I was awoken a little after nine the next morning by a gruesome sound from a bad dream. Actually, it was just the annoying noise that Convo makes when you get a message, burbling like something rising up through the Black Lagoon. Hearing it reminded me that I had been meaning to fork it at Sourcerer and add some other ringtone choices that weren’t so disgusting.
<nikko> !!got a meeting scheduled for this morning!!
<Zen> !!awesome!! good luck. leave this phone at home, OK?
<Zen> but when you’re done, use it to let me know how it went
<nikko> yes boss
I went back to sleep, which I thought would be impossible – but it wasn’t. Being stopped by the cops for being out too close to my legally-enforceable bedtime had wired me up so much that I didn’t get to sleep until nearly 4 a.m. I woke three hours later to the blurping again. Ian wanted me to come to the Millennium Hotel downtown. Sara Esfahani wanted to meet me.
I dressed, spending way more time than usual deciding which T-shirt to wear, trying to tame my hair, and stressing about a couple of new zits that popped up overnight, feeling stupid because honestly, what difference does it make? I look pretty much the same, no matter what I do. But I had never met a filmmaker before and Nikko had freaked me out about how famous she was. Once I checked her out, I discovered her films were featured on BoingBoing all the time and she had a bazillion Twitter followers. Normally I don’t like famous people on principle, but she was my best bet for creating public pressure to free my brother and his friends. So, nerves and zits. I left a note for Monica and headed downtown.
Normally, entering a fancy hotel would have been tricky. The guy whose job is to opens doors for people might have closed them for me. But I disguised myself as a credentialed geek by attaching myself to a group of T-shirt-and-jeans guys not much older than me going in the front doors for the conference. Then I headed for the elevators and rode to the tenth floor.
Apparently, Tyler not only moved in the same circles as famous people, he had loads of money. His room was a whole suite in a corner with a great view of the city designed to make people feel important, gazing down on the mere mortals crawling around like ants below. Because I don’t like rich people any more than famous people, I had to remind myself that Tyler was Kadabra on the Group, where money doesn’t matter. I had always liked Kadabra.
Though his suite was twice as big as our apartment, it was crowded. Jason and Ian and Geoff were there. Zeke was sprawled on a couch doing something on a laptop, muttering to himself, so absorbed he didn’t even look up. I had seen photos online of Sara Esfahani so I recognized her, but she was fatter than in her pictures and her thick, wiry black hair didn’t look elegant like in her publicity shots, it was a wild tangle. Best of all, she had a bright-red zit on her nose. I liked her better already.
“Zenobia,” she said as if it was the best name ever. She was brown-skinned and had beautiful dark eyes, thanks to her Iranian heritage, but she had grown up in America, so her voice sounded like a normal American – one who appeared at film festivals and gave TED Talks that racked up millions of views.
“Thanks for being interested in my brother’s case,” I said, sounding grumpy instead of grateful. I don’t know why my voice does that.
“Are you kidding? It’s perfect for my project. I’d love to interview you.”
Ugh, no, I thought. I stumbled around, trying to find a way to say no without pissing her off because I needed her help, but she waved her hand. “No, that’s fine, it’s totally fine.”
“Thing is, I’m not the story. My brother is.”
“Unfortunately, he isn’t available. Besides, you’re an essential part of the story. It’s not every day that a fifteen year old takes on the federal government.”
“Yeah, but it should be about him. Also, I don’t like being all public, you know?”
“It’s fine.” She touched my shoulder gently. She was one of those people who you just instinctively trust, which probably made her able to get people to say things on the record that they later regretted. “So, explain this plan to me.”
“The room is safe,” Tyler said, understanding why I hesitated. “We have a world-class security specialist here who just happens to have the latest in counter-surveillance equipment on hand.”
“We’re good,” Jason agreed. “I checked.”
“Okay, so basically a friend of mine who is an awesomely good actor is talking to the FBI right now,” I said, “offering to help them set up a sting on a guy who will walk right into their trap. Which would be bad, except the guy they’re trapping deserves to be in trouble.”
“Because?” Sara wanted to know.
“Because he uses his position in activist circles to assault women.”
