The drive from the Serena Hotel to Jinnah Convention Centre was taking longer than walking the 500 m because their path was intercepted by the E-75 highway, a modern superhighway that separated the Blue Area, the steel and concrete heart of Pakistan, from their destination in Zone III, the green heart of Islamabad. The convention center was located on the banks of Rawal Lake, surrounded by forests and grassland. Traffic was always heavy at this intersection.
Imam Muhammad Uddin Masood had to arrive at the conference on religious affairs with the proper amount of pomp and circumstance, including a limousine. The imam was lost in thought, preparing his speech for the first day of the conference, in which he would describe the persecution of Shia and Ahmadi Moslem minorities in a nation comprising mostly Sunnis. His concentration was no-doubt improved by having gone to the bed of Urwa Sayed, his supposed aide, the previous night and releasing any tension he may have felt. She had welcomed him because he was a virile man of forty-six with an appreciation of foreplay, prolonging his sexual pleasure as long as possible. He had been coming to her bed regularly since she’d accepted her mission, resigned to the meaninglessness of life. She no longer cared who sought sexual gratification in her company, hadn’t for many years.
Her gaze turned to the green spaces waiting across the highway; fig, tamarind, and oak trees hid the convention center, where she would get her revenge and end her suffering. The Mercedes finally crossed the highway and pulled into the line of luxury German sedans waiting to disgorge their occupants. When their turn came to join the throng, she covered her brown hair, pulled into a tight bun, with an aquamarine hijab and waited for the imam to exit before climbing out of the car without assistance—not even a glance—from the imam.
The Jinnah convention center was beautiful. Constructed in the shape of an octagon, full-height windows piercing brilliant white stucco walls to allow the sun to illuminate the discussions occurring within, a low dome capping the austere structure; it was the epitome of a place where open conversations could take place. There were no back doors or side rooms. Everyone who entered had to speak openly, possibly from their hearts, their words analyzed by the other attendees.
Imam Masood took her arm and led her to a corner of the open-air atrium fronting the convention center, out of hearing of the other attendees. “Do you understand your purpose? Do you have any doubts?”
Urwa shook her head. “None, Imam Masood, I will do exactly as I have been instructed and follow Allah’s will. I will not fail you or our people—the Shia and the Ahmadi. I cannot wait to look into the eyes of Bukhari Khan and send him to join his ancestors.”
Imam Masood took Urwa’s arm, the grip of his fingers reminding her that she had submitted to him and his cause. “We must not fail in this Urwa or the infidels will gain an unassailable position. There are still doubts among the Sunni, that they may be mistaken in the path they are following; but if we fail in our purpose, if Bukhari Khan remains the minister of religious affairs, we will have lost a major battle to gain equality. Do you understand this?”
“I will not let you down, Imam Masood…” Her voice trailed off, then she added what was uppermost on her mind. “I want to leave this world and join my family. Nothing would make me prouder than ending the reign of terror created by Bukhari Khan and his enforcers.”
They rejoined the other attendees and entered the conference center, where Urwa took a seat next to Imam Masood. She listened carefully to the welcome speech given by Bukhari Khan because she would have to get close to him when the time was right. He spoke authoritatively of the need for religious tolerance and held his arms wide, welcoming the Shia and Ahmadi into the fold, but she understood the sentiment his gesture conveyed. The Sunni wished to bring the true believers close so they could be eradicated. Keeping her hatred for Bukhari Khan in check, her eyes scanned the faces filling the convention center for reactions, noting that there were no protests, other than a few boos and catcalls from the Shia delegation. This would be another masquerade. There was no religious tolerance in Pakistan. So be it. Urwa’s resolve hardened like cement as Bukhari Khan described a Pakistan without religious minorities. They would be assimilated into the national culture. Sunni or death. Genocide.
