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Zaid Karim, Private Investigator, Part 6 – The Secret

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.

Zaid Karim, Private Investigator

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.

Previous chapters of this story: Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5

1993
Doha, Qatar

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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, Qatar

Doha, Qatar

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.

1995
Fresno, California

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.”

Apples on the tree

“He handed out shahadas like apples…”

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
Fresno, California

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.

Pizza boxes

“I bought three large pizzas…”

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?”

“Ancient history.”

“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.

Jukebox

“…Mexican ranchero music playing on the jukebox.”

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?”

“Who?”

“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.

On My Way to Paradise

“It had a strange cover…”

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.

Next: Zaid Karim Private Investigator, Part 7: How Did My Husband Die?

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Wael Abdelgawad's novels can be purchased at his author page at Amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/Wael-Abdelgawad/e/B071CYWVDMWael is an Egyptian-American living in California. He is the founder of several Islamic websites, including IslamicAnswers.com and IslamicSunrays.com, and various financial websites. Heteaches martial arts, and loves Islamic books, science fiction, and ice cream. Learn more about him at WaelAbdelgawad.com.For a guide to all of Wael's online stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.

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        #Culture

        Day of the Dogs, Part 4: You Are the Miracle

        Even with one eye I can see you lying here all tight and angry. Do you have any idea what you did? You saved my life. How many people could have done what you did?

        Goat standing on a cow's back

        See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.

        This is chapter 4 in a multi-chapter novella.  Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4

        Krägä Bianga

        “Fear no one.” – Samia

        Support MuslimMatters for Just $2 a Month

        MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

        The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

        Hospital IV bagLIGHTS IN HIS EYES AND PAIN EVERYWHERE… warmth pouring into his veins like liquid honey… his mother’s face close to his, saying his name… darkness…

        His mother and a doctor talking… everything blurry… his face hurt. He tried to touch his face, but his mother grabbed his hand and stopped him… sleep…

        Someone sobbing… why?… pain everywhere in his body. He moaned then fell into darkness…

        A nightmare, hands dragging him down into a well, and at the bottom of the well, sharp teeth and claws. He struggled, until a warm hand took his, and he settled into silence…

        An old woman in a red Ngäbe dress standing over him, singing. Her skin was walnut colored and deeply seamed. Her long ebony hair hung free, falling below her waist. She spooned something into his mouth and he swallowed. It was bitter, but as it slid into his stomach he felt it nourishing and strengthening him. The woman’s night-black eyes stared unblinking into his as she whispered a single word in a language he did not understand. His eyelids came down like shuttered doors, and once again he was asleep…

        The next morning he was somewhat aware. It was the third day after surgery. His mother and a doctor spoke at his bedside. He tried to eat something but could only manage a cup of pudding.

        “There was a woman,” he said, and his voice sounded like radio static. “Singing.”

        His mother touched his forehead. “A krägä bianga. A healer of my people.”

        “But we’re Muslims.”

        “Hush,” Mamá said. “She is a krägä bianga, not a curandera. Medicine, not magic.”

        That evening, Omar’s mind was completely clear for the first time. The doctor spoke to him personally about his surgery and recovery. He was able to eat some solid food. Samia came for a visit as well, and he learned about what had happened to her. At some point, as Samia was speaking, he fell asleep.

        The Old Nightmare

        The fourth day, the old nightmare returned. The spiders.

        Red boxing spiderTHE SPINIFLEX RUBIROSA LARVAE WERE IN HIS BODY, and they were hatching. They ate their way out, chewing through muscle and cartilage, fat and veins, destroying his body as thoroughly as if he’d stepped on a landmine. There was no point calling out for his mother. She was nowhere to be found.

        The spiders burst out through his skin, blood pouring from a thousand wounds, and through a crimson curtain of pain Omar saw that they had the bodies of spiders, but the heads of vicious dogs. Dewed with his blood, they growled, thousands of tiny dog voices joining into a single rumble.

        He rolled onto his back and saw that he lay on the muddy, putrid stretch of beach below the Panama City seawall. The ground was littered with rotting seaweed, plastic bags and used diapers. Above the seawall, the city was burning. Flames engulfed the tall towers, pouring from shattered windows. Smoke darkened the sky. Not a soul could be seen. The metropolis was dying.

        The Spinifex hatchlings advanced up his body toward his face, intending to eat his eyes. Their little dog eyes were solid ruby red, as if filled with blood. Omar thrashed, slapping his own face and crying out in terror.

        Where was Mamá, where was Papá, where were Samia, Halima, Hani, anybody? Anybody anybody the Ruby was killing him…

        Eighty Seven Bites

        “Hey. Wake up.” Someone touched his shoulder.

        Omar’s eyes flew open and he gasped as he shot up to a sitting position in the bed, looking around wildly. His racing heart began to slow as he realized that he was still in the hospital, of course.

        Samia sat in a chair beside his bed, wearing a fluffy gray robe and an orange hijab, and still reading Al-Ghazali’s thematic commentary of the Quran. One side of her face and head were completely bandaged, so he could only see her mouth, nose and one eye. Her skull had been fractured in two places from the attack. The doctors had shaved her hair, she had told him, but she wore her hijab on top of the head bandage, which made her head look about the same as usual.

        “You’re still here,” Omar breathed.

        “Where am I gonna go? Skydiving?”

        Omar’s mother slept next to Samia in a chair, her head tipped back against the wall, her mouth slack. She wore black pants and a dark blouse rather than her traditional dress, with a gray hijab. She looked exhausted, with purple circles beneath her eyes.

        He groaned and sank back. He hurt everywhere. It was not the pain of the Ruby hatchlings burrowing out of his body, but of the wounds from the eighty-seven bites he’d received in the dog attack. It must be almost time for his pain medication.

        He’d been here for five days. When he’d first arrived at the hospital, his organs had been on the verge of shutting down due to massive blood loss. He’d been in surgery that entire first day and halfway through the night, they told him.

        It hurt even to breathe, as he had a tube in his nose to prevent his nasal airway from collapsing, as Dr. Medrano had explained to Omar and his mother. A jaunty, heavyset man with thick black hair, Dr. Medrano had smiled and rocked back and forth on his heels as he detailed Omar’s injuries and the surgeries that had repaired him.

        A stent had been placed under Omar’s left eye. It drained out of his nose to keep his tear duct system from collapsing as well. He’d lost a piece of the upper half of his left ear. He had lines of stitches everywhere, like Frankenstein’s monster. Several parts of his body, including his face, had required primary reconstruction during surgery, to repair or replace flesh and skin that had been torn away. Much of his body was still purple and swollen with bruising. He was receiving aggressive antibiotic treatment to prevent infection from the many deep punctures. His left forearm might never recover to full strength.

        He would require multiple follow-up procedures, including secondary face, hand and calf reconstructions, as well as fat grafting to fill in depressed areas, cartilage grafting to reconstruct his nose, and ongoing scar treatments.

        Goat standing on a cow's back“Hey,” Samia said, interrupting Omar’s morose mental review of his Frankenstein-like reconstruction. Samia had been in his room daily, when she wasn’t in her own. “Remember we were talking about unlikely things? You know what else is unlikely? A goat standing on a cow’s back. But I saw that once.”

        Omar turned his head to look at her. The girl was certifiably crazy. He felt a laugh begin to form inside him, but it hurt to laugh, and it came out sounding like a cross between a chuckle and a moan.

        Bruises

        The sound awakened his mother. She stood with a soft exhalation of, “La ilaha il-Allah.” She came to his bedside and bent over him, gently stroking his cheek, taking care to avoid his injuries. “¿Cómo estás mi amor?”

        Omar began to reply, but then, seeing his mother’s face up close, noticed something. The discolorations beneath her eyes were not the result of exhaustion. They were bruises. Her cheek was bruised as well, and she’d made an effort to conceal it with makeup. She’d been beaten.

