See the Story Index for a chronological guide to the previous stories.
March 23, 2010. 1:30 am.
San Francisco, California
“You two can have this discussion later,” Layth broke in. “Hassan, your story was incredible and I feel privileged to have heard it, but we’re all exhausted. You haven’t slept since what, the night before last? Let’s get to the heart of it. What has happened in the last two days?”
Hassan nodded. “I made a mistake. Jamilah, do you remember the day before yesterday when we prayed and had lunch at the park? I had to take off because I was holding?”
Jamilah stewed, reluctant to let go of her resentment. She felt like everything Hassan had said or done, ever since she’d known him, had been a charade. She was sorry for all the suffering he’d been through. But that didn’t excuse his deceptions. At the same time, she was curious what he meant when he said, would you do it with me? What was that? Some kind of proposal? She wished Layth had not interrupted.
“Anyway, I was going to the Danish and Russian consulates, and just before I took off Jen gave me another yet another consulate tag going the same way.”
“Sure, I remember,” Muhammad said. “The Lebanese consu – ohhhh.”
“Yes. I should have passed on it, but there was no one else headed that way and it was a busy day. It was a personal delivery to the Lebanese consul.”
“Which was who?” Layth said.
“As I discovered when I entered his office, the consul is Sarkis Haddad.”
The group was stunned into silence.
“Oh my God,” said Jamilah finally.
“Did he recognize you?” Layth asked.
“He acted like he didn’t. But I saw fear in his eyes. He thought I was there to kill him. Hours later, I spotted someone in a car bearing diplomatic plates surveilling HC’s office. Shortly after that, an Armenian spy tried to kidnap me.”
“Armenian?” Layth said. “How are they involved?”
“Lebanese Armenian,” Hassan explained. “Working for Sarkis. I managed to overcome him, but barely. He’s the one who shot me.” Hassan pointed to his swollen cheek and arm.
“Did you…” Jamilah did not finish her question.
“I didn’t kill him. I tied him up and left him in the trunk. But he -”
Kadija put a hand to her forehead. “Left him in the trunk? Brother, this is crazy as all get out.”
“I know. Anyway, he told me something. He claimed that an expert assassin called the Crow is coming to kill me. The Armenian says the Crow is part of an elite squad of Lebanese assassins who are trained from childhood to torture and kill. Today – I guess it’s yesterday now – I went to see someone, an old friend who has contacts. He confirmed that these assassins do exist. They are called Kopis. And the Crow has a reputation for being particularly cruel in his methods.”
“Your old friend,” Layth said. “Is it B?”
Hassan nodded. “Yes.”
“Do you think it’s wise to continue your contact with him?”
Thank you, Jamilah thought. This same point bothered her as well, but she had not wanted to raise it for fear of how Hassan would react. Let Layth take the heat.
Hassan frowned. “What do you mean? I told you, I’ve known him all my life.”
“Yeah.” Layth made a conciliatory gesture, but pressed his point. “But when you first went to L.A., didn’t you find it odd that someone tried to break into the cottage just before you scouted it?”
Hassan looked puzzled. “No. It’s Los Angeles. Break-ins happen.”
“Why the cottage and not the main house?”
“Maybe they knew it wasn’t occupied. I don’t know.”
“Or maybe,” Layth said, “someone was looking for whatever your father hid.”
Hassan shook his head. “No one knew about that.”
“That’s what I’m saying, Hassan. Someone did know.”
Hassan’s expression became stony. “I don’t appreciate that. You’re talking about someone I trust. Even if it was him, he was only trying to help.”
Kadija pointed to the battered black briefcase that sat beside the sofa. “You mentioned that you took a briefcase from the safe in the floor. Is that it? The one you hauled off and hit my husband with?”
“You won’t tell us what’s in it?”
“No. Boulos has been trying for years to hunt me down, partly because in his twisted way he sees me as a rival, and partly because I witnessed his role in the Tel-Az-Zaytoon massacre. The materials in this case are even more damaging to him than that. So is it really knowledge you want to possess?”
Kadija nodded. “Alright. Does anyone have any other relevant questions? If not then I’ve a mind to do as Hassan says and skedaddle until this is resolved. I’m convinced that the danger is real.”
“My father and I have nowhere to go,” said Muhammad. “We’ll stay.”
“I could give you funds to hide out somewhere,” Hassan said. “Take your dad to the Big Sur for a while. Stay in one of those luxury lodges on the edge of the world, just mountains and sequoia trees and crashing surf. It might be therapeutic.”
“I want to help you.”
Hassan shook his head. “You have your father to take care of. That’s your jihad now, remember?”
