Peshawar, North-West Frontier Province, Pakistan
Nicholas Sunder should not have been surprised when he heard the knock on his hotel room door. For Nick was not a man blessed with great luck. He had no choice but to open it, for whoever was in the hallway would have been told by Shahid, the receptionist, that he was in. He glanced at his watch, envisioning himself sitting anonymously on an eastbound minibus packed with raucous Pakistanis, and cursed himself for not leaving half an hour earlier. Shutting his eyes, he inhaled deeply to garner his wits. Then he opened the door.
Standing in the doorframe was a barrel of a man with a flat head perched atop a trunklike neck. His face, dark and pitted, was bisected by flaring mustaches, and punctuated with obsidian eyes. He wore the distinctive sky blue uniform of the Peshawar police.
"Yes?" Trying his best to comes across as confident, Nick overcompensated, and his voice sounded forced and irascible. This did not go unnoticed by the officer, who scrutinized Nick briefly before stepping aside to reveal a partner. Bespectacled, lithe, with sensitive eyes, this second man was at least ten years younger than the larger one -- perhaps in his midthirties -- not much older than Nick. But his dark skin and jet-black hair contrasted starkly with the pastel blue of his uniform, making him appear even younger.
"Mr. Sunder?" said the corpulent officer in Punjabi-accented English. "I am Inspector Rasool Muhammad Akhtar with the Investigation Wing of the Peshawar Police." His voice was gruff from excessive smoking, devoid of the soothing lilt so often characteristic of subcontinentals. "And this is Sub-Inspector Abdul Shiraz." He gestured openhandedly to his younger partner, who greeted Nick with a smile too congenial to be genuine.
There was a long silence -- too long, it seemed to Nick -- as he waited for the inspector to speak. "Well?" Nick said finally. "You speak English, don't you?"
"We would like a word with you, sir," said Akhtar in a tone that implied he was not asking.
Nick hesitated. "Okay," he replied, "but I'm busy at the moment. If you could come back later...in a couple of hours or so, I'd be happy to -- "
"It is urgent," chimed in Shiraz from behind his boss, Akhtar.
Nick paused, wiping the sweat from his forehead. He nodded, then stepped out into the hallway to avoid letting them into his room. But Akhtar shuttled toward Nick like a bulldozer, forcing him to backpedal awkwardly. As Akhtar passed through the door, he propped it open, permitting Shiraz to follow.
The inspectors scanned the room, their eyes settling on Nick's packed rucksack. "Where are you going, sir?" said Akhtar. "Home to America?"
"No. To India. Amritsar."
"My bus leaves in forty minutes, actually."
Akhtar raised his brow. "Yet you ask us to return in a couple of hours? Either you are being very rude, or are you hoping to leave Pakistan without speaking to us."
Realizing his error, Nick became aware of the hot blood rushing into his face. "I apologize. My mistake. It's this heat -- it's driving me mad," he demurred, forcing a cordial smile to no effect.
Akhtar studied Nick, then pointed to a wooden luggage rack bestrewn with clothes -- a woman's clothes: underwear, smallish socks, cutoff T-shirt. "To whom do these belong?"
"A friend of mine," Nick replied.
Akhtar plucked a pair of T-back panties from the pile. Dangling the lingerie between his thumb and forefinger, he extended his arm stiffly in front of him.
"A female friend," Nick clarified.
"Friend," Akhtar muttered. "We do not have female friends in Pakistan. We have wives. And we have daughters who will soon be wives. All the others are trouble."
Nick nodded halfheartedly, unsure whether the comment was intended as a joke. Then he shrugged his shoulders. "I've prepaid for my ticket. I'd appreciate it if you'd tell me what this is about, so I don't miss my bus."
Inspector Akhtar stepped toward the American with a swagger that indicated his girth was an advantage -- not an impediment. "This is, in fact, about your girlfriend."
"She's not my girlfriend."
The inspector weighed Nick's remark with doubtful eyes. To Akhtar, the handful of intrepid backpackers who still came to Peshawar each year despite the volatile political climate, with their long hair or modish shaved heads, tight clothing, and appetite for hashish, epitomized the depravity of the West. Nick and the girl were sharing a room; ergo, they were carnal.
"Very well," he said. "Her name is...Yvette Dee..."
"DePomeroy," Nick responded.
"Thank you. English I can speak. But French? So many letters that have no meaning. So, where is the girl now?" inquired Akhtar in a manner that suggested he already knew the answer.
"Last time I saw her was yesterday morning. Why, is something wrong?"
"You are the one who has not seen her since yesterday. You tell us."
Nick felt weak. He sat down on the bed, staring blankly at the wall. When Shiraz finally saved him from his trance, he had no idea how long he had been suspended in dumbfounded silence. "Why, sir, did you not call the police when she failed to come back to the room?" Shiraz asked.
"I, um...I don't know.... I just figured she was staying with a friend -- another traveler maybe," Nick said. "I wasn't her only friend."
"You see? -- trouble," Akhtar said, snorting in self-validation. "Come with us -- there will be no bus for you today."
The pungent stench of decaying bodies burned Nick's nostrils as Akhtar swung open the double doors. The morgue was nothing more than a large, cement-walled room with bodies laid at odd angles upon the floor. The corpses were wrapped in white sheets knotted over the faces, some stained with dried blood. Others, the ones that buzzed with the most flies, were moist from large slabs of melting ice wedged underneath them.
"Follow me," Akhtar said, casually stepping over the corpses. Nick did not want to follow, not only because he felt it to be somehow disrespectful and unlucky to step over the dead. At his very core, he feared what they had brought him there to do. But when he turned back and saw Shiraz behind him, urging him onward with a stern nod, Nick knew he had to show them he could go through with it, if had he any hope of getting out of Pakistan soon.
Nick wiped the cold sweat from his brow, covered his nose and mouth in a futile attempt to ward off the stench, and then stepped across the bodies to where Akhtar was standing. At Akhtar's feet lay a sheeted bundle labeled with a piece of masking tape with red Urdu script written on it. Akhtar squatted to untie the sheet.