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Iran—Tehran, Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS)
29 November 1803 hours (GMT +3.30)
If it went wrong, it would cost Youness Shirazi his life; and the ways in which it could go wrong were too numerous to count.
He was alone, for the first time all day, standing at the window and looking past his partial reflection down at Sepah Street, at the Foreign Aliens Office opposite his own. On this side of the city, at this hour, Tehran’s traffic was thin, but still the Foreign Aliens Office was bustling, just as it had been ever since the unrest had begun so many months ago.
The plan, Shirazi reassured himself, was a good one, certainly the best that he could manage given the current climate, the present moment. Pressure had been building from on-high for months to deliver something, anything that could be presented as a decisive victory; anything that would hurt the enemies of the Revolution, and serve as a propaganda coup, besides. The Americans, the French, the Israelis, or the British—an embarrassment to any of them would do, and as the Americans had little-to-nothing by way of assets on the ground, as the French had been almost thoroughly neutralized in Iran, and as the Israelis were hiding deep in their holes, it only made sense that the British should be the target.
On the street below, he noted the arrival of the black SUV. Farzan Zahabzeh would be inside, along with their old prisoner. Not that old, Shirazi corrected himself, because if their guest, in his late-fifties, was to be called old, Shirazi himself would be closer to the designation than he cared to admit. He turned from the window, catching his reflection, stopped, gazing at himself. Forty-four, balding, beard and mustache neatly trimmed, his spectacles failing to hide the heavy bags beneath his eyes. He’d managed three hours of sleep last night, up from the hour he’d been averaging the week prior. Insomnia, he reflected, was part of the job.
But it wasn’t insomnia that had been keeping him up these past nights, and he knew that.
Shirazi moved to his desk, carefully shifted the stack of old surveillance photos Farzan had compiled to the side, then settled himself at the computer. He typed in his password, Farsi flashing quickly onto the screen, then entered a second password before the system permitted him to bring up the foreign operatives database. As Head of Counterintelligence for VEVAK, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the database was part of Shirazi’s bread and butter, a listing of all suspected or known opposition agents around the world, of spies, real and, in many cases, imagined, who had or might one day work against Iran’s interests. The list itself was by no means comprehensive—in intelligence, Shirazi reflected, such things never were—and much of its information was suspect. But there were gems to be found, hard intelligence that had been bought dearly.
It was one of these gems that Shirazi went to, within the British section, under the SIS subheading. He scanned quickly until he found the name he wanted, then opened the associated file. A photograph bloomed on the monitor, four years out-of-date according to the reference, but Shirazi doubted that the woman had changed very much. The picture had been taken at the border between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, from the Afghan side. The woman was wearing sunglasses, but the file claimed her eyes were blue, the same way it claimed that she was blond, and five feet eleven inches tall, both facts evident in the photograph. According to Shirazi’s information, the woman had no less than twelve different documented work-names, but the only one that mattered to him was her real one: Chace, Tara; and her job, that of Head of Section for the Special Operations Division of SIS, under the supervision of SIS Director of Operations Crocker, Paul.
Shirazi studied the face of Tara Chace impassively, trying to discern the woman who wore it. He didn’t know her, he had never met her, all he had was speculation. He knew something of the job in Uzbekistan, and before that the one in Iraq, and another in Georgia. But no details, only guesswork, what SIS had accomplished. What this woman had accomplished.
They would have to send her. The prize was too great, the target too high-value to risk sending anyone else, anyone less subordinate. Neither the British government nor the Americans—and there was no doubt the Americans would become involved—would settle for less. The CIA would demand the British send their best, though how Paul Crocker would get his tall, blond, female Special Operations Officer into Iran without everyone from the Quds Force to the Guardian Council knowing about it, Shirazi had no idea. Nonetheless, he had no doubt that Crocker would accomplish the task; as an adversary, Paul Crocker had long ago earned Shirazi’s respect, if not admiration.
There was a knock at the door, and Shirazi quit the files on the monitor as his deputy entered.
“He’s in the building,” Farzan Zahabzeh said, shutting the door behind him. “I’m having him processed right now.”
“How did he take it?”
“The pickup scared him, the way it always does, no matter who. Now he’s decided to be indignant.” Zahabzeh’s grin flickered with malice. “He already asked me if I know who he is.”
Shirazi laughed. “And you said nothing?”
“Only that we had questions for him.”
“Good, very good.”
There was a pause, and Shirazi saw the younger man’s attitude change, the pride of power knocked akimbo by a long-ingrained sense of self-preservation. He understood it, and knew what Zahabzeh was thinking, and knew he would have to reassure him; Shirazi could entertain his own doubts, but it was vital that Zahabzeh have none, that he be as committed, in his way, to their course as Shirazi already was.
“There’s still time.”
Shirazi shook his head. “No. Once he entered the building, there was no going back.”
“We could simply question him about anything, about the Greens, say, then let him go. That would do it, that would be all it takes.”
“And how would that help defend the Revolution? We must see this through. Think about the result, think about what we will gain. For months we’ve been pressured to strike back against those who have struck us. This is how we do it. The result will more than justify the means.”
Farzan Zahabzeh grimaced, scratched his chin beneath his beard. He was ten years Shirazi’s junior, still carrying enough of his youth that the job hadn’t begun to show on him. Full of energy and strength, not much taller than Shirazi, but larger, clearly stronger. But his junior nonetheless, and with a lot left to learn.