Jamilah had more questions, more objections, more… she didn’t know what. This was all such a shock. But it was late and everyone was beat. “I could go home to Madera,” she said. “But what will you do, Hassan? Call the police?”
Hassan shook his head. “They’d never believe me, and if I told the whole story I’d be arrested for identity fraud, tax evasion, and I don’t know what. Besides which, Boulos is beyond the reach of the police. And Sarkis has diplomatic immunity. The cops are useless.”
“We’ll figure something out Insha’Allah,” Layth said.
Kadija rounded on him. “What do you mean, we? You and I are getting out of town.”
“Go with Kadija,” Hassan said. “I can deal with this.”
Layth’s face took on an iron cast. “‘O you who have believed,’” he recited, “‘when you meet those who disbelieve advancing for battle, do not turn to them your backs in flight.’ That’s what Allah said to the people of Badr. I’m not turning my back.”
Kadija slapped the arm of the sofa and stood facing her husband, hands on her hips. “This is not a history lesson!”
Layth lifted his chin. “I love you habibti, but there’s no way I’m leaving Hassan to face this danger alone. The believers are like a wall. They’re only strong together. Hassan supported me, once. Now it’s my turn.”
Kadija looked furious, but said nothing further. Jamilah had to admit that she felt less guilty about running out on Hassan, knowing that Layth was staying behind. At least Hassan would not be alone. She stood slowly, feeling the weariness in her muscles and joints, more from sitting in place for hours than from riding all day.
“I’m going now,” she said. “Hassan, text me daily with updates.”
“You can’t go alone,” Hassan said. “I’ll drive you home.”
Muhammad extended his arm like a traffic cop signalling a stop. “No way dude. You’re exhausted. You rest, or plan your caper, or whatever. I’ll get her home.”
“Nix to that too akhi,” Layth said. “You’re right that Hassan needs to get some rack time. Plus, he’s the one they’re looking for. But your place is here with your father. And brother Muhammad… Don’t take this the wrong way. You’re a brilliant and talented individual. I’d be lost if I tried to do your job. But I’m a tactically trained combat veteran. This is my arena.”
Muhammad nodded his head glumly.
Layth turned to Hassan. “Can we use your car?”
“Right. Kadija, Jamilah and I will leave here together. Jamilah, we’ll swing by your apartment so you can pack a bag. Then to our house so Kadija can pack, then the two of you take my car and drive to Madera. Hassan, once they’re off safely I’ll return here with your car and we’ll strategize. You’ll get a little rest at least. Sorry, Jamilah, I should have asked first – can Kadija stay with you until this is over?”
“Absolutely. I would love that.”
Hassan nodded wearily. “Sounds like a plan.”
Layth turned to his wife. “Habibti, are you okay with that?”
Jamilah expected Kadija to try again to talk Layth out of helping Hassan – in fact, if it had been her she would have been incensed at a man making plans for her without even consulting her. Kadijah, however, went to her husband and hugged him, then pulled back and stroked his cheek with her ebony skinned, well-manicured hand.
“Honey,” she said, “you know I think this whole business is crazier than a hoot owl. But you’re my man and I’m with you. I love you. I’ll go where you say and do what you say, and I’ll be making dua’ for you as hard as I can. Give ‘em hell, and come back to me safe, or I’ll tan your hide myself.”
Layth grinned. “Yes, ma’am.” The two embraced again.
Jamilah was surprised. Go where you say and do what you say? That didn’t sound like Kadija.
Layth went to use the restroom, and Muhammad took the dirty dishes and glasses to the kitchen and began to wash them. Jamilah approached him. “Muhammad,” she said. “I’m glad you found your dad. I hope you can work things out and get him help. I know this wasn’t easy.”
Muhammad smiled widely. “Thanks, Jams. That means a lot.”
Jamilah felt two hands grasp her shoulders from behind and begin to massage. She turned to see Kadijah.
“Relax,” Kadija said. “Your shoulders are so tense. I want you to know that I appreciate you letting me stay with you. If it’s an imposition I could get a hotel room.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I would absolutely love to have you.” She made an effort to release the tension in her shoulders and neck as Kadija’s hands kneaded her muscles. The massage felt heavenly.
She glanced over her shoulder. “Can I ask you something personal?”
“If a man took that tone with me, I mean ordering me around, I’d… Pffff. I wouldn’t be happy, I can tell you that. I’ve always thought of you as a modern woman, I mean you’re a career woman and -”
“Hush,” Kadija was silent for a moment, still kneading Jamilah’s muscles. Muhammad seemed to understand that the women wanted to be alone. He hurriedly finished up the dishes and retreated to the living room.
