Cape Town; Lagos, Nigeria; New York, NY; Bangor, Maine.
Monday, May 26 - Thursday, June 5, 2025.
In the event, Fred Neugeborn made the decision for Robinson. Twice divorced, himself, Fred suggested that John submit to Judy's ultimatum and return to New York, but with a brief stop-over in Lagos to meet with FOF. For two reasons, Robinson agreed: he still wanted to keep his marriage intact, and his cunning, conniving mind had figured out that, once he had met the letter of the law and spent a few days in New York, he could make a flying visit to Bangor, Maine. There, he hoped to visit Elica Ceban, now "Ellie Clark," to try to determine the truth about the paternity of her son, Iosub, or "Joe." After Bangor, he might even fly out to Florence, Colorado, where he could try to pry some information about Samir out of Piet Dykstra.
As he began making preparations for leaving Cape Town, Robinson asked himself why Iosub's paternity seemed to matter to him so much. Yes, he knew it might be relevant to the question of who was targeting him, but he did not think this was the only reason he cared.
A deeper one, he realized, was his overactive curiosity, more specifically, his curiosity about Geistmann. To put the matter in its simplest form, Robinson wanted to know whether Geistmann was Iosub's biological father because he still wanted to know more about Geistmann.
After he had booked his flight (CPT-LOS-JFK) on South African Airways, said most of his goodbyes, and packed his few things, on Wednesday, May 28, at 0700 hours, Robinson was accompanied to CPT by Fred and RAM, the duo that had met his plane from New York less than three weeks before.
Once the Bureau's van was (illegally) parked, and they were inside the International Departures terminal, RAM hugged Robinson, wished him "Safe Journey," and mumbled something about "carrying on with our work, long distance."
Neugeborn also hugged him, and said, "Don't worry, John. The Lagos part of your ticket is on Uncle. And no need to report what FOF says to you this afternoon. He'll call me after you leave. Love to Judy and the kids."
After Fred and RAM had left the airport, Robinson found himself scanning the terminal, as usual, for impersonators. As irrational as he knew this was, he scrutinized waitstaff of both genders in the cafes, bars and restaurants, looking for anyone of Geistmann's physical type. More rationally, he also looked for short people of south-Asian origin. What he mainly noticed was how crowded the terminal was. He assessed the mob as tourists, business types, and people hurrying to visit relatives and friends, all trying to beat the next Covid wave.
As he waited in his seat (Coach) for the flight to take off, Robinson replayed Fred's parting words. Impressed by the VICAP Director's usual efficiency, he was also touched by his solicitude, and chastened by its having been motivated by Fred's own failed marriages.
The flight to Lagos took an unbelievable nine-and-a-half hours. Robinson wished he had brought along Moby Dick, War and Peace, or the book about the OED Judy had given him for Christmas, instead of the Mail and Guardian, which barely lasted until Jo'burg. By mid-afternoon, when Festus Fakile (FOF) met his plane at LOS, he felt lucky no one had tried to kill him, because he might not have noticed.
FOF was his usual ebullient self, if perhaps a bit muted, like everyone else during the Covid era. After a ninety-minute slog through hellacious Lagos traffic in the EFCC's armored SUV, they finally arrived at the newish white EFCC building in Ikeja. The place seemed posh for a corruption-fighting agency, but Robinson reminded himself that many Nigerians believed ostentation could convey the impression not only of corruption, but of legitimate authority.
When they were settled in FOF's corner cubicle, which looked out on a razor-wire topped wall, the Nigerian policeman served coffee, and they made small talk for a few minutes. Robinson noted that his friend no longer had the habit of clicking the chambers of an empty revolver. Instead, even before they got down to business and he turned on his desktop computer, he kept tapping the mouse. After that, whenever Robinson asked a question, FOF would caress the mouse while he replied. Robinson assumed that, even after his reinstatement, in 2019, FOF's position at the EFCC had remained tenuous.
The conversation touched on several important topics, so Robinson once again took detailed mental notes. When the meeting ended, the Nigerian stood up and stretched. Robinson guessed that FOF's Covid weight gain was eight or nine pounds, most of it in his chest, neck and jowls.
"Well, then, my friend," said FOF, "I wish we had time for a meal, or at least a beer, before your flight. But I see that it is almost time for you to return to the airport, and given the Lagos rush hour, we had better start out now."
It was obvious that FOF did not relish the thought of spending two or three more hours in traffic, so Robinson tactfully suggested that he delegate the trip to his driver. Realizing his friend was embarrassed not to be more hospitable, and thinking he must be extremely busy, Robinson claimed he would use the car ride to digest what he had been told. As they exchanged a farewell bear hug, at the curb, the Nigerian looked grateful for the American's tact.
In the EFCC vehicle, and then back at the airport as he awaited the inevitably delayed flight, Robinson went over everything FOF had told him. In addition to what he thought he had already known (the Pan-African Cartel's reconstituted leadership and their partial shift from IRL crime to cybercrime of the types Patsy Santos-Oliveira and Co. had sung about), there seemed to have been one specific, crucial point:
Among the reconstituted Cartel's cyber-bag-of-tricks was their use of Russian SOA encryption software. It had taken the EFCC more than a year to develop workarounds that allowed them to make even occasional interceptions. Two of these, one on August 3, 2021, and the other on May 7, 2022, established that the bank robber who called himself "Samir Gupta" was currently an associate member of the Cartel, seconded from their affiliate, the Donduceni mob, in Moldova. In exchange for some very useful cyber-bank-robbing tips, the Cartel had provided Samir with the explosive materials and software used in the Logic bomb that destroyed Robinson's office at the UCT library, on May 23. It was hard to believe that only five days had passed since the explosion.
