Copyright © John Shannon, 2003
Purity of Heart
"This will make a bloody great noise."
Pejman had been educated for a few years in London and he always wanted you to hear it in his diction. His delicate fingers screwed down the thumb nut on the last wire of the complex pipe bomb, as the other three boys began to backpedal up the dry yellow hillside.
"That's the point," Fariborz insisted. "We're not out to damage anything." At least that was the agreement, though he watched Iman closely for his reaction at moments like this. Iman was the most implacable of them, and Fariborz wouldn't put it past the heavyset boy to go over the top into real violence sooner or later.
"The point, my brother of the rigid scruples, is in fact testing the igniter," Pejman said as he hurried to catch up, and they all scrambled up the slope away from the device. Pejman was the most technologically inclined. He explained he was using a cheap microchip to count a five minute delay before sending a spark from a charged capacitor into a tiny flake of permanganate imbedded among ordinary matchheads. The matchheads were themselves nesting in crude black powder packed into an iron pipe. Eventually, if all went as intended, devices just like it would erupt in a gallon can of paint and send bright color splashing across their target buildings, houses of pornography, of corruption, of social shame.
Pejman had shown them how to grind charcoal briquettes to carbon powder, then sulfur and the potassium nitrate that was still sold in some drugstores to prevent randy German Shepherds from getting their bright red erections. He told them that at Kilmeston School in England the story had gone around for generations that the cooking staff folded potassium nitrate--saltpeter--into the mashed potatoes every Friday dinner.
They lay flat just over the crest of the hill, and Pejman checked his Rolex. "Three minutes." He fussed with the buttons on his watch so it would count the time down for them.
There was a strange clarity in the air that frightened Fariborz, as if everything was too schematic all of a sudden. Every object seemed to have a hard edge, a border that pushed away everything else, and the ordinary world was a million miles away from him. He felt like an impostor, and he wanted to be back in his father and mother's house.
How do I know this is the right thing? he asked himself.
"In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate," Iman began to chant in his guttural baritone, and they all followed along. It was in a heavily Persian-accented Arabic. None of them spoke Arabic well, but they knew these phrases, the most repeated surah in all Islam.
"Praise belongs to God, the Lord of all Being," they took up, "the All-merciful, the All-compassionate, the Master of the Day of Doom..."
A helicopter circling far above the Santa Clarita Hills where they lay, and then Fariborz noticed it seemed to be descending toward them. His skin crawled. Had someone betrayed them? "Pej!"
They all craned their necks upward.
"Dogturd," Pejman snapped. It was the nearest thing to a curse he allowed himself. None of them swore, or sinned, to the best of their ability. This deeply felt project of acquiring safa--purity of heart--was an uphill struggle when everything around you was so exhaustively compromised by the values and practices of the West. "Maybe it's nothing."
"Let's run," Fariborz said. "We'll hear it if it works."
The helicopter continued to descend, swelling like a nightmare.
Iman looked from helicopter to pipe bomb to helicopter. "Time?"
"We can't risk it. I declare a delay." He sprinted back down the slope. He had always been the most decisive of them, even rash. Iman had been the one who first suggested, a year earlier, that they form the group, then he had argued for the gradual Strategic Withdrawal from their schoolmates.
Pejman put a restraining hand on Fariborz' shoulder. "He'll be all right. All he has to do is yank the igniter out."
The helicopter swung in a wide circle as Iman giant-stepped down the weedy hillside toward the bomb. Fariborz held his breath and he felt the strange sense of distance coming over him again. Everything receded like some trick of perspective. Voices came to him through cottonwool, muffled. He could barely move a finger. Some inner voice told him this was not the path of safa.
"Let it be okay," Yahya whimpered. He was a tiny quiet frightened boy and almost never spoke.
"Don't sweat it."
Iman reached the pipe-bomb and squatted.
"He's got over a minute," Pejman said equably.
And at that instant the world changed. They saw Iman leap into the air and a moment later the blast was like the flat of a giant hand slapping their faces.
"God is great," Pejman intoned.
"Oh, shit," Fariborz said. And all of a sudden forming their own Ansar-e Hizbollah in Los Angeles did not seem such a wonderful idea after all.
San Vicente ran at an angle to the city grid, a shortcut for some drivers, an irritation for others. Traffic on the broad diagonal ran in intermittent spurts, out of time with the lights on the grid. Jack Liffey loitered a half black away, early for his appointment, and his eye caught on a leather-skinned old man at the crosswalk. The man took two steps forward into the street, said something aloud, then retreated two steps and spoke again. There were no cars to chase him back. He continued this little dance for a while, and a woman lugging shopping bags gave him a wide berth, pretending not to see him.
Forward, forward--assertion--back, back--declaration. The man wore serge trousers, a white shirt with bloused sleeves and a scarf around his neck that looked middle-eastern. He could have been from almost anywhere in Eastern Europe.