        Tio. Omar’s face settled into a hard mask. He seethed, wishing he could leap out of this bed and go thrash the little rat, taking the man apart limb by limb. For a moment these thoughts surprised him, as he had never been inclined to fight back against Nemesio in the past. Something had changed inside him.

        Beating up Nemesio was not the solution, however. Omar had bested him that last time because Nemesio had been drunk. But the two of them fighting sober would turn into an all-out brawl. He needed another solution.

        Mistaking his expression, Mamá said, “Don’t worry, baby. You’ll be back on your feet in no time. You’ll be as strong as ever. And these scars will fade.”

        Omar nodded tightly, saying nothing.

        “I’m going to go to the cafeteria,” Mamá said. “Can I bring you some guava juice?”

        The doctor had prescribed a post-op dietary regimen for Omar, but it was so bland it was like eating paper. Normally Omar would have said yes to some tasty tropical juice, but he was too angry right now.

        “I don’t want anything.”

        Mamá hesitated, looking between him and Samia. “Okay,” she said finally. “I’ll be back soon.”

        When she was gone, Omar spoke to Samia without looking at her. “You should leave now.” His fists were curled into balls beneath the blanket. Seeing the bruise on his mother’s face had brought it all back, pushing his rage to penetrate his very bones. His nightmare of a life just went on and on. Oh, you need something to break up the routine? life said. How about a dog attack? Okay, now back to the daily mess.

        It wasn’t only his foul excuse for an uncle he was angry with, but everyone who was supposed to have been responsible for him, who was supposed to have cared. He resented his mother for not being strong enough to protect herself, or him. The principal and teachers at his school had surely seen the bullying directed at him year after year, and had done nothing. Even his father he blamed for dying and leaving him. Why had his father done that? Why had it been more important to stop the mugging of some stranger on a bus than to survive for his own family? And lastly, Omar blamed himself for being a victim. His father would have expected more from him.

        He had to do something. Life could not continue like this. He heard Sensei Alan saying, “The only failure is the failure to act.” But what could he do here, in this bed, with his body torn half to shreds?

        Fear No One

        “I’ve been reading Surat An-Najm,” Samia said, hefting her book. “You want to hear?”

        He had forgotten she was there. He wiped his tears with jerky motions. “No, I told you-”

        Samia recited:

        “Or has he not been informed of what was in the scriptures of Moses, and Abraham who fulfilled his mission; That no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another; And that there is nothing for man but what he strives for; And that his effort will be seen, and then he will be rewarded for it generously?
        And that to your Lord is the final return; And that it is He who makes one laugh and weep; And that it is He who causes death and gives life…”

        A Thematic Commentary on the Quran by Al-Ghazali“Al-Ghazali says,” Samia went on, “that we must recognize Allah’s power over everything, and know that no man can control another’s fate. There is nothing for man but what he strives for. If you want something, make a plan and go after it. Fear no one.”

        “Do I even have to tell you this?” she continued. “Even with one eye I can see you lying here all tight and angry. Do you have any idea what you did? You saved my life. How many people could have done what you did? How many did? Nobody. Only you. You might be short, Omar, but you’re a giant.” A tear ran down one cheek and she wiped it away.

        She finished in Spanish, something she almost never did: “Tu, hermano. Eres el milagro.” You, brother. You are the miracle. Rolling her Spanish r’s hard, sounding almost like Halima, and almost bitter. How strange.

        “Say hasbun-Allahu-wa-n’em-Al-Wakeel.” Samia commanded.

        Omar did so, then Samia stood and shuffled away slowly, one chubby hand grasping her book.

        Omar felt like Samia had taken a hammer and smashed the diamond-hard shell of fury that had encased him, shattering it. She was somehow able to see through his emotional walls as if they did not exist. Was she like this with everyone? And had she really just happened to be reading that surah, or had she chosen it specifically for him?

        Alone in his room, Omar began to think. He was still angry but it was cold anger now, the kind that did not interfere with his ability to reason. Make a plan. The only failure is the failure to act.

        Friends

        When Mamá returned from the cafeteria with cups of mashed potatoes and mac n’ cheese for him – he could only eat soft foods for now – Omar said, “Tell Nemesio to come see me.”

        Mamá looked alarmed. “Why?”

        “Just tell him.”

        “He will not come, I think.”

        “Tell him I know a way to profit from this thing.” He waved a hand to indicate his ravaged body. “I want to consult with him.” That’ll get him here.

        She studied his face uncertainly. “Your friends are here again. The doctor says you are ready for visitors now, but only two at a time, and only ten minutes each.”

        He nodded his head, and his mother and Samia withdrew.

        First in were the three Muhammad sisters, all with large black eyes and rings in their left nostrils. Nadia and Naris were decked out in colorful shalwar khamees outfits,  looking like young mahogany trees hung with bright fabrics for a festival, while Nabila wore jeans, a band t-shirt and hi-top sneakers. One or all of them wore a musky, jasmine-scented perfume that filled the small hospital room.

        Many of the teachers and students at IIAP could not tell the sisters apart, but Omar always could. Nadia was quick to laugh, goofy and wide-eyed, as if constantly surprised. Naris was solemn, and asked hard questions, or gave uninvited criticism. Nabila – she of the band shirts and hi-tops – couldn’t stand still. She danced to her own music, ran when other people walked, and rarely spoke. Even now she was swaying her hips and rotating her hands Bollywood style. She had her own Youtube channel where she showed off dance moves. Omar had heard she was making money with it.

        “I thought it was only supposed to be two at a time.”

        Nadia grinned. “We dazzled them with our triplicate identicalness.”

        “They wanted to know,” Naris said seriously, “if we were Hindu princesses.”

        “Did you tell them you were Muslim princesses?” Omar asked. Nadia giggled, while Naris looked at him solemnly, as if he’d said something profound.

        “We’re sorry about what happened to you and Samia,” Nabila broke in, ceasing her dancing momentarily. “Our family’s been praying for you. Everyone has.”

        “Thanks,” Omar said, and he meant it. “So what’s new?”

        “Árabe Unido beat FCDeeeeee,” Nabila sang, and she did a little dance that ended in a victory pose, her fingers in Vs.

        “Halima and Hani are here to see you too,” Nadia said. “And the principal, and a couple of teachers, and the TV news people.”

        Just the thought of seeing all those people exhausted Omar.

        “And if you’re wondering if Tameem is out there,” Naris added, “he’s not. He wouldn’t dare show his face. He and his coward sidekick Basem.”

        Not surprising. Tameem would never bother visiting him. “Why do you call them cowards?”

        “He was the one who said to run, wasn’t he?”

        “Didn’t you all run too?” Omar was not accusing, just trying to understand.

        Nadia let out an explosive laugh. Naris shot her sister a chiding look, then said, “Yes, but we came back. Tameem and Hani kept going. I think they ran all the way to the main road. We haven’t seen them since the Day of the Dogs.”

        When Omar raised his eyebrows she added, “That’s what we’re calling it now. You know what, I heard they were laughing about it later. If I ever see them again I’ll stick kebab skewers in their eyes.”

        Omar sighed and adjusted his head on the pillow. His pain level was increasing, and he was tired.

        “Do you want us to leave you alone?”

        Omar thanked them for coming, and asked them to send in Halima and Hani. He was exhausted just from this short visit, but he needed to see those two. His memories of the attack were a mayhem of images and sensory impressions as overwhelming as a fireworks show. Teeth and claws, pain, slick blood on his skin, the hot metallic taste in his mouth, the smell of dog fur, the sound of Samia screaming, others shouting… a knife and a gun. People standing around as if they’d just witnessed a massacre. And Halima and Hani right there, above him. He needed to talk to someone who’d been there.

