I biked to Wilson Library on automatic pilot. It wasn’t until I found a carrel near an electrical outlet hidden away in the stacks that I began to think about what I needed to do. I switched my phone on and logged into the website that was tracking Simon’s movements. Then I opened my laptop to check his location with Google Street Views. I switched back and forth, using Tor to avoid leaving a trail of my own. He had stopped at a corner store, then zigzagged through the university buildings on the West Bank. I watched the green dot cross the footbridge to the East Bank, then into the student union, where it stopped for a while. Doing a little business with students, probably, selling some weed. I stared at the dot, trying not to think about my parents tromping up the stairs to our apartment and ruining everything. The dot moved again, heading off campus, crossing University Avenue, ending up on 4th, where the dot stopped again.
The minutes ticked by. It looked as if he was staying put, even though Street Views showed it was just an intersection with a McDonald’s on one side and apartments on the other. The corner he was on was just sidewalk and a railing, no buildings. I zoomed in. The railings looked over a submerged railroad track that angled under the road. Why would he be standing there? I stared at it for a while, then decided to check it out.
I biked over, muffled in a scarf with a stocking hat pulled down to my eyebrows, looking pretty much like any idiot riding a bike on a day when the temperature was in the single digits. I rode up on the far side of the street, hoping he wouldn’t recognize me under all of that winter gear. The corner was completely empty. I checked the website on my phone again, then crossed the street and looked over the bridge. Nothing. Just a biting November wind. It wasn’t until I went into McDonald’s that my brain thawed out and I realized the obvious.
He had turned off his phone.
I noticed that some messages had piled up on my phone. A photo of the skeptical cat, finally curled up in Wheeze’s lap. A string of texts from Monica and my adoptive father, which I didn’t read but which made me sick to my stomach anyway. A message from Zeke.
<Fa1staff> Jason’s tearing the place apart looking for that shirt. I DIDN’T TELL.
<zen> thx. Something’s happening tonight. I was tracking Simon Meyer, but I lost him.
<zen> northeast corner of SE 4th and 15th ave.
He didn’t respond, so I read more coverage of the security conference, but none of it made sense. I couldn’t concentrate. I bought a coffee so that I would have an excuse to be sit there, not sure what to do, not wanting to go to Frances Bernadette McSweeney’s house and face a cross-examination. Every now and then I checked the phone tracker to see if the green dot had reappeared, but nope. The stress about my adoptive parents coming after me and the smell of greasy meat and pickles and the sound of college students screeching at each other combined in a big ball of churning nerves that made me feel like puking.
Then another message from Zeke came in.
<Fa1staff> he got into a car.
<Fa1staff> he stood on that corner for six minutes. At 15:22 a black SUV pulled up and he got in.
<Zen> how do you know?
<Fa1staff> the CVS across the street has a security camera that picks up that corner.
<Zen> you hacked their system?
<Fa1staff> it’s a joke. Company they contract with transmits their data in the clear. The driver was a big guy, kind you wouldn’t want to mess with.
<Zen> Can you put his image through facial recognition?
<Fa1staff> Too low res for that. crappy security is crappy. Couldn’t get the car’s plates either.
<Zen> still – nice work. Thanks for trying.
<Fa1staff> no prob. Be careful, grasshopper.
A big guy in a dark SUV. Could be some drug dude higher up the supply chain who knew enough to order Simon to turn his phone off while they did their business.
I would just have to be patient until six p.m., when Simon told me to call about the meeting. For some reason the stomachache went away. I threw out my half-finished cup of cold coffee and biked to the nearest university library to hang out until Simon turned his phone back on.
The green dot reappeared two hours later, just before six p.m. It popped up on Franklin close to the bridge over I-35, moved north, and then stopped and stayed put. I studied the street view. The green dot was smack-dab on a big ramshackle house. I realized I had actually been there with Wilson once, in the days when Wilson still talked to me before Zip came along. It was semi-famous. Back in the eighties it had been a punk house where bands and artists routinely stayed when they were passing through town. Now it was a decrepit hangout for artists and traveling activists who weren’t into home repair.
I called Simon’s number. “Hi, it’s Zen. That thing tonight. Can I come?”
“Yeah. It’s cool. Just don’t tell anyone else about it, and make sure nobody follows you.” He told me where it was happening – exactly where the green dot had landed on the map.
