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I was thirteen years old and freshly arrived in the kingdom of Qatar. My father was overseeing the construction of the new university complex, while my mother – a scientist who specialized in water conservation – was hired to manage water usage at the Qatar Science and Technology Park.
Doha, a scorching hot city perched at the point where the Arabian desert met the Persian gulf, was unlike anything I’d imagined. It was all beige and brown, a combination of ancient mudbrick buildings and hyper-modern skyscrapers climbing into the sky as fast as the Bangladeshi and Korean workers could slap one floor atop another. The city smelled of fish and dust, and the call to prayer echoed from the mosques five times a day, rising into the sky like the shimmering desert air.
My parents enrolled me in an English-language school for boys. It was called Haq wa Nur (Truth and Light) or HWN for short. Of course the school taught English, science and math, and the program was in fact quite rigorous, but the only subjects that, if you failed them, would mean the automatic failure of the entire year, were Islamic studies, Arabic and Quran. This presented a huge challenge for me, as my parents – both of whom were non-practicing Muslims – had taught me nothing about Islam.
The Islamic studies instructor made me his special project, as if I were a feral cat that had wandered in from the foreign wastes. His name was Shaykh Rashid and he was a brilliant, multilingual Qatari who had earned his Bachelor’s degree in Madinah, his Master’s in Manila, and his PhD at Harvard. He was also a martial artist who taught me Shotokan Karate every day at lunchtime, building on my foundation of Kali.
More than that, Shaykh Rashid was a war veteran who’d fought with the mujahideen in Afghanistan and helped to drive the Soviets out. Many people in the community considered him a hero. The Qatari government did not agree, and had jailed him several times since his return from Afghanistan.
Rashid taught me the fundamentals of worship in Islam, the principles of tawheed and fiqh, the science of hadith, and the revolutionary role that Islam has played in human history. He taught us – my classmates and I – that Islam must be dynamic and courageous. He introduced us to writers such as Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawzi and Al-Ghazali, as well as 20th century thinkers such as Abul-A’laa Maudoodi, Maryam Jameelah and Sayyid Qutb.
Around the time I arrived in Qatar, the Bosnian war was ramping up in earnest. The first Iraqi Gulf War had not affected me because I’d been young and unaware at the time, but with my newfound but immature Islamic awareness, the Bosnian war hit me like a psychic bomb. The media coverage of Muslim civilians – including women and children – being massacred and raped while the entire world stood by and did nothing – it turned me into a walking ray of lightning, charged with outrage and looking for a way to express it. Our brothers and sisters were being killed! I challenged my parents, I spoke to my teachers and even the school principal, and everyone kept telling me that it was a great tragedy, yes, but it was not my problem.
I could not accept that. Then, like a spark to kindling, Shaykh Rashid informed us that he was going to Bosnia to fight. I swear I would have followed him if I could, but I was only a child. Before he left I drew him aside in an unused classroom and asked him what I should do, and he replied: “Finish your schooling, and when you return to America live the reality of Islam. Study the Quran and teach it. Be involved in da’wah. Slaughter a sheep with your own hands. Wash a body for janazah. Experience the deen with all your senses.”
I asked him about jihad. He said, “Jihad is an obligation on every Muslim, from now until the end of time. There is no higher calling.”
Sometimes I wonder: did Shaykh Rashid understand what he was doing when he said those words to me? One might say that he was speaking of spiritual struggle, the eternal battle against the lower self, if not for the fact that he was about to leave for an actual war zone. The year was 1993, not 2003. Jihad was not yet a dirty word. The mujahideen of Afghanistan were heroes even in the West. Still, to make such a statement to an impressionable fourteen year old boy, without framing it in any broader context, without perspective, and without explaining the limitations and rules that govern conflict in Islam, was so irresponsible that Shaykh Rashid might as well have put a gun in my hand himself. I can only shake my head now.
A year later we learned that Rashid was dead, martyred in the siege of Sarajevo. Shortly after that – having skipped two grades during my school years – I was back in California for university. I was fifteen years old and on my own, as my parents remained behind in Qatar to continue their work.
In my fifteenth and sixteenth years, I did all the things Shaykh Rashid told me to do. I excelled in my studies. I set up a da’wah booth on campus and found other Muslims to staff it with me. I sourced da’wah materials and created my own pamphlets. I assisted in three janazahs. I did indeed slaughter a sheep, and while I still remember the sight and smell of the blood and guts and never care to repeat the experience, it made an impression and I never again took meat for granted.
Someone told me “If you really want to learn how to do da’wah, you should meet Imam Abdus-Samad.”
