See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
Author’s Note: This is a work of fiction. The names and characters do not represent real people.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Standing in a dark and empty parking lot in one of the roughest parts of Fresno, swinging a pair of 28-inch rattan sticks in precise geometrical patterns, I felt completely at peace. When I practiced my fighting art I thought of nothing else. My money worries, my separation from my wife and child, all that disappeared like morning mist and there was only the movement, the footwork and combinations and concepts of attack and defense. This was my meditation, my refuge.
I’d awakened early to perform Fajr – the Islamic pre-dawn prayer – then – like I did every morning – stepped out into the parking lot in front of my one-man private detective’s office to train in Kali, the combat art of the southern Philippines. I’d been training in Kali since I was seven years old, and sometimes it – along with my faith and my love for wife and child – was the only thing that kept me sane.
The faintest glimmer of light rose on the eastern horizon, limning the roofs of the low-slung wooden buildings and the occasional pine tree. The street was dark, with no traffic. Streetlamps cast a pale yellow glow, though several were burned out. A homeless man in army pants and a tattered orange sweater pushed a shopping cart up the other side of the street, checking trash bins for discarded bottles and cans.
I wasn’t worried about being robbed. It was a possibility in this neighborhood, sure, but for one thing I had no money, and secondly I just didn’t care. There was some part of me that never stopped giving the world the finger. A fire always seemed to blaze in some inner chamber of my heart. It craved release and would happily burn down the entire city if it got out. I would not let that happen. I could not. Instead, I let the fire move my feet.
I practiced my floretes, twirling motions that involved turning the wrist to strike with the back of the blade first, then follow through with a cut. In Kali the sticks were meant to represent swords or machetes, so we always tried to have a consciousness of blade orientation. I’d tried practicing with actual training machetes – dull aluminum blades designed specifically for practice – but after having the cops swoop down on me in three squad cars, lights flashing and guns drawn, I decided to stick to sticks.
Stick to sticks. Heh heh.
I could have practiced in my office, but it was small and cramped. I liked being out here beneath the moon, with room to move. My breath puffed out in the chill winter air as I worked my feet in triangular patterns, practicing evasions, attacks and counters.
A cop car cruised past, but paid me no mind. They’d gotten used to seeing me out there, I imagined. “That crazy ex-con private eye,” they probably muttered to each other. “We’ll nail that scum on something one day.” Never mind that I’d been pardoned by the President of the United States himself. To them I would always be a convict.
Or maybe that was just my paranoia talking. Still, probably time to pack it up.
I slipped back into my office, curled up on my little folding cot, pulled the blanket over my head and went back to sleep, only to be awakened around 8 am by the gnawing emptiness in my stomach. I eased out of the cot and stretched my lean 5’9” frame, rolling my shoulders to loosen them. I’d been shot in the right shoulder years ago, and it was always stiff and sore in the morning.
My fondest wish at the moment was to somehow earn enough money to buy something to eat. That might seem like a modest wish, but I’d consumed nothing but an old, wrinkled apple and a small bottle of sour chocolate milk the previous day – both items left over from my daughter Hajar’s last visit. If you think there’s no hunger in America, think again.
I was, as I previously alluded, a fully licensed and moderately experienced private investigator. But work had dried up recently, and I’d run out of cash. Every bill on my desk was overdue, my estranged wife wouldn’t let me see my daughter because I’d missed the last child support payment, my office rent was ten days past due, and the electricity was about to be cut off.
If you’d told me that by lunchtime I’d have enough cash in my pocket to make all my financial problems disappear, and that the money would come from the Anwars of all people, I’d have laughed out loud and called you looney tunes.
* * *
I’m getting ahead of myself. Before the Anwars came in, the devil tried to tempt me with a curveball. The curveball strode through the door in the form of a tall white man with thinning gray hair and an expression so hard it could break bricks. I’d seen expressions like that before, on the faces of men whose hearts were as cold as dry ice from either seeing or inflicting suffering on a daily basis, until the horror no longer touched their hearts in the smallest way. The faces of convicts and cops, career criminals and prison guards.
His double-breasted trench coat looked expensive, as did his shiny black shoes. He carried a fat white envelope in his left hand.
“Mr. Zaid Karim?” His voice was as monotoned as a flatline on a heart monitor.
I sat up straight and tried to pretend I hadn’t just been fruitlessly rifling through my desk drawers, trying to find enough loose change to buy a loaf of bread or a few bananas. I studied the man’s clothing for the telltale bulge of a holstered gun, and spotted it on his lower right, just about where the liver would be. I knew where the liver was located because I knew a hard uppercut to that spot would drop a man, and a knife thrust would finish him. For a moment I wished I hadn’t led the kind of life that would enable me to know that.
