Warning: This episode contains a violent torture room scene.
“But why would the British want so badly to put a spy in the Khan’s household?” I asked incredulously. “Going so far as to marry one of their agents into the family seems like overkill for a mere opium lord. Now if it was the royal family, I could see.”
The ghost sat back down into his sofa, leaned comfortably and lit another cigarette. “Three puffs on this cigarette is all the time you have to figure that out. Let’s see if you can do it, my wannabe spy master.”
I didn’t need three puffs, just the assurance that there really was a solution. “Mossadegh’s secret service almost recruited a British spy,” I said.
“Well done,” he said. “They were out to penetrate our organization before it even got off the ground. If I hadn’t blown Shireen’s cover, they would have succeeded.”
“But what made you suspect her?’
“Suspect? I was waiting for her. Did my superiors really think they could fool the Europeans into thinking we were narcotics police? Each one our trainees to Europe would have been tagged as a potential patsy recruiter for their own agents.”
“I don’t understand, if you knew that they knew, why did you bother to pretend?”
“Because I planned on setting my own trap inside their trap. Once I had identified their man or woman, I could turn her into a double agent. Plans within plans inside plans, lies surrounded by lies wrapped in more lies. That’s the only way I could see out of the security problem we faced starting our secret service. This was deep chess against master players, and Iran was a rook and a queen behind. The thing to do was let the opponent get complacent and underestimate us.”
“All right, but how did you know Shireen was the agent you were waiting for?”
“Easy. The first person my boss would be tempted to recruit through me was a strong candidate. Her marriage to Nojoom was not suspicious, but her coming to Iran in such a hurry flagged her. Then she made herself an easy target for blackmail with her sexual passes. That’s when her excuse for staying in Isfahan looked contrived. Who was this high school friend who so conveniently allowed Shireen to set up residence in Isfahan and made it easy to feed me nibbles of information about the Khan’s affairs? On my own initiative I put a tail on this friend. Her story didn’t check out. She and Shireen had never been to high school together. A few more cross checks, and I knew I had my prize. The only thing left to do was let my superiors in on what I had been planning.”
“They didn’t know what you were up to?”
“They were the most trusted people Mossadegh’s cabinet could find, and that makes for a very small talent pool. Not the sleaziest minds, and worthless for intelligence work, where it’s about leverage not trust. Another thing about trusted people: they’re themselves too trusting. A serious spy force would never recruit anyone with so little vetting, no matter how tantalizing the recruit. But no sense trying to argue with them about the right way to grow the organization; they had to be shown. And finally I had something to show them. We had a safe house in Isfahan with a direct phone line to Tehran. With my new information, I had no time to waste in contacting the capital. But matters were complicated. Doctor Nojoom was coming home from Paris and I would have had to leave Isfahan to drive the Khan to the airport. I made an excuse about the good car having mechanical problems. I told the Khan I would get it fixed while someone else drove him to Tehran in another fancy car. I had arranged to borrow it from the wealthy neighbors down the road. The Khan wasn’t happy owing anyone favors, but he had to go along.”
“Shireen didn’t go with him to the airport?” I asked.
“It would have saved her life if she had. But seeing the last opportunity to be alone with me without her husband, she faked illness. I’m sure she was very frustrated, because as soon as the Khan was on his way, I headed for the safe house.”
“The house was manned by two huge brothers. I called them Big Bear and Little Bear. I once heard them call each other by their real names in front of me, and chewed them out for being unprofessional. ‘I’m a field agent,’ I yelled. ‘If I’m captured and tortured would you want me to know your real names?’ After that tongue lashing they didn’t like me very much, giving me the code name ‘Asshole.’ ”
“‘So Mr. Asshole,’ Big Bear said, ‘come to use the phone?’”
“‘Yes, and I want you and Little Bear to go get some lunch; this conversation is not for your ears.’”
“‘Whatever you say, Asshole,’ said Big Bear beckoning his brother to follow him out.”
“I dialed my superior, gave him the good news and laid out my plan,” said the ghost.
“I bet that would have been worth a promotion or a medal at least,” I said excitedly.
“No medals. The first thing he wanted to know was why I hadn’t follow orders. Then he said my proof wasn’t convincing enough, and came up with far fetched innocent reasons why Shireen didn’t check out. Imagine a spy agency looking for excuses as to why something isn’t suspicious. The son of a bitch was trying to cover his ass regarding his idiotic order. He had been wrong, and I had been right. That didn’t sit well with his ego, his country be damned. I told him I would write up the report however way he wanted, giving him all the credit for the find. But it was enough for one person to know he was incompetent for the coward to go hiding behind his pride. I went back and forth with him about the constant British threat to overthrow the prime minister. We were running neck to neck in that race. They had money and know-how, we had the home advantage. Shireen’s case, handled properly, would be the decisive tie breaker, and we would forever paralyze foreign intelligence in the country.”
