See the Story Index for a chronological guide to the previous stories.
March 23, 2010. 3:30 am.
San Francisco, California
“Am I speaking to Hassan Amir?”
“Yes.” Hassan recognized the deep voice with the posh London accent immediately. It was the swarthy, muscled Armenian. The one who’d tried to kill him in the alley. A vicious thought sprang up – I should have dumped him in the bay like I wanted to! – but he dismissed it immediately.
“Meet us at China Basin Park in thirty minutes. Let’s say 4 o’clock sharp. Be alone. No weapons. Bring the black briefcase. I was told you would know what that refers to. Do you?”
“Yes. What else? There’s something else.” He did not mention Jamilah, in the remote event that these men did not actually have her.
“Ah. You mean the girl. Yes. We trade you for her, that’s the deal. If you do not follow our instructions, we will kill her.”
Hassan paused for the space of two breaths, calming himself. His voice, when he spoke, was not enraged, but as cold as the depths of the Arctic Sea.
“You owe me. I could have killed you but I let you live.”
“I want proof of life.”
There was a pause. “Very well.”
“Hassan!” It was Jamilah, sounding angry, hurt and frightened. “Don’t give them any – “
The phone went silent as someone apparently hit the mute key. A moment later it was unmuted and the Armenian spoke again: “There you have it.”
Hassan was deeply relieved, but he filled his voice with sharp iron. “Be clear on this. If you hurt her, I will tear you apart at the seams. If you doubt that, you’re a fool.”
The Armenian laughed. “I know better than to doubt you, Mr. Amir. You have twenty nine minutes left.” The line went dead.
Hassan considered. The Armenian had called him Mr. Amir. Why? Didn’t they know that he had once been Simon Haddad? Certainly Sarkis knew. Sarkis knows, he realized, but he’s keeping it to himself. Why? He didn’t know. “Muhammad, stay with your dad. They want to trade me for Jamilah at China Basin.”
“I’m coming. I’ll hide in the trees, and when they arrive I’ll shoot them.”
Hassan turned to Muhammad and embraced him, then held his shoulders at arm’s length. “I don’t doubt your abilities, Muhammad. I believe in you. But they have Jamilah, and they told me to come alone. We can’t risk trying anything. If you must do something, pray. I’d normally pray two rak’aat before something like this, but I don’t have time. Do it for me, and make du’a for Jamilah. If you want to do more, go to the hospital and check on Layth. Support Kadija, and uh… tell her not to talk to the cops. I know that’s awkward, but we need to keep everything under wraps until Jamilah is safe. You could check on Alice too, and my friend Wolf, while you’re at it. SubhanAllah, we’re keeping the doctors in business.”
“They’ll kill you, Hassan. We need to call the FBI.”
“No. I have something they want. But in the end it doesn’t matter.”
“Dude, stop saying that! It matters. I need you, man. You’re my only true friend.”
Hassan smiled. “That’s not true, Muhammad. You have so many true friends. Listen. You remember the deal Jamilah made with Allah?”
“Don’t change the subject.”
“I’m not.” Hassan continued to talk as he lifted his bike down from the ceiling hook and strapped the black briefcase to the rear wheel rack. “I told Jamilah at the time that she thought she was striking a simple bargain – prayer and hijab for a bike. In reality, she entered into a grand covenant that we Muslims have with Allah. We give Allah our worship, our exclusive loyalty, our lives, and He gives us Jannah. Allah doesn’t promise that everyone gets to go home. He doesn’t promise safety or even survival. We give our lives, He gives Jannah. That’s the deal, bro, and this is the moment when we fulfill it.”
“I wish you’d stop talking about death.”
“I’m not looking to die. But the only end to the road of life is death. It’s not a tragedy. It’s Qadr. Either I’ll be back, or I won’t.” Returning to the bathroom, Hassan removed a shaving razor from a package. In the kitchen he wrapped the razor in cellophane, then put it in one of his jacket’s zippered breast pockets.
“Old prison trick.”
He took the old black and white photo of Lena out of his wallet, gazed at it for a moment, and began to put it in his other breast pocket.
For some reason he stopped mid-motion. He held the photo, all of a sudden unsure of what to do with it. He didn’t want to carry it anymore. Finally he handed it to Muhammad. “Put this somewhere safe for me, please.”
On impulse he went to the kitchen, picked up Jamilah’s FREE PALESTINE pin off the counter where he’d left it, and pinned it to the front of his windbreaker. Then he walked his bicycle to the doorway and put on his shoes. “Listen, Muhammad. I have to tell you something you’re not going to like.”
He walked the bicycle to the doorway and put on his shoes. “Listen, Muhammad. I have to tell you something you’re not going to like.”
