Prologue: Death of a Newspaper-Owner
Fifty-two years old, Farouk was a figure of some minor significance in one of the Arab world’s most insignificant states. He owned and edited Al-Khabar, the national daily newspaper of the island of Belaj; he also owned the weekly English-language Belaj Gazette. His neglected wife was a niece of the emirate’s ruler.
The belly-dancer’s name was Leila. A dusky twenty-year-old from Cairo, she worked for Mrs Fadilah, a fellow Egyptian of indeterminate age who operated the island’s only ‘house of toleration’. To the music of two finger-drummers and one player of the oud (a plangent Arab version of the lyre or balalaika), Leila undulated up and down her mistress’s Kashmiri-carpeted salon, whirling the tassels adhered by sorcery to her pomegranate breasts.
Seated on mattresses against the walls, the punters (all Arabs and mostly local) competed for her favours by tucking bank notes of increasing value into the waistband of her golden G-string. Tonight Farouk made what his rivals conceded as the winning bid for Leila’s services when he folded three 1,000-dirham notes (each worth a little over £200) into the taut gold cord.
Leila went to sit beside him on the mattress and they polished off a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label before retiring to a more private mattress in another room. Here, after brief but intensive exertion on Leila’s part and for a total outlay roughly equivalent to the monthly wages of his entire Asian printing staff, Farouk precipitately splashed her mahogany loins.
This might not strike you, O Gentile reader, as – you will pardon the pun – a very satisfactory outcome, but it was a sated as well as a thoroughly sozzled Farouk Bahzoomi who weaved his way home in his treasured and much dented Rolls Royce Continental from Mrs Fadilah’s box-like villa behind the British Club to the eclectically designed house his dowry had purchased in Medina Khalid, Belaj City’s poshest suburb. Parking haphazardly outside the high rendered walls, Farouk left the headlights on full beam as he lurched out into the humid night air and tottered over to the wrought-iron gates.
He didn’t know it but he was about to pay for his manifold sins and, in the process, catalyse a chain of events with repercussions beyond the shores of this tiny island. More immediately and of only incidental relevance, he would make the front page of both his newspapers.
Death stood waiting in the shadow of Farouk’s mock-Crusader walls. Death stepped into the headlight beam and touched him on the shoulder as he fumbled at his Moorish-Gothic gates. Farouk turned with a gasp and stared into the face of Death, a plump and buck-toothed face framed in a white headdress. Unlike Farouk’s, Death’s long white robe was spotless and leather-belted at the waist.
‘Peace upon you, Farouk bin Abdul Bahzoomi,’ Death addressed him formally.
‘And upon you also, noble stranger,’ Farouk replied in the same vein. Belching, he tasted sour forbidden whisky in his throat. ‘Praise God,’ he beg-pardoned. ‘But you are not a stranger. I know you. Your name is –’
Farouk gasped again and took two steps backward until his fat bottom came up against the silver-plated grille of his cherished Rolls Royce. ‘How can this be?’ he stammered. ‘Surely your name is -’
‘My name is Death,’ the other insisted. ‘You think you know me because one summer in my ignorant youth I bound the bales of that corrupted wood pulp wherein you fawn upon the usurpers of this island and their allies in the lands of the Great Satan. Then I was Hassan, but tonight I am Death to you, Farouk bin Abdul Bahzoomi, you blaspheming whoreson spawn of a buggerer of sheep and camels.’ Arabic is a majestic language in which to flatter or to revile.
On Sunset Boulevard and on Piccadilly, driving, as tonight, under the influence, Farouk had been called ‘dickhead’ and ‘wanker’ by other motorists and had accepted the epithets as his due. But now he quivered with outrage as well as with fear.
‘How dare you address me in this profane calumnious fashion?’ he spluttered, clinging to his dignity.
‘I address you thus because you are a propagator of cringing putrid falsehoods and a kisser of the fundaments of those who pollute the land of my blessed forebears.’
‘On the contrary, I am -’
But Death did not wait on Farouk’s expostulations. ‘Go now,’ said Death, and from a scabbard at his waist he unsheathed a knife with a short curved blade like a scimitar and plunged it into Farouk’s broad chest.
