Abby woke with a start and bolted upright, throwing her arms out for protection, but nothing was there, only lightweight covers, which fell away. She wiped her hand across her sweating brow and rose quickly, but a sudden dizziness caused her to stumble, and she sat back heavily. Inhaling deeply, she tried to get her bearings, but the sound of footsteps outside the door made her freeze.
“Who is it?” she whispered, but the footsteps faded, and a heavy silence settled in their place.
A dull throbbing erupted in her brain, and her hands trembled as she tried to rub away the goose bumps on her bare arms. She took a deep breath and looked around, trying to push away the fog of confusion that had settled in her thoughts. Streaming sunlight fell on a rickety wooden chair and the familiar suitcase it held.
She was in Pakistan. The UN staff house. She’d arrived yesterday from Dubai. She’d been sleeping, though fitfully.
Sighing with relief, she rubbed at her eyes, still gummy with sleep. Had it only been forty-eight hours since her run in Geneva? She shuddered at the memory of the woman falling to her death. Though the police had initially seemed concerned and had taken her back through the streets, they’d quickly grown weary of Abby’s failure to find the body, and they’d raised their brows in disbelief.
“I was certain this was the street,” Abby said. “But—”
“Why are you confused, miss?” the younger policeman had interrupted her. “This is such an important detail. Was she thrown? Did she fall? Which was it? And where is she now? Bodies don’t just disappear.”
His rapid-fire questions and her failure to find the body had only fueled Abby’s growing alarm. Her eyes scanned the streets, but the same monotonous buildings, all granite and steel, had loomed above her, one building, one street, indistinguishable from the next. And without the body as a landmark, she’d felt her certainty fading. “One more time,” she’d pleaded. “There was a woman. I’m not making this up.”
A growing panic had nipped at her thoughts. Which road had it been? Perhaps it was the next street, she’d said. The police had taken her down one street and then another, filled now with cars and people, but there was nothing to see, no body, no blood or tissue in the street. Finally they’d driven her back to the hotel, derisive smirks playing at their lips.
“Get some sleep, miss, and you’ll forget this,” the younger policeman said, impatience dripping from his words.
“But—” she tried to protest, but the second policeman spoke up.
“Be sure to call us if you see the body again.” He broke into a wide grin that was almost a sneer.
But she’d neither slept nor forgotten. Even now she could clearly remember, in crisp detail, the woman’s olive skin, her thick black hair, and the bracelet that had sparkled almost obscenely on her shattered wrist. Abby could see too the face of the man as he’d searched for her in the street, and she shivered at the recollection.
On her overnight in Dubai, unable to sleep, and drenched in sweat despite the air-conditioning, she’d dialed the hotel operator and made a call to Emily, her best friend in Boston. Abby had forgotten the time difference until she heard Emily’s voice, heavy with sleep.
“Oh, Em, I’m sorry to wake you. It’s early morning here, and I was desperate to talk, to tell someone.”
“What’s wrong?” Emily said, the sleep suddenly gone from her voice.
“I . . . oh, jeez. This will sound crazy, but I saw a woman fall from a balcony in Geneva, and, well—I don’t think she just fell. I think I may have witnessed a murder. My heart is pounding just telling you about it.”
Abby’s story spilled out quickly—the eerie quiet of Geneva, the arguing voices, the woman hurtling through the air to her death. “She wore this beautiful jeweled cuff, and I remember it so clearly. The thing is, I’m not sure if she fell or if the man threw her.” Abby paused, but Emily was silent.
“Em? Are you there?”
“Where are you?”
Abby heard the concern in Emily’s voice. “Dubai, I’m in the airport hotel. I came in last night from Geneva. I fly out to Pakistan later today. I just had to hear your voice. My hands are shaking.” Abby made a fist to quiet the tremors. “I reported it to the police, Em, and they took me back, but the body was gone.” She swallowed hard. “I know how it sounds, and I know the police thought I was a little bit off, but I am one hundred percent certain that I saw a woman fall to her death. I just don’t know if she was thrown or if she fell.”
“Why are you so worried now?”
“The man who was with her, he came looking for me in the street, and when I came back with the police, she was gone, just gone. I just . . .” Abby hesitated, hoping that Emily would say something reassuring. Instead, the line was quiet, and Abby thought she might have lost the connection. “Em, are you there?”
“I am. I’m just trying to understand what you’re telling me.”
“Oh, Christ, you don’t believe me either?”
Emily sighed heavily. “It isn’t that, but, well, you’re sure she was dead? I mean, maybe she did fall, and the man you saw was looking for help, and not for you. Otherwise, your story does sound a little crazy. Bodies don’t just disappear, right?”
