You can read part one “Pieces of a Dream | Part 1: Cabbie” here
And “Pieces of a Dream | Part 2: Pieces of a Dream” is here
Louis woke with a start. The room was dark, and his cell phone was ringing.
What time was it? Louis had been dreaming that he was riding in a personnel carrier in the southern suburbs of Baghdad, the sun beating down like a blacksmith's hammer, and someone was playing jazz on the radio as they drove. The air was thick with the smells of dust and sewage, but Louis felt oddly light, as if the personnel carrier were a plane, and they were flying high in the Iraqi sky…
The phone rang with a swinging jazz tune that Louis ordinarily liked, but was not the most welcome sound at oh dark thirty, in the middle of the night.
He found the phone on the nightstand and slid it open. “Hello?”
“Louis, it's Kadija. I'm so sorry to be calling you at this hour, but I didn't know who else to call.”
“Kadija?” Louis wondered if he was dreaming. But if he were dreaming, Kadija would be speaking in a sultry voice and feeding him grapes. On the contrary, she sounded shaken, and Louis came fully awake. “What's going on? Do you need a ride? I'm off duty, but I can give you the number of a friend who works nights. He's a good guy, someone I trust.”
“No,” she said. “It's not that. I'm so sorry, really. But someone broke into my apartment, and I'm afraid to go in.”
“Have you called the police?”
“Yes. They say it's not a high priority, and they'll come in a few hours. I'm at a neighbor's apartment now, I don't know what to do.”
“Give me your address, I'll be right over.”
Louis quickly got dressed, pulling on jeans, a long sleeved t-shirt and a dark grey woolen pea coat to ward off the chill. It was an expensive coat. He was normally very frugal, parting with his money the way a hungry man parts with his only piece of bread. But the coat was something he'd saved up for and treated himself to last Christmas, after an especially good weekend in the cab.
He jogged to his car, parked just off Cortland Avenue, the main commercial thoroughfare in Bernal Heights. The street was silent, all the quaint cafes, fruit stands and barber shops closed down, but Louis kept his eyes open. Muggings in the Heights were rare, but not unheard of.
The car was a Honda Accord, a few years old. Plain but reliable. Sometimes having a car in the city was more of a hassle than it was worth: trying to find a parking spot here in the Heights, trying not to run afoul of San Francisco's confusing tangle of parking laws, worrying about his car being broken into, and of course the expense of car ownership. Louis had thought many times about selling the vehicle and relying on public transportation, but tonight he was glad he had it.
He was on the Bay Bridge heading eastbound before he realized that he'd put on his service boots. Stupid. Old habits from a former life. He hadn't taken time to use the bathroom and now he had the urge. He pressed the pedal and increased his speed until he was going almost too fast to control the car on the windy bridge.
The wind whistled even with the windows closed, and the car rocked from left to right. The waters of the bay beneath were deep and dark as space. Lights twinkled on Treasure Island and up in the Berkeley hills. The Port of Oakland was lit up like an FOB, its huge cranes standing sentry over the restive populace. Kadija had given him an address in Oakland, near downtown.
Oakland. Crazy town. Cops never showed up there for anything less than a homicide. Or a sideshow, he thought dryly.
Louis was that rarest of creatures, a San Francisco native. Third generation, in fact. When he was in high school he used to come out to Oakland with his friends on Saturday nights to watch the sideshows in the parking lot at Eastmont Mall. Crazy scenes with cars racing and spinning donuts, music blasting, gangsters, women… until the cops would show up in force and everyone would peel out, burning rubber. He'd been lucky. Somehow he'd managed to miss the gunfights that frequently broke out.
But get the OPD to show up for a break-in? Not likely.
The address Kadija had given him turned out to be a small ground level apartment a block above the east side of Lake Merritt. The salty, brackish smell of the lake hit his nostrils when he got out of the cab. Lake Merritt was technically a saltwater estuary, with a channel that connected it to the bay, and when the water was low the air got raw and muddy.