That was how I ended up across town at the Butler Avenue mosque, talking to this tall, middle-aged Caucasian brother with sparkling green eyes and a deep-voiced laugh. Originally a Kosovar who still bore the trace of an accent, Abdus-Samad always wore a thobe and ‘imamah (turban) and was da’wah walking. When we were out and about, he never let anyone – from college students to construction workers – pass without asking them, “What do you know about Islam?” Next thing you know, he’d be engaged in an animated discussion, debating the divinity of Jesus or explaining the articles of faith. Abdus-Samad handed out shahadas like apples in a Washington orchard.
When I wasn’t at school or training Kali with Malik Sulawesi (Amiri’s dad), I was with Abdus-Samad, whether hanging out with his family at his home, accompanying him on trips to buy wholesale shoes in Los Angeles (he owned a shoestore), or visiting local prisons to distribute Islamic literature to the Muslim prisoners. He had an imposing but beautiful wife – also from Kosovo – and seven children, and his home was a way station for paroled prisoners, travelers, tablighi groups and fresh converts.
The Imam became like a second father to me, and in time he confided in me much of his history – how he had immigrated to the USA in his teens and become a radical 70’s revolutionary, making bombs for a Weather Underground splinter group, until he was captured and sent to prison for ten years. It was there that he was exposed to Islam, for though he came from a nominally Muslim country, his homeland had been under Communist rule when he grew up there, and it was rare to meet anyone under the age of sixty who even knew how to pray.
Abdus-Samad finally accepted Islam during a two year stretch in solitary confinement, when he read the Quran cover-to-cover repeatedly.
As Imam Abdus-Samad and I grew close, the Bosnian war was approaching a climax. The world was shocked by the Srebrenica massacre, while the siege of Sarajevo had reached crisis conditions. If the city fell to the Serbs it would be a catastrophe. At the same time the Chechen war was raging as the mujahideen struggled to drive out the Russian occupiers. I felt all these crises deeply. My brothers and sisters were suffering while the world stood by, letting Muslims be slaughtered. Even Muslim nations simply watched from a distance the way travelers on safari might watch hyenas tear apart an antelope.
Something had to be done.
I might have been a fool but I wasn’t an idiot. I did not raise this issue with Abdus-Samad until I knew I could trust him.
I imagined that he would try to dissuade me, tell me to focus on school, or tell me that such talk was dangerous and misguided. Still, I wanted to hear his opinion.
His actual response was to nod solemnly and say, “It’s not necessary to travel to Bosnia or Chechnya to fight. What the mujahideen really need is money. I have people you could talk to.”
So I found myself two days later in a dusty and disused office in Bakersfield, meeting with three other brothers. Abdus-Samad was there as a facilitator. He made the introductions, stated that a third of all takings would go to him – ostensibly to be sent to the mujahideen – then left us.
Two of the brothers, Horse and Deuce (none of us used our real names) were African-American Shiah Muslims from Watts, the heart of Los Angeles gangland. The third, to my shock, was Malik Sulawesi, Amiri’s father, the man who had been my Kali instructor since I was a child. Malik was a pale-skinned, ginger-haired Salvadoran of Lebanese origin, a former Communist propagandist who did not begin practicing Islam until late in life. The brothers at the meeting called him Red.
Horse became the leader of the group. He proposed a campaign of robberies to raise funds for jihad. He spoke at length, providing religious justification for such actions. None of those so-called justifications are important now, as they were all taken out of context and misinterpreted. To my teenage mind, though, they were convincing. I was in.
Over the next four years we embarked on a campaign of mayhem across the state of California. We robbed banks and expensive restaurants. We robbed grocery stores on the first and fifteenth of each month (when stores have money on hand to cash welfare and payday checks). When we had good intelligence, we robbed drug dealers as well.
All the while I kept up my studies, and somehow managed to graduate with a degree in biology. I felt like a schizophrenic, living two completely different lives. I’d go to the masjid, walk on the college campus, attend Islamic events, hang out with my friends, serve as counselor at the summer camps, and all the while I felt I would split a seam and burst, releasing a torrent of confusion and lies. I came to see the cynicism and greed of some of the members of the group, especially Horse, and I began to have deep reservations about what we were doing.
Sure, we raised plenty of money, and I stashed a good amount. But I began to feel nauseated before every job. I’d sit in the car en route, sweating with fear and anxiety. It had never been like that before.
At one point I tried to quit. Imam Abdus-Samad laid a guilt trip on me, telling me that the money we raised was saving lives, that Muslims who might otherwise starve were eating because of us. If I quit, he said, I would be abandoning the mujahideen like all the rest of the world.
Did a single dollar actually make it to the mujahideen in Bosnia or Chechnya? I honestly don’t know.
