By Jonathan Hsu, ©2001. (Lyrics © 2000 by BT – “Running Down The Way Up”).
David Chen never figured out why he joined the police. As a child, there was the joy of watching the uniformed men and women keep the law and order, patrolling the streets and protecting the innocent. But that all fell apart when his parents were sent to the re-education camps at Lanzhou. Even in a foreign country, even in America at the turn of the new millennium, David could never figure out why he joined the police force.
In a cramped apartment, David dreams. He imagines he is back in the nightclub he and Jennifer went to a long time ago. He can feel the electronica washing over his body. The force of the trance is more than hearing, he can feel it throbbing through his body.
The lower centers in me revolve around.
Derive their meaning from my self will.
The deep pounding of the bass causing his heart to tremble, the achingly sweet notes of the female singer cause him to hurt in wanting.
As I watch the sun highlight your Midas touch.
Conscious light gets through somehow.
The crowd pressing against him, a surging fountain of outstretched arms and faces, chanting along. Their clothes are bright flashes of random colors. The faces are all unrecognizable blurs.
Yet I always fail to notice.
Yet I always fail to notice.
That I’m still heading for the ground.
He looks at Jennifer’s face, loving the smooth flushed cheeks, the small dimples in the corner of her smile. His eyes rove over her face, carefully examining every facet of her charming grin.
From condition red.
To condition red.
Heading for the ground.
Then amber flashes.
Her light brown hair is the color of cinnamon, her eyes the color of ice. In between beats, between swaying and rocking to the music, she moves closer to David, putting an arm around his waist, hugging him close.
From condition red.
To condition red.
Yet I always fail to notice,
I’m always heading for the ground.
Hugging David close, Jennifer speaks up into David’s ear, her words a whisper compared to the pounding boom of the music. “David, I’m so happy you’re here.” She looks up and her blue eyes meet his black. “Why can’t we do this more often?”
Running down the way up.
In the apartment, the phone suddenly rings. With a discordant high pitched shrill, David snaps out of the dream, his eyes flashing open. The last image on his mind is the upturned face of Jennifer. Stumbling out of bed, still dressed in a pair of wrinkled black slacks and a collared shirt, David hastily picks up the phone on the second ring.
“Hello?” He groggily pants out.
“Agent Johnson, this is Agent Johannison. You have been cordially invited to a night at the opera.” The soft female voice on the line practically whispers to David. He stiffens at the mention of the code phrases.
“Shit.” David states in a low monotone voice. “I need to make up to my girlfriend. I forgot about our anniversary.” David stammers out the words without thought.
“Johnson, don’t fuck with me.” The woman’s voice quietly teases David. “I wouldn’t be calling you if it wasn’t an emergency. Don’t worry about Agent Jones, I’ll call him.”
“No,” David pauses, “I wasn’t thinking of bailing. It’s just that,” David pauses again, “never mind. I’ll go. You’ll call Ahmed, right?”
“Meet at the Crow’s Bar on 12th street and Farley Avenue. 2pm.” The voice softens, and a hint of sympathy creeps into the tone. “If it makes you feel better, this wasn’t my idea. You have no idea how far up this goes. This is important, don’t fuck up. And don’t worry, I’ll call Ahmed.” There is a click, and the line goes dead. David puts down the phone softly.
“Fuck. How did I ever get into Delta Green?” David asks himself out loud, but he already knows the answer. San Francisco, Castro district, ’98. He saw something wrong, he acted. They noticed. Glancing at the photo of Jennifer on the bureau, David thinks to himself. How did that old phrase go? To serve and protect? Never has so much been owed to so few? Tapping his fingers on the table, David notices the answering machine has three messages. David presses the red button. A loud beep sounds, and then a distorted female voice.
“Hi, David, this is Jennifer. I’m at Croc’s and I’m wondering where you are. We were supposed to meet at six, where have you been? Miss you.” A tone sounds. The voice continues.
“David, where are you? I’ve been waiting for an hour. If you have an excuse, I’d like to hear it. And it better not be work. I’m going home, if you get home before midnight, give me a call.” A tone sounds. The voice continues.
“David, it is now midnight. You have totally disappeared on our anniversary. If you do not call me in thirty minutes, this is it. I have had enough of you disappearing on me. We make plans, you disappear with out a word. Just what the hell do you do that makes you vanish without even another word to me?” David hears the beginnings of a sniffle, and then a sob. His hands tighten around the edge of the table. “David, I can’t take this anymore. How can you really care about me if you continue to simply sneak off without a word? It’s over, all right? Don’t bother calling me. If you feel your job is more important than me, then this is it. If you feel you can’t trust me with whatever the hell it is you do at night, don’t call me anymore.” A final sob comes over the speaker, then a loud click.
David glances at his watch. It is 1:07pm. David walks over to the wooden bureau by the head of the bed, and grabs a half empty bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey, and swallows a mouthful. Feeling the burning heat travel down his throat, he coughs, and glances at the holster, badge, and pistols lying on the bureau. Shaking his head, David heads to take a shower.
David reaches over and yanks the lit cigarette out of Ahmed’s mouth. Giving it an idle glance, David casually throws it out the open driver’s side window of the parked car. The cigarette arcs underneath the dim blue, late afternoon sky.
“I thought you said you were going to fucking quit.” David chides Ahmed as he turns to face his partner, straightening out his dark charcoal gray suit, and tightening his crisp black tie. David looks up at the taller man, at Ahmed’s weather beaten and scarred face, noting the sun darkened skin and the bent nose.
“There is always tomorrow, assuming we get that far. Do you honestly think that I will get old enough to regret smoking?” Ahmed wryly comments, his voice heavily laden with his Farsi accent. Reaching into his soft brown jacket, Ahmed pulls out another Marlboro from the breast pocket, and looks down at David, eyeing David’s slanted almond shaped coal black eyes, and the raven black hair. Smiling lopsidedly, Ahmed pulls out a gold plated lighter, and lights the second cigarette unmolested. David taps his fingers against the driver’s wheel.
