See the Story Index for a chronological guide to the previous stories.
March 23, 2010. 2:15 am.
San Francisco, California
“Stay down!” Layth cried. “I’ll draw their fire. Take my knife, but don’t do anything!” He reached back over the seat, extending a sheathed dagger handle first. Kadija snatched it from his hand.
Layth had trained for scenarios exactly like this in Iraq. He knew he could not fight attackers at the front and rear simultaneously. He had to assault one of the vans, deal with the occupants, then engage the other. There would be no one protecting Kadija and Jamilah, but it couldn’t be helped. At least he would draw the gunman’s fire away from the women.
He flung open his driver’s side door, dropped to a crouch with his back to the door and the gunman, and opened fire on the van behind, firing two shots through the front windshield at the driver. The gun roared in his hand and the muzzle flashes lit the night. He saw the driver spasm and the side of his head disappear in a spray of blood and brain matter. At the same moment the rear van opened its side door, and a gunman with a huge back and shoulders, also wearing a mask, stepped out. Layth cut him down with three well placed shots, two to the chest and one to the head, all pumped out in a fraction of a second.
At the same moment, bullets smashed through the window of the door he was hunkered behind, showering tiny puzzle-pieces of glass onto his head and back. Other bullets struck the door itself. He knew this because the door thudded against his back, almost knocking him over. There were no rifle reports, however. The enemy were using silenced weapons. That probably saved his life, he realized. Silencers slowed bullets down. A rifle bullet traveling at full speed would have gone right through the door and then through Layth himself.
The car’s front windshield shattered and the hood pinged with bullet impacts. Something in the car’s engine groaned and hissed. A voice shouted in Arabic, “Hold your fire! The boss wants the girl alive.” Their accents were Levantine. Lebanese or Palestinian. No surprise there.
The girl. That had to be Jamilah. They were after Jamilah. Well, they weren’t going to get her. And they probably didn’t know that Layth spoke Arabic. That was a factor in his favor. His current position was untenable, however. Any moment he’d be struck by a ricochet, or a bullet passing under or through the door. He had to move.
Unfortunately, Hassan had been correct about Layth’s M1911 A1 Colt holding only eight shots. He had already used five, and he had no spare magazines. Three shots left. La hawla wa la quwwata il-la billah. Every shot had to count.
In the past Layth might have hollered, “Hooah!” before going into battle. This time he said the shahadah to himself quickly, then uttered a quiet “Allahu Akbar!” and rolled away from the door toward the back end of the van that blocked the car’s path ahead. He came out of the roll lying flat on his side. The shooter had apparently dismounted the van from the driver’s side and come around the rear. He stood almost atop Layth, staring down at him in surprise.
“Not your day, Battle,” Layth said, and shot the man through the neck. The gunman stumbled backward, clutching his throat, blood spilling between his fingers.
Layth rolled again and came to his feet, his gun trained on the van’s side door. At the same moment another masked man stepped out of the van. Layth fired, and saw the flash from the man’s silencer at the same instant.
Layth’s body jerked backward as something massive struck him in the chest. He tumbled onto the ground and struck the back of his head on the asphalt. His chest felt crushed, as if he’d been hit with a sledgehammer. He couldn’t breathe. He refocused his eyes on the van, but the shooter was gone.
He rolled to his hands and knees and tried to stand. His foot slipped on something wet and he fell, gasping. He tried with all his might to rise, but his fingers only scrabbled at the bloody ground.
The truth hit him: he wasn’t going to make it. He was not afraid. There in the street, on his hands and knees in a puddle of his own blood, he felt a deep sense of regret for the pain Kadija would experience.
He loved that woman so much. She had saved him, in every sense of the word, by Allah’s will. Egyptian or not, she was his queen. For so long he’d been lost, his dreams shattered and even his body falling apart. But Kadija had brought him together. His dreams had woven themselves into something wonderful in her arms, and with her he’d found his place of joy in this world. Her love nourished his heart like sunshine, and caressed his soul like rain. My queen, my African queen. My lodestone, my guide, my ally. There was not a moment of his time with her that he regretted, not even the rare arguments, because he’d been with her, loving her even when they disagreed.
