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.
Nick felt the room spin. He began to topple. "Sir..." said Shiraz behind him, reaching for Nick's arm.
Nick grabbed Shiraz's elbow, barely avoiding a fall. Vomit welled at the back of his throat. He forced it back down, nearly gagging. He breathed deeply for several moments, until he was sure he had regained his legs. "Is this...really necessary?"
"I am afraid so," Akhtar replied. "We tried to locate her parents through the French embassy in Islamabad, but the authorities are very slow to find them. We are concerned that by the time they are located, the body will not look like...anyone. We are transferring the body to the central morgue in Islamabad, but...well, it will take time to process. So...unless you happen to know where her parents live?"
Nick rubbed his temples, trying to focus his thoughts. He spoke through his hand, cupped over his mouth and nose. "She'd lived in Paris, she told me. But I don't know about her parents. Small town, maybe. I don't think she was close to them...just the impression I got."
Akhtar eyed Nick. "Then we have no choice but to proceed." With a sort of unseemly gusto, he tugged sharply at the ends of the sheet, peeling them open to reveal its contents.
Nick clenched his eyes shut. He had seen more than a few dead bodies in his life, and not just the well-manicured corpse of his father at his open-casket funeral, all signs of his slow death by cancer concealed under a thick mantle of cosmetics. In the East, the presence of death was ubiquitous, so much so that it seemed to Nick very much a part of life, not merely the end of it. For some reason, be it morbid curiosity or a deeper yearning to comprehend this strange, fatalistic world, Nick had found himself during his travels gravitating toward places where the worlds of the living and the dead collided. He had gone out of his way to view bodies burned on wood-fueled funeral pyres in Katmandu, bloated corpses of the snake-bitten ritually dumped into the Holy Ganges, and Tibetan "sky burials" in which leathery-skinned nomads chopped their ancestors into fist-sized chunks for the vultures to devour. But this was different. This was life he had coveted, a body he had known intimately, over which he had run his fingers until every freckle, curve, and recess of skin had been impressed in his memory. He struggled to numb his emotions, to force his mind to perceive what he was about to see as a mere phenomenon, another stop along on his journey to understand.
Nonetheless, when he finally forced his eyes on the body, he could do nothing but stare, speechless, feeling as though the small hole of emptiness in his chest that had always been there had opened to swallow the entirety of his being. He felt like nothing. He felt like he was dead.
"Well?" said Akhtar, eyeing Nick closely. "Is this your lady friend?"
Nick did not register the inspector's words. Yvette looked just the way he remembered her. Her torso, exposed through the tears of her dirt-stained shirt, was unbloated; her breasts, though waxen, were still smooth and flawless. A blond tousle of her hair splayed across her cheek. Her feet, striped with the tan lines of sandal straps, were still embellished with the lavender toenail polish Nick had painted on for her days ago. And her eyes, like limpid pools of trapped sky, were placid and beautiful as they had been in life. One might have thought she had died in peace, were it not for the deep black trench slicing across her throat.
"Sir...is this her -- Ms. DePomeroy?"
"Yes," said Nick finally, nearly choking on his words, his eyes blurring with tears. "Yes, it is."
"Such a beautiful girl," Shiraz interjected with melancholy. "Some goatherders found her in the Tribal Areas, near a jeep trail off the road from Landi Kotal -- in an area where Westerners are forbidden. Do you know how she might have gotten there?"
Nick shook his head no. Wiping his eyes, he turned from the body. "Please...I've seen enough."
"As you wish," said Shiraz.
But as Nick headed for the door, Akhtar called out brusquely -- "One more thing" -- stopping Nick in his tracks.
"What do you make of this?" Akhtar motioned to Shiraz, who rolled the body onto its side. The smooth, narrow back was pocked with deep contusions of bluish flesh, as though someone had jabbed her repeatedly with a metal prod.
Nick could glance only briefly before shielding his eyes. "I wouldn't know," he said. He stood there a moment, distracted by a loud pounding behind his ears, as if someone were thrashing the back of his head. Until he realized it was his own blood surging to his brain.
Sub-Inspector Shiraz followed Nick out of the morgue. "Please, sir -- just a few more questions," he said, as they waited for Akhtar to wrap up the body and rejoin them. Because of his younger age, Shiraz -- unlike his superior, Akhtar, who had been robbed of all compassion by his years of exposure to drug smugglers, terrorists, and corrupt bureaucrats -- had not yet lost his ability to empathize. This was evident in the way he stared at Nick with rueful eyes, as if beseeching him to confess for the sake of his salvation.
"Questions..." repeated Nick. He felt as though Shiraz's words were filtering down to him at the bottom of a deep well, where he was struggling to keep his head from sinking into icy blackness.
"Sir, a young woman has been murdered. We need a little more information...to guide our investigation. Her family will wonder, when we find them. It is their right to know."
"Yes...yes, of course," Nick replied. "I'll help any way I can. But...I'm afraid I didn't know her that well. We were rooming together just for convenience. Budget travelers do that -- join up on the road, share accommodations to split costs. I think I pretty much told you everything I know about her already...
"I do need to get to Delhi by Friday to catch my flight home -- people are expecting me," he added. This was a lie. Nick had no intention of going back home to America, at least not right away. His father had died when he was a teenager and his mother had followed not long before he decided to travel. He had no siblings or other close living relatives who might raise a fuss through political channels; nor, for that matter, any loved ones who might even notice him missing. He was an expatriate in the profoundest sense -- a man alone in the world. And now, for the first time, his total independence made him feel more vulnerable than free. His instinct told him it would be better to make the inspectors think he knew people who would press the authorities if he were held up for too long.
"It is required procedure. Just a brief statement. Then you may go."
Statement. The legalistic nature of the word did not sit well with Nick. "Just so I'm clear, you mean...if I tried to walk out the door right now, you would detain me?"
Sub-Inspector Shiraz gave a sigh of frustration. "Come, sir. It is better for everyone that you cooperate. Surely I need not remind you how simple it would be for us to deny you an exit visa."
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.
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."