“You think you could have averted the coup?” I said.
“We had a great shot at it,” he said, deep remorse in his voice. “I laugh to think that the fate of the country lay in the hands of a woman spy and her faggot handler.”
“So what did your boss do?”
“He was obviously stunned by the news, though he pretended otherwise. ‘We’ll take it from here. We’ll take it from here,’ he kept saying.”
“‘You don’t know how,’ I insisted. ‘It’s going to take finesse to lure her in. Sexy photos aren’t going to do it. We need to get a psychological profile on her. Find out why she’s doing this. Let me run the operation from here. First we need to replace Big Bear and Little Bear. These street thugs are dangerously unreliable. I need trained, educated people.’”
“‘Where do you think this is, Switzerland? We’ll take it from here,’ he repeated like a child unwilling to share a toy. I slammed the phone on him and almost yanked the door handle off walking out. Big Bear and Little Bear were standing behind the door listening. This time I completely lost my temper. ‘You bloody amateurs,’ I shouted. ‘If I had a revolver, I would shoot the both of you right here for high treason.’”
“‘What’s the big deal, Mr. Asshole? We were just curious,’ said Little Bear.”
“I stormed out of the house, cursing and fuming. That whole evening I sat in my chauffeurs shack at the mansion trying to figure out my next move. I had been orphaned by my own organization. Should I call and apologize for blowing up like that? I had been too cocky perhaps. Why couldn’t I just do what they had asked? Get a picture of her nibbling my dick, and go home.”
“The next morning I heard a scream from inside the mansion. It was one of the maids. Shireen wasn’t in her bed. Her room had been broken into, her belongings ransacked and her jewelry stolen. Knowing the Khan was in Tehran, most of the mansion guards had taken the night off. Now they straggled into Shireen’s room with hangovers, confused as to what to do with the situation.”
“I knew immediately what had happened. Big Bear and Little Bear had been given instructions to bring Shireen in and wait for the interrogators to arrive from Tehran. They had taken advantage of the situation to steal her belongings. What’s worse, they had listened in on my conversation with my superior and knew she may be working for the British. They would take advantage of that too, in the name of patriotism. I wish I had shot them. Shireen was in grave danger.”
“I hopped in the car and floored the gas pedal, crashing through the gate. In the rear view mirror I saw the gate keeper rush out to the house to call the Khan’s men. Speeding through intersections, sometimes careening across sidewalks it took less than fifteen minutes to get as far as the car could get me. I left the car on the street and sprinted down several narrow alleys to the safe house. No sense knocking; I leaped the wall and ran up to the hall entrance. I could hear Little Bear grunting, ‘Telegraph this to the English.’ I kicked in the hall door. A smell of shit and vomit poured out. Big Bear scrambled out of the telephone room in his underpants. Little Bear was still on top of Shireen. He had twisted his body in surprise. I shoved Big Bear out of the way and yanked Little Bear off her. Her face was bruised and swollen, there was blood caked in her nostrils. They had punched her in the face. She tried to push me away as I picked her up to run to the hospital. Pink urine ran between her thighs. There were bite marks on her nipples, and gashes bled on her belly where they had used a long electrical wire to whip her.
“‘Hey she confessed to us,’ Big Bear boomed proudly. ‘We got the confession first. The cunt’s an English spy.’ ”
“‘Get out of my way,’ I shouted.”
“‘Where’re you taking her?’ Big Bear said. ‘The police will come if you go to the doctor.’ He was trying to grab her out of my arms. I kicked him hard in the stomach to push him out of the away. Suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my side. Coming from behind, Little Bear had stuck a knife in me. Shireen tumbled out of my arms. I twirled around, and before Little Bear could stab me again, I parried his knife arm and hooked his jaw with my fist. He twisted down to his knees, spitting blood mixed with bits of tooth. Before he could fall face down, I buried a hard kick between his vertebrae, severing his spine ligaments. He wouldn’t be able to stand up again. Quickly I turned around to face Big Bear. The pain in my side shot up my body as though gasoline had been poured over a fire. Big Bear was scrambling towards Shireen. Before I could get to her, he grabbed her head in his grip and said, ‘Who’re you going to take to the doctor now, Mr. Asshole?’
“‘Don’t!’ I screamed. Too late. Big Bear snapped Shireen’s neck with a wrenching crack.”
“Suddenly, the pain in my side vanished. I don’t know where the strength came from, but I dove towards Big Bear head first, arms to the side, like a battering ram. Big Bear’s nose busted open at the impact. While he was still dazed on the ground, I ripped off his underpants and wrapped the electrical cord tightly around his testicles, grabbing on to one end of the wire. He screeched like a locomotive at the first yank of the cord. ‘Pick up the knife,’ I roared dragging him on all fours by his testicle leash to Little Bear’s writhing body. ‘Pick it up!’ His hands trembled towards the knife. ‘Pick it up,’ I growled threatening another tug. He picked up the knife.”
