A Red Light

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11. All Shapes & Guises


This time, the people of New Town went out of their way to assist the police in their enquiries. They were afraid. The murderer had left no traces the first or second time, and virtually none the third, except that a mullah had been seen running away from the car in which the latest victim had been found.

The mysterious girl who had played with the children throwing snowballs, had never come forward, and rumours were rife that the actual killer had disguised himself, and had gone back to his victims’ burial site to expedite their discovery. They, too, had died from multiple stab wounds and mutilations, but again, no one had come forward to claim them as family. Their landlord, however, did contact the police. They had rented one of his apartments some six months ago, and had informed him that they worked as secretaries. Other tenants vouched that they seemed very nice young ladies who kept to themselves, and even had a mullah visit them regularly.

The police marvelled that the murderer could have transported two bodies for more than two kilometres, and then made snowmen out of them without anyone seeing him. One local resident reported that he had been awakened earlier than normal in the small hours by a refuse collector pulling his cart through the streets about six days before the bodies were found. He had looked out of the window, and had seen a man assiduously sweeping the road, emptying the bins and then stop at the top of the street to pile up the mounds of snow on each corner. At that point, however, he had gone back to bed.

New Town was cowed. This adversary was ruthless and cunning, and moreover, bad for trade. Girls hired bodyguards and charged double. Protection racketeers had field days, and customers came less frequently with no money left to spend in the night clubs and bars. The only people who benefited from the fear imposed restraint were the homosexuals. For them, business substantially improved as frequenters of New Town perverted their tastes and sought cheaper diversions. Never had meeting places abounded with so many gays and cross dressers, competing with each other to attract customers as long as prostitute prices remained high.

“Mark my words,” said Ismail to Akbar behind the bar one day. “One of these tarted up queers will end up a corpse too. I wouldn’t mind approaching one of the beauties myself if I didn’t know better !”

“Serve them all right if they did,” muttered Akbar whose tolerance of people definitely didn’t extend to homosexuals. “Prostitutes are necessary, but these guys - they’re unnatural.”

“Well, you make your money out of them, boss !” exclaimed Ismail grinning.

“Only for food and drink,” retorted Akbar. “But after I do this place up, we go straight. I’m having a night club with a new attraction. We’ll be packed out.”

“What’s the new attraction ?”

“A singer. They’ll be fighting to get in,” boasted Akbar.

“Anyone I know ?”

“Yes. It’s Zahra.”

Ismail looked mildly surprised. “Zahra ? She’s as timid as a mouse !”

“Maybe. But she can sing. She just needs some confidence and building up.”

“If you say so, boss,” replied Ismail quite amused, and carried on washing up the glasses and plates secretly thinking that Akbar had taken leave of his senses.

Zahra had not looked forward to telling Youssef and Jenny that she wanted to leave their employ. They had been good to her, and she felt guilty at letting them down.

“I’ll pay you more,” Youssef had offered.

“No, Youssef. It’s not the money,” insisted Zahra. “You pay me enough, but the work is too hard and… “

“I’ll get another girl to help you,” interrupted Youssef.

“No, Youssef. I can’t explain, but I need to get away. To try something else. I don’t even know what I really want myself… “

“Are you leaving Helene’s ?”

“No, I’m staying with her, and I won’t leave you until you have the right replacement, but I must have a change. I’m, I’m so confused… “

Youssef looked at her tear filled eyes, and knew that more was amiss than she had divulged. His money was on an educated guess that the main reason was Farid. When the latter had departed for England, they noticed that Zahra had become gradually very withdrawn. Youssef knew that they had gone out together, but beyond that knew very little about her, nor did he venture to ask. He didn’t think Zahra would be very forthcoming even if he did.

“I’ll take you back when you sort yourself out,” he said at length.

“Thank you, Youssef. I might take you up on that,” replied Zahra diffidently. ”I’m sorry.”

“Look, don’t feel bad about it. What I’d really like is to see you back here in a couple of months with the old sparkle in your eyes.”

“I’ll try,” murmured Zahra. “I really will.”