Louis found the apartment and rang the doorbell. Kadija opened the door right away. She wore baggy blue sweats, sneakers and a white scarf with a black skullcap underneath. Her eyes were tight with worry.
Louis heard another woman's voice ask, “Is it him?” A young white woman appeared in the doorway beside Kadija. She appeared to be in her early twenties, and she looked very fit, like a runner.
“Louis, this is Leslie, my neighbor,” Kadija said.
Louis and the neighbor exchanged hellos.
“I'm so sorry to bother you, Louis,” Kadija continued. “I just didn't know who to call. I really appreciate you coming.”
Louis smiled. “No more apologies, alright? Tell me what happened.”
“I got home and the lock was broken. I was afraid to go in. I called the police and they told me that wouldn't be able to come out for two hours. Can you believe that?”
“Pff,” Louis snorted. “Be a miracle if they get here in two hours. Which apartment is it? Give me the address and I'll take a turkey peek.”
“Are you sure that's a good idea?” Kadija asked.
“Sure, it'll be fine. Which one is it?”
“It's 2-C, just upstairs.” Kadija pointed at an a small apartment building next door, up the hill a short way. It was a large house, really, that had been subdivided into four units – two downstairs and two up.
“Do you want me to come with you?” she asked.
“No, you stay here.”
Kadija looked relieved. “Okay.”
“When you approached the door earlier, did you notice if any lights were on?” Louis asked.
Kadija furrowed her brow. “Now that you mention it,” she said, “The apartment looked dark. I think that's what got my hackles up, because I always leave the light on in the entryway. Then I saw that the door had been forced, so I backed away and came down here. I'm sure they're long gone, by now. I just hope they didn't take my laptop. It's got all my work on it.”
“Huh. Better prepare yourself for the worst,” Louis said. He thought for a moment. “Tell me where the light switch is,” he said. “The first one you reach for when you walk in the door.”
“It's in the hallway,” Kadija replied. “About three feet straight in, on your right hand side.”
“Close your eyes for a sec,” Louis told her. “Imagine it's dark in your apartment, and you're reaching for the light switch. Now go ahead, reach for it.”
Kadija did so, and Louis noted the height of the switch. About chest level for him.
“One more question,” Louis said. “Is there another way in? A back door, a fire escape?”
“Yes,” Kadija replied. “There's a fire escape outside the bedroom window. But I keep the window latched.”
“Okay,” Louis said. “I'll be right back,” He walked up the hill about twenty feet, and ducked behind some bushes.
He still needed to relieve himself, and he hadn't wanted to ask to use Leslie's bathroom. He knew that in combat the urge to urinate became very strong – it was a byproduct of adrenaline release – and he didn't know what he'd be facing in the apartment. So he did it behind the bushes, feeling like a misbehaving child.
Louis quietly climbed the stairs to Kadija's apartment. The wood around the lock was splintered, perhaps by a crowbar, but the door was closed.
Louis' arms felt empty without a rifle. He reached for his service knife and realized that it wasn't there. His mind flashed to the many times he had entered and cleared buildings in those first two years, before he'd been assigned to the translators. The procedure was wired into him by now.
Scope the building remotely, determine an entry point, lay down suppressing fire, approach covered and concealed, cook off a grenade, scan the inside with a flashlight and engage the enemy, enter left as you fired right and high, as the man behind you entered right, firing left and low… keep the entry clear and mark it with a beacon… squad leader determines which room to clear next, hits it with a laser pointer and designates the fire team…
Well, he had none of those tools now. He had only a small LED flashlight that he used as a key-chain He took it out of his pocket. He turned the doorknob and pushed the door slightly open. Instantly the smell of weed hit his nostrils, and something else beneath it that reminded Louis of formaldehyde. He scanned the room with the tiny flashlight. For a fraction of a second he thought he saw movement in the back of the room. A dark figure, moving from left to right. Unbelievable, Louis thought. The nut-job is still here. Whoever it was had disappeared around the corner.
