See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories. Wael’s novel, Pieces of a Dream, is available on Amazon.com.
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 | Chapter 16 | Chapter 17
Thursday, March 4, 2010 – Early evening
El Valle de Antón, Coclé Province, Panama
When I woke it was Maghreb time. Looking through the glass I could see the outlines of the hills against the purple sky. The covers were cool against my skin, and a corner lamp filled the room with soft yellow light. The orchids on the wall cast delicate, origami-like shadows. Their sweet, lemony scent made me think of being back home with Safaa as she baked lemon bread in our little apartment. I heard voices talking from another room. My mouth was dry and I was ravenously hungry, but I felt slightly stronger, and I wanted to pray.
I pulled the IV from my arm, causing blood to trickle from the insertion point. I tried to rise and actually succeeded in swinging my legs down from the bed, through the effort taxed me so much I let out a groan. A split second later the door opened and Safaa came rushing in. Only then did I notice the baby monitor sitting on the nightstand beside the bed. She’d been monitoring me from the other room.
I gave her a sidelong look, my expression hard. “Why are you still here? I told you I divorce you.”
She crossed her arms. “No.”
“Yes. I gave you a statement of divorce.”
“No. I won’t let you.”
“What do you mean? I want a divorce. You can’t tell me what to do.”
“Yes I can.”
What the heck? Were we kindergarteners now? Were we going to repeat ourselves a hundred times and resort to saying, I’m rubber you’re glue, whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you?
“Habibi, listen.” Safaa came forward and put a hand on my leg. “I made a terrible mistake. I get it now. A marriage can’t survive without trust. I violated that trust when I took someone else’s word over yours. I’m sorry.” She straightened her back, like a soldier at attention. “I’m not leaving. I made that mistake already. I abandoned you when you needed me. I won’t do it again.”
I said nothing, but my mouth turned down and I looked away. Words were cheap. She claimed to trust me now, but I didn’t trust her anymore. I’d always thought the bond between us was unbreakable, that we were a match decreed in the world before this world, and that nothing could separate us. Safaa had proven me wrong. We weren’t special. We weren’t destined for each other. We were just a man and woman thrown together by circumstance. What we had was finished.
“Habibi,” she pleaded. “Say something.”
I said nothing. I didn’t like hurting her, but I was entitled to my feelings. Her apology and tears were too easy. You can’t hurt someone for months then show up one day and say, “Sorry, let’s start over.” Actions have consequences.
“Fine.” Safaa shoved my leg irritably and stood up. “You remember what you always say to Hajar when she knows she’s wrong but won’t admit it? There’s good stubborn and bad stubborn.” She glared at me, and when I made no reply she turned and stalked out of the room.
Shortly afterward Yusuf came in with a tray of food. There was chicken soup, rice, lentils, baked sweet potatoes and mushrooms, and yogurt. “Yasmeen prepared this. She says these are good post-surgery foods. She used to be a nurse. That’s how we met. I was hospitalized for appendicitis and she cared for me.”
“That’s cool, ma-sha-Allah. I get the feeling she doesn’t like me much though.” As I talked I ate, and it was heavenly, as if I had never tasted food before. The soup was hot and tangy, the potatoes buttery and salty, the yogurt cool and sour. SubhanAllah, how had I ever taken food for granted?
“She doesn’t trust you. She’s afraid you’ll drag me into something dangerous or illegal.”
“Which I already did.”
Yusuf smiled. “You’re my brother. You’re like family. Do you know the name of my company?”
I thought back to the Google search I’d run back in the Los Angeles airport, a lifetime ago. “Yuza Construction.”
“Do you know what it means?”
I shrugged. “Some kind of indigenous word?”
“Think about it. Yu. Za. What two names do you know that start with those letters?”
I stared, then laughed. “You’re kidding.”
“You saved my soul, Zaid. You changed my life. Everything I am I owe to you. From the very beginning I envisioned the two of us working together. Stay here in Panama. I’ll make you a partner in my company. You’ll be well cared for.”
“I don’t know anything about construction.”
“You could learn. Or I could make you head of security. Loss prevention, background checks. That’s up your alley. There’s plenty of work.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Está bien. So tell me, what can I do for you?”
“Well. I’ve lost all my documents, and I have no idea what happened to Anna’s passport. Her mother probably sold it.”
Yusuf nodded. “I have a contact at the American embassy. I’ll reach out.”
“I have another request. Kind of an odd one.” I told him about an old man sitting alone in an apartment on the worst street in Colon, playing an imaginary trumpet.
My old friend smiled. “I’ll see what I can do.” He paused, then said, “You know that your wife loves you, right?”
My face became a blank mask. “I’m done with Safaa.”
“Zaid.” Yusuf put a hand on the back of my neck and pulled my head to touch his forehead to mine. Then he kissed me on one cheek. I grimaced but took it like a child under assault by an over-affectionate uncle. What was with these Panamanians and their relentless physicality?
“Do you know,” Yusuf said, “how loyal she’s been to you? When she found out about your condition she was here the same day. Not the next day hermano, the same day. You were at Punta Pacifica Hospital then. We all stayed at my apartment in the city while you were recuperating, but not Safaa. She never left your hospital room. She slept in a chair at night, and sat at your bedside during the day. She recited to you from the Quran and talked about Hajar and how much she loves you. That’s a loyal woman.”
“Akhi, you don’t know,” I said hotly. “She accused me falsely, sided against me, kicked me out of my home, denied me access to my daughter, and treated me like something she scraped off her shoe. I tried for months to reason with her, and then…” I made a helpless gesture. “I ran dry. The well ran dry.”
“I get it hermano, I do. In the name of fairness she should get what’s coming to her. In the name of your righteous indignation. In the name of punishing her. But what if I were to say to you, in the name of love? And more importantly…” He paused momentously, as if he were about to deliver the last line of the Gettysburg Address. “In the name of Allah.”
I froze in the middle of chewing a mouthful of beans. What could I say to that?
“Do you remember,” Yusuf went on, “what you used to say to me in prison, whenever I would express my fear that my family would not understand my conversion to Islam, my wife would divorce me, my daughter would see me as a stranger? You used to say, do it for Allah, and trust Allah to do for you.” He winked as if he knew he’d just made the winning move in a chess match. “So. In the name of all those other tings, no. But in the name of Allah? I leave you with that.”
I put up a hand. “Hold on.”
Yusuf paused, raising his eyebrows.
“What I do with my family is my own affair.”
I sighed and changed the subject. “Did Niko leave a number where I can reach him? Or an email or something?”
Yusuf hesitated. “Maybe you should let him be. He’s been through a lot.”
“What do you mean? Is he angry with me?”
“No, nothing like that. You know what, it’s fine.” He drew a black smartphone from his pocket and handed it to me. “His number’s in the contact list.”
When I was done eating I scrolled through the contacts on the phone until I found Niko Tiburon. I dialed, and a moment later a child answered with “Aló!” I asked in Spanish to speak to Niko. A loud clattering ensued, as if the phone had been dropped on a table or the floor. I heard children’s’ voices shouting and at least one child laughing hysterically.
“Aló?” a voice said. It was Niko.
I grinned widely. “I need a driver. Just a simple job, a few hours only. Are you available?”
Niko laughed. “Mister Zayn, you are awake! Gracias a Dios! But I think you better find someone else this time, Zayn. My wife want to either kiss you or kill you, she don’t know which.”
“Kill me I can understand, but why kiss me?”
“Because of my son, Zayn! Because of Emanuel. He can walk! He had the operación, Zayn, he can walk! Gracias a Dios!”
I tipped back my head and sent a prayer of thanks to Allah. What a miracle. What a blessing. “That’s wonderful,” I said. “That’s amazing, Niko. I’m so happy for you and your family.”
“Is all thanks to you, Zayn.”
“No. Thanks to God. Listen Niko, as soon as I’m well I want to come visit you and meet your family.”
“Oh.” Niko’s voice dropped an octave. “No is possible, Zayn. I am very busy with work and my family. But you must know that I will never forget you. You are a hero from the novelas, just like I say before. You change my life.”
“So… I don’t understand.” I hardly knew what to say. “I won’t see you again?”
“I am afraid no, Zayn. But is okay. You have a job too, yes? You must take Anna back to Los Estados Unidos.”
“Yes. That’’s true. Well… okay, Niko. Congratulations again on your son.” We said our goodbyes and hung up. I sat there staring at the phone. Everything Niko said made sense, so why did I get the feeling that he was hiding something from me? That there was something important he wasn’t telling me?