Hard gray eyes observed Urwa and Imam Masood’s arrival at the Jinnah Convention Center from a distance, viewing them from behind a hedge and small trees. The eyes of a ghost. Sinister eyes that had no interest in the conference and even less in the appearance of a radical Shia delegate and his aide, nevertheless drawn to the slim female figure whose sad eyes mirrored his own. The ghost strained to read the dark eyes of the young woman as the older man questioned her. His intense contemplation saw in those hopeless, black orbs his own forlorn world view, and those two pairs of eyes made contact. Urwa had seen the ghost and acknowledged his presence by briefly returning his gaze before deflecting her eyes downward. The owner of those gray eyes recognized a kindred spirit in her, a lost soul wandering the earth seeking peace from the torment of a fragmented and incomplete existence. The ghost was intrigued.
Urwa couldn’t get the image of the young man she’d seen behind the shrubbery out of her mind. The expression on the narrow face dominated by large gray eyes, topped by a shock of black hair, reflected her own feelings of helplessness, counting the minutes until the unrelenting misery would end. She wondered what thoughts were flickering behind those intelligent eyes. Was gray-eyes thinking about making love to her? If so, he would have to wait for Imam Masood, whose enthusiastic lovemaking hadn’t lessened after months of helping himself to her body.
The thought would not die, even while she translated the lies spoken by the other delegates for the imam, pretending to take notes, even meeting Bukhari Khan during a tense and brief interchange between him and Masood. Familiarity would gain her the critical seconds to get close enough to assure success when the time finally came to avenge her family. Having no interest in the proceedings, her presence necessary only when the imam required her as a translator, she found herself wandering paths in the woods surrounding the convention center. It was difficult to remember why she was in such a beautiful place, surrounded by so much life, flowers hiding under the forest canopy, birds singing above her, the woodland unaware of the terrible crimes committed against her people by Bukhari Khan. She bent over to smell a large jasmine flower and, senses heightened by the breathtaking aroma, she became aware of a ghost watching her. Was it possible? Could it be the gray eyes?
She straightened and turned to face the interloper in the quiet forest.
“Do you speak English?”
She nodded dumbly, afraid to say anything, not wanting to break the spell cast by the jasmine.
The gray eyes met her sad gaze and the young man said, “Excuse me for interrupting you but I…” His eyes searched the forest for inspiration, finally settling on the flower Urwa had been enjoying before he continued, “I was taking my break and stumbled across you. I will leave you to enjoy your solitude…”
“Please don’t.” The words slipped out of her mouth. Unnerved by her forwardness, she smiled timidly and added, “I mean, the forest is large enough for us to share, what I mean is that I don’t mind company. I was just taking a break from the conference…”
“I also am on a break, from electrical work in the conference center.”
“What is your name?” Urwa asked.
He shrugged. “Does it matter? We are only sharing the woods for a few moments, two strangers treading the same path.”
“I saw you earlier, watching Imam Masood and me, in the atrium. Were you on a break then?”
He smiled casually and said, “Yes, the work is complicated and I must frequently wait for others to complete their tasks, thus many short breaks. I couldn’t help but notice the arrival of a beautiful woman at a place filled with old men. You must be an assistant—no, I think you are an interpreter from your excellent English, better than mine.”
Urwa had been selected for this mission because of her linguistic skill, her natural talent having been encouraged by her parents. She could pass without suspicion among the delegates because no one, not even Bukhari Khan, would believe that someone with her skills would be willing to die to avenge genocide. The thought occurred to her that this tradesman, who didn’t want to give his name, could move around as easily as she but in a different realm—behind the scenes, never meeting Khan face to face. She giggled.
He had been waiting for a response and humor probably wasn’t what he’d expected, so she lied. “I would hope that a translator would speak a foreign language better than a tradesman. You are not a native English speaker. I think you are Italian, maybe Spanish, definitely not Pakistani.”
“Of course,” he replied sheepishly.
