A Kurchenko and Gonzalvez Mystery: Mother Knows Best

BY A J Sidransky (@AJSidransky)

34th Precinct

Tolya Kurchenko shifted his legs under his desk. His large, bulky frame made it difficult to sit in one position at the old desk for very long. He had little choice though as he and his partner, Pete Gonzalvez had started on the NYPD’s CATU, the new citywide anti-terror unit the day before. It was exciting to have a new focus but the challenge also involved digesting a lot of information, all of it deskwork.

“Kurchenko,” Captain McCloskey shouted from across the hall. “Get Gonzalvez, come in here.”

He looked at Pete sitting opposite him. “Let’s go.”

“What’s up, Captain?” Tolya said, entering the Captain’s cluttered office.

“I need you boys to check something out. Seems there are two old ladies up on Wadsworth Terrace complaining about a neighbor.”

“Cap,” Pete interrupted, “you need us for this?”

“Can’t you send one of the new guys or someone from patrol? “ Tolya said. “We started on the anti-terror taskforce this week.”

The Captain eased himself back into his creaking, ancient chair, crossing his arms. “This is an anti-terrorism case. Lucky for you two that you’re local celebrities, I need you to attend to the local dignitaries.”

“OK,” said Tolya, “what’s this about?”

The Captain handed each of them a copy of a letter. “These two women are the mother of Juan Carlos Guzman former head of the Alianza Dominicana now a City Councilman and the aunt of Yehuda Levitz, former City Councilman now a member of the New York State Assembly, I have received phone calls from both. You remember them don’t you?”

“Seriously, Cap, how could we forget them,” Pete said. “Those guys hate each other.”

“Well apparently one’s mother and the other’s aunt are best friends and something is scaring the crap out of them. And with this city wide ISIS alert I’d rather have you two on the case.”

Najid sat quietly in his boss’ office. He knew he would be disciplined. He also knew he had to control himself. It had taken a good deal of time and effort to get into the MTA training program. He couldn’t afford to lose this job. The door opened behind him.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,”

“That’s Okay Ron, sorry I caused this problem.”

Ron Catalano walked around his desk and sat down. “I’m not really sure what to say, where to begin.”

“Again, I’m sorry, I accept full responsibility for what I did.”

Catalano hesitated a moment. “You’re such a calm guy, a model trainee. Why would you get in a fight with Zolotov?”

Najid squirmed a little in the chair. He knew he should have ignored the big, loud Russian, but the guy never shut up. Najid couldn’t take it anymore. He warned him one last time during lunch break, and when he kept at it, Najid slugged him in the jaw. Problem was everyone saw it and the Russian reported him.

“He just keeps bothering me, he’s always talking about terrorists and Muslims and keeps saying maybe I’m one. Just because I have a Muslim sounding name? He’s so ignorant. Hell, I’m a Christian. My own people are being killed in my country.”

“Why didn’t you say something to me?”

Najid averted his eyes. “I didn’t want to make no trouble.”

“So look what happened.”

Tolya and Pete stood outside apartment 6F. The door opened slowly, the safety chain still hooked. An eye peaked through the crack followed by a raspy voice. “OK, one moment please. You can’t be too careful, you know.” The door opened. A short rotund woman in a gray dress and off-kilter wig offered her hand. “Miriam Levitz,” she said.

“Detective Kurchenko,” Tolya said taking it. “And this is Detective Gonzalvez, my partner.”

“Pleased to meet you,” the woman said taking Pete’s hand. Pete smiled broadly. “Come in, my friend is waiting.”

They followed the woman down a hallway into the living room. Another woman of similar age sat on the couch under the window the light streaming in from behind her. There was a smell of coffee brewing in the kitchen.

“This is my friend from down the hall, Miriam Guzmán.”

Pete glanced at Tolya and stifled a smile. “You’re both named Miriam?” he said.

“Yes,” they replied.

“Well, nice to meet you. How can we help?” Tolya asked sitting down on one of the high backed, velvet chairs opposite the couch, Pete taking the other one next to it.

“Take off your coats, have something to eat,” Miriam Levitz said picking up a tray of cookies from the coffee table.

