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Zaid Karim, Private Investigator, Part 16 – Finding Anna

Nothing about this mission had gone as planned. I’d imagined I would sneak in, find Anna, sneak out, and leave with Niko. But it’s said that no plan survives first contact with the enemy.

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 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15

Wednesday, February 9, 2010 – 1:15 am
Ougadiri Island, Panama

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The front door of the house – a huge wooden door that must have weighed a half a ton – swung open. A woman emerged, shouting and waving a half-full bottle of liquor. She was beautiful, petite and slender, and wore a white designer pantsuit, black heels and a white fur stole. Apparently no one told her that fur is now politically incorrect.

I lowered my arm slowly, awaiting developments.

A man emerged from the house. He wore slippers, underwear and a fur bathrobe that was open in front to expose his hairy chest and legs. A large automatic pistol was tucked into his underwear. That seemed like a stupid idea. He was short but wiry, with hair dyed the color of a beet salad. He spoke to the woman in a pleading tone, his hands out in supplication. He turned slightly, and I saw his profile. His right ear was missing. He was El Demonio.

The woman threw the bottle at him and – as he barely dodged it – screamed a long string of curses, some of which I understood. Among them was one word that struck my ears like the ringing of a gong: pedófilo. Pedophile.

My heart sank. I’d half hoped that El Pelado had been wrong, and that El Demonio’s interest in Anna lay in some other direction. But it seemed the pimp had told the truth, and that El Demonio’s wife or girlfriend or whatever she was knew it too.

The woman in the fur stole stormed over to the Rolls Royce and started it up. El Demonio shouted something but the woman roared straight for the gate, not slowing down at all. El Demonio hollered to the guards to open the gate. It began to slide open.

Too late. With a tremendous clanging, crashing noise, the woman barrelled headlong into the gate, which tore free from its hinges and flew into the air, coming down halfway to the treeline. The fence itself was partially pulled down, with at least once fence post torn from the ground. Sparks flew, illuminating the night sky like fireworks, and the hum of electricity through the fence abruptly cut off.

The woman didn’t even slow down. She sped off down the road at a high rate of speed. The Rolls was barely dented, though one headlight was smashed.

El Demonio walked in a circle, raging and waving his arms. The guards exited the guardhouse to inspect the damaged fence and gate. The patrol vehicle pulled up, while two other guards came running out of the house.

One of the guards laughed upon seeing the destroyed gate. El Demonio rounded on the man, drew the pistol from his underpants and shot the man point blank in the forehead. The guard’s body crashed to the ground, and the cartel boss fired twice more into the man’s prone form.

He turned to the other men and yelled. Two of them hurried to the ATVs and sped down the road after the woman. The remaining guards conferred with El Demonio.

This was my chance. The fence near where I lay was partly torn from the ground. A gap of about a foot and a half at the bottom allowed enough room for me to crawl through. I began to move.

As I crawled beneath the fence, my belt caught on a ragged bit of metal that projected from the torn fence. I reached back slowly and tried to free it. I was not more than ten meters from where El Demonio stood with his man. My legs were hidden by the guardhouse, but my upper body was in plain sight. All they had to do was look up and they would see me.

I jerked at the belt, trying to free it. El Demonio gestured wildly toward the west, and he and his man turned in my direction. I flattened myself against the ground, pressing one ear to the warm earth, trying to look like a clump of weeds or a stone, or anything except what I was. I thougth flat thoughts: I’m a tortilla. I’m a pancake. Only then did I realize that my face was about two inches from a line of leaf-cutter ants. They marched past, each ant carrying a bit of leaf many times larger than itself. I’d heard they could denude an entire mango tree in a few days. I wondered what they’d do to my face if I got in their way.

Leaf cutter ants

A brilliant yellow light burst across the island sky, followed an instant later by a tremendous booming sound that rolled across the forest from somewhere down west. Birds rose up by the thousands, while monkeys screeched in alarm. I moved my head the tiniest bit and peered behind me. A massive fire was burning far down at the western tip of the island, where the marina was located. Bits of flaming wrecking soared high in the air, arcing out over the forest and ocean, as if a flock of phoenixes had just taken flight. The yacht, I realized. The yacht had exploded.

El Demonio went apoplectic. His face turned as red as his hair and he began shrieking at the guards around him. He struck one and shoved another. I caught the words, esa loca mujer – “that crazy woman.” El Demonio seemed to think the woman was responsible for blowing up the boat.

I was pretty sure it was not the woman. I was pretty sure it was Niko. I resisted the urge to laugh. That crazy maniac! I’d told him to disable the boats, not blow them to kingdom come.

One of the guards said something – it sounded like a question – and to my shock, El Demonio pulled the pistol from his pants and shot the man in the chest. The man fell and began crying in pain. The cartel boss disappeared into the house, then emerged with a set of keys. He started up the Lamborghini, which was bright red, and shot down the road toward the marina, brakes squealing as he rounded the bends. The guard in the patrol car followed. The two others still standing in the driveway conferred intensely, then lifted their wounded comrade – ignoring the dead one – and carried him to the last vehicle parked in the driveway, a smaller pickup truck that was coated in mud. They loaded the wounded man into the bed, drove right past me through the gate, and headed down the road. I had no idea where they were going.

I studied the house. There was literally not a single guard in sight. SubhanAllah! I reached back and pulled my belt loose from the snag. I crawled quickly through the hole, avoiding the ants, then rose lightly to my feet and ran toward the house, drawing my scuba knife. I slipped through the front door and dashed into the huge house.

In spite of the late hour, the house was brightly lit and smelled of baking bread. The interior was predictably huge, with a lobby big enough to hold three average houses. The lobby ceiling soared to the full height of the house. A circular staircase ran against the wall and rose all the way to the third floor, while second and third floor verandas circled the lobby, just as on the outside. Rooms and corridors ran off in four directions. Samba music played softly from somewhere upstairs.

The decor was an epic clash of hunting lodge versus French renaissance, as if a Russian trapper and a French noblewoman had declared war and chosen furniture and paint as their weapons. The massive mounted heads of jaguars, leopards and cape buffalos hung side by side with impressionist paintings of lakes and trees. Some of those paintings were probably worth millions. Antique French furniture shared space with bear skin rugs with the bear heads still attached.

I chose a corridor to my right at random and ran down it, then stopped in shocked horror, my feet nearly tripping over each other. On the walls on both sides were mounted human heads. They were not sculptures or wax models. They were real heads, preserved at the moment of death. They were the heads of older men and younger, hairy and bald, eyes closed or open and staring in perpetual dread. Some were scarred or bloodstained. These were the heads of El Demonio’s enemies, no doubt. There were at least thirty.

God willing, I would not join them. What had I expected, tea and crumpets and a docent-led tour? I recovered my aplomb and ran on. I dashed through scores of lavishly appointed bedrooms, bathrooms that made Chausiku Sulawesi’s look like a broom closet, and three large kitchens. There was an indoor pool, a bowling alley and a cinema. In one of the kitchens I heard talking. I glanced in to see two female cooks in white aprons apparently baking breads and pastries for the next day while another man washed dishes. I bypassed them without being seen. Aside from that, the entire floor was deserted. I returned to the lobby and mounted the stairs to the second floor. It was more of the same. Twice I saw guards on the outdoor verandas, but their attention was focused outward, on whatever was happening down by the marina, and they did not see me.

Donning the infrared goggles, I moved cautiously through a second floor bedroom that was the source of the softly playing samba music and that smelled of menthol lotion and pipe smoke. I froze when I realized that the two large lumps in the bed were an elderly couple with sleeping masks over their eyes. Maybe they were drugged, because the noises of the night didn’t seem to have disturbed them at all. I prowled on quietly and moved up to the third floor, growing increasingly frustrated. I’d found no evidence that Anna was here at all.

I’d just begun my search of the third floor when a second explosion boomed outside, followed immediately by a third, smaller blast. The house’s windows rattled in their frames and someone down on the ground floor cried out. The other two boats, was my guess. Whether it was Niko’s doing or simply the fire spreading, I did not know. If it was Niko, then his work was done, and bravo. He’d disabled the boats as I asked.

Of course nothing about this mission had gone as planned. I’d imagined I would sneak in, find Anna, sneak out, and leave with Niko. But it’s said that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. What my plan was now, I did not know.

In a third floor bedroom a maid screamed when she saw me, ducking and covering her head. I imagined I looked quite scary with the goggles on and a knife in my hand. “Silencio,” I commanded her, then I moved on. I knew she might alert someone, but I would deal with that if it happened.

I passed through a huge glass-ceilinged atrium housing an indoor arboretum, where tropical trees and ferns filled the space with green warmth. The air was thickly damp, and a small waterfall cascaded down one wall into an artificial pool. The floor was earth, with trails meandering through the room. It was nearly an indoor forest.

I was tired, and my ribs ached. I doubted very much that Anna was hiding behind a banana tree. I turned to leave and found myself face to face with a six foot five behemoth with dark brown skin, a neck the size of a tree trunk and one of those pseudo-beards that is just a thin strip of hair along the jawline. He already had his rifle raised, and before I could react he slammed me in the face with the butt, knocking me to the ground. Luckily the night vision goggles caught the brunt of the blow. They shattered and became instantly useless. I snatched them off just in time to see the guard lean over me and attempt to bring the rifle butt down on my head.

That was a mistake. I couldn’t count the times Malik Sulawesi had said to me, “Never lean. Anytime you lean you’re off balance and vulnerable. Move your feet, kneel or squat, but don’t lean.”

As the rifle butt sped toward my face, I shrimped to the side, grabbed the guard’s arms and pulled. He tumbled headlong over me, landing on his back beside me, the rifle slipping from his hands. I was on him like a viper, shooting my right arm between his arm and neck, reaching around to grasp my left biceps, and locking on a head-and-arm choke that was tighter than a vise. This choke compressed the carotid arteries, completely cut off the blood flow to his brain. The guy might outweigh me by a hundred pounds, if I could hold the choke he would be unconscious in six seconds, eight at the most. Fortunately it was my right arm applying the choke, not my injured left arm, or I’d never have pulled it off.

It was like holding a buffalo. He made grunting sounds, thrashed and tried to rise, but I dragged him back down, using his head for leverage. Two seconds. He tried to roll toward me but I based out, shooting my legs back, bracing the balls of my feet in the earth. Four seconds. He tried to roll away and this time succeeded. I was carried right over his body to land on my side with his weight atop me. I could hardly breathe myself, but I maintained the choke. Six seconds. Then the guy did something I wouldn’t have thought possible. Moving ponderously, gnashing his teeth, he rose to his feet with me literally hanging from his neck. I dangled, feet in the air. I saw him reaching for a knife that hung in a sheath on a utility belt. The choke required both arms to maintain. If I let go, I’d lose whatever advantage I had against this brute. Eight seconds. He drew the knife, which turned out to be a huge hunting knife with one straight edge and one serrated. I was about to give up on the choke in order to defend myself against the knife – and probably get myself gutted like a fish – when the guard’s arms went limp. He swayed, then crashed to the ground. I fell with him, but managed to land atop him so that his body took the brunt of my fall. I gasped with relief.

The guard would recover consciousness in perhaps thirty seconds. In a flash I released the choke, removed the guard’s utility belt and searched it. It contained a communications radio, extra magazines for the rifle, mini binoculars, a tactical flashlight with crenellated edges for striking, and an expandable baton. I’d been hoping to find zip ties, but there were none of the control tools associated with police duty belts, like stun guns, pepper spray or handcuffs. I supposed El Demonio’s security force was less interested in nonviolent control, and more interested in gleeful slaughter.

