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May 27, 2024

Geistmann Redux: John Robinson Investigates, Chapter Fifteen

By Ron Singer

Chapter Fifteen
New York, N.Y. and Bangor, Maine. Thursday, June 5, 2025.

On Thursday morning, after walking Judy and the children to a car-rental place on 110th Street, John hurried back to the apartment, packed lightly, and caught the airport bus to Laguardia, arriving with twenty minutes to spare. During the 95-minute flight, he considered strategies for getting the information he needed. Shortly after noon, he took a Bangor city bus to the Thomas Hill district, the neighborhood where Ellie Clark lived, and where his airbnb was located. The room he had booked was spartan, but clean.

Brushing his teeth and hair again, and adding a tie to his wrinkled, short-sleeved powder-blue shirt, he used his smartphone to call the number Fred had given him for Ellie Clark. No one picked up. Assuming she was busy at work, and that Joe was either in Cape Town, or parts unknown, Robinson left a voicemail stating his name, and identifying himself as "an associate of your late husband, Monsieur Amrouche." He said he hoped they could meet sometime during the next few days, "to discuss a matter of mutual interest." He added that he could be reached at any time, and recited the number of his smartphone, which was unnecessary, because it was the number he was calling from.

Five minutes later, before he had left the room, his phone rang. "Hello? Dr. Robinson, please? This is Ellie Clark." The voice spoke American English, with a complicated accent.

"Hello, Ms. Clark," he replied, trying to sound tentative. "This is John. Thanks for returning my call. I'm staying at an airbnb on Cottage Street, and I wondered if we could meet after dinner this evening, or sometime later in the weekend?" He purposely left it for her to ask what the meeting would be about. She took the bait.

"Certainly, Dr. Robinson. May I ask what your connection with Armande was?"

Having anticipated her question, Robinson recited his prepared response. "I'm a research librarian, Ms. Clark. I work at Columbia University. About twelve years ago, I was also employed as a consultant for the F.B.I. on a project in Africa. Your husband was my colleague." He waited a beat, then continued. "And you may also remember that, when you and your son Iosub were taken hostage, in Addis Ababa, along with my then-fiancee, I played a role in the rescue. As I recall," he added, "at the end of that episode, we briefly met. I could go on, but if you don't mind, it might be easier to continue the conversation face-to-face." Of course, the account omitted the fact that, six years after Addis, he was the one who had shot her husband dead, in Asheville.

Her reply suggested that, as he had hoped, she had not been told that part of the story. "All right, Doctor. Why don't you come to the house this evening at, say, eight-thirty, or nine? We can talk more, then? Would that be convenient?" Robinson noticed that, like many women (but not Judy), Ms. Clark often turned statements into questions.

He agreed, and she gave him the address on Wiley Street that he had already learned from Fred. They ended the call, and he determined to reconnoiter, eat dinner, and otherwise kill time, until it was time for the meeting.

Shouldering his backpack, with his laptop in the inside pocket, Robinson began by walking past Ellie Clark's house. The blinds were drawn, and the carport, empty. It was now 1645 hours (4:45 p.m). He wondered when Iosup had been there last.

Next, he walked several blocks south to a branch of the Maine State University where, by presenting his Columbia faculty I.D., he gained access to the library. Settling into a comfortable old leather armchair, he booted up and checked his email. Aside from the usual junk about weight and hair loss, and several offers from accessible beauties in far-flung countries, there were four actual messages.

RAM wrote to say that the paper they had co-authored about Songhai trade routes had just been accepted by an obscure Australian journal. (Robinson did not even remember their having sent the paper out.) Second was a short message from Fred, informing him that FOF had sent him (Fred) a precis of the Ikeja meeting, and that there were no new developments from that quarter. Robinson assumed Neugeborn had omitted details because he assumed (correctly) that his email would be read on a hackable machine. The third message was from Judy, announcing the family's safe arrival at her friend's house, and promising to write again later in the weekend.

Although it did not come as a total surprise, the fourth, and final, email was terrifying. It originated from a fictitious address on the dark net, gost-kller@TOR.net. It did not allow for a reply, and began like many of the spam messages Robinson had received over the years.

Dear John,

I am sorry to have to inform you that my associates and I have gained access to your computer, and that your bank account numbers and other personal information have all been compromised.

