Asalaamu Alaikum

by

Frank Byrns




It was his routine.

Friday night, as he did every other night, Mahmoud began by waiting for Alex Trebek to sign off following the 'Final Jeopardy!' round, the 7:30 edition on Fox-5. He watched every night on the small black and white set perched on the back counter behind the register. It was a means to keep his mind sharp in the years after college, and to expand his vocabulary; not a show went by where he didnít learn at least one new word: coif, or pursuant, or phlebotomy.

Then, after Johnny Gilbertís promotional considerations, he stepped out onto the sidewalk fronting his store. He lit up a cigarette -- Camels, unfiltered. It was a nasty habit, he knew, one that would likely be the death of him, but he just couldnít help savoring the sheer American-ness of it. It made him feel like John Wayne, or maybe Steve McQueen. Arms crossed, cigarette smoldering, he watched the late evening traffic roll by on Malcolm X Avenue.

By the time he finished his smoke, it was 8:00, and time to close up shop for the evening. He would close the shop door, slowly, just in case anyone in the neighborhood needed a last minute bag of sugar, or can of soup, or Similac. He ground the cigarette under the heel of his boot (Timberlands, of course, the best boots American dollars could buy, if you believed what you saw on the music videos) and then methodically lowered the riot gate down over the storefront.

The gate had taken a bit of a beating lately; since the Towers had fallen, it wasnít unusual to find fresh graffiti three or four mornings a week, one ethnic slur painted right on top of the last, over and over again. The latest one had promised violence against Mahmoud and his family if they didnít move out of The Flats, and that had led him to call the police, not that he expected much from them. An Officer Washington had been dispatched to the scene, the same man who had taken the last call he had made.

"Maybe they got a point, Sinbad," Washington had said, pointing at the message scrawled across the gate, going through the motions of filing a report.

"No. Iíve had this store ten years Ė they should move, if they donít like it," Mahmoud said. "And itís Mahmoud."

"Well, anyway," Washington said. "Iíll file the report, see if any leads turn up."

"I thank you for your time, Officer."

"My pleasure," Washington lied.

"Asalaamu Alaikum," Mahmoud said.

"Go to hell," Washington said.

As the gate closed, Mahmoud could see the hastily scrawled message again, delivered in bright orange paint, the kind the Highway Department uses, and it bothered him again.  Not the threat against his family; he had none to speak of, at least not here in The Flats.  His only remaining family was distant, both genetically and geographically, a distant cousin in New York the closest he had on both counts.

One Tuesday afternoon back home, Mahmoud had come home from school to find that while he was away learning the history of his great nation, his father had been arrested on suspicion of being a political dissident, beaten within an inch of his life.  Whether or not the charges were true, Mahmoud couldnít say; he was only nine years old at the time, and knew little of the politics of adults.  Regardless, his father was publicly executed 24 hours later in the town square as a warning to his "co-conspirators."

After that, Mahmoudís mother had had enough; two months later they packed a small bag in the middle of the night and fled to America, to live with her distant cousin in New York and his family.  Not all of his mother made the trip, however, and she died of pneumonia a year and a half later.  It was the kind of sickness most people would fight through and come out OK, but she just didnít have the will; she had left her heart on the other side of the world with her husband.

Mahmoud was adopted by the cousinís family, and in the process joined them as American citizens.  The adoption was more out of familial obligation than any sort of feelings they held for him, and once he headed upstate for college on a fencing scholarship, he had little contact with them, an occasional birthday card or email the extent of it.

So with no family to speak of, the bright orange threat rang hollow, and didnít bother him in the least.  Nor did the threat of physical violence; Mahmoud was by no means a large man, but he could handle himself when it came to that.

No, what bothered him was that ever since the Towers fell, he no longer felt much like an American.  He had lived in this country for 25 years, in this town for 12, but somehow, none of that mattered any more.  It had taken a long time for him to consider himself an Arab-American; now, in the blinding flash of a couple of horrific hours, Mahmoud was just an Arab.

He shook his head, resisting the urge to light another smoke.  He had wanted to get the gate cleaned this morning, but he couldnít do anything until the police arrived, and by the time they did, almost an hour after he had made the call, it was time to open for business.

Now the graffiti would sit another night, all but guaranteeing that a similar message would join it in the morning, a different color, possibly, but undoubtedly one of the same hue. Mahmoud thought about staying late to scrub it off, but decided against it. He had other plans.

As was his routine, he locked the gate in place, then headed for the back door via the narrow alley that separated his store from the braid shop next door. He kicked aside a few empty forties as he went, sending a dingy pair of rats scurrying for a new hiding place.

At the back door, he stacked the red plastic Coke trays next to the blue Pepsi ones to make it easy for Mondayís deliverymen. Someone would be by later in the night, as they were every night, to knock them over, or take a few, but he did it just the same.

Mahmoud stepped back from the alley into the stockroom, pulling the door tight behind him. He pressed the push-button lock on the doorknob to secure it. He slid the deadbolt into place, then did the same with the chain lock. He poked his head into the tiny employee bathroom to make sure it was clear. He knew it was; it always was. But he checked just the same. It was his routine.

Satisfied that he was alone and secure, Mahmoud went to the walk-in cooler on the far wall. He told the delivery guys when they asked that the previous owner had sold a lot of cold cuts, and needed the storage space. It could have been true -- he couldnít really say -- but it stopped the questions right there, and thatís what he needed.

