This is the second excerpt from my new “Devlin” thriller, Shock Warning. In this chapter, Maryam — Devlin’s fellow agent and lover — has smuggled herself back into her native Iran, investigating the miraculous apparitions occurring over the holy city of Qom. Unfortunately for her, she’s just been confronted by two members of the religious police.
Meanwhile, inside a secret nuclear facility, the evil German billionaire, Emanuel Skorzeny is about to make the deal of a lifetime with the Iranians
“Why are you alone, sister?”
These were not words Maryam wished to hear, especially from a member of the morality police. The Iranian vice cops – “vice” in this case applying to the very existence of women – were not as notorious as the mutaween of Saudi Arabia, or the Taliban of Afghanistan, but they were plenty dangerous.
She tensed as she answered. “But I am modestly dressed, worshipping at the sacred mosque.”
They moved closer to her, boxing her in, forcing her into an alley. Maryam glanced around and saw there was nobody else in sight. Whatever was going to happen was going to have to happen fast.
“Where is your husband sister?”
“I have… he is away, on state business. But he will be here soon, that I can assure you.”
“Then where is your father?”
“My father, may Allah bless him, is dead.”
“Alas, I have no brothers.”
The two police looked at each other. In Iran, with one of the highest proportions of young people in the world, everybody had brothers and sisters. She was obviously lying.
“Sister,” said the first cop, “I am afraid we are compelled by force of holy law to request that you accompany us.”
Maryam kept edging backward, into the alley, away from the crowds. She knew the religious police were lightly armed, with knives for protection and sticks with which to beat helpless women. This is what came of a country that had reduced some of the proudest, most glamorous women in the world into servile, cringing slaves. They had no fear.
They were about to learn different. They were about to take a very fast trip from the seventh century to the 21st. And they weren’t going to like it very much.
“Perhaps,” she said, “we can discuss this in a more private place.”
One of the dirty little secrets of Iran was that whores flourished everywhere. Probably not since Dickensian London had the world’s oldest profession commanded such a large part of a nation’s economy, or its attention, or its fantasy life. She need not say anything, merely hint. They would get the message. They would take the bait.
The men grinned at each other. Fringe benefits were part of the job. A doorway would be good enough.
Maryam took a deep breath and said a silent prayer. This would have to be fast and lethal.
She moved back into a doorway, letting them come to her, feeling their hands on her body. She needed them to do just that, to drop their guard, to reach for her with a repressed passion that would dull their other senses until it was too late.
She raised her veil as one of them moved in to kiss her, and her hand strayed to the privates of the second cop. She could feel his mouth on hers, his tongue seeking hers, feel the tumescent excitement of the second man…
She bit the tongue off and wrenched the other man down, hard. They both screamed, but their screams were immediately cut off as she drew the knife from the scabbard of the first cop and slashed his throat. Gurgling, he fell into the second man, who was still in agony. As he put up his hands to fend off the falling body, she plunged the knife into his heart. As he died, she saw the look of disbelief in his eyes, that a woman had done this to him, and then a look of bliss, as if all his suspicions of the evil sex were, by his death, finally justified.
“Fuck you,” she said in English.
She pulled both the bodies into the doorway as best she could. They’d be found almost immediately, that she knew. She wiped the knife clean of fingerprints and placed it back in its sheath.
She was wet with blood, but the blood would not show against the back of the chador, and in this heat it would dry quickly. She just had to stay away from people for a while. And wait… wait for him.
And then, in the greatest miracle of her life, for which she would forever give thanks and praise to Allah, there he was. She knew him immediately, saw right through his disguise, knew by the cock of his head and the way he walked, the way he moved, that it could be no other. That at last he was come, and that she was whole again, and that no matter what now happened she knew the truth.
He moved toward her quickly but without haste. Still nobody around.
“Hello, Frank,” she said quietly.
“My name’s not Frank,” he said.
“I know it isn’t,” she said. “Everything you’ve told me since the day we met was a lie.”
“Would you have had it any other way?”
“Do I have to answer that question now? How did you find me?
In answer, he reached inside her chador, until he found what he was looking for. The smart phone with which she’d signaled him. “Thank Allah for GPS,” he said.
“And they’re dead,” he said, looking at the corpses. “So let’s ankle.”
He gave that look of his that she loved so well. The one that said, are you kidding? “You are home, remember? And he’s here.” She didn’t have to ask who “he” was.
“He’s looking for her,” she replied. He didn’t have to ask who “she” was.
“Then I guess we both have jobs to do.”
“I’m not going to leave her.”
“That’s what I just said.”
“There’s more to it, right?”
“Would I be here if there wasn’t?” That was the answer she expected, but didn’t want. “We haven’t got much time and we have a lot to do, including not getting ourselves killed and saving the world, not necessarily in that order, so let’s get a move on.”
He brought his face close to hers. “As long as we’re together,” he said, “Qom is as good a place as any.”
