Valda’s flight was booked; she would leave for Dubai International after her Tuesday performance, which was being held at the Maharani Club at a seafront hotel in Jumeirah. From there, she would catch the 3:0 a.m. flight to Johannesburg, arriving at 9:0 a.m. South African time, leaving plenty of time to catch the 10:30 a.m. connection to Cape Town. She would be in Cape Town by lunchtime, where she would meet Vanessa, sign the papers, visit Ted and hopefully make it back to Johannesburg in time for the 8:30 p.m. flight back to Dubai. Or at least that was the general idea.
The Burg Emir was an ultra modern, enormous skyscraper, the top of which was shaped like a spiral, giving it a very elegant, distinctive finish. Flanagan’s was on the one hundred and twentieth floor and at the very top was a pool deck, with sauna rooms, jacuzzis and a poolside restaurant. There were a total of eighteen restaurants in all, scattered amongst the many floors. There was a second pool deck on the twentieth floor, overlooked by a buffet restaurant called Henley’s, where a traditional British roast dinner was on offer on Sundays – something which was strongly supported by the expat community and visitors to Dubai. There was a piano there, too, and Valda often used to play it on Sunday afternoons and maybe sing a little. Henley’s had huge windows facing onto the pool deck, overlooking the Dubai skyline. It was a bright place with white tiled floors and every table was covered in a crisp white linen tablecloth.
The Sunday before Valda left for South Africa, she was playing at Henley’s. It was packed as usual and had a great laid-back, lazy Sunday afternoon atmosphere. She welcomed requests and it had become “a thing” for diners to write their requests on serviettes and drop them on the glass table next to the piano. Someone had requested the Curtis Stigers’ song, I Wonder Why, but Valda knew there was no way she’d make it through that one without cracking up: she had come along way, but that would be pushing it. The entire afternoon, she’d had the uneasy feeling that she was being watched, closely!
At four, things were beginning to wind down and as Valda was starving, she decided to pack in the piano playing and go over to the buffet to see if there was anything left over. Much to her delight and relief, there was some roast beef and a decent helping of cauliflower cheese waiting for her. She found a plate and was busy dishing up the roast beef, with generous amounts of horseradish, when she heard a voice behind her. ‘Valda!’
Even though he had only said the one word, the accent was unmistakable. Valda turned to see the Sheikh; it was the first time she had seen him in the daylight. He looked as well turned out as ever, but his eyes were red and his distinguished appearance had a jaded edge to it. Valda greeted him politely, but did not intend to let him stand in the way of her and the cauliflower cheese.
‘You will join me at my table?’
It sounded like a question, but Valda was sure it was more like an instruction. She followed the Sheikh with her now full plate to a large table. She could tell immediately where the Sheikh had been sitting by the overflowing ashtray. Whoever he had been dining with had now departed and all that was left were a dozen soiled napkins and empty bottles of mineral water.
‘Would you like a drink?’ asked the Sheikh.
‘No thanks, I’m on the wagon these days.’ The words were out her mouth, before she realised that the Sheikh was probably not offering her that kind of drink anyway. He gave her a confused look, obviously not acquainted with the expression “falling of the wagon”. Valda had had nothing stronger than a beer since coming to Dubai and that was nothing to do with lack of availability or opportunity. At one stage a year ago, friends had joked that she should start looking for a new flat in the vicinity of the Betty Ford alcoholism and drug rehabilitation clinic. Nowadays, the sight and smell of hard liquor filled her with a sickening and morbid feeling.
Valda sat next to the Sheikh and started tucking in. He watched her with an amused look on his face. She realised that her table manners left plenty to be desired, but hey, she was starving. Even away from the surreal atmosphere of Flanagan’s, the Sheikh still had something enchanting about him. Valda was flattered by the apparent interest he took in her. Perhaps it was a symptom of growing up in foster care, but Valda craved attention, any attention, even the worst kind of attention would do.
‘So you are going to Cape Town on Tuesday,’ said the Sheikh between puffs.
‘Yes, Jo tell you?’ It was a rhetorical question; who else would it be but Jo.
‘It is very pleasing to us that you are so impressed with Dubai that you are willing to relinquish your home in beautiful Cape Town!’
‘Dubai has been good to me. I am amazed at what a change in geography has done for my fortunes!’
While she ate, the Sheikh chatted away. Valda listened with surprise; she hadn’t had him pegged as a master of small talk. He even touched on the weather – that universally renowned safe subject – although there was a limit on how long any conversation about weather could go on in Dubai; Valda had been there for five weeks now and every day had been identical.
