See the Story Index for a chronological guide to the previous stories.
One of the “road crew” lifted an M14 rifle, took aim directly at Muhsin’s taxi and opened fire. Hassan dropped onto the seat as bullets tore through the windshield and ricocheted through the engine block.
So it wasn’t random. They were here to kill him personally. Why? What could they possibly want with him? Boulos was dead. Could these men be working for Abeer?
It didn’t matter. All he had to do right now was survive.
A massive gunfight erupted. Hassan made out the cracking reports of multiple M-14s, the distinctive booming rat-a-tats of AK-47s, and then the rapid, fully automatic roar of the M240. Beneath it all were the screams of the drivers. The noise ripped through the urban canyon and echoed off the buildings on both sides, so that it sounded as if the earth were shaking itself to pieces.
When the M240 came into play Hassan reached out and tore the rear view mirror from its mounting. Holding it just over the dashboard, he used it to monitor the situation outside without raising his head.
The M240 was mounted on a tripod. The gunner lay on his belly, using a bucket to contain the ammo belt that fed the gun. The heavy weapon chewed a line only a meter from the taxi, sending asphalt flying up in gouts, then tore through the car next to theirs, a red Toyota B-5 that seemed to almost crumple in place, jittering with the fury of the M240 rounds, shedding glass, plastic and steel like confetti. Fortunately the driver had already fled – Hassan saw him running between two rows of cars, his hands covering his head.
Many other drivers and passengers were similarly fleeing for the safety of the buildings. It seemed the gunmen were not targeting civilians, thank God.
He realized that there were two groups of combatants: the road crew, and the men from the painters van, who were apparently allied with Hamdi and his companion. Some closed to grappling distance and commenced fighting hand to hand. Hassan saw knives flashing, and one man attacking another with a sword. The swordsman’s movements were graceful and fluid as a dancer’s. Hamdi began calling out orders, and Hassan realized that these “painters” were actually his men.
He felt a sliver of hope. If there were two opposing groups, then he and Muhsin had a chance.
No sooner had he thought this than the M240 gunner adjusted his aim, sighting on the taxi.
If that wasn’t bad enough, another of the road crew hoisted an RPG launcher to his shoulder, while a third man slid a rocket into the muzzle.
RPG – for rocket propelled grenade – was in fact a misnomer. Rather than a grenade, the launcher fired a rocket tipped with a high-explosive warhead that flew at 300 meters per second. It could demolish even a light tank or armored personnel carrier.
During the civil war, Hassan had often used a Soviet-made RPG-7. This one, however, was a make he didn’t recognize. It looked like a modernized American model, reloadable and equipped with a laser sight on top.
The man with the launcher aimed it carefully at the taxi. Once he pressed that trigger, the rocket would annihilate them in a tenth of a second.
All of this flashed through his mind in a second, followed by a final, urgent thought: Muhsin’s cab was about to become a death trap.
“Muhsin!” Hassan bellowed. “Out of the cab, passenger side, stay low! Get out now, now!” Hassan himself threw open the passenger side door and dove out into the street. Through the corner of this eye he saw Muhsin do the same. He belly-crawled to Muhsin, circled an arm around the driver’s chest and began dragging the man along the street toward the sidewalk and the relative safety of the tall bank building nearby.
“I can crawl!” Muhsin shouted. “Let me go!”
With a tremendous percussive clap, the taxi exploded. Hassan felt heat wash over the back of his legs and torso. Muhsin cried out in terror.
Hassan had fought in battles like this more times than he could count. He was already in soldier mode, calculating probabilities of survival, surveying the enemy, and searching for escape routes.
A gunman who looked to be in his late teens ran past Hassan, firing an AK-47. The youth cast him a glance and yelled, “Stay down,” then targeted one of the road crew. A moment later the youth’s back exploded into chunks of flesh. Blood ribboned through the air like Christmas.
Enough. Hassan was fed up. He turned to Muhsin and shouted to be heard over the roar of weapons fire. “Crawl behind that truck, then get to the bank.” He pointed. “The bank! Find a safe spot inside. Go!”
“What about you?” the driver squawked back.
