More than a decade after the dawn of Iran’s Islamic Republic, Darius Bakhtiar still chafes under the harsh yoke of Sharia law. He is an alcoholic in a country where intoxication is punishable by whipping, and a homicide detective in a society that sees death as an opportunity for martyrdom. In Teheran, a young woman is found murdered, but her makeup and scanty clothing mark her as a prostitute, and Bakhtiar’s superiors tell him to make only a cursory inquiry. But what he uncovers suggests that this brutal killing was not random, and points to a sickening hypocrisy at the heart of the fundamentalist government. Few outside the Ayatollah’s inner sanctum know of the Brides of Blood. A sect of virgin zealots, these women live and die for the afterlife, killing infidels to gain a seat in heaven. As he digs deeper into the conspiracy, Bakhtiar learns that in a religious dictatorship, there is nothing more dangerous than asking questions.
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Brides of Blood
By Joseph Koenig
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1993 Joseph Koenig
All rights reserved.
Jews and their foreign backers are those who seek to snare the very foundations of Islam and pave the way for Jewish domination throughout the world. Since they are a crafty and active lot my fear is that, may Allah forbid it, they will one day achieve their goal. In collusion with the cross worshipers they plan first to humiliate and then eliminate Islam in Iran. May Allah never let us see such a day."
The old man's fury roiled the heavy air. Mud-brick walls reflected his protest, batted it along crooked streets, and cloned a mob's curses, his message blurred by feedback as it multiplied again, now the battle cry of an army.
A white Paycon with loudspeakers mounted on the corners of the roof carried the word from the southern slums. The small car jerked, stumbled, and lurched back over its trail, washed the pavement in the yellow spray from its headlamps. The driver, vigilant against the enemies of the faith, kept one foot always on the brake. A skewed beam beside the passenger's window plied the sidewalks. Deterred by the rough walls it sought out arcades and shaded alleys, heroic monuments to the recent war dead. Tumbling haze displaced the light along empty avenues as the Paycon climbed into the heights of the city and drifted on its green edge.
The beam wavered there despite the motion of the car, which stopped suddenly alongside a row of benches. Brightness congealed around a woman whose head lolled back over the top slat. At that odd angle she appeared no more than twenty, and not beautiful, her best features the double sin of a swarm of loose hair and scarlet lips that were weakly parted.
"Whore," someone said inside the car.
"Drunk in the bargain." The driver cut the engine, damping the headlamps, but not the taped sermon that blared overhead.
Four women squeezed out of the car, sisters in black habits, invisible against the night but for eyes, and shiny noses, cheekbones, olive raccoon masks, and of the leader—the most devout—not that much bared, a corner of cloth gritted in her teeth and only one glaring eye unhidden. The women were Pasdars, guardians of morality, their jurisdiction immodesty and licentiousness in its myriad guises. They marched beyond the range of light and surrounded the stuporous figure on the bench.
"Cover yourself!" The lone eye took in bare wrists and ankles protruding from a black garment identical to her own, colored lips and nails—a catalogue of felonies. "This is the Republic of God."
She tilted a jar of clear fluid at a stained rag, and swabbed the criminal's face until the red was gone. The girl seemed not to care, or even notice, putting up no resistance as a second measure of acetone removed the offending color from her fingers.
Another of the quartet pulled a loose veil over the wild hair, but could not cage it all. "Slut, hide your nakedness." She threatened worse than acetone. "Where is your shame?"
The girl's chin snapped against her breast as she was prodded from slumber. The Pasdars took her under the shoulders and hauled her up on marionette legs. She showed no interest in supporting her weight; soon, neither did the women. When they tried to sit her down, she dropped like a stone. Not troubling to put out her hands, she broke her fall with her nose. A Pasdar produced an unsoiled handkerchief from the folds of her black chador, but there was no blood to speak of to mop up. Nudging the girl onto her side, she looked into her senseless face. Tangles of brown hair poured off one shoulder, exposing a scorched circular wound behind her ear. The Pasdar listened for breathing, she felt for a pulse, pressed close to fill the empty heart from the violent pounding in her own chest.
The loudspeakers quieted as the tape ran out. A blast of static announced their immediate return to life.
"Remind the peoples of the danger posed by Israel and its agents. Recall and explain the catastrophes inflicted upon Islam by the Jews. We see today that the Jews, may Allah damn them, have meddled with the text of the holy Qur'an ..."
Approaching Niavaran Palace the djoubs ran almost clear. Plane trees nourished by the snowmelt they brought down from the mountains lined the boulevards. An American car, an aged Thunderbird, tracked the greenery north through suburban Shemiran, a motorist preferring dead reckoning to the directions he had copied in his notepad. The dry wind was infused with the flavor of summer gardens and the odd pocket of cold spilling down from the Elburz Range. Like the djoubs, the motorist's thoughts were clearer here, too, a novelty that soon wore thin. He opened the glove compartment for a flask that he kept buried under the Administrative Regulations Governing the Revolutionary Courts and Public Prosecutor's Office. He drank with little pleasure, businesslike, alcohol as basic to the task at hand as the guns he wore under his shoulder and in the small of his back. "Punishment for drinking liquor is eighty lashes whether it is a man or a woman," he recited as he reinterred the empty under the law book. "Article 131, the law of Houdoud and Qesas."