I looked around wildly. Some of the younger trees were tied to wooden stakes with short lengths of rubber tubing. I pried the knife out of the guard’s meaty hand, ran to the trees and cut two lengths of rubber tubing. Dashing back to the guard I used the tubing to bind his wrists and ankles. Then I removed the man’s boots, balled his socks and stuffed them in his mouth. Lastly I put on the utility belt and sheathed the knife. I was now carrying four knives, which would have been perfect if I were half human and half octopus.

The guard was literally snoring, taking a nap on the proverbial rowboat drifting gently down the stream. Applying the standard recovery technique for someone who’s been choked out, I picked up his feet and shook them, sending blood to his head. He opened his eyes, looking around dazedly.

I squatted atop his broad chest. I drew my scuba knife and pressed the point against the side of his neck, gripping his chin with my other hand to hold his head in place. The knife bit into the skin, drawing a trickle of blood.

“That’s a very sharp knife you feel pressing against your neck,” I said in English. “You make one wrong move and I will cut your carotid artery like a fruit roll-up, do you understand? Blink once if you understand.”

He blinked once, his eyes wide with a combination of fear and rage.

“Good. So you speak English?”

Again he blinked once.

“Alright. I’m going to take the gag of your mouth. You will say nothing except to answer my questions. If you call for help it will be the last thing you ever say.” I turned my words into a snarl. “I consider you and your master to be filth. If you doubt my resolve, try me.”

I removed the socks and the downed guard breathed deeply. “You are a dead man-” he began to say.

I stuffed the socks back in and dropped an elbow onto his left eye with all my body weight behind it. I felt one of the orbital bones shatter. The big guy grunted in pain. I pushed his head up, exposing his neck, and began to draw a shallow cut along the jawline. It wouldn’t kill him, but might send a message.

“Mmmafffff!” His words were muffled but the tone of panic was clear. I removed the socks.“Okay,” he said. “I will cooperate.” His left eye was swollen shut. Tit for tat. He smashed me, I smashed him.

I brought my face close to his ear and continued to press the knife into his neck. “I have only one question,” I growled through gritted teeth. “And I swear to God, you will answer truthfully the first time or I will kill you. I have no patience left. None. You have once chance.”

I meant every word, and the guard must have heard the verity in my words because he held his head very still as he whispered, “Fine. Ask your question.”

“Where is the girl? The little girl, Anna? The one El Demonio bought from El Pelado.”

“I don’t know that name.”

I gripped his hair, pulled his head up and began to dig the knife into his neck. The trickle of blood became a small stream. I hadn’t cut his artery yet, just the skin.

“Wait!” His voice was frantic. “I swear I don’t know the names of the girls, but they are kept in the outbuilding. The gray one on the south side of the house.”

The girls. My God. There was more than one. Without another word I withdrew my knife and began to stuff the socks back into the guard’s mouth.

“Ayuda!” he bellowed, calling for help.

I drove the blade into his larynx, cutting off the shout. Blood poured from his throat. I stuffed the socks into his mouth. He thrashed uselessly, his eyes wide with terror. I had not cut any major vessels. He’d never speak again, but had a chance of survival, if he received medical care in time. Whether that happened or not was not my concern.

I picked up the guard’s rifle and recognized it right away. It was a Galil, an Israeli-made assault rifle. I’d carried one for a while when I was a bank robber. Horse used to take me, Deuce and Red out to the Mojave desert to train with a variety of weapons. I’d fired shotguns, bolt-action rifles, automatic handguns, revolvers, and all manner of assault rifles. I never knew where Horse procured all those weapons. We practiced firing at paper targets, bottles and cans, and we even had an automatic skeet shooter that allowed us to train against moving targets. I wouldn’t have won any national shooting contests, but I was pretty good.

 

Galil MAR rifle

I took a shine to the Galil right away, and yes, I was aware of the irony of a jihadi (as I imagined myself) carrying an Israeli gun. It was a low maintenance weapon patterned on the Kalashnikov, but with the accuracy of an M-16. It was fed with a curved steel magazine with a 35 round capacity. My only complaint was that the AR, the standard rifle version, was a bit large for urban use, especially for a skinny teenager like I was then. Horse told me there was a popular SAR carbine variation with a shorter barrel, and an even more compact MAR variation for cops and airborne troops, but he hadn’t managed to procure those.

Now here it was, a Galil MAR. The shoulder stock had been detached, leaving it with a pistol grip, a tiny barrel, and a curved magazine that looked ridiculously long by comparison. The entire thing was made of burnished black steel and could easily be concealed under an overcoat. Not that I had one.

I still did not intend to use the weapon, but between the maid who’d seen me and the guard I’d left bleeding, I expected the alarm to go up at any moment, at which point the advantage of stealth would be lost. I might be glad for the Galil if that happened. I slung at around my neck with the attached strap.

I descended the staircase, moving as quietly as I could, my scuba knife at the ready. I could only see out of one eye, so I had to turn my head constantly from side to side. As I approached the front door I saw that it was closed. I opened it incrementally, an inch at a time. A lean guard with a blond crewcut stood outside, his back to me. Like the other, he was dressed all in black and carried a rifle. I took a quiet step forward, then another. I was only one step away when the man sensed something and turned, rifle pointing at me.

I was on him like a komodo dragon – I’ve always had komodo dragons on the brain, I don’t know why, maybe because it’s a real thing that sounds unreal. I slammed the scuba knife into the side of his neck as I pushed away the barrel of his rifle. Blood sprayed into my face and neck and the guard fell like a toppled tree. He uttered only a surprised grunt, and didn’t get off a shot, though his rifle clattered on the pavement. Grateful that he was not a large man, I dragged his body around the corner of the house to the south side, behind a stand of papaya trees intermixed with berry bushes. I opened his belt pouch and took the three rifle magazines he kept there, stuffing them into my pockets. One thing I’d learned in the field was that you could never have too many bullets. I knelt, catching my breath. No shout went up, and no guard came running, thank God.

Twenty meters upslope to my left stood a gray structure that looked like a garden shed. Beyond it, further upslope, was a second structure that could have been a guest house. I no longer had the night vision goggles, and it was dark on this side of the house, but there appeared to be nothing between me and the outbuildings but open grass. Darkness was my friend, so I figured I had a good chance of crossing that space unseen. I took a deep breath, said Bismillah, and ran for it.

I made it. The shed was constructed of stucco over cement, and had a heavy steel door that was secured with a sliding bolt. The bolt was closed, effectively locking the door, but there was no padlock securing it. There were no windows and no exterior AC units. I slid the bolt open as slowly and quietly as possible, gripped the metal handle of the door and pulled. The door opened with a creak of rusty hinges. I stood as still as a stone sculpture and listened. Nothing. The shed was completely dark inside, and a foul odor emanated from it. It stank of blood, vomit, bodily fluids and death. The smell made my skin crawl and my feet want to run. I fervently hoped and prayed that Anna was not in this building.

I entered the shed and pulled the door shut behind me, eliciting the same rusty whine. Only when it was all the way closed did I allow myself to take the tactical flashlight from “my” utility belt. With my knife still in the other hand, I clicked on the flashlight and shined it around the room.

I was in a chamber of horrors. The walls and floor were splattered with blood and gore. A drain in the floor was clogged with shards of bone, flesh and hair. Shackles were bolted to the floor and wall. A variety of tools hung from the walls. All were stained with blood. This was a torture box. The pain, terror and despair of the men who had been brutalized here, who had been killed here and dismembered, was a physical presence. I could smell it, taste it and feel it on my skin. It made me gag. I bent over and retched, but managed to hold it in. Then I turned off the flashlight, opened the door and fled that terrible place.

I shut the door behind me hurriedly, forgetting to be cautious. I don’t remember if I slid the bolt closed. I didn’t even check for guards. I simply ran from that abominable hole, stumbling up the slope toward the other building I’d seen, taking deep breaths, trying to slow my racing heart.

This was it. This was the final building on the property, as far as I could tell. If Anna wasn’t here then – then what? I didn’t want to think about that. I didn’t want to consider what it might mean.

Ya Allah, I thought as I jogged up the hill. I wanted to say so much. I wanted to throw my prayer to the heavens with a voice that would light up the sky and shake the earth. I wanted to smash this island with a fist that would tear it apart and throw this entire compound into the sea. I wanted to be away from here, back with my wife and child in a place of safety and love. But most of all I wanted to find Anna Anwar and take her away from this evil place. All these thoughts and more roiled in my chest and stuck in my throat. I was too tired to formulate words, too heartsick and angry, so all I managed was Ya Allah, Ya Allah, Ya Allah.

Ouagadiri Island

Ouagadiri Island

Like the shed, this building was only one story high, but it was the size of a villa, with at least four or five rooms. Also, it had a large front window, though it was barred and curtained. Like the shed, this building’s door was a massive slab of metal, but again it was secured only from the outside with a deadbolt. No lock. That meant that this villa, like the torture chamber, was meant to keep people in, not out. It was a prison. The fact that it was unlocked spoke to El Demonio’s supreme command and confidence on this island.

Standing before the front window, I reached through the bars and touched the glass. It wasn’t glass at all but some sort of thick shatterproof plastic. The villa was pitch black inside and I couldn’t see a thing.

Moving as silently as I could, I made a complete circuit of the building. There were two other windows, both small and high on the wall. There were no other doors.

Returning to the front door, I slid open the deadbolt. This door was apparently better maintained than the other, because it opened without a sound. I slipped inside and closed the door behind me.

I shined the flashlight around, partly covering it with one hand to reduce the beam intensity. The light illuminated a large room that was like some adult’s fever dream of a child’s funhouse. There was a small inflatable bounce house, a ping pong table, a soda dispenser and soft-serve ice cream machine, a giant gumball machine, bean bags strewn about the room, and paintings of clowns all over the walls. Streamers hung from the ceiling, and here and there helium balloons bounced against the ceiling, their strings dangling down. Dolls were piled onto a child-sized pink leather armchair in one corner of the room. When the flashlight beam hit them, their eyes glittered and glowed like little possessed demon creatures. Dolls were scattered about on the floor as well. Several had been dismembered, their ams or heads pulled off. Some of the clown paintings had been disfigured as well, drawn over with crayon or marker. And, I noticed now, there was a large puddle of dried residue beneath the soft-serve machine, as if someone had deliberately poured ice cream onto the floor and left it there.

As bizarre as the room was, my heart soared, because I knew this was the place. If Anna was indeed a captive on this island, I was fairly sure she’d be inside this twisted funhouse villa.

To the right was what would have been a large kitchen, except that all the appliances had been stripped out. There was nothing in it but a sink. When my light hit it, dozens of cockroaches and silverfish scurried into the shadows.

I moved through the room to a hallway. A door opened off the left of the hallway into a large bathroom with a huge claw-footed tub and a mirror with light bulbs all around the sides. Again, cockroaches scattered.

A little further on my right I found another bedroom. When I shined the light into it, I was shocked into motionlessness. Wherever the light hit, dolls stared back at me. They sat on shelves on the walls, dangled by strings from the ceiling, and were piled on a bed against one wall. There were hundreds of them. Then I noticed something else and my blood turned to ice in my veins. The bed had restraints attached to the four posts. Leather cuffs were attached to chains and they were small, the size one would need to restrain a child. At the foot of the bed stood a tripod of the kind to which someone might attach a camera.

My hand tightened on the flashlight and my jaw clenched. I wanted to destroy this place and leave it an island of ghosts. I took a breath and forced myself to relax. I couldn’t afford to let anger take over. I was not here to seek revenge or go on some vendetta. I was here for one thing only, and that was to find Anna.

There was one last room at the end of the hall and I moved toward it. Even before I reached it I heard scuffling noises from inside and the sound of a frightened whimper. My heart flipped over in my chest. I felt excitement, trepidation and fear, not fear for myself but over what I might find. I wanted to call out and say, “Anna, it’s alright, you’re safe now,” but I dared not. I didn’t know who was in that room. There might be a guard in there for all I knew, ready to blast me when I walked through the door.

