Monday, June 23, 2003

What the Hell Was That?

Nate’s still asleep and I’m a bit shook up, so I’m just going to take a moment to write this down here to try to make sense of things. We live at the end of a long dirt road. There are seven other houses along the road, but we haven’t had too much interaction with any of our neighbors. They’ve never driven or walked over to say “hello” which is fine by us. In fact I can count the number of people who have driven up to our house since we’ve been here on one hand: my cousin, the mailman, the FedEx truck and the UPS truck. That’s it. We’ve had other visitors, but we’ve gone to get them at the ferry terminal or met them at the airport. So, I was more than shocked just now to see a car, an official looking car, not a cop car, but a cop car, if you know what I mean. A Lincoln Town Car, I think it was. It just rolled up our driveway, and I sat here and watched two men in bad jackets get out, adjust themselves, and then come walking up to our front door.
To say I was shocked would be understatement. I’m still shaking a bit. For one, I look (and feel) like shit. Did I mention I’m hungover? I haven’t showered, I’ve had too much coffee, I’m wearing sweats, an old T-shirt and my slippers, and two fucking cops are about to ring my doorbell. “I had to stop them,” was the first thing that my booze-addled brain could come up with. This was nap time, the most precious time of the day, the entire morning is spent getting to this time, preparing, feeding, tiring out the boy and going through those familiar motions so he’ll sleep for his allotted time. I didn’t care if these guys were J. Edgar Hoover and his homosexual lover, they weren’t going to ring that bell and wake up Nate. We have a small covered deck that leads up to our front door. Windows open onto that deck, so I could see these clowns more closely as they approached the bell. One was fit, youngish, mid to late thirties, close cut brown hair. The other was older, maybe early-forties, a slight paunch, but not your stereotypical Brian Dennehy cop, dark hair graying at the temples. I opened the door as the younger guy was about to push the doorbell. I must have impressed them.
“Mr. Shakes?”
“Mr. Bill Shakes?”
“You can call me Billy,” I said. “Can I help you?”
“Would it be alright if we came in?” the older one asked kindly.
“Would it be alright if you told me who you are?” I said.
“Oh, yes, certainly. Sorry. I’m Agent McMahon, and this is Agent Perry.”
“Agents? You’re not with the William Morris Agency,” I said. (OK, not really. You always think of the really funny things to say after it’s all over and you’ve had time to think).
“Agents?” I said stupidly.
“We’re with the 10th district office of the Bureau operating out of Seattle in cooperation with the department of Homeland Defense,” or some such collection of words from McMahon. I can’t remember exactly what he said, and goddamit I didn’t get their cards. Soo’s never going to believe me, unless, unless she’s done this as a joke. But, no, she couldn’t have, these guys would have had to have been professional actors and she wouldn’t go to the trouble, not to mention the cost. I can’t remember exactly what they said, but I just want to jot down what I recall to try to make sense of this.
“I’ve got a toddler asleep,” I told them.
“We’ll be as quiet as possible,” said Perry and I wondered what they could possibly want as I led them into our cluttered living room.
Stepping around Elmo in a chicken suit they sat down on our black leather couch strafed as it is by years of cat clawings. I sat slightly to the side of them in our love seat, equally clawed (fucking cats).
“So, how can I help you?” I asked.
McMahon looked around sheepishly, appearing rather embarrassed to have to bring up what he was about to say in this clearly innocuous home. “Well, to be perfectly frank, Mr. Shakes, we’ve been sent to ask you a few questions because a group affiliated with the Bureau has identified the words ‘al-Qaeda operative’ in materials we believe you’ve written and have been transmitting over the Internet.”
“Transmitting over the Internet,” I thought to myself, and it conjured up images of German spies in ramshackle London flats sending secret radio signals back to Berlin. “Are you joking?” I finally said after pausing to look at the both of them sitting there on that couch. I just turned to look at the couch again as if to make sure it’s possible that two people like this could have just been sitting there with a package of diaper wipes at their feet speaking these words to me.
“Mr. Shakes, we do not joke about matters of National Security,” Perry said the words with such gravity that I figured they needed to be capitalized.
I stared at the man in utter disbelief. There had been no other time in my life when that term was more true, and I’ve seen some things that were pretty hard to believe. I watched nearly every episode of “The Bachelor.” I looked closely at their faces and saw the familiar absence of a sense of humor I’d seen in law enforcement officials before. McMahon appeared slightly bored, but not amused. He seemed to know this was a fool’s errand, and at his age, saw this as beneath him. This is all speculation, of course, with all of a half hour’s perspective.
“Don’t you think if I were an al Qaeda operative I would expressly NOT use the words ‘al Qaeda operative’ specifically to avoid an interview such as this.”
“This is just a conversation, Mr. Shakes,” Perry clarified.
“Yes,” McMahon broke in, “Merely a formality.”
“OK, whatever,” I started, frustrated and baffled at the stupidity of my own country, “But, don’t you think the people you’re trying to find would be a little more, I don’t know, careful, secretive.”
“Yes. Unless they knew that we would be thinking that way, so they could ‘hide out in the open’ as it were and use those words to fall into the general clutter of conversation going on in the general populace.” This was McMahon.
I looked at him with new found respect. Clearly this was a different kind of cop.
“So, by that logic you’d have to interview…I mean ‘have conversations with’ what, thousands of people every day.”
“Well, no,” started McMahon, “All searches, each individual reference from the search is cross-referenced against a predefined set of parameters.”
“What parameters?” I asked.
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you.”
“You can’t tell me, but you can just show up at my house and accuse me of being an al Qaeda operative.”
“Nobody’s ‘accusing’ anybody of anything,” broke in Perry.
“Well, then I’m just a little unclear on why the hell you’re here,” I might not have said “hell.”
“There’s no reason to get upset, Mr. Shakes,” said Perry.
I blinked at one then the other, “Why are you here?” I asked as calmly as I could.
“We’re simply here to make a friendly recommendation,” Perry said in a tone and with a manner that felt to me decidedly unfriendly.
“What’s that?”
“You matched a certain number of our parameters, but there was nothing in your background to suggest you posed a security risk.”
“Well, that’s reassuring,” I said thinking there was absolutely nothing reassuring about matching an unspecified number of unspecified parameters.
“However,” Perry continued, “During the course of an unrelated investigation being conducted by another agency you were seen talking with people who may or may not be involved in something we think you’d rather not be involved in.”
There were so many things disturbing about that sentence I didn’t notice it ended in a preposition until now. My mind started racing, who had I been talking to that could be under investigation by an unnamed government agency. And, AND, how the hell do they know what I’ve been emailing to people?!?! This is nuts.
So, then Perry reaches into the breast pocket of his bad blazer and pulls out an envelope filled with fuzzy black and white photos of me at the South Kingston range talking with Jake. I was stunned.
“We don’t have anything concrete,” said Perry, “But, we just think it would be in your best interest if you stayed away from this person.”
They talked some more and I sat there and mostly just nodded and agreed. Then they left. I need to go check on Nate.

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