[section_title title=Ouroboros, Part 8]
See the Story Index for a chronological guide to the previous stories.
Author’s note: Because part 8 is short, and because some readers are growing anxious – :-) – I’ve decided to publish parts 8 and 9 together as one post. This is a one-time deal, however. Subsequent chapters are longer than usual so we’ll go back to one at a time next week Insha’Allah.
Ouroboros, Part 8 – The Man Who Might Have Been
March 23, 2010 – 5:30 am
West Oakland BART Station
Jamilah crawled to Hassan’s prone form and shook him. “Hassan, get up. Wake up, wake up.” There was no response, not even a flicker of his eyelids. Glancing up, she saw the Crow approaching slowly but deliberately, gun in hand. He was still some thirty feet away, though Jamilah had no doubt he could shoot them both from that distance if he wished.
To her surprise, the station agent groaned in pain and rose to his feet, clutching a bloody shoulder.
“Help us!” Jamilah cried, but the man looked up, saw the Crow approaching, and ran toward the escalator to the elevated platform.
Jamilah had no thought of fleeing. Even if she had not been badly wounded, she would never abandon Hassan. What was it that Layth had recited back in the apartment? O you who have believed, when you meet those who disbelieve advancing for battle, do not turn to them your backs in flight. Just as Layth had done, she would face the threat head on.
But what could she do? The Crow was a trained killer with a gun, while she was a university student, wounded, unarmed – wait! She had completely forgotten the gun. The Sig Sauer, Hassan had called it. She lifted up the back of his shirt and snatched it out of his waistband. The weapon was warm from his body heat and streaked with blood. It felt heavy in her hand.
She did not hesitate. Hassan may have taken a vow, but she had not. She drew the gun, aimed at the Crow, and fired.
The weapon recoiled powerfully and struck her in the face, opening a cut on her forehead and knocking her to the ground. Dazed, she came back up to one knee. Hassan lay still insensate on the ground beside her. She wiped the blood from her brow before it could run into her eyes, held the gun firmly with two hands and braced herself. She aimed carefully and pulled the trigger. She missed. She fired again, and again, to no effect. She couldn’t understand it. The Crow moved in a way she had never seen, presenting the slimmest possible profile, constantly changing angles, leaning, tilting, and coming closer the whole time. Every time she took a bead on him and fired, he wasn’t there anymore.
Finally one of her shots struck home! The Crow stumbled backward and fell, dropping his weapon. Jamilah aimed carefully and fired again, intending to finish him off, but the gun only clicked dryly when she pressed the trigger. It was out of bullets.
The Crow stirred. The maniac would not die – why wouldn’t he die? As Jamilah watched, the Crow searched for his weapon, found it, and raised his head. His eyes settled on Jamilah like a pair of green lasers.
Jamilah felt a rumble from the ground and heard a high-pitched fluting call. Was it another earthquake? No, the ground was vibrating, not heaving. Her ears still rang from the noise of the shots she’d fired, but as the sound grew louder, it hit her: the train! The BART train was approaching.
If she could get Hassan to the train… It was a slim chance, but she would not sit here and let him be killed. Not as long as she had breath in her body.
She struggled to her feet. Grasping Hassan’s arm, her body shaking from pain, exhaustion and effort, she dragged Hassan’s limp form across the station. His body left a streak of blood on the station’s white floor tiles. Ignoring the turnstiles, she used her back to push open the handicapped gate as she backed through it and dragged Hassan after her.
She looked around wildly. She could not drag him up the escalator. He might be injured by the steps or caught in the gap… The elevator! It wasn’t far. She managed to get Hassan into it, and pressed the button for the second level. As the elevator rose she fell to one knee and put a hand on the ground, gasping for breath. Her muscles trembled. She spoke to Allah silently: O Allah, I don’t have the words. I don’t have knowledge. But you know I believe in you. My heart is with you, and I need your help.
At the upper level, she pulled Hassan onto the platform. The train was stopped beside the platform, waiting for passengers to board. Digital signs flashed, and a recorded voice announced, “Four car San Francisco train. This is a four car San Francisco train.” Passengers inside the train were gathered at the windows, staring out at a scene on the platform.
A knot of early commuters stood around the station agent, who was sprawled on a bench, holding a small towel to his shoulder. The commuters had not noticed Jamilah and Hassan. A few were on their phones, perhaps calling the police or recording videos.
Looking out over the dark streets of West Oakland, Jamilah spotted blue and red lights flashing a few blocks away. The police and ambulances were coming. If she waited here, Hassan would receive treatment soon. On the other hand, the trip to the Embarcadero station in San Francisco would take at least fifteen minutes, with no intervening stops and no chance of help, because the train passed beneath the waters of the bay to get to SF. The delay could kill Hassan, and maybe her too.
If she stayed, however, the Crow would kill them both. The psycho was probably marching up the escalator right now, with evil in his heart and death in his eyes.
She had to get Hassan onto the train. “Help me!” she shrieked. One of the women who’d been assisting the station agent screamed, and all of them flinched. A man wearing a bicycle helmet and a reflective vest, his trouser legs secured to his ankles with rubber bands, scurried over to her.
“Is he dead?” He stared at Hassan’s unmoving form.
“Help me get him on the train.” Jamilah’s commanding tone brooked no disagreement. The man grasped Hassan under his arms.
“I… I can’t lift him,” the man grunted. “Shouldn’t you stay here? We’ve already called 911. An ambulance -”
“Drag him!” Jamilah shouted. Realizing that it would do no good to appear hysterical, she brought her volume down and spoke with intensity. “The man who did this will be here any second. Help me, or get out of the way.”
Together they managed to drag Hassan onto the train. Jamilah collapsed onto the floor of the BART car beside Hassan and curled into a fetal position, clutching her belly. She heard exclamations of surprise and fear from the passengers on the car.
“Doors closing,” the voice announced. “Please stand back.” It was a pleasant, female voice, though clearly robotic, and was used in all the BART stations. Jamilah had sometimes imagined that the voice belonged to a plump middle-aged women who baked pies and served them in her kitchen, saying – in that same robotic voice – “Now serving four chicken pot pies. Please sit down.”