They wandered along the path, skirting the edge of the forest, talking about the spring weather, avoiding any mention of the purpose of the conference that had brought them both to Islamabad. He described the electrical work he was doing, which didn’t surprise Urwa. Men who worked with their hands didn’t have free time to plan genocide or destroy the world, like Bukhari Khan or even Imam Masood. Those were two men with the same character who happened to find themselves on opposite sides of a divisive issue. This gray-eyed ghost was above that; he was not only a worker but not even Muslim. She wondered what it would be like to not be Muslim. She giggled again.
He was walking next to her now, sometimes brushing her arm innocently. “Do you find electrical systems humorous?” he asked playfully.
She risked a personal question. “Are you Catholic? You didn’t correct me when I guessed that you were Italian.”
His answer came without hesitation. “I am atheist, but that is only my opinion, nothing more. I am not a zealot. I assume that you are Muslim, like everyone else attending the conference, or workshop…whatever it is.”
Without Imam Masood standing close by, listening to her every word, looking for any sign of doubt or weakness, Urwa felt emboldened to say, “It must be nice, coming from a country with a long history of religious intolerance, and now being free to not believe in God. Atheism is punishable by death in Pakistan. You would be on the most-wanted list if Bukhari Khan knew your name. It’s a good thing you didn’t tell me. I would be obliged as a Muslim to inform him of your disbelief immediately.” She grinned at the grey eyes and the ghost wiped his brow comically.
He looked down at his watch and said, “It’s time for me to work my magic. I will go ahead so that you are not seen with an unbeliever, but I hope to see you again.” He ran ahead of Urwa before she could respond.
Urwa felt the ghost’s grey eyes on her all day, spotting him occasionally in the background, bent over working on the electrical system, crawling around under the seats and central dais. Now that she’d met one of the workers, she recognized them everywhere, carrying tool bags and stopping to converse briefly, consulting clip boards.
When they were back in the hotel, she asked Imam Masood about all the activity and he told her that this was a major upgrade to the Jinnah Convention Center that couldn’t be postponed. When he asked if she was concerned about the male workers, she quickly responded that she’d had no interaction with them, only noting their presence. And she did feel their presence because of the ghost whose attention she was growing accustomed to. She badly wanted to talk to him again and was willing to risk a mildly inappropriate gesture to see him, hoping he was thinking the same as her. She crossed her fingers and made her request while the imam was doing some research for the next day’s meetings.
“Imam Masood,” she began, hoping to interrupt his train of thought. “Would it be appropriate for me to go for a walk around the hotel grounds? I’d like some fresh air.”
The ghost had taken a calculated risk in going to the Serena Hotel, where most of the delegates to the convention were staying, but he had to see the young woman again. His gamble paid off when she appeared from one of the rooms, a radiant figure draped in a flowing, black dress and matching hijab, her face reflecting the calm of Mona Lisa. He had dressed, hopefully, in a dark-gray suit, his head covered in a matching kufi cap.
He approached her from behind, his step quickening, watching the sway of her hips beneath the loose skirt, wanting to see the look in her eyes when he surprised her. But something was bothering him, about her presence at the conference—where she would be during Bukhari Kahn’s closing statement. As much as he wanted to talk about nothing with her, there was an important matter to be addressed, a topic that could not wait but nevertheless could not be discussed openly. His thoughts were in turmoil as he stepped up, ready to announce his presence, when she turned suddenly and faced him. Her face lit up in a smile that made the ghost almost believe in miracles.
“When did you become a Muslim?” she asked mischievously.
His hand went to the skullcap instinctively as he stammered, “This is a disguise. I hoped you would be having dinner or something with your imam friend and I might join you, innocently of course, and we could talk, with a man you trusted present. Did I startle you?”
Urwa was overwhelmed by the ghost’s statement and especially the pale eyes that looked at her so desperately. She pretended to think before saying, “I was hoping you would somehow appear, just as you did when I first met you in the forest, and throughout the day. I’m taking a walk for some fresh air. Would you care to share this beautiful evening with me?”
