A GOOD JUDGE OF CHARACTER
Mr. Shillingworth peered down at the readout while shaking his head and smiling very slightly. Next he glanced up at Miss Veivers, who was sitting in her usual expectant, upright posture, a posture that managed to be a command. This enfeebled woman - so old she could be atheist, as the joke goes - after a lifetime of crisply handling the miseries and messes of others, was a benevolent Sphinx. She was not to be moved.
It was easier to say yes to Miss Veivers, but this email, an obvious scam like so many others, was also much longer than others. And he did have a bank to run.
"Please, Mr. Shillingworth. I take your point. Of course, I've received hundreds of these things and I know how they work. Nonetheless...
"It may take you a few minutes, but kindly read it all."
From long experience of Dorothy Veivers, he now knew that he would have to at least scan through the text, though it looked to be full of the same rubbish he had seen so many times. That people could still be taken in...
He shook his head, emitted something like a sigh, but politer, and began to read.
My name is Adada Muhammadu. I am an Iranian presently domiciled in Lagos, Nigeria. The reason I wish you to attend to my story is that I have heard much of your charitable work in Australia. It is my intention to make you the beneficiary of my family fortunes, derived from petroleum during the era of the late Shah, King of Kings, peace be to him. The amount concerned is in excess of three hundred and eighty million US dollars. Unfortunately, at the present rate of exchange, this sum is somewhat more modest when expressed in your Australian dollars.
Before proceeding with the account of my difficulties, I wish to warn you of many email "scams" which have their origins in Nigeria. I do advise you to reject all email solicitations resembling my own, as they are certainly fraudulent. I know this to my great personal cost since I am presently the captive of a criminal gang, who are forcing me to use my London education and language skills to write their scam emails. These people are not aware that I came to Lagos to claim my vast family fortune. Should they ever discover this fact, it is likely that, having forced me to transfer the funds to their evil syndicate, they will kill me. Torture is also not out of the question.
Please forgive me if my English seems antiquated or stilted. There is a good reason, which I shall come to later.
Chapter One. Wherein I come, through great misfortune, to China, and commit a small theft for a great good.
In the time of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Shahanshah and Light of the Aryans, my father was a most important figure in foreign relations and the oil business. He was Iran's principal representative to the oil-rich nations of Africa, and consequently had the opportunity to deposit much of our family fortune in Nigeria's main bank. Foreseeing the likely fall of Persia's glorious Peacock Throne, which had stood for 2,500 years, since Cyrus the Great, my father greatly increased his Nigerian deposits.
In 1979, after participating in an heroic and pious resistance to the Fundamentalist forces, my family fled Tehran by means of our private plane. Our destination was your country, Australia, where we hoped to acquire refugee status.
Alas, a great storm blew our plane far to the east, where it crashed in the region of Fujian, in southern China. All on board were killed, except for me. I was saved by being seated between my parents, who were both enormously fat. Their bodies acted as a kind of double airbag, so that I was largely unharmed and could escape the flaming wreck. (All praise to Allah, the just, the merciful.)
However, I now found myself in a rugged mountain region, in a country which was controlled by irreligious fanatics. It must be remembered that my father had been most active in the rightful suppression of the communist Tudeh party in Iran. He had been a personal friend of Mr. Kermit Roosevelt of the Central Intelligence Agency. Mr. Roosevelt very much liked my mother's chelo kababs.
After stumbling for two days along narrow gorges, I collapsed with hunger and exhaustion on a flat near a sheltered eddy. My hope was that, after resting, I might contrive to catch some of the splendid trout which were so temptingly in sight where the water was still and deep before entering the eddy.
I fell asleep soon after lying down. A sharp shout woke me, and the crack of something hard on the ground near my head. The first thing I saw was boots. Next to those boots was a rifle butt. Looking up, I saw the angry face of a soldier of the People's Liberation Army. He was shouting words I could not understand, though I guessed well enough what they might mean. My identification and other papers were still on my person, in a waterproof wallet within a special trouser pocket. Should the wallet be discovered, my life would surely be forfeit.
As to my identification, I had been in a grave quandary since the crash. My documents would compromise me, yet those same papers represented my access to a great family fortune.
