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THE MOVING PRISON
By WILLIAM MIRZA, THOM LEMMONS
David C. CookCopyright © 2012 William Mirza and Thom Lemmons
All rights reserved.
The leather handle of the carrying case felt gummy, moistened by sweat from his palms. Looking over the shoulder of the taxi driver, Ezra could see, in the rearview mirror, the military jeep bearing down on them from behind. It was directly behind them now, its bumper nearly touching theirs. Ezra's heart was hammering like a caged beast against his ribs, and despite all his efforts to remain calm, he knew his breathing had to be audible to everyone in the car. The jeep's driver started honking. The taxi driver glanced in his rearview mirror and began to pull to the side of the road. Ezra's nostrils flared in panic and his eyes were wide, round discs of fear....
* * *
It was getting dark. The traffic on Nasser Khosrow Avenue was already bumper to bumper, moving scarcely faster than the pedestrians jamming the sidewalks on both sides. The druggist wearily leaned against his shop door and slid the lock home, waving once more at his last customer of the day, an elderly woman who tucked her parcel under her arm and walked away.
Ezra was tired. The flow of customers into the pharmacy had been nonstop, for which he was grateful. But once again Firouz had called in sick. With no help, Ezra barely had time between prescriptions to gulp down the sandwich he had brought for lunch. Esther was right. He should hire more assistants, and perhaps fire the undependable Firouz. The business was certainly profitable enough, and this pace would eventually kill him.
He pulled open the cash drawer and began pulling the rial notes out of the crammed compartment. He grunted in satisfaction: the day's receipts had been excellent. Swiftly and with practiced motions he sorted the currency into piles by denomination. He would not bother to count it here—he was tired and hungry and wanted to go home. Esther would have dinner waiting, and with the traffic crawling as slowly as frozen molasses through the streets of Tehran, he wanted to leave as soon as possible.
He had just placed the money into a canvas bank bag and shoved the bag into his battered briefcase when a staccato rapping came from his shop's front window. He glanced up to see a white-turbaned mullah waving impatiently at him through the dusty plate glass, plainly signaling that Ezra should unlock the door and let him in.
Ezra sighed, looking wistfully from the wall clock to the mullah's intent face. The old man's manner seemed urgent. And Ezra always made a practice of paying special attention to the respected, if poor, Muslim clergymen. Oh, very well, he told himself. Surely this won't take long, and then I'll be on my way. Trying to conceal his chagrin, Ezra went to the door and unlocked it, beckoning the mullah inside.
"I am Mullah Hafizi," said the old cleric, inclining his head toward Ezra. "Thank you for opening to me."
Ezra bowed in turn. "I remember you, baradar, brother," he said. "And how is your son these days?"
The mullah looked at Ezra appreciatively. "You remember ..."
"Of course, Aga Hafizi. Your son was ill, and you needed a prescription. It was my pleasure to be helpful—"
"And you would not accept payment," finished the mullah. "I have never forgotten your kindness."
"How may I help you today, my friend?"
The mullah dropped his eyes diffidently to the floor. "It is my wife," he mumbled. "She has been ill, but intends to go to Isfahan to visit our married daughter. The doctor has said she should not travel, but she is adamant." Hesitantly the cleric pulled a wrinkled slip of paper from his pocket. Handing it to Ezra, he continued, "I ... I know it is late, and I hesitated to come to you again, especially during your busy time of day."
"Please, please," protested Ezra, taking the prescription from Hafizi and turning to go behind the counter, "you should not have hesitated. Now let me see ..." he muttered, searching among his shelves for the antibiotic the doctor had prescribed. A few minutes later, he handed the old man a vial of small yellow pills. "There, my friend. That should have your wife feeling better in no time."
"How much do I owe you, Aga Solaiman?" asked the mullah, reaching into his robe for his wallet.
"Nothing, Aga Hafizi, nothing," Ezra said, waving away the proffered rial notes. "It was my pleasure to help you. Please do not diminish it by offering payment."
"Once more you do a poor old mullah such a favor," he mused. "Why? You are a Jew, and I am a Muslim. Why should you do me such kindness?"
Ezra shrugged. "I have a great appreciation for all men of God, baradar," he said. "Besides, we are both sons of Abraham, are we not?" he chuckled.
"Would that the Shah had a tenth part of your respectful generosity," said the old cleric sadly. "Then we mullahs might not be reduced to such dependence on the kindness of strangers." Suddenly the old man looked sharply at Ezra, a defiant glint in his eyes. "But one day," he said, "perhaps one day soon, things will change. When our rightful leader the Ayatollah Khomeini returns, the blessed faith of Islam will once again take its proper place in the hearts and lives of the people. And in that day ..." Hafizi left the sentence unfinished.