Now, lying on the floor of the car, she heard someone moaning in pain, then realized it was herself. She didn’t know how much more she could take.
The train began to move, swaying gently. No doubt a human conductor would have halted the train in response to the emergency at the station, but these early morning trains were automated – a little factoid she’d picked up from one of Mo’s occasional discourses on all things transportation.
Someone screamed. Jamilah opened her eyes to see the Crow standing above her, blood staining his hip and his left shoulder as well. Somehow he kept his balance as the train picked up speed and rocked back and forth. Behind him, the other passengers were backing away, hurrying to the opposite end of the car then stepping through the door into the adjacent car.
The Crow pointed his gun at Jamilah’s head. “That’s a good look for you,” the Crow said. “Curled at my feet like a slave.” He nodded to Hassan. “Is he dead?”
Jamilah climbed to her feet, one hand squeezing her wounded belly tightly. The Crow placed the hot barrel of the gun against her forehead, but she smacked it away defiantly.
“What he is or is not is none of your business. Go back where you came from. They call you the Crow? Fly away!”
The Crow’s mouth twitched in a thin, cruel smile. “What was he babbling about back there? Do you know?”
“Go!” She put a bloody hand on the Crow’s chest and shoved as hard as she could. He stepped back, a look of angry surprise on his face. Off balanced by her own shove, Jamilah seized one of the vertical metal poles positioned along the length of the car. The train was underground now, racing faster, dropping deep beneath the waters of the bay. Jamilah felt the pressure building in her ears. Outside the windows, lights stationed on the inside of the tunnel flashed past.
“How dare you put your hands on me?” The Crow’s eyes narrowed. “If you had an inkling of who I am…” He pointed his gun at Hassan, but his eyes stayed on Jamilah.
She stepped between the Crow and Hassan and jabbed the assassin in the chest with a stiff finger. She didn’t know why he didn’t simply kill them both, but she was not afraid any longer. If she died then she would die protecting Hassan, and would meet Allah without shame. She marshalled her breath and put all the force and resolution she possessed in her next words: “You – will – not – hurt – this – man! He’s worth more in one finger than a million of you. There is nothing for you here. Go away!”
“It’s alright, Jamilah.” She’d not thought Hassan was even conscious, and was shocked to see that he had somehow risen to his feet behind her. His face was crimson and blue with blood and bruises, his left eye swollen shut. Where his skin showed beneath the blood stains, it was pale as salt. He stepped forward awkwardly, dragging his injured leg behind him, and stood beside Jamilah, gripping another of the metal poles with both hands, practically hanging from it. “Let me talk to him,” he said gently. “It’s alright.”
Hassan turned to the Crow. Jamilah saw that Hassan’s eyes were shining, not with tears of pain or anguish, but with – it seemed to her – compassion and love.
“Why do you not know who you are?” said Hassan. “What did they do to you?”
The Crow’s glacial expression did not change, nor did the contempt in his voice disappear, but he did not shoot Hassan, or make threats. With his gun still pointed at Hassan, he answered the question.
“I am a Kopis. We have no past. Emotional entanglements weaken a man. We are unencumbered.”
“You don’t remember your parents, or your childhood?”
“Irrelevant! We do not dwell on such things. We serve the Kataeb and the house of Haddad.”
“I am a Haddad.”
“I was not aware of that until tonight. It is said you are a traitor. You converted to Islam, yes?” The Crow sneered. “Treason runs in your family. Your father was a traitor as well.”
Jamilah saw Hassan’s expression waver, as if he’d been struck a blow to the heart, but his voice, when he spoke, was firm: “Kamal Haddad was a hero and a wonderful man. I am proud to call him father, as you should be. Your name is Charles Kamal Haddad. You’re my brother.”
The Crow flinched as if Hassan had struck him across the face, but the loss of control was fleeting. His face grew hard as granite once again. “Lies!” With his left hand he rubbed his chest, as if troubled by heartburn.
Hassan tipped his head slightly and regarded the Crow. “Lift up your right shirt sleeve.”
Hassan shrugged slightly. “A hunch.” He swayed on his feet suddenly and would have fallen, but Jamilah caught his arm. She could not hold him up, however. The strength seemed to have gone out of his legs, and she herself was in too much pain to help. She steadied him while he lowered himself to one knee.
The Crow watched this scene without emotion. With his gun still trained on Hassan, he lifted his sleeve. His upper arm was tattooed with the image of a serpentine dragon eating its own tail.
“May I ask where you got that tattoo?”
The Crow lifted his chin, looking down his nose at Hassan. “It was given to me when I was a young man in training. It is a special mark of distinction, due to my excellent performance in languages and combat.”
Moving slowly, Hassan pulled up his own sleeve. “The Ouroboros,” he said. “This is Boulos’ idea of an inside joke. Sarkis had one too. We Haddads destroy each other – or Boulos kills us as he killed our father and Uncle Sami – and he is left alone, with no one to contest him for control of Lebanon.”
Jamilah saw the wintry callousness in the Crow’s expression and knew that Hassan was losing him with this talk of tattoos and plots. She was still not convinced that this man was indeed Charlie, but if he was then Hassan would not reach him this way. He had to connect with him personally. He had to make him remember.
She almost said something to Hassan, but held her tongue. Hassan was trying to mix a delicate and dangerous medicine to soothe decades of pain and loss. One wrong word and it would explode. At any moment the Crow might grow tired of talking and kill them both. That was, after all, what he had come here to do.
Hassan must have seen it too, because his tone softened. “Do you know why you rub your chest that way?”
The Crow stopped rubbing his chest and dropped his hand. “An affectation. So what?”
“You were asthmatic as a child. You carried an inhaler everywhere. Baba used to sit you on his knee and rub your chest just like that, do you remember? He’d kiss your cheek and tell you Joha stories, and it always worked. You’d calm down and breathe easy. You loved him so much. He was wounded in Beirut and he walked with a limp. Anytime he tried to stand you’d say, ‘Wait!’ and you’d run to get his cane.”
The Crow said nothing. Hassan put a hand on the ground and lowered himself to a sitting position, his legs splayed out before him like a child. His head wobbled to one side and the other with the rocking of the train.
