Chapter 1

 

Nick shook his head. "I'm a little older than most backpackers. I had no interest in meeting any more university dropouts with wanderlust. I didn't ask."

Shiraz considered Nick's words, tapping his ballpoint pen on the table. "May we ask what are you doing in Peshawar, sir? Your country has been dropping bombs just across the border in Afghanistan for years now. Sometimes, on this side, too. In Bajaur, for example, not more than two hundred kilometers from here, your air force shot a missile at a madrassa and killed eighteen children. They said they were after senior al Qaeda. In a school for young boys? There wasn't even a pilot in the plane to see what he was shooting at. It was one of your...what do you call them... drones. Like some kind of computer game."

Nick remembered seeing the bloody news clips on Pakistani television of the crushed, blue-lipped children, their wailing, veiled mothers kneeling over the bodies, pounding their chests and pulling their hair. The U.S. government had denied the strike in Pakistani territory. Yvette had been with him. She was brought to tears by the images of the dead and dying children, and cursed Nick in anger, as if he were somehow responsible for his government's actions. "The French are fighting in Afghanistan, too -- how do you know it wasn't the French?" Nick had blurted out defensively. She kicked Nick out of the bed that night. A few weeks later, the U.S. government's official denial was recalled. The incident had been placed "under investigation," which more often than not was the prelude to an eventual admission of responsibility forced under the pressure of incontrovertible evidence.

Nick lowered his eyes. "I didn't know that," he lied.

Shiraz frowned. "You must not read the newspapers," he said, his tone sardonic. "Many people here have fled from the fighting. They still have relatives across the border. They are angry at being bombed by your country for the actions of a few. They do not like America for this. Not at all. And I cannot remember the last time we saw an American tourist in Peshawar. A few Europeans, Japanese, Australians -- but very few of even them. The only Americans in Peshawar are spies."

"I don't know what to say," said Nick after a pause. "I mean...I was curious, that's all. I wanted to see Peshawar. And there wasn't any rule against me coming. Maybe some people here are opposed to America and the war. I understand that. But I figured Pakistan and America are allies, right? Look, all I really want to do at this point is leave. Please."

Shiraz smiled ironically. He gathered his notes.

"Are we through?" Nick asked. Ignoring the question, the inspectors made for the door, slamming it shut behind them. Nick heard the bolt slide.

"Hey!" he cried. Nick ran to the door. He pounded on the thick steel with the heel of his fist. Peering out the small window at the door's center, a Plexiglas porthole wide enough for a single face, he sought to make eye contact with someone -- anyone -- watching from the other side. But the only figure staring back at him was a reflection of himself.

He studied the image of his face. Mirrors had been a rare luxury in the low-budget hostels and guesthouses at which he had been staying, and he was shocked at how much he had changed since crossing into Pakistan months ago. He was only thirty-three years old, but the thorny beard he had grown made him look nearly forty. His dark hair hung down to his shoulders. Creases stretched like spokes from the corners of his eyes. Once well muscled, he had lost nearly twenty pounds over the past year, and his veins swelled under the taut hide of his hands. He ran his fingertips over the lines of sinew etched into his neck. Though his beard grew thickly across his sunburned face, it did nothing to disguise the fear in his eyes.

He turned away from the window. His back sliding against the door, he let gravity pull him down to a crouch. A roach scampered across the floor. Sweat rolled down from his scalp, stinging his eyes. He clutched his head in his palms and waited.

As he sat alone in the cell, Nick was haunted by the vision of Yvette's corpse. Her body had appeared fresh, mercilessly intact, despite the stench of the morgue. Were it not for the hideous wound across her neck, he might have imagined her waking from a long slumber. The fact that he could not drive the image from his mind, even after such a horrible death, struck Nick as a proof that Yvette's beauty had been her curse.

He remembered the first time he saw her. He had been wandering the ghats along the holy lake in Pushkar, India, when he spotted her surrounded by a troop of frenetic monkeys wielding garlands of flowers. With her light blond hair, short-trimmed to an epicene bob, she could have been mistaken for a boy at first glance were it not for her tapered waist and girlish hips. A flash of her profile revealed high cheekbones and a thin nose, slightly too long for her almond face and full lips. She wore a red tank top that clung to compact breasts, and khaki pants halfway down the shin, exposing ankle bracelets, and stretched tightly around thighs as thin and smooth as her calves.