There wasn’t. I shined the light cautiously into the room. There were two sets of wooden bunk beds, a pile of defaced clown paintings on the floor in one corner, and a tiny, barred window high up on one wall. Finally my light came to rest on two pairs of terrified eyes. The two girls were backed into one corner of the room. A girl of perhaps twelve years stood in front. She was thin and barefoot, with long brown hair tied back in a ponytail. Her features were fine, and her bright green eyes flashed defiance. She wore a long cotton paisley nightgown, and might have been pretty if not for the bruises on her face and the look of desperation in her eyes.

Behind her a smaller girl huddled on the floor, covering her face with her hands. She wore a pair of ill-fitting shorts and a white t-shirt with food stains on the front. She had Anna Anwar’s build, but I couldn’t tell for sure.

I sheathed the scuba knife. There was nothing in my hands now but the flashlight. “Anna,” I said gently. “Is that you?”

The huddled girl began to wail. The girl in front, in contrast, stood as straight as a stop sign, her shoulders back. “Tómame,” she said. “Seré bueno para ti. Me va a gustar.” Take me. I’ll be good for you. You’ll like me. She held out a hand, palm down, in a self-contradictory gesture that seemed to combine an invitation and a ward.

“No estoy aquí para eso,” I said. “I’m not here for that. I”m a friend. Un amigo. Anna,” I repeated softly. “I’m here to help you, to take you home. My name is Zaid. I’m a friend of your father, do you remember me?”

The wailing from the huddled child lessened. “My – my -” she stammered. “My father?”

“Yes.” I smiled, knowing she couldn’t see it but hoping she could hear it. Of course, I realized. What an idiot I am. They can’t see me. I’m just a dark figure behind a bright light. I shined the light on my own face, and both girls gasped. Oh, crap. I’d forgotten that I was covered in the guard’s blood. I must look like some kind of vampire.

“I know I look terrible,” I said, wiping my face with one sleeve. “But I really am a friend of your father Tarek. I’m his old friend Zaid. He used to call me Stick. You and I have met before. You gave me flowers once at a party.”

“You – you looked lonely.”

I smiled and tears came to my eyes. I was amazed that she remembered that. “Yes,” I said.
“I’m here to take you home.”

“My mommy doesn’t want me.” I heard a shuffling sound and shined the light on the girls. The huddled child had gathered herself to stand beside the older girl. She was indeed Anna Anwar. Her eyes were red and puffy from crying, but aside from that she seemed unmarked. Though of course that did not mean she was… unharmed. I moved the light to the center of the floor between us.

“Your mommy loves you, but she can’t take care of you right now. I’m taking you back to California. To Fresno.”

“To my Daddy?”

The hope in her voice nearly broke my heart. This child had been betrayed in the worst possible way, and I didn’t want to add to that by lying to her. But if I told her the truth, she might break down into despair, which wasn’t what we needed right now. I needed her alert and paying attention. The guards would soon discover the injured guard and the dead one, if they hadn’t already. When that happened, they would lock this whole place down and begin a search.

I chose a half truth. “Your Daddy can’t take care of you either. I’m sorry sweetie. But you still have your grandparents. They love you and want you. So please, come with me now.”

“My Nana doesn’t want me.”

What an odd thing to say. “She does. Your grandparents hired me to find you.”

“No. My Nana doesn’t love me.”

I ran a hand through my hair and tried to control my exasperation. “Maybe that’s true, maybe not. We’ll work it out when we’re out of here. I promise you, I swear by Allah, I will find a safe place for you. Come on now, Anna. We have to go.”

“Oris too.” Anna reached up and took her friend’s hand. “You have to take her.”

“Yes,” I said emphatically. “Of course. Now come.”

Anna rose, and a quick exchange took place between the girls in Spanish too quick for me to follow. I hadn’t realized that Anna spoke Spanish.

“Okay,” Anna said. “We’re ready.”

I nodded. “Do you have shoes? We’ll have to run.”

Oris fetched a pair of slippers from beneath the bunk bed, and Anna slipped on her Adidas sneakers, the same ones she’d been wearing in the school photo.

“When we get outside,” I told them, “no matter what happens you stay behind me, stay quiet and keep on following me, do you understand?”

Anna translated for Oris, and we slipped out of the house in total darkness. I ran downhill toward the gate with the two girls close behind, sticking to the deepest patches of darkness as much as possible. I would have preferred to avoid the gate, as it was likely the guards had either returned or someone else had been stationed there. But there was no choice. It was the only way past the perimeter fence. The gap I’d crawled under was on the other side of the guardhouse and inaccessible from here.

I led the two girls past the torture shed and up along the side of the main house, skirting the spot where I’d dumped the blonde guard’s body. I peered around the corner of the house. It was worse than I’d feared. There was no sign of the patrol car, and the Rolls and Lamborghini were still gone. Firelight still shone from the western end of the island. And the wrecked gate still gaped open. The problem was that there were now four armed guards stationed at the gate, two on each side.

I unslung the rifle and held it in my arms, flicking the safety off. In spite of being a different model than the one I’d carried, the configuration was familiar and comfortable. I closed my eyes. “O Allah,” I breathed. “I’m not asking anything for myself. Do what you will with me. Strike me down if you choose. Take from me all worldly things, leave me without coin or love or breath if that is the price of success here. I can take it. I’m your servant to the end. But save these girls O Allah. That is all I ask.”

I opened my eyes and looked at the girls. “Listen carefully,” I whispered. “There are four men at the gate. The only way out is for me to kill them. You stay in hiding until I say, ‘Go.’ When I say, ‘go,’ you come out and follow me. We’ll run through the gate then into the forest. The gunshots will be loud, but you keep on running, keep following me. Don’t stop. Understand?”

Anna translated for Oris, and both girls nodded their heads. Their eyes were wide, and Anna’s lower lip trembled as if she might cry. I simply had to trust that they would do as I told them.

I flipped open the magazine pouch and folded the cover behind the belt, so it would stay open. Then I said Bismillah and gripped one magazine between with my teeth. I didn’t know how well trained these men were. They might be highly trained mercenaries, or run-of-the-mill gangsters with no real tactical training. As for me, I knew how to shoot, I was a skilled martial artist with the ability to adjust to new tactical information on the fly, and I had the biggest advantage of all – the advantage of surprise.

I stepped out from behind the corner of the house.

Only then did I see that there were two additional guards at the house’s front door. They were immediately to my right, so I rounded on them and opened fire. From my perspective they were lined up one in front of the other. My first volley mowed them both down like grass. Without a pause I pivoted left, dropped to one knee and let loose on the two guards on the right side of the gate, in front of the guardhouse. I wanted to get them before they retreated into the guardhouse, and I did. One fell screaming, while the other flew backward and crashed into the guardhouse window, shattering it. Hey lay bent backward over the sill.

The two on the left had no cover. They dropped to their bellies and fumbled with their rifles. I rolled left, came to my feet, ejected the magazine and slammed in the one from my mouth, and cut loose on full auto, emptying the entire 35-round clip into the earth where they lay. The bullets chewed them to pieces.

A tremendous impact struck my left shoulder and sent me spinning to the ground. It was the guard who’d gone down screaming. He wasn’t dead, and he’d put a bullet in me. My shoulder was numb, but I didn’t feel the pain yet. I thrust in a new magazine, rolled to my right, stood, and advanced on the man. He shot at me but he was panicked and in pain, and the bullets went wide. I raised my weapon, aimed, and riddled the guy, killing him where he lay.

A volley rang out and I stumbled as my leg gave out. I rolled to my back and saw two guards on the second floor veranda, both firing at me. Bullets ripped up the earth all around me. I tried to return fire and got nothing but an empty click. I popped out the mag, inserted a new one, and calmly returned fire, sweeping a line of lead across the veranda. One guard’s head rocked back as a bullet took him square in the forehead. The other dropped to his belly. I dropped the clip, put in a new one, and emptied it into the spot where he lay, firing right through the ornately carved wood. Chunks of wood flew in every direction and an entire section of the veranda railing broke loose and fell to the ground with a crash. I saw then that the guard lay in a heap against the wall of the house, dead.

I reached for another clip and found that I was out. I rose to one knee and tried my leg. A bullet had gone through the outside of my calf, taking a piece of my muscle with it. Blood poured down into my shoe. But I found that I could stand, as long as I kept most of my weight on the other leg.

“Anna, Oris,” I called out. “Go! Follow me now.” The two girls, to their credit, darted out from behind the house. I ran for the gate, hobbling badly, nearly dragging my left leg behind me, with the girls right on my heels. We passed through the gate, which was a scene of devastation, with pools and spatters of blood everywhere. I made a beeline across the clearing, heading for the forest to the southwest.

Gunfire sounded, and I heard the whine of a bullet as it whistled past my ear. Oris screamed, but she and Anna kept running. I looked back and saw a guard on the third floor veranda firing at us. At the same time headlights came up brilliant and white on the road almost directly ahead of us. There were at least two vehicles racing our way. And then my leg gave out on me again.

I pointed to the treeline. “Go!” I shouted. “Get to the forest and keep going. Hide, don’t let anyone find you.”

The girls stared at me, wide-eyed with terror. “Go!” I screamed, pointing. “Corre, corre!”

They ran.

I climbed to my feet once again. I saw now that there were in fact four vehicles: the Lamborghini, the patrol truck and the two ATVs. The Lambo stopped on the road, idling, but the pickup and the ATVs bounced into the clearing, coming right at me.

I had to lead them away from the girls. That was all that mattered. I drew the hunting knife and began hobbling back toward the gate. The pickup came roaring right toward me. The two ATVs, however, headed for the treeline, following the path the girls had taken. I stopped, drew my right arm back, and threw the hunting knife at the nearest ATV, aiming for the spot where it would be in about a second and a half. The knife sailed through the air, tumbled end over end, and missed. A shot rang out, and I saw a flash of light from the treeline. One of the ATV drivers screamed and tumbled from his vehicle, which flipped onto its side, wheels spinning and engine whining. Another shot came, and the other ATV did a wheelie, the front end shooting up in the air. The driver hit the ground and the vehicle landed atop him with a sickening thud.

Niko, I thought. It had to be Niko firing from within the forest. No no no, Niko, you were supposed to be long gone. What are you doing?

The pickup stopped directly in front of me and three men clambered out carrying rifles. One trained his weapon on my chest and approached me while the other two opened fire on the treeline.

I drew my scuba knife and took a fighting stance.

“No lo mates,” El Demonio called out. “No lo mates.” Don’t kill him. The guard stepped forward and swung his rifle stock at my face. I ducked the blow, inserted my knife along the inside of his leg, and sliced his femoral artery wide open. Then I shoved him away. He fell, staring in horror at his leg, which was literally fountaining blood several feet in the air. He tried to stanch the flow with his hands, without effect. He’d be dead in seconds, I knew.

The two other guards rushed over to me. One, a hugely muscular man with skin as dark as lava rock, looked like he did nothing all day but eat beef and lift weights. He pointed a bulky black and yellow handgun at me and pulled the trigger. Except that it wasn’t a handgun at all.

Taser gun firing

A pair of needles attached to wires flew at me. Not fair, I thought as I tried to dodge and failed. It’s just not fair. The needles struck me in the back. Every muscle in my body went rigid, while my back felt like an entire pub full of Irishmen was using it as a dartboard. I fell, completely frozen, unable to control any of my muscles, though I could see the big guard through my peripheral vision as he approached, put away his Taser, lifted his rifle and brought the stock down a sledgehammer on my skull.

