See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
Author’s Note: This is entirely a work of fiction. The names and characters do not represent real people. The events depicted here never actually happened.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
I prayed Fajr, practiced Kali – the Filipino martial art that I’d been learning since childhood – for an hour, then went back to sleep, only to be awakened around 7 am by the gnawing emptiness in my stomach. I rolled out of the small cot I kept in my office and stretched my lean 5’9” frame. I’d been shot in the right shoulder years ago, and it was stiff and sore this morning.
My fondest wish was to somehow earn enough money to buy something to eat. That might seem like a modest wish, but I’d eaten nothing but an old, wrinkled apple and a small bottle of sour chocolate milk the previous day – both items left over from my daughter Hajar’s last visit. If you think there’s no hunger in America, think again.
It wasn’t that I didn’t have a job. Technically, I was self-employed as a private investigator. But work had dried up recently, and I’d run out of cash. Every bill on my desk was overdue, my estranged wife wouldn’t let me see my daughter because I missed the last child support payment, my office rent was ten days past due, and the electricity was about to be cut off.
If you’d told me that by lunchtime I’d have enough cash in my pocket to make all my financial problems disappear, and that the money would have come from the Anwars of all people, I’d have laughed out loud and called you looney tunes.
I’m getting ahead of myself, however. Before the Anwars came in, Shaytan tried to tempt me with a curveball. The curveball strode through the door in the form of a tall white man with thinning gray hair and an expression so hard it could break bricks. I’ve seen expressions like that before, on the faces of men whose hearts have turned as cold as dry ice from either seeing or inflicting suffering on a daily basis, until the horror no longer touches their hearts in the smallest way. The faces of convicts and cops, career criminals and prison guards.
His double-breasted trench coat looked expensive, as did his shiny black shoes. He carried a fat white envelope in his left hand.
“Mr. Zaid Karim?” His voice was as monotoned as a flatline on a heart monitor.
I sat up straight and tried to pretend I hadn’t just been fruitlessly rifling through my desk drawers, trying to find enough loose change to buy a loaf of bread or a few bananas. I studied the man’s clothing for the telltale bulge of a holstered gun, and spotted it on his lower right, just about where the liver would be. I knew where the liver was located because I knew a hard uppercut to that spot would drop a man, and a knife thrust would finish him. For a moment I wished I hadn’t led the kind of life that would enable me to know that.
The man dropped the thick envelope on my desk. It made a thud like a cooked steak.
“I want to hire you,” he said without preamble. “Routine surveillance case. I want someone located. That’s five thousand dollars. You’ll get another five when the job is done.”
“Okaaaay,” I said slowly. As much as the words five thousand dollars made my heart beat faster, a stranger offering me a large sum of cash elicited immediate suspicion. “And your name is?”
“Anadale Peterson. I’m head of security at Chukchansi Gold. I’m sure you’ve heard of it.”
Anadale? Was that really a name? It sounded made up. Wasn’t that the name of a Star Wars character?
Hefting the envelope, I opened it and studied the crisp bills inside, riffling them with my thumb. Five thousand dollars. SubhanAllah. It wasn’t the first time I’d held that much money in my hand, but the thrill never got old.
I imagined finally getting out from under the mountain of debt that felt like chains dragging me down. I could pay my child support, buy a new computer – the current one crashed more often than a bumper car – and buy gifts for my wife Safaa and daughter Hajar for the upcoming Eid al-Adha.
Hajar was three years old, almost four. She liked small things – tiny dolls, rings, lockets, things like that. I would love to buy her a silver ring, or maybe a miniature train set.
With this much money… I actually licked my lips as I imagined buying myself a large fish burrito from the Mexican food truck that parked out front at lunchtime. Best of all, I could buy food for Safaa and Hajar. Not that they were hungry. Safaa’s nursing job paid well enough. But I could surprise her with an Alaskan salmon, or several pounds of halal lamb. Maybe she’d even let me take her and Hajar out to dinner at Chevy’s or Red Lobster.
Just as quickly as this mental train began to roll, it derailed. My heart sank as I realized that I was going to have to turn this money down.
I was the first to admit that I was no great shakes as a Muslim. At one time I knew ten ajzaa’ by heart – a third of the Quran. Now I remembered half of Juz ‘Amma – maybe. I performed most of my daily prayers, though I sometimes missed one. I fasted in Ramadan, but rarely prayed taraweeh. Now and then I prayed sunnah, but not regularly. Outside of Jum’ah and Ramadan, I rarely visited the masjid.
I wasn’t proud of any of that. I wished I were a stronger Muslim. I wanted to be sincere with Allah. I wanted to be a good example for my daughter Hajar, and a good partner to my wife, even in our current situation. But I couldn’t seem to figure out how to achieve that goal.
In spite of my torpid faith, there were a few rules I didn’t break. Alcohol and pork were verboten. I didn’t deal with interest if I could possibly avoid it. And I didn’t gamble.
Of course I’d heard of Chukchansi. The massive Indian-owned casino sat just off Highway 41 in the rolling hills near Coarsegold, about an hour north of Fresno, where I lived. That particular stretch of cattle country belonged to the Picayune Rancheria Tribe of Chukchansi Indians.