"They are clawing me -- get them off!" she had cried to the young Rajasthani, one of the many hustlers who trained their monkeys to harass tourists with puja flowers until they would agree to buy them at extortionate prices. Her boyfriend, Simon, a lanky Englishman in his midtwenties with shoulder-length hair and a downy Vandyke, rolled in laughter nearby as Yvette cursed in French and swiped at the screeching primates leaping onto her shoulders. To Nick, however, her panic was too real to be humorous. He ran toward her, pelting the animals with rocks. The Rajasthani, angry at the assault on his livelihood, stepped toward Nick with a club, only to retreat when Nick, a larger man, cocked his fist. Afterward, perhaps to make a point of Simon's less chivalrous response, Yvette thanked Nick by buying him a Kingfisher at one of the lakeside bars.

Nick had been instantly drawn by the couple's joie de vivre cloaked beneath a thin veil of cigarette smoke and anti-American sarcasm. By the time he arrived in India, he had already traipsed through Australia and Southeast Asia. Australia had been unremarkable, America with marsupials and more desert. But Southeast Asia, especially Cambodia and Vietnam, with its overgrown temples, lantern-laden alleyways, and stunning brown-skinned girls, had hooked him. At times he felt he could travel forever, staying in one country or another until he desired someplace new. However, after some six months, he started to become road-weary, alienated, tired of communicating in phrasebook terminology and improvised sign language. And worst of all, he lived in fear that the indefinable emptiness from which he had fled, which he had hoped somehow to leave behind in America, was still there inside him, a sore that would bleed again as soon as the scab of diversion was torn off.

When Nick met Yvette and Simon in Pushkar, he found their energy to be infectious, reinvigorating, filling the vacuum caused by his loneliness. It did not matter to Nick that they were a couple who had been traveling alone together for over a year. After having no one with whom to share his experiences for so long, he craved their company, despite his being more than ten years their senior. So, when they invited him to join them, he gladly accepted, and the three of them traveled together through India, Nepal, and Tibet.

Yvette and Simon had made friends everywhere, frequently running into people they had met on the road -- Katmandu, Varanasi, Yangshao, Hanoi, Bangkok, everyone passed through Bangkok. Over beer and hashish, they would talk all night, swapping adventures and theories of life, always looking forward to the next journey, be it one of pleasure or travail. Because Simon and Yvette were perpetually running out of money, they traveled by the cheapest means possible -- hitching rides on cargo trucks, perched atop buses, or packed in sweaty train cars with the masses. Nick, for his part, had enough money that he could have traveled with less hardship. His companions assumed as much, based on his occasional trips to banks and American Express offices to stock up on cash whenever they were in larger cities. His savings, however, left over from his years of gainful employment as a lawyer in America, were not as much as he would have liked, and constantly dwindling. Nonetheless, he never felt exploited when, tired of budget accommodations, he covered their costs for a splurge -- a good meal, a comfortable train, or a hotel with hot water. When Simon and Yvette slept together at night, Nick would hide his jealousy as best he could -- and sex came easily enough with other freethinking backpackers, which, to Nick's satisfaction, would sometimes make Yvette suffer a little jealousy of her own.

Despite all the time he spent with them, Nick learned little about their pasts, other than where they hailed from and where they had traveled. As with most long-term Western travelers, what one did back home was irrelevant and rarely came up. Indeed, he found that many travelers, especially the younger ones, had done virtually nothing in their home countries before traveling -- no jobs, no children, no university training -- and their lives were cut wholly from the fabric of their journeys as they went. This might have been the case with Yvette and Simon. But then, what had Nick actually done that had any genuine meaning?

