March 23, 2010. 4:30 am.
Somewhere in Oakland, California
It was Sarkis Haddad. Hassan would recognize that voice anywhere, blindfolded or not. The voice of the man who had shot him and left him for dead in a field, who had killed his wife and unborn child, whose men had now kidnapped Jamilah and shot Layth. He kept his fury under tight rein. He needed to keep all his senses open wide, to see and hear everything, and to wait for an opportunity.
The pillowcase was lifted from his head, and he squinted against the bright light. As his eyes adjusted, he saw he was in a large office. The first thing he noticed was the ribbed black foam that covered the walls. Nailed to one wall were a pair of large cork boards containing notes and photos of himself, Jamilah, Adel and even Sahar, strangely enough.
The Armenian – Emil – stood beside him, pillowcase in hand, the black briefcase on the ground beside him. Pierre stood against the wall, his arms crossed, looking unhappy. Directly in front of him, Sarkis smiled tightly, the expression looked forced on his drawn face. There were dark circles under his eyes; his belly protruded and his shoulders slumped. Though he was only about forty years old, he carried himself like a man of seventy.
Off to the side stood a lean man with close-cropped blonde hair and green eyes. There was an emptiness in his eyes, a kind of barren intelligence. His palms were together, the tips of his fingers touching his lips. He watched Hassan as a vulture might watch a dying prey. Hassan sensed that this man was the true power in the room, and perhaps the source of Sarkis’ unhappiness.
This man was the Crow. Hassan was sure of it. From his posture and mien alone Hassan perceived that the man was trained in martial arts and more. There was a stillness to him that spoke of training as a sniper, or – of course – an assassin.
The only furnishings were a stainless steel table bolted to the floor, with a plastic tarpaulin beneath it, a wooden chair, and a small wooden table bearing a zippered leather case and CD player. A directional desk lamp had been positioned over the steel table.
The steel table – a torture table, no doubt – was splattered with blood, as were the tarp and blood-soaked towels on the ground. Hassan’s heart leaped into his throat. Jamilah! His eyes searched the room, his pulse pounding. He sighed with relief when he spotted her sitting against the wall in the corner behind him. Her wrists and ankles were bound with zip ties, and her mouth was taped shut. The left side of her face had been slashed. A nasty, gaping wound ran across her cheek. Blood poured from it, staining her hijab and blouse. Seeing that, Hassan felt a hot stream of rage like lava in his veins. Someone would pay for that.
Jamilah’s eyes, though, were open and bright. Hassan almost felt that he could read a message in her flashing gaze and firm jaw: “Do what you have to do, Hassan. I have faith in you.” He only wished he carried the same certainty. It was quite possible that he would not leave this room alive.
“Hey!” Sarkis said. “Front and center.”
“This first,” said the Armenian, and without warning he punched Hassan in the stomach. Hassan doubled over in pain. The Armenian sent his knee crashing into Hassan’s jaw. Hassan fell to one knee, putting a hand on the ground to steady himself. He tasted blood. The blade of the razor had bitten into the inside of his cheek. He struggled to his feet, only to find the Armenian’s gun in his face.
“Now we’re even,” the Armenian growled.
Sarkis laughed. “Never thought I’d see this Armenian bastard lose his temper. I like it. But that’s enough, Emil. We need to talk to him.”
Pierre stepped forward and uncrossed his arms. “There’s something I want to say.”
Emil rounded on him. “Shut up, Pierre!”
“Je ne vais pas.” He addressed himself to the Crow. “I don’t know what this is all about. But this man is Lucky Haddad. Simon Haddad. You know what my father used to say about him?”
“Ya ibn al-kalb,” Sarkis growled. “You impudent bastard. Who told you his identity?”
“I recognized him from a photo.”
“Get out. I will -”
“No, no,” the Crow interrupted calmly, one finger raised. “I want to hear this. Speak, Pierre.”
“Bien,” Pierre continued, shooting Sarkis a look of vindication. “Like I said, he is President Haddad’s nephew. His father was the writer, Kamal Haddad. My father said Simon was the youngest captain in the history of the Lebanese Forces. He was the best shot in all of Lebanon. Once, near the end of the war, in the fighting between the LF and General Aoun, the LF was pinned down in Ayn al-Rumana by artillery. My father said it was a storm of fire. Men were falling right and left. He and a few others sheltered in a church, but it was struck by a shell and half destroyed. It looked like the entire company would be slaughtered.
