A Red Light

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10. The Snowmen


In Tehran, winter had come with a vengeance. In places, the dry, powdery snow lay two metres deep, and every night a new flurry added another layer to the velvet mantle enfolding the city.

The snow ploughs lost no time in clearing the streets, and people were out at the break of dawn shovelling it from the roof tops and shouting a warning as the snow cascaded to the streets below. Many a passing pedestrian suffered an untimely and undignified assault at the hands of these zealous householders, not to mention the street accidents caused by a blast of snow descending on a car roof or windscreen, and frightening the unsuspecting driver out of his wits.

Large mounds of snow lay at each street corner and anywhere it could be pushed to one side. Most people stayed indoors as temperatures plummeted to minus twenty five degrees Celsius at night, and did not climb much above minus ten degrees Celsius during the day. However, children took advantage of the snow for tobogganing and throwing snowballs, and, of course, building snowmen of all shapes and sizes.

Eating places were never busier, and Zahra found herself worked off her feet as people thronged to the Wimpy Bar at all hours for something hot to eat and drink.

Farid had written a letter to Helene since his departure to England, and had conveyed his best wishes, but he had not written personally to Zahra. She had convinced herself that he was distancing himself from her because of her unfortunate involvement in New Town, and because his parents’ wishes overrode his own. She knew that he loved her, but she accepted with a heavy heart the fact that they would choose his future wife.

Without their excursions, she felt vulnerable and isolated. Youssef and Jenny were far too busy to include her in their social life, and she had no desire to get involved with anyone else at present. She decided on impulse one day to go and visit Madame Ziba and her girls in New Town. Maybe she would visit Akbar too, she thought.

In Eisenhower Avenue, she waited as a yellow cab slowed down so she could let the driver know her destination. She was in luck. The very first one was going towards New Town. There were already two passengers in the back who didn’t seem too pleased to have to move over when Zahra made to open the door. Undeterred, she got in next to the driver who nodded and bade her good morning. Normally, the journey took ten minutes but the icy conditions doubled the time. Zahra asked the cabbie to stop at the street pump which now stood deserted on the street corner, with a solid, gnarled pillar of ice resembling a primeval tree trunk between its mouth and the pavement.

The multitude of summer and autumn colours no longer brightened the streets. People now shopped at small corner stores or uptown supermarkets, or sought out unscrupulous hoarders who sold out of season produce at vastly inflated, black market prices. Only workmen’s braziers, or the street vendors selling chestnuts roasted over glowing charcoal, provided a welcome glow amongst the stark, wintry landscape, sending wafts of smoke to mingle with the grey spirals rising from the chimney tops, and drifting aimlessly with the wind.

A few children had ventured out to play, and were aiming snowballs at two snowmen vying each other from opposite street corners. One was garishly wrapped in a veil, and the other sported a large handbag over an outstretched arm. The children thronging round them were dressed in an assortment of woollen garments to stave off the cold. Some had their feet wrapped in cloths and stuffed into their fathers’ boots. Others sported their mothers’ old coats with string tied around their waists.

Zahra was amused and joined in to see who could score the most hits. Her first volleys fell too short of the targets, but as her aim improved, she scored a hit on the veiled snowman, first on the chest and then on the nose. The children cheered her on, and soon both snowmen were being bombarded with deadly accuracy ! Zahra recalled the children at the ski resort where she had spent the weekend with Farid, and paused momentarily thinking how happy she had been. Suddenly, a piercing scream rent the air. Zahra was jerked back to reality and stared in horror as the children pointed, terror struck, to the snowman with the handbag. One of the snowballs had scored a direct hit on its face crumbling away the snow to reveal a pair of dark, cavernous eyes. The youngsters were rooted to the spot as the awful realisation dawned on them that the gaping eyes belonged to a corpse.

As was to be expected at such an outcry, the crowds ignored the cold and, once again, flocked to the scene. The police station had only received a garbled report from one child’s father that a dead snowman had been found. Soon, the familiar sirens heralded the arrival of police cars and an ambulance. But this time, two covered stretchers were carried out from behind the portable screens, and driven quickly away to the mortuary. The murderer had struck again with a double coup. The bodies may well have stayed there all winter if the children hadn’t accidentally disturbed their arctic tombs.

Zahra had stepped aside in total disbelief after urging the children to run for help. By the time the authorities had arrived, she was in a state of complete shock, and was unconsciously edging away from the sinister scene and shaking her head as if trying to wake up from a nightmare. A car passing that way slowed down beside her. Suddenly, she felt an arm pulling hers and opened her mouth to scream. A low voice called out her name and turning her terror stricken face, she met the concerned gaze of Akbar sitting in the back of the car, with Ismail at the wheel. Zahra needed no further prompting to get in and sank gratefully beside him on the back seat.

“What are you doing in this area, Zahra ?”

“I was coming to visit Madame Ziba and the girls, and… and you,” came the faint reply.

“Visit me ? Why ? Anything wrong ?”

“No. No, nothing’s wrong. I just felt a bit lonely and I have three days off work, so I thought I’d come over.”

“Where’s your young man these days ?”

“Oh, didn’t you know ? He’s at naval college in England.”

She was about to add that Farid was not her young man, but reflected that if everyone thought he was, then she might not have any unwelcome advances from would be suitors.

