Peter pushed his way through the buzzing hallways of the United Nations building looking for a spot of maroon. He turned a corner and was suddenly face to face with a dozen individuals wearing the signature maroon and saffron robes of a Tibetan monk. All of their faces were equally inscrutable, but when he said, "Choedek Norbu?" a ripple went through the group.
Tentatively, the FBI agent held up the piece of paper with Mozzie's encrypted legal assurances.
He noticed one monk moving his head slightly to the left, and then Peter saw the two knots in the sash of his robe.
Peter moved in the direction indicated. Only after he sat down on the bench that had opened up did he notice that the skin tone was similar to the other men's but the facial features were not exactly right for those of a person from Tibet. The illusion was further dispelled when the monk opened his mouth.
"You don't mind if I check the paperwork to see that everything is in order before we proceed?" a British accent asked.
Peter handed over the paper and waited for the man to check out the coded message from Mozzie. Then he looked up. "I'm glad that it's a Fed sitting there and not him," was the first thing that he said.
"And by him you mean Pre—"
"Don't say his name!" The monk looked around in a panic. "I only agreed to do this because Mozzie's best friend might be in danger."
Peter wondered again at the huge influence wielded by the small criminal. "He's a very good friend of mine as well," he said of Neal, and there must've been something in his voice because the monk started to talk.
"For a very long time, I thought I was just imagining it. Then that I was going crazy. That's the diabolical beauty of it—there is virtually no way to tell."
"Tell what?" Peter asked. "What does he do to people and why?"
"Maybe I should start of the beginning, or at least when I started to notice. I first knew something was terribly wrong with my life here in New York when I went to a hobby shop to get a refill on a certain ingredients that I use to—" he stopped and looked the FBI agent up and down.
"I'm not even on the clock," Peter said. "Please speak freely; all I care about is my friend, not any past or present infractions."
The monk nodded. "These ingredients I use in a proprietary recipe for a cloaking medium, something that helps mask stolen goods but comes off easily if you know how to remove it. It's a method that made my fortune as a trader of stolen goods."
The man warmed to his subject. "For a smuggler, everything comes down to shipping. The goods vary, but if you don't have a reliable means of getting things in, out and around the country under the radar, the biggest score in the world doesn't do you any good. My particular gift, if I may say so, was disguising objects to pass through certain forms of scrutiny." He shot another look at the FBI agent.
"I don't know how many ways to tell you that's not what I'm here for today."
The monk laughed. "OK, it's just a little strange to be on the same side as the law for a change. For a long time I thought it was you guys who were persecuting me. Until that day in the science shop. Over time I'd already built up an identity as a science teacher, so that they really thought that I taught at a private school, as did several other hobby shops in the greater New York area. Better than having my purchases tracked by mail, I thought. 0.
These ingredients are rather common, but it was difficult to get them in large quantities the way that I needed. But I had worked around all that over the last few years."
Norbu took a deep breath. "One day I went into a hobby shop and they said they didn't have any of my ingredients. The cashier greeted me by name and was most apologetic. Naturally, I went to another shop. And another. And another. I went to every hobby shop, every store that could conceivably sell the materials that I needed, in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey."
"So, maybe it was a supply issue somewhere down the line," Peter objected.
"That's what I thought as well," the false Tibetan agreed. "The next thing I did was order what I needed online. Now, I had had some problems previously with receiving deliveries, but everybody has a trouble in New York. Somebody steals a promising-looking package, or it's the wrong apartment number or they send it to the West Side instead of the East side."
Peter was nodding. "You know what I mean. That's why I didn't notice that I was actually having more problems than normal until every time I tried to order one of these particular items the order went awry."
"Awry how?" the FBI agent asked.
"Meaning I'd order this material, and get a pair of socks instead. Or a teapot or some other random thing that I hadn't ordered. Keep in mind that I had multiple redundancies set up so that no one knew what my proprietary blend was. But no matter which shipping method I tried—the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, UPS—I could not order these particular items. Up to this point I was sure it was you Feds. Drug dealers who ship contraband or the ingredients for crystal meth have their deliveries interrupted all the time."
Peter chuckled. "I've personally tampered with many shipments, although usually we opt for subtlety rather than tipping our hand by sending socks."
"Exactly my point," the other man said. "You guys think that as long as you can make it difficult enough for us to move what we want to move that will have to find some other way or lose our customers. Supply and demand is what you care about.
