There’s a special pitch that echoes in the screams of parents who are being forced to watch their child get killed: unhinged and feral, almost wolfish, stripped of all decorum and propriety as the unbearable reality of having lost their little darling settles in.
Anabel had seen and heard it all before. Where and when she’d come of age—a place and time where bloody murders were as common as stray cats and seeing weeping families lamenting mutilated, tortured, and decapitated loved ones as mundane as watching reruns of some tired TV drama everyone had seen a thousand times—violent deaths were normal. No less painful but expected; consistent and inevitable like the tides.
But it wasn’t normal here.
The procedure felt familiar—the sudden shots, the frenzied shrieks, the panicked crowds stampeding over blood-soaked bodies, and, most hauntingly, the cries of horrified survivors kneeling over murdered family members afterward—but not the place. Up here, this was surreal. Or no, incongruous was probably a more appropriate term to sum up Anabel’s confusion when she found herself amid the unexpected pandemonium.
This kind of shit just doesn’t happen in a place like Malibu.
And yet it was exactly in that carefree beach community—a place in which financial hardships don’t exist, and cars are European, foods organic, trainers personal, celebrities ubiquitous, and the idea of destitution but an abstract surreality—where, on a quiet Sunday afternoon in June, Anabel Medina watched the glamorous Californian bubble of serenity collapse when bullets started ripping through the balmy air and, seconds later, into Venetian plaster walls, boutique displays, and unsuspecting passersby.
Moments earlier and yet eternities ago, Anabel, who, while being on an aimless drive on PCH along the coast, had stopped for coffee at an outdoor shopping mall next to the famous Colony—a sealed-off residential enclave for the ultra-rich and ultra-famous in their ultra-pricey beachfront homes— and sauntered through the parking lot, past blithely chattering adolescents climbing in and out of hundred-thousand-dollar vehicles and someone she remembered seeing in a movie once, and headed for a quaintly situated row of surf- and clothing stores, cafés, and knickknack shops.
Some twenty yards away, the patio of a restaurant had been alive with patrons eating, laughing, cautioning their offspring to be less vociferous, or handing credit cards to cheerful servers dressed in bright white shirts and dark blue aprons as they scurried back and forth between their well-heeled clientele.
On the busy promenade, small children had been playing tag, and not-so-small ones had been staring at their phones; there’d been wide-eyed tourists, hugging couples, selfie-taking teenagers, gelato-eating families; men and woman of all ages, gym-toned, fashionably underfed, and furnished with the kinds of chic accessories that were, presumably, endorsed in lifestyle blogs as must-haves of the month.
The first shots sounded harmless, almost innocent—they usually do, she knew this from experience, probably an indication of the human brain’s intuitive reluctance to concede that something terrible is happening—and so she didn’t duck immediately but turned around and peered across the parking lot. And then she saw it. Or no, not it. Him. The shooter was a human being after all, much as the stoic, balaclava-wearing guise that marched toward the city square while firing unremittingly into the crowd—slowly panning left and right, like a thorough gardener watering a flowerbed—looked soulless and mechanical, and all that Anabel could think when she had managed to regain enough composure to go flat onto the ground, was Here? After all the shit that hasn’t killed me in El Salvador? Split-second recollections of her childhood intermingled with the sight of slumping bodies that accumulated at a frightening pace before her eyes as she remembered how she’d dreamed about that wondrous land of opulence up north, and how, some twenty years ago, at seventeen, she’d made the long and dangerous trek to the United States all by herself, unscathed. And then, as she jumped up to sprint across the open space, then tumbled to the ground, face-first, her vision blurring and her biceps cramping as she felt a bloody geyser spurting down her neck and hands, she almost snick- ered at the cruelly ironic fact that she was now about to die.
Here. In fucking Malibu.
It was the same procedure every time: suspicious passport stamps make coming home more tedious, and prior trips to countries like Afghanistan, South Yemen, or Somalia cause wariness with US Customs officers.
Chris Heller, standing in the cavernous international arrivals hall below the LA airport, was waiting for the usual string of lengthy inquiries and, possibly, the little side room he might once again be asked to step in for more detailed questioning. It’d probably take him forever to get home. But then again, there wasn’t anything but emptiness in that elusive place called home—and anyway, he’d rather be preoccupied with prying questions than be all alone, with too much time to think and no external threats or challenges to focus on, which was, to him, more frightening than any perilous excursion through the city grids of Mogadishu, Kabul, or, most recently, the gang- and crime-infested Salvadoran hillside barrios—so bring it on, he had all night.