Setting the phone down, I threw off the covers and carefully lowered my legs to the floor. My left calf was missing a chunk of muscle, as if a dog had taken a bite out of it. My toenails had not grown back, and the nail beds were yellow, red and purple in places. They looked disgusting.
There was a walker beside the bed. I leaned on it heavily as I stood and made my way to the bathroom. The walker had a built-in seat and I had to stop twice to rest. But I made it.
The bathroom was lovely, with teak cabinetry, a natural stone floor and shower, and a huge mirror lined with flat brown stones. It smelled of lavender. Looking at myself in the mirror, I was shocked at my appearance. A scar came out of my hairline and ran from my right temple, across my eyebrow to the bridge of my nose. I had no idea how I’d gotten it. I didn’t remember being wounded there, but much of what had happened on the island was hazy, and for that I was grateful.
I’d lost much of my muscle tone and was dangerously thin. My ribs showed beneath the skin. My beard had grown out. I looked like a man who’d been living in the forest for the last ten years.
The skin on my left shoulder was a mass of twisted flesh. A long, red scar ran up my left arm where the drug house thug had slashed me.
And my legs… the skin on the front and inside of my thighs was like a map of the chaotic streets of Panama, but a map drawn in scars. There were scars on top of scars, scores of them. Many were red, some pink, while the least severe had begun to fade to white. I shivered and closed my robe, not wanting to remember that terrible time in the torture chamber.
I performed wudu and limped back to bed, where I prayed Maghreb and ‘Isha lying on my back. I was grateful to be alive, but my thoughts were foggy and confused. With my belly full of food, and my ravaged body exhausted from the trip to the bathroom, I fell asleep.
* * *
Friday, March 5, 2010 – Afternoon
El Valle de Antón, Coclé Province, Panama
El Valle de Anton, Panama
When I woke the next morning – or what I thought was morning – Safaa was there, reading a book. Seeing me awake, she came to my bedside. She reached out and massaged my leg. “How do you feel?”
I looked at her. Her eyes were so tired they looked bruised. Still, she was beautiful. The humidity down here made her skin glow.
She tipped her head. “Say something.”
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t have the heart to repeat my earlier declarations of divorce. Maybe Yusuf’s words had taken root in my brain overnight. In the name of love. In the name of Allah. Do it for Allah, and Allah will do for you.
“Why is everything a matter of ghuluw with you?” Safaa demanded.
“What-” I cleared my throat. “What do you mean?” Safaa’s Arabic was better than mine.
“Ghuluw. Extremism. Fanaticism. When you loved me, every word out of your mouth was poetry. Now you won’t speak to me at all. You take a case, and it practically turns into a war. Where’s the middle ground?”
“Where was the middle ground with you,” I countered hotly, “when you abandoned me?”
To my shock, Safaa burst into sobs and dropped to her knees at the foot of the bed. She pressed her forehead to my blanketed feet and hugged my legs. “Please, Zaid,” she wailed. “I’m so sorry. I won’t do it again, I promise. I’m begging you. I don’t want a divorce. Hajar needs you. I ne – ee – ed y – you.” Her voice broke as huge sobs wracked her chest.
I was utterly aghast. This was not what I wanted. I had never wanted to see Safaa hurt or humiliated. She was a strong-willed and proud woman. Seeing her like this caused me actual physical pain, as if I had a lump of hot coal wedged in my chest. “Stand up,” I said, and it came out harsher than I intended. “Allah yardaa alayki ya Safaa, get up please.”
“Will you – “ Her voice hitched as she struggled to speak. “Will you take back your talaq? I wo – won’t get up until y – you do.”
Oh, for heaven’s sake. Women didn’t fight fair. I couldn’t bear to see her like this, no matter what she may have done.
“Fine,” I growled. “I take it back. Please, stand up. Please.”
She stood, wiping tears from her swollen eyes. “Do you mean it?”
“Yes,” I said grudgingly.
“So you forgive me?”
I glared at her. “Don’t push.”
“Okay. Do you need anything?”
“Have you and Hajar had breakfast yet?”
“It’s two o’clock in the afternoon. But we haven’t had lunch yet.”
“Maybe we could eat together. If you want.” If we were going to be a family again, we might as well start now.
Safaa smiled. “That would be wonderful.”
While she went to bring the food, I struggled to the bathroom again, made wudu’, and prayed Dhuhr and ‘Asr. This time I prayed sitting up in bed. I recited Surat Ad-Duhaa:
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 had a realization. When last I had recited this, I’d been under torture in a place of nightmares. Yet Allah had saved me. He’d brought me through. Just as the surah said, Allah had done his part, and now I had to do mine. “The petitioner, do not repel…” I had a petitioner before me, a woman who only moments ago had literally been begging for forgiveness. Allah had shown me mercy, and now it was my turn. Hadn’t my entire life been a struggle for sincerity? What was I doing pushing Safaa away? What was I thinking? Her mistake didn’t matter. What mattered was the choice I now made. I had to find a way to bring myself to forgive her.
When Safaa returned with the food tray, Hajar ran in with her. She hopped up on the bed and proceeded to tell me excitedly about the pony she’d been riding, whose name was Roja. She told me how it would sometimes toss its mane, how she’d learned to brush and wash it, and had even learned to make a special pony treat out of oats, molasses and raisins.
I had taught Hajar a mealtime prayer: O Allah, bless what you have provided for us, and make us among the people of Jannah. Hajar must have taught it to her mom, because Safaa recited it and we began to eat, all of us sitting in my bed. Safaa kept reaching out to stroke my arm. It felt like the old days, and I had to keep reminding myself that I was supposed to be mad at her.
When we were done, Hajar went out to play with her friends, especially Anna, to whom she’d grown close.
“Where have you been sleeping?” I asked.
“Next door. Me and Hajar are sharing a room and a bed.”
“What about Oris and Anna?”
“They’re in Nora’s room. Yusuf’s older daughter. She treats them like younger sisters. Yusuf is trying to locate any family Oris might have. From what I gather, her mother was a prostitute and was killed. She never knew her father.”
“Safaa, I have to ask you something.”
“You know I love you. I always have. But these last several months have been so hard. At times I didn’t have food to eat. More than that, I’ve never felt so alone, not even when I was in prison. You abandoned me, and you didn’t let me see my daughter. My daughter, Safaa. How can I trust you? How do I know you won’t do it again? There are a lot of people who don’t like me. What happens the next time one of them makes up a story about me? How do I know you won’t toss me aside like a piece of litter?”
Safaa looked down and picked at the blanket. For several minutes she did not speak. Finally she took a deep breath and raised her eyes to mine. “When…” Her chin trembled and a tear ran down her cheek. “When we didn’t know if you would live or die, I realized…” Another breath… “I realized that I didn’t know how to exist in a world in which Zaid Karim did not exist. A world without you, Zaid, would be like the sun without heat, or like an empty cave that hasn’t seen the tread of a man in a thousand years.”
I looked at her without expression. “Is my poetry rubbing off on you? You sound like me now, but not as good.”
Safaa laughed and pinched my hand. “Oh, shut up.” She reached out and stroked my beard. “You know what Hajar said when she first saw you with this beard, when you were in the hospital?”
“She stared at you, then she said, ‘Is Baba a Prophet now?’”
I chuckled and shook my head. “I hope you set her straight.”
“Of course. But Zaid, I have to tell you, I’m seeing you in a new light.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well… I always knew you were strong. You survived prison. Your entire life has been a struggle. But the way people down here talk about you. Niko said you saved him from drowning. Yusuf says he ‘owes his soul’ to you. His words. And when I saw your body, what those monsters did to you…” She reached out to touch my leg, and though my legs were covered with the blanket I knew she was touching my scars. “When you were unconscious Anna would come in here every day. She’d tell you fairy tales like the three pigs and Goldilocks. She looks at you like you’re an angel that came down to rescue her.”
“No.” I put up a hand to stop her. “Please don’t. I’m not that. I’m not.” I felt suddenly overwhelmed. I couldn’t bear to hear another word.
“Okay then. A ronin lion.”
I snorted. “That doesn’t even make sense. I was hired to do a job and I did it, barely. As for my many failures.” I lifted my palms. “I have to live with them.”
“You asked,” Safaa insisted, “and I’m answering. I always loved you, but I’m not sure I ever truly knew you. You were a cute boy who I liked and who needed me, especially when you were in prison, and your need for me fed my ego. But I admit, maybe in the last couple of years I started to wonder if my faith in you was misplaced. Maybe it wasn’t enough anymore to be needed, so I let myself be swayed by those negative voices. I’m not proud of that. It will never happen again, habibi. It’s like I’m seeing you for the first time. You don’t actually need me at all. It’s all of us who need you. You said I was a mountain in your mind? You, my love, are Mt. Everest.”