“I’m not investing in real estate if that’s what you mean. I don’t plan on buying the farm.” David turns and looks out the car window, giving the house down the street another glance. Painted a soothing beige color, the house is otherwise identical to its neighbors. David gazes with distaste at its low angled roof and shuttered windows, completing a picturesque stereotype of suburbia. It is a lengthy house with a cement porch in front of the door. To the right side, a garage with two doors can be seen. To the left, a small wooden gate leads to the back yard. A small window around shoulder height reveals the upper contents of the kitchen. Besides it, a larger full size window displays portions of a dining room. Reaching into the back seat, David pulls out a worn beaten Manila folder. Opening it, David begins to pore through its contents. Glancing at a type-written piece of paper, David looks down a list of dates and events. June 20th, Mr. Gregory and Mrs. Amanda Serenos reported missing by neighbor in upper Fremont district. May have been missing up to 3 days till reported. David frowns.
“What did Johanison tell you?” Ahmed asks quietly. He turns his head and glances into the passenger side mirror, and then blows a stream of smoke out the passenger window. David looks up in temporary confusion.
“Just the usual.” With an expression of surprise, David rubs his hand back over his head, smoothing his ruffled black hair. “Fuck, what the hell am I saying. Since when has this shit ever been usual. For Christ’s sake Ahmed, you don’t have to use her code name. You don’t call me Johnson.” David puts down the open folder, and Ahmed leans over to pick it up. Examining it closely, Ahmed bends his head over, spilling a small plume of ash onto the paper as he reads another line. July 9th, 15 year old Susie Dreyfus reported missing by parents in Palo Alto. Socks (with blood) found near Milpitas train tracks.
“That does not answer my question, David.” Ahmed relaxes in his car seat and chuckles slightly. “Exactly what did Amy tell you about this assignment?” Holding the folder up in front of his face, Ahmed reads the next entry on the sheet of paper. The cigarette hangs limp from his thick lips, a stream of smoke flows from his nostrils. July 21st, human remains found near estuary in San Jose. Unidentifiable marks found upon the third, sixth, and seventh rib sections, upper femur, and lower jaw. David shakes his head and begins to tap the steering wheel.
“She sounded nervous.” David turns away from Ahmed and looks out the driver side window. “Like this was important, more so than normal. She said it was vital we found out what is going on inside, and deal with it.” Ahmed nods and pulls the cigarette from his mouth, thrusting it outside and tapping a small trail of ash outside.
“She did not sound very happy when she called my home. Something’s up. There’s a major operation going on.” Ahmed shakes his head and takes another deep drag from the Marlboro. “Something is wrong. All the missing people. All the nameless homeless. No one remembers them. There is a movement, a method to the madness.” David turns towards Ahmed and smiles cynically.
“Since when has she ever been happy to call us? She only calls us when some crazy fucker goes on a killing spree.” David laughs half heartedly. “Fuck me, just what the hell are we doing here? I can’t even afford half one of those houses.” David points towards a small blue house lying next to the beige house down the street. Ahmed chuckles.
“Do we have full sanction? I was told the key issue was containment, sanitize after.” Ahmed asks quietly, reading the next line of the file. July 30th, strange lights seen above southern bay area. News bureaus attribute to solar activity. Both M. and S. suspect otherwise. David reaches over and punches open the glove box, revealing a small radio, two pairs of binoculars, and two zip lock bags, each containing a large black pistol.
“Lock and load. Full tilt and barrel.” David replies, his voice level and solemn. “Amy says that Agent Harolds is in position in the fire department, and Agent Lundberg has keys to the evidence lockers and forensic lab at the FBI branch office in San Francisco. Just need to make sure they can clean up the mess we make.” Ahmed grunts in acknowledgement. Putting down the folder onto his lap, Ahmed flicks a cigarette butt out the window and onto the sidewalk. “Ahmed, doesn’t any of this bother you? We’re throwing the law out the window. There’s no court, no jury. We’re just going off one crazy woman’s orders. Jesus Christ, what we did that last op. We’ve earned the chair many times over for that one. We fucking bombed a church.” David trails off and shudders slightly. Ahmed slowly turns and looks at his partner. Ahmed’s hands slowly reach into the brown jacket and pull out a second Marlboro. After stuffing the cigarette into his mouth, Ahmed cups his hands, bringing up the gold lighter. Breathing out a small cloud of smoke, Ahmed shakes his head.
“That was no normal church. You saw what rites were being performed. We’ve seen it. We know it’s real. We know it’s out there, somewhere. Far, far, better to let this country live in ignorance, than to let them know this,” Ahmed pauses, “this horror! When I grew up, there were no laws, no constitutions. Only bullets and hatred.” Ahmed closes his blood shot eyes, and shakes his head again, slowly. David is quiet for a short moment.
“Ever wonder what you might have done if you didn’t immigrate? What would your daughter be like? I don’t see myself ever having kids. Just too fucked up around here.” David hangs his left arm on the sill of the driver’s window, drumming his fingers on the car door. Turning his head left, David looks into driver side mirror, scanning down the empty suburb street.
“I’d be dead.” Ahmed replies solemnly. “Every day I grew up, there were shootings in the streets. The Zionists, they constantly fought with us, claiming to ensure the peace for their people. Not our people. They shot my father. As a boy of 16, I fought them in the Yom Kippur War. As a man of 28, in the intifada. I was mujahedeen then, a warrior of Allah. If I had stayed in Lebanon, I would be dead. This I know.” David pauses for a second, thinking upon Ahmed’s words.
“It was different for me. I grew up in the shadow of something so large, so black, that its presence affected everything. Everything I did, every sentence I said, every action I performed, I had to ensure it showed I was a faithful young party member.” David turns and look at Ahmed’s rheumy eyes. “My parents were shipped off to a re-education camp because they wanted me to benefit from a western education. They were worked to death there because the local chairman felt they were not sincere enough in their loyalty. Their last letter told me they loved me, and that I should be happy in a united China. My grandfather fought the Japanese as a child to free his homeland, and my father died a prisoner in it. I wasn’t going to live there anymore.”
David reaches over and takes the folder from Ahmed’s lap, and flips a page, examining a standard sized photo, paper clipped to a sheet of paper. Zoomed in, the photo concentrates exclusively on the young blonde woman’s face, highlighting the short button like nose. Her hair drops down to shoulder length in elegant smooth curls. David studies her face for a moment, examining the nose, and then reads the note attached at the bottom of the piece of paper. Sarah Santello, age 26. Complete genealogy pending, M. suspects bloodline link. S. affirms no overt link to incident of ‘28. Against all reason, David decides Mrs. Santello is actually very cute.
