The Black Silk Road
Claude Bravard woke bathed in wetness that was more than perspiration. He cursed. Then he smiled, the nocturnal imagery still wafting luminous between wake and sleep. He’d tell her how wonderful she’d been in his dream when he phoned, right before he boarded his flight departing at midnight. By then, it would be late morning in New York, where Cassandra, his young beautiful American wife, was a graduate student.
It had been ten months, yet marriage remained contradictoire for a French international correspondent whose assignments often took him to the most troubled reaches of the globe. This assignment he’d volunteered for was one he now regretted. Cass was right. This was not journalism. During the past weeks his instincts warned him he was being watched, which meant she was right. This was dangerous and he could get himself killed.
Along with his dream, it was the early rays filtering through the grime-crusted windows of his Hotel Paradise room near the old Bohri Bazaar that woke him. In the basin where Pakistan’s surrounding desert sloped down to meet the Arabian Sea, the dark sky was first to give way to the soft light. As the hot orange sphere crept upward to peep over the eastern horizon beyond Karachi, the slow and steady transformation revealed all that lay beneath, as though released by time-lapsed photography. Dancing across the rooftops of this second-most populace city of the world, it seeped downward into the seamy crevices and deep folds of the neighbourhood’s streets and bazaars. Inside the pockmarks and sweat lines of the dilapidated dwellings and make-shift hovels, it awakened the slumbering silence into a teaming mass.
For most in this sprawling chaos, the day’s struggle would be for scant few rupees. Elsewhere in the city, reserved for those more cunning at trade or managing the benefic flow of corruption, the light would bounce and reflect off polished stone, concrete, and glass. Claude Bravard’s rendezvous today was with someone from the latter category – a vice president of the Bank of Commerce and Credit International; in street jargon, the BCCI stood for the Bank of Crooks and Criminals, Inc.
‘Ah Cass, Cass, Cassie, ma chere’ Cassandra,’ he murmured aloud. ‘I am a fucking stupid idiot to come back to this scum-covered hell-hole chasing information about your countrymen when I could be lying between clean sheets with you!’ Stretching his long muscular frame, Bravard bunched up his pillow and reached for a cigarette.
Except for a brief R&R, it had been four months. But today, this business would be finished. He’d be on tonight’s flight with the documents Zafer was to hand over in exchange for Zafer’s new IDs, visas, and airline tickets for himself and his family. Pushing aside the lurking foreboding, he silently resolved to finish this, be done with it – and feel good that he’d done his bit. Tomorrow he’d be home and making a baby with Cass.
Stubbing out the cigarette, Bravard headed for the shower. He would order Room Service, pack his bags, and stay in until it was time to meet Zafer.
Khaleel Zafer looked at his watch – for the twelfth time in the last hour – thirty minutes before departing for the restaurant. Going to his private bathroom, inside one of Karachi ‘s polished stone and glass structures, Zafer pulled a fresh hand towel from the rack to wipe the beads of perspiration dampening his shirt collar in spite of the air-conditioning. His phone rang.
‘Khaleel!’ his wife Yasmeen howled. ‘Assim has returned without Faisal! I called the school, and they said he was not there this morning. But Assim drove him, just like he always does. He watched him go inside the gate. Oh, Khaleel! Faisal, my baby! He is missing! What have we done? What have you done?’
Fear thrust into Zafer’s gut and choked his breath, turning his limbs into a quivering mass. In that moment he saw it. The shoe-box-sized brown-paper-wrapped carton sitting in the centre of his desk. It had not been there moments before. He mumbled something about calling her back, and numbly put down the phone. In spite of his painstaking care and planning, Faisal, his precious son, his only child, was in jeopardy. A sickening panic engulfed him. His life was over.
Zafer picked up the box, gingerly carrying it back to the bathroom. Muttering, ‘Insha’ Allah,’ he began opening it, expecting to be blown into a million pieces. But he wasn’t. As he lifted the lid and pulled the bloody wrapping tissues away from what lay within, he felt something far worse than his own imagined death. Setting the box holding little Faisal’s brutally severed left hand on the floor, the Vice President of the BCCI leaned over the toilet lid and vomited.
