Inspector Mashiat held the photo before me. It showed the PM of Bangladesh gripping the iron rails of her bedstead with both hands, eyes bulging, mouth agape - quite dead. Horror was written in detail. But who or what killed her?
"She died of terror," Mashiat continued in her thin voice. Her hair cut short, and without make-up, she sat on the sofa in my living room in uniform. She was a good-looking woman, with a brown complexion and curved, sensuous upper lip. Her arm-pits were wet and exuded the odour of perspiration.
Silence prevailed, except for the distant call of the muezzin and the mutter of the overhead fan. I reached for my whiskey.
"What could have scared the devil?" I asked, as the fluid burned its way down my throat.
"And the leader of the opposition."
I glanced sharply at her.
"She's in a top-secret mental hospital, trying to eat her own shit."
"Well, she's been doing that for years."
She licked her lips. How many times have I wanted that tongue licking me? After all, who can resist a woman in uniform? But this was no time for flirtation.
"This is no time for levity, Zafar Shah," she said, echoing my thoughts. "It was a high-security building. No one could have gone in or gone out. The guards have been questioned - ."
"Tortured," I suggested.
"Whatever. They saw nothing, they heard nothing. We are at our wit's end. I didn't know what else to do except come to you. I have to get back to the investigation. Here is a CD showing the buildings' plans, guard details and other info. I'll get back to you."
I was overjoyed, and baffled. These two leaders had been responsible for the murder of several thousand since the democratic transition, and the western world had applauded. They were popular, and history has shown how popular evil can be.
But I was baffled. The buildings admitted no ingress or egress that was unguarded. As for the sentinels, their credentials were impeccable. I pored over the CD the whole night until, red-eyed at dawn, I decided to beg an old friend to come to Dhaka.
Farzana Afrin hadn't changed at all since I last saw her at university. She stood, tall as ever and thin as a fishing-rod, at the airport exit. She wore a long kameez as was the fashion, and a chooridar. She had thin lips and a straight nose. Despite her lankiness, she was firm of breast. She had applied kajal to her eyes - altogether a beautiful woman.
As I approached her, she stopped abruptly in her tracks, gazing over my shoulder. I looked behind, and then at her.
"Something evil has ceased to exist here," she pronounced in her deep voice.
There was no opportunity for conversation there, with horns blaring, policemen blowing whistles and people shouting to get into their transport with their luggage. The heat and fumes were intolerable.
Once in the microbus, with the air-conditioner on, I asked her what she had meant.
"When something evil occurs, it leaves an influence that some people, like myself, can feel. The Greeks called it miasma."
Back at the flat, I took a delivery of biriani, which I knew she liked. The aroma filled the dining room.
"Mmmm. My favourite!" Her slender fingers dug into the hot pilau.
Before I launched into the investigation, I felt I needed to catch up on the intervening years of our lives.
"So tell me, Farzana," I said, chewing a delicate morsel of meat, "What happened in the last years of university?"
The fan spread the steam around and above the glass-topped table. She swallowed.
"I disappeared," she shrieked, with a tinkling laugh.
"I'd told you about my childhood. About the demons. When I reached teenage, I used to feel somebody or something sitting on my chest at night. Then gradually it turned menacing and tried to strangle me every night. My mother would find me kicking and gurgling at midnight. My parents were rational people, being PhDs, so they took me to a psychiatrist instead of to a holy man."
We ate in silence for a while.
"Sleep paralysis. That was the first diagnosis. He gave me some pills, which, of course, didn't work, and then administered electric shocks. These worked for a while, but the demon returned. After a few months, it went away by itself."
"Until graduation?" I suggested.
"Yes." Farzana pulled out a bone between her even teeth. "It was back to drug therapy and electric shocks, but I wasn't a teenager anymore. I said 'No' to the treatment and went to live with a holy woman - a pirni. She taught me how not to be afraid of spirits and ghosts. You see, Zafar" - she looked intently at me "all fear is fear of death. Even the fear of a cockroach is fear of death. Naturally, you can't overcome this fear, but you can control it. The demons were preying on my fear of death. Once I learned that they couldn't hurt me, I grew unafraid. Some of them even became my friends." Her heavy voice, repeated monotonously, made an impression.
"What happened then?"
The biriani was getting cold under the fan. We had nearly finished eating, anyway. The fat stuck to our fingers.
"I became a pirni myself!" The broad mouth extended into a smile. "People started to come to me with their problems, but especially to learn about the future. I was becoming famous, so I left the country."
We washed our hands, and over hot cups of coffee, I introduced her to the mysterious death of the PM and the lunacy of the leader of the opposition. It was quite late when we went to our rooms and turned in.
I reflected on everything she said. Like her parents, I was rational. I didn't believe in spooks. But then, how to account for her experiences and the mysterious events surrounding the PM and the leader of the opposition? I was in a reverie when there was a soft knock on my bedroom door.
"Zafar?" a frightened voce whispered. "Are you awake?"
"Certainly. Please come in." The fan whirred at full speed, for the night was warm.
"What's the matter?"
"I'm scared," came the subdued voice.
"Sex repels fear," she pronounced.
My heart skipped a beat.
In the semi-darkness, she strode over in her pyjamas to the foot of my bed. Then she inched herself to my side and abruptly turned. She proceeded to pull off my pyjamas. And sat astride me. It was an invitation to 69, apparently. After all, what's wrong with a bit of foreplay? I grabbed her by her weedy shanks and pulled them towards me.
