“The Price of Oil” by J. Kevin Shushtari
Mondays Are Murder features brand-new noir fiction modeled after our award-winning Noir Series. Each story is an original one, and each takes place in a distinct location. Our web model for the series has one more restraint: a 750-word limit. Sound like murder? It is. But so are Mondays.
This week, J. Kevin Shushtari takes us to Persia circa 1929.
The Price of Oil
by J. Kevin Shushtari
Kaghazabad, Abadan, Persia
The next morning Anoush left so early with Baba Bijan that the chill of the night air still hung over the desert. As the Essex eased into the encampment at Abadan, Anoush was astounded to see a mounted battalion of what looked like more than a thousand English troops surrounding the small band of one hundred Kurds. Flanked by subordinates in green long-sleeved woolen uniforms, the colonel in charge sat on his mare, staring implacably at the tribal chief, whose ragtag warriors stood guard with him, refusing to allow the English onto Ali Khan’s land. Neither man showed any sign of backing down.
Baba Bijan hopped out of the car and saluted. “Good day, gentlemen.”
Anoush stood beside him, taking note of the Englishman’s gloved hand resting on the grip of his holstered revolver.
“Good day,” the colonel said, without taking his eyes off the chieftain.
“I am here to inform you, sir,” Baba Bijan said, “that this land is owned by Ali Khan. And this gentleman has reason: you have no right to our oil.”
“Perhaps you would like to reconsider,” the Englishman said, gesturing with an outstretched arm toward his men. “The Anglo-Persian Oil Company, now controlled by my government, has a legal right to this land based on a document signed by Persian representatives in 1901.”
The tribal chief spoke Kurdish to Baba Bijan, gesticulating wildly at the soldiers.
The colonel removed his pistol and cocked it. “I will count to ten, after which you will cede the land.” He paused. “One, two, three—”
“Surely,” Baba Bijan said, “there must be another way to resolve this dispute.”
“Four, five, six—”
The Kurds and the Englishmen trained their guns on each other.
“Seven, eight, nine—”
“Fruits, drinks, kotlet!” yelled Bozorg Borzoo as he advanced his cart between the colonel and the chieftain. “Refreshments only for you!”
“Get out of here, you fool!” the colonel shouted.
“But sir, nourishments is excellent for great man who be warring.”
The Englishman dismounted. “Are you insane or simply daft?”
Bozorg Borzoo smiled, holding onto his donkey’s worn leather reins. “I certain you loving my foods.”
The colonel walked calmly over to the man, held the revolver to his temple, and pulled the trigger. There was a pop. The donkey brayed wildly and Bozorg Borzoo slumped forward, dangling in the harness.
Anoush was not quite sure what had happened. He ran to the front of the cart and saw the blood, a steady stream darkening the animal’s mane and pooling onto the dry sand.
“He was a Turk anyway,” the Englishman said. “A casualty of war and a good example for your friends here.”
Anoush cradled Bozorg Borzoo in his arms and lowered him gently to the ground. He was shaking with fear and with rage.
The colonel approached Baba Bijan. “This will be the fate of these natives if they do not abandon the land,” he said as Anoush prayed over the body.
“Please, sir. No more bloodshed,” Baba Bijan said, his voice strained. “No more.” His face had gone ashen.
Anoush was dumbfounded by the supreme arrogance of the Englishman. These warriors were not natives. They were foreigners too, but they blended into the countries they inhabited, even speaking several languages, respecting their hosts.
“You’re a murderer!” Anoush yelled.
“May I remind you that the English built your refinery.”
“We’re not one of your colonies,” Anoush said.
“Please, he is Ali Khan’s eldest son,” Baba Bijan said. “Of course he is upset.”
“I am John Cadman’s emissary,” the colonel said. “You wanted fifty-fifty. You were offered 16 percent. And that is all you will get.”
In Kurdish, Baba Bijan spoke to the chieftain, who turned his horse to face his men. He growled an order and the retreat began as they started breaking camp with the amazing efficiency of a people accustomed to fleeing danger. Baba Bijan and Anoush stayed in Abadan an extra day until the body was buried, paying a mullah to pray at the grave with Bozorg Borzoo’s widow, a stout, black-skinned woman who dropped to the ground and kissed Baba Bijan’s feet when he offered her a small satchel of tomans. Anoush watched her stagger out into the desert, the bag of coins balanced on her head, her wails echoing against his heart. He remembered how his mother had warned him that it was a mistake to imitate the English. “You are better off trusting those from Amrika,” she said.
J. KEVIN SHUSHTARI’s work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Glimmer Train, The Iowa Review, Meridian, and Tremors: New Fiction by Iranian-American Writers (University of Arkansas Press, 2013). Recent honors and awards include the Very Short Fiction Award from Glimmer Train, the Editor’s Prize in Fiction from Meridian, and the Forugh Farrokhzad Fellowship Award from the Vermont Studio Center; most recently, he was a finalist for the International Literature Award from Dzanc Books. Shushtari holds an MFA in fiction from Boston University (2010) and is a practicing physician.
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Posted: Aug 8, 2016
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