I spent most of the next morning fixing up the old phone for Nikko, which turned out to be harder than I thought. Technology always seems to know when you’re in a hurry, because that’s when everything goes wrong. I finally got Convo installed and prepaid a month’s worth of service with a small carrier that was recommended by Group members because the company understood privacy issues and even fought a subpoena for customer data and won. Talking to Frances Bernadette McSweeney was also more complicated than I expected.

I’d called her first thing in the morning. “In ten minutes I need to leave for a meeting,” she told me in her starchy old-lady voice. I pictured her in her messy kitchen, holding the handset to the old fashioned phone attached to the wall, the spiral cord getting tangled in her falling-down hairdo. “I’m afraid I have no news about your brother.”

“I just have some general questions.”

“Such as?”

“Um, maybe we shouldn’t do this over the phone.”

She heaved a sigh. “How very dramatic. Well, if you come to the coffee shop where the team is meeting, I can give you five minutes.” She gave me an address on Hennepin, and when I finally got the phone working and biked over to Uptown I discovered whoever chose the location for the meeting must have had a sense of humor. The café’s name was in big flickering neon letters over the door: The Spyhouse Coffee Shop.

I locked my bike outside, stomped off some of the cruddy snow from my boots, and went in, finding a group of eight people clustered around laptops and papers and coffee cups. All but one were young and looked like preppy college students. The other one was old, but I almost didn’t recognize her. Frances Bernadette McSweeney’s hair was pinned up in a tidy twist at the back of her head and instead of a dirty cardigan, she wore a fancy-looking suit and a string of pearls.

“Everyone, this is Zen, who brought this case to our attention.” I waved at the preppies as she pushed herself to her feet, wincing. She hobbled to a table in a corner. “What are your questions?”

“It’s legal to record conversations in Minnesota, right?” I had looked it up, but I wanted to be sure.

“So long as at least one of the parties consents.”

“What about recording conversations with police or federal officers?”

She frowned at me. “It’s legal, though they don’t like it and may arrest you on some other pretext. Anything else?”

“Is it against the law to lie to a federal official?”

She put her face in her hands for a moment. Then she folded her arms and heaved a sigh. “Yes. There’s a law against making false statements to federal officials.”

“No fair. Cops can lie, right?”

“Unless under oath. So?”

“I was just curious about what happens if a cop lies to a federal official.”

“Their heads explode.”

“That would be awesome.”

“No, it wouldn’t, but my head will explode if you keep wasting my time. Do you have any more questions pertaining to something  other than prurient interest?”

“Prur . . . how do you spell that?”

“Look it up in the dictionary.” She had a killer glare. I wouldn’t want to be facing her in a courtroom. “Zenobia, you need to take care. Your brother has enough problems.”

“I know.”

“And you’re aware of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and its penalties?” I started to speak, but she held up a warning finger. “Constrain your answer to a yes or no.”


She studied me for a moment. “Hypothetically, if you were going to help your brother, what would you do? Aside from dragging a lawyer out of retirement and getting her to do a lot of work for free.”

“You actually want to know?“

“Let’s keep this in the realm of hypotheticals. That is, based on a proposed theory rather than actual—“

“I know what the word means.” I also knew that she wanted to find out what I was planning without having to spill the beans if questioned under oath. “What I might do to help my brother is show the world how the FBI tricks people into saying they’re going to do things that they would never do if the FBI hadn’t goaded them into it. How the FBI encourages people to say they’re going to break the law just so they’ll have a chance to arrest them. That’s what happened to Wilson and it’s not fair.”

“And how would you expose this practice?”

“I would pick someone who deserved to be in jail for a different reason, get an actor to record him saying the kind of radical stuff that fake activists who are total hypocrites like to say, have the actor take that recording to the FBI and offer to be an informant, and then have a famous filmmaker with a billion Twitter followers make a documentary about how the feds jammed my brother up.”

“That sounds ridiculously ambitious.”

“It’s doable.”

“And this would help your brother how?”

“The feds might drop the charges to get it out of the news. Especially if the film explained that Zip is actually a career criminal named Jason Bristol who was arrested by Special Agent Todd Terhune who told him he could avoid jail if he agreed to be an informant. Hypothetically.”

“How did you . . . never mind. Jason Bristol,” she muttered to herself, memorizing it. “We can check on that. As for your hypothetical, it sounds difficult. Lots of moving parts. If the feds uncovered the plan, they could arrest you for obstruction.”

“I need to do something.”

“Actually, you don’t. You’re only fifteen years old. It’s not your responsibility.”

“You don’t get it. He is my responsibility. I want him to be. And what does my age have to do with it, anyway?”

“Quite a bit. People your age take risks because you don’t have the maturity to weigh the long-term consequence. No, don’t interrupt me. It’s not an insult, it’s a demonstrable fact. You’re smart, Zenobia. You have potential, but it could be derailed if you started life out with a criminal record. I would be remiss if I didn’t make sure you understand the risk you’re taking. Might take. Hypothetically.”

