We sat on his bed holding mugs of jasmine tea in a room that was a mix of total chaos and essence-of-Nikko. Though he shared the apartment with five other people and two dogs, his tiny closet-sized bedroom was his alone, and it looked like him: theatrical, a little bit crazy, a little bit beautiful in unexpected ways. He had strings of twinkly lights draped across the ceiling. He had a bunch of those tall candles with saints on them from a Mexican store that filled the room with golden, flickering light. As I got up to refill my cup, I caught a glimpse of a picture on the wall behind the candles: a beautiful ghostly woman with big, dark eyes gleaming out of the shadows, a halo of gilt-edged dark hair fanning out around her, like a saint who people prayed to for wisdom and mercy. Then I realized it was just my own reflection in a mirror, and it instantly looked like me again. Not beautiful. Not wise. And no halo – just wild hair.
“So, the idea is to expose the FBI and their methods by setting up a replay of what they did to Wilson, right?” Nikko said. “I’ll be playing the role of a concerned citizen.”
“Hi, yeah. I thought I should call you guys because, well, this friend of mine?” He held a hand up to his ear like a phone. “Um, maybe I’m overreacting, but he’s been saying some weird stuff lately. It’s starting to make me kind of nervous?” He sounded exactly like a guy calling a tip line, as embarrassed as he was worried. “Probably it’s nothing, but today he asked me whether I thought it would be better to bomb the federal building or the state capital, and I laughed because – well, I thought he was joking. But then he looked at me and . . . I don’t think he was.” He dropped his hand into his lap and dropped the voice. “Basically, I’ll be Zip, only not so devious.”
“Well, actually more devious, because you’ll be fooling both the FBI and the guy who you’ll be setting up. Like a double agent.”
“I always wanted to be a double agent. So who’s the guy who’ll be playing the role of terrorist?”
“Do you know Simon Meyer?”
“Sure. Everyone knows Simon.”
Good old Simon. Everybody’s best buddy. “Did you know he’s a rapist?”
“What, Simon? Where’d you hear that?”
I told him about Wilson’s housemate and what she had told me. I told him about the creepy way Simon was always touching girls and acting like it was perfectly okay to grab their butts. I told him about the girl who sent me a message about being drugged and raped, though I made it sound like someone I knew, not a client. Nobody, not even Nikko, knew about my business and I wanted to keep it that way. As I spoke, Nikko looked away and frowned. I began to think I was losing him, and that made my voice sound bitter and angry, mainly because I was. “So, are you going to need proof or something?” I asked Nikko. “Because you won’t get it from Emily. She’s in jail, and besides, she tried to tell people and nobody believed her. And the other girl I told you about doesn’t want anyone to know.”
“But . . . Simon? He seems like such a decent guy. Progressive. A feminist. Not somebody who would pull this shit on women.” Nikko shook his head and I thought he was going to explain to me why I was wrong to jump to conclusions, that maybe there was just some miscommunication. She was drunk, she came on to him, she changed her story after. Think what it would do to Simon’s reputation. It hurt, almost as much as seeing Nikko kissing that purple-haired girl, maybe even more. I held the mug so tight my fingers hurt, ready to set it down and march out – no, ready to throw it across the room, against that mirror so it would break into a million pieces and I could stomp out of the apartment and never speak to Nikko again, which made me both furious and so sad I was afraid I’d start crying, which made me even madder. But I didn’t have to throw the mug or stomp out because he said, “What a total asshole.”
“Seriously.” It was such a relief I relaxed and my mug tilted so a dollop of hot tea splashed into my lap, but I didn’t mind.
“I feel bad that I was ever nice to him, you know? Because looking back, there were things that didn’t seem right. I should have known.”
“I feel bad, too. When Emily told me, I just avoided Simon after that. I didn’t tell anybody or do anything to stop him. Which is dumb, because it felt like I was protecting Emily, but really it just meant he got away with it while she got to feel ashamed and lonely. But then hearing about that other girl – she’s really young and she’s so completely messed up about it. And scared that her parents will find out, like it was her fault.”