“No thanks,” Toyla said.

Pete reached toward the plate. “Don’t mind if I do.”

“Miriam, would you like one?” Levitz asked.

“Si, gracias.” She reached for the plate.

“So what seems to be the problem ladies?” Tolya asked.

The two women looked at each other. “You tell them,” said Levitz.

Miriam Guzman sat up, straightening her back. “We have lived here in this building a very long time. Mrs. Levitz lives here and I live two doors down. There is another apartment in between us.”

“A studio,” interjected Miriam Levitz.

“Continue,” Pete said.

“Our bedrooms share a wall with this apartment and there has been a lot of strange noise late at night and some unusual smells coming from there.”

“What kind of noise?” asked Tolya.

The two Miriams looked at each other. “Like shouting and explosions,” said Miriam Guzman.

“And the voices are in a strange language,” Miriam Levitz said. “And we can’t sleep and we think he’s up to something.”

Tolya made some notes on his pad. “When was the last time you heard these noises?” he asked.

“Last night,” Levitz said.

“You spoke to the super?” Pete asked.

“Yes,” Miriam Levitz replied.

“And the landlord,” added Miriam Guzman. “They said they would speak to him and that there was little else they could do.”

“So your son and your nephew contacted us because?” Toyla said.

“We’re frightened. You’ve seen those signs in the subway?” said Miriam Levitz. “Be alert! If you see something say something! We thought he might be a terrorist.”

Tolya and Pete looked at each other. “Why?’ Pete asked.

“Well, he has an Arab name,” Levitz said.

Najid leaned his head back onto the wall of the subway car and closed his eyes. It had been a long day and the reprimand by Ron made it worse. Ron would have to write him up and give him an official warning. It would be added to his personnel file. He had another three months to go before his training was over and he needed to keep this job.

He looked at his watch. 3:30 AM. He yawned then closed his eyes. If anyone had told him five years earlier that he would be working for the MTA he would have laughed out loud. But then no one expected the Great Recession either.

He had done everything right. He fought his way out of the ghetto, first Brooklyn Tech High, then Brooklyn College, and then Baruch University for an MBA. He worked his way up the ranks at Washington Mutual. By 2007 he was managing every branch on the west side of Manhattan from Battery Park City to Baker’s Field.

When Chase took over WaMu they told him he was needed. He was a team player, the kind of guy they wanted. His resume spoke for itself. A year later, six months after there was virtually nothing for him to do, he was called into his boss’s office.

“Thanks for everything,” they said. “Consolidation results in too much duplication of efforts.” They let him go. He took the severance check, shook their hands and smiled. He understood.

What he didn’t understand was why he couldn’t find a job. He had the right qualifications. Good marks at great schools, corporate training and a list of professional successes. He stared to wonder if it was his color, or worse, perhaps his name. Najid Olufemi.

After 99 weeks, his unemployment ended. His savings were depleted. He decided to undertake an experiment. He would answer job listings with one resume but with two different names, one his real name, the other with an American name.  Much to his disappointment, he was correct. Thomas Anderson received interest in his resume while Najid Olufemi did not.

“You expect us to follow up on this?” Pete said.

“Yes,” replied the Captain.

“Cap, seriously,” said Tolya. “This is just plain bigotry. So the guy has an Arabic sounding name. Does my name make me a communist?”

“That’s exactly why. This ISIS alert has everybody rattled. We have a complaint and we have to follow up on it.”

Pete looked at Tolya and nodded toward the doorway. “Let’s go then, see if this guy is home. Finish up with this.”

They walked the hill up 187th Street and around the corner to Wadsworth Terrace. It was late in the morning and the street was quiet, the kids in school and the thugs still sleeping.  At the building they buzzed the super. “Police,” Tolya said.

The door buzzed back and Pete pushed it open. They walked into the lobby. The elevator door opened and a late middle-aged Hispanic man with a big paunch came out. “Can I help you?” he asked.

Pete answered him in Spanish. “Sí pana, we need to speak to the tenant in 6G, Najid Olufemi.   You know if he’s home?”

“I think so. He works evenings. He should be here.”

“How long he been in the building?” Pete enquired.