‘Allaaaah!’ cried Farouk, as if hoping to redeem decades of dissipation by calling on his Maker even as he was dispatched into his Maker’s presence. In a last mindless act of lechery he clutched the semi-nude silver nymph on top of the car’s radiator; then his chubby fingers lost their hold and he slid to the compacted sand that was the topsoil of his driveway.
Death – or Hassan, to call him by his discarded name – bent down and retrieved his khanjar from the chest of Farouk Bahzoomi, wiped it on the dead man’s robe and replaced it in its scabbard. Then taking the flowing corners of his headdress, he knotted it into a washerwoman’s bundle on top of his head before climbing onto his motorcycle which was parked a few yards away, where the kerb would be if Belaj boasted kerbs and pavements.
‘It begins,’ he murmured to himself. ‘There will be more. Insh’Allah.’ If God wills.
His night’s work completed, Death – Hassan – roared off into the humid darkness.
[Hassan flees to Egypt but he will return to Belaj– disguised as a woman! – with the Amir as his next target.]
Chapter One: In-Flight
2,000 kilometres to the north-west, ten and a half kilometres above sea level (and the level of Farouk Bahzoomi’s blood-soaked driveway), a Belaj Air 737, flight number BJ027, whispered south-eastward through the indigo night sky. Many of those on board would be engaged to a greater or lesser degree in the events set in motion by Farouk’s Shakespearean demise.
Monitored by a bleary-eyed Belaji first officer, the autopilot was in control of the plane. The captain, Doug Richards, an English expatriate with twenty years flying experience, was squeezed into one of the First Class toilets behind the flight deck in the company of a senior stewardess named Monica, a thirty-something brunette.
Erect in both senses, the captain stood between Monica’s cellulite thighs in the cramped toilet. His uniform trousers and BHS boxer shorts were concertinaed at his ankles. Monica’s Calvin Klein bikini pants lay crumpled on the floor. Her feet, in airline-issue low-heeled shoes, rested against the bulk-head just below the ceiling. Her buttocks overflowed the tiny hand basin; the soap dispenser was digging uncomfortably into her waist. As she lifted herself into a less painful position, unthinkingly hastening the captain’s gasping ejaculation into a Durex Fetherlite, the aircraft hit a pocket of turbulence.
The captain, his latex-sheathed organ providing a fulcrum for most of Monica’s nine stone eleven, lurched backwards and sideways and slammed into the door, whose lock promptly gave way. Borne down by the weight of his partner, Doug Richards fell through the opening door and landed on his back in the narrow aisle. His head thumped with concussing force into the door of the vacant opposite toilet.
‘Chrrrist!’ he yelled, fighting unconsciousness.
Monica, now straddling in a herniating embrace the one part of him that was still vertical, experienced the most intense orgasm of her closer-to-forty-than-she-cared-to-admit years.
‘Jeeesus!’ she cried through clenched teeth.
In the front row of First Class a male head, white-shrouded and crowned with a twist of black braiding, turned at the sound of a loud thud followed by invocations to the Christian Messiah who is known to Muslims as the Prophet Issa. Aisle curtains and an untended galley obstructed Shaikh Ibrahim bin Sayed al-Khazi’s view of the pagan spectacle.
The engineer, another British expat, opened the flight deck door. His mouth also opened and could be expected to re-open often in the hours and days ahead. Doug Richards’s belated induction into the Mile-High Club would become part of the legend of Belaj Air.
* * *
The only other passenger in First Class, seated three rows behind Shaikh Ibrahim, vaguely registered the commotion at the front of the aircraft, but Tariq Bahzoomi, nephew of the newly deceased newspaper-owner, had other things on his mind. Dressed in a grey Armani business suit, Tariq, already running to the family flab at thirty-three, was trying to get his rocks off at 35,000 feet. This idea had obsessed him since he first saw the movie Rich and Famous on TCM.
‘Come on, darling,’ he urged the shapely brunette in the next seat. ‘Just some head will do.’ Tariq prided himself on his command of English.