“That will I wrote earlier? It’s in the kitchen drawer beside the stove. I’ve signed all my holdings over to you. If I don’t return, I want you, Jamilah, Layth and Kadija to divide the cash equally. Keep the orphanage going. You’re such a good brother, Muhammad. It’s not an accident that beautiful women keep falling in love with you. Get married, start a business of your own, have children. You would be such a good dad, ma-sha-Allah.”
“Hassan, come on, man.”
“Oh, hey, one more thing.” Hassan put his hand in his pocket and brought out a small key. “That’s the spare to my bike lock. I’ll lock the bike to a pole at China Basin Park. Go pick it up when you get the chance.”
“I don’t care about the bike, Hassan.”
Hassan raised his eyebrows and waved his hands. “Are you kidding? It’s, like, an Argon 18 Krypton, dude. It’s sweet as pie. Zoinks!”
Muhammad gave a wan smile. “Okay,” he said softly. “Is that supposed to be me? That’s weak, Five Nine.”
“Gotta go, bro. Hey, you got a good joke?”
Hassan grinned. “Good. Save it for me.” He embraced Muhammad one more time, kissed him on the cheek, wheeled his bike to the door, and departed to meet his destiny.
Pierre sat in the passenger seat of the consulate’s black sedan as they drove over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco.
He glanced at Emil. “This Crow character blames me for the op going sour,” he said bitterly.
“It was not your fault. Just bad luck. If anything, you salvaged the whole mess.”
“Carrément, oui? But I didn’t like having to kidnap that girl. And Maurice! He didn’t deserve that. He was only twenty four years old, did you know that? The Crow is un truc de fou. Ça me soule! You only have to look in his eyes. He’s ‘round the bend. Next time it could be you or me.”
“Maybe. But you would do well to address him as sir and show him respect. It is not our place to question.”
“You are telling me you’re okay with abusing and killing a civilian woman? I wasn’t raised that way.”
Emil said nothing.
“What’s the deal with Hassan Amir? Who is he really?”
Emil was silent. The only sounds were the humming of the tires on the roadway and the rushing of air past the windows. The dashboard air vents were open, and the cold night air chilled Pierre’s face.
Bah laisse tomber! Pierre turned away from Emil and looked out the window at the City, watching it grow gradually larger. He loved coming into San Francisco from this approach, seeing the utter beauty of it laid out before him like a gem.
“It’s so peaceful here, looking out over the water and the City. Reminds me of looking down at Beirut from the mountains.”
Emil did not reply. The man could be so annoying at times. Might as well talk to a pile of bones.
“These seats are very comfortable.”
“More comfortable than the trunk, I’m sure.”
Emil still did not reply.
Hassan rode hard through the dark streets of nighttime San Francisco. There was an all-night convenience store a few blocks away, directly on his route. In less than a minute he was there. He slid off the bike and came to a running stop, not bothering to lock the bike at this deserted hour. He leaned it against an automated video rental machine and strode quickly into the store, where he purchased a cigarette lighter, three four-ounce cans of replacement lighter fluid, and a box of heavy-duty trash bags. He opened the box of trash bags right on the store counter, withdrew two and told the clerk to keep the rest.
Outside the store he opened the briefcase and lined it with the trash bag. Then he loosened the cap on one of the lighter fluid cans just a bit, so that it would drip slowly if not upright, and deposited all the lighter cans in the other trash bag, which he stuffed into the briefcase’s elastic inside pocket. The lighter went in the pencil holder. Shutting and locking the briefcase, he took a running start, hopped onto the bike and rode. As he rode, he checked his watch: 3:53 am. If he was late, so what. Let the Armenian sweat. They would not dare to harm Jamilah until they had what they wanted.
China Basin Park was little more than a long strip of grass fringed with a single line of trees and a concrete pathway down the middle. It was bordered by 3rd Street and Mission Creek to the West, China Basin to the north, and Pier 48 to the East.
The baseball stadium was a hop and a jump away on the other side of the basin. On game days, Hassan knew, this park would be packed with Giants fans hanging out before or after the game, enjoying the spectacular views of the Bay Bridge and the Oakland Hills.
Now, however, it was deserted. As Hassan crossed the Lefty O’Doul Bridge, he saw a single black sedan idling in the parking lot south of the park. It was the same sedan the Armenian had driven before – the one whose trunk Hassan had left him in.
Hassan stopped on the bridge. Taking the cellophane-wrapped razor out of his pocket, he put it in his mouth and tucked it into his cheek. Then he rode up the concrete walkway into the park, which was elevated slightly above the parking lot. The Armenian would be forced to get out of the car to meet him.