I waved this off. I couldn’t stand such praise, because I didn’t believe it.
“But do you trust me that it won’t happen again?” Safaa persisted.
I was quiet a moment as looked into my own heart. Did I? Did I trust her? “Yes,” I said, to myself and to her.
My wife leaned forward and hugged me. I almost pulled away, then my arms went around her and I embraced her with all my strength, which admittedly wasn’t much in my condition. We sat like that for perhaps five minutes, holding each other. Only then, feeling her solidity and the heat of her cheek against mine, and smelling her lightly floral perfume, did I feel in my bones that I had survived the horrors of Ouagadiri Island. Only then did I know that I was alive, this wasn’t a dream, I had a future, and that – no matter where I might be geographically – I was home. Safaa had said that she saw me in a new light now? Fine. We would walk into that new light together.
* * *
I borrowed Yusuf’s phone again and made a few calls. The first was to the Anwars. The call went to voicemail, and I left a message detailing all that had happened, and telling them I would have Anna back to them as soon as I was well enough to travel.
The second call was to my parents. It didn’t go well. My mother accused me of stealing from the Anwars and running off. I tried to tell her about Anna, but she didn’t believe me. When she launched into her spiel of how Allah was punishing her with a son like me, I said goodbye and hung up.
The third and final call was to Jalal. He was overjoyed. He’d been terribly worried. He told me that my office and car were fine. He’d been watering my plants and paying my bills with the checkbook in my desk drawer, forging my signature to do so. I didn’t mind. I thanked him and asked him to pay himself another $200.
“There’s something you should know,” Jalal said. “There’s a controversy going on over you. People are saying that your whole private investigator thing was a con, and you used it to rip off the Anwars. I had a fight with a brother over that. I mean a real fight, they called the cops to the masjid.”
Wonderful, I thought bitterly. Just what I need. “Stay out of it,” I told him. “Let people say what they like.” I couldn’t stop myself from asking, “Has Imam Saleh said anything?” I couldn’t bear the thought of Imam Saleh, who I respected so highly, thinking I was a thief. The very thought was like another gunshot wound.
“He gave a whole khutbah about it! He said that backbiting and slander are a serious sin. He was angry, I’m telling you. He didn’t mention you by name, but he said that to drag an honorable person through the mud without evidence is despicable, and to do so in his absence is cowardly. Dr. Anwar walked out in the middle of the khutbah. The whole community is split. Mostly the elders are siding with the Anwars, while the younger brothers are defending you.”
I groaned and covered my eyes. “Okay. Jazak Allah khayr, brother. Aside from all that, how are you doing personally?”
“Oh, you know.” His voice dropped. “Still thinking about Cindy. It’s hard, man.”
“Stay strong. Any woman who would break up with you over your religion isn’t worthy of you. Keep your chin up, keep the faith. Allah will give you someone better.”
“I guess so…”
* * *
I spent the next three days recuperating. I focused on rebuilding the strength in my left leg. I would probably always have a limp, but I stretched the muscle several times a day, and walked as much as I was physically able. The first two days I walked on the estate, moving slowly and using first the walker, then a pair of canes. Safaa accompanied me with a wheelchair, and when I became tired she wheeled me back to the house. The girls often rode beside us on horseback. Yusuf had a stable with a dozen horses, some of which were worth quite a lot of money. Finally, like a shadow, one of the bodyguards – there were three, it turned out – paralleled us.
Safaa and Hajar moved into my room, with Safaa in my bed and Hajar in a smaller bed that Yusuf and Yasmeen brought in. Each night my wife fell asleep with her body pressed against mine, the chorus of frogs outside singing a lullaby.
By the third day I was strong enough to take a walk through town, using a cane rather than the walker. Incredibly, El Valle – as the locals called the town – rested within the crater of an extinct volcano. The fertile soil gave rise to towering trees: mango, papaya, acacia, cocoa and others. Flowers grew everywhere, including orchids, which grew wild on tree trunks. The main road was paved, but the side streets were made of grass. The volcano’s caldera was forested, and water poured out of the valley through two waterfalls.
On the third evening we all rode two golf carts down to the local pizzeria, except for Nora who rode her tall horse. A bodyguard followed in an ATV.
The crispy-crusted pizzas, made with fresh ingredients from the local open-air market, were delicious. We sat in the patio area, watching people go by on the main street. There were families out for an evening stroll, children on bicycles, the occasional bus, and a few drunks weaving their way to or from the local bar. The waitress fussed over baby Zaid, and people from the street called and waved to Yusuf, calling him “Don Jose.” They certainly did not seem to fear him.
I could be happy here, I thought, so far from the North American 21st century, where things were designed to break – planned obsolescence, they called it. I was so tired of a world where everything started with a focus group and ended as plastic packaging dumped into the sea. Everything was manipulated, from cereal boxes designed to attract the eyes of children, to internet memes crafted to go viral. Nothing was real in that world. Human beings were walking wallets, and every idea, product, and bit of information was simply a means to empty those wallets.
Here, a man could breathe. I could stay here with Safaa and Hajar, and be happy. Here, the air was filled with the scents of jasmine and oleander; the food was fresh from the farm or the sea; and people smiled and greeted you like an old friend, even if they’d never met you.
The next day, amazingly, a courier arrived with new passports for myself and Anna. That was some kind of pull Yusuf had – like an 800 pound gorilla. The same day, Yusuf informed me that his staff had located a member of Oris’s family: a paternal grandmother, who lived in the coastal city of Pedasí, located on Panama’s Azuero peninsula. The woman was on her way to collect Oris.
It was time to go home. Safaa went online and booked tickets on a 6 pm direct flight to Los Angeles, connecting to Fresno and arriving at midnight. I had no money, but Safaa’s bank account was flush with the cash I’d sent her, and she had her credit and debit cards.
First, though, I had to see a dear friend. A recently acquired friend, true, and a crazy one, but dear for all that. I borrowed Yusuf’s phone and called Niko again.
The phone was answered by a woman, who I presumed was Niko’s wife Teresa. When I told her who I was, she replied tersely that Niko was not available, and hung up on me. Huh. If he’d told her half of what we’d been up to, then I didn’t blame her. I was the guy who’d gotten her husband shot.
We spent the morning packing. More accurately, Safaa packed her bags, since I had nothing but a few sets of used jeans and short-sleeved dress shirts that Safaa had purchased at a store in El Valle, which wasn’t exactly the fashion center of the Western hemisphere. We loaded our things into Yusuf’s four-door, four wheel drive truck. I wasn’t much help, as I still needed a cane to walk. Safaa, Hajar, Anna and I would leave together, with Yusuf driving and a bodyguard riding shotgun. We said our goodbyes to Yasmeen and Nora, and Safaa fussed over baby Zaid one last time.
I imagined that Oris would have a hard time letting Anna go. She was so protective of the child, always riding near her when they took the horses out, always sitting beside her when they ate. But as I was about to climb into Yusuf’s truck, Oris, who’d been standing next to Nora, ran forward and threw her arms not around Anna, but around me. In my weakened state, that was enough to unbalance me. I stumbled and lost my grip on the wooden cane. I would have fallen if Safaa had not been there to catch me.
“¡Por favor,” Oris cried, “No me deje! Llévame contigo.” Don’t leave me. Take me with you.
I put a hand on the truck to stabilize myself and patted Oris on the back. “It’s okay,’ I told her in Spanish. I almost said, you’ll see Anna again one day, but that would most likely be a lie. I had no idea if Anna would ever return to Panama. I didn’t know what to say that would be true, so I merely said, “You’re okay.” Which, of course, was also not true. She was not okay, and might never be okay.
“No!” Oris insisted, embracing me even tighter. “No los conozco. Quiero ir contigo.” I don’t know them. I want to go with you.
I thought I understood then. The poor girl didn’t know who to trust. I didn’t know the details of the circumstances that led to her mother’s death and Oris being consigned to slavery, but it was obvious that, just as with Anna, everyone had either failed this girl or betrayed her. We were all strangers to her: me, Safaa, Yusuf and Yasmeen, we had all been kind to her but were still essentially strangers. For all she knew, we all might turn out to be monsters. We all might betray her, just as everyone had done before.
Except for me. I’d saved her. She’d seen with her own eyes how I had put my life on the line to free her, how I’d suffered, and how in the end I’d been willing to die to protect her. I was the only one she knew in her bones she could trust.
I didn’t know what to say or do. I stood helplessly with this child still holding on to me as if she’d gone overboard in heavy seas and I were a lifebuoy. I didn’t have the heart to pry her arms off me by force.
