By Wael AbdelGawad
This is part 2 in a multipart series. You can find Part #1 here
The Lebanese consulate building was much smaller than the Russian consulate, with only a few people applying for visas or waiting to have their passports renewed.
Again Hassan bypassed the line. “Personal delivery for the consul or his secretary,” he announced.
No one asked him to wait in line this time. A tall, thin clerk with a thick moustache looked up from his paperwork. “The secretary is out to lunch,” he said. “Come back tomorrow.”
Some things were the same no matter where you went. “This is a 30 minute rush from a legal firm downtown,” Hassan said in a clipped tone. “Obviously something important for the consul himself. You want me to take it back? Okay, I'll do that. What's your full name, please?”
The clerk looked alarmed. “Never mind,” he said. “The consul is in.” He waved Hassan to a guarded door on the right and spoke to the uniformed guard in Arabic, saying, “Escort him to the consul.” A buzzer sounded. The guard opened the door and Hassan followed. The guard led Hassan to an office at the end of the hallway, and ushered him through the open door.
Hassan glanced around the large, sunlit office. Against one wall stood a beautiful cherry wood hutch and bookshelf. In the corner the Lebanese flag hung limply from a small pole. On the other side of the room stood a huge aquarium brimming with colorful tropical fish. Hassan knew a thing or two about fish. There were tetras, various types of mollies, rainbowfish, and a few rosy barbs.
“It is beautiful, is it not?”
The hair stood up on Hassan's arms and all his muscles tensed. He felt as if a ghost had just walked through his body. He knew that voice. In the past he had heard that voice speaking Arabic only, not the French-accented English that the man employed now. But there was no doubt.
He turned his attention to the man who sat behind a polished cherry wood desk backed by a bay window. The consul. Sarkis.
Hassan felt the blood rush to his face. A small muscle at the corner of his mouth began to twitch, and he struggled to keep his expression impassive. Sarkis' formerly lean frame had gone to fat, and the mop of curly brown hair that Hassan remembered was gone, replaced by a receding hairline with a short fringe. The lines along the sides of the mouth had deepened, and the one-time soldier's moustache had been shaved.
But the eyes were the same. They were mocking black eyes, haughty and superior. Why had Hassan never noticed the contempt in those eyes? The eyes of the man who had shot him in the back and left him for dead in the borderlands of Syria and Turkey all those years ago. Possibly the man who had killed the woman Hassan loved, and her unborn child – Hassan's child. Hassan had not seen Lena's killing, but it would have been this man, or someone under his command.
The ground seemed to move beneath his feet, as if this office were a small boat on a violent sea. The bay window distorted and dissolved, and became instead a memory of a painting in a place far away, both in distance and in time.
He remembered the day, many years ago, when he'd come home to find Lena dead. Unable to look at her, he had instead turned his eyes to a painting on the wall. The painting, one of Hassan's favorites, had depicted a sailing ship steering directly into a massive, greenish wave. The wave towered like a watery skyscraper as the ship climbed straight up its side, its passage marked by a thin, knife cut of a wake. The ship's captain was either hopelessly brave or simply mad. Maybe both. Hassan had always told Lena it was a masterpiece, one of her best works.
He stood there for a long time that day, memorizing every brushstroke of that painting. As long as he fixated on the painting he would not have to look down at the floor, where he knew what he would see: Lena in an impossibly large pool of blood, a sea of blood, motionless.
“Is something wrong?” the consul said.
Hassan had a moment of confusion as he returned to the present moment. San Francisco. The consulate. Sarkis. He fought for control, chastising himself for the moment of weakness. He plastered an artificial grin on his face and met the consul's frowning gaze.
“Sorry dude,” he said, faking a languid surfer's drawl. “Got woozy there for a sec. Been ridin' all day, haven't had lunch. Hey, you shouldn't have those rosy barbs in there.” He jerked his thumb in the direction of the aquarium. “The red fish with the black spots? They're, like, way aggressive, you know? They'll bite the other tropicals.”
“Oh, really?” The man smiled, amused. “I will look into that. Now, you have something for me?”