Hassan’s face became grim. “They want to kill me? I’m going to show them what it means to come after Hassan Amir.”
The greatest challenge a man faces in combat is fear. You’re hit by the realization that the other man wants to injure or kill you. There’s no talking it out, no referee to end the match. The other guy is committed to driving a chunk of steel through your flesh, and the only way to stop him is either to do it to him first, or run away. The impulse to flee is overpowering, harking back to the days when cavemen fled from saber toothed tigers.
Hassan, in a lifetime of personal combat of one form or another, had only ever seen two strategies for dealing with personal fear. The first was to whip oneself into a frenzy of rage so great that it overcame fear. The men who employed this strategy became ravening beasts, reveling in battle, relishing the opportunity to kill. Such men often fetishized death, turning war into a religion.
Hassan had seen the horrific things that such men could do.
The second strategy was to divorce oneself from all emotion and become an empty vessel, moving as one has been trained to do, killing without malice, acknowledging the possibility of death and not caring.
This was the method Hassan’s mother had taught him. There was never any mad screaming or chest pounding in his childhood training. His mother taught him to keep cool, relax his shoulders and arms, shoot without feeling, ignore pain and fatigue, and to be as relentless as a machine. This teaching had been reinforced by – of all people – Boulos Haddad.
Boulos had been fascinated by the Japanese samurai – medieval Japanese warriors who developed the “no mind” fighting method into a high art. His murderous uncle had occasionally shared with him the teachings of great samurai thinkers, such the master strategist Sun Tzu and the ronin swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, as well as the parables of the Hagakure.
Hassan employed this method now. Falling into no-mind was like putting on an old, familiar uniform that still fit. He emptied himself of emotion and, like a snake shedding its skin, let all stress fall from his muscles and bones. His eyes widened, unblinking. His hearing dimmed, so that the noise of the battle seemed far away.
That was not to say that he fought without purpose. He fought for his own parents, swept from life in their primes. He fought for his little brother. He fought for Lena, wherever she might be. He fought for the victims of Tel-Az-Zaytoon, for Daniel, for Jamilah, and for his son Kamal, Allah bless his little soul. He fought in the name of Allah, who kept saving him and bringing him back to life, again and again, for reasons he had never understood.
He took the dead youth’s AK, gently prying the weapon from the man’s fingers. The weapon was hot in his hands, but Hassan knew that AKs did not overheat and jam like some American rifles.
He stood and took in the state of the battle in a glance. He’d already surmised that it was the road crew that was trying to kill him, while Hamdi and his men – the painters, as Hassan thought of them – seemed to be opposing them. That was all he needed to know.
He saw immediately that Hamdi’s painters were outnumbered and outgunned. They were younger, mostly in their 20’s, and armed with AKs. Some carried only knives or swords. One in particular wielded a samurai sword like a master. He leaped and spun, the sword flashing in the afternoon light, and men fell before him like wheat.
Hamdi was the exception. Hassan saw him take aim and split a man almost in half with three rapid shots from that big Dragunov.
The road crew, on the other hand, seemed to range in age from 30 to 60 or so. They carried M14 rifles, plus the big M240, the RPG, and handheld grenades. Some wore body armor.
Hassan went to work, targeting the men that he knew for sure were members of the road crew. This was an easy task, since many were shooting at him in return. He had no spare magazines, so he fired one round at a time, picking his shots precisely, targeting their heads. He swiveled smoothly one way and another, the rifle stock on his shoulder, moving as he fired, never standing still. Broken glass crunched beneath his feet.
He was in his element. Though it had been years since he’d been in battle, he took to it like a falcon to the sky. He and the gun were one creature, a chimera whose name was Death. Where he cast his gaze, men fell.
The first to go was the man with the RPG. Hassan felled him with a single shot, then killed the man who tried to pick up the RPG after him. His third bullet went through the left eye of the M240 gunner.
One of the road crew was fighting hand-to-hand with one of Hamdi’s painters. Their knives darted like the tongues of snakes as they slashed at each other. Hassan could see that the painter was getting the worst of it. He took careful aim. It was a difficult shot, as only part of the road worker’s body was exposed to him, but he held his breath, waited, then put a bullet through the man’s knee. The man stumbled, and the painter finished him off. The younger man looked back to see who had helped him, spotted Hassan and nodded, blood dripping from his chin.