At the same time, I could not take her with me. It was impossible. She was not an American citizen, I had no identity documents for her, and I was not her family member.
Nora came over and, speaking gently to Oris, slowly peeled her arms off me. With my heart in my throat, I turned to climb into the truck. Oris screamed and threw herself to the ground. On hands and knees she sank her fingers into the gravel of the driveway and wept. On Ouagadiri Island she had not cried. She’d protected Anna and paid a terrible price to do so, and yet she’d stood as straight and unyielding as a spear planted in the ground. Now, though, she wept as if her world were ending.
My heart broke. I kneeled in the gravel beside Oris, pulled her to me and embraced her. “No me voy,” I told her in my imperfect Spanish. I’m not leaving. “No me iré hasta que digas, okay?” I’m not leaving until you tell me.
We all went back into the house. Yasmeen prepared a snack for the children, and I took a nap. At two o’clock in the afternoon, Oris’s grandmother arrived with a young man in his twenties. They pulled up in a small, dented pickup truck that coughed like it was dying of tuberculosis. The grandmother, a tiny brown woman with deep wrinkles, wore an ankle-length, full-bodied white dress with ruffles embroidered with bright red floral designs. On her head rested a black and white straw hat with a wide brim. By comparison, the man looked ordinary in jeans, t-shirt and sandals.
Yusuf and Yasmeen welcomed them and ushered them into the main living room of the house. The young man gawked at the spacious room, which was several times the size of Safaa’s entire apartment back in Fresno. But the old woman paid no notice to the surroundings, focusing her entire attention on Oris, who had positioned herself beside me.
The old woman beamed at Oris. “Sweetie,” she said in Spanish, “do you remember me? I am your grandmother.”
Oris made no reply. Her slender hand snaked up and gripped my own, squeezing tightly. The grandmother went on to describe Oris’s father. I didn’t understand all of it – the woman’s tendency to drop her final consonants and even entire syllables made her difficult to understand – but I gathered that Oris’s father had emigrated to the United States when Oris was young, and had, according to the grandmother, died of an illness. The young man beside her was Oris’s cousin. When the grandmother stepped forward with her arms outstretched, the child hid behind me.
It turned out to be a long afternoon. By late afternoon, after the daily downpour had come and gone, Oris agreed to take a walk through the garden with her grandmother, just the two of them. I watched through the window as they strolled amid the flowers and mango trees, the grandmother occasionally stroking Oris’s long black hair. They walked for a long time.
When they returned, Oris came to me. “Está bien,” she said. “La recuerdo. Ella fue amable.” It’s okay. I remember her now. She was nice.
“Are you sure?” I asked her in Spanish.
“Yes. But -” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Promise me.”
“If anything bad happens, you will come for me.” Her lower lip trembled. “Promise.”
I nodded solemnly and drew her into a hug. “I promise. I swear it.”
We all stood in the driveway and waved as Oris, her grandmother and her cousin pulled away in the little truck, the engine coughing and sputtering as it went.
“Do you think she’ll be okay?” Safaa asked me.
“I think brother Yusuf will check on her from time to time, and let us know. Right akhi?”
“Uhh, sure,” Yusuf replied. “Yes. I will do that, Insha’Allah.”
* * *
Bridge of the Americas, Panama
It was dark when we set out for Panama city and the airport. We crossed over the Puente de Las Americas – Bridge of the Americas – and I looked down at the dark width of the Panama Canal. A huge container ship was entering from the Pacific side, its lights shining as brightly as a small city, its sides only a hand’s width from the walls of the canal. These ships, I knew, carried tens of millions of dollars worth of consumer goods. Yusuf had told me that a single ship might have to pay a $200,000 canal transit fee.
I wondered what my hero, Salman Al-Farisi, would make of this modern world with its obsession with purchasing power, fashion, electronics and disposable goods. Salman, who came from a wealthy and influential Persian family and might have become an important figure in the Sassanid empire of the time, but had given all that up in order to seek the truth.
I thought now about the latter part of Salman’s life, picking up the mental narrative where I’d last left off:
During the rule of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, Salman was appointed as the governor of Madayen Kisra near Baghdad. It was a city of 30,000 people. Salman received an annual salary of 5,000 dirhams, but he distributed all of it to the poor, refusing to take any for himself. Instead he supported himself by weaving palm fronds into baskets. He would buy a palm from for one dirham, work on it, then sell it for three. Out of those three he gave one in charity, one to support his family, and kept one as working capital.
His dress was a simple gown, barely covering his knees, and it was the only one he owned. His house was small, only enough to protect him from the weather. When he stood, his head touched the roof.
One day on the road, Salman met a man arriving from Syria, carrying a load of figs and dates. The Syrian saw the old man in front of him, who appeared to be a common laborer, and beckoned to him. “Relieve me of this load,” he said. Salman did, and they walked together. They met a group of people. Salman greeted them and they stood up, saying, “And unto the governor be peace!” Some of them rushed forward to take the load from Salman’s shoulders. The Syrian was astonished. Who was the governor? When he realized the truth he apologized profusely and tried to reclaim his goods. But Salman refused and insisted on carrying them to the man’s destination.
When Salman was on his deathbed, his humble soul preparing to meet its Lord, Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas came to see him. Salman and Sa’d had been friends for decades, and had fought together during the conquest of Iraq.
Seeing Sa’d, Salman wept. Sa’d said, “What makes you weep, O Abu Abdullah? The Prophet of Allah died pleased with you!”
Salman replied, “By Allah, I am not weeping in fear of death, nor for love of the world. But the Prophet of Allah put me on an oath. He said, ‘Let any of you own in this world (only) like the provision of a traveler.’ Yet here I have owned many things around me!”
Sa’d, telling this story later, said: “I looked around and saw nothing but a water pot and a vessel to eat in! Then I said to him, ‘O Abu Abdullah, give us a parting word of advice to follow.’ He said, ‘O Sa’d, remember Allah for your cares, if you have any. Remember Allah in your judgment, if you judge. And remember Allah when you distribute the share.’”
When there came the morning on which Salman died, he said to his wife, “Bring me the trust I left in safekeeping.” She did, and it was a bottle of musk – one of Salman’s only possessions. He had gained it on the day of liberating Jalwalaa’ and kept it to be his perfume when he died. He called for a pot of water, sprinkled the musk into it and stirred it with his hand. He told his wife, “Sprinkle it on me, for there will now come to me creatures from the creatures of Allah. They do not eat food, and what they like is perfume.” Meaning the angels.
Then Salman Al-Farisi, the great truth-seeker of history, died. He was 88 years old. The year was 35 after hijrah, during the caliphate of ‘Uthman. May Allah be pleased with them all.
* * *
I didn’t think I could ever live like Salman, but maybe one day I could achieve the same degree of unconcern for the things of the world. Maybe one day I could live only for Allah.
We had passed over the bridge and were speeding through an area of Panama city with a large forested hill on the left and a rundown barrio on the right. “Take me to Niko’s house,” I said.
“But hermano,” Yusuf protested, “You have a flight to catch. And didn’t Niko say he was busy?”
“We have plenty of time before the flight. And something’s not right.”
A heavy silence followed, but Yusuf, who knew me well, did not attempt to argue. “Very well,” he said finally.
Once across the bridge we turned into a neighborhood that possessed a quietly menacing feel, much like Colon, though the buildings were in somewhat better shape.
“This is barrio El Chorrillo,” Yusuf explained. “A poor neighborhood. The USA bombed this neighborhood in 1989, when they captured Noriega.”
We parked in front of a ten story concrete behemoth with tiny windows and peeling paint. The bodyguard remained outside with our two vehicles, presumably so we would not return to find them stripped down to bare frames. The elevator was out of order, so we took the stairs, all five of us – Safaa, Hajar, Anna, Yusuf and myself.
Yusuf had gifted me a wickedly sharp pocket knife with a bone handle. It was small, with only a two and a half inch blade, and I didn’t recognize the brand. But the handle was sleek and fit my hand well, and the blade had a smooth action, with just the right amount of resistance. I was frankly sick of violence, and hoped never to have to use a weapon again. But the knife was a security blanket. Just having it on me calmed my nerves, and I found myself palming the clip as I laboriously climbed the stairs, using my cane for support.
Niko’s apartment was on the seventh floor, and I was badly winded by the time we got there. In fact Safaa had to help me up the last two floors. The apartment door was made of steel. When I knocked it clanged dully. I noticed Safaa shoot a look at Yusuf, who averted his eyes. What was that about?