“About six months,” the super said. Pete translated for Tolya.

Tolya rolled his eyes. “Coño Pete, I understood that.”

“Just making sure.”

“What he do?” the super said, switching to English.

“Nothing yet that we know of. The tenants on either side are complaining about noise so we got a call since you guys didn’t do shit about it.”

The super laughed. “Those old ladies, they complain about everything and they’re busy with everybody’s business. They think because of who they are they own the building.”

The music coming through the door at apartment 6G was too faint to identify. Tolya knocked on the door a second time. “Mr. Olufemi? Police,” he repeated. “Please come to the door.”

A moment later the music stopped and the door opened. A young black man about six feet tall, very muscular, stood at the door in a white wife-beater and gray sweat pants. “Can I help you officers?”

“Can we come in?” Tolya asked.

“What’s this about? My place is kind of a mess.”

Tolya noticed a very slight accent but couldn’t place from where. “We’re not here to check your housekeeping skills. We need to speak to you about your neighbors.”

He breathed heavily and looked around the room before saying, “all right, if you really have to.”

“Then you don’t mind us coming in, right?” Pete said.

“Sure,” the man said. “Come in.”

Tolya and Pete discretely scanned the room as they entered. The apartment was a large studio. A separate kitchen was off to the side creating a small alcove on its other side, which was curtained off. The curtain was half drawn. An unmade bed and a large wardrobe were visible. Clothes hung from the wardrobe doors, which were open. There were books strewn about, a computer in the corner, papers piled up on the floor next to it. It smelled like a combination of curry and sweat.

Tolya and Pete stood in the middle of the room. Najid sat down at the dinette table. “What are they complaining about this time?” he asked.

Tolya spoke first. “Mr. Olufemi, and I hope I’m pronouncing that correctly…”

“You are…”

“We’ve been told you make a great deal of noise late at night. What’s that all about?”

“What’s what all about?” Najid said.

“The sounds that are coming from your apartment late at night. What’s going on in here?”

Najid sighed and struggled to control himself. He crossed his arms against his chest and stared at the floor. “I went over all this with the super and the landlord. I work late into the evening. I’m training to be a motorman for the MTA. I often don’t get home till three or four in the morning. I’m wound up from my day and I have to relax and eat something before I go to sleep.”

“So what are you saying?” Tolya said.

“I like to watch action movies, martial arts films, science fiction that kind of thing before I go to sleep and I cook the food of my homeland, which is what they smell. The spices are different, strange to them but comforting to me.”

“Where are you from?” Pete asked, continuing to scan the room as he listened to Olufemi.

“Nigeria.”

“Africa,” Pete said, trying to put him at ease. “We’re immigrants too, I’m from the Dominican Republic and my partner is from Russia.”

“Is your family here?” Tolya asked.

Olufemi seemed to relax a little. “Yes my mother and brother.”

“You mentioned that you work for MTA? Training to be a motorman.” Tolya said.

“Yes?”

“Can I ask you something then?” Pete said.

“What?”

“What’s that big pail of nails for over there?”

“Why?”

“Not something a motorman needs for work and not something you usually see in a studio apartment.”

“It’s for fixing the roof at my mother’s house in Yonkers. What did you think it was for?”

“Well, it just looks different to me.”

“And I suppose you’re going to accuse me of being a terrorist, a threat to national security with my Arabic name.”

“No, no, Mr. Olufemi,” Tolya interrupted.

Olufemi rose, his anger evident. He pointed across the room at a cross on the wall. “See, I am a Christian not a Muslim. I think it’s time for you to leave. I’ve answered your questions. I am not bothering anybody. Please tell my neighbors to look for trouble elsewhere.”

Pete said nothing. He shot a look to Tolya. “OK sir,” he said, “Calm down.”

“I’m calm…”

“Doesn’t really seem that way,” Tolya said. “We’ll be going now. Just try to be a little more considerate of your neighbors.”

Najid closed the door and slid both locks home. He waited there till he heard the elevator door slide shut then walked across the studio to the computer and clicked the mouse bringing up the message he received earlier. He printed out the coded gibberish and entered the URL Yusef gave him in his browser. The website asked for a user name and password. He entered what Yusef had written down on the slip of paper he kept in the deep corner of his wallet. A new page opened. It asked for today’s date and his location. He entered both. A second page opened, this one with the decoding chart for the message he had printed out moments earlier.