* * *

Cold water splashed my face and I half-gasped, half-screamed. I looked around wildly. Where was I? What was happening? An instant later pain hit me like a planet. There was hardly a part of me that did not hurt. My head ached as if it might split open, my right ribs felt tender and breakable; my left shoulder screamed with agony, and my left calf felt like some hungry fanged creature was eating it for dinner. Every muscle in my body felt sore and twitchy. And I couldn’t move my hands or my legs.

I’d been stripped to my shorts and chained to the floor in a bare cement room with gore-spattered walls. A single bright bulb blazed directly overhead. There were tools hung on the walls, some I recognized and others that looked like medical implements.

It all came rushing back then. El Demonio. Ouagadiri Island. The torture chamber. I was in the torture chamber. El Demonio himself stepped into my field of vision. He’d put on a red track suit that nearly matched his ridiculous beet-colored hair. A pair of men flanked him. One was the muscle-swollen black man, the beefeater. He was so big he looked like he could probably not scratch his own back. The other was a short Latino man with a handlebar mustache, wearing a black leather cowboy hat.

To my surprise, my gunshot-wounded shoulder and leg had been bandaged. The bandages were soaked with blood, but the bleeding appeared to have stopped. I guessed that these guys didn’t want me dying of blood loss before they could interrogate me.

El Demonio lifted one of those big black and yellow Taser guns and tapped it against his chin, grinning. He spoke in Spanish, first insulting my parentage and then rattling off a series of questions: Who sent you? Who do you work for? Who is with you? Where are your compatriots? Where are the girls?

These last two questions made me smile. El Demonio didn’t have Niko or the girls. He hadn’t found them. Maybe Niko had the girls, and was at this very moment heading back to the mainland with them on the fishing boat.

The hairstyle-challenged cartel leader must not have liked my smile, because he pointed the taser at my belly and fired. My body convulsed and arched, jerking against the chains that held me. My teeth clamped together so hard I thought they’d break.

“Quien te envio?” he demanded. Who sent you?

My chest heaved as I gulped air. “Santa Claus sent me,” I replied in English. “He said to tell you you’ve been a bad boy, and you’re not getting any presents for Christmas.”

El Demonio laughed and spoke in English. “Oh, so you are NorteAmericano? You know, you kill eleven of my men. Eleven! Who blow up the boats? Who is with you? Where are the girls? Are you DEA?” he demanded. “CIA?”

“Neither,” I said. “I’m CRC.”

He frowned. “What is CRC?”

“Can’t Remember Crap.”

“Hmm.” El Demonio made a hand gesture to Beefeater – the muscular guard – who handed him another type of Taser, the kind that must be touched directly to the skin. El Demonio pressed a button and a blue arc of electricity snapped up between the poles. It buzzed and crackled as he kneeled down beside me and brought it close to my face. I thought he would ask another question, but instead he simply touched the device to my mouth.

Again my entire body clenched and arched. My jaws snapped shut and I bit the inside of my cheek hard. My mouth filled with hot, coppery blood. My lips burned like slices of meat on a barbecue.

“Llámame cuando dé respuestas,” El Demonio said to his men. Call me when he gives answers. He exited the room.

The Panamanian cowboy took a few choice implements off the hooks on the walls, then pulled up a folding chair beside of me. He began to torture me as Beefeater watched. He started with the skin of my inner thighs, and moved on to my toenails. There was neither joy nor malicious intent in his actions. I think that was the worst part of it all – the coldness of it, the matter-of-fact monstrousness of their cruelty. As he tortured me, he repeated the same questions in Spanish. Who did I work for? Who was with me? Where were the girls?

I gave no answers. That’s not to say that I took it like a man. I screamed, groaned, and shouted until my voice failed. I bled, and I hurt. But I did not beg, and I gave no answers. Give me credit for that, if nothing else.

At least twice I lost consciousness. The first time they revived me with another bucket of water in the face. At some point Cowboy went on a break and Beefeater took over. Apparently not being one for finesse, he began by simply beating me on the face, chest and arms with a rubber hose. One of my bottom incisors broke loose and I spat it out. At some point he said to me in English, “You alone here. No one know, no one care. Why you no speak? You speak, all dis finish. You speak, we give you food, water, let you rest. No one comin’ to help you, man.”

At Beefeater’s claim that I had been abandoned, Surat Ad-Duha flowed into my mind like a cool mountain spring. I began to recite it out loud in Arabic, slowly. My words came out slurred, partly because my mouth had been damaged, and partly because I’d lost so much blood.

I knew this surah had been revealed after a period during which the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet, sal-Allahu alayhi wa-sallam, had come to a halt. The Prophet was anxious and confused, fearing he had done something wrong. The disbelievers scorned him, saying, “Muhammad’s Lord has bidden him farewell.”

Until Allah responded with these sweet words:

By the morning brightness, and the night when it covers with darkness, Your Lord has not abandoned you, nor has He detested [you]. And the Hereafter is better for you than the first. And your Lord is going to give you, and you will be satisfied. Did He not find you an orphan and give refuge? And He found you lost and guided [you], And He found you poor and made [you] self-sufficient. So as for the orphan, do not oppress. And as for the petitioner, do not repel. But as for the favor of your Lord, report.

I was not alone. No matter what these human beasts said, I knew better. I belonged to Allah. I was alive at this moment not by the agency of these pathetic, soulless men, but by Allah’s mercy, and I would die not by these men’s hands, but by Allah’s decree only.

I recited the surah aloud through a broken mouth and burned lips, and when I opened my eyes I found Beefeater staring at me wide-eyed and trembling. The door opened with that same rusty-hinged squeal and Cowboy walked in. “Qué?” he said. “Que pasó?”

“He sayin’ magic words,” Beefeater replied. “Power words. No more for me, no more.” He spun on his heel and left the room.

Not that his departure helped me. Cowboy just picked up where he’d left off.

The second time I fell unconscious, Cowboy revived me by digging a thumb into my eye. He spoke into a radio, and a few minutes later El Demonio entered the room carrying, of all things, a pair of rattan Kali sticks. He grinned and began to swing them in a classic sinawali or weaving pattern.

Two guards entered behind him, men I had not seen before. When they entered, sunlight shone through the open door. I was stunned. It was morning already. They’d been torturing me all night long. I’d had no idea.

They carried between them the limp form of a man. His head lolled, and his yellow shirt and jeans were completely stained with blood. It looked like he’d been shot somewhere in the abdomen. It was Niko.

El Demonio grinned at me. “Yes, we find your friend. And guess what, idiota?”

I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to hear the words. The cartel leader, seeing the dread in my eyes, kneeled beside me and sneered. “We have the girls as well.”

My will and determination deflated as if someone had just punctured me with a pitchfork. Through all the torture to which I’d been subjected, I had not wept, but now tears came to my eyes. The pain of my countless wounds hit me like the heat of the sun, and I felt despair for the first time. I wanted to curl around myself and die. All for nothing. It had all been for nothing.

El Demonio’s men dragged Niko to the shackles on the wall and hung him up so that he dangled by his wrists. His hands turned white, indicating that the blood flow had been cut off. If he remained like that for long, he’d lose his hands.

The cartel leader swung the sticks through a series of patterns, showing off. He went through the Ikis pattern, Dog’s Tail, Umbrella and Espada y Daga. Even through my despair, the analytical part of my mind, the part that had been studying stick and knife combat for most of my life, noticed that El Demonio’s movements were fluid and natural, but his stick angles were off, and his footwork was entirely lacking. I pegged him as a mid-level student, though clearly he thought more of himself.

Returning to a six-count sinawali pattern, El Demonio pivoted without warning and struck Niko six rapid blows, three on the left and three on the right: temple, cheek, jaw, skull, ear, shoulder. The sticks made dull thwacking sounds against Niko’s flesh and opened a cut on his forehead. At that, Niko opened his eyes. His lids were heavy, and I wasn’t sure he saw me, but then he said, his words slurred, “I am sorry señor. I told you I will stay with you until the point of death.” His eyes closed.

El Demonio lifted his sticks to beat Niko again.

No, I thought. No, no no. Each repetition of the word banished a bit of the despair that had enveloped me and replaced it with white hot determination. This was intolerable. This would not stand. I remembered the guard who had laughed at El Demonio’s wife, and how the cartel leader had reacted by shooting the man. And then, when I’d smiled earlier, he’d Tasered me in the face. He couldn’t stand to be laughed at.

So I took a chance. I began to laugh. It was artificial, of course, just a forced imitation of a laugh, but almost as soon as I began some switch flipped in my brain and I began to laugh for real. This entire situation was so unlikely, so absurd. How had I ended up here, being tortured in a cement shack on a Caribbean island, when just a week ago I was comfortably ensconced in my California office? Of course I hadn’t known at the time that my office was comfortable, but everything was indeed relative, it seemed.

My throat was hoarse from screaming, so my laugh came out sounding the cough of a sick cow, but it was genuine, and El Demonio saw that. He turned away from Niko and his face flushed as red as his ridiculous hair. “Deja!” he screamed, ordering me to stop. “Deja eso!”

“It’s just,” I rasped, “you have this fully stocked torture chamber, and you’re playing with sticks like a little kid. Sticks, really? Give me a break. Give me one of those and I bet I could beat you silly with it. Come on, you and me, one on one.”

That was it, that was my play. If he didn’t go for it, then we were all doomed. I watched as El Demonio’s face returned to its normal color. An evil light came into his eyes.

“Really?” he said. “You think is easy? Okay, I give you a chance.” He barked out an order in Spanish to the guards. They proceeded to unshackle me and Niko. Two guards hauled Niko out the door into the sunshine.

They came back and bent to lift me up.

“No,” I growled. “Deja me. Don’t touch me.” As slowly as a wounded turtle I rolled onto my stomach, then pushed up onto my hands and knees. Like an animal, I crawled across that filth-stained floor until I reached the wall of the shed, where I used the wall to push myself to my feet. For a moment everything spun. I leaned against the wall, closing my eyes, and waited for it to stop. When it did, I walked out of that place of horror into the sunshine of a new day.

The guards tossed Niko’s unconscious form into the bed of a pickup truck. They drove the short distance downhill to the circular driveway in front of the house. I followed on foot, moving very slowly and limping badly, mostly just dragging my left leg behind me. El Demonio, Cowboy and Beefeater flanked me. When we reached the driveway I saw the other patrol car parked there. Anna and Oris were indeed there, sitting in the cab. Anna’s face was swollen from crying. Oris looked frightened but rock solid. What a child she was, what a human being.

There was something else: the body of El Demonio’s wife lay in the bed of the truck, twisted unnaturally. Her formerly white pantsuit and white fur stole were stained crimson with blood.

El Demonio planted himself right in the middle of the circular flower bed around which the driveway ran. Maybe with his wife dead there was no one to object to him stepping on the petunias. He kept one stick for himself and threw the other down, gesturing for me to pick it up. I stepped into the flower bed, feeling the stalks break beneath my feet, bent to pick up the stick, and fell. Using the stick as a cane, I regained my feet.

Standing there dressed only in my underpants, I tipped my head back and let the morning sun shine on my face. I was covered in blood from head to toe. I’d urinated on myself during the night. My body was wrecked. I knew it and El Demonio knew it. I had no toenails left, and my feet were bloody, swollen masses. The skin on the front and inside of my thighs was shredded and torn, bleeding from dozens of places. My left leg barely functioned. Because of the gunshot wound to my left shoulder, my left arm was useless. My right eye was swollen shut. Every other part of my body was covered in welts and bruises, and I was dizzy from blood loss. I had maybe ten seconds of fight in me, if that. If it went beyond that I was done. All El Demonio had to do was dance in, strike me and dance out. If he waged a battle of attrition like that, I’d be helpless.

