The weeks that followed were typical of Valda’s new routine: nightly performances and lazy days. Her attempts at sightseeing had tailed off, as they inevitable do when routine sets in and the novelty wears off. She avoided the Sheikh where possible and had made up her mind never to stoop so low as to carry out any of his dirty-work again.
She was neither happy nor unhappy; numbness was the best way to describe her emotional outlook. She felt lonely: lonely in a loner’s kind of way. Although she craved some quality, one-to-one companionship, she had no appetite for a social life as such. Valda did buy a car as she had promised herself though: a black Mini Cooper, with the traditional white stripes. She had a weakness for sporty cars. The car was her new best pal and they had adventures daily, tackling the Dubai traffic together. Brett no longer managed to break into her thoughts; she had put him down to a brief yet pleasant encounter and did not expect to hear from him again.
About two weeks after her return from Cape Town, Valda read an article about a young Australian woman, who had been arrested in Thailand for smuggling drugs concealed in a surfboard. Compared to the imagination and sophistication behind that attempt, her own endeavour seemed childish and pathetic and yet it had been effective. However, it’s often the simple things that work: when one tries to get too technical, there is more chance of a mishap. She put it down to beginner’s luck and dismissed the thought; after all, she did not intend to do it again, so it hardly mattered.
It was another sunny, scorching day in Dubai. Valda was driving home after a frustrating attempt at buying her aunt a birthday gift in the Gold Souk. She felt as if every ounce of energy had been drained from her body; fighting off 1,000 salesmen, with 300,000 deals, needed an Olympian fitness level and the patience of Job. She had neither. Although her aunt’s birthday was the following week and the present had yet to be purchased and posted in time, her immediate plans involved only a bed and a pillow.
Valda returned into her apartment block, with only the thought of five hours uninterrupted sleep in a chilly, air-conditioned heaven; however, much to her irritation, there was a car parked in her bay. After spitting out a string of expletives and threats, she looked about to see if there were any clues as to the whereabouts of the owner. She knew none of her neighbours; she came and went anonymously and had made it clear that any approaches would be rebuffed. But while she took scant notice of her fellow resident’s appearances, she knew precisely which car belonged to which bay. She was also convinced that she had never seen this gunmetal Carrera GT in the bay before; in fact, it looked like it had been driven right out of the showroom.
‘Gorgeous bit of torque,’ marvelled Valda, ‘but I want it the hell out of my place right now!’
Valda double-parked and reluctantly climbed out of the coolness of her Mini into the blistering afternoon sunshine. She checked-out the smooth, elegant lines of the German car with both admiration and a pang of envy, wondering what it would set her back if she was to buy one. The car doors were unlocked, which was not unusual in Dubai, as crime rates were very low. A white envelope tucked under the windscreen wiper caught her attention and so she walked towards the front of the car and snatched at the envelope, sighing to herself. She assumed the owner had left a note, in case she came home and needed her parking space. The envelope, however, appeared quite thick and chunky; there was obviously more than a brief note inside. Without analysing any further, Valda ripped open the envelope irritably.
Inside was some sort of document resembling a car registration form, another envelope in bright red and various other bits of paperwork. Her immediate thought was that she had opened something private; however, she could not help but take a closer look at the documents. She immediately recognised that one of the forms was, indeed, just like the car registration document for her Mini Cooper. Her eyes jumped to the owner’s name box and her heart started racing when she saw her own name there. Although the red envelope remained sealed, its contents were no longer a mystery. Valda’s heart sunk as her intuition was confirmed as correct – in the red envelope was a ticket to South Africa.
Back in her apartment, she laid the envelope’s contents out on her coffee table. There was a handwritten note with it:
To my Dear Valda,
In appreciation of all your hard work!
P.S. Keys are in the cubbyhole.
She stared at the note, while flicking ash off her fast-diminishing cigarette. If she had felt used before, she now felt like a well-paid lackey. This time, she was determined not to cave in to one of the seventh deadly sins — greed and she made up her mind to tell the Sheikh to stick his Porsche up his anal passage, but in the most diplomatic of terms, of course. It had to be done quickly, as she feared that the longer the car remained in her possession, the harder it would be to relinquish it; morality and common sense may once again succumb to materialism and desire. She wondered how he had known that cars were her weakness, he was either a master judge of character or she was undisguisably shallow. Either way, at that point, Valda could not bear the sight of the car; it sickened her and was a very concrete reminder of her deviation onto the “Low Road”.