As I was in thrall to these uncertain thoughts, the soldier was suddenly silent. Then he fell lifeless to the ground. With what amazement did I now view the saffron robes and mild expression of a slight-bodied Buddhist monk! He spoke to me in English:
"Do not be concerned. The soldier is not dead. I have merely made him sleep by holding his neck in a special way which is know as the Clasp of the Swallow's Wings. But you, my young friend, must now follow me to our secret monastery atop yon precipice known as the Mount of the True Red Robe. For other soldiers will soon follow."
Nowadays, through the films of Mr. Steven Seagal, many young people have been made aware of the practice of martial arts within Buddhist monastic tradition. At the time of which I write, however, the actions of this monk in subduing an armed member of the PLA seemed nothing less than supernatural. Still, rejoicing in the mercy and justice of Allah, to whom be all praise, I followed the monk along a steeply ascending trail, which was overgrown and very slippery. Small serpents and dragon-like creatures darted across my path, filling me with fear, though my nimble guide either paid them little heed, or stopped to caress them.
After an exhausting climb, we came to a plateau, well disguised by twisted pine trees such as grow in stony country. Before us was a rock facade which vaguely bore the markings of a temple, with a single entry. My guide led me inside, and I found the interior to be indeed that of a Buddhist temple, with tapers burnings and rows of saffron clad monks meditating upon the floor.
Here I was offered food and shelter by this secret monastic community which had survived the worst ravages of the Cultural Revolution.
Upon recovering my strength, I asked my rescuer, a senior monk by the name of Li, how I might escape from China, since I was without funds or resources. He promised to meditate upon my problem and to give me a reply within a few days. (We agreed it was best that I depart as soon as possible. Contrary to what many believe, these wushu monks are never interested in training outsiders in their ways. It is very burdensome for them. They make rare exceptions, such as for Mr. Chuck Norris, a staunch opponent of irreligious communism - as was my father, peace be to him.)
Li soon informed me of an elaborate and somewhat dangerous scheme which might nonetheless work to my benefit. On their mountain is a famous grove of tea bushes called Da Hong Pao, in a very secret cleft near a peak called the Bei Dou. The part-fermented, carefully roasted tea prepared from these bushes is that very same which is reserved for emperors and, lately, for the hoodlum Mao Tse Tung. It has been known to sell, when available, for many times the price of gold. (Fifty grams gifted to Mr. Richard Nixon - friend to freedom and to Reza Shah Pahlahvi, Light of the Aryans, peace be to him - might be valued at today's equivalent of a quarter of a million dollars.) So jealous are the custodians of these bushes, that another cleft of the mountain, also home to a few tea bushes, has been officially designated as the Da Hong Pao grove, with letters chiselled into the stone above. This grove is guarded by armed members of the PLA - yet it is a falsification, a diversion!
The monks know the grove where the real Da Hong Pao bushes grow. It, too, is guarded, but by camouflaged ruffians whose office it is to kill anyone attempting to steal or even touch the plants. Whereas it would be very bad karma if a monk were to steal a cutting from these bushes, a foreigner might well deprive the hoodlum Mao Tse Tung of a few twigs and leaves. Once I had cuttings, there was a certain Mr. Lao residing on the free isle of Quemoy, who would pay me richly for them, since he had the intention of developing the strain for planting in Taiwan, of which Quemoy forms part. With the money and good will so obtained, I would be able to make my way to Africa, and to the Nigerian bank which would certainly accept my claim to our family fortune, were I to present myself there with full identification.
The scheme to steal cuttings was as follows: the true Da Hong Pao bushes were only guarded from below, since above them was sheer cliff. What the authorities did not know was that a cave system within the mountain debouched in an opening some twenty feet above the grove. It would be possible for the monks to lower me by rope, at night, so that I could snip a few cuttings, preferably from diverse bushes.
Some nights later, in the company of Li and two sturdy monks, I was conducted through a maze of caverns to a narrow opening, through which stars were visible. There was no moon. A rope was tied about my waist and shoulders in a most cunning fashion and I was lowered soundlessly through the gap. Because nothing else but the precious bushes were below me, I would not need a light to perform my task, a task nefarious for a monk, but surely permissible to a servant of Allah, descendant of Darius, and son of a mortal foe to communism.