“And now we are home.” Is all Ahmed says, waving the cigarette outside the car window.
“Bullshit.” David states flatly. “The other day I had a telemarketer call my apartment in Vietnamese. Do I fucking look Vietnamese to you?” David asks sarcastically. “All these endless New Year’s parties, Christmas parties, Thanksgiving dinners, tea parties. Dry old men and women dressed in suits, debating the latest advances in nihilist philosophy or post modernist literature? Endless waves of Jehovah’s Witnesses, corporate interests, environmental lobbies and special interest groups?” David’s voice raises in volume and skepticism. “You call this home? I call it insanity. I may be a free man, but I most certainly do not feel at home.” David sighs and thumps his hand against the dashboard. “You call this home, Ahmed? America, the land of people who can’t tell Han from Canton, Palestinian from Lebanese? What I wouldn’t give for a good serving of roast dog. Fuck, you’d think Americans valued their dogs more than their homeless. You’ve seen the streets of San Francisco.” Ahmed snorts loudly, sending smoke wafting throughout the car. Chuckling for second, Ahmed catches his breath.
David flips to the page, another photograph paper clipped to the top. The camera focused on a tall handsome Caucasian man with wavy brown hair, with a relaxed natural smile. Dressed in a navy blue suit and carrying a rolled up newspaper, the photo still gives David the impression of confidence and casualness. Standing next to the man is a young teenage girl with long brown hair, smiling back. Her teeth are clear and white, and her face is well rounded with a delicate pointed chin. The pair walk down a sidewalk downtown some city. David looks at the short torn jeans, the white T-shirt. Squinting, David reads the logo on the shirt. Madonna. Looking below the photo, David reads the type written words. Mark Santello, age 31. S. has performed positive ID on the girl, 15 year old Susie Dreyfus.
“It has to be done.” Ahmed speaks the words with casual acceptance. “We did not choose these jobs, they were forced upon us. We were the unlucky men to have the truth find us. If the public knew, if it ever got out.” Ahmed shakes his head and continues. “If everyone realized their worst nightmares were real, that it lurked in the darkness, the world would burn. The streets would run red with blood, as they all realize the futility of it all.” Ahmed shrugs and taps his cigarette outside the passenger side window, his voice relaxed. “No, better to let them live in peace. Something, anything is better than letting them know.” The two men are silent for a short moment. Ahmed begins to chuckle, slowly working up to a deep laugh.
“I remember,” Ahmed tries to try to stop laughing. “I remember when someone from the Simon Wiesenthal Center knocked on my door to get my signature on a petition to increase military aid to Israel. I almost fell over laughing when that poor boy saw my face.” Ahmed leans back and roars with laughter. “I was smoking a Marlboro and my hair was all ruffled. Perhaps I should have put on my handkerchief from my days in Lebanon.” Ahmed continues to laugh. David lifts up his left arm and rubs his smooth cheeks. He reaches into his left armpit and pulls out a Sig Sauer P229 pistol. Holding it in front of him, David checks the sides for dirt and scratches. Ahmed turns towards David, the smoke from the Marlboro leaving curls in the air. David quickly pulls back the slide of the weapon with his left hand, ejecting a cartridge into the confined space of the car. With practiced speed, David lashes out with his left arm, catching the round arching away from him. Almost by instinct, his right hand simultaneously presses the magazine release catch, and the fat rectangular metal box drops into his lap, filled with cartridges.
“If you still carry a weapon with a loaded chamber, I think you already have one foot in the grave.” Ahmed chuckles and carefully taps the cigarette out the passenger side window while wiping ashes off his black slacks. Satisfied with his inspection of the weapon, David pushes the round from his left hand into the magazine, and slams it into the pistol’s base. Pulling the slide back once more to chamber a cartridge, he places it back into his shoulder holster and reaches behind with his left hand, pulling out an identical pistol.
“If I didn’t carry a round in the chamber, I’d already be in the grave”, David retorts, “You remember the Castro district bank robbery in ’98. Jesus H. fucking Christ. That was one hell of a trip.” David shakes his head and inspects the weapon. Leaning forward, he replaces the second pistol into the holster behind his back.
“Remember?”, Ahmed chuckles sardonically, “How could I forget. You and I still have scars from that. It was where we met!” Ahmed leans back and laughs a deep low laugh, flicking ashes from his cigarette out the passenger side window.
“Let me tell you, leaving the San Francisco Police Department for the Federal Bureau of Investigation was anything but dull.” David relaxes in the driver’s seat, and pulls out his badge holder, dully staring at the etched metal, reading the serial number on the front.
“Life is never dull.” Ahmed somberly replies.
“Don’t we wish it.” Is all David says. “Where the fuck are the Santellos?” David spits out as he stuffs the badge back into his jacket pocket. Ahmed leans over, leaving a small cloud of smoke in the car, and glances at the folder in David’s lap. Leaning over, Ahmed opens up the trash compartment and stuffs the cigarette butt inside. David looks down and glances at his digital watch. It is 7:07pm.
“Hey, how’s Indi?” David inquires.
“She is fine. She thinks I spend too much time working, but that is nothing new.” Ahmed replies carefully, his tone neutral, every word enunciated. “In her opinion, it will at least keep Mary well fed and educated.”
“That’s pretty liberal. She’s taking to this country fast. And what about Mary?” David turns and looks at Ahmed, his gaze meeting the red tinged brown eyes.
Ahmed waves a finger in front of him. “She will be in kindergarten soon. We are looking for a school. It is so hard now a days David, you have no idea. With all this political correctness and all this other,” Ahmed pauses searching for the right word, the Farsi accent making the words thick and enunciated, “other bullshit, finding a good school is near impossible. I swear it, you will never find a school in this area that realizes the Palestinians have been wronged. How can my daughter grow up without even recognition of her heritage? All I find is schools promoting how horribly the Jews have suffered since the Holocaust. They forget al-nakba, they forget an-diir, they forget everything!” Ahmed sighs and reaches into his jacket pocket for another cigarette. David coughs out a short sharp laugh.
