13. Fair Game
13 FAIR GAME
The assassin looked at his face in the mirror, uttering profanities against Hilda. The bloody woman had nearly ruined everything. He had been told to lie low for a time while others incited the crowds. He certainly hadn’t wanted another killing at this time, only Zahra, and then his list would have been complete. He had been drinking heavily the night he met her and couldn’t remember much of the evening, or if he had given any secrets away. It left him with no choice but to eliminate her. It was a pity. She was shy and inexperienced, completely the opposite to other prostitutes whom he sought out as the need arose. In his profession, they were the only women he could associate with to avoid complicated relationships.
If the stupid woman hadn’t screamed, he probably would have left as quietly as he had entered. As it was, with his training for self preservation, force of habit had instinctively guided his hand to his knife. When he dealt Hilda the fatal blow, her arms had flailed desperately in the air, and she had clawed his face as she went down. The thirteen day holiday for New Year would be time enough for the scratches to disappear before he returned to work, but he had to get to Zahra as soon as possible. Last night had ascertained that she no longer lived at Madame Ziba’s although he knew that she sang in Akbar’s café.
He opened a wardrobe in his bedroom, and rifled through it for a possible disguise - a disguise which would allow him to watch her movements and find out where she lived. With Zahra out of the way, he would be able to go to ground for a while. There were other agents who could ruffle a few more feathers. It had been decidedly easy to undermine the credibility of the religious leaders. They had tried their utmost to persuade the nation that the Shah was a puppet of Western imperialism, but the populace had been taken in by the killer’s audacious transgressions.
Farid and Kamal returned to Akbar’s café that night and talked jovially in English, pretending
not to understand any Farsi. The other customers were at first curious, but gradually concentrated on listening to Zahra sing. Akbar had instructed his bouncers, Vahid and Faromarz, to make sure that the two men were not bothered by ladies offering their favours. He knew that they had to be extremely vigilant, and could afford no distractions.
Siyasaki was in his usual place by the small stage. He seemed familiar to Farid, and he remembered that he had seen him on a few occasions at Youssef’s Wimpy Bar. The man had turned to look at him and Kamal, and he was glad that they had been able to grow beards and moustaches to give the impression of laid back travellers.
The first evening passed without incident, although Ismail thought at one point that someone was following him as he drove Zahra home. He had taken the precaution of suddenly veering into a side alley, and crisscrossing through several more back streets, before arriving in Eisenhower Avenue, confident that he had given that person the slip.
Zahra was due to sing again the following night, and Farid and Kamal arrived as soon as they could after their debriefing. Since Hilda’s murder, Akbar had put metal grills on all the back windows of the café, including the toilets. He was leaving nothing to chance. No one could enter or leave unless it was through the front door. The little café filled up quickly with all the regulars except for Siyasaki.
“Rose petal isn’t here tonight,” remarked Ismail to Akbar.
“No great loss,” answered Akbar gruffly. “He hasn’t been drinking much lately and occupies a whole table on his own. There’s four people sitting there tonight. Much more profitable for us.”
“Yeah, I‘m with you there, boss. It’s just that he’s never missed an evening when Zahra’s been on.”
“You never know. He might have found a more thpethial fwend,” Akbar retorted sarcastically, feigning Siyasaki’s lisp.
Nevertheless, he caught Farid’s attention and nodded towards the table where Siyasaki normally sat. Farid guessed immediately and gave Akbar a thumbs up gesture to show he understood.
Again, nothing untoward happened. Farid and Kamal stayed until the last of the customers had left, and then rose to go as Akbar closed up for the night.
“I’m feeling generous tonight. How much do you think I should give the beggar ?” Kamal asked Farid, pointing to a ragged figure huddled on the pavement outside the café.
“Oh, fifty rials, if you have any change.”
Kamal dropped some coins in the beggar’s outstretched hand.
“Heili mam noon (thank you very much),” came the muffled reply.
“I hope that was a thank you, not a curse !” said Farid loudly to Kamal as they walked on.
“Hang on a bit,” Kamal said to Farid when they were out of earshot, but still in sight of the café. “Don’t you think that’s a bit strange ?”
“That beggar sitting outside the café.”
“What’s strange about it ? You see them everywhere.”
“Well, don’t you think it’s rather a coincidence that we’re on the lookout for someone, and a beggar turns up conveniently outside Akbar’s café ?”
Farid looked round casually. “He’s still there.”
“Exactly ! And all the customers have gone, so there’s no more money forthcoming. But Zahra’s still there, isn’t she ?”
“How can we check him out ?”
