A Red Light

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2 Madam Zibas Revenge

2 MADAME ZIBAS REVENGE

A red light glowed in the ground floor window of a three storeyed building in Kuche Jamshid. The room boasted a large, expensive, Persian carpet covering most of a tiled floor, but the furniture was cheap and the decor in bad taste. A large, fat woman sat in a large, vinyl armchair behind the net curtains of the window. In front of her was a small table with a bowl of fruit and a dish of nuts and sweets. In one corner of the room stood another table on which sat an electric samovar with a teapot on top. Underneath was a tray with several tea glasses in holders and a bowl of sugar cubes.

A sofa stood against the wall facing the window. In front of it was a small, melamine coffee table, and in the corner by the window stood a television set on top of which had been placed a vase of plastic flowers.

Madame Ziba had just made herself some fresh tea and sat back in her armchair to continue her evening vigil. She was in her mid-forties but had started as a prostitute many years since when she was only sixteen. She had been very pretty and attracted a lot of customers. Her conscience had never bothered her. To her one business was as good as another and she had been shrewd enough to realise that handsome profits could be reaped from her licentious activities. She had opened a bank account and saved all the money she could, making sure no one knew about it, and keeping well away from pimps, drug pushers and protection racketeers.

When she reached thirty-five, she found she had enough money in the bank, with interest that had accrued over twenty years, to buy her house outright. Only then did she stop and set herself up as Madame Ziba. Now she had been retired for ten indolent years, and lived a comfortable existence. She had grown fat through overeating and a sedentary lifestyle, and was content. She wasn’t a grasping woman, but wanted her boarding house to remain profitable so that her old age was well assured. The rent that she charged for each room took into account what she thought the girls should be able to earn in one week and what she deemed to be her fair share of their earnings.

She fussed over them and warned them of the dangers that could be expected, but did not rule them with a tight grip as some Madames were known to do. They in turn appreciated her non interference in their affairs and only left her house if offered marriage or a rewarding position.

As she was finishing her tea, she saw Zahra approaching the house. She hadn’t seen her come in with anyone for three days and the rent was due. Zahra obviously found the life distasteful, but in this profession any personal feelings had to be stifled at the outset. Those who gave way to their feelings didn’t last long. It was a pity – Zahra was a beautiful girl and she could have many men if she relaxed a little. Madame Ziba sighed. She would have to find another girl to take over the room if Zahra left. Still, no matter. She would talk to her later. To her surprise, there was a knock at the door.

“Come in,” called Madame.

The door opened and Zahra stepped into the room.

“Good evening, Madame Ziba. I have brought you the rent.”

Madame Ziba looked puzzled. “But I haven’t seen you come back with a man for three days, Zahra. How did you get the money?”

Zahra blushed. She didn’t like telling untruths, but she told Madame Ziba exactly what Farid had told her to say.

“I met a man who wanted me to go to his room and he paid well,” she replied.

“Oh, I see,” said Madame Ziba. “Well, I have warned you not to do that for your own safety. Here, at least, I can see who you come in with and I remember faces well. But if you go off with someone, there’s no knowing what might happen. Girls have been murdered by men with strange ideas. Well, thank goodness there’s no harm done this time.”

She stretched out a fat, sweaty hand for the money, counted it and told Zahra, “Alright then, my dear. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Zahra bid her goodnight and slipped out of the room and upstairs to her own room.

She felt light hearted and much happier than she had for many weeks, and lay down on her bed with a contented sigh. Her recent worries and unhappiness had been lifted temporarily from her mind and she fell exhausted into a deep sleep without even getting undressed.

In the rooms neighbouring Zahra’s and above, Madame Ziba’s other tenants earned their livelihood most days. Madame Ziba occupied the ground floor rooms, but on the first and second floor were a further six rooms all let to girls on the game.

On the same floor as Zahra were two girls named Sonia and Shirin, and on the top floor were three girls named Pari, Mahin and Hilda. They used to giggle together when they got up in the morning and met in the kitchen for breakfast. They had tried to draw Zahra into their conversation and be friendly, but Zahra found them vulgar. They liked talking about their customers and indulging in detailed descriptions of each man’s physical attributes and whether any of the men had perverted tastes, but this was too distasteful for Zahra. She preferred to listen to the radio or read a magazine. The girls thought that she would be less reserved when she had been there a while and thought nothing of her reticence.

