"What?" I asked, stunned for a split second by the way he said it - completely deadpan, as if he were ordering his lunch.
"His tongue was cut out. Each member of his family, shot."
"Okay." Almost instantly, I was over it. "Anything else interesting?"
"No," answered Christian, "No, that's all."
"Okay. Well, we need to maintain the status quo. Neither of us knows anything further, so there's really nothing to be done yet except look for clues and keep our eyes and ears peeled. Agreed?"
Instantly, the conversation was over and it was just normal talk - the kind of things two men might casually discuss on the street.
"So, you like poker?"
"Oh, hell, you aren't seriously challenging me in that arena."
"Actually, I am."
"Alright. Okay, why not? It's all their money anyway, right?"
We played our game over Chinese, then went to bed. The next morning, we did the same thing as always - Christian donned his security uniform, which he had already made his distaste for painfully obvious several times, and left. Then, I went out shortly after. I'd barely stepped off of my bike downtown when she was on me like a bloodhound.
"Ah, not you again. Listen, I told you I didn't know anything. Now, please, leave me alone - or, at least, take two steps back from the bike. This is brand-new, or at least pretty damn close. You're screwing up the paint."
I walked away, trying to lose her, but she just kept following me.
"Jonathan, are you aware that I spoke to your ex-wife last night?"
There was a long, painful pause. Then, I said, "You spoke to Ali?"
"Yes, Jon, I spoke to Ali. I've been her best friend since the eighth grade. I used to know you quite well, too, Commander."
Here, there was an even longer, this time agonizing, pause.
"Sarah?" I asked, not believing who I was speaking to. "It's you?"
"Well, good to see you finally remember me , lover boy," she replied with a trace of humor in her voice.
"Now, what are you talking about, 'lover boy'? We only dated for a couple days."
"Oh, so now it's 'just a couple days', is it? Back then, it was a big deal when we broke up."
"Yeah, for you," I said, grinning. "You had to be the typical teenage girl, cry for a week afterward."
By now, we were both laughing, and looking rather odd in the eyes of the crowd around us.
"So, what're you doing here? I thought you said you wanted out of New York."
"I did. But," here, her eyes became sober again, "then my father died. He caught pneumonia one winter, and he couldn't afford the proper care. I finally made him take my money to get into a good hospital, but it was too late. We were about to get him in the car when - " Here, she choked, and couldn't continue. When she recovered, she said, "We had to call an ambulance. They didn't get there in time. They never could've made it in time."
I embraced her, understanding what it was she was going through - my parents had both died when I was young. "Come here," I said, "Come here."
She sniffled, then said, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't be crying about this to you. You had it so much worse."
"No, no," I said, not wanting her to make this about me, "no. It's fine. You're fine. I'm fine. Please, it's okay. I understand." I pulled her back for a second, so I could look her in the eyes. "Listen," I said, "I'm gonna buy you lunch. We'll talk."
An hour later, we sat together in the nicest French restaurant in town, catching up after the past twenty years spent apart from each other.
"So," Sarah said, "How have things been? How's Chelsea? She still stick to you like glue?"
"No," I smiled for a second, "No, I think the glue wore off about ten years ago when I screwed up with Ali."
"Yeah. I decided to run off and join the Navy, and suddenly she decided she didn't care so much for me."
"That's too bad. Was it hard?"
"Was what hard?"
"Serving in the Navy."
"No. Actually, I found it really easy. Until..." Here, I stopped myself, not wanting to visit that part of my life again.
"Just forget it. I'm not even supposed to be talking about this right now. I shouldn't even be talking to you. I decided to take a risk because you were my friend, but please don't make me talk about things I shouldn't."
"C'mon. Just tell me what happened."
I sighed, ran my hands down my face - as if to wipe away all the pain, all the doubt, and the anger - and said, "It was four years ago, late January. It was the middle of the Twenty Day War - your people should remember that pretty well. The rebels had taken Montreal as an outpost against Allied forces. Finally, Command made the decision to make a bombing run. I was leader of that mission - the SEALs needed an eye in the sky for when they rolled in after the bombing to take the city. I was loaded up like every other pilot that day, and we blew the place sky high. I'll never forget when I landed...it was complete chaos."
"All of a sudden, this little boy walks up and asks me why I set the sky on fire. I could tell he didn't have a good education - he could barely speak English at all. I told him I was just doing my job...he ran away."
I stopped myself briefly, and began toying with my knife before continuing, "A few minutes later, I saw a rebel trying to leave the city in an old pickup truck. In the back, there was that little boy from before," Here, I paused, inhaled heavily, and continued, "and he was just sitting there, not doing anything wrong, trying to keep his sister sitting next to him calm... I saw a machine gunner take aim, and I shouted for him to stop, for him to just let me get the kids out, and that I'd handle the target.
"But, he didn't."
Here, I put my knife down, replacing it on my napkin, and my eyes cleared, because now I felt nothing but rage inside - rage that the gunner would disobey an order from a Commander, rage that he would mow down two innocent kids like they were both destined to grow up and become murderers. They had known nothing of hate for us yet, and if we had helped them, perhaps we wouldn't have had to kill them - maybe they wouldn't have become terrorists. "He ran that truck through front to back, and there wasn't an inch of metal that wasn't covered in blood or soot or holes. I ran up, hoping maybe I could save the kids. But I knew it was too late. They were probably dead in seconds."
Sarah seemed lost for words - she was completely silent. Finally, she reached across the table , took me by the hand and led me out to her truck. We picked up my motorcycle, and she asked me where my place was. I told her just to drop me off outside China Town, that I'd get home from there on my own. Forty-five minutes later, I was home and much more composed - just in time. Ten minutes later, Christian arrived home.
"You look like you had a day," he said as he grabbed a microwave dinner from the freezer. "Hope you feel like eating in. I just don't really want to go anywhere. Figure maybe we can play another game of poker, if you want."
"No," I said. "I'm good. I don't feel like playing poker tonight. Thanks anyway."
I walked into my room, shut the door, and shouted through the door, "Goodnight."
"Goodnight," Christian called back.