        Panama Rainforest

        Halima and Hani would not meet his eyes. Hani with his long face and nose that reminded Omar of a horse; shoulder-length greasy hair, and persistent acne. Halima, as lovely as a daydream, her eyes as green as the Panamanian rainforest.

        Omar remembered his fantasy of marrying Halima one day. If she’d been out of his league before, how about now? He was a mangled mess.

        He tried to put such useless thoughts out of his head. “What’s the matter with you two?”

        “We’re sorry about what happened,” Halima said. “I’m the one who pressured you to come. If I hadn’t done that, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.”

        “If you hadn’t done that, Samia might be dead,” Omar countered, then immediately realized he’d said the wrong thing by reminding them that they had done nothing to save Samia.

        “It was all Tameem’s fault,” Hani said, glancing up to meet Omar’s eyes, then looking away again.

        Omar said nothing.

        “I know what you’re thinking,” Hani went on. “I’ve been following Tameem like a robot. You and I were friends, and I abandoned you. I’m sorry. I know he’s no good. I can’t explain, man. He’s rich, and everyone admires him, and when you’re around him you feel important. But I’m done with him now. My eyes are open.”

        “Hani,” Omar said kindly. “My memories are mixed up, but I remember you standing there at the end with a bloody knife in your hand. What happened?”

        “Hani killed the one dog,” Halima said fiercely. “And the cop shot the other.”

        “But I ran away first,” Hani said dejectedly.

        “You were there when it counted. Whatever happened in the past, a lo hecho, pecho. And you, Halima, are a good soul. I remember you standing beside me when everyone else ran away. The Day of the Dogs is done. Let’s look forward.”

        He began to realize that he had changed. In his mind he heard Samia saying, “You might be short, but you’re a giant.” He was not speaking as one in need, but as one who held power, and therefore possessed the ability to forgive. He felt a core of iron within himself, yet strangely enough, from that iron flowed benediction. Cowardly Tameem and Basem didn’t matter. Omar saw now how meaningless they were, how petty.

        He thought of the verses of Surat An-Najm: That no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another... And that it is He who makes one laugh and weep…

        Let Tameem and Basem bear their own burdens, laugh their own laughter, cry their own tears. Omar would be his own man, in the universe of his own soul.

        A nurse came with Omar’s medication, and instructed his visitors to leave. On the way out, Halima turned back with a quizzical expression and said, “Day of the Dogs?”

        Omar shrugged. “That’s what we’re calling it now.”

        Get Out

        He was awakened by a rough thumping on his shoulder. Nemesio stood there with his short, barrel-body and gold teeth, dressed in an expensive but rumpled yellow suit, the broken veins in his nose betraying his alcoholism. His breath stank and his cheeks were shadowed with a week’s growth of beard. A fat canary on a bender.

        “What’s this nonsense ‘bout making money?” Nemesio demanded. “You thinking to sue? The dog owner is a policia nacional captain. Sue him, you bring a heap of trouble on your head. Stupid boy.”

        In spite of Nemesio’s words, the man must have thought the possibility of a lawsuit held some promise, or he wouldn’t have come. Omar was going to have to disappoint him.

        “You know,” Omar said casually. “The police captain came to see me. The one whose dogs attacked me.” This was not true, but Nemesio would not know that. “He was extremely apologetic. He said if I ever need anything, I should only ask.”

        “Ah, I see.” Nemesio nodded knowingly and stroked his chin. “You wanna ask for compensation for the attack.”

        “No. I want to ask him to investigate the fire that burned down your gas station.”

        “Whaaa?” Nemesio’s eyes bugged and his cheeks turned beet red. He seized Omar’s bandaged wrist. “Watchu talking, you little bastard?”

        Omar ignored the pain flaring in his wrist from the puncture wounds there. He kept his tone calm, and began a carefully rehearsed speech. “I seem to recall that gas prices were at rock bottom around the time your station burned. And you were always complaining about your employees stealing from you. You couldn’t have been making much of a profit. What did the fire inspectors say? An electrical problem? Did you bribe someone to say that?” This was pure speculation on his part, but he saw Nemesio’s eyes widen and knew he’d struck pay dirt. “Then you had a huge insurance payout, but you didn’t restore the station. You abandoned it. I think the police captain would find all this very interesting. And you don’t have anything left to bribe him with, do you? You’ll end up rotting in La Joya for fraud.”

        Still gripping Omar’s wrist, Nemesio raised a fist.

        “Go ahead,” Omar said. “The captain can add assault to your charges.”

        Nemesio released Omar’s wrist and stepped back, looking as if he’d just released a viper. His chin trembled and a speck of spittle dribbled from his bottom lip as he spoke. “Watchu want?”

        Man walking away, leaving Omar brought his voice to a low hiss, letting some of his rage show. “I know you’ve been beating my mother again, Nemesio.” Normally he would never dare to call the man by his given name as it would bring a terrible beating, but now he spat it like a curse. “I want you gone, today. Pack your things, leave and never come back. If I ever see you again I will beat you to a pulp myself. If you don’t think I can, wait and see. Then I’ll report you to the police.”

        “I-” Nemesio stuttered. “I don’t got nowhere to go.”

        “That’s your problem. Leave today, you understand? And don’t you dare touch my mother again. Now get out.”

        Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 5:  Sorceress of the Forest

        * * *

        Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!

        See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.

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        Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.

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        Day of the Dogs, Part 3 – The Attack

        The dog spun and attacked Omar. The beast was lightning quick, and before he could get his arms up he felt the doberman’s teeth sink into his face…

        Doberman pinscher

        See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.

        This is chapter 3 in a multi-chapter novella.  Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4

        Stop Pitying Yourself

        “I believe in six unlikely things every day before breakfast.” – Samia

        Playa Santa Clara, Panama
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        Playa Santa Clara, Panama

        OMAR DID NOT FIND A SEASHELL. At one point he heard the sound of muffled sobbing, and followed it to where Samia sat in her cabana. She had her face tucked into her knees, her forehead pressing against the book she’d been reading. When Omar said, “What’s the matter?” she looked up with a startled, tear-streaked face.

        “Nothing.” She wiped her face with her scarf.

        Omar shifted his weight and looked at the ground, unwilling to either press her or leave her alone.

        “My parents are getting divorced,” she said finally.

        “Oh. Sorry to hear that. I thought you guys were a perfect little Islamic family.”

        “Yes, well. Things are not always what they seem.”

        That sure was the truth. “Will you go back to Malaysia?”

        “No. My dad’s going back. I’ll stay with my mom.”

        That struck Omar as odd. Wasn’t it usually it was the man who traveled to work and the woman who accompanied him?

        Seeming to read his mind, Samia explained: “She’s an executive for Petronas. She interfaces with oil company executives from all over Latin America. My dad owned an electronics shop back home, which is fine, you know, it’s a good, halal business. I just think…” Her mouth twisted to one side as she tried to hide her distress. “I think he was happier back home.”

        Omar pointed with his lips to her book. “What are you reading?”

        “That’s so Panamanian. Pointing with your mouth.”

        “I am Panamanian.”

        A Thematic Commentary on the Quran by Al-Ghazali“Oh yeah. It’s Al-Ghazali’s thematic commentary of the Quran. Hey, can I give you a little advice?”

        Uh-oh. Omar’s shields went up. Samia always thought she knew best. Before he could say anything, she went on: “You should stop pitying yourself.”

        He glared. “Excuse me?”

        “How long have I known you? You think I don’t see you’re miserable? I know there’s something wrong.”

        “That’s not your business.”

        Samia sighed. “Would you listen? I’m trying to say that you’re so strong and smart. Almost as smart as me.” She grinned. “Whatever’s going on, you’ll get through it if you stop pitying yourself and just keep on working. You’ll come out on top. You’ll see.”

