Chapter 1

 

They led Nick into a so-called conference room -- a bleak chamber with a cement floor and walls of cinder block partially covered with crumbling plaster. In one corner stood a wooden table flanked by roughly hewn chairs. The only other furnishing was a steel toilet bowl fixed to the wall. It was swarming with flies, and so besmirched with mold and excrement it appeared not to have been cleaned since the days of the British Raj. A thick steel slab of a door contained the only window, and the interior of the chamber reeked of urine.

Shiraz urged Nick to sit and demanded his passport. During his more than two years backpacking through the remote, sometimes dangerous parts of Asia, Nick had stuck to a policy of never letting his passport out of his control. Like a soldier terrified of losing his talisman, he felt he could defy great odds so long as it was in his possession -- in his money belt, around his neck, or buried in his underwear. Without it, however, he felt naked. But these were the police -- he had no choice but to provide proof of his identity. Nick opened his passport to the photo page and slid it across the table, pinning it there with his fingers for the inspectors to review. But Akhtar snatched it up, before signaling toward the open door for a third policeman, who entered and left with it.

"Wait!" Nick protested. "Where's he going with that?"

"It will be safe, sir," said Shiraz. "I assure you."

Shiraz sat down opposite Nick. Akhtar propped himself, arms folded, on the table to Nick's left. Even though Shiraz was doing the talking, it was clear by the way Shiraz kept petitioning Akhtar with his eyes that the elder was in control.

"When was the last time you saw the deceased?" asked Shiraz.

"Around ten o'clock yesterday morning. We had breakfast at the hotel. After that, we went separate ways. I didn't see her again until...well, now."

"What did you and the girl discuss over breakfast?"

Nick shrugged his shoulders. "Small talk -- our impressions of Peshawar, stuff like that. We mentioned our travel plans. I told her I was going to leave for Lahore, then head into India. She said she was going to stay in Peshawar."

"And you argued about this?"

"No. It wasn't like that."

"But you must have been upset she did not want to come with you?"

Nick looked into Shiraz's eyes. "I'm not sure what you're trying to imply...but I don't appreciate it."

"No one is pointing any fingers, sir," Shiraz replied without flinching. "We are only trying to get to the bottom of a vicious crime. It is important for us to know the victim's state of mind. Whether she was upset, excitable, panicked."

Nick took a deliberate breath. "I'm sorry. It's just, this whole thing -- her murder, having to identify her body -- it's a total shock to me. And now to feel like I'm being interrogated or something.... It's not the treatment one expects as a visitor," said Nick, hoping to tap into the Pakistani sense of hospitality, which he had come to learn was a matter of creed. The inspectors' expressions, however, did not change.

"As I was saying before," Nick continued, his nerves forcing his words to come out in clipped phrases. "Our relationship was casual. We met in Kashgar. We were both planning to head down the Karakoram Highway to Islamabad, and then go to Peshawar. It made sense to join up for a while. Friendship is cheap on the road. You meet someone, travel together for a week or two. And never see them again. There's no hard feelings. It happens all the time."

"Yet, when you viewed her body you seemed very...emotional," Shiraz said. "Like you knew her much better than you are suggesting."

Nick lowered his chin. "No," he said in a faltering voice. He pinched the bridge of his nose between his eyes, gathering his composure. "It's just...it's a horrible thing, what happened to her. Even if I didn't know her that well."

Shiraz and Akhtar glanced at each other, their own silent language. "Did the girl say what she was going to do after breakfast?" Shiraz continued.

"She said she was going back to the hotel."

"And after breakfast, what did you do then?"

"Toured the cantonment, wandered the bazaars. I didn't return until evening. When I got back, she wasn't there."

"When she did not come back for the night, you said she was with a friend?"

Nick hesitated. "Well, that's what I assumed. The other day she mentioned she had come across some people in the bazaar -- some other backpackers she'd met a few months ago on the circuit -- Goa, Katmandu, I'm not sure exactly. At breakfast she said something about meeting someone for tea that evening. When it got late, I figured she must have decided to stay over with whomever she'd met, instead of walking back alone after dark. They say it's not a good idea for a Western woman to be alone in the bazaar at night."

"Do you have a name or nationality?" said Shiraz.