"But I'm sure you're also aware that criminals have many off-the-radar ways of moving goods that don't have tracking numbers, don't abide by schedules and thus have little to no chance of being detected."
Peter shrugged. "An extra box on a truck full of legal goods, something moved inside a commuter train or hidden inside a rental car. Yes, we probably know most of the ways that you people have moved things across the continental U.S. and over borders."
The monk flashed a grin. "You probably can't even imagine all the things that have been tried. But imagine my surprise when one day I was receiving a shipment of Chippendale furniture from—well, it's neither here not there where I obtained it—and the delivery did not go by any official service. When I opened it up—it was full of worms."
Peter leaned forward. "Worms, as in earthworms?"
The man snorted. "I didn't trouble myself to find out what type of worms they were, but they were some species that eats clear through wood. The boxes were teeming with worms that had made the whole carefully planned delivery useless. I lost big."
The two men stared at each other for a moment.
"And that's why I began to think that I'd been wrong about being under legal surveillance because the Feds don't infiltrate illegal shipments, stuff them full of worms, close them up again and make sure they get to their destination."
"It sounds like something a creative criminal might do to a rival," Peter pointed out. "The old horse head in the bed like the Godfather."
Norbu nodded impatiently. "More things happened. The cafe where I used to sit and watch one of my couriers drop off messages, they rearranged the way their seating area was set up so that I didn't have a line of sight anymore." He spread out his hands. "These things happen, right? Restaurants change the furniture. But it got so that I couldn't find anyone who would be my courier after a while. People in the underworld began to mistrust me. No one wanted to trade with me, though of course no one said as much. There were simply no business opportunities. I couldn't get information about possible buyers, And even if I did hear of something, the logistics—my bread and butter—were now insurmountable."
"And ironically, the criminal world works on a sort of trust," Peter put in. "Once you're out of the loop, working alone is basically impossible. But again, we've isolated people just like that, when the Bureau needed to, though you're right, I've never heard of using worms."
"Finally I found myself finished, with nothing to buy, nothing to sell. It's a pity to burn out a town, but it happens, so I decided to leave New York."
"So where does – he – fit into all of this?" Peter asked. "Not only is the underworld not his world, but you're the only criminal I know of to have reached his inner circle."
The monk raised his eyebrow. "My friend is not actively in the life anymore," Peter snapped. "Unless you know different?" he asked nervously.
"I keep my nose down, or rather, up in the mountains of Tibet, these days, but as far as I know, your friend may very well have retired." The other man's voice took on a note of urgency. "But that's not the operative factor, you see, I don't think it's about what you do so much as who you are."
"How did you meet the man in question?" Peter pursued.
The monk gave a nostalgic little laugh. "He was a mark. I heard about all this wealth, this unbelievable art collection, and I thought there must be away for me to bite off a little bit for myself. He let me in, made me within five minutes and still let me stay for this fabulous tea. And he invited me back the next day."
"It seems odd that it's that easy to get in with a billionaire," Peter observed.
The monk shrugged. "Time went by, and I forgot about stealing anything, because then there'd be an end to the delicious lunches, the fine wine. He was so thoughtful—I would come over and there was some book he had 'found' in his huge library, a rare edition by an author he knew I liked, or my favorite type of olives waiting for me next to my chosen cocktail. And then there was the entertaining conversation, and meeting people that I never thought I would ever meet. He filled needs I didn't even know I have."
The FBI agent's brow furrowed. "You're saying that he had other people over besides you?"
"Yes, I didn't know that he was considered a recluse at the time. I simply thought he lived in perfect comfort and there was always something to do in that mansion. He would have these small dinner parties with—you wouldn't believe me if I told you," Norbu broke off.
"Like who?" Peter asked curiously.
"The sitting prime minister of a certain Scandinavian country. A Russian prima ballerina. A stock-car driver. A world-famous comedian. This fellow has a way of putting things together, whether it's the menu for a luncheon, or just the right wine for fish, or the people at a party." The man laughed and adjusted his robe. "It's a level of class I could never hope to obtain."
"So you never stole anything?" Peter thought this was important to ascertain.
"No, I honestly thought we were friends. Well, to be fair, maybe I kept it as a backup plan. Or thought I'd steal something someday just as a lark, more like, because he would feel cheated at that point if I didn't."
