Walid sat on his doorstep. He had sent Haji away and he was still gathering his thoughts about what it was he had to do. Nothing was what it seemed and nothing was what it should have been. The smoke from the marketplace bomb still lingered in the air. It had to have been a kilometer away, but the smell of the burning vehicles still tickled his nose. He was certain that he could smell charred flesh, rubber. A friend, he couldn't remember who, had told him that after a car bomb, if you were far away enough to survive it, it wasn't the ringing in your ears that got to you, but the fact that there was blood in the gutters, gutters meant for rain, sweet rain that would clean the streets bring life to earth, and that through the ringing you could always hear screaming; vehicles nearby would catch on fire and the participants, probably just recovered from their concussions, would find themselves engulfed in flames.
A scream rose up in the street next to him. It was a woman. Walid could hear other voices, seemingly startled, he felt heavy in his heart. His wife, beautiful thing, was away. He would have to visit Karbala, but first he had to make sure of a few things. He wasn't certain about Abbas, about the Americans and who it was that they had in their group. He tried to think of the people he didn't trust when the wails of the woman got louder.
Walid walked out and he saw an old lady screaming in the street. Some people had gathered around her but they couldn't seem to sooth her.
"Ma, what is going on?" Walid reached the crowd, some of them people he knew; they definitely knew him, as they glanced away and parted as he approached the woman.
A man sidled up next to him. "We're trying to find out but can't get anything out of her."
The woman had her hands covering her face, the rest of her body was in a black burka, as was her head. She seemed to possess a round body and when her hands left her face and to the sky, her wails becoming more poignant with that plea, that cry, that prayer, that grasp for a hope, Walid could see the wrinkles on her round face; her brown eyes suddenly connected with him and he automatically reached for her hand.
"What is it? Raja'an, please tell us."
The woman looked at him, shook her head, as if she couldn't believe she had somehow been transplanted to this planet.
"Yes," someone in the crowd spoke up. "Tell us."
There was a siren in the distance, overhead another helicopter flew. What for, thought Walid, there wasn't anything they could do, the man who did this died with his work. He placed his hand on the woman's shoulder.
"I saw, on the TV, my son's car burning," she stopped and stifled another cry, as if it were an animal trying to leave her.
Walid just nodded and tried to keep calm. He knew that these bombs targeted his people, but this woman's wails were filling him with sorrow, as well as a fearsome anger. Abbas. Now this. He felt impotent because nothing he had done had worked, not with respect to the Sunnis.
"He was supposed to go near the Ministry of Interior to try and get some money," she sobbed again.
Walid shook his head. What luck, but that was what this country had turned into, a minefield of luck, or rather bad luck. Now, he was certain, that he would change that. He would change leaving life or death in someone else's hands.
"The Americans had run over his car, and when he went to their base they told him to leave or they would shoot him," she shook her head.
Walid wanted to tell her not to worry, the Americans, at least the ones who came through this neighborhood would be shown that Iraqis would not lie down and take their insults, but he knew that it would be unwise to even mention any of his deeds to someone he didn't know. There was a price on his head, a rat in his group, and it would be a risk to mention that here. The people may have known him, but they probably only knew a few things, such as the checkpoints and the Sunnis. He bit his tongue and felt satisfied with at least some of the things he had done.
"So he went to the Ministry to ask the. And this is what happens to him? He never harmed anyone. He always helped around the neighborhood. Tell me where is the justice in that?"
Walid shook his head. "I don't know."
"Are you certain it was his car?" Another man in the crowd asked.
"Of course," the man's words seemed to have shaken the woman out of her sorrow, and sharp voice lashed out at him. "You think I don't know the car of my own son?"
The man disappeared into the crowd.
"We can go there and find out," Walid offered.
"But how?" the woman reverted to her tears. "My son had the only sayeera car."
"I'll drive you," Walid didn't wait for an answer. He took the woman's arm and led her to his car, parked inside his home's driveway inside the wall. He felt everyone's eyes on him, and he was satisfied about the murmurs of approval that he heard rustle through the crowd.
Throughout the drive he tried to start conversations with the old woman, but she would only revert to crying and wailing about her son. Walid felt and immense kindness for her.
