Continued from Chapter 17.
Ed Wilkins was dazed. He knew he would be in pain soon enough, but right now he was dazed. He was looking up at the dim lights suspended from the ceiling of the Moonglow Bar. They were mock Spanish, wrought iron chandeliers with those little lights that fluttered imitating a candle flame. Funny, he had never noticed them before. Then of course he had never been lying on the floor of the bar looking up at them while holding on to his balls. He tried to replay what had led to this dazed state, but he was unable to figure out the last part, how he ended up on the floor.
The out-of-work painter had been enjoying a Bud Light at the bar, watching that girl with the short blonde hair play pool. She came in with that big black guy and sat down at the far end of the bar. She had played the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar, Sex Magic on the jukebox. This compact disc got limited use in the Moonglow, a small neighborhood bar in Clairemont, a large bedroom community north of Mission Valley. The owner put the disc in the jukebox, along with three other alternative rock discs, at the request of the Thursday night college crowd. During the afternoon, however, the crowd generally played Sinatra and Bennett.
Ed remembered seeing her grind seductively against the jukebox to the beat of the music. The back-end of her denims were torn. When she leaned over, he could clearly see her ass cheek. He even recalled asking the black guy if they were together, carefully observing bar room protocol. When he told Ed they were not, he had walked over and introduced himself as she shot the cue ball off the worn cushions of the pool table with the old warped cue.
Ed remembered asking, “Do you want to play?” and she smiled, licked her lips and said, “Sure.” Then she bent over right in front of him and rotated her hips. He recalled sliding his hand into the rip in her jeans and gently grabbing her ass as she pushed back against his pelvis. Then things got kind of fuzzy.
She had pushed back hard and spun around. Ed remembered that old pool cue coming up hard and smashing into his testicles. Oh yeah, he remembered that. Then he saw it whip up and come crashing down on his right shoulder. He stood paralyzed for a moment and began to fall forward. She smiled at him and turned away as he collapsed to his knees. Then she whirled around again and something hit the side of his head. Whatever it was, that’s what must have made him so dazed. Maybe that salty taste in his mouth was blood. That was probably it, yeah, blood.
His head was still ringing, but he was becoming vaguely aware of a growing pain in his groin. It kind of took away from the sharp pain in his right shoulder, but not enough; things were really starting to hurt. He slowly lifted his head and could see her leaning back against the pool table, legs spread, pool cue resting against her crotch. She was smiling down at him. Maybe he was mistaken, she didn’t do this. Maybe her friend hit me from behind. He turned his head to the left, but no, the big guy was still sitting at the bar, sipping a cocktail.
Ed looked back at the blonde girl. She had set the cue down and slowly lowered herself. She pulled Ed’s hands away from his groin and placed them on her hips, straddling him, pelvis to pelvis. She leaned forward and whispered in his ear, “You want to play some more?”
Ed groaned. He did not think so. She leaned back and starting rocking back and forth, grinding her pelvis against his. Under ordinary circumstances Ed would have enjoyed this part. But these were not ordinary circumstances. Ed saw her rub her hands over her full breasts covered only by a thin T-shirt. Then Ed passed out.
Josef Meshkaty was driving as fast as possible, but the rain was hindering his progress. Some intersections had already flooded and he had passed four fender benders en route to his destination. A destination he was anxious to reach, further encouraged by the grim stare of the big man in the back of his cab. The man had not said one word the entire trip. He did not have to speak; every time Josef looked in his rearview mirror, he saw the man looking back at him.
The little man had not moved, but Josef knew he was not dead. He heard an occasional moan from the little man. The big man kept the smaller one pinned down in the backseat. Josef did not believe it was necessary to do so.
Josef looked at the K-Mart special family portrait of his wife and four children taped to the dashboard of his cab. He hoped the big man had seen the photograph and would have mercy on him. He wanted desperately to see his family again.
“Pull over there,” the big man ordered, breaking the silence and pointing to the rear of a bar located at the edge of large shopping mall. The rain was coming down hard now and the cab splashed through the pools of rain water forming in the parking lot.
“There, pull up next to that van and stop,” said the big man. The van, an older brown-colored Dodge Caravan, sat parked next to the rear door of the bar.
Josef did as he was told.
“Wait here. Don’t even think about leaving. If the thought does cross your mind, Habib, just remember, I’ve seen what your family looks like and I might be inclined to pay them a visit.” He smiled menacingly as he got out of the cab and dashed the few short yards to the rear door of the bar and disappeared inside.