The Tokay lizard cleared its throat and uttered its call three times in succession. The Indian cuckoo recited crossword puzzle, crossword puzzle….The black drongo made a gnashing sound against the crows. The only human voice was the intermittent traffic over the iron planks of the bridge over the Chengi River.
The Chengi River curved and recurved from the north-east to the south-east in three bends past the small hill-town of Khagrachari. Behind our hotel spread the forested hills for miles - hills forested with teak trees. The Chengi was shallow - boys and cows waded through.
A squirrel clambered up a tree. The small green bee-eaters swooped on their dinner of insects. An egret flew alone homewards. Rufous turtle doves cooed in a line on the wire.
In the south-east the transparent air made visible the far blue hills. The atmosphere was crackling-thin, for we were among the hills in the lonesome south-east of the country. However, it was hot and dense, the air close as it is in a forest.
"You must be crazy, Zafar!" remarked Farzana. She wore a black outfit of shalwar-kameez with a colorful V-neck. Her jet-black hair hung over her right shoulder, blending with her clothes.
"I though you wanted a quiet place for a séance," I said.
"Listen, Zafar! The muezzins are calling from every quarter, the Hindu temple is ringing bells on the hill beside, and down there are several Buddhist temples." We were on the roof of the hotel.
"So? This is a quiet place, with very few people, for miles. And even the tourists don't come here!"
"That's not the point! No séance is possible with such sacrality nearby - especially such an evil séance."
"I understand," I said, stroking my chin. A gibbous moon began to rise on the horizon. A mosquito buzzed around my ear; I swatted it away. Tomorrow, I thought, I would go to the police station, or thana, and see what they had on record. I had to find evil.
My mobile rang. It was Mashiat. She informed me that the leader of the opposition was receiving electric shocks.
"Shocking," was all I said.
We were both dripping with perspiration, and so decided to go to our room and shower together.
Next day, I took a trishaw to the thana, and came back with a map, crossed in numerous places with a black pen.
"It seems your sacred space is surrounded by evil," I remarked in our room. "But this is the vilest spot." I tapped a cross on a forest of teak.
"What happened there?" her deep voice asked.
"Several student politicians gang raped a local girl and strangled her. But no one knows the exact spot. They know who did it, but they're the PM's henchmen, so they could do nothing. No one knows the exact spot, though."
"We'll find the place. Miasma has a wide radius and its strange logic." The fan creased and nearly folded the map.
But the next day had its strange logic for us. For the morning was covered in stratus cloud. I woke up at five and could see nothing - only hear the soldiers practicing on the steel bridge, and the cuckoos. Everywhere, it was white. Fog in the month of May!
I woke up Farzana, and said, "Looks like we're not going to be able to keep our rendezvous with the spooks."
"Show some respect, Zafar!" She yawned and stretched her arms. The air-conditioner hummed, for, despite the stratus, the morning was muggy.
"Wow!" she exclaimed, leaning in her pyjamas over the verandah. "But I can drive."
"Nobody can drive in this!"
"You know me better than that, Zafar. I can drive."
It wasn't her driving, but her psychic, skills she was referring to. She navigated that switchback road in the rented white Toyota as though the sun had been shining. Now, a Chakma woman in her thami and blouse, carrying firewood on her head, emerged narrowly to avoid the car; now, a tree-trunk loomed just a few centimeters ahead….It was foggy-white in every direction.
"We have arrived," she said, abruptly, stopping the car.
The miasma, of course, had told her where to stop. I couldn't see anything except the white sheet of stratus.
Obedient to her will, I followed her blue shalwar and kameez close behind. We were apparently in the middle of teak trees.
"This is where it happened," she pointed down with her long, slender fingers. Behind and around her, I could make out the boles of teak; the air was smothering, and sweat trickled down my back. The leaves smelled fresh and the cuckoo called without cease.
We sat down cross-legged. Farzana produced an ancient piece of paper and began to mumble.
I stopped perspiring, and the air grew cold. My teeth were beginning to chatter. I was conscious of presences - white as the mist - hovering, and uttering low sounds, like a wind moaning through the leaves.
On my right, the prime minister's visage took shape! She faced her nemesis. They spoke in sibilant whispers.
"I burnt men, women and children in hartals for you, and now I am dead and damned, and so are you!"
The premier whimpered: "I am damned!"
"I beat young men to death for you before they did the same to me, and you and I are damned!"
"I am damned!"
"I knifed living youths for you and they knifed me in turn, and we are damned!"
"I am damned!"
And it went on. An army of young wraiths - young souls that had ceased in the service of a diabolic queen - accused the phantasm. They had served the cause of democracy and the party and appeared one night in retribution before their mistresses - one died and the other went insane.
The sun, like love, began to appear through the cloud, and I could see my sibyl more clearly now. She still held the paper and her upturned eyes turned towards me.
"Now you know," she gasped.
Yes, now I knew, but how was I to tell Mashiat, who was beginning to call me on my mobile?
Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English. He was born and lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He has contributed to The Danforth Review, Axis of Logic, Enter Text, Postcolonial Text, Southern Cross Review, Opednews.com, Left Curve, Mobius, Erbacce, Down In The Dirt and other publications. He is also a freelance journalist. He and his wife love to tour Bangladesh. You may find him at http://www.iftekharsayeed.weebly.com/