15

It was freaky riding home. Police cars seemed to be everywhere. Wheeze and I had made being aware of our surroundings into an elaborate role-playing game. It had been exciting and fun, but this was just scary. I was churning with curiosity about the message Wheeze had scribbled on the back of the pizza flier, but I didn’t want to look at it in public. It felt like I was carrying a bomb in my pocket instead of a crumpled piece of paper.

I got home without being pulled over by police or being tailed by suspicious unmarked cars. Nobody was sitting in a car parked along the curb, watching our house. When I got into our apartment, I scanned the backyard carefully and didn’t see any men in utility company outfits carrying clipboards and pretending they had some reason to be hanging out in my alley on a cold Sunday afternoon. The little tell-tale things I had set up before leaving to tell me if anyone had been in our apartment were undisturbed. Still, even after double checking that the front door was locked and the chain was set, I went into my bedroom, closed the blinds, and sat on my sleeping mat with a quilt draped over my head and bent knees, creating a tent. Only then did it feel safe to take the crumpled paper out of my pocket, flatten it out, and read the scribbled writing by the beam of my penlight, thinking that Wheeze would have been proud of my super-sized paranoid behavior.

Hey, Zen –

I hope you get this. My phone got busted and I think my ankle did too. (It’s really sore and swollen up and I can’t walk on it anymore.) I got as far as West Davenport but a couple of bulls at the Nahant yard caught sight of me and since the train was stopping there to change crews I knew I was in trouble. I grabbed hold of a rolling grainer southbound, but I figured the bull would be calling ahead to get me taken off next chance they could, so I jumped off when I thought it was safe. The train was going too fast though and I didn’t land good.

Danny who I have met before was coming by on a northbound and saw I was in trouble so he came back and helped me get to a place where I could stay safe. It’s a shed behind a bait store that’s closed for the winter off of Concord Street between the road and the river not too far south of the interstate bridge. With my ankle I can’t catch out and there’s no good place to hitch from here. I figured you’d go to that rally on Sunday so I told Danny what you look like and asked if he could give this to you. If he can’t get there in time he’s a good guy and he will try hard to get it to you some other way.

I know you can’t come get me because you’re probably being watched and anyway you don’t have a car, but if you no anybody who could help me out that would be good. It’s cold and I have a bad feeling about this ankle and also I’m running out of food.     

I knew he was in bad shape because he wrote “no” instead of “know” and usually his spelling is so perfect it would pass muster with Call Me Cheese, the Group’s grammar cop. His handwriting was usually neat printing that looked a little like a cross between old style typewriters and something a medieval scribe might write, but it wasn’t as easy to read as usual and by the end of the message it was sliding sideways on the page. Also, I had to keep wiping my eyes because picturing Wheeze lying in a shed in the cold with a busted ankle and no food made me feel awful.

This changed things. I had to get my brother out of jail. I had to make my plan work, and do it fast so Wilson wouldn’t go nuts in a cell or get bullied by inmates or guards. Now I also had to figure out how to get Wheeze to a safe place. And that couldn’t wait.

~ ~ ~

I found Zeke’s Convo contact and sent him a message because Ian had told me he didn’t follow rules and had a lot of friends. I hoped some of them also didn’t follow rules, like the one that says people on the run from the law should be turned in at the nearest police station. I tapped out a quick message:

<Zen> Hey, I have a friend who needs a safe place to stay for a while. Also he needs medical assistance (possible broken ankle) but can’t go to a hospital. Needs to be within a few hours driving distance from Davenport Iowa. Needs to be surveillance-free but fair warning, anybody who helps him out could get in trouble. Any ideas?

Zeke replied faster than the time it took me to write my message.

<Fa1staff> Will check with a couple of people. Be careful out there, Shad. Big Brother is a data-sucking asshat.

It made me feel a little better, but I still felt knots in my stomach, picturing Wheeze and thinking about cold and pain and hunger and whether I could fix it before the FBI caught up with him – or found him frozen stiff and starved to death.