He was dying before Jamilah’s eyes. She didn’t know how much longer he could last. As for Jamilah herself, she sweated and trembled with pain, barely staying on her feet. She began to recite Surat-al-Asr to herself, not knowing what other dua’ to use. “By the time. Surely humankind is in loss; Except those who believe, and do righteous deeds, and strive together for truth, and strive together for patience.”
Patience. Endurance. Don’t surrender to the pain. Stay together. Stay on your feet, for Hassan’s sake.
“Our mother,” Hassan continued weakly, stopping frequently now to catch his breath. “It’s amazing. You look… just like her. Her name was Evelyn. Slender, with… green eyes and blonde hair, like you. So beautiful… Baba used to say she was a movie star… you thought she really was. Mom was… confused. Do you remember how she always… got lost… when driving? She used to make animal pancakes for breakfast… dinosaurs for you, fish for me… blueberries for eyes. Taught you to dance… the debke. She had a business selling purses through the mail, and… you used to help her label the packages…”
“Stop,” the Crow said quietly.
“Do you remember my fish tank? The blue streak cleaner… the six line wrasse… such beautiful fish… after our parents died and we were taken to Lebanon… Boulos had a dog. You… loved that dog. Played every day. Name… Sarookh.”
“I said STOP!” the Crow bellowed. “None of that matters! That is someone else’s life! You are lying!” His cool, unruffled expression was gone, replaced by reddening cheeks and ruffled brows. He looked confused and angry, like a young man who has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He adjusted the aim of his gun slightly, and Jamilah thought he might shoot Hassan out of simple anger. She tensed her legs to throw herself at him, but her body would not obey her commands. All it gave her in return was pain. She’d been hollowed out.
“Cowabunga!” Hassan raised a fist in the air for a moment, then lowered it.
The Crow stared at him. “What did you say?”
Hassan smiled. With his deathly pale pallor, it looked like a mortuary smile. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles… you were crazy about them… Michaelangelo… you used to drive me batty… leaping out… cowabunga! Scaring me… that’s how you got… the scar on your forehead… playing with nunchucks like Michael… angelo.”
Something flickered across the Crow’s face as he touched his own forehead with a finger. A look of pain, Jamilah thought. An instant of anguished recollection.
“I loved you, Charlie… you helped me so much… I was messed up after our parents’ deaths… I didn’t talk, remember? You and Tant Gala… were the only ones -”
“You never came for me!” The Crow’s face turned beet red. His chin trembled, and tears glistened in his eyes. The change in his expression was shocking. It was as if he had transformed in an instant into a frightened, angry child. His outstretched arm trembled, the gun shaking in his hand. His voice became pleading and accusatory. “Where were you, Simon? I thought you would come for me. They did things to me. No one came!”
Jamilah stared at the Crow, stunned. He truly was Hassan’s brother. He was Charlie.
Hassan’s voice was hoarse with sadness and regret, but he remained in control. “I didn’t know… Boulos told us… you were dead… I swear… I would have moved… the earth itself… I would have fought… would have found you… I love you, Charlie.” Hassan’s voice finally broke, and he began to weep. “I love you so much. I don’t care… what you’ve done. I -”
“You don’t know what I’ve done.” The little boy was gone. The Crow’s features were once again hard as Mount Lebanon and cold as snow. His arm no longer trembled. The gun pointed at Hassan’s forehead, steady as a cedar tree.”You cannot imagine what I have become.”
Jamilah sensed that the Crow was very close to killing Hassan and herself. Somehow she found the strength to move her feet. She did not attack the Crow – that was impossible. She took a few shuffling steps and positioned herself in front of Hassan, facing the Crow. Let the assassin take out his fury on her. Let him kill her. Not Hassan. She said the shahadah to herself. She would die on her feet.
Hassan slumped to the ground, lying on his side. “It doesn’t matter, Charlie,” he said from behind Jamilah. “Come… into Islam… with me. Say… La ilaha il-Allah. Your soul… will be pure… you’re already… changing… didn’t kill me… didn’t kill Jamilah… not too late.”
Hassan’s eyes closed and his body became still. He was unconscious again, or dead – Jamilah did not know which. She stood rooted to her spot in spite of the pain. If Hassan could not stand, she would stand for him.
The Crow gazed down at Hassan, ignoring Jamilah altogether. When he spoke, his voice was altogether different. Jamilah tore her eyes away from Hassan and regarded the assassin. The cold, cruel mien was gone again, replaced this time by an expression that might have been regret, even love. He looked altogether human. This, Jamilah thought, is what he would look like if he had never gone missing, never been perverted into something evil. This is the grown-up Charlie who might have been.
“You are wrong, Simon,” Charlie said softly. “It is far too late for me.” His gaze shifted to Jamilah. “Do not pity me,” he said softly. “That would be intolerable.” The Crow – Charlie Haddad, Hassan’s little brother – put the gun to his own head.
Jamilah realized what the Crow meant to do. As much as she personally wanted to let him kill himself, so that she and Hassan would be free of this monster once and for all, she could not. It would destroy Hassan.
There was no time to consider her next choice. Her legs were devoid of strength. She could make no movement toward the Crow. She could, however, allow herself to fall, and she did, collapsing forward into the Crow as he pulled the trigger.
The crack of the gun was deafening. Blood sprayed into Jamilah’s eyes, momentarily blinding her. She screamed as she fell on top of the Crow then tumbled off, her knee striking one of the metal support poles. She had failed to stop the Crow from shooting himself, but she might have prevented his death. She did not know. He lay unmoving on the floor of the car, his face obscured by blood, unconscious.
Pain hit her like an avalanche. Now that the immediate threat of death was removed, she had no strength left to fight the pain and horror. She groaned loudly and crumpled to the ground, clutching her belly with both hands. The world went dark. She was aware only of the agony, the motion of the train beneath her, and the noise as they rumbled through the tunnel deep underground.
Dying is like being born, she thought. Pain, pressure, and motion. I’m going back where I came from. Souls are troops collected together. Her last thought was a prayer: Let him live, Ya Allah. And if not, then let me find him in Jannah.
