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 | Chapter 13
Monday, February 7, 2010 – 3 pm
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When I woke up, the bus was rounding the curved shore of a huge lake. The afternoon sunlight sparkled deep yellow on the water as a multistoried cruise ship glided along. I knew that the Panama Canal merged with Lake Gatún at one point. I wondered if this was it. On the other side of the road, primeval rainforest towered thick and emerald, as impenetrable and mysterious as the next moment and the next day. It was like a vivid scene from a postcard.
“Mi Panamá,” Niko murmured, “sueño de amor.” My Panama, a dream of love.
“Carlos Francisco again?” Niko was such a paradox: a muscular roughneck ex-convict who quoted poetry.
“Beatriz Spiegel de Viquez. We are almost there. Look.”
I looked where he pointed and saw a white cathedral spire rising over the rainforest to the northeast. Ten minutes later we rounded a bend in the road and arrived. Where the capital city was on the Pacific side, situated at the southern terminus of the Panama Canal, Colon was on the Caribbean side, sitting on a promontory at the canal’s northern mouth.
At the Colon bus station, I made wudu’ in a restroom that charged twenty five cents for admittance. The restroom had two women permanently stationed in the men’s room, a fact I found highly disconcerting. Every time a man finished using the facilities, one of the women would immediately step in and mop up.
In the station, I took a few minutes to pray Dhuhr and Asr as Niko watched over me, then we stepped onto the street, where heat and humidity enveloped me like a wool blanket. Where the air of Panama City had been broth, Colon’s air was vegetable soup.
I stood there watching the diablos rojos or red devils – which is what the multicolored, hand-painted buses were called – drive up and pull away in a steady stream, belching black exhaust in their wake. Niko must have seen in my face how clueless and lost I felt, because he took charge in a businesslike manner.
“Okay, Zayn. What información you have about the missing girl?”
Right. Information. “Her name is Anna Anwar. Her grandfather is Lenin William Rodriguez.”
Niko’s brow furrowed. “Don’t make sense. Anwar is Arabe name, no? And Lenin William Rodriguez sound Afro-Antillano.”
“Ay Zayn. You know nothing? Is three kinds of blacks in Panama. Afro-Colonials are descended from slaves brought to Panama beginning 500 years ago. Cimarrones also were brought as slaves but they rebel and win freedom. Afro-Antillanos came from the British West Indies in 1800’s to work on the railroad and canal. Most of them have English names.”
I digested this. “Well, Anna’s father is Arab, yes. But her mother Angie is Panamanian, and yes, she’s black.”
My companion nodded. “Okay. So we find Mr. Afro-Antillano Lenin William Rodriguez. You are Musulman, no?”
Musulman was Spanish for Muslim. “Yes.”
“We can go to the Musulmanes for help. Is big Musulman community in Colon. Maybe they know this William Lenin.”
“Are they from India like the ones I saw in Panama?” I was thinking that such people would not be inclined to help, and would not know anything anyway, as they were probably culturally isolated.
“Not in Colon. El Centro Islamico Cultural is Arabes. Totalmente Arab.”
I snorted. “That’s no better. Isn’t there a convert mosque?”
“What is convert?”
“You know. People who became Muslim. Local people, black people, indigenous people.”
“Oh, convertidos. Si, I know the place.”
Niko hailed a taxi, gave some directions in Spanish too rapid for me to follow, and we were off. The driver, a bearded Rastafarian type with long dreadlocks tied in a ponytail, drove with the windows open and reggae music playing loud. As he drove he made swimming motions with one long-fingered black hand, in time with the beat. A red, yellow and green leather badge depicting an image of Africa hung from the rear view mirror.
“How do you know so much about Colon?” I asked Niko.
“I grow up here. My mother was Afro-Antillano from Jamaica. She was killed by a rabiblanco, a rich white man, when I was fourteen. I was send to Panama to live with my auntie.” As he said this, his face colored with anger, and his calloused hands balled into fists.
For a moment I was speechless. “I’m sorry,” I said eventually.
Niko looked away. “Is nothing.” I noticed, however, that his hands remained curled into fists.
I looked out of the window and took in the dilapidated, crowded, chaotic ruin that was Colon. It was an overwhelmingly black city. It appeared to have been a wealthy city at some point in the past, but had obviously been neglected by the government for decades. The architecture consisted of two and three story Spanish colonial buildings that must have once been beautiful, but were now crumbling, faded, weather stained, and covered in rampant growth of weeds and moss. Spiderwebs of wires and plastic tubing hung from buildings, indications of jerry-rigged electricity and water connections. Some buildings appeared to have been gutted, only the pillars and ceilings still standing, while people built makeshift corrugated tin shacks on the empty floors. Lines of laundry were strung between pillars.
The litter-strewn streets ran with smelly water. People walked in every direction, tarp-covered carts sold fruit or street food, young men washed car windshields with dirty bucket water, well-dressed black women performed manicures in makeshift booths, and old men and women sold lottery tickets in large wooden racks, set up in front of every corner store and market. Bare-chested young men with heavily tattooed arms and torsos hung out in doorways. They looked hard as stone, and dangerous.
Everywhere I looked I saw liquor stores, internet cafes, boxing gyms and the crosses of storefront churches. In every available open space, a riot of vegetation grew. Plantain trees ripe with fruit sprung up in litter-lined lots. Palm trees swayed overhead. Vines, tall grass, weeds and moss seemed to be trying to colonize the city.
More than once I saw police cruise by on motorcycles, two on each bike. They wore full camouflage gear, gloves, knee-high leather boots, helmets and bulletproof vests. They must have been suffocating from the heat in those outfits. The passenger cop invariably carried a submachine gun slung around his neck.
We stopped across the street from a huge blue and white stadium. The sign said Estadio Armando Dely Valdés. I paid the driver.
“What is that place?” I pointed.
“Stadium for Arabe Unido,” Niko replied. “Arabic football team. They win thirteen Liga Panameña de Fútbol championships. Good players.”
The Arabs had their own professional soccer team? Fascinating, but beside the point. “I told you, I need to talk to converts.”
“I know, Zayn.” Niko grabbed my shoulders and turned me around to face the building behind us. It was a lemon yellow warehouse with peeling paint and a faded wooden sign that depicted a pair of boxing gloves along with the words, “Club Deportivo Islamico.” So not a mosque, but an Islamic boxing gym? Weird.
Inside, the gym was huge and dimly lit, the only light entering through square skyports cut in the corrugated tin roof, and covered with clear plastic. It smelled of sweat and bleach. There were two boxing rings, a long line of heavy bags hanging from chains, and mounted speed bags. Lean, wiry bodies were everywhere as people boxed, shuffled, worked the heavy bags, or ran laps. They were mostly black, though I saw some who looked Arab.
One wall featured a large mural of the Ka’bah, above the words laa ilaha il-Allah in Arabic. High overhead, a pair of ceiling-mounted swamp coolers hummed. They didn’t do much – the building was sweltering hot. I’d been sweating ever since arriving in Colon, and now I began to perspire in earnest, the sweat dripping down the sides of my nose, and running down my back into my pants.
Several of the boxers wore stretch kufis that hugged their scalps. Others had the sleeved tattooes that I’d always associated with gang members. To my surprise, there were a handful of women boxers, including two teenaged black girls in hijab who were gloved up, helmeted and sparring in one of the rings. They danced in and out, throwing punches and showing good use of body rotation.
