THE DEATH OF Z
by Thomas Jacobs
The Nobel laureate Zoroaster Zigsari was gunned down outside a tapas restaurant on Calle Cava de San Miguel on the eve of his seventy-sixth birthday. There was no question who was responsible. He was one of the regime’s fiercest critics.
He had become, he told me, inured to their constant threats of death. Twenty years is too many to keep peeking over your shoulder.
So, it was not really a surprise to get the calls. There were two. The first from a policeman, a local detective, who must have heard from someone present that there was an American journalist who had known him and could explain his complicated relationship to the regime.
“There’s not much I can tell you, other than he married a niece.”
“Perhaps,” the detective suggested in English, “the blood is thick than the water. For his own protection.”
“Something like that. Though it always seemed to me he married for love.”
“You knew him well?”
“I hoped to be his biographer.”
“He had not agreed?”
“I hadn’t asked.”
There was an inch of silence on the other end of the line.
“So, you do not know who it could be?”
“Here? I’m sure it was someone you could find if it mattered. It was a hit.”
“A hit? Like your mafioso movies?”
“Something like that.”
The detective sighed. “He was a writer?”
“The greatest writer.”
“I will ask my wife. She will know.”
The second call was from his son. The younger son, the one who lived here, too, in order to be near his aging father. With him, I grieved.
“I was with him, Charley, in the restaurant. I left early because Enjoli had a gallery opening. I should have been there. Charley, I should have been there!”
“Hassan. He’d rather you weren’t there. We both know that.”
“What he wanted, I don’t really care right now.”
“Get a drink with me.”
“I cannot. I have to call Mo. Maybe later. Are you working? Jesus Christ, my father has been killed by those fucking bastards!”
“Where are you?”
“I’m in Chueca.”
“Meet me at the Atlántico. We’ll have a drink. You should stay with me tonight.”
“Charley. I will.”
He was the only one who called me Charley.
We mourned over Scotch at the hotel bar until four in the morning. There was in his grief a simple form of filial love. I loved his father, too, in my way. This was the death of my hero, my inspiration; one of the undisputed greats. He hadn’t written fiction in ten years.
Hassan raised his glass. We were nearing the end, and knew it.
“Today is my father’s birthday.”
We drank to that, and wept into empty tumblers.
After, we wandered down the dew-slick stone streets, blind drunk, looking for a taxi. We found one, driven by an African. He spoke Arabic, and Hassan, less drunk than I, managed to direct him to my apartment. When I woke the next morning, Hassan was gone. I worried until I saw his texts. Coffee with Enjoli, then lunch with his step-mother, Pirouzeh.
Pirouzeh the great beauty. Pirouzeh the niece.
I glanced at my watch. They were meeting for lunch in thirty minutes, not far from my apartment. He’d given me the name of the place, a French Bistro, and the time. Surely, I was invited.
I showered, shaved. Changed into mourning attire; not that it would be expected of me. I wasn’t family. I was his son’s friend. I’d been to the country house, once, with Hassan, Enjoli and some other of our friends for a weekend when his father wasn’t there. Two cocktail parties. A handful of other visits, chit-chat over a quick coffee at the apartment. For all I knew, I was just another hanger-on, someone to be tolerated for the sincerity of my admiration.
I walked to lunch, stopping at a café for a shot of espresso and a biscuit to stave off the real hunger. I didn’t want to eat at this meal.
When I arrived at Marseille’s, I saw immediately that my instinct had been correct. Hassan was already there with his step-mother. Their attorney was present, but a fourth place had been set at the table, and when he saw me, Hassan rose halfway and waved me over.
“Charley, you are here.”
“Yes, of course.”
I shook hands with the lawyer, an Austrian with close-cropped gray hair and bright red-framed glasses. He had a slight gap between his teeth, and he wore a tie pin.
I bent and kissed Pirouzeh on both cheeks. “My deepest condolences.”
My voice cracked under the weight of last night’s Scotch.
“You were an admirer of his.” She stated what felt like the one true fact about myself.
