President Boulos Haddad received the Crow in his vast office at the Baabda Palace, high on a hillside overlooking Beirut. The room’s polished stone floors and marble walls gleamed. The ceiling soared to five times the height of a man, culminating in a large dome painted with a massive mural of St. Maron leading the Maronite people into Lebanon. Huge Persian rugs displayed lovely red and blue geometric patterns. The Lebanese flag hung from a pole in one corner, and the walls were adorned with the images of past presidents.
Haddad sat in a high-legged antique chair positioned safely away from the curtained windows. It was not yet dawn in Beirut, but the office was brightly lit by a massive crystal chandelier suspended from the dome high above.
Reclining in his antique leather chair and crossing his legs, Haddad puffed on a Cuban cigar. These Cohiba Esplendidos were fantastic. Tasting of cedar, spice and honey, and smooth as water on the draw, each one was like a fine meal. Of course they’d better be good at $700 for a box of 25. But that was what taxpayers were for, eh? What was the point of power, otherwise?
He let out a dense puff of blue smoke and regarded the Crow, who sat as still as a statue in a low chair designed to make the one using it feel uncomfortable and inferior. Far from being diminished, however, the tall assassin sat with his spine straight as a cedar tree, as if he were a king on a tiny throne.
“Is the mission clear?” Haddad said. “This man Hassan is an enemy of Lebanon.” No point giving this assassin Simon’s real name, he thought. Intelligence is useful only in its limitation, not its dissemination. Need to know basis and all that. “I do not want him captured or questioned,” he continued. “I simply want him dead. Dispose of him well when you are done. If there is anyone he is close to, take them as well. Make the other deaths look like accidents. We have a profitable export operation in San Francisco and we cannot afford the scrutiny of a police investigation.”
“I want the file on him, sir,” the Crow said. “Background, capabilities, that sort of thing.”
Haddad considered. How much information should he give this assassin, this tool? As entertaining as this situation was, it was also grave. He had to give the man enough to do his job, and no more.
“If it is indeed the person I suspect,” Boulos said, “Then in two decades of war I never saw a better marksman. His ability with a gun is uncanny, even unnerving. He is also quite good with his hands. And he’s strong-willed. His weakness is that he cares.”
“Everything,” Boulos said, snuffing the cigar in a gold-plated ashtray. “Civilians. Puppies and kittens. Whatever. He has a bleeding heart. That’s your way in. That’s how you get him.”
The assassin nodded. “I understand Mr. President. Is there anything else?”
Haddad noted the odd mixture of haughtiness and deference in the man’s tone – so typical of the arrogant Kopis assassins. It was the first time the Crow had ever been to the presidential palace, yet the assassin sat with his chin up, as if this were his office rather than Boulos Haddad’s.
Haddad studied the assassin’s lean frame, fair hair and frigid green eyes. He was outwardly handsome, but the absence of life in those eyes was unsettling. On impulse, he said, “Who is your family?”
“My family is the Kataeb, sir,” the Crow answered instantly. “And my loyalty is to you.”
“Yes, yes.” Haddad waved the answer away. “But who are your biological parents?”
“I do not know,” the Crow replied coldly. His tone carried a slight edge, as if Haddad had committed a major breach of etiquette. “Surely you know that such irrelevant information is removed from the mind of a Kopis.”
“You remember nothing of them?”
Fascinating, Haddad thought. Absolutely brilliant. Some would consider it unwise to send the Crow on this particular mission, but Haddad was curious just how deep the Kopis programming went. Could it be broken? The creation of the Kopis cult was a masterstroke on the part of his father. Such a tool, however, could become viperous if not kept under rigid control.
Besides, there was a certain symmetry to this situation that appealed to him. When the Crow completed this mission he would be eliminated, and probably Sarkis as well. The ouroboros would devour itself, and none would remain but Boulos Haddad himself.
“Very well, Mr. Green,” Haddad said. “I want you on the next flight to San Francisco. You must kill the courier, no matter what, do you understand? Let nothing shake your resolve. I will brook no failure in this matter.”
The Crow stood and looked down at Haddad, who found it difficult to meet that disturbingly lifeless stare. “Kopis do not fail, Mr. President. That is for lesser men.”