        “Unlikely.” She sounded like Sensei Alan, but he’d never give her the satisfaction of telling her so.

        “Is it? I believe in six unlikely things every day before breakfast.” Seeing his quizzical look, she added, “Halima told me you were reading Alice in Wonderland.”

        He wasn’t reading it. And if he recalled correctly, the White Queen believed in six impossible things before breakfast. But whatever. “That’s fine for you and Alice. You don’t have my life.”

        “Oh really?” Her voice was sharp. “Where’s your imaan, akhi? Allah always makes a way, don’t you know? You want to know something else unlikely? I’m unlikely!”

        “What do you mean?” he muttered, chastised.

        “One: My family comes from Kedah province, on the coast of Malaysia. On December 29, 2004, my father, who was not my father yet, was invited by my grandfather to go sailing on a boat he had bought. They were boarding the boat when my father received a mobile call from the wife of his best school friend. The man had been in a motorcycle accident and was in the hospital at Jitra, an inland city. My father said goodbye to my grandfather and went to see his friend. One hour later, you know what happened?”

        Omar shook his head.

        Indian Ocean tsunami

        Indian Ocean tsunami

        “The Indian Ocean tsunami. One hour later! You may have heard of it? It killed a quarter of a million people, including my grandfather, who was never found.”

        Omar made a sympathetic face, not knowing what to say. “I’m sorry,” he managed.

        “Two.” Counting on her fingers. “My father’s taxi was buried in mud, and he should have died, but the mud left his face exposed. He was able to breathe, and to lick rainwater that ran down the inside of the crushed car.

        “Three: He was rescued by a volunteer relief worker. She was my mother. Soon they married.

        “Four: My mother’s pregnancy was difficult. The doctors said she might lose the baby. I was born premature. In fact I was not breathing, but the doctors revived me.

        “Five: I have type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

        “Six: When I was five I had bacterial meningitis. My body didn’t respond to treatment and at one point the doctors told my parents I would die by morning. I remember hallucinating that the doctor was a wolf with a muzzle and huge black eyes. I tried to scream but didn’t have the breath. It was terrifying. My mother told me later that she spent that entire night making dua by my bedside. In the morning my fever broke and by noon I was walking. No one could explain it.”

        Seven.” She paused, touching index finger to index finger, then shrugged. “I don’t have a seven. But my point is, you say it’s unlikely that your life might improve? My entire existence is unlikely. But Allah does what He wills.”

        Omar hadn’t known any of that, and didn’t know what Samia was trying to tell him.

        Samia snapped her fingers. “I’m saying, the unlikely happens every day. And you know what else? Ramadan is coming. Ramadan is about not only the unlikely, but the impossible. Miracles. Angels pouring out of Jannah by the millions. The battle of Badr. Think about that, akhi. Say hasbun-Allahu-wa-n’em-Al-Wakeel.”

        Omar said it.

        “Go back to your wanderings.”

        The Gate Opens

        It was funny how people kept telling him to go away. What was he, a bad smell?

        At noon, when it was too hot to be out in the sun, the kids ate at a beach restaurant that served only fish and chips. Omar didn’t have enough money for that, but that was okay. He sat in a cabana eating the peanut butter sandwich from home. It was smashed into a trapezoid and the bread was soggy, but it tasted fine.

        They prayed Dhuhr in congregation, with Tameem leading. Omar didn’t mind. It was not about who stood in front, but about his personal connection with Allah. Though sometimes he wondered about that connection. Not about Allah, but about his own heart. The Creator felt distant sometimes, and Omar knew that was his own fault. But he didn’t know how to fix it.

        The group headed back up the road at two o’clock, wanting to make it to the highway before the afternoon rains came. As they passed the house with the vicious dog, the creature was nowhere in sight. Tameem kicked the gate and shouted, “Oye perro estupido!” and the dog came running, barking like firecrackers going off.

        Doberman pinscher

        Doberman pinscher

        This time a second dog, a tall doberman pinscher with alert ears and a black muzzle, rounded the house as well and sped toward them on the other’s heels. Drool flew from its mouth as it growled and bared its terrifying teeth. Again the kids screamed and ran, except for Omar, who only shook his head and trotted away quickly, and Samia, who was not a fan of running.

        A few houses further up the street they stopped and watched a massive silver-colored 4×4 truck cruising down the road. It might have been three meters tall, jacked up on oversized tires, with chrome running boards, and a top-mounted light bar that could probably turn night into day. On the front were bull bars that could be used to ram another vehicle.

        As it passed they saw it bore the logo of the National Police, and had a rifle mounted in the cab, though the driver was not wearing a police uniform. He was a youngish man, in his late twenties maybe, sporting shades and a cowboy hat. Spanish gangster rap battered its way out of the truck’s speakers. Heading right for the awestruck kids, the truck blasted its horn. The kids jumped out of the way, a few of them cursing the driver.

        The truck stopped in front of the house with the dogs, and the driver must have hit a remote control, because the gate began to roll quietly open.

        The two dogs came flying out, snarling, and charged straight at the kids. The German shepherd was in the lead, its large fangs flashing white in the sun, but the doberman was gaining ground. Both dogs were enraged, in full attack mode. The driver yelled at the dogs to stop, but they were so inflamed by Tameem’s provocations that they ignored him.

        The hair raised up on Omar’s arms and neck. He stood rooted, unsure what to do. Watching the dogs come was like watching a pair of nuclear torpedoes shooting at him. Living torpedoes of bone and claw, muscle and sinew, burning brain and vengeful heart. Their feet flew across the dirt, and their eyes were filled with rage.

        The Attack

        SAMIA HAD STOPPED TO CATCH HER BREATH after her brief trot and was now at the tail end of the group, closest to the dogs, with Omar just ahead of her, and Halima beyond him. All the kids froze utterly for one second, as if they were playing a game of red light green light where the losers would be shot dead. In that numb, dumb moment, the dogs covered half the distance from the gate to their motionless victims. Then Basem made a wordless whimpering sound, and Hani whispered, “Oh my God.” One of the girls screamed.

        Halima started to say, “Nobody run,” but was cut off as Tameem bellowed, “RUN!”

        Omar shot a glance in the direction of the group and saw they were all fleeing in a panic, led by Tameem and Basem. Only Halima was hesitating. He turned back toward the dogs and saw instantly that Samia wasn’t going to make it. She was jogging toward him but her run was little more than a fast waddle. The dogs were almost on her as they blazed forward with ears tucked and teeth bared. They would kill her.

        He could not let that happen. It was not even a decision – there was no decision to make. The believers are a single body. The only failure is the failure to act. He ran toward Samia and the charging dogs.

        Seeing him running toward them, the dogs hesitated, slowing just enough to buy Omar the time he needed. Samia’s eyes were wide with terror, and she looked like she might have a heart attack.

        Just as Omar reached Samia, the German shepherd leaped at her from behind. Omar tackled Samia, taking her to the ground. The dog sailed over them where they lay in the dirt. He shrugged off his backpack and thrust it at Samia, shouting, “Shield your face!” Then he turned toward the other charging dog and started to rise, bringing his arms up defensively, with a crazy idea that he could use his copper bracelet to block the dog’s teeth – then the animal was on him, crashing into him with the force of a sledgehammer, knocking him back to the ground.

        German shepherd

        German shepherd

        Pain exploded in his forearm as the dog’s fangs stabbed deeply into his flesh. He grunted in shock, but remained clear-headed. Falling back to his years of karate training, he used his free arm to deliver powerful elbow strikes to the dog’s nose and eyes. Not releasing its bite, it snarled and shook its head as if trying to rip the meat loose from Omar’s arm. He screamed as he felt the muscles in his forearm begin to tear.