I could not hear or see the soldiers below, so well disguised were they, but I could smell their cigarette smoke wafting in the still night air. Those dangerous thugs, appointed by the irreligious and murderous hoodlum, Mao Tse Tung, were certainly there, crouching in wait.
I was able to feel for some twigs as I swung among the bushes, and snip several cuttings, which I placed in my jacket. Just as all seemed to have gone well, my hand found the cool and slithery body of a viper. I forced myself not to scream, but the sudden movement caused my boot tips to slide against the rockface, dislodging some crumbly stones. It seemed certain that my days must end immediately, but Allah was with me.
For in the moment of making the noise, I dropped the viper from my hand and, as I could tell from the screams, it must have landed on the head of one of the guards. Their flashlights sought out the screaming thug, rather than me. By the time they scanned the rockface and the grove of Da Hong Pao, I had been hoisted back through the cleft. I thanked Allah, the just, the merciful, to whom be all praise. I also thanked the monks who had pulled the rope.
Soon, with my precious cuttings wrapped in cotton impregnated with herbal stimulants and preservatives, I took leave of my friends and their monastery, using one of the many boats which trade up and down the Nine Bends River. Since I went disguised as a charcoal burner, of which there are many in this region of traditional tea roasting, my filthy appearance was such that no man would see my noble Aryan features through the black, smoky crust. Further, since nobody willingly makes conversation with charcoal burners, provided I presented coin at the appropriate places, my ignorance of the language would not be discovered.
Chapter Two. Wherein I find brief freedom, two kinds of dalliance, then betrayal.
My Aryan pride thus besmirched and disguised, I was able to make a way by various commercial river-conveyances, then by ocean-going fishing boats, to the coastal region of the straits of Taiwan. From an insignificant island that was part of the People's Republic of China, I was able surreptitiously to row to the archipelago of Quemoy, which, though lying so close to the mainland, is part of Taiwan, or the true Republic of China, and bulwark of Chinese freedom.
With what relief and gratitude did I tread the free soil of the ROC, that friend to the United States of America and to my late Shah, King of Kings, Head of the Warriors, peace be to him!
Located on a pure stretch of tropical shore, the home and factory of Mr. Lao were prominent and easy to find. Upon presenting myself early one morning, still disguised as a ragged charcoal burner, I was summarily turned back at the door by a most haughty and formally dressed servant.
Hoping to improve my appearance, I walked to the shore in order to clean my face of its foul crust. As I was bending to scoop the bitter brine within my cupped hands, I heard a soft female voice intoning a song. I was to hear these same words and strains many times after, and that song would become the dearest sound in the world to me. I here render it into English, as well as a Persian can:
Morning coining silver in the leaves,
Chain and tackle tinkling over water,
Ears attuned to risen seamen's laughter,
Sun tingling a plane of felted seas.
Sails are blooming on the harbour,
Boats glide on with little labour,
Just the softest puff of morning breeze.
Under air where clouds have lightly strayed,
Colours deepen in the fragile ocean.
Life, awake at last to light and motion,
Breaks the perfect surface evening made...
Now walk with me, to watch our morning fade.
Entranced by the sounds, but suddenly ashamed, I continued to rub the foulness from my features, though I could do little about the wildness of hair and beard. As I rose an looked about me, I was approached by the most beautiful woman these eyes have seen - and these eyes have seen the Great Queen, Farah Diba, Jewel of the Peacock Throne, Flower of the Aryans. Surely, as the girl was alone on the beach, it was her voice I had heard.
The young woman,whose race I could not determine, spoke to me most kindly, asking me, in French then English, about the nature of my business with Mr. Lao. Feeling out of danger and in need of a compassionate ear, I poured out my whole history. Immediately she conducted me to the factory adjacent to the magnificent house, where I saw an elderly gentleman, alone at this early hour, studying papers amongst many glass vessels and stone pots. This scholarly person was Mr. Lao. As soon as I was able to show him the cuttings, along with a written testimonial from the wushu monks, he was most gratified. He instructed the young woman, now introduced to me as his daughter, to accommodate me in his magnificent house and give me all attentions.