He stepped up to her side and they strolled along the brick path, touching slightly now and then as they avoided overgrown shrubs, sometimes just for fun.
Urwa’s heart was pounding as she ventured, “It only seems appropriate to introduce ourselves after meeting accidentally on purpose…again. My name is Urwa Sayed. I am thirty years old and the only survivor of my family. My father was imprisoned and murdered by the secret police, my brothers were arrested, tortured, and later shot down in cold blood, and my mother was murdered when a mosque where she was attending prayers was destroyed by a bomb.” She was near tears but felt empowered at having spoken the truth to someone besides Imam Masood. She scoffed at the idea that she was confessing her pain to an ex-Catholic.
His response was a surprise.
“I can’t imagine what it’s like to have your father killed by the secret police, but I did lose several cousins and an uncle to anarchist bombings when I was a child. I know it isn’t the same but it made quite an impression on me. I will never forget those years, bombs every few months, funerals…”
Urwa faced him and he wiped the tears from her eyes, causing her to sob at what she’d missed. She couldn’t stop the tears that flowed down her cheeks, caught by his handkerchief. His arms gently encircled her waist and she leaned into him, knowing this was exactly what the imam and her trainers had wanted her to avoid. Emotional release. With a stranger no less, an atheist. But she didn’t care, their admonitions forgotten in his embrace. He didn’t try to kiss her, a move she would have welcomed; instead, he waited until her tears had subsided and gently pulled away.
“I guess you and the imam aren’t close,” he quipped.
Urwa laughed before saying, “He comes to my bed every night, but I guess you’re right, we’re not close. I’m only an employee…” She suddenly realized that she was nothing more than a worker like the ghost, which reminded her that they hadn’t completed the introductions.
“I’ve been thinking of you as a ghost, because of your gray eyes and sudden appearance, as if from thin air. What’s your name, Mr. Ghost?” She tried to imagine what it was like to be kissed, the one thing she wanted more than anything else at that moment, her lips pursed, eyes half closed.
He kissed her lips, not passionately but enough for her to sense his desire. Their lips were still touching when he whispered, “Andrea Colombo. I am your servant, Urwa Sayed.”
Her emotional pain forgotten, she became aware of her throbbing pulse and befuddled mind, incapable of rational thought. Realizing her arms had wrapped themselves around his neck, she kissed him but with more feeling, the way her mother had described kissing her father the first time. Tongues were unleashed, exploring, caressing one another in a frenzy of desire. Andrea pulled back, leaving Urwa wanting more.
“I’m feeling a little dizzy, Urwa, so I think you should get back to the imam and your duties, and I must prepare for another day of electrical work.”
She didn’t want to let go of Andrea Colombo, afraid of what would happen to her, knowing her destiny and now having doubts about it, just as Imam Masood had feared.
Andrea couldn’t get Urwa Sayed out of his mind, knowing he had only two days to make a decision, one that would threaten his career and possibly end his life. Desperate to confirm his feelings, he sought her out the second day of the conference and found her waiting on the forest path, anticipating his touch and his lips. Her caresses were as urgent as his own, their destinies converging on an outcome he was no longer willing to accept. He expressed his fears when they met at the Serena Hotel the last night of the conference.
“Pretend to be ill, not such a big thing, because the serious meetings requiring your services have ended. You can stay at the hotel and let Bukhari Khan make his meaningless speech, which will not change the predicament your people are in. Your absence won’t change anything.”
“Why are you so intent on preventing me from attending the final meeting and doing my job?” Her eyes demanded an answer he could not supply.
“Why are you so difficult?” he retorted.
“I am not being difficult, Andrea. I have a job to do just like you, but you suddenly don’t want me to fulfill my commitment. I can’t just abandon Imam Masood and our work, which has been planned for a long time. Maybe Italians, or atheists, don’t live up to their obligations, but Muslims do what we have promised.”