San Francisco, California
Hassan still held hope that Sarkis had not recognized him, and that he could go on with his life just as before, working, teaching class, and – if Allah blessed him – finding a way forward with Jamilah. A green garden and a woman with kind eyes. A Western sky and a bell of brass…
Lovely as that sounded, he couldn’t lie to himself. He’d seen the fear in Sarkis’ eyes. If the consul had indeed recognized him then it was likely the man would send someone after him. Hassan had to be ready. He needed a gun.
He was supposed to head into the office to input his delivery data at one of the computer stations, but first he’d make a little detour to the California Mini-Storage on Pennsylvania, just off the 3rd Street corridor.
As he pedaled south he thought about the incident with Melanie, and shook his head. People and their phones. He pictured a sinkhole opening up on Market Street, and all the phone lemmings walking right into it unaware, tumbling into the abyss. Would they realize they were falling and text, “Just fell into a bottomless pit, lol!” Or, “OMG, check out this vid of me dying.” Morons.
He checked himself immediately. Don’t be unkind. Sarcasm is another trap. It doesn’t mix with faith.
Everyone said the internet was about being connected, but it seemed to Hassan that these phone fiends were disconnected from everything that mattered: genuine love, human contact, the color of the sky and the very ground beneath their feet.
He remembered the card Melanie had given him and fished it out of his pocket, scanning it as he rode.
Melanie Carter, Attorney at Law
Carter, Madiba and Joffee
415-357-2222 x 2
Huh. She was a lawyer, and a full partner no less. Turning the card over, he saw that she had jotted another number on the back, and the word “Personal.” Did she really just want to thank him, or did she have something more in mind?
Aoothoo billahi min-ash-shaytan ir-rajeem. For years he’d been living like a monk in this city of sin and seduction, but these San Francisco women didn’t make it easy. To make matters worse, bike messengers possessed a bad boy mystique in the City. Hardly a day went by without a woman coming on to him. Hassan always reacted impassively, refusing the advances without comment, but sometimes that seemed to intrigue the women even more.
It was easy to see how some Muslim brothers ended up dating non-Muslims. The temptation was pervasive, and if that shield of taqwa wasn’t there…
But Allah had not brought him to Islam only to compromise it for the sake of his desires. He thought of the hadith of the Prophet: “Whoever can guarantee what is between his jaws and what is between his legs I guarantee him the Garden.”
In any case it was Jamilah he wanted as a partner, friend and wife. He just didn’t know how that could happen.
Arriving at the storage center he dug a pair of thin cotton gloves out of his bag and slipped them on. He punched in the code at the main gate and coasted to his storage unit. The space was rented in the name of a shell corporation, as Hassan didn’t want any ties to himself in case the contents were discovered.
Hassan spun the dial on the combination lock and raised the unit door. He wheeled his bicycle in, turned on the lights and closed the door behind him. Two bright neon bulbs flickered into life. The unit was 10 feet x 40 x 10 – one of the largest spaces available at this facility. Most of what Hassan stored here was diversionary. A used sofa with patches on the armrests stood against a wall, surrounded by a small, scratched-up kitchen table, an old children’s hobby horse, and a stack of boxes containing used clothing, most of which Hassan had purchased at thrift stores. Against the back wall sat a 1970’s Dodge Dart with primer paint on the doors and hood. It stood on blocks, and the battery was long dead.
His hope was that if a burglar ever broke in he’d take one look and move on in search of richer pastures.
Still wearing the gloves, Hassan unlocked the car trunk. Five large metal cases filled the trunk completely. Crafted from aircraft aluminum, they were virtually indestructible. Each was double locked with a built-in combination lock and a thick padlock.
Hassan pulled out one of the cases and laid it on its side on the old sofa, then unlocked both locks. To an outside observer, the case appeared to be full of books. Hassan pulled the books out and stacked them on the floor of the unit. A mixture of science fiction novels and pulp romances, the covers displayed dashing heroes with broad shoulders, vast spaceships blotting the stars, and strange planets with rings or multiple moons in the sky. Hassan had read many of the science fiction novels, sometimes lying on this dusty sofa, sometimes reclined in the Dart’s driver seat. The storage space was not his home, but he came here occasionally to relax.
The books filled only the top quarter of the crate. The bottom three quarters contained a black foam mold with recesses cut to precisely hold two gleaming rifles: an AR-15 military-style assault rifle and a Ruger 10/22.
