In Droplet 42 Martha O’Leary, introduced in Droplet 20 as Deputy Head of Mission and sole US-based diplomat at the US Embassy in Tashkent, lies to her suspiciously well-off local Uzbek colleague, Toxirov Gulomovich, about why she must make an urgent trip to Samarkand. As set out in Droplet 21, Martha is heading into peril.
Martha O’Leary wasn’t used to lying. She typed a few words on her antique computer. She tried to steady her breathing. Then she spoke.
‘I have to go away for a few days.’
‘Really?’ Toxirov Gulomovich looked up. ‘Where to?’
‘I have a meeting in Samarkand.’ Martha had read that it was best to embroider a fib with truth. Yet her voice seemed hollow and unconvincing.
‘Maybe better to wait until ambassador is back from States. Otherwise you must leave me in charge of embassy. All on my own.’ Gulomovich smirked. ‘What is meeting about?’
‘You should be pleased to be left in charge. It’s a career opportunity.’ Martha wondered if he had noticed she had not answered his question.
Gulomovich sighed. ‘Sure. Opportunity.’ He stretched his arms above his head. ‘But frankly, this work we are doing. It is pointless. Everyone is knowing this.’
‘That’s not true. I – ‘
‘No-one is smuggling Biotime,’ Gulomovich interrupted, ‘because London Treaty forbids transfer of Biotime across international borders, and each country enforces this. Uzbek government founder signatory of Treaty. It is in interests of all Uzbek people, and government, to prevent illegal exports. A matter of life and death, actually. Or maybe you think Uzbek people are stupid?’
‘No. Of course not.’ Martha’s heart was pounding. Every word spoken during working hours was recorded for security purposes. The logs were also admissible as evidence for employment tribunals. ‘But countries don’t always act in their own best interests when it comes to dealing with Biotime. When did you last meet a Ugandan?’
‘Uganda exported its human capital before London Treaty. Now, every remaining country except Poland signed up to comprehensive controls. Safe conditions for production and consumption of Biotime worldwide. Even in United States.’ Gulomovich looked at her slyly. ‘Or maybe you are One Lifer?’
Martha bit her lip.
‘Are you suggesting I look old?’
‘Of course not.’ Gulomovich had the grace to colour slightly. Maybe he was worried about employment tribunals too. ‘You are hardly ageing all the time I know you. I guess you have your own supply of top-quality US Biotime here in embassy.’
Martha frowned. Gulomovich surely knew that an embassy second secretary could not possibly afford Biotime. ‘I’m not a One Lifer,’ she said. ‘But it does seem wrong the way ‘Time lets rich people live longer than poor ones.’
‘Is normal. Through all of history, rich people live longer than poor people.’
‘Plus, I don’t care many studies have shown Biotime doesn’t affect your intellect or emotions. All the great artists have been One Lifers. It’s like Peter Pan. You can’t have real feelings if you live forever.’
‘But Biotime means no-one is poor any more.’ Suddenly Gulomovich was speaking with conviction. ‘Do you know how many people are starving today in the world? Not one. A man has no money, he sells some life. Straightaway he is rich. The Biotime he produces will prevent someone more productive from ageing. A scientist, maybe. A political leader. Anyone who can afford to pay. Without poverty, we have no need for social security. Taxes fall. Everything is better.’
‘Well.’ Martha stood. ‘I have to go to Samarkand.’ She wondered how old Gulomovich really was.
‘And you are cleverly avoiding to tell me what meeting is for.’ Gulomovich tapped a fat forefinger on the desk. ‘Is OK, is not my business. But what should I tell ambassador, if he returns from US?’
‘I’ll brief him when I get back.’
‘OK.’ He looked at her with a thin smile. ‘Martha. Be careful in Samarkand. I understand you do not want to say who you are meeting. But I must warn you. Criminal organisations are strong in Uzbekistan.’ His hand moved to his bracelet. ‘You want me to tell Samarkand authorities you are coming? Chief of Police is friend of mine.’
‘No!’ The word came out too loud. ‘Please don’t.’
‘Tell me, Martha. Are you meeting with someone who claims to represent criminal organisation? Is very dangerous.’
Martha stared at her assistant. What did he know? The piece of paper she had found on her breakfast table at home that morning had named a time and a place. That was all. If her anonymous informant from the Home Security Bureau had been correct, she was meeting the head of a Biotime cartel. Who could be more dangerous than that?
Maybe the Samarkand Chief of Police.
‘I’ll be all right,’ she said. ‘Please. Don’t tell anyone. It’s – ‘ she searched for a word, ‘ – sensitive.’
‘I understand. Is up to you. This is my advice: be vigilant.’
‘Thank you.’ Martha moved away. ‘Excuse me one moment.’
Down the corridor, she stopped at a door decorated with a plastic silhouette of a woman in a long dress.
Martha never wore dresses or skirts to work. But she liked the silhouette because it kept out men. The ladies’ room had been designed in an era when the staff of the US embassy in Tashkent had been far larger. When she had arrived three years earlier and discovered she was the only female officer, she had equipped the room with an armchair, a reading light and a fridge. She washed her hands in cold water, inspecting her pale, freckled features in the mirror above the sink. Then she opened a bottle of iced water and moved to the window.
The street below was deserted. In the distance, mountains soared. The sight calmed her; but she could still feel her heart pounding in her breast.
Gulomovich was right. What she was about to do was dangerous. She knew nothing of the mystery man who had called her from the HSB except that he had a frayed cuff and a reassuring voice. Was that enough for her to endanger her life? How would she explain her undeclared mission to the ambassador? From the pouch around her neck she unfolded the sketch she had made of the sign she was to watch for in Samarkand. A severed hand, transfixed by a knife. What kind of organisation had a symbol like that?
Martha O’Leary stood at the window and breathed deeply. A dangerous path lay ahead. But what did she have to lose? A dead-end job. A few grey hairs. No sign of a man, or any kind of relationship which might transform her life. What was the worst thing that could happen in Samarkand? Surely the boss of a Biotime cartel would have better things to do than to arrange a complicated operation against the second secretary at the US embassy in Uzbekistan. And if he did kidnap her and put her into contribution in some illegal Biotime production lab – if such places really existed – well, she wouldn’t have to worry about Toxirov Ergash Gulomovich any more.
She took another sip of water, then replaced the empty bottle in a crate by the door.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this excerpt from my novel “Biotime”. If you’re interested in hearing about further episodes, follow this blog by e-mail (top right, “click here”); or follow me on Twitter @RobertPimm (left hand side). I can promise you a fun ride.
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