See the Story Index for a chronological guide to all the stories.
March 23, 2010 – late morning
San Francisco, California
The Crow strolled confidently into the SF General emergency entrance. He hated hospitals. He’d been a sickly child, and had been constantly mocked those first few years in Camp 64. It was strange that he’d even been selected to be a Kopis, since normally only the healthiest and strongest orphans were chosen. Why an exception had been made for him, he did not know. But he had survived. Every time he was ridiculed, every time he was beaten by another child, he’d turned his shame and rage into a fierce determination to succeed. Over time his health had improved and he had become strong – through sheer force of will, he liked to believe.
He did not have any actual memories of being hospitalized. But he reacted to hospital smells on a visceral level. They made his skin crawl.
Nevertheless, he had a mission to accomplish, and his personal feelings would not enter into the equation.
Wearing the white doctor’s coat that Sarkis had procured for him, a pair of spectacles, a blue tie and standard black medical shoes, he appeared to be just another doctor starting his shift. Only the wrinkling of his nose might betray his disgust to the most vigilant observer. The name tag on his coat read, “Dr. Green.” A little joke he had allowed himself.
He wore the merest hint of a disguise: contact lenses that made his eyes appear brown; and a “gay pride” button pinned conspicuously to his lapel. He knew that if you gave people something to focus on, it would be all they remembered afterwards.
He stopped a slender Asian nurse who came hurrying along the hallway.
“Did you release my patient without my authorization?” he demanded in perfect, American-accented English. His trainers at the camp had noticed his talent for languages early on, especially English, and had trained him diligently.
Flustered, the nurse brushed her hair from her face and glanced at his name tag and button. The Crow was not worried. A large metropolitan hospital like this one would have scores of doctors, perhaps hundreds. A single nurse would not know them all.
“No I didn’t, Dr. Green,” she said. “I mean, which patient is that?”
“African-American male, mid 30’s, matted hair. Beaten in an alley. Wouldn’t give his name.” This last bit was a guess.
“Oh, right! Calls himself Wolf? He’s been moved to 245 in the MIU. I’m sorry if you weren’t notified -”
The Crow was already walking away, waving his hand dismissively. “No problem, nurse,” he said. “Keep up the good work.”
He took the elevator to the second floor and examined the hospital directory on the wall. MIU – Minor Injury Unit – to the left.
He sauntered past the room, glancing in as he did so. The man was alone and asleep, a blue cotton blanket pulled up almost to his eyes. Excellent. The Crow entered the room, plucking a pair of yellow latex gloves from a box on the counter and pulling them onto his hands. He shut the door behind him, and pulled the curtain closed around the homeless man’s bed. The room smelled of antiseptic and egg salad. One of the man’s feet stuck out from beneath the blanket and appeared to be encased in a cast.
This would be easy, he was sure. He had never been to the United States before – all his previous jobs had been in the Middle East, and a few in Europe – but he had seen Hollywood movies. The American blacks were drug addicts, committing violence on one another, caring about nothing but music and dancing. Mindless people, easily manipulated. Look at this man. His hair half matted, his face weathered. What an uncivilized creature. The Crow regretted that he would not be able to torture the man before giving him the gift of death.
He removed a silenced pistol from a holster in the small of his back, clamped one hand tightly over the homeless man’s mouth, and pressed the barrel of the suppressor hard into the man’s eye. The subject woke with a start, trying to pull away from the pain. The Crow clamped harder on the man’s mouth and pulled the gun back, letting him see it for what it was. The man’s eyes grew wide and he brought his hands up to shield his face.
“I’m going to remove my hand,” the Crow said calmly. “If you scream or call out, I will kill you without hesitation. Do you understand?”
The man nodded mutely. Good. The Crow removed his hand.
“Lie to me and you die,” the Crow said. “ Who is the man who saved you in the alley last night?”
“You mean – “ the homeless man started before he caught himself. His voice was a whisper. He stared at the Crow as if trying to memorize his face.
“Where is he? Where does he live?” the Crow demanded.
“I got nothin’ to say,” the homeless man responded.
The Crow felt a surge of annoyance. He would try the “count-to-ten” method. It never failed.
The Crow gripped the patient’s jaw with one hand and shook it slightly, turning the head one way and the other. The man had good bone structure. It would have been interesting to pull the flesh back from the bones. Ah, well.
