Burying the Past
Copyright© 2019 by Lumpy
University of Tennessee
It was still early enough in the day when they were able to track the sponsor down at his office on campus. Taylor started getting an itch that this meeting was going to be annoying when they found the man’s office in one of the buildings that housed most of the humanities department. That feeling just increased when he saw that the professor’s class list screamed ‘activist’.
Taylor wasn’t particularly political, and he usually checked out when conversations turned to politics. He didn’t suffer fools gladly on most days, and when politics got involved, he found people became exponentially more insufferable.
He caught a sideways glance from Whitaker as they walked into the humanities building and headed towards the man’s office.
“What?” he asked.
“Don’t look so annoyed, already. Maybe it won’t be all that bad.”
“What are the odds a guy who teaches a class called ‘The Patriarchy of Western Government’ won’t be a jackass?”
“You don’t think western governments are a patriarchy?” she asked
A slight grin hinted that she was goading him for fun, rather than actually asking the question, but he decided to answer it anyway.
“Even if they are, what’s the point in teaching a class like this? Anyone likely to take the class already believes they are, and that they’re a problem. Those who don’t think so, or don’t think it’s a problem; not only wouldn’t have their opinions changed by a class like this, they won’t even sign up for it. So what you end up with is a semester of telling people who completely agree with you exactly what they want to hear. It’s Socratic masturbation.”
“What ... I read.”
“I’ve seen what you read.”
“Whatever. I was helping Kara study for the GED.”
Her expression softened, and she rewarded him a warm smile, reaching out to lightly squeeze his hand. Taylor couldn’t help himself from smiling and giving her hand a squeeze back. As they reached the professor’s office door, he released her hand, and shifted back to his ‘game face,’ a trick he’d learned from watching Whitaker work the first time they’d met.
“Enter,” a voice from the other side of the door said after Whitaker knocked.
The room was fairly small, making it clear this was one of the more junior professors in the department, with just enough room for a desk, a couple of chairs for visitors and three bookshelves. The desk was stacked with papers, behind which sat a fairly thin man with shaggy brown hair in a shirt and tie.
“Professor Martin, I’m Agent Whitaker with the FBI. We have some questions if you have a few minutes.”
The man shifted in his seat, his body stiffening and his arms crossing.
“What kind of questions?”
“We’d like to talk about one of the clubs you sponsor.”
“I can just guess which one. You people can’t go around trying to silence groups that oppose U.S. military police. This isn’t Germany, and it’s not 1936.”
Taylor had to physically keep himself from rolling his eyes, but he stayed silent and let Whitaker do this part, since there was little chance he could keep from calling the man an idiot.
“We’re not trying to silence anyone, Professor. There was an incident yesterday, and we are just doing routine follow-up investigations.”
“What kind of incident? We haven’t done any protests this semester, or anything else that should interest the Federal government.”
“Did you hear about the standoff and explosion, yesterday?”
Crawford and the locals had tried to keep details of what had happened out of the media, but an explosion followed by hordes of police and men in FBI windbreakers was bound to get attention. They’d given out a very limited press release and, while all the news stations were speculating about possible terrorist activity, so far they hadn’t confirmed anything.
Taylor knew that wouldn’t last, and eventually the general details would get out. He also knew that Whitaker was aware that anything she said to this guy would end up on the evening news.
“Five of the members of your club were preparing for a terrorist attack, and set off explosives when confronted by agents,” she said.
Martin’s body language shifted again, his shoulders drooping and his eyes widening.
“I can’t believe any of my kids would be involved with something like that. You must have made a mistake.”
“It’s not a mistake, Professor. They had military-grade explosives and were building suicide vests, which they detonated during the apprehension. Saeed Antar was in a shootout with local police and his explosives-laden car led us to his roommates.”
“Ohh, it was Saeed’s group?”
The man sounded less incredulous with the last question.
“It sounds like you’re not so certain anyone from your group would be involved,” Taylor said.
“It’s just ... Saeed and his friends had come to a few meetings, but they weren’t really part of JITME.”
Taylor suppressed a snort at the acronym.
“They’re on the group roles you submitted to the administration.”
“Well,” he said, his eyes darting hesitantly to one side, “while it’s not really official, the administration decided which groups can use school resources based on the size of the groups. It’s not like they weren’t members, really. They came to several of our meetings, at least early on.”
“But they weren’t active members?” Whitaker asked.
“No, not really. They sat back and listened in the meetings they attended, but they never contributed, and always sat a little apart. I actually found them a bit troubling,” Martin said, and then held up his hands, fending off assumed protest. “Not because they were Muslim or middle eastern. They just ... their attitude wasn’t very welcoming. We try hard to make sure we include everyone that wants to join JITME, but they could barely contain their contempt for us. I was actually glad when they stopped coming to meetings.”
