This story is by S.P. Te and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Truth be told, I hadn’t much of an appetite since my surgery. Making a meal out of crunched Fritos splashed with Tabasco was indulging in comfort food of the most southern order. Going on three weeks now, I’d been watching grass grow in a Brooklyn neighborhood known for its urban chicness.
I glimpsed myself in the mirror above the sideboard. Ebony black classic bob and off-center part added just the right touch of seriousness to my round features. I was happy to look younger than my years. However, it cost me. I seldom got credit for 15 years of hard knocks as an investigative reporter. ‘China Doll,’ was what my senior editor Jack Rollins called me. As if! Delicate and demure I was not.
I wasn’t giving into female victimhood. I was missing life that happened out there. Though surrounded by my family’s history and fine furnishings, artfully arranged in the stately Victorian I inherited, I felt isolated.
My phone, already precariously perched, bobbled on the ledge as it belted out a familiar ringtone. I instinctively lunged for a save. My knee jerked and I yelped in pain. Caught it. My phone connected me to the outside world. I couldn’t live without it. Well, chuckling to myself, even I realized that reaction was a little over-the-top dramatic.
“Roan? What? Oh, right. I’m fine. Can’t seem to move without hurting some part of my body. Getting around in this wheelchair is an exercise in extraction. Even on my feet, the most I can muster is a slow shuffle.”
His hearty laugh warmed me. “I have news about your investigation into non-profit scams and ethics violations,” he was saying. “Squashed.”
“I know. What else?” My voice dripped with indignation, but I got it. “Who cares about greed, lying, and pomposity these days? Hop the train over, Roan. I’ll order up lunch and you can help me brainstorm some story ideas.”
“Already there,” he quipped. He traveled a bit for the job and except for the occasional off-site, he seemed to hug his desk. I was honored to be his excuse for a breather mid-week.
Roan Reiss worked the international desk while I sat in Metro. We were friendly but weren’t really friends. We’d gone out for drinks with the gang a few times. Inexplicably, our relationship was shifting.
His presence was comforting and he set the sideboard, doubling as a dining table, with a flourish. The front sitting room was bright and quite large. “Wow, my whole apartment could fit in here,” he whistled in admiration.
Established in the early 1900s, the historic neighborhood of Ditmas Park was in transition. “Used to be,” I continued to explain, “my Auntie’s family was the only non-whites. Dark-skinned folks are the norm these days.”
Directing his gaze to the house – No. 279 – across the street, I told Roan about the woman there. “Middle-aged and South-Asian looking, she left the house only for short periods and returned with small bags. Groceries,” I surmised.
“Except for the occasional person with a suitcase arriving, there was little to notice. Perhaps she kept an Airbnb. My surveillance suggested foreigners.”
Roan responded with a raised eyebrow and a shrug.
Something about the woman and the house… a sixth sense tickled my brain. It was very different from the rest of the neighborhood, which bustled with soccer moms and nannies pushing strollers.
Letting Roan go after he promised to call again soon, I studied the photos I’d taken on my phone. Sent a few to print. I pecked in a few notes. Twilight lingered. Shadows blended into darkness. I looked up to stretch my eyeballs.
Suddenly, there was movement across the street. All this time, No. 279 had been so dark and still, seemed only to swallow people. It was now splurting human shapes. Three? Four? Five? One figure broke from the group and took off in a sprint. Others followed suit and the group scattered. One by one, I lost sight of them.
The street came up empty and eerily quiet. What could have happened? I felt panic in the pit of my stomach. What about the lady I’d been watching? My brain buzzed with curiosity and concern.
Trawling for any signs of who they were and what they might have been doing there, I rolled myself over to the door. Dong went the bell.
“What? Roan!” I unlatched the door.
He whispered, “Quick! Let me in.”
I peppered him with questions: “What the heck is going on? How long have you been here? Did you see those people in the street?”
He quickly pulled close the drapes before turning around to answer. “What people? Tell me what you saw.”
“Everything happened so fast. I didn’t see much. I took a few shots of the house earlier in the day,” I answered while pointing to the printer then, waited anxiously while he scanned the images.
“Anything remarkable?” I quizzed.
“I might be in a bit of trouble,” he admitted. The left corner of his mouth curled up in just a hint of a wry smile.
I sat wide-eyed. “I’m listening.”
Roan pulled over a chair and straddled it like a cowboy on a horse to face me. “What if,” he began slowly. “What if you were right? What if the FBI were also watching that house?”
“But why?” My suspicions were totally instinctive. I didn’t have any logic to support them. “Keep talking,” I prompted.
“Look. I don’t know everything. It’s just that a few weeks ago, an email from an old contact at the FBI came to my personal address. It said ‘Smoking out Ditmas Park.’” He was solemn in his recounting. “I asked to meet. Didn’t get an answer.”
Ditmas Park,” Roan continued, “is bordered by Flatbush Avenue and Ocean Parkway.” In recent years Pakistani businesses have popped up along with a burgeoning community of immigrants…”
Stopping him short, I went straight for the jugular. “What does that mean? Are you saying the FBI suspects the neighborhood is harboring Pakistani extremists?”
My mind went to processing the idea that maybe, Whoa, my neighbors were operating a sleeper cell?
My questions couldn’t wait. “But what does that have to do with you? Why are you here? Did you leave and come back? Why? Wait! Are you, or we, in danger?”
“No. Well, maybe. It’s not that simple.” He stammered, “The woman you mentioned? Her name is Aparna Mehrota. She teaches religion at NYU and is a US citizen. They haven’t charged her with anything, but they are watching her. They installed a camera feed under the eaves of your roof.”
“What?! No. How do you know that?” My head was spinning. “So, you know this and what?”
“Before I knew where you lived, an unconnected story led me to Dr. Mehrota. This afternoon, I noticed the camera. It’s small and more sophisticated than anything you would have had installed commercially…”
I nodded dumbfounded.
He continued, “I was curious as to where they might have set up their surveillance base.” He hesitated again before going on. “Me poking around the neighborhood might have spooked your neighbors for no reason. Anyway, FBI is on my trail.”
“Jesus”, I drew in a deep breath. Here was my story! My accident, the surgery, and mandatory confinement that ensued were taking me to the story of a lifetime. I can do this! I blurted, “I want in. You can stay here. It’s a big house. They won’t search without a warrant.”
“No. I need to get back to the office,” he weighed in. “Truth is this could go any number of ways. Let’s say the FBI is overstepping. Spying on US Citizens could blow up in their face. I need to check that out. You need to stay safe. Not much you can do until you’re back on your feet anyway. I’ll keep you posted on any developments. Don’t do anything.”
Was that an order? I let the thought marinate for a split second. “There’s got to be more than one angle to this story. What if…” Roan was gone.
What did he say he was going to investigate? The investigators? Was he assuming law enforcement was on the wrong side of the law? Who’s getting to the truth of whether terrorists were operating deep in the heart of Brooklyn?
He never said what he saw while snooping around. He didn’t answer my questions. He left in a rush. We could have called Jack together. Truth be told, this was a Metro story…
He was withholding. Why didn’t I notice? Annoyed with myself, I searched for my phone. It was nowhere. Impossible. I never left the room. I flipped open my laptop. No internet. My signal was blocked.
Was I waiting for the FBI to come? Was I waiting for a bomb to go off? At least, I knew I was not waiting for Roan to call.