Ouroboros, Part 9 – Only God Helps or Harms
The same night
Los Angeles, California
Dr. Ilyas Basim hauled his cumbersome body slowly out of bed. He wasn’t sure what had awakened him. Had the damn dog been barking? Or maybe it was another bad dream. He’d been having a lot of those lately, fueled by his unhealthy appetite for midnight snacking, but more significantly by the constant anxiety over his desperate financial state. He was on the verge of losing the house. He’d kept it from Nisreen thus far by piling up debt on multiple credit cards and borrowing from all his friends, none of whom would take his calls anymore. Nisreen had noticed that they no longer received dinner invitations, but she did not know why. Bloody fair-weather friends. To hell with them.
It would all be well once Boulos Haddad paid him as promised. The agreed upon sum for Basim’s betrayal of Hassan Amir was half a million dollars. But all he’d received were delays and excuses, and lately when he tried to call Boulos he could not get through. Instead his calls were taken by Miss Drukovic, Boulos’ assistant, who always said that the President was unavailable. It enraged him that his life was in the hands of some Serbian tart.
Then, finally, Drukovic gave him good news. Someone from the Los Angeles consulate would deliver the payment in cash the next day. Thinking of this now, his breath came faster, each exhalation accompanied by a drawn-out wheeze, like a tiny whistle blowing in his chest. Half a million dollars! What would it look like? Would it come in stacks of 100’s? How much space would it take up? Would the bills be crisp and new, with that sweet smell of cloth and ink? Or old bills, with the equally compelling smells of sweat, cigarette smoke, bacon grease, and airports?
As for Hassan… thinking of him made guilt bubble in his stomach like acid, and the guilt made him angry. It was Hassan’s fault that Basim had been compelled to do this. Hassan’s lack of trust, his unwillingness to share, his insensitivity to Basim’s needs, and his callousness toward his old friend Motaz, had all forced Basim’s hand.
Basim could remember when he and Kamal used to get together to drink Turkish coffee and play backgammon for hours. The wives would chat about cooking, traffic, the kids – but never about the war. As for the kids, they would play croquet in the backyard, or Scrabble, or climb the trees outside. Those were the good days, before Motaz became ill and Dalya grew to hate her father. Where did those days go?
Now Motaz was aged before his time, while Hassan never came to visit. Didn’t he understand that caring for a sick person was financially draining? Had he ever offered to help? He was too busy riding a bicycle! The idiot’s situation was entirely his fault.
Basim would set aside a small portion of the money – maybe $100,000… $200,000 at the most – for the gaming tables. After all, his luck was already changing, wasn’t it? This deal with Boulos was a sign that his days in the red were done. Soon he’d be rolling in the black and green. Luck was a fickle horse, but when it changed, you had to ride it for all it was worth. Yes, 200K – or 250 at the most – was a lot of money, but you had to bet big to win big. He could pay off his debts with the winnings, and still have a small fortune left over.
Then he’d see his so-called friends come running back, and he’d spit in their faces. Miserable people. After everything he’d done – Assistant Deputy Director of Lebanese intelligence services, professor at a major American university, internationally known pottery collector – yet his disloyal friends deserted him because of a few bad debts.
They’d see. Big changes were coming; he could smell it in the air.
In slippered feet, he shuffled to the kitchen. Snacking always took his mind off his troubles. Food, at least, was a friend who never deserted or denied you. Deserted – hah! He’d made a pun. Standing in front of the refrigerator with a glass of milk and a piece of tres leches cake, he felt a slight draft. He turned away from the fridge, thinking to check the bathroom window. Sometimes he left it open then forgot to close it.
He froze. Reflected in the glass of a kitchen cabinet, he saw the image of a man standing behind him. The man wore all black. He was lean and balding, with once-black hair that was now heavily gray. An ugly purple scar snaked its way across the man’s throat from ear to ear. Most frightening of all, the man held a silenced pistol pointed at the back of Basim’s fleshy head.
A part of Basim’s his mind wondered why the dogs hadn’t barked. Useless creatures. He dropped the cake and milk, only distantly aware of the glass shattering and the milk splashing on his pajama legs.
He knew it would be pointless to beg, plead or bargain. Though he did not recognize the man standing behind him, he knew who had sent him. Once Boulos Haddad decreed a man’s death, there was no escape. Damn you Boulos, he thought.
It was the last thought he ever had.
The assassin known as Mr. Black stopped to tear a paper towel from the dispenser on the kitchen counter. He wiped the milk that had splashed onto his pants, then made his way silently through the backyard and past the sleeping dogs. Before making his entry he’d thrown a bit of ketamine and benadryl-laced hamburger over the fence, and waited for the powerful mixture to take effect.
At his age it was easier to work around problems, rather than smash through them. He was a relic, he knew. Had any Kopis ever lived as long as him? Longevity was not in the job description. And he was tired now. How many had he killed? How many times had he witnessed the same scene? The targets silent or pleading for mercy, scrabbling to escape or dead instantly, never knowing what hit them. The faces of his victims blended together into a montage of misery. A gallery of ghosts, all sharing one thing in common: their lives had been stolen by him.
Lately, Black wondered about his own death. How would it come, and what would happen afterward? Did the soul exist? If so, he would no doubt be tormented by his victims for eternity. He would burn in Hell for a million years. He did not know why these thoughts came now to trouble him. Perhaps it was his advancing age, or maybe it was the Kopis war. The war had taken so many already, on both sides. Sooner or later it would take him as well.
They had valid points, the new faction. If he were able to speak – if his vocal cords hadn’t been permanently damaged when his throat was slashed long ago – there were things he might say to Boulos. Not only about the Kopis war, but about this relentless and pointless vendetta against Simon Haddad.
Black’s assignment on this trip had been to eliminate Basim, nothing more. Only an hour ago, however, he had received word from Boulos that Mr. Green’s mission to kill Simon Haddad had failed. Boulos himself had learned of the mission failure on CNN – that’s how bad a mess it was.
Black’s instructions now were to terminate Basim, then proceed immediately to San Francisco and finish the job properly.
Black had never liked the idea of turning Charlie into a Kopis. In his heart he’d been opposed to the murders of Kamal Haddad and Evelyn Aoun, even as he planted the bomb and pulled the trigger. He’d been stunned by Boulos’ killing of Sami Haddad as well. As for Simon, Black had always believed that the boy possessed too much potential to be wasted.