In 1997, Deuce was shot to death in a gunbattle with police as we emerged from a bank in Sun Valley. In 1998, Malik Sulawesi – aka Red – was killed protecting me when a gangster got the drop on me during a stash house robbery in Tulare. Red literally put himself between me and the bullet. We dragged him out, and I watched him die in the backseat of a Chevy Impala, blood pouring from a hole in his chest and pooling on the seat and floorboards. The car’s tires screeched on the pavement as Horse made our getaway, and I struggled to hold Red’s head still in my lap. “Tell my family I love them,” he gasped. “Tell them I’m sorry.”
I never did pass on that message. How could I? We left Red’s body on the sidewalk in front of the Tulare community hospital. HIs murder was never solved.
There was no one left but me and Horse, and Imam Abdus-Samad pulling the puppet strings from a distance. Horse wanted to recruit additional members and ramp up the campaign, but I was done. Malik Sulawesi had been like an uncle to me, and he was dead. We’d dumped his body like a bag of trash. I was exhausted and ashamed. I’d come to realize that everything we were doing was a lie that had nothing whatsoever to do with Islam. All the talk of jihad was a cover for men who were still immersed in jahiliyyah, who never understood Islam in the first place, and who were in love with violence for its own sake.
I had been lied to and used.
I quit. I severed my connection with those brothers and got a job – ironically – as a security guard at the Fresno Fairgrounds. And I kept my mouth shut.
A year later Horse was arrested while committing a bank robbery with some newbies he recruited. He cut a plea deal with the prosecutor and named names of his associates. One of the names was mine. He did not name Malik Sulawesi, no doubt because he could have been charged with felony murder for his part in Malik’s death. He also did not name Imam Abdus-Samad, for reasons I never knew. Maybe he was afraid of him. He was also smart enough to make no mention of “jihad”, realizing we’d all end up incarcerated for life if the feds knew the truth. Instead he described our group as a simple robbery squad.
I was arrested by the FBI in an early morning raid as I was dressing to go to work. Because I had always worn a mask and gloves during our robberies, and because they never found my money stash nor any weapons, they had no evidence against me aside from Horse’s word. They offered a plea deal based on two bank robberies and one gun charge. It would still mean spending a sizeable chunk of my life behind bars.
My family and friends, all of whom knew nothing about my activities, were convinced I was innocent. They wanted to raise money for a top lawyer to fight the charges.
I had no fight left in me, and certainly not a fight based on more lies. I took the plea deal. A guilty plea in an American court requires that the defendant “allocute” the details of the crime, both in order to ensure that the person is actually guilty, and to allow the defendant to present mitigating circumstances. In my allocution I went along with Horse’s version, presenting him as my only partner. I made no mention of Malik Sulawesi, Imam Abdus-Samad, or our so-called jihad. I was sentenced to fifteen years without parole.
A few years later I heard that Horse had been stabbed to death in the United States Penitentiary at Atlanta. That left only one person who knew the truth about what I’d been doing: Imam Abdus-Samad.
Six years into my prison sentence something extraordinary happened, as a result of which I was pardoned for my crimes and released nine years early. My record was expunged and I was sent on my way as a free man, capable of enjoying the same rights as any other citizen. The events of that time are painful to recall, and are a story on their own – one I will not tell right now.
After my release, I avoided Imam Abdus-Samad. By that time I had come to realize how I’d been misled. My youthful idealism had been capitalized on and corrupted.
I couldn’t blame others entirely, of course. I’d plunged myself into that awful situation. But all the men who knew me best, and who should have seen the destructive course I was on and set me straight, instead only sped me on my way to the crash.
Do such things still happen? Do such cells such as ours still exist? In this age of massive Homeland Security surveillance, with computers that monitor all domestic phone calls and read emails, with an FBI focused almost exclusively on Muslim-involved terrorism, I doubt it. But pre-9-11 America was a different place. There was a world beneath the world, one that 99% of American Muslims did not know existed. Within that world it was a free-for-all. It was an underground of sly justifications and unrepentant gangsterism. Most Muslims will likely dismiss this claim as fiction. It is not.
* * *
Since my release from prison I had occasionally seen Imam Abdus-Samad at Eid prayers. He always tried to engage me in conversation and I always declined, whereupon he’d give me a puzzled look as if he couldn’t understand the reason for my aloofness. I never knew if he was putting up an act, or if he genuinely did not understand how he’d duped me and derailed my life.
I couldn’t count how many times I’d thought about going to see him since my release, to confront him over the events of the past. But it was a conversation best left unborn. 9-11 had changed everything for American Muslims. If any of that money had indeed ended up in Bosnia or Chechnya, I didn’t want to know. Such a thing could doom me to confinement in a maximum security prison for the rest of my life.