The knots were still there when Nikko showed up at our meeting place. I had decided on Wilson, a giant library at the university (and my brother’s namesake because our mom practically lived there when she was a pregnant student; it was lucky she wasn’t a chemistry major or he’d be named Walter after the science library). Though there were security cameras all over campus, the library itself was pretty good about not spying on people inside the building. All that the surveillance cameras outside the library would show is two people arriving separately among the hundreds who would go through the library’s doors that day. Once we were indoors, we didn’t have to worry about any cameras recording our meeting.

I had scored a group study room on the second floor, which by coincidence was close to the art books, so after I Convo’d Nikko telling him where to meet me I fetched a bunch of books about African and Asian art and spread them around the table so it would look like we were working on our group project for school. When Nikko arrived he realized instantly that the scene we were acting involved getting together for our project. Instead of seeming surprised to see me, he said “sorry I’m late,” before closing the door.

“Do you have your power cord for you iPhone?”

He did. I connected his phone to my laptop, copied the file I needed, then switched off his phone and slipped it into my backpack, where my duct tape Faraday cage would make sure nobody could use it to listen in on us. “We have a problem. You know Wheeze, the tenth guy they’re looking for?”

“I don’t actually know him, but I know who you’re talking about.”

“He hopped a train but he got hurt and he’s hiding in Iowa. I need to find a way to get him to a safe place where he can get medical care. I’m working on the safe place, but I also need to get him there and it has to be now, because he’s out of food and he’s hurt and it’s cold and his phone is broken so I can’t even find out how he’s doing. Dammit.”

“Hey, we’ll figure this out.”

“Yeah, right.” I rubbed my eyes with a sleeve. “Terrific. I’m messing up our cover. People don’t start crying for no reason when they’re working on a stupid homework assignment, and anybody could see us.” Which was true. There were a lot of students wandering past, staring in, hoping to score a study room for themselves, and the big glass windows facing the stacks meant we looked like mannequins in a store window displaying weird Back to School fashions in a dramatic tableau.

Nikko leaned toward me and put a comforting hand on my arm. “Right now, it looks as if you’re stressing over your brother because you were just at the demonstration, which is public knowledge, and I’m comforting you because we’re school pals and that’s what people do. Don’t worry, your cover isn’t blown. In fact, to keep up appearances, I think I need to give you a hug. Would that be okay?”

I nodded, and he came around and hugged me and I smelled that comforting Nikko smell and it made me feel good but didn’t help at all when it came to not crying. I don’t do it very often and it’s really embarrassing when it’s in public, which makes me angry that I can’t be a stronger person and keep it under control. But somehow, thinking that we were on stage and Nikko was directing a show about two friends, one of whom had a brother unfairly arrested on terrorism charges, made it seem okay this one time to lose it in public. Nikko even had a clean bandana I could use to blow my nose and wipe my eyes, though doing it in that order is not recommended.

“Where is he in Iowa?” Nikko asked.

“Just south of Davenport.”

“Okay. I can get a car. It would only take a few hours to get there.”

“Five or six. It’s about three hundred and fifty miles from here. I checked.”

“We can share the driving.”

“I can’t drive. I can’t even get a provisional license until next year.”

“Oh, right. Well I got an actual real driver’s license and I can borrow a car from my parents. Unless you can think of something else.”

“I can’t. Actually, my brain isn’t working very well.” I tried to give him the bandana back, but he waved it away, which didn’t surprise me because it was pretty gross.

“Before we decide anything,” I said, gathering my thoughts, “I want to listen to that recording you made.”

“I’ll pretend to do research while figuring out what excuse to give my parents,” Nikko said, pulling over a stack of books. I used earbuds in hopes that anyone who saw me would think I was listening to music while being my normal studious self, with a little emotional meltdown thrown in.