A much smaller plastic case was sandwiched into a corner of the large case. It contained a gun maintenance kit. Working quickly, Hassan disassembled, cleaned and oiled each rifle in turn. The gloves made it clumsy work, but he didn’t want to leave a fingerprint anywhere in this unit – not even on the inside of a weapon.
Working on the Ruger always took him back to his childhood. It had been his beginner gun. He remembered the many hours firing at soda cans in the blazing heat of the desert as his mother scored his progress. The Ruger was the lowest caliber of these rifles and the easiest to handle due to the minimal recoil. It was a very common weapon, so the ammo was cheap. It had been special to him once, as familiar as a best friend. “Your gun is your life,” his mother used to say, and for a long time it had been.
It took him only a few minutes to clean both weapons. When he was done he returned the rifles to the case, piled the books on top, locked the case and returned it to the car trunk.
The second case held two shotguns, one with a pistol grip and a short barrel, and a longer one that was disassembled into three parts. Again, he cleaned them quickly but well, and replaced the case.
The third case contained handguns. First was a revolver with a bluish tint and a short stubby barrel. Adjacent to it was a Glock semiautomatic 9 millimeter pistol. With its matte black finish and molded edges it looked viperous and almost alive.
Yet another handgun had an incredibly long barrel and pearled handle, like something a fancy villain might have carried in the old West. Beside it, looking like a toy by comparison, sat a tiny handgun that looked like it could fit in a pocket.
In all, ten handguns gleamed in their foam molds. One by one Hassan disassembled each weapon, cleaned and reassembled it. It was soothing work and he could do it with his eyes closed, as he had in fact done many times in training.
After cleaning and reassembling the Glock, Hassan set it aside, replaced the case in the trunk, and hauled out the fourth case. It was heavy with ammunition, and he grunted as he set it down. Opening it, he removed an ammo belt and a large box of 9mm ammo. He loaded the Glock and filled the ammo belt with extra magazines. The belt would go around his waist, beneath his shirt and jacket. Only a trained eye would detect it. The Glock would tuck neatly into a holster in the small of his back.
Hassan held the ammo belt and holster in one hand and the Glock in the other. He stared at the gun. Its lure was strong. It called to him like an evil siren, inviting him to once again dash his soul on the rocks of violence and death. It was such a strange invention. A small tool, a handheld device, and yet all it took was one finger pull and this tool would shred hearts, destroy brains, and shatter bones. It was a wicked thing, and he’d vowed never to use one again.
He’d been in such a hurry on the way down here, with no thoughts in his mind other than the need to protect the people he loved – Jamilah, Muhammad, Layth, Kadija, Sahar… He couldn’t let them come to harm.
Admit it, he thought. You came here with a war cry reverberating in your heart. Not for revenge but for justice! Justice for your wife. She deserves better than to be swept under the dirt and forgotten. Sarkis must pay.
He raised the gun, pointing it around the storage unit. The shapes in the unit were all bright surfaces and shadows in the white neon light. He peered along the gun sight, imagining that it was lined up on Sarkis’ head. His throat tightened and he swallowed hard. He felt a dark rage rise up in him like an oil strike, threatening to explode. It felt terrifying, as if the sun were being eclipsed and the world turning dark and cold. He squeezed the pistol grip until his hand trembled and his fingers turned white. Sweat poured from his forehead and stung his eyes.
His entire body began to sway and for a moment he thought he was having a convulsion. A second later he realized it was an earthquake. The entire unit trembled, rose up, then fell. A stack of cardboard boxes tumbled to the ground, breaking open and spilling used clothing onto the floor in a heap. A car alarm began to sound from the parking lot at the front of the storage facility. The Dodge groaned slightly on its blocks and its worn shock absorbers squeaked out a discordant tune. Then the quake was over and everything was still. It couldn’t have lasted more than seven or eight seconds. Possibly a 5.0, Hassan guessed, depending on the distance to the epicenter.
He was not frightened. Growing up in Los Angeles and then spending these last several years in San Francisco, he had experienced his share of earthquakes large and small. Many Californians brushed away such tremors with affected shrugs, as if to convince themselves and everyone else that the “Big One” – the massive earthquake predicted to occur on one of the major fault lines running through the state – was nothing but a big joke.