Besides, Abdus-Samad was an old man now, and I’d heard that his health was poor. What would be the point of attempting to resurrect the past? The entire Muslim community – and even the non-Muslim faith communities as well – admired the Imam. His children had established successful careers. He was a grandfather and great-grandfather. Entire generations of Central Valley Muslims had been inspired by him. Let them have their hero. After all, who was I to say different? I was no one. An ex-convict with a grudge. A pathetic young man who let himself be fooled, and as a result threw away the best years of his life.
Finally, to be honest, I still loved Abdus-Samad. In spite of everything and against all reason, I loved him. I looked upon him as a second father. I didn’t want to hurt him. Let the old man live out his days in peace.
* * *
Thursday, February 4, 2010 – 11:00 pm
In spite of the late hour, I couldn’t wait until tomorrow to visit the Butler Avenue mosque. Time is the biggest factor in missing persons cases. With every moment the trail was getting colder.
I went through the drive-through at a delivery-only pizza place and bought three extra large veggie pizzas.
I had a headache that felt like a tiny person had squeezed into my skull and was carving his name into my cerebral cortex with a hammer and chisel. I did not want to visit the Butler Avenue mosque. These memories of the past left me feeling sapped and guilty. I was inclined to agree with Farah Anwar’s assessment of me as a useless person. I wished I could be almost anywhere else right then.
The negative thoughts would not help me find Anna, however. I pushed them aside. I would have plenty of time to hate myself later.
Pizzas in hand, I parked in front of the masjid and knocked loudly on the heavy wooden door. Eventually I heard locks turning and a deadbolt sliding, and the door was opened by none other than Imam Abdus-Samad himself.
Abdus-Samad stooped forward, his gnarled hands gripping a walker for support. His formerly blonde hair had turned entirely white. He smelled of incense, musk and old sweat. He angled his head, looking up at me with one green eye, regarding me with a kind of distant vapidity as a frown creased his forehead.
I was shocked at how decrepit he appeared. He’d always been a powerful, energetic man, constantly on the move, drawing other people into his orbit. Now he was a ghost of his former self.
For a long moment I didn’t think he recognized me. Then his expression brightened. “Zaid Al-Husayni,” he said with a wan smile. “You are a sight for an old man’s eyes.”
I hefted the pizzas. “I brought food. I apologize for the late hour.”
“Welcome, welcome.” He moved aside slowly and opened the door wide. “The brothers will be happy to see you.”
I entered the masjid and performed a balancing act with the pizzas as I removed my shoes with one hand. I followed Abdus-Samad down the main corridor. The only sounds were his ponderous breathing and the clacking of his walker as he picked it up and set it down.
Halfway down the corridor he stopped and turned again to look at me. “Why have you not come to see us more often, Zaid?” he asked quietly.
I thought there would be more to his question. I waited, but he added nothing.
What was I supposed to say? There was too much to say, and little of it good. The words crowded my mouth like shards of glass, so that I could not speak. I stood mute, not meeting his eyes, feeling like I’d made a mistake in coming here.
“No matter,” he said finally, and resumed his slow walk. “A man must do what a man must do.”
In the dimly lit back room, three brothers slept in sleeping bags against one wall, but the rest were awake. One small group sat together reading Quran, while others read singly or prayed. One was typing on a laptop. I knew about half of them. The room smelled of perfume oil and mildew. The heater was off or set very low, presumably to save money, and the men wore layers of clothing to ward off the chill.
“Oh ma-sha-Allah,” someone exclaimed. It was Jafar, a convert from Ethiopia who’d come to America twenty years ago on a running scholarship. “Look who it is. Our very own Muslim P.I.” He said it admiringly, and I knew he was sincere because sincerity was in Jafar’s nature. He was soft-spoken, gentle and always kind. I’d known him all my adult life and had never heard him so much as raise his voice.
I saw Derby, a short and rotund fellow who, I heard, had been diagnosed with Lupus, but who couldn’t afford treatment because he didn’t have insurance.
One of the Quran readers was AbdulWali, a tall and thickly muscled man whose leg had been severed at the knee in a factory accident years ago, then reattached. He would walk with a cane for the rest of his life.
Li’l Hamza – as the brothers called him – was a small, energetic Filipino-American who’d been mistakenly shot in the head by the police two years ago. He recovered, but the brain damage robbed his ability to self-censor his words, so that he said whatever came into his head. He had a lawsuit pending against the police department, and always claimed that when his ship came in he’d buy all the ahl-us-suffa a grand house in which to live.
There was a white dude whose name I didn’t remember, but I’d heard that he’d converted in prison and was trying to raise enough money to have his Nazi tattoos removed. They adorned his forearms and hands prominently – ugly black images of skulls, swastikas, flames and SS lightning bolts.
