Conspiracy at Desert One
By Bernace Charles
In Washington, D.C., the day was mild. Fred Southgate was meeting Carousel.
Southgate worried about not having a reply from Laleh through the past
three weeks. Laleh hadn't acknowledged any signal from David out of Istanbul.
There hadn't been any public statement that the Iranians were holding an
American other than those of the embassy. There was nothing but the continued
debate of whether the Iranians were going to put the American hostages
on trial. Fred asked in a tired and worried voice, "Is there any date
that this might be going to happen?"
Carousel said, "I don't know. It's going to be a last minute decision.
They're deploying much of the needed support staff. Most everything is
in place. They believe they have a secure area for the first night's insertion."
Southgate asked, "They haven't decided? The president hasn't decided?"
The man facing Fred Southgate said, "It's exactly why Carter needs
to go." He turned to the road leading into the bowels of Arlington
Cemetery. Seeing no one who might notice their meeting, Carousel turned
back and said, "Have you heard from her?"
Fred gave a worried look and stepped to the edge of a grave to light
a cigarette. As he did, he said, "No. We don't know what has happened."
Carousel stepped beside Fred. "They already have the trucks positioned
to take Delta Force into Tehran. Can't someone on our side ask about her?
Those having her are going to think it's strange no one is."
"The publishing company has made an official request of her whereabouts.
The Iranians say she may have left the city. They say she may have been
a victim of bandits operating along a remote section of the Asian Highway."
"I don't believe it."
"It's what they say."
"I'm telling you they know something. If she doesn't respond soon,
this has to be put away no matter what the president decides."
Fred knew the man was right. He said, "We'll give her until this
Friday. Maybe she feels they're watching her and she's waiting until its
safe for her to try to reach us."
Carousel said impatiently, "That doesn't help if the effort goes
"We have no choice. Perhaps we'll reach her at the last minute.
I know Laleh, and I don't believe she would break under pressure. She knows
the country and she knows the people."
"There are good and bad just as there were in NAM."
Fred Southgate stared at the man and said, "Let's just hope she
hasn't run into any bad ones." He walked to his car leaving a man
having access to the planning staff of Operation Eagle Claw. Now, Fred
Southgate knew The Brass had selected a landing site in the Iranian desert
and code named Desert 1.
In Tehran, Laleh lay in a hospital bed. She had slipped into and out
of consciousness for the past three weeks and unable to see others. Today,
waking, her eyes followed the walls of the room. Her vision returned in
a cloudy daze slightly blurred. Laleh saw a young man sitting beside the
bed. It was the young man with the code name Mashhad. As she focused her
tired gaze on him, Laleh's head felt as though a great bell rang through
it. She managed a tired, "Hi . . . where am I?"
Karim answered, "You're in the hospital."
"Nirouye Daryae off Pasdaran Park."
"Was I raped?"
"Yes. The young men died for it. I'm sorry. They're not part of
the revolution. They were a group of street punks."
Laleh felt her eyes tear and she asked, "Do you have a name other
Laleh asked in a weak voice and feeling lost and alone, "Can you
tell me what it is?"
"Other than Mashhad, no . . . I can't tell you."
Laleh looked past Karim. She found she was in a private room. She brought
her gaze back to the Iranian and asked, "How long have you been here
"Three weeks. Some day I'll send you a bill."
The words caused Laleh to smile and Karim was glad. The American was
a very beautiful woman. The young men raping her overstepped their instructions
and were dead for it. Karim knew it didn't make it easier for Laleh Sanders.
She didn't know there was a worst shame to it. Karim said, "It is
good to see you smile."
"Can I get out of here? What about your revolution?"
"The revolution will do fine without me."
"My things . . . my motorcycle?"
Karim said, "I took it to your home in Darband. The motorbike is
in the garage. Your cameras and purse are in your room."
Karim stood. He said, "I'll be back in the morning to check on
you. If they allow you to leave, I'll take you to your home. Try to rest.
I'll tell them you're awake and to bring you some cheese and bread. You
need to eat."
Laleh pushed at her head to push a layer of hair from her eyes to find
her head bandaged. She asked before Karim could leave her. "What happened
to me . . I mean my head?"
"You suffered a fractured skull and concussion. You're going to
have to stay off the motorbike or you could kill yourself. Allah has taken
care of you."
Laleh said, "I appreciate what you've done for me."
"I'll bring some clothes for you tomorrow. Maybe you can go with
me to one of our council meetings."
"I would like that."
Karim turned to leave the room. As he did Laleh felt her eyes tear,
and she felt a tremendous anger for the wrongs of the world. Laleh wondered
if the rescue-effort had taken place. Karim hadn't said anything about
such a penetration into the country. It was a question, she hadn't asked.
