Chapter 18

Sascha woke suddenly and wondered why his alarm clock was going off. "It's still charcoal," he said to the empty room. "Why beep at me? The ladder outside needs tuning again."

He rolled over, poking at the snooze button on top of his alarm clock that was resting precariously on the edge of the nightstand. The noise continued. Sascha rubbed his eyes, and as the mental fog lifted, he realized that his mobile phone was glowing. And the phone was ringing.

Without looking at the screen to identify the caller, Sascha grabbed the phone off of the nightstand and punched the talk button. "Greene," he said, trying to sound alert.

"Mr. Greene, I'm sorry to bother you at this hour. This is Martha Smith from the SpanTel, and we have an emergency alert for you. There was an incident at one of the addresses that you registered with us."

"Which one?" Sascha said, sitting up suddenly. SpanTel was a new startup company that monitored law enforcement and emergency medical service notices. For a monthly fee, someone could register a set of addresses and be notified when an emergency was reported there. They took care of requesting permission from the owner of the address—a courtesy, since the notices were public information—and had staff available 24/7. Sascha had registered the addresses for his parents' house, their cottage, the building he worked in at CUNY, and several of his close friends. Whoever this call was for, it was important.

The voice said: "Sir, the address is 481 Blake Drive."

Jesse, Sascha thought, his pulse accelerating. "What happened?" he said, a bit more harshly than he intended.

"It's not clear, sir, but the call was placed by a neighbor who witnessed a physical assault and possible mugging. Would you like to req—"

Sascha flipped the phone closed. His mind raced. "I knew I should have called him earlier," he said. His voice echoed off of the bare walls.

There was only one thing to do, Sascha decided. He got up, pulled on his jeans and a t-shirt, and ran to his kitchen. He pulled a box of .380 ACP ammunition from a small drawer and went back to the bedroom. Retrieving his Beretta handgun from a drawer built into the back of the nightstand, he loaded a cartridge and tucked the gun into his belt. Satisfied that he was ready, Sascha grabbed his car keys and ran out to his car.

Driving at night is my catnip, he thought as he ran through the gears and merged onto the expressway. No worries, no obstacles, and plenty of speed.

Sascha knew that it was serious as soon as he rounded the tall hedges that bordered Blake Drive. At least six police cruisers were parked in the driveway of Jesse's apartment complex. Each had its spotlight on and pointed toward Jesse's front door. An FBI van with tinted windows was across the street with its engine running. A uniformed officer stood in the middle of the road and held up a flat palm to Sascha as he approached. The officer approached Sascha's car, and Sascha rolled down his window.

"Good evening, officer."

"Hello there. We're doing an investigation here, so this road will be blocked off for a while. You can head back the other way and cut through on Thomas Road."

"Thanks, but I think I know the guy who was assaulted. His name is Jesse Winter, and I'm a good friend of his. We work together at City University. My name is Sascha Greene."

The officer looked at him for a moment. "Just a second, sir," he said. He stepped away from the car and spoke into his radio. Sascha only caught fragments of the words that were exchanged, but it sounded promising.

After five or six exchanges on the radio, the officer stepped back toward the car. "Mr. Greene," he said, "please park your car over there by the hedge. We'd like to ask you a few questions, if you don't mind."

"Of course," Sascha said, putting the car in reverse. Dunno what they want with me, but I want to hear Jesse speak and see him move his limbs. He parked the car, killed the engine, and opened his door. In a moment of clarity, he nonchalantly reached down to his waist, retrieved the Beretta, and tucked it under the seat. No need to get off on the wrong foot here.

Sascha walked with the officer toward the apartment building. He could see a group of people huddled together beside the steps to Jesse's apartment. More than half of them appeared to be emergency personnel, and the remainder were a mix of uniformed police and men in unmarked black coats. Sascha suspected that Jesse was at the center of the huddle, but his eyes couldn't see a familiar shape in the dark mass.

"The feds are here, too," the officer said in a low voice. "It could be a long night for all of us."

"Do you know what happened to him?"