I didn’t understand how these boxers could train in this broiling, muggy heat, let alone in hijab. I’d be falling down after five minutes.
Niko nudged me and gestured to an old man who stood beside the ring, watching the girls, one hand resting on his chin. He was tall, thin and the color of aged teak, with gray hair and a trimmed beard that had gone entirely white. He wore brown slacks, sandals, and a yellow and red African dashiki. He stood preternaturally still, as if he were a hardwood carving. The only sign he was alive were his eyes, which darted this way and that, watching the movement of the boxers.
The old man whistled through his fingers. Both boxers stopped and looked. “Sahara!” the old man called out, then he shouted an instruction in Spanish and moved. When I say moved, he went from a motionless state to suddenly cross-stepping, side-stepping and throwing a combination of punches so fast I could barely track them. I think it was a low left hook, high left hook and a right uppercut. He used his entire body, ducking and twisting. Any one of those punches would be a knockout. He motioned to the girls then returned to his self-assured pose as they resumed sparring.
We approached the old man and I greeted him with salam. He returned my salam warmly, extending his hand for a handshake and clasping my hand between his. His hands were large and his palms rough.
“Zaid,” I said, introducing myself. Niko followed suit.
I cleared my throat. “Soy un visitante aquí-”
He cut me off with a gesture of his finger. “I speak English.” His accent was odd, somewhere between Jamaican and Spanish.
“Oh. I like your gym. Ma-sha-Allah, this is amazing.”
He acknowledged this with the slightest of nods. “Thank you. What can I do for you, Zaid?”
“Right. I’ve come to Panama in search of a missing girl. The only information I have is that the girl’s grandfather is named Lenin William Rodriguez, and that he used to be a musician.”
“Surely man. He was one of the greats. Used to play with Mauricio Smith and Simón Urbina.”
I was excited to hear this. “Do you know where he lives?”
“You don’t want to go there.”
“It’s a bad part of town, man. We have fifty gangs in Colon. Three murders per week. Desperate people.”
I considered this, then shrugged. “I have to go.”
Qayyum studied me with unreadable eyes. “Then I will send two of my fighters with you. You are a guest in my country. I don’t want to see you get hurt.”
Niko thumped his chest. “I will keep him safe! I am not afraid of anyone.”
Qayyum’s eyes flicked to Niko, then to the knives clipped to my pockets, then to my face. “Suit yourself man. I haven’t seen Lenin in a few years, but he used to live on Kingston Lane.” He rattled off a series of directions, all based on landmarks rather than street addresses.
A thought occurred to me. I’d met men like Qayyum before. Older brothers who’d been around and seen it all, but mostly kept their knowledge to themselves. I’d be willing to bet he could tell stories that would make me quake in my shoes, laugh, and wonder. I was also sure that he knew a lot of people in Colon and probably in Panama in general. So I asked a question.
“Brother Qayyum, do you know a man named Jose Arosemana Cruz?”
“Zayn!” Niko exclaimed, then immediately began telling Qayyum how I was crazy in my head because I was taking medication.
Qayyum merely raised one eyebrow. “What did you say your last name was?”
“Karim. Well, technically Al-Husayni. Zaid Karim Al-Husayni.”
Qayyum’s black eyes were flat. “No one by the name Cruz around here.”
* * *
“We could have used the help he offered,” I commented to Niko when we were outside. “Especially if the neighborhood is as dangerous as they say.”
“No! El poeta lucha, sin luchar, qué haría? Sin lucha y resistencia, no hay victoria.”
God help me. More poetry. “What does that mean?” I asked with a sigh.
Niko clenched a fist. “It mean the poet struggles, and without struggle, what will he do? Without struggle and resistance there is no victory. So says Amelia Denis de Icaza.”
I shook my head as I tried to hail a taxi. Niko might be a crazy person, but he was the crazy person Allah had sent to help me, and I would stick with him.
Two taxis stopped. Each time, when we gave them Rodriguez’s address, the drivers refused to take us and drove off.
“How far is it?” I asked.
Niko looked up, as if he’d find the answer in the sky, which, by the way, was darkening with clouds. “Twenty blocks.”
I shook my head. That was too far in this oppressive heat. The air had become so humid I felt like I was breathing water. “Try another taxi, see how close he’ll take us.”
The next driver said he would take us as far as the Catedral Inmaculada Concepción. We piled in. The street we drove down, Paseo del Centenario, didn’t seem that bad. It was wide and tree-lined, with a median on which grass and shrubs grew. Many of the Spanish colonial buildings seemed well preserved. They were badly weather stained, the paint was peeling, and mold grew everywhere, but at least they weren’t falling apart.
The driver turned onto another street, and the area took an instant turn for the worse. The colonial buildings were painted blue, green, burgundy, purple, pink and orange – sometimes all on a single building – but the paint was faded and the structures rotted where they stood. The windows were shattered, boarded with plywood, or covered with plastic sheeting. And yet people stood on the balconies, smoking, drinking or dancing. Music played from apartments. A group of children played football in a street in which sewage ran down an open channel. Flies drifted in and out of the open taxi windows. There were even businesses open and running – a barbershop, corner store, internet cafe, restaurant, pharmacy. Every one of these businesses, without fail, had an armed guard standing in front, except for the pharmacy, which had two. The guards wore bulletproof vests and carried shotguns, and their stances indicated they would not hesitate to use them.
The driver let us off in front of a grand old church. The huge Catedral Inmaculada Concepción, or Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, appeared to be one of the tallest buildings in Colon, perhaps the one I’d seen from the highway. Painted entirely white, it was built in a neo-Gothic style, with twin spires, arched windows – most of them broken – and a statue of Mary mounted on the roof, her arms outstretched. It was also stained and pitted, overgrown with mold, and surrounded by a chain link fence topped with concertina wire.
In the square in front of the cathedral, a permanent open air market was bustling. The smells of seafood, cilantro and grated coconut filled the air. Beneath a huge tin roof, hundreds of covered stalls sold fruits, meat, spices, plants, crafts and clothing. Women carried woven baskets, and sellers called out their wares. A teenaged girl carrying a baby approached me and asked me in accented English if I could give her a dollar to buy food. I reached for my wallet but Niko stopped me with a hand on my arm. “Don’t show your wallet here,” he told me. I followed his advice and instead reached into my back pocket, drew out two twenty five cent coins and gave them to the girl.
Niko gestured to the cathedral. “I make a prayer.” I slapped at a mosquito that had landed on my arm and followed my companion. A security guard opened a gate for us, frisked us, and took my knives, telling me I could retrieve them on the way out.
The church was deserted. A long aisle ran between two rows of mahogany pews. Our feet left prints in the thick layer of dust that coated the black and white marble floors. Niko approached an altar, kneeled before a statue of Mary, bowed his head and clasped his hands.
When he was done and we were on our way out, he said, “No worry now. La Virgen will protect us.”
“I appreciate that, Niko, but I am Muslim. I don’t pray to the Virgin Mary. Only to God.”
Niko stopped and stared at me in outrage. “Musulmanes don’t believe in La Virgen?”
“We do. We believe in Jesus also. But we consider them to be human beings. We do not pray to them. We pray only to God, El Señor, El Creador.”
