Monday, April 8, 10:30 p.m., Nuremberg, Germany
Dr. Vahan Nafisi looked himself over in the mirror and straightened his tie. He took a deep breath, exhaling as he folded a paper towel and slid it into his pocket. Many lies had passed from his lips to land him at this point. Enough that it made him mutter a prayer of forgiveness as he exited the men’s room.
Soft piano music and the murmur of voices enveloped him upon returning to the highbrow gala. Attendees consisted of scientists from around the world in a chandelier-lit dining hall.
Eyes darting around the elegant room, he turned and hurried toward the side he suspected housed a secondary exit.
Dozens of guests stood at high-top tables, glasses of champagne or wine in hand. Chatting, smiling, and laughing at each other’s jokes. Everybody seemed carefree and happy. It poisoned Vahan with envy.
Having to sneak away like this seems so cowardly. Like they’re real scientists, and I am just an overly religious sucker.
Born and raised in Iran, he loved his country. But here he stood, in Nuremberg, Germany, doing the unthinkable. His career had been stable and predictable—until his friends were murdered.
From the corner of his eye, Vahan noticed a man’s head following his passing. Though he tried to stay relaxed, he couldn’t help breathing heavily. The sound of it seemed loud enough to draw the attention of everyone. To his relief, the man watching him turned back to his date across the little table.
A drop of sweat crawled from the top of Vahan’s bald head and coursed down his temple. Picking up his pace, he swiped his head with the paper towel from his pocket and glanced over his shoulder. Nobody paid any attention to him at all.
Relax, Vahan, you’re paranoid. Just stay calm. They haven’t followed you. They don’t have any idea you are not going back home. Just get out of here, get to the airport, and get to your brother.
For years in Iran, Vahan had lived with government stooges keeping tabs on him all day. Ever since he’d taken a science position at the Natanz nuclear facility, they’d become as ubiquitous as the family cat. Living that long with Revolutionary Guard soldiers watching your every move, one gets used to it. Back in Iran, he had acclimated to constant oversight a long time ago. Right now, he felt alone, exposed, and out of place. He almost missed the company of minders.
Initially, at Natanz, he knew there would be risks. He’d thought the worst would be radiation. As it turned out, Israeli assassins were deadlier than charged particles. Much deadlier. Motorcycle-riding thugs placed magnetic bombs on the side of cars while in motion, murdering his colleagues in the streets of Tehran. They were his friends too.
Vahan shuddered, thinking of their fate and the grief of the families. Fleeing your home country, where you’ve lived and worked all your life, is something few people plan to do. Doubtless, not a conservative Shia Muslim such as himself. Yet, as if sent from Allah himself, a letter arrived the day after the second murder. He’d been invited to this conference.
Struck by the epiphany, he knew this constituted a ticket out of Iran and the madness.
If my wife or children were still alive, I would stay. But there is nobody there for me anymore. My closest friends are dead now. All I have in the world is my brother, Hedyeh.
He found a corridor leading out of the main dining hall and peered toward its windowless end. On a hunch, he figured an exit would have to be at the end to avoid any fire safety hazard. He pulled out his cell phone and glanced around, pretending to receive an important phone call while moving into the corridor for privacy.
To one side, behind dark curtains, he saw the seam of a door. A quick peek behind revealed, indeed, an emergency exit. At the opposite end of this hallway, where it emptied into the dining hall, a pair of suspicious men appeared. They didn’t have drinks, and their heads scanned the room methodically.
Vahan knew the face of Quds Force men when he saw them. They were barely thirty meters away. Before they noticed him, he slipped through the exit door. The sound of it latching as he let it close behind him made his heart skip a beat.
It clicked so loudly. They must be looking for me. You’ve done it, Vahan; you’re committed now. Maybe they will not follow from this point on if I hurry. By the look of them, they hadn’t spied me yet. Run!
Ten meters down the short, dull-white utility passage stood another door. A blue sign on the door depicted a stickman standing on zigzagging lines. Vahan yanked it open and hustled down five flights.
When he reached the bottom, he didn’t pause before bursting out the exit door. It opened onto a two-by-two-meter landing with a short set of stairs leading down into a narrow alley. When the door slammed, he stopped on the stairs and looked back. His sixty-one-year-old heart hammered away.
