This story picks up where “The Deal” left off. If you have not read that story, please go back and do so, then read this one. Caution: contains violence.
January 2010 – San Francisco, California
As Hassan rode away from the park, he turned and gave Jamilah a raised-fist salute. He felt slightly silly doing it, but the old symbol of resistance and liberation still meant something, didn't it? The struggle for freedom and human rights continued around the world – even if nowadays most people thought of the oppressors as freedom fighters, and vice versa. Independence of thought was a rare commodity. That was one great thing about Jamilah: she chose her own path, and she was a fighter.
Hassan himself was not in any fight. Not anymore. He felt deeply for the Muslims of Palestine, Chechnya, Myanmar, East Turkestan… the list of oppressed Muslim peoples was long. A part of him felt that he should be using his skills to save his brothers and sisters, even if that mean saving only one soul. Maybe a time would come when he must live and die on that path. But for now his soul needed peace. He had seen too much bloodshed, done too much evil, and pulled the trigger too many times. He needed a placid life, neither harming nor being harmed. Laa darara wa laa dirar, in the words of the Prophet, peace be upon him. There should be neither harming nor reciprocating harm.
That was what his wife Lena would have wanted for him, he was sure.
He would do what he could with his money, rather than his fists. More could be done with cash in any case. For several years now he'd been the primary sponsor of an orphanage in Indonesia that cared for victims of the 2004 tsunami. He kept many things hidden from his friends, but this was a good secret. He held on to it like a lifeline, and offered it to Allāh as a penance and a plea. Often, lying on his sleeping mat at night, he let his thoughts dwell on the children of the orphanage, many of whom he knew by name and whose faces he could picture from the photos he'd seen. Saleem, with a big smile and curly black hair. Munirah, who liked to make dolls out of palm fibres.
Sometimes he thought the orphanage and his martial arts class were the only things he'd ever done that justified his existence on this planet. All the rest of his life was a waste.
Hassan remembered visiting an old Roman ruin on the outskirts of Beirut. Some of the ancient stones and pillars stood tall and proud in the Lebanese sun, while others had succumbed to the ravages and pressures of time and were tumbled over each other like fallen trees. Still others were pockmarked by gunfire or had been destroyed by shells. Across the street stood a lovely art-deco apartment building, its facade carved with a sunburst design and tall faux pillars. It seemed to mock or mimic the old Roman ruins. That contrast exemplified the schizophrenia of Beirut – a clashing mixture of the old and the new, constantly dying and rebirthing itself. Thousands of years of serial civilizations, each built upon the detritus of the last, had lived and died here. And yet Beirutis lived in the moment by default, for the Lebanese were haunted by the past and disbelieving in the future.
Hassan felt the same way. His soul was full of buried ruins. How many times had he risen from his own ashes? Level on top of level, each with its own secrets. His emotions tumbled like those ancient Roman stones.
What would he do about Jamilah? Lately he thought about her every day, and sometimes dreamed about her. He had an ache, a yearning to be loved and held again. Marrying Jamilah, waking up next to her in the morning, sharing his life with her, would be like inhabiting a blessed garden on earth.
He remembered a poem from his father's first collection, mouthing the words as he rode along Pacific, heading for Columbus:
Shrugging off doubts.
Wistful for a house
I've seen in dreams.
A green garden
and a woman with kind eyes.
A Western sky
and a bell of brass.
A wall that evil cannot pass;
a patch of sunlight on the grass;
a place to live and laugh.
His father had written that shortly after Hassan himself had been born, and for years his father had strived to realize that dream. In the end he had failed.
Was it a betrayal of Hassan's own past to want this for himself? Was it a betrayal of Lena? Was it selfish to want a life like anyone else? He didn't know.
For years he'd simply been existing. Managing his investments, teaching classes, praying, and hiding in plain sight, which was all the messenger gig was really about. He'd been on autopilot, but he'd been okay with that, because life had been peaceful. More and more he'd come to realize that peace was worth any degree of ennui. Then Jamilah had come along.
Jamilah was so strong. Her faith shone brightly as a full moon. The way she had plunged herself into Islam, unshakeable in her commitment… Hassan remembered when he himself had been on fire that way, ready to do anything that the Qurʾān and the Prophet demanded. No doubts, no weaknesses. He still had no doubts about the truth of Islam – what could possibly be real in this crazy world if not Allāh? – but as he got older he found himself less and less certain of everything else. What was his mission in life? Where was he heading?