“OK, then. Now we have customers out there waiting,” concluded Youssef with an understanding smile, but he was worried as he watched her go out of the small office. He hadn’t even asked her what she was going to do. What would he tell Farid when he wrote to him… ?

The next person Zahra had to tell was Helene. She broached the subject as they were sitting in front of the television two nights later.

“Helene… “

“Yes, dear,” replied Helene with her customary concern, making it even harder for Zahra to say what she wanted.

“I… “

“What is it, my dear ?” asked Helene solicitously as she waited for Zahra to regain her composure.

“I’m leaving the Wimpy Bar,” she blurted out at last.

Helene waited for her to go on and add why, but instead saw Zahra’s bottom lip tremble as she gazed down at her lap.

“Has Youssef sacked you ?”

“No. Not at all. It was my decision. The work is too tiring and I wanted a change.”

“Are you leaving me too ?” asked Helene softly.

At this, Zahra flew over to her and threw her arms around Helene’s neck.

“No ! How could I leave you ? This is my home for as long as you’ll have me,” she declared fiercely.

“In that case, where are you going to work ?”

“I’m going to help Akbar in his café.”

“Is it wise to return to New Town ?”

“I don’t know, Helene,” came Zahra’s faltering voice. “I only know that I don’t belong with Jenny and Youssef. When I went to see Madame Ziba and the girls a few days ago, I felt so much better there. Maybe, that’s where I really belong,” she said brokenly with tears running down her face as a wave of self pity engulfed her. “Farid doesn’t want me and no one else will either… “

“Zahra, you mustn’t say things like that,” said Helene, grasping her heaving shoulders. “Farid loves you, but he’s a dutiful son, and will marry the girl his parents approve of, even if no love is there. You can’t return to New Town for that reason.”

“I didn’t mean I would do what I did before. I couldn’t,” said Zahra still crying. “But maybe it’s because I met Farid there that I somehow feel at home there… “

Helene did not reply at first. Instead, she stroked the girl’s burnished hair as she continued to sob, hiding her face in Helene’s lap, and releasing the anguish and loneliness she had pent up inside since Farid’s departure over six weeks ago. At length, her grief subsided and she looked up at Helene, her emotions drained.

“Crying gives no answers,” Helene counselled her, “but it clears the turbulence in your heart for a while before the dark clouds of emotion gather there again for another storm. But each time the storm will be less fierce than the last, until only a scar remains which may cause you pain just once in a while. I’ve done some crying myself over the years, but by and by the wounds healed, and so will yours. We’ll see this through together, won’t we ?”

Zahra nodded and embraced Helene again.

“Well, how about pouring us some tea ?” said Helene. “There’s a nice, weepy film on tonight. We can sit and cry our eyes out as much as we want !”

As she lay in bed that night, Zahra thought not of Farid, but of Akbar. If she hadn’t fallen in love with Farid, she could quite easily feel attracted to Akbar. He was tall, broad shouldered and good looking, and she felt completely secure from the evils of the world in his presence. She was aware that he liked her very much, and knew that she would have to draw a very careful line between them in order not to encourage him, but at the same time not hurt his feelings.

It was mid January before Youssef found a suitable replacement for Zahra. Jenny was also sorry to see her go. She had made expatriate friends at the language school, but did not know many local girls. Zahra had taught her quite a lot of Farsi, and had taken the trouble to explain Persian customs to her. This she had found invaluable when visiting or entertaining Youssef’s family and friends.

“Please come and see us,” she urged Zahra.

“Yes, please do. We shall miss you,” added Youssef.

“If you can put up with me, I shall come for coffee once a month,” ventured Zahra.

“We’d love to see you anytime, but preferably in the afternoon so I don’t miss you,” Jenny reminded her.

“You know you’re always welcome,” said Youssef.

Jenny stepped forward and pressed a small packet into Zahra’s hand.

“Whatever is that for ?” murmured Zahra.

“Just to show you that you’re more than an employee to us, and to show our appreciation,” answered Youssef.

Zahra undid the wrapping paper and opened the small box which lay nestled in the tissues. Inside was an exquisite gold locket on a delicate, gold chain. Zahra was touched.

“Open it,” said Jenny. Zahra undid the locket and gazed at the pictures on either side. One was of Farid and one of herself.