The Panamanian’s eyes narrowed and I could see he wanted to debate the issue further. I put up a hand. “We have a job do do.”
We made our way outside, and I recovered my knives from the guard. We walked a block and turned onto Kingston Lane. Immediately the neighborhood took a turn for the worse – much, much worse.
Unlike the other parts of the city I’d seen, there was almost no one outside here. The few who passed by did so furtively, hurrying along and looking over their shoulders. There was not a single car in sight. The narrow, mud-covered alley smelled of urine, burnt rubber and garbage, and was littered with rusted shopping carts and all manner of trash. Some of the buildings had partly collapsed, so that rebar rods projected from ragged concrete, and piles of rubble lay in courtyards and empty fields. I could hardly believe anyone lived here. Yet even here I heard music coming from some of the apartments, and saw a few people on balconies, watching me and Niko pass by.
I’d never seen such squalid conditions in my life. I didn’t know anyone lived like this in the Western hemisphere. I guess that shows how naive I was. If I had a choice between being back in prison or living here, I wasn’t sure which I would pick. But of course the people who lived here had no choice.
I drew one of my knives, opened it, and carried it discreetly along the inside of my arm.
The sky had grown dark and ominous. A peal of thunder boomed across the city, and a moment later the rain came sheeting down. Niko and I trudged on, the rain streaming down our faces and bodies and fauceting from our fingertips.
We walked two blocks like this, when suddenly a teenaged boy stepped out of a doorway and blocked our way. He was barefoot, and wore cargo shorts, a yellow tank top and – comically – a two foot tall white and blue striped soccer hat with a wide brim. The colors matched those of the Arabe Unido stadium. He must be a fan. I might have laughed if not for the fact that he had a gun pointed straight at us. It was an old revolver that looked like it might have been used in World War I, but the barrel was long and wide, and I had no doubt it would blast a hole the size of a grapefruit in my body.
Another man stepped out beside the youth. He was maybe thirty five and carried a machete, letting it dangle casually. He looked quite natty in Bermuda shorts, a polo shirt and chic reflective sunglasses – though why anyone would wear sunglasses in the rain I did not know. I presumed he was the leader.
Instinctively I turned and looked behind me, in the direction from which we’d come. Another man stood there, a hard faced, tattooed teenager, wearing jeans with no shirt, and carrying a machete as well.
“Tu dinero o tus vidas!” the boy with the gun cried in a reedy voice that sounded like the trill of a mourning dove. Your money or your lives. What, did he think this was a Hollywood film? Of all the cliched lines.
I considered. There was nothing I could do against a gun, not at this range. It wouldn’t kill me to surrender my wallet. The bulk of my cash, along with my passport and my important cards were in my secret pockets. I was about to take out my wallet and toss it to the robbers when Niko strode forward, directly toward soccer hat boy. What was he doing? I clenched my teeth. We might have gotten out of this with no harm done. Now my capricious companion was forcing my hand.
“Stop!” Soccer Boy cried in Spanish. “I’ll shoot you!” This gave me a glint of hope. If the kid were truly inclined to shoot, he would have done so already. If Niko could overpower him, I would deal with the other two.
With the robbers distracted by Niko, I slid several quiet steps forward. Niko advanced until he stood directly in front of Soccer Boy. The young robber raised the revolver and touched the barrel to Niko’s forehead.
I readied myself, thinking Niko would make his move. Instead he spread his arms wide and screamed in Spanish, “Kill me! Shoot me if you have the nerve!”
I groaned to myself. Was the lunatic trying to kill himself again?
“I will!” Soccer Boy shouted back, though there was a fearful tone in his voice. His gun hand trembled.
Niko yelled something I didn’t understand. Perhaps it was an insult, because Soccer Boy pulled the trigger.
Whether he did it on purpose or it was an involuntary spasm, I do not know. I heard a click as the gun misfired. There was a moment of stillness in which I felt like I was living a strange dream, standing in a place that looked like a scene from a post-apocalyptic science fiction film, all five of us looking at each other, as rain cascaded down like heaven itself wanted to wash us away.
Everyone exploded into motion. Niko tackled Soccer Boy and they tumbled to the mud, wrestling for the gun. The elder robber raised his machete and loomed over the fighting pair, preparing to deliver Niko a killing blow. I burst into a run, not bothering to watch the man behind me. I could not deal with both machete wielders at the same time. I leaped and sailed through the air at the chic leader. Duplicating the move I’d used on one of the Asian gangsters who’d tried to rob me only a few days ago, I crashed into the man, wrapped my legs around his torso and rode him down like a bull as he fell backward. He must have gotten his machete between us because I felt fire lance through my shoulder. I had my knife in my hand and for a split second I thought about planting it in the mugger’s throat. I could have done so easily. Some impulse of my better self held me back. Instead I brought my elbow forward. As we hit the ground, my elbow drove into the mugger’s face with all my weight behind it, crushing his nose.
I rolled and came to my feet. The fight was all but over. Niko had the gun, and Soccer Boy had fled, leaving his tall soccer hat behind. The leader was on the ground, blood spurting from his nose. I kicked him hard in the floating ribs and he cried out, rolled to all fours and crawled away in the mud. I let him go, resisting the impulse to kick him further.
The shirtless youth who’d been behind us had vanished. I supposed he’d seen what happened to his friends and cut out. Or maybe he’d gone for help.
I put away my knife, picked up Soccer Boy’s Arabe Unido hat and put it on my head. See, I knew I’d find a good hat in Panama. Finally I picked up the leader’s machete. I turned to face Niko, who stood in the rain unhurt, his nostrils flared wide.
“Why did you do that, Niko?” I demanded angrily. “Were you trying to kill yourself again?”
He lifted the revolver and popped the cylinder out. “No bullets.”
“But you didn’t know that, did you?”
He inspected me. “You are bleeding.” He gestured with his lips to my shoulder. A long, shallow slash ran from the front of my shoulder to my left nipple. It was bleeding, but not too badly. My arm was beginning to ache as well. It was time to take my medication.
I looked at Niko and he looked at me. He hadn’t answered my question, but I let it go for now.
“One block. But what about him?” He pointed to the man still crawling away in the mud. Maybe I’d kicked him harder than I thought.
“What about him?” I began to walk down the middle of the road, and Niko fell in beside me. I carried the machete openly, as Niko did with the pistol. The expression on my face was grim, and if anyone saw us they must have steered clear, because we saw no one.
Niko stopped in front of a four story concrete building with tiny windows. Black fungus stains marred the faded green paint. In front stood a solitary acacia tree.
“Here,” the Panamanian said. “Second floor, third door from stairs.”
We walked into the building carrying our weapons openly and dripping water and – in my case – blood. The stairway was narrow and dark. We passed a group of young men drinking liquor and playing dice on one of the landings. They flattened themselves against the wall and let us pass.
At the third door from the stairs, I knocked. It was a heavy wooden door, and seemed to absorb the knock like a sponge, so I knocked louder.
“Come in,” a deep voice called in Caribbean accented English. We walked into a tiny apartment that was lit only by a single 60 watt bulb. I left the machete beside the door and closed it behind me. An old man sat in a wooden chair, miming as if playing a trumpet and tapping one foot to keep the beat. He was thin, and his dark skin had an ashen tint. The apartment – with no air conditioning or even a fan – was sweltering, yet the man wore a flat cap, slacks, sandals and a short sleeved dress shirt – much like Niko, not counting the hat.