Of course Jamilah was vulnerable in her way, and that appealed to Hassan. He knew this about himself, that he was most attracted to women who were struggling to survive, but who were also self-assured and no-nonsense. It struck him that Jamilah needed to be saved, but could save him as well. He could rescue her and be rescued at the same time. Jamilah would pry him open and expose all his secrets to the sunshine.
How much of it is just good old-fashioned attraction? Hassan asked himself. Jamilah was a lovely young Arab woman. She was a warrior at heart, and Hassan could think of nothing that would give him greater pleasure in this life than to make her his wife and hold her in his arms. But it seemed an impossible fantasy.
Hassan considered. He had a class to teach after work, and then he'd see Jamilah and the others. Tuesday nights were Tu-Lan nights, when a handful of Hammerhead Courier's employees gathered at the tiny Vietnamese restaurant on 6th Street to eat and talk. Maybe it was time to tell Jamilah certain truths.
But how could he? His past was a package deal. It was all or nothing. How could he tell her the truth about his family, his nationality, his history? She would hate and revile him, and rightly so.
To be hated by Jamilah would be like having his center hollowed out and discarded. He'd be a human Jack-o-lantern. But it would also feel proper, like karma swinging around after all these years and sledgehammering him to his knees.
Leave it in Allāh's hands, Hassan thought. He said these words to himself often lately. The words were comforting, but were they an abdication of his own responsibility to make choices?
No. Trusting Allāh was never a cop-out. Surrendering to Him was the only way to live, as long as you kept on striving. Hassan believed that down to his bones.
Heading up Columbus, he approached Broadway. He'd take the Broadway tunnel to the far side of Russian Hill, coast down to Van Ness, cruise Lombard to Baker and then up a few blocks to the Russian consulate on Green, avoiding the steep ups and downs of Pacific Heights. He chuckled, remembering the joke that Muḥammad had told when he'd dispatched the Russian consulate tag just before lunch. “One Russian asked another if he thought there was life on other planets. The second one said, 'Of course not! No life here, no life there.'”
Just as Hassan was about to turn onto Broadway, his radio squawked and Jen's voice blared, “Five nine, what's your twenty?”
“Five nine at City Lights,” Hassan replied as he passed the famous bookstore founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Hassan often went there to read poetry. “Heading for the tunnel to drop the Russian.”
“Turn around,” Jen said. “Cash and MacNamara at the Pyramid, 22nd floor, has a rush for the Lebanese consulate in Cow Hollow, 2600 Green. Delivery to the consul or his personal secretary only. We need a signature and printed name. Pick it up and call when you're clean.”
“Check.” Hassan had a fleeting moment of admiration for Jen's ability as a dispatcher. He hadn't spoken to her since before his lunch break, but she'd just handed him a juicy rush with a pickup only two blocks from his present location, and heading to the same area as his current job. He could swear sometimes that the woman was telepathic. She was also quite young to be working as a dispatcher. Twenty maybe, twenty one? She could be anything she wanted in life, Hassan was sure: air traffic controller, chess champion or army general, managing the movement of men and material around the world. Maybe she would be; she had time.
As he made a quick u-turn and coasted down to the TransAmerica Pyramid, his brain registered for the first time what Jen had given him. The Lebanese consulate. He pulled up to the base of the Pyramid and locked his bike to a pole. He needed a moment to think.
He walked around the side of the Pyramid and entered through a small gate to a hidden oasis beneath a grove of towering redwood trees. Many San Franciscans, even those who worked in this area, did not know about this incredible grove of trees in the shadow of the Pyramid. Hassan sat on a bench beneath the leafy giants. Beside him bubbled a large fountain adorned with small brass statues of frogs leaping from lily pads.
A visit to the Lebanese consulate would be a risk. His entire life for the last several years had been about minimizing such risks. Hiding in plain sight was still hiding. He felt his breathing quicken and realized that his jaws were clenched and his shoulders hunched, as if anticipating a blow to the head. He needed to calm himself.