Immediately, the car doors opened and two men stepped out. One was short but muscular – the Armenian. The other was a bit taller, with a youthful face and curly blonde hair. Both had guns drawn and pointed at Hassan. They spread out, approaching him from right angles.
“Put your hands in the air,” the Armenian commanded.
“Stop!” Hassan called in response. “Where is Jamilah Al-Husayni?”
The men halted, and the Armenian regarded him. “She is not here.”
Hassan nodded slowly. “Alright, then.” If they had harmed or killed Jamilah, all bets were off. He would not kill them, but he would wreck them, and they would tell him everything by the time he was done. Setting the briefcase on the ground, he relaxed his muscles and cleared his mind, readying himself to move. He had never ghosted on two men before – had never even heard of anyone doing it. At this moment, however, he believed that he could. He was a heat-seeking missile, too fast for these men to see or stop. He would destroy them before they even had a chance to scream.
The Armenian must have sensed Hassan’s imminent attack, because he sighted his weapon and spoke in an alarmed tone.
“Easy, easy! She’s alive and unharmed. I give you my word. You must come with us to see her.”
Hassan grimaced in disgust. How could he expect a fair deal from such people? They would never let Jamilah go. This was not a surprise, but was still a disappointment.
Very well. He would play it as it lay. He would go with them. He raised his hands.
The two men approached warily. “Is that the briefcase?” The Armenian gestured to the case with his chin.
“What does it look like, a dodo bird?” Hassan was fed up with these people.
“Keep your weapon on him,” the Armenian ordered. “Don’t underestimate him.”
Hassan shook his head and snorted. “If I wanted to kill you guys, you’d both have been dead the moment you stepped out of your cars. I told you, I’m unarmed.”
The Armenian reached into his pocket with one hand, drew out a white zip-tie and threw it at Hassan. It landed on the damp grass near Hassan’s feet.
“Bind your wrists,” the gunman said. “I am sure you know how.”
Indeed. Zip-ties were commonly used by soldiers in the field to restrain prisoners. They were lighter and cheaper than handcuffs, and virtually unbreakable. They’d once been as indispensable a part of Hassan’s kit as his gun or knife. Hassan had, in fact, been counting on this. While zip-ties could not be broken with brute force, they could be cut.
He was aware that among the cardinal rules of resisting a kidnapping were, “never allow yourself to be restrained,” and, “never allow yourself to be transported to another location.” In the movies the good guy surrendered when he was cornered, allowing himself to be bound and taken to some distant warehouse. He’d be chained and hung from the ceiling, electrocuted and beaten, and would still somehow manage to free himself and overcome the kidnappers.
In real life, it didn’t work that way. The instant you were restrained, your ability to resist fell dramatically. If you allowed yourself to be taken to a place where the kidnappers had full control, the odds were high that you would never see daylight again.
If it had been a matter of his own life only, he would never have acquiesced. But for Jamilah’s sake, he would cooperate. It was a lucky stroke that the kidnappers didn’t bind his wrists behind his back. Probably the Armenian didn’t want to get close enough this time for Hassan to make a move. He picked up the zip-tie and bound his own wrists in front.
The gunman came closer. “Search him.”
The curly-haired blonde patted him down gingerly, as if afraid Hassan would somehow knock him out and dump him in the car trunk like he’d done to the other.
“What about the button?” Pierre said.
“Take it. It could be used as a weapon.”
Pierre removed the FREE PALESTINE button from Hassan’s chest and tossed it to the Armenian, who caught it with one hand and pocketed it without ever taking his gun off of Hassan. Pierre’s eyes settled on Hassan’s face and his gaze widened. From the intensity of his stare, Hassan thought the man was angry or frightened, but after a moment the blonde spoke in amazement.
“Je vous connais!” The blonde waved the gun barrel up and down, gesturing with it. “I know you. You’re bigger, that’s all. You were skinny back then. My dad has a framed photo of you and him on the mantelpiece. C’est incroyable!”
The Armenian glanced sidelong at the blonde, seemingly torn between telling him to stop talking, and wanting to know more.
“Who was your dad?” Hassan was genuinely interested. And making friends with this man might pay off later. One never knew.
“Don’t say anything!” the Armenian commanded. “It could be a trick.”
Hassan shook his head in disdain. “Right. The old, ‘you know me’’ trick. Seriously, who was your dad?”
Hassan nodded slowly. “Sure. Yeah. He was a major in the Maghaweer. Tall man. Blonde, like you. Scar right here” – Hassan touched his temple, lifting his bound hands together to do so – “from… I don’t remember. Car bomb, maybe. He was a good man. Honorable, and that was rare. So you’re his kid, huh? How is he doing?”