In another part of the city, Bravard picked up his attaché case, made his way down the dimly lit hotel corridor to the elevator and pushed the down button. After a frustrating wait, it stopped at his floor. He got in and pressed for the lobby. The lift began descending but stopped short on the fourth, the doors grinding slowly open. A swarthy Pakistani entered, stepped to the back, and the doors groaned shut. That’s probably all Bravard registered, as the bullet from a silenced 57 magnum entered the back of his brain, splattering it all over the interior. On the third floor, a tall Caucasian male waited in the corridor. He nodded to the man inside. The Pakistani shouldered the gun, picked up Claude’s attaché case, and pushing the hold-open button to stall the elevator’s descent, stepped over the body without a downward glance. The two men took the staircase to the lobby and walked purposefully but without any apparent hurry out onto the crowded street.
‘A waste,’ the taller of the two said in a flat tone, his accent American. ‘He was a pro at his job. I’ve always admired that in a man. But he should have stuck to journalism.’
WARNING SIGNS EVIDENCE OF BCCI’S ILLEGAL ACTIVITIES SURFACED THROUGHOUT THE 1980s—Warnings of Wrongdoing at BCCI Went Unheeded Since 1984
Early 1980s The National Security Council sees intelligence reports that BCCI is involved in illegal transfers of sensitive technology, embargo violations and financing of guerrilla movements, according to a former NSC official. 1984 The Internal Revenue Service in Florida is contacted by a former BCCI courier who tells of possible illegal activities by BCCI, including large amounts of cash being flown in and out of the U.S. An IRS officer later recommends targeting BCCI with an undercover operation. Officials refuse her requests.
The Washington Post
Charles E. Shepard
September 6, 1991
Automobiles, three-wheeler autorickshaws, motorbikes and bicycles, piled with men in white shirts and women in colourful saris, choked and jammed the three lanes on either side of Shantipath Boulevard, ignoring the white and yellow lines, leaving mere inches and less between their metal and their legs. Commuters overflowed from the open windows and doors of buses that spewed black fumes. The concrete barricade lining the centre served as the one deterrent to separate and direct the stream of humanity making its way to work. And, utterly unique to metros of India, clusters of gangly gaunt cows on their way to breakfast threaded and weaved confidently among the honking chaos. It was the time of day they were released to forage in the garbage and steal from the vegetable markets. As though they knew Lord Krishna had divined them the right of way, they calmly claimed it; none grazed their flanks.
In spite of the additional snarl they added to the traffic, it never failed to amaze and humour Cassandra at the start of her day.
Even in the early morning, the May air in Delhi was dry, dust-filled, and uncomfortably warm, promising scorching temperatures before noon. The monsoons would come and save those things green, now cloaked under a film the shade of stone-washed muslin, but having arrived late last August after the rains had come and gone, Cassandra had yet to witness this life-saving deluge.
‘Bye darling,’ she brushed a kiss on the child sitting next to her before she slid from the rear of the air-conditioned sedan. ‘See you tonight.’
Rajinder closed the door and returned to the driver’s seat, but per ritual, did not put the car in motion until Claudia had disappeared inside the American School. And, also per ritual, asked, ‘To the Embassy, Madam?’
‘Are you sure you want to go there?’ Jeanne Hollister had asked her daughter, when Cassandra had first announced her decision to take a post in India. ‘Wouldn’t it be easier for both you and Claudia in Geneva? You know, schools in Switzerland being more western? And, well, India. Won’t it stir up a lot of feelings you had such a difficult time putting to rest?’
Cassandra had glanced unseeing at the waiter refilling their wine glasses in the upscale Georgetown restaurant where she was dining with her parents. ‘Perhaps.’
‘Is that what this is? Some kind of mission to bury Claude’s ghost?’ Her father, Philip Hollister, always came directly, and sometimes brutally, to the point.
She accepted it as conditioning from years of being a partner with one of Washington DC ‘s top law firms. Her mother, an anthropology professor at Georgetown, was his gracious opposite. A life-long, doted-on only child, she knew their idiosyncrasies as intimately as the texture of skin on her forearms. And, as with the occasional freckle that blemished their fair surface, tolerated their control tendencies guised in well-intentioned offers of advice. It grated at times, but they were her parents and she loved them. ‘ India isn’t Pakistan, Dad.’ Then, adopting a conciliatory approach, ‘Uh, look, at some point, I do plan to go back to Pakistan. Our last efforts there weren’t very satisfactory. But Asia … I think Claudia and I will both really benefit from living in such a different culture.’ She paused, then added, ‘Besides, the job in Delhi is a higher classification than the one in Geneva.’ This last, an argument she sensed would garner the most points. It did.