The tide of the battle turned as Hassan strode through the chaos, delivering pitiless death to these muscular and battle scarred road crew fighters. The air stank of gunpowder, blood and burning rubber. Hassan took a step back just as a civilian vehicle sped by in reverse, shot-out-tires flapping like battle flags.
A woman in hijab cowered on hands and knees in the street, trembling in terror. Hassan bent low, slid an arm around her waist and lifted her in the air. With adrenaline coursing through his system, it was like picking up a box of tissues. He walked backward with her even as she beat on his back with her fists. He set her down behind a parked delivery truck that seemed to be out of the field of fire, and shouted at her to stay down.
He sensed movement to his left and turned to face a lean middle aged man with a thick scar that parted his hair like a gruesome style job. The man gripped the barrel of Hassan’s AK, pushed it to the side, and brought his own automatic pistol to bear on Hassan’s heart. Hassan pivoted and swung the stock of his rifle into the man’s wrist. He heard the crack of the man’s bone snapping as the assassin’s pistol flew out of his hand. Hassan reversed the rifle and fired point blank into the man’s chest, two rapid shots that knocked the scarred killer back like a sledgehammer, and then a final shot into his eye, spinning him like a top as he fell.
Something was happening to him. He’d always been a gifted fighter and a phenomenal shot, but when he was younger it was a job – a job he excelled at, but still just a job. Now, however, he felt all the injustices he’d seen and experienced, all the suffering and oppression of this world, building in him like static electricity and pouring forth from his soul, through his arms into the weapon. He crackled with a sub-zero rage that scalded everyone but himself. His eyes were wide and unblinking, his hands firm but relaxed on the rifle.
If war could be said to be a land in which one could live then Hassan was deep in country now, stalking like a lion amid the jackals. He was an exiled prince of this land, transformed now into something either more or less than human – he didn’t know which.
He bellowed, “Allahu Akbar!” and whirled in a circle, firing as he turned, killing three of the road crew in a second and a half. He was a lightning bolt, a wraith.
In the next instant he saw something that stunned him. As one of the road crew fell before the man with the samurai sword, his head, shoulder and arm separating from his body while his feet stood rooted, another man stepped forward through the spray of blood and blasted the swordsman with a pair of Micro Uzi machine pistols.
Hassan had seen these in the civil war. They were Israeli-made guns, small and light but extremely powerful, and therefore difficult to control. They were fed by 33-round magazines as long as a man’s forearm. He’d never seen anyone fire two at a time as this man was doing, and on full auto no less. The man must have arms of steel.
What stunned him, however, was the fact that the man with the Uzis – who even now turned toward Hassan, his eyes flat and emotionless as a rattlesnake’s – was Mr. Black.
Hassan had heard how the man crashed through a third story window at San Francisco General hospital, and indeed he saw that the elder assassin walked with a pronounced limp, and that the right side of his face was misshapen, as if the bones were clay worked by a child. No wonder he carried such powerful weapons. He had to compensate for his inability to move effectively.
This meeting had a feeling of inevitability. Here was the ouroboros once again, bringing the dead back around to face the dead, for both he and Mr. Black had cheated death more than once. This time the ouroboros would bite, and only one would survive.
The elder assassin stood less than twenty feet away, with no barrier between himself and Hassan. Black brought his pistols to bear on Hassan and opened up on full automatic. Hassan ghosted. The brunt of the fire screamed harmlessly past him, but how do you ghost on a trained assassin firing two Uzis? Black pivoted, following Hassan’s evasive movement. One of the bullets tore across the front of Hassan’s chest, cutting a groove though his pectoral muscle. Hassan fell backward and rolled. Great, he thought. That was the good side of my chest.
He came to his feet, pivoting to target Black, who was closing the distance, limping badly as he moved.
Hassan’s chest burned as the front of his shirt turned crimson. It was irrelevant. Pain was a sensation, like being cold or hot, tired or hungry. Sensations could be ignored. He pulled the trigger and was rewarded with an empty click. He was out of ammunition.