As we proceeded to the house, I learned that she was Mr. Lao's daughter from a previous marriage to a now deceased daughter of Yulbars Khan, that great Uyghur commander who had struggled so heroically with Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek, untiring opponent of the hoodlum Mao Tse Tung. Yulbars Khan, like the Generalissimo and other defenders of China's freedom, had ended his days in Taiwan. But how intense was my secret joy upon learning that this same young woman was, like her illustrious grandparent, a Muslim!
Though a Muslim of the low heretical sort known as Sunni, Amanissa - for that was her name - would become the companion of my soul. If Allah, the great, the merciful, had wished for a universal master race, he would surely have made the whole world Persian. And even among our purest Aryans, there are Sunnis, Christians and followers of Ahura-Mazda. In my life of travel and suffering, I have learnt that one should not hold out for perfection in all matters.
At the house, I was greeted coolly by the servant who had sent me away before, then conducted to the presence of Mr. Lao's second wife, a Han woman not so old as her husband and possessing a cold beauty. While betraying little emotion, she dismissed Amanissa to her morning tasks, then took charge of my refreshment.
As all know, modesty is the quality that most distinguishes Persian males from degenerate western Aryans, such as the scurrilous Greeks. It was thus to my dismay that this handsome older woman ordered me to disrobe completely in her presence, that she might bathe me. Nonetheless, I did her bidding, and submitted my naked self to her touch, though not without much shame. As to the culmination of her caresses, I must leave all unspoken, since my respect for Mr. Lao and love for Amanissa would be tainted by the repetition.
Shaven and washed, I spent the rest of the day sleeping. In the evening, I presented myself for a banquet in my honour and in celebration of the cuttings of Da Hong Pao tea taken from the Mount of the True Red Robe. Mrs. Lao, apart from casting the odd sly glance, treated me with cool formality, and all my attention was given to Mr. Lao and, above all, to Amanissa. Being Iranian of the pure Persian race, I have a physique and manner which bear marks of an evident superiority, and all of this was not lost on Amanissa, who clearly returned my sentiments, though in a most maidenly fashion.
The main business of Mr. Lao was the crafting of the famous Quemoy artillery shell knives. After the struggles with the hoodlum Mao Tse Tung, there were enormous amounts of exploded ordnance all over Greater Quemoy. The knives and cleavers made from the metal have acquired fame across Asia.
Mr. Lao offered me more than enough money to make my way by plane to Nigeria, and I was now free to use my passport. However, as I displayed great aptitude in metal work after several days of assisting in the factory, Mr. Lao proposed that I should stay with his family awhile. He was, of course, aware of my growing affection for his daughter, a situation of which he obviously approved.
My happiest hours were spent innocently in the company of Amanissa. She taught me her songs and poems, while we imbibed cup after cup of the wulong, or part-fermented tea that is the great obsession of people of both Fujian and Taiwan. I at last understood the importance of my cuttings, for Mr. Lao could achieve great fame if, somewhere on Taiwan, he was able to establish a strain of the Da Hong Pao tea.
Alas, at nights, I did timidly suffer, and even sometimes relish, the amorous intrusions of Mrs. Lao. In my mind, I mentally married her before each advance, and afterwards I divorced her. In this way, my devout Muslim conscience was soothed some little. Yet I dreamed of the day I could take my spotless Amanissa away to Africa as bride, there to claim my vast family fortune, and after live as a true Shia. Mrs. Lao had hinted that any reduction in my amorous interest in her might lead to new woes for me. Indeed, I believed that her cold and scheming nature was capable of such spite. She loved to mock and degrade her servant - he who had sent me from their door - in that he had been her lover before she rejected him for me.
One night, when we were both of us entirely naked and I lay upon her in what the Chinese call the Embrace of the Jaded Missionary, the lights came on suddenly in the room. There, at the door, stood Mr. Lao and Amanissa, in the company of the smirking servant, who had no doubt contrived this great embarrassment for both me and Mrs. Lao.
Immediately, Mrs. Lao began to cry out that I had forced and ravaged her, and her shrieks were such that any observer would have been deceived by her quick contrivance. There were cries of "Police!". As I fled, taking my clothes in my hands, I saw Amanissa's face contorted and in tears. But there was no remedy! I was again a fugitive, with only a few rags and some papers entitling me to a fortune I could not reach.