“How did you know ?” she asked them shyly.

“It wasn’t very difficult,” replied Youssef. “After Farid left, you changed so much it was obvious.”

“It’s a lovely present, and so thoughtful. I don’t know how to thank you.”

“Just take care of yourself, and don’t forget to visit us,” said Youssef.

Zahra put the locket on, hugged them both and turned to go.

“Don’t forget. You promised once a month,” called Jenny after her.

“No’ I won’t,” promised Zahra as she stepped out of the café.

She had already arranged for Ali Ahmedi to pick her up, and once in the cab, waved to Jenny and Youssef until the Wimpy Bar was out of sight.

That evening, she phoned Akbar to tell him she was free, and asked if he the café was ready for her to start.

“Not quite,” came his reply.

“That’s good,” answered Zahra, “because I would really like a couple of weeks rest first, if you don’t mind.”

“No, that’s a good idea,” agreed Akbar. “And put a bit of weight on. You’re too thin,” he added.

“I’ll try,” laughed Zahra, “but I don’t promise.”

She replaced the receiver, and went into the kitchen to help Helene with the washing up. She hadn’t mentioned Farid again since her outburst. Only Helene’s words still rang in her ears …”even if no love is there”, and she derived some strange comfort in imagining that Farid was probably experiencing the same pangs of love.

During the next two weeks, she listened to countless records, learning by heart her favourite songs, and practised singing aloud with the music turned down low. At the end of the first week, she suddenly wondered who would accompany her, and phoned Akbar in a panic. He assured her that he had thought of everything, and not to worry.

“As you’re free now, Zahra, why don’t you come and have a look at the place ? Maybe, I could leave the finishing touches to you. You know - curtains and ornaments and things… “

“I wouldn’t be so presumptuous. You should decorate it the way you like.”

“Please. As a favour,” pleaded Akbar. “I have no taste and no idea of how to match things, and I want this place to be as classy as possible.”

“Oh, alright then,” conceded Zahra.

“Good. I’ll send Ismail over straightaway to pick you up.”

“See you soon, then.”

When she arrived at Akbar’s café, Zahra saw his dilemma. He didn’t want a luridly painted den of iniquity, but neither could he present a too upmarket establishment which could backfire on him and deter the frequenters of New Town.

“Well, what do you think ?” Akbar asked.

Zahra noticed that the café had been whitewashed inside, and a new mosaic floor had been laid.

“I think,” she said slowly, looking around, “that some large, floor standing plants would make all the difference, but nothing plastic ! Also if you have some side lights instead of one overhead, it will look much cosier and more intimate.”

“I’ll see to it right away !” exclaimed Akbar. “But what about the walls ?”

“The walls look fine as they are, but if you really don’t like them plain, why not buy some of those lovely, inlaid picture frames from the bazaar and put some old, Persian prints in them. That won’t look over chic or too cheap, and, hopefully, everybody will be pleased.”

Akbar looked relieved. It was just the sort of compromise he wanted. Nothing too grand, but in good taste and which even his old customers would appreciate.

When Zahra made her debut at Akbar’s new establishment, she received a rapturous applause from Aunt Helene, Madame Ziba and the girls, and from all of Akbar’s old regulars who had been privileged to receive an invitation for the opening night. Even Ismail grudgingly conceded that Zahra was ’alright’, although this was still no excuse for his boss to go all starry eyed !

The venture was such a resounding success, that Akbar had to employ extra staff - two hefty bouncers to throw out unruly and inebriated customers, and, at Zahra’s request, Kamal’s two brothers, Jamal and Hussein, as waiters because she knew the family would welcome the extra income.

Zahra’s arrangement with Akbar was to sing during the week with a night off in the middle, and to have the weekend off because he received more than enough customers at that time without the need of an extra attraction.

At Helene and Akbar’s insistence, she only travelled with Ismail or Ali Ahmedi who were both under strict instructions from Akbar to make sure that no one ever followed them.

“You don’t know with this maniac about, that he might just decide that Zahra is a good time girl too,” he remarked to Ismail and Ali one evening. “And I wouldn’t want him to find out where she lives.”