His parents wouldn’t understand. They might blame Islam. And Hassan… who would help him with the danger he faced? But Layth couldn’t… he couldn’t worry about that now. It’s in Your hands, O Allah. I’m making You my Wakeel.
A hadith qudsi flashed through his mind. It was one he’d read recently, and had thought about a lot, because it seemed to contradict the attitude that most religious people had toward God, which was fear of Him and His punishment. “If My servant loves to meet Me I love to meet him; and if he dislikes to meet Me, I dislike to meet him.”
I’m happy to meet you, O Allah, Layth thought. I’m happy. If you will grant me one last wish Ya Rab, one last dua’, it is this. He sent a thought to Allah with all the power remaining to him, as if by sheer force of will he could launch his dua’ into the heavens to circle around Allah’s throne and be heard. “Kadija is yours, O Allah. I don’t matter. But take care of Kadija. I thank You for light after darkness. I’m coming to You.”
His last remaining strength gave out, and he fell to the ground.
Inspector Sanchez rolled slowly past the front entrance to the Palisade on Market Street. There was nothing unusual going on. Not that she expected anything. Of course she could park on the Market Street side and block the right lane, or she could even park on the sidewalk. But the Palisade management might not appreciate that. She might as well roll around to the Mission Street side and use the garage.
A call came through on the police radio. She recognized the voice of the dispatch supervisor for the southern district, and knew immediately that it would be something major.
“All units, we have a 216 at the intersection of Mission and 4th Streets, reports of multiple shooters, possible 187, possible attempted 207. All units in the area respond with extreme caution. Over.”
Katrina knew these codes as well as her own name. 216, shots fired. 187, murder. 207, kidnapping. Multiple shooters. This could be related to the case she was on, or not. It might be a gang shooting or even a terrorist attack.
She spat her tobacco so fast that only part of it made it into the cup, the rest splattering onto her pants. Ignoring it, she lit up the car’s turret flashers and siren, put it in drive and floored it, burning rubber as she tore around the corner at 3rd Street. With one hand she snatched up her radio and keyed it. “Inspector Sanchez in unit six six three responding! I’m on 3rd Street, ETA fifteen seconds!”
“Roger six six three. Proceed with caution. Backup is on the way from central. SWAT and HSU have been dispatched, over.”
SWAT and the Homeland Security Unit would take time to respond, Katrina knew, but the central district was just on the other side of Market Street and ran down to the Wharf. Hopefully they wouldn’t take too long. This situation sounded like a bear. Inspector Katrina Sanchez steeled herself, called out a prayer to Saint Miguel, sped around the corner onto Mission Street, and sent the car roaring forward, unsnapping her gun holster as she drove.
Even as she did so, a part of her mind – a deep, quiet part – whispered, “Please, not again!”
Two years before, Katrina had been forced to kill a man in the line of duty. She’d been involved in other confrontations, but until that day she had never taken a human life. Since then, the man she’d killed – a mid-level drug dealer who’d pointed a shotgun at her during a raid – had haunted her. She had dreams in which the man drew a gun so large she could see the individual shells in the chambers. She shot at him but her bullets fell harmlessly to the ground. He advanced on her, leering. She invariably woke up gasping for breath. Sometimes she ran to the bathroom and vomited.
Sometimes she perceived a presence in the passenger seat beside her, and was convinced it was the ghost of the drug dealer, watching her. There were times when she was afraid to look to her right, because what if she looked and the dealer truly was there, sitting in the passenger seat, pale as death? What would that mean for her sanity?
She had no intention of seeing a psychiatrist, no matter how confidential the discussions were supposed to be. She could not risk a single word about her hallucinations, or mental disturbances, or whatever they were, being put down on paper. If it got out in the department that she’d gone loca, she was finished. “It figures,” they’d say. “Whaddaya expect from a woman?”
In the rare moments when she was brutally honest with herself, she knew this post-shooting trauma was the cause of her family problems. Ever since the shooting, she had plunged herself obsessively into her work. She didn’t know what else to do.
