Emil Dadurian sat in one of the consulate’s black Cadillac sedans, parked on the opposite side of 7th Street, far enough away to be invisible in the deepening gloom of night. Through a small pair of field binoculars he watched the unfolding events with interest.
Dadurian’s primary duty – until now – had been to manage Sarkis’s heroin operation. The heroin was grown and processed in Lebanon, bricked and wrapped, then coated in tar. After that it was vacuum sealed in plastic, and finally concealed in something that would mask the smell – typically smoked sausages, jars of mint jelly, or crates of coffee.
The dope was smuggled in by ship to the port of Oakland, then stored in a warehouse in West Oakland. It was prime Bekaa valley heroin, grown on the Haddad family’s lands in Lebanon, and fetched sky-high prices from the few Bay Area wholesalers that Dadurian dealt with.
Of course a warehouse full of sausages and coffee would be a dead giveaway to any DEA agent, so the operation also imported Lebanese tobacco, textile fabrics and spices, all of which turned a decent profit on their own. To further minimize the risk, Dadurian kept an agent at the local DEA office on his payroll, as well as a few narcotics officers in the OPD and SFPD.
Dadurian’s Armenian ancestry had been a cannonball tied to his neck. The Lebanese power brokers he worked for had never fully trusted him because, as an Armenian Apostolic, he did not share their Maronite faith. Furthermore, because the Armenians dominated the heroin export industry in Lebanon, it was assumed that Emil would not object to getting his hands dirty.
In reality, Dadurian considered the narcotics trafficking business to be foul, but he desired to rise within the ruling party. He hungered for the power to protect his family and his people, and to secure their position in the chaotic factionalism that was Lebanon.
And the job paid well. Sarkis had grown outrageously rich on heroin profits, and Emil made a tidy sum by skimming off the top. That money supported his entire extended family in Lebanon. So he did not complain.
On occasion he’d had to kill competitors who tried to infringe on his territory. It didn’t bother him. He’d been a militiaman in the Lebanese civil war, and after the war had worked in military intelligence. He’d killed many times. Everyone he’d killed had deserved it.
This was different. The mission was to follow this courier, observe him, and assassinate him at an opportune time. Emil had never killed a civilian before, and the idea did not sit well.
Nevertheless, he would do the job. Perhaps it was an indication that Sarkis was beginning to trust him. Perhaps this signaled Emil’s long overdue rise in the ruling party.
It had been left to Emil to determine the time and place of the killing, as long as it happened before dawn.
Now, watching the bizarre scene in the alley, he saw an opportunity. The courier had demolished two men and let another go, and was busy cleaning up the mess. The man was distracted and the alley was deserted, so there would be no witnesses.
Hassan racked his brain. What would he do? He couldn’t call the cops. The alley was crimson with blood, mostly from Blondie’s face. It looked like the scene of a massacre or a kidnapping, with one man bound and badly injured, and another unconscious. The police would be as likely to arrest Hassan as anyone else.
“How much pain are you in?” he asked Wolf.
“I’m cool. Handle yo’ bizness.”
Wolf was hard boiled. Tough as they came.
Hassan needed help. He considered calling Layth. The brother had a car and would be down for anything, Hassan was sure. But he would require explanations, and Hassan didn’t want to get into all that. He didn’t want his friends to know his true history.
He had a thought. He felt in his pocket and found Melanie Carter’s business card. He’d only met her that day, but there was something genuine about her demeanor. And he had saved her life, after all. That should count for something.
Peeling his gloves off, he fished his phone out of his thigh pocket and called her personal line. He wondered if she’d be freaked out to hear from him. No doubt once the flush of his “heroic” rescue had passed, she’d kicked herself (with her good foot) for giving her number to a lowly bike messenger.
“Melanie, this is Hassan, do you remember me?”
“Hassan! I didn’t expect to hear from you so soon. I’m just settling down for dinner and some wine at home. Would you like to join me?”
Wow. Was it that hard to find a straight man in San Francisco?
“Thank you, but no,” he said. “This is actually a business call. I have a situation here and I need an attorney. I want to hire you.”
“Goodness, I hope it’s not serious. Do you have a forest you need to protect?” She laughed.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m an environmental attorney,” Melanie said. “I work for the Nature Conservancy.”
Funny, Hassan would have pegged her for a corporate attorney. Mergers and acquisitions, patent violations, that sort of thing. You never could tell about people.
“No, it’s potentially a criminal matter, but I need someone I can trust, and I trust you.”