Josef turned around and looked down at the small man in the back seat. He turned back, raising his eyes, and sighed. The big man paid him; he was probably going to let him go, he thought. Wait here, that’s the best thing to do. It will all be over in a few minutes. Just a few more minutes.
Leonard Jefferson came through the back door of the Moonglow, shaking the rain off like a big menacing dog. He glanced around and immediately spotted Tyrone Brown sitting at the bar, who was looking toward the unoccupied pool table. He did not, however, see Sheila Masters, at first.
He stepped further into the bar, still looking. A movement by the pool table caught his eye. Turning, he saw the top of Sheila’s blonde head rocking back and forth. As he moved toward the bar, Tyrone noticed him and stood up.
“What the fuck is she up to?” asked Leonard, with a puzzled look on his face.
“I think she’s getting her nut,” replied Tyrone.
Leonard had reached Tyrone and could now clearly see Sheila straddling the prostrate form of a man on the floor, grinding back and forth on him. The man’s face was bloody. Leonard looked at Tyrone with a questioning look on his face. Tyrone merely shrugged.
“Who’s that?” asked Leonard.
“Some guy. I think she likes him. Hope she never likes me that much,” said Tyrone as an afterthought.
“Anybody else in here?” queried Leonard, scanning the bar.
“I think the bartender’s in the back,” replied Tyrone.
“Well, the party’s over. We got business to take care of out back,” said Leonard. Tyrone nodded and prepared to leave.
“Sheila!” barked Leonard. “We got business.”
Sheila shot back the look of an angry cat disturbed during a private moment. She stood up and walked to the bar to retrieve a black nylon equipment bag and walked toward the back door. She hesitated and looked defiantly at Leonard. Turning, she walked back to the unconscious man. She stooped and wiped a trickle of blood off the man’s face and while watching Leonard and Tyrone, licked it from her finger. Leonard and Tyrone stood by expressionless. She stood, and gave the prone man a sharp kick to the ribs. She then walked past Leonard and Tyrone out the back door.
“Weird bitch,” observed Leonard as he followed her and Tyrone out into the rain.
Josef had been just about to start his cab and drive off, threats or no threats, when he saw the big man come out of the bar following a blonde woman and black man. He had hesitated and now it was too late.
The trio walked to the cab and the big man opened the rear door. The small man who was propped against the door tumbled partially out of the back seat. Drivers in the cars passing in the distance were too busy concentrating on the traffic in the heavy rain to notice. The cab was further obscured by the growing darkness of the late afternoon.
“Put them in the van,” said the big man to the other two. The black man lifted the small man as if he were a doll and carried him to the van. Sliding the side door open with one hand, he deposited the unconscious form on the floor.
The woman leaned into Josef’s open window. She smiled. Then she grabbed Josef by the hair and slammed his head on the edge of the window. She pulled the door open and reached around and continued to hold Josef by the hair, as she extracted him from the driver seat.
Stunned, Josef attempted to resist, but to no avail as she pulled him out. With one final effort to counter the woman’s pulling, Josef grabbed the end of the gear shift sticking from the steering column. He depressed a small button on the very end. This activated a small light on the top of the cab. The light, known as a peanut light, was used to attract the police when the cab driver was in trouble and unable to radio for help. With one last pull, the woman had Josef out of the cab and led him by the hair to the van. She shoved him in and following in behind him, closed the door. He watched as the big man and the black man talked for a moment. The black man then got into the van and started it up.
The woman pulled a roll of silver duct tape from her equipment bag. She pulled off a six inch strip and, pulling back Josef’s head, pushed it over his mouth. Josef’s eyes bulged with terror as she wrapped his wrists together tightly with the tape. She smiled at him. It was not meant to be reassuring.
Josef had been a civil engineer in his home land of Lebanon. He had immigrated eight years before. He met his wife and was married in the U.S. He worked hard and put up with the anti-Arab sentiment he encountered from time to time in his new home. The terror that had ravaged his homeland had miraculously passed him by, only to find him here in San Diego. A Christian, he closed his eyes and prayed for mercy and for the Lord to watch over his family as the van pulled out of the parking lot and onto the busy boulevard heading north. The rain was still falling steadily.
The older neighborhood of Clairemont was built on several interconnected mesas. Bordered by I-5 on the west, I- 805 to the east and I-52 cutting it off north from University City, Clairemont is the true center of San Diego. It is divided by a number of small canyons. Too steep to build on, the canyons have remained undeveloped and are designated natural parks filled with scrub oak, wild anise and mustard, and the occasional palm tree. When it rains, the bottoms of the canyons fill with the runoff of the surrounding mesas, forming small streams which eventually drain into Mission Bay to the west.