Despite the presence of several crying babies, Robinson slept through most of the night flight, arriving in New York during the early afternoon of Thursday, May 29, with eight days to spare. He could tell that Judy's pleasure at having him home was tinged with relief. George and Amy were bursting with news. Robinson found it easy to pay attention to their detailed recitations of playground incidents and key facts about their five or ten best friends. He was very happy to see his children's unmasked faces again, and to hear in their voices few signs of five years of social isolation, which amounted to significant fractions of both young lives.
However, a few days of family bliss seemed to suffice. By the beginning of June, Robinson was also also weary of tracking down articles for graduate students, and even of his own research, which currently focussed on a document from 13th century Languedoc that may, or may not, have meant that the Cathar heresy was more widespread than previous scholarship had indicated. That the dates of this European heresy corresponded approximately to the founding of the Malian empire, by Sundiata Keita, might have mattered to scholars with an afro-centric axe to grind, but not to Robinson.
His own next axe would be ground in Bangor, Maine, except that, so soon after Cape Town, he lacked a good strategy to persuade Judy to allow him to go. In the event, however, his luck held, and he needed no strategy, because she was hatching plots of her own, which she revealed to him on Tuesday, June 3rd, around nine in the evening.
As usual, the kids were both tucked in, and Mr. and Ms. Robinson were in their favourite chairs in the living room, separately engrossed in thriller novels. Judy's was Martin Cruz-Smith's Polar Star (1989), which everyone had been reading, or re-reading, since Russia invaded Ukraine, in 2022. John's more esoteric choice was Eric Ambler's Passage of Arms, written earlier in the Cold War, and not, according to Dr. Robinson, among that master's best. (These honors were reserved for A Coffin for Dmitrios and Judgement on Deltchev.)
When Judy looked up from Polar Star, Robinson expected her to suggest a drink, the usual reason for interrupting their evening reading sessions. But something in her expression was different. She got right to the point.
"Hey, John, have I ever mentioned my grad school friend, Carol Freundlich?" He shrugged. "Well, after thirty-five years, Carol has re-surfaced. She's apparently going through a painful divorce, and she invited me to come up to her place in the Berkshires for a few days. 'Why me?' I suppose she's running out of shoulders to cry on. George and Amy are invited, too. Carol's two are close to their ages. I haven't been out of the city for so long that ... " She apparently felt no need to explain why he was excluded from the invitation.
Robinson finally succumbed to his urge to interrupt. "Say no more, Jude. Of course you should go! You can rent a car." He could not bring himself to add an outright lie, like, "This time, I'll keep the home fires burning." Or to pretend that the Languedoc crux was more urgent than it was. But neither was he so truthful as to admit that he intended to use her gift of time to scoot off to Maine. He would tell her about that when his own plans had been made.
The evening before Judy and the children were scheduled to leave town, Robinson suffered a near accident that may have renewed his urgency about the threat posed by the block book and explosion, in Cape Town. He was walking home from campus, headed south on Broadway and just crossing 113th Street, when an electric bicycle made a sharp right turn onto 113th, missing him by inches. Robinson almost lost his balance, which might have propelled him directly into the path of the heavy bike.
Judging from the labeled red box on his carrier, the driver was apparently one of the many hundreds — thousands? — of food delivery men that had proliferated in the city during the pandemic. Good liberal that he was, Robinson had always excused their reckless driving as a natural adaptation to the inhumane conditions of their employment, and to the horrid driving conditions in their countries of origin. (That Cape Town's traffic was much calmer than New York's, he considered an exception that proved the rule.)
When he had caught his breath, as he continued walking south towards their apartment (on 111th, between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive), Robinson recalled a few details from the incident. The rider's demeanor had been expressionless. He had not stopped, or even slowed down. He had been wearing a fancy black leather outfit that Robinson had never seen before on a motorbike delivery man. Putting these impressions together, Robinson concluded that it was at least possible that the near-miss had been either a warning, or a failed effort to injure, or even to kill, him.
That evening, he casually mentioned to Judy that, while she and the kids were in the Berkshires, he would be going to Maine, "on business." She neither asked what this business was, or said anything sarcastic, like, "Yeah, monkey business."
Robinson realized he had been stingy about Judy's trip to the Berkshires. Since she and the children would be staying at Carol Freundlich's house, why had he suggested that they rent a car, instead of flying? He also realized that the suggestion had been a calculating one. Presumably because the FBI budget was lean this year, owing to a variety of factors, Fred had not specified whether John's continuing investigations would be reimbursed (other than the Lagos stop-over). Robinson further understood that he had nickeled-and-dimed Judy so he could fly to Maine, himself, thereby avoiding two seven-hour drives, to Bangor, and back.
But to make up for the extravagance of his plane ticket (almost $200, round trip), after receiving Ellie Clark's address from Fred, he reserved an inexpensive Airbnb room in the working-class neighborhood where the U.S. Marshals' Witness Protection Program was renting a small frame house for her and her son, "Joe."
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