That night, she took the car keys, tickets and documents to Flanagan’s, eager to return them as soon as she could. Her eyes scanned the crowds, waiting for the moment she would spot Ahmed or the Sheikh, when she would seize the opportunity to rid herself of the offending envelope in the knowledge that the sense of relief would be huge.
Valda was not amused though, when by two in the morning, there was still no sign of the Sheikh. He did not have a regular pattern and although she had no reason to expect him to be there that night, she had counted on it. At three, the waiting became too much and she decided to enquire of Jo if he was any more enlightened about the movements of the Sheikh.
Jo did, indeed, have the information she was after and it did not please Valda; the Sheikh was in Kuwait for a conference and would be away for several days.
Valda managed to survive the first two days without caving in to her desire to give the Carrera GT a spin. The keys on her coffee table tormented her constantly and there was little apart from eating and sleeping to distract her during the days.
By the end of the third day, she had managed to convince herself that there was no harm in a short drive. With the keys in her hand, she felt a surge of excitement, like an electric current shooting through her limbs, bringing life to her senses. It was years since she had felt this kind of positive anticipation.
There it was, exactly where she had found it three days ago, shining magnificently. For days now it had beckoned her, as if it was as eager as she was to go for a drive. In Valda’s mind, cars assumed personalities and emotions and this particular one appeared to be her perfect match. Wasting no time, she opened the door carefully and eased herself into the low, sleek, lightweight roadster. She sensually ran her hands over the steering wheel, gently toying with the gear lever, savouring every moment of foreplay with her 605 horsepower friend.
After a few more indulgent minutes, she eased the keys into the ignition, turned it over and – wow – the insanely powerful engine sprung to life. Still not sure what to do next, she sat quietly while the monocoque chassis gently vibrated.
Racing clutches can be testy and this particular one was one of the testiest – Valda stalled three times before successfully pulling off. Her new car was akin to an Olympic sprinter itching to get out of the blocks. With so much grit coming out of the engine, the residential streets of Jumeirah were hardly the right arena for this calibre of vehicle’s virgin journey, but Valda was undeterred. Even on the main roads, her GT stayed well within itself, with only the rare opportunity of reaching thirty per cent of its top speed. No matter what, it was an orgasmic experience and she relished each moment.
Tuesday night and the keys and envelope were once again in her jacket pocket. She was certain the Sheikh would be there, although it had dawned on her that he may avoid her, just in case she did return the keys and refuse his new offer. The date on the plane tickets was fast approaching and she wanted things settled before that time.
At around eleven o’clock, the Sheikh and Ahmed did, indeed, arrive. Within twenty minutes, Valda was heading up the stairs to his private lounge area with the envelope. His arrogant confidence that she was now at his beck and call offended her. Valda was not good at saying, “No!” Usually, she felt the need to accompany a “no” with a heated argument, which would, she felt, be inappropriate this time – even though “inappropriateness” per se had never stopped her before. She had no idea what she was going to say.
‘Aah, Valda, it’s been so long! Your performance tonight was more charismatic than ever!’ greeted the Sheikh.
Valda replied with an equally insincere smile. She immediately waved the envelope at the Sheikh, before placing it on the table. ‘Thank you, but I think this is just too much and the answer is, no!’ Her line had not come out as emphatically as she would have liked, but she turned to walk away with no intention of waiting for any response.
‘Causing offence was the last thing on my mind, Valda! We have served each other well and for that, I am grateful to you. You, on the other hand, appear somewhat ungracious.’ The Sheikh spoke with the calmness of a preacher. As usual, he was able to strike a chord somewhere in Valda’s psyche and she immediately felt the urge to explain herself. Again, saying “no” was no simple task.
‘Of course, I appreciate … you know … what happened last time … uhm.’ Valda was losing her composure and she was in danger of letting the Sheikh see behind the cool-cat mask. ‘But I don’t want to take that risk again; I was lucky last time; if I do it again, who knows?’ she shrugged and frowned and then stood, staring at the Sheikh. She had let her guard down and had been honest, possibly not a good tactic, for she was sure that the Sheikh would have the sympathy of a brick wall.
