CHAPTER ONE - FRANK
Tunbridge Wells, UK, 2 December 2000.
The weirdest things happen on a day like any other.
"I'm off running," I shouted to my wife, as I opened the front door and ran down the steps, slipping my wallet into my tracksuit pocket. I shall pick up eggs for breakfast at the shop on the way back, I thought.
"See you later, Frank." I heard from Mrs Chardonnay, wife and mother.
It was eight in the morning on a clear December Saturday. The sun was low, but the sky blue and the temperature a little above zero. I ran up the hill to Forest Road and crossed it, to take Benhall Mill Road out into the country. It is a steady downhill incline for about a mile, before descending sharply to the millstream and then cutting up steeply along a sunken lane overhung by trees. No ice today, so I could keep to an energetic pace, warming up nicely before hitting the hill. For me running is a time to think through what is happening on deals I am doing at the bank, and to plan - this is good. Bad is when a merciless jingle insists on repeating itself in your head, at your running pace, however you vary the pace.
At the top of the hill, I cut left to take me across to Hawkenbury, where another left would take me back to start a second lap. Two laps would give me six miles, but the trouble with laps is that as you are nearing the end of them the human body has a habit of raising minor issues with muscles and tendons, suggesting they might prefer to rest now - experience shows that, once into the second lap, these little goblins disappear, only to return when you are thinking of a third or a fourth lap. Today I felt energetic. As I reached the Red Eagle pub, a group of people was standing in the car park.
"He'll do." I heard a voice, laughing.
"Yeah, we need another for the match. Come on, mate."
I have never quite worked out why you sometimes stop and get involved, when mostly you just wave or make some humorous (usually trite) remark that you regret afterwards. But I found myself in a discussion about the bus being late and two of the Rugby fifteen not having showed. Hamid was a tall muscular prop-forward, weighing a good hundred kilos. He spoke with a slight sub-continental lilt, and was very persuasive about my taking the one-and-a-half hour trip from Tunbridge Wells to Windsor for the match, not to forget the booze-up afterwards.
"Just a second," I say. "I tell my wife I'm out for a forty-five minute run and turn up ten hours later from a Rugby match in Windsor, in which I've taken part?" I look at Hamid, but obviously not with the appearance of total conviction that this is such a bad thing to do on a Saturday morning in December. What else beckoned? Christmas shopping?
Zoe, a female supporter, looked me square on, shaking a mass of red hair across her shoulders. "Why don't you come? It'll be great fun. It always is. Do you live up the way you were running? Jimmy here is going back to the clubhouse at the end of Forest Road. He can drop off a note at your place, for your wife." She graced me with an open smile.
Hamid suggested: "We've got some size ten boots spare. If that's your size, we're in business. Shirt's no problem."
So that's the way it was. My house was just up the road; I do take size ten; and maybe, just maybe, the forceful invitation of a gracefully built, thirty-year-old redhead influenced my decision.
The match was fun. I had not played for years, but that is not so important for rugby. I have stamina from my running, and as long as you do not mind whacking into people, getting bruised in the ribs, risking your femurs and taking skull-numbing blows, you can have a good time.
As to the journey back from Windsor, Zoe was off on a trip, so a friend was dropping her at Heathrow. Hamid and I were invited to join them in the car back to Tunbridge Wells, rather than waiting for the others, still in action in the bar and probably later on the bus. We pulled into the short-term parking of Terminal Three at Heathrow, ascended a flight of stairs and crossed via the walkway into the terminal. Not much had been spoken in the car. I guess it was a pretty weird situation. I did not know any of these people before nine this morning, but here we were in the afternoon, having played rugby together, dropping off Zoe at Heathrow for her holidays. As we stepped into the terminal we were greeted effusively with loud remonstrations by two dark men in their twenties, who had taken it upon themselves to stop us dead in our tracks.
"Azhar," Zoe said, "this is Frank. You won't believe it. We picked him up off the street in Tunbridge Wells this morning for the match, let him get pummelled a bit on the pitch, and here he is."
"Well, nice to meet you, Colonel Frank," said Azhar. "Tunbridge Wells is populated by retired colonels, no? You should change your tailor though." He was eyeing my ill-fitting jeans that I had just borrowed after the match. "Anyway, let's get Zoe through quickly. Give me your tickets, Zoe, and we'll let these guys be on their way once we've got you sorted out." Zoe told me that Azhar worked for the airline. It made it all so easy. He would just bring us straight out to the plane.