"Did you have any indication that he was sick?" Peter asked, remembering their prime theory.
"Sick? I doubt that. He let me use his gymnasium a few times, and the weights were set to some ungodly level. It's possible," Norbu shrugged. "But the man fairly exuded life, as I remember."
Pieter looked frustrated. "This all seems like much ado about nothing, if you ask me."
"Except you went to a lot of trouble to track down a reincarnated criminal, and thus must know that there's something to it," the man pointed out.
The words Peter tried to choke down all the time came rushing out. "It's like an ice cold, clammy sensation—"
"Exactly!" The monk clapped his hands. "It crept up on me over the space of almost a year. To escape it I gathered my meager savings and slipped off to Frankfurt, to begin a new life. We recreate ourselves from time to time, my kind of person, so it wasn't totally unexpected. But usually I would have some sort of gig waiting for me. A contact. Something. Unfortunately, I had to go to a new city blind."
"You're not German?" Peter had been trying to place the man's features all this time.
"No, my father was English, and my mother, Turkish. I spent the first several years of my life in Turkey, and the first time I came to Europe it was to Frankfurt."
"Not a bad city for a smuggler," the FBI agent observed.
"No it's not. And I do know some German. But for some reason it was very, very hard to make contact with anyone in the city. I went so far is to rely upon an old trick. I placed an ad with a certain coded message in all the local newspapers. It was something pre-internet criminals used to do to reach out to each other. I waited a week no one responded."
Peter opened his mouth.
"At that time I thought perhaps it was truly an outdated custom," the would-be monk agreed. "So I went to the place where I knew I could find some underworld individuals: the railway station." He noted Peter's nod. "It's a perfect place to pick someone's pocket, as I'm sure you are aware. It's also a place where people move items. Where they buy contraband. In short, it's every major city's Mecca for the criminal element."
Peter was getting impatient, but forced himself to let the speaker get to the point.
"For me it's easy to pick out each of these activities in any given crowd. I saw all the people picking pockets or selling drugs. I saw the suitcases changing hand over hand containing God knows what inside. But even when I walked around with several euros sticking out of my pocket, no one picked my pocket. I dropped the euros on the floor but not one of the two dozen criminals in the vicinity would touch my money. Finally, a small boy of about six picked it up."
Norbu leaned towards Peter. "That's when I knew. That's when I knew that whatever kind of bad luck that had been assailing me in New York City had followed me there to Frankfurt. But I still couldn't understand how. I walked around the city, racking my brain. Nobody knew I was going. No one even knew that any connection to Frankfurt at all. I said goodbye to no one before I left."
"So then—" Peter began, but the man waved him off.
"It was a rather chilly day but I bought an ice cream so I had an excuse to sit on a park bench and stare off into space while I thought. And that's when it struck me. I'd told the story of my first visit to Frankfurt to the man in question. It was a warm spring day, and my parents bought me a yellow balloon. And together, hand in hand, we walked across the Eiserner Steg."
Peter looked blank. "The iron bridge from one site if the city to the other across the Main river," the fake Tibetan explained. "To a small child, seeing all of those people walking back and forth, back and forth across the bridge-I'd never seen anything like it. And even when we continued on the train to France I held onto the yellow balloon for as long as I could, and I cried when it burst. That was when I vowed to go back to Frankfurt some day. If there had been a balloon seller that gloomy day while I sat in the park, I would have bought one of those rather than an ice cream."
The monk registered his listener's impatience. "It probably sounds like nothing to you, but that's the wonderful thing about – that man—he understands these things. He understands a beautiful moment the way he grasps why a certain type of pastry from one shop in the city has a quality nothing else has." The man searched for the right words. "He knows the value of things. And he knows how to help you find these memories and those tastes as well, hidden in your memory, as I believe I told him my story about Frankfurt after he told me about his first visit to Rome as a child."
Peter went completely still. That was actually useful information. He filed it away in the place where he'd been storing his half-formed plan.
"Sitting there on the park bench with a melting ice cream in my hand, I began to cry," the man was saying. "A grown man, a hardened criminal, respected in the underworld for never having gotten caught—I was crying. Because it all started to make sense. Only someone as fantastically wealthy and well-connected as– that man—could pull off all of these small and large ways in which my life became intolerable in New York City. And he's everywhere. He —or someone he knows—is in almost every city on the globe."