Was it a sign, he wondered? Was it Allah’s way of literally shaking some sense into him? He set the weapon on the sofa and wiped his face with his sleeve. He would not use the gun. He would find another way. His gun was not his life anymore.
He was a Muslim now. He was living fee-sabeel-illah. He had to think of his soul and his aakhirah – his Hereafter – when he would stand before Allah and account for every deed. Killing for vengeance would be going backwards, like taking a huge step across the years into a clouded and turbulent past.
Wishing fervently that Lena would forgive him, Hassan shoved the Glock back into the foam mold and returned the ammunition and belt to the case. Whatever else might be said about him, let it not be said that he was blind to Allah’s signs. Allah had literally shaken the earth beneath his feet. Could there be a clearer warning? Hassan would not go back to the ways of the past.
After cleaning up the mess from the quake, Hassan took out the fifth and final case. At one time there had been twelve cases, all inherited from his mother. A few years ago Hassan had chartered a boat and dumped seven cases into the Pacific. The contents had included a sniper rifle; grenades, an RPG, a number of machine guns of Soviet and Israeli manufacture, and even a shoulder-fired recoilless rifle that could stop a tank.
Hassan had no need for such weapons, and he did not wish to end up in Guantanamo. He didn’t look good in orange. His mother would have been horrified that he had dumped all her favorite toys, but those weapons had not saved her, had they? Nor had they saved his father, or Charlie, or Lena. “Your gun is your life,” his mother had said. Until it’s not.
Opening the fifth case, he considered what to remove. The case contained two things: the first was just under four million dollars in currency – $3,835,500 to be precise, in stacks of 100’s and 50’s. He knew this because he kept an up-to-date ledger in the case’s inner pocket. At one time there had been ten million, but it had gone into various investments over the years, most of which had done well. Hassan was now worth approximately twenty five million dollars, not counting the substantial income that his holdings provided.
If Sarkis came after him the situation would get ugly quickly, and he would need to be able to move. That would take cash. He riffed through the stacks of cash, counting out $85,500, which left exactly $3.75 million remaining. He stuffed the cash in his messenger bag and updated the ledger.
The second item in the case was a smaller, black leather briefcase. The corners were worn and the surface was scratched in places. Hassan stared at it, wondering if the time had come to expose its hideous secrets. Maybe if Sarkis – and his master Boulos in particular – knew that the contents of this briefcase existed, he would back off… or maybe he would come after Hassan in force, stopping at nothing to recover the information the case contained.
“No,” he said out loud, shaking his head. The briefcase was his trump card, and he would play it only as a last resort.
He returned all the cases to the car trunk. It was time for Maghreb prayer. He prayed in the unit, laying his company windbreaker on the dusty floor as a musalla. He felt weak, as if he had battled a demon and barely won, but the prayer calmed him and restored his energy. I know who I am, he thought. I’m a Muslim. If I don’t know anything else, I know that. I choose my identity, by Allah’s will. Others don’t choose for me. Others can hurt me, imprison me or kill me, but they cannot change my soul, for it belongs to Allah the Most High alone.
He locked up and left, taking only the cash. It was almost six o’clock. The prayer had helped, but Hassan still felt on edge. He would head to the office to enter his tags into the computer, then try to make it to the studio by 6:30 to teach his Silat class. After that he’d meet the gang at Tu-Lan.
As he approached the Hammerhead Courier garage a fire engine came roaring up the street and sped past him, siren wailing. Hassan wondered if the earthquake had started a fire somewhere.
Following the engine with his gaze, he noticed a black sedan with mirrored windows. It was parked across the street and halfway down the block, in front of a shuttered plumbing supplies shop. In the Financial District he’d have paid it no mind, but it stood out here in SOMA amid the warehouses and print shops. Still, it could be nothing. There were plenty of internet millionaires living in SOMA these days, and it was not unusual for them to ride in chauffeured cars.
Entering the dispatch room, he said salam to Muhammad, who was hanging the framed map of San Francisco back on the wall. It must have fallen off during the quake. He shook Muhammad’s hand, then turned to Jen and greeted her with a “What up, boss? Got a little rattle and roll, huh?”
“Hey!” she said brightly, which gave Hassan pause. Jen didn’t do “bright”.
