The man nodded, pulled out a notebook, and scribbled the statement Fasi had requested. “Would you like my student to cosign?” the man asked.
Fasi nodded. A modicum of strength returned to his knees. The student stepped forward, looked at his professor’s signature, looked at the professor, smiled, and signed the paper. The professor tore it from the pad, folded it once, and handed it to Fasi.
Fasi opened the note and tried to read it. His head was throbbing, and his hands felt clammy. With effort, he managed to keep his hands from shaking as he scanned the note. It was what he’d requested, nothing more. The signatures were scrawled, and he had trouble focusing. He couldn’t read them, but they were signatures.
Fasi called a cab and sank into the back seat when it arrived. The cab took the bridge over the Nullah River and turned onto the four-lane Kashmir Highway. The city crowded against the access road on the north side of the highway; to the south were sprawling green spaces and parks. As they drove north-east, Fasi relaxed and closed his eyes. Six times he counted the change in road noise as the cab crossed rivers. He opened his eyes and sat up as the cab turned right onto Constitution Avenue. He looked for the fountains of the PSO Light and Visual Park on the corner, but they were still shut down for the winter. The cab pulled up to the Foreign Ministry building a block later.
After drinking a liter of water, Fasi tried to relax behind the desk in the office he’d been given for his time in Islamabad, but the chair was hard. At least he was better hydrated now, his head wasn’t thundering, he was able to focus, and he only had to stay out of trouble for another few hours. He washed down Alka Seltzer with another liter of water and fruit juice before giving a verbal report to his superior, a man ten years his senior.
Fasi treated the older man carefully. The guy was famous for caution and the chip on his shoulder was the size of a babul tree. He’d advanced rapidly in his youth because of political connections and was demoted even faster after he demanded a bribe from a foreign company, unaware that his mentor owned it. He’d worked his tail off in the twenty years since, only to see younger men promoted above him.
At the end of his verbal report on agriculture, manufacturing, and politics in the American mid-west, Fasi told him about the package he’d transported to room 320. Almost as an afterthought, he handed him the receipt from the University.
News of the package and the receipt surprised the older man. A disguised package smuggled out of the US was likely to be important, the sort of thing to salvage or end a stagnant career. He told Fasi to wait while he checked with others about the package. Fasi napped for two hours before he was awakened by the older man’s rap on the doorframe. He motioned Fasi to follow him. They walked to the elevator, Fasi a step behind. His superior didn’t punch a button for the floor. He used a key.
As the elevator rose, Fasi tried to break the silence by asking if the army had suppressed the insurgents in South Waziristan. His superior looked at him and turned away without speaking. The elevator door opened on the sixth floor, a floor Fasi had never visited before.
The dark-green carpet felt plush and deep as they stepped off the elevator. The hallways were wide, the walls were light green with white trim; the indirect lighting was subdued. The few men they passed wore suits with braces, strolled leisurely, and spoke in hushed voices. The hallway ended in a circular area, at its center a fountain of dark green stone, a white arabesque decorating the rim. Only four doors opened on the space.
Except for the gentle spray and burble of the fountain, the silence was so complete Fasi could hear his pulse. He sniffed the air tentatively. If power and wealth had a scent, it would be here, and Fasi wanted to remember it.
The air was fresh, nothing more.
His superior knocked on a door and ushered Fasi into a modest room. An army officer, a colonel, judging by the gold and green squares on his epaulettes, sat at the other end of an oblong conference table, reading the scrawled note Fasi had demanded at the university. Fasi’s boss pulled out a chair at the end of the table nearest the door and motioned Fasi to sit.
Fasi heard the soft click of the door as his boss left the room.
The colonel looked at Fasi. “You gave the package to a man in the biochemistry building, a man with an office in room three twenty?”
“Yes, Sahib. The office was—”
“The University says that room is due to be renovated. It hasn’t been used for two years.”
Fasi started to speak, but the colonel held up a hand to silence him and studied the paper. After an interminable silence, he took a deep breath, lifted his head and stared at Fasi. He glanced at the bottom of the note again, held it up, and turned it toward Fasi. “Is this the receipt you accepted at the university?”
It was not a long table, and Fasi’s vision had returned to normal. He was close enough to recognize the torn edge of the paper, with only the date, “Received,” and the scrawls at the bottom.
A whisper of movement at his side drew Fasi’s attention to his left. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the polished brown shoe and khaki pant cuffs of a soldier standing behind him. A firm hand gripped his shoulder. Fasi struggled to maintain his composure and control his voice.
“Yes.” Fasi tried to swallow, but fear made his mouth dry. The little saliva he could muster rolled around in his mouth like a marble. His tongue stuck to his palate and seemed too big for his mouth. “I asked—”
The colonel cut him off with an abrupt wave of his hand. His eyes bored into Fasi’s. “Tell me, what did Ali Baba look like? And how are . . .” The officer turned the paper around and examined the second signature again. “. . . his forty thieves?”
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