“Allah hu akbar,” he said and clicked print.

“What ya think Tol?” Pete said as they walked down the steep hill on 187th St back towards the station.

“I’m not sure Pete. It’s probably nothing. We should check out his schedule make sure he’s really working for the MTA.”

“Yeah, I’ll do that when we get back.”

“I’d also like to run him and see if we can come up with any family members we can look up. See if we can find anything else about that guy. Did you see that safari vest hanging on the wardrobe in the sleeping area?”

“Yeah I did.”

“No one wears them anymore,” Tolya said as they entered the station.

Najid had laid out all of the parts for the vest on the floor. He had watched the online video several times and was ready to assemble it. When he opened the large pail full of nails he chuckled, thinking about the story about his mother’s house in Yonkers. There was a buzz from the main door. He knew it was Yusef. He buzzed him in. A few moments later Yusef was at his door.

“Salaam Aliekum,” Najid said.

“Aliekum Salaam,” responded Yusef, closing the door behind him.

Najid pointed toward the vest components.

“Allah hu akbar,” Yusef said. He handed Najid a package.

Najid opened the package which contained the plastic explosives and gently placed the cakes on the floor next to the safari vest. Then he took out the detonator. They watched the video one more time so as not to make any mistakes. When they had finished assembling the vest Yusef prepared a meal for him. They ate then Najid bathed and prepared himself for martyrdom. He made a video and burned it on a CD then wrote a letter to his mother. He hoped she would understand. He couldn’t do this anymore. It was too painful. He needed to give meaning to his life. This act would do that. He gave both to Yusef. “Please brother, deliver this to my mother this morning. Here is the address.”

“Of course,” Yusef replied. “May you find peace in paradise. They prayed together. Yusef left.

As the sun came up Najid looked out the window of his apartment glancing at the skyline in the distance. The route of his journey had come full circle. He remembered the Madrassa in Lagos, how chaotic it was, the strict teachers with their sticks and their candy. They had to learn each ayat and every sura. If they faltered they were struck with the stick. If they recited it well they received a candy.

Then everything changed. He was already 10 years old. His father came home very angry. Najid remembered his ranting. He had met with the elders in the mosque. He had asked a simple question and they could not answer it. What kind of religion was this if the elders couldn’t answer a simple question? He was done with it. His father kissed his mother. They would become Christians. They were to leave for America anyway. Life would be easier there as Christians.

It never made a difference to Najid. He neither understood nor cared about either really. Not until the last vestige of his former faith, his name became an albatross around his neck. “Change it,” his friends had said. He could never do that. It would be a betrayal of his father. The father he loved who he had lost too soon. He was ready for the next world.

“The MTA job checks out,” Pete said. “He’s a trainee, started nine months ago, provisional employee, becomes permanent in three months.”

“What else is there?” Tolya asked.

Pete scrolled down, perusing the documents in the MTA’s personal files. “Born in Nigeria, came here when he was twelve. Went to Brooklyn Tech, Brooklyn College, Baruch, has an MBA,”

“He’s no dummy,” Tolya said. “MBA? And he’s working for the MTA? “What’s his work history?”

“Says here he was an executive Vice President with Washington Mutual then Chase till 2008.”

“It’s 2014, anything after that?”

“Nope.”

“So he was out of work for a long time.”

“A lot of people were.” Pete said.

“That’s a pretty big comedown.”

“Yep.”

“What about his family?”

Pete looked for a document that would list a next of kin or emergency contact. “Here, says his father is deceased but his mother lives in the Bronx.”

“Didn’t he say his mother has a house in Yonkers? That’s what the nails were for?”

“Yep.”

“Is there an address or a phone number?”

“It’s right here.”

“Let’s go.”

Pete maneuvered the car around the traffic on the bridge from Manhattan to the Bronx. As they turned onto University Avenue, Tolya received a text. It was from the terrorism taskforce.

Chatter confirmed by a CI. Coordinated attack expected today on NYC subway. Possible multiple attacks.