“I’ve never met anyone who knows about the suffering of the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward. All they know about is D-day. You ever get the feeling you’re invisible? That no matter what you do, you’ll never be seen?” David slaps the driving wheel. “Don’t worry, she’s just a kid, Ahmed, it’s not like she’s going off to college, or even high school. At least you don’t have to worry about her choice of boyfriends.” David laughs slightly as Ahmed scowls.
“This is one subject that I will not be lax about.” Ahmed growls, an unlit Marlboro dangling from his thick brown lips.
“Like this is. One little fuck up and we are-” David turns his head and looks down and across the street, eyeing the beige house. Looking in his side rear view mirror, David notices a brown Toyota Camry driving down the street behind them. Ahmed notices David’s sudden silence and slowly turns his head. The car drives past them and slows down, the red braking lights glowing in the early sunset. It stops and turns into the driveway of the beige house, the garage door opening to the unseen beckoning of a remote control. David reaches under his jacket and begins to check the magazine pouches under the shoulder holster. Ahmed leans forward and pulls out a large Colt Anaconda revolver from his jacket pocket, slapping it open and visually inspecting the cylinder, making sure every chamber is loaded. The two men continuously glance down the street, at the open garage doors, looking for the occupants. Ahmed pulls out the gold plated lighter, and lights his cigarette.
David checks the last full magazine and snaps the pouch shut, motioning towards the glove compartment. Ahmed punches the button and the door falls open, revealing two pairs of binoculars, and two plastic zip lock bags, each with a large gray pistol inside. Removing the binoculars from the glove compartment with his left hand, Ahmed hands them to David. Hurriedly raising them to his face, David scans down the street, towards the beige house’s garage. The blonde woman steps out of the garage to look across the street at another house. For a split moment, David glimpses her face through the binoculars, and decides the photo does not do her skin color justice. A pale creamy color that is framed and contrasted wonderfully by her golden shoulder length blonde hair. Dressed in a loose white frilly dress with a spaghetti string top, she smiles, waves at an unseen neighbor, and turns back into the garage, her curly hair bobbing with each step. The brown haired man, dressed in a loose brown suit, turns and follows her, supporting her with his arm, his tall lean frame easily towering over her petite figure. The man’s stride exudes quiet confidence. David waits and glances at his watch. It is 7:14pm, the sky is beginning to turn reddish purple from the setting sun. David turns and watches a curl of smoke drift out the window, and then lifts the binoculars up once again.
Watching the shoulder height kitchen window from an angle, David stares up at the blonde woman cutting something with a meat cleaver. A large blue apron covers her front. The small window only allows David to glimpse her at shoulder level. Her hands bloody, she washes them in a hidden sink, and dries them upon her blue apron, leaving dark stains. Turning, she walks out of David’s sight with a metal bowl and soon the kitchen begins to fill with a thin layer of smoke. Sitting in patient silence, David glances at his watch. It is 7:31pm. The sky is dark, and the last purplish glow of horizon is dying. David looks at Ahmed, and Ahmed nods slowly. Reaching down for the keys, David turns the ignition, and the car quietly jumps to life. Taking care not to turn on the headlights, David silently inches the car forward on the edge of the street until it lies directly across the house in the darkness. In the shadows, the two men gaze into the lit house.
“Just what the fuck is Mrs. Santello doing?” David quietly remarks.
“It looks like she is making dinner.” Ahmed whispers, the Marlboro absent from his lips. David glances at Ahmed. Ahmed looks at David’s thin slanted eyes and resumes his observation of the house.
“This seems too pat.” Is all David says as he resumes his peering into the house through the binoculars. Ahmed shrugs silently in the dark. Eyes piercing into the house, David observes Mrs. Santello place a tray of some marinated meat into an oven, and turn the dials. Raising one hand to her ear, she cocks her head in mock astonishment, and smiles down the length of the house, at her unseen husband. A moment later, her husband strides over to the kitchen and they embrace, his face leaning down to meet hers, their lips locking in a warm kiss. For several moments, they stay locked in their embrace. Unseen, David smirks. Husband and wife separate, their eyes gaze fondly to each other. Mrs. Santello blushes and stammers something unheard, and attends to cutting something on the meat board. Mr. Santello grins and turns, walking into the living room, disappearing through the doorway of the kitchen. David turns and glances to Ahmed in the dark. Ahmed shrugs again. David settles in his seat and relaxes as Ahmed reaches for the glove compartment and pulls out second pair of binoculars. Through the thin angle of the living room, Mr. Santello can be seen reading the newspaper. Putting down the binoculars, David glances at his watch. It is 7:55pm.
Mrs. Santello rushes into the kitchen, her white dress and large blue apron flowing around her legs. Rinsing off the knife and board in the sink, she rushes to the oven, pulling out a tray of cooked meat, and hastily scoops it onto a white porcelain serving dish. Gaily calling something out, she rushes to the table, setting the dish down. Running out of sight from the window, she rushes back to the table, a dark glass bottle and a corkscrew in hand. She tilts her head and yells something back. Moments later, Mr. Santello walks into view, holding several candles in holders, and a book of matches. Mrs. Santello blushes, blows a kiss to her husband, her blue eyes flashing with affection, and begins to set the dinner table. Ahmed begins to chuckle quietly.
“How’s Jennifer?” Ahmed asks quietly.
“What the fuck does she have to do with this?” David snaps as he puts down the binoculars. Ahmed continues chuckling.
“I will assume that your relationship is not going well.” Ahmed comments dryly. David snorts and then sighs.
“It’s the same old shit. You’re never home at a decent hour. You spend too many hours at work. You’re never around when I need you. I feel like you don’t care about me. The same old bullshit.” David shakes his head, glances at the house, and raps his knuckles against the interior of the car door. “I don’t know what to do.” Ahmed reaches over and puts a comforting hand on David’s shoulder.
“We come from different places David, but as children, we both learned that giving your best doesn’t always win.” Ahmed leans back in his seat. David sighs again. Leaning back, David begins to play with the buttons on his shoulder holster.
