Jason Miller now knew where the American professor was going. He was linking to a string of temples that cut across all of Central Asia and to
the ends of the Earth. A network that has been maintained since time immemorial for just such a moment as this.
Alhamdullilah, he said aloud, softly, ironically. Thank God.
He stood up and erased the writing, stretched, and looked around. He would have to hustle if he was going to get to the site before the professor and lie in wait for the drama to play out. But at least now he knew more than the professor and his entourage.
He knew the endgame.
THE TOWERS OF SILENCE
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”
The drive back onto the highway was blessedly uneventful. The tour bus that was their escort stopped to wait for them, letting its passengers stretch their legs and the driver tinker with the engine as cover for their delay. As Adnan drove up onto the highway from the dirt road alongside, the passengers quickly got back on the bus and they all started off for the straight run to Yazd, but not before Adnan got out and had another confab with the others.
Angell got out of the car to stretch and look around. It was a bleak landscape, even in the shimmering light of the sun. All around were dung- colored hills and grey rock. There were towns that hugged the highway, but once off of it there was nothing. Nothing at all. It was beautiful in the way a ghost town is beautiful: the absence of any living presence forces the mind to populate the scene with ghosts of one’s own.
He took a swig from a plastic water bottle and let a few drops fall onto his hands so he could scrub some of the dust off them. He wiped his face with a paper tissue he had dampened with the same water, and looked up to see Adnan coming towards him.
“We better leave now,” he said, heading for the driver’s side. “We got word there is a militia patrol coming up from Abadeh. There were rumors of a plane or helicopter violating Iran’s sacred air space this morning. There are always rumors like that, but for some reason they are taking this one seriously.”
The sound of the bus’s engines preceded them. Angell got back in the car and they pulled out behind the bus.
“What if they notify the checkpoints ahead of us?”
“There shouldn’t be any checkpoints between here and Yazd, but you never know. Should they set up a roadblock our people ahead will let us know and we will take evasive action while they create a diversion. It’s okay. We’ve done this before, many times.”
Angell opened his mouth but was stopped by Adnan. “Don’t ask,” he said, with a smile.
On the way up the highway Angell asked about the cult activity in Yazd. “You know we have many religious minorities here, as there are in Iraq,
Jordan, Lebanon, and throughout the Middle East and North Africa. We’re
used to them. Hell, I’m a religious minority. But these guys … they were something else. Suicidal too, if you ask me. No one has any illusions about what life is like in this country if you’re not a member of the Shi’a majority. Even the Shiites themselves are persecuted for minor violations of the laws set down by the ayatollahs.
“Iranians thought they were free once they got rid of the Shah. The Savak, his secret police, were hated and feared. The people thought that having a country based on religious law instead of secular law would be a relief. It wasn’t. It was just the exchange of one set of tyrants for another. And everyone knows the Shah was propped up by the Americans. Hell, we even installed him here. You know about that, right?”
Angell nodded, gloomily. “Yes. The CIA overthrow of Mossadegh.” “Yep. Once we got rid of that old bastard we brought the Shah out of
mothballs and had ourselves an ally in the Middle East. But it was a two-
edged sword. The Shah treated his people like enemies. The Iranians knew that he was a puppet of the United States, and they figured once they got rid of him they would be okay. But they were wrong.”
“So … what does all of this have to do with a cult in Yazd?”
“That’s just it. Their leader turned out to be a wanted man. One of the Shah’s own bad guys. Savak.”
“Jesus. After all this time? What’s it been, like … thirty-five years?” “Yes, sir. The guy was an interrogator, and you know what that means.
He’s pushing seventy … or he was when they caught him.”
“Was he one of the ones they …?”
“Beheaded? No. As far as we know he was taken to Evin Prison in Tehran. That’s pretty much where all the political prisoners wind up. There are still some there who were arrested in ‘79 when the ayatollahs came to power. It’s notorious. A hell on Earth.”
“Why would they keep him alive?”
“Well, I figure, to give him some of the same treatment he gave them back in the day.”
Angell shivered, even though it was at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit in the car.
“Most likely, though, they’d want to know how he was able to stay on the lam for so long. You know, who his networks are, that sort of thing. And why he got involved with that weird-ass cult. Makes no sense, really. Unless the guy just lost his mind.”
“Sounds like it.”
“But the Guard. You know, they gotta figure that the cult was part of some wider network of terror cells or something. The line between cultist and terrorist is mighty thin in these parts.”
Something occurred to Angell. “Wouldn’t they be turning Yazd upside down right about now, looking for other members of the cult?”
“Well. Ordinarily you would be right. But they got some actionable intel that said the surviving members had fled to Isfahan.”
“Really? How do you know that?”
“I’m the source for that particular intel. So just sit back and enjoy the ride. In another few hours we’ll be at the Towers of Silence.”
When they arrived at the outskirts of Yazd, Angell saw immediately why the tour bus was so essential to their mission. He had been wondering about that the whole way, since it didn’t seem to do anything except precede them on the highway. Here, as the road signs told them they were approaching the city, the bus slowed down and Adnan slowed down behind it on the shoulder.
Two men exited the bus and started walking away, down the road in the direction of the town. The bus started up again and they were on their way. Adnan followed.
Angell was mystified by the maneuver.
“They’re gonna reconnoiter. We’ve got only another klick or so to go before we reach the Towers. These guys are gonna make sure there isn’t a welcoming committee.”
“But … they’re walking. We’ll arrive long before they do.” “Not to worry, my friend. We know what we’re doing.”