        The doberman, meanwhile, had overshot. It turned and charged back. Samia lay on the ground just behind him and to the side, calling out loudly for help. Goaded by her cries, the doberman aimed not for Omar but for Samia.

        As the doberman raced past him, Omar shot out his good arm and made a desperate grab for the dog’s spiked collar. He caught it! But the dog’s momentum stretched his arm out until he felt something pop in his elbow. Between that and the spikes digging into his hand, he could not hold on. The doberman pulled free, and an instant later Samia cried out again. This time it was not a cry of fear, but a chilling wail of pain, shock and horror. Omar turned his head to look. Oh God. Samia must have begun to roll away before the dog reached her, because the beast straddled her side, and was biting the top of her head as she clutched the backpack tightly to her face.

        Desperately, with every shred of strength he possessed, Omar struck the German shepherd repeatedly in the face with his wrist, using his copper bracelet as a weapon. Dazed, the dog released its bite and stood over him, swaying. Anguished over Samia and given fortitude by this outrage, Omar pushed, flinging the monster off him. He turned and scrabbled toward Samia. The doberman straddled her, not biting once and clamping down like the shepherd had done to him, but biting repeatedly about her head and shoulders, and sometimes biting the backpack as well.

        The neighborhood Omar lived in was poor, and there were plenty of stray dogs, many of them hungry, rabid or vicious. He’d seen dog attacks, and knew what to do. He seized the doberman’s sleek black tail, and pulled it backward and up as hard as he could. The big black dog gave a yelp of surprise as it was dragged away from Samia’s weeping form. Then it spun and attacked Omar. The beast was lightning quick, and before he could get his arms up he felt the doberman’s teeth sink into his face, penetrating his forehead and cheek. At the same moment the German shepherd, recovered now, bit his calf, its teeth sinking into the muscle like the jaws of a bear trap. The pain was so shocking that he could not even draw a breath to scream.

        They were both on him. He rolled and fought as best he could, punching, kicking, clawing at the dogs’ faces, even biting the shepherd in the neck at one point. And the whole time the dogs were biting him. He felt wet all over, and knew it was his own blood.

        The blood in his eyes blinded him, so that he saw the world faintly, through a sheet of stinging red. He tasted it in his mouth, coppery and hot, along with the rank dog fur he’d bitten off. Pain burst and roiled everywhere in his body. He’d been in pain before, he’d been beaten and bruised and had even fractured bones. But nothing like this. He was baking like a piece of beef in an oven, transforming into something unrecognizable. They were killing him.

        Some of the kids must have come back to help, because he heard voices shouting and crying, men and women, but above them all he heard Halima very near, screaming, “What do I do, Omar? What do I do?”

        “Knife,” he managed to croak. “Hani’s knife.” Then louder, mustering his panic and fright, “Get me Hani’s knife!”

        The dogs continued to bite and tear at his flesh, and he fought, but his strength was giving out. His arms wouldn’t work properly. Then the doberman yelped in pain and was gone, pulled off him. The shepherd was still on top of him, its teeth deep in his upper arm. Omar put a thumb in its eye and it yelped and released his arm, then went for his throat. He turned, and felt its teeth sink deeply into his shoulder. His body went slack. He couldn’t fight anymore. Cold seeped into his body and mind. Even the pain was beginning to recede.

        Drifting Out to Sea

        A tremendous blast rang through the air. The shepherd wailed in agony and released his shoulder. Another blast, and the dog was gone. Not on him anymore. He heard terrible, anguished weeping, and realized after a moment that it was him. Tears flooded his eyes, clearing the blood, and he saw people standing over him, their faces registering horror and disbelief. Halima and Hani were closest. Hani’s knife was in his hand, and the blade was bloody to the hilt. His eyes were wide with shock.

        A man in a cowboy hat also stood over him, and Omar saw that the man was carrying a pistol, and that smoke wisped from the barrel. The man’s face was drained of blood, white as a bone. Who was he? Omar couldn’t think. He wasn’t even sure where he was anymore, or why he was lying here on the ground, burning with agony and covered in something wet.

        “Samia,” he managed to say, and wasn’t sure why he said that. Then his body began to shake. His teeth chattered and his limbs convulsed, and he couldn’t stop. He was cold, and didn’t understand why. Panama was not supposed to be cold. His heart raced and he could hear it thrumming in his ears, pulsing and crashing like ocean waves.

        He was half-conscious through all that followed. Hands doing something to him. Sirens. Someone wrapping him in something and lifting him up. Moaning rhythmically, asking for his father. A ride in the back of a vehicle, rocking. The pain going away, ebbing like the tide, to be replaced with a feeling of warmth and comfort, and a deep drowsiness. Something over his face, forcing air into his lungs.

        Then he was gone, lying on the deck of a sailboat in the Indian Ocean, drifting out to sea, borne on the back of a giant, warm wave. He would live on this sailboat, and Allah would provide for him as He had provided for Maryam, and he would be content. He would sail the world with Alice and Halima and Niko and the white rabbit, and…

        Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 4:  You Are the Miracle

        * * *

        Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!

        See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.

        Avatar

        Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.

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        Day of the Dogs, Part 2 – Spiniflex Rubirosa

        He felt a need for Allah, to adhere to the discipline and reassurance of worship. So he prayed Isha’ on the grass that bordered Avenida Balboa, touching his knees and forehead to the waterlogged lawn, feeling the rain washing him clean like the spring of Zamzam.

        Puente de Las Americas, Panama

        See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.

        This is chapter 2 in a multi-chapter novella. Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4

        A Kid Doing Yoga or Something

        “You could meditate in the shadow of Mount Fuji, but you would still be you.” – Sensei Alan

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        Old tennis shoes shoesAFTER GRADUATION OMAR TOSSED HIS GOWN INTO THE DUMPSTER in the school parking lot and went walking through the streets of the city, still wearing his school uniform of navy pants and white shirt, along with a pair of ratty old sneakers that were separating between the uppers and the soles.

        He had a little money in an envelope that his mother had given him as a graduating present. Remembering what Halima had said about Black Panther playing at the cinema, he took a bus to Multicentro mall, bought a large bucket of popcorn and sat in the very front row, letting the noise and light of the movie drive all thoughts from his head.

        After the movie he wandered into an electronics shop in the mall. Árabe Unido was playing Alianza on the large screen TV, and a knot of men were gathered. Árabe Unido, founded by Arab immigrants to Panama, was Omar’s favorite football team. He stood wedged between a burly man with the forearms of a construction worker, and a middle-aged man wearing shorts, flip flops and a polo shirt. They watched as Leslie Heráldez lofted a high shot to the brilliant Carlos Small, who stopped it with his chest, deftly steered the ball past two defenders, then banged it into the goal. All the men cheered, and Omar threw up his arms and shouted, “Goaaaaal!”

        A moment later a grasshopper-faced salesman, decked out in a cheap suit and obviously trying to mask his utter lack of interest in the game, stepped in front of the TV to begin his pitch.

        “You see how amazing this television is? Doesn’t it feel like you are right on the pitch? It includes built-in wifi and the highest LCD picture quality. You can own this TV today with a monthly payment of only $49.95…”

        The men groaned their displeasure and wandered off.

        “Sorry,” Omar offered, consoling the salesman. “It’s a nice TV, though.”

        The salesman waved him off.

        Stepping outside the mall, he was surprised to see that it was late afternoon. The sun would be down soon. Was it a coincidence that malls had no windows? He prayed ‘Asr in the small grassy area outside the main entrance, leaping over a low wall to do so. In the middle of his prayer, a mall security guard walked up to him and said, “This area is off limits, kid. Move along.” When Omar did not respond, the man keyed his radio. “Pereira here. I need backup. I got a kid doing yoga or a protest or something.”

        By the time Omar was on the last rak’ah another guard had arrived.