Black grinned and aimed both of his pistols at Hassan. He stood no more than ten feet away. There was no way he would miss at this distance. Hassan’s mind raced, seeking options and finding none. He could not believe that it would end like this, once again defeated by this amoral beast who was gimped and hoary with age but cunning with experience.
In that instant, Hamdi stepped from between two cars and fired into Black’s chest with the Dragunov SVD. Black returned fire even as the impact knocked him off his feet, blasting Hamdi with a volley from the Uzis. The two men tumbled to the ground like lightning-struck trees.
It was over. A hush fell over the street, broken only by the sounds of a few civilians screaming, a woman weeping, and distant sirens approaching. Dead men lay everywhere, some badly mangled or dismembered. Weapons were scattered like children’s toys. Every windshield of every vehicle, and every window in the bottom two floors of the surrounding buildings, was smashed. Many vehicles had crashed into each other attempting to flee.
To Hassan’s amazement, civilians began raising their heads in some of the destroyed vehicles. Some saw Hassan and the remaining fighters, and ducked down again.
Aside from Hassan, five fighters still stood, all members of Hamdi’s crew. Hassan walked to where Hamdi and Mr. Black lay in the street. Surprisingly, they were both still alive. Hamdi had been shot in the leg and hip and was bleeding badly. Black lay flat on his back, eyes wide, gasping for breath, only moments from death.
Hassan kneeled beside Mr. Black and bent low. The man’s skin smelled of gun smoke layered over an aftershave with hints of grapefruit and cinnamon. Hassan had never understood the idea of wearing a cologne that made you smell like food, but more than that, the scent was so incongruous in this place, on this man, that it made him pause. Who did this ice cold killer need to smell good for?
Then he remembered Black in Tel-Az-Zaytoon, helping to perpetrate a massacre, then shooting Daniel without warning, killing Hassan’s friend, his right hand man. He remembered the man hunting him in the fields of Syria. He remembered what he’d been told about how Black had tried to smother him in the hospital two years ago. Enough was enough.
“What did I ever do to you?” Hassan said fiercely, looking the man directly in the eyes. “Why is my existence on this earth such a problem for you? Boulos is gone. Why does it even matter? Look at you now. What have you accomplished?”
Black’s eyes met his. The elder assassin’s throat worked, but no sound emerged.
Hassan grasped the man’s misshapen head in two hands and twisted hard, snapping his neck.
If someone had asked him why he did it, he might have said he had to ensure that Black would not escape death again; or he might have called it an act of mercy, to end the man’s suffering. Perhaps both of these things were true. He had a distant awareness that before his coma, he would have had compunctions about such a thing. He’d come out of the coma a harder man, it seemed. Whether that was good or bad, he did not know.
Hamdi’s men gathered around their fallen leader. Some of them stared at Hassan as if he were a spirit walking among them. All were wounded, most superficially, though one was shot in the belly. He swayed on his feet, hand pressing into the wound. A particularly bulky young man with red hair and a wide, v-shaped back kneeled and lifted Hamdi onto his shoulders. Another, a thin man with patchy skin and what Hassan thought of as an Arab afro, returned a machete to a sheath on his back, made a quick call on a cellphone, then turned to Hassan. “Mr. Amir, we must leave. We have a vehicle around the corner, if you’d like to come with us.
“I don’t even know who you are.”
“My name is Jasper. I’ll explain everything. But the police are coming, and they will come hot, I promise you.”
Even as he said this another white van came roaring up the sidewalk, scattering pedestrians who dived out of its way. It screeched to a stop and five men in painters’ coveralls leaped out with stretchers. They began collecting the bodies of the dead Kopis and loading them into the van.
“We never leave anyone behind,” Jasper explained. “Now we really must go.”
“Hold on.” Hassan jogged to the bank building and stepped through the shattered front window. “Muhsin! Come, we’re leaving.”
Muhsin emerged looking pale and shaken. “His eyes went to Hassan’s chest. “You’re hurt.”
“I’m fine. Hurry.”
“I’m sorry, it’s destroyed. We’ll talk about that later.” Hassan led Muhsin by the arm, supporting him – his cane had been incinerated along with the taxi – and they followed Hamdi’s men to a large black SUV around the corner.
