Chapter 1

Article Index

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.

" 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 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."