"Where are we going?" I asked, as we all set off in the direction of Departures?"
"Frank, surely you are not the type to let a lady walk home on her own. You're taking me to the plane."
"We can't. There's passport control." Azhar was just clipping a badge in a plastic holder onto each of us.
"Leave it to me," he said. "My father, you know, is an international businessman and he's over fifty years old. Every time he flies in or out of Karachi where we live my grandfather is there, right there on the concourse. That's our custom, and with a little help from our airline we do the same here."
"Come on, Frank! It will be fun!" Zoe said. "You'll even get some Champagne." One moment we were landside and then we passed through security and, without passport control, next moment we were airside. I was used to passing through without showing a passport for European flights and it occurred to me that I did not actually know where Zoe was going. Sure enough, after the few standard kilometres of corridors, there we were, and I mean all of us, on the upper deck of a 747, like passengers on the Titanic waiting for the announcement that those not sailing should disembark.
"Isn't this airline dry?" I asked, thinking about the promised Champagne, and they all laughed.
"We bring our own Champagne, Frank."
Sometimes you awaken from a dream, and it still seems to continue as you lie dozing in bed. If it is a pleasant dream, maybe you even encourage it to stay on a bit, as you stretch warm limbs under the covers and think, Sunday, no need to move yet. And this was a pleasant dream, as an elegant female, clad in a colourful green robe, moved towards me.
In the background I heard, "It's a high class Parisian fashion statement."
"Sorry?" I mumbled.
"I thought your were admiring the stewardess. They commissioned a French fashion house to design their livery years ago."
Now I knew I was still dreaming. This was Zoe speaking to me. As the pleasant sensation of the dream was replaced by confusion, I began to feel a stiffness in my limbs and bruising around the ribcage. So I was obviously dreaming about the rugby match. Or was the rugby match part of the dream? Suddenly I had an urgent and angry need to check this dream out right now. Eyes wide open, I turned to Zoe in the full expectation she would turn into my dog, a TV screen, or just be a portal to another part of the dream, whatever happens in dreams. But no, there she sat, with a faint smile, prompting my perfectly reasonable question or questions: "What are you doing here? Where am I? What is going on? I think I had better wake up now."
"You are awake, Frank. We're an hour outside Karachi."
Panic immediately set in, the way it does in dreams. You want to move, but you are powerless. You want to struggle and then the vision changes and it gets worse, the nightmare grips. But I could move, I was not powerless, and ZoeĞ still sat there, half smiling, and the panic was still there, no the panic was surging, and I wanted to wake up now.
The voice came from across the aisle. Hamid: "I think we have some explaining to do, Frank."
I swung round and there was Hamid. I looked back and forward: a few rows of empty seats, the hostess now gliding down the spiral stairs, a door to the cockpit. I had a sense of complete disorientation: this was definitely worse than shopping in the supermarket.
"It's just us on the upper deck. They don't get heavily booked these days, even though no one else flies this route non-stop anymore." Hamid said.
I looked at Hamid. Although I was fully aware that the only reasonable explanation was that I was still in the dream, a string of thoughts ran through my head as time stopped for a moment, the way it does at the acute moment of a car crash. Was I in a coma? Had I been kidnapped? Was this some kind of theatre? This wasn't a birthday treat, like a kissogram, was it? Well, it wasn't my birthday. My thoughts coalesced into a question. "Where on earth does my wife think I am?"
"She'll think you're with Jeremy," Hamid responded.
" With Jeremy?"
"Yes, Jeremy from Windsor."
This was getting to be strange. "How do you know that I know anyone called Jeremy in Windsor?"
"Well," Hamid questioned, "how do you think you happen to be on a plane to Karachi? We've been studying you. As to your first question, we told your wife that you had taken a knock in the game, nothing serious, but an X-ray was in order and it was the usual four hour plus NHS queue. We told her that if it got too late, you would stay with Jeremy (who by the way is on holiday), and she thought that sounded sensible in the circumstances."
"OK," I interrupted, still not sure if I was in a dream, a plane or elsewhere, but willing to play along for the moment, "but that still doesn't tell me how I got on a plane at Heathrow without a ticket. Airports have security, you know."