~ ~ ~
It was a strange group of revolutionaries, a handful of artsy, talkative people in their twenties and a toddler with a dirty face, listening to music, drinking beer, and passing joints. As Simon introduced me, I tried to guess who was the most likely FBI informant. Could it be Tweak? He had curly red hair and kept waving his beer bottle around, talking about the coming revolution and his plan to move to Colorado to get established growing excellent weed before legalization took off and swept the whole country. Or maybe it was the man named Cemíl who sat in a relaxed slump except for one knee that was jiggling to a fast, nervous rhythm out of sync with the music. He was an engineering student whose claim to fame was being involved in the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, but he seemed shy and uncomfortable and when others spoke to him, his response was to lean forward and ask, “excuse me?”
Marita was the only other woman there. She alternated speeches about the cruelty of neoliberal austerity policies with grabbing things away from her baby and comforting him when he roared in protest. (None of the guys helped, of course; they were all too busy talking about social justice and inequality.) There were also a bunch of indistinguishable artsy types who offered pithy opinions about Palestine and the one percent and environmental catastrophe in between talking about bands and the awesome indie film a friend was making. None of them seemed to have enough intensity or political passion to be an informant pretending to be a revolutionary – until Danny arrived.
He was older than the others, and rougher around the edges. He sat on the edge of a chair and chain smoked, his cigarette clenched tightly between knuckles tattooed with faded blue ink. When Simon introduced him to me, Danny slapped his hand in mine and shook with a painfully strong grip.
“Zen’s brother is one of the Minneapolis Nine,” Simon told him proudly, as if I belonged to him. He even reached out and cupped the back of my head, waggling it back and forth like I was his puppet before I pulled away.
“Don’t remember any of them being black.” Danny squinted at me, and the others suddenly seemed on alert, like him.
“We have different dads.”
He grunted, still suspicious. He seemed to have some kind of leadership position in the house, given the way the others deferred to him as said the usual things about oppression and Wall Street, but when he talked about his involvement in the protests he seemed proudest of how many windows he’d broken and how narrowly he’d escaped arrest.
“See that?” he said to me, holding up his palm, shiny with pink scars.
“That’s what happens when you pick up a tear gas canister and throw it back at the pigs. Those suckers are hot.” He looked at his scarred hand, smiling, as if it was some kind of badge. “So, what do you think?” He looked around the room. “You guys ready for some action?”
“Hell yeah, we’re ready,” Simon said, adding, “can you turn that down?”
Cemíl leaned forward. “Excuse me?”
“The music. Turn. It. Down,” Simon said. Cemíl turned to adjust the sound and Simon rolled his eyes. Such hard work, communicating with foreigners. “Yeah, we should do something. Not just feel-good protests and Facebook groups. Something real.”
People in the circle nodded. Danny took a bottle out of Tweak’s hand. “Improvised incendiary device, right here, man.”
“Hey, let me finish it first,” Tweak said, snatching it back.
“All you’d need is some gasoline and rags,” Simon agreed. “Take five minutes. Or fertilizer. Oklahoma City? One truck, a load of fertilizer, and that building was destroyed, man. They say you could hear the blast fifty miles away.”
“Same shit took out a building at the University of Wisconsin back when students knew what resistance really looks like,” Danny said. “Not so easy to get the right kind of fertilizer these days, though.”
“Hey, Cemíl,” Simon said. “You know how to make bombs?”
“You’re studying chemistry. I’ll bet you know how to make stuff explode.” Simon demonstrated with his hands flying out. “Boom.”
Cemíl’s eyes widened. “Why are you saying this nonsense?”
“You’re the one who wanted to overthrow what’s-his-name, that president of yours.”
“Our protests were not violent. We got tear-gassed. We got beaten. We stood in the park with books, reading silently.”
“Bet that scared the shit out of them.” Simon held up his palms. “The bomb thing? It was just a joke, okay?”
Marita patted his knee. “Don’t listen to these jerks. They’re just goofing off.”
“Okay.” Cemíl rubbed his palms on his jeans. “But now I have to study. I have a big exam on Friday.”
“Don’t go telling people about our jokes, you got that?” Danny jabbed his cigarette at Cemíl. “Cops don’t have a sense of humor. And they don’t like Arabs.”
Marita smiled at Cemíl and he smiled back nervously and patted the baby on the head before hurrying out of the house, away from these crazy people. Okay, scratch him off the list of possible informants.
