I stood outside a local hair-cutting saloon in the Nawabi Bagh area of Karachi as twilight descended on the port city. A contact, after a few minutes of cajoling, had agreed to introduce me to a bookie.
This was my first evening in Pakistan and here was I kicking off the most eagerly awaited cricket series between India and Pakistan meeting the people who give the game a bad name. In comparison, the black market in tickets for the opening game, right outside the National Stadium, was a box of candies.
As our pearly white Ford Ikon sailed through the streets of Karachi, my contact warned me against revealing any names. Ever.
We passed glittering wedding halls and half-a-dozen gas stations before I gave up trying to memorise the route.
Karachi probably has more cars than the rest of Pakistan, I thought.
"Karachi has some of the best cars in the subcontinent, but the rising crime rate is inhibiting people," my contact revealed. "Carjackings are on the rise and people who own fancy cars now buy second-hand cars for use after 8."
We approached a steep turn into a lane lined by plush kothis (mansions) on either side. My friend disappeared into one leaving me fidgeting outside. He returned shortly and ushered me into the house where there were two other men dressed in white kurta-pyjamas.
What would a bookie's den look like? I asked myself. Maybe a dishevelled room in the mansion with a million telephones, a dozen televisions, and men sitting around with books, measuring every ounce in the balance of the game.
Six steps into the mansion and a child, maybe three years old, ran out, made a face at us, and ran back in. We entered a long hallway at the end of which sat three ladies watching television. They hardly even looked at us.
Was this seriously a bookie's house, I wondered.
As we settled down on the velvet blue cushions in the living room which seemed recently done up, a middle-aged man who could pass off as your estate agent or local chemist walked in and asked how much I wanted to bet.
"Actually, I just want to know how the business works," I said, sounding utterly sorry and feeling very stupid.
"You are really innocent," he said gruffly. "The whole world gambles on cricket and you are asking me how one bets?"
But he got down to business right away and explained how money was bet on the result as well as on details like the score after 15 overs, 30 overs and so on.
"Tomorrow's match is India's game," he said. "An India win is 70 paise and a Pakistan win is Rs 1.25. If you bet Rs 100 and India wins you get Rs 70. If Pakistan wins you get Rs 125."
"Is there any link between Indian and Pakistani bookies?"
"Of course! All the main work is done out of India. India and Dubai are the hotbeds of betting. Bhao (betting rates) sab wahin se nikalta hai."
He explained how the entire business that is run on telephone is so well organised. "The entire conversation is recorded so there is no confusion," he said. "If you have bet two lakhs it will be on tape and you cannot deny it. The whole business runs on voices."
Nothing is written down, nothing catalogued.
As he patiently answered my questions, four men wearing spotless white kurtas entered and settled down. "These are the gurus," the bookie whispered to me.
One of the foursome seemed to be a veteran -- graying hair, neck swathed in wrinkles, and fingers that must have burnt millions of cigarettes.
"Betting is a science," he revealed as he lit another cigarette and let out smoke rings. "If you are not very greedy there is no way you can make a loss. In fact, if you are a thoroughbred businessman then you should never lose money in the betting market."
He revealed that he owns three factories in Karachi and betting is a passion. "It's a test of skills," he said. "Just like you journalists, we review the match before it starts. Look at the pitch and identify what a good bet for the day would be. I just made Rs 2 lakh on an Australian win today. Yesterday, my friend made a fortune on the India-Pakistan 'A' game. After India made 335, the odds were seven to one on a Pakistani win."
I later learnt that a large chunk of the winnings was collected and exchanged for medicines and other medical supplies that were taken into the villages and distributed charitably.
Even as I ruminated on his words, he dialled a number on the speakerphone and asked, "Kya bhav chal raha hai?"
"Ek pachpan kalon ka, do pachpan England ka," the voice at the other end said (Rs 1.55 on a West Indies win, and Rs 2.55 on England for the first Test in Jamaica).
So was Rashid Latif's fancy fixing a myth or reality?
A few months ago, the former Pakistani skipper had claimed that fancy fixing is major business with people betting on the number of runs that would be scored in the first 15 overs.
"Of course it happens, not only for the first 15 overs but also for 30 overs and also between players' scores. The one who gets the higher score wins. In partnerships, the bets are on which of the two batsmen will get out first."
Life for these 'players' will never change. Most of them don't care that the police might nab them. "How can the cops worry us?" laughed one. "Most of the big shots are involved themselves!"
I returned to my hotel room well past midnight, a little shell-shocked, a little amused.