I don’t drink before sunset. Breaking this rule is what got me into this mess.
It was a stifling Thursday afternoon in an endless summer. The clock hands stuck at 3 p.m reflected the lazy hours between Zuhur prayers and teatime. Looking out of the office window, I counted the drab NATO tractor-trailers that were caught in a major traffic jam from the seaport to the Native Jetty Bridge. At truck forty-two, I looked away from the sunlight and turned back towards the dim-lit office. A pedestal fan fluttered the pages of the Jang newspaper for Thursday, 15 September 2011. The news was sensational, befitting a newspaper named after man’s favourite pastime – war.
‘Pakistan is an international migraine,’ Madeline Albright; Suicide Bombing Kills 28; Karachi Stock Exchange Suffers Fifth Day of Losses read the headlines. A commemoration
plaque from the Pakistan Squash Federation for 1st place in the Under-18 Youth championship covered the less perilous headlines.
‘Aziz, let’s do squats.’ I stood up. Even after twenty-five years, the plaque still inspired me.
But Aziz remained seated in front of his desktop computer. His face was very still, unlike his hands – one was under his desk and the other clicking furiously on the mouse.
‘Stop watching anime porn,’ I said. He scowled and then slowly raised himself off the chair. I had hired Aziz as an office assistant back when my business - Continental Surveyors (Insurance Claims) - was good. I had stopped paying him after the first year but he still came in, six days a week.
‘One.’ I crouched into a low squat. ‘And up.’
On my fourth squat, the office phone rang. I exchanged a quick, curious glance with Aziz and picked it up.
‘Cash,’ said a female voice.
My name is Syed Qais Ali Qureshi. Only two people in my life have ever called me Cash, and one of them is dead.
‘Yes?’ I sat down.
‘It’s Sonia,’ she said briskly. ‘I’m calling from work. I have a job for you.’
‘I thought Continental Surveyors was blacklisted by your boss.’
‘Never on my list,’ she said with a laugh.
‘I’m glad, but I don’t work for free,’ I warned her.
‘Relax, babe. It’s an official survey. I’m offering you a job. Can I come by?’ she asked. ‘Are you still at the Karachi Port Trust building?’
‘Fourth floor. Room 403.’
‘Okay, I can be there within an hour. Wait for me.’
I put the phone back in its cradle before Aziz put down his extension.
‘I have a client coming. Go home. I’ll lock up,’ I said and lit a cigarette.
‘It’s not peak time for commuter buses. Where can I go?’
‘Why is that my problem?’ I shrugged, taking another lazy puff of my cigarette. He had asthma, so I took a little more pleasure in dragging out my smoke.
Aziz took his time as he powered off the PC and collected his things in a cloth satchel. I waited. I was good at that. As he was walking out, I handed him the greasy bag of Hanifia Hunter’s beef sandwiches.
‘You want me to take your lunch?’ Aziz asked, surprised.
I closed the door on his face without a word and walked back to my desk. Sonia was the only woman in the world who made me lose my appetite.
She was an hour late and looked exactly as I remembered her. About five feet six, she had an oval face, a high forehead and fine eyebrows. Her long straight hair gleamed against her almond-coloured skin and her eyes were like those of a hunted gazelle.
‘Cash, how are you?’ Sonia offered me her right hand. Her left carried a Jafferjees leather briefcase. She wore a long patterned shirt, fashionably cut to accentuate her slender waist.
‘I’m superb, thanks,’ I replied with a smile but ignored the hand.
‘How is business?’
‘Not good under the civilians.’
‘You preferred the General?’ She settled into the hard wicker chair.
‘I preferred the Governor General.’ I pointed to the staunch portrait of the founding father.
‘Who doesn’t? But nothing fixes things in Pakistan like a man in a uniform. May I get a glass of water? It’s quite a workout climbing up the stairs. Must keep you in shape.’ Sonia spoke rapidly but her gaze remained steady.
I walked to the water cooler and poured her a glass of water. The air bristled with an awkward tension.
‘How is that daughter of yours - what’s her name again?’
‘Shereen. She’s waiting to gain admission into the university. How’s Omar?’ I handed her the glass.
‘He’s doing better.’ Sonia took a sip. ‘I’m sorry about Jameela. It must have been hard to deal with her illness and sudden death.’
This was the first time that Sonia had said my wife’s name out loud.
‘It was not sudden and it’s been two years,’ I replied and she averted her gaze.
‘I should have come for condolences, but you know how Karachites gossip about affairs, yaar.’ Sonia left a smeared lip-print on the glass rim.
‘I am not your yaar,’ I said, giving her a steely look.
‘I forgot. Only male friends qualify as yaars. How come you never bother to call on your friend Omar?’
‘Omar can’t tell night from day. The last time I saw him, he was trying to seduce a green fairy,’ I said.
‘And whose fault is that? You took him to that homeopathic doctor who prescribed opium for back pain.’