Chapter Three. Wherein I reach Macau and safety through numerous escapes and tribulations.
I spent some hours hiding under an upturned boat on the beach. When all was quiet, just before morning came, I slowly turned the boat right side up, gathered the oars which lay beside it, and pushed off quietly into the straits.
So piteous was my state, I could think of nothing but escape. Since I had no direction established in my mind, I let the currents take me. For a whole day I wandered in this way, only rowing to keep myself in sight of land. There were numerous other craft on the waters, but none paid me heed, since small fishing boats were common in that region, and mine was of such a poor sort that there would be no interest aroused.
I was able to catch drinking water from tropical downpours, but had no food. Just as hunger began to gnaw unbearably and I was thinking to commit my fate to any passing ship, and hope its crew would be kindly disposed to an Iranian fugitive, a great storm arose - so great that I could no longer hope to hope. My life was surely done, as the tiny vessel was pitched about and I could only stay within it by tying myself to the bench with the anchor rope.
The violence of one wave caused my head to smash the rim of the hull. I fell into unconsciousness.
When I revived, I was lying motionless in the bottom of the boat, which was also motionless. I stared up at a clear blue sky. The smashed hull in which I lay was full of mud. When I raised myself, I saw that I was in the middle of a vast estuary and tidal flat, with steep wooded cliffs on both sides. Untying myself, I took hold of what equipment had been preserved from the storm: the rope, and some fishing tackle tangled in the remains of an old net. Stepping out of the boat, I immediately sank deep into the mud. Withdrawing my leg required an exhausting effort. Realising that it would be impossible to walk with any extra weight, I abandoned the anchor and oars, and began the trudge toward the nearest of the wooded slopes. Each wrenching, sucking step took some minutes, though I trod as much as possible on mangrove shoots to gain a tiny amount of support. Since I had no shoes, this was painful, but necessary. Should I tread deeper than my thighs, it may be impossible to move till the tide arrived - with what new and unknown dangers!
The walking got easier when I was able to clasp the branches and trunks of fully grown mangroves closer to the edge of the flat. Still, fifty metres in that fine, deep mud required more than an hour of exhausting movement. On struggling ashore, bleeding from oyster cuts, I found that fortune and Allah had not abandoned me all together; for above where I came to rest, just as the tide was beginning its inrush, was a large and dry cave. Its floor was flat and quite clean, though fragments of shells and charcoal indicated that in the remote past some aboriginal peoples had sheltered there. Best of all, by the side of the cave, tinkled a fresh little streamlet.
Our military training in Iran had been rigorous. Though my instinct was to collapse and sleep, I knew I needed some slight amount of food before night made the search impossible. Picking out suitable stones, I ventured along the mangroves and smashed and ate what oysters I could find. I also gathered much bracken and branches of other broadleaf plants, to shield my body from insects during the tropical night. Having done all I could, and drunk deeply from my private streamlet, I cast myself down on the floor of the cave to rest and find new resolve.
A tiny knife I had manufactured during my happy hours on Quemoy, suitable flintstones located after some exploring, a few hooks and some fishing line...Within days I had solved many of my most urgent needs. Yet when I tried to advance beyond the the estuary's edge, my way was blocked by steep cliff or impassable mud flats. What wood I could collect was suitable for fire, but not for repair of my boat, still stranded in the mud. Even if I could construct a new raft, it might skim me over the flats back to the ocean, but it would not not take me further.
For many months, I was contented to survive. I saw Boeing jets fly above me, perhaps heading to or from Hong Kong, but of other humans there was no sign. Perhaps none ever came here, since those times when aboriginal peoples had their shellfish feasts and fires. My own smoke failed to be any sort of signal to those on land, and perhaps only a great storm was capable of bringing a vessel so far up the estuary.
And if this solitude should last all my days?
Yet my solitude did end. The weather had been unusually dry for some weeks, though my streamlet tinkled down as cheerfully as ever. At the peak of the tide, I was fishing in the shallows before my cave when I caught site of an unusual light barge carrying several gaily glad figures, all standing. As the vessel drew near, I could see it was a special flat bottom affair, laden with large plastic drums as well three men. Those men looked unfriendly when they saw me. One of them spoke in Arabic:
"A dog for the fishes. Let me kill him, Pereira."