"Blunt force trauma. That's all I know. A witness said that she knows more, but you'll have to talk to the detectives about that. She probably knows more about what happened than your friend."

As they reached the edge of the group, one of the men dressed in black turned to face them. The officer introduced Sascha and mentioned that he was a good friend of Jesse's. "Ah, thanks for coming by," the man in black said. "Let me guess, SpanTel?"

"Yes sir," Sascha said. "I signed up for it earlier this year. Apparently it works."

"Indeed. Mr. Greene, I'm Agent Tim Felton with the FBI. Mind if we ask you a few questions?"

"Of course," Sascha said. "Can I see Jesse first?"

"There will be plenty of time for that. The medical team is checking him over right now. Please step over here." Felton walked toward a police cruiser a few paces away, and Sascha followed him.

"How do you know Mr. Winter?"

"I work with him. We're both staff members at City University. Office of the Internal Affairs for me, and Office of the Ombudsman for Jesse. We've been good friends for years."

"Do you know where he was today?"

"Well, we both went to work. I saw him a couple of times during the day. We walked down to NYPD headquarters for a meeting, and then we walked back. It was dark by the time we got back to campus, and we both headed home. Everything seemed fine."

"What time did you last see him? Do you know if he was going anywhere else?"

"If he was, he didn't mention it. I don't know an exact time, but a little while after the sun went down. Maybe six-thirty."

"So everything seemed fine at that point. You didn't see anyone following you today?"

"No, nobody. But we were in crowded places for most of our walk, so it would be hard to tell."

"Has anyone made threats against Mr. Winter recently? Would anyone have a reason to hurt him or steal from him?"

Sascha took a deep breath, thinking about how to answer the question. "Well," he began, "it's complicated. Jesse found a bug—sorry, a surveillance device—on his jacket a few weeks ago. He deals with a lot of tough legal issues in his job, so it's natural that he ruffles some feathers. We never expected someone to spy on him, though."

Felton frowned, pulling out a thin notepad and scratching some notes. "Has that incident been reported?"

"Yes. That's the main reason that we went to headquarters today." This wasn't precisely true, but Sascha wanted to avoid going into full detail about the visit.

"All right," Felton said. "Who did you talk to down there?"

"Detective Forth."

Felton wrote down the name and closed his notebook. "All right. Thanks, Mr. Greene. We'll be in touch again, since this doesn't seem to be an isolated incident. You can go see your friend now. It looks like they've cleaned him up."

"Thank you," Sascha said, walking quickly back to the mass of medical staff that still surrounded Jesse. He pushed through them, eager to hear his friend's voice.

Jesse was on a stretcher, his head and torso secured with straps. There was a wide abrasion on his cheek and blood on his right hand. One of the paramedics was preparing his hand to be bandaged.

"They tell me the straps are just a precaution," Jesse croaked, attempting a smile.

Sascha breathed a sigh of relief. "What did you do, man?" he said. "Piss off the evening mail man?"

"No idea, Sascha." Jesse coughed, his whole body convulsing slightly. "I remember pulling into the driveway, and then nothing at all."

Sascha put his hand on Jesse's arm and squeezed. "Hang in there. I'm going to get some answers."

Sascha turned around. There were at least ten uniformed men and women standing near him, but none of them stood out as especially sociable. He saw Felton in the distance and walked toward him.

"Agent Felton," Sascha said. "Sorry to bother you. One of the officers mentioned that your crew interviewed a witness to the attack. Can you tell me what you learned during the interview?"

"We'll put the details in the police report," Felton said. "I'll give you the basics, though. One of his neighbors made the call. She happened to hear a car door close, and she looked out the window. A woman was walking behind the parking shelter. She said that the woman had a strange gait, like she was wearing heavy shoes. Anyway, she saw Mr. Winter emerge from behind his car and walk toward his apartment. The woman rounded the edge of the shelter and headed toward him. She stayed on the grass, even though it would have been easier to walk on the sidewalk. As he reached the steps, she clubbed him on the back of his head with something. He didn't fight, and he didn't move once he was down."