Medics in the SUV set to work on Hamdi and the gut-shot fighter, trying to stop the bleeding. Someone handed Hassan a hemostatic gauze for the wound in his chest. Hassan unbuttoned his shirt and pressed the gauze firmly to the wound, thinking that at least he would be symmetrically disfigured now. As he opened his shirt he felt the weight of something in the front pocket and remembered Lena’s aunt putting something there. He fished it out.
Three wallet sized snapshots of little Kamal were held together loosely with a hair tie. In one he was a baby, sucking on a lemon and making a sour face. In another he was learning to walk. He held Lena’s hand, smiling hugely, his other arm outstretched for balance. In the last picture Kamal sat at a table, drawing with crayons. He looked to be about three years old. It couldn’t have been long before his death, Hassan realized.
Hassan studied the photo, memorizing the details. The absorbed look on the boy’s face. A lock of dark brown hair that spilled down his forehead almost to his mouth. The way he held the paper down with one hand so it wouldn’t move as he drew.
Only then did Hassan notice the drawing itself. Three stick figures, holding hands. One large, one medium sized, and one small. A father, mother and child.
Feeling as if he couldn’t breathe, he put the photos back in his pocket.
Ten minutes later they were in a warehouse near the port. The place smelled of disinfectant over stale sweat and fast food. One corner was set up as a makeshift medical clinic. Hamdi and the other wounded man lay on tables fully conscious as several young people in scrubs – who may or may not have been actual doctors and nurses – worked on them.
Hamdi’s face was pale and the muscles in his neck stood out like ropes, but aside from his labored breath he made no sound.
Afro Guy – Jasper – paced back and forth nervously. His clothes were spattered with blood, but he seemed unharmed aside from a wound in his hand. He’d fought well in the battle. Hassan had seen him dispatch at least three men with the machete.
“Doctor, how is he?” Jasper peered over the medical workers’ shoulders.
A short, dark-haired woman replied. “Bleeding internally. Hip is fragmented. Step back, give us room.”
Hassan himself sat on an exam table as a male nurse in scrubs stitched the wound in his chest. The man made no comment on the crater in the other side of Hassan’s chest, or his assorted tattoos and scars. No doubt he’d seen worse.
Two of the painters were being worked on by other nurses. Muhsin sat on a sofa in a makeshift living room area that included a flat screen TV and a game box. Someone brought him a glass of water, and his hand trembled as he tried to drink.
“Who are you people?” Hassan demanded, “and what do you want?”
Jasper stopped pacing and regarded him almost shyly. “Hamdi told me you were good, but I never imagined. I’ve never seen anyone fight like that. I didn’t even know it was possible, and I’ve trained with the best. You saved us out there.”
“Yeah, well. I have a feeling you saved me too.”
A guttural and strained voice said, “I can… answer your questions,” It was Hamdi, conscious even as the doctor operated on his hip. Hassan heard the slurping sound of the suction tube draining blood from the open wound.
“Please, captain,” the doctor said. “Save your strength. Let us give you something for the pain.”
Hamdi flicked a finger dismissively. “You know of the Kopis?” he asked Hassan.
“We are a…” A low-pitched groan escaped his lips, but he mastered himself and continued. “A faction that broke away from them… five years ago. We call ourselves… the Panas. Pan-Arab… Pan-cultural. As for what we want… We want to… make you… the next president of Lebanon.”
Hassan wondered for a moment if these young men were escaped mental patients.
“Ah, mon Dieu!” Hamdi groaned. “Jasper.”
“Yes, mon capitan!”
“Explain to Hassan.” Hamdi’s eyes rolled up in his head, and he passed out.
“Thank God,” the doctor muttered.
Jasper turned to Hassan, his face tight with worry, and explained that a group of the younger Kopis had become disillusioned. When the Panas split away, half the organization went with them, igniting a deadly war between the two camps. “The Kopis were twisted,” he said. “The brainwashing, kidnapping children, wiping out their identities. Do you have any idea how many people the Kopis killed under Boulos Haddad? And their decades-long cooperation with Israel. We could not allow it to continue.”