“I will count to ten,” the Crow said, squeezing the man’s jaw more tightly and waving the gun in front of his eyes. “And then I will blow your brains all over this pillow. I want to know where to find Hassan Amir. One. Two. Three. Four.”
The homeless man’s jaw seemed to set, as if steeling himself for the worst. No matter. He would give it up before ten. “Five. Six. Seven.”
“I ain’t givin’ you nothin’,” the homeless man said.
“Eight. Nine. Ten.”
“Alright! I’ll tell you somethin’.”
The Crow smiled. “What is it?”
“You go after my man, he gonna make you eat that gun. You know what? When we was in El Reno penitentiary, he was a young ‘un and he ain’t have no set. No gang. Aryan Brotherhood tried to make him they bitch. He drop the first man, break his neck. Warden put him in the hole for six months, He get out, the AB send three mo’ to kill him. He break they arms and legs, bust they noses and teeth. Then they mob him on the mainline, and he walk out with two shanks in him, blood everywhere, ABs lyin’ all around like dead fish. Man is a legend! He gon’ take that gun and shove it up – ”
The Crow clamped a hand over the patient’s mouth to stifle the man’s rising voice. This was not how this was supposed to go. He’d expected this broken-down tramp to cave in immediately; but the man, in spite of his fear, was giving him nothing useful.
He didn’t have time for this. A doctor or nurse could enter at any moment.
“Last chance,” the Crow said. He placed one thumbnail at the outside corner of the man’s right eye and exerted a slight pressure. “Tell me where to find him, or I will gouge out your eyes, and then I will kill you.”
The homeless man seemed to grow completely calm, his body relaxing into the bed.
“Go on, then,” he said. “I’m right with God. I’m bound for Canaan land.”
The Crow stared at the man. He was out of time. He drew a golden gel-cap from his pocket. He’d brought a small bottle of these with him from Lebanon, disguised as fish-oil capsules. In reality they were injected with aconitum, a lethal poison derived from the wolfsbane herb, and virtually undetectable in the system after death.
Catching the homeless man by surprise, he slipped his fingers into a corner of the man’s mouth and squeezed the capsule, releasing the deadly liquid, then withdrew his fingers quickly and pocketed the burst gel-cap.
The Crow watched intently as the subject gurgled, choked and broke out in a sheen of sweat. His body arched then just as quickly fell back into the bed, staring at the ceiling. His breathing became shallow and irregular. The Crow knew he should leave – he could be discovered at any time – but moments like this where what he lived for. The power of life and death. He watched as the man’s breathing continued to slow. Finally the chest stilled, and the Crow knew his heart had stopped. How appropriate – the Wolf, killed by wolfsbane. The Crow would have laughed with delight if not for the fear of discovery.
When the pleasure had passed, the Crow’s sense of annoyance returned. Apparently the stereotypical depiction of American Negroes had misled him. The homeless man had been strong-willed and unafraid, with an obvious reservoir of faith.
He was about to exit the room when he had a thought. Where were the homeless man’s belongings? Several cabinets lined the wall of the room. He opened the large one at the bottom and sure enough, there was a clear plastic bag containing army pants and coat, a t-shirt and a pair of boots, and with a collection of letters and papers. The papers were notices from welfare agencies and the Veterans Administration and offered nothing useful. The clothing smelled of mildew and sweat. The Crow searched the garments quickly and hit paydirt. In the pocket of the coat he found a folded piece of paper with the word “Hassan” scribbled on it, and an accompanying telephone number.
He left the hospital, relieved to be out of that castle of disease. The homeless man’s death would be written up as cardiac arrest, cause unknown.
What was it about this Hassan Amir that inspired such loyalty? Not that it mattered. He would have the man on his table sooner or later, and he would take his time, drawing the traitor’s agony out to such lengths that if it could be transcribed into music it would form a concerto of pain.
Hassan felt a mounting sense of anxiety. There was no time to waste. This so-called Crow might be in San Francisco by now, and here he was stuck in L.A.’s morning rush hour traffic. It would take him forever to get back to SF.
The impending arrival of this infamous assassin changed everything. Hassan no longer had any desire to gather his friends for a forthright talk. He simply wanted them to get out of town. It didn’t matter where as long as it was distant and safe. He would deal with the Crow on his own, somehow.
