He was obviously delirious, thought Angell with tremendous sympathy for the man. Although Angell had no use for religion or God any longer, he could see the tremendous humanity in this man who risked his life for what he believed.
Blood was still pooling around his body. Angell gently tore a piece of the robe to use as a bandage to staunch the flow and bind his chest the best he could. The pure white tunic was now half scarlet. Angell knew that the Zoroastrians hated impurity of any kind. And this old man, thought Angell, must be one of the last of the mobad, the priests. There were not many left in all of Iran.
He looked up anxiously, expecting Adnan to appear at any moment. It was growing a little darker as the sun stretched out over the western hills. He wondered if there was a fast way down the tower behind them. He hoped the militia would be superstitious enough that they wouldn’t climb up to see if anyone was hiding there.
The militia was a civilian group, as opposed to the more tightly trained and official Revolutionary Guard. There were criminal types among the militia, including smugglers. He didn’t know from firsthand experience if they included violent psychopaths among their ranks but he wasn’t about to find out.
“Daghaneh,” he said again.
That’s when it hit Angell. The old priest was using a word he hadn’t heard in years, not since he taught undergrad classes in Sumerian and Babylonian religion. Daghaneh meant Dagon, one of the oldest deities of Mesopotamia. Dagon was sometimes depicted as a fish god, or half-man, half-fish. He was associated with death and even murder. The old man was
saying that priests of Dagon had attacked him. Presumably that was his name for the cult that slashed him looking for the book.
Terrific, thought Angell. Dagon. Another friggin’ fairy tale. That was when the gunfire started in earnest.
From the top of the other Tower of Silence came the first shots, aimed in the general direction of the militia guarding the group of tourists. Everyone hit the ground, with the militia trying to return fire but not certain which of the towers was being used as a sniper’s nest. Angell heard the staccato rapid fire of what was probably an AK-47 or a Chinese AKM. He had heard them often enough the last time he was in Iraq. He left the priest by the side of the building and crept around to get a better look and to find out what happened to Adnan.
He found the agent huddled in the doorway, talking on a cell phone. He seemed to be directing the operation from there.
He looked up as Angell approached and held out a hand to stall him. “Keep them pinned down,” he shouted into the phone. “They’ll call for
backup any minute but it will take a while for it to get here,” he said in the
local Kurdish dialect.
“What’s going on? Who’s doing the shooting?”
“Our guys. The two who left the bus earlier. They’re creating a diversion so we can get out of here.”
“But they’re calling attention to us.”
“They’re calling attention to the other tower.” “Why couldn’t we just sit it out and wait for the militia to leave?”
“Because they’re not militia. And they’re not the Revolutionary Guard.” Adnan looked at Angell with something like pity mixed with fear. “Somehow our communications were compromised. Someone either got
to the contact in Tell Ibrahim or the one in Mosul. Whoever was
responsible, it doesn’t matter now. It’s the cult, whatever members survived the purge by the Guard, and god dammit they’re here looking for you.”
Behind them, Arad—the aged Zoroastrian priest—breathed his last.
On the plain below, the cultists belonging to the same group they had encountered in Tell Ibrahim were taking cover behind the old adobe buildings on the ground and trying to return fire to the tower, but they were
out of range. They would have to get closer, but they were essentially pinned down. The two shooters in the second tower had the advantage. Adnan was unarmed. His weapons were all in the trunk of his car. He hadn’t wanted to be caught with a firearm for it would have meant a certain death sentence if he was caught. Instead, he relied upon his team to provide firepower when necessary. Now, however, he wished he had his pistol, if nothing else.
“We can go down the hill unseen if we don’t use the path. This way,” he said, pointing to a perilous-looking section of the hill facing away from the parking area. “From there we can get picked up by one of our team. The cultists are not paying much attention to the tourists now, figuring the shooters are their target. If any of them can get away they’ll drive the bus into Yazd. This way the bad guys will follow the bus, and not us.”
Angell just nodded. He was too frightened to be of much use as a conversationalist.
“Did you get what you needed? From the old man?” Angell swallowed, then answered.
“Yes. He told me where to go next.”
“Don’t tell me. I don’t have a need to know. Save it for the debrief. My mission now is to get you back to the extraction site.”
Angell looked down the hill in the direction Adnan had suggested. It was not going to be easy.
“We were set up, weren’t we?”
“Not exactly. Someone got turned somewhere along the line. It would have been after you got the intel about Yazd. They got to the priest first, interrogated him, and stabbed him once they realized they weren’t getting anything out of him. They probably figured he was dead by the time we arrived. To make matters worse, our feint in sending the Guard looking for us in Isfahan gave the cult some room to go after us here. Best laid plans, and all that.”
This was all getting to be way too real for Angell, but there was no backing out now.
Adnan spoke a few more words into his phone, then dropped it into his pocket.
“Okay. Let’s go.”
The two men crawled out of the back of the tower, where Arad’s body lay. The sight of the old man exposed to the elements saddened Angell, but then he realized that was exactly what Arad had wanted. With the takeover by the ayatollahs, the traditional Zoroastrian burial practices had been forbidden. For the first time in memory, the Zoroastrians now had to bury their dead in the ground. In order to survive under the fundamentalist regime, the priests had to accept the ruling. At least, they were still allowed to keep their eternal flame lit in the temple in Yazd where it had been burning for more than three thousand years.
Adnan went first over the side, finding handholds and places that were level enough to crouch or crawl down the hillside. With a last look at Arad, dead in the place he longed to be, Angell followed.
They could hear the crack of gunfire but it seemed far away now. They scrambled as best they could until they came to an outcropping of rock that was large enough to conceal them. They were only about ten feet above the surface, but they waited to be sure there were no surprises.