The guys looked at each other. Sara Esfahani looked at me.
Zeke asked, “You have actual proof of this?”
A million words jammed together in my mouth that I couldn’t get out, like when you hit too many keys on an old-fashioned typewriter and they get stuck together. Proof? Like, women are supposed to take pictures when they’re being attacked or it didn’t happen? I wanted to punch that big nose of his.
“She knows,” Sara said. And that was that. Zeke looked like he wanted to keep arguing about it, but then he looked at me and gave a small shrug. Okay. He’d take my word for it. Barely.
My phone gave a loud blurp.
<Zen> how’d it go?
Seconds ticked by before another message gurgled in.
<nikko> we have a problem
~ ~ ~
“So?” I asked him when he arrived at the hotel suite. “What happened?”
“It started out fine,” he said, “but then . . .” His voice trailed away as he caught sight of Sara. “Oh, hi.”
“You’re Nikko,” she said, sweeping over to him with a hand outstretched. “I hear you’re a talented actor.”
“Well, I actually, um . . .” His face grew red as he took her hand, but he looked more mortified than happy. “It’s awesome to meet you. I really admire your work.”
“You are so brave to do this.”
“No. I blew it. I’m sorry, Zen. They basically said I’m not old enough to be a snitch.”
“Seriously?” I asked, wondering why I hadn’t seen this coming. It’s not like I don’t hear people tell me I’m do young to do stuff all the time.
Sara frowned. It made me wish I had eyebrows as thick as hers. They looked ferocious. “How curious that a system that tries children as adults when it’s convenient won’t take them seriously when they’re volunteering to help the authorities.”
“Damn,” Tyler said. “We should have realized . . . I mean, no offense, Nikko, but we should have done this with adults.”
“That’s stupid,” I blurted out. “He’s as good an actor as anyone else.”
“That’s not what Tyler meant,” Ian said. “We shouldn’t have involved kids in this. Not given the risks.”
“This whole thing was my idea,” I said. “You think we don’t know the risks? It should be our choice.”
“Zen, I know you’re smart, I know you’re brave. But legally you’re still a child.”
I couldn’t speak, too stunned by the betrayal. Shad was trustworthy. Shad was respected. But I was just a kid, one who wasn’t allowed to carry out the plan that was her idea in the first place.
“That’s a load of garbage,” Zeke said, crumpling up a piece of paper and throwing it at Ian’s head.
Sara took charge. “We still have a story to tell. Let’s download that film.” Jason hooked up a USB cable to Nikko’s shirt and copied the video file. We crowded around Sara’s laptop. As the video started, two people were settling themselves at a table, one of them tall and black and wearing a really nice suit, the other short and white and in a suit that didn’t fit very well.
“I know her,” I blurted out. “She was one of the cops who wanted to search our apartment. They didn’t have a warrant, so we told them to go away.” Sara nodded approvingly as the man in the suit started with introductions.
“I’m agent Martens with the FBI and this is officer Jankovich, a detective in the MPD’s Criminal Investigations Division. We’re part of a task force that looks into anything that might be related to national security, terrorism, threats like the one you brought to our attention. We understand you have some concerns about an individual?”
“Yeah.” Nikko’s disembodied voice sounded nervous, part of the role he was playing. It would be super-weird to not be nervous, talking to people who had the power to arrest you for made-up reasons. “This guy has been saying some kind of wild stuff. It may be nothing. I hope I’m not wasting your time.”
“I hate my voice,” Nikko moaned.
“Shhh,” Sara said.
“It’s good that you brought this to us,” Agent Martens said. “So, tell us about this guy. What have you heard him say?”
“Well, I was at the Owl the other day, this café in Cedar-Riverside? People were getting ready for this protest thing. I’m not that political, but I was there with some friends and this guy who’s there all the time, he was saying pretty inflammatory stuff. So I used my phone to record what he was saying.” The man nodded encouragingly. Jankovich stifled a yawn. Good cop, bored cop.
Nikko played his first recording. They both leaned forward and listened intently. Then he played the second.
“I can see why you’re concerned,” the FBI agent said. “What do you think, Janet?”