“I’m not sure how to explain this,” Kadija said finally, keeping her voice low enough so that only Jamilah could hear. “A woman can be stronger than new rope – that’s a good thing, by the way – and even fierce. But when you’re married, if you want your marriage to be happy and survive, there are things you have to learn. There are times when a man will do what a man must do, no matter what his wife says. So do you oppose him and weaken him at his moment of greatest vulnerability, or do you send him into battle with the added strength of your love? Sometimes a wife simply must do what she’s told. I know that’s hard for a lot of modern women to hear, but that’s not just Islam, it’s human nature. Every organization needs a leader.”
Jamilah felt her face grow hot. “And does a man also have to do what he’s told?”
Kadija grinned. “I wouldn’t put it that way, but yes! Men can be stubborn as yearling bulls. Part of a wife’s job is to recognize when her man’s ego is putting the family at risk, and check that claptrap. One time a certain husband of mine – who shall remain unnamed – wanted to chase down another cabbie who cut him off on the freeway. I was riding with him. I let him know that if he didn’t stop, he’d be sleeping on the sofa.
“But there are times when a man will take the reins for all the right reasons, and you have to let him, because if you don’t then you’ll wound him worse than any enemy could.
“Not everything is about you and your expectations, Jamilah. Sometimes loving someone means putting away your own hurt feelings and seeing the other person’s suffering and their faults, and loving them anyway, because that’s what they need in that moment, and if you don’t give it to them you’ll crush them.”
“Let me ask you something,” Kadijah continued. “We know what we need from men, right? Love, kindness, good father, a good romp in the hay now and then -” Jamilah blushed at that, but Kadija continued without pause “- but what do you think is the number one thing a man needs from a woman?”
Jamilah considered. “Companionship. Uhh… intimacy. Children.”
“No.” Kadijah said. “The number one thing a man needs from his wife is respect. Seriously girl, respect is what men are all about. A husband needs to know that his wife admires him and is proud of him. He knows when he messes up. He knows when he’s inadequate. He doesn’t need me or you to point it out. Sister, as hard as it is being a woman, it’s rough being a man. He’s supposed to be the provider, not show emotion, be tough, be competitive… he needs someone he can come home to who’s on his side. An army could be pitted against him, but if you support him, he’ll triumph. But if he comes home and you cut him down with this – “ Kadija stopped massaging Jamilah’s shoulders and turned her so that she could see her pointing to to the tip of her outstretched tongue “- then he’s finished. I would never do that to Louis.”
Kadija uttered these last words with such intensity that Jamilah had to look down at the floor. She felt chastised, and could feel turbulent emotions swelling in her chest, as if Kadija’s words were a catalyst that had begun a chemical reaction inside her. She understood that Kadija was not just talking about herself and Layth. She’s talking about me and Hassan, Jamilah thought. She’s sending me a message.
Before Layth, Kadija and Jamilah departed, Hassan led everyone once more in a group recital of Surat-al-Asr. Jamilah felt very close to them all in that moment. In the past she’d thought of group prayers as somehow cultish – shades of Baptist tent revivals or Moonies holding hands and singing He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands – but this wasn’t like that. Standing together, reciting the words of Allah…it was a simple but powerful acknowledgment that they were all bound together in a brotherhood and sisterhood of the heart; a spiritual kinship that went beyond race, gender, language, and even beyond the bounds of the physical world.
At the front door, Jamilah turned to face Hassan. She did not want to leave without saying something to Hassan, but she did not know what to say. Kadija’s advice bounced around in her head like tennis balls in a dryer. Not everything is about you… put away your own hurt feelings… an army could be pitted against him, but if you support him, he’ll triumph. Hassan might not be facing an army, but from the sound of it he was dealing with a vicious and remorseless foe.
“I.. I’ll be praying for you, Hassan,” Jamilah said. “I believe in you. I’m sorry for what I did and said earlier. I know you never did anything except what you had to do. I’m on your side, all the way. And yes, I would do it with you. Work to change the world, I mean.”
Not giving Hassan a chance to respond, she turned away hurriedly, feeling deeply embarrassed. Lame, she thought. I sounded like an idiot.
Layth, Kadija and Jamilah rode the elevator down together. Layth had his hand inside his coat, and Jamilah was pretty sure he was gripping the butt of his pistol.
“That was sweet as a peach,” Kadija said. “What you said up there.”
Jamilah snorted. “Pff. I sounded ridiculous.”
“Not at all. Trust me. Those words will help him more than any gun or gold.”
The two men the Crow requested from the Los Angeles consulate had arrived an hour ago. He liked them. Clean-cut Maronite boys, both former Lebanese special ops. Good Phoenician stock. Not a drop of dirty Arab blood in them. He’d wasted no time designating them Team Four and sending them into the field.