“Yeah? Well, I’m not your responsibility.”

She fixed me with a stern glare. I thought I was about to get chewed out for backtalk, but instead her voice was suddenly gentle. “The law works slowly. You want to rescue your brother right now. I get that. You want him to know that you’ll risk everything for him, because you’re family and it matters. But if you can be a little patient, you don’t have to take the risk. I’m working with some very bright, committed young lawyers who care about this case. It’s going to be an uphill battle, but we’ll do our best for your brother and his friends. That’s a promise.”

“Okay.” It came out sounding grumpy because I didn’t want her to know that something about the way her voice had changed from sharp to kind had tripped me up and I was fighting tears.

“Jason Bristol?” she said again, checking. I nodded.

“Please stay out of trouble, but if you can’t . . . Luisa?”

She called over to the table where the brilliant young lawyers were hard at work checking Instragram and scrolling through Twitter. One of them came over. “Could you please bring my purse?”

She did, giving me a bright smile as Frances Bernadette McSweeney burrowed in the bag. “I have a cell phone now. Let me give you my number.” She opened the simple flip phone and squinted at it. “I can’t quite . . . I don’t have my reading glasses. Could you give Zenobia my number?”

The law student took the phone, turned it right side up, tapped a button and read it out without rolling her eyes or anything, which made me like her.

“That’s only for emergencies. Let’s hope you don’t need to use it.” The old lawyer pushed herself up from the chair, hooked the purse on her arm, and tottered over to Team Legal.

I stowed my phone and went outside, thinking about what she’d said. Sure, I was taking a risk. She didn’t say it would make things worse for Wilson. All she said was it could go wrong, which I already knew. I got on my bike and headed out for the federal courthouse, where there would be a measly group of people with homemade signs embarrassing the few people who happened to notice them.

~ ~ ~

It was a bigger crowd than I expected. There were the usual activist types, including a bossy guy with a loud speaker shouting out things that nobody could hear clearly. Big steroidal men wearing coats that said POLICE or FEDERAL MARSHAL on the back in case we didn’t know who they were stood around, feet spread, eyes hidden behind dark glasses. I didn’t see anyone with FBI on their jackets, but they were mingling with the crowd in plain clothes, trying to blend in while also looking so clean-cut and wholesome they didn’t.

Some protesters were banging on drums, which seems to be required for demonstrations nowadays, and a group of people were wearing scarves over their faces printed to make them look like Anonymous, which is actually ripped off from a comic-book version of a Catholic guy who tried to blow up Parliament in olden days, which children still celebrate every year in England by burning him at the stake as a wholesome national pastime. People are so weird.

I found Nikko straddling his crappy fixed gear bike at the edge of the crowd, frowning thoughtfully as if he was wondering how he would stage the scene if he were put in charge. It would probably be a lot more dramatic, with the cops holding machine guns and smoke pouring from tear gas canisters . Which, if this had been happening in North Minneapolis instead of downtown and the crowd was black instead of almost all white, is what it probably what it would have looked like.

“Give me a few minutes head start, then follow after me,” I told Nikko. He glanced at the cops, then back at me, puzzled. Just how paranoid was I? But he followed instructions and stayed put as I walked my bike over to Washington. I found a spot where I couldn’t see any obvious surveillance cameras, where the swish of traffic provided plenty of white noise. I knelt down to mess with my bike chain.

A few minutes later he found me and squatted down, asking brightly “Need some help?” adding in a lower voice, “What, too many cops over there?”

“Too many cops who aren’t in uniform,” I muttered just loud enough to be heard over the traffic. “I have that secure phone for you.” After checking to be sure nobody was watching, I showed him how to log into Convo. “I’ll get you some recording equipment later. This is mainly so you and I can communicate safely.”

“Cool.” He palmed the phone and slipped it into his pocket so neatly it was almost like a magic trick. “Too bad I didn’t have it this morning. Simon was saying some pretty wild stuff. I mean, nobody there thought it was all that outrageous, but I caught it on my iPhone.”

“Could you meet after the demo?”

“Sure. Where?”

“I’ll let you know. You can head back to the federal building now. I’ll be there in a few, but let’s not hang out together there, okay?”

“Over and out, Secret Agent Zen.”

I had a feeling I’d be hearing a lot of dumb jokes like that, but it was okay for Nikko to goof off so long as what we were planning actually worked. I fiddled a little more with my chain, then I biked back to the crowd. Some television crews had shown up. I stayed out of their range as I checked out the Twitter hashtag #Freethe9 as people made speeches, including some law professor who seemed to specialize in Twitter-sized sound bites.

I noticed a scruffy-looking white guy approaching one of the few black women in the crowd. His scruffiness wasn’t like the students who grew scraggly beards and wore expensively torn clothes. His look came from not having a place to sleep and not knowing anybody who owned a couch that he could surf on. The woman he spoke to shook her head and he turned to move through the crowd, his expression tense, like he knew he didn’t belong. As I watched, he approached another black girl who was cheering the law professor. He leaned close. She said something angry and backed away.