‘I can’t,’ the girl said. ‘If we’re caught, I’ll lose my job.’
‘Job, schmob. I’ll get you a job with one of my dad’s outfits.’
‘I’ve got my future to think of.’
‘Future, schmuture.’ Tariq was beginning to overdo the showbiz Yiddish. ‘Don’t you want to join the Mile-High Club, Bettina?’
Bettina shrugged inside her green-and-orange Belaj Air uniform blouse. ‘Not here, not now,’ she admitted.
‘If not here, where, for Christ’s sake?’
Bettina wondered if this was the time to tell him that she’d been initiated into the Mile-High Club last year in a Business Class toilet by an Italian structural engineer. Probably not, she decided. The Italian, married of course, had been a hunk but the experience was a shade less glamorous than in Rich and Famous. Jacqueline Bisset isn’t seen to have bruised her hip on the tap fitting or to have lost a pair of Janet Reger panties down the loo; nor, at least not on the sound track, does her bottom come out of the sink with a plop like breaking jelly.
Bettina had been Tariq Bahzoomi’s girlfriend for the past four months. Half an hour ago he’d bought her a $2,000 Piaget watch from the duty-free selection, an investment on which he now seemed to expect a quick return.
Receiving no answer to his question, Tariq sighed and said, ‘OK, make it a quick hand-job.’ And he pulled her diamond-watch-wristed hand towards the bulge disfiguring the pelvis of his Armani suit. Bettina tweaked the top of the protrusion firmly between her thumb and forefinger, a stratagem her sister had picked up at self-defence classes. The bulge subsided dramatically.
‘Jesus H. Christ,’ bellowed Tariq, his Harvard Business School English not letting him down under pressure.
* * *
In the front row Shaikh Ibrahim’s head swivelled through almost 180 degrees at this third summons to the Prophet Issa which was neither entirely appropriate nor entirely inappropriate in an aircraft whose flight path included the sandswept lava plateau between the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. He glared across the empty seats at his brother-in-law’s nephew, a useless playboy whose presence on the flight he had acknowledged with no more than a brief nod when they boarded.
Among several posts in which Ibrahim bin Sayed served his uncle the Amir of Belaj he was the island’s Commandant of Traffic Police. His sister Nayla was, though she didn’t know it yet, the widow of Farouk Bahzoomi.
These persistent blasphemous exclamations were interrupting a near-sacrilegious train of thought in the mind of Shaikh Ibrahim bin Sayed al-Khazi. He had been fantasising about the houris, the ‘chastely amorous’ wenches with which the Muslim Paradise promises to be liberally staffed. Ibrahim wanted them all to be built like another of BJ027’s stewardesses, a platinum blonde whose breasts were simply mega (Arabic is untypically deficient in this connoisseur area, and Tariq wasn’t the only Belaji with a command of English idiom); her breasts were ‘yummy’ and ‘scrummy’ and totally edible.
Some men are leg men, some are arse men. Ibrahim was a major-league boob man. His very personal video collection (he was also Head of Customs: all sorts of goodies came his way) included the complete works of Russ Meyer and Dolly Parton. He liked breasts that were prominent – let’s face it, he liked them big – but he preferred them to look natural, unaugmented. On his last night in the Hyde Park Hilton he had discovered a bizarre reality TV show, set on a much lusher island than Belaj; a girl with the enticing name of Abi Titmuss had displaced Marilyn Monroe at the top of Ibrahim’s tit-parade.
‘Is there anything I can get you, Shaikh Ibrahim?’ Bettina enquired as she made a detour past his seat en route from her wounded lover to the Business Class section. Ibrahim briefly pondered several replies he could make to this query.
‘No, thank you very much.’ His voice was guttural.
‘You’re welcome.’ Bettina’s mouth, lipsticked by Estée Lauder, parted in a polite but not perfunctory smile, and she moved on. The Commandant of Traffic Police and Head of Customs, who had chain-smoked throughout the flight, lit another cigarette and returned to his reverie of the Gardens of Paradise.
