The Secret Agent

My favorite game as a child was playing ‘dead or alive’ with photo albums. Flipping through the thick pages, I tried to guess just by looking at someone’s photograph whether that person was still living. Often the age of the photograph was a clue. If the paper was yellowing, or the subject was wearing something that looked like a costume, the person was probably dead. Sometimes though the clues were outside the picture.

“Who’s this, Mom?” I asked shoving a black and white photo in her face. The subject was wearing a dark suit, and looked like a movie star. My mom sighed the way women sighed those days at Gone With The Wind. “That’s Golbaz,” she said.

“He died before I was born, right?”

“Yes, who told you?”

“You liked him a lot and he was very tall.”

“How can you tell from a photograph how tall someone is? A regular detective, aren’t you?”

“What’s a detective?” That’s when I first learned the word. Aptly so; I was doing a lot of snooping those days. At clan gatherings, as soon as adults got busy chatting, I would sneak away to search dressers and drawers for photo albums. Finding them, I would hide under a bed and time travel to when I didn’t exist and people were much thinner. Sometimes I was discovered and scolded, but often I would give myself away when I scrambled out of hiding, clutching a picture, to ask who, what, where, and when. Everyone leaped in a noisy turmoil to give chase, torn as to how to rescue the treasure without destroying it.

“That’s the only picture I had of Golbaz,” Aunt Effat sobbed as she tried to unwrinkle Golbaz’s handsome face. It was a copy of the same photo my mother kept in her album. I noticed when aunt Effat mentioned Golbaz’s name, she had that same wistful expression as my mother, looking upward and deep as though into the eyes someone very tall and very beautiful.

Once I asked Tooba, the old nanny, about Golbaz. Tooba had been everyone’s nanny. She had raised my father and most of my aunts and uncles, so she knew everything. I was her final charge, dredging the last of her patience.

“Tooba who was Golbaz?” I demanded.

Tooba woke up grumpily. “That’s not for kids to know. Why can’t you let me rest?”

“Why shouldn’t kids know? Did he do something wrong?”

“Wrong? Oh no. My guiltless Golbaz, God rest his gentle soul. What did he do to deserve what they did to him?”


“Your dad, who else?”

“My dad did something to Golbaz?”

“Your dad, your uncles, all the men. They ganged up on that poor angel like the brothers of innocent Joseph. Was it his fault he was born so good looking? Was it his fault that the men couldn’t control their own wives?”

“What did they do to him?” I asked, so intensely curious as to forget to be horrified.

“You won’t hear it from me. I’m no gossip. Children are too fragile to be told such awful things.”

“But what about the headless witch?” That story had been so gruesome I had run upstairs and pulled a blanket over my head.

“That story is for kids who stay up past their bedtime,” she grumbled. “It’s different when your own family drags a gorgeous man to the river and drowns him. They told him they were taking him to a picnic, poor man.”

Tooba never said enough to be informative, just enough to get herself into hot water. Didn’t she know I would pursue the matter with other adults?

“Aunt Monavar, why did your husband kill Golbaz?” I asked.

“What are you talking about? Who’s Golbaz?”

“The one in your album. That Golbaz.”

“Nobody killed Golbaz. He went swimming one day, and never came out. They think he had a stroke in the river or hit his head. Who told you this?”


“You know better than to listen to her nonsense,” she scolded. “If only you remembered what Tooba did to you when you were a toddler. When no one was around, she used to throw a heavy rug over you so you’d stay put. One day she forgot all about it, and your mom came home and found you helpless under the carpet. That was the last time we let Tooba babysit you.”

Aunt Monavar had changed the subject, and had tried to badmouth Tooba. I was now certain that her husband was an accomplice in the murder of Golbaz. All the husbands were in on it. And their wives were guilty too because they were covering up for their men. Everyone was a conspirator except Aunt Mehri, the recluse. The eldest of my mother’s sisters had no husband so she was not a suspect. She lived by herself in a tiny house at the edge of town. I only saw her once a year on Norooz when the eldest members of the clan must be visited.

Once I asked Tooba about aunt Mehri. “Tooba why does Aunt Mehri not have a husband? Is it because she is so ugly?”

“Who’re you calling ugly?” Tooba exploded. “You think I never married because I was too ugly? The rich rug dealer’s son in Isfahan wanted to marry me, and my father was agreeable, but I said ‘No, I’m too pretty for him.’”