The man dropped the thick envelope on my desk. It made a thud like a cooked steak.
“I want to hire you,” he said without preamble. “Routine surveillance case. I want someone located. That’s five thousand dollars. You’ll get another five when the job is done.”
“Okaaaay,” I said slowly. As much as the words five thousand dollars made my heart race, a stranger offering me a large sum of cash elicited immediate suspicion. “And your name is?”
“Anadale Peterson. I’m head of security at Chukchansi Gold. I’m sure you’ve heard of it.”
Anadale? Was that really a name? It sounded made up, like a cross between a Star Wars character and a cartoon chipmunk.
Hefting the envelope, I opened it and studied the crisp bills inside, riffling them with my thumb. Five thousand dollars. SubhanAllah. Glory to God. It wasn’t the first time I’d held that much money in my hand, but the thrill never got old.
I imagined finally getting out from under the mountain of debt that felt like chains dragging me down. I could pay pay my child support, buy a new computer – the current one crashed more often than a bumper car – and buy gifts for my wife Safaa and daughter Hajar for the upcoming Eid al-Adha festival.
Hajar was three years old, almost four. She liked small things – tiny dolls, rings, lockets, things like that. I would love to buy her a silver ring, or maybe a miniature train set.
With this much money… I actually licked my lips as I imagined buying a large fish burrito from the Mexican food truck that parked out front at lunchtime. Best of all, I could buy food for Safaa and Hajar. Not that they were hungry. Safaa’s teaching job paid a living wage, but it was an Islamic school. Teaching itself is not a lucrative profession, and Islamic schools tend to be at the bottom of the wage scale. So Safaa had to watch her spending. I could surprise her with an Alaskan salmon, or several pounds of halal lamb. Maybe she’d even let me take her and Hajar out to dinner at Chevy’s or Red Lobster.
Just as quickly as this mental train began to roll, it derailed. My heart sank as I realized that I was going to have to turn this money down.
I was the first to admit that I was no great shakes as a Muslim. At one time I’d memorized ten ajzaa’ by heart – a third of the Quran – and now I remembered half of a single juz, maybe. I performed my daily prayers, though I sometimes missed one. I fasted in Ramadan, but rarely prayed the long taraweeh prayers. Now and then I prayed the extra sunnah cycles, but not regularly. Outside of Fridays and Ramadan, I rarely visited the mosque.
I wasn’t proud of any of that. I wished I were a stronger Muslim. I wanted to be sincere with Allah. I wanted to be a good example for my daughter Hajar and a good partner to my wife, even in our current situation. But I couldn’t seem to figure out how to achieve that goal.
In spite of my torpid faith, there were a few rules I didn’t break. Alcohol and pork were verboten. I didn’t deal with interest if I could possibly avoid it. And I didn’t gamble.
Of course I’d heard of Chukchansi. The massive Indian-owned casino sat just off Highway 41 in the rolling hills near Coarsegold, about an hour north of Fresno, where I lived. That particular stretch of cattle country belonged to the Picayune Rancheria Tribe of Chukchansi Indians.
I’d visited the casino once on a job. I was following a man who claimed to have suffered a serious neck injury after apparently being struck by a security patrol car in the parking lot of a shopping mall. Using an expensive body cam that masqueraded as a tie pin, I took photos and a even few video clips as the supposedly injured man danced and drank with two overly made-up middle aged women that he picked up at the bar.
Never having been to a casino before, I was amazed to see that the place had hundreds of slot machines and hundreds of hotel rooms, not to mention roulette wheels, card tables, an entire collection of four-star restaurants, and a spa. They must have been soaking up money like rain.
If this guy was offering five large right off the bat, he’d probably go double if I pressed him. Not that I intended to. It was just… man, that was a lot of money.
I knew this was Shaytan, that cunning old devil, coming at me, tempting me. Sometimes Shaytan was more subtle than a black ant on a black rock, until you thought the evil impulse was your own; but this play was as obvious as day. Knowing this, however, made it only marginally easier to resist.
“How’d you get my name?”
Setting the money down on the desk and reclining in my chair, I gave the man a hard stare. “Who?”
Five thousand or no, I wasn’t playing games with this breadstick. Did I think the FBI was above walking in here and trying to entrap me on a tax beef? Did I think the local FPD – the Fresno Police Department – wouldn’t try to jack me up, take away my license? No and no.