But Boulos had decreed Simon’s death, and Black would obey. He was a servant, nothing more. His only voice was the muffled whine of a silenced gunshot. His job was to do or die. He would obey orders and kill Simon Haddad, who now called himself Hassan Amir.
March 23, 2010: 12 hours later.
Late afternoon in San Francisco, California
Inspector Katrina Sanchez had been pressing the nurse call button for five minutes without result. She’d received her pain medication, but her throat was dry.
A nurse strode into the room, sucking on her upper teeth. “What is it, ma’am?”
Was that annoyance in the nurse’s voice? “It’s Inspector Sanchez, not ma’am.”
“Of course, Inspector. What can I do for you?”
“I’d like some water. And do you know if they sell chewing tobacco in the gift shop?”
“I very much doubt it.”
“Listen, can I move around on my own? I need fresh air and I really feel I could walk.”
The nurse shook her head. “Not yet. The medication makes you woozy. You could fall. I’ll have someone bring you water and open your window.” She walked out.
Katrina had been in surgery last night and heavily medicated this morning, so she’d only been vaguely aware of her surroundings. During those rare moments when she was lucid, she was aware of her husband and daughter beside her. They held her hands, talked to her or simply kept her company. She finally sent them home to rest an hour ago, when Lieutenant Norman showed up to check on her.
Katrina was seeing things clearly for the first time in years. It was time to get herself into therapy and confront the demons of the past. Time to be the loving and present wife that Roberto had married. Time to be there for Cecilia during the difficult teen years. Katrina was proud of her job, and not ashamed of her ambition, but there had to be a balance.
Anyway, she was under suspension pending investigation of the shooting – that was routine – and she’d be riding a desk until she healed. She’d have time to get to know her own family again.
Her prognosis was good. Hassan Amir had been right about the bullet ricocheting off her skull. Yes, it had required dozens of stitches and staples, but she was alive. What’s more, the bullet turned out to be a nine millimeter round. At close range it should have blown a hole in her head the size of the Gulf of Mexico. The doctor termed her survival, “a fortunate occurrence.” Hassan Amir had called it a miracle, and Katrina agreed.
What was it Amir had said? God is the only one who helps or harms. What an interesting expression. The more she thought about it, the more it seemed a liberating philosophy. If God alone could harm, then there was nothing to fear in this world. And if God alone could help, then there was no need to kowtow to bureaucrats and incompetents to get ahead.
He was a fascinating man, this Hassan Amir. How could she repay him? She’d spent a total of what, ten minutes with him, as she lay bleeding and quivering with shock in the street. Yet she felt connected to him. Even now she had a sense that he was someone she could trust.
Lieutenant Norman briefed Katrina reluctantly but fully after she threatened to clobber him with an IV stand. The vans used by the gunmen were stolen, and the dead shooters still unidentified. Louis Hedstrom was a cab driver, and Hassan Amir appeared to be a bike messenger and martial arts instructor. Clearly he was more than that, but they hadn’t yet figured out what.
Amir would have to answer hard questions about his background, his money, and his role in the Mission Street Massacre, as the press were dubbing it. He would almost certainly end up in custody, and that was a shame.
The skinny guy – Muhammad Saleh – had been brought in for questioning, then released. He claimed to know nothing, and there was nothing to hold him on. His father was a different story. He’d been arrested and charged with attempted murder for the stabbing of Alice Munro. Katrina had a feeling the guy would get off on a diminished capacity plea and end up in a mental hospital. According to the Lieu, the guy was a loon.
And then there were the events in Oakland. Hassan Amir and Jamilah Al-Husayni had been involved in two multiple shootings across the bay, only hours after the Mission Street attack. In fact, they were being treated in this very same hospital. The word was that Amir might have brain damage due to extreme blood loss. The Al-Husayni girl was expected to recover.
In a warehouse in West Oakland, the OPD and FBI found five dead, including the Lebanese consul. Not only that, but they discovered a false wall in the warehouse. It concealed a hidden room with a safe that – once they’d cracked it – was found to contain millions of dollars in heroin and cash. It was making the news headlines already.
Initially, the involvement of all these Middle Easterners was troubling. The FBI and HSU’s first thoughts had been terrorism. With the discovery of the drugs and cash, however, the case took on a different hue.
Finally, the Lieu said that Interpol had expressed interest in the gunman on the train. Word was that he might be some kind of infamous assassin. Not that they’d get anything out of him. He’d suffered a brain injury and apparently was still touch-and-go.
Katrina wondered if Hassan Amir might have been the target – she had a hunch, or not even a hunch but a little spark in her gut – that he was at the center of this somehow, not as a perpetrator but as a… well, she didn’t know what. She only knew that he was not a bad guy. As a cop you learned to trust your instincts, and hers said that Hassan Amir was a good person.
She needed to get some fresh air, see the afternoon sunshine. There was a nice courtyard with a fountain downstairs. The air would settle her racing thoughts. And, well, it wouldn’t hurt to check on Hassan Amir on her way back. Katrina was not a part of the investigation, of course, but she wanted to see how he was doing.
She rose from her hospital bed, adjusting the blue and yellow scarf that hid her partially shaved head. Moving slowly – any rapid motion made her head throb – she pulled on a pair of sweatpants that her husband had brought from home. No way would she walk around in this ridiculous hospital gown with the backside halfway open. She wished Roberto had brought some tobacco as well. Fat chance of that.
Wheeling the IV stand that fed medication and nutrients into her arm, she slipped her stockinged feet into a pair of flip flops and peeked into the hallway. Her nurse was not in sight. Good. Walking as quickly as she could (which was a turtle’s pace), using the IV pole to aid her balance, she made her escape.
See? She thought. Estoy más sano que una pera. I’m healthier than a pear.
Halfway to the elevator she stopped, feeling dizzy. She drank from a water fountain, then continued. In the elevator, she impulsively pressed the button for the third floor. Might as well explore her surroundings.
On the third floor she saw the sign for the Estrada ICU. Well. This was where they were keeping Hassan Amir, she knew. Okay, maybe she had meant to come here. She felt an increasing sense of urgency that she could not explain. It wasn’t attraction. Obligation, maybe.