Hassan leaned forward, setting the package and the signature sheet on the gleaming desk. His heart raced, and the muscle beside his mouth continued to twitch. He could kill Sarkis right now, very easily. His hands tightened involuntarily, as if they would dart forward on their own to grasp the consul's chin and crown and twist his head violently, snapping the neck. Even a simple open-handed strike to the trachea would collapse the windpipe and suffocate him.
Or he could snatch the pen from its stand and drive it through an eye into the brain, or into the carotid artery on the side of the neck. Every spurt of blood from Sarkis' neck would wash away a fraction of Hassan's accumulated grief and torment. The consul's life fluid would spray across the cherry wood desk and hardwood floor. Perhaps it would decorate the limp Lebanese flag, and the glass of the fish tank. The whole would be a gruesome abstract work of art. The title: Revenge for Lena.
If he killed the consul now his entire life would unravel, and that would be just fine. Let it come undone like a great sail torn from a ship's mast by a violent storm. Let it snap and whip, let it decapitate this sick fool and all who stood with him.
No! He could not. Even if he disabled or killed the guard and the others at the door and escaped the building, the rending of his life would place all his friends in jeopardy. Jamilah, Muḥammad, Sahar, Adel, Layth, Kadija, everyone. Furthermore, any hope of having his questions answered would die with Sarkis, for Hassan had not witnessed Lena's killing, only the aftermath.
Hassan breathed, using the tools of zazen meditation to calm himself. Laaa… ilahaaa… iiilll… Allahhh…. His pulse slowed, and his thoughts came more clearly. The consul did not seem to have recognized him, so Hassan could walk out of here and go on with his life. The blood spilled into far-off soils would go unavenged. Hassan's questions would remain unanswered for now, and Lena's justice undelivered; but his friends would be safe, and wasn't that more important? Didn't the rights of the living outweigh the demands of the dead?
The consul signed the sheet and pushed it across the desk, and Hassan leaned forward to pick it up. In that moment he made a mistake. He met the consul's eyes, and the man seemed to read something of Hassan's thoughts, or he saw something in the depths of Hassan's eyes, something turbulent but cold as the surface of Neptune. The consul's face went pale, then he covered it by turning and pretending to cough into his sleeve.
Hassan cursed himself for an idiot, even as the consul's reaction gave him some small measure of satisfaction. The coward was nothing without a gun in his hand. He picked up the signature sheet, thanked the consul politely and turned to leave.
As Hassan was walking out the consul said, “Oh, what is your name young man? You were so helpful with your advice about the fish. I'd like to let your company know what a good job you're doing.”
Hassan turned and grinned widely. “Radical, bro,” he said, continuing the act. In for a penny, in for a pound. “I'm Hassan Amir.” No point lying. The consul could learn Hassan's identity with one call to Hammerhead Courier's customer service line, though the name would mean nothing to him.
“You are Arab? Where are you from?”
“I'm like, halfway Arab,” Hassan said. “My pops is Egyptian and my mom is Mexican-American.” It was a total lie, of course, but maybe plausible enough to fool Sarkis.
“Have you been to Lebanon?” the consul asked. “You look familiar.”
“Nah, never,” Hassan lied. “Never been outta Cali. Maybe you seen me makin' deliveries or jammin' around town. Anyway, I gotta split. Hella busy today, you know?”
“Yes of course,” the consul said. “Thank you again Mr. Amir.”
Hassan walked out casually, unlocked his bike and rode away. His thoughts spun like a bicycle wheel and his heart hammered in his chest like a piledriver.
That dog back there recognized me. Or he saw something, but he's not sure what. Now he's shaking his head and laughing at himself for letting a bike messenger rattle him. There's no way to know. I should have passed this tag off to someone else. Or I should have killed the bastard. If I'd killed him it would come off as a political assassination. Maybe I could have killed him and robbed him to make it look like random violence. Then I could scoop up my gear and split. Change my name, leave the country. I have the resources to disappear and start over anywhere. Go see my orphans in Indonesia, then settle off the grid in that sprawling island nation.