        “I’ll grab his hands,” the original guard said, “and you take his feet.”

        “Wait,” the newcomer said. “He’s not causing any problems.”

        “At least let me taser him.”

        No, Pereira.”

        “It’s not fair,” the first guard grumbled. “We never get to do anything.”

        Omar finished his prayer and stood. The original guard, a thin young man with a scowl that looked superglued into place, stepped back, startled. The newcomer, a fit black man in his fifties, merely raised his eyebrows.

        Omar smiled. “I was praying. You wouldn’t want to stop a kid from getting into heaven, would you?”

        The older man laughed. When Omar hopped back over the wall and strolled away, the younger guard shouted after him, “You better not come back!”

        Karate is Life

        DojoHe took another bus down to the Carolina district, and walked into the karate dojo as class was bowing in. The dojo was small, with pear-colored tatami mats on the floor, traditional weapons mounted on racks, and a Japanese flag on one wall. At the moment there were fifteen students training in the cramped space, ranging from thirteen years old to twenty-five. The dojo had no air conditioning, and the room was ripe with the tang of sweat. Shedding his shoes at the door, he bowed to Sensei Alan.

        Sensei was a muscular, smooth-faced man in his forties, with an oddly contrasting head of white hair. “What are you doing here?” he asked in Spanish. “I thought you were taking the day off for graduation.”

        Omar shrugged. “Graduation is crap. I’m only graduating tenth grade, it doesn’t mean anything.”

        Sensei addressed Evangelista, a short woman in her 20’s who sported a blue mohawk and was one rank below Omar himself. “Get class started. Forms one to five.”

        Sensei took in Omar’s school uniform, the popcorn butter stain on his shirt, the bruises on his face… Sensei Alan had known Omar’s papá, and since his passing had witnessed the changes in Omar’s life.

        “You will always be you,” Sensei said without preamble. “You could meditate in the shadow of Mount Fuji, but you would still be you. If you live in an abusive situation, with people who do not care for you, you are still you. Not in relation to them, but in the chambers of your heart. When you leave that abusive situation behind, as I guarantee you will, and if you end up wealthy, or happily married with kids, you will still be you. Not as others imagine you, but as you exist in the sanctity of your own mind. I could say that I admire you, and I do, seonbae-nim. But if your happiness is dependent on my admiration then you have failed, because what if I did not respect you? So the question is, who are you? Not in relation to anything else. But alone, in the universe that is your soul.”

        This was the longest speech he’d ever heard Sensei give. And why did the man address him as seonbae, an honorific given to a prized student? Usually he just called him Omar.

        “That is not to say,” Sensei continued, “that the outer world does not exist. It acts upon us. But you know how to handle that.”

        Normally Sensei did not like questions, but this statement seemed to invite one. “I do?”

        “Karate is life. When an attack is imminent?”

        “Hit first and hard.”

        When the attacker pushes forward…”

        “Yield and counter.” Sensei had repeated these aphorisms many times.

        “The only failure…”

        “Is the failure to act.”

        Sensei waved a hand. “Come back when you have considered my words.”

        Omar was confused. The dojo had classes every day except Sunday. “You mean…”

        “You will know.”

        The discussion was over. Omar bowed. “Oss!”

        It was fully dark outside now. He walked around the city thinking over all that had happened that day. As he walked, women of the night propositioned him, calling out, “Oye, chiquito! Quieres dulces?” Gangsters shouted out insults, street vendors tried to sell him mangoes or cigarettes, and always the traffic ran through the concrete gulches of the city like great schools of fish in the sea: swarming, racing and pulsing, though unlike fish the traffic was never silent, but hooted and blared perpetually.

        He puzzled over Sensei’s statement. You will always be you. Was that a Zen thing Alan had learned in one of his visits to Japan? Like the story about the man who came to a wide river that had no bridge or ferry, and called out to an old man on the opposite shore, wanting to know how to get to the other side. And the old man said, “You are on the other side.”

        But Omar didn’t want to be on this side.

        Night rainLightning flashed, thunder rolled across the city like a steamroller, and the skies opened like the floodgates of a dam, dropping water by the ton onto the rich and poor, bloated and starving, arrogant and desperate. Within a minute he was waterlogged, water squeezing out of his shoes with every step. But the rain was as warm as blood, so he walked on.

        He felt a need for Allah, a need to be comforted, to adhere to the discipline and reassurance of worship. So he made wudu’ with the rainwater and prayed Isha’ on the grassy strip that bordered the Avenida Balboa embarcadero, touching his knees and forehead to the waterlogged lawn, feeling the rain percolating into his skin and maybe into his bones, washing him clean like the spring of Zamzam.

        Rogue Planets

        HE ENDED UP IN CASCO VIEJO, TO HIS OWN SURPRISE. Tia Teresa and Tio Niko lived nearby, and he realized that his feet had been taking him there of their own accord. But it was late, he was dripping wet, and he did not want to drop in on them unannounced. So he walked down to the tip of the small peninsula, where the seawall looked out over the entrance to the Panama Canal.

        Casco Viejo, Panama

        Casco Viejo, Panama

        The rain had stopped, and he stood watching the gargantuan ships queued up in the bay, waiting their turns to enter the canal. Fog lay upon the water, so that Omar could see only the lights of the ships hanging in the darkness. He pretended that each ship was its own rogue planet inhabited by jinn, elves and fairies. They only appeared at night, in the fog, and would disappear by day, or so he imagined.

        If he could swim out to one of those ships, and climb up onto its deck, the strange inhabitants would welcome him as a refugee from the crumbling civilizations of humankind. They would grant him asylum, and set him up in a job tending to the elfin gardens, or teaching karate to the young fairies. He would become a part of their world, their rogue planet, and over time the memories of his past life would fade. Flashes of his mother’s and father’s faces might come to him now and then, but they would be like images in a dusty book, yellowed around the edges, the paper flaking away.

        He would be a unique figure – the only human in an inhuman reality. Some would hate him and plot against him, but many would love him. He would become advisor to the fairy king, and marry a fairy princess. And if he ever heard the word Panama, he would pause, his head tilted to one side, trying to recall where he had heard that name before.

        He sighed. It was late, and he was far from home. He had enough money left for a taxi, so he flagged one and closed his eyes, letting the motion of the vehicle rock him. The driver left the windows open, and the night air hit his wet clothing and chilled him. By the time he arrived home he was shivering.

        He lived in a rundown seaside barrio on the eastern edge of Panama City. It was called Panama Viejo, named after the ruins of the original Spanish settlement of 1519. It was the kind of neighborhood where a stranger would be robbed in the first ten minutes. But Omar knew everyone here, and knew which streets to avoid, and when to duck into the shadows.

        The front gate of his home was secured with a combination padlock, and the front door had two separate locks. When he let himself in, Mamá emerged from her bedroom, wanting to know why he was so late.

        He told her of his day’s travels. He hoped that she would say something to assure him of the future. Some promise, even a hollow one, that life would be different. But before she could say anything, Nemesio came barging out of his room. His open shirt revealed a mat of curly chest hair and a belly that hung over his waistband. He reeked of alcohol and dried sweat.

        “You little bastard,” Nemesio snarled. “Stay out late, worry your mother. Watchu doin’? Selling drugs? Gimme the money.” He came forward, arms outstretched to seize Omar. Always Omar had let him do so, willing to be the object of Tio’s aggression as long as the man left Mamá alone. But this night, Sensei’s reminders were fresh in his head: When the attacker pushes forward, yield and counter. The only failure is the failure to act. So when Nemesio came at him, Omar sidestepped deftly and gave the man the slightest push, adding to the momentum he already had.