She approached the nurse’s desk. “Can you tell me where to find Hassan Amir?”
“Are you family?” The nurse had a Russian accent.
Katrina couldn’t very well pull the police card in her current state. She didn’t even have her badge. “Yes,” she lied. “I’m his sister. What’s his condition?”
“No change, I am afraid.” The nurse enunciated each word clearly, not having mastered English contractions, apparently. “After that much blood loss….but you should speak to his doctor. Mr. Amir is in 384.” She inclined her head and pointed with her lips. This was something Katrina had seen Russians do. Perhaps decades of paranoid Communist life had toned body language down to its most subtle.
“I think your brother Muhammad is with him as well,” the nurse added.
My brother. Hah. I’m not the only one lying today. She glanced in the direction of room 384. She could see it from where she stood. Considering Amir’s involvement in the events of the last twenty four hours, Katrina assumed that the department would have stationed an officer outside the room – partly to guard him, and partly because they’d want to question him as soon as he awakened. But there was no one.
“What happened to the officer at the door?”
“Called away. Family emergency.”
Huh. Katrina shuffled her way to Hassan Amir’s room, where she found Muhammad Saleh asleep in a chair, his head tipped back and a pillow clutched to his chest. He let out a light snore. Let him sleep. Katrina wasn’t even supposed to be here.
The curtain around Amir’s bed was pulled closed. Perhaps a nurse was bathing him or changing his bandages. She heard no sound, however, that might accompany such duties. She listened for the squeak of rubber-soled shoes on the tiled floor, the creaking of the bed, or the sloshing of water. Nothing. On a hunch, feeling a sudden rush of urgency, she peeked between the gap where the ends of the curtain met.
A man stood above Hassan Amir’s inanimate form, pressing a pillow onto his face, smothering him. He stood on the other side of the bed, facing the entrance, so that Katrina saw him clearly. At that exact moment he looked up, and their eyes met.
The murderer was a lean middle-aged man of average height, bald on top with a salt-and-pepper fringe. He would have been ordinary-looking, but for two things. First, he wore all black, and his eyes were dark as midnight. Second, a long, ugly scar traced across his throat from ear to ear. Katrina registered all of this in a second, before she snatched the curtain open and screamed as loudly as she could. “Get away from him!”
The man kept the pillow over Amir’s face with one hand, and with the other calmly opened his coat and reached inside. Going for a gun, no doubt.
From this distance, there was nothing Katrina could do. Her instinct was to reach for her own weapon, but she had none. She might have taken cover, or run, but what about Amir?
Muhammad Saleh came out of his chair with a wordless yell. To Katrina’s amazement, he took a running step, gripped the edge of Amir’s bed and vaulted clear over it, striking the assassin in the chest with both feet. The man flew backward and crashed into the floor-to-ceiling window, which cracked but did not shatter. His gun fell from his hand and slid beneath the bed.
Before the assassin could recover, Saleh was on him. The two fought furiously, but Katrina could see that Saleh was outmatched. The assassin’s movements were unbelievably fluid. Forgetting the IV, Katrina dropped to the floor, intending to look for the gun. The IV tube popped out of her arm; blood streamed from the puncture site. The gun was all the way under the back of the bed, near the wall. She got down flat on her belly and crawled beneath the bed. The sounds of fighting continued, and shouts came from the hallway.
Katrina finally got her hands on the gun, slid backward until she was clear, and stood. A nurse ran into the room, but Katrina pushed her out, shouting “Call 911!”
Muhammad Saleh was still on his feet, blood streaming from his face, one of his arms hanging limply at his side. He attempted to shield himself from the killer’s continued blows with his free arm as the man drove him toward the cracked window.
“Saleh!” she shouted. “Get down!” Nothing. Either he could not hear her, or his brain wasn’t registering her commands. She tried again, as loudly as she could. “Muhammad! Get down, Muhammad, down!”
Her words penetrated the fog of his pain. Muhammad dropped to the floor, and Katrina fired. She was highly trained, and at this range should have been able to hit a quarter spinning through the air, Annie Oakley style, but she missed. She fired again. The assassin moved rapidly and strangely, seeming to evade her bullets, as insane as that sounded. Katrina fired once more, and missed yet again. Her bullets went through the window, causing the glass to spider and crack further from top to bottom.
It hit her that this was exactly how Hassan Amir had moved last night, when the gunman tried to shoot him on Mission Street. Amir and this assassin must have trained in the same place. What kind of place could produce such men, and why did one want to murder the other?
She could have emptied the pistol and hoped for a hit, but she was too well trained for that. An idea came. She fired two rapid shots, not trying to hit the assassin this time but placing the shots to each side, framing him right and left.
It worked. The second shot struck home, and the man reeled backward. An instant later he righted himself and set his feet. Blood poured from the right side of his chest, but his expression was as impassive as a brick wall, and his midnight black eyes showed no emotion. Katrina sighted the pistol on the assassin’s heart and pulled the trigger.
Nothing happened. The gun was jammed. The assassin raised one eyebrow as if to say, “Bad luck, lady.” He took a step toward her. She tried frantically to clear the jam, smacking the bottom of the magazine to make sure it was properly seated, and yanking back the slide to eject the stuck cartridge. From her peripheral vision she saw the assassin advancing on her, and knew she would not clear the gun in time. There was no way she could defeat this man in unarmed combat. He would take the weapon away and kill her with his bare hands.
A man strode into the room, his gait fast and confident. He was short and lean, with wavy, elegantly cut brown hair, wearing gray slacks, a white dress shirt and expensive looking black shoes. He walked right past Katrina, ducked a punch thrown by the assassin in black, and delivered a rapid series of hand strikes to the killer’s face and torso. His hands moved so fast they were a blur. The assassin stumbled backward and the new guy whirled, pivoted on one foot and delivered a spinning back kick that struck the assassin square in the chest, sending him flying into the floor-to-ceiling window.
The window shattered with a loud crash and the assassin was gone, plummeting toward the ground three floors below. He did not scream or cry out. In fact, Katrina realized, he had not spoken a single word.