“If you here to queng I,” the old man said, “Me got no’ting of value. Me livin’ in sufferation.” The weak light cast strange shadows, and I couldn’t quite see his face. Though the apartment was small and meagerly furnished, with crumbling walls and exposed piping in some places, it was clean.
“I don’t understand.”
“Queng I. Kill I. Rob I.”
“No sir. We’re not here to rob you. I’m a private detective from California. Are you Lenin William Rodriguez?”
He did not answer. Just kept tapping and playing his nonexistent trumpet, his fingers moving rapidly in the air. It was so quiet in that apartment I could hear the rainwater and blood dripping from my fingertips onto the bare cement floor. I felt bad about messing up the man’s home.
“I’m looking for Angie, your granddaughter, and her daughter Anna. I was hired by Anna’s grandparents. They’re worried. Have you seen them?”
Rodriguez stopped playing and leaned forward in his chair, studying me. “What you do if you find dem?”
My heart beat faster. His answer implied that he had seen them. I had not made this trip and gone through this hardship for nothing. But what should I say? If I said I might take Anna away, the elder Rodriguez might refuse to talk to me. I decided to tell the truth.
“It depends on what I find. If Anna is happy and healthy, I’ll leave her be. But if she’s being mistreated, I’ll take her to her grandparents.”
He nodded slowly. “Dat be good. You take de child back. Angie come here before a week, head gone, ask I to keep Anna. So I do. Back she come den, few day latah, lookin’ terrible bad gyal. She drape me up, treat me rough. Steal me pension check and me trumpet, only ting of value me evah own. Take Anna.”
“Where did she go?”
Rodriguez went back to tapping his foot and playing the ghostly horn. “Me don’t know. She be lookin’ like a prostitute. You try Avenida Viejo maybe. De little Angie I remembah had a good head. This Angie become a avaricious gyal, a bad gyal. No’ting but lies on her tongue. Cold like ice. It wound I inna heart. For this me pappy leave Jamaica? Me feel the world be mashed down. All be lost.”
“Wait,” I said. “Are you saying she is actually a prostitute? How do you know that?” If this was true it was shocking, as it meant she had hit bottom. Though of course she’d been working as a stripper back in Fresno, and Zenobia had hinted that Angie was not above going home with a paying customer. So maybe it wasn’t such a precipitous drop after all.
He shrugged. “Me don’t know for sure.”
I didn’t know what else to say. I couldn’t leave this man alone with no money – he said Angie had stolen his monthly pension check – and probably no food. I took $100 in soggy bills from my wallet. “Take this for your trouble,” I said. I tried to hand the money to the old man but he ignored me and continued playing the invisible horn. So I put it in his shirt pocket.
I turned to leave.
“Me see you bway,” Rodriguez said.
I turned back to face him. “What do you mean?”
“Me see you comin’ down like a hurricane. You a duppy conqueror, nevah take no for de ansah. You ovahcome all, find Anna, take she home. Galang bout yuh business, walk good. God be wit’ you.”
I understood about half of Rodriguez’s speech, but I got the gist of it. I stammered out a thank you and made my exit, retrieving the machete on the way out. We left the old man still tapping his foot and playing the memory of a thing. I could almost hear his trumpet singing those long, clear notes, wailing for hopes dashed on the shores of a new land, for what might have been, for promise ruined by a heroin needle and a dime bag of crack.
“Que dice el hombre?” Niko asked as we exited the building. “I don’t understand nothing he say. He was speaking English?”
“Didn’t you say your mother was Afro-Antillano?”
“Yes but from four generations. I don’t speak this kind of boya boya.”
The rainstorm was over. The sun was low in the sky, and building shadows stretched across the wretched alley like grasping ghosts. I told Niko all that Rodriguez had said. “Let’s head for Avenida Viejo,” I concluded. “Where the prostitutes are.”
“Is not a good idea, Zayn. You are bleeding. The sun is going down soon. Colon is much worst at night, very dangerous. We go to the Corredor Zona Libre, is safe and has good hotels. Then we look tomorrow.”
I’d read that the Zona Libre – the Free Trade Zone – was a huge import-export zone where goods came in from all over the world and were sold wholesale and retail. It would surely be a highly secure area. A night in a good hotel, where I could sleep in safety, recuperate, and tend to my wounds, sounded nice.
But… Angie had tried to unload Anna on her sister, then she’d come all the way to Panama, possibly with an armful of cash, and dumped the kid on her grandfather. Then she’d come back and taken Anna. Why? If she’d blown all the money and was willing to steal from her grandfather – steal his trumpet even, his only prized possession – and had fallen so low as to work as a streetwalker, then why take Anna? She obviously couldn’t care for her. Angie was on a downward spiral, and people on that trajectory didn’t suddenly reform and become good parents. I had a bad feeling about this. My gut told me that Angie was on an express train to self-destruction, and that I needed to find the child quickly before she was pulled along into a fiery crash.
“No,” I told Niko. “I will not stop. I understand if you want to go back to Panama. You have a wife and children to worry about.”
Niko glared with bugged-out eyes and jabbed me in the chest with a finger. “Why you say this to me Zayn? Didn’t I make a swear that I will not leave you until you find this girl? Even to the point of death? Why do you insult me as a man?”
His outrage was genuine. In fact, he looked as if he might cry. I had offended his Latino sense of machismo and challenged his honor. “Okay,” I said, patting his shoulder. “I know you’re not afraid. I was only thinking of your family. I appreciate your help.”
He nodded, mollified, and we proceeded down the lane, shoulder to shoulder.
We walked several blocks. The bleeding from my shoulder cut slowed to an ooze. My shirt was stained with blood from neck to belly button. The sun fell from the sky as if shot by a hunter’s gun, and the city grew dark. We passed a busy commercial street, where Niko hid his pistol in his waistband at the small of his back. I wrapped the machete in my spare set of clothes and put it in my backpack. Only the handle stuck out, and no one seemed to care. I drew a few looks with my bloodstained shirt and the silly soccer hat on my hat – an Arab Unido hat for an Arab – but on the whole the people of Colon seemed a laissez faire lot, everyone going about their business to the beat of their own Caribbean drums, whether that business was selling grilled fish and fried plantains at the side of the road, peddling pencils for five cents and roses for ten, performing streetside massages, or robbing people.
Unwilling to surrender the machete to a security guard, I sent Niko into a chino – which was what the locals called the corner stores, as they were all owned by Chinese – to buy disinfectant and a bandage for my shoulder wound. Also a bottle of water so I could take my meds, and a clean shirt. I treated my shoulder and took the antibiotics, but not the pain meds. My left arm throbbed as if I had snakes embedded in my flesh instead of bones, and the shoulder wound was a constant bother, but the pain meds would make me drowsy and I couldn’t have that. I put on the new shirt – a plain white Tee – discarding the old one in a trash can.
We came to Avenida Viejo, a dour commercial strip in which every open storefront was guarded by armed security. The businesses that had already closed were secured with heavy rolldown metal doors. Men loitered in darkened doorways, singly or in groups, smoking or simply waiting their chance to pounce.