Tweak started laughing. It was contagious, but Danny stubbed out his cigarette and muttered, “Gotta watch that guy.”
“He’s fine,” Marita said. “He’s on a student visa, he won’t want to screw that up. Has a family back home to support.”
“You got his whole life story, huh?” There was a kind of coiled violence in the way Danny spoke that sent a shiver down my spine.
“Yeah, so?” She fixed eyes with him for a moment and then looked away. “I’m going to put the kid to bed.” She hauled herself up, picked up the baby and a bottle of beer and headed for the stairs.
Tweak started talking about actions he had participated in and Danny bragged about setting cars on fire during a protest. Simon, not to be outdone, ranted about police brutality and I threw in a speech of my own about mass surveillance. I checked my phone every now and then. I ignored the missed calls and message notifications and only paid attention to the time. When I’d been there for nearly two hours, I asked where the bathroom was. I needed to download the video I’d shot before the memory ran out.
I went up the stairs and paused by an open door. Marita was sitting on a bed next the baby, rubbing his back and humming, even though the kid was totally conked out.
“Bathroom?” I whispered.
She pointed down the hall. As I turned away I heard a shaky breath. I looked back to see her rubbing her eyes with the heel of one hand before she leaned over the baby, her straggly hair shielding her face. I hesitated for a moment, then went to the bathroom where the walls were covered in scribbled messages and doodles and the shower curtain was speckled with grunge.
At least the door had a latch that worked. I locked myself in, switched on my laptop, and dug out the cable to connect the memory strip in the shirt to a USB port. Once the video finished downloading, I plugged earbuds into the jack and ran a few seconds of it to make sure it was working. The sound was good, the picture sharp. Unfortunately, most of it was a nice, clear shot of the wall between Danny’s head and Simon’s. I thought about how I could position myself so that I could get their faces better centered on the screen as Danny encouraged violence and Simon got sucked up into the fantasy the way my brother did when his hero Zip spun a web of lies.
I packed up my gear, flushed the toilet, washed my hands and wiped them on my jeans because the only towel available looked like it hadn’t been in the laundry since Hüsker Dü had passed through. (I knew about Hüsker Dü because Wilson once gave me a copy of their 1984 double album Zen Arcade, which is a pivotal work in the history of hardcore punk, or so he told me.) As I headed for the stairs I heard a choked sob coming from the bedroom.
“You okay?” I asked Marita.
“Yeah. It’s just . . .” She brushed a hand across the sleeping baby’s hair. “Men, you know?”
“Totally.” Actually, I didn’t know.
“I mean, Danny’s a sweet guy. He just doesn’t get how big a responsibility it is to raise a child.”
“How old is he?” I asked, pointing at the kid, because that’s what people usually say.
“Fourteen months. If you asked Danny he would probably say ‘nine months’ or ‘two years’ or some wild guess. He loves him, really he does.” She made it sound as if we were arguing about it. “It’s just . . . being involved in this scene is really important to him.”
“Being committed to radical change is cool.”
She shrugged. “He likes being important. I just wish we could get a place of our own. What are you doing here, anyway?”
“I have to help my brother.”
“By hanging out with them?” She snorted. “That guy, Simon. Are you together?”
“No. I just asked him if I could come to the meeting.”
“Is that what they’re calling it, a meeting? They sure love to talk, anyway.” She reached down, picked up beer bottle, shook it side to side, then set it down murmuring sadly “all gone” as if she was talking to the sleeping baby. “If the police come here and see us living in this dump and decide to jam us up . . . That’s what scares me the most.” She twirled a lock of the baby’s hair and wiped her eyes again. “If they took him away, I don’t know what I’d do.”
“You’d fight to get him back.”
She nodded and wiped her nose. “I would, too,” she said to herself, then drew her legs up to curl herself around her sleeping baby, rubbing his back and humming a lullaby. He was sound asleep, so I figured she was singing it for herself.
I went back downstairs and took my chair. Danny gave me suspicious look.
“I was talking to Marita. Your baby is really cute.”
He frowned, but after a moment he bumped Simon’s arm and gestured for another beer. It felt like I had passed a test. I found the button on the shirt to film some more, trying to keep an imaginary line straight between the top button of my shirt and the faces that needed to be on the film.