“What’s happened here, then ?” asked Ismail. “We just saw two stretchers going into the ambulance. Has there been an accident ?”

Zahra shook her head and whispered almost inaudibly. “No, it’s much worse than that - another murder. Two girls this time, and he made two snowmen out of them. It was horrible. The children were playing and throwing snowballs at them, and I stopped to join in. We didn’t know until a snowball cracked one of their faces…”

“Come back to the café with us and have a strong drink,” said Akbar gently. “I’ll phone Madame Ziba and ask her and the girls to come over if they’re not busy. I’m not letting you out on your own here.” He gave her no opportunity to refuse, and told Ismail to drive on.

The great freeze and the fresh snowfall overnight had virtually eliminated the possibility of any clues. The police soon withdrew from the spot having heavily cordoned off the remains of the two snowmen. It was too cold outside for people to linger merely out of curiosity, and they quickly dispersed to their homes to gossip and speculate about the latest incident with their friends and relatives.

When Akbar arrived at his café, he took Zahra through a back door into his sitting room and after divesting her of her hat, scarf, coat and gloves, sat her in a comfortable armchair beside a huge ‘bokhari’ - a traditional oil heater, on top of which was steaming a large kettle.

“What do you prefer ?” he asked solicitously. “Vodka or cognac ?”

“I don’t really drink spirits much,” she replied.

“Nonsense ! This is definitely a time when you need it,” insisted Akbar. “No argument. So, what will it be ?”

“Some cognac, then, please.”

“Oh, drat ! It’s run out,” exclaimed Akbar. “I’ll just go to the bar for a new bottle. Won’t be a minute.”

Zahra leant back in the armchair and closed her eyes. Why did something bad always seem to happen when she was in New Town, she wondered. She was very glad that Akbar had chanced by. He had dealt with the last, nasty incident, and here he was again just when she needed someone. She opened her eyes and looked around the room. It was very clean and well furnished, but something was lacking - no ornaments, no flowers, no pretty cushions, just essentials. Akbar obviously had no women living here, she mused, and wondered why he took such an interest in her.

“Here we are,” said Akbar, coming through the door with a tray holding a new bottle of spirit and two brandy glasses, each filled with a generous measure of cognac. He handed one to Zahra and pulled another armchair up to the stove. “This will soon make you feel better.”

Zahra smiled and thanked him. “Don’t you have to wait on your customers ?”

“Oh, no. Ismail can manage that. We’re not too busy at the moment.”

Just then, Ismail came in and put a large tray of fruit, sweets and nuts down on the table.

“Please help yourself,” said Akbar.

“Thank you. Maybe later.”

“Would you like some strong coffee ?” asked Ismail addressing Zahra.

“Yes, please.”

“And you ?” Ismail enquired of his boss.

“Yes. Thanks,” Akbar answered him.

Ismail strode out of the room closing the door firmly behind him.

“Does he work for you all the time ?” asked Zahra.

“Yes. I wouldn’t have anyone else,” Akbar replied. “As long as no one tries to pull a fast one over him, or order him about, Ismail will never let anyone down.”

“It’s good to have someone you can always rely on,” remarked Zahra wistfully.

Akbar didn’t reply, but took a large gulp of his cognac. “Good stuff that is,” he said as the brandy warmed his throat. “You haven’t touched yours yet,” he scolded.

“Oh, sorry,” murmured Zahra, and without further ado, raised the glass to her lips and took a small sip. She felt strangely secure and at home, curled up beside the huge stove, even though she had never been in this room before.

“Feeling better ?” Akbar asked.

“Yes, much.” Zahra smiled at him. “Do you come from Tehran ?” she continued after a pause.

“No, but I’ve lived here many years now. I know the place like the back of my hand.”

“Where did you live before ?”

“I come from Tabriz, but when I finished my military service, I decided to come to Tehran to make my living. How about you ?”

“No. I don’t come from Tehran, either. I come from Mashad.”

“How long have you been in Tehran ?”

“About six months now,” Zahra replied after counting on her fingers.

“Do you like it ?”

“Yes. It’s a very interesting city, but you can be so lonely if you don’t know anyone.”

“Any large city is like that. You must be very careful where you go and who you mix with.”

Zahra didn’t reply. She knew Akbar had only made a general statement, but for her it was a warning which had come too late. Akbar realised to his dismay what he had just said.

“Oh, sorry, Zahra. I didn’t mean anything personal.”

“I know,” answered Zahra ruefully. “I wish I’d met you when I got off the coach the night I arrived in Tehran. Anyway, what really brought you here apart from the bright lights ?” she asked Akbar light heartedly.

“Do you really want to know ?”

“Of course I do.”

Akbar went over to a drawer, and drew out a photograph which he handed to Zahra. “That’s why I left and came to Tehran.”

Zahra studied the small picture in amazement. She thought she was looking at herself.

“She looks like me,” she murmured at length.

“Yes, she does, doesn’t she ?” retorted Akbar. “That was my wife.”

“Did she live in Tehran, then ?” asked Zahra curiously.

“No. She lived in Tabriz with me.”

Zahra looked baffled until Akbar explained what he had encountered when he came home on leave. “… so, that’s why I came here,” he concluded. “This was the best place to make a living out of controlling prostitutes because I hated them so much. I know now that there are many different circumstances, and that most of the girls have hearts of gold, but you don’t expect your wife to go on the game when there’s no need. Besides, I got over it and stopped being a pimp a long time ago. I got myself this café instead.”

