Authors: William Mirza,Thom Lemmons
Tags: #Christian, #Islam, #Political, #Fiction, #Suspense, #Historical, #War & Military, #Judaism, #Iranian Revolution, #Cultural Heritage, #Religious Persecution
Ezra paced in the foyer, looking at his watch every thirty seconds. It was almost eight o’clock and still he had not heard from Hafizi. The mullah was essential to his plans—he had to come! He felt the nibbling of nervousness in the pit of his stomach, the tense cramping of his bowels as apprehension mounted with each passing moment. Traffic was always heavy on the main thoroughfare to Mehrabad International. Their plane left at 9:05. To miss the flight and be forced to reschedule was unthinkable!
Esther, sitting on the bottom stair, watched her husband pace like a lion in a cage. For a fleeting moment, she caught a whiff of his nervousness, felt the glimmering of … anticipation? Fear? Then the faint sensation was gone, swallowed by the dull ache of her anger at the unfairness of life. She turned her head and stared out the window of the dining room. Small green cherries were forming on the trees—the immature fruits clustered in profusion on the trimmed branches.
, she thought sardonically,
Ezra’s pruning was successful. But he will not enjoy the benefits of his success. When the fruit ripens, we will be more than halfway around the world, a universe removed from everything familiar.
Removed also from the danger that is here
, the nagging voice within reminded her. Esther clamped a tight lid on the annoying whisper of truth. She couldn’t let go of her anger just now. She needed it to carry her through the ordeal of the next few hours. She needed its spur to goad herself and her daughter through the obstacles that lay ahead.
she conceded to herself,
we’re in the thick of it now. Best to go along. Pulling backward won’t change anything—might get us arrested.
The crunch of gravel was heard, and the scrape of tires on the curbside. Ezra leapt to the door, flinging it open. A cab had pulled up out front, and Hafizi was getting out of the front passenger side.
Solaiman!” he called, beckoning with his arm. “I have taken the liberty of bringing a cab for us!”
Ezra thought his grin might split his head open, so relieved was he to see the mullah. He waved and dashed inside. “Come!” he urged the women, “grab your things and let’s go! We mustn’t be late!”
By the time they reached the gate, the driver had opened the trunk of the battered yellow Audi. There was room only for the valises and shoulder bags. “Is this all,
?” the cabbie asked in a bored voice.
“No, I have one more item in the house,” said Ezra. “I’ll be right back.” He strode toward the house, then halted suddenly, turning back toward the cab.
Hafizi,” he called, “could you come here a moment, please? There is something we ought to do before we go.”
The mullah walked slowly toward Ezra. “What is it,
“I want you to hold this for me,” Ezra said, handing Hafizi the Ayatollah’s letter. “Officials will be more inclined to believe it’s genuine if a mullah hands it to them. Of course, I would like to have it back before we board the plane.”
“Certainly,” agreed the mullah, placing the document in his breast pocket.
“Come with me,” Ezra said, leading him toward the kennel where Marjan lay, his tongue lolling in the morning heat. When the dog saw Hafizi approaching at the elbow of his master, his ears perked forward, and he arose in one uncoiling motion—instantly alert, his nose tasting the scent of this seemingly friendly stranger.
Ezra walked over to the dog, knelt down, and fondled him behind the ears. “Marjan, you have served us faithfully. Now we are going away. This,” he said, motioning Hafizi to extend his hand for the dog to sniff, “is your new master. He is a good man, worthy of your service. He will take care of you.”
Marjan cautiously tested the scent of Nader Hafizi’s open palm. Without dropping his guarded pose, the dog wagged his tail slowly, once … twice. Hafizi scratched him beneath the chin.
“He knows you now,” observed Ezra. “He won’t forget.” For a moment more he scratched the dog’s back, then stood. “If you wish, you may wait in the cab. There is one more piece of luggage in the house.”
Ezra walked into the foyer and hefted the carpet box. He looked quickly about, then went back outside, kicking the door shut behind him.
The cabbie stood listlessly beside the back door of the vehicle as Ezra approached. “The trunk is full,” he drawled, looking at Ezra with half-lidded eyes. “You’ll have to hold that box in your lap.”