He’d shuffled the other teams around. Team Two, consisting of Pierre and a junior operative named Maurice, had eyes on the front of Hassan’s building.
Team Three was parked on the Mission Street side, monitoring the entrance to the Palisade’s parking garage. The Crow did not care for this team and had little faith in their ability. The thin Maronite Obadias was twitchy and nervous; and the other one, Pashi – though certainly large enough, with a beefy back and shoulders – was a Shiite of Persian origin. According to the intelligence, neither Hassan Amir nor his friends were driving – they were all on foot or bicycle – so he’d given Team Three the location least likely to see action.
Team Four was a floater, circling the block and occasionally detouring to nearby key points such as the Hammerhead Courier offices and the Palestinian girl’s building on Sutter.
Team One, of course, manned the command post right here in the warehouse. In a nod to political necessity, the Crow had originally designated Sarkis Haddad leader of Team One. In his absence, however, he’d taken the top spot for himself, and made Emil Dadurian his number two.
At the thought of Sarkis, the corners of the Crow’s mouth turned down in contempt. The consul had claimed that he was tired and would return if anything developed, but the Crow had heard a few of the men talking. Apparently Sarkis had a fondness for young Russian prostitutes. It wasn’t the lack of morality that bothered the Crow – he himself had no use for conventional notions of right and wrong, and couldn’t care less if Sarkis murdered a whore every morning before breakfast. No, it was the lack of discipline. The man would rather satisfy his own desires than attend to important business.
Dadurian, on the other hand, impressed the Crow with his efficiency. For example, he’d put up what he called a link chart on the wall. It consisted of two cork boards on which he’d pinned a map of San Francisco and marked the addresses of all the targets with push-pins. He’d also tacked up photos of Hassan and his friends taken from social media websites (Hassan’s photo had come from a martial arts flyer), with lengths of white yarn connecting the various players, and sticky notes describing their relationships.
Furthermore, Dadurian was constantly on the radio, checking with the various teams, and using innocuous radio codes so as not to alert any listeners. The man had been wasted on surveillance. He was a natural commander.
On the whole, the Crow was confident that Hassan Amir would be captured before long. He couldn’t wait to torture the man and learn everything he could about this situation.
On the way down in the elevator, Jamilah thought about the hadith Hassan had mentioned. The one he’d read in Al-Bukhari years ago. Souls are troops collected together... Was that true for her and Hassan as well? Were they members of the same spiritual platoon? Were they entangled souls, meant to be a part of each other’s lives? Jamilah felt like there was still so much left unsaid between them, and here she was being hustled off to the Central Valley, not knowing when she would return.
Perhaps Kadija was thinking along the same lines, because she cleared her throat and spoke to her husband: “Honey, there’s something important I have to tell you..”
Layth reached for his wife and put an arm around her shoulders. “What is it, habibti?”
“I’m…” Kadija looked down with a frown and bit her lip, then gazed up at her husband with a smile. “I’m happy. I love you. You’re my lion. My lion of Allah.”
Jamilah had a feeling that Kadija had been about to say something different. But it wasn’t her place to interfere.
Layth drew Kadija into an embrace.
Jamilah studied the pattern in the elevator carpet, embarrassed to be intruding on this private moment. They were so in love, these two. She felt her eyes tear up, but couldn’t say why. She glanced up for just a second and met Kadija’s eyes, and was surprised to see the sober and almost frightened look there.
She felt as if events were unfolding too rapidly, as in a dream. She couldn’t ascertain, however, what path she was on. Was she racing down a predetermined route, like airport travelers on those moving walkways, ending either in her union with Hassan, enjoying a wonderful future she could not imagine; or in estrangement and death? Or was she in control (to whatever degree a human could be), making a series of choices that would take her where she wanted to go?
Either way, she was convinced that her life’s fate was bound to Hassan’s in some way.
Downstairs in the parking garage, Jamilah clambered into the back seat of Hassan’s Audi. It was a beautiful car, with clean lines and a pristine, white exterior. Kadija sat in back with her, and Layth took the driver’s seat. He started the car and headed up the ramp toward street level.
Jamilah noticed that Layth’s head was turning constantly, scanning every corner of the garage. He steered with his left hand only. In his right he held the wicked looking handgun that she had seen upstairs. He kept it low, resting on his leg.
“Do you think that cannon is necessary?” she asked. “What if someone sees it?”