She was a striking woman. She was only a little younger than Z (that is what we called him, his admirers), perhaps sixty-five. Old enough to have been Hassan’s mother, though she wasn’t. Nor had she raised him. The first wife had died, and Z had not remarried until after the boys had left the house.
She was dressed all in black; slacks and a black cashmere cardigan. She wore pearls and gold jewelry. Her hair was silver, short and stylish.
Her eyes were dry, her hands fluid as they poured me a cup of coffee from the small silver press at the table. The attorney, whose name was Egger, was fussily spinning a teaspoon in circles on his white napkin.
I sat. A waiter appeared, and I ordered. He left.
“Mr. Braithwaite,” Pirouzeh began.
“Call me Charles.”
“Charles, then. Hassan gives me to understand that you are a great admirer of my late husband’s writing.”
It was a strange reiteration of the fact. I assented.
“Tell me, because I am curious. Which of his books did you first come across?”
It was a strange question. I had devoured his oeuvre repeatedly, over the years. I tried to recall.
“It was in high school. Brother’s Blood.”
“What is your least favorite?”
“I can’t lie and say that I have one. His best is The Archrivals. Behind that, they are equal.”
It was an honest answer. I hoped it was not sycophantic. The Archrivals was not his best-selling novel. It was a strange, complex book – but brilliant, brilliant. A peasant falls in love with a merchant’s daughter, betrothed …
“He thought the same.”
Egger cleared his throat. I sipped my coffee.
“Mr. Braithwaite, Zigsari has another book. Never published.”
I blinked a few times. I had dared to hope as much.
“It’s not a work of fiction.”
This surprised me.
Egger went on. “He’s written a political tract. It draws from some of his talks, the themes, but it’s all new. We wish to publish now.”
“This is wonderful news.”
Pirouzeh’s eyes tautened around the edges. Hassan leaned forward onto the table. He looked like hell and who could blame him?
“But Charley, it is not so simple, man.”
“I don’t understand.” Last night’s Scotch was too much behind my eyes for me to understand.
“This book is Zigsari’s most direct critique.” Egger again. “It is nothing short of brilliant. It is in a league with Locke, Rousseau, Jefferson…”
“Why sit on it?”
And then at last I understood.
A strange name for Z to have chosen for a son. He was not religious. That is, not pious. Damn it, I don’t know his heart. His books spoke of faith; his characters had faith. Whether he did, or had, I didn’t know. He detested the religious leaders of his homeland. That much is true.
Mohammed was the elder son. Quite a bit older than Hassan. There had been a sister in between, closer to Mohammed, but she had died as an infant. Perhaps that explained the nearly fourteen-year difference in age between the brothers.
I had never met him; all I knew I knew from Hassan, who seemed alternately to adore and to fear him. I knew he was a physician, married, with two daughters. He worked in private practice in the capital. He was, Hassan told me, a living repudiation of his father. Pious, uncritical, comfortable. I had pieced together that there was some bitterness on both sides at Z’s emigration, Mohammed’s refusal to follow.
He was flying in that evening, Hassan explained to me on the train to the airport. We were to meet him and escort him back to his father’s apartment.
I was sober, now. The flat grey buildings of the city’s outskirts, endlessly repeated, were starting to make me nauseous. Hassan sat staring at his phone beside me, flicking wildly with his thumb.
“What are you doing?”
He looked up, the skin under his eyes dark as plums.
“The obituaries, man.”
Mohammed was so utterly unlike Hassan that I almost dared to believe that they were unrelated. Hassan was svelte, tan, stylish. Mohammed was plump, even flabby, his skin yellow and unsunned. He was bald, mostly, save for a rim of spiny greying hair. He wore rimless glasses over a pock-marked nose. He lacked the magnetism that both his father and his brother wore like a second skin, the mysterious ability to draw and capture the eye and the imagination.
The brothers embraced for an instant, speaking rapidly in Arabic. He and I shook hands, and I inquired after his family.