“Well, no one still knows anything except that some man told the police a mullah ran away from the car which had the body of the latest girl in the boot,” said Ismail.

“Too right !” said Ali. “That was me, and I had Mrs Zarindasht and Zahra in my taxi at the time. But I don’t think that he even saw them because he was in such a hurry to get away when he realised his car wasn’t going anywhere !”

“Did the police find out who the car belonged to ?” asked Akbar.

“Yeah. It had been hired from a car rental company the day before by a mullah, but under a false name, so they aren’t any wiser,” replied Ali. “They just know the same person has killed all the girls so far because of a certain mark he puts on their bodies.”

“Oh, and what’s that ?” asked Ismail curiously.

“Unfortunately, they won’t spill the beans on that piece of information. Classified, they said, and if it was known, they might get a load of copycat murders with some nutters thinking it was a good way to get rid of someone, and letting the real murderer take all the flak for it.”

“They have a point, I suppose,” conceded Akbar who had just thought of something which could definitely help him. It was time for Madame Ziba to return a favour !

“I don’t think the mullahs are very happy since the story got out,” continued Ali, because everyone knows that it’s the poor families whose girls sell themselves to support them. And it’s also the poor families who support the mullahs more than anyone else.”

He shrugged his shoulders and picked up his car keys as Zahra came through ready to go home.

“Good night. See you tomorrow,” said Akbar as Ali held the door open for her.

“Yeah, goodnight,” added Ismail.

“Another brilliant evening,” sighed Akbar, “but I think it’s going to get better. Can you manage to clear up, Ismail. I need to make a phone call, but I’ll give you a hand as soon as I’ve finished.”

“Yeah, boss. No worries. Take as long as you need.”

Akbar went to his sitting room and dialled Madame Ziba’s number.


“Hello. Madame Ziba ?”

“Hello, Akbar. How are you ?”

“Very well, thank you. And you ?”

“I’m very well too. I take it this isn’t a social call !”

“Well, yes and no. I’m pleased to hear that you are fine, but I do have a favour to ask.”

“If I can help, I most certainly will.”

“Madame, if I remember right, you told me that you knew the Chief of Police very well.”

“I most certainly do. Is there a problem ?”

“Not a problem as such, but I would like to know one particular fact about these murders which the police haven’t disclosed to the press.”

“And what would that be ?”

“Apparently, the murderer has a trademark. All the victims were mutilated in the same way. That’s how they know it’s the same maniac. If I could find out what he’s done to them, it might give me a clue who could be behind it.”

“I’ll get onto it right away,” promised Madame Ziba.

She was as good as her word. Two hours later, she returned Akbar’s phone call with the information.

“… each girl that he knocked off, he had sex with first, then after he killed her, he carved a cross on each breast,” Akbar told Ismail in hushed tones.

Ismail looked at Akbar sharply, the same thought crossing both their minds, but neither spoke until the last of the customers had left.

“Where you thinking what I was ?” asked Ismail as he bolted the door. “Hassan ?”

Akbar nodded. “What would a man do to hide a scar on his cheek ?”

“Grow a beard.”

“Precisely ! And what would he do to disguise his appearance ?”

“Wear different clothes. Yeah… a mullah’s !”

“That’s right. We haven’t seen Hassan since that beating we gave him. In that disguise, girls wouldn’t suspect him, and they wouldn’t see the cross on his cheek either.”

“So, the mother fucker is getting his revenge by carving a cross on these girls. Are you going to tell the cops ?”

“No way ! First we’ll go and find out his schedule, and then get some one to follow the son of a bitch in between his shifts. Young Hussein will do. He’s very streetwise, and Hassan doesn’t know him.”

The following morning, Akbar and Ismail left Jamal and Hussein in charge of the café, and drove to the coach depot to talk to the clerk.

“Hassan doesn’t come to Tehran any more,” lied Saeed, wondering what he could have done this time. He couldn’t afford to be a driver short, and he certainly didn’t want one laid off for two weeks again. “He does the Isfahan - Abadan route now.”

“Well, you won’t mind if we look at your list then, will you ?” said Ismail grabbing the paper from under his nose.