Nearly naked women strutted up and down the strip, calling out to the odd car that drove by, and sometimes fighting with each other for the best corners. They catcalled to Niko and I, offering themselves and naming their prices. None were the least bit tempting. Even had I not been a Muslim with an awareness of Allah and a commitment to my faith, these women were mostly broken down. They looked weathered and aged before their time. I knew intellectually that many were victims: runaways, sufferers of abuse, or victims of human trafficking. I felt some sympathy, but I also found them repellent and utterly foreign, as if they were squabbling aliens who’d been deported from their home planet and unloaded on earth.
We traveled up and down the strip. On one especially gloomy block, five swaggering young men approached us from the darkness. I reached behind my back and drew the machete from the backpack while Niko pulled the huge pistol from his waistband. Like a pack of wolves acting in concert, the youths changed direction and detoured around us.
From the way Niko muttered to himself, I knew he was frustrated and ready to call it quits. I also knew he would never say so, not since I’d challenged his manhood, or so he thought.
“Do you have any suggestions?” I asked.
Niko flapped his lips. “Not all the prostitutes work on the street Zayn. Many work in brothels. But we cannot go knocking on doors with weapons in our hands. Is impossible.”
I stood there, out of ideas. I remembered something Imam Saleh used to say: when you’re out of ideas, ask Allah. We’re human. We’re not meant to have the answers to all questions, nor are we capable of it. When there’s no human helper to fall back on, no one else to turn to, Allah is still there, caring for us and ready to answer our prayers.
I realized that Maghreb time was nearly over and I had not prayed. We’d passed an empty lot a block back. I gestured to Niko and we headed that way. The lot was carpeted with garbage and weeds, but I made wudu’ from the bottle of water I’d purchased, took the shirt from my backpack and laid it down, and prayed Maghreb and ‘Isha as Niko stood guard. After that I prayed one rak’ah of witr, the voluntary night prayer, and made dua’ to Allah to help me find this child.
After my prayer, I took Anna’s picture from my wallet and gazed at it again. The lot was dark, but I knew the details of the image by heart: Anna’s thin face, dark brown skin and willowy brown hair. Her blue pants, white collared shirt and blue school jumper, and the white Adidas sneakers with the black stripes. Her always serious mien, as if she’d seen more than a child her age should.
I put away the photo, hauled myself to my feet, hefted the backpack and put on the soccer hat. “Again,” I said to Niko. “Let’s walk the strip again.”
To his credit, the muscular Panamanian did not complain. He nodded and we set out to traverse the mile long red light district once more. We walked all the way to the sea, where an ancient and pitted seawall looked over the dark Atlantic waters, then back to the filthy lot where I’d prayed. My legs were tired and my feet sore, while my arm ached so badly that I had to work to think clearly. I stood there staring at the night sky. It was packed with clouds. Now and then the moon made a darting appearance then disappeared, as if it too were afraid to show itself in Colon at night.
A movement caught my eye. A man stepped from behind a mango sapling in a dark corner of the lot, and hurried off. A moment later a woman stepped out, adjusting her short faux-leather skirt. Aside from the skirt, she wore a red tank top, red high heels, and nothing else. Even at this distance I recognized her.
I have a good eye for the way people move, the way they walk and carry themselves. Maybe it comes from a lifetime of martial arts training, or maybe it’s an awareness I developed in prison, where reading a person’s body language correctly could save your life. This woman’s body was in a perpetual state of self-contradiction: she was slightly pigeon toed, but carried her shoulders proudly. I’d noticed it the first time I met her, years ago. It was Angie, of course. She picked her way through the litter, walking carefully on her high heels.
I’d prayed for help in this case and now here was Angie. An atheist would look at this unfolding of events and label it coincidence. “There are billions of people praying for the fulfillment of wishes great and small,” the atheist might argue. “In a world where anything can happen, some of those wishes are bound to come true. That’s not divine intervention. It’s life.”
I could see the atheist’s point. Life is not a connect-the-dots coloring book with handy numbers proving that (1) prayer leads to (2) the fulfillment of one’s wish. But how many times in my life had I been in situations that should have killed me and didn’t? Not the least of these was my near drowning in the Río Curundú this very day, and the confrontation with three armed robbers a few hours ago. Just as many times I’d been caught in serious life traps with no obvious exits, then suddenly found a door opening before me, offering a way forward.
I’m a private detective. I might believe in one coincidence or two, but when the “coincidences” begin to mount, I – like any good detective – look for the pattern behind the chaos. I look for the Power that in turn is looking out for me, protecting me, guiding me with a touch and a nudge, and sometimes a solid rap on my skull.
To whom could I give the credit but Allah? Who else kept saving me from myself? Who else found such value in my sorry existence?
I touched Niko’s shoulder and he followed me as I crossed the street and planted myself in front of Angie. She looked terrible. Her formerly muscular frame had melted away. She was dangerously thin, her clothes were stained, her eyes were red and puffy, and her long, braided hair had been hacked short. I wondered if she’d sold it. It was impossible not to notice the track marks – bruises and scabs from needle injections – that ran along the insides of both arms. She smelled of layers of unwashed sweat and decay covered with cheap perfume.
“Fifteen dollars for half an hour,” she said in Spanish, still busy adjusting her clothing and not looking at our faces.
“Where’s Anna?” I said in English. “Where’s your daughter, Angie?”
She reacted as if I’d slapped her. Her head snapped up, her feet turning partly away as if she might run. Her face registered fear, shame, anger and suspicion all mixed together. She looked me up and down. “Who are you?” she demanded in English. “You’re not a cop.”
“Think about it.”
She took her time. I saw wonder dawn on her face, then just as quickly turn to calculation as she began figuring how she could exploit me. “Stick,” she said warmly. She was a good actress. “You’re Tarek’s friend.” She reached out and touched my arm. “What are you doing here? Listen, I’m glad I ran into you. I’m going through a hard time. You think you could loan me some money? Just like, a thousand. I’ll pay you back, I promise.”
“I asked you a question. Where’s your daughter? Where’s Anna?”
She frowned. “What do you care about that? You gonna loan me the money or not?”
I seized her upper arm tightly and spoke slowly but intensely. “Where’s Anna?”
“Hey!” She tried to yank her arm free, but my grip was a vise. She cursed me, then said, “I’ll call the police!”
Niko laughed. “Police at night in Colon? On Avenida Viejo? Who else you will call, a magic genie?”
Angie stopped struggling and looked me and Niko over more carefully. I saw her take in the handle of the machete sticking out of my backpack, the knives clipped to my pockets, and my companion’s muscular frame and enlarged knuckles. Her eyes became hooded as she spoke in what she must have thought was a seductive tone: “You guys wanna party? I’ll give you a great time. Whatever you want. I just need a little money for food, you know. Come on Stick, we’re friends, be nice to me.”
“We don’t want that. But you can have this.” I took $100 out of my wallet and held it in front of her face. She reached for it greedily but I pulled it back. “First tell me where Anna is?”
“Why do you keep asking about that?” she snarled. “What do you care? Just give me the money.”
“I was hired by the Anwars to find you and her,” I explained patiently. “I need to make sure she’s safe, that’s all.”
Angie gave a short, bitter snicker. “That’s a laugh. Anyway she’s fine. She’s with her father back in California.”
I felt my heart sink. Why was she lying? I had an extremely bad feeling about this. “I just saw him a few days ago,” I said. “She’s not with him.”
“Yeah… I know. I mean she was with him. But I dropped her off with my sister in San Francisco. She wanted a little auntie time.” She reached for the money.