After this offense, Tooba clammed up every time I tried to ask about Aunt Mehri, who couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with Golbaz’s murder.

That’s a clue actually. In a mystery, you should most suspect the unlikeliest character. Especially if this person has a room in her house that children are forbidden to enter. “I’m not so rich I can afford to let spoiled kids break my things,” Aunt Mehri had explained. She expected me to believe that as soon as she heard the door knock she would gather all her breakables, pile them into the bedroom, then lock the door and hide the key.

I had noticed, though, that aunt Mehri’s coin purse, resting on the guest room mantle, had been forced to swallow something much longer than coins. I knew where the key was, but in that cottage of a house where was the opportunity to steal into the bedroom?

I got my chance one Norooz when my mother and I visited Aunt Mehri. On our way out, the sisters began the Persian routine of the doorway jabber. Children hate this custom, as they have to stand at the gate with nothing to do. If such children are seen sneaking back into the house, they usually have nothing worse in mind than filching nuts and fruits from the guest room. A few minutes into the doorway conversation, I disappeared into the house. Deftly, I unzipped the coin purse, took out the key, and opened the bedroom door.

It was like looking into Aladdin’s cave of treasures. Piles of gold-rimmed crystal tea glasses, silver cutlery, china cups, and porcelain flower vases covered the bed. There were tens of gold, silver, and mahogany picture frames cluttering the room. Above the headboard there was a painting, almost life size, of a woman reclining on a sofa, admiring herself in a hand-mirror. She was holding the mirror very low on her torso trying to see as much of herself as the length of her bare arms would allow. She had no clothes on, but the wispy see-through material festooning her bed blurred her nakedness. Then I noticed that the posts on her bed looked similar to those on Aunt Mehri’s bed. The headboard was also the same. There was even the wispy gauzelike material that I hadn’t noticed at first because it had been rolled back. Aunt Mehri’s bedroom was a replica of the one in the painting.

Immediately, I looked for the hand mirror, and as my eyes swept down the length of the bed and up the footboard, I saw on the opposite wall a giant picture frame with an almost life sized photograph of Golbaz. He was standing tall in a dark tuxedo next to a woman in a wedding dress. The woman was Aunt Mehri.

This time, I didn’t run out asking for explanations. I was too scared. The secret past, which until now had confined itself to 6” x 8” frames, had suddenly stepped out as big as life. I backed out of the room, put the key into the coin purse, and walked quietly out to the gate.

When I said goodbye to Aunt Mehri, instead of wiping away her kiss and pushing away her hug, I hung on to her touch and smell, because I knew this was something Golbaz had known and felt. The smell of tea on Aunt Mehri’s breath and the pressure of her sternum against my face were closer to the mystery than any photograph. I let those sensations work away in my memory for seven years.

Seven springs later, I was old enough to make my own ritual visits to the eldest relations. Aunt Mehri welcomed me into her small yard, making a happy fuss about how the children had grown up into the ways of adulthood. In her guest room, all the gold-rimmed tea glasses were neatly arranged around the samovar, and the picture frames were on the walls and mantles where they belonged. She didn’t have to hide her breakables from me anymore. That included her breakable heart. There were several pictures of Golbaz that I hadn’t seen before. In one of them he was in uniform, with a flag of Iran in the background. He looked even more dashing in his medals and insignias of rank. When Aunt Mehri saw me staring at the photo, she picked up the silver frame and handed it to me.

“I didn’t know your husband was in the military,” I said as gently as I could. By now I understood that the reason the clan did not discuss Golbaz with a child was out of respect for Aunt Mehri’s grief. That wisdom had also protected me, for if I had spoken insensitively as a child, I would be feeling very ashamed by now.

“That’s a police uniform, dear.” My aunt said. Then seeing in my face all the questions I was too respectful to ask, she went to a drawer and brought out a framed letter. At the top of the letter was the Imperial Insignia in gold. The text said that Detective Jahaangir Golbaz had given his life in the line of duty. From the same drawer she pulled out a thick file full of her correspondences with the Justice Ministry. Over and over again she had asked them to open her husband’s files so that she would know what had happened to him. Each time they had come up with an excuse to delay. Finally, after string-pullings and threats, the ministry had to tell her the truth. Golbaz’s files were classified top secret. >>> Part 2

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