a gang himself? No way.”


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