Peter pointed at the maroon robe and the man held up a finger and grinned.
"I was sobbing like a child, with sticky fingers from the ice cream that was melting as if by power of my own panic, when all of a sudden I look up. Sitting in the bench across from me is a little monk smiling at me. He just smiled and smiled, and eventually I took heart and went to sit next to him.
"'Everything is sorrow,' he said to me in English. I didn't know then, but that's the First Noble Truth of Buddhism. All I knew was, it exactly summed up how I felt, and I sobbed even louder. The man offered me a handkerchief and I told him my newly assembled suspicions, which must not made any sense to him at all because I'm sure it still doesn't make sense to me.
"When I was done all I could think of to ask was what in God's name is a Tibetan monk doing sitting on all alone a bench in Frankfurt in the middle of winter?"
"'But I am not alone, it seems,' the fellow said, and grinned."
"How did he happen to be there?" Peter asked.
"I found out later that he was a some multicultural conference or other, but the next thing that I knew I was bound for Tibet, and my new life as the personal smuggler for adherents to a particular sect of Buddhism." The monk looked around to the busy UN building. "It's a perfect setup for me; I even get to come to New York sometimes. You'd be amazed how hard it is to find a good bagel in Tibet."
"You're not concerned about him—or anyone else—finding out about your new identity? If Mozzie knows-" Peter began.
The monk smiled. "Not at all. First of all, everyone in my world has a sort of early warning system in place. I had left instructions with a few people that if word ever went around about me and—that man—to let me know. Apparently I still have more friends than I realized. This informant of mine heard about some asking about some thief and the man in question and thought it was close enough. Mozzie and I are in adjacent networks, shall we say."
"Who isn't?" Peter muttered.
"But the best con about my situation is that each of us at the temple, we take the same name upon joining the community. It's something about humility, I think." He laughed. "I'm not sure, really. All of the dogma goes over my head. I'm valued for my other skills."
"But If he has your fingerprints flagged in a database," Peter said thoughtfully.
"You underestimate the power of this," the man indicated his robe, "And this," he smiled beatifically. "We're a gaggle of Choedek Norbus going through customs simultaneously. My brothers' smiles and my skills—I can slip through almost any situation very easily."
The rest of the monks had appeared without Peter realizing it. He watched the maroon-robed figure he'd been talking to be absorbed into a color-coordinated mass.
He suddenly realized he'd forgotten to ask a question. "Choedek Norbu?" he asked.
Twelve men turned around in eerie unison, but he focused on the one he could just pick out as the criminal he'd been talking to. "Are you gay?"
It was one of those questions he should have known would come out a little more forcefully than he intended, and several passersby gave him a disgusted look. Asking any religious figure about their sexual practices was considered gauche in most circles, he thought, kicking himself.
The only ones unperturbed were the monks. Each Choedek Norbu sent him a splendid smile and then they went on their way.
"How was your personal day?" Elizabeth asked her husband at dinner that night.
"Mozzie had me on one of his screwball missions to meet a contact." He laid down his fork. "I think this whole thing is crazy and maybe I'm crazy too."
"No, honey, don't say that. It's all right to be worried about Neal." She reached across the table and touched his arm. "I'm worried about him, too. He doesn't come by any more to make suggestions about my menus or pull strings to get me a venue. Going to a museum with him, and seeing things through his eyes, it's—"
There were tears in her eyes, suddenly, and Elizabeth dabbed her eyes with her napkin.
Now Peter squeezed his wife's hand. "I know he's like a reminder of art school for you, hon, Things aren't the same at the bureau with him sleepwalking through cases, either. We'll figure out what's going on with him. Don't worry—I have a plan."
Elizabeth looked up. "A plan? What are you going to do?"
Peter' looked away. "It's the sort of plan i can't tell you about."
Elizabeth's eyes grew wide. "Honey, are you breaking the law?"
"Not the criminal law." Elizabeth was giving him a cryptic look. "Just trust me, sweetie. Have I ever let you down?"
"Not yet," Elizabeth said. A serious look rose to the surface of her face and she seemed about to say something before she changed her mind. "But maybe I need you to prove it to me one more time. Come to bed."
Dinner dishes forgotten, they went to bed, each feeling a little guilty about enjoying themselves when their friend might be in danger.