“‘Now cut your brother’s throat,’ I said.”
“‘What?’ he panted unbelievingly. I jerked the cord so hard his scream clogged in his throat making his eyes bulge. That kind of pain leaves no room for conscious thought or memory or feelings. A brain inundated with such terror will override anything to stop the pain. His knife hand went down on Little Bear’s neck. A harsh gurgling sound came from Little Bear. The windpipe had been cut; Little Bear was breathing through his throat. But the neck artery was still intact. It could take him ten minutes to suffocate while his lungs filled with blood drip by drip. ‘Finish him for God’s sake,’ I said.”
“Tears streaming down his eyes, sobbing between wails of mourning, Big Bear shuffled towards me on his knees, offering the knife up to me like a temple gift to the Angel of Death. ‘You!’ He begged.” The ghost was breathing fast reliving the moment.
“I shook my head. ‘No, you. Because you’ve cut all our throats this day. One more brother can’t be that hard.’”
“All of a sudden I heard running footsteps outside the house. The Khan’s men had arrived. I had lost a lot of blood, and was feeling bouts of blackness coming on. My sanity was returning. Before I passed out, I remember telling Big Bear to run. I didn’t want him captured. He would talk for sure.”
Alert and thinking till the last glimmer of consciousness, I thought.
“The next thing I remember was waking up in the mansion basement, with Doctor Nojoom’s face over me,” the ghost said.
At this point the door opened and Nojoom walked in on us. The ghost quickly stopped talking.
“He had been stabbed in the kidney,” Nojoom said. “One of my father’s men with the right blood type saved his life.”
“You heard of course,” I said.
“Every word,” said Nojoom, gesturing his men to take the prisoner away.”
As the ghost was being dragged away he dug his heels into the floor to get a chance to speak to Nojoom. “Please, he said. He’s just a child.”
“He will be all right. Nojoom said. And so will your wife. How many times do I have to tell you?” They took the ghost away still screaming and begging.
Nojoom sat with me, and buried his head in his hands. His eyelids were rimmed with red. He was having trouble holding back emotions in front of his men. Finally he got a hold of himself with a deep breath. “I just wanted to know what had happened to my Shireen. For years the stubborn man has stuck with the same absurd story about being police patrol mapping opium patches.”
“He tried to save her, you know.”
“Yes, it all makes sense now,” he said melancholically.
I felt sad for Nojoom. Only hours after stepping off the plane in his own country, he had walked in on a carnage.
“I’m so sorry Doctor,” I said.
“My first patient in Iran was the accomplice to my wife’s brutal murder bleeding to death in my own basement,” he said bitterly. “At least now I feel vindicated for protecting him from my father all these years. You know he wanted to kill him after the tortures couldn’t make him talk.”
“Didn’t you think someone was going to come looking for him?”
“Lucky coincidence that I am a doctor; the Isfahan morgue got a quiet request for an anonymous cadaver that matched the description of our prisoner. If we weren’t sure he was secret service, that clinched it for us. They were cleaning up after the failed operation, leaving him for dead after the capture. With a body to bury, relatives stop making trouble harassing the government.”
“And the other two bodies?”
“Just as it looked. Robbery, kidnapping, rape gone wrong.”
“So he was left all alone to be tortured for years.”
“I’m a doctor, son. Please let me believe that it was to save my patient’s life. My father would not have hesitated to execute a traitor if I hadn’t begged him to give me time to find out what happened to my wife. And now I finally know. A year too late for my father, wherever he is in the other world, but I feel better knowing that Shireen died a warrior. It doesn’t matter the side. My God, after all these years, I had no idea there would be so much to sort out about her. Who would have guessed? A British spy!”
“You would forgive her after she deceived you to serve a foreign master?”
He got up, straightened his posture, and walked to the photo of Shireen and the white stallion. “We don’t have their power,” he brooded. “We don’t have all those fancy streets and buildings and shops and all the glitter they pile in their museums. We didn’t invent flying ships, or bombs that cinder a city in a flash. We don’t have telescopes to find new galaxies, or people who get rich just by dancing in the rain. Look at her energy. So vibrant. Is it any wonder we looked futureless to her? I tell you what we do have though. Even our homosexuals would put up superhuman resistance against years of excruciating agony to protect the women they love.”
“You would have done the same for Shireen?” I asked.
“You would doubt it? You half jelled nationless hybrid.”
“ So was she, you know.”
“She was mine!” he snapped. “That makes her my business, whatever she was. If she was a traitor, that was for me to deal with.” He stared down Shireen’s image and barked loudly for all to hear,. “It’s all for me to deal with.” His tears would have to wait for when he was alone.