He slowed his breathing, taking in the rich, earthy smell of the redwood trees. He forced himself to breathe zazen, a kind of meditative practice that he had learned from his Jujitsu sensei many years ago. Sensei Jamil had been a lean, dark-skinned African-American brother with angular features and a bright grin. He carried a prayer cloth folded and draped over one shoulder and greeted everyone with a warm handshake. Nonetheless, no one ever made the mistake of thinking him soft. There was a lurking power in his easy gait, and his smile did not quite melt the icy strength in his eyes.
Hassan had met Jamil Hakeem Qawi during one of the darkest periods in his life. Jamil had taught Hassan to quiet his emotions by observing them as if from a distance, acknowledging and experiencing them, then letting them pass like clouds in a night sky. In traditional zazen one counted breaths, but Jamil had turned it into an Islamic practice by uttering one barely audible syllable of laa ilaaha-il-Allāh on each breath. Inhale… exhale with laaa… inhale… exhale with ilahaaa… inhale… exhale with illl… inhale… exhale with Allahhh. And repeat until one's mind became still.
As Hassan breathed and consciously relaxed his shoulders and neck, he considered. He could pass off both the consulate deliveries to someone else – trade off with another courier, maybe, without telling Jen. That was the smart thing to do.
But Jen might dispatch concurrent tags, and then everyone's time would be wasted. Hassan would be on his way down Third Street or the Mission and Jen would unwittingly give him a Pac Heights tag in the opposite direction, or a pickup in the Marina where the consulates were located.
He allowed his gaze to travel up the tapering height of the 48-floor, iconic tower. His apprehension faded away, borne into the air with his breath, and a smile spread over his face. What a beautiful city this was. His years here had been the most comfortable and anxiety-free of his life, by far. Hasbun-Allahu wa ne'm Al-Wakeel. Allāh is enough for us, and the best in Whom to trust.
The Lebanese consulate it was, then. He'd drop the package, get the sig and that would be that, right? No one would look twice at a lowly bike messenger.
Hassan often rode the Broadway tunnel at street level eastbound, where the tunnel sloped downhill and he could outrun the traffic behind him if he timed it right. But even he was not crazy enough to attempt it westbound, going uphill. The tunnel consisted of a pair of narrow tubes that burrowed beneath the towering peak of Russian Hill for the equivalent of five city blocks. Each poorly lit tube contained two tightly spaced vehicle lanes with no shoulder. The traffic noise inside was like a jet engine as cars reached speeds of 60mph before exiting the other end. There was nowhere for a cyclist to go, no escape. If he was hit he'd be crushed and mangled like a grasshopper beneath a boot.
It was too much of a risk. He would ride on the elevated pedestrian walkway instead. It was narrow, and filthy with accumulated exhaust, and if he encountered a pedestrian he'd have to wait, or ask them to flatten against the wall to let him pass. It was a hassle.
Indeed, he soon found himself stuck behind a frail-looking elderly woman carrying two grocery sacks and making her way laboriously up the pedestrian catwalk. She wore flat brown shoes that had seen better days, and an old brown coat. Her white-haired head bobbed from side to side as she shuffled steadily up the tunnel. Hassan wasn't sure what to do. The woman never looked back, and with the noise in the tunnel she undoubtedly didn't know he was there. Trying to pass would startle her – she might even fall. Coming to a decision, he dismounted his bike and tapped the woman on the shoulder.
She turned quickly, alarmed, and almost stumbled. Hassan gripped her arm to steady her.
“Ma'am, can I help you with your bags?” he said in a loud voice, indicating the bags and smiling as charmingly as he could.
The woman peered at Hassan and smiled. “Why, aren't you a sweetie!” she said, handing him her bags. “And so cute in your little outfit. Where are you headed?”
“Making deliveries, ma'am,” Hassan said. “I'm a bike messenger.”
“Oh, is that a job?” the old woman said. “I never heard of that before.”
Hassan bungeed the bags carefully onto his rear bike rack and began walking, pushing the bike and keeping to a slow saunter. As he and the old lady walked they carried on a loud conversation, trying to make themselves heard over the booming traffic noise. Hassan learned that the woman had lived in Germany as a young woman, and had come to the United States on her own after World War II. He wondered if she were a Holocaust survivor, but he was too shy to ask such a personal question.