Valda was wearing white jeans and a turquoise T-shirt and as she finished her food, she slipped off her shoes under the table, leaned back and pulled her left leg up, so that her foot was on the chair, with her shin squashed against the table. They were the last diners left at Henley’s.
‘I have a cousin in Stellenbosch,’ ventured the Sheikh.
Valda was rather sceptical; she doubted Stellenbosch, a quaint university town in the heart of the wine lands, was a likely home for any cousin of the Sheikh. However, these days, one could never tell and according to a rumour Richard had relayed to Valda, bin Laden owned property in Durban.
The Sheikh continued, ‘He has an important package for me, which I am anxious to receive!’
Valda realised what he was hinting at. ‘Had any quotes from DHL or UPS?’ she said in her most sarcastic tone.
The Sheikh’s eyes widened and then sat back, roaring with a raucous burst of laughter, which was just as sarcastic in itself. ‘As if I would trust a courier with such a precious cargo, all couriers are imbeciles!’
Couriers may be imbeciles, Valda thought to herself, but they also have strict policies on what they will and will not accept and all parcels are subject to scrutiny!
‘I would be much obliged if you would collect this parcel and bring it back for me!’ The Sheikh stared right into her eyes, as if he was trying to impress upon her how serious he was.
‘What is it?’ asked Valda in the flattest voice.
‘I cannot say!’
‘Then I cannot do!’
‘That is your prerogative!’ The Sheikh leaned back, sighed and looked away as if he was greatly disappointed in Valda.
Valda felt very awkward and started to reach for her jacket which, of course, was not there – she had not worn it that day. Her JPS were in the pocket and if she ever needed one it was now.
The Sheikh sucked the last puff out of his cigar, looked at his diamond-encrusted Rolex, rose from the table and then turned to Valda. ‘You have until Tuesday to decide. If the answer is yes, 200,000 dirhams in cash and a note of the address will be delivered to you before your flight.’
Valda was, indeed, shocked at the offer, but she gave no indication of any surprise. Luckily, no response was necessary: Ahmed, the Sheikh’s trusted companion-bodyguard, was approaching. Ahmed was tall and surly and was not only thickset, but plain thick as well, in Valda’s opinion. He never spoke much, but he shadowed the Sheikh like a trusty Labrador.
‘Thank you for you company. A pleasure as always!’ The Sheikh spoke in one his most polite tones of voice. He turned without waiting for any response and left Henley’s.
If anything, Valda wanted to get away from the Sheikh’s territory. The discussion over lunch had thrown her into a quandary, so she made her way out of the hotel and sped away in a taxi with relief.
Everyone has their price! A cliché is a cliché for a reason and Valda was not sure what her “price” was, but 200,000 dirhams pretty much topped it. She did not even have the money yet and it was already burning a hole in her pocket – another apt cliché!
Valda did, for one moment, attempt to convince herself that the parcel may well be innocent: why bother with a courier, when someone you know would be visiting Cape Town anyway and could bring it back for you. It happens all the time. The level of naivety required to maintain that line of thought was monumental though. Valda knew that the parcel was dodgy – the 200,000 dirham “reward” the Sheikh had offered was a measure of just how dodgy.
She spent the whole night agonising over the decision. Valda knew there really was nothing to agonise over, any sensible person would just walk right away. Every line of thought reached the same logical conclusion: no way! It was not even a case of weighing up the pros and cons; the cons were so enormous, they practically knocked the proverbial scale over. Just when she was enjoying an uncomplicated life, things had to get messy again. Her mind had already formulated a clever excuse for the Sheikh and a way of discouraging him in future; however, her heart knew that no excuses would be needed! Valda had always loved risk and a challenge both motivated and excited her. She was a smooth customer and she always backed herself – she was ninety-nine per cent confident that she could pull this off. It was like betting on a certainty and the reward was 200,000 dirhams; the equivalent of £40,000.
Valda woke as she had gone to sleep, with the Sheikh and his mysterious parcel on her mind. She had a shrewd idea of what it was and she had a day and a bit to make up her mind. The question was whether in that time her sensible head would win over her impulsive, daring heart. The Chinese have a saying that a decision made in haste is always a bad one – yet a hasty decision was exactly what was required.
The money was only one aspect of the decision matrix; Valda had a strange need to impress the Sheikh – her ego had been boosted by his apparent trust and confidence in her ability to bring his parcel back safely. In a strange and twisted sense she would feel like a bit of a drip to walk away from his proposal. And although the emotional momentum towards a “Yes” was building, she was tormented by the fears, the morality and the potential consequences of failure. What was she letting herself in for? Was the money worth the risk? One thing which haunted her was what would her dad Ted think of her? He would be very disappointed in her if she took the bait of money to do something dubious. Needless to say, Monday was a very long and arduous day.