The last thing she wanted was another shootout. She didn’t know if she could handle the burden of taking another life.
Kadija lifted her head a few inches and saw one of the gunmen approaching on the passenger side of the car.
“Jamilah, we can’t stay here!” she said urgently. Jamilah, who had squeezed herself down onto the floor space of the car and covered her head with her arms, looked up. She was surprisingly clear-eyed, and, though clearly afraid, did not seem panicked.
“You go and I’ll follow!”
Kadija nodded. “We’ll run! Stick with me. Stay low.”
She climbed out of the car with a quick glance over her shoulder to make sure Jamilah was behind her. She still held Layth’s dagger in her other hand. As they exited the car in a crouch, she saw her husband in the street and froze. He lay on his back near the rear of the forward van. His clothes were stained dark with blood. At this distance, in the dark, she could not tell if he was alive or dead.
Even as she took this in, another white van came roaring up Mission Street from the west, heading directly for them.
She turned to Jamilah. “Run and hide. Call Hassan and warn him. Go!”
“What about you? You can’t stay here, you’ll be killed.!”
“That’s my man out there!” Kadija said fiercely. “I’m not leaving him. Now run!” Without another word, she turned and ran to Layth. Dropping to the ground beside him, she let the knife fall and cradled his head in her arms. She bent low, looking into his eyes. His face was pale and his gaze unfocused. His chest heaved with the effort of each breath, and blood bubbled out of his mouth as he spoke. But he was alive, alhamdulillah, alhamdulillah!
“Wake up, honey,” she said. “Wake up.”
“Is that… you habibti?” Layth gasped. “You… get… to safety.”
Kadija saw how much Layth was straining to form each word. “Hush,” she said. “Don’t talk. I can hear sirens already. Ambulances are coming.” It was true. She heard a siren growing quickly louder.
“You were… my light… after darkness… You… be strong… now.” His mouth and chin were red with fresh blood.
Kadija began to weep. “Hush now. Stay with me. This is not the time to leave me, honey. You hear me, soldier? I’m not giving you permission to leave.” She was sobbing now. She didn’t want to cry. She wanted to be Louis’s rock. She wanted to somehow impart her own strength to him, force it into him, force him to survive! But she felt herself crumbling beneath the weight of this blow.
She felt a small but sharp pain in the back of her shoulder and and twisted her head. A man in a ski mask stood over her with a needle. A few feet away, another masked man was down on one knee, firing his own gun at someone else. Kadija had not even heard the shots. Immediately her body flushed with heat and her limbs turned to rubber.
Drugged, she realized. I’ve been drugged. They will kill Layth! In a burst of blinding fury fueled by fierce protectiveness of her husband, she snatched up the knife from the street, twisted to face the man who had drugged her, seized his arm, and plunged the knife into his belly. She wanted to do more – she wanted to charge the other man and kill him as well – but the the drug was too strong. Her world went gray, as if someone had dropped a heavy blanket onto her head, and she fell into unconsciousness.
Inspector Sanchez’s car roared up to what looked like a war zone at 4th and Mission. Even as she skidded to a halt twenty feet from the action, her trained eye roamed the scene, cataloging every detail in a flash.
It was mayhem. Three white vans and an Audi. Bullet casings everywhere. There was movement in the darkness and she turned her head to see a woman wearing a typically Muslim-type headscarf dash into the Yerba Buena center with a masked man in pursuit. Katrina saw at least three bodies on the ground, two of them masked. Another masked man was dragging a limp African-American woman toward one of the vans, while yet another crouched near the van, holding a rifle with something on the end that might have been a noise suppressor. Kidnap. She was witnessing a kidnapping in action. And these men were professionals. Soldiers or terrorists.
She snatched up the radio. “Six six three. I have multiple shooters and multiple bodies on the ground. Activity in Yerba Buena as well. I need backup now!”
“Roger, six six three,” came the response. “Backup and EMTs on the way. Hold your position and do not engage. Repeat, do not engage.”
Do not engage, and watch this woman get kidnapped? No manches! Fat chance of that. The priority was to deal with the kidnapping of the unconscious woman. Perhaps the girl who ran into the park would escape on her own.