“It’s terrible what people drive each other to do without realising,” said Zahra pensively.

“That’s life,” commented Akbar. “Anyway, it’s your turn. What brought you here ?”

Zahra told him exactly what she had told Farid, and Akbar listened as her soft voice faltered from time to time.

“How do you like your job ?” he asked when she had finished.

“It’s not bad, but it’s very tiring.”

“You look even thinner than when I last saw you,” Akbar chided.

Zahra didn’t reply.

“Would you like to listen to some music ?” he asked as he drained the last mouthful of his cognac.

“Yes, I’d love to.”

Akbar leant over and switched on the radio, and they sat together listening to a programme of popular Persian singers. “I wonder where Akbar is with that coffee !” he exclaimed suddenly. “I’ll just go and see if he’s busy. Do you mind ?”

“No, not at all. I’m really enjoying the warmth and music… and the company,” she added.

Akbar felt ridiculously pleased. “She likes me,” he thought to himself as he went out of the room.

Ismail hadn’t even started making the Turkish coffee because a sudden influx of customers had kept him occupied. “Oh, sorry, boss,” he said as Akbar appeared.

“Don’t worry. I can make it. Do you want a cup ?”

“No, I’m alright,” grinned Ismail pointing to his bottle of vodka.

“Can you manage on your own ?”

“Yeah, no problem. You look after the little lady.”

Akbar made two strong, sweet cups of Turkish coffee and returned to the sitting room. As he neared the door, he heard a beautiful voice which he didn’t recognise.

“Who was that singing ?” he asked Zahra as he went in. “I don’t think I’ve heard that singer before. Is she new ?”

“You could say that,” answered Zahra shyly. “That was me.”

“You have a fantastic voice,” exclaimed Akbar. “Why don’t you become a singer ?”

“I’ve never had the opportunity.”

“Well, why don’t you come and sing here ? Be the cabaret,” urged Akbar. “My belly dancer doesn’t attract the customers any more. She’s got too fat. It won’t be as hard work as the café. The hours will be less, too, and I’ll pay you well. The more customers I get, the more you get.”

Zahra was unsure. “I don’t really know,” she said, envisaging herself surrounded by jostling, lascivious men. She shuddered.

Akbar watched her reaction. “Why does it seem so distasteful to you ?”

“I don’t want people around me touching me,” she replied, almost cringing from the thought.

“No one will come anywhere near you,” promised Akbar. “And anyone who makes even the slightest suggestion, or misbehaves, will be thrown out on his ear by Ismail. Besides, there’s a little stage out there, and you’ll be well away from the tables… Well, how about it ? Will you give it a go ?”

Zahra knew that Akbar wouldn’t expose her to anything likely to upset her. She took a deep breath. “OK, then. But I must give Youssef and Jenny notice, and time to find someone else. You do understand, don’t you ?”

“Of course I do. Actually, that will give me time to redecorate. I can’t put a new star in an old stable, can I ?” he teased.

Zahra laughed shyly. She hadn’t sung for a long time, and she was pleased at the thought of being able to again, but equally nervous at the thought of performing in front of an audience.

A loud knock on the door ended their cosy chat.

“Come in,” called Akbar.

“Hello. What’s all this I hear ?” bellowed a loud voice as Madame Ziba bustled into the room. “No, don’t get up,” she continued as Zahra made to stand.

She swept over and gave her a big hug. “How are you, my dear ? Don’t they feed you at your new, fancy place ? You’re skin and bone !”

“That’s what I told her,” agreed Akbar.

“Of course, they do,” answered Zahra defensively. “I just don’t put any weight on with all that running about.”

Madame Ziba dropped her ample form into the armchair which Akbar had just vacated.

“Are you on your own ?” Akbar asked.

“No, the girls are all here, but they stopped in the café to tease Ismail. You know how they love pulling his leg !”

She winked at Zahra. “This is a nice surprise. We didn’t really expect to see you down this way again.”

“I was coming to see you first,” said Zahra almost apologetically, “but Akbar was passing in his car and insisted on me coming here first.”

“Just as well I was,” exclaimed Akbar.

“Oh ?” said Madame Ziba glancing at him quizzically.

“Do you want to tell her, Zahra ?”

“No, you can.”

“Get on with it. The suspense is killing me,” said Madame as she cracked pistachio nuts between her teeth.

“They found two more girls murdered about an hour ago. Or rather, Zahra and some children found them buried inside two snowmen.”

The pistachio nut between Madame Ziba’s teeth dropped to the floor as she opened her mouth in surprise.

“I haven’t heard anything,” she said. “How did he do it ?”

“We don’t know that yet, but I expect it will be on the news and in the papers,” said Akbar. “It’s time we started doing our own investigation too. The police don’t really care - not about prostitute murders if that‘s what they are. And that reminds me. We can expect them -the police- down here for the next couple of weeks.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said Madame Ziba. “I know the Chief of Police very well. I just tell him to pay us a visit occasionally, and he keeps his men away.”“Trouble is, Ismail doesn’t like them and they know it.”

“Leave it to me,” soothed Madame. “They’ll keep away.”

“Thanks very much. I appreciate it,” replied Akbar.

“Don’t mention it.”

She turned to Zahra and beamed kindly at her. “And how is your new job going and your young man ?”