“The plane crash. Boulos’s death. That was you.”
“Yes. Instead of serving Lebanon, the Kopis had been perverted to serve the personal ambitions of one family.”
“I’m a member of that family.”
“But you’re not like them. The Kopis were stuck in the past, enforcing the dictates of a Christian Lebanon that no longer exists. The factionalism of the past brought us the civil war. Today’s Lebanon is multiconfessional. We are Maronite, Orthodox, Sunni, Shi’ah, Druze. The dreams of Antoine Haddad are dead. We need the vision of Kamal Haddad. We need a man who can unite Lebanon. The Maronites will follow him because he bears the name Haddad, and the Muslims because he is one of them. That man is you. When we learned two years ago that you were alive, we began preparing for this moment. We’ve been watching you, protecting you from the Kopis, waiting for you to recover.”
“What about the Palestinians? I didn’t hear them mentioned in your multicultural speech.”
Jasper waved his hand. “We’ll work something out. A provisional form of citizenship, perhaps. Abolition of the employment restrictions. We’re talking about bringing Lebanon into the future.”
“And the Kopis? What will they say?”
“There are no more Kopis. When the war began there were a hundred of them and two hundred of us. But the battle today, that was the last of their forces and ours. The Kopis are dead, except for one. We’ve won.”
Hassan looked at the five youthful fighters, none older than thirty, and wanted to laugh at the way men deluded themselves. They’d begun with two hundred and there were five left. Won? Won what?
“Lebanon already has a president,” Hassan pointed out, humoring this insane young killer.
Jasper shrugged. “We can remove him, make it look like the work of the Israelis or the Syrians.”
“The five of you would make me president?”
Jasper lifted his chin. “Don’t sneer, Mr. Amir. We are good at what we do. With the Kopis out of the way, we can remove anyone else who would block us.”
“And why did the Kopis want me dead?”
Jasper shrugged and clicked his tongue apologetically. “Our fault. They became aware of our intentions for you. They consider you a traitor, for the same reasons that we consider you the future of Lebanon.” Jasper adopted an orotund tone, quoting: “Do they make war, piling bodies in the basement and leaving the floor stained with blood? Or do they learn to live together, enjoying their inheritance in peace? What will you choose, sons and daughters of Lebanon?”
A nasty thought occurred to Hassan. “The one remaining Kopis, who is it?”
Jasper glanced at his companions, nonplussed. “Why… Mr. Green, of course. He’s a loose end that we will clip shortly. Your cousins Remy and Abeer too, I’m afraid. They’re part of the regressive power structure. They have to go.”
Hassan gently pushed away the nurse who was putting the final bandage on his chest, and stood. “Hear what I say.” His voice was a low growl. “You don’t lay a finger on my cousins or my brother.”
Jasper frowned, perplexed. “Your brother?”
“The man you call Mr. Green.”
Astonishment appeared on Jasper’s face. “Green is your brother? But he was sent to kill you.”
“Not your concern. Just know that if you touch any of them, I’ll kill you.”
Jasper tensed, and the remaining Panas stood. Hassan slotted into battle mode, relaxing his muscles, using his peripheral vision to monitor the space. Jasper had that machete sheathed on his back. One of the other Panas wore a holstered pistol. The rest carried only knives. Hassan mapped out the battle in his mind, considering how he might use the furniture in the room for cover.
Jasper took a step back and raised his the hands. “Easy. We can talk about -”
Hassan darted forward like a cheetah, grasped one of Jasper’s arms and spun him. He drew the man’s machete and laid it across his throat, letting it bite just hard enough to draw a trickle of blood.
“Give me your word that you will not harm them,” Hassan demanded, “or all your lives are forfeit.”
Jasper’s breathing was heavy, his voice strained. “Do you really believe you can kill us all?”
“Do you really doubt it?” Hassan seized a handful of Jasper’s afro and pulled his head back, preparing to open his throat like a fish on a pier. Looking around, he saw fear on the faces of the other Panas. They’d seen what he could do. They were in awe of him. Nevertheless, if they did not retract their threat he would kill them all. The Panas would slide into the rubbish heap of history along with the Kopis.