At 11.30 that night Zahra was fast asleep. Madame Ziba had nodded off in her armchair after watching a film, and only the cooler made a whirring noise as it blew a draught of cold air into the room.

Sonia, whose room was next to Zahra’s, was out, and so were Pari and Mahin, all touting for customers. Only Shirin and Hilda were in. Shirin was having a bath downstairs and Hilda was letting a regular customer have his money’s worth.

A middle aged coach driver named Hassan, who visited New Town every time he came to Tehran, had five days earlier been to bed with Zahra. His coach did not leave for Ahwaz until the following morning and he really fancied another session with the girl. She seemed very inexperienced and naive, and made a refreshing change from the more hardened prostitutes who took their clothes off lazily and lay on the bed chewing gum with a bored expression on their faces.

Yes, he definitely wanted Zahra tonight. He walked through the dark, narrow alleys passing shadowy figures in doorways or women blatantly flaunting themselves, but seemed not to notice them. He was thinking about Zahra’s slender body and small firm breasts, her soft scented hair and silky skin. By the time he reached Madame Ziba’s house he had already erected under his baggy trousers.

He could see Madame Ziba was fast asleep in her armchair – net curtains afforded no privacy at night time if the light was on. The front door was open, so he went straight up to Zahra’s room and knocked on the door. There was no answer. His first thought was that she might be in bed with someone else so he looked through the keyhole. The room was in darkness and he couldn’t detect any movement. Slowly he turned the door handle and found that her door wasn’t locked. He crept in and found Zahra lying on her bed still dressed. His luck was in. He slipped his trousers off and dropped on top of the sleeping form. Zahra didn’t know what had happened. She opened her mouth to scream, but an iron fist slammed into her face a couple of times followed by a hand roughly stifling any further screams.

Zahra lay helpless as Hassan ripped apart her thin dress, tore off her panties and brutally raped her. And as she lay shocked and terrified on the bed, he dressed himself hastily and fled from the house.

Zahra lay there for several minutes unable to move. Then she rose slowly and stumbled downstairs to Madame Ziba. The urgent banging on the door startled Madame Ziba from her sleep and she looked up to see Zahra almost hysterical in the doorway. She was aghast. Zahra’s dress was ripped, her lower lip was swollen and bleeding, and she had red marks on her face.

“What happened?” cried Madame Ziba.

“I, w-was as-asleep,” sobbed Zahra tears streaming down her face. “I m-must have f-forgotten to l-lock the door. A man came to m-my room and...and attacked m-me, and raped me.” Madame Ziba had risen from her chair. She went over to Zahra and put an arm round her heaving shoulders and led her towards the sofa.

“Come and sit down, my dear. Do you know who it was?”

“Yes,” said Zahra trying to suppress her sobs, “I think it was Hassan the coach driver,”

Madame Ziba was outraged. No one attacked her girls and got away with it. There was an unwritten law amongst the pimps, Madames, drug dealers and the underworld businessmen of New Town to protect their own. Hassan would pay dearly for this she thought grimly.

At that moment Shirin came through the hall from the bathroom. She had wrapped a towel around her hair and another round herself. On passing Madame Ziba’s room she could hear Madame Ziba cursing and Zahra crying, and went to ask what was wrong. One look at Zahra told her all she needed to know.

“You see,” said Madame Ziba, “I warn you girls not to go anywhere by yourselves, and to lock your rooms, but you never listen. Shirin, go and get Zahra a glass of wine from the kitchen and bring a blanket from the cupboard.”

Shirin put her soap and shampoo down and scurried down the hall. Madame Ziba turned to Zahra. “Come on, dear. Stop crying. You’ll be alright. A glass of wine will calm you down and I’ll put some cream on those bruises. Shirin will be back in a minute. I’m just going to my room to make a phone call.” She disappeared into the back room which she used as her bedroom, and dialled a number.

“Hello? Is that Akbar?- How are you?”