They gathered around me, clapping me on the shoulder and shaking my hand, and of course relieving me of the pizzas. One went to fetch paper plates, cups and beverages. Soon the brothers were chatting animatedly as we sat on the floor eating – except for Imam Abdus-Samad, who sat in a chair with his plate on a small folding table before him.
“We are overjoyed to see you akh Zaid,” said Jafar the Ethiopian in his calm, mellifluous voice. “But I am certain there must be a reason for this visit. We have not seen you in a minute.”
It was funny to hear Jafar mixing in slang with his otherwise very grammatically correct and measured English.
“Cause he don’t care about us,” Li’l Hamza piped up. “Nobody do. He only here ‘cause he need somethin’. Look at him wearin’ that fedora ‘stead of a kufi like he don’t know who he is. Imitating the kuffar.”
“Now now,” Jafar said reprovingly. “There is no need for that.”
I cleared my throat. “He’s right about me needing something.”
“See,” Li’l Hamza crowed triumphantly. “White folks don’t come to black folks ‘cept to take. Never to give.”
I rolled my eyes. Li’l Hamza wasn’t even black, he was Filipino, and I wasn’t exactly white. “I’m looking for Tarek Anwar,” I said.
The brothers glanced at each other uneasily.
“Tarek don’t come ‘round ‘cept when he hungry,” Li’l Hamza said. “He know not to show his face when he drunk or high. But he been scarce lately.”
“That is sadly true,” Jafar affirmed.
“Then where can I find him?”
“I’ve seen him around,” Derby commented. “But I don’t wish to speak badly of the brother.”
“Walk me out,” I suggested. I said my goodbyes and stood. Imam Abdus-Samad did not acknowledge me. He simply sat chewing his pizza, staring blankly at a star-patterned curtain that hung in the doorway of the adjacent bathroom. I wasn’t sure he even remembered that I was there. I paused in front of him, all manner of thoughts tumbling in my head. He looked up at me, and for a moment I saw in his eyes a trace of the dynamic personality and razor sharp intellect that had made him one of the most formidable men I’d ever known.
“You cannot move forward,” Abdus-Samad said suddenly, “unless you release the past. Allah Subhanahu wa Ta’ala gives us hardships in order to open our hearts, not to close them. We all make mistakes.” His face reddened with emotion, and for a second I thought he would cry, something I’d seen him do only once in all the years I’d known him, many years ago when his eldest son drowned in the Kings River. “I can only be the man I am,” he said. “You can only be the man you are.”
I felt a flash of anger. “You don’t get to tell me what kind of man to be. Not anymore.”
I turned and walked away. Only later did it occur to me that Abdus-Samad had been trying to apologize. To the end of my days I will regret my words to him that night, and my rejection of his apology, nebulous though it was.
* * *
Derby walked me to the door. “It’s important that I find Tarek,” I told him. “It’s about his daughter.”
He nodded solemnly. “A’ight. I’ve seen him a few times hanging out in front of a bar on Jamestown. Place called the Hamhock. But you have to know, he’s deep in the street life. I think he stays in a dope house right around there somewhere. I don’t know exactly.”
I put a hand on Derby’s shoulder. “Thanks bro.”
“What was that with the Imam?”
“You two go back, huh.” It wasn’t a question.
“What’s the Imam’s situation anyway?” I asked. “He doesn’t look good.”
Derby shrugged one shoulder. “Going downhill. Forgets things. Talks about the old days like he’s still in them. He was talking about someone named Red the other day, saying he was a shaheed and lived in the body of a bird in Jannah.”
A shaheed? I thought bitterly. Is that what we’re calling it now? Well, Red saved my life, so maybe he was indeed a shaheed. Maybe his niyyah was pure in that moment. Allahu ‘alam.
So Abdus-Samad was talking about the past. This development worried me, partly for my own sake but mostly for the Imam’s. It surprised me to realize that I genuinely cared about him. It also bothered me. I wanted to be free of the past. These connections felt like hands rising out of a swamp, gripping my ankles, trying to pull me down.
* * *
The Hamhock was easy enough to find. It had a neon sign of a pig sitting in an armchair with an apple in its mouth and a martini glass in its hand, or hoof, or whatever. The sign flashed on and off every few seconds. I imagined my own life turning rhythmically on and off. What a nightmare that would be. I kind of felt sorry for the pig.
I parked on the street then removed my gun from the trap and strapped it to my ankle. I’d never been in a bar before, let alone one in a rough neighborhood like this. I didn’t know what to expect. Walking into the bar with trepidation, I fingered the knife clipped to my pocket, thinking that I might have to defend myself if the regulars reacted with hostility to the presence of an interloper. That’s what always happened in the movies.