“Oh, look, Akbar,” he sneered. “What a coincidence ! There’s a coach arriving from Mashad in twenty minutes, and surprise, surprise, the driver’s name is Hassan.”

Suddenly, Ismail leant right over the desk, and with one hand hauled the clerk to his feet by his shirt collar.

“I don’t like people who lie to me. We don’t want any trouble here, do we ?” he growled as he pushed a pile of booking forms onto the floor.

“No,” murmured Saeed fearfully.

“That’s better,” said Ismail releasing him. “I do like cooperative people. I think we understand each other now, don’t we ? You won’t mind if we wait for dear Hassan here, will you ? In fact, two glasses of tea would be most appreciated.”

Saeed scraped his chair back hurriedly, and went over to the samovar returning as fast as he could with the hot drinks.

“Just one more thing,” added Akbar as he took his tea. “I want a copy of Hassan’s work schedule for the next month. Quick !”

“Yes. Right away,” said the clerk sidling over to the photo copier in the corner behind him.

He returned with a piece of paper which he handed nervously to Akbar.

“Good !” exclaimed the latter. “I take it this is fully up to date ?”

“Yes, it is,” Saeed assured him. “It’s all correct - unless the company changes the schedule or Hassan takes time off.”

“Well, for your sake, everything had better stay the same,” Akbar warned him. “And you’d better not tell Hassan if you know what’s good for you.”

Shortly before the coach was due to arrive, Akbar and Ismail left the office. They watched, hidden behind another bus, as the coach pulled in and the passengers alighted and waited for the driver to get their luggage out of the hold.

“It is him !” exclaimed Ismail to Akbar as the driver descended from his vehicle. “And he has grown a beard !”

“We’ll follow him and see where he’s staying,” whispered Akbar. “Then we can get Hussein to keep an eye on him.”

After the last passenger had left, Hassan drove the coach a few metres to the maintenance bay to be checked, serviced and refuelled before the next run. He then walked over to the booking office to report to Saeed, and came out after a brief conversation with the clerk. Akbar and Ismail tailed him stealthily to a small, cheap hotel two streets away.

“Ah ! He’s staying at Houshang’s place now,” observed Akbar. “Well, we’ll soon find out how Hassan amuses himself these days… “

They returned to the car and made their way back to the café where Akbar proceeded to brief Hussein.

“… and remember, not a word to anyone. Just follow him and make sure he never sees you. Write down where he goes and at what time.”

“What’s it all about ?” asked Hussein curiously.

“Never you mind,” said Akbar. “The less you know, the better, but you’ll get paid for your services if you keep your eyes open and your mouth shut. Are you game ?”

Hussein nodded.

“And by the way, write down what sort of clothes he wears, too,” added Akbar.

It was nearing the end of January. The winter had been bad. The snow storms had decreased, but it was still bitterly cold, and the severity of the weather had seriously hampered the police operations in their hunt for the murderer. Nevertheless, the rumours abounding about the mullah had badly damaged relations between the clerics and their faithful followers. People abstained from inviting them to their houses to read the Koran, and the support of the masses for the demonstrations which the mullahs had organised against corruption and an autocratic government, quickly dwindled.

Akbar and Ismail noted from Hassan’s work schedule that he had three days off before his next tour. They waited with apprehension for Hussein to return from his surveillance. But after the first day, there was nothing unusual to report. Hassan had left his lodgings around midday to go to a Chelo Kebabi for lunch. He had returned alone, and according to Houshang, whom Akbar knew, had not left his room again until the following morning. Hussein trailed him a second day and reported to Akbar in the evening. Hassan had visited a hairdresser in Amiryeh Avenue, and had then gone to a bar where he had stayed for three hours. When he came out, he was accompanied by a woman with whom he went to a nearby house from where he emerged alone half an hour later.

“What was he wearing ?” asked Akbar.

“The same clothes as yesterday,” answered Hussein.

Akbar grimaced, slightly put out that so far his theory about Hassan hadn’t concurred with actual events.

“It’s early days yet, boss,” remarked Ismail later in the kitchen. “He’s hardly going to dress up as a mullah with the present rumours going round.”