Zoe leant across. "Frank, calm down. We bought your ticket. Azhar simply checked you in with your passport, and us too, before we got to the terminal. Our airline can be quite passenger-friendly compared to many European carriers. You didn't really believe that nonsense about seeing me off from the cabin did you? That doesn't happen these days." Her smile was still as sweet as ever, but I felt rage building within me. As I stood up from my seat, she said, "Frank, we haven't kidnapped you. You came willingly. There was no duress. OK, I admit you didn't know we had your passport. It must have been an oversight on my part not to mention it, and I don't think anyone down there will be interested anyway." She pointed to the stairs. I could see a certain logic in that. It would be futile to accost another passenger: excuse me, sir, I think I may have been kidnapped; or, could you tell me where this plane is headed?
I had to clear my thoughts and work out what was going on, and more importantly, why. So let's say this was real, and they were telling the truth. I had somehow been lured by a rugby match (improbable but true) and tricked into going to the airport (probable and true), only to board a plane in the belief of seeing off someone I did not know, on an international flight, to I knew not where, apparently without passport and ticket (improbable and, from my current perspective, apparently true). They must have drugged me. Why me?
Zoe obviously had sympathy for my confusion, as if reading my thoughts. "Yes, you did seem a bit drowsy from that glass of Champagne," giving a little knowing smile, "when we boarded. The point is that you fitted our profile very well. We got to know a little about you, and thought we would like to know you better. We'll be landing in Karachi soon, so why not have some late supper. Be fresh. You'll learn more then."
"Who are you?"
"You know. We met earlier. I'm Zoe."
" No, not "you", "you plural"."
I looked left and right to Zoe and Hamid, and left again to Zoe, only to see a wall. My panic had subsided. No one was threatening me. They would simply have to put me on the first plane back. Supper.
Karachi airport is an ultra-modern, marble clad complex, less than ten years old, designed to high specifications by the French. This is not the third world: this is just a refreshing stroll through the air-conditioned arrival zone. I expect many aid workers think they must have taken the wrong plane or missed their stop. We passed straight through passport control with a wave from the booth before I even had a chance to start my questions. I was relieved because it would be problematic to deal with a junior officer at this point, before even entering the country. In the customs hall a group of a dozen smart white uniformed officers stood to one side of the hall. Three of them broke away towards us, and this was the first time in my life that I felt a real sense of relief to see customs officers moving towards me. I would be able to explain everything to someone of authority in the group.
Some people may experience intimidation from customs officers in these countries, but business travel had taught me a few tricks of the trade. Anyway, I could pull out a business card from my wallet and establish my credentials as a banker. So it may be awkward and unusual but the airline would have to take me back to the UK, that is the procedure if they land you anywhere without a valid visa. I had even seen it happen to colleagues with expired passports, to their embarrassment.
Considering that only an hour ago I was not sure whether I was awake and this was real, I now felt confident and up to it. In the worst case I was going to spend Sunday in Karachi, before boarding an evening flight, that is if I could not get on a flight right now. There ought to be a few planes landing and turning round over the next couple of hours. I could even be back for work on Monday. Strange, how normal you can feel in the most inexplicable of circumstances; how you think you will just sort it out with an: "excuse me sir, I think I should not have been on this plane. Could you let me know which plane to take now for my return flight to London?"
At this point I learnt that Zoe was really a "Zara", as she introduced me to the senior of the three officers and apparently the Controller of Customs. He was very affable and welcoming. His assistant, Javed, would take care of our every need, and he, the Controller, was always there if needed. The first thing Javed did was to produce the visiting card of his cousin.
"He's just qualified with an MBA from the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He has vast experience of the business world, would be of greatest value to an international institution. I would be most grateful, if you could recommend him to officials within banking institutions with which you are acquainted."
Things seemed to be going my way: I would express great interest in helping Javed's cousin, and Javed would help me, though I was still not quite sure of what to do about Hamid and Zoe/Zara, who were still hanging around, as if they were part of the proceedings. Javed ushered us through a well-camouflaged door and seated us across from him at a rosewood table.
"Tea-coffee, green tea?" Javed enquired politely. "Excuse me Mr - looking at my passport - , "Francis Chardonnay. I assure you this is the merest formality. I must ask if you have goods to declare to me in your luggage. Certain luxuries must be taxed. Do you have alcohol?"
I looked at him; time to get the ball rolling. "As far as I know, I have no baggage."
"He has nothing to declare." Hamid cut in.
And this is when I launched into my story, somewhat mystified, as I set out my demands (if necessary to be met by higher authority), by Javed's continued equanimity and lack of either surprise or concern.