Hassan flipped open his phone and began making calls. He tried Jamilah three times before she answered. She was out of breath, making her way up a hill, apparently. As briefly as possible, without going into specifics, Hassan explained that there was a dangerous situation occurring and that she should leave San Francisco immediately and go stay with her mother in Madera.
“Are you crazy?” Jamilah demanded. “It’s a busy day and we’re already short staffed ‘cause Muhammad and Alice didn’t come in. I can’t just take off. I do want to – hang on – ” Hassan heard the sound of a car horn, then Jamilah came back on the phone, panting for breath. “I want to hear about what’s going on with you. Let’s talk later.”
“Jamilah,” Hassan protested desperately. “It’s important that you – “
“Getting tags,” Jamilah said breathlessly, cutting him off. Hassan could hear Jen’s voice over the phone, squawking through Jamilah’s radio. “Gotta go.” The line went dead.
Hassan wanted to bang his head on the steering wheel. Arguing with Jamilah was like arguing with a mountain. A small mountain, but a mountain nonetheless.
He called Layth, who answered on the first ring. Again Hassan was brief, explaining only that there was a dangerous situation and that Layth and Kadija should take a vacation for a few days.
“Whatever the problem is, I’ll back you up akhi,” Layth responded.
“You don’t understand, bro,” Hassan said. “There’s a man coming to San Francisco to find me. He’s very dangerous. I’m afraid that my friends are in danger, and I’m hours away in L.A. traffic.”
“Ana fahim, habibi,” Layth replied. “I hear you. Listen, I have something to do. Call me when you’re in town.” He hung up.
Next he tried Adel’s business line. The phone rang six times then transferred to Sahar.
“Where’s your dad?” said Hassan.
“At the hospital,” Sahar replied. “He got a call last night that Alice had been stabbed. She’s in critical condition.”
“La hawla wa laa quwwata il-laa billah,” Hassan breathed. “How?”
“We don’t know. She’s not conscious.”
Hassan didn’t understand. Why would Sarkis go after Alice? She and Hassan barely knew each other. It had to be a coincidence. A street mugging, or an attempted rape.
When he reached Adel the man sounded tired.
“The cops are waiting for her to wake up so she can identify her attacker,” said Adel. “I’d call her family, but there’s no emergency contact listed on her employment application.”
“I think she has a sister,” Hassan said. “Listen Adel…” He gave Adel the same speech he’d given Jamilah and Layth.
“You’ve been watching too much TV, Hassan. The company won’t run itself.” And with that, Adel hung up.
Hassan slammed his palm into the steering wheel, inadvertently sounding the horns. The driver in front of him, locked in heavy traffic, rolled down his window and flipped Hassan the finger.
Why wouldn’t his friends take him seriously? It wasn’t as if he was the boy who cried wolf. He’d never asked any of them for a favor. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe they found it hard to believe that he could actually be embroiled in something dangerous, or that he could need anyone’s help.
He pushed the gas pedal down and weaved around the slower traffic, hoping he wouldn’t suddenly see blue and red lights in his rearview. When he was finally clear of L.A. traffic he floored it. The car – a 290 horsepower Audi Quattro with a V6 engine – roared, eating up the road like candy as it climbed into the hills.
Hassan had never been a master strategist and he wished Dr. Basim had given him more guidance. There had been something odd about the man’s behavior – something beyond simple surprise. It wasn’t like Basim to take black-and-white positions, refusing to consider alternatives. Why had he pushed so hard to destroy the items in the case? Those items were Hassan’s only leverage. No doubt Basim was simply afraid, and Hassan couldn’t blame him. Look what had happened to his own family.
Hassan saw only two routes of action. Option one, he would meet with the media – an SF Chronicle reporter, perhaps – and give them everything in the briefcase. Tell the story from beginning to end. Once it was in the public domain, what reason would anyone still have to come after Hassan? But that was a logical, reasonable way of thinking, and these were not logical people he was dealing with. The Quran said, “Let them forgive and overlook.“ But Boulos used to say, “We forgive our enemies, but only after we shoot them.”
Option two, he could strike a deal with Sarkis and the Crow. Perhaps the Crow would refuse to negotiate, and would kill him. Or perhaps Allah would intervene in some way that Hassan could not see. Didn’t the ends belong to Allah?
Hassan did not fear death. He’d set up an endowed trust that would fund the orphanage in Indonesia even after his death. Little Saleem, Munirah and the others would be cared for.