Pierre nodded his head, his eyes wide. “C’est vrai. That’s all true. He’s fine. He’s an MP now. And I was in the Maghaweer too.”
“Shut up, Pierre!”
“No, Emil, vous ne comprenez pas. This is Lucky Haddad. He’s a hero of the civil war. He saved my father’s life.”
“Lucky Haddad? Sounds like an Arabic racehorse.”
Pierre snorted. “If you hadn’t been partying in London during the war, you’d have heard of him.”
“Oh hell, Pierre, shut up! Anyway I wasn’t in London then.”
“Lucky Haddad,” mused Hassan. “I haven’t heard that name in so long.”
“This is Simon Haddad,” Pierre explained. “He is Boulos Haddad’s nephew.”
“Boulos’ nephew?” The Armenian – whose name was apparently Emil – looked aghast. “Then what is this all…” He shook his head. “I don’t know, and I’m not paid to know. My job is to bring you in. Get in the car.”
Hassan complied. The Armenian sat in the driver’s seat and dropped the briefcase on the floor. Pierre sat in the back seat beside Hassan, his gun trained on him, but it seemed to Hassan that Pierre wanted to shake his hand more than shoot him.
“Excuse moi. I have to do this.” Pierre took a black pillowcase from the seat back pocket and settled it over Hassan’s head.
“I remember you too,” Hassan said from beneath the pillowcase. His breath was hot on his face, and the pillowcase smelled of laundry detergent. There are worse things it could smell like, he thought, thinking of things he’d seen during the war.
He was aware of the comedic strangeness of this interplay between himself and the two gunmen, as the man who’d tried to kill him last night struggled to restrain his partner’s hero worship. Not to mention the ridiculousness of engaging in conversation from beneath a pillowcase. He had not forgotten that the kidnappers might be harming Jamilah even now, and that Jamilah’s life depended on the effectiveness of his actions in the next few hours.
Hassan found no humor in the situation. His rage ran barely beneath the surface, and he would have no problem demolishing these two men, including Pierre, if necessary. Establishing a rapport with the kidnappers was a matter of strategy. If their getting to know him meant their fingers hesitated on the triggers for a fraction of a second when it mattered, then it would be worth it.
“Te souviens – tu de moi?” said Pierre. “What do you mean?”
“Shut up!” the Armenian ordered. The car began to move, and Hassan could hear the characteristic sound of Bay Bridge traffic. So they were heading to the East Bay.
“I came to your first birthday party, in a village in the mountains. Your house was huge. Oh, and I remember that when your mom was pregnant, there was a problem. I don’t remember what, just that your dad was worried. He flew in a specialist from France. I always wondered, if your dad had so much money, why was he fighting in that miserable war?”
“Service of Lebanon. Our family has always believed in duty first.”
Hassan sensed that Pierre was fully engaged in this conversation. Time to drop the hammer. His next words were meant as much for the Armenian as Pierre.
“And is this in service of Lebanon?” Hassan said savagely. “My best friend was shot and might be dying as we speak. And kidnapping a young woman? Do you really believe your boss will let her go? Letting people go is not Sarkis’ style. He’s a murderer and a rapist. He has killed old men, women and even children. You cannot work for a man like that and retain your honor. Your father would be ashamed.”
Hassan could not see PIerre’s face, but his voice, when it came back, sounded deflated. “I… I can’t…”
The car slowed and came to a stop. The Armenian spoke forcefully: “Both of you shut up,” he said, “or I swear I will tape both of your mouths shut. I mean it, Pierre. Not another word.”
“One last thing,” Hassan said, “and then I’ll shut up. Pierre, I’m telling you this for your father’s sake, because he was my friend. You must realize that Sarkis already knows who I am. He is my cousin, after all. If Sarkis wanted you to know my identity, he would have told you. Don’t let him know that you know. Keep your mouth shut. Extricate yourself from this mess if you can. Take a vacation and disappear. Sarkis does not like witnesses, especially witnesses who believe in concepts like honor.” He lifted his bound hands and made a motion across his mouth, and did not speak again.
The car resumed its journey, but only for a few minutes. If this was where Jamilah was being held then it wasn’t far from the City. He was fairly sure that the car had turned generally to the south rather than the north, which meant they were in Emeryville or West Oakland. Not that the information helped him any.
They ushered him into a building, pulling on his elbow to guide him. It sounded like a large space. An auditorium, or a warehouse. He bumped into a door frame, and the Armenian said, “Watch it!” Which was a stupid thing to say, if you thought about it. A door closed behind them. This room was bright enough that Hassan could sense light coming through the pillowcase.
A familiar voice laughed. “Well, well, cousin. You’re full of tricks. You got me in some trouble, you know. But I forgive you, because now I get to enjoy killing you all over again.”