Sûrah XVIII
THE CAVE
"Calamitous the drink and ill the resting-place!"

18
STALACTITES...

...is a bar. Throughout its many incarnations, "upscale" never has served as an apt description, lodged as it long has been near an underpass of the revamped Central Freeway, holding its ground at the least desirable tip of lower Duboce Street. Inside, twin LCDs—hinged atop a crow's-nest perch—glare like a walleyed scavenger, warring channels adding to the din of decidedly off-white noise as resident ears are chronically bombarded with heavy-metal rock—the juke box guzzling quarters to no avail.

PATRON

Hey, fix this fucker!

Footwear, standing any length of time in a single spot, adheres. Beer is cheap, as is the trade—which saunters in and out till 2, when farewell cocktails are swilled to cut the aftertaste of sundry prophylactics, 'last call' fortifying hookers and clients-hooked before securing shelter elsewhere.

This night is young, however. Dealers have assembled, staked their claims to well-worn turf, marked it, as with spritz, distinctive and inviolable, theirs a primal habitat, each aware of who is who, of what is what, of prices; to undercut or to trespass is ill-advised.

Enter Ahmed.

Peddler or consumer? Snap assessments widely differ. He is new, i.e. unfamiliar—an infraction, in and of itself, though none detects the plainclothes markings of an undercover nark. "Caution" reads the aura that confronts those taking notice. Sinister is the tinge of Ahmed's streetwise mien. "A man with balls," the watchers judge while they watch the interloper scan, discriminate likely prospects from covert saboteurs.

JOLEENA

You wanna date?

Accosting Ahmed with a studied swagger, snug in a red knit jumper, svelte and quasi-naked (irrespective being fully-clothed), Joleena bats her lashes, parts her chops, extends her tongue, and outlines every inch of her iridescent lip gloss.

AHMED

Buy you drink?

JOLEENA

You have an accent; ooh, delicious!

(to the bartender)

Scotch and soda, Rufus. Make that Scotch Glen Livet.

(to Ahmed)

You Israeli?

Ahmed grimaces.

AHMED
(he lies)

Palestinian.

JOLEENA

Hm. Same difference. Y'all just one big happy family, ain'cha? A-rabs, Muslims, Jews? I'll suck your dick for fifty dollars.

Ahmed bristles.

JOLEENA

All right, twenty. You speak English, don'cha? Everyone does.

AHMED

I know what means "suck dick."

JOLEENA

I'm so relieved. Took me a chance; you could be Vice. Like incognito? Don' know that word, huh? Means things ain't always what they seem. Wear a rubber; you can fuck my teeny-weeny bunghole. Hundred bucks. Don't fudge on that price, please—it's firm as the goods.

AHMED

You smoke hashish?

JOLEENA

Your money, your party. I smoke anything and everything that'll transform 'here' into 'there'.

AHMED

Hashish good. Is strong. I sell; you find me buyer.

JOLEENA

My, oh, my... And here I thought it was I propositioning you. How much?

AHMED

Half kilogram.

JOLEENA

I mean what percentage for moi?

AHMED

I give you ten.

JOLEENA

For half a key? You're on. Wait here; I'll make a call. And warm that 'ardor'; brrrrr; feels frigid. Thought, at ast, I'd found me a hot-blooded man.

Joleena's bulbous hips depart the stool they were molesting, disappointment superseded by hard-boiled need; she can use the money. Her expenses are exorbitant; hormones cost; her debts are deep. The plastic surgeon who transformed her chin, her nose, her mouth, her brow allowed an incremental pay scheme, bless her sympathetic scalpel. Even so, the monthly checks are huge. And though her breasts are paid for (the remittance made 'up front'), she still has 'maintenance' to defray—her taste for top-of-the-line cosmetics an added liability.

Ahmed, turned toward the bar's back mirror, catches a glimpse of Joleena's high-sign, notes her exit to the loo is shortly-after followed; he runs a mental check on the strength of his defenses: tube sock full of pennies, length of heavy-duty chain, handcuffs he procured from a local pawn shop, penknife, mace, and a yet-untested handgun he fortuitously acquired when an injudicious mugger tried to rob him in the Tenderloin.

BRUCE

Half a key? What's that in pounds, Jo?

JOLEENA

One point one, or so. A lot. Four thousand; easy.

BRUCE

Wholesale. Guy have it on 'im?

JOLEENA

Highly doubtful. 'Less he's short on brains and bread. Are we consulting You-Know-Who?

BRUCE

End run, Babe.

JOLEENA

Very risky business.

BRUCE

Offer him two; three thousand tops. He bites, we buy.

JOLEENA

Otherwise?

BRUCE

It's Squatman. Won't net chicken-shit, but we'll suffer far less hassle. Negotiate on site, if it turns out Birdbrain's holding. Rent the loft from Rufus. Here's three grand.

Bruce un-pockets a wad from which he peels hundred dollar bills, hands them to Joleena, then vacates the head—excusing himself to a group of scowling women queued outside.

