Conspiracy at Desert One
By Bernace Charles
March 10th, 2000
Nearly three months had passed along the Southwest English coast. The
days and weeks had been cold and isolated. Roya was tired of the cottage.
The walks along the stream to the beach had long become dreary. Walker
had managed a first draft that he titled Conspiracy at Desert 1. As a celebration,
Lin Thi came to the cottage with a Thi Dinner prepared at the restaurant
in Porthleven. She did so after driving to Pensanze. There, she had gone
to a travel agency to pick up visas, plane tickets, and the schedule of
a tourist service with a two-week sightseeing trip to Iran for the Persian
New Year. Wes and Roya had applied for visas and paid for a trip to Tehran
out of London. Wes, Roya, and Lin Thi sat at the cottage table, Lin Thi
asked, "Are you certain about this trip."
Wes knew his answer wouldn't satisfy Lin Thi. He said, "We'll be
OK. When we come back, we can get into the U.S. by ship out of Portsmouth.
First . . . we go to Tehran."
Lin Thi didn't drop her concern. She said, "I think you're crazy.
You've pushed your luck by being here instead of North Ireland. If these
men didn't believe it was where you are hiding, they would've been back
to question me. It's crazy to go to Tehran! What if they are there are
waiting for you."
Roya answered, "The Persian New Year begins on the 20th . . . the
first day of spring. There'll be a large number of expatriated Iranians
returning to Iran to visit relatives. My mother once said the whole country
seems to be moving about during it. I have a half-brother there. I have
cousins near the Caspian Sea."
Wes interjected, "The boy's father can help us understand the story.
We need to find him. With the reformist party gaining seats in the majle
or parliament . . . it shouldn't be such a risk. The reformers back the
current President Khatami. With a majority backing him there might be those
wanting the truth told."
Lin Thi exhaled a defeated breath knowing men in politics didn't always
want the truth known. It hadn't been any different in Saigon, and she was
certain it wouldn't be any different in Tehran. Through Lin Thi's visits
to the cottage, she had come to know Laleh Sanders' story. She was in agreement
with both Roya and Wes that the story needed told. She knew Wes could tell
it. Lin Thi said, "I hope the two of you survive this."
Wes answered, "We will. What I need you to do is keep the laptop
and disks safe until we return. We'll return here before going to the states.
Keep the cottage rented should we have to stay late into spring. It'll
depend on what, if anything, we learn in Tehran. I may have to do a good
deal of rewriting. If so . . . I'll do it here."
"Wes," Lin Thi asked for her last effort, "I don't want
to hear on the news that you have been killed in Iran. Promise me you'll
"We'll be all right. There won't be anyone looking for us there.
It's the last place these men will expect us to go. We'll only be gone
two weeks. One of us gets ill after arriving there and we stay in Tehran.
Then, we find the truth."
Lin Thi released a breath and, "I guess it'll be good to get away
from the isolation. The weather isn't the best here even with the coming
of spring." The past weeks hadn't brought the sun to Southwest England.
Wes added, "We'll need to continue our stay here when we get back.
We have to stay somewhere." Roya glanced at Walker and he smiled.
Roya thought of how she had endured a cold winter with hope that spring
would arrive. If they were again isolated in the house following their
return from Tehran then so be it.
Lin Thi turned her gaze on Roya then back to Wes. She wondered if Roya
lived in a fantasy world not appreciating the danger around her. Lin Thi
let the subject go and said, "At the least you'll see more of the
world." The conversation turned quiet.
One week later They met others of a tour group in London's Heathrow
Airport. It was before boarding an Iran Air 747. The group consisted of
25 members. All lived within the United Kingdom. Gathered in an airport
lounge, Wes, Roya, and 23 others listened to the joy filled words of a
woman with dark hair and eyes and a friendly smile. She said, "Hello
. . my name is Susan Shamlon. I know that each of you have put your trust
in United Travel to provide you with the best of tours to Iran. Once reaching
Iran you'll visit Tehran, kashan, Nain, Yazd, Kerman, Bam, Shiraz, Persepolis,
and Isfahan. The hotels that you will stay in are all three star or above."