Immediately, I knew these men were of the pirate caste. Pretending not to know Arabic, I smiled and waved at the group, for all my fear, since I knew that time was all I could buy for the moment. The man who had been addressed as Pereira answered the other in very bad Arabic:
"Let's find out who he is, what he knows. He may be worth something."
When they came ashore, Pereira began to quiz me while the other two filled the drums with fresh water. I knew they would make their decision about me quickly before the tide required their return, so I took a gamble. Guessing that the the very dark man with a Portuguese name like Pereira might be of the Roman sect of Christians, I made (Allah forgive me) a sign of the cross, threw myself at the feet of the pirate and declared, in English, that my father was a very great Catholic bishop who would reward my rescuers very handsomely. As soon as he greeted my declaration with laughter, I realised my mistake: these perverse Catholic priests have no wives! But I thought quickly.
"Senhor, nobody must know of my father's dalliance with such a wealthy and famous actress as Sophia Cardinale. My mamma Sophia will also reward you greatly, both for saving her son and for being discreet as to keep secret the identity of my great father, the very great bishop of...Andorra."
The pirate continued to look amused as he shook his head. Fortunately, I am such a specimen of Iranian manhood that the notion of my being the son of an illustrious man and a renowned Italian beauty is not so improbable as it seems. Till my father's glandular problems and my mother's glandular problems caused them to become enormously fat, both were striking examples of superior Aryan physique and bearing.
So it was that, saved by my proud carriage and - dare I say - my aquiline male beauty, I was taken aboard the barge and conducted to the pirates' ship. On the way, Pereira asked me how I might obtain the funds for them, and I answered that I could do so by arranging a wire-transfer from any large bank. "Good," he said, "we know a bank. And we have friends in Hong Kong who can escort you there. But, if you lie to us, Ahmed will kill you Arab-style. He will hack off your head with his smallest, bluntest knife."
Aboard the ship, I pretended to be both timid and trusting in the company of these murderers. During dinner, I calculated my next stratagem. In the fading light, I had noticed a small dinghy trailing behind the ship by means of a long rope. Since I still had the tiny knife which I had crafted so lovingly in the company of my Amanissa, it occurred to me that I might slide down the rope to the dinghy and cut myself adrift. In order to do this, I would need to be undisturbed, so I threw out a challenge to the pirates:
"Sirs, though I have made a vow to the Blessed Virgin Magdalen that I shall touch no alcohol, I see that you are all men who enjoy a draft. But I have heard it said in the city of my education which was, er, Glasborough, that men of these South Seas cannot stay in control of their functions if they imbibe. It is said that their tolerance of strong drink is no better than that of a young girl. I do not believe this, of course!"
Apart from those Iranians who are of the noblest Persian descent, it will be found that men everywhere are pitifully vain. So it was that the crew was soon drunk and asleep - none being drunker than the Arab, Ahmed. And so it was that I was able to slide down the rope into the dinghy, cut it free, and row towards the lights which I could see twinkling on a distant shore.
And here my fortunes took a turn for the better. Rowing closer to the lights, I realised that they were those of a large town. Right on dawn, I entered a vast seaport. Judging from its size and the ornate Iberian architecture all around, I guessed I had chanced on one of the great colonial centres of the South Seas.
Indeed, I had arrived in Macau.
From here, with papers, passport and my Taiwanese money intact, I was soon on a plane to Lisbon.
Chapter Four. Wherein my trusting nature leads me to impending death in the most awful of wildernesses. Yet by a marvel I come rich to my destination. My final misfortune.
In Portugal my troubles must have ended, for a simple trip to Lagos was all it would take to reclaim my family's vast fortune. Once again, however, treachery lurked in wait. A certain Mr. Khadem, whom I encountered at a Lisbon cafe frequented by Iranians, advised me against any flights out of Lisbon, since agents of the Mullahs were most active in Portugal at that time. Being an embassy official of His Imperial Majesty before the revolution, this Mr. Khadem prudently deposited great sums in the Banco dei Paschi in the city of Siena, having anticipated the fall of our glorious Peacock Throne.