* * *
The object of Ibrahim’s mental dalliance was called Sammy-Jo-Ann and known, conveniently, as Sam. She was 28 (the same age as her new admirer) and she hailed from Pittsburgh: almost Dolly Parton territory.
While the Economy passengers were sleeping or watching the movie and the First Class passengers were variously tumescing or detumescing, Sam was sitting with her feet up in the rear of the untenanted Business Section. Next to her was Janice, another Economy stewardess whom airline grooming had not rescued from plainness.
Bettina joined them, plumping herself down in the seat across the starboard aisle from Sam.
‘Men are vile,’ she announced. Sam was quick to agree:
‘Honey, if I got all the men in my life into a herd, I’d have me a hog farm bigger than any in Kentucky!’
‘My Colin isn’t vile,’ protested Janice, who never missed a chance to sing the praises of this paragon.
‘We all know your Colin is the Prince Charmin’ of Twat-ford.’
‘Whatever. Who’s gotten you mad, honey?’ Sam asked Bettina. ‘Did that Shaikh person get fresh? When I took him a hot towel after dinner he had a hard-on inside that shirt thing they wear like a log goin’ over Niagara Falls.’ As she laughed, the buttons of her green-and-orange blouse strained against the thrust of their cantilevered contents in a way that the ‘Shaikh person’ would particularly have savoured.
‘It’s not him. It’s that foul Tariq. He was trying to get me to – you know – do things in First Class.’
Janice looked shocked. Sam did not. ‘The Mile High Club! Go for it, Bettina.’
Bettina smirked. ‘I already did. A year ago.’
‘In the john?’ Bettina nodded. Sam’s breasts went into overdrive as she shuddered with laughter. ‘Did your ass come outta the sink with a noise like a wet fart?’ The way she said the last word was onomatopoeic. Janice shuddered, but not with laughter. Bettina shook her head.
‘Nothing like that. It was pure magic. Just like in the movie.’
‘The one with Jackie Bisset? Well, the guy I screwed on a flight out of Houston -’ Janice winced – ‘I had bruises right up my spine and my snatch was sore for a week!’ Sam laughed some more. If Ibrahim knew what he was missing.
Janice’s pursed lips now resembled a clenched anus. Bettina put a hand over her own mouth to hide another smirk and Sam noticed the glittering watch on her wrist. ‘Is that new?’
‘Tariq bought it for me tonight.’
‘No wonder he wanted you to do some stuff! Well, who’s a lucky girl? Nobody ever gave me a diamond watch.’
‘I’ve got three of them,’ said Bettina, looking smug.
‘Yes, but look what you have to do to get them,’ Janice contributed. Bettina’s mouth opened, but Sam got in first:
‘Go piss up a rope, Janice. She doesn’t do anythin’ you don’t do with your precious Colin for a Big Mac and a seat at the movies. Grab it while it’s goin’, Bettina. Best I ever got was a pair of earrings off a PanAm captain one time. Oh yes -’ more laughter, more strain on her buttons – ‘and a ground engineer atHouston gave me crabs!’
* * *
A female passenger lay stretched across the four centre seats in the front row of Economy behind the partition separating it from Business Class. Headphoneless, not watching the flickering screen above her, she seemed to be asleep. In fact she was awake and listening to the conversation on the other side of the partition.
Cass McBride had been to Belaj before, for holidays. Her brother was the editor of the Belaj Gazette. But this time Cass wasn’t coming on holiday. She was running away. She didn’t know what the future held in store for her (and wouldn’t have believed it if she did). So far – it was only (she kept looking at her watch) six hours since she’d left Walthamstow – she didn’t feel unduly bothered. What she mainly felt was free.
The loose-fitting tracksuit she wore for in-flight comfort (and modesty in strait-laced Belaj) gave little hint of the figure it con-tained. Her hair was light brown with ash highlights, and at forty-four she still had the clear complexion of her Highland childhood. She could have claimed to be thirty-eight (not that she did) and got away with it.