She muttered, “Help me now San Miguel, or you’re a burnt tortilla!” – threw her door open, crouched behind it, and rested her weapon arm at the point where the door met the body of the car. As loudly as she could, she shouted, “Police! Drop your weapons!”
In response, the kidnapper released the unconscious woman and ran behind the van, while the kneeling man opened fire. There were no audible reports, but Katrina saw the muzzle flash as bullets punched into her car door and window. She dove back into the car. She could not return effective fire from here, but the engine block would at least provide cover. She was outgunned and outmanned, and she knew it.
Hassan changed into a pair of worn khaki shorts and an old Hammerhead Courier t-shirt, brushed his teeth, changed his bandages, and prepared to sleep. Muhammad meanwhile attended to his father, who had awakened in fright, calling for his son. Mo reassured him, brought him a glass of water and added a second blanket to keep him warm.
Hassan had just settled on the sofa and said his bedtime dua’ when Muhammad popped back into the living room.
“You want to hear a joke?”
“SubhanAllah!” Hassan exclaimed. “Don’t you ever stop, bro? We need to sleep.”
“Hey,” Muhammad said. “You deal with stress your way, I deal my way. So. This guy was in a cave, looking for treasure. He found an old lamp and rubbed it, and a genie came out.”
“Hold on,” Hassan said. “Did you hear that?”
“I thought I heard gunfire.”
“Backfire, dude. Construction noise.”
“Construction at two thirty in the morning?”
The sound came again, distantly, and both of them inclined their heads toward the windows that looked out on Mission Street.
“That’s gunfire!” Hassan leaped to his feet. “Layth!”
He opened the sliding glass door and rushed to the balcony railing. A cold wind whipped his hair and sent eddies into the apartment, making the curtains undulate and rattling the Islamic decorations that hung on the wall.
Hassan stepped to the railing and looked down. Far below, he saw it. His white Audi, stopped at the 4th Street intersection, boxed in by two white vans. He could see figures moving. Even as he watched he saw the unmistakable flash of gunfire, and an instant later heard the reports. An unmarked police car turned the corner at 3rd Street, going fast, turret lights flashing and siren wailing.
He ran. Barefoot, dressed only in his shorts and t-shirt, he bolted out of the apartment and made for the stairs. No time to wait for the elevator. It wasn’t until he was pounding down the stairs that he heard feet behind him and looked to see Muhammad following. Without stopping, Hassan shouted, “Go back! Stay with your dad. It’s dangerous down there.”
“I’m coming!” Muhammad hollered back. “Don’t waste your breath.”
Hassan did not argue. He barrelled down one flight after another, taking entire flights in two or three leaps. He was mentally and physically weary, but the urgency and adrenaline charged him with power, and his muscles were strong. He’d been a messenger for years. He could run like this for an hour without losing his breath, even in his current state.
When the firing paused, Katrina stuck her head out of the car for a quick look. The gunman was reloading. Katrina took one step out of the car, aimed and fired twice. She had to be careful not to hit the unconscious woman. At this distance, in the dark, she did not really expect to hit the gunman, but she did. He shouted and fell back. Before Katrina could make another move, however, the man came to a prone position on his belly, aimed at her, and opened fire again. She dove back into the car.
She had an idea. Crawling across the seat to the passenger side, she opened the door very slightly and squeezed out. Maybe in the darkness she could approach unseen and flank this terrorist hijo de puta.
Unfortunately she was not the first to have this idea. Sensing the slight scrape of shoes on the pavement behind her, she spun. Another gunman – judging from his build, the one who’d been dragging the woman – stood behind her, a silenced pistol leveled at her forehead from less than a foot away.
Katrina reacted without thought, pivoting her body out of the line of fire while simultaneously grabbing the perp’s protruding noise suppressor and bringing her own .357 magnum pistol to bear. Her pistol cracked loudly and leaped in her hand as she fired point blank into the man’s belly. He emitted a shocked shout and fell backward, tearing his gun loose from Katrina’s grip in the process. He must have pulled the trigger even as he fell, because flame flashed from the suppressor.