"You wish to leave?" He reached into a draw. "The next available flight out is via Frankfurt. They are scheduled to land shortly and will then take off for Germany. This is a ticket in your name, your boarding card and your baggage checks."
I sat back, looked across at Javed, a dim suspicion in the back of my mind. "I am relieved. Nonetheless, how did you know that I was arriving, let alone that I would want to depart on the next flight out?"
"Actually, we would prefer you to stay," Zara cut in. "We do have a more interesting proposition."
I did not want to hear her proposition. "Tonight sounds great." I reached for the tickets.
"I would just point out the baggage checks," Hamid said.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, you said you have no baggage, but your air ticket has checked baggage for loading."
"So it can't be mine. I shall simply have them leave it."
Javed resumed, "That will not be possible. I have checked it for you."
Doubt spread across my face as I looked at him. "How do I know you are an assistant to the Collector of Customs, or, indeed, that he was the Controller of Customs?"
"In light of your strange circumstance, Sir, I take no offence. He is the Collector, but no matter for you. You are here, and I am here. You want to leave, and I have your ticket, which I will give you. You will land in Frankfurt. Unfortunately, you will have to pass through customs at Frankfurt, unusually, because it is the booking that I have made for you. On leaving through the "nothing to declare" channel, you will be met, relieved of your twenty five kilo suitcase and permitted to proceed to London, with the ticket you will be given in Frankfurt, that is to say if you have not been examined by the German Zoll, customs. My uncle has just returned from a day trip that ended up lasting seven years. He was very unhappy: all he needed was a little extra money to complete his hotel construction. Alternatively, I am satisfied that you have no contraband or dutiable goods with you, and I am happy that you should proceed with your friends into Karachi." Nothing about the room suggested anything sinister. The pleasant smiling faces of my new friends and Javed should have lent warmth to the atmosphere. Yet, I felt a sickening curdling of the spirit, defying even the best of skills to retain equanimity and negotiate, learnt at endless management seminars.
"This is not entrapment," said Zara, or was it Zoe. My mind floated free. "Listen. We are offering you an alternative, a proposition. It will be good for your career." Some chance, I thought. I'm finished, trapped in a drug smuggling set-up.
"This is not a smuggling exercise," I heard Zara say from three thousand miles away. "This is just our way of encouraging you to listen to our plans." Hamid smiled encouragingly.
"You can be home by Sunday afternoon, and no one will even have the slightest suspicion you came to Karachi. There isn't even a visa in your passport. Most people would anyway think it impossible that you could have been in Karachi, what with the alibi of the Rugby match, but the flights work - as long as you have the stamina, or sleep, like you did, on the way over. We'll get you on a flight to Gatwick and have one of the Rugby team drop you home, as if nothing happened."
This was obviously meant to bring me back to the real world, which it appeared I had vacated for a few seconds, and settle this very simple innocuous conundrum, I faced. It did settle it. I stayed.
Yellow taxis lined up outside the airport, awaiting passengers from the incoming international flights despite the late night hour. We were ahead of the game flying non-stop from London. Karachi used to be a hub many years ago. Today it is cheaper to refuel where the oil is, across the Gulf, and a stopover in the Gulf allows the airlines to include passengers for Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain or Muscat, wherever they stop, to improve seat occupancy. In front of us was a sizeable parking area. We did not take a taxi, for a black Landcruiser materialised as soon as we stepped out of the building, very VIP.
Not every city has its unique smell, but Karachi has. You might not notice it the moment you step out of the airport, but in certain areas of town it grows on you about as quickly as salmonella flourish in under-cooked chicken, while in other parts there is the scent of sub-tropical vegetation, and then the salt breeze off the sea. The highway into the city has another unique advantage over a city like, say, Vienna: you do not seem to have to stop when the traffic lights turn red, at least not during the night, and that is irrespective of what the other traffic may be doing.
"We don't have much time," Hamid said, "but now that we are out here, I am going to propose that we win an extra day. You can take the flight first thing on Monday. Then, if you take the Gatwick Express up to town, you'll be in the office before lunch. I'm on the same flight. Your cover story won't change really. We'll just fix the extension for you. Don't worry. It's all planned like that anyway. I just thought you would be more comfortable coming with us if you knew you could still get out today. And apart from that, why not take a look at Karachi!" A heavily ornamented truck without lights rolled across the intersection in front of us, heavily skewed to one side, with an unbalanced load and dud springs. Seconds later we flew through, as if oblivious to the danger.
