It troubled him, if he allowed it to, just how long it took to arrive again where once he’d briefly been, and where, from whence, he was cursed to depart again. It had taken long enough for him to forget things, details of creed and sect, how the mob required no prerequisites, no references or basic education, to tear a planet from its orbit. And here he was once more.
The news on the widescreen television on his office wall was sedate now, a ribbon of minutia running by beneath the talking heads, filling in the empty corners of the a.m. primetime cycle with newly manufactured memes and worn cliché. There was a slideshow behind them, frames of world landmarks slowly fading into one another, lighted or otherwise colourised, in blue white and red: A world mourns, it prays for Paris.
It was raining in Vancouver. The low cloud over Stanley Park made it a brooding day. He was a slender good looking man with a dark complexion. He pointed the television remote like a gun at CNN, and pulled the trigger. The screen went dark.
His office phone beeped.
“Yes,” he said, picking up.
“It’s Barry Winters,” his secretary said, “on line three, Mr Haddar.”
“I’m ignoring him,” said Saif Haddar. “Take a message.”
“I’ve taken four, already.” His secretary was a good and patient woman.
“He’s evil, you know,” Haddar said – evil in a Hollywood North sort of way.
He sat back and exhaled, everything from within himself, while twirling his computer mouse on its pad. The arrow always stopped on Vin Diesel’s doughy face. Haddar was on the actor’s IMDb page, and was losing at Vin Diesel roulette. How a mutt like him, in his dotage, remained associated with fast cars and sexy young women was a mystery to Haddar. But that was show biz. He checked his watch, seventeen minutes until his next appointment, ninety-three minutes to lunch. He consulted the daybook in his head. There were no lunch meetings.
“Has my next appointment come in early, by any chance?” he said.
“No, in fact they called to say they’d be late.”
“I must agree, Mr Haddar,” said his secretary.
“Then put Winters on.”
Haddar listened for a second to the dim standoffish buzz of cloud farms and orbiting telecommunication satellite relays, then he pressed line three.
“Saif Haddar speaking,” he said.
“Saif, baby. It’s Barry Winters here. How does it hang?”
“There is nothing hanging here, Mr Winters. Please state your business. My next appointment is in two minutes, and I cannot be late for a very important lunch meeting.”
“Alrighty, then,” Winters said. “I hear you’ve got Vin Diesel’s agent coming in today.”
“Yes, I help her when he’s in town. She reciprocates when I need her to.”
“What’s it about, pal? New movie? You can tell me.”
“That information is confidential.”
“Is this why you called?”
“Naw, it’s about Felix Wheeler. He’s come over to our agency, now that his contract with you’s expired. I need you to send over his file.”
“But I faxed you his signed release.”
“Then tell me what you need, and I’ll send you copies.”
“It’s his file, Saif ol’ buddy.”
“No, it’s mine, and you know it. He’s welcome to view it at any time. In fact it’s in storage at the moment, and it will be an effort and some expense for me to get it back to my office, but he need only make an appointment and I’ll bill you.”
“Jeez, that’s hardball, Saif.”
Haddar didn’t reply. There was nothing more for him to say. This was obviously an exploratory expedition on Winters’ part, focussed primarily on property acquisition. Haddar spun his mouse again.
“Well can you at least tell me what his last job was,” Winters said. “Felix says it was some Pixar thing, but I can’t find it on the web.”
“I got him a reading with them,” Haddar said. “He auditioned for Additional Voices in Up. He didn’t get it, though. His file went dormant after that. His last actual paying job through me was Customer at Checkout in a 7-11 television commercial. He almost got bounced for demanding a pink grapefruit Perrier rider in his contract. He is not worth the trouble, Mr Winters.”
“Call me Barry, Saif.”
“So, that’s it then.” Barry Winters said. “You say Felix Wheeler’s more trouble than he’s worth, and you won’t send over his file.”
“That’s it,” Haddar said. “Now I really must go.”
Winters hesitated for a moment, and Haddar wondered if it was the shrewdly pregnant pause of an astute businessman, or if Winters had simply drawn a blank.
Then Winters said, “Say, you know, it’s really too bad about that whole Paris thing.”