Inspector Katrina Sanchez felt something strike her head with the force of a bomb. She was flung sideways into the into the open car door, then tumbled forward out of the car, sprawling in the street, dazed, her vision gray, pain like atomic fire in her head.
Somehow, though, she did not lose consciousness. She didn’t understand how she could have been shot in the head and still be alive, let alone conscious. After a moment the grayness lifted, and she became aware of her body position. She could feel that she was sprawled awkwardly on her back, one leg twisted beneath her. Her head pounded like a jackhammer with every heartbeat. She felt blood streaming from her scalp, soaking her hair and neck. She tried to sit up but the pain was like a firework in her head, and she fell back again.
The gunman was coming back. He climbed to his feet and stood bent over at the waist, clutching his stomach, still holding his silenced pistol. He took a step toward Katrina and pointed his gun down at her.
Katrina tried to lift her gun in response but her hand was empty. She had dropped it. She stared in silence at the masked gunman’s pistol as it came level with her chest. There was nothing she could do but die. Que maldito, San Miguel, she thought. You’re fired.
The gunman turned to see where the shout had come from. Katrina moved her eyes without turning her head, and saw two young men running up the street toward them, both civilians – a muscular man dressed in nothing but shorts and a t-shirt, his long hair streaming behind him, and another, thin, with a mop of curly hair.
Oh no, Katrina thought. These civilians are going to get killed.
If Katrina herself got killed that was part of the job – it was the risk a cop took every day. But these civilians had no part in this. She tried to shout a warning to stay away, but her voice came out as a croak.
She tried again to sit up, intending to tackle the gunman, but her legs would not function.
To her horror, the gunman fired at the civilian in shorts, yet somehow he missed. The skinny man bringing up the rear ducked and ran off to the side, but the muscular one kept coming. He slowed to a walk, strolling straight toward the gunman.
At this range, Katrina was close enough to hear the coughing noises emitted by the gunman’s silenced pistol as it fired again, and again, and a third time. As she watched, the muscular civilian seemed to slip out of the path of the bullets. The shot to her head must have affected her perceptions, because human beings did not move like this. Every time the gunman fired, the muscular man altered his profile in some bizarre way, apparently evading the bullets, and continuing to move forward at the same time. It was impossible. And yet, in a moment, he reached the gunman. He snatched the gun from the man’s hand, struck the gunman in the face with his palm, then dropped his shoulder and rammed the injured gunman so hard that the man flew backward off his feet and tumbled to a stop in the street.
The gunman uttered a loud groan of pain, clambered to his feet, and stumbled away.
“Let him go,” Katrina said, and this time her voice was intelligible, though she sounded like a sick dog to her own ears. “Please. I need help.” She was cold, so cold, but sweating at the same time. Her heart raced and her body shook like a leaf. For a moment she completely lost track of where she was, and thought that she was back in the hospital, giving birth to Cecilia. Then her awareness returned and she knew that she was lying on Mission Street, bleeding and helpless.
The muscle guy came to her, and Katrina recognized him from the martial arts flyer. The left side of his face was bandaged, but he was Hassan Amir. Bending down beside her, Muscle Guy – she couldn’t stop thinking of him that way – straightened out Katrina’s bent leg, then turned her head gently one way and the other. The pain from even that slight motion was intense.
“I’ve been shot,” Katrina said. “I’m so cold, please.”
“You’re in shock.” Muscle Guy’s tone was calm and efficient. I’ll do what I can, but first I need to bandage your wound. You’re bleeding heavily.”
“Are you a doctor?”
“No, but I’ve treated this kind of wound before. I’ll use my shirt. It’s clean.” He stripped off his t-shirt, and Katrina was taken aback by what she saw. Muscle Guy’s body was highly defined and powerful, but his chest was marred with a huge tattoo of a gun, and with a terrible, gaping scar right above his heart. There were other scars on his torso and arms as well, including what looked like an old bullet wound on his right forearm. She noticed as well that his left forearm was bandaged. Another tattoo circled his upper arm and depicted a snake eating its own tail.