BRUCE

Whoops. Sorry, Ladies. Read the sign wrong. I did put down the seat.

He reaps a withering look from three impatient females; Joleena fairs no better decamping on Bruce's heels.

Out in the bar, Defondo Cantrell Shireson—alias Squatman—debriefs Willie.

SQUATMAN

So?

WILLIE

Man must be from Mars; looks downright alien. Bet he don't speak English.

SQUATMAN

Spoke to Jo. Guess you missed that. And don't look now but our Little Miss Tran-Sister just sashayed back in.

WILLIE

There go her Bruceyboy—must've powwowed—out de back. No; jawin' with Rufus. Dude musta axed for somethin' real special—got him a itch fo' one o' them weird Joleena scratches. Ever wonder what johns must think, go fishin' down there fo' pussy an' reel in prick?

SQUATMAN

Thought I read "ha - shish" on the lips of our immigrant gate-crasher.

WILLIE

Goddamn remarkable (!), way you suss these fine details. Buyin' or sellin', you think?

SQUATMAN

Sellin'.

WILLIE

Want that I should go explain the rules?

SQUATMAN

In time; all in good time. For now let's wait an' see what's goin' down. May get her wish.

WILLIE

Huh? Who; Joleena?

SQUATMAN

I find that bitch 's been dealin', I swear I'll have her balls.

A crowd files in. The bar gets noisier, chummier, rowdier. Ahmed's terse deliberation is well-concealed. He does, in fact, have product on his person, sixteen cakes of Bekaa Valley Blond duct-taped to his ankle, worth far more than the twenty-five hundred dollars Joleena has thus far offered—a roll of bills (less five she deftly stashed) visible in her cleavage.

JOLEENA

Let's go someplace private to consummate our transaction.

Joleena leads the way (Ahmed follows), crossing to a flight of rickety stairs, which she ascends, buttocks like red balloons, buoyant in their side-to-side gyration, panty-line inevident (as in altogether absent).

Enraptured by the prospect of libidinous relations with a man overtly macho, one she presupposes straight, Joleena stokes her fantasizes' optimistic fire. Her ideal, so close at hand, excites and frightens, thrills and daunts, exhilarates and alarms her. What if he proceeds because her semblance (unconvincing to an id aroused by charms acquired through less invasive means) indeed has fooled, defrauded passion—which can turn on a dime to odium whence detecting that which swells the skintight fabric round her hips? Her sex, like his, distends the front of that which scarcely hides dimensions of equipment craved in others while renounced (almost) herself—given who and what she wants perforce to be. She could not do it, lose the organ to epitomize her commitment. Second thoughts (and frequent nightmares) spurred instinctive, morbid dread. She loved the very thing that contravened her ill-adapted gender. What a curious and luxurious creature dwelt in laps of men: a puny inchworm, limp and shrunken; an unruly, outstretched snake, its starchy venom less like poison, more like an elixir; for as long as memory served, she desired its smell, its taste, enjoyed the sight of its escape, the sound of moans its spurt elicited. In her mouth, her ass, her armpit, anywhere, everywhere flesh conspired, or could, to ply sufficient friction for a cock to quake and come, she would insert and therein prove her expertise. For who knew genitalia better than its owners? Males knew males. And males who yearned for males knew rites to be performed: how to coax and tease and fondle, heap affection, rush, delay, massage the glans in ways libito erupted into frenzy. A john had once passed out while undergoing ministrations that Joleena practiced long and hard to polish, hone, perfect. If only he, this virile stranger, would submit to lust's embrace, she might fulfill for her (and him?) a lifelong aspiration.

Was he duped? Or, like so many other men who harbor doubts about their sex drives, was this Muhtasseb inflamed by ambiguity? Ahmed climbs, observes the graceful to and fro of that which floats before his eyes the way an apple bobs on water slightly agitated: red, round, cleft. If inauthentic as a woman, hers are trappings no less tempting to a traveler out-of-context, be he hazardous or benign, be he enticed or vaguely threatened by the attributes boldly offered. Were Joleena's 'imitations' an affront or an enticement?

JOLEENA

Watch your head.

She ducks to clear the doorway of a little-used loft, empty save for a mattress lit by a naked light bulb's glare. The floor is slatted. Insulation fills the gaps between each row. A makeshift gangplank constitutes an L to the frameless bed.

Stopping short, Joleena forces Ahmed into contact with the haunches she adjusts to fit his corresponding groin. Her arms encircle him, reaching backward to secure an awkward junction—which compresses what she fancies is a hard-on matching hers, imagining Ahmed's ardor rising, conjuring visions of acceptance as she feels her waist enclosed by his exploratory palms, endures their heated hesitation at her midriff. Will he grope her? Will he verify her breasts, confirm their jellied sensitivity, or investigate the crux of his and her pronounced allure; will Ahmed fondle or forsake the source of their congruity?