        Nemesio careened past Omar, out of control. He tumbled into the sofa, which overturned, dumping him over the other side where he crashed head-first into the wall, and was knocked unconscious. Mamá screamed and ran to him. She probed his skull, then said with relief, “He is fine, I think. Just knocked out, or maybe passed out from the alcohol.”

        “Who cares?”

        “Omar!

        He looked at Nemesio’s sorry form, lying crumpled against the wall. His head had made a dent in the plaster. The man would be on a tear tomorrow, ready to commit serious violence. But at that moment, Omar was beyond caring. He was tired, and wanted only to go away and never return. He imagined himself sitting on the beach on one of Panama’s Pearl Islands – a place he’d seen on the map but never with his own eyes – sheltering in the shade of a tree. Like Maryam when she retreated from the people and clutched a palm tree, and Allah provided her with water and fresh, ripe dates, so Allah would provide for him too.

        But he was not Maryam. He was a kid that no one wanted. He trudged to his room, stripped off his wet clothes and dumped them on the floor, then toppled into bed.

        Spiniflex Rubirosa

        That night, Omar awoke with a terrible burning on the back of his neck. He knew instantly what was happening. Anyone would. There had been nothing else in the news for the last two months.

        A new and deadly spider had appeared in the world, perhaps a mutation, or perhaps something ancient uncovered beneath the melting ice of the glaciers of Asia or Europe. It was a tiny thing, less than half the size of a fingernail, pink and red, and almost pretty if you didn’t know what it could do. It was called Spiniflex Rubirosa, though most people just called it the Ruby.

        Red boxing spiderThe Ruby reproduced by crawling onto a sleeping or unaware human, extending a tiny tubule from its abdomen, and injecting a spray of thousands of eggs into the human’s skin, preferably on the back of the neck or between the shoulder blades. Sensing the warmth of their host, the eggs hatched immediately, and the larvae burrowed down into the hypodermal layer, where they fed on rich blood and tissue fat, growing larger.

        As the larvae burrowed in, the infected human experienced a terrible burning sensation, as if the affected area were on fire. It was not uncommon for sufferers to scrape away the outer layers of their skin with their fingernails or even with knives. This, however, only prompted the Ruby to burrow deeper.

        Once they were in place, however, the larvae secreted an anesthetic, so that the pain faded, and sufferers often thought their initial symptoms had been a false alarm.

        The larval stage lasted three days, after which the larvae would cocoon for a week then hatch. Thousands of spiders would emerge from the cocoons and – using sharp pincers – chew their way out of the infected person’s body, resulting in massive blood loss.

        Panicked crowds fled at the rumor of infestations, carrying the spider or its eggs all over the world. In a matter of weeks, half the world’s population was dead or dying.

        Now the Ruby was on Omar. He felt it on the back of his neck, the scorching pain flaring higher and higher as the larvae burrowed into his body. He cried for his mother and she came running, but froze in place when she saw him frantically clawing the back of his neck, scraping away his own skin until his fingernails came away bloody.

        “Do something!” he pleaded. “Get it off of me!” But she only stood and stared, her expression wide-eyed and stunned. Why wouldn’t she help him? She could not become infected unless the Ruby laid eggs on her. She had to help him, he was dying!

        * * *

        He woke thrashing in bed, reaching for the back of his neck, panting in terror. But he made no noise. He’d learned over the years that waking up loudly from nightmares would bring beatings from Tio, so he had somehow taught himself to dream silently, even when the dreams were visions of darkness and dread.

        It was early, just a glimmer of pale blue light easing through the window. He’d shed his clothes last night before bed but had not showered, and somehow the scent of rain had transferred to the bed sheets, so that his bed smelled like ozone and musk. The house was silent but for the hum of the refrigerator and the air conditioner in Nemesio’s room. Mamá preferred not to use the AC at night to save money, but Nemesio insisted he could not sleep without it. What did that bum care? He didn’t pay the bill.

        Omar dressed quietly, putting on a pair of old jeans and his blue and white Árabe Unido jersey bearing number 58, Carlos Small’s number. He performed wudu’ and prayed Fajr, then quietly made himself a sandwich, stuffed a towel into his school backpack, and slipped out the door.

        Chicken Heart

        Panama Viejo was a long walk from Albrook. Omar could have taken a bus, but he’d found that sustained exercise cleared his mind and settled his spirit like nothing else. Two hours later the sun was hot enough to fry a fish on the pavement as he arrived at Albrook Mall, which doubled as the national bus terminal. Scores of buses departed constantly for every part of Panama and beyond, even to Costa Rica or Nicaragua. Playa Santa Clara was two hours and twenty minutes away. You had to take a $4 bus to Santiago, then a $4 taxi to Santa Clara village, then walk. It was a lot, but Halima said Playa Santa Clara was the best beach on the Pacific side of Panama. A hidden gem.

        The group boarded one of the buses. Omar sat alone in the back, taking a window seat. He hadn’t been out of Panama City in years, and wanted to see the sights.

        Aside from Omar and Halima, Samia was there, the three Muhammad sisters, Tameem, and two other boys named Hani and Basem. Nine kids altogether. Hani, a thin Egyptian boy with long hair and bad skin, was Omar’s age and from the same neighborhood. When they were younger they used to play football together in the street, or chess on rainy days. They’d been good friends back then.

        Tameem was the real games expert, though. His game consisted of playing people against people, shaming them for their choices of friends, and forcing them to compete for his attention. Eventually Hani, embarrassed to be friends with the “Patacon,” had moved into Tameem’s orbit and cut Omar out of his life.

        Basem, a chunky Emirati boy with a surly attitude, had arrived only last year. He laughed at everything Tameem said, bought the same brands of clothing as him, and copied him in bullying Omar. Interestingly, when Tameem was not around, Basem ignored Omar completely. Either way, Omar wanted nothing to do with him.

        Those three boys – Tameem, Basem and Hani – sat together now, speaking loudly over the reggaeton music pounding from the bus’s speakers. The five girls sat in a group as well, chatting and laughing. Samia did not acknowledge Omar, but Halima and the Muhammad triplets turned and waved to him. The triplets were Fijian Indians, slender and chestnut-skinned, with shining black hair that cascaded to their waists. They could have passed for indigenous Panamanians, Omar thought. Because they were all identical, they drew looks wherever they went.

        Puente de Las Americas, Panama

        Puente de Las Americas, Panama

        Pressing his forehead to the window, his breath condensing on the chilled glass, Omar watched as the bus threaded its way past El Chorrillo, where his Tia Teresa and Tio Niko lived. Then they crossed over the Puente de Las Americas, and he gazed down at the navy blue water of the canal, surrounded on both sides by thick emerald jungle.

        A gargantuan container ship – perhaps one of the same ones he’d seen in the queue last night – was traversing the canal, piled with thousands of shipping containers. Omar had heard that these vessels were run by skeleton crews, since most of the ships’ processes were automated. For a moment he wondered what it must be like to work on such a ship, hardly seeing a human face, wandering alone through the decks, hearing your voice echo off the vast steel bulkheads. Then he realized he knew exactly what it was like.

        He’d worn a light windbreaker in case of rain. He zipped it up all the way to ward off the chill of the bus’s AC, which must have been set on “Mt. Everest” or “Viking Warrior.”

        At Santiago they crowded into two taxis, boys in one and girls in the other. Hani sat in the front passenger seat, while Omar was in the back seat next to Basem, with Tameem on the other side. “Don’t worry, Patacon,” Tameem sneered. “I’ll pay for the taxi. My father is rich, unlike yours who – oops!”

        Basem sniggered at this.

        Hani turned around in the front seat, said, “Hey, that’s not cool, man. That’s going too far.” Hani shot Omar an apologetic look, but Omar ignored him. They may have been friends once, but Hani was just another of Tameem’s toadies now.

        “Shut up, Hani,” Tameem said roughly. “Or you can get out and walk the rest of the way.”