Mahmoud worked a giant key ring out of his pocket, expertly rifling through it to find the right key to pop the heavy padlock that held the cooler door in place. He gave the handle a tug, breaking the suction of the rubber stripping designed to keep the cool air inside from leaking out. He pulled the door open, a cool blast of air rushing across his face as he stepped inside. As the door shut slowly behind him, he reached to his right and flipped on the overhead light. There, spread out on a stainless steel butcherís table before him, was his arsenal.

****

Mahmoud finished work on his Business Administration degree some eleven years ago; a year later he took out a small business loan and bought the store, and had been there on Malcolm X ever since. He started collecting his arsenal the year after that.

It was a powerful sight, all laid out on the cold steel before him, one that still gave him chills, all these years later. Knives. Swords. Grenades.

Bombs.

As he ran a finger along the cold, silver blade of one of the swords, he thought of the day he and his mother had first arrived in America, and the excitement they had in this land of opportunity, this land of dreams. His fingers lightly traced the pin on one of the stun grenades on the table, thinking of the hate-filled diatribes painted on his property night after night. He fingered the ignition pin on the bomb, seeing Officer Washington as he did so.

He said a quick prayer to Allah to calm himself.

Cleansed of impure thoughts, he quickly stripped down to his boxers and reached up to grab the rubberized concussion vest and sleeves that hung from a hook on the wall behind the table. He had bought the equipment years before from Old Man Hebner; they had been quite expensive, but not a day had gone by since that he had regretted their purchase. He slid them on quickly, feeling the rubber first give, then constrict around his chest and arms.

The flowing white robe that hung on the next hook was next, and he draped it over the concussion gear loosely, cinching it in place with a gray military-style web belt.

The final piece hung on a third hook, a white ceremonial hood, modeled after one Mahmoud remembered from the old country. It had small slits that allowed him vision, each one marked above and below with silver crescent moon shaped markings, the four narrow slivers curved inward towards his nose.

He took a look at himself in the full-length mirror that ran along one of the walls of the cooler, then quickly looked away. The robe, the mask, all of it, designed to look like one of the death squad that had executed his father all those years ago.

He attached two small knife scabbards to the belt, and slid the knives into place. A small police issue extendible baton went into the belt between the knives. He took one of the swords and fed it through the belt as well, moving the folds of the robe into place to partially obscure the blade. A handful of grenades went into pockets hidden in the robe.

Mahmoud adjusted the hood one final time, and sent a final quick prayer towards Mecca. He stepped out in the alley once more, pulling the door tight behind him, listening for the lock to catch. Taking a deep breath to clear his head a final time, he disappeared into the night, looking for trouble.

***

It didnít take long for trouble to find him.

Perched on a low rooftop overlooking Dubois Street, he had a clear view down into the Douglass Gardens public housing complex. The benches down below him were a known haven for drug traffickers, although no one was out and about just yet. It was still early.

As he watched the benches, two gunshots rang out behind him. He raced to the other side of the roof, peering over the side down into a narrow alley, where a black police officer had just exchanged fire with a young Hispanic man. Neither shot had found its target, and both men had ducked for cover, the young man behind a dumpster, his pursuer behind a fire escape.

Mahmoud knew that the thin railings of the fire escape wouldnít do much for the cop, so he had to act quickly. He moved quietly to the other end of the roof, so that he was directly above the perp. In the immense silence that followed the shots, he could hear the heavy, ragged breathing of both men.

The silence was broken as the policeman called for backup on his radio. Mahmoud recognized the voice immediately.

"Shots fired, shots fired," Officer Washington shouted into his rover. "Request immediate backup, Dubois and Douglass. Repeat Ė shots fired, immediate backup requested. Over."

Indecision gripped Mahmoud Ė- but only for a moment, before something greater took over. He pulled out a small smoke grenade, dropping it down behind the gunman. As the smoke started to rise, Mahmoud dropped down into the alley behind him. He smoothly pulled the baton from his belt and extended it. Quickly and silently he stalked up to the gunmanís back, and expertly blasted him in the crown of his skull.

The young man went down quickly and silently, his gun clattering to the concrete ahead of him.

"What the hellís happening over there?" Washington called.

"All clear, Officer," Mahmoud said, and stepped through the slowly dissipating smoke into Washingtonís line of sight.

"S-S-Silversword," Washington said, as sirens began to wail in the distance. "Thank God! I donít know Ė I donít know what would have happened if you hadnít shown up."

"My pleasure, Sir," Mahmoud lied.

Washington holstered his revolver, moved over to cuff the young man lying at Silverswordís feet. "I tell ya," he said. "Guys like this? Gonna be the death of this city. But guys like you? Everything thatís good around here. Sometimes the only thing. And I mean it. Itís been a real honor to work beside you all these years."

Washington looked back towards the mouth of the alley, where the sirens were getting closer. Mahmoud had heard enough. He couldnít help himself. "Asalaamu Alaikum, Officer."

Washington whipped his head around, but Silversword had already disappeared, back into the smoke, leaving behind nothing but the American Dream.

THE END



© 2005 by Frank Byrns

A year ago, Frank Byrns said: "Previously, I have published Sunvolt at www.scifi-zine.com, and my story Ridealong will be included in the upcoming issue of Unwarranted Confessions. During the day, I am a mild-mannered retail manager. But by night..." By night, Frank becomes the unauthorized biographer of the metahuman set, giving us American Lenny (Aphelion, March 2004), Hollywood Ending (Aphelion, November 2004), Barflies (March, 2005), and now Asalaamu Alaikum.. Frank's short fiction has also appeared in such magazines as Electric Velocipede, Cyber Age Adventures, and Alien Skin, and he will soon be appearing in Strange Horizons. Visit him at Frank Byrns Superstories

E-mail: Frank Byrns

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Lettercol
Or Return to Aphelion's Index page.