Sleeping in the next morning wasn’t an option, as it turned out. I woke out of a solid sleep, the kind that makes you feel encased in concrete, the kind you really have to fight to drag yourself out of. Someone was banging on my door, and it had a weird echo effect, my brain telling me the banging had been going on for a while.
“Zen, the police are here,” I heard my aunt say in a loud but totally calm voice. Like it was something that happened every day. Time to get up and go to school. Time for breakfast. Time to be interrogated by the cops.
I sat up with my heart pounding. I have two laptops, one that’s for general use, the other reserved for more sensitive work. I raised up my mat and slipped a finger into the loose floorboard that had a handy knothole in it. When I lifted up the floorboard, it made just enough space for me to slip in the for-my-eyes-only laptop, where it nestled among some weird insulation that looked like dirty snow. The power cord followed, and I rearranged the insulation to cover it up. It all felt bizarre, as if was having a paranoid nightmare, and I froze for a moment, stuck in the strangeness of it all.
“Zen?” My aunt again.
“Hang on,” I called out in a high, squeaky voice as I lowered the mat and grabbed the kimono decorated with anime characters that Monica had bought for me at Ragstock last Christmas. I took a deep breath and squeezed my eyes shut for a moment. This is real. Don’t freak out.
“Hey,” I said, coming out of my room and rubbing my eyes with the heel of one hand. Acting groggy might give me time to think. Also, I was groggy. It’s not every morning you wake up into a real-life bad dream.
“This is Detective Ivar Jensen,” Monica said, nodding at an overweight guy with gray hair and a bristly moustache who looked as if he spent too much time at a desk eating donuts and watching surveillance videos. He had a suit jacket on, and a tie, and a gun in a holster. On TV, the guns cops wear on their hips always look like some kind of high tech fashion accessory. On him, the holster and the gun sticking out of it looked like it was some office equipment that he had to hang on his belt, like for taking inventory at Staples or something. He nodded at me, and kept nodding, as if he was a 250-pound bobble head.
“Janet Jankovich,” the other cop said, as if it was an order. She was old and wore an ugly suit that didn’t fit, unlike those women detectives on television who wear high heels and tight, low-cut blouses, like nothing helps to get a confession out of serial killers faster than cleavage. She tipped her head back as she studied me, looking down her nose (literally) without any hint of a smile. I hadn’t been studied so hard since the last time I’d been sent to the principal’s office. It was pretty clear which one of them had scored the “bad cop” role. I had a sudden vision of them sitting out in their car playing rock, paper, scissors. I almost started laughing. Luckily, I was able to stifle it. They wouldn’t have liked me laughing at them.
Monica was wearing her bathrobe, cinched tightly at the waist, as if she was a Terrycloth Belt grand master, standing tall and straight and looking dangerous even though she’s actually really short and not dangerous at all. She was being icily polite, but not friendly. Some people brownnose when they deal with cops, acting like they can’t wait to sign up for the Police Auxiliary or point out their grandmother in a lineup. Not Monica. She looked kind of like a school principal herself. A really mean one who ate first graders for breakfast and ordered hall monitors to shoot students without hall passes on sight.
“We’d like to ask you a few questions about your brother,” Bobble-head said, beaming a fake smile.
“Okay,” I said. Monica opened her mouth, but closed it when I added, “Just as soon as my lawyer can get here. She’s pretty busy, though. May take a while.”
Bobble-head’s smile got that condescending “you don’t understand, you stupid kid” look. “Aw, there’s no need for that. Your brother’s got himself in some trouble, is all, and we just need to straighten some things out. You want to help Wilson, don’t you?”
“Super. We just need a little background. Have you spent much time at that house he’s been living in? You know any of those friends of his?”
“Those are questions.”
He raised his eyebrows. Well, duh.
“I’m not answering any questions without my lawyer present.”
He shook his head, grinning, like I had just cracked a joke. “A lawyer? You don’t need a lawyer.”
“I also don’t need to answer your questions without a lawyer present.”
“Do you know where Lawrence Delancy is?” The woman wasn’t smiling.
She was asking about Wheeze. I hoped the fact that I suddenly felt sick to my stomach didn’t show. “No.”
“Any idea where he might have gone?”
“No.” I realized I was answering questions. That bad cop thing was working for her.
“Mind if we take a look around your apartment?”
“Yes,” Monica and I both said at exactly the same time.
The two cops exchanged glances. The woman’s look was saying “I told you so.” His was saying “ah, crap, you were right. I hate it when you’re right.”
“Listen, little lady, this is a terrorism investigation,” Bobble-head said, the smile gone, his face starting to get red, a finger poked in my face like a toy gun. “Your brother is in serious trouble.”
So is Wheeze, I thought, my stomach churning. Though there was something to be said for barfing all over his shoes, I didn’t want him to think I was intimidated.