I’d visited the casino once on a job. I was following a man who claimed to have suffered a serious neck injury after apparently being struck by a security patrol car in the parking lot of a shopping mall. Using an expensive body cam that masqueraded as a tie pin, I took photos and even a few video clips as the supposedly injured man danced and drank with two overly made-up middle aged women that he picked up at the bar.
Never having been to a casino before, I was amazed to see that the place had thousands of slot machines and hundreds of hotel rooms, not to mention roulette, cards, an entire collection of four-star restaurants, and a spa. They must have been soaking up money like rain.
If this guy was offering five large right off the bat, he’d probably go double if I pressed him. Not that I intended to. It was just… man, that was a lot of money.
I knew this was Shaytan coming at me, tempting me. Sometimes Shaytan was more subtle than a black ant on a black rock, until you thought the evil impulse was your own; but this play was obvious as day. Knowing this, however, made it only marginally easier to resist.
“How’d you get my name?”
Setting the money down on the desk and reclining in my chair, I gave the man a hard stare. “Who?”
Five thousand or no, I wasn’t playing games with this breadstick. Did I think the FBI was above walking in here and trying to entrap me on a tax beef? Did I think the local FPD – the Fresno Police Department – wouldn’t try to jack me up, take away my license? No and no.
“Mike Estevez. You helped him when he was charged with assault a few years back. He works for me now.”
I relaxed a bit. “Yeah. I remember Mike.” I slid the money across the desk, pushing it toward him. “Afraid I can’t take your case, though.”
“You haven’t heard the details.”
I shook my head. “I don’t do casino work.”
The man looked around pointedly, surveying my dilapidated office. “You’re doing well enough to turn down five grand?”
Ever since my wife Safaa threw me out of the house, I’d been living in this cramped office on a crime-ridden stretch of Belmont Avenue in central Fresno. It consisted of one small room, a closet and a bathroom. My sleeping cot was folded against one wall. A small table in the corner bore a hot plate stacked atop a microwave oven. Next to it a mini-fridge sat on the floor, humming quietly. A tall bookshelf with ten cubbies held a variety of books, from private investigation manuals to novels and two different Quran translations, along with some children’s books and games for the few occasions when Safaa would let me take Hajar for a day.
Aside from that, there was the small desk I sat at, my practically fossilized desktop computer, a variety of surveillance equipment stashed in a locked drawer of the desk, and my framed private investigator’s license, which hung on the wall behind me.
Morning light streamed through a single barred window, illuminating a galaxy of dust particles that drifted lazily through the air.
“No,” I said finally. “But I’m turning it down anyway.” I didn’t trust this guy and didn’t like him. Coming in here, dropping cash on my desk and acting like my working for him was a done deal. He reminded me of men who had humiliated me and treated me like a subhuman when I was incarcerated.
The man snorted and looked at me as if I had sand for brains. He reached into his jacket pocket.
For some reason the motion alarmed me. My hand shot beneath the desk for the little .25 caliber automatic pistol that I kept beneath the desktop. The holster was screwed into the underside of the desktop with the butt of the gun facing me. I set my hand on the grip and fingered the trigger guard, not touching the trigger itself, but ready. The pistol was loaded and the safety off. I could draw and fire in a second. If the target happened to be standing in front of my desk, I could even fire without drawing.
Not for the first time, the thought came that when you’re prepared to shoot the people who walk into your office, you might be in the wrong line of work.
Putting my hand on the gun was an irrational and stupid thing to do. If this guy truly was an LEO – law enforcement officer – then I’d get myself either killed or locked up again. As an ex-felon, even being in proximity to a firearm was a crime. And though I’d been burglarized twice, and robbed of a princely $15 at gunpoint last year by a strung-out stickup man who jittered in off the street jonesing so hard he almost dropped his gun (he caught me in the act of microwaving a frozen burrito, and took the burrito along with the cash), I knew this guy wasn’t here to rob me.
The man’s eyes flicked to the spot on my desk immediately above the gun, as if he had x-ray vision. He froze. “My card,” he said in a drawl, as if talking to an idiot. His hand resumed its motion – though more slowly – and emerged with a business card. He dropped it on the desk and picked up the envelope full of cash. “Call me if you change your mind. Don’t delay.” He turned to walk away.
I released my grip on the gun that I was not legally allowed to own. As an ex-felon, possession of a firearm would get me an automatic five years behind bars. In my profession, however, it was a necessary risk.
The bell on the door jangled as he walked out.
I rubbed my neatly trimmed beard, thinking of the hefty chunk of change that had just strolled out the door. I could have done so much with that money. But… sitting there at my desk, reclining in my secondhand office chair with faux leather peeling off the arms, I nodded my head, as if trying to reassure myself that I’d done the right thing.
Allah would provide for me in some other way. I’d messed up everything else in life. All I had left was sincerity with Allah, sincerity with the people who loved me, and sincerity with myself. Perhaps the most important thing I’d learned in prison was that when you had nothing left – no home, friends, property or money – you had to hold on to your integrity as if it were your only garment in a snowstorm.
No matter what, I had to hold on to sincerity, or the being that was me, Zaid Karim, a Muslim, husband, father, P.I., and a man with an anchor around his neck who just wanted to get free, would dissolve into nothingness. I’d lose myself in the modern sea of moral subjectivity and apathy, and my life would have no more meaning than a grain of salt in a rising tide.
P.S. Please comment after reading. Constructive criticism is welcome as well. – Wael.