Red Mist, Chapter 11
As the sun peeked above the eastern horizon, Max Koga walked along the cracked sidewalk of 166th Street in the city of Gardena, located about a half-hour’s drive south of downtown Los Angeles. Brian Panackia, who managed Argon’s safehouses, surveilled the surrounding area from inside a beige Nissan Ariya parked a block away.
“I appreciate you coming along on such short notice, Brian, and sorry to get you up this early in the morning,” Koga said through the microphone attached to his earpiece.
Panackia, an Army veteran in his mid-forties and a seasoned mixed martial artist, laughed at the comment. “You call this early? You Navy boys are soft.”
Koga chuckled at the remark as he came upon the mold-green electric box described in Abdul Hassan’s letter.
The previous evening, Singh had established the authenticity of the photographs, confirming that they were the real deal and could only have been taken by someone inside the Aqarib's inner circle. Denise Johnson had run a deep background on Hassan that verified he was indeed the cousin of Nasim al-Ahmed. Born in Saudi Arabia and educated in the U.S., Hassan graduated from the University of Colorado with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, but was forced to return to his home country when his student visa expired. Not long afterward, he joined Al-Aqarib after the fall of ISIS, where he quickly worked his way up the ranks to become one of the organization’s five top lieutenants. Currently, he was ranked fifteenth on America’s most wanted list.
Denise had concluded that nothing in Hassan’s letter suggested that he was lying—the location of the Aqarib cell checked out, with the FBI since raiding the suburban house in Matthews, North Carolina, and apprehending five suspected jihadists. She also noted that he was versed in espionage, evidenced by his ability to suggest a technique often used to mark dead drops.
While leaving markings on public property was no longer considered a closely-guarded tradecraft for handlers to communicate with their assets, it was still an effective technique all the same, for no one would notice a random mark in a neighborhood already ripe with graffiti except the person looking for it. What piqued Koga's curiosity was how Hassan planned on making contact.
When he came upon the electrical box, Koga stopped and surveyed the area. Aside from a street cat scrummaging through an open trash bin, nothing seemed out of the ordinary, so he took out a thick yellow piece of chalk from his pocket and drew a large “X” on the face of the box. He repeated the process on all four sides, ensuring that the mark would be visible from a good distance away in every direction.
“Any movement?” Koga asked, with his hand over his mouth.
“Negative,” Panackia replied.
“Okay, I’ll walk around the block a couple of times and give him some time to think about it. If he doesn’t show by then, come and get me at the designated spot.”
“Roger that,” Panackia responded.
As Koga made his way down the street, a boy of about ten-years-old ran out of a nearby apartment complex.
“Hey mister,” he called out, prompting Max to stop and turn around.
The boy was Hispanic, with straight, dark hair and wore a Lakers jersey over a white long-sleeve T-shirt.
“Yes?” Koga answered.
The kid held out a folded piece of paper. “I’m supposed to give you this.”
Koga took the paper and opened it up. On it were the words: “Stimson Park. Midnight. Bring hard copy of agreement or no deal.”
“Who gave this to you?” Koga asked.
“Some guy with curly hair and a beard,” the boy answered. “He paid me fifty bucks to hand this to whoever drew a yellow line on that electrical box.”
“When did you see this man?”
“Yesterday, while I was playing with my friends. He gave four of us each fifty bucks to take turns waiting for you to show up. And he said you would pay the person who gave this note to you another fifty,” the kid said with an open hand.
“Have you ever seen him before?” Koga asked, handing the kid two twenties and a ten.
The boy shook his head.
“Well, thank you for this. You better get going or you’ll be late for school.”
“It’s Saturday, mister. No school today,” the boy said running back toward his home with the cash in hand.
Hassan had evidently hired the children to watch the electric box during the day, and probably recruited an adult—a homeless person, perhaps—to monitor it at night, while he himself kept a safe distance away. Clever.
“The asset just made contact. A note delivered by a kid in the neighborhood,” Koga reported. “Meeting at midnight tonight at Stimson Park. Ever heard of it?”
“I have,” replied Panackia. “It’s about forty-five minutes away from here.”
After one last look down both sides of the street, Koga started back to the parked Ariya. “I say we go check out the park before our meeting,” he said. "I'd like to make sure we're not walking into some sort of trap."