This is not an attempt to extort money. Instead, it is a warning. Unless you desist from your present inquiries, the lives of you and your wife and two children will come under mortal hazard. This will be your only warning. Ignore it at your peril!

In addition to a feeling of panic, Robinson had three immediate reactions. Assuming the message had been sent by Ramesh Subramanian/Samir Gupta, was there anything he could do about it? Should he proceed with the evening's interview? And, finally, where should he eat dinner?

His only certainty was that he should go eat now. Googling "Bangor, Maine, best eats, casual" he wound up walking about two miles farther south, to a microbrewery/grill on the Penobscot river. Without noticing much about the place, he ordered a pint of the local lager and a chicken salad sandwich with fries. To the extent that he could concentrate, the food and beer seemed fine. The bill produced the usual Covid-era sticker shock, especially the tipping options, which ranged from 25-100%! (He chose "25.")

Since it was not yet eight o'clock, and the sun had not yet set, Robinson wandered along the touristy section of the river bank, trying to remain calm, and considering his next moves. By eight-ten, he had decided to keep the appointment with Ellie Clark. It was less a matter of letting the chips fall where they might than of a certain recklessness that had been growing in him during his seventeen-year second career. Why stop now? In the bad old days, sixty-five would have been a ripe old age. He started the long walk back to Ms. Clark's house.

As he moved through the quiet streets, he watched for shifting shadow patterns. He would normally have felt safe in a place like this, but the threat and the incident with the electric bike were still very much on his mind. To people like Ramesh Subramanian, it was a very small world. As it had been for Geistmann.

Robinson was the last person in the world to judge a book by its cover (to coin a phrase). Therefore, when he rang the front door bell of the house and heard a pleasant chime, he drew no conclusions. When the door was opened by a short-ish, pleasant-faced, gray haired woman wearing sensible shoes, an age-appropriate pair of jeans, and a typical Maine flannel shirt (Black Watch tartan), he also made no judgments. He did, however, anxiously glance behind her to make sure no gun-wielding thugs were in the house waiting for him.

He knew from her history that Elica Ceban/Ellie Clark was familiar with violence, and assumed she deplored it. In Moldova, she had been Director of the Centrul de prevenire a traficului de femei, a social agency that protected battered women, and he guessed that she might still be some kind of social worker.

The handshake Ms. Clark proffered was neither hard nor soft. "Come in, Doctor Robinson," she said. He followed her through the small vestibule into a medium-sized living room, furnished in conventionally bad taste. She gestured him toward a red plush armchair that faced a matching couch. He noticed that Ms. Clark had left her knitting materials on an end table beside the couch.

Without offering to serve anything, she sat down next to the end table. At first glance, Robinson thought she was knitting a scarf, in heavy, forest-green wool. He opened the conversation with a pleasantry about her generosity in agreeing to meet him, then asked who the scarf was for, hoping she would say it was for Iosub.

"Oh," she replied, moving to pick up the needles, but then desisting, "this is just for me. I live alone, you see?"

Robinson's antennae rose. "Oh?" he said. "I thought you and Armande had a son. I hope nothing ... "

"Well, yes, we did have a son."

As soon as she said that, he thought he saw the first signs of indecision, the slightly furrowed brow and rapid eye movement. This was a key juncture. Unless he managed to reassure her, she might shut down. He decided he had to go on assuming she was unaware that she was speaking with her husband's murderer.

He also noted, in passing, that he was falling into a pattern of lying to women. First Judy, now Ellie Clark. "Oh, well," he quipped to himself. "Necessity is the mother of mendacity." Since she did not know him as well as Judy did, he hoped Ellie Clark believed his lies.

"As you may know, Ms. Clark," he said, "after Africa, I saw Armande again. It was in Hawaii, four or five five years ago. He mentioned that you and your son were living on one of the Islands ... the Big Island, I think he said, or maybe it was Maui?"

"Yes, that's right, we lived there for a while." He noted that she did not specify the Hawaiian island, and thought the omission might mean she was still wary.

"Oh, and then you moved from Hawaii to Bangor? Out of the frying pan, into the refrigerator."

She acknowledged his small joke with a very small smile. "Not directly. We were in Asheville for a year, between Hawaii and ... here." Robinson remained silent, giving her a chance to say more. "My son — our son — went to college in Hawaii, and then in North Carolina, in Asheville."