She envied the stewardesses. Not the mousy one with the boyfriend in wherever Twatford was and a voice that was inaudible over the engine noise. But she envied the pretty brunette who seemed to have met a lot of generous rich men and she even envied the platinum blonde with the overlarge bust who sounded as if she’d enjoyed, in her earthy way, putting herself about quite a bit.
Cass hadn’t put herself about much. Cass hadn’t put herself about at all. Her husband had never given her a diamond watch, and she doubted that he’d ever given one to any of his girlfriends. He’d also managed not to give her crabs, for which, she thought with a grim smile, she ought perhaps to be grateful.
Never mind all that, she told herself: you’re free now. Things are going to change.
No, they’re not, another part of her mind whispered. It’s too late for change. This whisper was, almost, her mother’s voice. Your goose was cooked a long time ago, my girl.
Go and piss on a rope, she told this voice, blushing as she permitted herself to think in the same crude terms as the foul-mouthed blonde stewardess.
* * * * *
Now 1,450 kilometres to the south-east of Belaj Air flight 027, the body of Farouk Bahzoomi had been discovered. The Pakistani gardener, who lived in a shed in the grounds, went to investigate the unremitting glare of headlights through the gates and saw his master crumpled in a puddle of blood beside his imperial, not to say imperialist, Rolls Royce.
‘Aiyee!’ screamed the gardener and ran to hammer on the door of one of the cubicle-sized rooms which housed the domestic staff above the garage. A bleary-eyed Indian houseboy emerged clad only in a sarong; he could make no sense of the gardener’s babbling in the Pashto language of the North-West Frontier. Seizing the houseboy by one arm, the gardener dragged him downstairs and over to the gates.
‘Aiyee!’ screamed the houseboy and ran into the main house via the kitchen door. Upstairs a Filipina maid slept on a mattress on the floor outside her mistress’s bedroom. The boy knelt and shook her awake. The domestic staff used pidgin English to overcome the language barrier, but violent death was not in the maid’s vocabulary. Copying the gardener’s example, the houseboy dragged the girl in her crumpled nightdress over to a hall window overlooking the entrance. The gardener had opened the gates and was intoning prayers over the plump sprawl of Farouk’s body.
‘Aiyee!’ screamed the maid and ran back to the bedroom door, which she flung open. The houseboy hung back for fear of glimpsing his mistress in a state of dishabille. Actually Nayla Bahzoomi slept in what in Egypt constituted male day-wear, a striped dishdasha in heavy cotton that provided insulation against the overcool central air-conditioning. Farouk had not approved of his wife’s mannish night attire which he’d only infrequently seen removed.
The maid’s screams woke Nayla before the girl could reach her and when the girl did reach her, still screaming, Nayla sat up and slapped her, not too harshly, across the face. The screaming subsided into sobs. The houseboy appeared, tentatively, in the doorway, his head lowered.
‘Excuse me, Madam,’ he began hesitantly.
‘What’s the matter?’ Nayla demanded. Her English was near perfect and accentless. ‘Look at me when you speak to me.’ The boy raised his head.
‘Madam, they have killed Sir,’ he blurted.
‘Who has? Where?’
‘I don’t know, Madam. Outside the gate, Madam,’ he took care to answer each of her questions.
‘Show me,’ his mistress ordered. The half-naked boy entered the room and she allowed him to lead her to a window. Nayla was tall, olive-skinned, voluptuous, at twenty-six two years younger than her brother Ibrahim and exactly half her husband’s age, a feminist intellectual in a society that tended to ignore women and mistrusted intellectuals.
She did not scream when she saw her husband lying like a beached porpoise on the dark-stained sand in the undimmed headlights of his ostentatious Rolls Royce (Nayla drove a discreet Mercedes coupé with smoked-glass windows). The gardener had been joined by the Moroccan cook and the Bengali laundrywoman who cohabited in the cubicle next to the houseboy’s. The multinational trio prayed and keened over the corpse of Farouk Bahzoomi.
‘Are you sure he’s dead?’ Nayla demanded of the trembling boy beside her.
‘There is much blood, Madam.’