True, he would have some regrets. He had a secret wish to put his arms around Jamilah and hold her close, as husband and wife. That would be the greatest thrill of his life. But if he were to die then he would make his journey to stand before Allah and be judged; and if he was worthy, perhaps he would meet his parents in the afterlife, and his brother Charlie, and even his late wife Lena. They had not been Muslims, but they had all been believers in God and good people. Allah’s mercy was boundless. Who knew how Allah would deal with these innocent and well-intentioned souls?
Hassan puffed up his cheeks and let his breath out in a loud, slow huff. When he got home he would personally put Jamilah onto a bus out of town, even if he had to drag her kicking and screaming. He would not take ‘no’ for an answer.
He tuned the radio to NPR. The California Report was on, with the reporter describing the damage caused by the Bay Area quakes, which had indeed been centered in the East Bay – southeast Oakland, to be precise. There was minor damage reported in San Leandro. Broken windows and a ruptured water main. No deaths. The reporter mentioned the assertion by one seismologist that these were foreshocks, presaging a larger quake on the Hayward fault. Some people were choosing this time to go on vacation.
Hassan almost laughed. SubhanAllah. He would do what he could about the evil he faced right now, and would leave the earthquakes to Allah.
Dr. Basim sat in the molded plastic chair at the rehab center, staring at his sleeping son. He felt as if a gulf had opened up inside his mind and he was falling into it, away from the light of the world. It was daytime, but the curtains were drawn, the room dimly illuminated by yellow lights recessed into the ceiling. What was the point of calling this place a rehab center? Motaz would never be rehabilitated. He would never walk again.
Where was justice? Basim had attended Princeton University and then served his country – the old country and the new. He had worked hard all his life. Now here he was, watching over a dying son, with a daughter who detested him. Meanwhile Hassan – who had only a Third World education – sat atop millions of dollars and rode a bicycle for a living.
When Basim had betrayed Hassan’s father twenty-four years ago he had done it out of simple need. He hadn’t yet secured the professorship, and his family had been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Boulos had paid him well for Kamal Haddad’s whereabouts. Basim never imagined that Boulos would kill the entire family. The shame of that deed had burned in his heart for decades. When Simon showed up sixteen years later like a shade come to life, it had seemed a heavenly opportunity for redemption. Basim had vowed to care for the boy, guide him, and protect his secret. He helped the boy protect his wealth and taught him to invest it wisely.
But in the last two years, Basim’s gambling problem had become a beast that threatened to destroy him. Nisreen did not yet know that Basim had lost their entire life savings and was deeply in debt. He’d begun selling off his antique pots and urns, but no matter what he did he kept losing, the money flowing out of his hands as if carried away by an evil jinn.
Thank God that his son Motaz had health insurance, or Basim would be unable to pay for his care. But if he didn’t get his hands on some cash soon, they would lose the house. How could he face Nisreen after that? After all her years of love and loyalty, to reward her with this?
Why hadn’t Hassan listened to him? If only the big dolt would agree to leave his investments in Basim’s hands, the problem would have been solved. Basim could take enough to pay off his debts, then earn it back.
Now there was the tape, on top of everything else. He’d been only a junior intelligence officer at the time of the Tripoli Conclave, but he would never forget those two days in a remote cabin in the Jibal Al-Khalil. His job had been to set up the hidden recorder, take notes and fetch water. He’d been an invisible minion in the midst of giants. His voice might be on the tape – “Yes sir, right away sir.” Almost certainly no one would recognize his voice on a decades-old recording, but why take the chance?
Hassan was a fool. Take the tape to the media? Laughable. If evidence existed detailing the truth of the JFK assassination or the World Trade Center attack, would it be allowed to see the light of day? Of course not. Some things were never meant to be revealed.
The situation was unfair! He was not responsible for this young fool. If Hassan wanted to destroy himself for the sake of some Palestinian tart, let him. Basim had to think of Nisreen, and Motaz.
How much would Boulos pay for this information? Not only Hassan’s location, but the contents of the briefcase? Quite a lot, Basim imagined. A fortune.
He kissed his sleeping son on the forehead and walked out of the rehab center. Sitting in his parked car, he took out his phone with trembling hands and began to dial.