The next day Karim came late. As he entered the room, he found Laleh
sitting on the bed after trying her legs. She found them weak and wanting
to fall from beneath her. Now, Laleh was irritated that the only thing
she had to wear was a hospital gown.
Karim carried a shopping bag from a department store. He said, "I
see you're up today. You must be feeling better."
"My protector has returned."
Karim handed the bag to her and asked, "Can you dress without help?"
"Yes, thank you."
"The doctor said you could leave the hospital tonight providing
you take it easy."
"Thank you. I appreciate you being here. Otherwise, I would be
"I'll wait outside." Karim turned and closed the door behind
Going through the shopping bag, Laleh found a black hijab. The dress
would cover her from head to foot. She also found underwear. In addition,
knowing women wore the fashion of dress in defiance of the shah's effort
of westernizing Iran, Laleh knew she would fit in on the street. The dress
covered the bandage around her head. There were black flats and Laleh wondered
how Karim knew her size.
There was a practical side to the dress. It would hide the fact she
still fought her sea legs beneath her. After dressing, Laleh navigated
her way across the floor. As she pulled the door open, she knew the careful
steps she took the prior afternoon and that morning, helped strengthen
her. So did the cheese and bread ordered by Mashhad. Breakfast and lunch
gave her further strength.
Now, Laleh felt ravished for a restaurant meal. In addition, knowing
she lost a minimum of twenty pounds, Laleh feared she looked like a scarecrow
and thus felt a second gratefulness for the Islamic dress. The dress did
away with pretense.
Nevertheless, strength needed nourishment, and food was what Laleh craved.
Karim was waiting in the hall. Laleh stepped to him and Karim said, "You
look as God intended you to look. Islamic dress is not so bad."
Laleh responded with, "I'm not so sure about that. The color is
Karim wore a white shirt, slacks, jacket, and loafers. He wore no tie.
It wasn't the dress of the student revolutionaries in the street. He said,
"You can change at your home."
Laleh asked, "Does that mean I can actually leave this place."
"Yes. Where would you like to go?"
"To a restaurant. A good one."
Karim said, "It would be my pleasure. You look lovely. The dress
leaves room for one's imagination. Perhaps it has something to offer over
the dress of western women."
Laleh held to Karim's arm and said, "Maybe so." It was all
she said as she walked with Karim to an elevator. With each step, Laleh
knew she gained further equilibrium. She was glad to be on her feet and
leaving the hospital and wanted the outside air, the wind, and the sun.
Exiting to the outside, Laleh found the day had turned to dusk. The late
air was cold. Karim said, "Stay here. I'll get the car."
Laleh leaned against a wall and watched the young man leave her. She
knew she found him attractive, and he saved her life. He hadn't said anything
about why he was at the hanger, and she wondered how he came to be there.
Karim soon turned his old Volkswagen to the hospital entrance. He was
quickly out of the car and coming up the walk. Reaching Laleh, he took
her by an arm to steady her. Laleh asked, "How did you happen to be
where they took me?"
Karim answered, "After meeting you on the street, I assigned a
boy to follow you. He's very good, and he had a portable radio. He followed
you until you turned off the Ozgol Avenue toward the foothills. He followed
the taxi and radioed me."
Laleh asked. "What did I do to deserve such attention?"
"I thought maybe you were an American spy. You apparently like
to take drives into the desert and foothills. You must be careful. If your
motorcycle should break down, you could get lost out there."
Laleh laughed at his words as they reached the car. Karim opened the
passenger door and Laleh said, "During the time that I lived here
I liked to get away to the solitude of the open desert. I still do."
Karim closed the door and hurried around the car. Entering the car and
behind the wheel he asked, "Where to?"
"I don't care. Just make it some place where they have good food.
I think I could eat a horse."
Karim laughed. He had heard the saying while a student at Harvard Law
School. He said, "It's my treat."
Ten minutes later, Karim turned the small car to the curb before a restaurant
in downtown Tehran. It was one Laleh remembered eating in with her parents
years ago. After entering and seated, she realized that most of those eating
there were reporters. Karim managed a corner table. After ordering lamb
on skewer and Koufteh Berenj, Karim ordered from the wine list of the restaurant,
a restaurant not yet in line with Islamic law about consuming alcohol.
Karim faced Laleh and asked in a serious tone, "Why did you come to
The question surprised Laleh. She said, "As I told you. I came
to do a pictorial essay on your revolution."
Karim's dark eyes reflected the dancing light of a candle centerpiece.
He said, "Ah, I forgot. To photograph our glorious revolution."