“This job is murder on relationships. We were supposed to go out last night. But you know what happened. Same old night at the fucking opera. I don’t know what I’ll tell her this time. Fuck it, I’m just not going to even bother.”
“Trust me David, it is easier when you are married. You need to only get that far. My wife does not even bother asking anymore.” Wheezing in amusement, Ahmed leans back in his seat.
“Are those the cigarettes talking?” David retorts.
“You may outrun me, but I can still easily beat the clock when it comes time for requalifications.”
“You should quit.” Is all David curtly says as he raises the binoculars and turns to look into the house again. Inside, Mr. Santello is busy cutting some sort of steak while simultaneously engaged in conversation with Mrs. Santello. The two of them both drink a deep red wine from their wine glasses. Smiling, Mrs. Santello puts a sliver of meat to her mouth and asks her husband something, blushing in response to the answer. Ahmed laughs quietly and shakes his head.
“Americans.” Ahmed’s tone is deep and filled with amusement. His teeth glint in the dim evening light.
“Well you certainly aren’t in Egypt anymore. Sometimes I’m amazed you even adjusted over here.” David playfully nudges Ahmed with his right elbow, his tone lightening.
“Speak for yourself China boy.” Ahmed states flatly.
“Not my fault.” David replies while looking into the house with his binoculars. “You would not believe how much of a pain in the ass it is to file paperwork with a name like Zhongliang Chen. People just get it wrong every fucking time. Ahmed, Ahmed is a nice simple name. I changed my name out of a distinct Darwinian survival sense. If I didn’t, I would have gone,” David pauses, “insane.”
“You even speak like them.” Ahmed comments in a level tone.
“What, big words? That comes from going to school, Ahmed.” David’s voice is self-mocking and lightly patronizing. The two men lock eyes and smile in slight amusement.
“I should try that. My education didn’t come from a classroom.” Ahmed speaks dryly.
“I think you’d like it. Nothing like sitting down for 6 hours.” David comments in nonchalant tone, gazing into the house. Tapping his fingers against the car door, David glances at his watch. It is 8:32pm. David looks up into the binoculars again. Mr. Santello puts his arms around his wife’s thin hips, giving her an intimate embrace and kissing her ear. Mrs. Santello playfully struggles and looks up, a dreamy satisfied expression upon her face. Together, the two of them carry the dishes to the sink, Mrs. Santello turning on the tap. Pulling out a bottle of soap, Mr. Santello begins to wash the dishes with a green sponge.
“Looks like they are pretty much done with dinner.” Ahmed comments quietly.
“You’re the married man; you should know all about this. Tell me, how long do you think they’ll stay up fucking like animals? I would just hate to interrupt something.” David questions Ahmed, sarcasm soaking every word. “By the way, don’t tell your wife I said that, she’d kill me.” David raises his hands in mock supplication. Ahmed laughs, his laughter sounding like rustling gravel.
“Give them two hours at most.” Ahmed states with a quiet air of certainty. As Ahmed finishes speaking, David nods and glances at his watch. It is 8:34pm.
“Ever wonder what our lives would be like if just one thing changed?” David turns and asks Ahmed.
“Every day of my life. Our lives are,” Ahmed pauses in thought, “unusual. Few men have seen what we have seen. I have seen dead men walk, kill, and feast. I have seen statues that speak, sands that swallow. If only one thing had changed.” Ahmed trails off in thought. David snorts derisively and chuckles in tired amusement.
“Who knows just what the fuck I’d be doing. Maybe I would have stayed a gymnast. Joined the People’s Republic of China’s gymnastic team.” David chuckles self deprecatingly. “I’d still be doing tricks for that half century old whore, the good old Communist party.” David silently raises his middle finger on his left hand, and gives the finger to the empty street.
“You still practice?” Ahmed turns and regards David, his blood shot eyes curious. Ahmed laughs quietly, somberly, solemnly. “I am not sure what would have been different. So many things to change in my life. Perhaps I would have been a tailor, or a farmer. I grew up with war, I cannot imagine it any other way.”
“Hey, tell me the truth. Do you really feel at home here? Does your daughter understand what you went through to come here? Does she understand the pain of losing your father?” Ahmed does not answer. The two men remain silent, each with his own thoughts. In the distance, David fancies he can hear faint cries of pleasure echoing across the street. The two men sit in darkness, their car parked between streetlights, directly across the beige house. Ahmed reaches into his coat pocket, and pulls out a Marlboro and a gold plated lighter. The only illumination in the car is the lit cigarette, framing David and Ahmed’s face with its red glow. Wisps and curls of smoke waft out of the open windows. Both men watch the beige house, and listen silently to the noises they sense emanating from within. David glances at his watch. It is 9:21pm.
For hours, David and Ahmed sit silently in the car, their eyes scanning the lit house from the darkness. David glances at his watch. It is 12:06am. He is used to this, the waiting. He is accompanied only by his drifting thoughts. The occasional insect buzzing can be heard. The starless and cloudless sky is dark even with the pale light of the wan moon. David looks over to Ahmed, and tilts his head in the direction of the beige house across the street. Ahmed silently nods. The two men turn and quietly open their car doors, the faint clicks of the mechanism disturbing the silence of the street. Lamp posts provide white pools of light, evenly dispersed, leaving swaths of darkness throughout the street. David tightens his tie one more time, and unbuttons the weapon pouch of his shoulder holster. Ahmed reaches into the glove compartment, and pulls out the two zip lock bags, quietly handing one pistol over to David. David stuffs a small radio and the zip lock bag with pistol into his large jacket pocket. Without a word, the two men cross the street, their boots and shoes making no noise across the dark asphalt. The pair approach the front door, stopping to each pull out a pair of transparent white surgical gloves. The front door is wooden, and painted dark brown. A golden cross door knocker lies upon the front panel. Snapping the gloves on tightly, Ahmed stoops before the front door, and pulls out a pair of lock picks from his jacket pocket, and begins to pick the front door. Without a noise Ahmed continues his work, while David scans the street. Both men hear a quiet small click, and then the front door swings open as Ahmed slowly pushes it in. David and Ahmed quietly file inside.