I haven’t moved that fast in a while. If they find me after that, then I give up. I think that by the time they figure it out, this out-of-shape old fox will have given them the slip.
He spun around and hurried along the dark, narrow alley until he skidded to a stop on the sidewalk. Looking left, scanning the cars cruising past, he saw a taxi and frantically waved to get its attention. The driver waved back and moved to pull over.
Feeling unprotected, Vahan stepped back from the curb, sidling up close to the building to wait. He flipped his collar up to hide his face; the chill in the air meant he didn’t appear out of place doing it. Early spring evenings were still crisp.
The taxi stopped at the curb and waited. He took two steps and practically dove for the rear-door handle.
As Vahan slid onto the seat, he said in broken German, “I’d like to go to the airport, please.”
“Nuremberg International?” the driver asked, glancing into the rearview mirror.
Not anticipating more than one airport, he hesitated a moment—there wasn’t any time to dig out his phone and check the airline’s app. Getting away clean is priority one. Even if he wound up at the wrong airport, it would be miles from here and those thugs.
“Uh, yes, the big one. International flights.”
After pecking at his dash-mounted navigation device, the driver called over his shoulder, “GPS says it’ll be twelve minutes, sir.” The taxi moved into traffic.
“Okay, that is fine.”
Vahan stared out the back window as they accelerated away. To his horror, the two men from the gala came out of the alley. He watched them come to a stop at the curb where he’d been standing only moments before. Hands-on their hips, the men strode a few paces in one direction, then the other. It could only be him they hunted. He ducked out of sight.
“Sir, are you okay? Please don’t get sick in my car. If you are going to be sick, I will stop or take you to a hospital.”
“No, no. I’m fine. My… shoelace untied is all.”
Fortunately, the man hadn’t seen his laceless shoes. Mollified, the driver gave a quick nod and continued the trip. Vahan hoped those thugs hadn’t seen him get in the taxi. When he rose, they were out of sight, several blocks behind.
I’ve done it. I’ve lost them, and soon I will be where they will never catch me. Please guide me, Allah. Please show me the way.
Initially, he’d thought to stay in Germany. When he found their asylum plans uninviting, he turned to America and his brother, who had begged him to come to live there. Vahan detested America and its hedonism. Hedyeh seemed to be doing well, though, starting a business, and living comfortably. Even attending mosque regularly.
Arriving at the departure drop-off area, Vahan paid the driver, got out of the taxi, and hurried inside. He checked into his flight, jumped through the security hoops, and found a deserted set of chairs to sit by himself. His confidence grew now that he’d sheltered behind the curtain of airport security.
Yet, for the next hour, he gave sidelong looks at everyone who walked through the corridor where he awaited his flight. Whether harried parents with fussy children distracted business travelers or young people heading for vacations. Everything looked natural. His blood pressure gradually lowered.
Find me in this labyrinth if you can. Ha! This cloak-and-dagger business isn’t so hard. I don’t know why I’m so worried.
He wouldn’t consider himself genuinely safe until the plane backed away from the terminal. It would be a long night of transit before he reached Charleston, South Carolina, America. He couldn’t go straight to his brother’s house when he got there. Hedyeh feared revealing too much information in a letter, his home address in particular. They agreed via Skype that Vahan would travel to Charleston around this time and when he arrived, contact his brother.
The Quds Force men never appeared in the terminal, nor did they board the flight. Hopeful but cautious, he slept little on the plane. His mind wouldn’t settle down enough for slumber. Thoughts of the future kept him awake.
They might still be following me. How could they? When they finally figure it out, I’ll be long gone.
He didn’t want to endanger his brother’s family. But it is America, a land of freedom and lots of guns. Fortunately, Iran didn’t have much influence over there. They couldn’t operate in the open. Besides, he’s a minor player, or so he saw himself. In reality, he’d been in line for promotion after a couple of colleagues vacated their positions by getting blown up.
That’s probably why the Israelis hadn’t killed me, too—I wasn’t that important.
Vahan didn’t know that the Israelis had merely missed their target when they tried to assassinate him. Ignorance being bliss, all that mattered now is safety. Quds Force, nuclear weapons, and Iran were behind him.
Thank you, Allah, for your blessings.