From inside I heard the excited squeals of children, then Niko’s voice telling someone to go answer the door. The door was opened by a girl of perhaps ten years. She had the cocoa skin of one of Panama’s indigenous tribes, and wore a colorful red and blue dress. Her long, dark hair hung in a single braid. She blinked at us, apparently startled to see a tall man in an expensive suit (Yusuf), a dangerously thin man with a scarred face, dressed like a peasant and leaning on a cane (me), a woman in hijab and two girls, all grouped in front of the door.
With the door open I could hear laughter, and the sound of a ball bouncing.
A moment later a tiny but beautiful woman came to the door, her black hair done in the same style of braid. She too wore a colorful dress. In spite of her diminutive size her posture was proud, almost regal. This must be Teresa, Niko’s wife – the princess. Her eyes locked onto Yusuf, then she dropped her gaze to the floor. “What can I do for you Don José?” she said in Spanish.
“Greetings señora,” he replied. “My friend Zaid Karim” – he gestured to me – “would like to speak with Niko.”
Teresa’s gaze traveled to my face. I saw her take in my fragile appearance and the scar on my face. Hostility seemed to war with compassion in her eyes. Apparently compassion won out, because she opened the door wide and said, “Come in and be welcome.”
The apartment was small but perfectly clean and tidy. The walls were hung with mandalas made of natural objects such as dried leaves, ornamental berries and pebbles, and adhered somehow to square canvases in such dense patterns that they presented a solid wall of colorful, concentric design. I wondered if these were Teresa’s work.
In the center of the living room Niko bounced a basketball while a teenaged boy tried to take it away. Niko spun, keeping the ball to himself. A little girl, younger than the one who’d answered the door, cheered and said something I didn’t understand. It was a happy scene, a sweet family moment in which a father and son played around and goofed off. Perfectly normal, except for two things. The boy was presumably Emanuel, who until a month ago had been unable to walk.
The other unusual thing was Niko. I stared, my mind frozen like a car after some vandal has poured sugar into the tank. Niko was in a wheelchair.
Of course, I thought, laughing at my own silliness. It must be Emanuel’s old wheelchair. Niko was just goofing around.
Then Niko spun in the wheelchair, still keeping the ball away from Emanuel, and saw me. He stopped dribbling and the ball rolled away. His smile disappeared and for a moment I saw sadness and regret painted on his face as clearly as the purple density of a winter sky at dusk. Then, like a cloud sailing past the moon, the expression was gone. Niko grinned widely and rolled toward me, pushing the wheels with his hands.
“Flaco!” he exclaimed. “I know you say not to call you Flaco, but amigo, I have earned the right to call you anything I like.”
I laughed at that, and pointed to the boy. “Is that your son Emanuel?”
“Yes. Gracias a Dios! Thanks to God and thanks to you señor Zayn.” Niko nodded to the others in my group. “Hola señora Safaa. Don José.” When he said, “Don José,” his voice dropped, as if he were reluctant to pronounce the name at normal volume. He turned and called back into the living room. “Emanuel! Come meet señor Zayn.”
Niko held out a hand for a handshake. I took his hand. “Are you going to get out of the chair?” I asked.
Safaa touched my shoulder. “Zaid…”
Emanuel strode up and stood beside his father. He studied me, his head tipped slightly to one side, his expression serious.
“Mucho gusto,” I said. Pleased to meet you. I extended my hand but the boy did not take it.
“Emanuel!” Niko chided. “Ser cortés.” Be polite.
I looked at Emanuel, then at Niko. “You’re just playing in that chair, right?”
Niko smiled kindly. “Zayn. Come, let us go in the kitchen and talk privately.” He looked to Yusuf and Safaa. “Will you excuse us for a moment, señor y señora?”
My stomach sank as if it were made of lead. My entire body suddenly felt like a burden and I had to lock my knees and lean on the cane to keep from falling. “No, no no,” I said, shaking my head. “I’m not anywhere until you get up.”
“Do you know Gabriel García Márquez?” Niko asked. “The famous Colombian author. He said-”
“More poetry?” broke in furiously. “Poetry?” I turned and stalked away, my legs still shaky. I walked down the dimly lit corridor outside the apartment and didn’t stop until I reached the narrow, graffiti-strewn stairway, where I sat heavily. I had no words. All I had was a fountain of shame welling up from deep inside me like oil from a well. I couldn’t even formulate a clear thought.
Safaa followed and sat down beside me, putting a hand on my shoulder. “Yusuf wanted to tell you,” she said. “But I said no. You were so fragile. I wanted you to get well before we told you, that’s all.”
“Told me what?” Though I already knew.
“One of the bullets damaged Niko’s spine. He’s paralyzed from the waist down.”
I heard a sound behind me and looked to see Niko rolling toward me in his wheelchair. My teeth clenched so tightly my jaw ached. My right hand tightened on the cane until my fingers turned white, while the left balled into a fist. This was my fault. I’d done this. I’d taken a man who was healthy and strong, a man who had a family to care for, a man who’d done nothing but help me, and I’d put him in a wheelchair.
“I too did not want you to know, amigo,” Niko said. He smiled at me. “Do not blame Don José or your wife. And by the way-” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “I cannot believe that Don José Arosemana Cruz is in my apartamento. Everyone will be scared of me now. All my friends and neighbors, they will be terrify of me.” He grinned. “Is wonderful, no?”
“Niko.” My hand clenched even tighter, and my fingernails – which needed clipping – bit into my palm, drawing blood. “I’m so, so sorry. I’ll do whatever I can. I’ll raise money for you to see the best doctors. I’m sorry, Niko.”
Niko set the brake on his wheelchair, then reached out and took my hand. “This is why I did not want you to know. I knew you would blame yourself. But you don’t understand, Zayn. I am happy. For the first time in four years I am happy!”
“How can you be happy?” I said bitterly.
“Because Emanuel can walk! This mean everything to me, Zayn. For years I prayed to God for exactly this, to give Emanuel his legs and take mine in exchange. And God answered my pray. I ask for this, amigo. I ask for it. It does not matter what happen to me, if my children are happy and healthy and safe. You are a father, you must understand. I am happy.”
I pulled my hand from Niko’s and crossed my arms, staring at the wall.
“Ay, you gringos,” Niko said. “You cannot bear to be touched, why is that?”
I whirled, rose to my knees and threw my arms tightly around him. Before I knew it I was weeping into his shoulder. Niko patted me on the back, saying, “Is okay, Zayn. El sol brilla para todos, you remember? The sun shines for all. I am happy.”
* * *
I left Niko with a promise that I would return to Panama and check on him when I could. When we exited the building it was raining hard, coming down in a nearly solid tropical downpour. On the way to the airport, sitting in the front passenger seat of the truck, I spoke to Yusuf, who was driving. “You offered me a job? You said you could find something for me?”
“Find something for Niko instead. He’s intelligent and educated. Give him a legitimate job so he can provide for his family.”
Yusuf nodded slowly. “Sí. No hay problema. I can do it.”
“Thank you.” I watched the wipers hurrying back and forth, struggling to keep the windshield clear. I let the motion hypnotize me, and lapsed into silence. Allah would judge me for all I had done. I did not know which way the scales would lean, whether to good or evil. But I had done what I could, what I was capable of doing, and I would pay the price – and so would Niko.
My parting with Yusuf was muted, just a hug and a promise to stay in touch.
* * *
The flight to Los Angeles went without a hitch. The children were asleep when we arrived. Safaa was stronger than me right now, so she carried Anna to the gate for our connecting flight to Fresno, while I carried Hajar. It was after midnight when we arrived in Fresno. We collected our bags and caught a taxi to Safaa’s apartment.
Neither of us could carry Anna up the stairs, so we woke her. She looked around sleepily.
“This is our house,” I told her, pointing up to the apartment. “Me, Safaa and Hajar. You’ll stay with us tonight, and we’ll take you to your grandma and grandpa in the morning.”
Anna gazed back at me solemnly, saying nothing. Her brown eyes were as impenetrable as an adobe wall. But she took my hand and I led her up the steps. She slept with Hajar in her little bed, the two of them curled around each other like commas, Hajar snoring lightly.
The closet still held much of my old clothing, which surprised me, frankly. I’d imagined that Safaa had thrown it all out. I dressed in a pair of old pajamas, prayed, then shared a bed with Safaa for the first time in many months. There was no thought of lovemaking: we were exhausted, and I felt ugly and deformed with all my scars and missing toenails. Besides, I wasn’t sure I was emotionally ready for that. I needed to get used to just being around Safaa again. I focused instead on allowing myself to love her again, allowing myself to be warmed by her presence. When I was with her it was as if we were the only two inhabitants of an airy garden, even if the city outside was cold and full of anxious souls. I listened to her breathing as she fell asleep, one of her arms thrown over my chest as if I’d never left, as if having me there was as natural as the orange trees that grew freely in this valley.