“Man.” Nikko looked pained, then he sat up straight and looked happy again, rubbing his hands together. “Okay, let’s mess him up. How do we do this?”
“First, I have to do some research. Like, is there a law against recording people secretly? What about lying to federal officers?”
“Who says I’d be lying? Let’s say I get talking to Simon about how screwed up everything is and he starts saying violence is necessary, because he likes to brag about doing things he would never actually do. And we talk, and he starts to get more detailed, and I get the feeling he really does want to blow something up. I really would be worried.” He shifted on the bed and leaned forward to speak in a whisper. “I mean, I’m not happy about the way things are going. I really think we need political change, but violence isn’t the answer. I don’t know, it’s probably just talk. But what if he’s serious? I would hate myself if something happened. If people got hurt.”
“Dude. You’re so good at this it’s scary.”
He sat back and was himself again. It was weird how fast he could switch it on and off. “I’m an actor. It’s what I do. You remember playing let’s pretend when you were little?”
“Hah. You were probably building computers out of paperclips or something. We had a big box of dress up clothes and we’d have these elaborate games that would go on for days. Pioneers. Pirates. Post-apocalyptic survival. It was really fun, but then my friends didn’t like doing it anymore. They got embarrassed and made fun of me for wanting to keep doing it. Kids’ stuff. Ugh, middle school was the worst.”
“Yup. Along with elementary school. And high school.”
“I liked school until sixth grade. I had lots of friends. We had fun together until suddenly they were all cool and I wasn’t and they started that whole faggot thing. It was vicious. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they hadn’t been my friends before.”
I thought about the night when I was scrunched up in the corner of Monica’s bathroom, certain that I’d die if I had to go back, that dying would be so much easier than facing them again, feeling their eyes watching me, hearing their whispers. Then I did that thing I do, building up mental bricks, one by one, to keep that particular memory walled off. I’ve done it enough that I can do it really fast. Boom, boom, boom. Done.
“You should try acting,” Nikko was saying. “People in the theatre community, they’re awesome. Well, there’s drama and bitchiness, and people get sucked into the fame thing too much, but otherwise it’s great. You get to be different people, but also you get to be yourself.”
“I’m good at being myself, but I’d suck at acting.” I wondered about that for a moment. Until today, I played Shad pretty well, which felt like being myself, but with all the unnecessary stuff stripped away. Then it got all complicated with the meet-up. “This could be a difficult role to play because it would be acting mixed up with your real life. How would you keep it straight?”
“You think I wouldn’t do the patriotic thing and report suspicious behavior to the FBI? And then become horrified by their methods and filled with remorse?” He clutched his chest. “Try to do the right thing, only to realize that I’m in a nightmare of double-dealing, willing to put my own liberty at risk to shine a light on an Orwellian system?” He looked as if he was posing for a moving poster, then grinned suddenly. “I love this role. It’s got a lot of nuance.”
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” He started to explain why it wasn’t Brechtian, but I wasn’t paying attention. Instead, I reached for my phone and had a moment of panic. it wasn’t in my pocket where it usually lived. Then I realized it was still turned off in my Faraday-cage backpack. When I switched it on, the screen was full of notifications. “Oh, crap. Monica has sent me, like, a million texts. She’s freaking out.”
I tapped a reassuring message, telling her I had forgotten to switch my phone back on after being in the museum, that I was still finishing up my group project, which was true even if it wasn’t the group project for school. She messaged me back to say she’d been really worried that I’d been detained by the police or run over by a snowplow and (the good news) she was still out with her date.
“How much trouble are you in?” Nikko asked.
“We’re cool. She’s just nervous because the cops wanted to search our apartment this morning.”
“They didn’t have a warrant, so they left, but it made her nervous.” I read back over my message. I hadn’t told her I was at Nikko’s place. There was a good chance she would assume that I was already at our apartment, finishing up my group project there. I sent back a generic apology and promised to be more careful next time.