Interstate-52 runs east and west through the center of the largest canyon, Marion Bear Memorial Park. Most natives have only the vaguest recollection of who Marion Bear was and opt for the more commonly known name of San Clemente Canyon. The park runs adjacent to the freeway to the south for approximately five miles. It is filled with sycamore and coastal oak which drink from the stream which runs the length of the park.
The park has the notorious reputation as the site where several years ago a San Diego police officer was ambushed and murdered. The suspect was the son of a deputy sheriff who had taken his stepfather’s patrol car for a joy ride with two of his friends. The officer had seen the Sheriff’s car parked in one of the lots and pulled alongside the car, suspecting nothing particular out of the ordinary. The boy panicked and shot the officer point blank as he sat in his car. The investigators noticed the tire tracks at the scene were consistent with those of a police car. The result was for every agency in the County to systematically photograph the tire impressions of their patrol vehicles. The suspect was finally arrested after one of boy’s friends told his father and then came forward.
During the winter months, when the region receives a whopping ten inches of rain, the San Clemente Canyon stream swells to a the size of a small river, cutting high banks in the soft clay and sandstone. The thick undergrowth along the steep banks creates small foliage caves. It is not uncommon for the occasional unwary hiker to fall into the stream. Generally suffering no more than a good soaking, a couple of hikers have drowned in the stream, their bodies recovered weeks later, after they flowed to the bay. The trip downstream usually obliterates the decomposing corpse beyond recognition and creates a difficulty in determining the cause of death.
The Dodge van pulled off Clairemont Mesa Boulevard into the western parking lot of San Clemente Canyon. It drove to the far end of the empty lot before coming to a stop, hidden from the freeway fifty yards away by the thick oak trees. The naked sycamores were stark white in contrast to the dark sky, the twisted limbs resembling skeletal fingers reaching out of the dark soil of a massive grave made from the surrounding hills. Tyrone got out the van and slid the side door open. Christopher Swank was now semiconscious and had begun to stir.
“Let’s take care of him first,” said Tyrone.
Sheila responded by lifting Christopher by his bloody windbreaker and pushing him into the arms of Tyrone.
Christopher opened his eyes and focused. “Tyrone, whatcha doing here?”
“Sorry man, you fucked up,” replied Tyrone, twisting Christopher’s arms behind his back. Christopher could feel the rain pelting his face as he stood looking at Sheila still inside the van.
Sheila turned and put her face close to Josef’s. “Wait here,” she said, smiling. She put her hand on Josef’s cheek, gently stroking it. With one swift movement, she smashed his head against the frame of the van. Josef slumped down, stunned by the unexpected blow. Sheila jumped out of the van and pulled the door shut. The inside handle had been removed. She was not concerned about Josef letting himself out. This would not take long.
Tyrone half-carried Christopher across the parking lot to the swollen stream raging from the storm’s runoff. Sheila was close behind as they reached the embankment of the stream. Christopher had not quite gathered his wits. “What’s up?” he asked Tyrone again.
“I said, you fucked up. Leonard wants you gone,” said Tyrone in a calm voice. Christopher realized it was over. They meant to kill him and leave him here in the mud.
“Wait, wait, guys, we can work this out. Let me talk to Leonard,” sobbed Christopher. His voice was drowned out by the falling rain as he struggled in Tyrone’s strong arms. Sheila stepped forward and punched him in the mouth, taking away any fight he was able to muster. Christopher moaned as Tyrone forced him to his knees. Tyrone stepped away and Christopher fell to all fours.
“Please don’t. We can work this out,” he sobbed.
Sheila stepped forward and kneeled. She pulled Christopher to his knees. She smiled and he thought hopefully, maybe they changed their minds. He did not see Sheila take the .32 semi-automatic pistol from her jacket pocket. She was looking right into his eyes, almost concerned.
“I’ll make it right. I will,” said Christopher between sobs. She smiled again and blinked her eyes slowly and nodded her head as if to say, “I’m sure you will,” She slipped a coin into his hand. He looked down at the coin and saw the image of a rooster, talons extended. He looked at Sheila questioningly.
Christopher was vaguely aware of something against his forehead. There was a thud, then darkness. Christopher was dead. The small hole in his forehead was the only evidence of the bullet entering his skull and tearing his brain apart before stopping against the back his cranium.