I shut my fist on the cash. “You’re lying. I’ve been to see Alejandra.”
Surprise crossed Angie’s face. “I… I mean we visited there. But Angie is with my grandfather here in Colon. She’s fine.”
I was suddenly furious with this lying, sniveling junkie. My grip tightened on her arm and she squealed in pain. What had she done with her daughter, for God’s sake? I wanted to slap her silly. I wanted to drag her down the street and hold her by her ankles over the seawall until she told the truth. But I couldn’t bring myself to do any of that. On some level I felt sorry for Angie. And I’d known her for years. I could not abuse her.
I felt a combination of fury and restraint – a mutually nullifying combination that rendered me impotent. Niko must have seen this on my face. He took Angie’s arm from me and dragged her toward the rear of the lot, to the dark corner behind the mango tree. She cried out, but this block was nearly deserted, and the few passers by merely ducked their heads and continued on their way. I followed listlessly, wanting to tell Niko to stop, but knowing that I needed my questions answered. My companion shoved Angie against the wall of the building that bordered the lot, drew his huge pistol and pointed the gun at Angie’s face. The gun had no bullets of course, but Angie didn’t know that.
“Give the word, boss,” Niko said, “and I kill her.”
Angie’s eyes were wide, but she still refused to break. She spat in my direction. “You won’t murder me! I know you, you don’t have the stones.”
“He’s not the one with the gun,” Niko said with an evil grin. “And since you do not answer the questions, we have no use for you.” He pulled back the hammer on the revolver. “Ve con Dios, chica,” he said. “Te veré en el infierno.” Go with God, girl. I’ll see you in Hell.
“No!” Angie cried. Her terror was genuine.
“Stop!” I said. “Just stop.” This was wrong. I felt ashamed. I hadn’t been raised to treat women this way. There had to be a better way. I gestured to Niko to lower the gun. He backed off and I approached Angie.
“You’re right,” I told the frightened, wretched woman. “I’m sorry. That’s not me. I’m a man of faith. And I have faith in you, Angie. You’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I know deep in your heart you love Anna. If something bad has happened, share it with me and let me help. I know you’re an intelligent woman. You went to college. You never messed with drugs until Tarek got you started. This-” I gestured to the bruises and scabs on her arms “-is not the sum of who you are. You’re more than this. You’re a human being, a woman, a mother. I believe in you, Angie. I know you love your daughter, and I know you’re in pain.”
Was this all true? Did I believe in Angie? On some level, yes. I believed that every human being could be redeemed. Islam taught that the door of tawbah, of repentance, was always open. Faith – not only faith in God, but the faith that others invest in us – is a powerful, transformative thing. How long had it been since anyone had said these words to Angie? How long since anyone believed in her?
My speech did not garner the expected response. As I spoke, rather than being inspired or moved, Angie looked stricken. She looked more horrified, in fact, than she had when Niko pointed the gun at her. By the end of my speech she’d covered her face with her hands.
I reached out and touched her shoulder gently. “It’s okay,” I told her. “You can tell me.”
Angie dropped her hands. Her expression was haunted. “I sold her!” she screamed. Her thin legs gave out and her back slid down against the wall until she sat in the weeds and garbage of the lot. She began to weep. “I sold her to my pimp. He said he knew a rich man who needed a housemaid. Anna would be well treated, she’d have every luxury. She’s better off!”
I staggered back a step. “You sold her? You sold your child? Good God, Angie. How could you do that?”
“She’s better off!” she repeated. “I can’t care for her. I tried to leave her with my sister but she wouldn’t take her.”
“Your grandfather was willing to care for her!” I roared.
“I needed the money!” Angie spasmed as she screamed this, throwing her arms and legs out like a child having a tantrum. “I needed a fix. I was sick.” Her sobs continued.
I took deep breaths, fighting to calm myself. “Where do I find your pimp? Describe him.”
“What do you think you’re going to do?” Her tone was bitter, her eyes downcast. “Anna is gone. You’ll never get her back.”
Bonelessly, devoid of hope, Angie described a short, muscular man with a shiny bald head, a diamond tooth and a nasty temper, and told us where to find him. She called him
El Pelado – Spanish for Baldy, and she warned us that he was a gun nut. “He always has a gun,” she said. “Night and day. He will kill you.” She added this last bitterly, as a dire prediction and an expression of despair.
I stood there for a moment, watching Angie weep. How could a mother – an intelligent woman, a former university student – be reduced to this? Drugs, I thought. This is what drugs do. They turn people into ghouls. May Allah protect us all.
“Where did you pawn your grandfather’s trumpet?”
Angie stared at me as if I’d asked her if it was true that the moon was made of cheese, but sputtered out the name of a pawnshop. I dropped the $100 into her lap and turned to walk away.
“Wait!” Angie said. “What… what will you do with Anna if you get her back?”
So her heart hadn’t rotted all the way through after all. “What do you want me to do?” I countered.
“Take her to my sister Alejandra.”
I didn’t think that was likely. Dr. Alejandra Rodriguez had made it pretty clear that she didn’t want the child. But I would keep it in mind. I left Angie sitting amid the litter of the lot, contemplating the wreckage of her life, as we set off in search of an angry, bald, body-building, gun-toting pimp. I was still stunned and seething over what Angie had done. My body was exhausted, wounded and sick, and my arm was on fire with pain, but I was on a mission to save a child, and I would not be stopped.
* * *
We made our way to a half-ruined building two blocks over, following the directions Angie gave us. The pimp’s ground floor apartment was easy enough to locate, as a steady stream of hookers entered and exited, dropping off payments no doubt. We hid in a shadowed doorway across the street and watched. Shouting occasionally rose from within. More than one hooker came out clutching her belly, as if she’d been punched or kicked. I assumed the pimp didn’t want to affect the street value of his “merchandise” by hitting them in the face.
We got lucky. A muscular tattooed man – I couldn’t say whether he was a rival pimp, a disgruntled customer or an angry boyfriend – showed up with a wooden baseball bat. He pounded on the door, and when El Pelado came waving a silver plated .45 Colt pistol and shouting – I could see his diamond tooth glinting from across the street – the guy ambushed him, clocking him with a hard shot to the head. He gave him one more hit to the ribs for good measure, then left. As the pimp lay on the ground groaning, Niko and I hurried over, disarmed the man and dragged him back into his apartment. Though he was short he was heavy with muscle and not easy to move.
We evicted the few hookers who were smoking crack in one of the bedrooms, locked the door and bound the man to an armchair with a roll of electrical tape we found under the sink. The apartment was garishly furnished in black leather and red velvet, and was messy, with discarded food and drug paraphernalia everywhere.
Ignoring the hookers who occasionally showed up to knock on the door and call out, we splashed some water into El Pelado’s face to wake him, then stood over him, Niko with the .45 and me with the machete, and questioned him about Anna. When he refused to tell us anything, Niko tried the same trick of putting the gun – the .45 this time – to his forehead and cocking the hammer.
The pimp broke out in a sweat but remained mute. Niko’s finger tightened on the trigger. His face was red with anger and I had a sudden gut feeling that he was actually going to shoot the man. “Niko!” I started to say, but the pimp must have read the same intention in Niko’s eyes because he shouted in Spanish, “Los Ochos! Don’t shoot. I sold her to Los Ochos.”