Louis' scars pricked maddeningly, but he ignored them. He took two deep breaths and entered silently. It was pitch black inside. He felt himself falling into battle mode. No emotion, no doubt, no anger. In Iraq he'd learned that you couldn't rely on rage; it burned itself out quickly, and when you were on a ten hour patrol, you needed endurance, not fire. You had to be a machine, moving, reacting, killing without passion.
If there was someone in here, their eyes would be acclimated to the dark. Louis could use that to his advantage if he moved quickly, before his own eyes adjusted.
He found the right wall and trailed the pads of two fingers along it at chest height.
Four steps in, his fingers encountered a slight ridge – the light switch plate. Louis located the switch, flicked it and dropped to a crouch.
The hallway light was probably only 60 watts but seemed brilliant after the dark. Instantly, a man stepped from around the corner on his right and swing a crowbar at the spot where Louis would have been if he were standing erect.
Louis had a quick impression of size, a muscular Hispanic man dressed in black, wearing service boots much like his own. Peripherally he picked up movement to his left as well. Two of them, at least. The Hispanic man was squinting against the hall light.
The crowbar slammed into the wall just above the light switch. Louis leaped forward from his crouch and tackled the intruder's lower legs, catching both knees and driving in with his shoulder. The big man went down hard, and the crowbar flew from his hand and clanged across the floor. At the same time someone circled a wiry arm around Louis' neck from the rear, and pulled him backwards.
The guy was strong, and he had a chemical stink – the formaldehyde smell that Louis had detected. Louis heard the sound of a button snap. A knife sheath being opened. A sudden pain blazed like fire in Louis' left shoulder. He'd been stabbed. The coat! The man had ruined his pea coat. No anger, just a distant sense of annoyance.
Louis grabbed the wrist of the arm circling his neck, and with all his strength he bent forward and dropped to his knees, tucking his head almost to the floor. The man flew over his shoulder and tumbled into the big Hispanic man.
Louis saw that the man who'd grabbed him was actually short and thin. He was a white guy, his face pale, his eyes wide. This guy was high on more than weed. Louis held onto the man's arm, and pinned it to the ground, palm to the floor, putting his knee on the elbow. The man yelled in pain and arched his back.
Louis peeled the knife out of the man's hand, but the bigger man had struggled to his feet. Before Louis could react, the large intruder kicked him squarely in the side of the face with his service boot. Louis rolled backward and came to his feet with the knife in an ice-pick grip, even as the big man kicked again, his heel thrusting toward Louis' stomach. Louis pivoted and slashed the inside of the man's leg near the knee, and without stopping slashed the man's side, moving past him. The wiry intruder was on his feet. He reached for Louis and Louis swept the knife across the man's fingers, taking satisfaction from the man's high-pitched shout of pain.
Louis was in the zone now, his eyes focused on nothing, seeing everything. He felt a tremendous cold rage fountaining up inside him.
Hot rage was no good, but cold rage was like nuclear fusion: it powered the machine.
He had his back to the wall, the two injured intruders in the hallway between him and the front door. Louis faced them in a crouch, weaving the knife back and forth, tracing a figure eight. He smelled blood and garbage, and seemed to hear the roar of gunfire. He held himself back with an effort, stopped himself from attacking and slicing these men to ribbons. “Get out,” Louis said to them in a low voice, almost a whisper. “Get out before I kill you both.”
The men ran.
Louis stood up straight and caught his breath, his chest heaving. He surveyed the room. A framed poster had been pulled from the wall, as had a wall clock. Both lay shattered on the floor. Some colorful African wall hangings had been torn from the walls and lay in heaps. The sofa had been pulled away from the wall, and all the books had been dumped from the bookshelf onto the floor. A large, half-eaten bag of potato chips was open on the coffee table. A cigarette lighter and a stubbed-out roach lay on the table next to it. What a couple of nut-jobs, Louis thought.