Another knock, this one more forceful and somehow more formal, the hand of one of the guards, leading the prisoner into their trap.
“It’s all or nothing,” Shirazi said.
“All or nothing,” Zahabzeh agreed, and went to answer the door.
The prisoner drew himself up in his chair, cast an angry glance at Zahabzeh standing beside him, then glared at Youness Shirazi.
“Do you know who I am?” the man demanded.
Shirazi considered the question, taking the man in. He certainly looked old, or, at the least, older, though Shirazi thought that might simply be the result of seeing him here and now, rather than as he appeared in photographs taken over thirty years before. Beard and hair both more gray than black, small eyes. None of the clothes of the ulema, the learned Shi’a scholars, but instead a simple buttoned shirt, tan, and even simpler black trousers. While he watched, the man began scratching at the back of his right hand with the nails of his left, an unconscious gesture that persisted for several seconds before stopping.
Shirazi met the prisoner’s eyes, returned the stare with the practiced patience he had learned from twenty years in counterintelligence, unwavering, until the man’s indignation faded and the fear reasserted itself. Then, satisfied, Shirazi looked to Zahabzeh, and gave him a small, almost inconsequential, nod.
Zahabzeh took up the stack of photographs and began laying them out in a roughly chronological line along the desktop, facing away from Shirazi, towards their prisoner. Some of the photographs had suffered with age, their edges yellowing and beginning to curl, and in the few of them that had been taken in color, that same color had begun to wash away, rendering the figures insubstantial, almost fictional, and dreamlike.
Or nightmarish, Shirazi thought, as he gauged the man’s reaction. At first there had been nothing, blank incomprehension, ?perhaps bewilderment, but when his eyes fell upon the third photograph, the one with the two young men in the back of the car, everything changed, the reaction inescapable. The prisoner started in his chair, stifling an exclamation. He looked up and then, meeting Shirazi’s eyes, quickly away, to the side and down, as if hoping to find refuge somewhere between the cracks of the linoleum floor. Zahabzeh ran out of room on the desk, went back to the beginning, now laying the photos one atop the other. Somewhere, outside Shirazi’s office, a phone rang and was quickly answered.
“That was a long time ago,” the man said. He brought his head up, looking at Shirazi again, and his voice touched on plaintive. “I was young. Very foolish. It was thirty years ago.”
Zahabzeh finished placing the last of the photographs. Some of them were now stacked four-deep. Shirazi adjusted his glasses, rotated his chair to face the wall on his left, where a portrait of the Ayatollah hung. He pretended to contemplate it.
“I was foolish,” the man said, softly.
“You are a spy,” Zahabzeh spat, and Shirazi had to fight a smile at the savagery of the declaration. “A spy in service of the British.”
“What? No!” The man twisted, unsure who to address, finally settling on Zahabzeh. “No, I swear!”
Zahabzeh plucked one of the pictures from the desk, a black-and-white surveillance shot of their prisoner at twenty-five, seated outside a Tehran café, his head bent to the ear of a handsome European. He shoved it angrily in the man’s face.
“No, I don’t—”
Zahabzeh scooped up a handful of the photographs, began dropping them into the old man’s lap. “This one. This man, we know him, SIS. This one, his cover was as a trade representative. This woman, a known British whore. Did you sleep with her, too? Or was it only the boys? Is that how they paid you? With sex? Sex and money? This one, do you remember this party? This one, what are you handing him, the so-called trade representative? What secrets did you sell? You were in the Army, you were a soldier. How many men died because of you? How many men died because of secrets the British gave to Saddam? This one. This one. This one.”
Zahabzeh continued to assault him with the photos, one after the other, and the prisoner was cringing, drawing back further against his chair, until, with no place to go, he lashed out with an arm. His hand caught the remaining stack in Zahabzeh’s hand, sent it flying. They hit the floor with a slap, sliding over one another like an opening fan.
“I’m not a spy!” The old man pushed himself out of his chair, past Zahabzeh, grabbing the edge of the desk. He appealed to Shirazi. “These are the mistakes of a young man, a stupid, foolish boy! Why are you doing this? Why now? I swear to you, I swear by the Prophet’s name, it ended thirty years ago!”
Shirazi, his eyes still on the portrait, replied, “Things have changed.”
The prisoner shook his head, and then, at last, followed Shirazi’s gaze to the picture hanging on the wall. He groaned softly, pained, then sank back into his chair. It took him two attempts before he could get out his next words.
“My uncle . . . he knows?”
“Of course he knows,” Shirazi lied, turning his chair back to face his prisoner directly. “Would you be here otherwise if he didn’t?”
“It was so long ago.” He spoke in a whisper, to himself, then raised his voice again, speaking to Shirazi. “It ended thirty years ago, thirty-two years ago now. You must tell him that. I beg you, tell him that.”
“We did tell him that,” Shirazi lied. “But after the last election, after all the unrest, with so many counterrevolutionaries and spies suddenly emboldened, things, as I said, have changed. What we were once obliged to describe as the indiscretion of youth we must now, by order of the Supreme Leader himself, view as crimes against the State. You understand? We did tell him, I assure you.”