" First, give me a clue," I suggested.
This was Zara's cue. "Before we reach the hotel, you will know why you are here and what we think you can do for us. As far as we are concerned, this is all above board, if a touch unusual. Then we will have twenty four hours to discuss the groundwork for the practical implementation of this project." This was beginning to sound less and less like a rugby excursion. I shall introduce us a bit better, rather than the simple exchange of names in Tunbridge Wells. We are not an organisation: I think I would best describe us as business people, but we have a kind of extra dimension, let's say. Hamid is in finance, like you, but more accountancy. He is originally from Karachi, a Mohajir, meaning his family moved here in 1949 when Pakistan was founded by Jinnah, Indian Muslims. Me, our family is really spread through Iran, Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, hence the red hair, but they don't call me Zoe here. Hamid, I and a few others have worked together for a while now."
"Let me make a point now about banking. In the West you join a bank, and traditionally you work for that bank, a loyal employee. OK, you'll say it's changing, but you get the point. Here we are part of a community, and the community wants to have its people in the bank, to serve it. That's the difference in the East. You want a loan; you go to NatWest and fill in a form. We want a loan; we go to our man in the bank who puts us in touch with his friend in the bank etc. We all owe one another favours. Look just over there to the right. Just up the road there is the Agha Khan Hospital. When you went to have your X-ray yesterday, (OK I know you didn't really), but if you had, you would have felt you have a right to go to casualty and demand attention. If we go to hospital, we look for the guy from our community (maybe we have pre-arranged it), but certainly if we are a villager, we seek out the guy from our village, who passes us on through his system of contacts."
" So where is this leading? Well, we think you have an interesting profile to be our man in your bank. Stop, hear me out." I was opening my lips in objection. She leant in closer and the Landcruiser maintained the outer lane.
"You have an interesting scope of business, and this is a great chance to enhance your banking career. Your job requires you to work with clients in your bank's geographical region comprising Europe, the Middle East and Asia, to help clients raise funds and organise their projects. We, that is to say friends of ours, have projects of this type, and we are going to bring them to you and your bank. As far as your bank is concerned, you will be working on bona fide projects with us. You will travel the region on this business. Your bank will earn fees. Your career will be enhanced." And she added incongruously, " Money breeds money."
"May I interrupt?" I cut in. "Back at the airport it looked as if one option was for me to smuggle drugs for you. I don't think this is the basis for a business discussion, and yes, I think I should take the flight today."
"I don't disagree," Hamid said. "Those weren't our drugs, by the way. How do you expect us to get you through immigration and customs without a visa, if there's no prospect for them (sorry, I mean for certain individuals, just like in customs anywhere) to make a buck? We'll come back to that, but don't jump to conclusions. We'll go through the details during the course of the day, and night if you like, and then you can tell me. After all, having bothered to come all the way here, why not check it out?" His logic seemed irrefutable to a UK banker, stuck in a speeding Landcruiser, violating every known western traffic convention, on a December night in Karachi, with no visa, no stamped passport, no real sense of why he was here, how he was going to get out, and with the occasional but distinct sound of automatic gunfire in the background. At least I had some new rugby pals.
We arrived at our hotel to the remnants of an airline's annual event in gardens leading down to the waterfront.
"Get your key at reception. They have your name. Breakfast at nine." Chirped Zara as she slipped away in a swirl of red hair. Even in the most extraordinary circumstances, we still act as we normally do. It is only in an emergency, when the adrenalin flows, that our breathing shortens and our behaviour becomes unpredictable. Well, I was breathing normally, so I would do what I normally do - I strolled into the gardens to see if I could get a beer. The band had long since departed, but a few clusters of revellers were standing among the round tables, set up by the open air dance floor, others seated in twos and threes at tables, one big noisy group over in the corner. The lawns led down to a kind of jetty at the waterfront, at the end of which a barge was moored. The water was still and black, clearly not the ocean, but beyond the ornamental lighting of the barge was darkness, limiting my view. Drinks were still being served at a table to the side, and it truly was German beer flown in for the event.
I took a beer and wandered into the palms. I looked at my watch: it was just over thirteen hours since the match ended, just gone one in the morning at home. I thought of my wife and daughters back there, my son, but it all seemed so distant, another world. Yet I did not feel threatened, I was not locked up, handcuffed. I was just left free to do what I wanted. Maybe I was being watched. I did not know. I felt as if I were having a nice cool beer on a pleasant summer's evening outside after dark, and I suppose I was, except that it was winter. I cannot say my mind was in turmoil. It just seemed I would have to wait and see what it was they wanted. I had not done anything wrong, had I?