Susan Shamlon paused, smiled, and continued, "You will find the
flight full with those of Iranian nationality or ancestry. They are returning
to Iran to celebrate the Persian New Year. It is customary for family to
visit relatives through the ten days of the solar Calendar. When reaching
Tehran, we will take a private bus to the Hilton Hotel. During the first
three days, you will visit the palaces once belonging to the shah. On day
four we will travel to Kashan via Qom. You each have a schedule of the
days, cities you will visit, and the sites you'll see. I just want to welcome
you and if anyone has a question . . . be certain to ask. I am pleased
to be your guide and coordinator for the next sixteen days. I hope everyone
has introduced themselves to each other. I hope that you have a pleasurable
travel experience. Are there any questions?" The woman's face retained
her warm smile.
Wes asked, "If we should decide to skip a particular tour . . .
are we free to spend time on our own?"
Susan Shamlon answered, "Yes. You may spend time on you own. The
women need to remember to wear a scarf and cover their hair when they are
in the public. Though there is a hope for change in Iran with the new parliament
still there continues a sense of vigilance of the laws of accepted behavior."
No one asked any further questions. The flight would leave Heathrow
Airport in one hour. All members of the tour had checked their luggage.
Now, it was a matter of waiting.
Four hours later, Walker, Roya, and the others sat in a plane full of
passengers winging its way across continental Europe and flying to Tehran.
Though Roya had hoped she and Walker might travel to Turkey and take the
Asian Highway to Tehran as her mother once did she knew it was impractical.
By being part of the tour, they were lost among those with their private
With every mile, Roya attempted to visualize the country through her
mother's eyes, and that country cut deep into her heart and soul. Her mother
once did what she believed she needed to do. Roya didn't understand the
dedication of it. Why did her mother make such a dangerous trip leaving
her with grandparents? Why did she leave a son and give away all claim
to him? When she reached Tehran, Roya hoped someone might send her in the
direction of the man with the code name of Mashhad. Roya also knew she
would travel the miles to the landing zone the Americans used one night,
a night her mother was in the desert with Mashhad. It would be her personal
Following hours on the flight, the plane landed at night. An hour later
the tours group arrived at the Azadi Hotel where they checked into waiting
rooms. Roya and Walker's was a room with double bed.
The next morning they toured one of the Shah's palaces. In the afternoon,
they excused themselves from a trip to several museums to return to the
hotel, Roya claiming menstrual cramps. Once they exited the restaurant
where the tour ate lunch, Wes and Roya hailed a taxi. They slipped into
the back seat and Roya said in Farsi. "We need to go to Darband. Can
you take us there?"
The driver answered, "Yes, but it'll cost extra."
"That's fine. Drive us there. I'll tell you what address when we
get there." Roya and Wes settled into a ride taking them trough the
city to the north. Wes studied posters of Ayatollah Khomeini on walls and
billboards that reminded the people of their need for vigilance in protecting
the Islamic Republic of Iran. Neither Roya nor Walker asked the driver
to take them past the once American Embassy Compound. To do so might alert
someone of his or her reason for being in Tehran. Roya tried to visualize
her mother photographing those on the streets.
In addition, with the country long reopening its borders to tourism,
there were quite a few European and American tourist strolling the streets.
Roya and Wes took notice of the women wearing the chador that covered them
from head to foot. Roya looked out the cab window at them and wondered
if they truly desired the manner of dress.
To Roya, the city didn't present the formidable bearing her mother described
through the years. Brown smog filled the sky. Walker watched the traffic
and those in it. As they were driven north, Roya wondered if the man once
living in the apartment in front of her grandparents' home continued to
live there. If he were alive, he would be in his eighties. If he were alive,
he might remember Mashhad and her mother.
Reaching Darband, Roya gave the driver the address. The driver found
the property and parked before the gate. Roya couldn't draw forth any memory
of the scene. She had been too young when she was last there. Roya spoke
to the drive, "Please wait." She and Wes exited the car and walked
to the gate. Finding it not locked, she pulled it open so that she and
Wes could enter the property. The cab driver lighted a cigarette and watched
them with no particular interest.
Roya walked to the smaller apartment near the property entrance. Wes
hadn't said anything during the drive. He followed beside her. An old man
stepped out on the porch. Roya reached him. She knew he would be near the
age she hoped to find. She said in Farsi, "I've come from America.
I'm trying to find the man managing the property for my mother following
my grandparents' deaths. He lived here in 1979 and 1980. Can you tell me
if he is still living and where I might find him?"
