See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
Zaid Karim Private Investigator is a full length novel. Previous chapters: Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12
Sunday, February 7, 2010
I woke up groggy, my mind full of fog that swirled and condensed onto my thoughts. Bright lights overhead, a bed with railings, an IV attached to my right arm, a light green blanket covering my legs. I wore a white cotton gown with polka dots and short sleeves. A slender vertical window showed a night sky and city lights. I was in a hospital room. The hospital was quiet, with only the whisper of air conditioning and the sounds of car horns outside.
A thought pushed itself forward out of the fog in my brain: My arm. They were going to cut off my arm. With a panicked, incoherent cry I pawed at the blanket with my right arm and lifted my left – and found it intact, or at least apparently so, since it was heavily bandaged from wrist to shoulder.
My second thought was, Anna. I have to find Anna. No time. She could be in real trouble. My third thought was, My pants. Where are my pants?
All my cash and cards were in those pants. And where was my backpack with my phone and clothes, and my rollbag with all my surveillance equipment?
I tried to push myself to a sitting position and nearly fainted as the world spun like a carousel. I laid back in bed, intending to rest for a moment. The next thing I knew, I opened my eyes again and it was daytime. Bright sunlight shone through the narrow window. My earlier dizziness was gone. A nurse came into the room, saw I was awake, and gave me a wide, lovely smile. She was a black woman with Asian-looking eyes and straightened hair pulled into a ponytail. Her name tag read, “Johnson.” That didn’t sound like a Panamanian name. Where on earth was I?
I tried to speak but my throat was sandpaper. The nurse poured a cup of water. I sipped as she checked my IV and the bandage on my arm, then took my temperature and blood pressure. When she was done she told me in Spanish to wait, then left.
Ten minutes later a doctor entered the room. He was my height and completely bald. He wore expensive looking glasses and a typical long white coat over green scrubs. He was accompanied by two cops. One was a six-foot, burly uniformed officer who looked like he could pick me up and use my body as a golf club. It didn’t escape my attention that his hand rested on the butt of his gun. Oh man. I was in trouble, that was clear.
As for the the other man, he wore a silver-colored silk suit and yellow tie, but was a cop as well, judging by the badge clipped to his belt. He was short, with a dark complexion and close-cropped hair, and I had a feeling he was probably a lieutenant or captain.
“Hello, I am Dr. Alfred,” the doc said in impeccable and barely accented English. “How do you feel?”
“I’m-” In spite of the water my voice came out sounding like a door on rusty hinges. I cleared my throat and tried again. “Where am I?”
The doctor smiled. “You are in Hospital Nacional in Panama, Panama.”
“You are a lucky man, that’s what. The wound on your arm was badly infected. It was a deep, aggressive infection, all the way down to the bone. Another three or four hours and you would have lost the arm. I had to remove some of your muscle tissue. You will require rehab, but you should regain eighty percent of your arm strength and mobility.”
I was shocked. Removed my muscle tissue?
The doctor read my face. “It’s not as bad as it sounds. With rehab and time you will hardly notice the difference.”
I let out a breath. It was what it was. Alhamdulillah that I was alive and whole. I had a job to get back to. “Okay,” I said. “So… can I go?”
“Naturally not. You are not well. You need a week of treatment with antibiotics and fluids, as well as rehab, as I said. Also, these gentlemen have questions for you.”
On cue, the plainclothes cop stepped forward and fired a series of questions in rapid-fire Spanish that I could not follow. His Spanish seemed slurred somehow – I had the impression he was dropping the final syllable of each word. It must be some sort of Panamanian dialectical quirk. All I understood was “equipment” and “authorized.” I shrugged helplessly. “I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I don’t understand.”
Dr. Alfred translated. “Lieutenant Moscoso wants to know your purpose in Panama. Why are you carrying surveillance equipment? Are you a police officer? You should know that it is illegal for you to operate on Panamanian soil.”
“Yes, my equipment! I had a checked bag, it’s pink with polka-”
“The police have it,” the doctor said, cutting me off. “As I said, they wish to know if you are police.”
“Private detective,” I replied automatically. I was about to tell them my real reason for being here, then stopped myself. Police everywhere take a withering view of private citizens poking their noses into active cases, even private eyes. A foreign detective, roaming their streets and surveilling their citizens? They’d be more likely to lock me up or put me on a plane back to the U.S. than release me.
“I’m a security consultant,” I improvised. “I’ve been hired by a wealthy Panamanian businessman to assess his security.” Then I gave them the name of the only Panamanian businessman I knew: “His name is Jose Arosemena Cruz.”
I did not expect any particular response. I imagined they’d have more questions for me – questions I would not be able to answer. I had a feeling that no matter what I said, this interrogation would end badly.