“I prefer it so,” said Ezra, climbing into the backseat beside his wife. He pulled the carpet box in with him as the cabbie shut the door, then went around to get in the car. They pulled away from the curb, and the house vanished behind them, lost behind the high brick walls that protected it.
Ezra heard his wife weeping softly, her sobs muffled by the folds of her
the ammunition clip doubtfully, looking askance from it to the short, snub-nosed automatic weapon he held in his left hand. “Where does this thing fit?” he asked, as the handful of men standing about the table inspected the weapons from Aziz’s cache.
“It goes here,” said Aziz, his eyes flickering toward Moosa with a flash of veiled contempt.
. He pointed to the opening, then demonstrated with his own gun, moving the clip into place with a deadly click. “You pull this back like this,” he continued, snapping back the bolt. “Then,” he deadpanned, “Allah help anything in front of you.”
“Hey, Aziz! Put your safety on in here!” barked Ari in annoyance. Marandi shrugged and complied, thumbing the lever from red to green.
The atmosphere reminded Moosa of the locker room before a big soccer match. He saw the same taut nervousness in the other faces, felt the same tension in his gut, smelled the same sour stench of anxiety hanging in the room, mingled with the odor of cigarette smoke and stale coffee.
But after this game,
he reflected dourly,
the losing team won’t walk away.
“Is everyone straight on the details?” asked Ari, his cheek twitching with a nervous tic. The men nodded. Ari looked at his wristwatch. “Everyone set your watches. On my mark, it will be exactly … three minutes until nine o’clock. Ready … Mark!”
Moosa clicked the stem of his watch.
They’re probably backing away from the gate by now
. Again, loneliness washed over him in a heart-stopping wave, before he sternly choked back the emotions he could not afford to acknowledge.
“Moosa, you and Manuchehr should get going. Don’t want you to miss your bus,” Ari joked weakly, as a smile died uselessly on his face. Moosa and his partner tucked their weapons beneath their clothing and made ready to leave.
“Aziz,” added Ari as an afterthought, “why don’t you go along with them? Don’t act like you know each other. Split up once you get near the bus stop—come in from different directions. Got it?” The three men nodded and walked toward the door of the warehouse office.
“And don’t forget,” said Ari, as Moosa’s hand paused on the doorknob, “when the Iraqi shakes the first mullah’s hand …”
They arrived at Gate 12, all of them panting from the exertion of their rapid walk down the corridor. Ezra peered out at the ramp, noting to his horror that no aircraft was visible. Had the flight left early? Frantically he looked at his watch: nine o’clock exactly. They should have had five minutes to spare. Wiping the sheen of sweat from his forehead, he approached the ticket counter, looking in confusion at the marquee behind the bored attendant. The sign was blank: it displayed no departure time for the flight they were supposed to board.
“Excuse me,” he said. The attendant peered up at him disinterestedly.
“The 9:05 Swissair flight to Geneva—is it on time?” Despite his attempt to remain calm, he heard the edge of panic in his own voice. As the attendant, heaving a sigh, keyed the computer terminal, Ezra looked about at the departure area.
Perhaps thirty people lounged about, some in a few metal folding chairs available, the rest squatting on the floor or leaning against the walls. Were they waiting for the same plane? His eyes returned to the attendant, who was now studying the greenish glow of the computer screen.
“Your ticket, please,” he intoned, taking Ezra’s ticket and thumbing through it, matching it with the information displayed on his screen. Presently he looked up. “Your flight was delayed. It will be here, but it’s running late.”
Ezra breathed a sigh of relief. At least they had not missed the plane! “When will it arrive?” he asked the attendant.
The man looked again at his terminal. “Looks like it should be here about an hour from now.” He looked again at Ezra. “Somewhere around ten o’clock.”
Ahmed Dabirian showed his identification badge to the official guarding the luggage handling area. The man glanced at him, nodded, and turned away. The carpenter entered the large room, piled from end to end with the checked baggage of departing and arriving passengers. He motioned to an attendant. The fellow sauntered over, an irritated look on his face.
“I wish to locate a piece of luggage,” he told the man. “It belongs to a departing passenger, and it is a matter of some urgency.”
Dabirian showed the attendant his badge. The man’s eyes widened in respect. Instantly, the irritation was replaced by alert officiousness. “Where is the passenger going?” he asked.