"This is by invitation only. Still I guess you look as if you could be eligible." I turned to see a tall blond man in his late forties on his own at a table a few feet away. I moved across and sat down a couple of chairs around the curve of the table.
"I thought there'd be a few pilots here. I'm Sid, by the way, from down under. It's really for local businessmen and expats, only the hard core left now, who'll probably stay till breakfast. Still, where else do you get a free beer in Karachi? I fly out of the Gulf by the way. A lot of us Aussies ended up in the Gulf, after we went on strike and the government sacked us all, and put the air force pilots in. You look like you just got in, and your not an expat. You wouldn't stay at this hotel if you were. It had its heyday many years ago."
"Hi." I wasn't sure if I should say my name. This was the first interaction with the real world since the UK, I mean, assuming I really was here.
"When I stop over in places like this, I just sit and drink beer," Sid continued. "Just make sure I stop drinking six hours before I'm due to fly the plane. We have very strict alcohol rules. Who are you flying with?"
"Not sure yet," I said. "The Monday morning flight, probably. Breakfast time. London via Dubai."
"Hey, that's mine. We leave at six, so if you catch me drinking after midnight tomorrow, I guess that's tonight now, warn me!" He chuckled. "I'll get us another couple of cold ones."
I watched him move across to the bar. Several others were now leaving through the arch to the side of the hotel. He came back with four beers.
"Right. They were closing down, so I thought we had better get a couple in."
I'd missed out on most of the rugby booze-up, slept on the plane, why not?
"Hang on." I said. In all of ninety seconds I was back with another four beers. A few other tables were still sparsely populated. Ours was the only table supporting eight beers, but then, to give the others their due, it was almost breakfast time.
After an active day's sport, flying all afternoon/evening, virtually nothing to eat, it does not take long to drink four beers, but at least I had a touch of normality before heading off to my room, and Sid had a bit of company, albeit still non-pilot company. Sid was right about the hotel. My room looked as if it had been updated in 1956: clean, but paper and paint peeling, gaps around a window-mounted air conditioning unit. It had a phone but whom was I going to call? I took off my rugby- club-borrowed jeans and shirt, and noticed an open canvas bag in the corner with some clothes and toiletries in it. Must be mine, I thought.
I awoke to a phone ringing by my bed.
"John Stanley here." A polite English voice, well to do.
"I shall expect you here at 8 a.m. Two doors down to the left, 609." And he had rung off.
If I was going, I had ten minutes.
I knocked and the door opened to a powerfully built young man with almost coal black skin.
"I'm here to see John Stanley."
"This is he. Do come in." In cultivated English tones. "I do tend to surprise people. Anglo-Indian. It's legendary that just a couple of hundred English ruled the entire Indian sub-continent, the District Commissioners. They had rather more extended and more scattered families, than might have been the case, had they stayed at home. I'm one. My great grandfather's fault. Some of us were recognised; hence my middle name, Saint John (pronounced Sanjun, frenchified), so I go back to William the Conqueror." His dark brown eyes smiled. "Bit of a joke really John Saint John. Do sit over here at the table. Excuse the state of the decor." His introduction had given me a moment to get my bearings, and this suite was certainly no more elaborate than my room.
"You may wonder why you're here."
"Not at all," I broke in, but he was not perturbed by my tone.
"We have forty-five minutes to get down to business. I am expected to brief you, and that is all. You may ask me questions for clarification, which I will answer. No commitment is expected from you, nor decision. You may relax, but I suggest you stay alert and listen to what I have to say. Let's go."
Sanjun proceeded to explain to me how a banker of my profile had been chosen. Still in my thirties, experience of business across cultures, including the Middle East, slotted into the right kind of position in the right type of international bank. According to him, my profile dovetailed into their plans. He talked at length about the multi-faceted business interests they represented; they were not planning illegal operations, he insisted, merely endeavouring to ensure that they had their own people, on their side, in the banks that would be assisting them and representing their financial interests. I should regard it as an informal arrangement that would ensure that interesting and lucrative propositions would be directed with first right of refusal to me and my bank. This would be good for the bank and, of course, for my career.
