The men sat opposite FBI Agent Marsha O’Shea in the spacious conference room. No chit-chat while they all waited for their tea. She couldn’t read their expressions. It surprised her that the imam had granted the meeting with such little notice and with even less explanation. The Arab-American Muslims in this solidly middle-class neighborhood west of Detroit had had an uneasy relationship with the FBI since 9/11 and more so in the last twelve years. The silence was heavy.
The glass tabletop allowed those seated to see the leg action of the others. Marsha was not a big fan of body language as emotional tells, but occasionally, she had watched liars calmly respond, while under the table, their legs told a different story. Almost as good as Pinocchio’s nose.
Her dark blue pants and matching blazer over a white blouse buttoned to her throat showed respect to the cleric and professionalism to the attorney. ’Tis not the time, nor place for a skirt or teasing neckline. Her cell phone remained in her purse along with her badge and credentials. She locked her gun in her car, a rented Mustang. She was in Dearborn, after all, the birthplace of Ford Motors.
She accepted a black tea and one sip told her it was hot, strong and aromatic. The men drank and set their cups on saucers, waiting. She moved her Rook’s pawn first, but not aggressively. “Thank you both for meeting with me today. I am happy to discuss the purpose of my visit.” This interview, like many others she conducted, resembled a game of chess and this was her opening move.
They nodded. King’s pawn out one square. Nothing aggressive about it.
“It’s difficult to explain why I am here. I have never been asked to speak to a spiritual leader as it relates to the welfare of their flock before.” She moved the other Rook’s pawn into play. “Forgive me, if I speak without sensitivity and I do not mean any disrespect.”
“Thank you for your desire to be considerate. That has not been the norm of late,” the imam’s attorney matched her move.
“Until last week, I only knew Detroit to be the home of the automotive industry and Motown music.”
“And now?” The attorney could wait for her to discuss the actual reason they were there.
“And now I am assigned to look into your community’s concern about what might happen again this year on the anniversary of 9/11.”
The attorney looked to the imam for permission and pushed out his Bishop’s pawn. He was playing defense. “What concerns are those and why would the FBI share those concerns?”
Looking at the imam, Marsha replied, “The concern surrounding the unnatural deaths of Muslim women on that exact date every year, going how far back?” Her question hung in the air.
The imam blinked, and the attorney leaned back and re-crossed his legs.
“Hate crimes and violation of civil rights fall under the FBI’s jurisdiction,” she continued.
“Your employer has extended no interest in the unwarranted mistreatment of our community since that fateful day. Why now?” The mouthpiece tapped his grounded leg.
“Once we stumbled over these anomalies, we became obligated to act.” She pushed a Knight’s pawn out.
“And how did you learn about those deaths, Agent O’Shea?” the imam asked. He mirrored her move.
She stared into his coal-black eyes. She had to be careful here. His headwear and spotless clerical garb framed his face; both she would have to learn the name of. His plain, round, black-rimmed glasses magnified his eyes, reminding her of the Mr. Magoo cartoons she watched as a kid, but she knew damn well that this spiritual leader was no near-sighted dummy. Marsha researched his impressive education both here and in Iraq.
“No one walked into the Bureau’s Field Office if that is what you’re asking sir.” Marsha reached for her cup, took a sip, peered over the rim, and watched as both men did likewise. She put down her cup on the saucer after them to signal that she would give them more.
“I took this assignment at a location far away from prying eyes of FBI Headquarters and shredded the file I read before I left that meeting room.” Queen pawn was out now.
“That sounds rather unusual. Is it?” the attorney asked, looking up from his notepad, matching her move with his Queen pawn by two squares.
“Very few people know that I am here acting alone in an official capacity.”
She moved another pawn. “I have seen nothing like that myself and it had me questioning all the secrecy,” she replied.
“What are you not saying, Agent O’Shea?” the attorney pressed on. His background on local boards, fund-raisers, non-profits, and private schools, in both here and Dearborn Heights, was well-documented, but he was not a former U.S. Attorney and his practice did not include criminal defense. This was not a zoning board variance he was asking about.
Shifting her attention back to the imam. “I’m not from the local field office. I have never worked on hate crimes before, but in four months another member of your community may die a horrible death. From what I read, I agree with you,” she said pointing at him, “that the women who died these premature deaths did not do so accidentally. I am not an actuary and I don’t play one on TV, but I don’t think for a minute these deaths were anything else but murder. The odds of that happening every year on that exact date are astronomical. You would have a better chance of hitting the moon with a rock.” There it was.
She paused, took another sip, and stared at the imam before speaking. “I have to determine what really happened to them, but I need to hear with my own ears, from someone here, before I can start my official investigation to prevent it from happening ever again.”
“I have not talked to the FBI or anyone in authority about this,” he replied calmly. He moved his Queen into check.
“You are correct, but so am I that I know you have voiced your concerns.” She didn’t block his move.