“It’s tiring, but it keeps me busy,” answered Zahra and glanced fleetingly at Akbar as if willing him not to mention the singing.

Akbar winked conspiratorially as she continued, “… and Farid is fine.”

An alarming thought suddenly sprang to Zahra’s mind. “Are all the girls with you, Madame ?”

“Yes, love. You don’t mind, do you ?”

“Oh, of course not. I just suddenly thought…” she broke off looking relieved.

Madame understood immediately.

“Oh, you thought that maybe some of my girls… No, they’re all fine. Don’t you worry.”

She turned to Akbar. “After all this excitement, you can pour me a cognac too !”

Akbar grinned, and taking another glass out of the cupboard, poured out a generous measure for her.

“Would you like some more, Zahra ?”

“Oh, no thanks. I haven’t finished this yet.”

“Well, have something to eat then. In fact, I’m hungry myself. I’ll get Ismail to bring us all a sandwich. I think I should get those girls off him too !”

When he had gone, Madame Ziba turned her head to one side and took a long look at Zahra. It was about three months since she had left her house. No marks from the assault had remained on her face, but there were dark shadows under her eyes. She was well dressed, but much thinner, and the sparkle and determination to start a new life had been replaced by a haunted and weary look of resignation.

“It’s not just the job, is it, love ?” she asked gently.

Zahra looked at her but couldn’t reply. She hadn’t been able to talk to anyone about Farid, not even Helene, because he was her nephew.

“Where is he ?” asked Madame.

“In England,” replied Zahra miserably.

“On holiday ?”

“No, naval college. Two years..”

Madame Ziba heard the desperation in her voice, and wondered whether she should sympathise with the girl or try to snap her out of it.

“Has he written to you ?”

“No,” whispered Zahra.

“Do you expect him to ?”

“No,” she whispered again.

“Well, you can’t creep into a shell for ever, you know. Take Akbar, for example. I’ve never seen him so taken with anyone before. He’s a good man.”

“I know,” said Zahra, “but I can’t forget Farid. Maybe he’ll…”

But she broke off as she realised that wishful thinking would achieve nothing. She smiled forlornly at Madame Ziba. “I just need time.”

“You take some time, but don’t take for ever,” Madame advised her.

“Anyone at home ?” piped an unmistakeable voice followed by a giggle and Shirin’s head peering round the door. “Cor, you look like death warmed up,” she uttered to Zahra.

“That’s a fine welcome,” remonstrated Madame.

“Well, she does,” retorted Shirin, going over to Zahra and giving her a big hug.

“She’s had a bit of a fright, that’s all. You’ll soon learn about it,” she added.

Shirin had no time to question her further because Pari, Mahin, Hilda and Sonia trooped into the room followed by Akbar bearing a large plate of sandwiches. They all welcomed Zahra with hugs and kisses, commenting on her appearance and fussing over her like a long lost sister. The brandy was starting to make Zahra’s cheeks pink, and even her eyes started to shine at being the centre of attention after so long. Akbar watched her discreetly. He knew that Zahra was lonely and craved company, but there was a barrier there which no one could cross, and right now he wasn’t about to try.

The afternoon passed with everyone in high spirits. Outside a misty haze descended over the city, fading away the outline of the buildings, and a dull grey invaded the whole expanse of the sky, foreboding a heavy snowstorm overnight. Akbar got up and drew the curtains to shut out the menace of the elements, and then turned on the television in time for the early evening news. Everyone became riveted to the screen. The double slaying was the main news scoop, and showed the two mounds of snow on opposite street corners. One television crew had even managed to find some of the children who had been playing with Zahra, and asked them for an account of the events leading to the find.

“We were playing snowballs and aiming them at the snowmen,” said one young boy, “ and a nice girl came to play with us and threw some too. Then one snowball split a snowman’s face, and we saw some eyes inside and we screamed.”

“And what did the girl do ?” prompted the reporter.

“She told us to run for help.”

“Where is she now ?”

“I don’t know. She went away,” replied the child.

The reporter faced the camera. “The police would like to interview the young lady who was playing with the children, in case she is able to assist them in their investigation.”

The newscaster turned to other lesser items of news, his voice now drowned by the girls jabbering in nervous excitement about the cruel killer.

“I wonder who the girl was,” said Hilda idly.

“It was me,” replied Zahra quietly.

For a moment there was a stunned silence.

“No wonder you looked so washed out. I knew something was up,” crowed Shirin.

“Would they recognise you if they saw you again ?” asked Madame.

“I don’t know,” answered Zahra. “I had a warm hat pulled down over my ears, and my scarf was up over my nose.”

“No chance, then,” stated Madam. “Oh, but Akbar recognised you, didn’t he ?”

“Yes, but by that time they weren’t paying any attention to Zahra. They were all too busy staring at the snowmen,” Akbar assured everyone. “Anyway, what if they do recognise her ?”

“She hasn’t done anything wrong,” declared Shirin, leaping to Zahra’s defence.

“No, but she doesn’t want her picture splashed on every newspaper, and then, maybe, the murderer looking her up, does she ?” said Hilda shrewdly.

“Well, no one is going to know outside this room, are they ?” asked Akbar.

“No !” chorused the girls.

Zahra seemed relieved that the topic of conversation was over. “I think I had better get home before Helene starts to worry, especially if she’s seen that on the news.”