“Suddenly Simon steps out into the open and climbs onto a mound of rubble with an RPG. The men cover him but he’s taking fire. He doesn’t waver – he fires the RPG and blows the enemy’s sandbags to shreds. Then he advances, firing his rifle one shot at a time, dropping men like flies. A sniper on the roof gets off a shot and it goes right through Simon’s arm, but Simon doesn’t stop. He drops his rifle, draws his sidearm and kills the sniper with a single shot. My dad charged up behind him with the other men, and they forced an opening on Morsi Street that allowed the company to retreat. My father said he had never seen shooting like that. Do you know how old Simon was? Fifteen. My dad said it was the most incredible thing he’d ever seen. Comme une scène d’un film de Hollywood, he used to say.”
Sarkis snorted in derision. “Hollywood is right, since your father’s story is fiction. Do you know why Simon advanced? Because there were civilians in the church. They weren’t even Maronites, they were Armenians. He didn’t do it for his brothers, or because he hated the enemy. He did it for a bunch of miserable Armenians.”
Too late Sarkis remembered the company he was in and glanced at Emil with a shrug. “Nothing personal.”
If the Armenian was offended he did not show it.
He is a traitor,” Sarkis added vehemently. “He sided with the Palestinians and tried to kill President Boulos.”
“So, Sarkis” the Crow said, his head tilted slightly to one side. “You have known his true identity all along.”
“You were told what you needed to know. And as for you -” Sarkis rounded on Pierre with a snarl – “I will deal with you later.”
“Let me, sir,” Emil said. “I will deal with him now. Striding toward Pierre, he slapped him hard across the face. Pierre looked stunned. The Armenian grabbed him and hustled him out of the room, chastising him as they went.
Hassan felt a pang of pity for Pierre. He did not think it would go well for the young man. Too bad he didn’t take my advice.
The whole time Pierre and Sarkis had been speaking, Hassan was studying the room, calculating avenues of exit, and observing the Crow. The door was fortified with steel plates and covered in the same soundproofing material as the walls. A gunshot or other explosion might be heard outside, but human screams would not escape the confines of this room.
As for the Crow, there was something vaguely familiar about the man. Hassan thought that maybe the assassin had been a soldier in the Lebanese civil war. It was hard to tell his age. His body seemed young and lithe, but the planes of his face had a sharp severity that spoke of past suffering. Whether any of that suffering had been experienced rather than inflicted, Hassan did not know.
Now Hassan addressed himself to this mysterious man. “What’s your story? Are you the infamous Crow I’ve been hearing about?”
The man smiled, but the smile was so cold it chilled the room. “Some call me that, yes. My name is Mr. Green. I am here to obtain answers to certain questions. If you do not answer honestly and fully, I will do things to this young woman, ” he indicated Jamilah with a contemptuous wave of a finger, “that will haunt you for the remainder of your brief and shabby existence.”
“Did you do that to Jamilah’s face?” Hassan inclined his head to indicate Jamilah’s wounded cheek.
The Crow smiled indulgently. “A taste of what will come if you do not cooperate.”
Hassan tightened his jaw. This animal would pay for that. Right now, though, he needed to keep his cool and figure out a way forward. He glanced at Sarkis. The animosity between him and this Crow character was evident. Perhaps he could use that to his advantage.
“Well, Mr. Green, I get the feeling that you are one in charge here. Do you mind if I ask Sarkis a question?”
The Crow gave a slight nod of acquiescence and gestured with a finger for Hassan to proceed.
Hassan focused his gaze on Sarkis, whose face had turned purple with anger. Hassan’s egomaniacal cousin had never liked being second to anyone. Though his body had gone to seed, his eyes still held the old fury, bordered by contempt. Hassan worked hard to control his hatred of the man. He was not here for personal revenge, but to free Jamilah. Still, there were certain things he had to know.
“Why did you do it, Sarkis?”
Sarkis lifted his chin and looked down the length of his nose at Hassan. “Always with the stupid questions, Simon,” he said. “You never change.”