Ezra glanced nervously about. They were alone in the shop, but one never knew around which corner SAVAK might lurk, how far their ears extended. The Shah's secret police were said to be almost omnipresent; their mission was to crush opposition to the Pahlavi regime wherever they found it. And the mullahs were known to be rigidly antagonistic to the policies and practices of the Shah and his family. From his Islamic acquaintances, Ezra knew that Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was regularly denounced in the mosques. A megalomaniac, the mullahs called him. Perhaps even old Hafizi had a SAVAK informant tailing him, waiting to report on all the mullah's contacts, anyone who seemed friendly with him.
Ezra cleared his throat. "Well, Aga Hafizi, it grows late, after all, and I must go home."
The mullah, his reverie broken, grasped Ezra's hand in both his own and shook it gratefully. "Aga Solaiman, I thank you again for your generosity. I will never forget your kindness to my family." He paused, looking intently into Ezra's eyes. "If I can ever help you," he said, "you have but to ask."
Ezra returned his gaze for a moment, puzzling over the mullah's words. "Thank you," he said hesitantly. "Thank you very much."
Releasing Ezra's hand, the old mullah shuffled toward the door, then out into the dark street. For a moment, Ezra stared thoughtfully after him, then shrugged and gripped the handle of the briefcase. He walked to the door, glanced back over his shoulder at the shop to reassure himself that all was in order, then switched off the light. He went outside, locked the door, and pulled on the metal cage, which rattled down its tracks on either side of the door, banging onto the pavement. Ezra snapped the cage's heavy padlock in place and began walking toward the bus stop, joining the throngs of pedestrians and motorists who slowly made their way through the crowded December evening.
* * *
Forty-five minutes later, the red British-made bus disgorged him onto the sidewalk, one block from his front gate. He pulled the lapels of his woolen overcoat closer about his neck as he walked home. A light snow filtered down from the turbid sky above Tehran. His key rattled in the lock of the iron gate, and the noise summoned Marjan, who barked loudly as he bounded from his kennel by the front steps of the house. When the large black dog scented his master, his barking stopped and he stood wagging his tail as Ezra clanged the gate closed behind him. Absently he scratched the dog behind the ears as he approached the front steps.
The house was a large, red-brick two-story of modern design, set on a lot almost a quarter-hectare in size. A two-meter brick wall surrounded the "estate," as Esther liked to call it. The top of the wall was fortified by sharp iron spikes, to discourage the ever-ready street thieves from attempting a break-in. Even though they lived in one of the better areas of the capital city, this house stood out from its neighbors. Fruit trees grew in the large, well-kept yard, as well as evergreens and oaks. The walk leading from the gate to the front steps was of the same red brick as the house, laid in a curved herringbone pattern.
Moosa, their son, had designed the house for them. It was the first project he had undertaken upon completion of his architecture degree from UCLA. Like many well-to-do Iranians, Ezra and Esther had decided that their son's education was best completed in the United States. Moosa was a bright boy, and had no trouble adjusting to life in the West. In fact, the letters they received from him lately sounded less and less like those of an Iranian in a foreign land, and more like an American writing to his relations in "the old country." Ezra sighed. With all the uncertainty these days, who could say? Perhaps it was better that Moosa remain in America. All the same, he missed his son. It had been two years since Moosa's last visit home.
As he stepped onto the portico, he heard the bolts of the front door clicking. The door swung open and Esther greeted him.
Despite his fatigue, he smiled when he saw her. He set down his briefcase to take her extended hands. "Come inside," she said. "It's getting colder."
Esther was a handsome woman who carried her forty-eight years well. Her tall, slender build complemented his similar frame; the most frequent comment from those they met was that they were "a distinguished-looking couple." With his salt-and-pepper hair and moustache and Esther's patrician bearing, the epithet was not undeserved.
They had first met at an age when most parents refused their daughter's permission to talk to boys without adult supervision. Her mother, something of a free-thinker, had been an exception. Ezra had seen Esther sitting alone on a bench in Farah Park, when he was sixteen and she fourteen. She was hesitant to speak to him, but his persuasive speech, combined with a manner slightly older than his years, swayed her.
Her parents had arrived recently from the mountain city of Hamadan, she told him. Her father, a dealer in imported fabrics, had moved his family to the capital to be more favorably located for business—in short, the necessary bribes to government officials were easier to negotiate in person than by post from Hamadan. Her family was middle-class, and her education was superior to the norm—she had even learned some French, which she was proud to employ given the opportunity.
Ezra's father, by contrast, was relatively poor. He sold fabrics door-to-door and made just enough money to keep himself, his wife, and their two children, Ezra and his sister, Maryam. Ezra had, at various times, worked to provide partial support for the family. He was studious, being determined to make the most of the free public education.