They drove along for another few minutes and saw the signs for the Zoroastrian burial ground, the dakhmah: the famous Towers of Silence.
The approach was eerie. It was part tourist attraction, part cemetery. Angell was reminded of the Recoleta in Buenos Aires, the place where Evita Peron had been buried which was now a tourist attraction as well. He had once walked among the mausoleums with their broken sarcophagi, bones of the dead clearly visible through the wrought iron gates and doors. The Towers of Silence, however, did not have the claustrophobic feel of the Recoleta. It was an open plain, dotted with small buildings that had served as shelter and chapels for the Zoroastrian priests who maintained the site and which were now in disuse. In front of them were two hills, and at the top of each were stone, clay and brick towers. On top of those towers
—until about forty years ago—the Zoroastrians placed their dead in the open air so that the vultures could consume their bodies. It was a practice that could be found throughout the Zoroastrian world as far as Mumbai in India, which also has its Towers of Silence. In Tibet, open-air burials are also to be found although the Zoroastrian influence there is debatable.
As they drove up to the parking area behind the bus, Angell saw in the distance the two men they had left by the side of the road only a few minutes earlier.
“They’re already here?” he asked.
“The road to the Towers goes around a little from the highway. They took the direct route. We wanted to be sure there were no militia on the side away from the road, so that was their function. Now the rest of the passengers from the bus—all our people, you understand—will fan out around the Towers. They look like tourists and they will act like tourists but they are our bodyguard. They will blend in with everyone else and not be noticed.”
It was true. There were other tourists in the area, walking quietly among the low, white-washed buildings and staring up at the towers around them. Some were Europeans or Americans, in carefully-chaperoned groups by government-approved tour guides. Others were local Iranians. In a moment it was nearly impossible to tell who their escorts were from the real tourists.
They passed one group, and Angell heard Americans speaking English.
He almost turned around but Adnan grabbed him by the arm.
“Careful,” he whispered. “You’re not an American here. Remember that.”
Angell swallowed and nodded.
Adnan looked over to him and winked. “It’s showtime.”
There was a low, squat building with five domes and open archways. It was separated from the other buildings, towards the edge of one of the two hills with the towers. Adnan and Angell walked towards it but without seeming to do so. They wandered in a circular pattern, sometimes separating from each other, at other times wandering closer until they both arrived at the entrance to the building at about the same time. Adnan was alert to any possibility that their presence was being noticed, and he made eye contact with one of his people who looked back, expressionless. So far, so good.
Angell found himself trembling a little at the realization of where he was and what he was doing. If the Iranian security forces found him, he was either dead for sure or would wind up in Evin Prison and be tortured ruthlessly. At the same time, if he did not follow through then many thousands—if not millions—of people would suffer and die as the result of this crazy cult. The weight of the responsibility fused with the sense of imminent danger, and it made him lose his breath.
“You okay, man?” Angell just nodded. “Let’s do this.”
The light was dim inside the building, refreshing after the glare from the sun that reflected off the white structures all around them. It was not
exactly cool, but there was a sensation of death in those dark rooms that made the two men shiver.
The room they were in was the main part of the building, directly under a small central dome. There was nothing but sand and grit and broken bricks on the floor. No decoration on the walls, and no furniture. There were open windows on the sides that had never had glass. There were three smaller rooms at the rear of the building that seemed similarly empty.
“We’re supposed to wait here. Someone will contact us,” said Adnan. “How do you know?”
“Once your people understood where we were going they made some contacts, me being one of them. We analyzed the name you were given, Arad, and made contact first to be sure it wasn’t a trap.”
They heard a sound, and from the gloom at the central area at the rear of the building a figure began to emerge from the shadows.
It was a small boy with startlingly blue eyes and hair the color of a desert night. He held up a finger to his lips, the gesture of silence amid the Towers of Silence, and pointed up.
Towards the Tower.
“I guess we’re going up,” said Adnan. The boy smiled and ran off on some other mysterious errand.
There are two Towers at Yazd, towers of death where thousands of corpses have been placed over the centuries to decompose in the open air and be devoured by vultures. Angell could not help but think of those other two Towers, the ones that claimed members of his own family on that September morning thirteen years before.
What was the connection between those two, lightning-struck, towers and the ones before him in this remote part of Iran?
The way up was a winding road that went partway around the hill and ended in a few stairs carved out of the rock. They passed tourists coming down from the tower, women in black veils from Iran and women from Europe and America in windbreakers and carrying cameras, men from many countries in jackets and hats against the sun, and could not imagine that their contact would have chosen so open and public a place for such an important meeting.
As they climbed higher up the hill they could see the city of Yazd in the distance. All around the site were roads, small buildings, what appeared to be a modern-looking housing complex, and the signs of everyday life. A brick wall separated the parking area from the site itself. As they walked up the path to the top of the tower they noted graffiti here and there, a lot of broken masonry and crumbled stones, and a dryness about the place that tickled their throats with its dust. This was a cemetery of a cemetery, a graveyard for a graveyard.
On the wall of the tower, near the narrow entranceway, was more graffiti. This time it looked obscene at first until Angell got a better look. It was some kind of animal, almost cartoonish. Like a talking fish. He stopped briefly, its design reminiscent of another he had seen, the one at Mosul just before the massacre. He thought no more of it at the time, but the memory of it would come back to haunt him.
When they finally reached the top and walked through a narrow entryway to the burial area itself they found themselves strangely alone. The tourists had all gone down ahead of them, as if on cue. Suddenly they were back in the open air, under the direct sun.