At last, Chris reached the front of the line. As he cast a glance along the row of immigration kiosks on his right, his eyes briefly met the ones of an old woman in the queue, her weary gaze eliciting a muddled, fragmentary flood of dreadful memories. He looked away and drew a breath. Generalized Anxiety Disorder was the term his doctor used to squeeze Chris’s mental agony into a generally agreed-upon notation he could scribble on his pad, and why on earth Chris only ever suffered these debilitating spells of fear when he was safe at home, and never in, let’s say, Aleppo or Jalalabad—places after all, where he, a white American, had actual reason to be scared—he’d never understand, and yet—
“Next!” a voice reverberated through the hall.
Chris looked up, saw a customs officer wave at him, and hurried down the lane.
“Good afternoon. Passport, please?”
Chris, grateful for the interruption of his frenzied train of thought, put his passport on the countertop and watched the CBP official open it.
“What kind of business did you attend in”—the man leaned forward as he squinted at the travel documents—“El Salvador, Mr. Heller?” he finished asking, pronouncing the beleaguered little country’s name as if it were a virulent disease.
Chris pulled a press card from his jacket as he nodded at his camera bag.“I’m a stringer.”
“Sorry. A freelance photo journalist.”
This seemed to reassure the man in uniform. “Oh, okay,
that figures.” He handed him his passport back. “Open your bag, please?”
Chris slid the bag across the counter, opened it.
The officer began to rifle through Chris’s personal effects. “A journalist, huh? Taking pictures for Time magazine, that kind of thing?”
The man held up and studied a prescription jar of Lexapro. “No? Why not?” he mumbled absentmindedly.
“I’m too small-time for Time magazine.”
The officer, who looked to be of Southeast Asian ancestry, placed back the meds. Chris observed him. Customs officers were no homogeneous bunch, and this one—unlike some of his more stoic peers—seemed amiable. “No?” he chuckled as he picked up Chris’s 1-DX.“I’m sure you’ll get there. Mind opening this for me?”
“Sure.” Chris clasped the camera, removed the lens, shot off three empty frames.
The officer nodded, turning his attention to another piece of gear. “What’s this?”
“Battery packs.” Chris glanced toward the far end of the international arrivals hall, where a bright red banner on a giant television promulgated breaking news. He squinted, read aloud the caption on the bottom of the screen. “Malibu Mayhem? What happened?”
The customs officer let out a sigh. “Another one,” he muttered as he slid Chris’s luggage back across the countertop.“Have a nice day, Mr. Heller.” He smirked. “Try to get some rest. You look tired.”
Chris, feeling mildly disappointed at not getting to spend a few extra hours in the side room answering questions— which would keep him occupied with something simple and distracting, something other than that uncontrollable and overactive mind of his that had a way of generating an unending flood of self-destructive thoughts—grabbed his bag. “Thanks,” he said and headed for the exit gate. He really was. Tired, that is.
Shock, confusion, disbelief. Quiet gasps and muffled cries, the air still heavy with the smell of nitroglycerine. Survivors, stone-faced and aghast, huddling up to one another in bewilderment.
A mangled corpse nearby. A sobbing child afar. A handbag, soaked in blood.
Soon thereafter, blaring sirens and the sound of rumbling helicopters in the sky. Then SWAT teams, agitated voices shouting into radios, and paramedics rushing in with stretchers, IV bags, and first responder kits.
“Come on, sweetheart, please, please, please, wake up!” a voice cried out.
Anabel, dimly realizing she was lying on her back, rolled her head onto her left and gazed toward the voice. A man, some twenty yards from her, was kneeling on the pavement, leaning over what appeared to be a little girl. Two paramedics next to him inserted tubes into her throat, performing CPR, attempting to resuscitate the child.
Anabel tried to get up. Stabbing pain shot from her shoulder through her elbow to her wrist.
“Ma’am, take it easy, take it easy.”
She glanced to her right. Another paramedic, kneeling next to her.
“Keep still,” he said. “Do not move. Where exactly are you hurting, ma’am?”