The Crow sipped his wine as he surveyed Sarkis’ warehouse in a bleak industrial district of West Oakland. It was not the ideal weather for wine tasting – this region was so disappointingly chilly – but it was a $5,000 bottle of boutique cabernet, paid for by the consulate, of course. Let Sarkis fume. Oh yes, the Crow knew that Sarkis hated him. That was fine. He was not in this line of work to make friends.
The scents of coffee, spices and tobacco filled the warehouse. The large walk-in fridge contained some imported Lebanese produce, but also quite a lot smoked sausage. It did not take a genius to figure out what this warehouse was used for. The Crow had interrogated many people from all walks of life and both sides of the law. People revealed all their darkest secrets under torture. They offered everything under the sun. The Crow therefore knew as much about the drug business as he ever cared to. In fact, looking at this room and keeping in mind what he had seen of the rest of the warehouse, the dimensions of this room were slightly off. No matter. Sarkis’ side business was irrelevant.
A long, rectangular office occupied most of the warehouse’s northern side. Two trusted consulate workers had labored over the last day to soundproof the warehouse office. The windows had been sealed, the desk, filing cabinet and chairs removed, and a steel surgical table installed in the center of the room. The Crow would have liked to have a drain built to collect excess blood, but there was no time for that. Instead a large plastic tarpaulin would serve.
The table was fitted with nylon restraints and a directional lamp at the head. This was where the Crow would work on whoever the team managed to secure first. He would lay the subject open one cut at a time, drawing forth all his or her secrets in a carefully orchestrated arpeggio of pain, until he learned everything that he needed to know.
Holding his wine glass in one hand and a Nextel combination phone and radio in the other, he strolled across the warehouse, leaving the men to their work. He made his way around the forklift, the stacks of wooden pallets, and the piled boxes that contained some of the trade goods that the consulate imported and exported.
Bypassing the shuttered loading bay, he went to the warehouse’s front door and gazed through the inset glass pane at the meager traffic passing by on 5th Street. It was raining outside and this drab industrial district. He could not wait for this job to be finished, so that he could explore some of the more interesting areas of Northern California. What he really wanted was to drive to the Napa Valley and sample more of the renowned wines of that region in person.
This was a working trip, however. Maybe he could indulge his pastime once Amir was dead. There were men currently watching the Hammerhead Courier office on 3rd Street, and the homes of Jamilah Al-Husayni, Muhammad Saleh, and Adel and Sahar At-Turki. They had even recruited two consulate guards to dress in civvies and monitor the two most popular bike messenger gathering places downtown. The teams stayed in touch by radio, using coded language that would mean nothing to any stray listener.
The phone number he’d fished out of the homeless man’s pocket had been a bust. The phone number itself was active, but they’d been unable to use it to obtain Amir’s address. The consulate’s tech expert had traced the number to a corporate account registered in the Caymans – something called Zanshin Enterprises. The Caymans were strict on banking secrecy; no further information could be obtained.
The day wore on with no sighting of any of the targets. The Crow was just beginning to wonder if his strategy was flawed in some way – had the target and all his friends fled? – when his secure satphone rang.
It was Boulos. Apparently Hassan Amir did not inspire full loyalty after all. Someone had betrayed him.
The informant provided three key pieces of information. One, Amir’s home address. Two, the fact that Amir had feelings for a woman named Jamilah – that would be the Husayni girl. Three, Amir possessed a black briefcase that contained sensitive information. Boulos made it clear that the Crow was to acquire this briefcase by any means necessary, no matter who he had to kill. He was not to open it, merely to secure it and send it back to Lebanon in a diplomatic pouch.
The Crow keyed his radio. “Pack it up and return for a staff meeting. We have an address for package 59.” Courier 559. Hassan Amir.
At just after three o’clock in the afternoon Hassan exited the freeway on 6th Street and drove quickly to his building, where he parked in his dedicated space. He wearily lifted his bag and briefcase from the trunk. He had not slept since the night before last, and since then he’d worked a full day on his bike, beaten two thugs to a pulp, been shot twice, and driven to Los Angeles and back. He was exhausted and in pain from his wounds, and he needed to shower, pray and sleep. But there was no time for sleep. He must make sure his friends left town without delay. Then he’d figure out his next move.
He rode in the elevator to the 35th floor then took the executive elevator to 39, using his spare key card. He unlocked his apartment door, entered – and found himself staring down the wide, dark barrel of a 44 magnum pistol.