Once they were through the tunnel Hassan handed the woman back her bags, accepted a grandmotherly pat on the shoulder and went on his way, riding as hard as he could. The stroll with the old lady had cost him ten minutes. The Russian embassy tag was a two-hour rag, but the Lebanese was a rush, and both were ticking toward expiration.
Two long and disorganized lines of people bumped elbows at the Russian consulate. Hassan had been there before and the place was always chaotic. People would enter and shout, “Who's last in line?” in either English or Russian (at least he assumed that's what they were saying in Russian).
Couriers never waited in lines. Hassan went straight to the window and said, “Delivery. I need a signature.”
“You must to wait in line,” the functionary behind the window said in heavily accented English. He was a heavyset man with thick glasses and coffee-stained teeth. His nose was crisscrossed with burst blood vessels – the effect of a lifetime of vodka binging, no doubt.
“No line,” Hassan said. “I'm a courier. I need a signature.”
“All must wait,” the man said. “Read sign.”
Hassan sighed internally. Beaurocrats. Should he try to loosen the man up with Muḥammad's joke? No, he'd botch it and create an international incident. Instead he gave the clerk a serious look and said, “Listen my friend. If I have to wait you'll be billed, and then your boss will want to know what the extra charges were for. Plus, I actually have two things for you.” Hassan reached into his bag and rooted for a pack of Life Saver candies he'd purchased just an hour ago, before his lunch with Jamilah. “One,” he said, setting the Life Savers on the counter. “Delicious capitalist treat. Just for you, because I like your attention to detail. Two” – he set the envelope and signature sheet on the counter – “delivery.”
“Ho ho, funny man,” the bureaucrat said, decidedly not laughing. “Like Easter Bunny, da? Okay, give me.” He took the delivery and the candies and signed. “We Russians are capitalists too now, you know.”
“Da,” Hassan said, exercising his limited Russian. “Shasliva! Be happy.”
Standing in front of the Lebanese consulate, Hassan swept his gaze over the steep bulk of Pacific Heights behind him, then turned his face to look across the Bay at Alcatraz Island. The sky above was high and clear as glass, with only a few wispy clouds. A crisp wind blew off the Bay and made Hassan's windbreaker snap like a battle flag. He passed his hand over his face, feeling the light stubble on his cheeks, and smoothing his goatee. One thing he'd never lost through all his adventures and heartbreaks was his innate sense of curiosity. Sometimes he felt that life was like a serialized novel, with constant surprises and revelations. Al-harakah barakah, as his father used to say. Movement is a blessing. Love, tragedy, life, death – was there anything more fascinating than simply being alive and seeing what tomorrow would bring?
Just before entering the consulate Hassan scanned the street quickly as was his habit, and saw something that stopped him in mid-stride. A wealthy-looking woman in a cream-colored cashmere coat was two steps away from stepping off the curb into Green Street, unaware that a 30-foot Muni bus was barrelling up the right lane toward her. The woman was immersed in her smartphone – no doubt checking her email or whatever people did with these ridiculous devices – and did not see that the crossing light was red.
Hassan dashed toward her, calling, “Ma'am!” The woman did not look up. Hassan was sure that he was about to witness her death. In one second she would go flying through the air, her bones crushed like chalk. She began to step off the curb and the bus sounded its horn loudly. The woman looked up in panic but could not stop her forward motion – when Hassan reached her and yanked her backward by one arm. The bus struck the heel of the woman's shoe and it flew off her foot as she sat hard on the cold sidewalk. The bus roared on, not even slowing.
“Oh my God,” the woman said, sitting with splayed legs on the sidewalk, her hands flat against the hard cement. She looked right and left along the sidewalk.
“Where's my phone?” she muttered, seemingly to herself.
“Ma'am,” Hassan said, reaching out a hand. “Are you alright? Can I help you up?”
The woman looked up and saw Hassan for the first time. She was an attractive blonde in her early 40's perhaps. A San Francisco professional, on top of the world. Probably a financial analyst, or a jeweler, or maybe a real estate agent to the local software and internet magnates.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, thank you.” She reached out with a trembling hand and Hassan took it, lifting her to her feet. As soon as she set her left foot down she cried out in pain and almost stumbled. She reached out for Hassan and grabbed his shoulder to steady herself. The woman looked down at her feet, one shod and the other flat, only a black stocking between her flesh and the chilly cement. “Where's my shoe?” she said in bewilderment.