El Demonio shouted to his men. One of them rolled Niko out of the bed of the pickup. Niko’s body fell and hit the ground with a dull thud. I knew my friend was either dead or dying, but there was nothing I could do. Cowboy dragged the two girls out of the other vehicle and forced them to their knees beside Niko, on the edge of the flower bed. Looking at me, seeing my ruined condition, Anna began to cry.

I wanted to say something to her, offer her some reassurance, but anything I might say would ring hollow. Trust in Allah, I thought, and He will feed you as He feeds the birds.

Perhaps,” my subconscious replied, “but will He save you? I’m not a bird, and I live in the real-”

SHUT UP! I hollered at my subconscious. Yes! He will! He will save, provide, nourish, reward, and redeem. One way or another, HE. WILL.

The cartel leader twirled his stick. “Are you ready?”

“Hold on. I have terms.”

He cocked his head. “What means, terms?”

“Conditions. Condiciones. Every contest must have terms, something at stake, something to be won or lost.”

He nodded slowly, still grinning. “I like. Say the terms.”

“If I win, you let me, my friend and the girls go.”

He eyed me thoughtfully, still smiling. “And if I win?”

“I’ll tell you who sent me. Then you can kill me and let the others go.”

El Demonio snorted. “No, amigo. No one send you, I see that now. You and this one-” he gestured contemptuously toward Niko’s still form – “are amateurs. Maybe you are the father of one of the girls? Your identity is meaningless. Here is the terms. If you win, one of you will live. The rest of you die. This is the only term I offer. Choose now. Who will live?”

I racked my mind for a counter-proposal, anything I could say, anything to bait him with. But there was nothing. He was right. He held all the cards. This was only a bit of fun to him, an entertaining way to kill me, and perhaps a way to show off to his people and save face after last night’s losses.

“Anna,” I said. “The little girl. She lives.” There was no other possible choice. I had come here to save Anna no matter the cost. I’d offered myself to Allah, bargaining my life away for hers. I asked for this. My only regret was Niko.

El Demonio nodded knowingly. “So it is the little girl you love, eh? Then listen this. When I defeat you, I will kill all except her. Your little Anna I will take back to the villa and do as I please. She will live, but as my slave.” He grinned. “This is according to the terms, yes? Now no more talk. Vamo’ hacerlo!” He twirled his stick in a figure 8 pattern and came straight at me, arrogant, not trying to feel me out at all. He probably thought he’d need only a few seconds to put me down. He might be right.

The feeling of either a knife or a stick in my hand was so familiar, so comforting. I had been training obsessively in Kali for almost twenty five years. The stick was as much a part of me as my own hand. Heck, for a long time, people had called me Stick. Holding a stick in my hand was like coming home.

Could an inanimate object impart emotions to a human being? Confidence flowed into me from the smooth rattan in my hand. I smiled from ear to ear, and felt the burnt skin of my lips split and begin to bleed. Mine was a smile of joy, acceptance and power. It was the smile of a man with nothing left to lose, a man trusting his fate to the Most Merciful God, a man willing to pay whatever price was asked of him. It was the smile of a man ready to die.

The poet struggles, Niko would say, and without struggle, what will he do? Without struggle and resistance there is no victory. Perhaps in that moment I was a poet. My writing tool was a rattan stick, my page the bed of flowers in which I stood barefoot and bloody, and the subject was life and death. I had given all I had. Whatever little remained I would leave here, in this flowerbed, and it would have to do.

In my hoarse, raspy voice, I breathed “Allahu Akbar,” and raised my stick to meet the oncoming attack.

* * *

Next: Chapter 17 – A Mountain in My Mind

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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Wael Abdelgawad's novels can be purchased at his author page at Amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/Wael-Abdelgawad/e/B071CYWVDM?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1579756718&sr=8-1Wael is an Egyptian-American living in California. He is the founder of several Islamic websites, including IslamicAnswers.com and IslamicSunrays.com, and various financial websites. Heteaches martial arts, and loves Islamic books, science fiction, and ice cream. Learn more about him at WaelAbdelgawad.com.For a guide to all of Wael's online stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.

33 Comments

33 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Omar Niko

    September 20, 2017 at 2:38 PM

    I love reading your stories but hate getting to the ending because I know it’ll have so much suspense in the end!! great job br. Wael.

    A very slight comment there is no such thing as an orbital bone :) gotta say that for accuracy. you could say sphenoid bone since that makes a large part of the orbit or maxilla or frontal bone. There are actually many bones that come together over there.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 20, 2017 at 3:15 PM

      Ah, thank you Omar! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard MMA commentators say “orbital bone.”

    • Avatar

      Abu Hirsi

      September 27, 2017 at 3:00 AM

      Wael
      My feedback is simply intended as a nasiha. Before you reflexively respond think about my feedback and use it to better your overall message. You are after all using Islamic (Quran and Hadith) artifacts in your writing. Check out the following sentence:
      “Chapter 14
      As he drove he made swimming motions with one long-fingered black hand, in time with the beat. ” Did you expect an orange or pink hand from a character you had sufficiently described before as a black man?
      You are used to readers who are too enamored with your writing skills and who egg you on. Mine is to help you with feedback that can improve your message. You can reject it as much as you want.

      • Avatar

        Wael Abdelgawad

        September 27, 2017 at 10:40 AM

        Abu Hirsi, thank you for your comment. I will consider your words.

  2. Avatar

    Naz

    September 20, 2017 at 6:54 PM

    That was a very painful read. I hope Zaid, Niko and the girls make it. Poor Zaid, they practically butchered him. I was reading this at work, and I was wincing and holding my heart and I looked disturbed. My coworkers thought I was crazy lol

    • Avatar

      Amatullah

      September 20, 2017 at 11:43 PM

      Happens to me all the time too, Naz :p
      I keep taking breaks from staring at my screen to try and look normal.

  3. Avatar

    Amatullah

    September 20, 2017 at 11:42 PM

    You gave us another suspense-filled week! Amazing read br.Wael. I hope they all make it safe and sound out of the Island.
    I would never allow my kids to read it, lol. I know you put the disturbing descriptions to explain the character nevertheless they were what they were – disturbing. May we never come across such ppl in real life, aameen, Two suggestions if you may consider:
    1) Typo in this sentence : “The room smelled of I prowled” on quietly and moved up to the third floor, growing increasingly frustrated
    2) CRC (“Can’t remember Crap”) could have been better. Somehow I have a feeling it dint fit-in there. Could have been better, I tried thinking but couldn’t think of anything great. I’m sure you’ll have better ideas.

  4. Avatar

    Amatullah

    September 20, 2017 at 11:51 PM

    Two things! At the end of chapter 15, you mentioned the title of chapter 16 as ‘Crater Valley’ and here it is named Finding Anna with the name ‘Crater Valley’ being given to chapter 17. Just an observation.
    Another is that, somethings really wrong with the ‘Post Comment’ button below. the first click takes you away from this page to ‘page not found’ error. This has been happening since yesterday. I’m having to keep my text copied before clicking so I don’t have to write it all again.
    >>trying for a third time now ~.^ <<

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 21, 2017 at 3:44 AM

      Amatullah, thanks for the corrections. As far as the other thing, the site is experiencing technical difficulties. People are working on it Insha’Allah.

    • Avatar

      Maryam Moeen

      September 21, 2017 at 10:26 AM

      “Two things! At the end of chapter 15, you mentioned the title of chapter 16 as ‘Crater Valley’ and here it is named Finding Anna with the name ‘Crater Valley’ being given to chapter 17. Just an observation.
      Another is that, somethings really wrong with the ‘Post Comment’ button below. the first click takes you away from this page to ‘page not found’ error. This has been happening since yesterday. I’m having to keep my text copied before clicking so I don’t have to write it all again.
      >>trying for a third time now ~.^ <<"

      I just noticed that also I texted you and Br. Wael, well text basically, anyway in Oradirigi Island in the comment section I bought it to Br.Wael attention that the exact same thing is happening to me as well but for a few days now. You'll have to save the text and wait for a few minutes and then re-post it!

  5. Avatar

    Layyinah

    September 21, 2017 at 3:35 PM

    Another great read…and sad! I was hoping that I would have my happy ending but instead I got the opposite! I almost said it out loud, oh man, I have to wait to read what happens. ?

    One typo in this line: I knew my friend either dead or dying, …

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 21, 2017 at 5:28 PM

      Thanks for the correction. See, I have typos too!

  6. Avatar

    Ibrahim

    September 24, 2017 at 5:00 AM

    That feeling when you finally catch up on all missed episodes.

    Great read by all standards. I love the fact that I get to feel a lot of thrill and be constantly reminded of my faith in Allah as well.

    Your writings make me love Sura Duha more and more and also make me love Salman Farsi more.

    KEEP IT UP AKHI.

    But your suspense is something else.
    I pray they all get to go safely.

    Can’t wait for the next episode in shaa Allah.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 24, 2017 at 3:32 PM

      Thank you Ibrahim, I’m happy to hear that the story is succeeding on more than one level alhamdulillah.

  7. Avatar

    SZH

    September 24, 2017 at 12:18 PM

    *can’t breath* *can’t breath* *can’t breath*
    Very…
    Much…
    I…

    I am spell bound…!
    (That, and there are some small typo errors. :-D)

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 24, 2017 at 3:31 PM

      Thanks brother SZH. I’m aware of the typos, but because of website technical problems I cannot update the post to correct them.

  8. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    September 24, 2017 at 7:38 PM

    Oh my god! It’s racking my brain like crazy. But Br. Wael please don’t let them die, I really want Niko and Zaid to get to their family safely. I Just have to wait to more days till the next chapter comes out.

    Hahaha the funny part was when “Santa Claus sent me, he told me to tell you that you have been a bad boy and you won’t be getting presents this year.”

    Loved as usual, to the point where everything seemed real, that I had to turn my laptop off; I needed a break. Good work, Author Wael.

  9. Avatar

    Humam

    September 25, 2017 at 12:24 AM

    Wow! Mashallah! This chapter especially was so well written I was on the edge of my seat and experiencing so many emotions the entire time!

    I actually screamed Allahu Akbar at the end!

  10. Avatar

    Bint A

    September 25, 2017 at 2:16 PM

    A sign of a good writer;
    Can make you laugh, cry, feel horrified, feel hopeful, inspired, and increase your iman all at the same time.

    Today’s read was just that.

    I just realized that your really random similes and metaphors are a part of your unique writing style and their randomness provide comic relief even in the most intense of moments. Ex. “like a fruit roll-up.” I laughed beside myself a few times at these points… or the “komodo dragon” bit.

    Also subhanAllah, you made us reflect on Surah al Duha like never before… I could feel the emotion the Prophet must have felt at that time, and it made me relate to him and this Surah in a totally different way. I want to say jazakAllahu khairun for that br Wael.
    The thing is….writing brings up emotions. And that’s why I said, a sign of a good writer is to bring alive these emotions… such that the reminders or lessons that are weaved within the writing impact the reader in a more meaningful way…rather than if you just came across these lessons in a removed sort of setting. How many times have we read and reflected on Surah Duha? But today I felt the perspective of the Prophet salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam and the raw emotion of being forsaken and then the relief and beauty of receiving that wahy from Allah (swt). W’Allahi I loved today’s piece.

    Though the descriptions were gruesome and Zaid’s ability to stand on his feet despite the sustained injuries seems unrealistic for an average human. But its a story after all, and there have to be some superhuman elements for him to be the hero :)

    I also absolutely loved the final poetic metaphor at the end of Zaid as a poet. “c’est beau” like a Frenchman kissing the tips of his fingers after witnessing a stunning piece of art.
    (Am I learning well? :P)

    Finally I wanted to comment on how the heck do we instigate our imagination the way you do, to create a story and come out with the crazy plot twists and solutions from insurmountable problems? I just can’t think of a way Zaid will come out of a dilemma, yet there’s a way. How do we think like that? Like how did you plan what happens after he lifts his hand to throw the rock but then the whole situation with the guy’s wife ensues?