“How many meetings did they come to?” Taylor asked.
“Were they friendly with anyone?”
“Only each other. They barely responded when anyone talked to them. We tried hard at first since they were not only ethnically closer to the problems we try to address but actually came from the Middle East. I’d had hopes when they first signed up that they’d give us some new perspectives to help with our cause.”
“Well,” Whitaker said, standing up, “I guess that answers our questions then.”
The professor just nodded, never getting up, still struggling with the news. Taylor was certain he’d find some way to twist the events into the reason he should double down on his existing beliefs, instead of taking the incident as a cautionary lesson. However, the last thing Taylor wanted to do was try and convince a true believer.
They spent the rest of the day running down all of their other classes and groups, any of the cell’s members had been a part of, all of which turned up equally disappointing results. As far as anyone could say, all five of the students had been non-entities. In any class they were in, or group they joined, they were fairly disconnected. They only really did any talking or socializing with each other. Most of the people Taylor and Whitaker talked to, couldn’t even remember them in anything beyond vague outlines.
Memphis FBI Office
“So it’s a dead end?” Crawford asked after they’d reported on what they’d learned at the school.
“It seems so,” Whitaker said. “No red flags stood out, anyways.”
Taylor shook his head and said, “I still think whatever the connection was, it’s at the school.”
“If it is, it seems pretty buried. You’ve looked at everything they did on campus. If you’re still certain, you should track down the other members of this Middle East peace group and talk to them then,” Crawford said.
“Because it’s what we do,” Crawford said. “I know you’re all about following your gut, but we have procedures for a reason. We have to check out everything, even if it seems certain there’s nothing to it. It’s how we crack cases. Police work isn’t about kicking in doors and gunning down bad guys. It’s about thorough, meticulous investigations. It’s how we ‘work the problem.’ Plus, what else do we have?”
“What about Ali? We could make another go at him.”
“We’re doing that, but it takes time. Just hammering away at him isn’t going to get you anywhere.”
“So while you do that, we do busy work?”
“John,” Whitaker said, “he’s right. This isn’t busy work, it’s police work. If you’re confident the connection is still at the school, then this is the only real lead in that direction. They were only involved in a few other groups, so we probably need to talk to people in those groups, too. We’ll start with the Middle East peace group first, since it’s the most obvious, then move on to the other groups. If nothing pans out there, we move on to anyone they took a class with. Unless you have another idea of how we can track down Qasim?”
“Fine. We’ll look into them.”
“This isn’t going to break, today,” Crawford said. “Word about the explosion being a possible terrorist incident has started hitting the news, and there’s a lot of speculation about suicide bombers. We just received word that the school’s canceling all classes for the day, probably out of fear that there will be more problems, and they’d be liable if they didn’t take appropriate precautions.”
“That’ll make interviewing these other kids a pain in the ass.”
“Some will stay here, and others will get pulled back to their parent’s homes. I’ll have a few of the guys here run background checks on the other members of any of these groups and anyone they took classes with and see if any red flags pop up. Once we have all the checks done, we’ll split it up, and have agents go out and talk to everyone. I’ll even let you take your pick of who you interview.
“Also, I’m sending some of the stuff we found back to Quantico for analysis while I stay here and work on Ali. Let’s do this. You two go back to D.C., and follow up on that. Once we track down all these kids, we can figure out who’s going to interview who. Ok?”
Taylor could recognize Crawford was trying to be accommodating and not give Taylor the worst of the busy work. While Crawford wouldn’t know it, this would also let Taylor take Kara to her next shrink appointment, plus run one other errand he’d been playing in his head for a while. Taylor wouldn’t walk out on a case to take care of personal business, but Crawford was right, they didn’t have anything at the moment. While Taylor thought the answer was somehow tied to the school, he still couldn’t see it.
“I guess that works,” Taylor said, “but why are we sending anything back to Quantico. I thought field offices had their own labs?”
“Many are contracted labs, not internal, which limits how much of a rush we can put on the work. Also, the field guys flagged a couple of things as being unexpected, and wanted our own labs to look into it.”
“They weren’t specific, At least not that made any sense to me. Apparently, some of the traces were chemical compounds that aren’t normally either in a standard apartment or in bombings. They said it isn’t completely unreasonable for them to be there, but it’s enough out of place that it could be the basis for some kind of chemical weapon. They hedge their bets a lot, so who knows.”
“Alright. We’ll follow up on the lab and the group members.”
“Now we just have to get lucky,” Crawford said.