Her father reached across the table, squeezed her hand, and assured her they wouldn’t try to second-guess her career choice; that they would always support whatever she decided to do. ‘But the other was a long time ago, darling. Seven years. I think it would be next to impossible to come up with any evidence now. We tried then. We really tried. But the authorities were a closed book. You must remember how they were.’
‘I know. I know we did, Dad,’ attempting finality in her tone to stop this train of the conversation. Cassandra knew her father still laboured under a burden of guilt, that as an attorney, he hadn’t been able to get the Pakistani authorities to release any information or evidence on who murdered her journalist husband. And even though her rational side knew he was right, she’d never been able to let it go and did intend to try again; there just wasn’t any point in discussing it with them.
‘You won’t go there without telling us first, will you?’ This came from her mother.
‘No, of course not.’
It was 1989 when she’d first met him – the fall she had turned twenty-six. He was older, and at thirty-nine, and dangerously handsome in a dark Mediterranean way. He had a wicked sense of humour, and was passionately opposed to American and British imperialistic politics. Claude had told her that, as a journalist, he’d cut his teeth freelancing in Cambodia during the last year and a half of the upscale of violence before the bloody fall of the Khmer Rouge. His stories had caught the attention of the mainstream media where, for a while, he’d been a stringer for the UPI. After Cambodia it had been the Middle East, South Africa, then back to the Middle East . When the Soviets moved troops into Afghanistan in 1979, and the cry of foul arose in the West, Claude was there providing up-close coverage for Le Monde. But a decade later, the paper had sent him to New York as their official correspondent for the United Nations. It wasn’t the beat of his choice, but the desk editor had insisted. He could still cover the field when a major story broke, the paper said. But New York was where the most seasoned international correspondent for the prestigious publication was needed.
Later, when Claude charmingly confessed to her that he’d deliberately bumped into a beautiful, auburn-haired, university Fellow in the crowded atrium at the UN, she’d laughed; he often made her laugh. His flashing dark eyes, rakish smile and brash sensuality also shortened her breath and made her heart race. Within a week they’d become lovers. Rather than distract her academic focus, his penetrating mind and challenging quick wit was a form of mentoring that added detail and dimension to her coursework in international economics. Like an artist who saw not only the shape and contour outline of a pomegranate – or a multilateral financial institution – he knew the texture, the intricate arrangement of seeds held in place by pulpy flesh, their exact order, size, and the subtlety of variegating colours; the amount of sweetness in the taste. He knew all the stages of deterioration when exposed to air, how the skin could appear bright and smooth yet cover rottenness at the core.
Because her degree emphasis was in international economics he loved baiting her. One of his favourites was to impugn the morality and effectiveness of institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. ‘They’re modern-day carpetbaggers, my sweet,’ he told her. ‘I hope you’re not getting that expensive education in order to join their ranks.’ But even as their brains engaged, he was stroking her cheek, or he was twisting his fingers in her long auburn hair – criniere aux refleter cuivres, he called it, glinting copper in the sunlight – or he was exploring her thigh under the long white tablecloth in their favourite neighbourhood restaurant.
Cassandra knew her parents wouldn’t approve. They couldn’t help wanting the best for their only child and she knew he wasn’t the up-and-coming Yale lawyer or Harvard economist they had in mind for her. Through their eyes, Claude would appear a scruffy, too-old, radical Frenchman who needed a haircut and was ravaging their princess. So when he’d asked her to come to Paris over Christmas – he wanted the woman he planned to marry to meet his parents and sister – she had to muster the courage to tell them.
‘Is this some type of delayed rebellion syndrome?’ her father’s cheek muscles had flinched in their tightness. Something Cassandra had rarely witnessed.
‘Darling, you’re so young yet, and you’ve only known him a few months. And he’s… he’s so much older. And… well, he’s charming and erudite, but his lifestyle is too alien to make a good husband, don’t you think?’
This had come from her mother.
It was after they’d met him, after the trip to Paris, and after she’d said yes.
They were married in February on Valentine’s Day.
It was in June that Claude had seen the article in The New York Times that would forever change both their futures. ‘It’s too dangerous, Claude. This is way beyond journalism. It’s trying to out-CIA the CIA. Why are you so driven to do this?’ she had asked him.