“Let’s walk back to the café and pretend you’ve left something behind - your sunglasses. If he doesn’t want to draw attention to himself, he won’t move.”
The beggar didn’t even look up as they approached the cafe. Farid knocked loudly on the door.
“I hope my sunglasses are there,” he said pointedly as they waited. “I shall be most annoyed if they’re not. They cost me a fortune.”
Akbar appeared wiping his hands on a tea towel.
“Sorry to trouble you,” said Farid. “I think I’ve left my sunglasses behind.”
“Chi migi (what are you saying) ?” demanded Akbar in Farsi.
“Sunglasses, you know… er, how can I explain sunglasses ?” he asked Kamal.
“Beats me,” answered Kamal unhelpfully. “Why don’t you draw a pair ? Do you have a pen ?”
“Do it on his tea cloth.”
Farid pretended to sketch some sunglasses but quickly wrote a message in Farsi on the cloth.
“Ah ! Einak aftabi (sunglasses) !” exclaimed Akbar, motioning them to step inside.
Once in, they put on a show of looking for the glasses whilst Kamal explained his theory to Akbar. Then, pretending to have found them, Farid and Kamal made to leave again. Outside, Akbar strode up to the squat figure. “Come on, off with you. I don’t want any tramps outside my café.”
“Back off,” snarled the man, revealing a small revolver in his hand.
Akbar stepped back slowly, but his military training had taught him speed and cunning. His right foot suddenly shot out and kicked the beggar’s hand sending the gun flying. The man cursed and jumped up from the pavement. Before they could grab him, he managed to run to a car parked nearby, and drove off, tyres screeching, as they tried to give chase.
“Damn the wanker !” exclaimed Akbar.
“Did you manage to see his face ?” gasped Farid out of breath.
“No, unfortunately not,” answered Kamal. “But I’m sure he was waiting for Zahra. Otherwise why get angry when Akbar asked him to move on ?”
“That was the same car that tried to follow me last night,” said Ismail who had been watching through the café window.
“I think Zahra had better take some time off,” stated Akbar picking the revolver up from the ground.
“Where is she now ?” asked Farid.
“She’s inside getting ready for Ismail to drive her home. Anyway, can you both come back in ? We need to talk.”
Zahra did not agree that she should stop singing.
“If I go into hiding, you’ll never catch him because it’s me he wants,” she stated. “He’ll only turn up if he knows I’m here.”
The men looked at each other.
“She’s right, you know,” said Kamal.
“Yeah, but it’s too risky,” said Akbar.
“Yes, it is,” agreed Farid.
“Look, with four men here, no, six with the bouncers, to look after me, I’ll be alright. I want him caught as soon as possible. Otherwise, I won’t feel safe wherever I am, and… and Hilda’s already died in my place…” she finished, her mouth trembling.
“Don’t cry,” said Farid putting an arm round her. “We’ll get him. His plans have been slipping up. Pretty soon he’ll make his last mistake.”
“I’ll do whatever you suggest,” replied Zahra.
“You don’t need to do anything,” Farid replied. “He obviously doesn’t know where you live, but I’ll ask for someone to stay with you and aunt Helene anyway. He’s going to try and watch this place somehow, but as long as you don’t set foot out of here on your own, he can’t lay a finger on you.”
“He might be waiting round the corner to follow you again, Ismail,” said Akbar.
“Just let him try,” growled Ismail. “He’ll wish he’d never been born. I gave him the slip last night and after tonight, he’s probably gone to ground for a day or two.”
“I wish I could believe that but, somehow, I don’t think so !” exclaimed Farid.
“Do you think we’ve blown our cover, Akbar ?” asked Kamal.
“No, I don’t see why,” exclaimed Akbar. “You’re just tourists who happened to be here when I sprang him. In any case, begging isn’t allowed now, so he would have been expecting to be moved on. Just keep up the good work.”
“We’d better go, Zahra,” said Ismail, “or Mrs Zarindasht will be worried.”
“Yes, she will. I’ll see you all the day after tomorrow, then.”
“Yes, let’s hope he’s desperate enough to try again when you come next,” said Akbar. “Farid and Kamal, don’t come in here during the day, but spend as much time in the street as possible, and watch everybody. See if anyone is around for longer than usual. He’s a professional, so he’ll blend in with the locals here. The only other disguise he could use to hide his face would be to wear a chador.”
“That’s an idea,” said Kamal. “We’ll be their shadows tomorrow !”
When they arrived at their hotel, they went straight to their room.
“I don’t feel like going out again tonight,” said Farid dropping onto one of the beds.