I had a hard time sleeping. Images flashed through my mind like scenes from a horror flick: Tarek’s legs sticking out of a refrigerator, Angie weeping in a litter-strewn lot, El Pelado’s blood splashed across the floor, and a man in a cowboy hat leaning over me, torturing me until I nearly wished I was dead.
At some point I realized it was Fajr time, so I roused myself, made wudu, then woke Safaa. She came awake easily, and we prayed together as we had always done.
The prayer stilled the tremors in my heart, and when I returned to bed I was finally able to sleep. Such is the mercy of Allah, who knows us better than we know ourselves, and without whom we would all be lost in the foul sea of our own sins. Maybe in time the terrible memories would fade, as they are wont to do. That too was a mercy from the Most Merciful.
* * *
Sunday, March 7, 2010
I woke to the smell of waffles and coffee. I grabbed my cane and limped into the kitchen to find everyone seated at the table, eating breakfast. The sun streamed through the window blinds, making bright yellow stripes on the kitchen table. Safaa wore a robe and fuzzy slippers, while the girls were in pajamas.
A place was set for me, and the waffles sat on the plate, pats of butter melting into them. Steam rose from a mug of coffee. I kissed Safaa, hugged Hajar, rubbed Anna’s shoulders affectionately, then sat and began to eat. I don’t like to talk much in the mornings and my family knew this about me, so they chatted with each other and let me eat. I knew that I should feel like the luckiest man in the world to be back with my family. I was in fact happy, but it was muted, and I wasn’t sure why. Somehow this didn’t feel like my home anymore. I’d come to think of it as “Safaa’s apartment.” Give it time, I thought. Be grateful and be patient, and give it time.
Anna wouldn’t leave me alone. She brought me sugar for my coffee, offered to toast a few more waffles for me, and even fetched my old slippers – I can’t imagine where she found them – and set them at my feet.
“Anna,” Safaa finally snapped, “sit down and eat your breakfast. Uncle Zaid can take care of himself.”
The waffles had come out of the freezer – Safaa couldn’t have anything fresh remaining in the fridge after weeks in Panama – but with butter and real maple syrup they were delicious. Hajar was trying to talk to Anna about My Little Pony, explaining how Twilight Sparkle was chosen by Princess Celestia to study magic. Anna pretended to be interested but kept glancing at me surreptitiously. I sipped my coffee and acted like I didn’t notice. As soon as I was done eating, Anna popped up and began clearing my dishes, then the rest of the dishes as well. The next thing I knew the water in the sink was running and Anna was rinsing the dishes and stacking them in the dishwasher. I looked at Safaa and raised my eyebrows questioningly. She shrugged.
“I told the school I’d be back tomorrow,” Safaa said. “I want to go with you when you take Anna to the Anwars’ house.”
“You don’t have to do that. I know you’ve missed a lot of work.”
“I want to to.” She made a beckoning gesture to Anna. “Anna honey, come here please.”
“But I’m still doing the dishes!” There was a frantic quality to her voice.
The girl reluctantly shut off the water and came to Safaa. My wife took the child’s hand and stroked her hair. “I appreciate all your help,” Safaa said. “What I need you to do now is take a shower and get dressed. This is a big day for you.”
Anna’s face took on a hopeless cast. Her lower lip trembled. “Please don’t send me away,” she said in a quavering voice. “I’ll be a good helper for you. I’ll clean the whole house every day. I’ll learn to cook. I’ll do anything you want.”
“Oh, sweetie.” Safaa pulled Anna into an embrace. “We’re not sending you away. You’re going to be with your family.”
“No!” Anna pulled out of Safaa’s arms. “You don’t care about me! You just want to get rid of me like everyone else!” She burst into tears, then spun and dashed into Hajar’s bedroom.
Hajar wailed, “I don’t want to get rid of Anna!” Then she began to cry as well.
I stood and addressed Safaa. “You talk to Hajar. I’ll take care of Anna.”
I went into Hajar’s room and followed the sound of crying to the closet. I opened the closet to find Anna sitting cross-legged on the floor in the darkness, her body folded nearly in two, her arms covering her head. I sat before her and recited a string of ten digits, beginning with 559.
“Can you memorize those numbers?”
Anna did not look up. I recited the numbers again slowly. The crying lessened.
“What – what’s that?”
“It’s my phone number. I want you to memorize it.” I recited it again, and this time Anna uncovered her head and recited the numbers back, haltingly, her voice still hitching with the occasional sob. Of course I didn’t have a phone, as mine had been lost in Panama, but I’d replace it soon enough, Insha’Allah.
I repeated the numbers, and so did she. “Now you listen to me, Anna Anwar,” I said seriously. “If you ever get yourself into danger, I’ll have to come and get you, no matter what. I almost died the first time. You think I want to go through that again?”
“N – no.”
“You’re darn right. So I am not going to send you any place where you will not be safe. You’ll be with your grandparents right here in Fresno, the same city I live in. We’ll see each other often. You can come visit Hajar anytime you like. And anytime you’re scared or worried about anything, you call me. What’s my number again?”
“Why can’t I stay with my daddy?”
I took a deep breath. I’d been dreading this moment. But I could not lie to this child. “Your daddy died,” I told her. “He took some bad drugs and it killed him. He died peacefully. I’m very sorry, honey. Your daddy’s in heaven now. He’s in a good place.”
She covered her head again and resumed crying, her entire body shaking. I reached out and pulled her to me and she embraced me fiercely, desperately. We sat there like that for maybe ten minutes, Anna crying and crying.
Safaa and Hajar joined us. Safaa stroked my shoulders, while Hajar patted Anna’s back.
“I told her about Tarek,” I explained.
Hajar went away and came back a moment later with Brown Bear, her favorite doll. She thrust it between me and Hajar. “This is for you, Anna. Brown Bear is a good listener. He’s my bestest friend and now he’s your bestest friend too.” I was deeply touched by that. Brown Bear had been Hajar’s constant companion since she was a baby.
Anna seized the doll with one hand and clutched it tightly to her chest. Gradually her sobs diminished.
“What’s my number?” I asked again.
She recited the number. She had it down.
“Come on sweetie,” Safaa said. She gently pried Anna loose from my embrace and helped her to her feet. “Let’s get you showered and dressed. Hajar, will you help us?”
I sat in the closet alone, just breathing. SubhanAllah. That had not been easy. But it would be alright, I thought. It would be alright.
* * *
We dropped off Hajar at school, and a half hour later we were at the Anwars’ pretentious and oversized house in Woodward Lakes. The house and yard were all sharp angles and uncompromising lines – much like Farah Anwar herself. I reached out and – exactly 32 days after Dr. Ehab Anwar had hired me to find his granddaughter – rang the doorbell.
Dr. Ehab Anwar opened the door. For a moment he stood as if mesmerized, staring at the three of us – me, Safaa and Anna – as if we were apparitions from a forgotten past.
I was shocked at the change in his appearance. He was an old man, the eldest in my parents’ circle of friends, but he’d never before looked the part. Now he did. His hair, which had previously retained a good amount of brown, was now entirely gray. Deep circles beneath his eyes made them look like holes in his face. He’d always been clean shaven, but now he had a week’s untrimmed growth that went from his cheeks to his Adam’s apple. Most noticeable of all, his posture – which had always been as straight as a street lamp – was now bent forward, as if he carried a heavy weight on his back. Where he’d always been smartly dressed before, he now wore gray sweats and flip flops.
When Ehab’s eyes fell on Anna his mouth fell open, and some of the years seemed to drop from his frame. He stood a little straighter and raised his eyes to mine with a look of astonishment.
“As-salamu alaykum,” I greeted him, extending my hand.
Ignoring me, Ehab shuffled forward to Anna, dropped to his knees and threw his arms around her. Anna stiffened and looked like she might try to break free and bolt, but Safaa steadied her with a hand on her shoulder. When Ehab released the embrace there were tears in his eyes.
“Habibti,” he said to Anna, “do you remember me? I’m your grandfather.”
Anna nodded silently.
“Are you okay? Is your mama well?”
Anna said nothing.
“I mean…” He looked up at me. “We thought you… Farah said… But… Where did you find her?”
“In Panama, like I told you before I left, remember?”
“Yes. Yes, of course. It’s just been so long.”
“I’m sorry about that. I was badly wounded. I did leave you a voicemail message.”
“Did you? I didn’t hear it. Please, come.” He stood, his bearing now almost as straight as the old days. “You must come in.”