“But why Lena? She never harmed you. There was no reason for it. She was pregnant, did you know that?”
“Anta jannint? Have you lost your wits entirely? Who is this Lena you are babbling about?”
Hassan gaped. Was it possible that Sarkis did not even remember killing Lena? Was it that insignificant to him? Or maybe Mr. Black had done it and Sarkis had not been present.
“Lena Ayyoub, you animal! My wife. You or your men killed her in Istanbul.”
Sarkis knitted his eyebrows together for a moment, then laughed. “You mean the junkie? The daughter of old General Ayyoub, who died after the war? She was your wife?” He laughed again, this time putting a hand on his belly as if to contain his mirth. “I’m glad you told me. The next time I return to Lebanon I will look her up and have some fun. You know what I like to do to women for fun, don’t you Simon?”
Hassan felt a righteous rage building in his belly – he wanted to launch himself at Sarkis and demolish the vile criminal – but he controlled it. It was not time yet. He took a deep breath and spoke calmly.
“She’s dead, you idiot. She’s been dead for fifteen years. You killed her and I want to know why. No matter how much you hated me, Lena was innocent.”
Sarkis shook his head, still looking highly amused. “So that’s your bitch, eh? How pathetic. And she let you think she was dead all this time. You were always the last to know what was going on. That junkie is alive and well. In Sidon, from what I heard. They say she lies with any man who will provide for her and her whelp.”
“Whelp? You mean a… a child?”
Sarkis shrugged. “Who cares?”
Hassan felt his heart racing. Could this possibly be true? He had seen Lena dead. Or had he? He had seen her on the floor, practically floating in her own blood. Was there any way she could have survived? And a child. Could it be? Even as he reeled from this revelation, he continued with his original plan to push Sarkis over the edge.
“Sarkis, if you are lying to me, so help me I will -”
“What?” Sarkis shouted. “You will what? You are not in control here Simon, ya ibn al-himar. I am! Shut your mouth and do not speak unless you are asked a question, fahim?”
“Do you deny that it was you who -”
“Enough!” Sarkis strode quickly toward Hassan and struck him across the face with the barrel of his gun, hitting him directly on the bandage that covered his wounded left cheek – deliberately, no doubt.
“You never!” Sarkis bellowed.
Hassan stumbled but did not fall. His face exploded with pain and began to stream blood. He felt his cheek swell up instantly, making it hard to see through his left eye.
Sarkis brought the gun across Hassan’s face again, striking him across the nose. “Knew when!”
Hassan felt something give way in his nose. He sank to one knee, whereupon Sarkis kicked him savagely in the ribs. “To shut up!”
Hassan fell to his knees and elbows. Blood poured from his nose, trickling into his mouth and soaking his beard. He heard Jamilah trying to protest or scream, but her voice was muffled by the tape over her mouth. He wished he could tell her to stay silent. He did not want her to draw Sarkis’ attention. Hassan knew exactly how vicious Sarkis could be with women.
On the floor, reeling from the blows, Hassan put his head down in mock abject terror. Thus concealed, he spat the bloody razor out of his mouth, caught it in his right hand, and sawed at the zip-tie restraining his wrists. Three hard strokes and the ties severed. Tucking the razor between his thumb and palm, he kept his hands close together so as not to give away the fact that he’d freed them.
Sarkis kicked him in the thigh with the toe of his shoe and Hassan felt a shock of pain from his hip to his toes. He curled up and waited for the next blow. Roll with it, he told himself. Not time yet to fight. Stay alive, stay conscious. Ya Allah, give me a sign, subhanak, subhanak, give me a sign.
The next kick penetrated deep into his right side and left him gasping for air. The kick had struck him in the liver, he knew. He felt an overpowering sense of nausea and retched, throwing up the liquid remains of his last meal. When no further blows came, Hassan looked up. Sarkis stood above him, breathing hard from the apparent exertion of the assault. His cousin spat in his face.
“Lucky Haddad,” Sarkis said with a sneer. “You miserable, stupid bug. I thought I killed you back there in that field, but I’m the lucky one, because I get to kill you twice.” He lifted his gun and pointed it at Hassan’s face.
Hassan heard the Crow say, “Stop! I must question him.”