“Hello Madame Ziba,” came a voice down the receiver, “I’m fine. How are you?”

“I’m very well, thank you, but I need a favour.”

“Of course. What can I do for you?”

“One of my girls- her name is Zahra- has just been raped and beaten up, and I want you to get the bastard who did it.”

“Leave it to us. It’s our pleasure,” replied Akbar “Who was it? And where do we find him?”

“It was Hassan, the coach driver. You’ll probably find him asleep in his coach at the bus station.”

“Old Hassan, eh?” said Akbar, “I wonder what made him do a silly thing like that. He’s never been in any trouble before. Well, I suppose there’s always a first time. OK, Madame Ziba. I’ll get Ismail and we’ll pay him a visit right away.”

By the end of the conversation Madame Ziba noted that Akbar’s voice had assumed a more belligerent tone. She replaced the receiver satisfied and, picking up a jar of ointment, returned to the sitting room. Shirin had filled a large glass with wine, but Zahra’s hands still shook as she gulped down the contents.

“Now don’t fret any more, my dear, “ said Madame Ziba in a soothing voice, “Hassan will be taken care of. He won’t try anything like this again. Let me put some cream on your face.” She opened the jar and smoothed some cream onto Zahra’s lip and cheeks.

“Nothing’s broken. Your nose is alright and your face will be the same as before in a few days.”

She then turned to Shirin, “Have you got a dress you can lend Zahra?”

“Yeah, I expect so,” said Shirin.

“You alright now?”she asked Zahra.

“Yes, thank you,” whispered Zahra trying hard not to start crying again.

“OK, then. Well, if you don’t mind, I’ll go now and dry my hair. I’ll hang a dress on your door later tonight. Goodnight.” Shirin waddled out of the room still swathed in her bath towel.

“Let me help you upstairs,” said Madame Ziba to Zahra.

Zahra finished the wine and put the glass on the table, but she kept the blanket clutched tightly around herself. She rose unsteadily and took the hand Madame Ziba offered her.

When they reached the first floor, Madame Ziba stopped by the door and said “Right. Now you lock the door this time and try and get some rest.”

“Thank you,” said Zahra and stepped inside her room. She turned the key and lay down on her bed once more. The wine had soothed her and taken soporific effect. Zahra fell into a deep, dreamless sleep until the following morning.

Akbar was a tall, swarthy, muscular man aged about forty two. He had been a pimp, but like Madame Ziba, had been astute enough to save his money, and later bought a small cafe in the heart of New Town. Three nights a week he staged a cabaret with a belly dancer or a second rate band, and on the remaining days provided a mixture of popular Persian and Western music from the juke box. Everyone in New Town knew Akbar and few ventured out of favour with him. He was not a hoodlum, but had no qualms about putting people well in their place if they stepped out of line. Whenever any of the Madames needed a favour, they first of all phoned Akbar and, if he was free, he would take his henchman, Ismail, and do what was required. Requests ranged from extortion and arm twisting to a good beating or damaging an offender’s property. Usually the victim had to hand money over, or else it was simply taken from him, and Akbar would pocket most of the cash himself. In the case of a prostitute being assaulted he would set aside some of the money to compensate her bruised ego and loss of earnings whilst she recovered.

Ismail was also a swarthy, heavily built man in his late thirties. During his military service he had resented being ordered about by an arrogant, young officer and, in a fit of temper one day, had set upon him so ferociously that the lieutenant was left with a broken jaw and two broken ribs. Ismail was sent to prison for four years, and on his release was dishonourably booted out of the army.

He was very fond of vodka, jovial company, undemanding women and exercising his fists from time to time! As long as his favourite tipple was within reach, Ismail was in a good mood. It was nearly midnight when Madame Ziba phoned Akbar. After a brief conversation, he put the phone down and went over to Ismail who was clearing and cleaning empty tables.

“Ismail, we have a job to do. One of Madame Ziba’s girls has been beaten up and she wants us to flex our fingers a little,” he said gloatingly.

“I’ll drink to that,” said Ismail taking empty glasses to the counter and stopping for a swig from a vodka bottle. “My knuckles haven’t had a pleasant encounter for a couple of weeks.” He sneered and added, “My feet are itching too...”