Turning into the teeth of holy rage, he homed in on an apartment complex on Saltanatabad Avenue below the former royal estate, two modern pale brick high rises that mirrored each other across a tiled courtyard set back from the sidewalk. Double-parked beside a white Paycon pumping out the Imam's wrath from crackling speakers was a Range Rover of the Komiteh, the Committee for the Revolution. The Thunderbird pulled in several car lengths behind. As the motorist swung his legs out, he breathed against his palm and sniffed his breath. "A man is to be whipped while standing with his body naked except for a cover on his private parts. But a woman is to be whipped while sitting with her dress tied to her body." He went back to the glove compartment for a stick of gum. "Article 132."
Bleary-eyed families, the wives and daughters wrapped dutifully in long head scarves, looked down into the court from gray windows. The faint light of the nearest streetlamps extracted from the tiles a bluish luminescence, so that the squad of Pasdars might have been standing on the surface of a shallow pool. With them were a couple of bearded men who made sharp, nervous gestures with Uzi automatic rifles. A girl stretched out on her side in the center of their small circle seemed to have washed up against the benches. The driver of the Thunderbird went to the white car and pulled the cassette from the tape player, silencing the old man's ranting. Some of the apartment windows immediately went dark. As he turned toward the court, he thought an Uzi was pointed his way. But nothing was very clear anymore, and he couldn't be sure.
"Police only!" The way was barred by a Komitehman staring past him at the Thunderbird. "You will have to go around."
He opened his wallet. The Komitehman looked doubtfully from his face to the color snapshot with his ID.
"Your name, please?"
"Bakhtiar." His stomach gurgled loud enough to hear. Sour gas bubbled in his throat. He corked it with his epiglottis.
"And your rank, if I may ask?"
Not quite a slap in the face, the question served a similar purpose. The Komiteh's duty was to protect the borders and the Revolution, his to chase after counterfeiters, rapists, thieves, and killers, miscreants whose threats were aimed only indirectly at the glory of God. As it would be on the road to paradise, the simplest of the men with the Uzis, even an illiterate like this one, took precedence over officers of the National Police where their responsibilities overlapped.
Darius Bakhtiar relaxed his throat, let out a vodka belch. "Lieutenant colonel."
The black curtain parted around the girl, and he dropped to his knees beside her. The smell of acetone stung the linings of his nose.
"Who touched this woman?"
The Pasdars kept silent. A Komitehman in a fatigue jacket zipped to his chin despite the August warmth bounced a light into Darius's eyes.
"What does it matter?" he said. "It was done."
Darius cupped the flash against his palm. "Who are you?"
"Bijan." The name, signifying nothing in itself, was followed by a pause, and then the kicker: "From the Bon Yad Monkerat."
Darius swallowed another burp. In consultation with the ayatollahs in the highest ranks of government, the Committee for the Revolution was charged with enforcing the prevailing moral tone. While lesser Komitehs held sway in tiny fiefdoms throughout the city, some claiming barely ten or twelve blocks for their turf, the Bon Yad Monkerat oversaw all of Teheran from a posh villa seized for the Revolution from an exiled merchant family. Bijan was the number two man.
Darius pushed the number two man's light at the body. With his thumb and forefinger he separated the charred fringes of skin around the wound behind the girl's ear. A metal nub glinted dully in yellow bone like a poisoned pearl. "The angle of the bullet, where the gun was fired, that's lost for good."
"Whatever." Bijan shrugged. "The case is unimportant. She was a prostitute. When the Pasdars found her, her nails and face were painted. She was half naked. You know these people better than I, the sordid nature of their squabbles. It is only thanks to God they haven't all destroyed themselves yet."
Darius rolled the girl onto her back. Scratches from her hairline to her swollen eyes had crusted into a brown grid.
"This woman was beaten on several occasions before tonight," he said.
"It was God's will." Bijan leaned his Uzi against his leg. He carved a block of halvah with a penknife, and gave the other Komitehman the larger piece. "Violence is a way of life for them, existing as they do. A beating was something she asked for, the natural preliminary to such a death."
"Since you know so much, why did you send for me?"
"Do I have to spell out everything, Lieutenant Colonel?" Bijan chewed with his mouth open. "The National Police must attend at all such tragedies, no matter how wearisome. It is the law."
Darius looked into the mountains. Teheran was built on a plateau that angled sharply into the Elburz. It wasn't hard to imagine that a giant hand had curled back the north end and was poised to spill everything—cars, sidewalks, acres of new skyscrapers—into the endless desert to the south. It occurred to him that, if he could find a place to stand, it would be a sight to see.