Instead it was as if I’d dropped one of Jelly’s flash-bang grenades into the room. A shocked silence ensued. The blood drained from the swarthy lieutenant’s face as he turned the color of his silver suit. Silent seconds ticked by. Then the lieutenant made a hurried gesture to the burly cop, who took a passport from one pocket, a hand stamp and ink pad from the other, opened the passport and stamped it. The short lieutenant snatched it, handed it to me and said, “Bienveni’o a Panama.” That much at least I understood. Welcome to Panama. The two cops spun on their heels and walked out.
I looked at the passport: it was mine. I’d been carrying it in the front pocket of my jeans.
The doctor cleared his throat. “Very well. I will check on you later to-”
“Hold on doc,” I said. I didn’t know what had just happened and didn’t care. At this point everything could be measured by whether it was good for me or bad for me. I had a job to do. Cops suddenly giving in and clearing my way: good for me. Lack of pants: bad for me.
“I need my stuff. My bags and clothes.”
“Your things are here.” The doc waved to a cabinet along the wall. “But you cannot leave. You must recuperate.”
“I have a job to do.” I swung my legs over the side of the bed.
The doctor’s tone became alarmed. “Without treatment you risk the infection returning. You could-”
“Can’t you supply medication I can take with me?” I slid my feet down to the ground and tested my balance. So far so good.
“The medication must be administered on schedule. Please, this-”
I cut him off yet again. I didn’t mean to be rude, but I didn’t have time to dawdle. “I’m sorry doctor. I have work to do. Señor Cruz doesn’t like to be kept waiting.” Couldn’t hurt to toss his name out one more time, since it seemed to have such a disconcerting effect. “How much do I owe you?” I dreaded the answer to this question. In the U.S. even a minor surgery and hospital stay would run tens of thousands of dollars. I did not have health insurance, and even if I had I doubted it would cover overseas hospitalizations. What would happen if I could not pay? Maybe I’d end up in a Panamanian jail cell after all.
Frowning deeply, the doctor made a dismissive motion. “There is no charge. Please convey my regards to Señor Cruz. Just wait a moment for the nurse to disconnect your IV. Stop at the pharmacy on your way out. I will prescribe medications. You must take them faithfully, do you understand? For the record, this is foolish and against my advice.”
“I understand, doctor. Thank you. I appreciate what you’ve done for me.”
The doctor left. So Jose Cruz was known here. I’d love to talk to him but I couldn’t exactly ask the police or the doctor how to find him. I’d claimed to be working for him, after all. Rolling the IV pole beside me, I opened the cabinet and checked my belongings. I feared the worst, but nothing was missing. The surveillance equipment, the cash in the hidden pockets of my pants, even the $200 I’d had in my wallet: it was all there. Not everyone is corrupt, I chided myself. Just because these people are poor by U.S. standards it doesn’t make them thieves.
The nurse came in, withdrew the IV and bandaged the insertion point. As I was changing my clothes, the burly police officer returned with my pink rollbag. He left it in my room and departed without a word. I slipped on my backpack, took the rollbag, and stopped at the pharmacy on the ground floor. They gave me two antibiotics, an anti-inflammatory and a painkiller. I tossed them in my backpack and exited into the heat, noise and bustle of Panama, Panama.
* * *
My first impressions of Panama city: gleaming skyscrapers crowding as thick as straws in a box, some as tall as anything you’d see in Los Angeles or San Francisco, and more going up everywhere. Giant cranes moving in the shimmering air. The sun blazing down, and humidity so dense it was like broth. The smell of ocean salt in the air. Trees with widespread canopies, vines crawling on walls, flowers erupting out of window boxes. Traffic so thick it was nearly solid. Giant buses gaily painted with cartoon characters, chauffeured sedans with tinted windows, Mercedes and BMWs, entire herds of taxis, motorcycles, delivery scooters.
Noise, noise, noise: cars honking, jackhammers rattling, construction sounds, bus drivers calling out destinations, car and bus radios blasting a weird mix of Spanish rap and reggae that apparently had to be played at maximum volume.
People impressions: a well-dressed population that was surprisingly dark – I’d always thought of Central Americans as looking mostly like Mexicans – with a significant percentage looking Amerindian, black, or a mixture of the two, though there were plenty of European types as well, and some Chinese. People laughing, chattering, calling out to each other. Tiny mahogany-skinned tribal women with vertical lines painted down the bridges of their noses, wearing colorful dresses and red headscarves. Children and teenagers in school uniforms, businesspeople in suits, beggars, street hawkers.
Panama – the capital city carried the same name as the country – was a metropolis bursting with activity, heady and reckless and giddy with life.