“I just got this overtime rush to the Ferry Building,” she said. “You want it?”
Ah, so that’s why she was acting so friendly. “No, I have a class,” Hassan said.
Jen’s cheerful tone disappeared and she cursed. “Everyone’s gone except for Arn and Alice and they’re both heading out. I’ve got no one to take this OT. Can’t you just bang it out, Hassan? It’s a thirty dollar tag.”
Hassan shrugged. “Sorry boss.”
Jen scowled at him. “I’ll remember this tomorrow.”
“To err is human,” Muhammad said. “To forgive is against company policy. Hey, you know what? I’ll run the OT myself. I’m so broke I divide one Ramen packet into three meals.”
“Come to Tu-Lan tonight anyway,” Hassan said. “I’ve got you covered.”
As Hassan exited the Hammerhead Courier garage and cycled up the street, the black sedan was still there. Without looking at the car directly, Hassan observed the license plate from the corner of his eye. The plate number was prefaced with a “D” – diplomatic plates. The car was almost certainly from the Lebanese consulate. Hassan felt a sinking sensation in his stomach, even as he kept on riding. Why had he taken that delivery to the consulate? What a stupid thing to do.
At least they were not sure of his identity. If they were certain they would be more discreet. Most likely Sarkis only suspected and wanted to gather information, or perhaps provoke a reaction. If Hassan ran, or if he confronted the watchers, they would know for sure. His only play right now was to ignore them. Maybe they would conclude he was nothing but a cycling fool.
He could not lead the watchers to his friends, however. He’d skip his class and the Tu-Lan get-together.
Taking his phone from his pocket – it was a basic old fashioned cell phone, the kind you actually made calls on – he called Fatimah, his Tuesday night class assistant. Fatimah was a twenty two year old former Iraqi refugee who had been in the United States since the age of fifteen. She’d been studying with Hassan for four years and was very skilled.
He informed Fatimah that he wouldn’t make it to class, and asked her to run it for him.
“But I don’t know what to do, Ustaz,” she said, using the Arabic word for teacher.
“Sure you do,” Hassan replied. “Run the warmup like we always do. Take the class through the basics, then pick something you feel like working on. Punch defenses maybe, or defenses against grabs. You know the material.”
“Okay, Ustaz,” Fatimah said uncertainly. “But -”
“Hush,” Hassan interrupted. “What do I always say about the word, ‘but’?”
Fatimah sighed. “The only ‘but’ you need is the one you sit on.”
“Right. Over and out. As-salamu alaykum.”
Hassan turned up Seventh Street. Maybe he’d make his way up to Little Henry Italian Food on Larkin Street. Let Sarkis’ spies sit out in the cold while Hassan enjoyed a bowl of onion soup and linguini with clams.
As he passed Stevenson alley he happened to glance up the ill-lighted street, used for garbage collection and service deliveries to buildings on Market and Mission, and frequented by the homeless who trawled the dumpsters for supplies or got high in recessed doorways. He saw several indistinct figures in the alley and heard the sound of a cry. In that flash he overshot the alley, so he circled around and halted in the mouth of the lightless lane. He peered into the gloom, trying to make out what was happening. It looked like a man was lying on the ground about twenty yards away and others were standing above him, kicking and stomping him.
He rejected the thought of calling the cops immediately. He had never had a good experience with San Francisco P.D., no matter which side of the law he was on. In any case this altercation would be long over by the time the cops arrived.
He could ride on. If he intervened he could be injured or killed. Why was it his business if some homeless men argued among one another, or if a couple of drug dealers killed a rival? This neighborhood was dying because of these street types. The whole area was overrun with drugs, liquor stores, check cashing joints and pawn shops. The legitimate businesses were being forced out one by one. Let these riffraff sort out their own messes. It wasn’t his problem.
Except that it was his problem. This was his neighborhood. His class studio was only a quarter block away. The words of the Prophet rang in his head: “Let he who sees an evil stop it with his hand…” Plus, at the end of the day he had to countenance his own reflection in the mirror. If he walked away, leaving a man to be beaten or killed – no matter the circumstances – he’d be ashamed. He had enough shame already to last a lifetime.