“I’ll take you home myself,” said Akbar.

“No, it’s alright. I can take a taxi, thank you.”

“You can, but you won’t,” said Akbar firmly. “You don’t even know if you can trust the taxi driver now…”

Madame Ziba sighed and made to get out of the armchair. “I could stay here all evening.”

“You are more than welcome,” offered Akbar courteously.

“No. I think my girls want to get on, and I can’t leave them alone with this maniac around. Jaleh is on her own, too. That’s the girl who took your room,” she explained to Zahra. “But thank you anyway.”

Akbar offered her his arm and pulled her hefty frame out of the armchair.

“Well, take care, Zahra, and try not to raise such a commotion next time you come to see us,” she teased.

Zahra had recovered sufficiently to take the jest good naturedly and smiled. She embraced Madame and the girls and promised to see them again soon.

“I’ll be back in a minute,” Akbar told her as he escorted them out of the room.

Zahra got up and automatically started clearing the plates and ashtrays.

“No need for that,” said a gruff voice making her jump. Ismail had come in to tidy up without knocking on the door.

“I don’t mind. I’m so used to it in the restaurant.”

“Well, Akbar will, so you just sit down,” Ismail warned.

He wasn’t sure what to make of Zahra - whether she was genuine, or just putting on an act. He couldn’t see Akbar losing his cool over a girl, but he seemed pretty smitten with this one. Well, he’d string along for the time being, as long as she didn’t cause any hassle.

“OK,” said Zahra meekly, and sat down giving Ismail a disarming smile.

Ismail returned an embarrassed grin and went out of the door with the crockery all haphazard in his arms. Akbar took only five minutes to return.

“Well, let’s get you home, then !”

“I’m ready,” Zahra replied, having already donned her outdoor clothes.

Akbar led her out to his car and opened the front passenger door. He drove along quite slowly because of the icy conditions, passing on their way the flashing hazard lights surrounding the now grotesque figures of ice. Zahra gave him directions to Helene’s house. Once there, he turned off the engine and turned to talk to her. “You’ll let me know when you can start, won’t you ?”

“Yes, I will. And thank you very much for today. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t come by.”

“Don’t think about it, and don’t worry. Things always get better.”

“I hope so,” said Zahra.

Akbar got out and went to open the car door. He shook the hand she held out to him, and waited as she approached the front door where she turned and waved before going into the house.

Farid’s first letter to Helene had detailed his arrival in England, the damp, depressing weather, poky lodgings, awful food, and his subsequent relief at finding a flat to share with Kamal. He also told his aunt that at his insistence, Kamal would be sending a parcel via his parents, and he begged her to look his family up and take the parcel to them.

When Maryam Nezam had arrived with the parcel two weeks later, Helene knew exactly what to say.

“Why his friend can’t send it direct, I really don’t know,” complained Maryam as she staggered through the doorway.

“Now, really, Maryam. That’s not like you,” Helene admonished her. “You know how kind Farid is. Well, his father’s friend is ill, and he wanted to surprise the family, instead of them being surprised by a demand from Customs and Excise. You don’t really mind, do you ?”

“No. I suppose not, now that I know why.”

Helene smiled. She knew how to soothe her late husband’s impulsive sister. “Have you heard much from Farid ?”

“Oh, yes. Four letters so far. We do miss him. He’s never been away from home before apart from joining the Navy.”

She looked wistfully at Helene. “Soon, Samira will leave as well. The house already feels empty.”

Helene put an arm round her. “Yes, but they will all come back to see you, and you already have one adorable grandchild.”

“I know. I know,” sighed Maryam, “but I can’t believe how quickly they have all grown up. It seems like such a short time since they were tiny children.”

“Will you stay for some tea ?” enquired Helene.

“Yes, that would be lovely. Thank you,” replied Maryam, thinking guiltily that she did not visit Helene nearly enough.

They sat and chatted for a while until Maryam exclaimed at the time. “Good heavens. Is it as late as that ? I must be going. You should come and see us more often, too. You don’t need an invitation.”

“When it gets warmer, definitely,” promised Helene. “But not just now. I do catch cold so easily in this weather.”

Maryam bundled herself into her thick, winter coat, hat and boots, and bade her sister in law farewell. The car was freezing cold inside, but the journey home would not take too long. She drove away quickly as a few snowflakes started to drift down from a pale, pewter sky.

Helene cleared the tea things away, and then sat down to watch the news. The double murder dominated the headlines and she began to feel uneasy. Zahra always told her where she was going, and she knew that she had gone to New Town to see her old acquaintances. However, her fears proved groundless as she heard the front door opening and closing. She went into the hall and saw Zahra taking off her outdoor clothes.

“Hello, Helene. Have you had a good day ?” she asked as she unzipped her long boots.

“Yes, very pleasant, thank you, but I have just seen the evening news and I was starting to get worried about you.”

Zahra was touched. She was very fond of Helene and the last thing she wanted to do was give her cause for concern. “Is there any tea ? I could do with a cup to warm me up, and I’ll tell you all about my visit.”

Curled up in an armchair by the stove in the sitting room, and sipping the hot, sweet tea, Zahra recounted the events of the whole afternoon to Helene who listened incredulously.

“… and Akbar insisted on bringing me home because he doesn’t even trust the taxi drivers now.”