    Please lend some words of wisdom :)

    PS- I have yet to reply back to your response to how long it takes you to write a chapter, haven’t forgotten.
    Thanks!

    • Avatar

      Maryam Moeen

      September 25, 2017 at 3:30 PM

      Soo true!! A sign of a good writer is to bring alive these emotions… such that the reminders or lessons that are weaved within the writing impact the reader in a more meaningful way…rather than if you just came across these lessons in a removed sort of setting.

      MashaAllah!! Br.Wael you are an awesome writer, making the reader feel all the emotions intended to feel at the right moment even a second later. Loved it, was scared he wouldn’t make it out to the treeline in time and that’s exactly what happened.
      I just hope Niko, Zaid and the girls get off the island safe and sound IA!!

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 25, 2017 at 4:24 PM

      Bint A, jazaki Allah khayr for your comments. It’s funny that you should ask how I came up with the events that unfold after Zaid lifts his arm to the throw the rock. I had so much trouble with that scene! For an entire week I thought about it. I talked to my martial arts students and said, “Here’s the scenario. A guy is outside a fence…” They tossed out ideas, none of which I used but the brainstorming process helped to open my mind. Then I talked to my cousin. “Here’s the scenario…” He said, “I’ve got it! He gets caught and they brand him on the forehead. Then he goes back to the mainland and is sitting at a cafe and a young woman comes up and says, ‘I know how you got that brand.’ Turns out she wants to get inside as well, so they come up with a plan where she acts as a distraction…”

      Obviously I didn’t use that idea. I actually wrote the scene the first time so that Zaid marches right up to the gate and announces himself as an emissary of Yusuf Cruz. Then I deleted the whole thing. Then one night I was driving on the highway and it came to me: the wife storms out and creates the needed distraction! And I knew I had it right.

      So the answer to your question is, a ton of brainstorming, writing and re-writing, and hard work. There ain’t no free lunch. All things have a price.

      • Avatar

        Bint A

        September 25, 2017 at 10:06 PM

        Wa iyyakum. I thoroughly enjoy reading, analysing, and commenting on your work. Many times I read telling myself I don’t have time to comment yet your writing just sparks a barrage of thoughts which I’ll continue to think about if I dont write them down and get it off my mind :) plus truly your writing deserves it …we can read your heart in it mashaAllah

        And thank you for sharing your scene-writing thought process br Wael! I guess the anwer lies in persisting and the pressing need to find a solution to the dilemma. The reason why I asked about that scene with the rock is because those are exactly the points where I get stuck when writing fiction, and thats one of the reasons I gave up on it, attributing it to the vivid imagination of successful writers. Alhamdulillah now I know its not that easy and requires much problem solving.
        Kinda gives me a bit of hope and insight.
        Now on to find that pressing need…..

  11. Avatar

    Amatullah

    September 26, 2017 at 2:15 AM

    Eagerly waiting for part 17.

  12. Avatar

    SZH

    September 26, 2017 at 3:08 AM

    I just noticed that the error which Maryam M. pointed out above is also in the “Story Index”, which has “Crater Valley” as 16th part.
    Khair, no problem. Just, publish the “Crater Valley” and I will be a happy guy (or sad one, depends upon the ending :-D )

  13. Avatar

    Wael Abdelgawad

    September 26, 2017 at 3:53 AM

    Sorry everyone, I need a few more days for the next chapter. It’s about half finished. I’ve had a long week with not enough sleep. I’ll put it up on Thursday, Insha’Allah.

    • Avatar

      Maryam Moeen

      September 26, 2017 at 10:25 AM

      Sure Brother Wael!! Anytime, We’re/ I’m desperate but I can wait two days; you also have a family to spend time with. You can take your time; IT’S OKAY GUYS! LET’S DO THIS!!! We can wait two more days!! (Purpose of Motivation)
      Rest a lot enough today and you can pick up tomorrow it’s fine with us right guys!?!?

  14. Avatar

    Abu Hirsi

    September 26, 2017 at 8:31 AM

    Salaam brother Wael
    I have noticed a disturbing and perhaps subconscious narration of many bad guys in your story depicted as “Big Black Man”/”Monster” or other such language as would be used by a racist. In your future stories or remaining chapters can you ease up on the racist stereotypes. I know you are a Muslim and would fight racism in your daily life and in your works.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 26, 2017 at 10:43 AM

      Abu Hirsi, I reject your assertion of racism. In my novel, Pieces of a Dream, the bad guys are white (the murdering sergeant), white (the Russian enforcers) and white (the Dixie Mafia). In The Deal, the bike thief is a Native American (someone called me racist over that as well). In Dispatch Wizard, if there is any bad guy it must be brother Muhammad’s dad, who is Egyptian. In the Hassan’s Tale series the bad guys are all Arab, from beginning to end. Oh, and an Armenian, who redeems himself later.

      Yes, in this story, one of the villains (Beefeater) happens to be black, and yes he is muscular and large. So what? Zaid is in Panama, a country with a large black population, and at one point he’s in Colon, which is majority black. The good and the bad guys alike are likely to be black. To claim that a villain cannot be black is to impose unrealistic restrictions and I’m not that politically over-correct.

  15. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    September 26, 2017 at 10:27 AM

    Oh my god! It’s racking my brain like crazy. But Br. Wael please don’t let them die, I really want Niko and Zaid to get to their family safely. I Just have to wait to more days till the next chapter comes out.

    Hahaha the funny part was when “Santa Claus sent me, he told me to tell you that you have been a bad boy and you won’t be getting presents this year.”

    Sure Brother Wael!! Anytime, We’re/ I’m desperate but I can wait two days; you also have a family to spend time with. You can take your time; IT’S OKAY GUYS! LET’S DO THIS!!! We can wait two more days!! (Purpose of Motivation)
    Rest a lot enough today and you can pick up tomorrow it’s fine with us right guys!?!?
    Loved as usual, to the point where everything seemed real, that I had to turn my laptop off; I needed a break. Good work, Author Wael.

  16. Avatar

    Umm ismael

    September 26, 2017 at 12:40 PM

    Oh Dear came to check for the seventeeth part:( too much suspense!!!!!

  17. Avatar

    Maryam Moeen

    September 26, 2017 at 11:59 PM

    OH Alhamdulillah it’s working again!!

  18. Avatar

    Vendula

    September 27, 2017 at 2:24 PM

    Last week I was at a loss for words with the suspense…now I will have to flex my patience muscle…the worst part is knowing that the series is almost over.

    Just reread your Pieces of A Dream novel and looking forward to Hassan’s Tale as a novel iA.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 27, 2017 at 3:09 PM

      Vendula, the next chapter is finished and should be published tomorrow Insha’Allah. Oh, and please leave a review on Amazon for Pieces of a Dream. Thanks.

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#Culture

Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas | Book Review

In the second decade of the 21st century in America, Muslims consider themselves “as American as apple pie,” don American-flag hijabs, and consider their presence and participation in American politics as a crowning achievement. There is little to no resemblance between the majority of the American Muslim population today, and the very first Muslims who landed in America – not as privileged individuals, but as enslaved people at the hands of vicious white colonizers who had already decimated the Indigenous population and who had no qualms about destroying the lives of their slaves. Dr Sylviane A. Diouf’s book “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” tracks the journeys and experiences of African Muslims who found themselves shipped aboard slave-trafficking vessels and taken to the other side of their known world. From their induction into the Transatlantic slave trade, to their determination to uphold the five pillars of Islam – regardless of their circumstances – to the structure of the enslaved Muslim community, their prized (and dangerous) literacy, and their never-ending resistance against slavery, Diouf illustrates in incredible detail the powerful and painful experiences of enslaved African Muslims, and the legacy that they left behind in the Americas.

This review of “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” will focus on the unique qualities and formidable faith of the very first Muslims in the Americas, and the legacy that they left for Muslims in the Americas today.

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In Chapter One, Diouf begins by answering the very first question that arises when considering the path of enslaved African Muslims: how did they end up enslaved in the first place? Slavery already existed as an institution in Africa, though vastly different from the horrifying standards of the European slavers. Between the existing slave trade, military conflicts that created prisoners-of-wars who were then sold as slaves, and the European propensity for kidnapping innocent people, many Muslims found themselves swept into the Transatlantic slave trade. These same Muslims were the ones who provided us with much of the knowledge that we have today regarding the American slave experience. Most African Muslims were literate, due to the religious and cultural importance of education; of those enslaved, many were religious scholars or students of knowledge. They described how they were captured, the torturous journey of the slave caravans across the continent, and the even more horrific experience of the slave ships themselves. These men also documented their lives as slaves, and indirectly, provided deep insight into their own inner nature. 

Despite the intense pressure and demands on African enslaved people to renounce their ‘heathen faith’ and be inducted as Christians, African Muslims demonstrated a commitment to Islam that should cause modern Muslims today to feel deeply ashamed in comparison. The very first words that Job ben Solomon (Ayuba Suleyman Diallo) uttered, after running away and then being discovered in Pennsylvania, were the shahaadah; Omar ibn Sa’id wrote numerous Arabic manuscripts, in which the shahaadah was always found (Diouf, 2013, p. 72-73). When Catholic priests tried hard to educate slaves about Christianity as part of the conversion process, the African Muslims were both resistant and unimpressed; they were already familiar with many Biblical stories, thanks to their Qur’anic education. Of those who seemed to have accepted Christianity, many did so only outwardly, while confirming their belief in Allah and His Messenger in every aspect of their lives. Indeed, in Brazil and other areas where there were large concentrations of Muslim slaves, the Muslims established underground madaaris to maintain and pass on their Islamic knowledge and education. Muhammad Kaba Saghanughu was a man whom the missionaries had thought was successfully converted when he provided all the right answers to their pre-baptismal questions – eleven years later, in a Baptist Missionary Society notebook, he wrote a 50-page fiqh manual in Arabic that encompassed the rulings of salaah, marriage, and other topics. 

Slavery did not stop the African Muslims from maintaining their salaah in whatever manner they could manage, considering their circumstances. Some did so in secret, while others insisted on upholding their salaah in public, to the extent that these incidents were recorded by the descendants of slaves and slaveholders alike. In Brazil, the African Muslim community – both enslaved and freed – held together so strongly that they were able to secretly establish Salatul Jumu’ah and attend gatherings of dhikr, even in the face of intense scrutiny (Diouf, 2013, p. 88-89). 

Perhaps one of the most greatly moving examples of enslaved African Muslims’ dedication to their Islam was that even in the midst of the utter poverty of slavery, they found a way to uphold zakaah, sawm, and Hajj. In Brazil, it was recorded that the Muslims would end Ramadan with the exchanging of gifts, no matter how simple they were; in truth, these gifts were zakaatul fitr and zakaatul maal.

In other areas, the descendants of Muslim slaves recalled that their parents and grandparents would make rice cakes called saraka at least once a year – saraka was a corruption of the Arabic word sadaqah, and the rice cakes were a Jumu’ah tradition in West Africa. (Diouf, 2013, p. 92-94) In Ramadan, many Muslims sought to fast; indeed, despite the incredible hardship and lack of nutritious food that the slaves already endured, there were those who fasted voluntarily outside of Ramadan as well, often by pretending to be ill. They knew that their situation meant that fasting – in Ramadan and outside of it – was not obligatory on them, and yet, to them, no circumstance was bad enough to warrant not even attempting to observe Ramadan. Hajj was another pillar of Islam that was both impossible and no longer obligatory on the enslaved Muslims; yet in Brazil, in a house that was used as a masjid, there were illustrated depictions of the Ka’bah – demonstrating the emotional bond that the African Muslims had with the Sacred House. 