Claude started to respond, then stopped and took her hands in both of his. ‘Because I know them,’ he’d begun slowly. ‘I know these people, and I know what’s needed by that DA and young Senator leading this investigation into the BCCI. They’re being blocked and sabotaged by both your country’s political parties. Too many corporate types, whose money ensures their puppets are elected, have this bank’s dirt under their manicured nails.’
He’d given one of his roguish smiles and begun to make love to the inside of her wrist.
‘Charm isn’t going to win this time, Claude. Gathering evidence from a foreign source to indict individuals in another country’s government is espionage not journalism. You could get hurt. Killed even. Listen to your own stories!’
‘Cass–an–dra,’ he said, drawling out the syllables. ‘Careful, my lovely prophetess! Bad thoughts, a Trojan horse will become.’
‘Oh, Claude! Don’t. Not now. Leave my cursed name out of it!’
‘Cherie, I know who can get the information they need. But I must go there to do it. And I must ensure that the man who will get it for me is able to get himself and his family out of Pakistan. He wants out so he’ll do it. I’m sure of it. Yes, it is dangerous. Especially for them. And yes, it’s a little beyond… the lines of …’ and there he’d faltered before finishing with, ‘it’s just something I think I can do.’
‘It’s not your fight, Claude.’
‘Ah! But it is! Exposing the truth to the public is what I’m supposed to do, Cass. The BCCI is a bank of organized crime. They launder money all over the world for the most meprisable, the most contemptible of people.’ He’d gone on to rail about how billions had been spent sending arms into the Middle East by the U.S., a lot of it paid for by her country’s naïve tax-payers, with even more paid for by the drugs the CIA helped smuggle out to sell to her own countrymen. And all of it brokered through the BCCI. His pitch and cadence increasing, he’d rattled on about how Americans turned a blind eye on what the CIA did, thinking it all a bit of romantic cloak and dagger for the sake of national security. ‘The truth is, it’s about petrole. Argent huileux – money, all oily and black. Money made by the arms manufacturers who support the politicians, who garantir there is a need to build them!’
She’d tried to interrupt but he’d waved her to silence, to let him finish, and talked on about how her country wouldn’t pay any attention to the Middle East if it wasn’t floating on that vast sea of hydrocarbon. ‘And your President has co-opted this Senate investigation. He acted agreable like he was all for it, and took it over. Then le claquer, the door slammed shut. Documents have gone missing, information stonewalled, and people who would have been subpoenaed have turned up dead – refroidis, des cadavers. E ven a CIA lynchpin, who knew too much, for chrissakes!’ Claude had stopped, taken another breath, and mixing even more bits of French with his English, said, ‘Jesus, Cass, pardonne moi. I didn’t mean to votre precher. But s’il te plait. Please try to understand that all is perdu if the media does not tell the truth. If the public does not know the truth, the greed of a corrupt one percent of the world’s most rich and powerful is given the means to anarchy. Then your country’s democratie, and mine, will disparaitre with global oligarchy to take its place.’
A silence followed his outburst before she’d said, ‘I love you, Claude. Even your idealistic nuttiness, because it’s driven by a passion for what you believe in. But this is dangerous.’
He’d moved from her wrist to her neck.
‘Oh Claude,’ she sighed in resignation; evidence he’d won again. ‘I have a very bad feeling about this. I know you feel compelled, but please, please be careful. And if those instincts of yours send any signals of something going wrong, you get the hell out of there!’
‘I promise I will come home in one piece, and when I do, my Cassie and I will make a baby. Promesse?’
‘I do.’ And she’d smiled at him – a little weakly, but it was a smile.
It was July when he’d left her, and October when he’d phoned that he was taking an R&R, and asked her to meet him for five days in Paris. When they’d parted, he said this was his last trip. He admitted missing the action of being in the field, but said it paled compared to missing her. ‘I’ve lost my edge, Cass. Loving you has made me fear my mortality.’
She hadn’t told him that she’d stopped taking her birth control pills.
That night, she woke just before the scream left the confines of her throat. A Cassandra Portentus, she called them. After that, sleep was impossible. She sat in the dark stillness feeling more than seeing his chest move to the rhythm of breath.
On the day he was to return to New York the call from Le Monde shattered the reality and the dream of Claude. Cassandra and her father had flown to Paris and along with an investigator from the paper, on to Karachi.