“The last time I entered your house,” I said politely, “it didn’t go so well.” I touched my eyebrow where the scar still showed from when Farah had struck me with the sphinx.
“Oh, that.” Ehab’s face turned red. “Ana asif giddan ya Zaid. Really, I’m sorry. It was… it was the shock of learning about Tarek. But you must come in. Farah has not been doing well. She has been in bed…” Without waiting to see if we would follow, Dr. Ehab turned and shambled into the house.
Safaa looked to me and I nodded. We followed Dr. Ehab through the foyer, past the burgundy-colored living room, and down a marble-floored corridor to a large bedroom. The curtains were drawn, leaving the beautifully furnished room dim. The musty air smelled faintly of urine.
Farah Anwar lay in a large bed centered against the far wall. A heavy comforter was pulled up to her shoulders, with her arms atop it. Her skin was drawn and tight against her cheekbones. Her eyes locked on us as we entered and widened in shock.
Dr. Ehab clasped one of his wife’s pale hands, and with the other hand he beckoned to Anna. When the child remained resolutely by my side, Ehab addressed his wife. “Look darling. He did it.” His voice faltered, and I almost thought he would cry. “Zaid Al-Husayni did it. He brought Anna back to us.”
Farah’s eyes lasered me a look of utter contempt. “How much?” she said, her upper lip curling. “How much money do you want this time, harami?” Harami meant thief in Arabic. She was sticking to her accusations like a barnacle to a sinking ship.
Safaa took a step forward. “How dare you! Do you have any idea what he went through to find your granddaughter? Look!” She pointed to the scar on my forehead, then indicated the ugly scar that ran the length of my left forearm. “Do you want to see his legs? Do you want to see the bullet wounds? Do you think he did that for your measly ten thousand dollars? He did it for you! He did it for Tarek and Anna, because in spite of all your fitna he still cares. You are a vile, contemptible creature, Farah Anwar. I let your lies influence me in the past but now I see you for what you are. If you were my age, and if you hadn’t just lost your son, I would kick you up and down this room.”
I reached out and took Safaa’s arm, drawing her back. Her entire body trembled with rage. “Enough sweetie,” I said. I appreciated her defense of my honor, but I was busy trying to understand Farah Anwar’s strange reactions and bizarre statements. Wasn’t this what she wanted? Wasn’t this what she hired me to do? I studied her, thinking. “Farah,” I said finally. “What do you want to happen here?”
Farah’s face had turned red, whether with anger or shame I did not know. “Take her away.” Her voice was full of venom. “I don’t want her.”
Anna’s hand reached out for mine and I took it. She squeezed so tightly that I could feel her heartbeat pulsing in her fingers.
“Farah!” Dr. Ehab exclaimed. “She is our granddaughter. She is Tarek’s child. She needs us.”
“We cannot care for her,” Farah snarled. “We are too old.”
I could understand how Farah might be overwhelmed by Tarek’s death. But it seemed to me that the loss of her son would increase her attachment to her granddaughter, not decrease it. After all, Anna was Tarek’s flesh and blood. As long as Anna was alive, Tarek was alive too, in a way. Unless… Something clicked into place in my brain, something that had been staring me in the face all along. Understanding dawned and I nodded slowly.
“From the very beginning,” I told Farah, “I’ve been trying to understand your behavior. You never wanted me to take this case. It was your husband’s idea. The way you came to my office, insulting me, throwing the money onto my desk. You wanted me to turn it down. You knew.”
Farah looked away, and I called her back. “Farah. You knew. You knew that Anna wasn’t your granddaughter.”
Farah stared back at me with red eyes, saying nothing.
“I’ve been to Alejandra’s apartment,” I continued. “I saw the photo of Angie with her old boyfriend, what was his name? Miko. Before she met Tarek, when she still lived in Los Angeles. She looked plump in the photo. Breasty, you know? I didn’t think anything of it at the time. But she was pregnant, wasn’t she? With Miko’s child? What happened? Did you see a similar photo somewhere? Maybe the same one? And you put two and two together. Or maybe Angie let something slip? Maybe you had a DNA test done without telling anyone? I wouldn’t put it past you. Whatever, you figured it out, right?”
I clapped my forehead as a new realization hit me. “Oh, la hawla wa la quwwata il-la billah. You paid Angie. It was you who gave her the forty five thousand. You paid her to go away. You wanted to get Angie and Anna out of Tarek’s life.”
Farah stared daggers at me. Her husband, who had been listening to my speech with growing consternation, turned to his wife. “Is this true, Farah? This cannot be true.”
Farah Anwar pressed her lips together. Her hands clutched at the bed covers.
“You must speak!” Dr. Ehab’s words rang with anger. “Is it true?”
Farah focused on her husband, excluding the rest of us. “I could not let that slut and her bastard child drag Tarek down.” Her tone was pleading. “He deserved better. He could have been someone important, he could have done great things, if not for that woman. I had to get rid of her. You must understand!”
Ehab staggered and sat heavily on the bed beside his wife. I still held Safaa’s hand with my left, and Anna’s with my right. I felt Safaa tense, and knew she was about to deliver another scathing outburst. I gave her hand a quick squeeze to stop her.
“Farah,” I said softly, “did you ever wonder why Tarek overdosed? I mean of course it was inevitable if he didn’t stop using drugs, but why now? Did you ever think that maybe it was because his wife and child – the child he loved like his own – disappeared? You stripped away his support system, his family, the only thing he had in the world that was worth something.”
I knew I shouldn’t have said that. It was true, but it wasn’t kind. But I couldn’t help it. This woman was responsible for Angie’s downfall, for Niko being in a wheelchair, and for her son’s death. Good God. What did it take to make a person see?
“Get out!” Farah screamed. “All of you get out, get out! Get out!”
* * *
Ehab Anwar walked us to the door. He was a broken man, his shoulders slumped, his eyes lifeless.
“So?” I said to him at the door. “What about Anna?”
“I… She is not my responsibility anymore. I’m sorry. Truly I am. But I cannot.” He turned away and shuffled back to the bedroom.
I watched him go, then we let ourselves out and got in our car.
“I told you they didn’t want me,” Anna said dully. Her voice was weary, discouraged.
“So what do we do?” Safaa asked. I could feel Anna’s eyes on me from the backseat, awaiting an answer as well.
“Drop me off at the phone store,” I replied. “And take Anna to our house for now. Can you take one more day off work?”
“Sure. I haven’t even told them I’m back yet.”
* * *
At the phone store I used Safaa’s debit card to buy a new phone. They activated it with my same phone number. I plugged it in there at the store to charge, and while I waited I thought about all that had transpired. I was still stunned at the breadth of the fitna, suffering and bloodshed that had resulted from one woman’s lies. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. What a tangled web we weave, as Shaykh Zubair said – Shakespeare if you insist – when we do practice to deceive. Farah Anwar had woven a web like a giant spider on crack.
When the phone was charged I synced it with my online account and downloaded all my contacts. Then I called Jalal. He answered right away, and promised to pick me up in thirty minutes. While I waited I made calls to the bank and the Department of Motor Vehicles, to start the process of replacing my cards and ID.
Then I called Alejandra Rodriguez. She was, after all, Anna’s aunt. She had a right to know what was happening, and maybe she’d change her mind and take the child. She did not answer, so I tried the Sequoia Surgical Center. They informed me that Dr. Rodriguez had gone overseas with Doctors Without Borders and would be away for at least a year. I asked for her email address and they gave it to me.
Jalal arrived. The spare tire – the fat roll that was all that remained of his previously corpulent form – was entirely gone now. He must still be running laps and jumping hurdles. He stared at my ravaged appearance and the cane that supported me, then embraced me. “Dude,” he said, “what the hell happened to you down there?”
“I’ll tell you later. Take me to my office?” Jalal was actually driving my car – my sweet little green 1969 Dodge Dart GTS. I’d missed it. It looked well taken care of, and I was glad that Jalal had been able to benefit from using it in my absence, rather than that little half-wrecked Toyota Camry he usually drove.
While he drove I called Dalya Anwar. To my surprise she took my call. I explained the entire situation honestly, including the fact that Anna was not actually Tarek’s daughter, and asked if she’d be willing to care for Anna. She congratulated me on finding Anna but turned my request down flat, saying that she had enough on her table with her divorce and her dental practice. I asked her for Mina’s number – Tarek’s other sister, the one in New York – but Dalya told me not to bother. Mina and Tarek had never been close and there was no way Mina would agree to take on a child that wasn’t even truly her niece.