It wasn’t one of their busy nights and the last two customers were just leaving. Akbar turned the sign on the door to ’CLOSED’ and said to Ismail, “Come on, we can finish clearing up when we get back.”

Ismail took the bottle of vodka from the counter and stepped outside with Akbar.

Akbar unwrapped a stick of chewing gum and threw the wrapper to the ground, He offered one to Ismail who did the same. The bus station was about ten minutes walk from Akbar’s cafe. The two men walked along exchanging lewd jokes, Akbar fanning himself with a piece of cardboard he’d taken off a box in the gutter, and Ismail taking occasional gulps from his bottle and wiping his mouth on his shirt sleeve. They planned to entice Hassan out of his coach with a plausible story, and then teach him a lesson once he was no longer safely locked up and inaccessible inside his vehicle.

When they reached the bus station, they saw a couple of weary passengers lying stretched out on the seats in the booking office, their suitcases and bundles on the floor beside them. They would be resuming their journey at five in the morning, and didn’t think it worth booking into a hotel or boarding house for a few hours. The clerk was sitting wearily behind his desk, more exhausted from the heat than any over exertion from his monotonous, sedentary job. Flies buzzed round a half eaten sandwich on a plate on his desk, and sweat from his face kept running into the lenses of his spectacles so that he was forced every few minutes to take them off and dry them with a large, grubby handkerchief.

Akbar and Ismail strolled casually to the yard behind the booking office where they found several coaches parked for the night.

“You start that end and I’ll start here,” said Akbar to Ismail, “and we’ll give each other a wave when we find him.”

“OK,” said Ismail, and he strode off to the far end of the line of coaches standing empty and deserted in the dark, shadowy yard. He found Hassan almost immediately in the second coach from the end, sprawled on the back seat fast asleep. He was lying on his back snoring, with his mouth wide open, and a half empty bottle of coke wedged between his heaving body and the seat.

Akbar had just checked a third empty coach when he looked up and saw Ismail beckoning to him and then pointing inside the coach where Hassan lay snoring. He strolled over and was mystified to see Ismail put his vodka down, take the chewing gum out of his mouth and then proceed to stick three cigarettes just under the back window of the coach.

“What are you doing?” he asked quietly

“Shhh. Just stand back and watch this,” said Ismail looking very pleased with himself. He held a lighter to the cigarettes and drew on them, then waited until the curl of smoke wafted upwards. Then he rapped sharply on the window. Hassan jerked his head and grunted, but didn’t wake up. Ismail rapped on the window again and this time Hassan woke up bewildered. He saw Ismail standing outside pointing to the smoke and could hear him shouting...

“Your petrol tank...”

Hassan stared blankly at him for a moment and then shifted his gaze to the wisps of smoke spiralling upwards, and watched as if mesmerized.

Ismail pointed to the smoke and repeated his warning...”Your petrol tank...”

This time Hassan gave a gasp and leapt towards the emergency exit. His fingers fumbled with the catch but he managed to release it quickly. Before he knew what was happening, Akbar and Ismail lunged forward and dragged him out into the yard. Akbar was highly amused and roared with laughter, “You sly old devil!” he cried, “That’s one of the best tricks you’ve pulled!”

“Yeah, “ said Ismail “not bad was it? Now what are we gonna do with this creep?”

“We’ll take him round the corner to where those scrap coaches are. No one will see us there.”

Hassan had come to his senses now, and looked at the men who were holding him roughly by each arm. He recognised them as Akbar and Ismail from the cafe, but he had no idea why they should want to bother with him.

“What do you want?” he asked hoarsely, feeling his pulse quicken “If it’s money you’re after, take it all. It’s in my back pocket.” Akbar drew the wallet from Hassan’s trousers and said “Yeah, we’ll take that for a start. Come on, we’re going to take a little walk.”

Hassan was no match for two strong men, so he didn’t resist as they pulled him none too gently across the yard to where some old coaches stood rusting away. They stopped abruptly in between the mangled wrecks of two buses written off after a bad crash.