I knew that I needed to get to Colon. I was sure there must be a bus, but I had no idea where the bus station was, or even what part of the city I was in. I tried hailing a taxi. There were certainly enough of them. Roughly a third of all the cars that sped by were taxis. But all the cabs ignored me, running by blithely. Finally one stopped. I opened the rear door to get in but it was locked. The driver rolled down the passenger window. “Pa’ donde?” he demanded in that same rapid, clipped Spanish.
“Colon,” I told him. “Bus, el bus para Colon.”
“No.” He shook his head, rolled the window up and drove off. What the heck? La hawla wa la quwwata il-la billah.
I began to walk, pulling my bag along behind me. I had no clear destination, just a vague idea that maybe I could find a cab stand where taxis waited for passengers. The sun beat down ruthlessly. My backpack grew heavier with every step, until it felt like it was full of lead. My illness had drained me. I kept on walking. Whatever pain medication I’d been on must be fading, because my arm was beginning to ache. Maybe I should have taken the time to study the directions on the medication bottles. Get to Colon, find Anna, that was the job and the mission.
At each intersection I waited with crowds of other pedestrians, then, like them, rushed across the street when there was a gap in traffic, the wheels of my rollbag bouncing on potholes. I gasped, trying to catch my breath, but the air was so humid and cloying that my lungs would not take it in. It all became too much: the noise, traffic, crowds of pedestrians, the pain in my arm and the burning sun. The city spun around me and I fell, striking my hip painfully on the cracked sidewalk. I lay on my side gasping for breath, the weight of the backpack pinning me to the ground.
People walked around me. “Borracho,” I heard one of them mutter. Drunk. Traffic rumbled by only a few feet away.
Looking up from my prone position, I felt a surge of hope as two brown-skinned men with beards came strolling toward me. They wore white shalwaar kameez – the standard dress of Muslim men in the Indian subcontinent and surrounding countries – and white kufis on their heads. They could not be anything but Muslims.
I struggled to a sitting position and called out an enthusiastic “As-salamu alaykum.” It was a profound relief to see brother Muslims here in this strange country. They would surely help me. Maybe they would give me a ride, or flag a taxi for me, or at least tell me where to find the bus I needed to get to Colon.
Like the taxis, the Muslims ignored me. I was sure they’d heard my salam, but they did not reply. One gave me a quick glance, but they did not slow. What kind of place was this, for God’s sake?
I put a hand over my eyes, shutting out the bright sunlight. I felt like crying or shouting. No, I told myself. Pray instead. Pray. Allah hears and cares. I believed that down to my bones. I’d seen it manifested in my own life in so many ways. I could not think of any particular dua’, so I raised my hands and recited Surat Al-Fatihah, then Surat Al-Asr, then Ayat Al-Kursi. I put my heart into the recitation, feeling deeply the meaning of each ayah. When I recited, “ihdinas-sirat-al-mustaqeem” from Al-Fatihah – guide us to the straight path – I meant it spiritually and physically as well. I needed Allah’s guidance in every way right now. I I was helpless without my Lord and I knew it. I needed the touch of the Most Merciful, the push that only Allah could give.
“Oye, Flaco, are you NorteAmericano? Whassa matter with you?”
I looked up to see a man in his mid twenties standing over me. He wore beige factory slacks, a canary-yellow dress shirt with short sleeves, and leather sandals. He had the kind of compact muscles that come from genuine work as opposed to gym weights, and his knuckles were enlarged in the way that comes from too many fistfights won or lost. His face was broad and brown, and his black hair was cut short. There was an unnerving intensity to his gaze, almost as if he were angry or trying to intimidate me. A tattoo adorned his forearm, depicting a pair of hands clasped in prayer, a rosary dangling from them. I’d seen similar tats on Latino prisoners. It was a plea for forgiveness from one’s mother for a life gone wrong.
“Nothing. I’m fine. I’m just lost. Can you tell me how to get to Colon?”
“Colon?” The young man laughed as if I’d made a hilarious joke. Like his stare, his laughter was exaggerated, over the top. “Colon is on the other side of the country. You have to take the autobus. The bus as you say.” He pronounced it boose, so that it rhymed with moose.
“Yes but from where? I can’t get a taxi to stop for me.”
“Is no problem my friend. I help you, okay? My name is Niko. You stay here. I go get a car.”
“Are you a taxi driver?”
Niko tilted his head, staring at me, and again his tone was almost angry. I was beginning to realize that he did not intend this effect. This constant intensity of his was a mannerism. Maybe it was something he’d adopted in prison, and it had become a part of him.
“No,” the Panamanian said. “I have a friend with a car, I borrow it. You wait, Flaco.” Flaco, I knew, meant “skinny” in Spanish. I didn’t take it personally. It was part of Latin American culture to casually refer to people by their physical traits. It was not unusual for people to be called fatty or baldy, and there was never any malicious intent behind it. He walked away quickly, leaving me sitting there on the sidewalk.