“Hassan, I’m not a criminal attorney. I know an excellent defense attorney – “
“I want you,” he insisted. “I can pay your retainer. And you owe me. Now are you my attorney, and is our conversation privileged?”
There was a long pause. “…Yes,” she said finally.
Hassan gave her instructions and hung up. As he spoke he kept an eye on Blondie. The hooligan’s arms were still tied behind his back, but he’d managed to rise to one knee and was struggling to stand. Some people never learn, Hassan thought.
Hassan put away the phone and slipped the gloves back on, returning his attention to the matter at hand. He shoved Blondie to the ground again, pinned him with a knee, and unlaced the man’s boots. He used one lace to tie the thug’s beefy ankles together securely, looping the lace multiple times. Then he used the other to tie Blondie’s ankles to his wrists. The thug was now hogtied, which suited him perfectly, Hassan thought. Hassan dragged him next to a dumpster that stood near the alley wall.
Wiry Guy was still unconscious, but Hassan repeated the process with him, hog-tying him and dumping him next to Blondie, out of view of any pedestrians or vehicular traffic on 7th street. He turned to check on Wolf, and heard the sudden sound of a car engine and tires on wet pavement. He peered up the alley and was dismayed to see the black sedan approaching rapidly with its headlights off.
There was nothing he could do. He could not run and leave Wolf here, injured. He had no weapon – Wiry Guy’s discarded knife lay a good twenty feet away against the wall, where Hassan had kicked it. He stood straight and waited to see what the driver would do.
The black sedan came to a skidding halt and a short man in a dark suit stepped out. His wavy black hair, large nose and cashew-colored skin marked him as a native of the highlands of western Asia. Persian, Armenian, Azerbaijani… Armenian was a good bet, since they made up almost five percent of Lebanon’s population. He appeared to be fit and muscular beneath the suit. Most notably, he held an automatic pistol pointed over the front of the car, aimed directly at Hassan’s chest. A large silencer was screwed into the end of the gun like a parasite living off the weapon’s evil energy.
Hassan decided to continue the act he’d put on for Sarkis earlier. He raised his hands in surrender and said, “Dude, chill. I got some dinero in my wallet, you can have it all.”
The man smiled without parting his lips. He surveyed the scene, noting the two thugs hogtied against the wall.
“That’s good work,” he said in perfect, London-accented English. “Did you learn that in Lebanon?”
“Leba-who?” Hassan said. “Man, these dudes was whalin’ on my homey, so I jumped in. I got lucky is all.”
“Lift your shirt,” the gunman commanded.
“Bro, I don’t swing that way. Nothin’ personal.”
Hassan saw the gunman flick the safety off the gun and take aim at his heart.
“Lift your shirt,” the gunman repeated, “or I shoot.”
Hassan sighed mentally. The bluff had been worth a try. No doubt Sarkis had told this killer what to look for. As soon as he lifted his shirt it would be all over. He would have to make his move now, live or die.
He was not afraid. Charged with adrenaline, focused as a laser beam, but not afraid. It didn’t matter what happened to him. He had no one in this world anyway. No wife would mourn him, and no child would pray for his soul.
Except for Jamilah. Her presence in his life was something fresh, finally. He did not know if Jamilah would mourn for him or not, but he thought that yes, maybe she would. He remembered the dinner at Layth and Kadija’s house, and Jamilah saying, “It would matter to me!” The memory steeled his resolve. There was an ayah from Surat an-Nahl, the Chapter of the Bee in the Quran, that had been running through his head lately: “Afaghayrullahi-tattaqun?” Is it other than Allah that you fear?
No, Ya Allah, he thought. Only You.
Hassan knew he had only a second to make a move. The gunman stood on the other side of the parked car’s front end. It would be extremely difficult to get to him without being shot. Hassan needed an edge. He studied the gunman, noting his thick eyebrows and swarthy complexion. There was one last ploy he could try.
“Are you Armenian?” Hassan asked. “Do you know what Sarkis Haddad used to say about Armenians in Lebanon? That they were foreign trash who were good only for being prostitutes and moving dope. I once had to physically restrain him from raping an Armenian teenage girl at a checkpoint. That’s the scum you work for.”
The words were true enough, but Hassan didn’t care what the gunman might say in response. All he wanted to do was disrupt the man’s thinking and slow his reflexes. Hassan was gathering his energy, focusing it into his legs. He was the sharpest blade ever made. He was the whistle of steel as it cut the air. No emotion, only movement.
His words had a greater effect than he anticipated. The Armenian rocked back on his heels and lowered the gun halfway to the ground.
“It was a long time ago,” Hassan replied.