"And then?"

"It's not entirely clear. The witness thinks that the girl rummaged through Mr. Winter's messenger bag. She couldn't tell if anything was stolen. The girl seemed satisfied after a moment, and she ran off -- staying on the grass again. There's no surveillance equipment at this complex, so we have no idea where she went."

"Huh," Sascha said. It was all he could think to say.

Felton looked at him steadily, waiting for him to speak again. When he didn't, Felton continued. "Do you know what Mr. Winter was carrying?"

Sascha frowned, trying to remember whether Jesse had opened his bag during their travels earlier that day. "I know that he was carrying a notebook, and he normally has a laptop with him. Beyond that, I don't know. He's too smart to carry anything sensitive with him. His laptop's hard drive is encrypted, and he's the only one who knows the decryption key."

Felton pulled out his notepad and made some more notes. "There was no laptop in the messenger bag when we found him. He couldn't remember whether he had left it at the office. His notebook is still there, and there's a small wooden clock. Nothing else."

"Well, it'll be easy to find out whether he forgot the laptop," Sascha said. "But what then? If this woman stole it, and she's smart, then we won't be able to trace it. There's no video surveillance." His confidence was beginning to wane.

"We're going to try fingerprinting. If that doesn't teach us anything, then we'll probably lose the trail."

Sascha looked toward Jesse and the paramedics and sighed. Two invasions of his privacy and autonomy. Two attacks. It was no longer an isolated incident. The consequences began to flood into his mind. Changing his habits wasn't enough. It didn't matter what streets Jesse took to work, what bus lines he frequented, or whether he left at 7:00 or 7:26 a.m. to go to work. Whoever was tracking him knew where he worked and where he slept. Even if Sascha had walked him home, they both could have been ambushed. The two places where Jesse felt most alive, at home and at CUNY, wouldn't be available to him any longer. For the first time since he had been deployed in a combat zone, Sascha felt trapped.

"He'll need to find a new place to stay for a while," Felton said, sensing that Sascha was feeling overwhelmed. "We have some guidelines for people who are at rest." He glanced around before he went on. "Not here, though. We'll brief him somewhere secure once he's medically cleared. You're welcome to stick around."

"Thanks," Sascha said. "I'll see what I can do about his spirits. He's never liked being the center of attention."

Sascha walked back to the stretcher where Jesse lay, now with a nicely bandaged hand. He glanced around as he walked, hoping to spot someone lurking in the shadows. Nothing.

Jesse seemed to sense that Sascha was still on the hunt. "Don't bother," he said. "She's long gone. Probably took my laptop thinking that she had hit the jackpot. Too bad everything on it is just random noise without the right key." He coughed again, wincing as his bruised ribs ached.

"How are you feeling?" Sascha asked. "Head-wise, I mean."

Jesse's smile faded. "I was hoping that you wouldn't ask. I was in such a good mood on the way home. Now I feel like this is the only safe place in the world, and as soon as these guys leave, there won't be any safe place. I could handle it when I thought that I had been bugged at work. Getting bugged in the street was fine. Anything can happen in a public place. This is my home, man. They know where I live. What if they come back another night when I'm asleep?" He looked away, his eyes glistening. "It makes me doubt everything. How can I go to work?"

One of the paramedics lifted Jesse's left arm and slipped a baggy sleeve over it. "Almost done, Jesse," he said. "We need to check a couple more things and you'll be good to go."

Sascha stuck his hands in his pockets. "Don't worry about that. I was talking to Agent Felton over there, one of the feds, and he has some ideas that'll keep you safe. The important thing is that you're all right. We'll find these guys, and they'll realize that they kicked the wrong hornet's nest."

Jesse sighed. "Hey, how did you know that this happened, anyway? And don't tell me that you happened to be in the neighborhood."

Sascha laughed. "Well, you remember that SpanTel gig that you told me about?"

Behind them, the lights of the city cast a pale glow on the shelf of clouds that had rolled in while nobody was looking.