He took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. “Laa ilaha il-Allah,” he said out loud. “Muhammadan Rasulullah.” One never knew which breath might be his last. He rode up the alley. It smelled of garbage and fried rice, and the ground was wet, perhaps from shopkeepers hosing down the urine puddles left by the homeless.
Hassan stopped twenty feet from the men and shouted, “Hey! Get away from him.” He almost regretted his decision to leave the gun behind. Almost.
From this distance he could see that the man on the ground was Wolf.
Hassan had been half honest the day Jamilah’s bike was stolen. (See “The Deal” – Author). He had not recognized the homeless man with the pool cue until the guy mentioned being in the bucket in El Reno. Hassan had felt guilty about pretending not to know him, but it was an aspect of his past he preferred not to reveal. The next day he rode around the Tenderloin until he found Wolf near St. Boniface. Wolf wasn’t an addict. Just down on his luck. He’d been a typesetter for the San Francisco Chronicle once upon a time, but his skills were not in demand in this internet age.
Here in the alley, Wolf was dressed well enough in army pants and a green winter coat – Hassan had purchased those items for him at the army surplus store up the street – but his face was street weathered, and his hair jutted in odd directions, half dreaded and half matted. He was curled into a ball, clutching his ribs as he whimpered in fright and pain. His mouth and nose were red with blood. His shopping cart had been overturned and his meager belongings lay scattered across the damp ground.
He should have kept that pool cue, Hassan thought.
The three men who stood above Wolf were young, in their late teens or early 20’s. The apparent leader was a 6’4” hulk with small blue eyes, a blonde crewcut and a swastika tattoo on the side of his neck. His buddy matched Hassan’s 5’10” height but was wiry, with a runner’s build and a thin goatee.
The third man – a large, chubby-cheeked youngster who wore a black watch cap pulled down over his curly brown hair – hung back from the others, as if he didn’t want to be there. Still, he was either complicit or a coward.
Hassan mentally nicknamed them Blondie, Wiry Guy and Chubby.
All three wore their jeans halfway down their butts, along with steel-toed boots and 49’ers jackets. Hassan guessed them to be wanna-be white boy gangsters from the Sunset district or one of the rough-and-tumble neighborhoods on the south side. They looked up at Hassan and seemed to dismiss him immediately. Blondie went back to kicking Wolf, who cried out in pain.
“I said stop!” Hassan shouted. He set his bike against the brick wall of the dark building that towered above the alley, then took a pair of cotton gloves from his bag and slung the bag over the bike’s seat post. He was reluctant to leave the bag – and the substantial parcel of cash it contained – but he needed mobility. Any junkie thief who came along and stole the bag would be living an addict’s dream, at least until he overdosed.
Hassan slipped the gloves on as he advanced rapidly toward the attackers. The big blonde thug with the Nazi tattoo sneered at him
“Mind your own f****** business delivery boy,” Blondie said. “We’re doing a community service, getting rid of the roaches.”
Hassan was done with words. He felt the old fury rising inside him like a geyser, threatening to explode, but he pushed it down, breathing deeply, remembering his training and his faith. He didn’t want to do this out of anger.
He recalled Ali ibn Abi Talib’s duel at the Battle of the Trench. That story had affected Hassan deeply the first time he read it, and he still thought about it often. The young Ali threw the great warrior Amro bin Abdu Wud to the ground and straddled his chest, ready to deliver the killing blow, when Amro spat in his face. All the watchers were sure that Amro would meet his fate even faster as a result of this insult, but instead Ali backed away, unwilling to kill Amro out of anger.
One cannot act out of rage and be pure of heart at the same time.
Blondie eyed Hassan’s approach and quite deliberately stomped on Wolf’s leg. Wolf screamed.
Hassan closed the distance. No anger now. In this mind he was the blade of a sword, hard and cold, emotionless, and moving too fast to see. Blondie turned to Hassan and said, “Beat it bi-“. He was halfway through the insult when Hassan ducked low and threw a hard left hook into the big man’s liver, driving from his legs and putting all his body weight into the blow. Blondie doubled over at the waist, gasping. Hassan bent his knees slightly and, using the his legs and body rotation to generate power, delivered a devastating elbow strike to Blondie’s jaw. A single tooth flew out of the thug’s mouth and landed with a plink in a puddle of water.