Nezar Hindawi was eighty-four years old. He studied Roya. Several seconds
passed before he realized the similarities of the face. The woman from
America returned. He remembered the night revolutionary guards came and
arrested her. The next day authorities had questioned then released him.
Following two months in prison the woman had returned to stay and give
birth before returning to America. Now, the property was one of several
northern villas owned by the clerics and used as a retreat for students
of the Holy book of Islam. Hindawi said, "I'm sorry, but I do not
know. That was many years ago."
Roya studied Nezar Hindawi's face and refused to accept his words. She
said, "You recognize my mother's face in me. Don't you?"
Nezar Hindawi answered, "That business was years in the past. I
don't know what happened to her. They came for her and the young man one
Roya asked, "Who came for her?"
"The revolutionary guards."
"Why did they arrest her?"
"I don't know. I didn't ask questions."
Roya asked, "Who was the young man with her?"
Nezar looked toward the home and saw that no one watched in his and
the girl's direction. He turned back to Roya and answered, "His name
is Karim Sa'edi. You cannot tell that I told you."
Roya asked in an imploring face, "Please, if you know where he
is . . . it's important. My mother gave birth to a half-brother. I would
like to meet him."
Nezar Hindawi asked, "Why have you come to Iran?"
"Because my mother didn't leave the country until after the boy's
birth. My mother died last August. She told me of my brother. I would like
to meet him."
Men had told Nezar Hindawi to forget the night they came for the American
woman and Karim. Through the years, no American contact came to ask about
the woman's arrest. Nezar said, "The young man you asked about is
alive. He has kept in contact with me. He always hoped the American woman
might come back and look for him."
Roya came alive with hope. She asked, "Do you know how to reach
Mashhad. You know how to reach Karim Sa'edi?"
"Yes, I know how to reach him. Perhaps it will make up for the
madness of those days. After they took your mother . . . they printed that
they arrested her for spying."
Roya said, "My mother wasn't spying. She came to stop the Americans
from reaching Tehran. She and Mashhad were in the desert that night. She
came to prevent a possible bloodbath. It went wrong."
Roya's words were the first words the old man heard to explain the day
and night the American woman and Karim were gone from the home. It explained
their weary appearance after returning to the home the day men broadcast
that Americans died in the desert.
Nezar said, "Please come in." Nezar Hindawi turned to push
open the door of the apartment.
Twenty minutes later Wes and Roya left the apartment and returned to
the cab. In it, they sat thinking. Walker hadn't understood the language,
and Roya hadn't told all Nezar Hindawi told her. Roya wondered if the old
man's story was true.
Thirty minutes later, they were back on the sidewalk before the hotel.
Not wanting to speak English while with the cab driver, Wes hadn't said
anything during the drive. He asked Roya, "Do you think you can trust
Roya said, "He's better than nothing. We may have gotten into the
country, but I'll bet you no one is going to admit to what happened in
the desert. You can only blame fate on the will of God. I want to check
the old man's story."
Wes said, "I hate to tell you, but I don't speak Farsi, and I don't
know what the conversation between you two said or didn't say."
"Are you willing to trust me?"
"Yes, I'm willing to trust you."
"Before we rejoin the tour tomorrow . . . we need to rent a car.
Then, we're going to the man who is the father of my half-brother. I know
where he lives."
"Mashhad kept in touch with the old man in hopes my mother might
one day return for him. But a terrible thing was done to him."
Roya ignored the question and said, "No one knows that Mashhad
has kept in contact with the man at the home. He will tell that he told
us only what he knew from the day they came for my mother."
Roya knew the man with the code name of Mashhad had paid a high price
for helping her mother. He became an outcast. Now, Walker and Roya were
free to go to him. Roya could not only meet Mashhad, but she could meet
An hour later, Wes had completed the paperwork to rent an old Mercedes.
It was late afternoon and Roya harbored nothing less than joy that they
had so easily found the information she feared she wouldn't be able to
find. Passing through Azadi Square, they were soon on the Asian Highway,
After traveling a hundred and twenty-five kilometers, with Roya reading
a map received at the car rental, Walker turned off the highway onto a
graded road taking them north and into "The Valley of the Assassins."