Looking around, I saw a beggar standing – if it could be called standing – on the median that separated the two directions of traffic. His body was badly deformed. He stood on one foot and two hands, and wore homemade wooden blocks on his hands, with straps to keep them in place. One of his legs folded over this back and dangled on the same side as the other leg. His limbs were as thin as vines. I was shocked at his condition. I had never seen anything like it.
I thought, alhamdulillah for my health. Thank God for all his blessings. I knew this was vulgar of me, to see someone less fortunate and find in him only a sense of relief that I was not so cursed. It was crass, because I wasn’t seeing the man for who he truly was, but using him only as a means of comparison to myself, to make myself feel better about my own life. But I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t imagine living as he did, and was so glad that I didn’t have to.
And yet, as I watched, the man grinned and called out to drivers. When traffic stopped at the light and someone proffered a donation, the man clomped over to them and took the money. As he did so he said something and laughed.
A few minutes later Niko pulled up in front of me in a beat-up old station wagon that looked as if it had been unearthed in an archaeological dig. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it collapsed into rubble where it stood. He double parked in the right lane – traffic behind him immediately commenced an outraged cacophony – came around, helped me up and tried to take my bags.
“Hold on,” I said. “Where are you taking me? And how much do you charge?”
Niko tilted his head and eyed me like a offended hawk, if a bird of prey could be offended. “I take you to Albrook Mall to catch autobus to Colon. Or if you like I take you to Colon myself. If I do good job you pay me whatever you like. I only want to help you.”
“Why? Why do you want to help me?”
Niko paused, and his mien softened. “I don’t know. You are like me.” For a moment he looked like he might burst into tears. Then a huge grin transformed his face and he laughed maniacally. “No more questions. Don’t you trust me? Come!” Again he tugged at my bag.
I knew that Niko, if that was his real name, might be planning to rob me. Maybe he would take me somewhere secluded to beat me or kill me. Maybe he had compadres waiting to ambush me. In my weakened state I could hardly resist.
I was exhausted, sick and lost. I had to trust someone. Why not a bipolar ex-convict ruffian? After all, I’d prayed to Allah for help, and Niko had appeared. I had always trusted Allah to have my back, and he’d always taken care of me. In the darkest times of my life, when I’d been lost in wildernesses of my own making, Allah had always sent a savior. When I was in prison it was Safaa, and then Kathleen Yanez, the woman who’d been instrumental in securing my presidential pardon. Later it was Langston “Lonnie” Brown, my mentor. On the airplane ride coming here it was Marsha the flight attendant, and here in Panama the doctor who’d saved my arm – Dr. Alfred. Yes, the world was a cruel place, but mercy was everywhere. Bright souls shone in the darkness like stars in the sky.
“Yes Niko,” I said. “I trust you. My name is Zaid, by the way.”
“Mucho gusto amigo Zayn! Much pleasure.”
I let him take my bags. He helped me into the passenger seat, and the car started up with a cough, sputter and groan. Niko floored the accelerator and the old wreck – to my surprise – shot off down the street carrying me and this crazy stranger, this savior out of the urban wilderness of Panama, Panama.
* * *
I watched buildings and people stream by. Niko drove as if he were attacking the road. He swerved this way and that, used the horn constantly, cursed at other drivers even though we had the windows up and no one could hear us. I kept expecting the station wagon to throw off its hubcaps, or maybe lose a door, but it held together. The AC cooled the car only slightly but it was still sweet relief.
My arm had begun to throb and ache as if it were roasting on a spit. I took out my medications and downed them with a bottle of warm water Niko gave me. My new helper switched on the radio. Out blared the same weird music I’d heard earlier.
“What is that music?” I asked.
“Reggaeton! Our Panamanian invention. You like?”
Niko turned the volume down. “I forget you gringos don’t like loud noise.”
Gringo was a generic epithet for white people, common in much of Latin America. “I’m not a gringo. I’m Arab. Palestinian.”
“Oh, beautiful!” He clapped my shoulder. “I love the Arabs. Osama bin Laden, yes?” Niko rolled down his window, pumped a fist in the air, stuck his head out the window and shouted, “Osama bin Laden, we love you!” Cars honked their horns, whether in agreement or annoyance I had no idea.
“Niko, stop that!”
He rolled up the window. “Why? You don’t like Osama bin Laden?”
“No, of course I don’t like him. He killed innocent people.” I sighed. I didn’t have the energy to launch a discussion of politics and the evils of terrorism. “Just don’t do it,” I concluded lamely.
“Hey, let me ask you something. Back where you picked me up, there was a beggar. His body was deformed, you understand? His leg twisted over his back. He walked on his hands.”