He wasn’t finished with Blondie – not by a long shot – but the man’s wiry, goateed companion had drawn a knife and was coming at him from the left. Hassan grasped Blondie’s chin and the crown of his head and twisted the man’s head violently to the left. Blondie yelled in pain but his body did what Hassan wanted it to, following the head and whipping to the left just as Wiry Guy slashed with the knife. The knife cut across the length of Blondie’s brow and cheek, opening them to the bone. Blondie screamed and fell to the wet ground, clutching his face, blood spurting between his fingers. Hassan stepped around the sociopathic neo-Nazi as the big man curled into a ball and moaned.
Wiry Guy stood stunned and wide-eyed, then snarled and slashed the knife through the air wildly as Hassan advanced. Hassan blocked the man’s knife arm from the inside and swept it across the attacker’s body, trapping the punk’s wrist and smashing his elbow joint with a powerful forearm strike. Wiry Guy screamed as his elbow snapped with an audible crunching sound, the knife falling to the ground. Hassan swung the punk’s arm back to the outside, palmed the man’s face to drive his head back, and swung the back of his leg into the punk’s calf, sweeping his legs out from under him. The young man fell hard, striking the back of his head on the asphalt, and was unconscious in an instant – possibly dead, though Hassan hoped that was not the case.
The third attacker – Chubby – was almost as large as Blondie but appeared to be the youngest of the three, maybe not more than eighteen years old. He held his palms out in an “I don’t want to fight” gesture, and began backing away.
Hassan stepped toward the young man, moving as a sword moves, without thought, ready to destroy with a touch. The young man’s eyes grew wide with fright and he almost stumbled as he retreated. Hassan caught himself just in time. Pull it back now. He mustn’t go from defender to transgressor. The events of the day had keyed him up and put him almost into battle mode, but he could not take it out on this kid.
He let the image of the sword slip from his mind and allowed his moral outrage to return.
“There’s nothing righteous about beating up a homeless man,” he said fiercely. “He’s a human being. He has two kids in Atlanta. One is your age. This is evil, can’t you understand that?”
“Please, mister. Just let me go.”
“If I see you in this neighborhood again, I’ll kill you.” It was an empty threat, but Chubby didn’t know that. “Get lost,” he commanded. “I’ll call an ambulance for your friends. You were never here.”
The kid ran. Only then did Hassan notice the glow of two cigarettes in the stygian alley. He peered and made out the shapes of two Chinese men in white aprons, standing in the service doorway of a restaurant ten yards up, watching the commotion as they smoked. Busboys or dishwashers on break. He glared at them until they went inside and shut the door behind them.
He went to Wiry Guy and felt the man’s neck for a pulse. He was alive, thank God. Hassan rolled him to check the back of his head. Some blood, but not excessive. The punk might be fine, or he might be brain damaged. He’d brought it on himself, but that didn’t mean Hassan wanted him to die. He said a quick dua’ for the man. Ya Allah, heal him and guide him.
Hassan heard a noise behind him and turned to see Blondie crawling toward Wiry Guy’s discarded knife. His face was a gory mask of blood, his eyes barely visible. Hassan rose and knocked the knife away with his foot, then kicked one of the big man’s arms out from under him, causing him to fall flat on his scarlet face. He then dropped a knee on Blondie’s shoulder and scooped the man’s muscular arms behind his back, folding them into a hammerlock. Blondie began cursing, telling Hassan that he would kill him.
Hassan rolled Blondie onto his side, undid the man’s belt buckle – why bother with a belt when your pants hung halfway down your butt?- and removed the belt. With Blondie’s arms still jammed painfully behind his back, Hassan looped the belt around the man’s thick upper arms and cinched it tight. Then he removed one of Blondie’s boots and stripped off a malodorous white sock. He tried to stuff the sock into Blondie’s mouth but the thug clamped his mouth shut, so Hassan dug his thumbs into the pressure points on the sides of Blondie’s jaw until the pain forced his mouth open. He stuffed the sock in, silencing the man’s curses.
“Kill that cracker, Hassan!” He looked up and saw that Wolf had dragged himself to a sitting position against a building wall. His face was contorted in pain and he clutched his leg where Blondie had stomped it.
“No one’s killing anyone, Wolf,” Hassan said. “Hang on while I think. We have a mess on our hands.”
For a guide to all of Wael’s stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.