Fifteen minutes later, at a point where the road crested a rise in the
land, before it descended to a valley, Wes brought the car to a stop in
the middle of the dirt road. There, both Roya and Wes viewed the valley
ahead of them. The sun was at three in the afternoon. A small, mud-brick
building sat a half-mile distance with the snow topped Alborz Mountains
as a backdrop. The house looked lonely in a vast space and behind a single
petrol pump. They sat staring into the distance for several minutes before
Wes asked Roya, "Are you certain you want to do this?"
Roya turned to Walker. She had tears in her eyes, and she said, "I
have no choice. I want to meet Mashhad. I want to meet my brother."
Wes pressed the accelerator down and the car descended into the valley.
As they grew nearer the petrol station, Roya felt her stomach knot. She
wondered if she should tell Walker to turn the car around, go back to Tehran,
get on an airplane, and leave the country. Roya knew Karim Sa'edi suffered
as her mother did. The sick feeling didn't leave until the rented Mercedes
turned off the road and Wes parked it before a home that was badly in need
of repair. Its outside walls were a dirty brown with paint flaking off.
Wes parked the car at an old, glass-topped, hand-cranked, petrol pump.
Neither he nor Roya exited the rented Mercedes. A young man pushed a door
open, and he stepped toward the driver's door. He asked in Farsi, "Do
you need petrol?"
Wes looked up at him and knew he would leave it to Roya to answer. Roya
The young man removed the petrol cap. Roya exited the car to watch him.
Twenty year-old Ahmad Sa'edi asked, "Are you going to the Castles
of the Assassins?"
Roya answered, "Yes."
Ahmad added, "You'll have to hike the last miles. It's late in
the day. You have a good distance to drive yet."
The words set a bewildering thought in Roya's mind. Her mother believed
she was an assassin of the innocent men killed at Desert 1. She asked,
"How old are you? What's your name?"
"I am twenty. My name is Ahmad Sa'edi."
"Are you here by yourself?"
"No," Ahmad answered. "This is my father's house."
Roya asked, "You live out in the middle of nowhere?"
Ahmad didn't take the words for more than they were. He watched the
older man get out of the Mercedes and walk away from it to look toward
Roya asked, "Is your father here? Someone told us he knew about
Ahmad thought the young woman was European. He was pleased that she
spoke Farsi. Ahmad said, "He's in back of the house."
"Can I meet him?"
"Go around the house. He sits and stares to the west."
Roya turned to leave Walker to pay for the petrol. She walked around
the house not knowing what to say to Mashhad. Stepping around the northwest
corner, Roya saw a man sitting at a wood table. Karim held a water-pipe
stem to his mouth with his left hand. He sat staring to the West. Walking
up to Mashhad and standing before him, Roya asked, "Thy Father's House.
Do you know the words?"
Karim turned to Roya and he remembered first seeing Laleh when she came
to the home years ago on a motorbike. He looked at the shape of Roya's
face. Karim asked, "Why has it taken you so long?"
The words didn't surprise Roya. Nor did they anger her mind or heart.
Instead, there was a sense of compassion for Karim Sa'edi. The man cared
enough to accept his punishment. It came from the same ayatollah judging
her mother. Roya extended her right hand. Karim gave his left hand while
holding the brass end of the water pipe between his teeth. His right forearm
remained buried in a lightweight jacket he wore to ward off the chill of
the afternoon wind coming off the northern mountains.
Roya asked, "Are you Mashhad?"
"Where you there when they sentenced my mother?"
"No. They had already dealt with me for stealing their glory."
"What did they do to you?"
Karim studied Roya as she stood across the wooden table opposite him.
He pulled his right forearm from inside his jacket pocket. His arm ended
at his wrist. Karim said, "It's the Islamic way for punishing those
who steal. I stole their glory. I stole their martyrdom. It was my sin
Roya looked on the stump of the right limb. She then looked to west
and asked, "Why are you living out here and not in the city?"
"It is my banishment. The house once belonged to my uncle. I earn
a small income."
"The boy? Is he my half-brother?"
"Does he know?"
"No. You cannot tell him. It will destroy him."
"Because he is a devout Muslim. Life is hard in Iran. He believes
I lost the hand from work in a foundry. He will go to Qum next month and
study to become an Inman. It is his desire."
Roya said, "I'm sorry. What did my mother do that night in the
desert? The night the Americans came?"
Karim remembered how the fiery crash lighted the night and how Laleh
took photographs as the remaining planes lifted off the desert floor. He
managed to have the film hidden until Laleh left Iran. Karim said, "Your
mother didn't cause the crash."