“I am in charge here!” Sarkis barked. He leaned over and pressed the barrel of his gun into Hassan’s injured cheek, driving it into the wound. Hassan let out an involuntary groan of pain.
The Crow strode forward and put a hand on Sarkis’ arm, speaking in a voice soft as the hiss of a snake. “I told you to stop.”
Sarkis paled and immediately stepped back. Hassan had never seen Sarkis so afraid of anyone, except perhaps Hassan himself.
The Crow waved a finger in the direction of the briefcase. “What does it contain?”
“Me for Jamilah,” said Hassan. “That’s the deal. Let Jamilah go, and I’ll give you everything. The briefcase, your answers, my own life. Put me on your table. Do anything. But let Jamilah go.”
“Mmmmm! Mmmmm!” Jamilah shook her head and drummed her feet on the floor, trying to protest.
“I don’t know what you’ve heard about me,” the Crow said softly. “But I do not negotiate. Let us speak plainly. You and the girl will both die here. That is inescapable. Whether your deaths are swift or painful is up to you. If you give me any further trouble I will strap the girl to this table -” he indicated the steel table with a wave of his finger – “cut her clothes off, and then slice her skin away ribbon by ribbon as you watch. No one will hear her screams. No one will save you.”
“Alright.” The pain in Hassan’s face and side was a red fog that made it difficult to think. But he knew what he must do. He bowed his head in a gesture of submission and took a chance. “Open the case and see for yourself.”
The Crow smiled coldly, as if to say, “You can’t fool me.” He gestured to Sarkis with the slightest nod of his head. Sarkis knelt and tried the latches. As he did, the Crow stepped back several paces.
“It’s locked.” Sarkis glanced up in annoyance and noticed how the Crow had distanced himself. Understanding dawned and his face twisted in anger. “It’s booby trapped, isn’t it? Green, you cretin. You would have let me open it.”
Sarkis stood and jabbed his gun at Hassan. “Open it yourself. Move slowly.”
Hassan clambered to his feet with difficulty and stumbled to the case. Kneeling, he worked the combination.
“Turn it so we can see!” Sarkis ordered.
Hassan did so. When the case opened, the smell of butane hit him, making his eyes water. The open can had leaked all over the contents of the case, while the trash bag liner he’d inserted had prevented the liquid or the odor from leaking outside of the case. He reached in slowly and drew out the red ledger, then discreetly dropped the razor to the ground, covered it with his foot, and slipped the cigarette lighter from the pen pocket of the briefcase.
Allowing his hands to part, he held the ledger up in one hand, and with the other flicked the lighter’s flame into life. It burned orange and steady.
“Up first in our auction today we have the Red Book.”
“How did you get your hands -” Sarkis’ face twisted into a snarl. “Damn you, Simon. I am so sick of your garbage. I will defile your dead body, I will kill all your women, I will….” He sputtered to a stop. Not taking his eyes or his gun off Simon, he bellowed, “Emil! Get in here!”
“Sarkis,” the Crow said softly, as if to a child. “He can’t hear you.”
Sarkis, who was closest to Hassan, wrinkled his nose as he detected the smell emanating from the case.
“That’s butane you smell,” Hassan informed him. “Highly flammable, you know. As I was saying, this is the Red Book. It contains information about the Haddad family finances, including bank accounts, as well as precise logs of drug shipments, amounts, and contacts over the period from 1948 to 1975. Some in Arabic, and some in French. It includes names, dates and handwritten notes. It’s amazingly detailed.”
Sarkis gawked in surprise, his fury apparently forgotten for the moment. “I didn’t know such a thing existed.”
“Put the lighter out, you idiot,” the Crow commanded softly. “The butane fumes alone could ignite the flame.”
Hassan smiled ruefully, as if he wanted nothing more than to cooperate, but could not. “We’ll risk it.” He replaced the Red Book in the briefcase and withdrew the photo album, always taking care to keep the flame well away. He continued to hold the lighter directly above the briefcase so that if anyone shot him, the lighter would fall and ignite the whole mess. Hopefully they would think twice before doing anything rash.