“No, neither do I,” agreed Kamal. “I’m exhausted. I want to be fresh for the morning.”
“Me too,” said Farid yawning. “I need a clear head tomorrow.”
They arose about nine, and went to the dining room for breakfast. The waiter, a student eager to practise his English, asked them what they would like.
“What is traditional here ?” asked Farid.
“Persian bread and goat’s cheese,” he replied politely. “And tea.”
“Well, I’ll try that. I like to try the local cuisine,” said Farid. “How about you, Karl ?”
“Yes, splendid !” said Kamal, grinning at him.
Having savoured every mouthful of a breakfast they had only dreamt of for months, they arose ready to confront their adversary.
They arrived early in New Town, and stopped at every shop and street stall to peruse the goods on offer, and to discreetly survey all the people they saw. Several figures, veiled from head to toe, attracted their attention, but they were loathe to approach them for fear of being confronted by heavy handed husbands, fathers or brothers.
“How can we tell ?” Farid asked Kamal.
“Watch them very closely. If they try go over the top trying to hide their faces, and speak with a finger in the corner of their mouth, then they’re probably genuine !”
Farid watched and listened intently, but had no luck in detecting any suspicious characters. Towards lunchtime, laden with purchases, they went to a Chelo Kebabi opposite Akbar’s café to eat and, at the same time, to have credible cover for their surveillance operation. Ali Jaffari, the owner, bustled forward to show them to a table, and to hand them the menus. Farid realised too late that he had eaten here once with Zahra, and hoped that Ali didn’t recognise him. Ali had, indeed, thought that Farid looked familiar but, when he heard the two men conversing in English, hadn’t given the matter a second thought.
“Well, I never !” commented Farid as the doorbell announced another customer.
They had been there for two hours, and were drinking tea after a hearty meal of rice and ‘jujeh kebab’ (barbecued poussin).
“It’s our friend, Siyasaki !”
“Don’t say anything unless he notices us first,” murmured Kamal.
They observed him as he studied the menu which Ali Jaffari had given him. After placing his order, Siyasaki appeared to be deep in thought as he gazed across the road to Akbar’s café.
It wasn’t until Ali returned with his food that he became aware of Farid and Kamal on the other side of the room. They acknowledged each other with a brief nod. Siyasaki gestured towards his food, as was customary, but Farid and Kamal politely declined showing him their empty plates.
“We’d better get this lot back to the hotel,” said Farid. He caught Ali’s attention and waved some money at him to show that they wanted to settle their bill.
“Taxi ?” Kamal said enquiringly to Ali as they went towards the door.
Ali rushed outside ahead of them. After the generous tip which they had left, the least he could do was to flag down a cab for them.
“Koja miri (where are you going)?” he asked.
They looked at him blankly.
“Oh, yes, the Hilton Hotel,” answered Kamal.
The first taxi to slow down wasn’t going that way, but the driver happily ejected his two passengers in favour of Farid and Kamal and in anticipation of a larger fare - these foreign visitors usually had no idea of the real cost. When they arrived, Kamal almost choked when the driver asked for treble the amount he had reckoned, but he knew that he couldn’t protest. He was, after all, just an ignorant tourist !
It was the last Tuesday before New Year. It was traditional for people to build small bonfires out of desert scrub and jump over them chanting “Take away all illness, take away all sorrow, replace them with your warmth and light, for the year to follow.”
After their seven o’clock debriefing, Farid and Kamal went out to watch people taking part in the custom. Small fires were lit in back yards, on the pavement or even in the park. The leaping would commence accompanied by cries of encouragement and applause. Then children would knock on doors hoping to receive sweets or money.
The two cadets knew they had to keep a low profile to avoid the likelihood of meeting familiar faces. They found an empty park bench and watched the revellers from afar.
“I used to love doing this when I was little,” said Farid nostalgically.
“So did I,” agreed Kamal, “except when some old grumps threw buckets of water at you to go away ! It wasn’t very welcome on a cold March night !”
“Well, they probably had a rotten year to follow and wondered why !”
“I think it’s time we went back, Fred,” said Kamal, “or we might just bump into someone we know.”
“Like Siyasaki ?” replied Farid pointing to a figure by the fountain. “That guy gives me the creeps. He’s always on his own. Doesn’t he have any friends ?”
“Even if he did, he can’t exactly parade them, can he ?”
“Do you think he’s following us ?”
“No, he hasn’t seen us. And I don’t think we’re his type ! Come on. We need our wits about us tomorrow.”