“They are well, thank you.” His accent was faintly English. He had been to medical school in the UK. Returned home to marry.
They stood together at the baggage claim, awaiting his luggage, while I found a kiosk to buy some bottled water. I glanced at the headlines of the international papers. Z’s murder was front-page news. I couldn’t focus on the actual words. My own employer, the Financial Times, stared at me accusingly from the rack. I had called out sick, stopped checking my emails.
When I returned, the brothers were ready, and now it was Hassan’s turn to step away for a moment and hail a cab. I took up one of Mohammed’s suitcases.
“My brother tells me you are a journalist.”
Mohammed nodded. “How do you know him?”
A familiar inquiry. Why would I come with Hassan to pick up his brother from the airport?
“I went to college with his girlfriend.”
True enough. We’d both been at BC at the same time. I hadn’t known her. She was younger, a freshman when I was a junior. She had majored in theatre or something; I in economics. When I took the FT post, I’d gone in search of Hassan; a way to get closer to the father, elliptically. The friendship had blossomed in its own right and I had never made my confession.
Mohammed nodded. “And of course, you knew my father.”
Mohammed raised an eyebrow; but there was Hassan with a cab. We bundled the suitcases into the trunk and piled into the back seat.
“If you’ll excuse me, I’m quite tired. I’ll be more pleasant when we’ve arrived.”
Mohammed folded his arms across his chest, bent his head to the window and fell asleep at once.
The funeral was a brisk, private affair. Egger was there, together with Pirouzeh, the brothers, Z’s agent and publisher, and two or three other close friends. It was a secular ceremony. He was cremated, and the box of his ashes handed to Pirouzeh, whose face was a mask of grace and pain. Hassan took her by the elbow and escorted her from the room, and it was the first time I had ever seen her move that way: bent, stiff. Old.
Mohammed sat the entire time with his arms crossed, staring down at his knees with unmoving eyes.
We took hired cars back to the apartment. I rode with Egger and the publisher. They talked in bursts about business. Mohammed accompanied his brother and their step-mother.
We had drinks and hors d’ouvres. At some point, people stepped away, and in a few brief minutes, just the five of us remained: the Zigsaris, Egger and me.
Mohammed had in fact disappeared almost at the beginning of the reception, citing a headache. I thought perhaps it was too difficult to see his brother and his father’s wife drinking alcohol. But when he came back into the room, he looked less haggard, and the first thing he did was pour himself a glass of Scotch and soda. I caught Hassan’s eye, and he raised a shoulder and an eyebrow as if to say, “I hardly know him.”
Mohammed sat heavily down in a chair at the corner of a gorgeous tan-and-aqua Persian carpet near the fireplace. He took a sip of his drink, looked around at us and said, mostly to me, “You’re still here.”
“I asked him to stay,” Pirouzeh said.
Mohammed pointed a finger at Egger, without accusation. “I know why you’re here. You’re here because of the manuscripts.”
Egger blinked rapidly a few times and turned his red-rimmed eyes on Pirouzeh. She was seated perpendicularly to Mohammed on the long, low couch. Hassan was beside her. Egger was across from Mohammed.
“So, it is you who is behind all of this.”
“What does this mean, behind all this?” she said stiffly.
“What, did my father leave some stipulation in his will that Hassan and I were required, together, to make decisions about the estate?”
“Quite the contrary; he left those decisions with me.”
Mohammed was silent for a long moment.
“Forgive me; I have offended you in your own home.”
“Mohammed, please. It is your home as much as it is mine.”
“No; my home is … His home is not my home. Not since I was a boy.”
Pirouzeh gave a strange nod of her head, accepting this decision.
“Why are we here? I am tired. I do not want to play guessing games.”
“Your father left a manuscript. We wish to see it published, but to do so would put your family at grave risk.”
“This is nothing new.”
“It is not a novel. It is a political document.” Egger again.
Mohammed’s lips tightened.
“It is an indictment of the regime. A full reckoning with its history. It is, if I may say so, nothing short of a masterpiece of political thought.”