Throughout Diouf’s book, the overwhelming theme that arises is the fierce commitment that enslaved African Muslims had to Islam. It was not superficial, shallow, or easily shrugged away in the face of difficulty. Instead, the African Muslims held onto their belief in Allah and their daily, lived practise of Islam, even when they had every excuse to relax their obligations. They upheld their Islamic and cultural dress code, not just at its minimum standard of modesty, but in a way that clearly demonstrated their religious identity (Diouf, 2013, p. 101-110). They found ways to make prayer mats and dhikr beads; they gave their children Muslim names in secret, when they were expected to present themselves as Christians; they even strove to observe whatever they could of the Islamic dietary code, by refusing to drink alcohol or eat pork – Ayuba Diallo went so far as to only eat dhabiha meat that he himself slaughtered (Diouf, 2013, p. 119-122). The enslaved African Muslims valued their Islamic identity above all. Even in slavery, they knew that their ‘izzah came from their Deen – and so did those around them, who noted their unique bearing in the face of the horrors of slavery. 

The story of the African Muslims who were enslaved and brought to the Americas is not merely a history lesson, or a token homage in honour of Black History Month. It is a story that echoes the persecution of the earliest Muslims in Makkah, and applicable to Muslims today. Muslim minorities in the West are often all too eager to complain of our difficulties and to seek religious exemptions for our minor inconveniences. Yet who are we in comparison to the earliest African-American Muslims, who endurable the unspeakable? Who are we, with our privileges, with our very freedom, in comparison to those Muslims who were stripped of everything and everyone they knew and loved, and who still held ever tighter to the Rope of Allah? One may say that it is unfair to compare us and them; that to recognize their struggles should not mean invalidating the challenges we face today. Certainly, we face numerous different fitan that are very different from what they experienced, but the truth is that we should compare our attitudes with those of our predecessors. We should be ashamed of our own weaknesses in times of privilege compared to their strength in times of oppression. More importantly, we must learn from them what it means to have such a relationship with our Creator and our Deen that we are capable of surviving and thriving in even the worst of circumstances. 

May Allah have mercy on the enslaved African Muslims who endured one of this Ummah’s historic tragedies, and may He make us of those who demonstrate their strength of love for Him through every tragedy of our own.

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Continue Reading

#Culture

Searching for Signs of Spring: A Short Story

At the party she stood near the front door, as if she might attempt escape. No one talked to her, though she saw plenty of glances cast her way. At least the food was good.

Golden Gate Bridge at night

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

The Smoker

Cigarette butt

“I’m going to kill her,” the man in the back seat growled. A moment earlier his phone had beeped, indicating a text message.

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Randa ignored him. She could already smell him – he reeked of cigarette smoke and Drakkar, a syrupy yet rancid combination, like a rotting fruit – and didn’t care to expend the energy to turn her head.

Exhausted from a nine hour shift slinging overloaded plates of food to hordes of Japanese and German tourists, she sat in the front seat of the UberPOOL car, staring out the window at the passing nightlife of San Francisco. Taxis and buses jostling for space, restaurants with lines down the block. Cable cars, street cars, tourists with their expensive cameras like baby candy for Tenderloin junkie thieves. Chinese women heading home from SOMA sweatshops, elbowing their way onto packed buses. Local hipsters, bike messengers and pimply faced tech millionaires. They were all jammed into this city on seven hills, mesmerized by the lights and endless cash, or imprisoned by them. Free to go where they would; free to ruin themselves.

She reached into the shopping bag between her knees and fingered the silk scarf she’d purchased. She’d spent half her weekly paycheck on it. A gift for Nawal. SubhanAllah, its exquisite softness was unreal. What she would have given during the last three years to feel something so yielding. She released the scarf and settled back into the seat. Quick stop at the halfway house to shower and change, then on to Nawal’s party. She could do this. After all she’d been through, why should a party make her nervous?

“Bitches lie,” the smoker went on. “That’s all women do, they lie. I’m going to kill the sl*t.”

“Sir,” the driver said, glancing in the rear view mirror. He was a tiny man with a thick moustache and a flat cap. His name was Ali, according to the Uber app. European looking, maybe Kurdish, maybe Arab. “Calm down or I will put you out.”

“Screw you,” Smoker said. “I paid for this ride, I’m not going any-”

Ali swerved to the curb and hit the brakes, screeching to a stop beside Union Square. “Out.”

It was almost Christmastime, and the square was packed. Randa saw people ice skating on the little rink they set up every December. The compressor that cooled the ice was very loud. Tourists were crowded into the Starbucks beside the rink. On every side of the square, monuments to consumerism rose. Macy’s, the Westin St. Francis, Nike, Apple, Louis Vuitton, Bul93gari, Tiffany & Co… Idols of wealth and third world labor. After spending three years owning nothing but a few sets of clothing and a few books, this was all foreign. As if some great beast had eaten every valuable thing in the world and regurgitated it in one place. She wasn’t quite sure if she wanted it all, or was revolted by it all.

“Drive the damn car,” Smoker said.

Randa had had enough. She turned and scanned the back seat. Directly behind her, a teenaged blonde girl in denim looked very uncomfortable – almost frightened but not quite there. Randa focused on the smoker. He was brown skinned and barrel chested, with thinning black hair. Middle Eastern. He looked familiar, actually. His eyes were bloodshot. It was like a set up for a joke: three Arabs and a white girl get into an Uber… Except there was nothing funny about this guy. He was big and looked quite capable of violence.

Randa, on the other hand, was physically unimposing. Short, skinny, long black hair tied in a ponytail, she was a typical Yemeni girl, as light as one of the reeds that grew in the Aden wetlands, where her parents had grown up. That didn’t matter. Anyone could hurt anyone, she knew this. Her eyes were lasers drilling into the smoker. Her jaw was a steel trap. Liquid nitrogen flowed through her veins. If this guy wanted to mix it up, she would tear him to pieces.

The man’s eyes met hers, he opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it. He exited the car, slamming the door.

The driver smiled at Randa. He looked very relieved. “MashaAllah alayki,” he praised her in Arabic. “I don’t know what you did, but thanks. Maybe you should be a rideshare driver.”

Randa did not reply.

The Threat

Prison visitors window

She checked into the halfway house on Turk Street with ten minutes to spare before her work period expired. The staff member on duty was her own case manager, a thin, bald man with a pasty complexion and a scar on his lip.

“I’ll need a recreation block later,” Randa told him. “Starting at seven.”

The man smirked. “Hot date?”

Randa gazed at him impassively, her face as ungiving as a concrete wall.

“I need to know where you’re going,” the case manager said, annoyed.

“Bachelorette party.”

“Better not be any drugs there.”

“Muslim party. No drugs, no alcohol, no men. Just women dancing and eating.”

“You only have one rec block left this month.” He nodded toward the door that led to his private office. “Come back here, we’ll have a little fun, I’ll give you five more blocks. You’ll have a good time.” He punctuated this assurance with a wink.

“Eat poison and die.”

The man flinched as if he’d been slapped, then snarled. “Take your block. But if you’re one minute late I will write a violation on you faster than you can say, ‘Allah help me.’”

Up in her tiny second floor room with the two-woman bunk bed, changing out of her waitressing uniform, she considered not going. She hadn’t been to a social event since her release. She knew they’d all be talking about her.

While locked up she’d earned a correspondence bachelor’s degree in business administration. She was still trying to figure out what to do with it. Education wise she’d already surpassed 90% of the Yemeni community. But that didn’t matter. To them she was a shame and a wreck, a disgrace to her family.

And she wasn’t sure it was safe. What if her brother Motaz showed up? Did he still have it in for her? She had not seen him since her arrest, when he came to see her in the county jail. They sat across from each other in small cubbies, separated by thick plexiglass into which someone had scratched the words, “LOVE YOU FOREVER.”

Leaning forward to talk through a perforated panel, she explained that she hadn’t known there were drugs in the backpack. Her boyfriend had told her it was a game console he’d sold, and asked her to deliver it on her way to school. She’d been in love with Lucas, and never imagined he would manipulate her that way.

Her brother’s cheeks were purple with rage. “I don’t care about the drugs,” he seethed. “That only proves how stupid you are. You had a boyfriend. An American.” He struck the plexiglass and Randa reeled, nearly falling over in her seat. “If we were back in Yemen,” her brother went on, “I would kill you myself. It would be best for the family if you hang yourself from your bunk.”

She didn’t try to tell him that she’d never been intimate with Lucas and that she was, in fact, still a virgin. It wouldn’t make any difference, she knew that. It was public perception that mattered, and the shame it would bring. And she wasn’t saying her brother was totally wrong on that score. She hadn’t represented herself or her faith well. But that didn’t give him the right to threaten her.

She had not spoken to her brother since that day. She had no idea what his intentions for her might be. But she didn’t intend to give him the chance to make good on his threats.

The Phone Call

The phone rang. It was her mom, reading her mind. Randa told her she was going to skip the party.

Her mom clucked her tongue. “Nawal is your friend. She’s getting married, she wants you to celebrate with her.”

“She didn’t invite me.”

“She invited me. That means you as well.”

“What if Motaz shows up?”

“Why would he? It is a ladies party. And if he did, so what?”

“You know what. He threatened to kill me.”

“Ah, Randa! Astaghfirullah. That was in the past. All is forgiven. Anyway he never meant it. It was only his anger talking.”

Randa was not sure. Islam taught compassion and mercy, but in her native Yemen, feuds could carry on for generations. People did not forget. She voiced another of her fears: “They’ll all be judging me. The ladies.”

“Eh?” Her mother sounded genuinely perplexed. “Why should they?”

“Because I just spent the last three years-”

“No,” her mother interrupted. “We don’t speak about that. It never happened.”

“I don’t know how to talk to those people.”

“Those people?” Her mother sounded outraged. “They are your people, Randa!”

Randa sighed and shook her head. She could fight off people trying to kill her, and had done so, but she was powerless against her mother. Why was that, still?

Her mom switched to Arabic. “Give your tribe your money and blood, but give outsiders the point of a sword.”

Her mom and her proverbs. And she never used them right. “That doesn’t even fit.”

“It means do not justify yourself. The past is the past.”

“I don’t think it means that.”

“And wear something colorful. No more black like you’re going to a funeral.”

Prayer

All she had was black. What else? After three years of state-issued denim, she’d sworn she’d never wear any shade of blue again. What, then? Orange was jail jumpsuits. Red, pink, yellow, purple? What was she, a clown? Or white, like a nun, a nurse, or a virgin bride? She would laugh at that if she remembered how.

San Francisco Islamic Society Mosque

She donned a long black skirt over black stockings, walking shoes, a long-sleeved blouse and a black sweater, and set out on foot. Her first stop was the Islamic Society masjid on Jones at Market. In the elevator she took a light black abayah from her purse and draped it over herself, covering everything but her face and hands. The masjid was on the third floor, a wide open space in which Randa could forget her problems for a time. She had rediscovered her faith in prison, and sometimes it was the only thing that kept her going.

She knew that was a cliche, but it was true. When every door was made of solid steel, double locked and remote controlled – Allah’s door was open. When every road was not only blocked but taken away altogether, because you were sealed in a tiny room – the road to Allah was still there. When there were no windows, and the light bulbs were turned off so that you sat in utter darkness, Allah’s light was still there.

She smiled imperceptibly, remembering the first of Ruby’s rules. Ruby, her cellmate and mentor, had developed a set of rules to survive and thrive in prison. Rule number one: only God can get you out.