"Yes. It is why I'm here. Is there something wrong with that?"
"No, but I don't believe it. It doesn't matter. The main thing
is that you're alive. We don't want to explain the death of any American.
Just don't get caught doing something illegal. The trips you make into
the desert don't make sense for someone wanting to photograph our revolution.
Tell me about your father. Was he part of the American's CIA?"
"No. My father was an economic analyst and a teacher."
"What about you? Are you with the CIA?"
Laleh wondered if the young man was a setup. She wondered if others
hoped he could draw her out and lessen her guard. She said, "No. I
am sorry to disappoint you. I'm just a regular person on a not so regular
Karim said, "You're beautiful."
"Thank you. You're a very handsome young man. Do you have a girlfriend?"
Karim's face became a blank sea. He said, "I did. Her family fled
the country after the revolution hit the streets. Her name was Maryam.
This happened after years of talking about the change this country needed.
She lost interest because of demanded sacrifice."
Laleh felt the young man's sense of loneliness. She said, "I'm
Karim turned to the arrival of a waiter. Though clerics outlawed alcohol,
the waiter opened bottle of wine for Karim to taste. The waiter then poured
two glasses half full. Laleh didn't hesitate to take hers, and Karim wondered
about western women and their use of alcohol. The restaurant was the only
one in the city continuing to serve wine with its dinners. Laleh drank
the half glass and said, "That's what I need."
Karim drank from his glass. He set it down and asked, "Do you have
Laleh answered, "No. My husband died in Vietnam. His plane was
shot down over Hanoi."
"It wasn't your fault. Our country had no business being there."
Karim was glad to hear the words. All student revolutionaries despised
the American Army. They despised American Imperialism. He could think of
few countries that the Americans hadn't managed to influence following
the Second World War. He asked, "Was your husband a fighter pilot?"
Laleh knew that to say Allen flew with Air America could lead to a catastrophe.
She said, "He flew the F1-11."
"The plane the Americans had problems with?"
Laleh appreciated Karim's depth of reading. She only said, "Yes."
She extended her wineglass for him to fill as she said, "You're such
a sweetheart to bring me here. I know you didn't have to. You owe me nothing."
Karim saw their dinner brought to them. Following its arrival, Laleh
ate as though she hadn't eaten in weeks. Karim was glad. The woman knew
she needed her strength back. The only problem Laleh was having was manipulating
the food into her mouth due to the long sleeves of the Islamic dress.
It was dark when they left the restaurant. Laleh was laughing at something
Karim said as she held to his left arm. There was something about the young
man that made Laleh feel secure.
Karim was silent as he drove Laleh to her home in Darband. There, he
stopped the Volkswagen before the garage, turned the ignition off, and
exited to walk Laleh to the door.
As they walked, Laleh surprised herself by holding to Karim's right
hand. She didn't let it go as she unlocked the door. With the door pushed
open, Laleh led Karim inside knowing she needed him to stay with her. She
needed someone to hold to her through the night. The wine mixed with the
pain medication given her at the hospital made her light headed and dizzy.
Being alone wasn't something she could now endure while knowing she betrayed
another. That love was back in the United States and she was alone.
Moreover, knowing she was giving her self over to one of those she wanted
to hold in contempt, Laleh knew she didn't blame them for their anger.
Laleh also knew Karim said nothing about any rescue-effort. The conversations
of those at other tables said nothing about such an effort. The Americans
were still waiting and Laleh was certain of it. Tomorrow, she would drive
into the desert to send a signal saying she was alive and waiting for instructions.
Now, there was the night to survive, and Laleh didn't want to be alone.
She wanted Karim to stay with her and she held to a hand as she walked
up stairs to her grandparents' bedroom. Laleh wanted Mashhad to take the
pain and loneliness away. Bringing her mouth to Karim's, Laleh felt him
loosen the tie around the dress. While knowing she betrayed Fred Southgate,
Laleh guided Karim to the bed.
Laleh woke the next morning to find Karim gone and her head pounding
as though some devil attempted to break his way out of it. Finding a prescription
bottle of morphine pills given her before leaving the hospital, Laleh took
one and lay back on the bed. As she lay on her right side, her eyes stared
on the blue-green wall of the room, and she thought of her rape. She longed
for Roya and Fred.
But Laleh also knew Karim didn't push questions at her. He was patient,
and she knew he would again see her. Laleh wondered at his intent, or if
he were like her, and needed someone to hold to as the world around him
ruptured at every turn. Laleh thought of these things as she waited for
the morphine to take effect. As soon as it did, she would ride out of the
city, and send a signal saying she waited for instructions . . . instructions
she now hoped would never come. >>>
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