Authors: Michael Lawrence Kahn
The Screaming Eagles
Michael L. Kahn
Teheran, Iran 1972
The iron bars between the two cells had rusted badly. Rust had caused them to crack and peel, creating a spine of sharp jagged metal.
Seemingly unaware, the man continued to press his face against the bars as he hoarsely whispered, continuing the story he had started more than an hour ago. Where metal cut into the man’s cheeks, clusters of flies buzzed furiously, trying to suck up their share as blood seeped down, falling in droplets from his chin onto his knees.
In the next cell, a younger man sat with his back against the wall, his eyes closed as he listened. Occasionally he raised his hand slightly. The man who was talking knew to stop even if he was in mid-sentence. He waited, breathing hard, blinking sweat out of his eyes, as he answered the younger man’s question.
“It was Sadegh Muzahedi, the great Savak general himself, who came to my house. I thought he was coming to arrest me but instead Sadegh said, praised be he, that if I cooperated with him we would both become rich. He knew all about my business, how we smuggled drugs over the border, the methods we used, the frequency, and where we delivered. He, the great one, was very well informed. I was terrified to be in this great man’s presence. He told me that he was a secret CIA agent, and if I became one too, not only would he protect my business but if ever I wanted to immigrate to America, he would arrange it.” He shifted his grip on the bars. Continuing, he said, “Each year I was cursed as more of my enemies tried to take over my prized suppliers of the best grade hashish. Not only did I have to fight them off, but also the corrupt dogs, the border police, who continuously demanded more payments. Trying to keep open my supply lines was a constant fight for survival. To have Sadegh, praised be he, and the CIA as my protectors was the power I needed to rid myself of the parasites that tried to destroy me. I said many prayers of thanks to Allah, for my dreams were finally answered.
Allah had sent me a protector.”
His voice rising, gripping the bars now tighter, he said, “For more than three years, every month, faithfully, I sent Sadegh answers and information he asked me to obtain from all people who bought my hashish.
Like he instructed, I refused to sell hashish unless each buyer answered the questions Sadegh sent me every month. All the rooms, even the toilets and bathhouses of the sixteen houses of pleasure that I owned were equipped with tape recorders that Sadegh sent me. Only my two sons knew about the recorders and only they changed them once a week. All tape recordings were carefully dated and sent; I never kept any hidden from him. May Allah strike my family dead if I have lied, for never, ever, not once did I keep or listen to a tape of his. Those were the great general’s specific instructions, and as his trusted loyal partner, I obeyed him totally.
“Five days ago, I was arrested and brought to this cell. I do not know if my sons have been killed, or if they will also be brought to this place. I beg the jailers to take me to Sadegh, for he is my friend, my partner, and my protector, but they ignore me.”
Tears welled up in the man’s eyes. “Help me, please, I must get out of here. There must be some mistake.” The younger man in the next cell was silent. For a long time he did not speak. His eyes were still closed.
“We suspected for a long time that Sadegh was a CIA agent, but we are certain that he is also a double agent. Something in one of the tapes that you sent him must have implicated him or confirmed that he was a double agent. Because of the danger to Sadegh that you or your sons might have heard something that could incriminate him, he has brought you here. You are too great a risk for him.”
The man’s voice rose again, this time in anger. “Never once, never did I listen to the tapes. Never.”
“Sadegh cannot be sure. And if you know, others might also know. Anyone that he thinks you might have told, he will surely kill. This is how he will eliminate the danger you have exposed him to. Your wives, your children are probably already dead or will be soon. They cannot help you, nor can I. Sadegh dare not take that chance and allow them to live. From a distance, you can be sure he will be watching you tomorrow. I, too, will search for him, for we have been enemies for many years. Knowing him, he will be well protected and well hidden. But he cannot hide from my voice. He will hear me, and he will fear me, for he knows I am not afraid of him.”
The younger man opened his eyes and without looking at the man in the next cell said, “I can do nothing for you. Insha Allah, it is the will of our God. All I can promise you is that I will tell your story to my son when he comes to say goodbye tonight.”
The man moved away from the bars. Uncertain, the flies sucking blood from cuts on the man’s face hovered above the man as he beat his forehead with his knuckles. Moaning, he lay on the floor, crying softly to himself.
Each noose hanging from the over-beam of the gallows was hanging at a
different height so as to break their necks quickly. At dawn, the condemned men had been measured and weighed. Their height and weight would determine how high the noose should be placed above the trapdoor. To feed men who were about to die would have been a waste of money. The three men had not been fed for more than twenty-four hours. From their cells behind the gallows, they watched the crowd of people grow ever larger. Soon Ferdowsi Square was filled to capacity. Spectators anxiously searched for the right spot that would give them the best view to watch the men die.
It was family day.
Below the gallows, relaxed parents sat on blankets picnicking and lazily talking while their children played. Modest young girls, properly chaperoned, watched the older boys play soccer, sizing them up as potential husbands. Both sexes were keenly aware of each other, the boys, flamboyant in their aggressiveness, the girls demure and attractive in their brightly colored dresses.
Lottery ticket sellers, shouting out numbers, promised buyers that today was undoubtedly their lucky day. Michael bought a ticket as he made his way toward an official notice board where Sadegh had suggested they meet. Most sightseers had satisfied their curiosity hours ago reading the names of each of the men who were to be executed. A few latecomers, like Michael, crowded around the board.
Three official government notices on yellow paper were stapled onto a wooden board. Each named the person to be executed, what crimes they’d committed and where they came from. The paper bore signatures of the Minister of Justice as well as the Commander of Savak, Southern Sector, Teheran.