“A precaution,” Layth replied. “Insha’Allah it won’t be needed. Hey, habibti,” he said, addressing his wife. “It’s like old times, huh? Me driving, you in the back. Remember that first time you hailed my cab? What did I say? ‘Did you know you can cook with sage?’” His tone was light, and Jamilah understood that he was trying to take their minds off the situation at hand.
Kadija smiled. “‘Tastes peppery.’”
Layth drove out of the garage and turned right on Mission. Jamilah rolled her window down a crack and breathed in the chilly night air. It smelled of rain and sea. At this time of night – almost two in the morning – there was little traffic on the road aside from a few cabs, though there were still plenty of cars parked alongside.
Hassan’s story had been so…so much. So much to process. Jamilah was too fatigued to sort it all out. More than anything she wished she could go back in time about half a day and erase her shameful behavior. She couldn’t believe she had hit him. He meant so much to her, and because of that she’d overreacted. You always hurt the people you love – wasn’t that what they said? She put her head back against the cool leather of the seat and released her breath in a sigh.
“You said I should text you for the next pick up, not call you,” Layth said, continuing his reminiscences with Kadija. “And I assumed it had something to do with honor killings.”
“I said you were wrong as a hog in a tree.” She chuckled. “You were such a blockhead.”
“I still am. But I’m your blockhead now.”
Kadija leaned forward and tousled her husband’s hair. “And I love your blockhead, blockhead.”
In the consulate’s Army street warehouse, the radio crackled. “Team Three, rush pickup.”
The Crow recognized the voice of Obadiah, the twitchy Maronite. Rush pickup was their code for “target spotted.” He listened as Dadurian’s keyed the radio and responded: “Team Three, elaborate.”
“We’ve got activity. White Audi exiting garage, westbound toward Fourth. Identify package PG and two others.”
Excellent. PG was the Palestinian girl.
The Crow took the radio from Dadurian. “Box the package. Team Three, secure the bottom. Team Two, get the top. Team Four, rendezvous ASAP. I want a quick, clean pickup of all three packages. In and out. Is that understood?”
The various teams radioed their acknowledgments. The Crow replaced the radio in the base unit and smoothed his hair back from his forehead. This was it! He had them. Well, not Hassan – not yet – but the Palestinian girl was the key. Get her, and the dominoes would fall. An Al-Husayni in his hands! There were not many of them left, and he would get to stamp one out himself, though he would make her suffer before the end, and would enjoy it.
Inspector Katrina Sanchez checked the dashboard clock. Two fifteen a.m. She’d only meant to check in on her husband Roberto and her daughter Cecilia, but she’d ended up having an argument with Roberto. She knew it was her fault. and she felt awful. In the past, things had been so good between them. Roberto’s touch had always felt so comforting and warm – such a contrast to the cold streets of the City.
The last few years, however, Katrina hadn’t been treating her husband well. Her sexual desire had vanished. She was easily annoyed, and too judgmental. She knew it, and she hated herself for it. There were times when she wanted to apologize, but the words wouldn’t come, and she couldn’t explain why.
And now it was the middle of the night. She made a dismissive motion with her hand. Está bien. She had no problem waking people up for questioning. They were often less guarded when groggy. She stuffed a wad of chewing tobacco into her mouth, put the car in gear and pulled onto the deserted expanse of Market Street. She’d be at the Palisade in five minutes. Time to find out what the mysterious Hassan Amir was really all about.
“We’ve got company,” Layth said over his shoulder.
Jamilah’s heart jumped. “What do you mean?” They’d barely pulled out of the parking garage onto Mission. They hadn’t even hit 4th Street yet.
“Could be nothing, but a white delivery van pulled out of a parking spot when we exited the garage.”
Kadija reached forward and grasped her husband’s shoulder from behind. “Do whatever you have to.”
“Don’t be hasty,” Jamilah protested. “Maybe it’s nothing.”
“We’ll know in a minute,” Layth said. “I’ll take a few turns.” As he neared the red light on 4th he stayed in the middle lane. Just before he reached the light he signaled right to indicate a lane change, but moved left to turn onto 4th.
Jamilah turned her head and glanced through the rear window at the van behind. It was still right on their tail.
“Don’t look,” Layth said in a stern voice. “We don’t want them to know we – “ He broke off as another van came careening down 4th Street, braked with a screech, and halted directly in front of their car, blocking their way. The van’s side door was thrown open, and Jamilah saw a man dressed in slacks and a dress shirt, wearing a black ski mask and pointing a rifle with some kind of long attachment on the end.
“Lord Almighty,” said Kadija under her breath. “Honey!”
“Hold on,” Layth called. He put the car in reverse, presumably to try to maneuver around the van. Before he could move more than a foot or two, however, the van behind them struck their rear fender, jolting them all. They were trapped.