"The shell wasn't what she thought it was."
"The one she fired?"
"Yes. The one to penetrate the helicopter's transmission."
"What was different that night?"
"It wasn't a shell she brought into the country. I had exchanged
it for another one."
"The shells she brought into the country were cast in titanium.
They each held an explosive charge. The one she used wasn't lethal."
"I had a gunsmith make one of lead with less than half the powder.
It was dark and I loaded the rifle. The helicopter crash was an accident."
"You did this for her?"
"I did this for her."
"Because they had fewer helicopters than they needed. The Americans
were leaving the desert. Your mother fired on the helicopter without knowing
it. I was a contact in Tehran and had pushed for the embassy take-over.
Men wanted the raid to fail. It failed before your mother fired the shot."
"Why did you have her beaten? It killed her."
"Because The Raven wanted her to trust me without knowing it was
he who directed the embassy take-over."
Roya felt outrage. She asked, "Did The Raven instruct you to have
my mother beaten?"
"Yes. My instructions came to me through a man named David Rice.
I pray that neither man knows that you are in Iran."
Roya ignored the name of the man hunting Wes Walker and her. She asked,
"Did you kill the men who raped my mother?"
"Yes. I despised myself for being a part of it. I didn't want the
"Did you love my mother?"
"They amputated your hand for the helicopter crash they thought
my mother caused?"
Karim thought of the word amputated and knew it hadn't been a surgical
amputation but the swing of a sword. He said, "I had gone around the
perimeter and saw that one of the helicopters had shut down its engine.
The Americans wouldn't have done so if the helicopter were flyable. It
meant they couldn't continue for the next night's raid. I knew it was over.
I didn't tell her. I should have told her . . . I didn't. It is my true
shame. The lost of a hand is nothing."
"You loved her but didn't tell her she hadn't caused the accident?"
"Yes. I should have told her the truth. I fell in love with her
during my stay with her in the hospital."
Roya turned from Karim and feared tears would come. She asked, "Why
not tell Ahmad that he's my half-brother?"
"What purpose would it serve?"
Roya inhaled a deep breath before saying, "I'm sorry. I thank you
for trying to protect her. My mother is dead."
Karim felt a sense of pain wash through him. He asked, "How did
"She had a stroke."
"Allah knows best."
Roya wanted to answer the words, but she didn't. Instead, she said,
"I better go before your son wonders why I'm speaking with you."
Karim studied Roya and remembered Laleh. Roya saw Karim's eyes were
moist and on the verge of tears. She extended her right hand and he extended
his left. Roya said, "Thank you. I am sorry."
Karim tried to find a smile for the young woman but couldn't. He said,
"Thank you for finding me. I have wanted to meet you. Your mother
told me of her daughter. My guilt is no less than another's is. You're
as beautiful as she was."
Before Roya could leave, Karim knew he needed to ask. He asked, "The
code words "Thy Father's House" I never understood using them.
Whose house were they referring to . . . the one in their Bible, or the
one in Langley, Virginia?"
Roya answered a sad, "I don't know. My mother never said. She only
wrote the words and told me in a letter that you would accept me. She instructed
me to try to find you and tell you that she also loved you." Roya
managed a partial smile, turned to walk to the front of the home, and to
the Mercedes. Walker had paid for the petrol and driven the car away from
the pump. Roya entered the car. Tears were in her eyes. Wes turned the
car onto the dirt road and headed it in the direction of the highway. He
didn't ask any questions and Roya didn't offer any answers. It was a mile
later when Roya said, "The world is a sad place."
Wes responded to the words by placing his arm around Roya's shoulder.
Roya laid her head on it and cried. Several miles later Roya said, "It
was an accident. He had exchanged the shell. All those years my mother
thought she was responsible for the deaths. I want to see this place called
Desert 1. After seeing it . . . I want to go home." Wes Walker knew
it was time for both of them to go home. It was time for the nightmare
to end. First, they would rejoin the tour they signed on with and they
would travel to Yazd. There, they would take a day to travel to Desert
Now, in writing the story, Wes felt he was performing a rape of innocence
lost. Roya's thoughts centered on wanting to see the landing zone the Americans
used that haunted two governments. Roya wanted to see the desert where
an accident altered the course of history and brought a new president to
power. She wanted to see the place that eventually killed her mother.>>>
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