Tolya flicked on the flashing siren.

“What you doing?” Pete said.

Tolya read the text to him.

“Oh shit.”

“Move hermano.”

The front door was open in the old wood frame building on Walton Ave just north of 176th Street. “Olufemi?” Tolya shouted at the woman nursing a baby in the hallway.

She pointed upstairs. “Two.”

Toyla and Pete darted up the rickety wooden staircase two steps at a time. They pounded on the door at the second floor landing. “Police,” Tolya called out, their guns drawn in a low ready position. There was no answer.

“Try the door,” Pete said. “I’ll cover you.”

Tolya turned the knob. The door swung open. A middle-aged woman in West African dress sat at the table under the window weeping. Tolya proceeded into the apartment cautiously. “Is there anyone else here?”

The woman looked up at him, tears flowing. “No,” she said and handed a handwritten note to Tolya. He looked at it. It was in a language he couldn’t identify. Pete came up behind him.

“Are you Mrs. Olufemi,” Tolya asked.

“Yes,” the woman said through her tears. The woman looked up at Tolya, “My son is going to die today.”

“How is he going to die?” Tolya asked.

“He’s going to blow himself up”

Tolya’s breath caught in his throat for a moment. “Please “ma’am” we’re here to help.”

Najid entered the MTA depot. He went directly to the assignment board. He would be on the number 4, northbound to the Bronx. Perfect. He would do it right in front of Yankee Stadium.

He heard Ron Catalano come up behind him. Ron put a hand on his back. Najid stiffened.

“We’re all a little tense today buddy. I guess you heard?”

“Heard what? Oh yeah.”

“Though they’ve got a report of a possible attack they don’t want to shut down the system yet. Be extra careful and extra vigilant.”

Najid’s stomach turned. He smiled thinking it would hide his alarm. “Wow, you think it’s for real?”

“Don’t know man, we’ve had these warnings before. Just be careful. And if you see anything suspicious call in.”

“Thanks, Ron, I’ll check in at Yankee Stadium, if I get that far.”

Ron stopped walking and turned. Najid’s heart raced. “Not funny. Oh by the way, I wanted to tell you I’ve gotten the grievance committee to back off on that complaint about you and the fight. I convinced them it was unfair considering how much Zolotov was baiting you.”

“Thanks,” Najid said. He felt a slight pang of regret but when the Russian’s face appeared before his eyes he became a symbol of everything about this country that was offensive to him and his people. He straightened and walked off toward his train, the train that would take him to his destiny.

“Captain,” Tolya screamed into the phone from the hallway, making sure Najid’s mother didn’t hear his conversations. For all he knew, she too could be in on the plan. “We’re at the mother’s apartment up in the Bronx. Cap, listen, this guy has a brother. He’s gone to look for him. She’s trying to reach both by cell with negative results. No we don’t know where either of them are right now. You gotta get somebody from the MTA on the line and find out where exactly this guy works. See if you can get his supervisor.”

“Of course,” Captain McCloskey said. “Stand by and wait for my call.”

“Okay.”

Tolya walked back into the apartment and approached Najid’s mother. “Mrs. Olufemi,” he said. “Look, I need you to stop crying for a minute and go over this again with me. Do you know where he is planning to carry out this attack?”

She shook her head. “No. It doesn’t say where in this letter.” She showed them the letter she received earlier today. It was pointless. Neither could read Yoruba.

She looked up at them. “He was very angry, very dejected. He worked so hard for so long. After my husband died he felt he had to take care of us. He is the first son. Then he lost his job and he couldn’t find another. He blamed it on his name. He said no one would hire a man with an Arab name.”

“Did you know that he had returned to Islam?”

“No, he came to church with me every Sunday.”

Tolya took a deep breath. He had no patience for religious fanaticism, regardless of where it came from. It brought nothing but unhappiness in the end. He had seen too much of it.

“Did you know the man who dropped off the letter this morning?”

“No, never saw him before. He said his name was Yusef and that he was a friend of Najid.”

“He say anything else?” Pete asked.

“No.”.

Tolya’s phone rang. “Yes, Cap?”