The assignments would be varied, so it would not be clear to my bank that they would be in any way linked, which would make me look even better as someone who brought in new business for the bank from various sources. This would be "our little secret". From their side, they would expect from me frank and open lines of communication, and given that I would be working substantially on their transactions, they would expect me to take a very pro-active advisory role, and to be available to travel with them on their business on a regular basis. All transactions would be proposed on an arm's length basis, meaning I could reject any particular deal that did not look right for my bank, and they would be subject to the normal processes of evaluation and approval of my bank.
"Not unlike what you are doing at present," he summarised.
"And if I don't?"
"That's not part of this discussion. Breakfast is downstairs at nine. Thank you for joining me this morning." He stood up, donned his jacket, opened the door and left. I never saw him again.
I returned to my room to ponder this proposition. What was there to ponder? Despite hardly an hour's sleep, I felt fresh. The sleep on the plane had sufficed, I suppose. Apparently, I was not being asked to do anything, at least not right now, so I might as well get through the day and hop on the plane tomorrow morning, return to normality, steer clear of impromptu rugby match invitations in future, and maybe, just maybe, I would be OK. Not a convincing train of thought.
Sure enough, at nine, Hamid and Zara were ensconced at a table near the buffet, he in casual, she in the local shalwar kameez, light baggy trousers and a tunic, combining colours with a translucent sheen, a scarf over the left shoulder. She looked across, gaily waving an invitation to an old rugby team chum, I suppose, me. I looked around the room. Clearly my Australian buddy from last night was either still drinking beer somewhere, to get enough in before the self-imposed pre-take-off dry spell, or else taking a snooze, so I joined their table.
"My programme started at eight. It seems we are squeezing in breakfast. What's next? Or should I make my own plans today?" I asked.
"You're looking good this morning," Zara chirped, showing greater American flair than I anticipated from the hotel buffet, eggs maybe, but no doubt light on the bacon.
"We have a good hour to kill before things open up around here, so let's have a really good breakfast. Then, since you are here after all," she said, turning her head towards me with a smile, "you might like to start your Christmas shopping early. Rugs, silver, jewellery, you name it; we've got it here, like nowhere else. Get your wife some gold necklaces. You simply pay by weight. The workmanship, which by the way can be exquisite, is virtually free. Take a look at the leather goods."
"So the formal programme is over is it? What about my passport and tickets? I thought we had twenty four hours to lay the groundwork, as you put it in the car last night."
Hamid handed a packet to me. "John seemed happy that he had achieved all that in forty-five minutes. He is a very capable young man. We do have a dinner you can join this evening, but otherwise it's for you to decide what you do with or without us. We are here to help."
I checked the packet. Sure enough, passport and a ticket to Gatwick via Dubai. I looked at the passport, checked old visas, and could tell it really was mine. What now? Hightail it to the British High Commission and explain the story. It would not work, would it? Too implausible. Anyway, what about the implications for my job, any future job: did you hear about Frank Chardonnay? Some cock'n bull story about alien abduction to Karachi for the weekend. No, since I now had a way back, let me assume it to be real, take it, take stock back in the safety of the UK and not upset the apple cart here.
" So what?" Zara was appraising me.
"Yeah, Christmas shopping this morning, since I am here, after all."
In daylight, I could see that we were located on a creek of fairly turgid looking water, bounded by what appeared to be mangrove swamps.
"Is this Karachi's holiday hot spot, sub-tropical paradise?" I enquired, as we pulled out of the hotel.
Zara laughed. " Karachi's not a holiday spot. It's a commercial city and port, but it has great bazaars. Actually, the beach is quite nice. Maybe you'll see next time." No way, I thought. We sat in the back of the Landcruiser, a good choice of vehicle as it turned out. We weaved between trucks, camels, buses with people hanging off the roof, motorised rickshaws, motorcycles individually transporting entire families, heading for the centre of town.
"Lovely day," I said.
"It always is this time of year, mid November to April, blue skies and sunshine, but we need you in the UK for the time-being, Frank."
"Just as my spirits were reviving, you have to bring that up. Well, I guess, I'll just treat this as our honeymoon then." One up to me. Maybe shopping could be fun after all.