The marketplace had been blocked off by American soldiers and Iraqi Police. There was no finding any information from them, or getting through. At one point, the woman wailing at her side, Walid implored an American soldier to let them through, and all he got was a barrel to his chest.
He gave up after that, because he knew he would not keep his temper cool much longer. The woman refused to leave, she had to know about her son, but Walid managed to get her home on the premise that her son might have survived and would be waiting for her there. He felt bad for the hope that flared up in her eyes, but he would deal with that later.
It was a few hours later when he left her in her house, and promised her he would return. Back at his house, he felt like he was no better than a few hours before when he was pondering what to do next. Abbas. Was most certainly dead. There wasn't much he could do, was there? There were hardly any Sunnis left in his neighborhood, and going up there, to Sunni country, where the men were so willing to die in an explosive blast. Perhaps there was a way to get some of those Iraqi Army squads he had heard so much about.
Perhaps all he needed was access to their intelligence.
He lit a cigarette and inhaled the smoke. He wanted to drink, but his wife told him to take it easy. He was trying to be better.
Damn this. How did it become so that the Sunnis were once again killing them? Wasn't the death of Saddam's regime supposed to end all that? But ever since the invasion started the Sunnis had been set in their ways to kill the Shiites. No longer, thought Walid, they wouldn't have it so easy. This time the Shiites would fight back. Another horrid feeling came through him, and he felt nauseous.
As if on cue, his cell phone vibrated. Walid answered it without thinking.
"Shaku maku, what's up?"
"Is this Walid?" the voice asked, or more like it ordered, it was an older, stately voice with a hint of ferocity on its edges.
Walid's skin tightened. "Who is this?"
"I'll ask the questions."
Walid, thought for a second, he was angry, but not as much as he should have been. Whoever this person was, they were used to talking like this.
"Then ask the right ones, or you'll find yourself a body in the Tigris."
The laughter that erupted on the other side of the phone was genuinely amused, and sounded more like an old car engine trying to start up than a human's laugh. Walid walked to the wall surrounding his house and, stepping on a rock, looked over to see if he could see anyone driving by either way. His mind was slowly looking for a reason behind this call, it did not seem right.
"You are a bold one, Walid. Sadeeqatek your friend said as much."
Walid looked down one end of the street, a car turned on it. The stopped and turned around. Dust rose up in its wake. He looked at the other side and saw some kids kicking around a soccer ball. Inside his chest, his heart beat like a tortured animal trying to escape a whip.
"Who is this?"
"You can't tell?"
For a moment Walid wondered if it was someone hired by Qassem. He wouldn't have put it past the Iranians to do something like that. His mind went into a whir, and he held onto the wall to make sure he didn't fall from the sudden dizziness. Don't be a coward, he thought to himself, keep your wits about you, there will be a chance to get back at whoever was on the other end of this line. Would Mahmud have withered so easily? If this person gets too cocky, you can find out who it is and plant one of those bombs in his house. The dizziness disappeared and Walid felt string, powerful again. No one was ever going to push him around.
"I won't play your games. Tell me who this is," Walid said loudly into the phone.
The laugh returned, though this time it ended quickly and fell into a short cough.
The man on the other side was old, or at least had lived enough of life that it was taking its toll on him.
"I'm a friend of Abbas. You remember Abbas, don't you?"
Abbas' face came flashing across Walid's brain, so did a memory, or rather the emotional residue from a memory of going to Abbas' house and playing with his daughters. He had assured himself that they would be fine. He was not so certain about that any more.
"I do," Walid managed to make sure his voice didn't crack.
"Did you get my package?"
The package was still in his living room. Walid wasn't certain why he had saved it. His hand grazed the handle of his gun, tucked in his pants. This time, however, it didn't calm him down. He walked back into his living room and looked at the package that was sitting on the sofa. The hand was in the plastic bag; the photo with the phone number was still on next to it. Some flies buzzed around the plastic and only flew away when Walid swatted at them with his hand.
For a second he thought the line had gone dead, but the man spoke up again:
"Walid, 'andek do you have it?"