“Well, I’m very relieved that you’re back,” answered Helene. “And he’s right, you know. You really don’t know who to trust. Do you have any plans for tomorrow ?” she continued.

“No, nothing in particular.”

“Well, I have to find the Moussavi family in south Tehran. They’re the family of one of Farid’s group of cadets in the Navy - someone called Kamal. He has sent them a parcel from England, and Farid has asked me to take it to them personally so that things don’t go missing from it. I wondered if you would like to come along.”

“I’d love to,” Zahra replied enthusiastically and giving Helene a big smile. “We’ll take a taxi and…” she broke off nervously.

“Don’t worry, Zahra. I always use the same taxi service and driver. We’ll be absolutely safe. So, I don’t want you having nightmares like the last time.”

“I can’t promise,” replied Zahra looking less tense, “but I’ll try not to.”

“Good. That’s what I like to hear. We’ll go after breakfast, and take some fruit and flowers as well. From what Farid tells me, they sound very poor.”

It was still snowing the following morning, and even the snow ploughs were having difficulty in keeping the streets open, as the persistent precipitation covered the roads almost as quickly as they were cleared. In some of the narrow alleys, where the snow ploughs could not get through, doorways were half obscured until the residents, grumbling and groaning, braved the elements with brooms and shovels, and colourful expletives.

Zahra slept longer than usual. Helene had assured her that there was no rush and that she should make the most of her time off. Consequently, she didn’t wake up till ten. “Oh my goodness !” she declared, as she checked her watch. “By the time I get washed, dressed and have breakfast, there will be no morning left !”

Helene smiled as she heard Zahra making her way to the bathroom. She went to the phone and called the private taxi service which she always used.

“Allo, befamaeed (yes, please).”

“Good morning. May I speak to Ali, please.”

“One moment, please.”

The receiver was dropped noisily, and Helene heard someone calling for Ali, and another voice relaying the message. After a few minutes and a medley of diverse sounds - paper rustling, other phones ringing, more voices, a door opening and closing, and hurried footsteps - the receiver was finally picked up.

“Good morning, Ali here.”

“Oh, good morning, Ali. This is Mrs Zarindasht. How are you ?”

“Good morning, Hanumeh Zarindasht. I’m very well, thank you. How are you, and how can I help you ?”

“Well, Ali, I know this isn’t the best time to go out, but I really need to get to south Tehran this morning. Do you think it would be possible to drive me there ?”

“As long as we stick to the main roads, we’ll be OK, but the small streets are impassable, and I wouldn’t want to get stuck in a snowdrift.”

“No, the main streets will be fine. In about half an hour, then ?”

“I’ll be there.”

When the taxi arrived, Zahra and Helene were waiting well wrapped and peering through the window of the sitting room. Helene had already bought fruit and flowers on an early morning visit to the corner shop and florist’s. They both settled on the back seat of the warm cab after a quick dash from the front door.

“Good morning, ladies. Where to ?” enquired Ali.

“Khiabuneh Munirieh near the railway station,” Helene told him.

“Oh, yes. I know it. I can drop you off at the front door !” he exclaimed.

Despite the laborious efforts of the snow ploughs, the streets were still icy and treacherous as new layers of snow settled thick and fast on the carefully deposited salt and gravel. The taxi slithered precariously along the wide avenues, passing many vehicles which had not fared so well, and had veered out of control into gutters, trees or each other.

Some scenes were amusing with irate drivers berating each other for minor mishaps. Others were distressing where van loads of produce had spilled onto the road, or livestock had escaped in all directions with chickens squawking or being run over as they fluttered forlornly amongst the traffic, pursued by their despairing owner.

After some forty minutes for a journey which normally only took twenty, Ali drew up in front of a shabby building.

“Here we are. Would you like me to wait, or shall I come back later ?”

“No, please wait. We won’t be more than twenty minutes,” answered Helene.

Ali turned off the engine, got out of his vehicle and went to open the passenger doors for her and Zahra.

“Be careful. It’s very slippery. Let me carry your parcel to the front door.”

“Thank you,” answered Helene as she stepped gingerly onto the pavement.

Zahra followed holding the flowers and basket of fruit, and scanned the name plates looking for Moussavi.

“Here it is,” she said. “Shall I ring the bell ?”

Helene nodded. They waited a few moments but there was no answer.

“It might be broken,” suggested Ali. “Try any of the bells.”

Zahra pressed another. Presently, the door was answered by an old woman peering through a diaphanous, black veil.

“Yes ?”

“Oh, sorry to disturb you. Does the Moussavi family live here ?” We rang and got no reply,” said Helene politely.

“Yes. That door at the end of the corridor on your left,” came the gruff reply, and she shuffled away.

Helene and Zahra closed the heavy, metal door behind them and walked down the stone flagged corridor to the door which the old woman had pointed out. They knocked and waited. Inside, they could hear voices and then footsteps approaching the door which suddenly swung open. They were greeted by a young man aged about nineteen, dressed in a tunic and baggy house trousers.


“Good morning,” replied Helene. “Does the Moussavi family live here ?”

“Yes, I am Jamal Moussavi. How may I help you ?”

“I am Mrs Zarindasht and this is Zahra. My nephew, Farid, is in the Navy with your brother, Kamal, and we have brought over the parcel which Kamal sent for you from England.”

