I FOLLOWED THE kidnapper’s instructions through Washington Heights and on deeper into Harlem. As we turned off Broadway at St. Nicholas Avenue, we passed a series of enormous housing projects that were as stark and depressing as warehouses in an industrial plant.
Bulletproof windows began to appear on the corner delis and Chinese takeouts. It looked a lot like the section of the Bronx where we’d found Jacob Dunning.
I was on another magical misery tour of the inner city, complete with constant narration.
“Take a good look around, Mike,” the kidnapper said. “Remember the War on Poverty? Poverty won. African Americans and Latino immigrants were lured into the cities because of jobs, and then the jobs moved away with all the white people. The racial and economic inequality that still exists in this country makes me physically sick sometimes.
“It’s not just here, either. Look at places like Newark, Pittsburgh, St. Louis. It’s the twenty-first century, and still there’s a lack of decent employment and no shortage of discrimination toward people of color.”
“Where to now?” I said.
“You’re getting warm. Make a left onto One Hundred and Forty-first, a left onto Bradhurst, and a right onto One Hundred and Forty-second,” the kidnapper said.
At 142nd, a single, leaning brownstone stood on the corner of a mostly rubble-filled lot. I slowed, scanning its surrounding weeds. I spotted a diaper, a mattress, and a rusty shopping cart but, thankfully, no Chelsea.
“Go to two-eight-six. That’s where she is, Mike. Time for me to go. Tell Mom I said hi,” he said and hung up.
I rapidly scanned the buildings and screeched to a stop in front of the address. I jumped out of the car and stared up at the onion-shaped dome above the three-story building in front of me.
“It’s a mosque,” I radioed our backup. “I repeat. We’re at two-eight-six One Hundred and Forty-second Street. It’s on the north side of the street. We can’t wait. We’re going in the front.”
We opened a pair of elaborate doors and rushed into a large, shabby, definitely unchic lobby. It looked like the mosque had been converted from an old movie theater.
“Hello?” I called as we entered an open area where the seats had once been. There were windows in its walls now, and the floor was covered in Oriental rugs. It must be the prayer room, I figured. The light-filled space was divided in half by a large lace screen, and one of the walls was covered in elaborate tile.
A stocky black man wearing a bright green, red, and yellow kufi on his head appeared in a doorway at the other end of the room. He hurried over, shock and anger in his face.
“Who are you? What are you doing here? You’re not allowed in here. Your shoes! You can’t wear shoes here in the mussalah. Are you crazy? Can’t you see this is a holy place?”
I showed him my shield.
“I’m with the police department. We’re looking for a girl who was-”
That’s when the Muslim man grabbed me violently by the lapels of my suit jacket.
“I don’t care who you are,” he cried, dragging me toward the door. “This is a sacrilege! Get out of here now! You have no right to do this!”
As we were busy struggling, I remembered the Harlem mosque incident in the seventies in which an NYPD cop had been killed. A police community conflict was all we needed now in the middle of a kidnapping.
A moment later, the muscular man suddenly fell to his side. Emily had tripped him somehow and now had her knee in his back as she ratcheted her cuffs onto his wrists. I helped her pull the hysterical man to his feet.
“Sir,” Emily said. “Please calm yourself. We’re sorry about the shoe mistake. We were unaware and apologize. We are law enforcement officers looking for a kidnapped girl. We were told she was here. Please help us. A young girl’s life is at stake.”
“I see,” he said. “I’m Yassin Ali, the imam here. I lost my temper. Of course, I’ll do anything to help.”
Emily undid his cuffs, and he guided us back out into the foyer.
“You say a girl is being held here?” he said, staring at us in disbelief. “But that’s impossible. There hasn’t been anyone here since morning prayer. What’s this girl’s name? Is she a member of the congregation?”
I showed him Chelsea ’s picture.
“A white girl?” he said, perplexed. “No. There’s no way. There must be a mistake.”
“Has anything out of the ordinary occurred today? Anything that might direct us to where this girl could be?” I said. “Any deliveries or-?”
“No.” Then something flashed in his eyes.
“Actually, yes. When I came in, I heard a loud noise from the side of the building, where my office is. There’s an alley between us and the construction site next door. I thought maybe one of the workers had dumped some debris again, but when I looked out, there was nothing.”
“Please show us,” Emily said. “We don’t have a moment to waste.”