“Okay! Okay! I give you my word.”
Hassan released Jasper and walk backward to the door, gesturing to Muhsin to come with him. “I’m leaving. Don’t follow me. If I see you, or if my family are harmed, I’ll come back and finish this.”
“Mr. Amir, we saved your life. We want you to be president, for Christ’s sake! Why are you acting like this?”
Hassan snorted. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. So you split away from the Kopis and created a catchy name. For what? So that you could continue to manipulate Lebanon through intimidation and murder? You want to assassinate the president, kill my cousins, install me as a puppet?” Hassan raised his voice, his blood boiling. “You’re five kids who don’t know how to do anything but kill. What makes you think you have the right to determine Lebanon’s destiny?”
Sneering, he imitated Jasper’s pompous tone: “‘What will you choose, sons and daughters of Lebanon?’ You dare to quote my father to me? You’re not giving them a choice, you fool!”
Hassan threw the machete to the ground. It struck the cement, clanging loudly. “You.” He pointed at the big red-haired youth with the v-back. “Give me your shirt.” The youth looked to Jasper, who nodded. The youth removed his shirt, balled it up and threw it at Hassan, who caught it.
A weak voice croaked, “Hassan.” It was Hamdi. He was conscious again, but Hassan could see even from a distance that the man was fading. The medical staff stood around him, looking helpless.
“I heard some… of what you said. That we only know… how to kill. I want to tell you… I know something else.”
“I can… make the best… falafel… north of San Francisco… Just ask… Jamilah.” He let out a long breath that fluttered like a baby’s rattle, and was still.
Hassan felt a surge of annoyance, tinged with fear for Jamilah’s safety. Did every assassin in Lebanon know Jamilah’s name? What was Hamdi talking about?
There was no point asking, however. The leader of the Panas was dead.
Hassan and Muhsin backed out of the warehouse onto a quiet street a few blocks from the waterfront. It was just after sunset. Hassan put on the shirt and they walked away. They were not followed.
Hassan took out his phone and called Jamilah. She was just beginning her day, and wanted to chat. Hassan did not have the energy. Satisfied that she was safe, he promised to call her the next day.
They walked several blocks, Hassan supporting Muhsin on one side, before they were able to flag a taxi.
Muhsin gave the driver directions to his home. Hassan could see that Muhsin was troubled. Finally the older man turned to him and said, “Who are you, brother? And who were those men?”
Hassan put his head back against the seat and sighed. “I can’t tell you who I am, Ammu, because I don’t remember.”
Muhsin put his face in his hands and began to weep.
Hassan was shocked. “What is it?”
“My ta – taxi,” Muhsin stuttered. “What will I do now, how will I support my – my family?”
Of course! Hassan had been such a fool. The man had lost the most valuable thing he owned – had seen it burned and discarded like so much rubbish.
He took the man’s hand. In the USA men never held hands, but in the Arab world, he knew, it was a common gesture of friendship. “Don’t worry Ammu. I am quite wealthy, Alhamdulillah. Tomorrow we will go to the dealership and I’ll buy you a brand new taxi, any model you like. What happened was because of me, after all.”
Muhsin nodded his head, refusing to look at Hassan. He took out a cigarette and put it in his mouth without lighting it, and they rode the rest of the way in silence.
They found Muhsin’s household in a state of excitement. Gala had been cooking all afternoon, and the house smelled like a five-star restaurant. Alyaa’ and the other children were setting the table.
“Look, Baba.” The game-playing boy set a platter of food on the dining table. “See what Tant Gala made.”
“You’re just in time,” Gala called from the kitchen. “We have roast lamb with potatoes, okra stew with tomatoes, and hummus with cumin and pine nuts.”
“And look Baba,” exclaimed the young girl. “Alyaa’s parfait turned out good!”
“He wouldn’t wait!” said the youngest. “He kept eating from the pot while Tant Gala was cooking. He’s taking a nap.”
Hassan touched Gala’s shoulder. “Tant, can I speak to you privately?” He drew her aside and regarded her sternly. “I thought you would rest,” he said quietly. “Not become a servant to someone else.”