Two teen-age boys came along and flanked the old man, mimicking his actions once to mock him, and then laughed easily and moved on.
When Jack Liffey came forward, he could pick out the old man's words. "Mother, may I?" he said at the curb, and then at the further end of his short orbit, "Oh, better wait." The words never varied, nor did the actions, by so much as an inch. It was like a learned rite of prayer--forward, forward, Mary and Joseph, back, back, Mother of God.
Jack Liffey stopped next to the man and took his arm. "Can I help you across, sir?"
There was a tiny twitch of the man's head, and then a warm smile. "Thank you so much."
There were no cars close and they made it across easily before disengaging. The man had seemed spry enough.
"Are you okay?"
"I'll be all right for a while." The man smoothed his thick graying hair back from his forehead to show a small scar. "I was one of the last experimental subjects to be given a prefrontal lobotomy. Lobo means wolf. Things are manageable mostly. Malleable. Mandible. Margarine. Once in a while the machinery in my head sticks in a groove and I have to wait for a Good Samaritan. Bless you kindly."
"You're very welcome." The man walked away normally, gave a little Charlie Chaplin heel click and kept on going.
Jack Liffey thought of all the monstrous things that had been done to people in the name of normalizing their psyches--generations of leeches, candling, whippings, electroshocks, carving apart lobes of the brain. It didn't help his sour feelings about psychiatry that he was heading for a psychologist's office just then, even if it wasn't for treatment. He winced and massaged his chest, reacting to a curious palpitation he'd been feeling recently.
The place was a little blue house on the edge of West Hollywood that had been converted into an office for two psychotherapists and a masseur. He went up the steps into a waiting room where a young woman sat glaring fiercely at the floor. There was a little box screwed to the wall with three pushbuttons, three lights and three names. He pressed Aaron Auslander, MFCC, PhD, and watched the appropriate red bulb light up, then sat and picked up a magazine called Self. That seemed pretty appropriate. He didn't really like the idea of sitting there looking like a patient, but, money was money and Auslander had called with a job.
The door opened a foot and a cheerful woman's head came through the gap, saw the grim young woman and beamed. "Marilyn, come in."
The glum girl jumped to her feet with such energy that it took her a few inches up off the floor. "I'm coming now," she snapped. And then they were both gone.
He had gone to college with Aaron Auslander, roomed with him and two others for a semester in the basement of an old building in downtown Long Beach. Aaron had had the reputation of being a whiz student, but it turned out that what he basically had was a photographic memory which he had used to avoid any real work. Aaron had come from a very rich family, with almost as much family trouble as money, a cold dad who was psychologically absent and a mom who had to be carted off one day screaming for love. Jack Liffey wondered if you ever really got over something like that. He hadn't seen Aaron for thirty years, though they still had common friends, and he always found it mildly interesting to observe how people changed over long stretches of time--or didn't.
"Hey there, long time."
He'd been caught looking the other way, something he hated. "Hello, Aaron. It sure is."
"I don't use Aaron much any more." Jack Liffey had forgotten how tall the man was, probably six-four, handsome, tidy and capable-looking in his khakis and blue button-down shirt.
"What do you use? Herr Doctor?"
He smiled. "Dicky."
"It's a long story, and not very instructive. Come in."
Jack Liffey followed him through a couple of turns of hallway, past a door where somebody seemed to be yelling in outrage, into a pleasant interview room with two white couches angled into one corner and the big authority chair facing them. He considered grabbing the authority chair himself but decided against it. On the near sofa, he had to inch himself away from a potted palm that teased his head with its fronds. "That thing's dangerous," he complained.
"I've been meaning to move it."
Auslander subsided into the big chair and they listened to a fan hum for a moment. It was a tiny space heater. The room was chilly but the heater didn't seem to be taking the edge off it. "How have you been doing, Jacko?"
Jack Liffey remembered that--the penchant for making up off-center nicknames that nobody else used. He'd never liked to discourage it because it seemed to represent the only spark of creativity the man possessed, but the nickname made his teeth hurt. "I don't use Jacko much. Jack is pretty hard to beat."
"Sure. Sorry." He seemed subdued. "Okay, let's set it out on the table. My daughter's a runaway. No, that's an assumption. She's just gone."
"I'm sorry...Dicky. How old is she?"
"Seventeen. It wasn't anger at Helen and me, really it wasn't. We were close. Close enough so she told us she'd been having intimate relations with her boyfriend."
Intimate relations, Jack Liffey mused. He wondered if she had used those very words. It reminded him of a reporter for Stars and Stripes he'd met in a bar overseas, complaining idly about euphemism: "We couldn't use the word rape then. Imagine, a woman runs out of a house screaming, "Help, help, I've been criminally assaulted!"
"She also told us she had broken off with him." He let out a big sigh. "Did you hear about the group of boys who disappeared from Kennedy School?"