“Paris,” said Haddar, flatly. So, there it was, on the first day of business after the fact. Had he been expecting this? Yes, he decided, he had. His therapist might even have suggest that he had asked for it, in some occult way worthy of her hourly rate. It had been bound to come up somehow, somewhere, and Barry Winters was just the buffoon to broach the subject.
“Yeah,” said Winters. “All that shooting last Friday, the bomb belts and shit. You must have heard.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Mr Winters. Of course I heard. How does this relate to our conversation?”
“I just wanted to say that I sympathise, man. I mean, here you are an established and respected Vancouver businessman, and your people are over there shooting the whole goddamn place up.”
“My people?” Haddar sighed.
“Yeah, all them ISIS Muslim types.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah,” Winters said, “the ones with all the AK-47s, chopping peoples’ heads off. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got so many traffic tickets, sometimes I feel like going into traffic court wearing a bomb belt. See, I sorta get where your people are coming from, just not totally, really. Get it?”
“I don’t know any terrorists, Mr Winters, nor anyone remotely related in any way to ISIS. Besides ISIS is hardly Muslim. They slaughter more Muslims than anyone else. Surely you’ve discerned that much from the media coverage.”
“I’m just sayin’, buddy.”
“I really have to go, Mr Winters.”
He silently but bitterly thanked Barry Winters, as he hung up the telephone. Now there was the unwelcome knot in his belly, and he sensed the onset of a familiar flashback. This assault of memory had ended some years before, but potential triggers were legion of late. There was no logical self-defence, no safe territory to claim.
The memory was of the streets of West Beirut, 1982, where he grew up. A group of boys, a twelve year old Haddar among them, standing on a pile of rubble, throwing rocks at a platoon of militia soldiers. It was only a late afternoon distraction. They were playing childish warrior games. The soldiers, however, stood their ground, tense, with their automatic rifles at the ready.
Haddar and his friends laughed and shouted names, and were soon joined by three young men, strangers, maybe university students, each with a slingshot in his hand and faces covered.
Haddar and his friends stood and watched as the newcomers began firing stones at the soldiers, all of them missing at first. Excited, but not understanding the gravity of the attack, Haddar and company began collecting projectiles for slingshot ammunition.
A non-commissioned officer shouted for the slingshot shooters to cease. But they didn’t, and finally one of them hit a target, with a cue ball sized fragment of brick. A Private staggered, blood having sprayed from the region of his left eye, and he fell.
Immediately, the air was filled with Galil assault rifle fire, and Haddar’s friends began to fall round him. Then, he felt a burning shock to his arm that twisted him round, and he fell onto the rubble, facing an eleven year old boy named Adeem, Adeem who always won at chess and backgammon. He had a wide pulpy black wound to his forehead, his eyes opened wide but lifeless. As the gun fire and shouts of a Sergeant and a Lieutenant subsided, Saif Haddar closed his own eyes and lay very still.
The militia left, quickly and quiety. No one checked for survivors. In the end there were none, other than Haddar. After dark, he crawled away. When he looked back, he saw that all of his friends were dead. Tomorrow, his neighbourhood would be nearly empty of boys.
The bullet had only grazed his shoulder, and a doctor came to his house to dress the wound, and provided a course of antibiotics. Days later, an investigation concluded that Saif Haddar had been among the boys that afternoon.
The bulldozer had come at dawn, during the call to prayer, while his family slept. They barely escaped the crushing of their home. Now they were refugees, and shortly afterwards found themselves in Canada, where Haddar spent his adolescent years in a shock of rage and mental chaos.
But none of that was what woke him screaming in the night, or paralysed him in the day. It was seeing Adeem’s wide eyes and dark bottomless wound, again and again, that did that. Now sitting at his desk, he saw it clearly once more. He perspired and breathed deeply, having difficulty exhaling, and watched as his trembling hand picked up the phone.
“Yes, Mr Haddar?” said his secretary.
“Cancel all my appointments.”
“That may be difficult, sir.”
“Why, for goodness sake?” Haddar said.
“Mr Diesel and his representatives have just arrived. They’re in the waiting area. Mr Diesel is pacing; he won’t sit down.”
“But it was only supposed to be his agent and her assistant.”
“I must agree, Mr Haddar.”