“You’re very fortunate. The bullet didn’t penetrate your skull. It flattened out and traveled under the skin. I can see the path it took through your scalp. You have a loose flap of skin here. Hold on.”
Katrina winced and moaned in pain as Amir wrapped the torn shirt strips around her head and tied them.
“You know, at that range, for the bullet to deflect off your skull like this is a miracle. Someone up there wants you around a little longer.”
She snorted. “If this is the best Saint Michael can do, I don’t need him.”
“I wasn’t thinking of Saint Michael. There’s only One who can help or harm, and that’s God.” He placed Katrina’s hand on the wound. “Press. I need to call for help, and get you warm.”
A moment later she heard him on the police radio, calling for assistance. Then he was back. He laid an emergency blanket over her torso – he must have found it in her trunk – and put something beneath her feet to elevate them. Her gym bag, maybe – she couldn’t tell. As he worked he kept glancing up Mission toward 4th Street, anxiety plain on his face.
“You’re going to be okay, officer.”
“Inspector Sanchez,” she corrected automatically.
“Inspector.” Again he peered in the direction of 4th Street. “Listen, you’re doing so well. I can hear the sirens. They’re almost here. I have to go now.” He began to rise.
Katrina shot out a hand and gripped his wrist like a lifeline. “No, please.” The events of the last few minutes had been terrifying. She did not want to be alone. She felt safe with Muscle Guy here. He’d saved her life and she trusted him.
“Inspector. I have friends in danger up there. Please let go.”
She gripped his wrist tighter. “Don’t leave me.” She heard the pleading tone in her voice – so uncharacteristic of her – and didn’t care. “I’m helpless here. Just until backup arrives.” Even as she said this her mind catalogued the information. Muscle Guy – Hassan Amir – was a part of this mess. He was involved in some way.
Muscle Guy stared up the street, his jaw tense. For a moment she thought he would physically peel her hand off his wrist and run off. Then he relaxed and crouched beside her, nodding his head. “Okay.” He gave her a slight, strained smile. “Don’t worry, Inspector. I’m here.”
She released his wrist and exhaled in relief. “Could you wipe the tobacco off my pants? Don’t want people to see me like that.”
Muscle Guy smiled. “Just like a woman. Shot in the head, and she’s worried about a clothing stain.” He looked in her car, found the wet wipes in the glove box, and cleaned the stain.
Katrina detected motion from the corner of her eye and felt a swell of fear until she recognized the skinny civilian. She was sure that she knew his name – wasn’t he the one she’d been looking for? The pain in her head made it difficult to concentrate. The young man ran up and stopped, gaping at his friend and Katrina.
“Uhh, Hassan,” he said haltingly. “I don’t know how to tell you this.” As he spoke, his wide eyes roamed over Amir’s muscular but marred body.
Katrina saw Amir’s body stiffen. “Tell me what?” he demanded.
“Layth has been shot. He’s… well, I’m not sure if he’s alive. Kadija is with him and she’s breathing but not conscious. She doesn’t seem wounded. I don’t know what’s wrong with her. All the bad guys are dead or gone. There’s no sign of Jamilah.”
“If Jamilah is a short woman wearing a scarf,” Katrina said hoarsely, “then she’s in trouble. She ran into…” She couldn’t think of the name. “Across the street. A masked man chased her.” A powerful shiver racked her entire body, causing the pain in her head to blaze up like a bonfire.
Muscle Guy motioned to his friend. “Stay with the Inspector. Put your jacket over her. I’m going after Jamilah.”
“No, please,” Katrina said. “Stay.”
Muscle Guy gave her a level stare. “Do you trust me?”
She looked into his eyes. They were eyes that had seen a lot of pain. Eyes that were troubled but sincere. “Yes,” she said.
“Then you can trust my friend. He’ll stay until help arrives.”
Muscle Guy picked up the silenced pistol dropped by the masked gunman, and ran. Katrina watched him disappear, his bare feet oddly silent on the cold pavement. If backup arrived and saw him running with that gun in his hand, they’d shoot him down like a rabid dog.
She wished him luck.