The two men, dressed like locals, did not look as out of place as one might imagine. They could have been from any of the small villages they had passed on the highway. They were tired and dusty from the climb down the hill. On top of that they were emotionally drained from the visit with Arad and completely wired by the danger they were in.
Adnan was the first to notice an anomaly in his field of vision. “Three o’clock.”
Angell turned to his right and saw something moving in the distance, behind a line of trees.
“What is it?”
“One of ours, I think. But let’s just wait a minute to be sure.” It was not as if Angell was planning on taking a walk.
The cultists were firing back at the two shooters in the tower, and one peeled off to try to approach them from another angle. He was spotted, and shots from the tower kicked up dust in front of him so he dropped to the ground and crab-walked back to his original position. Angell could see puffs of smoke as bullets hit the wall of the tower, but the shooters were so well-placed that it would take an army—or a drone strike—to bring them down.
They could wait there for hours, but time was running out. Soon all of Yazd would be on-site. From the first shot to the most recent was only about ten minutes, but they were pushing it.
Adnan heard the bus start up before Angell did. He craned his neck around and saw that his people were already on board. The other tourists— the real ones—were running for the brick wall that separated them from their transport and the cultists simply ignored them, too.
Another bus, and then another started up. All three entered traffic and started heading towards Yazd on the main road. The sun was going down and the lights were coming on in the city. Darkness came with its own special set of problems, but it would also provide cover.
Adnan risked another look at where the buses had been.
“Good,” he said, relieved. “My car is gone. That means everyone is okay and they are coming back for us around the other side.”
Just as they were getting up to make a run for it, Angell heard a sound that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand straight up.
From the building where the cultists were pinned down came a kind of howl. Like the cry of “Allahu akhbar!” that had become so familiar to television audiences around the world. Except the first sound was not Allahu but Kutulu.
The howl rolled around the desert floor and up the sides of the hill to swirl around the Towers of Silence like the lustful mating call of a zombie in the last stages of decomp.
“What are they saying? It sounds like Kutuluhu akhbar or something like that. It’s not Arabic, it’s not Farsi, and it sure as hell ain’t Gorani.”
“Adnan, my friend, you don’t want to know. You really don’t. Let’s just get the hell out of here because things could go very dark very fast.”
He didn’t need to be told twice. They crept out from behind their outcropping and scrambled down the rest of the hill to the flat desert floor. Adnan pointed to a spot away from the firefight, an open expanse of dirt and sand that led to a road running on the other side of the Towers. It was a road with very few buildings on the other side, so they would not be noticed. That was where he expected to meet his pick-up.
The howl came again, this time even stronger. They could hear their two shooters increasing their fire down the hill at the cultists but it sounded like panic-firing. The thought made Adnan’s blood run cold.
The two shooters left the safety of their tower fortress and were walking calmly down the circuitous path, firing and reloading, firing and reloading. Something had possessed them. The weird screams from the cultists that had so terrified Angell had acted to solidify the shooters’ convictions. This was not a political battle, and it wasn’t even a religious one. Not in any conventional sense. They knew they were facing something much deeper, much more frightening and enormously more lethal than any modern weapon or ancient form of torture could inflict.
The two shooters—their names were Bahadur and Firooz—shot straight and true. The man who had tried to outflank them earlier was the first to die. He was followed by his friend who tried to use the dead body as a tripod for his rifle. He was taken out by a head shot that penetrated his forehead and destroyed his pineal gland. The wound looked like Edvard Munch had painted him a Third Eye.
Bullets sang and danced around Bahadur and Firooz but they took no notice. The other cultists, armed with a depressing variety of weapons, decided to charge them. Bahadur smiled. Firooz frowned. They started firing their Chinese-made AK-47s from the hip.
They didn’t see cultists. They saw devils. They didn’t see men. They saw fictional characters from horror stories and nightmares. Freddie Krueger in a turban. Jason with a scimitar. “Heeeere’s Johnny …” These were Kurds, Bahadur and Firooz, men of Ahl-e Haqq, and they would show these depraved eunuch sons of pederasts and whores how real men dealt with the scum of the universe.
Angell and Adnan were running for their lives across the flat, open plain to the road. It was full-on twilight now, the lights coming up all over the city: a jewel of an oasis in the middle of the desert. They could still hear the firefight taking place behind them. For Adnan, not knowing what was going on was torture.
He fumbled for his phone and called the man who was driving his car. He spoke a few words and then saw a pair of headlights signaling him from the road. Okay, he was already there. One less thing to worry about.
The driver told him the bus had made it to downtown Yazd. Everyone was okay. But what about Bahadur and Firooz?
In the movies, the heroes laugh at danger. Here, in the Iranian wasteland, there was no laughter. The shooters respected their work, and they were pious men who knew what death was all about. They took no joy in slaughter. But they were Kurds. They were born fighters.
So … like … fuck that.
Bahadur and Firooz stood side by side. They each were down to their last clip. They exchanged a glance that said goodbye, it was great. See you on the flip side.
And they walked into an abattoir.
Six cultists were down, and another four were still in the building they were using as a fort. The two Kurds calmly walked up to the entrance, then split up, each taking a side. Bahadur went left, Firooz went right.
In the distance they could hear sirens. They thought that was funny.
One of the cult members—a twenty-something in camouflage pants, flat on the floor inside the doorway—raised an automatic pistol to blow a hole through Bahadur but Firooz was faster and rammed a NATO round through the kid’s mouth that took out his jaw and whatever he had for a brain. Bahadur fired blind into the open space inside the building, just so he could catch a glimpse of what was waiting for them by the light of the discharge. He saw a pair of eyes and felt a round from some kind of piece- of-shit handgun whiz past his ear. He pulled his trigger in the general direction of the eyes and the gun. He heard a scream.