While Mr. Khadem waited to make his discreet way to Italy, he had, as he said, put himself at the service of his fellow Iranians in Portugal. While he could give me no material help, he could arrange for my transport by sea and land to Nigeria. Trusting, as one must, to the honesty of a well-bred Persian, I soon found myself transported to the Moroccan coast by a small freighter. I was met by Mr. Jibril, a Moroccan acquaintance of Mr. Khadem, who drove me by truck to what he said was the next contact point. After many hours, we were in desert, with no contact point in sight. Here it was that Mr. Jibril held a gun on me and demanded my passport and bank details. Now, by good fortune, I had, in my spare time in Quemoy, typed a false copy of my bank details, changing various digits and letters so that, should anyone steal it, they would have stolen nothing of value. My true information and Persian identity papers were kept, in that plastic wallet, in an invisible zip pocket of hiking trousers purchased in Lisbon. As to my passport, that was, indeed, a considerable loss. Of course, Mr. Jibril took all my cash.
He then forced me out of his truck, allowing me to keep my backpack and some supplies, including water. No doubt he was confident that my account would be plundered long before I could hope to return to civilisation - though I later learned he may have wanted me to die with some days' delay so that vultures and other birds of prey did not attract the attention of military patrols. Really, who can know what evil men think, without being evil?
I found myself in desert, in early spring, so the days were not intolerable, but the nights were glacial. A small tent, a sleeping bag, some snacks and some water might keep me alive for some time, but what hope after that? And I was once again penniless.
Yet I prayed to Allah and what seemed impossible occurred. A great bank of black clouds appeared and burst above me. As I now know, such rain only comes to those parts every ten years. Using a ground sheet, I collected as much water as I could, since I assumed that the rain would stop soon. It did not stop, but came down heavily all night. I lay awake, listening to it thrash the sides and tarp of my tent. In the morning, when it finally relented, I saw numerous clear pools in the desert rock and, walking a little, something even more comforting. What the Arabs call a wadi, a desert riverbed, was now a raging stream.
Within days I was able easily to hunt the small animals and birds which approached the wadi to drink. This I did by fashioning snares as I had been taught to do during my military training. Soon, I was eating and drinking well, and I had plans to fashion traps and a spear for larger game, when an even greater miracle occurred.
Every Persian knows a spring crocus, and knows what its value might be. A week after the rains, the desert became a carpet of fleshy new leaves which looked very much to me like the plant which is most precious to Iran. Yet, till the first flowers opened, I could not know if I had stumbled upon riches. One morning, after the dew but before the strong sun could touch it, I examined the very first crocus flower, and the three stamens at its centre. A wonder! And how fitting that the noblest of races should be the chief cultivator of the noblest of spices! I, a descendant of Darius, had chanced upon an unknown hoard of finest saffron, at the time of my greatest need!
While I continued to nourish myself with small game, I made the gathering, drying and storing of saffron threads my chief business. One month or less was all I had, before the flowers ceased, and each flower lasted but one day and could only be harvested in one brief morning period. How quickly I laboured, till my fingers were numb!
The harvest ended around the time that the new river, flowing in what I later learned was called the wadi-al-aqbal, subsided to become a sluggish, silty channel. I needed only to follow the channel, and hunt as I went, and I would surely arrive where there were other humans. After a few days of trudging, with my precious bundle of saffron, I came to a tented settlement where I encountered the only race equal in pride to a true-bred Persian: the Tuareg!
Time is short to tell the rest of my history, to tell how those Tuareg, once I became their guest, gave me not just hospitality but, because I had entered a Tuareg tent, took responsibility for my life thereafter; how they gave me a safe journey to the coast, assuring that the price I received for my saffron was a true price; and how they refused all return of kindness. I have learned that, of all humans, the Tuareg are the truest friends and truest enemies. Make them your friends, if you will live long in Northern Africa!
Alas! My comfortable arrival in Lagos by ship meant the end of my recent good fortune. Time is indeed short now, for, as I type this email, I hear my captors returning to the converted prison where I have been a prisoner these many years. Know that I was kidnapped on my first day in the city! My rucksack and ragged clothing saved me from the lethal presumption that I had wealth, and, by good fortune, my inner pocket was not located when I was searched by my kidnappers.