“Tell me – “ the gunman began, but Hassan did not hear the rest. He burst into motion, sprinting forward and ducking to keep the front of the car between himself and the gunman. He heard a sound like a loud burp and felt a sting on his forearm. He reached the car and without a pause dived forward, rolling over the hood and directly at the Armenian. He came out of the roll and felt searing pain burn his cheek. At the same moment his extended foot struck the Armenian square in the face and the man dropped to the ground with a cry. The gun clattered to the ground. Hassan stepped over the fallen gunman, picked up the weapon and turned just in time to see the man charging, his arms outstretched. Hassan ducked and weaved outside the charge, then whipped the hard steel of the silencer across the attacker’s temple. The Armenian dropped like a cadaver, unconscious.
Hassan stood still, breathing hard, the gun hanging at his side. That was close.
“You alright, brotha? Where you learn to move like that?”
“I’m okay,” said Hassan. “Hang in there.” The driver’s side door of the black sedan stood open. Hassan the car and glove box but found nothing. No registration or papers of any kind. He pulled the lever to pop the trunk, which he found to be empty and clean.
He returned to the unconscious Armenian, and once again used the man’s shoelaces to tie his wrists and ankles. You have to wonder about your life choices, he thought wryly, when you find yourself tying people up every five minutes.
Squatting deeply and letting out a grunt of exertion, he lifted the unconscious man onto his shoulders, carried him to the car and dumped him in the trunk like a sack of dirty laundry. The man groaned but did not awaken.
Hassan grasped the Armenian’s chin and tilted his head back, opening his airway wider. With his other hand he gripped the man’s ear and pinched hard. The man’s eyes flew open and he shook his head from side to side. Hassan released him and spoke in a soothing tone.
“You’re alright. You’re okay. Look at me.”
The Armenian’s eyes darted left and right, then focused on Hassan’s face. He struggled for a moment, trying to free his hands, then stopped.
“Do you know where you are?” Hassan spoke slowly. “Do you know what’s happening?”
The man relaxed and nodded his head, saying nothing. Not exactly a conversationalist.
“I have a message for your boss. Tell him that I came to the consulate by coincidence. I was making a delivery, nothing more. I’m not looking for revenge. I have no interest in Lebanon or anything happening there. Your secrets are your own. Leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone. It’s that simple.”
The Armenian snorted and shook his head as if he’d been told a bad joke.
“Will you pass on the message?” Hassan demanded. “If not then I might as well kill you now.” He lifted the gun and pressed the barrel of the silencer against the Armenian’s chest. It was a bluff, but the Armenian could not know that.
“It wouldn’t matter,” the Armenian said softly, breaking his stony silence. “They’re sending the Crow. You’re a walking corpse.”
“The Crow? Who’s that?”
“Tell me about the girl.”
Hassan was confounded. What was he talking about? Jamilah? Did they know about Jamilah? He felt the blood rush to his face as a sense of panic almost overtook him.
“You said,” the Armenian continued, “that you stopped Sarkis from raping an Armenian girl.”
Hassan stared at the man. The feeling of panic ebbed. He couldn’t understand why the man wanted to hear this story, but if it would get him to talk it was worth it.
“During the war,” Hassan said. “A brother and sister. Like I said, Sarkis hated Armenians. He often robbed them at checkpoints. He told his men to restrain the boy, and he dragged the girl into a bombed out building. I was naive. I thought he was going to steal her money then release her. One of the men, an older corporal I respected, nodded for me to follow Sarkis. Much later I understood why. I was the only one in a position to exercise any authority over Sarkis. I found him on top of the girl, slapping her and trying to get her pants down. I pulled him off, we fought, and I bloodied his nose. Why are you asking about this?”
The Armenian did not reply. After a moment he said, “The Crow is an assassin. A killer of men, women and children. A monster.”
“What’s his real name? What does he look like?”
The Armenian shook his head. “No one knows his identity.”
Frustrated by this fruitless line of questioning, Hassan held the gun to the Armenian’s ear. He put as much intensity as he could muster into his voice, trying to frighten the man. “You’re playing games. When is the Crow coming? Give me something useful or die.”
The Armenian was motionless. His face was lost in darkness, impossible to read. “There are things worse than death,” he said finally. “If you oppose him, he will kill everyone you love to get to you. He will commit abominations. They say he severs his victims’ vocal chords to silence their screams, and plucks their eyes out before they die. That is all I know.”
What garbage! The man was feeding him fairy tales. Was he expected to believe this nonsense about evil uber-assassins? Fed up, he reached for the trunk lid to slam it shut.