The new guy turned and for the first time Katrina saw his face. He was young – perhaps no more than twenty or twenty one. She noted his gray eyes, long nose and cleft chin as he walked right past her, exiting the room without looking at her.
“Hey!” she called after him. “Stop! Police!” She tried to pursue him but was hit by a wave of dizziness. She put a hand against the wall to steady herself.
Mr. Saleh rose to his feet. She could see that his nose was broken, and his right eye was swollen shut. When he tried to walk he cried out and bent sideways, cradling his ribs with his good arm.
Katrina stuffed the gun into her waistband and hurried to Hassan Amir’s side. The pillow had tumbled from his face in the commotion, but his color was bad, with his skin pale and his lips slightly blue. She felt for a pulse, and put her face close to his nose and mouth to feel for breath. Nothing. She began chest compressions, singing, “Staying Alive” quietly beneath her breath. She felt ridiculous, but it was the method she’d learned in training. The beat to the song was 100 per minute, which was the exact rate needed for chest compressions.
Two security guards ran into the room, guns drawn.
“I’m Inspector Sanchez, SFPD,” she called to them. “I want you to check another patient. Last name Al-Husayni, first name Jamilah. She may be in danger. Also, a man went through this window. Get someone downstairs to secure the scene. And get a doctor in here – this man needs help!”
A moment later an emergency team rushed into the room. “Both of you out!” the doctor ordered. “Get this man some help.” He indicated Muhammad with a nod of his head.
Katrina and Muhammad stepped out of the room. Katrina felt woozy. There was no seat, so she lowered herself gingerly to the floor and sat with her back to the wall. Saleh brushed away the nurse who tried to help him. He crouched beside Katrina, wincing. He spoke in a low voice.
“I know you. You’re the officer from the street last night.”
“Inspector. And yes, I am. Do you know who that man was?”
“Either of them!”
Saleh shook his head. “No idea.”
She studied his eyes and saw no hint of deception. “That was pretty impressive what you did in there, Mr. Saleh.”
“Call me Muhammad. I did what I had to do.”
“Who were those men?”
“I honestly have no idea. Listen, Inspector…what’s your name?”
“Okay.” Muhammad nodded his head. “Inspector Sanchez. You have to help me. I have to get Hassan and Jamilah out of here.”
She frowned. “What do you mean?”
“They’re not safe.” The young man’s voice was urgent and insistent. “Everything that’s happened in the last twenty four hours has been about someone trying to kill Hassan. You have to help me get them out of here.”
“I don’t have to do any such thing,” Katrina snapped. Mas cara que espalda. What nerve the guy had. “I’m a police inspector. You don’t give me orders, and I don’t go around smuggling bodies. I’d lose my job. Besides, he needs medical care, and so do you. And what do you mean it was all about killing him? Are you ready to make a statement?”
“I’m not ordering you,” Muhammad whispered intensely. “I’m asking. You owe Hassan. I was there. He saved your life. Do you deny that?”
She rubbed her face and breathed into her cupped hands, feeling the heat of her trapped breath on her face. The hallway was cold, and her head was beginning to hurt. She looked at Muhammad Saleh, with his face bleeding and beginning to swell, and saw the look of beseechment in his one good eye.
“No,” she said finally. “I don’t deny it. And I haven’t forgotten that you helped me too. But you still haven’t told me what this is all about.”
“I’ll tell you everything.” He spoke rapidly, as if they had already made a deal. “I swear. But these guys are professional killers. We have to…” He looked around as if searching for answers on the walls. “Fake his death. There’s a doctor who works here. Shamsiyyah Al-Husayni. She’s Jamilah’s cousin. She’ll help us.”
Katrina snorted. Did he think this was a movie?
The doctor came out of Amir’s room and addressed Katrina. “We got him back,” he said. “Who are you, and what happened here?”
“Inspector Sanchez!” a voice boomed. “What the hell is going on?” It was the Lieutenant, accompanied by two plainclothes homicide cops. Several uniformed officers scurried in behind them and began to secure the scene.
Katrina felt the weight of many eyes upon her. How was she going to explain her presence here? She held out a hand and the Lieu helped her up. “Some loco -” she began to say, but stopped as a deep, ominous rumbling filled the air. A second later, the ground began to move.
At first it was only a sharp lateral movement, where everything seemed to jerk sideways. A few people stumbled and fell, but most stayed on their feet. No one panicked. They were used to earthquakes in this part of the country, especially these small and medium-strength temblors. They were hardly even worth a water-cooler conversation.
This was different. The lateral movement was followed by a great heave up and down. The heaving motion continued and increased in amplitude. People fell and cried out in fear. Equipment crashed to the ground. Windows shattered. Alarms went off. Still the shaking grew stronger. A food cart hurtled past, barely missing Katrina, then flew into the air as the ground bucked, scattering food and trays.
Plaster and dust rained from the ceiling. Light bulbs burst. Tremendous cracking and booming sounds rent the air like thunder. Everyone was screaming. Katrina heard, “I don’t want to die!” and “I love you Molly!” The heaving went on and on, until Katrina thought that it would destroy everything. It would be 1906 all over again, the City flattened to the ground. They would all die here. She wished she were with her husband and daughter. Where was Cecilia right now? Was she safe? Or was she frightened and calling out for her mother? Only God helps or harms, she thought. She didn’t know why but this thought comforted her, and she repeated it to herself. Only God helps or harms.
Finally, after a period of time that felt like it should be measured in years, the movement stopped. People wailed and cried out for help, while fixtures and plaster continued to fall to the ground. The badly damaged building made tremendous groaning noises, as if it might collapse at any moment.
What followed was organized pandemonium, as doctors and nurses tended to the wounded, while the security personnel – those who were uninjured – organized an evacuation. Some interior walls had collapsed. In places there were bodies beneath the rubble. All patients were transferred to mobile gurneys. The elevators were unsafe, so everyone took the stairs, which became clogged and dangerous, filled with the sounds of continued sobbing and occasional cries for help. It was a massive and disordered operation.