“The bus hit it,” Hassan explained. “How's your foot? Can you move it?”
The woman moved her foot from side to side and up and down, wincing as she did so.
“It hurts,” she said, “but I think it's just a sprained ankle. I'm okay.” She let go of Hassan's shoulder and stood on her own.
“Hold on,” Hassan said. He jogged out to the middle of the intersection and retrieved her white high-heeled shoe. Handing it to the woman, he pointed to some scattered plastic and glass debris in the gutter. “I'm guessing that's your phone,” he said. “It almost cost you your life.”
“Oh my God,” the woman exclaimed again as she put on her scuffed shoe. “You saved my life!” She stared at Hassan. “Why did you do that?”
The woman wasn't making sense. She might be in shock, Hassan thought. “Look,” Hassan said. “Let me flag you a cab. You should go to the hospital and have your ankle x-rayed.”
Clarity seemed to return to the woman's eyes and she stood up straight, passing her hands over her hair as if to clear away a cobweb. “It's alright,” she said, smiling at Hassan. “I'm fine. What's your name, young man?”
“Well, Hassan,” the woman said, pronouncing it Ha-sahn. She removed a white leather pocketbook from her coat pocket and took out an embossed business card and an expensive-looking silver pen. She wrote something on the card and handed it to Hassan. “I'm Melanie Carter. You call me sometime and we'll go out to dinner, on me. It's the least I can do for the dashing young man who saved my life.”
Hassan was flummoxed. No doubt the woman simply wanted to express her gratitude, but he had no time to explain Islamic mores, and he didn't want to be rude.
“I'll think about that Miss Carter,” he said.
“Call me Melanie, please!” the woman insisted.
“Okay. But right now I have to go. I have a rush delivery for the consulate here. At least go home and ice your ankle and rest it, alright? And hey, umm….”
“Yes?” Melanie smiled widely. Her teeth were white as pearls.
“Keep your head up.”
The woman gave Hasan a quizzical look, then laughed. There was something very open and sincere about her laugh. “I'll do that,” she said.
Hassan turned and entered the Lebanese consulate, slipping Melanie Carter's business card into his pocket.
The Lebanese civil war was over, but the consulate was still fortified. Concrete pillars had been installed around the building to stop suicide car bombers. Hassan had to pass through a metal detector staffed by two uniformed security guards and allow his bag to be searched.
Hassan didn't like being searched. It made him feel guilty, even when he had nothing to hide. Perhaps because he had been through it so many times, and often in the worst of conditions, where – if the search turned up something the guards didn't like – the consequences would be dire. Nevertheless, he carried himself with a confident, businesslike air, nodding at the guards and holding his bag open for inspection.
He had no reason to be nervous, after all. He would make the delivery, get the signature, and be out of here in five minutes. Right?
At the same moment, 7,000 miles away in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon
The six foot tall, blonde-haired man known to his closest colleagues as Mr. Green and to everyone else as The Partridge, applied a pair of steel alligator clips to the ears of the terrified Palestinian fighter strapped to the cold steel table.
Green was not the torturer's real name, of course. That was long forgotten, beaten out of him in the Kataeb's secret assassins' training camp for children, where he had been known only as cadet 64. He had grown up in the camp, schooled in the arts of killing and torture. Graduates of the camp became Kopis – members of an elite brotherhood of assassins and torturers, named after the curved blade used by the ancient Phoenicians for war and slaughter.
His instructors and tormentors – for the training had always been merciless, and he could not count how many times he had been waterboarded, confined or beaten as a child – had come from many backgrounds. They included Israelis, Lebanese and even the odd European. Each was, in his own particular way, a master of the application of pain and death.
The Partridge had no memories before age ten or so. He knew nothing of his parentage or ancestry. It did not matter. He needed no one and nothing.
For a long time his only family had been his fellow Kopis, and his only loyalty to the Kataeb Party – the right-wing Phalange organization and militia dedicated to the purification of Lebanon from foreign scum – and to the Haddad clan that ruled the party. He'd been a true believer in the Kataeb's mission to rid Lebanon of Palestinians and maintain the dominance of the Maronite people.