After graduating from high school, Ezra went on to college at Tehran University, intending to become a pharmacist. During college, he got a job with a pharmaceutical company, selling drugs to doctors and dentists. He scrimped and saved so that following graduation, he could open a storefront pharmacy on a small street just off Shahbaz Avenue.
Esther's family attended the same synagogue as Ezra's, so they maintained contact with relative ease. They became friends and, over the course of the next several years, something more. While waltzing with Esther at a wedding celebration, Ezra asked her to marry him and she accepted. Within six months, they broke the glasses beneath their own wedding canopy.
"Why are you so late tonight?" she asked, as he hung his overcoat on the brass coat tree inside the front door.
"An old mullah came just at closing and needed a prescription filled. That, and the traffic was even more horrendous than usual. Where is Sepideh?"
"In her room, doing schoolwork. She ate earlier, but I waited for you. I'm hungry. Let's go eat."
They went to the kitchen. "What was the news today?" he asked her. "I was so busy I didn't even have time to read the paper."
"More of the same," Esther told him. "The Shah says he is in complete control; there is no need to worry. The American President says he has full confidence in the Shah, and he insists that human rights must be respected. And in the streets the Shiites rant and rave."
"Why doesn't Mr. Carter make up his mind?" groused Ezra. "Can't he understand how all this talk about human rights weakens the Shah's grip? With one hand he builds up the Peacock Throne, and with the other he gives legitimacy to the opposition." Ezra fell silent, frustration and concern curdling his brow.
"My! You're on about it tonight!" commented Esther, as she set a plate heaped with steaming long-grain rice in front of her husband. "Since when have you become so intense an observer of political matters?" She chided him slightly, hoping to nudge him out of his pensive mood. She placed a skewer of marinated mutton kabob atop the rice on Ezra's plate, spooning roasted onions, tomatoes, and peppers over the meat, then she helped herself to a similar serving.
Ezra chewed silently. Esther studied him carefully a few moments, then said, "What is it? Something else is troubling you."
Briefly he glanced up at her, and then turned his gaze back to his plate. "Oh ... probably nothing serious," he mumbled. "The mullah ... he said something."
Her arched eyebrows asked silently for explanation.
"Not so much what he said, really ... more the way he said it. As if he knew something." A few more silent seconds passed.
"He said, 'When Khomeini returns ...'"
"And when, since the Shah banished Khomeini, have the Shiites not been muttering about his return?" inquired Esther pertly. "How long has it been—twenty years? And still he must send his curses long distance."
Ezra looked at his wife, shaking his head. "I told you, it wasn't what he said as much as his manner. He offered to help me, should I ever need assistance."
"From a destitute mullah? An interesting notion!"
Ezra took another bite of mutton, chewing slowly and thoughtfully. When he had swallowed, he looked at her again.
"And if the troubles worsen ...?" he asked.
Esther studied his face for a long time. Then she dropped her eyes to her plate and took another bite of rice. Outside, the snow began to thicken.CHAPTER 2
Firouz Marandi's first waking thought was, Today's the day! His stomach began to tense with anticipation. He sat up on the edge of his bed and rehearsed what he must do.
He had to give his boss some reason for not showing up again. Surely the old Jew was getting suspicious—he had been using the excuse of illness for three days now. No matter; the cause was more important than his miserable dead-end of a job. He would think of something.
Next, he had to gather his cadre and arrive at the agreed-upon place at nine o'clock sharp. When the operation started, they had to be in position.
After that, the tide of events would sweep them all along. Firouz did not allow himself to think too much about where that tide might carry him; anywhere was better than here. The force of history was on their side, and also the religious fervor of Islam.
Firouz was not overly devout, but the comrades in the movement had long ago recognized the value of Islamic fundamentalism in organizing opposition to the Pahlavi regime. They of the mojahedin were more than willing to ally themselves with the mullahs as an expedient means to a just end. So far, the strategy had paid handsome dividends.
Today began the holy month of Muharram. It was a time of public mourning and self-flagellation in memory of the martyrs under Sunni repression centuries before. But this year, the devotees would have a strategy other than public displays of piety. Today, the passions of the country would be unleashed, and the gauntlet would be cast down. Firouz's imagination was aflame with the possibilities, the intoxication of life at the nexus of human events. Today would begin the final conflict.
* * *
Ezra sat on the swaying bus, deep in thought. It was early morning, and there were not many passengers. Something in the background slowly drew his attention out of its deep well of contemplation. He looked about him. Someone was speaking, and Ezra seemed to have been the only one on the bus not listening. He realized that the voice was a recording—a cassette tape being played by a passenger holding a small portable tape player in his lap. The voice on the tape was that of an old man. His speech was firm and his words had a resolute cadence. Ezra began to listen.
Excerpted from THE MOVING PRISON by WILLIAM MIRZA, THOM LEMMONS. Copyright © 2012 William Mirza and Thom Lemmons. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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