It turned out to be a dingy, poorly lit place, with crushed peanut shells on the floor and Mexican ranchero music playing on the jukebox. Four Mexicans in cowboy boots and hats played pool at a table at the back of the room, while a tired-looking middle aged woman in a tight sequined dress and heels sat at the bar, nursing a drink. The bartender was a lean white fellow with ropy arms and bad teeth. Jars of pickles and bowls of unshelled peanuts rested on the bar.
No one paid any attention to me at all.
I approached the bartender and showed him an old photo of Tarek that I had on my phone. “Hey man. Have you seen this guy in here? He’s a friend of mine.”
“If he was a friend,” the bartender drawled, “then you’d know where he was, wouldn’t you? Now what are you drinking?”
I flashed the man an artificial smile. “Diet Pepsi.”
The bartender laughed. “Hittin’ the hard stuff, are you?” He set the soda on the bar. “Two fifty.”
Two fifty for a can of soda? I laid three dollars on the bar. “So have you seen him?”
The bartender eyed the money pointedly, not picking it up and not speaking. I received the message and added a twenty dollar bill to the pile.
He scooped up the cash. “Sure, but not lately. He comes in, drinks himself under the table. A man on a mission.”
“When did you see him last?”
“Maybe a month.”
“Do you know where I can find him?”
He raised his eyebrows. “This is the Hamhock, not the CIA.”
I left the place and drove up and down the street, trying all the nearby bars. Some had mostly Asian clientele, some black, some Mexican. Some bartenders recognized Tarek, but none had seen him lately. The Asians would not speak to me at all, no matter how much money I offered.
I went into a Cambodian pool hall. All around me hostile faces turned to regard me. See, that was what I was talking about! That was how it was in the movies. My Hollywood-shaped worldview was now validated. As I showed Tarek’s picture around three young men in Bulldog regalia sneered at me, said something in Cambodian and laughed. Then they stood and walked out.
When I walked out – having received no answers of course – something slammed into the side of my head. My skull exploded with pain and I fell to the ground, instinctively shielding my head with my arms. I think the blow might have knocked me out me if my fedora had not absorbed some of the impact. Splotches of purple and red swam before my eyes. Someone kicked me viciously in the ribs and I tried to roll away but crashed into something hard and metallic. The pain in my head was like a blanket of fire smothering my thoughts. I couldn’t remember any of my training. I couldn’t even tell what was up or down.
I opened my eyes and at first couldn’t focus. All I saw was a blur of red and gray. When my vision finally cleared I found myself staring into the barrel of an automatic handgun so huge that it looked comical in the small hand of the Cambodian youth who held it. There was blood smeared on the barrel, no doubt from my own scalp. Now I knew what I’d been hit with. Two other young Asian men stood behind him. They were the same three youths who’d sneered at me inside the bar.
I am not a huge guy, and while I am skilled with the knife and stick, I’m sure there are better fighters out there. But here’s the thing about me: when I’m knocked down, I get back up. I’m ferocious that way. When I’m in the middle of a battle, I eat pain like pickles, and I’m not afraid to die. If these guys wanted to beat me, they’d have to kill me.
I studied them. They were all dressed in red – red Bulldogs t-shirts, red baseball caps, red sneakers, and red baggy shorts that hung low on their hips gangster style, revealing red jockey underwear. The damn Bulldogs again. They were a plague on this town.
One – the leader, no doubt – seemed a bit older and harder, with a scar that ran from ear to jawline. He had a revolver tucked into the front of his waistband. Three tiny teardrop tattoos below his left eye indicated that he’d killed three people.
The other fellow boasted a scraggly mustache and several gold teeth. He carried a crowbar in one hand. As for the one holding the gun, he was mad-dogging me like he wanted to blast me into the afterlife, but I sensed hesitation behind the savage facade. He was a heavy-lidded youth with black hair dyed partially red. He couldn’t have been older than sixteen. I had the feeling he was in over his head, or was simply not as hardened or experienced as the other two. I was fairly certain that I could take him, but if these gangsters wanted to kill me they would have done so already. I decided to wait and see what they were up to.
I used the light pole for support and rose to one knee. My movement alarmed the red-haired youngster and I saw his finger tighten on the trigger.
“Easy, fool,” the leader admonished, and I didn’t know if he meant me or the youth. “You a cop?”
“Private,” I replied through gritted teeth.
“Huh. So where T-Bone at?”
“Don’t mess with me, fool! T-Bone! You just showed his picture inside.”
“Oh.” I hadn’t realized that Tarek had a street name. “I don’t know where he is. That’s why I’m looking for him. I would have thought that was obvious.”
The leader’s eyes narrowed. “T-Bone a friend of yours?”
“Not personally,” I lied. “He’s a person of interest in a case I’m working on.”