He went methodically from room to room, still carrying the knife, turning on lights and scanning carefully for other intruders. He checked under the bed, behind doors and in closets. It wasn't difficult, since the apartment was very small, with only the living room, one bedroom, a tiny kitchen, and a bathroom.
The other rooms were just as bad. Drawers had been pulled out and dumped, and kitchen cabinets emptied onto the floor. Pieces of a dream, he thought. He noticed a backpack on the tiny kitchen counter. It was open. A laptop computer was inside, as well as an external hard drive, a digital camera, and the kitchen silverware in a plastic bag. The burglars had apparently meant to take this stuff before Louis surprised them.
In the small bathroom, Louis set the knife beside the sink and removed his coat, noting the long slash and the wide blood stain, and wondering if the garment could be repaired.
He removed his bloodstained shirt and studied his shoulder. The wound was longer than it was deep – more of a slash than a stab – and the edges were clean. Twenty stitches, maybe.
His face ached on the side where he'd been kicked. He was lucky the kick hadn't busted his nose or teeth.
The contents of the medicine cabinet had been poured into the sink. Louis spotted a small box of band-aids He looked in the cabinet beneath the sink and found a bottle of rubbing alcohol. He turned on the bathtub faucet, washed his wound, then dressed it, grimacing at the pain.
Louis checked himself in the mirror, and washed a spot of blood off his neck. His right eye was bruised and swollen. Great, he thought. That was my good side.
He usually avoided mirrors. He hated the sight of the scars on his cheek and neck. Normally if you met some hot chick on the job or anywhere else, she'd ask you where you were from, or what you liked to do for fun, or what your sign was. Right? But with Louis, the first question was, “How'd you get that scar?” And then he'd lie, because he wasn't about to share the suck with a stranger. So any potential relationship that Louis might get into would start with a lie. What kind of way was that to live? Even worse was when chicks thought the scars were cool. “Makes you look dangerous,” they'd say.
Louis remembered the day he had gotten those scars. His platoon had been on patrol in the Triangle of Death, as it was called, south of Baghdad. Their guide was a local Sunni, probably a former insurgent himself, who claimed to know where several IEDs were hidden. Louis thought the man might be leading them into a trap, but it was always that way with locals. You never knew where anyone's loyalties lay.
They were cutting through a dirt field near an abandoned house that was known to sometimes be used by Al-Qaeda fighters. Shots rang out, and everyone scrambled for cover. Turned out later it was one of Louis' own scouts who'd gotten panicky and taken a shot at the house. But they didn't know that at the time. Louis called up three riflemen to cover the abandoned house. One of them, a sergeant named Hall, stepped on a pressure-plate IED and there was a tremendous blast. Louis felt searing pain in his face and neck and was knocked onto his back, but not before he saw the sergeant's boot – with his foot still in it – flying high in the air like a football in a game played in Hell.
Louis had struggled back to his feet, ignoring the pain all along his left side, and the blood pouring down his face. Hall was screaming, a high-pitched wail like a smoke alarm. Blood was spurting from the shredded stump of his leg. All three riflemen were down, and Louis saw the platoon medic move to help them. Louis ordered the man down, motioning everyone to remain in place. He called up their explosives specialist, a Navy man who'd been assigned to the platoon. The specialist used a hi-tech sniffer – Louis didn't know how it worked, it was classified – to check the area for additional explosive material. Louis waited, watching the spurts of blood from Hall's leg get smaller and smaller, like a fountain running dry, aware that his men were watching as well. Hall's screams descended into moans. They called in a chopper and it came under fire on approach. Louis' men laid down cover fire. The chopper descended, rotors thrumming, dust flying everywhere, the smells of garbage, gunpowder and blood mixing in Louis' nose like an evil cocktail, rifles rattling and popping in a crescendo of noise… Hall was pronounced dead at the field hospital.
Louis knew that Hall had suffered massive internal injuries in the blast and would never have survived. It didn't help. He'd as good as killed the man. The image of Hall dying was like a hot coal embedded in his brain, charring everything around it. He could feel the heat of it rippling out, turning his scars into lines of fire, blackening his heart, and spreading along his nerve fibers.