So many events piled into such a short space of time. I realised I had not really - how should I put it? - noticed who these people were who had brought me here, other than immediate appearances and impressions, certainly not their persona. I glanced at Zara, who might just as well be a photograph in a magazine for all that I knew of her; or in her case I revised this to the cover of the leading women's magazines. Following her along the crowded street, the breeze catching her clothes and hair, as she weaved her way, I perceived an advantage over the more traditional Muslim practice of the female following four steps behind, but still I had no idea of who she was. I admired the confidence and charm with which she deflected the shopkeepers' practiced skill of selling unwanted goods to outsiders at prices over the odds. But then she did not seem to be an outsider: cheerful greetings and chats punctuating our progress through the bustling shopping streets. She showed no hesitation in meeting my Christmas shopping needs in a jewellery store at prices that even I could accept, although it did strike me later that I should not have left an audit trail with my credit card.
"I'll take you down to Clifton Beach. It's just ten minutes. It will be beautiful today. Let's get out of the crush here. Come on. Look the driver's just over here." He pulled up to us, and we boarded.
"Zara, I shouldn't have used my credit card, should I?"
"Frank, why's anyone going to check your credit card? Though I admit you might not want your wife to see the statement, before you tell her where you've been."
"Tell her where I've been?"
"Why not? In due course, once you've got used to the idea. You haven't done anything wrong. At least, not that I know about. OK, it might make you look a bit stupid, but I guess she knows you well enough. She did marry you. I mean, I wouldn't have joined some crazy rugby trip like you did. But no harm done. I'd leave out the bit about the Frankfurt suitcase, if I were you."
"You're full of good advice, Zara. I wish you'd told me when we first met. What are those pillars?" We were approaching a roundabout.
"Those are the three swords of Islam. Impressive, huh? You see how this crazy traffic is moving in all directions, weaving over all three lanes on this side and over the three across the concrete barrier. Listen to this. A few years ago there's this man, totally blind, gets on his motorcycle, sitting facing backwards. Blindfolds himself for good measure. He starts back there, at the three swords roundabout we've just passed, and rides through the traffic up to the roundabout we are approaching and back again, using only his sense of hearing. Can you believe that? Sitting backwards? Blind?" Frankly, I found it hard to believe that our Landcruiser was left unscathed through this medley of Highway Code violations. It struck me that the blind man might actually have used his sense of smell, fragrant vegetation occasionally punctuated by the result of blocked drains, but I decided against raising this for the moment, as I was beginning to enjoy Zara's company. We took the next roundabout, two swords at this one, something vaguely naval or maybe cotton spinning at the next.
"We are in Clifton. On the right is the British High Commission. I'm sure the idea of a visit occurred to you last night, but good sense prevailed. I admire your resourcefulness, finding not only beer but also a drinking partner on your first night in Karachi. My room overlooked the gardens. I was watching you, Frank. He was a nice looking guy, I thought."
We stopped on the promenade at the beach and walked down to the sand. The beach stretched out in a wide bay and was scattered with people and camels. A few kids were playing in the water, and there were whole families, full clothed, in as deep as their knees and way out to sea, obviously a very shallow shelving beach, all sand.
"Isn't this unusual. I mean, you and me on the beach, unchaperoned." I asked.
"No, I love it, Frank. Isn't it great to be out of the grey UK?" The sun glinted in her hair, a sense of fun emanating from her.
"You up for a run?" And we set off up the beach, a light following wind, sand heavy underfoot.
"Why did you go into banking, Frank? I mean, it's not like the kind of philosophical and medieval stuff you did at Cambridge - sorry, I've seen your CV."
"You'd be surprised at the weird stuff some of my banking colleagues studied. Or then again maybe not, since you've probably seen their CVs too." I was being defensive, erecting barriers, and instantly regretted it, so I continued. "But no, banking was my plan all along. It seems that mostly when you choose, you cut out all the other possible choices. You know; if you're a lawyer, you do law; if you're a doctor, you do medicine. It seemed to me that if you do international banking, you get involved with all kinds of activities, and often with a view from the top. And that's pretty much how I've found it to be, but it's changing, as the focus switches to markets and financial instruments. We don't really look at the real business any more in the way we used to. What about you?"
"I'm your pro forma young professional, suitable to fill any slot in the organisation." She turned towards me and spoke with her eyes, behind the words that came out. "When the European Community expands far enough eastwards, they'll take me on at the European Investment Bank; or I might end up in Central Asia for the Asian Development Bank, when they expand west. I'm happy where I am for the time-being."
"And where's that?"
"Here, on Clifton Beach with you, but only for the moment." She looked up to where the driver was coasting along the road beside the beach, waving to her from the open window of the Landcruiser.