The inside of the house is painted a soothing light peach color. Small friezes and paintings adorn the wall, depicting various Biblical scenes. Noah and the ark, Moses and the Ten Commandments, Jesus and the Last Supper. David notes the carpet is a thick warm brown. Immediately they turn towards the kitchen, walking through a tall archway. David reaches into his left pocket and pulls out a small Mag-Lite flashlight, and clicks it on, examining the contents of the kitchen counters. The tiles are dark brown, with animal motifs. Cocks, dogs, cows, sheep, all adorn the tiles of the kitchen in varying patterns. Diluted blood stains a cutting board by the sink. A saw-toothed cutting knife lies by it, small bits of flesh and bone caught between the teeth.
Striding over to the refrigerator, David puts his right hand into his right pocket, and opens the refrigerator with his left hand, the Mag-Lite pointing towards the ceiling. The movement causes the shadows in the room to gyrate and flicker wildly. Ahmed’s eyes move from item to item in the refrigerator. Neatly wrapped in transparent plastic, limbs fill the refrigerator. David’s eyes widen as he scans the entire contents of the refrigerator, realizing the full magnitude of what he is seeing. Human arms, legs, hands, feet, all neatly bundled in butcher’s paper and placed within the refrigerator. Blood pools on the bottom of the refrigerator, slowly dripping through the grill. David chokes on the gorge rising in his throat, and slowly closes the refrigerator. Shuffling over to the trash compactor, David slowly inches it open, and shines the flashlight inside. The remains of a human arm lie inside, the meat neatly cut and sliced off. The remnants of the muscle have been lightly cooked. Ahmed reaches into his jacket pocket and opens the zip lock bag. David quietly closes the trash compactor and opens the zip lock bag in his right pocket. The two men walk towards the living room, pinpricks of sweat forming in the palms and on the back of their hands.
The living room radiates a warm and stuffy sense of decor. A large gray comfortable looking arm chair rests in the corner, by a tall reading lamp. A wooden coffee table with glass plate sections rests in the center of the room with various books resting on top. Underneath, several stacks of old newspaper are neatly folded. David and Ahmed do not bother to examine the titles. The fireplace lies in the back of the room, built entirely out of bricks, and painted over with white paint. A rack of pokers and other implements stand to the right. The fireplace has been filled with bone. Femurs, radiuses, ulnas, ribs, all have been lined up and stacked into neat rows within the fireplace. Dark red wax splotches coat the outermost bones, and a thin layer of ash lines the arrangement. Ahmed walks towards the fireplace, and shines his light within the stacks, kneeling to examine the serrated grooves on several of the bones. David follows Ahmed into the living room, and looks at his partner. Ahmed stands and looks at David. David shakes his head. Both men know what to do, the situation needs to be contained. Now. They begin to walk towards the bedroom, traveling down a long hallway adorned with personal photos, their hands reaching into their jacket pockets.
His hand trembling slightly, David slowly pushes open the door, listening to it creak slightly. At the far end of the room underneath a window, two figures lie amongst the twisted and thrown sheets of a king sized bed, their skin glowing in the pale moonlight from the window. David walks towards the left of the bed, his shadow passing over the sleeping woman. Ahmed turns and walks towards the right. Looking down, David looks at the pretty face framed by blonde hair in the pale light, and reaches further into his right pocket. Noting the happy and fulfilled expression on her face, his stomach feels like it has a burning hole in it, his neck tingles and a faint sheen of sweat begins to appear on his skin. David removes a large .45 caliber H&K Mark 23 from the zip lock bag in his right pocket and looks at the face of Sarah Santello.
Her eyes are closed and flutter silently in the dim light as she sleeps. With a languid motion, she rolls over to her right, and snuggles up to the side of Mark Santello, smiling as she happily dreams. Ahmed pulls out a similarly large pistol from his right pocket’s zip bag and gazes coldly down. Slowly, with care and patience, David pulls the slide back from the pistol, and slowly guides it forward again. A slight click is all that can be heard of the round being loaded and secured in the chamber. With a deft flash of the thumb, David flicks the safety off. The surgical glove over David’s hand is moist with sweat as he reaches down for the pillow beneath Mrs. Santello’s face. Ahmed follows his cue, leaning down near Mr. Santello. David’s face is calm, but his stomach burns with anxiety. His nerves tingle, every extremity feels like it is on fire. Inside his suit, David feels like he is drenched in his own boiling sweat.
The sleeping woman’s eyes suddenly fly open, and she sees David leaning over her. Her mouth opens and she suddenly intakes a deep breath. David reacts instantly, lashing out like a viper. The two men quickly grab the pillows from underneath the two sleeper’s heads. With a startled squeak, Mrs. Santello’s hand fly to cover her exposed breasts and neck. Mr. Santello grunts with surprise as his eyes open to the sight of Ahmed staring coldly down upon him. With sudden viciousness, David slams the thick heavy pillow down upon her face, muffling her scream. Ahmed punches the pillow down onto Mr. Santello’s face, muffling the responding grunt. Without hesitation, David presses the muzzle of the pistol tightly against the pillow, between his fingers and thumb, and pulls the trigger twice. The room lights up with four brief flashes of light. The dull roar of gunfire is muffled by the thickness of the pillows, coming out not as a sharp crack, but a quiet dull low boom. White feathers and down, blackened from the discharge, explode into the air, shooting all over the room. The flashes of light give the floating feathers a strobe light like effect, their motions frozen between flashes. The brass shell casings roll onto the bed covers, the hot metal touching the naked thighs of Mr. And Mrs. Santello. The room begins to reek with the bitter, acrid, metallic tang of cordite.
Ripping the pillow aside, David takes a good look at Mrs. Santello’s ruined face. Carefully examining the holes bored into the forehead, he throws the pillow to the side. Ahmed drops the other pillow upon the floor. Both men press buttons above the trigger guard, ejecting the almost full magazines of their pistols, throwing them both down upon the bed covers. Both men pull back the slides one more time, ejecting the last round from the chamber. Both men throw both pistols onto the bed sheets, between the bodies of the husband and wife. David looks at the blonde hair of Mrs. Santello, splayed about her mangled face. He notes the young body, the wrinkleless features, and his stomach churns and roils with a burning nausea. The room is silent, and David and Ahmed lock eyes in the darkness. David’s black eyes meet with Ahmed’s red veined brown. Stepping to the window, David slides it open, letting in a blast of cold night air. David strains to listen, but the night is quiet save for the chirping of insects. David closes the window. Both men turn to leave the bedroom. David gives one last glance to the two figures lying on the bed in the moonlight, and turns in the direction towards the basement.