When they arrived at the café the following evening, the place was packed. Akbar had promised an extended evening in anticipation of New Year. Farid and Kamal found a place near the bar and chatted in English, waiting for Zahra to appear. A couple of hopeful ladies, touting for business, tried engaging them in conversation, but they pretended not to understand.
“Seen anything suspicious, boss ?” Ismail enquired of Akbar as they poured out the drinks.
“There’s some new girls here but that’s all.”
“What’s the matter with them ?” one painted beauty asked Akbar.
“Those foreign guys.”
“Why should anything be the matter ?”
“Well, they don’t seem interested in giving a girl a good time,” she complained pouting.
“They probably don’t need a woman just now,” teased Akbar.
“They shouldn’t be here, then,” replied her friend sulkily.
“And maybe they just want to listen to my singer,” retorted Akbar.
“With her around, no girl can earn a decent living these days.”
“Well, you’ll just have to try somewhere else then,” Akbar chuckled. “I don’t run a whore house here.”
The evening passed relatively smoothly. Some people were in high spirits and noisy, but otherwise no ominous occurrences marred the convivial atmosphere. Once Zahra had sang her last song, the customers started drifting away.
“You ready to go home, Zahra ?” asked Akbar.
“Yes, just give me a minute to wash my hands,” she replied.
“Hey, boss, where’s Zahra ?” asked Ismail coming through from the kitchen a couple of minutes later, jingling the car keys.
“She won’t be long. Just gone to wash her hands.”
“Why is that new girl still here ? I thought all the customers had left.”
“Which new girl ?”
“The one who was in here earlier. She’s just gone to the ladies.”
Farid and Kamal leapt up from their table, knocking back their chairs and sending glasses flying.
They ran down the narrow corridor behind the bar followed by Akbar and Ismail. The door to the washroom and toilets was locked.
“Move over,” bellowed Ismail.
With one swing of his leg, the door crashed open. The new girl was waiting in front of the closed cubicle with a knife poised to strike as Zahra came out. Upon seeing the four men, she darted into a vacant cubicle and bolted the door.
“Zahra, are you alright ?” called Farid.
“Yes,” came the shaken reply. “What’s all the noise about ?”
“Just come out quick,” urged Akbar.
Zahra came out immediately.
“Take her to my sitting room, Farid. We’ll deal with this.”
“Come out of there, or we’ll break the door down,” shouted Ismail.
There was no answer.
“Another door OK with you, boss ?” he asked Akbar eagerly.
“It’ll be worth it. Go ahead,” replied Akbar coolly.
The door crashed open, and beyond, slumped in the corner, they saw the girl clutching her handbag to her stomach and staring at them through glazed eyes.
“I told you one of those beauties would end up a corpse, didn’t I, boss ? But I never expected it to be the killer,” said Ismail smugly as he leant forward and pulled off a long, dark wig. “Scrape some of that plaster off “her” face, and you’ll probably find where Hilda’s nails dug in…”
The agent, finding the window barred and realising he couldn’t escape, had taken the inevitable course. He knew that he was on his own, and that only torture and, ultimately, execution awaited him. A spy’s survival kit, he had thought sarcastically to himself as he reached for the cyanide capsule taped behind his ear…
“Well, doesn’t that beat all,” exclaimed Kamal as Ismail moved away, and he caught a glimpse of the person on the floor.
“Someone you know ?” asked Akbar.
“We certainly do,” said Farid behind them. “It’s our old English teacher, Mr Walton.”
“Hey, boss. Look at the ring on his finger. It’s the same one that Siyasaki wore,” exclaimed Ismail.
“The son of a bitch. He was watching us right under our noses, and we never guessed.”
“Should we call the police ?” asked Kamal.
“As he worked for the Navy, I think you’d better call the military police,” suggested Akbar. “They’ll be very interested to hear about their employee.”
Richard Walton, master of disguises, had had a bright future ahead of him. The son of an Iranian mother and American father, he had inherited his father’s fair genes, and looked the all American boy. He had never let on that he spoke perfect Farsi, learnt of course from his mother.
He was the ideal candidate for a secret agent, the more so as he had landed a job teaching in a military establishment. However, the cosmopolitan life style had exacerbated his fondness for alcohol, and had led him to drop his guard when under the influence. Consequently, he couldn’t remember what he might have let slip on his visits to New Town. He had decided that the only way to cover his tracks was to dispose of the women he had slept with. His superiors, completely ignorant of his indiscretions, were impressed by his plan to create unrest by implicating the mullahs. He might have succeeded if Hassan hadn’t got in the way. Using the ‘hejleh’ had been a stupid mistake. It had all gone wrong thereafter…