“Oh you mean Antoney. I know him.”
“He was making jokes and laughing. I don’t understand that. How can he be happy in his condition?”
Niko shot me a frown. “Why no? El sol brilla para todos.”
The sun shines for all. “Yes, but-”
“No but. El sol brilla para todos. All the people are equal. God don’t look at our body. He look at our soul. Everyone is the same in front of God.”
I nodded. Yes, of course he was right. Islam taught that all worldly things were temporary. This life was a trial and a test. The measure of a person was not their body, but their faith and character. All a man or woman had to do was strive for truth and patience, and they would succeed. How funny. Niko, though not a Muslim at all, understood the faith better than me.
“Hey, can I ask you something? Have you heard of a man named Jose Arosemana Cruz?”
Niko swerved and nearly crashed into the car in the next lane, a pickup truck with the word “Pescados” hand painted in large letters on the side. The pickup honked and the driver made a hand gesture.
“Estas loco gringo?” My new guide stared at me with wide, furious eyes. “You have a wish for the death? Never say this name, not even in your dreams. How you know this name?”
“He is a friend of mine. Do you know how to reach him?”
“No! And I don’t want to know.”
“Okay, relax. I just thought, since you’ve been in prison…” I gestured to the tattoo on his forearm.
Niko’s expression turned bitter. “Yes. But I am not a criminal. Only one time I steal jewels to save my son. But I fail and get caught. I go to prison three years.”
“What do you mean to save your son?”
Niko grew quiet. After some time he said, “I show you.” He made a series of turns, then slowed and stopped the car. We’d parked next to a wide canal that ran through the middle of a built-up urban area. The brown water sped by, boiling with turbulence.
“This is the Río Curundú,” Niko explained. “My oldest son Emanuel almost die here.”
“I – I’m sorry to hear that.”
Niko stepped out of the car. I followed him and we stood in front of a low wall that ran parallel to the wide canal. From here I could hear the water rushing and splashing against the sides. It smelled faintly of sewage. A profusion of weeds and small trees sprang up from cracks in the steeply sloped sides. I saw at least two stray cats slinking about on the embankments. One carried a kitten in her teeth.
“It happen four years ago,” Niko said. “Emanuel was ten.
I was surprised to hear that Niko had a son who would now be fourteen. He was obviously older than I’d thought.
“He come here with some boys and girls,” Niko continued. “The boys tease him because he is the youngest. They challenge him to swim across the river. He do it to, how you say, impresionar a las chicas.”
“Impress the girls.”
“Si. The water carry him fast.” Niko pointed to a bridge that spanned the canal a hundred meters downstream. Concrete pillars jutted down into the water. “He hit there.”
“Wow. That’s terrible. What happened to him?”
“He break his back! Still now he cannot walk. The doctor say he walk with operación, but I have no money for that.” Niko glared at me with wide, red-rimmed eyes. “How you think for a boy to grow up in a wheelchair? I am supposed to be his father. But I am not a man! Not a father!” He pounded his fist on the low concrete wall.
“Niko!” I put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s not your fault, man. Don’t do this to yourself.”
He shrugged my hand off violently. “I don’t deserve the life!” His demeanor suddenly changed, his voice becoming very quiet. “La luna cayó en el río. El río la llevó a la mar. En el mar, unos marinos la quisieron devorar.”
“I don’t understand.”
Instead of replying, Niko climbed up onto the wall and stood atop it. “Hey!” I shouted. “Niko!” I grabbed at his leg.
He jumped, pulling free from my grip. I watched in openmouthed shock as he tumbled down the steep slope, striking a tree trunk on the way down. I hoped he would grab onto the trunk or be snagged there, but he bounced and plummeted into the water. The current immediately began to sweep him downstream toward the same bridge pillars on which his son had broken his back. Rather than sink underwater, as one might expect of someone trying to drown himself, Niko’s survival instinct took over, because he kept his head above water and shouted something unintelligible.
I ran alongside the canal and felt instantly winded. I didn’t have my strength back. My legs felt like chopsticks and my chest heaved. But I ran anyway. Niko was halfway to the bridge. I feared he might strike the pillars just as his son had done. Two men sat atop the bridge, fishing. I shouted to them and pointed to Niko’s bobbing head, but they didn’t seem to hear me or understand because they did not look up. Niko passed under the bridge, apparently missing the pillars, thank God.
I ran past the bridge but there was no sign of him. Had he gotten caught on something beneath the bridge? Had he managed to find a handhold? I scanned downstream and for a split second I thought I saw something: a flash of brown, like a head rising to the surface. Then it was gone.
I slipped over the wall, ran a few out-of-control steps down the steep embankment, and dove into the raging water. I did not think about it. If I had, I’d have been too afraid. I just did it.