Nayla sighed, which the houseboy took for an upper-caste Arabic demonstration of controlled grief. But grief was not what the new widow felt. Her marriage had been arranged between her brother and the Bahzoomis, whose wealth was second only to that of the ruling al-Khazi clan. Nayla had despised her husband in life – his gambling and drinking, his belly-dancing whores, his newspapers that kissed the backside of her uncle the Amir – and she felt only relief at his passing, however brutal it seemed to have been.
Lifting a telephone from the table by the window she called the hospital to summon an ambulance. Next she started to punch her brother’s number before remembering that he was not yet back from unspecified business in the UK. After a moment’s pause for thought she tapped out the private number of her uncle the Amir.
* * *
‘This man must be found, and he must be found quickly.’
‘Does Your Highness have a descrip-’
‘It is possible he has a motorcycle. My niece’s maid heard a motorcycle. Or this may be irrelevant. He may have a car, a bicycle or only his feet. He may have accomplices. In any case I want you to check all motorcyclist records.’
‘Your Highness can count on my depart-’
‘And I want men on every roundabout and at every major intersection before sunrise.’
‘But, Highness, such a drain on manpow-’
‘Liaise with my sons. I have already spoken to them. They are putting the armed forces on full alert. Use every man you’ve got. Cancel all leave. No days off. No sick leave for anyone who can walk.’
‘But, Highness, I would need the authority of your Highness’s nephew to take such dras-’
‘You have my authority,’ the Amir lowered his voice to its coldest tone, sending shivers up the spine of the man at the other end of the line, an immigrant Palestinian who’d risen through the ranks of the Traffic Police to become Shaikh Ibrahim bin Sayed’s senior assistant. ‘Is that not good enough for you?’ the Amir added icily.
‘I beg Your Highness’s pardon if I gave the impress-’
‘I’m told that Ibrahim bin Sayed is on tonight’s flight from London. Send someone to meet him.’
‘I shall go myself to meet Your Highness’s most illustrious nephew.’ The Palestinian managed to complete a sentence for the first time. The Amir would have liked to tell him to cut the grovelling, but the endless grovelling kept everyone aware of the pecking order.
Shaikh Khaled bin Khalifa al-Khazi was the absolute (and, he would admit, absolutely feudal) ruler of this tiny emirate perched on the rim of the Gulf’s third largest oil field. The Commandant of Traffic Police was his favourite and most trusted nephew. Had Ibrahim been in Belaj the Amir would have called him even before speaking to his own sons. Ibrahim’s staff would be crucial in investigating the murder of ‘the Crawler’, as the late Farouk Bahzoomi had been widely known. Traffic cops in Belaj had powers far beyond the enforcing of speed limits and breathalyser tests.
‘Tell your men to report anything suspicious,’ the Amir said now. ‘Do not tell them about the death of the Crawler. We don’t want to make people nervous. Officially he will have died of natural causes. Political murders do not happen in my country.’
‘Perhaps it was not a political murder, Highness,’ the Palestinian ventured.
‘What else could it be?’
‘I don’t know, Highness. A sex-crime?’
‘The Crawler was married to my niece.’ A yet more dangerous edge entered the Amir’s voice. ‘You think my niece has a lover and he killed her husband?’
‘M-maybe there was a m-m-mistress.’ the Palestinian stammered nervously. The Amir responded with a short barking laugh.
‘The Crawler got his sex at the house of Mrs Fadilah. You think Mrs Fadilah would assassinate one of her best customers?’
‘I don’t know what to think, Highness,’ the other man confessed.
A sneer entered the Amir’s voice as he said, ‘The Crawler died because he was the Crawler. This is the work of those subversives who want my country to be ruled, like Iran, by mullahs or, like Turkey and the USA, by the democratic vote of the people. We must find these subversives quickly. I want their guts for garters.’
Shaikh Khaled bin Khalifa al-Khazi did not say ‘I want their guts for garters’. What he said in Arabic is impossible – and too terrible – to translate into English. At the other end of the line his nephew’s assistant shivered in his warm bed beside his snoring wife.
* * * *
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