“No, I suppose not,” agreed Akbar slightly mollified. “We’ll just have to keep an eye on him each time he’s in town.”

“Yeah. Sooner or later he’ll make a wrong move. They always do. In the meantime,” said Ismail, grinning, “I’ll pay our friend, Saeed, another visit in the booking office and find out Hassan’s movements since we last met him !”

“Excellent idea !” replied Akbar. “Then we’ll know if he was in town when each of the women was killed.”

On the third day, Hussein came back to the café at four o’clock and spoke with Akbar and Ismail. He had followed Hassan, but again had noticed nothing out of the ordinary. Hassan had changed clothes - a different shirt and pair of trousers, but much the same style as his normal attire under his winter coat and fur hat. He had come out of his lodgings quite late, gone to the same Chelo Kebabi, and thereafter to the bus station from where he had taken his coach full of passengers to the holy city of Mashad, departing at three thirty.

“Thank you, Hussein. You’ve done well, “ Akbar told him pressing some money into his hand. “As I said before, not a word to anyone. I’ll let you know if I need you again. Now go and help your brother with the customers.”

Hussein thanked him profusely and left the kitchen.

“Now what, boss ?” asked Ismail.

“We’ll just have to wait, won’t we ? As you said, sooner or later he’ll slip up, and then we’ll nail the bastard. When is he due back ?”

“Not for three weeks according to this schedule. He’s doing some runs from Mashad to Chalus and Rasht along the Caspian coast for a while.”

“Right. Well, remind me again nearer the time.”

“Sure thing. I’d really like to teach the sod another lesson when we catch him red handed…”

The three weeks passed before Akbar and Ismail realised. They were so busy in the café with the customers who flocked there to hear Zahra sing, that they had lost all track of time.

“Hey, boss,” Ismail said suddenly at breakfast one morning. “Hassan was due back in Tehran yesterday afternoon.”

“I’ll get Hussein onto to him right away,” mumbled Akbar through a mouthful of bread and cheese. “I’ll phone Houshang to see if he’s staying there again.”

“Is he ?” asked Ismail as Akbar returned.

“Yeah. He booked in last night, but he hasn’t got up yet.”

“Well, that’s a relief. I don’t think we’ve missed anything then. But you’ll have to go and get Hussein. It’s their day off today.”

“Oh, damn,” muttered Akbar. “Look, can you go ? I’ve got some orders to phone through and some deliveries coming as well.”

“Yeah, no problem. Do you want me to clear the breakfast things ?”

“No. I can do that. The sooner you get Hussein down there, the better.”

“Right. See you later then.”

“Don’t forget to tell Hussein to report back here.”

Hussein spent a fruitless day waiting in vain for Hassan to emerge from Houshang’s hotel. It was cold and he was frozen to the bone. He decided to phone Akbar from a phone booth on Amiryeh Avenue where he still had a clear view of the hotel.

On Amiryeh Avenue could often be seen ‘hejleh’ - large, hollow, cylindrical posts about one metre in diameter - on which were displayed pictures and a brief resume of mostly young people who had died in tragic circumstances. The most recent was that of a handsome, young man killed at the age of twenty five in a car accident. The pictures had been up several days, but now some workmen were preparing to dismantle the two metre high post. The coloured lights framing the photographs were switched off, and then the photos were reverently removed and passed to the weeping relatives assembled there.

From the phone booth, Hussein watched as the four workmen struggled to lower the heavy cylinder to a horizontal position on the ground. He was totally unprepared for what he saw next. Inside the cylinder he could see a figure. Hurriedly, he phoned Akbar to tell him he hadn’t seen Hassan, but also what he could see from where he stood in the telephone kiosk.

“The workmen haven’t realised yet,” he jabbered excitedly to Akbar.

“Stay there. Don’t go near them,” ordered Akbar. “I’m coming right away, but don’t take your eyes off that hotel.”

Akbar put the receiver down and yelled to Ismail.

“Ismail. We’ve got something. Get the car quick.”

They rushed out and drove at breakneck speed to Amiryeh Avenue. Hussein hadn’t moved from the phone booth, but a female passer by had also noticed the body and had started screaming. The workmen covered the ends of the cylinder with some of the material which had been draped around it, and waited for the police to arrive. Akbar and Ismail arrived first.