After the short flight back to DC they’d stopped at Quantico to sign over the chain of custody on the chemical samples, before heading home. The techs grumbled when Whitaker had told them she needed results right away, since apparently every agent tried to get their case pushed to the top of the pile. The fact that they were working a national security case with the eye of the AG himself, didn’t seem to make them any happier about someone jumping the line. They did, however, agree and said they’d have something the next morning.
Taylor was tired and just wanted to sit down for a little bit and think. He knew he was missing something, but the FBI’s need to constantly be doing something, made it hard for him to have the time to concentrate on the problem.
The elevator door opened and Taylor stiffened. There was a man in a rumpled sports coat standing next to their apartment door he didn’t recognize. This was a controlled building and people who weren’t tenants or guests shouldn’t have been able to get in. Taylor wasn’t a fan of surprises, more so now, considering the case.
His hand slipped to his waist, lifting up his jacket and gripping the butt of his pistol. He felt Whitaker doing the same thing beside him, as she also alerted to the surprise.
“Mr. Taylor?” The man asked, standing up from his lean on the wall and starting towards Taylor and Whitaker.
“Stay right there,” Taylor said, putting up his free hand.
“Whoa. Hey, it’s ok. I’m a reporter with the Herald. I can show you ID.”
“Go ahead,” Taylor said, not pulling his hand off his weapon. “Slowly.”
The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a small rectangular badge, holding it out. Taylor turned his body to keep his weapon turned away from the man and took the ID. As the man had said, it showed he was a reporter with the Washington Herald, with his picture and the name Jordan Hidalgo underneath.
Taylor pulled his hand off his gun and handed the ID back saying, “What can I do for you, Mr. Hidalgo.”
“What’s your connection to Senator Caldwell?”
“You should ask her that,” Taylor said, walking past the man to the door of the apartment.
“I’m asking you, Mr. Taylor. Isn’t it strange that a former soldier who was once wanted by Federal Marshals is spending time with the teenaged daughter of a U.S. Senator?”
Taylor ignored the man and unlocked the door, Whitaker coming up behind him as he opened the door.
“I think you should talk to me, Mr. Taylor. People are going to find out about you soon, and start wondering why the Republican nominee for President is connected to a soldier kicked out of the Army because of psychological problems.”
“What’s strange, is how far your head is up your ass,” Taylor said, turning towards the reporter and taking a step.
Whitaker put her hand in the center of Taylor’s chest and pushed him into the apartment.
“No comment,” she said and closed the door.
“What a piece of...”
“I know,” Whitaker said. “You need to call the Senator.”
“Yeah,” Taylor said, still glaring at the door.
“John, drop it. He’s trying to provoke a reaction, it’s what they do. Talk to the Senator. She needs to know they’ve identified you and clearly started looking into your background. She’ll know what to do.”
Taylor let out a sigh. He pushed his anger down and headed for the phone.
“Loren,” he said when the Senator’s aid answered her personal cell phone, “I need to talk to the Senator.”
“Mr. Taylor, she’s at an event and can’t speak at the moment. I’ll, of course, let her know you called as soon as we leave.”
“I need to talk to her, now. I wouldn’t have called if it wasn’t urgent.”
Taylor could almost hear the man roll his eyes, but Loren only replied, “Hold, please.”
The background noise of whatever event the Senator was at vanished as her assistant muted the phone. A full minute passed in silence, he and Whitaker standing in the living room, both on edge enough from the reporter that they didn’t sit.
Finally, the phone filled with the background drone of the event as the Senator said, “John, what’s wrong?”
“A reporter was at our door when we got home. He asked how I knew you, and he clearly had done research into my background. He knew about my medical discharge and that it was on psychological grounds. I’m not sure if he knew the specifics or he was just not saying to get my goat, but he knows who I am.”
“Was Kara with you?”
“No, just me and Loretta.”
“Did you say anything to him?”
“I told him he should ask you about how I know you. Loretta told him ‘no comment.’”
He could hear her let out a sigh, and Taylor knew she’d been concerned he might lose his temper and say something problematic to the reporter.
“That’s good. They’re not going to let up, and he’s almost certainly not the last that’s going to show up at your door. You need to just keep saying ‘no comment’ for now. I’m going to have my people put out a statement to try and head off the wilder imaginations.”
“Is there any way to keep Kara out of this?”
“I’ll try, but honestly I don’t think so. There’s enough of a trail of you going to Russia, and then coming back with her and Mary Jane, that someone is bound to find it. Once they make the connection to Russia, they’ll find someone over there to bribe and get at least the basics of what happened and who she is.”
“If they come after her, I can’t promise it’ll end well for them.”