“Where?” Niko screamed, also in Spanish. “Where did they take her?”
The pimp began to weep. I believe he saw the face of death before him in that moment. He blubbered something I could not understand, except for the word “demon.”
“What did he say?” I demanded.
“He say he sold her to Los Ochos gang. Their leader, El Demonio, likes the young girls.”
“For what?” Though of course I already knew the answer.
Yes. Rage flooded through me like the water of the Río Curundú. I wanted to lift my machete and cut this man in half. I clenched my jaw. “Ask him where to find this El Demonio.”
Niko quirked his mouth downward unhappily. “Everyone in Panama know where, Zayn.”
“Then we’re done here.”
As if reading my thoughts, Niko gestured to the bound pimp and said, “We should kill him.”
My eyes flicked to the criminal. The man had sold a child in sexual slavery, and probably not for the first time, or – if we let him live – the last. He deserved to die. I wanted to say yes, do it. But I was not a judge, jury and executioner. I couldn’t go around killing anyone I believed to be a criminal. What would I do in front of Allah with the blood I’d shed? How would I account for myself?
“That would be murder,” I said. “I’m a Muslim. I don’t do that.”
“You don’t understand, Zayn. He will tell Los Ochos that we are asking about the girl. They will find us. We will not live until sunrise.”
“Then let them come,” I said fiercely. “I am not a murderer. We can tape his mouth, shut him in a closet and leave him. Maybe by the time anyone finds him we’ll have Anna.”
“And what about the one who told us where to find him? This piece of garbage” – he kicked El Pelado’s shin – “will kill that person.”
It was smart of Niko not to say Angie’s name out loud, but he was right, the pimp would figure it out. “It’s up to that person,” I countered, “to disappear, move away, or whatever. I can’t kill a man for what he might do.”
Niko flapped his lips in frustration. “These are not bullies of the school, Zayn. These people have hearts like frozen stones. We cannot play games with them. Do you imagine you will get Anna back without killing? You fool yourself. Do you know why Los Ochos are named such? Because they chop their enemies in eight pieces. Arm, arm, head, leg, leg-”
I cut him off with a sharp wave. Everything he said made sense. But it was impossible. To kill a man in cold blood? There was no universe in which I could do such a thing. “No,” I said again.
I jumped as a gunshot rang out. At first I thought Niko had killed El Pelado despite my refusal, but Niko cried out and fell back, clutching his arm and dropping the silver .45. While we’d been distracted with our argument, El Pelado had somehow gotten his hands free and drawn what looked like a .38 from an ankle holster. His feet were still bound, but he had the .38 trained on my chest, and his hand was steady. Blood trickled from the side of his head where the mystery man had clobbered him with the bat, but the diamond from his tooth glittered as he grinned at me.
“He shot me,” Niko moaned. I gave him a quick glance. The bullet looked to have grazed his forearm, taking a chunk out of the muscle. He’d live.
“Use your foot,” the pimp said in accented but fluent English, “to kick the Colt closer to me. Move very slowly. I will not hesitate to kill you both.”
Oh, blast it. How had we let this happen? Laa hawla wa laa quwwata il-la billah. Never mind, I could castigate myself for my stupidity later. Right now I needed to find a way out of this. I did as the pimp instructed, kicking the gun over. “Hey,” I said casually. “We got off on the wrong foot. I’m sorry about that. My name is Amir and this is my friend Saladino.”
“Shut up,” El Pelado replied. “Take off your backpack and toss it aside.”
I did so.
“Now take those cute little knives from your pockets. Slide one over to me, and hand me the other butt first, using your index finger and thumb only.”
“Your English is very good,” I commented. “Have you lived in the U.S.?
“Do what I told you!” he barked.
I did, all the while looking for an opportunity to go for his gun. But he kept it well away, down by his hip, and never took his eyes off me as he picked up the knife with his free hand. He cut his ankles free. Then he ordered me down on the floor beside Niko, tossed the duct tape to me, and ordered me to tape Niko’s hands and ankles.
“We could pay you,” I said, “if you let us go. I have a lot of money in the bank. How does fifty thousand dollars sound?”
El Pelado raised the .38 and pointed it at my stomach. I could see that he wasn’t bluffing. He was about to put a slug in me.
“Okay! I’m doing it.” When I was done he had me tape my own feet, then tape one of my hands to my feet. Then he instructed me to toss the tape to him. He strode over to me, and before I could think of how I might use my free hand to fight, he kicked me hard in the ribs with the toe of his shoe. Something cracked inside me and pain exploded in my side. I groaned and writhed in pain, and while I did so El Pelado seized my free hand and taped it to my feet as well. I was trussed like a pig on a spit, ready to be roasted. I was completely helpless.
The pimp seized my hair and yanked on it painfully. He brought his face close to mine and I could smell the fish he’d eaten for dinner on his breath, as well as his sweat. Light glinted off the diamond on his tooth.
“Who sent you?” he demanded. “Was it Muerte Rojo?”
Apparently he thought some other gang had sent us after him. I wasn’t sure how to answer. If he realized that I was alone here, with no backing or compadres behind me, he might kill me. On the other hand, he probably intended to kill me anyway. I went with the truth. “I’m a private detective. I’m just after the girl. I’m not interested in you. You heard us talking. I wasn’t planning to kill you.”
He spat in my face and released my hair. “That’s your mistake.” He searched my pockets and found my wallet, which contained nothing but a little cash. He threw it in my face and checked the backpack. “A machete?” he sneered. “What, you think you’re a Mexican folk hero?” Crossing to Niko, he checked his Niko’s pockets. He found two butterscotch candies, a few dollars in change, and Niko’s cedula – his Panama I.D. card.
“So,” the pimp said, studying the card. “You are Niko Osvaldo Tiburon. So what?” He flicked the card at Niko’s eyes. “A couple of nobodies. Soon to be dead nobodies.”
“How much is the life of a little girl worth?” I snapped. “How much did El Demonio pay you? Don’t you have a shred of human decency?”
The pimp walked to the front door, went outside for a moment and returned with the wooden baseball bat. “So this is what you hit me with? Now you’ll see what it’s like to be on the other end.”
“No,” I started to say. “It wasn’t-”
He slammed the bat onto my wounded shoulder. Blinding pain exploded in my shoulder. The bat came away bloody and I knew my cut had reopened.
“The next one is your head,” the pimp snarled. “I’m going to splatter your brains all over the floor. Then I’ll kill your friend.” The muscles in his arms bunched as he lifted the bat high, preparing to crush my head. As he brought it down I squirmed, thrashing like a caught fish, and the bat only clipped me a grazing blow to the ear. My head rang and fireworks burst before my eyes. He lifted the bat again. I was too stunned to move. I couldn’t get my tongue to work but I recited the shahadah in the privacy of my mind. I was deeply disappointed that it was all ending this way. I’d accomplished nothing. Anna was lost, and now my daughter would lose her father as well.
An ear-splitting roar filled the apartment. At first, in my dazed state, I thought another of those massive Panamanian thunder peals had erupted. El Pelado gave a short scream. His body jerked and danced, then tumbled to the ground. I turned my head to look at him. His torso was nearly cut in half. I breathed deeply, clearing my head, then managed to sit up. A high pitched whine still sounded in my ears.