Immediately, the attorney began his protestations, but his client lifted his left hand from his lap and silenced him. “Agent O’Shea, I will take your concerns under advisement and pray on them.” With that, he stood up and looked down on her. He might as well have knocked her King over. Checkmate.
Marsha calmly stood up and looked at him eye to eye. She then reached into her silver card case, presented to her by her father, a retired Philly PD captain of the Vice Squad on the day they swore her in as an agent. She retrieved two cards. “I am flying home tomorrow afternoon to retrieve my car and my clothes so I can drive back here to work this case.” She handed each man a card. “Or I stay there until the Bureau gives me another assignment elsewhere.”
She made her way to the door and opened it. She made a show of looking around the room as if scanning for something in particular. “It’s your decision. Either way, we both know that the clock is ticking.” She talked about the more deadly game happening on the streets and in the homes of his community.
Outside the room, the assistant who guided her through the maze of hallways back to her raincoat immediately met her. The paintings and mounted photography along the way were vibrant, rich, and steeped in history.
Growing up Catholic, the Stations of the Cross was about the only iconography that she was familiar with. This was all foreign to her. Have I really led such a sheltered life? Marsha had never been to Italy or the Vatican. Save the picture of the Pope and the Archbishop of Philadelphia, she had no remembrances of the artwork at Our Mother of Consolation in Chestnut Hill.
The assistant, a youthful woman dressed in soft pastels, wore a brown headscarf. She led Marsha to the exit door and opened it to heavy rains. Marsha returned her headscarf and slipped on her shoes. They exchanged gentle smiles. Marsha sighed. Could she be the next victim?
Out in the parking lot, Marsha looked back at the impressive domed mosque. It damn-near took up a square city block. Rain and wind pelted her face as she fobbed her way into the rental. The defrosters blasted her windshield clear.
A few turns later out of the expansive parking lot, she wound her way on side streets that brought her onto Michigan Avenue, the major drag of Dearborn.
She couldn’t help but notice that the retail and commercial building signage were both in English and Arabic. Almost all the surnames of the dentists, chiropractors, lawyers, opticians, Realtors, and car dealers were Arab. Much of that signage was dual language if not totally in Arabic.
Why didn’t I notice this on the way to the mosque? Her recent research told her that this area had the greatest concentration of Arab Americans. Where was my head at?
A short distance later, Marsha spotted Millers, a bar on the corner across the avenue from Bob Evans. Her Mustang found its way into the back-parking lot of the bar. Happy hour? She tapped the steering wheel and looked at her phone on the passenger seat. She took a deep breath. She made a promise. She would keep her promise, but at that moment, the urge passed just as quickly as it had been triggered. The Mustang found its way back onto the avenue and a few intersections later, Marsha spotted Sheeba’s.
Through the full-length windows, she could see a brightly lit and decorated interior. She parked in their lot and walked through the entrance. The counter was already doing multiple take-outs. Large brown paper bags were being assembled while cell phones were tucked between shoulders and ears as more orders were being taken. She had eaten Mediterranean before, so she wasn’t totally out of her element. The smells of slowly heated meats and spices were a welcome relief to her empty stomach. She ordered a lamb stew. It quickly arrived in a bubbling cauldron too hot to touch, along with a piece of folded over flatbread, a foot in diameter. She wasted no time devouring her hot dinner.
After she finished swabbing the last of the stew from the bowl, she doubted whether the dishwasher needed to wash it, given how deftly she employed the last bits of her bread.
Yes, I want dessert. No, I don’t need the sugar coma that would follow. She watched other diners as she waited for her check. Families with strollers and kids in high chairs filled most of the tables. Quiet conversations between husbands and wives and their well-minded kids were the norm. This is where the locals ate. She didn’t have to be an investigator to deduce that.
Back at the Country Inn and Suites, she channels-surfed while deleting emails. She finally settled on the Tigers who were getting pummeled by the White Sox, but it didn’t command her attention. She kept thinking about her brief meeting at the mosque; what was said, and what could have been said differently. She always was like this with the good, bad, and ugly interviews. She wasn’t sure which was which. She would sleep on it and it would come to her in the morning if she had done her best to get them to trust her.
Finally, as sleep was about to overtake her that night, alone in the expansive single king, her thoughts drifted to the imam. Illegal bugging by an unidentified three-letter agency had surreptitiously recorded the imam fielding concerns from his flock about what would happen again this year. The bereaving family members of those who had died weighed heavily on him, he admitted to his inner circle. These were not phone intercepts. She wasn’t sure where the bugging had occurred but judging by his abrupt ending of the meeting, it was probably where no government agency had any business having a listening device or two or three.
Marsha didn’t know much about praying. She hadn’t prayed since confessing to Father Gallagher what she and Chad had done after the prom. She prayed then less for forgiveness and more for her late period to arrive.
For those grieving families of the dead women, she hoped that the imam had his Creator on speed dial.