A man, a real man caresses both her bust and crotch. The stranger wants her; she can sense it. She intuits his surprise, perceives his power, his aggressiveness, as her nerve ends twist and tighten, as her bosom and her scrotum pulse from squeezes he applies, at once inquiring and abusive; she responds to either impetus.

AHMED

How much money?

Almost swooning (he appropriates the cash), Joleena shifts her whole attention to his other, lower fist, its grip astringent, unrelenting, causing harm, eclipsing pleasure. Like elastic stretched to snapping point, the Muslim's qualms recoil, guilt snapped, revoked the promise of his undeclared attraction. Why not turn her loose now that the cash is commandeered?. Why inflict this crush that wrings her throttled heart? Were he clutching her less tightly she would fall. Her knees are buckling. She feels nauseous.

He is counting, best he can, his free hand fumbling, while the other...

Has the pressure somewhat eased, or brought on numbness? She is less inclined to vomit, more perplexed by his insistence on prolonging that which cradles, then engages—albeit briefly—in a tender exploration.

...finally liberates breadth and bulk, Joleena's rigid 'aberration' callously abandoned.

AHMED

Good. Is deal.

Ahmed lifts his pant leg, stoops, unwraps a band of packets, then holds them out like a string of sallow sausages.

AHMED

One half "key."

He bites off one of the dangling links...

AHMED

Less this. Is yours.

...and tucks it as a replacement for the payment he extracted.

WILLIE

We interruptin'?

Ahmed turns and draws his gun with a motion so proficient, Willie dives to the floor, his back-ups left uncovered.

SQUATMAN

Hey, take it easy, fella.

"CLICK" The sound of impotence echoes throughout the dim-lit rafters. All eyes track its source to Ahmed's misfired weapon.

HENCHMAN

Mine shoots. Drop yours.

Does a man who knows his firearm to be faulty pull the trigger? Or, rather, does he take aim, hoping no one calls his bluff?

"Henchman" thinks the latter, meaning Ahmed's bead on him is not as harmless as it seems; he ought to squeeze a round off and be done with it.

Squatman seethes. The un-fired bullet would have caught him squarely in the forehead.

Willie, smirking, gains his feet, extracts a switchblade from his baggy trousers' pocket, and takes a menacing step beside (petrified) Joleena.

WILLIE

You're history, Queer-bait.

Reassured by the Mexican standoff between Ahmed and the Henchman, Willie yanks the booty from Joleena's feeble grip and lifts it like a scalp for all to see.

WILLIE

Well, lookee here.

SQUATMAN
(addressing Ahmed)

You got merchandise to sell, there's what's called "protocol" needs be followed. It displeases me Joleena, here, failed to fill you in.

(to Joleena)

Tsk-a-tsk.

(to Willie)

Dissect her.

Willie stashes the hash cakes first through an opening in his shirt, then, laying the six-inch blade against Joleena's trembling jawbone, nonchalantly slits her terror-stricken face

  • a bloodless seam divides her rouge-daubed cheek;

  • as Ahmed pulls the trigger;

  • as the Henchman's eye goes blind, his brain short-circuited, legs collapsing, and the hole that houses Ahmed's round stares shocked at being dead,

  • before Joleena feels the ooze from the mutilating flesh-wound.

WILLIE

I'LL KILL HER! FREEZE!

Resorting to a tactic he construes his only chance, Willie takes Joleena as his (disobliging) hostage. If nothing else, her paralyzed self might serve as a make-do shield, provided Ahmed balks at gunning down a... transvestite—who scuttles Willie's ploy by stomping on his foot, her high heel puncturing his shoe then forthwith disowned, as she wrenches from his bear hug.

SQUATMAN
(to Ahmed)

Better kill me, Asshole.

Ahmed, gun sight locked on Squatman, edges toward the door.

SQUATMAN

Because, you don't, I swear on my mother's grave, your future's og-meat.

Ahmed halts. He lifts the barrel into contact with Squatman's livid scowl.

AHMED

Eat this.

Undaunted, Squatman bites the snub-nosed stainless steel, mortal fear overruled by point-black hatred.

"CLICK" Another misfire.

With a grin that seems to acknowledge Squatman's stoic show of courage, Ahmed spares them both a supplemental try. Disengaging the weapon, he nimbly steps aside, crosses to the doorway, glances at Joleena, and pauses to consider her plaintive desperation—understanding her predicament is life or death.

Squatman apoplectic, Willie crippled, the Henchman murdered, spell disaster for the instigant, should she choose to stay behind, but with her face divided lengthwise on the left side, blood now gushing, right shoe missing, or beyond what commonsense prescribes she fetch, Joleena's options seem to point in one direction only.

JOLEENA

Mister. Please?

She reaches out and takes a step—a limp—toward Ahmed, hand extended like a person in the dark reduced to groping, fingers spread, while, with her other hand she pinches closed the gash, its edges seeping.

Ahmed waits as if indifferent to her plea, her desperate plight, and yet he waits.

AHMED

Okay. You come.

He takes possession of her wrist, and, with his spoils in tow, maneuvers their escape.