Nick, who had always felt himself too guarded by nature, envied Simon for his dauntless sense of adventure and his seemingly effortless ability to bridge cultures with little more than a good-natured slap on the back and the offer of a cigarette. And Yvette was unlike the girlfriends he had known in America, who might have fancied themselves as "independent" but were nothing of the sort. She was a maverick, bent on forging her own path, her ultimate goal being nothing more than the journey itself. Always on the move, never succumbing to pressure or guilt, she seemed disappointed only by the lost opportunity to try something new, to see a new place, to touch something of the vitality of life. One day in Lhasa, for reasons unexplained, Simon ran off to Southeast Asia with an Israeli girl. Notwithstanding all of Yvette's Buddhism-inspired proclamations about not becoming "attached" to anything in life, she brooded for days. Until a few weeks later, on their first night in Kashgar, she slipped into Nick's room.

Nick and Yvette continued to travel alone together, sharing the same bed for three months, before they received a telegram from Simon at Chinar Bagh Hotel in Kashgar. It was from Rangoon, and it said to meet him in Peshawar.

 

The steel door swung open, startling Nick back to the present. He scrambled to his feet as Akhtar and Shiraz marched into the cell. "I want to call my embassy," Nick insisted.

"That is not possible," Akhtar replied. "Now, sit."

Nick's eyes moved from Akhtar to Shiraz. "There's got to be some rules in this country," he rejoined. "You can't just lock me up in here."

"Sit...down!" Akhtar bellowed, his words riding on a gust of foul breath.

Nick slowly slid back into his chair. He fixed his eyes on the table and waited for Akhtar's anger to ebb. Then, out of pure desperation and fear, he did the only thing he could think of at that moment. He gambled.

"I'm sorry," Nick said, his voice trembling. "Please believe me. I'm trying to help. I just don't understand what more you want from me." Nick glanced up at Akhtar. He was staring back at him, his eyes black and impatient.

"Please don't take this the wrong way," Nick continued with caution, "but...well, I feel I should tell you something. Something you might want to know. I know a lot of people -- some important people -- in America. If I don't leave Peshawar today and I miss my flight, someone is bound to make a fuss. If that happens, well, it might not look so good for you...for your careers."

Akhtar hit him. His huge hand swooped across the table, crashing hard against Nick's temple. Nick's vision whirled in a flash of lights, and when it settled he was on the floor, his chair lying over his legs. Akhtar's face hovered above, bloated with rage, his open mouth daubed with spittle.

"You think we treat you special because you are American!"

"Fuck you," Nick heard himself say, his own words barely audible above the buzzing in his ears. He had no cognizance of his execution of the words, only that they were said. It was as if some other person had momentarily possessed him, acted on impulse, and then vanished, leaving him to suffer the outcome alone.

There was a blur of confusion. Nick felt himself being dragged, then thrust downward, a viselike grip clutching the back of his head. Darkness enveloped him. His eyes burned as he pushed against the floor, the muscles of his neck straining in effort to crane his head from the rank void of the toilet. But the force and weight pressing down were too much.

He felt the dull snap of his septum. Blood welled at the back of his throat. Feculent sludge seeped into his mouth. His arms grew heavy. He felt himself slipping into blackness, drowning in piss and shit and his own blood.

Nick was nearly unconscious when Akhtar dropped his head onto the cement. Dripping with foul water, he vomited until nothing came up but blood and sputum.

The inspectors watched Nick gasp on the floor. Akhtar kicked him in the ribs. He cried in pain. He tried to crawl away, but Akhtar grabbed the back of his shirt, hauling him to his knees.

Akhtar took a handkerchief from his pocket and wrapped it around his knuckles. When he was done, he clutched Nick's chin in his thick palm, forcing Nick's head up, while he cocked his fist.

Shutting his eyes, Nick braced for the blow. He would be killed right here, he thought, and nobody would ever know. The anonymity of dying alone in that cell terrified him as much as the prospect of death itself.

Just then Shiraz placed his hand on Akhtar's shoulder. "Inspector...please," he said. Akhtar glanced at Shiraz, then spat on the floor at Nick's knees. "Let me talk to him." Shiraz's voice was almost pleading.

Akhtar's eyes shifted between Shiraz and Nick, as he held Nick fast. After a long moment, he wrenched Nick's head by the hair. "Last time," he sneered. He shoved Nick back onto the floor. Then turned to Shiraz. "If you want to coddle him like a baby, you do it alone."