“You’re seventeen, right?”
“We’re cops. We checked. You’re a minor.”
“Yeah, so?” Nikko said. “I still care about what happens to my country. I used to think Simon Meyer was just a typical college student, somebody who goes to demonstrations and talks a lot. But this is different. I really think he might be up to something.”
Jankovich and Martens looked at each other, then Jankovich glanced at her watch and tapped it. “Look, I promised somebody I’d give ‘em a call. Back in a minute.”
For the next five minutes Martens made small talk with Nikko, asking him what he was studying in school, what plays he had acted in, deflecting Nikko’s questions about how he could help, even though he was technically a minor. Then Jankovich came back into the room. She gave Martens a little nod before taking her chair again.
“Okay, here’s the thing,” Martens said. “We’re taking this seriously, okay? We need to find out if this guy’s for real or if he’s just blowing smoke.”
“I could introduce him to one of your agents, somebody undercover.”
“I’ll bet you could. The questions you asked? Nicely done. You’d make one hell of an interrogator.” He turned to Jankovich. “I want to recruit this young man when he’s a little older. Sorry Janet. I got first dibs.”
She blew air out of her cheeks and looked at her watch, making it clear that she wanted to get this show on the road.
“Thing is, Nikko?” Martens said. “Given your age, we can’t ask you to take on a dangerous job.”
“I don’t mind. I want to help.”
“I appreciate that, but you’re a minor. It’s against the rules. So what I want you to do is stay away from Mr. Meyer and his big mouth. Far away.”
“But . . . seriously?”
“Oh, I’m serious, son. If he tries to talk to you again, make some excuse, get out of the situation without cluing him in that you’ve been talking to us. We’ll take it from here.”
“But he trusts me. What if he’s already planning something? If we don’t act now, it could be too late.”
“Son, your parents would be all over us if we put you in a situation like this. I wouldn’t blame them, either. Bottom line: It ain’t gonna happen. That doesn’t mean we aren’t going to look into this guy now that you put him on our radar. We have people in the field. Professionals. We got this.” Martens stood and thrust out a hand. “Appreciate you coming in. You did the right thing.”
“But . . .” The camera played on for a minute before it went all sideways and the audio screeched as a chair was pushed back.
“Let me show you out,” Martens was saying. “This place is a maze.”
The camera strolled down a hallway, swiveling to show Jankovich’s back retreating, a phone pressed to her ear, as Marten’s voice kept up its friendly patter. The camera swung again as Nikko turned to say goodbye. A man was coming up behind Martens, wanting to talk. A man with a familiar face. Who was it?
Then the camera jerked around as Nikko headed out of the main entrance. Then he was outside, and we could hear him muttering “Shit, shit, shit” over and over before he remembered to turn off the recording.
“That guy,” Ian said. “The one who came up right at the end? Isn’t that’s what’s-his-name? The agent who recruited Zip?”
“Todd Terhune,” I said, putting it together. “He’s a bigwig with the FBI,” I told Sara Esfahani. “He’s the one who hired Zip and got him to entrap my brother and his friends.”
“Weird,” Jason muttered. “ Even with this age complication, I thought they’d be all over this.”
“They passed up one hell of a media opportunity,” Tyler said. “Another arrest would be a great way to silence critics.”
“Wait!” Nikko said, using one of those theatre voices that was louder than everyone else’s without actually shouting. Then he didn’t say anything for a minute, staring at the computer.
“These guys weren’t surprised. I know surprise when I see it. They must have an informant out there who ts is already setting Simon up for a bust.”
Sara took the video back to a point near the beginning, just as Nikko started the recording, stabbing the keyboard to freeze it. “There.”
“Yeah,” Nikko said, leaning close. “Look at Marten’s mouth the minute he hears Simon’s voice. See how his lips are pressed together? He’s trying to decide how to handle me. And the detective, that little glance, the fakey way she said she had to make a phone call? She left to fill Terhune in. They warned me away because they’re about to bust Simon.”
“Interesting.” Sara sat back and tapped a pen against her chin thoughtfully. “Do you know what we need?”
We all looked at her, waiting.
“Food. I’m starving.”