“We’re patching you in with the guy’s supervisor now.”

“Ron Catalano here,” came the voice at the other end.

“This is Detective Kurchenko, NYPD. We need to find Najid Olufemi right now. Did you see him this morning?”

“Yes, he’s on the number 4 heading to the Bronx. We tracked the train for you. He’s just past 125th Street.”

“Did he make any remarks this morning that perhaps you found peculiar?”

“He made a joke about Yankee Stadium. It was bit disturbing. We were talking about the terror threat and I told him to be careful. He said he would if he made it as far as Yankee Stadium.”

“Is this your cell phone number on my caller ID in case I need to reach you?”

“Yes.”

“Thanks,” Tolya hung up. He looked at Pete. “The Stadium,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Pete pulled the car siren blaring into the intersection at 161st Street and River Avenue. There were already a half dozen other cars fanned out all over the place along with the fire department and emergency support. There was even a SWAT team. They got out of the car holding up their badges. Pete helped Olufemi’s mother out of the back seat.

“Detectives Gonzalvez and Kurchenko,” he said to the first uniform. “It’s our case. We need to get up there.”

“Go right ahead,” the uniform said. “We were expecting you.”

“Where are the sharpshooters?”

The uniform pointed to the top of the Stadium and two other buildings. “You know there’s already been one explosion.”

“Yes.” They had heard it on the police band but hadn’t gotten the details. “Where?” Tolya asked.

“Roosevelt Avenue Jackson Heights. It’s bad.”

“Let’s stop this one.”

Tolya and Pete took the subway stairs two at a time. There was a small army of uniforms on the platform. They could see the train one stop farther down the track. “I spoke with the Captain,” Pete said. “He said the MTA has shut down the system but he hasn’t been informed. We want to get him into this station. The situation in Queens is really bad.”

They watched as the train approached. “Bring his mother up,” Tolya said into his police radio.

Najid saw the crowd of blue uniforms on the platforms as he approached. He knew they had identified him and his plan. He didn’t care. He would take them with him. He slowed the train and came to a stop just past the south end of the platform. He had something he wanted to say. He would read his statement to the riders packed into the train before he blew it and himself up.

He took out the sheet of paper he had slipped into his back pocket, his grievances both personal and political. As he turned on the train’s public address system he heard someone scream his name through a bullhorn. “Najid,” his mother called out.   “Najid, stop, don’t do this,” she called out again in Yoruba.

His voice disappeared. His entire being was caught in his throat. He saw her standing there on the platform, with the cops who had come to his apartment flanking both sides of her. He began to panic.

“Najid Olufemi, step out of the train with your hands up,” came another voice on the bullhorn. His heart raced. He reached for the detonator. It would be over in a second. Then he realized he couldn’t do this with her standing there. The blast might kill her as well. He couldn’t leave his little brother an orphan.

He stepped out of the car onto the edge of the platform the detonator still in his hand. “I am ready to die,” he called out. “For Allah, for Islam.”

“Najid,” the fair-haired cop called out, “sit down on the platform. Do it now.”

He didn’t know what to do. He remained standing. His mother began walking toward him slowly. “Iya, don’t come here please.”

“I am coming to you my son. If you must die, I will die with you.”

“No, iya stay there.”

“No,” she said. She straightened herself and walked proudly toward Najid. When she reached him she took his free hand. “Go ahead, push the button, do it now, we will go to Paradise together.”

Tears flowed from Najid’s eyes down his cheeks into his mouth. “I have failed you, iya,” he whispered.

“No my son you have not, but if you do this you will have failed your father. He would never accept this from you. He would expect you to hold up your head with pride.”

“Will you forgive me for this dishonor?”

“I would forgive anything but this, my son.”

Najid let his legs slowly collapse to the floor. He wept out loud. “Tell them to come and disarm this,” he said. “Thank you, Mother.”

Najid’s mother waved toward Tolya and Pete. “Come save him,” she called to them.

“The power a mother has over her children,” Tolya said.

Pete put a hand on Tolya’s shoulder. He leaned into him and whispered, “We saved the world today, hermano.”

“Well, at least Yankee Stadium anyway.”

“Same thing.”

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