In recent years, though, after seeing founding members make war on one another and even slaughter one another's families, his fanatical dedication had been replaced by cutting cynicism. As he approached his thirtieth birthday he had come to feel that his only true obligation was to himself. Only personal power – and an utter lack of moral restraint – could keep one safe in this hellish world.
As for his name, it was a private joke. Years ago, one particularly sadistic trainer named Pascale – perhaps resenting cadet 64's unusually deep green eyes – had named him Puke for Eyes. Thereafter cadet 64 had been forced to respond to that filthy moniker, under threat of beating or worse. And there had been much, much worse at times. He did not like to remember the tortures and the… the other thing.
In the end, though, he had triumphed. At the age of fourteen, on an extended training patrol with Pascale, he waited until the man slept, chloroformed him with a homemade mixture and killed him.
Upon graduation, every Kopis chose his own name. Cadet 64 took the name Green as a way of turning the long-time insult on its head. As for his code name – the Partridge – it came much later, paid for with the blood of the dead.
He brought his attention back to the man on the table. The subject could not protest, as the Partridge had severed his vocal chords. Nor could the man look into the Partridge's green eyes, since his own eyes had been removed. But he could feel, and he knew the meaning of the clamps.
The Partridge had sliced the man's vocal chords not because someone might hear – the room was soundproofed, and no one would dare interrupt his work in any case – but because he knew that noises above 85 decibels could permanently damage one's hearing. He had personally measured the human scream under torture at 120 decibels. He had to consider his health.
He'd been taught to keep his body strong. He ate only healthy foods, and ran at least five kilometers every morning. In the camp he had been trained extensively in martial arts and had been the best fighter in his age group. For the last several years, however, he had focused his attention on an exploration of exotic torture techniques, from the “brazen bull” of ancient Greece to the “heretic's fork” once employed by the Spanish inquisition. He enjoyed replicating such devices for use in his own work. Much could be learned from the brilliant torturers of the past, especially the church, whose innovations in the field were inspiring. The Partridge only regretted that he could never publish the results of his studies. He had to content himself with the recognition of his subjects.
As he worked he listened to the soulful voice of Umm Kulthum, emanating from a small CD player on a nearby table. Arak asey al-dami', she sang. I see you refusing to cry.
The current subject had been on the table for two days. It was unlikely he would last another day. When the Partridge was done with him, he would have the man's body incinerated and would carry the ashes home to his villa on the slopes of Jabal Eddin. Two years ago he'd planted 1,000 grape vines, and the harvest would soon be ready. With its limestone soils and high elevation, this part of Lebanon was perfect for wine grapes. To top it off, the Partridge had a secret weapon: the ashes of his victims had been tilled into the soil, adding nutrients that would yield a rich, full-bodied wine grape. He would bottle the wine and label it Mont Dena. He beamed, imagining the praise his wine would receive from local enophiles and collectors.
In addition, it would make a good cover for his occasional overseas assassinations. He would be a respected vintner, traveling the world to market his boutique wine.
The man strapped to the table was a captain in Fatah al-Islam, an organization based in the crowded Palestinian refugee camps inside Lebanon. The Partridge had long ago extracted what little information of worth the man possessed. But one had to respect the process, yes? One must be thorough. Besides, these were the moments that the Partridge lived for. There was no true power but pain. Everything else was fantasy and delusion. The only measure of the effectiveness of one's existence was the ability to inflict suffering. As for killing, it was the only action that brooked no argument. It was the one objective reality in this world.
He felt no sympathy for the man on the table. He was a Palestinian, and a Muslim to boot. The Palestinians were an infestation on Lebanese soil. Communists and vermin, all of them. Beasts on two legs, as one-time Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin had said.
With the clamps attached, the Partridge flicked a switch to send an electric current through a set of cables into the man's ears. The Palestinian's body arched to the limits that the leather straps would allow. Umm Kulthum's voice rose in time with the man's body as the accompanying violins poured forth their sorrow and heartbreak. The Partridge raised his arms to the ceiling, feeling like an artist himself, fully alive and fully in control.
For a guide to all of Wael's stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.