The leader studied me. “You know what? I don’t believe a word outta your stupid mouth. Sleepy, take the cop’s wallet. And that ring, too.”
He meant my wedding ring, which I wore on my right hand ring finger. “The ring is plain steel,” I lied. “It’s hardly worth anything.”
“Sucka, who you think you dealin’ with? Jewelry is my area of experteeds. I reco’nize that platinum shine with my eyes closed.”
I couldn’t afford to lose my wallet. It wasn’t the money that I cared about the most, but my P.I. card and badge. I couldn’t perform my job without them. Also, I could not allow these gangsters to learn my real name. Most importantly of all, my driver’s license had my address on it. Not my office address, but my former home address – where Safaa and Hajar still lived. There was no way I would let these punks to learn that information.
And of course, I wasn’t about to part with my wedding ring. The gangster was right about it being platinum. And Safaa would probably think I pawned it.
My hand shot to my pocket to protect my valuables – and came to rest on the cold steel of my knife clip. It was a familiar, reassuring sensation. I knew that knife like I knew my own name, and I knew exactly how to use it.
Sleepy pressed the gun barrel into my forehead. “Come on man,” he said in an almost pleading tone. “Don’t make it hard. Just hand it over.” To this he added a whispered, “Please.”
When I still did not cooperate, he reached down with his free hand and seized my wrist to yank it away from my pocket. I let my hand be pulled away, and the knife came with it. Even with my head still ringing, I had practiced drawing and opening the knife so many times that I could have done it in my grave. Undertaker, beware.
I snapped the knife open and slashed at the arm holding the gun. The knife was razor sharp and I felt only a slight resistance as the blade scythed deeply through flesh and sinew. Sleepy cried out in shock and pain. The gun clattered to the ground and skittered out to the middle of the street. Sleepy fell to his knees, clutching his wounded arm tightly to his chest, moaning in pain and crying real tears.
I was sorry to have to hurt the kid, but he’d held a gun to my head after all, and kicked me in the ribs to boot. The cut was bad but it was only his arm. He’d live.
I rose to my feet. My head and ribs still ached, but I took that pain – and the accompanying fear – and fed it to my primal, savage self. I ate the pain, crushing it between my teeth and swallowing it whole, and it turned into rage inside me. My posture steadied and my grip tightened on the knife. My eyes dilated and I was in another world. I was a soldier on a darkened battlefield, a warrior in the jungle, a wounded lion with a taste for blood.
The tattooed leader and the gold-toothed punk with the crowbar stared in shock.
“You Bulldogs like red?” I grinned and gestured to the blood spilling from Sleepy’s arm and running in a rivulet down to the gutter. “There’s some red for you.” I licked my lips and let out a barking laugh. There’s a kind of insanity that comes over me in dangerous situations, a mania that revels in the conflict and sees it as an opportunity to take every negative emotion in my gut, ball it up and release it like a grenade at this person who thinks – who imagines – that he is the predator and I am the prey, when in reality it is the other way around.
The leader – I’ll call him Teardrop for his facial tattoos – cursed and reached for the pistol in his waistband.
I charged him. His eyes widened in panic and he struggled to free his gun, which had caught on the elastic of his waistband. An instant later I was on him like a leopard on an antelope. He stumbled backward and I rode him to the ground. He landed hard on his back, striking the back of his head on the asphalt. His eyes rolled up and he went into a fencing response, a rigid posture that the body assumes following concussion, with the arms held forward and flexed. I’d seen it before. He was out for the count.
I heard a slight sound behind me and knew in my gut that the crowbar was whistling toward the back of my head. I rolled away, came to my feet, and turned with my knife in front of me.
Gold Tooth’s face was twisted in fear and rage. He ran forward and swung the crowbar at my head with everything he had.
There’s an art to defending against a heavy, blunt instrument like a crowbar. Picture the attacker’s arm fully extended, with the weapon cutting through the air. Now imagine that the end of the crowbar is drawing a line through the air, forming an arc. That arc represents the continuum of maximum impact. That was where I didn’t want to be. All I had to do as a defender was position myself either outside the arc – beyond the reach of the weapon – or deep inside it, where the weapon would have little impact.
I went in, because that’s what I do. Gold Tooth’s hand struck my shoulder, the weapon wrapping around me and thumping my back harmlessly. My knife, on the other hand, plunged into his belly to the hilt. Before he even had a chance to register what was happening, I pulled the blade out cleanly – I could have twisted it out but didn’t, so give me credit for self-restraint – grabbed the back of his neck, pulled his head down and kneed him in the face.