Frustrated, Andrea kissed Urwa’s lips passionately and held her close. Her enthusiastic response verified what he’d known when he’d first seen her.
“I am not going to lose you,” he announced.
“I love you, Andrea,” was all he needed to hear.
The weapons technician attaching the explosive vest to Urwa’s chest spoke calmly as he armed the device. “This is a shaped charge which must be pointed at the target to be effective. Think of it as a really big pistol—”
“I know how it works,” Urwa interjected. “I have been trained on its operation and use. But I would add that it’s a really big gun that blows up in its user’s face. Right?”
The young man, who reminded Urwa of Andrea, nodded quickly and continued his work without further comment.
“Are you ready?” Imam Masood asked.
Urwa wasn’t sure how to answer his query. She was prepared to die, to end the reign of terror of Bukhari Khan and avenge the death of her family, but now she had a reason to live because she was in love with Andrea Colombo. Still, after a sleepless night, she had decided that her love for Andrea didn’t outweigh her duty to avenge the death of her family. She would go through with the plan despite her doubts.
“Let’s make certain it will work properly. I don’t like the idea of standing in the conference center, looking like a fool with a toy bomb attached to my chest, and then being tortured by the Pakistani secret police, the same men who murdered my father.”
The imam made certain that the technician did his job well. When he was done, Urwa stood quietly as Imam Masood dressed her in a loose-fitting gray dress that flowed formlessly and reached the floor. He touched her as only a lover would do, assuring her of the sanctity of her decision, finally kissing her lips. She wanted to spit in his face. She longed for Andrea’s caresses, the feel of his body next to hers, his essence in her womb; she wanted to have a baby with Andrea; a chance for a new life, renewal, but she had given that opportunity away when she’d agreed to die in the name of revenge. A decision she now regretted.
Andrea’s work was finished, the new digital internet-sound system installed and tested, by the time Urwa and Imam Masood arrived at the Jinnah Conference Center for the last day of the conference on Religious Affairs. His appearance had changed as well, no longer the electrician, now a member of the Sunni delegation, the aid to a conservative ally of Bukhari Khan. He had used this disguise several times during the three-day conference and had even fooled Urwa, who’d never known the ghost was always watching her. He had vowed to watch over her for the rest of his life, so the original plan had necessarily been altered.
Recalling Urwa’s fascination with his eyes, Andrea avoided making eye contact with her, despite wearing dark contact lenses. But he was never far away, shifting between delegates, pretending to recognize them and share their superstitious beliefs. He missed meeting her during her break, smelling her, touching her soft flesh, kissing her eager lips. He watched her during the morning break, sipping tea forlornly in the open atrium. The tension within his chest was unbearable by the time Bukhari Khan was introduced by a delegate from the Punjab. Just when Andrea’s head was about to explode, forcing him to act precipitously, Urwa got up to go to the restroom.
Andrea was waiting when she arrived but she didn’t recognize him.
“What are you doing in here?” she demanded.
“It’s me, Andrea. I’m wearing another disguise, as a delegate. I even met Bukhari Khan.” He approached her slowly.
She backed against the door and held her hand up in protest. “I don’t know who you are, even if you are Andrea Colombo. What’s going on? I should call security immediately…” Her voice trailed off uncertainly, her hand recoiling to cover her chest.
Something was wrong. Andrea moved quickly and encircled her waist to pull her to him but was surprised to find a familiar shape under her dress. He froze and looked into her eyes, silently asking her to explain why she was wearing an explosive vest.
“I must return to the meeting before Bukhari Khan completes his closing speech.” She tried to step away from the door but Andrea blocked her path.
All the pieces fell into place: her presence at the conference, accompanying a radical Shia imam with suspected ties to several terrorist organizations, her family imprisoned and killed by sectarian violence. She had come to kill her sworn enemy and herself. Andrea would not allow that to happen, so he took her hands in his, preventing her from doing something stupid like detonating the device. He gazed into her frightened eyes and spoke calmly.