"The Iranians? Who hasn't?" It had been on the news for weeks, four Iranian boys disappearing all at once, but had finally died down when nobody could find a trace of them. They'd all been seniors at Kennedy-Westridge Academy, a fancy prep school in the Valley, and all, by repute, had recently fallen into the earnest practice of Islam. Reading between the lines in some of the stories, you could discern that the rich Anglo twerps at the school had probably hazed the Iranian boys to a fine pitch.
A human-like screech penetrated the wall from a nearby room, and they both made a point of not commenting on it. It suggested bamboo slivers going under fingernails. The space heater cycled down, having decided the room was warm enough.
"Becky's boyfriend Fariborz was one of the Kennedy Persians. They disappeared just about when she did. I can't really believe it was a coincidence, but it was Fariborz' sudden seriousness about religion that got her to break it off with him. I don't think she would have gone away with them, she's too headstrong. But it scares me, Jack. Religion always does, cults. Adolescents have such a need to commit to something big and meaningful and shocking. I know because I became a Maoist right at the height of things, just about when you got drafted."
"I was a bit of a radical after I got back from Nam, too. Briefly. I got over it."
"I've seen that kind of belief, adopted out of teen rebellion, get its claws in deep into some kids. It has something to do with having to construct a new father and a new sense of who you are."
And sometimes they probably just believe it all, Jack Liffey thought. "You're not saying she adopted Islam and fled to Iran so she could spend the rest of her life wearing a big bedspread?"
"I don't know what I'm saying, and I don't think being supercilious is going to help much."
"I've learned to be respectful of Islam, up to a point. Anyway, I've talked to the boy's father and to people at Kennedy and they'll all be happy to speak to you. You're the expert at finding kids."
The heater cycled on again. There was no discernible change in the temperature of the air, but it did start toasting his left ankle.
"What do you know about the father?"
"He's secular, a very successful businessman in Beverly Hills. His wife is an Iranian Jew. Almost half the Iranians in L.A. are Jewish, though nobody else in L.A. seems to realize it. His family left well before the Ayatollah so they've been here a long time and you don't have to worry if they were Shah's henchmen, if you worry about things like that. Talk to him. Talk to the wife. It may be a lead to Becky."
Jack Liffey noticed that the man was familiar enough with the Iranian community to say simply shah, the way they did, instead of the shah, the way the rest of the country did. "How long has she been gone?"
The tall man thought about it for a while. "The delay may seem terrible, but we've taken other steps in the meantime. Two months now. We've pretty much exhausted trying to find Rebecca directly, which is why I'm asking you to try looking for the boys, too."
"I'm the last resort. I'm used to that."
"And it's not just for that--picking you as last resort, I mean. Your name came up when I saw Lon and Virginia the other night."
There was some other agenda percolating here, and Jack Liffey couldn't quite see it.
"There's a condition to the job."
"There always is," Jack Liffey said. "Whose toes are too delicate to step on?"
"You have an impatient streak, don't you? I thought a detective would be better off sitting back and letting things happen at their own pace. Impatience is a kind of insecurity, after all."
This know-it-all confidence could be pretty maddening, Jack Liffey thought, particuarly in a therapist, but then he had a hunch Dicky Auslander was no great shakes at the job. So far his psychology sounded like a tape of an old Reader's Digest article.
"Must be because I never got to fuck my mother and kill my father," Jack Liffey said.
The tall man nodded slowly. "Virginia said you're having a bad time."
That stopped Jack Liffey in his tracks.
"After Marlena left you," the man added.
"Mind your own business."
"I'll pay your normal detective rate, but one condition of this job is reporting in to me a couple times a week and using any extra time to talk to me about yourself."
"That's just completely out of the question, Dicky."
"We used to be friends. Are you afraid of it?"
Jack Liffey stared back hard. The heater cycled on, then off right away. That was the way gratification tended to work, too, he thought idly, but he had no intention of talking that over with a therapist, or anything else. The stare went on quite a while, before Aaron Auslander cracked and had to speak. As Jack Liffey guessed, he could mad-dog the man at will. That helped restore some of the balance.
"What is it about therapy that frightens you? Revealing yourself?"
"Remember that personality test we had to take at State? 'Are you still afraid of doorknobs?' There's no way you can answer that. Just agreeing to talk about your psyche means you're crazy as a loon."
"Doorknobs scare me to death," Aaron Auslander said evenly.
Jack Liffey laughed. It was almost the first human thing the man had said to him. "I can carry my own water, thank you."
Auslander gave a little shrug with open palms. "So, just come in and report and chat with me twice a week. Is it so terrible? I promise we'll talk in a way that will please you. Starting Wednesday at 10."
"The only way this would please me is if you came down from the rafters on a string and quacked like Groucho Marx's duck."
Copyright © John Shannon 2005. All rights reserved.