“Ah, a masterpiece. It’s a second surname, is it not?”
“You are being glib, doctor.”
“Glib? Perhaps. My father is so recently deceased. Still, it is easy to offer an indictment at some remove from the crime.”
Hassan swore and rose to his feet and said something rapid-fire which I did not understand.
Mohammed replied in English, “You only assume that what you are seeing is what is, fully and simply. It is not so, Hassan.”
“Tell me, then, what complexity there is that invites complicity!”
“Hassan,” Pirouzeh said, placing a hand on his arm. He shook her hand off roughly, but took again his seat by her side.
“It is a complexity of logistics. What this means for complicity I do not know. Do you? The man who stamps my passport as I come and go: how complicit is he? It is his actions that will determine whether some other bureaucrat knows of my passage, my return. And that man – imagine him a sympathizer of our father’s – how many children does he have to feed? Will he be spared if his conscience tells him it is immoral to report on my movements to his superior?”
“You are making … an edifice out of fantasies!”
“No; I’m explaining to you why I remain. Why political indictments in books are no factor in my considerations.”
“The Germans will let you in.” Egger.
“My home is there. My living is there. My family is there.”
“They would come too, obviously.”
“Of course. But where does it end? If I move with my wife and daughters, do I bring her mother too? Her mother’s sisters and their children and theirs?”
“You can’t think of them,” Hassan said, almost bursting. He rose from beside Pirouzeh on the couch, and sat down as quickly.
“But I do. We are still there, and they know me. I eat meals in their homes. I cannot simply leave them to suffer for my father’s transgressions.”
Mohammed raised his palms, outward facing.
“I am speaking in the borrowed voice of the regime, Hassan. Do you think they care where our father’s blood line runs out? They will do it to mock and humiliate me.”
“But his work is more important than that. It has to get out.”
Mohammed turned now to me. This was to be my way in, the neutral party, the observer, the great admirer speaking for the necessity of the work itself…
“I’m sorry, Mr. Braithwaite, that you have been asked to participate in this family squabble. I’m sure your intentions are good. I have read my father’s work as closely as anyone. I admire it. But I cannot share your presupposition that the publication of a new book will change anything, no matter how noble the language.”
“But you don’t know that,” I protested. “Books start wars; they can end them.”
Mohammed bent his head. “Perhaps.”
“Think of your daughters,” Pirouzeh said. “Think only of them.”
Mohammed glared at her.
“What do you know of my daughters!”
“Nothing; you kept them from him.”
“To protect them from him.”
Pirouzeh seemed to understand. She looked down into the cup formed by her hands upon her knee.
“That is why I hate him.”
Mohammed’s face twitched as if animated by electric shocks. A thousand expressions passed in a single moment. He leaned forward, then back. Forward again. Pirouzeh sat motionless, but she raised her eyes to meet him.
He swirled his drink and drank it off in a single gulp. He placed the glass down on the hardwood floor beside his chair with a loud tock. He sat for a moment, then rose, scooped the glass up from the floor and went to pour himself another. This, too, he drank off quickly.
“Mo!” Hassan. “Are you trying to get drunk?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps that is the way to – ”
He placed the glass down on the dumbwaiter with a crash. His hands were shaking.
Hassan was up in an instant, around the couch, his arm on his brother’s shoulder. “Are you alright?”
Mohammed gave an almost furtive nod and returned to his seat. He leaned back and gave an enormous croaking sigh.
“Has any of you wondered why they killed him?”
“Because he is a critic of the regime,” I said. “And powerful.”
Mohammed shook his head. “He has been screaming at them for twenty years. They could have done it any time, if they wanted to. Why now? Why so suddenly, after ten years without a book? An old man?”
I hadn’t thought to ask the question.
“Because they are crazy bastards, Mo! You’re looking for meaning in the actions of madmen.”
Again Mohammed shook his head.
“What are you trying to tell us?”