The water was cool but not cold. The force of the current, however, was astounding. It seized me like an angry beast and buffeted me this way and that. I swallowed water, spat, and finally managed to get my bearings. I looked around wildly and saw nothing but surging water, eddies, little whitecaps where the wind brushed the water into a frenzy, and spots where the water bubbled up as if flowing over unseen obstacles. I struggled to avoid those spots. Seeing nothing above the water, I dove. The water was murky and my range of vision was limited to two or three feet. I came up for breath and dove again and again. My limbs were growing weak. I didn’t know how much longer I could keep this up. I dove yet again – and saw something. A flash of yellow, like Niko’s shirt. I thrust myself in that direction, saw an arm tumble past my face, and seized it. I had him!
I surfaced, gasping for breath, holding onto that arm like an eagle to its chick. Niko was unconscious. I maneuvered his body so that I circled my wounded arm around his upper torso and his head was out of the water. Then, using my good arm, I began to fight my way toward the embankment, swimming on my side.
With Niko’s weight partly resting on me, I could hardly swim. I swallowed more water. My injured arm ached and felt as weak as wet spaghetti. I was close to the embankment, so close, but it might as well be a thousand miles away. With Niko’s weight atop me, I was no longer strong enough to hold my head above water. I sank beneath the surface.
I’ll rest for a second, I told myself. I’ll rest, then continue. My lungs burned as I held my breath. I felt myself sinking, and Niko along with me. The need to breathe was overwhelming. As soon as I did so – as soon as I opened my mouth and let the water in – I’d be history. It was time to either resume the struggle or die.
Except I couldn’t. I had nothing left. I was too feeble. We sank, and my eyes closed as the sunlight above faded. I’m not going to make it, I realized. My body would be found in this canal, or maybe the canal would carry me out to sea, to be eaten by fish. Safaa and Hajar would never know what happened to me.
Hajar. I can’t do this to Hajar. She needs me! The thought was rocket fuel in my veins. It was a shot of adrenaline to the heart. My eyes flew open. I felt my feet touch the bottom of the canal. I still had a hand on Niko’s arm. With every last fiber of strength I possessed, I pushed off the bottom, then kicked my legs and swam with one arm, towing Niko behind me, fighting my way toward the surface, battling to survive. The water above me grew lighter, and we broke the surface, me and my motionless burden.
A strong hand seized my arm. The fishermen. The two fishermen from the bridge. They’d made a human chain, one holding onto a tree that grew on the bank. With his free hand, the second man pulled me onto the bank. I in turn dragged Niko behind me.
With what must have been a tremendous effort, the fishermen hauled me and Niko up the slope. About halfway up I managed to get onto my knees. The two men helped me and Niko up and over the wall. I lay on my back sucking in air and coughing, my stomach muscles seizing and cramping. The fishermen fussed over Niko but didn’t seem to know what to do. I crawled to his unconscious form. He wasn’t breathing.
I hunched over him and began CPR. CPR training is not a prerequisite for a P.I.’s license, but I’d chosen to take the course anyway. I positioned my hands at the center of Niko’s chest and pumped hard, twice per second. I performed thirty compressions, then lifted Niko’s mouth, covered it with mine and blew. Nothing. I went through the cycle again, and then again. My arms trembled and I felt like I might pass out.
“Basta, amigo,” one of the fisherman said, touching a hand to my arm. “Se ha ido. Está muerto.” Enough. He’s dead.
I shrugged the arm off and, raising my fist high in the air, slammed it onto Niko’s chest. I bent low and shouted in his ear: “Niko! You promised to help me! Your son needs you! Niko!” I went through another cycle of compressions, then breathed into Niko’s mouth – and the muscular young Panamanian gasped and rolled onto his side, retching. His entire body convulsed and he vomited a huge amount of canal water. The two fishermen cheered, crying “Bravo!” and “Gracias a Dios!”
I fell back and lay on the sidewalk, gasping for breath. Niko lay moaning for some time, sucking in air. Finally I sat up and pulled Niko to a sitting position. He looked around, red-eyed and slack jawed, and said, “Que pasó? What happen?”
I became enraged. I punched him in the shoulder and shouted, “Why did you do that? What’s the matter with you?”
His eyes moved left and right as if searching for an answer. Finally he said, “I am ashamed.”
As if that was an answer. I punched him again. “Don’t do that again!”
“Okay,” he replied meekly.
“I mean it. Don’t ever do that again! Your son needs you.”
“Don’t call me Flaco! I told you my name is Zaid.”
“Okay señor Zayn.”