Gala waved him off. “It’s not the same. They wanted me to rest, but the girl, Alyaa’, was about to boil the lamb on high heat. ‘It cooks faster that way,’ she says.” Gala patted Hassan’s cheek. “Don’t worry, honey. They’re a nice family. They call me Tant.”
The food was wonderful. When they were done, Muhsin called all of them to pray. The children looked surprised, but washed up without complaint. The grandfather – whose name, Hassan had learned, was Abu Layla – appeared and led the prayer. Afterward, Abu Layla touched Muhsin’s knee. “How did it go today? You don’t look good.”
Muhsin shook his head. “Ask me tomorrow.”
“Khayr, Insha’Allah. Hey Hassan.”
“I have a joke for you. A chicken took a bath with Johnson shampoo. It laid an egg without a shell.”
Hassan stared at the man blankly.
“Understand? The bottle says, ‘did al-’ishra’.”
“Why would the bottle say that?”
“‘Ishra, you know, the white flakes that come from your head.”
“Oh!” Hassan hadn’t known that the Arabic word for shell – ‘ishra, or qishra in proper Arabic – also meant dandruff. So the phrase on the bottle, “did-al-’isrha”, could mean “anti-dandruff,” or “anti-shell.” He grinned.
Abu Layla waved him off in annoyance. “No point laughing, fool. The joke is all the way to Bethlehem by now.”
Muhsin, in the tradition of Arab hospitality, insisted that Hassan take the master bed, but Hassan refused. In the end he slept comfortably on the living room sofa. Even the throbbing pain of the chest wound did not keep him from a sound and dreamless sleep.
Their first stop the next morning was BankMed, where Hassan opened an account. He then called his bank in Switzerland and wired a large sum into the local account.
From there they caught a taxi and asked the driver to take them to the nearest Mercedes dealership.
At the dealership on the Dora highway, Muhsin stared at the shiny new cars. “What are we doing here, Hassan? I can’t afford -”
“What’s your favorite color?”
“For a taxi, red or yellow is best.”
Hassan paid cash for a red E-class W212 with all the options, including active seats that changed shape to support the passenger on tight turns, and automatic climate control. Muhsin’s hand shook as he signed the contract and accepted the key.
In the car, Hassan handed Muhsin an envelope full of cash. “This is for your conversion costs. Meter, taxi sign, all of that.”
Muhsin looked at Hassan with wide eyes. “I didn’t believe you when you said you’d buy me a new taxi.”
“We Lebanese are used to being lied to.”
“Of course, you’re doing me that favor in return.”
“Now you sound Lebanese! But it’s you who are doing me a favor.”
“I’ll set up an automatic payment to your account every month. Half is for Gala’s room and board, and half is her salary. Just until we get her a visa to America. I really appreciate you taking her in.”
Muhsin’s voice thickened with emotion. “You have changed my life and my family’s lives.”
Hassan shook his head. “Allah is the One who changes lives. I’m just a guy trying to get through the day.”
Muhsin nodded, the unlit cigarette in the corner of his mouth bobbing up and down. “So are we all, habibi. Alhamdulillah.”
Hassan watched as Muhsin ran his hand over the car’s dashboard, touching the sporty steering wheel with aluminum trim, the cd player, GPS, and even the chrome door pins. The car reeked with that (no doubt cancer-causing) new car smell of plastic, adhesive, lubricants and leather.
“Mabrook,” said Hassan, thinking how much better was the Arabic word mabrook than the English equivalent, congratulations. Mabrook. May there be barakah, blessings, in this thing, for it is blessed.
“Allah barik feek, habibi” Muhsin replied. May Allah bless you, put blessings in you, bless your essence. “Would you say a dua’ for the car?”
Hassan nodded and raised his hands. “O Allah, all praise is to You. We ask You for the goodness of this car and the goodness of what it has been made for, and we seek Your protection from the evil of it and the evil of what it has been made for. Ameen.”
Then, eyes shining, Muhsin said, “Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem,” and started the car. He turned to Hassan and put a hand on his shoulder. “Let’s go meet your Lena.”
Next: the final installment (and triple length)!
Ouroboros, Part 17 – A Time to Live