Katrina and Muhammad took charge of Hassan themselves, getting him onto a gurney and wheeling him out, then painstakingly taking the gurney down the stairs. Fortunately Hassan was not on any kind of life support machinery, or Katrina didn’t know what they would have done. Muhammad had only one good arm, but he took the bottom position, controlling the gurney’s descent with his legs and body, occasionally groaning with the pain from his broken rib. Twice Katrina was hit with dizzy spells and had to hold on to the gurney to stay on her feet.
No one showed the slightest interest. People everywhere – staff, patients and rescue workers alike – were either focused on trying to get outside to safety, or contributing wherever they were able.
Outside, in the parking lot, hospital staff and emergency personnel rushed about madly, setting up a triage area and caring for the worst of the wounded. The ground itself was ripped and torn, with gaping holes and cracked in the pavement. The air was full of the sounds of people screaming in pain, or calling out for help. Even the uninjured were dusty, disheveled and shaken.
One of the security guards who’d run into Hassan’s room after the shooting came trotting up to Katrina. “Yo, Inspector?”
“Yeah. What’s up?”
“I checked the courtyard like you said. They wadn’t nobody down there.”
“What do you mean?”
“You said a man went out the window. I went down there to check it, like you said. Right before the quake hit. They’s blood and broken glass, but wadn’t no body, not dead or alive. Sorry ’bout that. I gotta go help the rescue teams.” He jogged away.
That didn’t make any sense. She knew she’d plugged the assassin right in the chest, and then he was kicked through a third floor window. How could he walk away from that? Or had someone removed his body? Maybe the young man who kicked him through the window? There was nothing she could do about it now. That courtyard was probably covered in rubble.
A Middle Eastern looking doctor went by wheeling an unconscious young Muslim woman on a gurney. Muhammad called out to the doctor. “Shamsiyyah! How’s Jamilah?”
The doctor’s name tag read “Shamsi Al-Husayni.” Jamilah Al-Husayni’s cousin, no doubt. The doctor looked dazed. “You’re Muhammad, right? She’s barely stable. This whole thing is unbelievable.” She took a deep, shaky breath and gestured toward Jamilah’s sleeping form. “I don’t know who to blame for this. I haven’t told her mother about the shooting. I’m afraid it could kill her. I wanted to wait until Jamilah was out of the woods. But what about you?” She examined him with a professional eye. “You need treatment. We’ll get you to a triage tent.”
“Excuse me,” Katrina broke in. She hadn’t known that she would speak until she did so.
The woman regarded Katrina wearily, no doubt thinking that she was another frightened patient wanting reassurance.
“I’m Inspector Sanchez, SFPD. Can you tell me what will be done with these patients?” Katrina waved her hand to encompass the chaotic scene around them.
“They’ll be transferred to hospitals outside the City. We’re working on it.”
What am I doing? Katrina thought. Estoy como una cabra. She was acting like a goat, as her mom used to say. Leaping before thinking. But she owed Hassan her life, and it was clear that Muhammad was right about him being in danger. The fact that the officer guarding Hassan’s room had been absent was especially worrisome, as it implied that whoever was after him might have connections in the department.
She closed her eyes for a moment, then met the doctor’s impatient gaze. “We need to talk.”
At the same moment, over 2,000 miles away
Pierre sat back in the air conditioned taxi and looked around as the driver took him along the waterfront in Martinique, an island of the French West Indies known as the island of flowers. The distant hills were green as emeralds, the water shimmered like a mirror, and the city itself was wonderfully picturesque, with multi-story colorful wooden houses and a church spire that reached for the blue sky like a hand raised in victory.
In spite of the natural beauty all around him, Pierre was sweating and sick to his stomach. He put his head in his hands, asking himself for the thousandth time if he’d done the right thing in coming here.
He’d been furious and ready to fight when Emil had slapped him and dragged him out of the interrogation room last night. No one had ever slapped him in his life. Instead of chastising him further, however, the Armenian dragged him all the way out of the warehouse, where he pushed him into the driver’s seat of the black sedan, and kneeled next to him.
“Forgive me for that.” Emil’s voice was low and urgent. “It was necessary for appearances. You must leave. Sarkis will kill you, Pierre. He will not stand for your challenges to him, or the mistakes he thinks you made, or the knowledge you should not possess.”
Pierre was baffled. “Leave? Pour aller où?”
“It doesn’t matter where. Disappear. Do not return to the consulate, or even to Lebanon. Your family has money. Go far away. Start a family, have a life.”
Pierre snorted. “C’est fous, Emil. I will become a fugitive because Sarkis doesn’t like me?”
Dadurian gripped Pierre’s arm tightly. “You must trust me, Pierre. I’m telling you, he will kill you before the night is out.”
“But… what will you tell him?”
“I will tell him I sent you to search Hassan Amir’s apartment, or to verify whether our operatives were wounded or killed.”
“Et vous? What will you do?”
Dadurian shrugged. “I have unfinished business here. Don’t worry about me.”
So Pierre had driven to the airport, and here he was, by way of Miami. They spoke French in Martinique. Warm beaches, windsurfing, part time home of Paul Gauguin, setting of To Have and Have Not with Bogart and Bacall… Un peu de la France, they said. If he could only get his nerves settled.
He prayed fervently that Emil was well, and that Lucky Haddad and Jamilah had gotten out. He knew that he had abandoned those two in a terrible situation, about to be tortured and possibly killed. But what could he do? And now, lovely as this island was, he would be an exile here, living in hiding, unable to return to Lebanon, always looking over his shoulder…
When the taxi arrived at his hotel he got out, paid, the driver, and wheeled his bag into the lobby. A copy of the New York Times lay on the concierge’s desk, and Pierre’s eye caught one of the headlines: Oakland Deaths Connected to Mission Street Massacre. He snatched up the paper and opened it with trembling hands. Sarkis Haddad, Lebanese consul to San Francisco, was dead – but Pierre didn’t care about that. Emil Dadurian… Emil was dead. And the two captives had survived.
Pierre stood rooted to his spot, filled with grief for Emil, relief for Hassan and Jamilah, and shame at his own actions, for he had failed to live up to his family’s true inheritance and legacy, which was honor and service. He should have stayed and died beside Emil.
Standing there in the lobby of the hotel, looked upon with shock or pity by various hotel employees and guests, Pierre covered his face with the newspaper and wept.