The basement door is simply composed of a wooden plank with an aluminum door knob. Wrenching open the basement door, David stares down into the darkness. Bringing up his flashlight, the two men descend into the basement, the rickety wooden stairs creaking under their weight. At the bottom, a steel riveted door with a metal latch blocks their progress. Slowly, David reaches over and turns the latch. The door creaks and clicks loudly, and swings open with a loud screech. David waves the flashlight from side to side, as he walks forwards into the basement. Barrels are clustered into neat groups on all sides of the basement. The walls are made entirely of gray concrete bricks. At the far end, a large metal vat sits in between several barrels. Ahmed shines his light across the walls, noting the writing and marks upon it. Written either in chalk or blood, strange hieroglyphs or prayers in incomprehensible languages dot the wall. Complicated diagrams and symbols cover the ceiling, and drops or clots of wax dot the wooden floor. Spirals, triangles with lines intersecting certain sides, all adorned with strange writing. The room smells of dust and rot. David examines the labels on each barrel. Most are industrial strength acid, some are formaldehydes.
Inside a low rimmed metal bin, David glances a small young adult sized skeleton resting in a pool of transparent liquid. Stepping to his left, David slowly approaches the bin. At the foot of the bin, several pieces of clothing lie in a crumpled heap. Carefully with his boot, David toes the pile apart. Catching a white tiny T with the tip of his boot, David spreads it out over the floor. Underneath, David finds a small white satin bra. With his foot, David dexterously spreads the shirt flat on the ground. Shining the Mag-Lite straight down on the floor, he reads the text on the shirt, centered in a circle of bright white light. Madonna. David shakes his head, and the two men continue walking down the length of the basement, towards the metal vat.
David approaches the lip and looks down. The contents of the vat gaze back. Eyes roll and mouths open in silent supplication. Small flippers or tendrils drift in the liquid filling the vat. The faces of the missing coat a mound of flesh rooted in the bottom of the vat, their lips blue and cold. David recoils as his mind takes in what he is seeing, instinctively reaching for his shoulder holster. Shaking his head, David tries to clear his vision, to clear away the abomination in his vision, but it is still there. The cheeseburger he had for dinner fights its way up, and David fights back. The face of Susie Dreyfus screams in silence at him from beneath the clear liquid. Distorted, stretched, the face is still there, mouth open. Bubbles emit from the open mouth, and the eyes roll at David.
“Jesus fucking Christ!” Screams out David, his yell echoing within the deep confines of the concrete basement. Ahmed’s mouth drops open, but no words are emitted. Pinpricks of sweat appear on David’s neck, on his hands. The surgical gloves are slick and drenched with sweat, the rubber rubs against his hands. Ahmed and David stagger back, watching as the fluids in the vat churn and roil. David tries to deaden his thoughts, to fight the mind-numbing fear that threatens to wrest control of his body away from him, leaving him in a primal state of raw fear. David does not back down, he fights the urge to curl into a fetal ball, he stares back into the abyss, into the vat. A small pink tendril ending in an oar like flipper begins to raise out of the vat. For a split moment, David’s mind turns on a random tangent. What frightens David most is that he is not sure whether he is awake or not.
David turns and looks at Ahmed, his inky black eyes wide open, making contact with Ahmed’s bloodshot eyes, similarly open. The two men whip around and run for a barrel of hydrofluoric acid, as the tendril begins to arc in the air, snaking through the basement space towards them. A low roar begins to shake the basement floor. Both men quickly heave the barrel up between the two of them, and carry it forward. The tendril touches the floor, and begins to creep towards David’s foot. Approaching within a few feet of the frothing vat, they heave the barrel back and forth, back and forth, and finally let it go. Arcing through the air, it lands into the vat with a loud splash. To David’s ears, perhaps the barrel lands with a loud squish. The edge of the barrel peeks above the surface of the vat. David savagely kicks the end of the tendril away from his legs. David’s right hand reaches into his shoulder holster and he pulls out the Sig Sauer P229, and quickly aims, squeezes, and fires. Ahmed raises the heavy revolver in both hands. Both men pull the triggers once, twice, three times each. The room flashes bright with the muzzle flashes, illuminating David and Ahmed with bright orange flares of light. The familiar smell of cordite temporarily overwhelms the reek of rot. The heavy bullets puncture the thin metal skin of the barrel, and exit the back. Wisps of smoke drift up through the light of the flashlight. The barrel begins to empty its lethal contents into the vat. The vat begins to quake and rock, rubbing against the wooden floor. The tendril violently whips into the air, swinging around in circles above the vat, and then drops into the fluid with a small splash. Another low trembling roar begins to echo from the vat, the floor begins to shake. Dust trickles down from the basement ceiling, sending plumes of brown smoke through the flashlight beams. David and Ahmed slowly step back, eyes wide, mouths open, watching as the abomination within the vat slowly begins to cease its struggle as the acid eats away at its flesh.
Within a minute, the basement is silent again. The two men slowly relax, their shoulders aching from the tension. Wiping the sweat from his brow with his jacket sleeve, David opens his jacket and holsters his pistol. Ahmed closes his eyes and tucks the revolver into his shoulder holster, his lips move quickly in a wordless murmur. The two men’s eyes meet again, and together they turn and walk across the basement, and up the wooden stairs. Ahmed reaches into his pocket and removes another Marlboro. David reaches into his jacket pocket and removes a small hand held radio. Carefully pressing a red button, his hands slick inside the rubber gloves, David speaks into the radio, enunciating the words carefully.
“Yellow canary to big bird, this is yellow canary to big bird, over.” David chokes out the words, his voice hoarse with shock.
“This is big bird over.” The voice is dry and metallic over the radio.
“Situation nominal, delta green, over. Double homicide and four alarm fire at 1439 Troy street, downtown Fremont. Request immediate assistance.” David replies.