        Like a good toadie, Hani shut up.

        “I’ll pay my share,” Omar insisted. “And as for my father, he’s in a place you’ll never see, you ghoul.”

        Tameem shot Omar a look of furious rage, then pretended to laugh it off. “Good one, Punching Bag.”

        “I may be a punching bag, but I’ll never be your punching bag, chicken-heart.”

        Tameem made no response, as Omar knew he would not. The boy could toss out whatever insults he liked, but it would never be more than that. And that was fine, Omar told himself. He could handle insults. Sticks and stones, and all that. But then why was he so full of anger?

        The Blue Express

        The taxis took them as far as the end of the paved street. From there it was a fifteen minute walk through the village of Santa Clara and down a dirt road. They trooped along, Omar bringing up the rear. The village homes were traditionally Panamanian: small, cement-block houses with tiled floors, shuttered windows and corrugated zinc roofs painted red.

        Many of the doors stood open, the inhabitants sitting in plastic chairs on the patios. The older women were attired in colorful pollera dresses, while the men sported straw hats. The younger women wore t-shirts and jeans so tight he wondered how they even managed to put them on. Children played marbles in the dirt, rode bicycles, or kicked soccer balls. The smells of cooking food filled the air- arroz con pollo, ropa vieja, tostones, grilled fish with garlic and tomatoes.

        People greeted the teenagers, wishing them a good morning. If anyone thought Samia and Halima’s hijabs were strange, they didn’t show it. One middle-aged man in a rocking chair called out to Omar in Spanish: “Go Árabe Unido! We are having a good season, eh?”

        Omar pumped his fist. “El Expreso Azul!” The Blue Express, the fans’ nickname for the team.

        Mango treeThe road was lined with thick-limbed mango trees. The mangoes were in season, hanging heavy on the branches like Ramadan lamps. Many had fallen into the road and lay there, whole or split, exuding a scent so rich you could almost see it, like a sweet orange mist in the air.

        Omar watched Hani pick up a mango, rub it on his shirt, then stab into it with his little pocket knife. Omar remembered that knife. Hani had received it as a gift from his father on his tenth birthday – one of the few gifts the boy had ever been given by his dad, who paid him little attention. It had a wooden handle into which Hani had burned his own initials, and a dull little blade that could barely cut.

        Hani sliced the mango with some difficulty and passed pieces to the other boys (Omar not included) and they ate as they walked.

        In front of a house with peeling paint and listing window shutters, an anorexic woman smoked a cigarette and argued into a cell phone as her dusty-faced toddler sat in the dirt. As the teens walked by, the little boy watched them. When Omar approached, the toddler stood and reached out his arms to be picked up. Omar’s feet faltered. Why was the boy reaching to him?

        Noticing him, the smoking mother said, “¡Piérdase!” Get lost.

        Omar wanted to move, but his feet wouldn’t budge. The boy’s eyes were brown and pleading. His little arms reached skyward. From the corner of his eye, Omar saw the boy’s mother begin to move toward him. She was shouting something.

        A hand tugged on the sleeve of his windbreaker and the spell was broken. He looked at the person pulling him forward, expecting to see Halima. It was Samia. She was breathing hard just from the exertion of this walk. The girl seriously needed to exercise more.

        “You can let go,” Omar said.

        “That wasn’t very funny what you did with the cockroaches.”

        “What do you mean?”

        “The cockroaches in my school bag yesterday. I thought we were past that kiddie stuff.”

        “Oh!” Omar said indignantly. “Naturally you accuse me?”

        “Well…” Uncertain now. “I’m sorry, I just thought-”

        “Besides, it was only one cockroach.”

        Samia’s mouth fell open. “You jerk! You had me feeling sorry for you.” She stalked ahead to join the others, leaving Omar in the rear again.

        The Muhammad sisters began singing a nasheed.

        Peace be upon the bringer of light
        his turban black, his jubbah white,
        when round the ka’bah he turned,
        by his people mocked and spurned,
        while others came in the depths of night,
        whispers they’d heard
        of a Prophet
        reciting Allah’s word.

        Just before they reached the beach, they passed a cluster of wealthy homes with landscaped gardens and fountains in the yards. Many were weekend homes for rich Panama City families. One had a high brick wall with an arched steel gate topped by a family crest. As the three boys in the lead passed the gate, a huge German shepherd came running up, barking ferociously. The dog was tall and barrel-chested, with lustrous golden fur on its chest and legs, and a black face and back. It wore a collar studded with metal spikes that gleamed in the sun, but this didn’t restrict its voice, which was explosive and penetrating.

        The girls screamed and darted away. Tameem laughed and kicked the lock, enraging the dog who threw itself at the gate, snarling and baring his teeth. Tameem bent down, grabbed a handful of dirt and flung it into the dog’s face. Rather than shy away, the beast went into a frenzy. It lunged, trying to force its head between the bars to bite Tameem. Saliva flew from its mouth.

        “Stop that you idiot!” Samia shouted. “What if it gets out?”

        Tameem laughed. “Okay maestra chub-a-lub.”

        Omar shook his head as he gave the dog a wide berth. Why had he agreed to come on this trip?

        This Time for Panama

        Playa Santa Clara, Panama

        Playa Santa Clara, Panama

        The beach was deserted aside from a few families whose parents sheltered in the free cabanas set up in two long rows, while the kids built sand castles or played at the edge of the surf. Omar rolled up his pants and strolled on the wet sand, squinting against the light that reflected off the sea. He could not swim, and contented himself with enjoying the cool water on his feet and the smell of salt in the air, and looking for shells. The other boys ran into the waves.

        The Muhammad sisters changed into knee-length shorts and t-shirts and played in the shallows. Halima wore an Islamic style swimsuit, what did they call it? A burkini. She dove into the water and swam powerfully to the deeper water past the surf break, cutting through the water like a swordfish. Omar watched her. He hadn’t known she could swim like that. She was amazing. As for Samia, she spread out a towel in the shade of a cabana and sat cross-legged, reading a book.

        Maybe Samia was right about Ramadan. Maybe it was a time of miracles. Only a few days away now. But Omar could not imagine what shape a miracle might take. Why was Samia suddenly so concerned about him, anyway? Did she like him? He tried to imagine himself, five or ten years from now, married to Samia. Ugh. No. It wasn’t her pudginess that bothered him, but her pedantic bossiness, as if she were an Imam or life coach on a world tour, making a side stop in this Central American backwater to set Omar’s life straight.

        Halima, on the other hand… He could definitely see himself married to her. Whew! What an intriguing and exciting trip that would be. He chuckled at his own foolishness, knowing that Halima was out of his league. Might as well try to marry Shakira. Waka waka eh eh. This time for Panama.

        He remembered a trip to another beach with his parents when he was small. He built a sand castle with Papá, then went beachcombing with Mamá. Mamá found a perfect conch shell. She squealed with excitement and blew into it, but nothing happened. But when Papá blew into it, a sound like a ship’s horn burst forth. Little Omar was in awe. They took the shell home and put it in a display case in the living room.

        But after Papá died, and before Nemesio came, Mamá sold the shell to buy food.

        Omar hoped he would find another such shell today. He pictured the way his mother’s face would light up. Or would it make her sad, remembering that long-ago day? As he searched, the waves pounded in, undeterred by their failure to mount the land and claim it all for their blue depths. Your time is coming, Omar thought. You’ll drown us all like the people of Nuh one day. He imagined the waves were speaking to him, exhorting him in thunderous tones to do something dramatic. CHANGE, they were saying. And then shhhhhhh, as the water receded across the sand. CHANGE. Shhhhhhh. CHANGE. Shhhhhhh. But he did not know what change they demanded.

        Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 3:  The Attack

        * * *

        Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!

        See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.

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        Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.

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