He headed for me next. I could easily outrace this wobbly old dude on my bike, but I was too curious to cut and run. Besides, I was pretty sure the crowd would be on my side if this guy tried anything.

I don’t have a lot of keys on my keychain – just a couple of house keys and the one for my bike lock, along with the little penlight – but I arranged what I had so that they stuck out between my knuckles. I’d read it was more effective to punch somebody in the face that way.

He finally reached me and I felt my heart racing as he leaned close. “You know a girl named Zen?” Up close his face was a map of seams and fissures and his breath smelled like a dumpster.

“Why do you want to know?”

He grinned and I saw he was missing a lot of teeth. “Gotcha.” He leered like an evil jack-o-lantern and reached into his coat. I tightened my fist and imagined smashing my keys into his eyes.

He held out a crumpled Pizza Hut flyer in his hand. “Go on, take it.” He sounded irritated and impatient. Like, why can’t you follow my simple instructions? Like he wasn’t too crazy about being in a hostile crowd of hipster college students.

I took it and turned it over. I saw enough to stuff it into my pocket. “Thanks. Is he—“

“You just tell him I done what I said I’d do.”


“I owed him, but we’re even now.”

“But where—”

“He got it all wrote down, there. I’m done. Don’t need to be round so many damned cops and all these hoity-toity . . .” He stumbled off, angrily muttering the kind of words Monica doesn’t let me say. People made way for him, as if he was leper and they didn’t want to come in contact with his diseased body and have their fingers fall off like zombies. After all, they were busy with important social justice issues and didn’t want someone so broken down and toothless get in the way.

Okay, I admit I wasn’t any better than the activists who looked disgusted by somebody who was actually poor. I felt kind of bad about it, but so far as I could tell he didn’t give a damn about the opinion of anyone there, including me.

I looked to see if the cops had noticed the exchange. One was eyeing the man, but lazily, on the automatic pilot that tells cops to track homeless people who might act up. The other officers were all standing at ease in that totally stiff stance, inscrutable behind their dark glasses.

I wheeled my bike to the street. From the edge of the crowd, I heard a piercing whistle. “Hey, wait!” I decided to pretend I hadn’t heard the shouted command and kept going. It almost worked. I was feeling for the pedal when somebody grabbed the back of my jacket. I jerked my elbow back to dislodge the hand. “Whoa. Zen, it’s me.”

Monica, I realized. Monica and German Guy. She looked pretty, with her cheeks all rosy. He looked like a fish, his mouth hanging open in surprise. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you,” she said.

“I thought you were somebody else. Hope I didn’t hurt you.”

“No.” She rubbed her arm, which meant I had. “This is my niece,” Monica said to the man.

“I am Dieter,” he said, holding out his hand for a shake. Luckily he didn’t try to air-kiss me on both cheeks like they always do in foreign movies. “Happy to meet you, Zen. I’ve heard so much about you and your computer skills.” He wasn’t looking like a gaping fish anymore, but I was pretty sure that one thing he hadn’t heard about me was that I wasn’t as white as Monica.

“Good to meet you.”

“I am very sorry about your brother,” he said, his smile turning into a serious frown. “I grew up in the eastern part of Germany,” he said,  though it sounded like Chermany. I had a feeling from now on I’d think of him as Cherman Guy. ”I always heard from my parents about the Stasi, our secret police who developed many informants among neighbors and workmates. My parents told me how this was, to live always thinking about the people who might report you, about the government office where your private life was taken down and kept in file drawers. So am feeling very sad for what has happened to your brother. Privacy is very important.”

“I totally agree.”

“Not a bad turnout, huh?” Monica said. “Should be plenty of news coverage tonight. That law professor was great.”

“If you like boring lectures.”

“Shut up, he was awesome.”

“Everything he said? People should already know that stuff. They’re just not paying attention.”

Monica rolled her eyes at Cherman Guy. “This is what I live with.”

“But she is right. People should pay more attention,” he said.

“Oh, great. Take her side,” she joked. “Did you find your friend, Zen?”

“Yeah, but . . .” I almost said “I need to go do homework,” which would have made Monica give me one of those looks, like “yeah, right. What are you really up to?” So instead I said, “I’m going to head out. It’s bugging me that everybody’s clapping and cheering and making speeches while Wilson is locked up in there, wearing one of those weird orange jumpsuits in a tiny cell where you can’t even take a dump in private.”

“The food is very bad, too,” Cherman Guy said. “Last year I was arrested at a protest. Luckily I was in the jail for only one night. I met many interesting people.”

“So I’m going to go. Nice to meet you . . . Dieter,” I finished, just barely avoiding saying Cherman Guy. When I glanced back to turn a corner, I saw Monica was still watching me, still looking worried. She could probably tell I needed to chill out, but it wasn’t because my brother was in jail. I was desperate to know what Wheeze had written on that crumpled piece of paper.


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if then else Copyright © 2016 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.