“Wait!” the Armenian exclaimed. “Let me go. I give you my word I won’t harm you. There is one more thing I remember. They say the Crow cannot be shot. He dodges bullets.”
Hassan stared at the Armenian. He dodges bullets. The words brought back a memory of another man from another time. An assassin who could dodge bullets. Could it possibly be him?
No. That man would be sixty years old by now, if he was even alive. And he had never plucked out anyone’s eyes, at least not that Hassan had heard of. But was it possible that these men belonged to the same organization, or had the same training?
He reached up and slammed the trunk lid shut, then dropped the gun on the driver’s seat and went to check on Wolf.
“You a mess, brotha,” said the homeless man.
Hassan felt his way up Wolf’s leg, squeezing gently until his friend groaned in pain. He gently rolled up the pants leg and observed. There was no bruising or swelling, and the skin was not broken. A fracture, most likely. He went to Wolf’s shopping cart, tipped on its side a few feet away. Various plastic bags and used clothing items had spilled out and lay like litter on the wet ground.
“Wolf, you can’t take all this to the hospital. The clothes are soaked.”
Wolf nodded at a discarded bag. “Just gimme the Old Navy bag. That’s got my papers. Rest is just clothes. I can get new stuff from the mission folks.”
Hassan found the bag and brought it to Wolf. “What will you tell the cops about what happened here?”
“Ain’t nothin’ happen here, brotha. I tripped and fell.”
Hassan nodded. “Stick with that.”
He heard the sound of a car engine purring and glanced up the alley. A beautiful white Jaguar convertible approached slowly, edged past the black sedan, and stopped. Melanie. Hassan stood and waved.
Melanie exited the car and gaped at the sight of the two bound and bloody men laid like trash next to the dumpster. When she walked around the front of the car Hassan saw that she was still limping. She was impeccably dressed as usual, and looked as out of place in this alley as a gazelle on the moon.
“Are they dead?” Melanie exclaimed. “Oh my God, I can’t be part of this!” Her blue eyes were wide as saucers.
“Relax, Melanie. They’re alive, and it was self-defense. They tried to kill this man here and I intervened.” Hassan nodded at Wolf, who waved cheerfully.
“So you just cruise all around the City saving lives? Who are you?”
Hassan smiled ruefully. “I’m a guy with either good timing or bad, depending on how you look at it.”
He became aware of the sensation of warm liquid running down his face and neck and touched his cheek. His hand came away crimson with blood. His motion drew Melanie’s attention and she exclaimed, “Oh, you’re hurt!”
“Just a bullet graze. I’ll be alright.”
“Oh my God!” Melanie’s eyes grew wider, if that was possible. She looked ready to bolt.
I’d better not tell her about the man in the trunk, or she’ll really freak out. His left forearm was throbbing with pain and he remembered the sting he’d felt when rolling over the car. He realized he’d been shot twice. He was very, very lucky. Not lucky, he corrected himself. Alhamdulillah.
He would inspect his wounds later. Someone could come along at any moment.
“I’m going to call an ambulance,” he said. He fished in Blondie’s pockets until he found a cell phone. He didn’t want the call being traced to him. With his gloves still on, he dialed 911.
“911, what’s your emergency?” a female voice said. Hassan could hear popping sounds as the operator snapped her gum.
“Stevenson alley, halfway between 7th and 8th. Two injured men beside a dumpster.” Hassan hung up and turned to Melanie, speaking to her in a soothing tone, wanting her to stay calm. “All you have to do is take my friend here to the hospital and drop him off. Keep my name out of it please.”
“I ain’t neva been in no Jag-yu-ah befo’.”
Melanie looked at the homeless man. “You’re not crazy or anything, are you?”
“Crazy like a fox,” Wolf grinned.
“He’s fine, Melanie. Just a guy down on his luck.”
“Alright,” she said, “But we’re square now, even if you did save my life.”
Hassan gave her a thumbs up. “I’ll drop by your office soon and pay your fee, alright? Now let’s split before the cops arrive.”
He looped an arm around Wolf’s back and helped him to one foot, then steadied him as he hopped to the Jaguar. The homeless man’s body smelled of sweat and cigarette smoke, but there was no offensive odor. He kept himself clean somehow, even living on the streets as he did. That was impressive. Hassan opened the door and helped him into the passenger seat. The beaten man winced again as Hassan eased his broken leg into the car. He looked so out of place in the gleaming Jaguar that Hassan had to smile.
“You in some major trouble, seems to me,” Wolf said. “But you saved my sorry ass fo’ sho’. Let me get my leg fixed and I’ma roll witchu, no matta what.”