“Mike Estevez. You helped him when he was charged with assault a few years back. He works for me now.”
I relaxed a bit. “Yeah. I remember Mike.” I slid the money across the desk, pushing it toward him. “Afraid I can’t take your case, though.”
“You haven’t heard the details.”
I shook my head. “I don’t do casino work.”
The man looked around pointedly, surveying my dilapidated office. “You’re doing well enough to turn down five grand?”
Ever since my wife Safaa threw me out of the house four months ago, I’d been living in this cramped office on a crime-ridden stretch of Belmont Avenue in central Fresno.
It consisted of one small room, a closet and a bathroom. My sleeping cot was folded against one wall. A small table in the corner bore a hot plate stacked atop a microwave oven. Next to it a mini-fridge sat on the floor, humming quietly. A tall bookshelf with ten cubbies held a variety of books, from private investigation manuals to novels and two different Quran translations, along with some children’s books and games for the few occasions when Safaa would let me take Hajar for a day.
Aside from that, there was the small desk I sat at, my practically fossilized desktop computer, a variety of surveillance equipment stashed in a locked drawer of the desk, and my framed private investigator’s license, which hung on the wall behind me.
Morning light streamed through a single barred window, illuminating a galaxy of dust particles that drifted lazily through the air.
“No,” I said finally. “But I’m turning it down anyway.” I didn’t trust this guy and didn’t like him. Coming in here, dropping cash on my desk and acting like my working for him was a done deal. He reminded me of men who had humiliated me and treated me like a subhuman when I was incarcerated.
The man snorted and looked at me as if I had sand for brains. He reached into his jacket pocket.
For some reason the motion alarmed me. My hand shot beneath the desk for the little .25 caliber automatic pistol that I kept beneath the desktop. The holster was screwed into the underside of the desktop with the butt of the gun facing me. I set my hand on the grip and fingered the trigger guard, not touching the trigger itself, but ready. The pistol was loaded and the safety off. I could draw and fire in a second. If the target happened to be standing in front of my desk, I could even fire without drawing.
Not for the first time, the thought came that when you’re prepared to shoot random people who walk into your office, you might be in the wrong line of work.
Putting my hand on the gun was an irrational and stupid act. If this guy truly was an LEO – law enforcement officer – then I’d get myself either killed or locked up again. And though I’d been burglarized twice, and robbed of a princely $15 at gunpoint last year by a strung-out stickup man who jittered in off the street jonesing so hard he almost dropped his gun (he caught me in the act of microwaving a frozen burrito, and took the burrito along with the cash), I knew this guy wasn’t here to rob me.
The man’s eyes flicked to the spot on my desk immediately above the gun, as if he had x-ray vision. He froze. “My card,” he said in a drawl, as if talking to an idiot. His hand resumed its motion – though more slowly – and emerged with a business card. He dropped it on the desk and picked up the envelope full of cash. “Call me if you change your mind. Don’t delay.”
The bell on the door jangled as he walked out.
I released my grip on the gun. Under federal law, possession of a firearm by someone convicted of a felony – someone like me – would mean an automatic five year sentence. I had served six years in prison, from the ages of nineteen to twenty five, for the crime of armed bank robbery.
Mine was a special case, however. Because of certain extraordinary events I’d been granted a Presidential pardon, which meant that for all legal purposes, my conviction was set aside, wiped off the books. I kept the pardon letter itself – printed on white linen paper, embossed with the Presidential seal and signed by George W. Bush – in a locked drawer of my desk. So yeah, I was allowed to own a gun, which was a good thing, because in my business it was a necessary tool.
I rubbed my neatly trimmed beard, thinking of the hefty chunk of change that had just strolled out the door. I could have done so much with that money. But… sitting there at my desk, reclining in my secondhand office chair with faux leather peeling off the arms, I nodded my head, as if trying to reassure myself that I’d done the right thing.
Allah would provide for me in some other way. I’d messed up everything else in life. All I had left was sincerity with Allah, sincerity with the people who loved me, and sincerity with myself. Perhaps the most important thing I’d learned in prison was that when you had nothing left – no home, friends, property or money – you had to hold on to your integrity as if it were your only garment in a snowstorm.
No matter what, I had to hold on to sincerity, or the being that was me, Zaid Karim, an American, a Muslim, a husband, father and P.I., and a man with a past as heavy as an anchor, would dissolve into nothingness. I’d lose myself in the modern sea of moral subjectivity and apathy, and my life would have no more meaning than a grain of salt in a rising tide.
P.S. Please comment after reading. Constructive criticism is welcome as well. – Wael.