“I’m not sure,” mused Dabirian. “Probably France—or Switzerland. The thing I’m looking for is slightly unusual,” he added. “It’s a plywood box with leather handgrips attached. About so big—” Dabirian motioned with his hands.
The porter thought. “Switzerland, eh? Hmmm. Let’s try over at Swissair. I think they’ve got a nine o’clock flight.”
The bus slowed at the gate, its air brakes squawking as the passengers wedged themselves against the jerky stop. The door opened, then two
came aboard, their fingers curled through the trigger guards of the submachine guns hanging from the straps about their shoulders. They looked the passengers up and down, moving deliberately down the center aisle of the bus.
Moosa was seated in the middle of the left-hand section, looking out the window with an air of affected boredom. He huddled within the loose, shabby clothing he wore and forced himself to pay as little attention to the guards as to the rest of the passengers. From the corner of his eye, he thought he noticed one of the
peering at Aziz, who was three seats ahead, on the aisle. But then the fellow moved on toward the back of the vehicle. In a moment the guards had satisfied themselves, stepping off the bus and motioning it through the gate.
When the acrid black fumes of the diesel exhaust had dissipated in the air beside the gate, one of the
motioned to a jeep, parked inconspicuously a few yards away. He pointed at the departing bus and nodded. The jeep pulled out and followed the bus toward the main terminal building.
Esther shifted uncomfortably on the seat of the metal folding chair, wincing as she rubbed the small of her back. She glanced over at Sepi, then reached to adjust the folds of her daughter’s
. Sepi’s eyes flickered toward her, then back to their resting place in the empty space between her face and lap. Esther gave Sepi a tremulous, unheeded smile of encouragement, then sighed, looking about the area where they waited for their flight to arrive.
At an adjacent gate, a group of mullahs was gathering. They milled about, talking and laughing in low voices. As the clerics filtered in by ones and twos, some of them recognized Hafizi, nodding cordially. Hafizi returned the greetings, but continued to converse with Ezra in low, guarded tones. Esther saw some of the mullahs peer quizzically at Hafizi, then at Ezra.
She reflected that as long as he remained with them, Hafizi was isolated, an anomaly. Iran was not a safe place for the unusual these days. It was a time for homogeneity, for anonymity. Grudgingly, she admitted that Hafizi was placing himself in no small risk to aid their departure. There was always the possibility that they might be detained, despite the intricate precautions taken by her husband. If that happened, how could Hafizi avoid being tainted by association? The prospect of obtaining their house would not be enough to induce this man to place himself in harm’s way, would it? If he had coveted their house, why had Ezra emerged from Evin Prison?
She remembered the night in the kitchen, when she had sobbed on Akram Hafizi’s shoulder. Why, if she couldn’t unburden herself even to her own husband, was she able to spill her emotions to a mullah’s wife—a woman she had only just met? What was it about the Hafizis that caused her, despite her experience and inclination, to trust them? And what was it about her husband that enabled him to identify Hafizi’s trustworthiness so long before?
Reluctantly, she felt a tendril of self-examination thrusting through the crusted soil of her conscience.
A static-laden burst of words flared from the loudspeaker in their waiting area. “Passengers of Swissair flight 702, nonstop service to Geneva: your aircraft has landed and will be at Gate 12 shortly. We will begin boarding this flight in approximately fifteen minutes.” The message repeated in Farsi-laden Arabic, French, and English.
Esther heaved a sigh. One way or another, the ordeal would soon be behind them. When they were settled in … wherever, then she would try to piece together the scattered fragments of her feelings. For now, better to tend to the immediate.
She heard the whining glissando of jet engines as an aircraft taxied to the gate where the mullahs waited. The clerics gathered about the door where the deplaning passengers would soon emerge. Idly she wondered who the dignitary was that commanded such a greeting.
Marandi surreptitiously slid his hand beneath his caftan, his fingers curling around the rubberized grip of the gun. The attendants were wheeling the boarding ramp out to the airplane. Without moving his head, his eyes sought the locations of the other members of the guerrilla squad. The Jew who had ridden the bus with him was standing to his right, about ten meters down the wall. He had hoped to kill a Jew. Since Ari wasn’t nearby, this one would do.