“I know it, man. Don’t you worry, I’m alright.”
“I gotta tell ya,” Wolf said, “I heard the stories ‘bout you in El Reno, but I din’t totally believe ’em til now. I ain’t neva, neva seen nobody move like you did.”
“And you still haven’t. Nothing happened, remember? Hey hold on. Melanie, do you have a pen and paper?”
Melanie rummaged in the small storage compartment beneath the dashboard and came up with a gold plated pen and small notebook. Hassan scribbled his phone number, tore the sheet from the notebook and stuffed it in Wolf’s pocket.
“Call me if you need anything,” he said. “Billing problems at the hospital, a ride, whatever.” He shut the car door and Melanie took off up the alley, exiting the scene quite a bit faster than she had entered. Hassan went to Blondie and felt in his pockets until he found a wallet. The bound thug glared through a face covered in blood, and mouthed muffled curses through the sock in his mouth. Still wearing the gloves, Hassan removed the man’s driver’s license.
“Bryan Blackburn,” he read. “Funny name for a white supremacist, yeah? 2939 Ulloa Street, San Francisco. What? Not enough homeless people to beat on in your own neighborhood? Listen, Bryan. I know your name now, but you don’t know mine. I know where you live and where you sleep. This is a wash, you understand? You could get twenty years for attempted murder based on what you did here. Instead you get your face stitched up and you go home with a bad-ass scar to show your Nazi friends. You come looking for me or my friend, I will hurt you so bad it will make tonight seem like a birthday party. I’ll break both your arms and both your legs and you’ll never walk right again.”
Hassan meant it this time. He’d never had any patience for bullies. Sarkis too had been a vicious bully who used war as an excuse to hurt others. It enraged Hassan, and he let Blondie see the fury in his eyes, until the thug’s muffled curses ceased and the man looked away.
He turned and studied the black sedan. The Armenian was silent in the trunk, awaiting his fate like a warrior. From a purely tactical perspective, Hassan knew he should kill the diplomat/gunman, rather than allow him to report his findings to Sarkis. If he let him go, he might have to face him in battle again tomorrow. The smart move would be to drive the sedan to the waterfront and dump it and the Armenian in the bay. Dead men tell no tales, he thought. Argh, matey!
He shook his head at his own ridiculous joke. There was no way he would kill the Armenian. Whatever else Hassan was, he had never been a cold-blooded murderer.
Man laa yarham laa yurham, the Prophet had said. Whoever shows no mercy will be shown no mercy (by God). And Hassan needed mercy, that was for sure.
He walked away. Let the cops find the Armenian. It’s not like the diplomat would tell them anything. If there was a contract out on Hassan, the consulate would want no connection to themselves.
He was not worried about the police. He’d left no fingerprints. As for blood, it wouldn’t matter. It was unlikely that the SFPD would collect DNA samples. No one was dead here, so why bother? These were not television CSI detectives. They were real-world cops with copious caseloads, limited staffs and budgets, and aging lab equipment.
The chubby boy in the watchcap – the one Hassan had let go – would be frightened enough to keep his mouth shut. The Chinese busboys would likewise stay mum. Most of these restaurant workers were recent immigrants from police states. They avoided cops like the plague. As for Melanie, she was bound by attorney-client privilege.
He retrieved his messenger bag, relieved that it was still there. Hopping onto the bike, blood running down his injured face and arm, he rode away, riding with one hand only and tucking the injured arm against his chest.
What would be Sarkis’ next move? Would he back off? And what about this Crow? Was that genuine, or a ploy on the Armenian’s part? A killer of women and children, the Armenian had said. A monster and mutilator. He will kill everyone you love. It sounded like fantasy, but Hassan had heard rumors of such gruesome and soulless men in Lebanon, once upon a time. He dodges bullets, the man had said. That would sound impossible to most, but Hassan knew better.
Maybe Sarkis would heed his warning and let this entire matter drop.
Hassan had not forgotten what Sarkis did to Lena – he would never forget, not if he lived the life span of Noah – but as the years passed with Sarkis on the other side of the world and Hassan himself struggling to survive, the wound in his heart had begun to scab over. Now that he had seen Sarkis’ nauseating visage again, the wound was reopened.
Still, Hassan was willing to stifle the hatred and walk away. He would do that for the sake of the people he loved. If he could do that, then Sarkis should be willing as well. The consul had seen Hassan in action on the battlefield. If he had any intelligence he would walk away from this fight.
Somehow, however, Hassan did not think he would. There was more blood on the way, of that he was sure.
For a guide to all of Wael’s stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.