I sat silently enduring Nojoom’s suppressed wrath and sorrow.
He continued with me in a softer tone, “So much to burden. What do you want me to do with these men? Fire them because they’re thugs, criminals, and spies? What then? Do you know how many people live off me one way or the other. The poor poppy growing peasant, the sad heroin pusher in the streets, and all the soldiers and fat cats in between. For every patient I treat at the facility ten people are getting their daily bread from narcotics. And if I refuse, I’d be in the river and someone else would get the job. In this hungring machine nobody is too big for the assassin’s blade. This is my father’s legacy, my inheritance. Criminals for companionship and a dead spy for a wife. Me! A doctor for God’s sake.”
“You still have your hospital,” I said consolingly, hoping he wouldn’t take it as irony.
He smiled and put a hand on my shoulder. “Yes, any chance I get, I try to be the Doctor Nojoom that walked off that plane expecting to be greeted by his beautiful and loyal wife.” He had infinitely more to say about her, but decided to drop the subject.
“As soon as my father died we moved the prisoner from his cell in the basement to my institution so he could be with other people, read the newspapers, watch TV. You know, he hadn’t believed us when we told him Mossadegh had gone down. Thought it was a trick to break him. He found out about it in the asylum. Of course he was long addicted to the narcotics I was giving him for the torture pains.”
“You weren’t worried he would talk to the other patients?”
“Didn’t you see for yourself? He trusted no one. But that changed when you showed up and passed his cross examination. Then he knew the jig was up. The poor man, he thought my father and I were playing ‘good cop bad cop’ with him. You don’t happen to have a name for him, do you?”
“He wouldn’t want me to give it to you. But I’m sure now that you have me to track, it won’t be long before you find his wife’s address.”
Doctor Nojoom nodded favorably. “All right. I’ll tell him you never talked. It would please him.”
“What will you do after you find this woman?”
“Take the prisoner to wherever she lives and show him we’ve found her. From inside the car he can see her buying grapes at the fruit seller. Then he would know that if we wanted to harm her, we would have done it already.”
“And you would free him?”
He paused then said, “No one else can take care of him as well as I. He knows that. He will die in peace, I promise you.”
“What about me? Am I free to go?”
Nojoom gave out such a long laugh that his men began laughing along.
“In great style,” he said. “For the last ten minutes there’s been a black Citroen limousine waiting outside the gates. It’s flying little French flags on the fenders. My men told them you’d be out after you finish your tea. You have impressive friends, son. Sorry they had to leave the party so early.”
I couldn’t help but start laughing with everyone else. All the tension I had been holding back came out in torrential tears of hilarity pouring down my face. “That would be Fournier,” I guffawed cathartically. “That’s a French consulate car.”
“Too bad. We were all hoping for a Swedish consulate car,” Nojoom replied with a wink to his men. They all nodded their hearty agreement.
With the French cavalry backing up my confidence, I turned to Nojoom soberly and said, “How can you trust that I won’t speak about this to anyone.”
Nojoom returned fire quoting the ghost. “It’s not about trust. It’s about leverage.”
I saw his dire meaning, but fired the last shot. “As long as you understand we both have leverage.”
“And honor,” he said couching the stalemate in niceties.
Doctor Nojoom and I shook hands and parted. Our palm sweats had mixed.
As I left the gate, the limousine door swung open and to my surprise Lina jumped out running towards me. I could hear Fournier worriedly yelling at her to get back in the car. Besides the driver, there were a couple of other tough looking characters in the limo. Lina wrapped a hug around me. “I was so worried for you,” she said. “You stayed behind.”
My breath being crushed out of me by Lina, I saw Fournier looking at me with an easy-come-easy-go shrug. Then Lina did something odd. I don’t know what she sensed in our touch, but she disengaged and looked me in the eyes. “What happened in there?” she asked with concern.
“We looked at a photo on the wall and told stories about it.”
She gave me the skeptical eye, “You Persian men, puzzles all of you. Come on, let’s take you to the hotel.” She ushered me into the back seat next to Fournier.
“He likes to sit at the window,” Fournier said to Lina.
“I’ll be fine in the middle,” I said climbing in. Lina followed me in and slammed the door shut. Normally that would have sent my heart racing. Instead it felt cozy being nestled among good friends.
A few weeks after my field trip to Isfahan, a hefty life insurance check arrived for Aunt Mehri. The letter that came with it was full of apologies about the delay in payment, and had allowed for exorbitant punitive interest on the money. Judging by the sum, Nojoom had definitely roughed up the right guy. There’s a photo of me and Aunt Mehri taken from the second story she could finally afford build to her tiny house. It is spring time in the photo, and there are citrus blossoms in the yard. I’d like to think the blossoms stand in for Golbaz in the picture, and the new construction is in memory of the late Doctor Nojoom. Three dead, and one still alive to finally tell the tale.
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