I waved a hand in exasperation. It was then that I noticed my wedding ring was gone. The platinum band I wore on my right hand. It must have slipped off in the canal. I rested my face on one hand, feeling utterly discouraged. Safaa would never forgive me. I had a sudden thought and checked my right front pocket – my wallet was still there, alhamdulillah.
A few minutes later, when Niko was somewhat recovered, the fishermen bade us goodbye and returned to their pastime or vocation. Niko and I began the long trudge back to the car, dripping water as we walked. I was bone-weary and ready to drop.
“What was that you said before you jumped in?” I asked, mostly to distract myself from my own sour thoughts. “Something about the moon.”
Niko shot me an embarrassed look. “A poem of Carlos Francisco Changmarín, one of our Panamanian poets. The moon fell in the river. The river led her to the sea. At sea, some sailors wanted to devour her.”
I understood. His son was the moon, fallen from its lofty position to become a victim. Or maybe the moon was Niko himself.
At some point in the last half hour, clouds had gathered overhead. An ear-splitting peal of thunder came out of nowhere, making me flinch. I’d never heard anything like it. It sounded like the sky tearing in two, or like a bomb going off. Lightning flashed, and another roar of thunder crashed over the city. Then the sky opened up, and water fell not in drops, but in sheets. The rain wasn’t cold, but was so heavy I could hardly see five feet ahead. I felt a strange sensation rising in my chest, and I began to laugh. It was all just too much, too ridiculous.
My companion must have seen some aspect of insanity in my laugh, because he touched my shoulder in concern. “Is only rain, amigo,” he assured me. “Is normal in Panama.”
His touched snapped me out of my little manic spell, and I recovered my senses. “Didn’t you say Emanuel is your eldest?” I asked as we limped along in the downpour.
“Yes. I have two girls.”
“And their mother?”
“My wife Teresa. A princess.”
“They need you Niko. You may think you have failed, but I am sure they love you. Don’t ever do something like this again, okay?”
“Okay Fla – I mean señor Zayn.”
“You don’t have to call me señor.”
When we finally made it back – the station wagon was gone. It had been stolen.
I stood there incredulous, staring at the spot where the vehicle had been. My stomach felt full of lead. All my surveillance equipment was gone, over ten thousand dollars worth – all the equipment I’d inherited from Lonnie Brown. Also my change of clothing, my phone, and the medication the pharmacy had given me. Oh, and Hajar’s stuffed animal. The spotted deer.
I groaned in dismay and sat heavily on the sidewalk, my back against the canal wall, the rain pouring down on my head. Every inch of my body and clothing was waterlogged. At least I still had my reserve money, my passport and my cards, and the photograph of Anna Anwar, as they were all either in my wallet or tucked into the secret pockets in my pants. Though of course they were soaked.
Niko cursed, then began to apologize. I waved him off. I didn’t want to hear anything more from the crazy lunatic. As if I didn’t have enough trouble already. I closed my eyes and breathed, clutching my left arm to my chest. The humidity in Panama was stifling, my arm ached as if fire ran through the veins, and I was so tired I couldn’t have defended myself against one of the stray kittens I saw everywhere in this neighborhood.
“Mister Zayn. Why you have to get to Colon?”
I replied without opening my eyes. “I have to find a missing girl.”
“Ay Dios.” Niko patted my shoulder. “I help you mister Zayn. You no worry.”
I heard him stand and walk away. I felt unable to move. I think I actually fell asleep, sitting there in the downpour.
“Come on Zayn!” I opened my eyes to see that Niko had found a taxi. He helped me up. The taxi driver peered at us suspiciously. We must have looked a mess. A rapid conversation ensued between Niko and the driver. I couldn’t follow it.
“He say ten dollars to Albrook, because we going to mess his taxi.”
I nodded wearily.
“Pago anticipa’o,” the driver demanded. I understood this. He wanted to be paid in advance. I took out my wallet and handed the driver a soggy bill. He took it reluctantly, but he took it.
Ten minutes later we pulled in front of a huge red, blue and yellow building that looked like a cross between a circus and an airplane hangar, surrounded by palm trees. Inside the Albrook Mall was just as colorful. At one end a carousel spun to the sound of children’s laughter while life-sized sculptures of giraffes, a t-rex, and other animals were interspersed throughout the mall. Life-sized flamingos hung from wires overhead. I purchased a new set of clothes and a new backpack, then Niko led me to a laundromat. I changed into the dry clothes, transferred the photo of Anna to my pocket, and tossed everything else into a dryer: the wet clothes, along with my passport and the two thousand dollars in soggy currency in my inner pockets, and my shoes. Niko seemed to be okay in his wet clothes. I supposed in a tropical country one became used to being rained on.