Michael recognized Sadegh’s signature.
Two major drug dealers had been convicted, one of them was also found guilty of committing sodomy and rape. The third was a communist subversive nicknamed “The Hawk.”
Execution was set for four o’clock p.m., long enough after prayers to allow the faithful to eat a leisurely lunch have a brief nap, then hasten to the railway station. Trains did not run between four and six o’clock in the afternoon. All services at the station ceased during “the time of cleansing,” the hanging hours.
Sadegh was Savak’s general, in charge of the notorious slums that made up the southern part of the city. Savak was the name of the Iranian Secret Police, whose main function was to protect the state from terrorists. Michael had met Sadegh a few months ago when he’d been hired as a real estate consultant to check various properties Sadegh was interested in purchasing. Together they had flown to the States. When they concluded their business after two days of difficult negotiations, Sadegh had proved himself to be an astute buyer, well educated and highly intelligent, as well as a generous host. Last week they were in Chicago deciding which property to buy. Now a week later, he was at a hanging. Without Sadegh, he wouldn’t have been at either place.
Michael’s business was international marketing specializing in selling United States properties to foreign investors. Unlike most brokers, who were paid by the seller, his consultant fees, which formed part of his commission, came from the buyer. This made him a tough negotiator on behalf of his clients. Michael’s thoroughness had discovered inconsistencies including double dipping in the financials and cash flow @projections, saving Sadegh more than a hundred thousand dollars on two of the properties he’d previously optioned in Chicago.
That night they celebrated.
Sadegh’s favorite restaurants were always Japanese. He loved sushi. Expertly using chopsticks, he soaked raw fish strips on a wedge of tightly wrapped white rice in soy, wasabi and a variety of other sauces. For the first time since they’d met, Sadegh told Michael what his profession was and the type of work that he did. One of his duties he explained was to oversee the execution of criminals. During their meal he’d graphically described what happened behind the scenes of a hanging.
Michael had killed in combat many times. If he’d not killed them first, they would have killed him. In his war the equation was simple. If you were the good guy, you killed the bad guys. Prisoners were never an option; eliminating the enemy was the only option. War dead had been faceless, unknowns. He never dwelled upon them, for to him, they’d always been enemies at arms length. That was now a past life, a chapter that had closed years ago when he left the army.
Fascinated, listening as Sadegh unemotionally described in minute detail each action that would take place on the following Friday, the Final Sabbath, the holiest day of the month in Iran, he chewed silently on his food, occasionally sipping sake.
“The gallows were built ten years ago with a famous British hangman acting as a consultant,” said Sadegh. “He earned his fees many times over, for he taught us the correct methods of severing a neck between the first and second vertebrae. An hour or so before the execution, the hangman visits the prisoner to check his approximate weight, height and the muscular thickness of his neck. These are all factors that determine how to position a rope on the gallows and eventually around the neck. The British hangman turned our botched executions into works of art.”
He paused to lean forward and engage Michael’s eyes. “Imagine, Michael, in olden times victims dropped with such force, sometimes heads were totally severed from their bodies. Some took as long as an hour to die, slowly strangling. In some instances, the ropes broke. Many times people were hanged two or three times. Every now and then the main supporting beam broke, falling with its victims. If positioning was wrong as they dropped, noses were ripped off.”
Sadegh added a spoonful of wasabi to his soy sauce. “Be sure to visit the train station next Friday. You will view one of Teheran’s great spectacles, one that has existed for thousands of years. The Shah, blessed be he, bowing to international pressure, has announced that this coming Friday will be the last time that the public can attend. It will be a sad day for our people, but the Shah, blessed be he, has decreed it.”
Michael hesitated. He was sure the criminals deserved to die, but to witness the ceremony of a public hanging was not his idea of fun. Cautiously, so as not to offend Sadegh, he said, “Your explanation was fascinating. The details you shared with me are enlightening and thought provoking. I admire you tremendously for doing your duty unselfishly; someone has to. I commend you for trying to make the execution as humane as possible, few countries bother.
However, to see people suffer is extremely difficult for me, so if you won’t mind, I think I’ll pass.” Eyes narrowing, Sadegh raised his voice. “I did not expect this from you, Michael. I extend the hand of friendship and you cut it off. This is an ancient Iranian tradition. By refusing to take part in it, you devalue our culture and my friendship. You earn your money from doing business with Iranians and live in our country. Our customs, not just our money, should be of interest to you. If you earn your living in our country, eat our food, bed our women, talk our language, how is it that all of those activities are acceptable to you, yet how justice is dispensed is not? Without us getting rid of criminal elements, they would be the rulers of our great country and you could not live the high
life that you do. Think about it Michael, think about it carefully.” Sadegh’s face darkened angrily, Michael could see he was incensed.
Switching from English to Farsi, Michael said. “Sadegh, Sadegh, we are friends. I value our friendship and am honored by it. I did not mean in any way whatsoever to offend you. I apologize a thousand times. I do not have to think for one more minute, one more second. Of course I will come; I am honored you have invited me. I am just tired and wasn’t thinking clearly. Forgive my stupidity and insensitivity, please.”
Sadegh said nothing. He held the small bowl of sake in both hands, turning it slowly.
Realizing the bastard was letting him sweat, he said. “Please, Sadegh.”
Sadegh took a sip of sake, twirling it in his mouth. Finally, he swallowed it. “I will meet you at the notice board at three forty-five sharp, next Friday. I will bring all completed deeds of sales and documents. I will make sure that each will have been notarized. It will save you a long trip downtown.”