Both the Pakistani coroner and her father tried to dissuade her from seeing Claude’s body, but she had insisted. Although she’d never seen a corpse whose head was mangled beyond recognition, she had viewed Claude’s in a ghastly cold calm. ‘That’s him. That’s his mole on his right shoulder blade. And his wedding ring.’ She vowed she would not remember him that way. But sometimes she did.
They visited his hotel room. It smelled of dank. The Paradise was a B-grade hotel in the heart of old Karachi. Picturing his body lying where it was found brought the image of bone-marrow, blood and tissue splattered all over the elevator interior. Lots and lots of blood; head wounds bled a lot, she knew. The macabre imagery prompted more bizarre thoughts: a porter who discovered it, chamber maids cleaning it up. She wondered how the gunman felt when he’d washed himself. It wasn’t her mind, her body that was taking all this in, absorbing the violent ugly reality. This was a numbed-down sleepwalker.
The Pakistani authorities claimed there had been no related murders or missing persons reported. And disappearing behind a glazed mirror of indifference, told them little else. They were eager for the foreigners to depart.
It was while she was in Karachi that Cassandra’s morning sickness had begun.
A hard nor’easter blew in early that winter, a cold white blanket of snow and ice soon darkened by New York ‘s bustling human spoils. It clung in crystallized barnacles against a sea of bitter Arctic winds. Split in two, Cassandra hunkered inside layers of cold weather coats, sweaters and mufflers, and faced the city’s rigorous elements and her Colombia coursework. The other half descended as Inanna into the underworld. In the darkness, her blighted soul hung naked, her moaning grief for her lost lover ricocheting off cavernous stone while night creatures mocked.
It was also the winter of Operation Desert Storm. She’d watched the events unfold as though through Claude’s eyes. When Iraq had invaded Kuwait in the autumn, Claude had shown her reports his paper had dug up, documenting that the U.S. had given Iraq the green light, promising to look the other way. It was when they were in Paris.
‘For years, your country was selling them arms; first to the Iranians to kill the Iraqis, then to the Iraqis to kill the Iranians, double-crossing both sides each in their turn. There’s a long history for why those countries hate you all so much, cherie. Now your great leader is preparing to wage a clean-up war to sweep it under the carpet and look hawkish on Saddam Hussein. And the smart toys – those laser-guided missiles – Ooh la la the money to be made by the toy manufacturers!’ Claude had pointed out what a timely diversion it would be from the press exposing what is the biggest political crime scandal of the century. ‘Instead of being written about in connection with BCCI crooks and drug lords, he’s to be a war hero. These things, this timing, it is not coincidental, Cassandra.’
The clean-up war came and went as Claude had predicted. The long dance with Saddam to get Iraq to turn over state control of their oil fields and energy infrastructure to the West had failed, and it was time to punish the offenders. The BCCI Senate investigative hearings produced a few ripples in the press, and no indictments. The general public would never know they’d happened. She wept for him, pained by his dying for something that brought no right over wrong. The naïve young girl whimpered and was no more.
Spring came as it does. Depression began to heal. Her innate wisdom, which had orchestrated her descent, now arranged her return, the journey to learn to know who one is. The seed germinating in her womb promised new life, just as the crocus in Central Park poked their green fronds skyward. In early June, when the more cautious bloomers were in full colour and the University term ended, Cassandra closed down their flat overlooking the Hudson and returned to Washington DC to her parents’ Georgetown home.
And in July, Claudia burst squalling boisterously and beautifully into their lives. It was a new moon eclipse on the first day of the sign of the lion, a new life for both child and mother.
Cassandra pragmatically stayed in her childhood home during those months when Claudia was an infant, writing her thesis and commuting to New York to meet with her department advisor. It was a particularly poignant time when she appreciated her father’s staidness and her mother’s compassionate support. Once completed, and with little Claudia no longer on her breast, Cassandra went to work at State, and she and Claudia moved into their own row house on the other side of the Potomac. A day nanny cared for her precious infant in Old Alexandria, while she commuted back across the 13th Street Bridge.
The BCCI imploded. This time there were a few scandalous revelations in the press. But over time, the big names that surfaced in the muddy waters manoeuvred their way through the morass, the big fish swimming away, their pockets full, while investors lost billions. A few lesser important figures were convicted to create the illusion of justice served.
Love for her daughter helped fill the emptiness, and her career blossomed. Yet, dreams of the future had ended when she was young, almost as soon as they’d begun. She knew she had to move forward. But in order to do that, there was something she had to do.
The path led to India.