I'm sorry Lena, he thought. Forgive me, please, please. He felt ashamed. Here was Lena's killer, in the same city, walking and breathing and eating and apparently living well while Lena's bones lay in a hidden grave somewhere, unseen and unavenged. It was unacceptable. He'd been given a gift. A chance to right an unspeakable wrong. And he had passed it up. Lena, Lena…
Hassan stopped himself. Such thoughts were pointless. I'm a Muslim, not a murderer. That's my reality now. I can't be anything but a believer. I cannot.
He could not kill Sarkis in cold blood. But what did that mean to Lena? How could he justify it to her?
For years all Hassan had wanted was to live a normal life. To work, pray, eat, sleep and live without having to fight and kill, without nightmares, without rage or shame, without the kind of regret that squeezed his brain like a vise. He had tried to forget the past, but the past would not forget him.
Just then his radio squawked.
“Five nine,” Jen said. “You drop that Lebanese yet?”
“Ten-four,” Hassan tried to say, but his voice came out choked and unintelligible. He cleared his throat then keyed the radio again. “Sorry. Ten-four. Clean in Cow Hollow.”
“Head down to Fort Mason,” Jen replied over the radio. “A restaurant called Greens has a large food delivery going to Levi's on Battery. You'll have to carry that in one hand, I guess. Just run it and call clean.”
“Check,” he replied automatically. He would deal with one thing at a time. One moment at a time. He stood on the pedals and leaned forward, pouring all his power into the bike until he was a green and blue blur rocketing up Lombard Street, breathing in and out like a cheetah on the run, his powerful leg muscles working without complaint, his shoulders rippling and his hair whipping about his shoulders. If he had no clarity of thought at the moment, no tranquility of spirit, at least his body operated like an efficient machine as usual, pistons pumping, blood coursing, lungs expanding. Al-harakah barakah – movement is a blessing. His father used to say that life never stands still. People love and leave, live and die, and there is barakah in that because the heart heals, and new doors open.
Right now, though, Hassan saw no open doors. Only the broken-down doors of the past.
He went on, speeding toward Fort Mason, North Beach, the Financial District, and whatever tomorrow would bring. Hasbi Allahu wa ne'm Al-Wakeel. Ya Allāh, I am Your servant, and my forelock is in Your hand. Make the Qurʾān the light of my heart and my life. Show me the way, Ya Allāh.
Sarkis Haddad, Lebanese consul in San Francisco, unlocked the bottom drawer of his desk and removed a red phone secured with a locked faceplate. A landline of course, not a cellular. He inserted a key and removed the faceplate, then dialed a number he knew by heart. The phone rang six times and Sarkis began to think he should hang up – it was after midnight in Lebanon – when a young, feminine voice answered. Sarkis recognized Tatiana Drukovic's voice. A stunningly beautiful young woman with a law degree, she was the Lebanese President's “assistant” in every sense of the word.
“This is Sarkis in San Francisco,” he said in Arabic. “I need to speak to the president.”
“He's asleep,” the young woman said. “Can it wait until morning?”
“I don't know,” Sarkis replied. He was nervous. He might receive a tongue-lashing for waking his uncle; but if he waited until morning he might be chastised for that as well.
“Oh, very well,” the woman said. “Hold on.”
A moment later a gravely voice said, “What is it, Sarkis? One of those San Francisco gayboys make a pass at you in the gym shower again?”
Sarkis cleared his throat. “Sorry to wake you, Khalu,” he said. “I need level three encryption.”
“Level three?” His khalu – his mother's brother – sounded surprised, which annoyed Sarkis. Didn't his uncle think Sarkis could have something important to say?
“Hold on,” his uncle said. Sarkis heard a series of clicks, then his uncle said, “Mashi, speak.”
Sarkis hesitated, unsure of how to begin. “It's just… I received a delivery in my office.”
“Intelligence?” his uncle said.
“No,” Sarkis said. “An ordinary package. But I am fifty percent certain that the courier who made the delivery was Simon.”
“Simon who?” his uncle rasped. “American Idol Simon?” He let out a rasping laugh.
“No. Simon. Ibn Kamal.”