My mind wanted to dwell on the things I’d lost: the equipment, phone, computer, ring, doll… “Trust in Allah and He will feed you as he feeds the birds,” my subconscious whispered. “Yes,” my stubborn heart replied yet again, “but I’m not a bird, and I live in this world.” If I could only tame that obdurate heart. If I could only believe with every atom of my soul.
To distract myself I asked Niko to tell me about himself and his family.
He’d always loved poetry, he said, even as a child, and had been mocked for it. He fought every day, until he became a skilled enough fighter to silence the critics. He quit school at the age of eleven and worked on fishing boats to help support his mother. After his mother was killed and he was sent to Panama, he met Teresa, who convinced him to return to school. He fathered Emanuel at the age of fifteen, and in spite of that managed to put himself through university, where he received a bachelor’s degree in Latin American literature. In addition to Emanuel he had two daughters, Analisa and India. He spoke of his beautiful wife Teresa, who was literally a princess of the Ngöbe-Bugle tribe, and how the tribal members had threatened him for stealing her away. Niko had planned to get a job teaching school, but then Emanuel had the accident, and his life went off the rails.
When the clothes were done I changed back into the jeans with the secret pockets. We found a pharmacy and refilled my prescriptions, then made our way to the food court. I gave Niko some money and he came back with heaping plates of white rice, lentils, patacones (fried plantain coins), and a grilled white fish he called corvina, along with a cup of passionfruit juice to wash it down. At the sight and smell of the food, my stomach started up with a rumble, like a battle tank ready to go. I wasn’t sure my body was ready for so much solid food, but if I’d tried to hold back I think my stomach would have staged a revolution. I ate it all and it was delicious, and I followed it with my medications.
Niko waved his fork at me and took a lecturing tone. “Colon is dangerous city, even in the daytime. Very poor, and many gangs.”
I snapped my fingers. I’d been meaning to buy a knife upon my arrival in Panama, and Niko’s warning was a good reason to do so. We found a smoke shop that, along with Cuban cigars, tobacco, bong pipes and incense, also sold knives. I bought two identical knives. They were small, innocent looking folders with orange handles and blades sharp enough to slice through an entire watermelon in one swing. I clipped one to my right front pocket, and the other to my left. I suddenly felt more at ease than I had been since I’d arrived. Having a knife on me was like wearing shoes, or combing my hair before going out. It was a part of me.
We made our way outside the mall, where dozens of buses pulled into diagonal parking slots. The rain had stopped, and the air sparkled as if scrubbed with a brush. From Albrook the buses headed out to destinations all over Panama, and even to Costa Rica or Nicaragua. Niko led me to the Colon bus, which, he explained, cost one twenty five and would take ninety minutes.
“I don’t understand. It’s one hundred twenty five dollars? Why so much?”
Niko goggled and made a circular motion with his finger beside his head. “You gringos so crazy! No, is one dollar twenty five cents.”
“Oh. Wow. Well Niko, thanks for your help, such as it was. And I’m sorry about your friend’s car.” I extended my hand for a handshake. “How much do I owe you?”
Niko frowned. “No way Zayn. I go with you.”
I stared at him. “Why would you want to go with me?”
The muscular Panamanian shook his head sadly, as if I had wounded him. Then he took my shoulders in his hands and, gazing at me with his spine erect and shoulders back, recited:
“Lo primero es la lealtad
con ella se puede ir
hasta el punto de morir
en bien de la humanidad.”
I felt extremely uncomfortable, standing there with this over-emotional Panamanian staring me in the eyes, but I had to ask: “What does that mean?”
“What you think Zayn? Carlos Francisco Changmarín say that the first thing is loyalty, and with it one can go to the point of death in service of humanity. You save my life man! My children have a father because of you. My Teresa have a husband because of you.” He seized my neck with both hands and pulled me to him, embracing me, then pulled back and gazed at me defiantly, though his lower lip trembled as though he might burst into tears. “I say from the beginning that I help you. Now I know you are looking for missing girl. You are a hero, Zayn. You are like a man from the novelas, saving lives everywhere you go. I swear that I will not leave you until you find this girl, no matter what, even to the point of death!”
I didn’t know whether to be grateful or dismayed. On the one hand, having a local guide would be invaluable. On the other, he was a melodramatic, suicidal basket case. Ah well. We plan, and Allah plans, and Allah is the best of planners. Niko had come into my life for a reason, and I would trust that reason, whatever it might be.
“Of course,” I said. “I am honored.” We boarded the bus. It was air conditioned and – blessedly – the driver left the radio off. Normally I’m a very curious traveler and love to look out the window at a new and exotic landscape. But the accumulated exhaustion of the last few days hit me like a tidal wave of cotton. Between that and the pain medication, which had started to kick in, I was asleep before we made it to the highway.
* * *
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Wael Abdelgawad’s novel, Pieces of a Dream, is available on Amazon.com.