He looked at his reflection square on. His right hand tensed into a fist, and he punched the mirror. It shattered, and several large pieces of glass fell into the sink. Louis' hand flared in pain, and he saw a small shard of glass embedded between his knuckles. He pulled it out, and treated the wound. He slung the backpack on his good shoulder, tucked the knife into his coat pocket, and grabbed the crowbar on the way out, being careful to step around the spatters of blood in the hallway.
The women must have been watching from the window, because they opened the door as he approached.
“Are you okay?” Kadija called. When he neared, she gasped. “Oh no, you're hurt! We need to get you to a hospital.”
“No,” Louis said. “I mean yes, but it can wait. Let me come in and sit down. Could you bring me an ice pack for my eye?”
“Of course,” Leslie said.
Louis sat in a stuffed chair, as Kadija and Leslie sat on the sofa. The apartment smelled of fresh coffee. It was a good scent and made his mouth water. He set the backpack on a wooden coffee table, and the crowbar beside it. “Kadija, look in that backpack.”
“But what happened?” Kadija insisted. “How did you get hurt. How bad is it?”
Louis explained what had transpired. He extracted the bloody knife from his coat pocket and set it on the table. Leslie, who had returned with the ice pack, covered her mouth with her hand. Kadija's eyes went wide and her mouth opened. Louis told them about the condition of the apartment. “They might have been looking for cash, or gold, or a safe,” Louis speculated.
“What idiots,” Kadija said. “There's no safe, and no cash. And look at this.” She took the silverware out of the backpack. “This isn't real silver. They're just ordinary forks and spoons from Target, for goodness sake.”
“These guys were not exactly criminal geniuses,” Louis said. “They were sitting around in the dark, smoking pot and eating your potato chips.”
“Oh my God!” Kadija exclaimed. “La hawla wa la quwwata il-la billah. How bizarre.”
“What you said,” Louis remarked. “Also, the skinny one was pale and zoned out, and stronger than he should have been for his size. Adrenalized, or more likely high on PCP. And he smelled strange… The big guy seemed healthy enough.” He paused. “Actually,” he said, “He struck me as military, or ex-military. That's not so strange in itself, I suppose. I've heard of lots of vets going to the dark side, getting involved in crime. Oh, and um….” Louis rolled his tongue between his upper teeth and his lip.
“What?” Kadija asked. “Something else?”
“Your bathroom mirror is shattered as well.”
“You're kidding, they broke the mirror too? subḥānAllāh, what freaks. I guess there's no explaining what people do on drugs.”
“Actually…” Louis considered lying. Kadija would never know. But he was sick of lies. He tucked his chin into his shoulder and looked down at the rectangular, Navajo-patterned rug on the floor, holding the ice pack to his eye. “I broke the mirror.”
“I don't know. I was in the bathroom cleaning my wound and…” Louis shrugged. “I didn't like what I saw. I'm sorry. I'll pay for the mirror.”
“Oh, Louis,” Kadija said. “Listen to me.”
Louis studied the Navajo rug.
“Louis?” Kadija said kindly but insistently.
Louis glanced pointedly at Leslie, who seemed to suddenly wake from a trance. She stood and said, “Would you like some coffee? I'll get you some.”
Louis finally met Kadija's eyes. He was startled to see tears on her cheeks.
“I don't care about the mirror,” Kadija said softly. “I am deeply grateful to you. You risked your life to help me. And you saved my computer and hard drive!” Kadija laughed and wiped away her tears with the sleeve of her sweatshirt. “I've been working on a book for two years and the only copies I have are on this laptop and this hard drive… Alright,” she continued in a matter-of-fact tone, “Let's get you over to Highland Hospital. And don't even try to tell me that I'm not going with you. We're taking your car, and I'm driving.”
You can read part 4, “A Bigger Trip”, here.