“We know,” Monica said, giving him a stony look, the kind she might give to a kid who was cruising for an F in one of her classes. “We’re also aware of the constitutional rights that you took an oath to uphold.”
“You’ll be hearing from us.” The woman smacked her partner’s arm with the back of her hand and give him a “let’s go” jerk of her head. He followed his partner down the stairs, both of them stomping, as if the more noise you make, the more power you have.
“That was scary.” Monica said softly after the door closed behind them. She held out her hands and looked at them. Her fingers were shaking really hard.
“You were great,” I said.
“So were you. Know something? I was sure they were going to say ‘you can make this easy, or you can make this hard.’”
“Me too. Just like in the movies.” We both started laughing.
Then we stopped and it was quiet for a moment. “I don’t want to get you in trouble,” I said, feeling sick again.
“Don’t say that. This is not your fault.” She had that stern teacher look again. “I never want you to feel responsible for being bullied, whether it’s school officials or police or anybody. They’re abusing their power when they shift that burden onto a kid.”
“Well, yeah, but they’re kind of doing their job,” I pointed out.
“That’s no excuse. Nazi functionaries tried that one out at Nuremburg.”
“Wow, we already hit Godwin’s Law,” I said. She looked at me, puzzled. “It’s this thing, when somebody in an argument drags Nazis into it? It’s kind of over, because usually it’s a ridiculous comparison.”
“Ah. Reductio ad Hitlerum.”
“That’s awesome. How do you spell that?”
She spelled it. “It’s a riff on a common fallacy, reduction ad absurdum. You take a proposition to its extreme to show how it must be wrong.”
“Only this time it’s not wrong, because you’re not really saying those two cops acted like Nazis. You’re saying people are responsible for their actions even if they’re following orders, which Godwin would agree with. That’s the guy who came up with the law originally.”
I realized I was babbling out of nervousness, but I couldn’t seem to stop, as if a lot of words would fill up the room and crowd out the bad feeling the two cops left behind. “I first looked him up when the FBI sent Wikipedia a takedown notice over a picture of their official seal, which was totally unfair because the Encyclopaedia Britannica had the same picture in their article and nobody made them take it down. They were just picking on Wikipedia because they could. Godwin wrote this hilarious letter explaining why they were legally off base.”
“When was this?”
“Years ago. I remember reading about it when I was ten years old, maybe? It was smart, but funny, too. He figured the best way to deal with an abuse of power is to make fun of it publicly.”
“You read this letter when you were ten.”
“Sure. It’s all over the internet.”
“You’re strange, Zen,” she said. “In a good way. Let’s have some breakfast.”
~ ~ ~
I made some of my super-strong coffee while Monica fried up some potatoes and made an amazing omelet, throwing in some chopped up leftovers from the back of the fridge that she sniffed carefully first. It turned into a weird kind of celebration the way natural disasters sometimes turn festive for a while. My dad told me this: People whose houses get flooded or blown down in a tornado suddenly love their neighbors and want to help each other out and say to reporters their community is special and really pulls together. That usually doesn’t last too long, though. They get tired and crabby and pretty soon they’re at each other’s throats again. Standing up to the police made us feel good, but lurking not too far away was anxiety for Wilson and fear that we’d all get screwed by the authorities.
“So,” Monica said, wiping her plate with a piece of toast. “I’m wondering about today. I have that weekend college class to teach, and then I was going to meet Dieter. He wants to go to a play tonight.”
“Excellent. This is the German guy, right? The one you like?”
“Yes, but I don’t think I should go. What if they come back with a warrant?”
“You seriously think they’ll get a judge to sign off on a warrant on a Saturday?”
“They’re calling it a terrorist investigation. They’ll pull out all the stops.”
“Yeah, but we both know it’s a crock of . . . doodoo.” Monica gets bizarrely worked up if I used four-letter words, as if it means she’s not doing a good job of being my legal guardian, so I try to catch myself. “This is security theatre, like making people take their shoes off at airports and walk through X-ray machines just to remind them they should be very afraid. Besides, I won’t be here. I’m going out, too.”
“Oh, yeah? What are you up to?”
I wasn’t going to tell her about the meet-up with the Group. She’d get worried, and she wouldn’t understand. I was getting ready to make up something plausible, but then suddenly remembered that I actually did have to go somewhere that had totally slipped my mind. I groaned. “There’s this dumb group project for school. I have to meet some kids at a museum to analyze some art. I’ll probably be out late, writing it up.”
“That sounds fun.”
“It’s a dumb assignment. And I hate group projects.”
“Everybody does. But it’s good for you to have a chance to interact with other people your age.”
“I interact with them online all the time.”
“It’s not the same as face to face.”
“You got that right.” I reached for the coffee pot. “Online is a lot less annoying.”