I drank the rest of my tea and set the mug on the floor. “Sleep on it. It’s a big commitment. Soon as you go to the police, you can’t back out. It could mean you can’t be in your play, you might flunk some courses, your parents will be mad. You could get in serious legal trouble. Your whole life could change.”
“I’m up for it. It has to be done, right?”
“Well, he’s my brother, not yours.”
“But he’s getting screwed. All nine of them are.” His expression turned serious, even solemn. At first I thought he was acting again, but he wasn’t. “Most of what I do is fun, it’s satisfying, and I get to act, which is what I want to do with my life. But there’s no big moral issue at stake. You pour all of this effort into a play and people come and see it, and they’re entertained for a couple of hours and maybe it makes them think. Which is fine. It’s great, actually. But how often do you get to document injustice and set things right? It’s not like I’d want to do this all the time. I’m not that much of an activist. But this is putting my art to good purpose.”
“Well, we can hope. The first step will be seeing if Simon Meyer will bite. You’ll have to hear him say something dramatic enough that you can take it to the police.”
“With his big mouth? That shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Yeah, but with my brother and his friends getting arrested, you’d have to be dumb to talk advocate for violent action.”
“This is Simon Meyer we’re talking about, right?”
“Okay, Simon is kind of dumb, but he’s a good actor, too. People think he’s a radical activist just because he learned his lines and he’s confident and outgoing.”
“He has charisma, no doubt, but so do I. It’ll be a duel, charisma at twenty paces.”
Nikko had a point. He was Simon Meyer’s match in the charm and confidence department, and he had a ton of friends. If it was me in that duel, Simon would win hands down, but in a Nikko versus Simon fight, Nikko at least had an even chance of coming out ahead. Then again, Simon had the advantage of having no morals.
“He’s unscrupulous. He attacks women and is used to getting away with it. If you got him in a corner, he could hurt you.”
“So long as he doesn’t figure out what’s going on, I should be fine. How do we get things on the record once the FBI gets involved? They’ll want me to wear a wire or whatever they actually use these days, but I doubt they’ll let me record the conversations we have, and what they say to me will be important, right?”
“Critical. We’ll have to record it all. I know somebody who can get us equipment.”
“Sort of. Let me work on the tech stuff and figure out the legal questions. You think about whether you really want to do this. I have to get going so Monica won’t get home before me. I’ll see you tomorrow at that demonstration, right?”
“Outside the federal building at two. People are getting together ahead of time at the Owl to work on posters and stuff.” He swiped his phone and went to Facebook, where the organizers were posting all of their information. It weirded me out to think that FBI agents were probably looking at the same page at the same time, tracking who was visiting the site, looking at comments, probably posting some themselves under false names. “I’ll bet Simon will be there. Oh, yeah. He even says so.” Nikko grinned evilly. “I just liked his comment. He’ll be so ready to show off. This will be a piece of cake.”
“I hope you’re right. Look, we need a way to communicate securely. I have an old phone I can fix up with encryption if you don’t mind carrying two phones for a while. I’ll give it to you tomorrow at the demonstration. And I’ll let you know about that spy equipment.” I peeked through his bamboo blinds. It had stopped snowing and traffic seemed to be moving without too much trouble. “Thanks for the tea. And for being, you know. A friend when I need one.”
“No problem.” He gave me a light bop on the side of my head with his fist, which it suddenly occurred to me was not something he would do to the girl with purple hair. Still, it felt good, even if it wasn’t a hug.
He followed me down the stairs to the front door. Something was making him twitchy. Maybe it was beginning to sink in that he might be doing something that could get him in serious trouble. Maybe he was already trying to figure out how to let me know that he’d changed his mind.
As I opened the door, he asked in a rush, “Do you really know somebody who knows Sara Esfahani?” He looked tense, and suddenly awkward, unpolished. Not acting.
“Yep.” It came out muffled. I pulled the scarf I’d wrapped around my face down so I could add more clearly, “He said she might want to make one of her blitzdocs out of this.”
Nikko’s eyes rolled back as if he was about to faint. He clutched the doorframe dramatically and turned it all into a jokey routine, but I could tell it was a big deal for him.