Mohammed was almost lying now in the chair. His eyes were closed. He was silent for so long that I thought he had fallen asleep or passed out.
“I am a member,” he said at last, so quiet that I had to take a step towards him to hear. “I am a member of a committee. We meet in secret, online. None of us knows the others’ identities.”
He rose from the chair and went to pour himself another drink. He poured, but didn’t raise the glass yet to his lips.
“I have been working in the hospitals outside the city – where there is need. The greatest need. I went because a friend was killed by a shell that exploded one floor above him in the hospital. I went to honor him, because I had been a coward, waiting inside the city walls and keeping my clinic hours and taking off days from work…
“They brought me a boy without legs. Lost in a landmine explosion outside of his school.”
Mohammed’s shoulders twitched. A droplet of liquid sloshed from the glass and spattered on the floor.
“There was a terrible infection. It had already been two days. It – that is… I have been radicalized.”
Pirouzeh’s face took on the expression of someone who has just smelt a particularly acrid cheese. Hassan stared at his brother, open-mouthed.
“I do not know what else to call it. Certainly, it is the wrong word.
“We call ourselves Project Justinian.”
Egger raised an eyebrow. I did not catch the reference.
Mohammed noticed and a thin smile broke through.
“If you know, it is a bit on the nose. We aren’t poetic people. We are doctors, engineers, bureaucrats. I don’t know how many of us there are. We don’t use our names. We have taken precautions.”
“But not enough.” I was beginning to understand.
Mohammed turned to me.
“Apparently, no, not enough. My father’s killing was a message to me.”
“But your daughters?” Pirouzeh’s fear was real.
“I could not bring them. They are in safe – I could not have come with them! I wished to bring them, here, to the place where they killed my father. They would have known that I understood. I had to leave them, do you understand? It is like one of those damned economics dilemmas – how do I protect myself, protect my daughters? How do I keep the secret?”
He looked down at Pirouzeh.
“How do I know whom to trust?”
He was silent for a long time, lost in thought.
“This would all be so easy were I not already complicit. But now my father’s death is on my hands; I am at war with myself, daily, over the incipient betrayal of my medical vow. Incipient. Have I not already betrayed it? The poison exists already in my mind. I know the chemicals. I could write them down. I move towards that moment as if in a dream. I am not sure there is a course of action that can disrupt the bend of my moral path.”
“Mo, man, you said yourself it is complexity.”
Mohammed shrugged. “I do not have an answer for you. About the book. Perhaps if it is published, they will decide that there is no power in it. After all my father is dead, and these are stupid, thoughtless men we are speaking of.”
He rose from his seat and removed his glasses.
“Forgive me, I am tired. Perhaps with sleep there will come some clarity.”
He nodded once or twice, tucked his glasses into his shirt pocket and shuffled back to the guest room Pirouzeh had made up for him.
Egger left not long after Mohammed’s retreat. Hassan made and then cancelled plans with Enjoli. He fell asleep on the couch with a laptop open on his stomach, the headphones still in his ears. Pirouzeh picked up, pulled a blanket over him.
She left the living room, returning ten minutes later with coffee, which we drank together in silence. I grazed the newspaper, unseeing. We both knew I should go. That I wouldn’t.
When it was late enough, she rose and indicated I should follow. We went down a short hallway lined with copper-framed photographs, Zigsari in his youth; the boys. Pirouzeh on a riverbank, her hair covered by a scarf, smoking a cigarette.
She led me into a dark room lined with dark wood bookshelves. It had the smell of paper and pipe tobacco. There was a tidy desk against the window, facing into the room. Behind it, a red leather chair. Pirouzeh went behind the desk, opened a draw. She withdrew a box, placed it on the desk.
“How can one make such a decision.” she said. Then, “Good night, Charles.”
Pirouzeh left the study. I waited until the door was closed and the sounds of her footsteps had withdrawn to silence. The hallway light went dark.
I went around the desk. I sat in his chair, opened the box.
The manuscript was unbound. La Patria. The language of his adopted home.
I began to read.
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