I reversed my grip on the knife, holding it icepick style. I crouched and – with a single, swift ripping motion across the back of Gold Tooth’s ankle – severed his Achilles tendon. This was not gratuitous. It was a classic Kali finish that ensured the man would not be able to walk, which meant he could not pursue me. It was a part of my training and I did it without thought.
The man screamed in terror and agony and collapsed to the ground.
Job done. I considered this a humane finish. The belly wound, while painful, would not kill him – my knife possessed only a three-inch blade after all – while the leg tendon could be surgically repaired. He might never be able to run again, but so what? The better for his victims to escape, or for his future enemies to run him down. As for the blow to the back of Teardrop’s head, there was no way to know how serious the injury was. It was what it was. Not my fault.
I spun, checking for other enemies. My eyes were wide and my nostrils dilated. My mind was empty of thought. Raw, untreated emotion coursed through me. I was, in that moment, a human whirlwind of violence.
There was no one else there. The entire fight had been nearly silent, and had attracted no attention. Teardrop had stopped seizing and was unconscious. His chest rose and fell, so I knew he was alive. Gold Tooth was curled up in a fetal position, hands on his belly, moaning in pain. The red-haired youngster – Sleepy – had gotten to his feet and was stumbling away, his arm dripping blood in random patterns, like a Pollock painting. I let him go.
My hands shook and my jaw muscles worked as I forced my rage down, taking deep breaths to calm myself. I put my knife away, picked up the fedora where it had rolled into the gutter – thankfully it was not stained with blood, as it would have been difficult to clean – and limped back to my car, cradling my ribs where I’d been kicked. I eased into my car and drove away.
Parking in front of my office, I removed the cash from the trap, hoisted the backpack containing the surveillance equipment, and unlocked the office door. When I flicked the light switch, nothing happened. The office remained dark.
The electricity had been shut off, I realized. I hadn’t paid the bill.
After locking up and fishing my flashlight from the backpack, I went into the bathroom. I doubted very much the police would come after me. Thugs like those Bulldogs don’t go to the police. No sense taking chances though. Balancing the flashlight on the side of the sink, I proceeded to clean up thoroughly, carefully washing the blood from my hands and arms, paying attention to my fingernails as well.
It was not the first time I’d had to do this.
I used a small screwdriver to disassemble the knife, then cleaned each component, first with water then with bleach. This ensured there would be no stray bits of blood hidden inside it somewhere. It was an assisted opener, so there was the blade, the two sides of the handle, a torsion spring, and numerous small nuts, bolts and screws. Then I reassembled it. I’d done this a few times before just for fun, so I knew where everything went.
I stripped my clothes off in order to inspect them. Only then did I remember the gun still strapped to my ankle. I could have shot those thugs. I sighed. Ah, well. It was for the best. If I had shot them I’d be looking at manslaughter charges.
There was blood on my t-shirt and shoes. I washed those as well, soaping and scrubbing with a sponge until I was sure they were clean. I hung them on the shower rod to dry. Then I washed the sink itself with water and bleach, remembering to remove the drain stopper and clean that too.
I briefly wondered if the thugs might locate me. I doubted it. I did not frequent bars and pool halls. The neighborhood where I’d been attacked was known as Little Cambodia. Though it was only a few miles away, it might as well have been another world. No one there would have recognized me.
When I was done washing up, I called the Anwars. The hour was late, but I’d told them I would check in daily. I left a message apprising them of my progress. I said simply that I’d spoken to Alejandra Rodriguez and that I was now looking for Tarek, who was no longer at the rehab center. No need to point out their lies. They knew that I knew, and that was enough.
After donning three layers of clothes and unfolding the cot, I laid down and took out the book that Alejandra Rodriguez had given me. On My Way to Paradise. This day had been insanely long and even my blood cells were stumbling in weariness, but reading at bedtime – even if just for a few minutes – was a habit ingrained in me from childhood. It would also, I knew, help me decompress from the traumatic event I’d just experienced. I wasn’t so hardened that stabbing a man would not affect me. But I didn’t have the time or energy to contemplate my actions. I was simply too tired.
Using my flashlight, and with the blanket pulled tightly around myself to ward off the cold, I tried to read.
I couldn’t say whether I actually managed to read anything or not. I was startled awake when the flashlight fell from my hand and clattered on the floor. I realized I’d fallen asleep with the book in my hand. Turning off the flashlight, I recited Ayat al-Kursi. Tomorrow I would continue the search for Tarek in earnest, Insha’Allah. Derby had said that Tarek slept in a dope house on Jamestown Street. I happened to a know a person who knew the ins and outs of the Fresno drug trade better than anyone alive. There wasn’t a dope house, stash house or dealer he didn’t know.
I didn’t want to see this particular person. It had been two years since we’d spoken, and I would have liked to keep it that way. I saw no other option, however. I had to see Badger.
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