“I don’t know,” Abby almost whispered. “Maybe he did call for help. I just don’t know.”
“You don’t think you might have imagined it?”
Exasperated, Abby snapped back, “No, I didn’t imagine it.”
“I love you, Ab, but you do have a tendency to be dramatic, and with everything going on in your life . . . well, it seems, I don’t know, maybe you’re making more of this than there is. You probably saw a jumper or maybe a woman who slipped and fell. Maybe an ambulance just came and took her to a hospital.” Emily paused, letting her words sink in. “As horrible as it must have been, the whole incident has probably been magnified by your malaria medicine. You’ve read about the awful side effects of Lariam—nightmares, dizziness, breakdowns—and those are just the known effects. And on top of that, you’re on your way to Pakistan, of all places. Maybe this is a sign. Just come home.”
Abby took a deep breath. “Emily, come on. I’m not coming home, not yet at least. And I don’t think I’ve been especially dramatic. I just can’t shake this feeling that I saw a murder.”
“Abby, take a deep breath and think about this. You’ve had one blow after another—you were laid off, Eric left you, you’re on your way to a strange country, and you’re on Lariam. I mean, come on. The only mystery here is why you haven’t booked a flight home.”
Abby hesitated. “Maybe you’re right. Not about coming home, but everything else.”
“Try not to dwell on what happened.” Emily’s voice was tinged with worry. “It was probably a terrible accident, but there’s nothing you can do about it now. Just let it go and get on with things.”
Abby drummed her fingers on the desk. “You’re probably right, Em. I just had to tell someone, it makes it less scary. It was awful seeing that poor woman on the street, but it’s over.”
“I still wish you’d just come home,” Em had said.
Abby stood and stretched, and tried to erase the image of the dead woman from her mind. She exhaled loudly and saw the woman’s bracelet again in her mind—a beautiful diamond cuff shot through with rubies and sapphires and sparkling garnets. It had sparkled so—
A knock on the door interrupted her thoughts. “I’ll be right out,” she said, the threads of her memory slipping away.
Abby’s room in the Pakistan staff house had an adjoining bath, and she headed in. The little room was dark and she clicked on the light just as a bevy of cockroaches scurried away. She groaned and stepped carefully around the collection of larger bugs that lingered in the tiny space. Though she’d occasionally spied roaches in her apartment on Beacon Hill, they were nothing like these enormous insects. She peeled off her nightgown, then turned on the shower and stepped in, turning her face into the spray of tepid water. Maybe a shower would wash it all away. She’d come to Pakistan to do just that, and she planned to make it work.
She’d been a new nursing graduate in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck, devastating her hospital and her future there. Within days, her hospital, drowning in six feet of stagnant water, had closed forever, and New Orleans, drowning in a sea of looters and rot and misery, seemed a place to escape. She and Emily had headed to Boston, where Abby had found her dream job—in a pediatric clinic where she was in charge of immunizations. She kept track of which babies needed which vaccines, and she managed the records and logged the vaccines. She and Emily squeezed into an impossibly small apartment on Beacon Hill, and just when she thought life couldn’t get any more perfect, she’d met Eric, a six-foot-tall intern who thought more of himself than he probably should have, and maybe Abby should have known better, but she hadn’t, and she’d fallen head over heels in love.
After three years together, her heart had still fluttered at the sight of him, and when he told her he loved her, she was certain her life was set—perfect job, perfect life. She glided on air for the next three years, sure he’d ask her to marry him, but he didn’t. And when Emily became engaged, Eric almost seemed to wither at the news. He’d mumbled something unintelligible and changed the subject. Abby had shrugged her shoulders. He was just overworked. That was it. And she didn’t bring it up again.
When the recession hit and cuts were made, her hospital slashed jobs, and hers was one of the first to be eliminated. Eric had barely blinked. “Forget about that job,” he’d said, but what she heard was I’ll take care of you. The layoff, she thought, might turn out to be a blessing in disguise, a chance for them to get closer. Eric had accepted a fellowship in Oregon, and Abby just assumed she’d be traveling there with him, making a new life together. Instead, within weeks of her layoff, and just days after her thirtieth birthday, Eric, the man she loved beyond all common sense, had—well, he’d dumped her—by e-mail no less. Said he needed space so he’d be moving to Oregon alone. Abby’s dreams had dissolved into nothing. In a heartbeat, everything was gone. No job, no boyfriend, and thirtieth birthday alone. Her birthday horoscope—“This is the year you find true love”—served only to mock her misery.