By this time Tweak and Simon were sharing a fat spliff and giggling about nothing. I prodded them with questions about politics. It set off a competition to see who was more dangerous.
“When I was a kid,” Simon said. “We got some sticks of dynamite once? We were going to blow up a public toilet in a park just for the hell of it, but the guy who stashed it in his closet didn’t hide it good. His dad reported him to the police.”
“Man, where I grew up, we used dynamite all the time,” Danny bragged. “I set charges when I was eleven..”
“What were you doing with all that dynamite?” I asked.
“Blowing up stumps. I grew up on a farm. My uncle was so good at it he went into building demolition. Gave me lessons on how to bring buildings down. There’s an art to it.”
“You can do that?” Simon asked. “Like on TV?”
“If I had the blueprints and the material, I could bring the dome of the state capital down. That would be something to see, huh?”
Simon looked awed. Also, stoned.
“Not saying it would be easy. There’s no way you could place the charges where they’d have to go without being noticed. Now, if you wanted to go for something smaller . . .”
“That police station on Lake Street?” one of the artsy types said, trying to sound dangerous. “I been in there way too many times.”
Simon nudged me. “You’re always fooling around on the internet. Could you get blueprints of the building?”
I frowned as if I was actually thinking about it. “It’s not that old. The city would have put it out for competitive bidding,” I said, totally lying. “The blueprints would probably be on a city server.”
“You could hack in there?”
“Probably.” Not really.
“Sweet. And you could get the explosives from your uncle . . .” Simon said to Danny.
Danny sat back on the ratty couch and gave Simon a twisted grin. “Dude, you’re serious.”
“What do you think we’ve been talking about?”
“What would be cooler?” Danny lit another cigarette. He liked gesturing with cigarettes. “Car bombs.”
Simon nodded. “Like, fill up a car with explosives and park it outside—”
“No, like under cop cars. Remote controlled. Put a couple sticks of dynamite under the chassis, use a key fob to set ‘em off. Do three or four of those, one right after the other, and every cop in the city would be having a panic attack.”
“I did that with paint once.”
“Blew up cop cars with paint?”
“No. I threw a balloon full of red paint on a bankster’s car. Splat, all over the windshield. He was crapping his pants.” Simon realize his score in Who Wants to Be a Revolutionary was slipping and added “It was an impulse thing. But if you can scare somebody with a little paint, imagine what bombs could do. You know how to set a device like that up?”
“It’s not that complicated. I’ve seen instructions on the internet.”
“I’ll bet you could get the dynamite from your uncle.”
“Could.” Danny sucked on his cigarette and blew out a stream of smoke. “But he got in some legal difficulty. Spent too much on lawyers and had to file chapter eleven. Otherwise, totally.”
“You know how to do it, though?” Simon asked.
“Hell, yeah. I would love to see those pigs squeal. We’re living in a police state. They’re tightening the screws all the time, monitoring what we say, where we go. Mass surveillance, like she said.” He turned to me. “Would you do it?”
Suddenly, everyone was looking at me.
Danny sat forward, his elbows on his knees, giving me a hypnotic stare. “Let’s say it’s all set up. You’re standing there, holding the key fob in your hand. You can pick your time, then press that button and whoomp, the cruiser’s a ball of flames. Would you do it?”
Danny’s eyes were drilling into me. If I said no, the conversation would be over. He’d tell me he was just kidding and send me on my way, like Cemíl. If I said yes and he was wearing a wire, I would be incriminating myself.
“It’s all theoretical, anyway,” I said. “You don’t have the stuff to work with.”
Danny smiled, wide enough to show his canines, sharp and wolfish. “Chickenshit.”
“Isn’t there some other way you could get the stuff?” Simon asked him.
“When my uncle was in business, would have been easy.” He reached for another beer and twisted the cap off.
“Yeah, right. You’re all talk.”
Danny scowled at him. “It’s not that easy, yo. You can’t just walk into Hardware Hank and ask for it. Stuff’s regulated.”
“What if I could get it?”
“Yeah, sure.” Danny drank deeply.
“For real,” Simon said. “I have a connection.”
“A connection, wow.” Danny laughed like it was the punchline of a joke, but Simon didn’t join in.
“Write down what you need. I’ll get it.”
Danny looked at him, the smile fading. This time, he was the one being tested.
That’s when I finally realized Danny wasn’t working for the FBI. Simon was.