“Next up on ‘Ammu Boulos’ most wanted list, we have a photo album. This family treasure contains a few hundred photos of grandpa and his favorite son. Specifically they depict Antoine and Boulos Haddad at the sites of two separate pre-war massacres of Palestinian civilians. You can see them engaged in father-son activities such as slitting women’s throats, mutilating the dead, and holding up body parts.” Hassan put the butane-soaked album back in the case.
“Finally,” he continued, “the piece de resistance.” He held up the reel-to-reel tape. “A full recording of the Tripoli Conclave.”
The Crow nodded thoughtfully, but Sarkis sneered. “That’s ridiculous. The Tripoli Conclave is a myth.”
“Really? Who is being naive now? I’ve listened to it. It’s a very good quality recording. Antoine used the best equipment, it seems. There’s hardly a voice on this tape that doesn’t belong to a major world leader, and the subject matter, well, it’s shocking. Some of these men are still alive and all are powerful. Whoever held this tape could wield tremendous influence. Most of Antoine’s tapes were later destroyed, but somehow my father got his hands on this one.”
“Listen, Sarkis,” Hassan said. He dropped the sarcasm and adopted a reasoned tone. “Do you understand what these items represent? This guy” – Hassan indicated the Crow with a nod of his head – “is a trigger puller, but you are an important politician. You’re a Haddad. These items would ruin Boulos. Not only would he not survive the scandal, he’d be prosecuted for crimes against humanity. None of that would attach to you, however. With me dead, you’d be the only Haddad left. You would inherit the entire Haddad power structure. You could be the next president of Lebanon. More than that, I will sign over to you my inheritance of Kamal Haddad’s share of the Bank of Bekaa. You’d be immensely wealthy. Let Jamilah go. Have your men blindfold her, drive her to a public place and leave her. When she calls and I hear her voice saying she’s safe, I turn over this briefcase.”
Hassan raised his voice and growled his final words: “Otherwise I burn it all. Not to mention what will happen to this room and even this building when the three cans of butane in this case ignite. Do you want police and fire trucks converging on this warehouse? Somehow I think not.”
Hearing his own words, Hassan realized something. Two days ago, when he first saw Sarkis at the consulate, he’d been nearly overcome with thoughts of revenge for Lena, though calling it justice made it easier to swallow. Now, he was willing to trade away any hope of vengeance, and even his own life, in exchange for Jamilah’s safety.
It was not that he’d forgotten about Lena. There was not a day in the last sixteen years that he had not thought of her. The possibility that she was alive, making the grief he had lived with for so long unnecessary – it was like a promise of water to a man lost in the desert. Something else occurred to him: if Sarkis truly had not killed Lena, and had not even been aware of her, then who attacked her? Who slit her throat and left her for dead? That person was still out there, unpunished. Had it been merely a robbery, or a random attack?
He cut off that line of thought. The past was the past. Jamilah was more important. Shame flooded through him at this thought. What kind of husband was he? But… Lena was gone. Dead or alive, she was a memory from another life. If he survived, he would travel to Lebanon to find her, only because he had to know. But Jamilah was here, at this moment, in mortal danger.
Sarkis stared at the briefcase with such longing, one would have thought it contained diamonds and gold. He turned and looked at the Crow, and his face reddened as he said, “What do you think?”
The Crow gazed down at Hassan impassively. “It would seem you have us between the mountains and the sea, as we say in Lebanon. You have a deal.” His smile was a cruel line that barely cracked the stone of his jaw.
Hassan wondered if this strange man even understood what it meant to smile sincerely. He seemed simultaneously aware of his body’s abilities and uncomfortable with his own corporeal existence, as if human physicality itself were offensive – something to be excised and destroyed. He was a ghoul, preying on human beings, but no longer human himself.
Still, Hassan was uncertain. The items in this briefcase were a powerful bargaining chip. But he was sick of it all. He was sick of the Haddad family name and all that sprang from it. Turning his head slightly, Hassan spied Jamilah with his good eye. Meeting his gaze, she gave no indication of her thoughts, but Hassan imagined he could see resolve and trust in her eyes. He remembered her words back at the apartment, and they gave him strength: “I believe in you. I’m on your side.”
The Crow made a small, inquiring gesture with his hand. “Did you not hear me? I said I will meet your terms.”