Robinson tried to limit himself to two or three of the questions he thought of asking next. "You mean Joe, right? Iosub? And you mentioned that he isn't living with you. Does that mean he has a place of his own here in Bangor?"

Again, Ellie Clark reached for her wool and needles, and again she stopped herself. This time, she folded her hands in her lap, and clenched them tightly as she continued to speak."Well, no, not really. Iosub is somewhere ... else. I mean, what twenty-five year-old wants to live at home with his mother?" When Robinson let the remark sit for a moment, she looked him in the eye. "Look, Dr. Robinson, if the FBI told you where to find me, they must have told you ... other things, too?"

He waited a beat. "Well, yes, but frankly, Ms. Clark, the reason they sent me here is that they hoped I could find out a few things about Joe, about your son."

"Such as?" She sounded seriously alarmed.

Robinson knew he must slow down. The two questions that now occurred to him were both way out-of-bounds: Joe's present whereabouts and his paternity. Instead of blurting them out, Robinson decided to make a sharp turn.

"Well, actually, we — the Bureau, that is — are looking for a friend of Joe's named Ramesh Subramanian, who goes by the name, 'Samir Gupta'. They want to ask Mr. Subramanian some questions about the hacking of Bureau systems and the interception of government emails. We don't believe Joe was involved in any of this," he quickly added, then drew breath before continuing.

"You see, Ms. Clark, Mr. Subramanian is a highly competent cyber-scientist. and our understanding is that your son's talents lie ... elsewhere. We just want to ask Joe if he happens to know his friend's current whereabouts."

Ellie Clark's smile was wary. "Well, Dr. Robinson, if you know anything about my son, you must know he's no computer genius. Beyond that, though, I'm afraid I can't help you. You see, I haven't seen, or heard from, Joe in over two years. As soon as we moved to Bangor, he announced that he hated it here, and started looking for jobs in places as far away as possible. I think he said something about returning to Africa, or going somewhere in Asia? But I'm not sure. "

Again, Robinson had to decide what to ask next. He suddenly found himself growing tired, and wondered why. Was it the long walk to and from the river? The threatening email he had read at the library? When he did come out with his next question, he realized immediately that its directness might have been a blunder caused by fatigue. "Did Joe ever mention having a friend from India who happened to be a computer whiz, Ms. Clark?"

Without replying, Ellie Clark finally picked up her knitting needles. Robinson knew he should declare a quick truce, which he did, by consulting his smartphone, and saying,"Whoa, look how late it is! I bet you have to be at work in the morning."

She began wielding the needles at warp speed. When he got to his feet, she said, counting stitches, "Just ... let me ... finish this row, please ... and I'll ... show you out?" When she had finished the row, she put the needles and wool back on the table, stood up, and said, "I wish I was able to help you more, Dr. Robinson."

Using her apology as an opportunity, he tried a last-ditch gambit. "Do you think we might meet again sometime over the weekend, Ms. Clark? I really would like to hear more about Armande's son. As I said, he and I worked together closely, in Africa. From what I've heard about Joe, he seems so ... unlike his father."

As they moved toward the front door, her mumbled reply almost made him stumble over his own feet. What he thought he heard was, "There's a good reason for that." And, as she closed the door behind him, he thought he heard another, even quieter remark, "Actually, Joe does take after his father."

As he walked toward the corner, Robinson understood that his quixotic trip to Bangor had succeeded, after all. By the time he was halfway from Ellie Clark's house, on Wiley Street, to his airbnb, on Cottage, he had telephoned the airline and changed his flight home from Sunday afternoon to the next morning, Friday. The change had cost him $56, but he saw no reason to waste two-and-a-half more days in Bangor.

He had a lot to do in New York before moving on to the next stop, Chisinau, Moldova. In his state of exhilaration, Robinson almost failed to notice the two large men in the shadows across the street. They followed him to the corner of Cottage Street, but then turned back. As he unlocked the front door of the building that housed his airbnb, Robinson wondered at what point the emailed threat might materialize, and what form it might take. After the bomb, in Cape Town, and the bike, in New York, he assumed they would do something different, like a beating, stabbing, or shooting. But, as he trudged up the stairs to his room, he realized he had been thinking of Geistmann, who rarely repeated himself, and that Ramesh Subramanian possibly followed a different pattern of mayhem.








Article © Ron Singer. All rights reserved.
Published on 2023-02-13
Image(s) are public domain.
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