We arrived at my office and Jalal unlocked the place, then handed over the keys. He’d taken good care of it. Everything was neat, tidy and dust-free, and my plants were thriving. I’d always had trouble keeping them alive, but the peace lily was lush with new leaves, and the hanging plant – I didn’t know what it was called – had grown so much that the vines hung halfway to the ground.
“What did you do to my plants? Do you have some kind plant-growing superpower?”
“Yes,” Jalal replied dryly. “It’s called water. And sunshine. And fertilizer twice a month.” He pointed to a bottle of liquid fertilizer on my desk.
I took my laptop out of a desk drawer and started it up. I had hundreds of new emails, most of them spam, though two were actually from clients, asking if I was available for work. I’d respond to them later. I needed a few more days of recovery time before taking on any new cases. I emailed Alejandra Rodriguez, explaining the situation, then sat back and closed the computer. That was that. I had no expectation that she would return for Anna’s sake. She’d made her priorities pretty clear.
Jalal and I talked, and I filled him on what had happened. When I was done he gave a long whistle. “Dude, I’m sooooo glad that I didn’t go with you.”
I laughed. “Come on. I’ll drive you home.”
* * *
After I dropped Jalal off I withdraw some cash at an ATM, then stopped at a burrito joint on Shields Avenue. I bought a huge fish burrito for myself, Baja-style veggie enchiladas for Safaa, and nachos for Anna and Hajar. Nachos were always a safe bet where kids were concerned. Lastly I stopped at Hajar’s pre-school. It wasn’t yet time for her to be released, but I would pick her up early.
It was nap time at Hajar’s preschool. The main room was dark, the children sleeping on individual mats. I threaded my way through the sleeping forms to Hajar, who was lying on her back, pointing a finger at the ceiling and whispering something. When she saw me she jumped up and I picked her up. As we weaved our way back out, one of the children was snoring with a wheezing sound. Hajar said, “What’s that sound?”
“Boo, boo, boo.” She said this with a soft voice, and it was a perfect representation of the child’s snoring sound. I told her it was a little boy snoring. She was genuinely surprised and said, “I thought it was a kitty.”
Once we were outside, Hajar said, “Baba, did you know? A medium rock hit the world and the dinosaurs died.”
“I know, honey. I’m the one who told you that, remember?”
“Oh. Did Anna go to her Nena and Jiddu?”
“No, she’s still with us.”
“Yay! I made a special dua’ for her.”
When we arrived home Safaa and Anna were putting away groceries. “I have food!” I announced. Immediately Anna began running around, setting out plates and glasses. Once again she was trying to prove her usefulness so that we wouldn’t get rid of her. Poor kid. I couldn’t imagine being in her position. For all my complaints about my parents and my resentment toward my father, at least I’d grown up in a stable and safe home with two parents. I should be grateful for that. Alhamdulillah.
“Anna, stop for a minute,” I said kindly. “Sit down.”
“But I want to help!”
“Anna.” I reached out a hand and she came to me slowly, like a deer ready to bolt at the slightest motion. I took her hand. “You don’t have to prove anything, okay? You don’t have to worry anymore. This is your home now.” I knew I should have consulted with Safaa before saying this, but I was confident she would back me. My wife seemed to be on my side once again. That was a good feeling. “You’re staying with us,” I went on. “Maybe in the future your aunt Alejandra will want to care for you. Or maybe your mother will get better and take you back. Allah knows. But until then we’re your family. We’re not going to send you away. You’re home now.”
Anna threw herself at me, hugged me tightly and cried as if I had just rescued her from Ouagadiri Island all over again. Hajar cheered loudly. I glanced at Safaa and she smiled and gave a quick nod. Alhamdulillah.
We said our mealtime dua’ and ate Mexican food, and it was good.
We had just finished our meal when a courier arrived at the door. He was a young man, fit and tanned, wearing a brown uniform. He worked for one of those same-day express delivery services.
“Delivery for mister Al-Husayni,” he announced, proffering an envelope. I took it and signed, eyeing the return address.
“It’s from Dr. Ehab,” I told Safaa. Had he changed his mind? Did he want Anna? Frankly, I would not surrender her even if he did. The Anwars were not her grandparents. They had no right to the child. And I’d just told her that this was her home. I opened the envelope and stared.
“What is it?” Safaa snatched it out of my hand, her face registering the same fears that had gone through my head.
I sat on the sage green sofa. With all the antiques and pricey pieces she had in here – all of them inherited from her mom – this sofa was only comfortable place to sit.
“Oh my God!” Safaa exclaimed. “Fifty thousand dollars? Zaid, it’s a check for fifty thousand dollars! Is this a joke?”
“I don’t think so,” I replied quietly. “When Ehab hired me he promised me fifty grand if I found Anna. But I don’t want it. I don’t want anything from them. Send it back.”
Safaa hopped onto my lap facing me, her legs straddling my waist. Her nose touched mine as she seized my jaw in one hand. Her dark eyes were only inches from mine. I wanted to live in those eyes, as deep and brown as the Tigris and Euphrates in spring, rich with silty runoff. As brown as the deserts of her Iraqi homeland, or the trunks of California’s great sequoias.
“Now see here, mister Zaid Karim Al-Husayni.” Safaa gripped my face tightly. “You did the job you were hired to do and you suffered for it. Do I need to remind you of what you went through? You deserve this money. You deserve a million dollars, ten million. We’re not returning one red cent. You might need further surgery on your leg. You definitely need to see a dentist to replace that broken tooth. Besides, I want to buy a house. We need more room. Our family just went from three to four. Do you understand? Nod your head yes.” She manipulated my head up and down.
I laughed, and she kissed me in the middle of it. Her mouth tasted of black beans and guacamole. Then she slid off my lap and snuggled up next to me. I relaxed into the sofa, my belly full of rice, beans, fish and sour cream. I put my arm around my wife. It was late afternoon and warm for March, and the sliding glass door to the patio was open to admit a pleasant breeze. I could hear the chuck-chuck-chuck of a squirrel outside, and the answering screech of a blue jay.
“Let’s take a vacation,” Safaa said. “Some R & R. Someplace quiet, like the Big Sur.”
“Mm, maybe. I want to enjoy being home for a while. Let Anna adjust. When I’m fully recovered I want to make a trip to Panama. I can’t leave Angie down there. You should have seen her, Safaa, she was so wretched. And maybe – since we’re keeping this money – maybe there’s something I can do for Niko. I don’t know. A specialist.”
“Excuse me, husband.” Safaa tapped a finger on my forehead. “If you think I’m letting you go back down there, you’re crazy. You barely-”
I put a finger on her lips, silencing her, and she bit it. “Hey!” I complained.
I would definitely return to Panama, but we could argue the issue when the time came. “Oh yeah,” I added, “I want to check on Saleem, let him know I’m still alive. The last time I talked to him I made him swear to look out for you and Hajar if anything happened to me. He must be-“
“You did what? What do you think I am, an old coat you can pass on to someone else?”
“Take it easy. I just meant he should look in on you, make sure you were alright. I need to see Imam Saleh as well. I want to thank him for defending m-” I sat bolt upright, slapping my forehead as I remembered something.
“What is it?”
“Imam Saleh. Before I left to Panama he asked me for help. He wanted me to investigate this new brother, this supposed convert who’s been trying to radicalize the younger brothers. I told him I’d get to it in a few days. I forgot all about it, subhanAllah.” I slid Safaa off my lap and stood.
“What, you’re going right now?”
I straightened my shoulders and thrust my chest forward. “I am Zaid Karim, private investigator,” I declared boldly. “Wherever evil is found, there shall I be, fighting to -”
“Oh, hush,” Safaa interrupted. “Go do you whatever you have to do, you beautiful, brave man.”
* * *
Author’s Note: Thank you for your readership and your comments! There was a lot of darkness in this novel, and for that I apologize. Like all my novels, Zaid Karim P.I. was partly autobiographical. So writing this book was cathartic for me, and allowed me to express aspects of my life in fictional form. It should be said again that the specific characters in this book are fictional.
I’m about to release a novel titled The Repeaters, Insha’Allah. It’s not Islamic fiction. The protagonists are a handful of immortals and a twelve year old Jewish boy. If you’re interested in science fiction and fantasy, you might enjoy it.
My next novel will be an expanded version of The Deal, featuring Jamilah Al-Husayni – Zaid’s bike messenger cousin. There will be little to no violence, and a lot of humor. So it should be something the whole family can enjoy. It will not be serialized here on MM but will be released directly for sale, only because I have to weave a new narrative with an existing one, and that does not lend itself to serialization. It will likely be completed sometime in spring 2018, Insha’Allah. As for this novel, Zaid Karim P.I., you can expect to find it in paperback and e-book form by December 2017.