“Situation delta green, roger that, over. Agent Harolds has the fire department covered. Agent Lundberg is ready in forensics. Over and out, yellow canary.” The voice stops, and David drops the radio back into his pocket. Turning to his left, David begins to space curtains and furniture. Ahmed follows him, a Marlboro dangling from his thick lips. He grabs a sheaf of newspapers, and throws them all over the floor, spreading them out evenly. David finishes arranging the curtains, and walks into the kitchen, rummaging in the drawers while Ahmed continues to spread newspaper on the floor, leaving a trail to the other rooms of the house. David enters from the kitchen, a large can of lighter fluid in his gloved hands. He unscrews the yellow plastic cap and begins to pour its contents liberally across the brown carpet. He draws a trail from the living room to the basement door to the bedroom and back into the basement, emptying the rest to pool on the wooden basement floor.
Both David and Ahmed walk to the living room, where Ahmed pulls out the gold plated lighter and flips back the lip, causing a tongue of orange flame to spring up. Lighting the cigarette dangling from his lips, Ahmed inhales and exhales a small stream of smoke. David stares into the darkness wordlessly while Ahmed smokes. In a minute, Ahmed holds nothing but a burning stub. The two men look into the living room as Ahmed throws the glowing butt onto the petroleum soaked carpet. As flames begin to rise and smoke fills the air, the two men turn and walk to the front door as the living room begins to slowly erupt into flame. Together, David and Ahmed strip off their sweat soaked gloves and cast them into the house. David closes the front door behind him. Together, David and Ahmed quickly walk across the street to their car, the house lighting up with flames behind them. David enters the driver’s seat and pulls the keys from his jacket pocket. Inserting them, he starts the car, and immediately drives to the end of the street, taking a left turn at a stop sign. His wet hands rub and squeak against the rubber of the steering wheel.
Ahmed reaches into his pocket and removes another Marlboro. As David stops at the red light, Ahmed flicks the gold plated lighter and lights up another Marlboro. The light turns green, and David continues, heading for the freeway. David glances at his watch. It is 1:15am. Speeding northwards up the freeway, both men are silent for several minutes.
“You never really get used to it, do you.” David quietly and tersely says while speeding down the freeway. His hands are the color of pale ivory as he grips the steering wheel with an iron grasp. Ahmed shakes his head and pulls his revolver from his holster, slapping it open and pushing out three empty shell casings into his hand.
“No,” Ahmed pauses, his eyes closed, “No, never. Never, ever, not in a thousand years can I stare into such horror and not be moved. For years I saw death as a child, and was not moved, but this,” Ahmed swallows hard and hisses the words out, “This is nothing but pure evil.” Ahmed stuffs the shell casings into his left jacket pocket, and pulls out three more rounds from his right pocket, putting them into the revolver cylinder one by one. Slapping it shut, Ahmed holsters his revolver.
“Jesus fucking Christ.” David whispers and shakes his head. Taking an exit, David pulls onto a deserted street, heading down past tall two story brick buildings and into the parking lot of a police station. Behind the tall white stucco building, behind the chain link fence, David drives and parks. Killing the engine, the two men open their doors and exit the car. The parking lot is devoid of other people, shadows cast by the tall lamp lights cast long shadows across the lot. The two men stand for a second by their open doors.
“Hey, Ahmed?” David asks tentatively. Ahmed looks up questioningly. “Take care of yourself, all right? Quit smoking.” Ahmed’s face breaks into a thin smile.
“You too David, you too. You are like a brother to me. Take care of yourself too. Jennifer is a good girl, don’t worry too much. Everything will take care of itself my friend.”
“Sleep well, all right?.” Is all David says. The two men each turn and part, walking to their respective cars. Hitting a button on a key chain, a gray Camry flashes its lights and unlocks the doors. Getting into his gray car, David pulls out second pair of keys and inserts them into the ignition. Starting the car, he pulls out of the parking lot, and heads for the freeway again, heading southbound.
For a portion of an hour, David drives in silence. Taking another exit, David pulls up to a three story apartment complex, built of gray concrete. The roof is steep and angular, and to David’s fatigued mind, it resembles a tall church. The parking lot is long and filled with cars. Finding the same spot he left, David parks, stops the engine, exits the car, and glances at his watch. It is 1:42am. He walks across the green grass lawn, heading for the concrete stairs that lead up to his apartment. Slowly walking up the stairs, his dress boots make no noise. He stops in front of apartment 203.
Pulling out his key chain, David slowly unlocks the door. Putting his left hand on the brass door knob, David pulls out the Sig Sauer P229 from his holster and quickly opens the door. Silently swinging open, David raises the firearm and scans the room, his eyes adjusting to the dimness within. The apartment is sparsely decorated. The walls are bare. The kitchen is empty. Only a small green two person sofa decorates the living room. Quietly, he walks inside, closing the door behind him.
David sighs, and holsters the pistol, shrugging off his jacket. Throwing the jacket on the foot of the bed, he unbuttons and takes off the shoulder holster, neatly packing all the weapons on the bureau by the head of the bed. Sitting on the bed, David reaches for the bureau, grabbing a half empty bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey. Screwing open the bottle, David takes a large mouthful and swishes it around in his mouth, concentrating on the burning sensation upon his tongue. Finally, he swallows, and feels the burning ball of liquid travel down his gut. Looking at the bureau, David’s eye passes on Jennifer’s photo. For a second, David hesitates, then he picks up the photo and its frame, gazing at it, and gently puts it back down on the bureau.
Lying on the bed in his slacks and collared shirt, David closes his eyes and tries to forget. Tries to forget Jennifer. Tries to forget the abomination in the vat. Tries to forget all the past years. Tries to forget everything. But he knows that it will surface again. Whenever something strange shows up, he knows phone calls will be made. Old acquaintances will be renewed, and hands shaken under the table. Personnel and equipment will be reshuffled about in the labyrinth known as the government bureaucracy. Reports will be forged or suppressed, and evidence lost. All to ensure the politicians on CNN can tell the public with honest certainty there are no such things as monsters. That children can grow up believing the things in the closet are not real. But David knows the truth. The monsters are real. They are among us. The darkness was here before he and Ahmed were born. It will be here after they die. And for a short moment, they have pushed back the darkness for another night. And as David drifts off to sleep, he realizes, it’s all in a day’s work.