‘I never got addicted,’ I said.
‘Yes, Cash, you never got addicted, because you are a Syed, descendant of the Prophet. Your kind can walk out of shit smelling like a rose.’
I shrugged and, at the same time, all the electric power in the building went out, probably due to some unscheduled load-shedding. The world fell eerily quiet.
In the dim light of the room, she smiled, and the faintest smell of jasmine and feminine sweat brought back sticky memories. I reached for a pack of Gold Leaf.
‘May I have one?’ Sonia perched on the edge of the desk and I offered her a cigarette, took one myself and lit both. I blew a smoke ring in the stillness.
‘Same old Cash, always Mr Cool.’ She hissed a smoke stream through the ring. Back in the day, she would take in a lungful and kiss me, fill my insides with secondhand smoke that I would exhale.
‘I have a claim that requires consultation. It’s a case where the client doesn’t want to file a claim even though the insurance company has booked the loss,’ Sonia said.
‘Who is this client?’
‘A Pathan transporter named Malik Awan. His go-down burned down.’
‘Was it covered or an open-air structure?’ I asked.
‘It was a covered concrete structure and housed a consignment of duty free cigarettes – part of the Afghan Transit Trade.’
‘Where was this go-down?’
‘Jandola, just outside Tank.’
‘Tank - as in Waziristan?’
She nodded and reached for her briefcase. I walked to the barricaded window and rolled up the bamboo shades.
Sunlight streamed into the room and caught flecks of dust in the middle of their whirling ecstasy. Sonia covered her eyes. She looked older under the harsh light. I recalled that she was my age.
‘I would have never come to you if I wasn’t a hundred per cent sure about the legitimacy of this claim.’ Sonia sorted through files until she found a green folder.
‘Does Anthony know?’ I asked. Anthony was her boss, who also sat on the board of the Pakistan Loss Adjusters and Surveyors Association.
‘Yes. But it’s my case. I hire the surveyor,’ she said.
‘So you decide to send the biggest chum you know to a fucking war zone?’
‘That’s why we will pay you upfront.’
She placed the green folder on the table and pushed it across the desk. I opened it. Clipped on top of the sheaf of papers was a cheque made out to Continental Surveyors from Anthony Lobo, Loss Adjusters. It amounted to two and a half million rupees. There were other notes, receipts for payments, and a contract on official stamped paper.
‘The consignment of cigarettes was intended for a dry port in Kabul. They were reinsured by Lloyds for half a million dollars. Street value is one and a half million. You get a generous twenty per cent. The cheque you have is postdated a week from today. You get the rest when you come back.’
‘A hundred thousand dollars is a generous commission. Who is on the policy paper?’ My mind was already spending the money.
‘The main underwriter is Western Federal. They cover sixty-five per cent. The rest was split between Capital and Bridge Insurance.’
‘So what do you need?’ I said.
‘Do a survey, take photographs, write a report, and get the claim accepted.’
‘The last surveyor sent to Waziristan was beheaded by the Taliban. His body was left on the roadside. The head was never found.’
‘This is the deal, Cash. Take it or leave it. The Frontier Constabulary controls Tank and the Jandola fort. It has to be safe enough for a certified surveyor, which means you,’ Sonia said with conviction.
‘Why this change of heart? He’ll be the first Pakistani to reject half a million dollars.’
‘He has gone fundoo. Under the strict interpretations of Sharia law, insurance is illegal.’
‘Why did he have insurance in the first place?’
‘Don’t know.’ Sonia shrugged.
‘Why can’t Western Federal fake a payment? It’s been done before.’
‘Half a million dollars is neither pocket change, nor is Malik Awan a corner shopkeeper. He owns dozens of warehouses along the N-55 highway. If he denies the claim while the insurance company has collected payment reinsurance, it could be problematic.’
‘You mean Anthony might lose his licence?’
‘Let’s not go there. The regulators have been pretty tough since the Shikarpur incident,’ Sonia said, zipping closed her briefcase.
‘But will Malik Awan accept the letter if he is convinced of his newfound beliefs?’
‘That is why we are sending you, Syed Qais Ali Qureshi, to put his fears to rest. Offer him salvation by setting up a charitable trust or an eye hospital in Karachi. I don’t care.
Just play the part of a Syed Muslim. You are one, aren’t you?’ She leaned over and winked. It was a dare and she knew that I would fall for it.
‘Then be one. Our agent, Riaz Khan, will be your contact in Mianwali. He will help you with the locals.’
‘Half a million dollars, Marlboro cigarettes and a fire bombing in Waziristan. Sounds like a conspiracy theory,’ I said.
Sonia stood up and rearranged her hair into a chignon. Her breasts rose under the silk blouse as she set the knot with a butterfly clip, leaving a lonely wisp on her forehead.
‘Come on, Cash. You know conspiracy theories come true in Pakistan. Ciao.’