“I am not going to allow you to end your life just to get revenge on Bukhari Khan for what he did to your family. I plan to spend quite a long time with you. I am not satisfied with the the few hours we’ve had. Do you understand?”
She struggled but he pinned her against the door. Her clinched lips finally formed words. “It is none of your business what I do.”
He smiled at her and retorted, “Oh yes, it is. You admitted that you love me, and I feel the same, so there will be no suicide bombing today Urwa, not by you anyway.”
Her mouth twisted into a grimace of pain and doubt before she shot back, “Why haven’t you called security? What are you hiding, with your disguises and sneaking around, pretending to be a devout Muslim, an electrician, a delegate? Tell me that if you can?”
He pressed her arms against the wall and leaned close enough to smell her breath before answering. “Of course, no couple should have secrets and, since you’ve shared yours, I am obliged to be as forthcoming. I am an assassin. A bomber, but not like you. I don’t plan to die or be captured by anyone, especially not the Pakistani secret police. I came to Islamabad to kill Bukhari Khan the same as you…”
Andrea kissed her lips, which thankfully didn’t try to bite him, and explained. “We don’t have much time, so you’ll have to trust me. I was hired by someone with more authority than your Imam Masood to kill your sworn enemy and as many of the delegates as I could, given the security situation. The center stage is wired with sufficient explosives to accomplish that objective, killing possibly ten delegates and severely wounding another thirty, including Imam Masood. Are you okay with that?”
Urwa relaxed as Andrea explained his reason for being at the Jinnah Convention Center. She chuckled when he asked if she objected to the imam being injured. “I was so naïve when I met Masood and so full of hate, that he easily recruited me into his network of desperate women with nothing to live for, and his personal harem. What you’re doing is his just deserves. Live by the sword, die by the sword.” She didn’t mention that, despite the imam’s sensual lovemaking, she had never liked the idea of his getting such benefits from her and the other women she’d met at the training facility. She was a little sorry he wouldn’t be among the fatalities of Andrea’s work.
“We should go now,” Andrea said, releasing her hands and kissing her quickly.
“What about my vest? Isn’t it dangerous? I have a button on my chest to push to detonate it…”
“Excuse me,” he said before lifting her dress, caressing her thighs, as his hand felt its way up her body, searching for something. “Ahh, there it is,” he added. She felt his fingers tickling her ribs and then he lowered her dress and faced her.
“Shall we go?”
“Is it safe now?”
“We’ll remove it when we are clear of the area, but we have only a few minutes. The device I planted will detonate when Bukhari Khan finishes speaking. Very sophisticated digital equipment. Nothing so crude as a beautiful woman pushing a button between her breasts.”
They slipped out of the conference center, past security guards who weren’t concerned about early departures, and climbed into a nondescript sedan, before Urwa breathed a sigh of relief. “What happens now?”
Andrea started the engine and slowly started towards the main road, carefully entering the heavy traffic before saying, “We get you free of that homemade device and into a private room at my hotel until we get your identification sorted out. You may be able to travel as yourself…” He shrugged.
Urwa shook her head defiantly. “I don’t want to be Urwa Sayed any more. She is dead. Can you get me a new identity? I mean, are you willing to—”
Andrea cut her off. “I love you and, with my contacts, I foresee no difficulties in creating a new life for you, hopefully with me, for a long time. Will you marry me?”
Urwa laughed joyfully at his proposal. “I thought you’d never ask! But what about your occupation? I’ve had enough stress in my life and I don’t know if I can be happy with a husband who’s constantly in danger of being arrested…or killed.”
“I’m turning over a new leaf, no more field work, only consultations from now on, unless—”
His sentence was interrupted by the muted rumble of an explosion at the Jinnah Convention Center. Urwa didn’t bother turning to look because her attention was focused on the future from now on.