Angie stood in the doorway to one of the bedrooms, holding an AK-47 in her arms. I’m no expert on guns, but I’d seen enough AKs in movies to recognize the distinctive shape of the most popular combat rifle in the world. Angie’s eyes were wide, her teeth bared in a rictus. Her badly cut hair stuck out in every direction. “I heard what he said,” she snarled. “He sold my daughter to El Demonio. He lied to me.”
I could barely hear her. Her voice sounded muffled, as if I had cotton in my ears. “Okay Angie,” I said, trying to sound calm. “Put down the gun.”
She turned to face me and stared blankly. The barrel pointed directly at my head. Remembering the way Niko had roughed her up, I feared her intentions for us. I couldn’t help grimacing and flinching, anticipating another monstrous blast from the Russian machine gun, one that would tear through me like a hunting knife through a napkin.
“Please Angie,” I said. “Put down the AK. We’re trying to help your daughter, remember?”
“What’s a AK?”
“The gun, Angie.”
“Huh? Oh.” She lowered the rifle and leaned it against the wall.
I breathed a sigh of relief. “How did you get in?”
“I know all his secrets. How to open the back door, where he keeps his guns and drugs, everything.”
Without me asking, Angie retrieved one of my knives and cut my hands free. I took the knife and freed my feet. The act of standing up made me groan with pain. My right side felt like it had been kicked in by a mule, and my head hurt. I was pretty sure I had a fractured rib. For a moment the world spun and I almost fell. When I had it under control, I freed Niko. He immediately went to the AK-47 and secured it as I recovered my backpack and my other knife. Niko’s arm was bleeding badly.
“Come,” Angie said. “I’ll show you.”
“Find some alcohol to disinfect your wound,” I told Niko, “and something to bandage it with.” I followed Angie into the back bedroom. A walk-in closet stood open. The back of the closet was apparently a false wall. Angie had already opened it to reveal a small room that housed a six-foot iron safe and a collection of twenty weapons mounted on the wall. Angie went to the safe and punched a code.
“He thinks I didn’t see because I was high,” she said, “but I did. I studied organic chemistry you know. I’m good at memorizing.” The safe clicked and Angie swung the heavy door open. A stack of U.S. currency stood a foot high on an upper shelf. Angie picked up two bundles of bills and held them in white-knuckled fists. “This is my daughter’s blood money.” She dropped the cash and fell to her knees, covering her face and moaning, “Anna, Anna.”
El Pelado was not the only one who’d sold Anna. He’d been the middleman, but Angie herself was the wholesaler, and her betrayal was infinitely worse.
“If you knew how to open this safe,” I said, “why didn’t you steal this money before, instead of selling your child?”
Angie looked up with red eyes. “I was afraid of El Pelado.”
“And now you’re not?”
“You – you believed in me,” she stammered. “You said you had faith in me. No one has ever said that to me before. No one.”
Huh. I hadn’t exactly meant she should go and kill her pimp, but I wasn’t sorry that she had. She’d saved my life, after all. I picked up the money she’d dropped and inspected the stack in the safe. There was over twenty thousand dollars. “Niko,” I called quietly. “Come in here.”
He walked into the bedroom, saw the safe and cash, and whistled. His arm was bandaged with a hand towel secured with duct tape. Blood was already seeping through the towel, which smelled of liquor – no doubt what he’d used to disinfect the wound.
“How much will it cost for your son’s operation?”
His eyes met mine, and I saw the look of a man who has lost something precious, and now dares to hope that he may recover it. “Five thousand.”
I counted out ten thousand and handed it to him. “Take it. Send it to your family tomorrow.”
He accepted the money with trembling hands. His eyes closed and his lips moved but he said nothing. Finally he opened his eyes and said, “You don’t know what this mean to me. Ay, Zayn.”
“Don’t thank me,” I said. “Thank God, who opens a way from directions we do not expect.”
I separated the remaining 10K into halves and tried to hand a bundle to Angie. “Take this. Leave Colon. Return to California. Check into rehab, get clean. You and Anna could still be reunited.”
She shook her head. “It’s too late. I’ve been a junkie since I was nineteen. Whatever you give me I’ll shoot into my veins. Take Anna back to California. Tell her I’m sorry.” With that she stood and shambled out of the apartment.
I stuffed the remaining $10,000 into my backpack. I didn’t feel bad about taking the money. This was most likely the cash El Pelado had received from trafficking Anna. I might as well put it to good use. If I could use it to find her, I would savor the irony.
“Come on,” I told Niko. “We have to go. That rifle made enough noise to wake the dinosaurs.”
Niko snatched up the silver-plated .45 and a box of ammunition. We emerged from the apartment to find the street dark and deserted. Only the barking of dogs indicated that anything had happened. Apparently no one in this area cared to investigate gunshots.
* * *
“Tell me about this El Demonio,” I said as we limped down the street, me favoring my left side and Niko cradling his wounded arm.
“Is not good. He is very brutal, a psicópata, how you say?”
“I need to find him. Now.”
Niko squared his shoulders and crossed his arms. “We need rest. Look at you amigo, you can hardly stand. What can you do in this condition? Also, to attack El Demonio is very impossible.” He put up a hand, forestalling my objections. “I don’t say no! I made a swear. I will help you even if I die. But it requires planning. Tonight, we rest. Tomorrow we plan. Is the only way Zayn.”
I narrowed my eyes and tightened my jaw. It galled me to admit it, but Niko was right. I was close to collapse.
We found a taxi, and a half hour later were comfortably ensconced in the Radisson Colon 2000 hotel, on the eastern side of the Colon peninsula, overlooking the Caribbean. The hotel was clean, air conditioned, and highly secure. I showered and tended to my wounds, as did Niko. I was wrong about the stitches on my arm. They were still sound. Dr. Alfred was clearly very skilled. But the shoulder wound had indeed opened up. I bandaged it as well as I could. There was nothing I could do for my cracked rib. It would heal in time.
I took my medication – including the pain meds this time – then we ate in the hotel restaurant, where we dined on overpriced but tasty garlic corvina (me) and stewed beef (Niko). We ate in silence. I was deeply tired and my head pounded. I was also wary of being overheard.
Back in the room, Niko and I sat facing each other on opposite beds. He explained that El Demonio, whose real name was Manuel Carretera, lived in a fortified mansion on a private island called Ougadiri. The island was part of the San Blas archipelago, several miles offshore, northeast of Colon. The archipelago belonged to the Kuna Yala Comarca, an autonomous province of the Kuna Indian tribe. The Panamanian police could not go there.
The government had tried El Demonio three times in absentia for crimes ranging from drug trafficking to murder to kidnapping and torture. He’d been acquitted all three times. The popular feeling was that corruption was responsible. Meaning El Demonio had paid off the judges, prosecutors, cops, or all three.
“We’ll need a boat, I said blearily, “and a guide.”
Niko gestured to the bed. “Lie down, and I will tell you my thoughts.”
I laid on the bed, and Niko began to talk about his childhood in Colon, and how he’d worked as a deckhand on a fishing boat. He spoke about the character of the sea, and how it could change as quickly as the leap of a fish. He talked about Panama’s hundreds of Caribbean islands, and how he’d learned to navigate between them…
I don’t know what else he talked about, because I was asleep within minutes.
* * *
Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!
Wael Abdelgawad’s novel, Pieces of a Dream, is available on Amazon.com.
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