Akbar stood in front of him and looked at him contemptuously. Sweat was pouring down Hassan’s face, his breathing was heavy and he stared fixedly at Akbar. After a moment’s silence Akbar turned his right fist in his left palm and asked softly.

“Know a girl called Zahra, do you?”

Hassan’s eyes opened wide with fear. So the girl had recognised him. He didn’t answer, and Akbar continued, “Well, we don’t like people who beat up girls, especially one of our girls...”

He spat on the ground and then punched Hassan suddenly in the stomach and brought his knee up in his groin. Hassan groaned and doubled over as Ismail let go of his arms and punched him in the back. He fell to the ground but Ismail hauled him up again for Akbar to use as a punch bag until blood streamed from his nose and mouth. Ismail then picked up his empty vodka bottle and smashed it against the hulk of one of the coaches. He leered at Akbar and then, picking up a piece of glass, stepped over to Hassan’s writhing form, bent over him and cut an X on his right cheek. Both men then proceeded to kick the wretched man a few times and finally left him sprawled motionless on the ground.

As they sauntered past the booking office, Akbar said to Ismail “Hold on. I’ll just tell the clerk that they might be one driver short in the morning...”

Ismail grinned. “He won’t be very happy. The passengers might lynch him if their coach is cancelled.”

Akbar walked into the booking office and over to the counter. The booking clerk looked at him with raised eyebrows.

“I’ve a message for you from Hassan. He probably won’t be able to drive his coach tomorrow morning.”

“Why? What’s happened? Is he ill?” asked the clerk.

“Well, he certainly doesn’t feel too good,” replied Akbar. “In fact, the son of a bitch has been a naughty boy and has been put in his place. You’ll find him sleeping out in the scrap yard...”

The clerk looked at Akbar but didn’t say anything else. He knew full well what Akbar meant and silently cursed Hassan.

The brunt of ill feeling would fall on him in the morning when irate travellers found out that their coach had been cancelled. He had a good mind to leave Hassan there, but resignedly picked up the phone and phoned the boarding house where some of the drivers stayed overnight. Mohsen was there tonight. He would have to go and pick Hassan up, because he couldn’t leave the booking office unattended.

“Hello. Could I speak to Mohsen, please?”

Fortunately Mohsen was not in bed. He had just returned from the cinema and a meal in a cafe. He was none too please to be dragged out on such an errand, but after listening to Saeed, the clerk, complaining that he could not handle the situation on his own, he reluctantly agreed to go over with one of the other drivers.

Akbar had listened to the one sided conversation with ill concealed amusement.

As Saeed put down the receiver, he leant over the counter, took out his chewing gum and stuck it on Saeed’s desk, as he bid him goodnight.

On the way back to the cafe, Akbar turned to Ismail.

“I’ll go over to Madame Ziba in the morning and tell her we got the jerk. I want to see this Zahra, too. She must be a new one. I haven’t heard the name before.”

“I wonder what made him beat her up,” growled Ismail, “they’re all the same these women. She probably led him on and then changed her mind or put the price up. Serve the bitch right if you ask me...”

“I dunno,” answered Akbar, “it’s not always their fault. Sometimes you get these righteous guys who think the girls are the scum of the earth, and they get it in their heads to teach them a lesson.”

“Yeah, but Hassan’s a regular.”

“ Well, we’ll know soon enough. But Hassan’s burnt his boats here. He’ll have to find his pleasures elsewhere. I doubt if there’s a whore in New Town who’ll go with him now –not with that cross on his cheek.”

“Yeah, that’s the best part of the job, putting the special mark on ’em,” said Ismail “ I do it real nice too. Just two clean lines...”

It was almost one o’clock when they reached the cafe, and Ismail said “I’ll just finish clearing up so the place is ready for the morning customers.”

“Right,” said Akbar, “I’ll put the rubbish out and then we can turn in.”

The men shared a flat above the cafe and liked working together, but often went their separate ways in their free time. Ismail had a woman friend whom he saw every week, but he enjoyed being a bachelor and intended to stay that way. Akbar had no girlfriends. His life was busy enough running his cafe and doing free lance work for the Madames. And they, in turn, invited him to pay them a visit whenever he felt an inclination to do so.

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