Silence emanated from the other end of the line like the deathly quietude at the bottom of the sea. Sarkis' discomfort grew until he felt compelled to speak.
“You told me Simon was dead.”
“I always thought he was,” Sarkis said defensively. “I don't understand how he could have survived.”
“Hmm. If the mind is willing,” his uncle said, “the body can go on and on.”
Sarkis was baffled. “What's that?” he asked. His uncle had a tendency to ramble.
“From Sun Tzu,” his uncle said. “Something I taught Simon. That boy had the strongest will of anyone I've known. But tell me. If Simon ibn Kamal was in your office then why are you still breathing?”
“I can take care of myself.” Sarkis heard the note of defensiveness in his own voice, but could not help it. Privately, he wondered the same thing. The Simon he knew had been a killing machine, accurate and fast as a missile.
“Of course you can,” the gravelly voice said in a condescending tone that infuriated Sarkis. “You said fifty percent certain. Explain.”
“It's been a long time, as you know,” Sarkis said. “And I would have bet my life that Simon was dead.” Immediately he regretted his choice of words, but continued. “This man looked much like him, though bulkier, more muscular. He had long hair and was dressed like a courier, and he affected an odd accent, like some kind of idiot. He said his name was Hassan Amir. He claimed his he was Egyptian. It could be someone who resembles him. A cousin we didn't know about? An illegitimate son of Kamal? But then why would he say he was Egyptian? I don't know. If I could see him with his shirt off then I would know for sure.”
“This is not good,” his uncle said. “Simon – if it is him – knows too much to be allowed to walk this earth.”
“What should I do?” Sarkis asked.
“Put someone on him. Learn everything you can. In the meantime, I will send someone to you. The Partridge. When he arrives give him whatever he needs. He will lay this courier open like a filleted fish.”
“The Partridge?” Sarkis was taken aback. “Is – is that really necessary?”
Boulos Haddad, President of the Lebanese Republic, one of the richest men in the world and a man with many dark secrets to protect, laughed. His laugh was like a heavy stone sliding across a slate floor, and Sarkis winced.
“There is a symbolism to it that appeals to me,” the President said, “The ouroboros eating itself. Now, Sarkis, be a good man and make sure this gets done, ah?”
The line disconnected and Sarkis set the receiver down dazedly. The Partridge, coming here? Sarkis knew that Boulos Haddad did not tolerate repeated failure, not even from family members. He had a terrifying thought: would Simon be the Partridge's only target? Or would Sarkis himself be on the assassin's hit list? Was that the ouroboros that his prattling uncle spoke of?
Sarkis made a decision: he would kill the courier himself. Well, not personally of course. He was a man of distinction now. He would assign it to one of the intelligence operatives under his authority. Perhaps Emil, the Armenian. Though Emil was Oxford educated and a former special forces counter-terrorism operative, Sarkis was fairly sure that the man had been stealing from him for some time. He would have Emil kidnap the courier, take him somewhere private and verify his identity. If it was Simon they would learn all his secrets. How did he survive? What was he doing here in San Francisco? What were his plans? Who were his allies? Then they would kill him and dispose of the body so that it would never be found.
Emil would thereafter be returned to Lebanon and terminated quietly. No witnesses would remain, and an untrustworthy employee would be eliminated. Even Boulos would not be able to find fault, and the Partridge could turn around and go right back to whatever rock he lived under. Sarkis' reputation would be saved.
If, on the other hand, the courier was who he appeared to be – an underachieving moron with an accidental resemblance to a dead traitor – then it was his misfortune.
Sarkis realized that his hands were trembling, and crossed them over his belly. Tonight he would visit the underground house of prostitution in Little Russia that he had frequented for many years. They catered well to his special needs. He would select a young one – no more than 15 – and he would beat her within an inch of her life. With every blow, he knew, his anxiety would fade. It would cost him – he paid a premium for such services, doubly so if the girl died – but it would be worth it.
For now, he cheered himself with the thought that the courier would not see another sunrise. He was dead on arrival, Sarkis thought, then laughed at his own joke.
For a guide to all of Wael's stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.