I had to concentrate, because there was a lot of background noise from the people at the Owl who were stenciling signs and talking about oppression and capitalism and who had the glue and could somebody pass the scissors. But Simon’s voice was louder than the others (naturally). When somebody mentioned the good old days of the Occupy movement, Simon started ranting about how it was useless because the people involved were too hung up on consensus. “You want to speak truth to power? First you have to punch it in the nose to get its attention.”

A woman said something about non-violence, which set Simon off on macho mansplaining. “Peaceful protest? You think that works? Face facts. If you want real change, you have to be willing to act.”

He went on like that for a while, and while he never got specific about what he thought should be done or who should do it, it was just edgy enough to work for our purposes. I was relieved that nobody else chimed in to agree. If Nikko took his recording to the feds, I wanted only Simon to become the target of a sting.

“Okay,” I said to Nikko. “That might be enough to get the feds’ attention.”

“I figured I would try for one more recording. Get him to say something more dramatic.”

“Don’t act too sympathetic to what he’s saying or you could get in trouble, yourself.”

“I’ll be careful. This is cool. It’s like writing a script and then directing the scene, with some improv thrown in, keeping everybody fooled.”

“I knew you’d be good at this. But right now I have to figure out what to do about Wheeze.”

“Tell me where he is and I’ll drive down there.”

“But then what? He’s a wanted man. It could crimp your emerging career as an FBI informant, don’t you think?”

“Not if the FBI doesn’t know about this trip. Look, assuming I’m not being watched—”

“Big assumption.”

“I’ll stipulate to that.”

“Wait. How do you spell that?”

He spelled it. “It’s legalese, something my dad always says when he actually could just say “okay, you have a point.” Drives my mom crazy. Let’s just run through this. I borrow the car, I tell my family that I need it for some plausible reason that I still have to invent, but they’re used to me bending them to my will. I drive down to Davenport and get there sometime after midnight.” He frowned, possibly thinking about what it would be like to be looking for somebody in the dark after driving for hours. “Do you know exactly where he is?”

“Just the general location.”

“That’ll have to do. Okay, given that he doesn’t know me, we’ll have to work out a way to make sure he trusts me. So you’ll have to let him know—“

“I can’t. His phone is busted, I told you. So is his ankle.”

“Right.” Nikko chewed his knuckle, thinking it over

“He’ll be scared and hurt and it’ll be dark. There’s no way around it, I’ll have to go with you. I wish I knew first aid. Do you?”

“Sorry. I never even joined boy scouts. What will you tell your aunt?”

“I’ll have to think of something.” And that made my head hurt. Not only was Monica going to be suspicious, so would anyone monitoring her phone, which wasn’t unlikely. I never talked her into using a secure messaging app. I was usually keeping secrets from her, not with her. “She knows I’m upset about Wilson. I’ll tell her I’m going out of town with a friend to chill out. Just for one night. A sleepover. Only she knows I don’t have friends who do sleepovers.”

“What about Marcella?” His face suddenly looked flat and his voice became a robotic drone. “I’m having a sleepover party. Would you come to my sleepover party? Because if nobody sleeps over I can’t have a sleepover party.”

I laughed too hard. It was easy to make fun of Marcella, but it wasn’t her fault that she was weird. People thought I was weird too, but I chose not to be like other people. She couldn’t help being different. But it felt good to laugh, even though it had some weird sinus pressure involved, as if there was still some tears and snot damned up inside that wanted to come out. “I’ll just say it’s a friend from school. That’s one of the benefits of online education. Monica has no idea who goes to that school.”

That reminded me to check my phone. Another message had come in.

<Fa1staff> Got a safe place lined up about three hours from Davenport. Name is Shandy. Good at broken bones.

<Zen> Awesome. We’re working on transportation. If it works, ETA is tomorrow morning.

<Fa1staff> I’ll pass that along. Map attached.

“So we drive down to Iowa and pick up your friend,” Nikko was saying. “Then what?”

“We take him here,” I said, and showed him the map.

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