“You double-crossed me, you infidel bastard,” said Col. Zarin.
“I am an infidel in many faiths,” replied Skorzeny coolly, “so please do not think that your cheap superstitious imprecations can frighten me.”
They were in the heart of the nuclear complex on the outskirts of Qom, deep inside a mountain, where the uranium enrichment process had been taking place right under the noses of the U.N. inspectors, who preferred to look in the direction of the known facility at Natanz, rather than anywhere else, just in case they might find something. Emanuel Skorzeny had no illusions that he was allowed admittance because he was a welcome guest of the Islamic Republic. He was here because they were business partners, and the minute they ceased being business partners, his privileges would be revoked with extreme prejudice.
And he had a business deal for Col. Zarin.
“I have a proposition for you,” he said.
“I am not interested in your proposition,” replied the colonel. “You have used me, and jeopardized my future and the future of my family. They have my voice on tape, threatening this detective Saleh, may Allah curse him and his seed. I should kill you for what you have done.”
“Not for what I have done, Col. Zarin. For what he has done. And I am about to deliver him – and her – to you.”
“Why should I believe you?” Col. Zarin looked at the clock on the wall. That, thought Skorzeny, was a measure of just how backward this country was – not only that one would look at a clock on the wall to see what time it was, but that there even were clocks on the wall.
Skorzeny ignored the question. “I propose a trade. One that will enrich us both.”
Col. Zarin’s glance fell upon Mlle. Derrida. “Why do you bring your whore to a meeting of men?” he snarled.
“Because she’s not my whore,” Skorzeny answer levelly. “And I’ll thank you not to talk about her in such a disrespectful manner. You savages are simply going to have to learn that not all the world subscribes to your Dark Ages notion of right and wrong. Your entire civilization is not worth a Mass, although Paris is.”
“Then why are you giving us Paris?” laughed Col. Zarin.
“Because Paris no longer worth a Mass, either. But do not think you have triumphed. It is I, Emanuel Skorzeny, who has triumphed, and you are a mere instrument of my will. I am greater than any God, greater than your Allah, and I shall have my revenge.”
Col. Zarin’s hand stole toward his sidearm, “This is blasphemy. I should kill you for it.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” replied Skorzeny coolly. “Because my death makes you a dead man. It makes your wife a widow and your children orphans. It brings down the full wrath of the West upon your pitiful heads. For there will come a time, and soon, when your breast-beating and braggadocio will be as nothing. I am all that is standing in the way of the West’s vengeance upon you. So listen.”
He opened his briefcase, and took out the computer. “This is the very latest example of NSA/CSS technology. It was designed by their top operative, a man with whom I have come into contact, both personally and professionally, on several occasions, each of them unpleasant in the extreme. I am prepared to make you a present of it, in exchange for Miss Harrington, who can be of absolutely no use to you at this point.”
“Do you love her that much?”
“Yes,” said Skorzeny. It was the simplest answer her had ever given to any question in his life.
“And what does love mean?”
For the first time in his life, he felt old, tired, nearing the end. No, it could not be possible. All his life had been devoted to one thing, to one purpose – him – and suddenly came this realization. That there was something beyond him. Not the ritualistic rote of some alien liturgy, but something more elemental, something more primitive than even religious superstition.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
Mlle. Derrida could sit silent no longer. She had no use for these Iranians and their imported desert faith. She was a Frenchwoman, the heiress of Voltaire and Descartes, Rousseau and Rimbaud and Sartre and Becket and her namesake, Derrida. She believed in rational thought. Cogito ergo sum. That was her faith, and that was why she had faith in him. “Of course you do,” she said.
“Love is what is left when thought has fled – not religion, not faith, but love. Love is what drives us. If there is a God, and like you I do not believe that for a moment… but if there is, then love is what brings us closer to him. Not haste. Not vengeance. Neither orders, nor rituals. Nothing from above, or below. Just us, humanity – what we French fought and lost our Revolution for. We sacrificed our ideals on the altar of the guillotine, and we learned never to do that again. And now here were are.”
She turned to Skorzeny. “Ger her back, sir,” she said, “and then let’s go home. I want to go home. Take me home.”
Skorzeny indicated the laptop. “Very simple,” he said. “The computer for the girl. You get – if you can reverse-engineer it, and get past its built-in defenses – a glide path into the heart of the Great Satan. With this, you can destroy them. No need for bombs, nukes, Shahab missiles. No need for the permanent war against the West. You can end it all now, right here, right now. Break their Black Widow, corrupt her, seduce her, turn into the whore you’ve always known she was. I don’t care. In fact, I endorse it.
He pushed the laptop across the table at Col. Zarin. “But give my own Black Widow back to me. Give me Miss Harrington.”
Col. Zarin looked at the laptop. He looked at Skorzeny. He looked at Mlle. Derrida.
Skorzeny looked at him. Neither of them blinked.
On the wall, the clock kept ticking. At last –
“I will take you to her,” Col. Zarin said.