“Oh, yes, Farid. Kamal has often talked about him. Please come in.”

He stood aside for Helene and Zahra to enter and then called his mother.

“Maman, we have some visitors.”

He indicated two chairs for Helene and Zahra to sit on.

“Please sit down. My mother will be with you in a minute. She is just helping my father to get washed and dressed.”

The two women sat down and looked around the room. It was scrupulously clean, but somewhat dingy and spartan. Apart from the two chairs on which they sat, an old, battered sofa, a small coffee table, and an ancient television set, there was not much else. In one corner stood a bokhari giving out welcome heat, and on top stood an old samovar gently hissing away under the teapot perched above. On either side of the bokhari were neatly folded piles of thin, foam mattresses and bedding, and against the walls were propped several large floor cushions. In the opposite corner, next to the old, black and white television set, stood a brand new knitting machine, and on the wall above the sofa, as in most homes, rich or poor, hung a large portrait of the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and his family.

They didn’t have long to wait. Presently, a small, thin woman covered in a chador, but with her face exposed, came from the back room to greet them and extended her hand to each of them.

“Salaam aleikum.”

Helene and Zahra returned the greeting, and Helene again explained the purpose of their visit.

Soraya Moussavi’s face suffused with gratitude as she accepted the parcel, flowers and fruit.

“You are so kind, but please tell me how much we owe you for import duty.”

“There is nothing to pay,” answered Helene. “My sister in law has already taken care of that.”

“Thank you so much,” whispered Soraya. “Please would you have some tea with us.”

“We would love to, but we can only stay about ten minutes. We have a taxi waiting.”

Soraya bustled away to the back room to fetch the tea glasses. Just then, Jamal and his younger brother, Hussein, came in, each supporting their father under one arm.

Farad Moussavi’s spine was twisted. He could not walk on his own and was often in pain, but he bore his affliction stoically. He greeted Helene and Zahra as his sons settled him on the sofa.

In the back room, Soraya uncovered a tray of tea glasses standing on a large, wooden dresser. The far corner of the room was cordoned off by an old screen. Behind it stood a small, melamine table with a chipped, china wash bowl and jug which Soraya filled every morning from the pump in the courtyard for the family’s daily ablutions. This room served as kitchen, bedroom, washroom and storage room, and leading off the courtyard, was a shower room and separate hole in the ground toilet for all the downstairs tenants to use. Unfortunately, these communal rooms were not as pristine as her own, but she had long since given up cleaning them as the other residents couldn’t be bothered.

Life for Soraya had greatly improved since Kamal had joined the Navy. With his first pay packet, her son had bought her a knitting machine. Through contacts, he had been able to find work as apprentice carpet weavers for his sisters, Laleh who was eighteen, and Homar who was sixteen. They both had marriages arranged, but Soraya wanted them to wait until Kamal returned from England, and also to give them time to save some money for the celebrations and their new start in life.

Jamal, who had finished high school, and seventeen year old Hussein with a year to go, were also hoping to join the armed forces, but at the moment, Soraya found their help invaluable in caring for her husband. Her youngest daughters, Famideh, thirteen, and Mina, twelve, helped her each day with domestic chores, and only Rostam, the youngest son, aged ten, was still at school. Just recently, Soraya had allowed him to help the local street traders clear their stalls at the end of the day, and in addition to the few rials they paid him, he also brought home any perishable goods which they had not managed to sell - usually fruit and vegetables, but occasionally some eggs or fish, and once, even, a damaged roll of fabric which Soraya was able to skilfully salvage into long skirts for her daughters.

“Farideh, take this tray into the next room for me, please.”

“Yes, maman.”

“And Mina, take these biscuits and plates.”

Both girls went through, followed by Soraya carrying a bowl of fruit. They placed everything down on the low, coffee table and Soraya took the glasses to the samovar to fill them with tea.

“Please take some fruit and biscuits,” she urged Helene and Zahra.

“Just one small biscuit with my tea, thank you,” answered Helene.

Zahra followed suit. They had both eaten breakfast, and were not hungry, but accepted a token offering as custom dictated, and to not cause offence. Soraya took a glass of tea to her husband and sat down beside him.

“You must be very proud of Kamal,” said Helene, addressing them both.

“Yes, we are,” answered Farad Moussavi. “He has made our life so much easier. My wife has worked very hard to support the family since my accident ten years ago. I had no compensation or pension, and it hasn’t been easy for her with eight children to bring up and no income from me. But Kamal gives us every rial, and only put some money aside to buy his mother a knitting machine. All the children are a credit to their mother. I get very bad tempered sometimes and I shout a lot, but they don’t get upset.”

“Children perceive things very easily,” Helene replied. “They don’t get upset because they know you don’t mean what you say when you are in pain.”

“Are you going to open the parcel ?” she asked turning to Soraya with a smile. Farid asked me to check that everything was there, and to write and let him know.”

“Yes, of course,” answered Soraya, gently patting Rostam who could scarcely wait to see what his big brother had sent him from England.

Apart from the latest fashionable clothes for everyone, Kamal had also sent some new knitting patterns for his mother who now supplied some of the most exclusive boutiques in Tehran.

“Look, girls,” she said to her daughters. “You’ll be able to wear the latest design knitwear.”