“My—I don’t—my wrist.”
She saw him look her up and down, a glint of consternation in his eyes. Following his gaze, she dropped her head, felt panic as she saw her rib cage and right arm. She gasped. Why did she not hurt more? She should hurt more. Shock. Yes, that was the reason for her analgesia—she was in shock.
As the man who huddled by the dying girl wailed out in agony, the ambient noise turned hollow in her head, as if she were inside a giant tin can that was rolling down the street. She rose to her feet.“I’m—okay.”
“No, you’re not, ma’am. Please, wait.”
“Yes, I am.” She wasn’t. Her head was pounding, plus she had no recollection of what had just happened in the past few minutes. Shit. There was a full-on blind spot in her short-term memory.
The paramedic groaned. “Ma’am, please stop moving and let me examine you.”
She relented and sank back down to the ground.“I’m sorry, I’m—I’m just—I feel—”
“It’s okay, you’re in shock. Try to calm down and let me see your arm. Any pain, aside from your wrist?”
“Not as much as there should be, considering”—she dropped her head and nodded to her right—“you know. This.”
He pulled a pair of bandage scissors. “Please. Relax. Hold still.” He cut open her shirt, then gently padded down her rib cage, waist, and abdomen.
Her mouth was dry as dust. “So? Am I dying?”
“No.” His worried gaze appeared to soften as he checked her thorax, chest, and arm. “No, you’re not dying,” he said, this time with more assurance in his voice. He shone a flashlight in her face. “Follow the light with your eyes, please.”
She tried her best.
“Good, good,” he muttered, pointing at a nearby ambulance.“I’ll get you a gurney.”
“I don’t need one. I can walk.”
“All right, calm down. If you’d—”
“Please stop telling me to calm down, I am calm.”
“Okay, if you’d please come with me, I need to conduct a few more tests.”
She got up and started moving. Once she did, she felt a bout of nausea. She stopped, bent over. “Aw, shit, hold on, I got to—”
The medic clasped her arm. “Ma’am, are you—”
She straightened herself up. “No. Sorry. False alarm. I’m— it’s going away.”
“Does your head hurt?”
“You’ve likely suffered a concussion, but judging by your eye reflexes, not a severe one.”
As they started shuffling forward, she saw a man with heavy body armor and elaborate weaponry march toward them; had it not been for the sheriff’s badges on his sleeves and Kevlar vest, she’d have thought he was some kind of Navy SEAL. Plus he was tall, like six foot four, which startled her, as this all added up to make him look a little like the man who’d fired at the crowd.
“Ma’am,” the giant in the war zone getup said, “my name’s Lieutenant Decker, LA County Sheriff ’s Department, Special Enforcement Bureau, we’ve—” He stalled and stared at her right flank—aghast, it seemed—then turned to face the paramedic.“Is she okay?”
“It’s not her blood,” her escort uttered quietly.
The policeman sighed. “Ma’am, how are you feeling?”
“I—don’t—” She dropped her hands, looked up at him. “What happened?”
She saw the men exchange quick glances. “You don’t remember?” the lieutenant asked.
“Ma’am, we’ve only just begun to reconstruct what happened here today.” He looked at her. “But from what we’ve gathered so far, it seems to me a lot of people will be—”
He drew back. “Excuse me, ma’am?”
She cast a glance around the space, watched rescue workers tending to the wounded while the physically uninjured lingered on, looking shell-shocked and distraught. “Yes, I do, I think I’m—starting to remember,” she stammered as the previous events came back to her like fragments of a semi-unintelligible foreign film through parts of which she’d slept. “Is this my . . .” She nodded at the twisted, blood-soaked clump next to the water fountain on the west side of the city square. “Did I do . . .” She stalled again, distracted by a group of people who had congregated by a nearby ambulance. She glanced at them. Phones were pointed toward her. People whispered, gestured, stared. She turned back to the lieutenant. “Did I do this?”
The intimation of a smirk flashed across his face, then disappeared. “Appears that way,” he said and pointed at a row of columns by the promenade.“There’s still a lot of security camera footage we’re going to have to review.” He cocked his head and gazed at her, looking for a moment as benign and tender as a heavily-armed six-foot-four behemoth in a combat suit can look. “Ma’am, you might want to prepare yourself. You’re about to become famous.”