Walid thought about whether he should answer this man. If he didn't know who he was, was it wise to speak? Besides, he didn't really like it that it was this stranger who seemed to be dictating the conversation. "Maybe."
This time the man let out a puff of air like he was going to laugh, but, as if he had run out of a daily quota, he stopped. "You are a fool."
"Who is this?"
"Surely you know."
Walid checked the number on the photo, then checked the number on the phone. It was the same one. Abbas. Perhaps he wasn't dead. Perhaps, there was a chance to save him. Walid decided to be more amiable, but he wasn't certain what the name of Abbas' friend or relative was. "You said you were a friend of Abbas? Then how could you do such a thing?"
"It wasn't me, azizi, friend. It was you."
It was him, the man who had made more orphans for a country that was bursting at the seams with them. "Isma'nee, listen. What do you want for Abbas?"
"Good. So you sent him here to spy on me?"
Walid hesitated. He didn't want to say anything to make things worse for Abbas. "All I want to know is if he is okay."
"He is not," the voice suddenly seemed sad.
"Well, tell me what you want," Walid thought for a second and wondered if he could afford that big of a ransom. He also didn't know if the person on the other side of this line was even willing to ransom Abbas. If he was some extremist, he wouldn't be willing to do so; in fact, no amount of money would suffice. If, however, he was part of the many groups that had sprung up to make money from kidnapping, the countless groups that were willing to terrorize ordinary Iraqis for a few extra dollars, making this entire nation almost impossible to live in, making every excursion from the house, already bad enough with the bombs and Americans, an event full of fear, then there would be some room for negotiation.
"You can give me mashee, nothing, Walid," the voice recovered its ferocity and blew over the phone, static rising in the line. "You shouldn't have sent him," the voice returned with its sadness, almost as if it were remembering some memory that was tied to the heart forever.
Walid could feel the change in emotion and inhaled, he raised his hand to his face but he must have dropped his cigarette when he got the call; or did he even light one up to begin with? He couldn't remember, he pulled out another cigarette and lit it, sucking in for some relaxation. The voice still instilled fear in him; he tried to remember how powerful he was.
"Is Abbas dead?"
"What did you expect?"
What did he expect? Walid remembered how scared Abbas had been about returning to his old neighborhood. The man had begged and Walid had pushed him into the lion's den. Remember the bombings, a voice inside him said; remember that there was no choice, you have to find out a way to stop these madmen.
"You are a coward, killing an unarmed man like that."
"Min fadlik, please, Walid, we both know you would have done the same if you found a traitor in your midst."
Walid didn't like the way this man seemed to know a lot about him, and yet he didn't know anything about him. Besides, he was right, Walid wouldn't waste a second thinking about alternatives if he knew someone in his group was helping the Americans, or someone else. "He was your friend," he said mindlessly, "you shouldn't have killed him."
"Let's forget Abbas."
Walid wished he could, in his head, the images, the sense or the light happy feeling he had when he had first known Abbas, visiting his home, the open arms, the laid back mannerisms of Abbas, were flooding his circuitry and clashing, or perhaps contrasting, with the anger and sorrow that he had from now. He remembered seeing a Sunni video in the market, it was supposedly videotaped in the regions directly north of Baghdad. In the video, set in the muddy banks of what had to be the Tigris, palm trees and brown houses in the distance, three men knelt in the water. One man sobbed uncontrollably, the other two were silent. Then a man approached them from behind and shot them, one by one, in the back of their heads. It was pitifully easy; the men fell with small ripples spreading, disappearing into the river; the amount of blood seemed small for three men, and the man who shot them pushed them off into the river's current and they disappeared. The video ended. Walid hadn't thought much when he had seen the video. He assumed that the men were US collaborators. Now, he knew better, they were most likely not. They were most likely... he shook his head.
That was what probably happened to Abbas.
Walid's heart raced.
He took another drag of his cigarette, picked up the hand and walked to the garbage can in the kitchen. He could not let any of this get to him. The Iranians were just as bad, but the moment he let any of them know how much it bothered him, he would be minced up, another body in the Tigris. He could not be a fool about this. His heart slowed down, his mind clear. He dropped the hand. "Let's forget him."