While I may easily have been murdered or given up to slavery, I was instead put to work on correspondence such as this, thanks to my literacy in numerous languages. At first I was made to write all kinds of false letters of solicitation. Later, as the internet developed, I was made to labour day and night at email scams, to my lasting shame.
Here ends the tale of my wanderings. Here my hopes end - almost.
I am allowed certain types of reading and video entertainments in order to maintain fluency in languages and current usage. My expression is often that of those books I am given, and lately I have received a box of the works of eighteenth century English authors. Please excuse any antiquated tone in this communication.
I may not view or send anything not strictly connected with my task of issuing scams, so the text-body of this email is my only way of reaching beyond these walls. All IP addresses and browser caches are checked constantly. I will be flogged, tortured or killed should the slightest irregularity become apparent. You will note that I have used a prescribed template with the usual false names and effective contacts. Friend, for all intents and purposes this is a common email scam. But if you will be so good as to open an account and give me its number and your individual customer number, I will transfer the funds into it, since I now know how this can be done. As I said, I estimate those funds to be in excess of 380 million dollars.
Since I am without any personal money, it may be necessary for you to forward a small sum to me so I can enable the transfer. I will alert you of this necessity should it arise.
I ask only for your kindness in sharing your new wealth in the event that, one day, an aged and sorely-tried man called Adada Muhammadu should arrive as a beggar at your door. I have had such reversals of fortune in the past. Why not again?
And if I am in the company of an old, part-Uygur woman called Amanissa, you will then certainly believe, as will I, that God is Great.
Yours most faithfully
"Miss Veivers, it's quite an entertaining yarn. I'm glad you've taken the time to show it to me. Normally these Nigerian scams are pretty standard stuff. It's nice to know they're trying harder over there. Very interesting. I'll keep this on file."
"Mr. Shillingworth, I'm not here to show you a story. I've opened an account, as suggested, and..."
"You what? You opened...Miss Veivers, please don't tell me you sent these crooks your account details!"
"But...you didn't pay money into any of their accounts, I trust."
"Thank God for that. You may have opened an account to receive funds, but they can't get at you that way. Nonetheless, I'd like to close it down. For the sake of everyone's reputation. Not that anything could affect your reputation, Miss Veivers. Nobody west of Parramatta has done more than you for kids in trouble, the terminal, the elderly...But you don't need this! They're naming a park after you next month and..."
"Mr. Shillingworth, I don't want to close the account. I want you to look at it."
"Have you put money in?"
"No. I have my other accounts."
Shaking his head, Mr. Shillingworth tapped on his keyboard as he fixed the screen with a look close to exasperation.
"Okay, customer name...Miss Dorothy Veivers...
"I'm looking at your personal account first...no change...
"Your Visa debit...that's so sensible, a debit card...no change there...
"Your investment account...UltraInvest...Good rate of interest this month...Looks normal...
"Okay...What's this?...Must be the new account you were talking about...No charges on these accounts, so it should just be an empty..."
Mr. Shillingworth stopped speaking and froze, open-mouthed. He squinted several times, then looked up at Miss Veivers, who did not change her expression, her tight posture.
He looked at the screen again, blinking, then slumped back in his chair. His silence continued.
At last, Mr. Shillingworth rose and walked to a cabinet by the side of his desk. He opened it, pulled out a bottle of Scotch and poured some into a used plastic coffee cup he had handy. He drank it all, then lifted the bottle by the neck and wagged it at Miss Veivers, who simply shook her head in reply. Now Mr. Shillingworth re-filled the cup, to the top, and took it back to his chair. He stared and blinked at his computer screen. He drank. At last he spoke.
"Miss Veivers, I..."
But that was all he could say. He looked blinking at the computer screen again, and began slowly shaking his head. It was Miss Veivers who found words, as casually as one might talk of weather.
"I've said before, and others have said it about me, so I hope I'm not blowing my own trumpet. I can always judge character. In fact, Mr. Shillingworth, I think I'm entitled, on the evidence, to go further than that.
"I feel I must be some kind of All Time World Champion Judge of Character, don't you think?"