He scratched his smooth chin. Where trimmed beards, like yellow Thunderbirds, were considered unbecomingly decadent, to be clean-shaven was to skirt the borders of criminality. Bijan had a point. What was the use of knocking himself out? With a few strokes of lipstick the girl knowingly had signed away her future. Under the dress code of the Komiteh the use of makeup carried a penalty of seventy-four lashes. The girl, if she were a believer, already was at the gates of heaven. If not, at least she had escaped from hell. In Darius's hand, the light traced bold parabolas around the benches, then returned to the body. "Tell me," he asked, "where is all the blood?"
Bijan examined his Uzi, wary of a trick question.
"She's been shot," Darius said impatiently, "but there's hardly any blood."
"The Pasdars cleaned it."
Bijan turned to the women for confirmation. The leaders eye blinked like a slamming door. "Only the face." She held the veil an inch from her mouth. "The nails, her hair—we touched nothing else."
"In that case, it's simple," Bijan said. "She was killed someplace else and brought here."
"In that case," Darius said, "nothing is simple."
Evidence was deteriorating, the investigation—not begun yet—in a mire from which there was slight likelihood he would be able to extricate it. Even so, he had several hard facts to work with. The victim was not a married woman caught in flagrante delicto with another man. Had that been the case there would have been no need to dispose of the body here, since an aggrieved husband had the right, under the law, to kill his errant spouse without being prosecuted for murder.
Darius shooed the Pasdars away. He straddled the body and pressed his lips to the girl's neck. His eye was so close to the partially exposed bullet that he was tempted to pop it out.
"What do you want from her?" asked Bijan.
"She's started to cool. It's hours since she was killed."
"You are taking her temperature?"
"In a manner, yes."
"Orally, I assume."
Bijan's mouth was distorted by the halvah, but Darius couldn't fit a smile anywhere on it.
"... Then we can go now."
"Not yet," Darius said. "I want you to secure the scene till officers arrive. Also, you haven't told me what things looked like when you got here."
Bijan was shepherding the Pasdar women to the street. "You don't need our help. Before Islamic justice replaced the old system, the criminal police were ten times as busy as today. Still, they performed their duties."
"I wouldn't know," Darius said.
"A plague of murder afflicted the people. Killers understood they would not be dealt with severely, so they kept the city in terror. Under the new law it has been made clear what punishment awaits them, and everyone can walk the streets in peace."
Darius glanced back at the corpse. "Tell her."
"You are wasting your time," Bijan said. "If you should bring this probe to a successful conclusion, no one will care. The girl is not worth the effort; to find her killer is no accomplishment. He has done the nation a service. If you don't recognize what has happened, let me paint you a picture. It was a lovers' quarrel—if love is the word for what transpires among their kind. They had battled before, you said so yourself. Tonight it got out of hand.
Perhaps she even liked it that way. The boyfriend shot the girl, executed her, judging by the location of the wound, and left her where she would not be traced to his place."
"You've found witnesses?" Darius said. "Spoken to people who saw the body being dumped?"
Bijan cut another piece of halvah without finishing what he had in his mouth.
"Did you try? How many hours did you let go by doing nothing before you called?"
"Not long," Bijan said. "First we had to satisfy ourselves that the matter was of sufficient seriousness to bother the National Police."
"An idiot would know right off that this was murder."
"Good, good." Shouldering his rifle, Bijan went after the women. "I see you are already on your way."
The old man's ranting began again as the Paycon scurried from the curb. Unformulated questions suggested answers inside the tall buildings; but without the Komiteh on his side Darius was beating his head against the walls. The investigation, molded in official apathy, would bind him to sterile routine until an improbable resolution was delivered from above. Had the girl eluded her killer, and the crime been merely the flagrant use of makeup, resources would have been made available to prosecute her. With the assault on public order having climaxed in her death, however, only a cursory probe was demanded. The logic was unassailable—and the system grew fat on its perversity. For proof there was Bijan, the Komiteh's crown prince, who had chalked up another success by declaring the murder not worth solving. In no aspect of the case did Darius see profit for himself. While a good arrest might earn a few pats on the back, to accede to the failure desired of him eventually would cost him his job. He turned his face into the breeze. Cool air dispersed some of the fog in his brain, and heightened the sadness that never went away. Clear thought, he decided, was an acquired taste, a luxury well beyond his means and narrow prospects.
Again he crouched over the girl. Judging by her perfect teeth, she had been well off, rather than poor, likelier a city resident than her country cousin. In her pockets he found eighty thousand rials and a tortoiseshell compact; nothing else he might use to identify her. There was no label or laundry mark in the black garment.
He wandered away from the benches to call for assistance and to search perfunctorily for additional evidence. When he looked back, a boy of about fifteen was standing over the body. On a string around his neck Darius saw the Key to Paradise with which thousands of children had walked the Iraqi warfront as human minesweepers, secure in the knowledge that their entry to heaven was guaranteed by the talismans stamped in a Taiwan plastics factory. The boy poked at the corpse with an aluminum crutch and lifted the girl's hem above her thigh.
Excerpted from Brides of Blood by Joseph Koenig. Copyright © 1993 Joseph Koenig. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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