Rostam had dashed into the back room to change, and returned, face aglow, sporting new jeans and sweatshirt. Everyone was delighted with their gifts, and even Farad’s furrowed face was wreathed in a rare smile as he sat clutching the large, expensive box of Havana cigars, warm slippers and quilted dressing gown which his eldest son had so thoughtfully chosen.

“Yes, please tell Farid that we are very pleased,” said his father. “Everything is perfect. I know that he must have helped Kamal, and we are extremely grateful to you for coming out of your way in such weather to bring the parcel to us.”

“It’s our pleasure and no trouble at all,” answered Helene. “We’re so glad that we could help. If you ever need anything, please just phone and tell us. I’m sorry we can’t stay any longer, but I asked my regular taxi driver to wait for us. With these dreadful murders, you don’t know who you can trust.”

So saying, she and Zahra arose, thanked Soraya and Farad for their hospitality, and said their goodbyes to the family. Soraya saw them to the front door and thanked them yet again. Ali Ahmedi was still waiting patiently outside, listening to the car radio, but he had restarted the engine to keep the car warm.

“Terrible thing, these murders,” he remarked as Helene and Zahra climbed shivering into the back seat. “The police are still looking for that girl who joined the snowball game with those children. Poor kids must be havin’ nightmares after discovering a corpse !”

“I wonder what the police want her for,” said Helene.

“I dunno,” answered Ali. “Maybe they think she knows something.”

Suddenly, the taxi swerved violently as Ali slammed on his brakes to avoid a car that had skidded in front of him. The other vehicle came to rest with its bonnet buried in a deep drift of snow. Ali managed to avoid a collision, but after grappling with his steering wheel, found himself facing in the opposite direction.

“Sorry, ladies,” he apologised.

“That’s quite alright,” Helene assured him. “It wasn’t your fault. Is the other driver OK ?”

“I’ll just go and ask him.”

They were all startled when the other driver, a mullah, managed to push open the driver door and then darted away down the nearest alley before Ali could say a word.

“How very strange,” remarked Ali. “There’s something funny here.”

He went over to the car and looked inside, but there were no other passengers. On the front passenger seat, however, the mullah had left a copy of the Koran, and on the back seat, lay a small, silk, Persian rug, normally used as a prayer mat. Scratching his head, Ali went to check the boot. It wasn’t locked, but what he saw next made him put up his hands in horror. He slammed down the lid, his face ashen. Composing himself he returned to his own vehicle.

“Hanumeh Zarindasht, would you mind waiting a moment while I make a phone call ?”

When he returned five minutes later, he informed Helene and Zahra that they would all have to wait there until the police arrived.

“The police ?” asked Helene a little perplexed. “Is that necessary ? We didn’t have an accident.”

“No,” agreed Ali, “but there is a young woman’s body in the boot of that car, and I’ve been told to wait here until the police come and take a statement from me.”

His words sent a chill through the two women.

“Not again,” gasped Helene. “And we saw a mullah !”

This time it took the police much longer to appear because of the chaotic traffic conditions imposed by the weather. Their arrival was eventually heralded by an ambulance with its lights flashing and siren wailing at the head of the convoy. Ali lost no time in telling the curious spectators that he had seen a mullah running away from the abandoned car. The police were in no doubt that the young woman was a prostitute because of the way the body was clothed, and because the victim had been mutilated in the same way as the previous girls. However, this time, they had their first real clue - their witness had seen a mullah running away from the car, and his statement was corroborated by his two passengers who had also seen the mullah running away.

When they were satisfied with Ali’s account of the incident, the police told him that he could go. Helene and Zahra were very relieved when they finally drew up at their front door. Helene paid him and thanked him for his services, and the two scurried into the welcoming warmth of Helene’s cosy house.

Zahra seemed very pensive as they settled down in the sitting room.

“Don’t think about it, my dear,” Helene chided her.

“Oh, no. I’m not. I was thinking about the Moussavi family. They seem very poor, and all those people living in two rooms… “

“Yes, and they aren’t the only ones. There are poorer people than that, even, who live in more primitive conditions. I’ve seen whole families on muddy building sites in the middle of town with just a few wooden crates around them and a canvas tarpaulin serving as a roof. There is a shortage of labour, so no one need starve, but there is nothing to help people who are sick or disabled except for some paltry, government subsidised drugs. There is a lot of corruption about, and many people are unhappy and restless. Farad Moussavi should have received compensation from the company he worked for and a pension, but he didn’t. There are thousands more like him, and widowed or divorced women who have no means of supporting themselves or their families. A few women have skills such as Soraya with her knitting, but the majority have only basic education, if that, and can’t do much more than cooking, washing and cleaning. That’s why some work behind a red light at night. For them, it’s the only way to survive.”

Zahra didn’t answer. She no longer recoiled from the mention of her unfortunate association with the activities conducted in New Town. She had had the courage to return to her old haunts, and was greatly relieved that her longing to visit New Town was merely a craving conditioned by loneliness, and not some inexplicable urge to rejoin a downward spiral in which she had once thought she would perish. Now she understood why so many had to live that way, and could not extricate themselves from the web which ensnared them.

At length, she turned to Helene. “Why is someone killing them ?”

“I don’t know, Zahra, but I hope the police might have a new lead now. Please promise me something. If you need to take a taxi anywhere, use Ali from now on. Your friend is very wise not to trust anyone. If you can’t trust a mullah, there is no one else…”

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