With her perfect life in tatters, she took to her bed, where she devoured Godiva chocolates and guzzled Grey Goose until neither her stomach nor her dwindling finances could support her misery.
Abby knew full well her self-pity couldn’t last forever, and after a full day and night of decadent melancholy, her throat scratchy and her head pounding, she’d picked herself up, thrown out the candy wrappers, and piled the empty bottles in the recycling bin, certain that the garbagemen would be clucking their tongues.
She was desperate to leave Boston and her wretched life far behind, and her parents, newly retired and moving to a retirement community in Florida, had tried to convince her to join them. “Abby, we’d love to have you move with us,” her mother had cooed. “The three of us again, just like when you were little.”
Abby had winced at the thought. “I love you and Dad,” she’d replied, “but I’m thirty years old, Mom. I need to figure this out on my own.”
“I know, sweetheart, but you’ll always have a place here,” her mother had said.
But Abby wanted to make her own place in the world, and with Emily getting married and Eric gone, she’d have to stand up and do something for herself. She’d stumbled across this United Nations position online, a six-month assignment that seemed custom-made for her—vaccine statistics—and she’d decided it couldn’t hurt to apply. The confusing application process seemed designed to weed out the less determined applicants, but Abby had persisted, doggedly filling out the tedious paperwork. Still, no one was more surprised than she when she’d been offered the post. Perhaps it was the pay, a stipend really—$500 a month with room and board here in the UN house—that had thinned out the interested applicants. Or perhaps it was the area—Peshawar, in Pakistan—“unstable security situation” was how the ad had euphemistically put it.
Emily had cringed at the news. “Pakistan?” she’d moaned. “God, Abby, why not just stay and get another job here? Why do you have to go halfway around the world to find yourself?”
“It’s not that I’m trying to find myself,” she’d replied. “I just want to find where I fit in.”
“Which brings me back to why Pakistan?” Emily was nothing if not persistent. “You’re jumping into this. Stay. Figure things out here.”
“I have to stop relying on everyone else, Em. I’m going, so stop trying to talk me out of it.”
And now here Abby was—in Pakistan, a place she couldn’t even have found on a map not so long ago—on a UN assignment. This could be the adventure of a lifetime, she thought. This place that was so far out of her comfort zone could be just what she needed.
Abby turned off the water, the rush of air on her damp skin bringing her back to the present. She stepped out of the shower and quickly toweled off. Here in Pakistan, the desperate heat should have dictated what she’d wear, but, instead, the delicate cultural balance of this Muslim nation had influenced her wardrobe. Women here, she’d been told, did not show skin. No shorts, no sleeveless shirts, nothing that might offend. She pulled on a long cotton skirt and blouse, and already she could feel beads of perspiration running down her back.
Abby’s hair, the color of wheat, hung in waves to her shoulders, and she ran her fingers through the still-damp strands before shaking them into place. She wiped away the fog from the mirror and studied her reflection. For the first time in a month, her brown eyes were not rimmed with the red of her tears, and she smiled as she applied a thin stroke of eyeliner and a coating of clear lip gloss. Pakistan, she thought, is going to be way better than Oregon. She tucked her feet into sensible Nikes, missing her designer sandals. Too late to think about that now, she reminded herself, probably no chance to wear them here anyway. She was beginning her new life, and this was her first day.
She grabbed her work bag and, pulling open the door, stepped into the dim hallway . . . where she almost ran into a squat, scowling woman.
“Sorry, I didn’t see you,” Abby apologized. The woman, dressed in the local garb of long dress and loose pants, wore a scarf tied around her head and clutched a broom. “I’m Abby, the new UN staffer.” She smiled to herself—she liked the sound of that, UN staffer.
The woman nodded, unspeaking, and Abby, thinking perhaps she’d spoken too quickly, repeated her introduction slowly and enunciated every syllable, hoping that the woman might understand. Instead, as though she’d just wrapped her lips around a bitter fruit, the woman’s face crinkled into a scowl.
“I’m not deaf,” she said, a British edge to her voice. “I heard you the first time. I’m Hana, the housekeeper and cook. She’s waiting for you in there.” Hana looked over her shoulder, nodding her head to the room at the far end of the hallway.
Embarrassed, Abby stuck out her hand. “Sorry, Hana. Nice to meet you. I guess I’ll see you later.”
Hana shrugged her shoulders and turned back to her broom, tapping it against the floor as she worked.
Abby pulled back her hand, swallowing her disappointment at Hana’s unpleasantness. She gathered her courage and headed toward the stream of light at the end of the hallway.