Hassan met the assassin’s frigid green eyes. There was a deep cruelty in them. This was not a man who understood the meaning of negotiation, or compromise. This was not a man who would ever let a victim escape his grasp.
“Liar,” Hassan said, and touched the lighter to the Red Book.
The briefcase burst into flames with a loud whoosh. Hassan turned away as the heat singed his hair. He snatched up the razor, feeling it bite deeply into his finger, and rolled toward Jamilah, shouting, “Jamilah, cover your face!”
He heard Sarkis cry, “No!”
He came out of the roll close enough to reach Jamilah’s feet. Immediately he began to saw with the razor at the zip-tie binding her ankles, ignoring the growing heat at his back. Two fast strokes and the tie gave way.
“Stop,” the Crow said clearly and calmly from across the room. Hassan glanced over his shoulder. The Crow was working his way around the perimeter of the room, trying to get around the torture table to get a clear shot at Hassan. Sarkis stood dumbly, staring at the blazing briefcase. Acrid black smoke rose from it, likely from the burning trash bags.
BOOM! Heat like a solar flare washed over Hassan as the second – unopened – can of butane exploded, and he felt something sting the back of his shoulder. Shielding Jamilah with his own body, he peered through his fingers. He saw the briefcase soar through the air, trailing flame and smoke like a meteor. Even the Crow had to stop and cover his face. As Hassan watched there came another loud boom as the third can of butane ignited. The briefcase erupted in all directions, flaming bits of paper and leather streaking through the air like petals from an orange flower.
“Aaaiiiii” Sarkis cried. “I’m on fire!”
Ignoring Sarkis and his plight, Hassan bent over Jamilah again. She held up her bound wrists. Her eyes were wide with alarm, but Hassan saw no panic. She was a cool customer. She would have made a good soldier. He quickly severed the zip-tie that bound her wrists. Jamilah gave a muffled cry and pushed Hassan aside. It was too late. Something struck him on the back of the neck like a hammer, and he fell.
He woke only a moment later to the sensation of water on his face. His wrists were zip-tied behind his back this time, and his ankles were bound as well. The fire sprinklers had activated, and continued to spray water from the ceiling in all directions. Sarkis – his face streaked with ash and water, one side of the hair that fringed his bald head burned off – had apparently yanked off Jamilah’s hijab and was dragging her by the hair toward the steel table with a crazed look in his eyes. His burned jacket lay discarded on the floor. Jamilah kicked and shouted as he dragged her – the tape was gone from her mouth – but Sarkis paid no mind.
The Crow, meanwhile, calmly opened the leather case that sat on the small side table. Hassan saw gleaming rows of surgical scalpels, dental picks, pliers, and other tools of torture.
Hassan struggled, but succeeded only in getting to his knees. His head felt heavy as a bowling ball. He could not breathe through his nose, his mouth tasted of blood, and something burned in the back of his shoulder.
The Armenian burst into the room, the two consulate guards close behind him. “What was -” He stopped dead, staring at the ruined room and the burned and water-soaked inhabitants.
“Never mind,” the Crow said calmly. “Will the authorities respond to this?”
“Ehhh… considering this is West Oakland, and our fire system is not connected to any city alarm, I’d say no. The sprinklers can be turned off manually.” Emil motioned to one of the guards who stood behind him, gaping. “The panel is in the supply room.” The man ran off.
“Very well,” said the Crow. He motioned to the other consulate guard with a long, razor sharp scalpel that he had taken from the case. “Get out and shut the door. The next time you or your colleague barge into this room, I will shoot you like dogs, do you understand? Dadurian, help Sarkis get this cockroach Palestinian on the table. I’ve been looking forward to this for days.”
Sarkis managed to drag Jamilah to her feet, but he struggled to control her as she clawed at him with her fingernails.
Hassan could not allow Jamilah to be tortured. It was unthinkable. He would die a thousand times first. He closed his eyes and sent an impassioned dua’ to Allah. The words rose from his chest and belly as he imbued them with every shred of spiritual strength he had. This is it, Ya Rahman, Ya Aziz. I need a sign from you, O Allah. If anything I have done is worthy, if my existence means anything, then I’m asking you, help Jamilah. I come to you helpless. You have the power and I have none. Do with me as you wish, but help her Ya Rab al-‘aalameen!