“Let me have a quick look,” said Akbar striding up and lifting the cover at one end. Inside, he could see the half naked body of a young woman, but what he wanted to see was the distinctive incision. And, sure enough, there it was, carved on each breast. He stepped away, momentarily sickened.

“That’s all I wanted to know,” he said to Ismail. “This time we’ve got him. Let’s lynch the bastard.”

In the small reception hall, Houshang was startled out of his customary daydreaming as Akbar and Ismail charged through the front door.

“Which room is he in ?” Akbar demanded.

“Hassan ? Room 7. Upstairs, second on the left. Do you want…?”

But Akbar and Ismail had already stormed ahead. Akbar turned the door handle but it was locked. He banged on the door with his fist but there was no reply.

“No, please don’t break the door down, Akbar,” pleaded Houshang from behind them as Akbar brought his leg up ready to kick the door in. “Here’s the key.”

Akbar turned the key in the lock and went in. Hassan was still in bed.

“You son of a bitch,” shouted Akbar, going over to the bed. “Get up. We want a word with you.”

Hassan did not stir and Akbar angrily wrenched back the covers. Hassan lay on the bed his eyes wide open but gazing blankly at the ceiling. A ten centimetre gash ran across his neck, and on his bare chest was carved a cross.

“Oh, my God,” murmured Houshang fearfully.

“Call the police,” Akbar told him. “They’re just on their way to Amiryeh Avenue. We’re not staying. Just tell the police you went to his room because he didn’t usually stay in bed all day. And don’t touch anything.”

He and Ismail walked out as Houshang rushed in a panic to his telephone in the hall.

“Hussein, get in,” Akbar barked as they screeched to a sudden halt beside the phone booth. Hussein climbed gratefully into the warm car.

“Another prostitute ?” he asked.

“Probably,” said Akbar tersely. “But Hassan is dead too. The same killer by the look of it.”

Hussein remained silent. He had learnt not to ask questions. He knew that Akbar would tell him something if he felt so inclined, but he volunteered no further information during the drive to the boy’s home.

“See you tomorrow,” said Akbar pressing more money into his hand. “You did well to phone.”

“What do you make of that ?” Ismail asked as they drove back to New Town.

“Beats me,” answered Akbar wearily. “It’s not just prostitutes now, is it ? If you ask me, the poor bugger found something out, and the killer had to keep him quiet too.”

Hassan had, indeed, been unlucky. He had stumbled upon the killer when he had visited his regular girl. He was ordered at gunpoint to carry the corpse, and to wait in a dark alley behind the ’hejleh’ until the coast was clear.

All the shops had shut, and no one lingered in the sub zero temperatures. Hassan was told to slide the body up the rear of the cylinder and to topple it in. Then he was ordered, still at gunpoint, to go back to his own abode.

Houshang had noticed nothing unusual when a mullah had come in at the same time as Hassan, and had also asked for a room for the night. The two men went up to adjacent rooms, but only

the mullah arose and left early the next morning.

“You’re overdoing things,” declared an angry voice in Washington. “The people aren’t stupid. Pretty soon they’re going to realise that a real mullah wouldn’t hide a prostitute’s body in a ‘hejleh’, and their sympathies will return. Then you’ll lose control altogether… And why was the man killed ?”

“He got in the way,” came the monotonous reply. “He could have ruined everything.”

“Well, you’ve as good as done that yourself. You had better pay a few local peasants to start some demonstrations against the clerics whilst the rumours are still hot and feelings are running high.”

“Very well. I’ll organise it as soon as possible.”

“It’s in your own interest. The people have had enough. Once the clergy win their support, that’s the end of the West in Iran.” The receiver was slammed down.

The recipient of the call from downtown Tehran gazed out of the window from his high backed leather chair into the wintry splendour of the garden beyond. Then swivelling his seat round, he stared at a framed map of the world hanging on the wall opposite him, and flicked a minute speck of fluff from the sleeve of his highly decorated uniform. Whatever the outcome, he thought to himself, he would bend with the wind and support whoever came out on top…

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