Well here, she was, out, and just in time for ‘ishaa. A handful of other women were in attendance and she prayed beside them. As the Imam recited Surat Ar-Rahman, Randa searched her own heart for some sign of spring. A bit of softness, a warm breeze stirring, a melting of the ice. She found little to give her hope. Too soon, she thought. Her great fear was that her past self, the Randa who cried at the recital of the Quran, hung out with friends and gossiped or laughed about boys, or just walked down the street with a bounce in her step, happy to be alive, was gone.

The Party

Yemeni food mutabaq sandwich

Mutabaq

She took another Uber to Nawal’s house, out in the Richmond district, near the ocean. At the party she stood against the wall near the front door, as if she might attempt escape. No one talked to her, though she saw plenty of glances cast her way. She drank guava juice from a small glass and ate a mutabaq. At least the food was good. She hadn’t eaten anything so delicious in years.

Her mom had hugged her when she arrived, chastised her for her grim sartorial choices, then wandered off to sit and gossip with her friends.

There were at least forty women present. The younger ones danced to the sounds of A-Wa, with the occasional Ahmed Fathi song thrown in to appease the aunties. Others sat at a table around a henna artist, taking turns getting their hands and arms tattooed. A woman in an orange scarf sat on a sofa crying, while two other women flanked her, comforting her.

Nawal sauntered over to Randa and embraced her. She looked radiant in a sequined blue gown, her long black hair flowing freely, her arms hennaed up to the elbows with intricate designs. “Thanks again for the scarf. It’s lovely. You didn’t have to do that.”

“My pleasure.” Randa nodded to the crying woman. “What’s going on there?”

Nawal looked. “Oh. That’s my Tant Ruqayyah. Her husband’s been cheating on her. But she’s finally done with him. She sent him a message today, asking for a divorce. Hey.” Nawal grinned at Randa. “What’s up with the black outfit? You planning a burglary later?”

Randa bristled, pulling back. “What do you mean?”

Nawal faltered. “No. Nothing. Just a joke, Randa. What happened to you? You lost your sense of humor.” Nawal squeezed Randa’s shoulder and turned away to rejoin her friends.

Randa wanted to shrink into a corner of the room and draw the darkness around her like a cloak. Nawal’s comment stung like chili in a cut, all the more for its truth. She knew she wasn’t the fun person she’d once been. She wasn’t someone people wanted to be around. She wasn’t someone people loved.

A commotion from the direction of the entrance made her turn. The door was just around the corner and she couldn’t see what was happening. She heard a man shouting, and a woman protesting. For a second she had the irrational thought that it was her brother, come to murder her as he’d threatened to do three years ago. Then she smelled it. The stench of cigarette smoke and Drakkar. It was the man from the Uber. Suddenly she knew why the man had seemed familiar. She’d seen him with his wife at parties in the past. His name was Momo, she remembered now, and he was Ruqayyah’s husband. She remembered the text message Momo had received in the car, and his saying, “I’ll kill her.”

A woman shrieked from the doorway and the man pushed his way in. He passed by Randa, not noticing her. Her eyes shot to the man’s hands, just as Ruby had taught her. Rule thirty: watch people’s hands, not their faces.

Momo held a long butcher knife tucked low against the back of his leg. No one else in the room seemed to have noticed it. The other women were too busy scrambling to put their scarves on, now that there was a man in the room. Some were retreating quickly, heading for the bedrooms. Some of the younger ones were still dancing, oblivious. Meanwhile, Momo was making a beeline for Ruqayyah.

Ruqayyah had spotted the knife. Her eyes were locked on it as she backed up, her hands held to her mouth in horror, her face pale as the moon.

Randa moved. Dropping her plate and glass, she walked rapidly toward the food table, slipping off her sweater as she did so. Rule thirty two: anything can be a weapon. Without breaking stride she snatched up the pepper shaker and pocketed it, then grabbed two unopened soda cans. She wrapped the cans with her sweater and twisted it, gripping it by the sleeves.

Momo had almost reached Ruqayyah. He brought the knife up, aiming it at her heart. Ruqayyah stepped back, stumbled into a chair leg, and fell to the ground. It probably saved her life.

Randa was only a few feet behind Momo now. He still had not seen her. Rule thirty five: hit first and hit hard. She gripped the sweater sleeves with both hands and swung, turning her hips, putting everything she had into it. All her frustration, fury and shame, her loneliness and self doubt. The soda cans in the sweater connected with the side of Momo’s head. There was a loud thudding sound, and Momo dropped as if a djinn had snatched his heart out of his chest. His hand opened and the knife clattered to the ground beside him. Some of the women screamed, and someone finally turned off the music.

Still clutching the sweater in one hand, Randa reached down and took Ruqayyah’s hand, helping the older woman to her feet, and helping her adjust her scarf, which had slid forward over her eyes. The auntie was stunned speechless.

Momo groaned. Randa turned to see him reach for the knife, find it, and begin to climb back to his feet. Damn. Hard-headed bastard. Reaching into her pocket, she calmly unscrewed the pepper shaker and flung the contents into Momo’s eyes. He hollered in pain and dropped the knife once more, and this time Randa kicked it away so that it skittered under the table. Once again she gripped the sweater sleeves with both hands and swung. The cans smashed Momo square in the face. He fell backwards with a cry, blood spurting from his nose. He rolled about on the floor, clutching his face, all the fight gone out of him.

Someone seized Randa’s arm and she turned to see her mother. The woman was literally quaking with rage. “Get out of here,” she hissed. “You crazy person. Why did I think you changed? You are a majnoonah.”

Nawal was there too, her face set in stone. “You should leave,” she said. “I won’t tell the police what you did, but you should go.”

Randa didn’t argue. What did it matter? These women had their minds made up about her, as did her mother. Fine. She turned to leave. Again someone gripped her arm, but this time it was Tant Ruqayyah. The auntie pulled Randa into an embrace, then kissed her on the cheek. “Thank you,” she said, her lower lip trembling. “You saved my life, habibti. May Allah give you life. I don’t know how I can ever repay you.”

Nawal frowned. “What are you saying, Tant? Randa, what does she mean?”

Randa looked at her former friend. “He came here to kill her. He had a knife.” She gestured with her chin to the table. “It’s under there.”

“To kill her?” her mother said. “What nonsense is this?”

Randa smoothed Ruqayyah’s orange scarf. “Don’t worry, Tant. You’ll be fine.” She turned away, replacing the pepper shaker and dented soda cans on the table on her way out. One of the cans had punctured and was spraying soda in a fine stream. She put her sweater on and found it wet.

At the doorway, a woman was rising from where Momo had pushed her over on his way in. Thank God he hadn’t stabbed her.

Bridges

Her mother called out to her, but she let herself out. The night breeze instantly penetrated her wet sweater and raised goosebumps on her skin. Her hands were shaking badly, so she thrust them into her pockets, violating one of Ruby’s rules. In fact her entire body shook. She told herself it was just the cold.

Nawal emerged from the house and called to her, then hurried to catch up. Her friend was flustered, her cheeks red. “I’m sorry,” she said, taking Randa’s hand. “I misunderstood. You… You are a hero.”

Golden Gate Bridge at night

Randa looked away. In the distance she could see the Golden Gate Bridge glowing red in the night, and the dark hills of Marin County silhouetted against the sky. Bridges took you from one reality to another then back again, but what if you never wanted to go back? What if you wanted to put the past behind you forever? Was there such a thing as a one way bridge?

They said she was a villain, then a hero. Which label applied? Ex-con? Disgrace? Waitress? Yemeni, American, daughter, friend?

She returned her gaze to Nawal’s face. “No,” she said. “I’m not.”

She turned away. A light drizzle began to fall, chilling her, but somehow she’d stopped shivering. She was miles from the halfway house, but there was plenty of time left on her rec block. She would walk. The city stretched out before her like a jeweled wedding veil, the wet sidewalks shining beneath the street lamps. Appreciate the moment. Another of Ruby’s rules.

Randa walked.

THE END

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

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

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

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The Beginnings Of The Darul Islam Movement In America

I was raised in the Darul Islam movement; my father Shaykh Abdu-Karim Ahmad, was one of their Imams for a time in Philly. So was my cousin Shaykh Ali Ahmad. Both who are still alive today. There are many narrations yet to be told, that shed a little light and context, about Muslim America today.

Much of the history about Islam in United States of America and of the pioneering Muslims upon who’s shoulders we stand, has never been told. Some of them unfortunately may never be told and may die with the death of those who were there. When it comes to American Muslim history, the narratives of those who lived it is more poignant than that of those who only heard about it. As in the hadith of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), “He who is told is not like he who has seen”.

Much of what is written about Black American Muslim Sunni pioneers is written about us but not by us. 

One story that has remained largely unchronicled is that of the Darul Islam movement. Darul Islam was an early indigenous Sunni Muslim community made up of Black American Muslims and converts to Islam. At its height, it comprised 25-30 Muslim communities and masaajid across the country. It was started by Rajab Mahmood and Yahya Abdul-Karim, who were formally attendees of the famous State Street Mosque in Brooklyn, New York in the Atlantic Ave area west of Flatbush. The State St, Mosque which was started by was Dawud Faisal, a Black man who came to the United States from the Caribbean to pursue a career in jazz music, became a beacon for early Muslim immigrants as there was already a spate of Arab businesses along Atlantic Ave near third street, not far from the Mosque. My father used to take us to Malko Brothers bakery on Atlantic Ave in the early sixties where we would buy pita bread and halal meat from one of the other stores. It was one of the few places you could buy pita bread on the East Coast and there was no such thing as a halal store in America then.  

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Partially because Shaykh Dawud was black, and perhaps because of his jazz background and affiliation, the Masjid also attracted Black American converts to Sunni Islam. Many early Sunni Muslims were associated with and came from jazz musicians.  The Legendary John Coltrane was reported to have been a Muslim, he was married to a sister named Amina and his daughter was named Na’eema. My father performed her marriage in New York in the 1980’s. It’s rumored that he never publicized his Islam because it would have damaged his career as it had done to so many others. Hajj Talib Dawud, who started a masjid in Philadelphia (not related to the Darul Islam movement), used to be a trumpet player for Dizzy Gillespie. 

Meanwhile, , there was a chasm between immigrant Muslims who were new to the country. Converts to Islam, who were overwhelmingly Black, were new to Islam.  In 1960, Shaykh Dawud hired a teacher who was Hafiz al-Quran named Hafiz Mah’boob — he was associated with the Tabligh Jamaa’ah movement— but he was Black or looked black. The young African American converts, Rajab Mah’mood, Yahya Abdulkarim, Suleiman Abdul-Hadi (my uncle and one of the founding members of The Last Poets), Muhammad Salahuddin, and others. were drawn to him, He was “down” with educating the brothers from America and he used to teach them Arabic and Islam. It was a different time then and the immigrant, mainly Arab Muslims, and the Black American converts to Islam were from two different worlds. There was an unspoken uneasiness. Eventually Hafiz Mah’boob suggested that the African American brothers go and start their own masjid.

Rajab Mah’mood and Yahya AbdulKarim eventually left the State Street Mosque and started their own Masjid in Brownsville, one of Brooklyn’s toughest neighborhoods, they named it Yasin Mosque, and that was the beginning of the Darul Islam Movement in the United States. That’s also just the beginning of the story.

I was born and raised a Sunni Muslim in Philadelphia, PA; my parents converted to Islam in the 1950’s.

I was raised in the Darul Islam movement; my father Shaykh Abdu-Karim Ahmad, was one of their Imams for a time in Philly. So was my cousin Shaykh Ali Ahmad. Both who are still alive today. There are many narrations yet to be told, that shed a little light and context, about Muslim America today.

History matters. 

Taken from the Upcoming Book. “The History of the Darul Islam Movement in America” 

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

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

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