Sheila stood up as Christopher’s body fell backward into the stream. It landed with a splash and disappeared below the rushing, muddy torrent. It surfaced a few feet downstream, beginning its short trip to the saltwater marshes of Mission Bay. She and Tyrone turned and walked back to the get the hapless cab driver, who had merely stopped for the wrong fare.
Josef had not survived his first twenty four years of life in Lebanon by being stupid or through dumb luck. He survived because he knew when to move and how long to keep moving. He also learned that life sometimes gives you only a small fleeting advantage and you had better take it when you have the chance. Sheila had provided such an advantage.
When Sheila banged Josef’s head against the van frame, she had not taken into account that he had an overload of adrenaline pumping through his system. The blow had more surprised than stunned him. He was fully aware that Sheila had jumped from the van and pulled the door closed. He had jammed the toe of his shoe into the door as it slammed shut. His shoe was caught, but the door did not latch completely. He watched as the trio had disappeared into the undergrowth. He then threw his entire weight against the door. The latch released completely and Josef pulled the door open.
He looked toward the bushes and saw none of the group. Hands and mouth still taped, he ran to the trail in the opposite direction. He staggered at full speed, sliding over the muddy clay trail, the overhanging brambles whipping his face and exposed arms.
He ran almost a hundred yards down the trail. Here the trail split. In one direction the trail was crossed by a stream, where it resumed, leading to an open field. To the left the trail went up sharply and paralleled the stream, which now was more like a river. He was not afraid to cross the stream, but he could not hide in the field beyond. Behind him, he heard a man’s voice yell and the van door slam shut. He turned and began to clamber up the muddy trail. He slid back once, but caught himself by digging his fingernails into the soft earth. With every ounce of strength, he propelled himself to the top of the trail. He could now hear the sounds of someone running down the trail. Ahead of him, the large oak trees formed a canopy over the trail, keeping it relatively dry. As he emerged from the shelter, ahead lay another open field which extended almost two hundred yards. To his left, the hills were barren, capped by the homes staring silently down. No place to hide.
Josef decided quickly. He turned and ran back into the oak canopy. Midway, he could hear someone crashing through brush coming toward him. He looked down to the stream, barely visible through underbrush, fifteen feet below. Josef took a deep breath, closed his eyes and hurled himself into the thick, thorny bush. As he fell headlong he could feel the thorns and branches tearing the uncovered skin of his face and arms. A branch tore through his pants and jabbed deep into his right thigh, the tape over his mouth preventing him from crying out. His shoulder hit the hard embankment as he fell into the stream. Once he came to rest at the shallow stream bottom, he found himself still tangled in the bush, holding him from drifting with the current.
Josef was in three feet of quickly moving water. He planted his feet and pushed his head to the surface. He tried to gasp air through his nose, but inhaled the water. He desperately grabbed at the tape covering his mouth as he choked, his lungs begging for air. He yanked the tape away along with a generous portion of his moustache. He coughed the water out of his throat and gulped the air in.
His head barely out of the water, Josef oriented himself and grasped the bush, the thorns puncturing his hands and fingers. He pushed with his feet on the uneven stream bottom. He slogged toward a small overhang in the embankment. Reaching the muddy alcove, he turned his back to the earth and planted his feet, holding himself in place. Above him, he could hear someone running, the heavy footfalls more a vibration than a sound. The vibrations faded away and Josef took a cautious breath. He was unable to see the trail above him. It was quiet, except for the sound of the churning stream.
He knew not to relax. The sudden sound of the brush being thrashed above, however, set off a new wave of panic. He leaned his head back slowly and could barely make out the girl standing above him in the early twilight. She had not seen him, only his face was exposed in the dense brush at the edge of the stream. He did not want to lose sight of her, and pushed his head back against the muddy bank, closing his eyes to mere slits. She stopped her search when the black man ran up. Because his ears were submerged, Josef could not hear what was said. He saw the man motion down the trail and shake his head. They abruptly turned and ran back the way they had come. They were gone, for the moment.
Josef remembered when the shelling stopped in Beirut, you still never left shelter immediately. You always waited until you were sure the faction du jour had quit. He knew his pursuers would continue to look for him. As the night came, however, the dark, rain and cold would force them to give up their search. He concentrated on removing the tape from his wrists as he settled in to wait.
Several hours later, Josef emerged from the stream, shaking with cold and nearly numb to the bone. In the darkness he climbed through the heavy brush of the canyon hillside toward the lights of the homes which ringed the canyon. When he stumbled shivering and bloody to the house at the top of the hill, he would have been surprised to know he had already outlived one of his attackers.
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