‘Please, sit down.’ His gentle tone surprised her and she obliged. ‘I understand your concerns, but I trust in your ability and intelligence fully. It is both of our risk and I would only ever choose a person of your rare discretion and ingenuity.’
Valda failed to see how he was at risk, but his praise of her had hit its mark once again.
‘It is your decision entirely, but please, keep the car as a token of my goodwill,’ he smiled warmly and spoke softly.
Valda remained seated, her mind blank. The Sheikh stared at the dance floor while he smoked his usual Cubans and Valda stared at him. She was as confused as the first time. She was also certain that the car would now be in lieu of a future unknown favour. She had informally decided, sitting there in the gloom, that she would rather make the trip to Joanna’s one more time, than risk facing any “other” challenges. What the hell, she had pulled it off once. There was no decision really; the time to have said no was the first time, it was too late to turn back now.
The trip was just one day away. The thought of another tedious, uncomfortable night crammed in a plane was more troubling for Valda than anything else. As she locked the door to her apartment on the way to the work, she thought to herself about how doing something the second time never quite involved the same amount of trepidation as the first. It seemed to her as if, when one does something for the first time, one breaks down a barrier, which never rebuilds itself.
On her way to her car, she decided to empty her mailbox. The gold-plated flaps of each individual flat’s mailbox were shining and the whole reception area smelled of some fragranced aerosol polish or other. It was by no means her routine to collect mail on her way out, as her box was invariably empty: she had not yet been detected by the junk mailer’s radar and her bills were few. She slipped in the key, opened the box and was mildly surprised to find three white envelopes inside. It was immediately apparent that the two franked envelopes were bills, but it was the third which captured her attention: a white envelope, address handwritten in Arabic, with her name written in Roman letters, postmarked Dubai. The envelope was thin and flimsy. Valda shoved the two bills back into the box, locked it and walked out to her car, curious to find out what the mystery envelope contained. Sitting in her Mini, she was slightly apprehensive as she ripped open the flap; she was half expecting some new ploy of the Sheikh’s.
Inside the envelope was what looked like a newspaper clipping and Valda gently unfolded it. It was an article from a Dubai newspaper, Gulf News, which had been carefully cut, so that the date of the paper appeared. The title of the article was, “Sharjah Road Tragedy”, from 21 June 2004 edition, and it reported the death of an Venezuelan tennis pro Andres Perez, age 32, who had been knocked off his Ducati on the road from Dubai to Abu Dhabi late one night. It was a hit-and-run accident of which there were, at the time of the article, no witnesses.
Valda lit herself a JPS. Of one thing she was certain, the article was not random; it was meant for her and undoubtedly held some significance. Although it left her with an uneasy feeling, she made no other decision, but to keep it safely.
Valda’s second trip to Cape Town was brief and businesslike. It contained none of the apprehensions of the first occasion and within three days, she was safely back in Dubai. She had kept to her original strategy, minus the birthday card. More relaxed and confident, she had breezed through customs with no hiccups. The Sheikh was pleased, although this time she could not have cared less – the deed was performed out of a sinister obligation, rather than a need for approval.
On her arrival back in the foyer of her Dubai apartment, with her second consignment safely stashed in her duffel bag, she was not at all surprised to find an array of envelopes protruding from her letterbox. She grabbed them with her free hand and yanked them out of the box with a sigh: there were not that many, but the postman had not been diligent enough to shove them right into the box. Upstairs in her flat, she tossed the mail onto the coffee table, with no intention of having anything more to do with it until the weekend at least. Paying bills on time and dealing with paperwork were hardly her forte.
Valda wandered tiredly into the kitchen, debating whether or not she had the energy or the desire to make a cup of tea. Some chocolate biscuits were sitting invitingly on the counter and this swayed her decision; within a matter of minutes, she was lounging on the couch, feet on the table, tea in hand and three biscuits on the go. She switched on Sky News, just in time to catch the latest Premiership news, which, of course, was not complete without a rundown of Jose Mourinho’s latest burst of sarcastic backchat. She drained her mug and promised herself that number five would be her last biscuit. As she lifted her feet off the coffee table, the bottom of her bootleg jeans caught one of the larger items of mail, causing most of the envelopes to tumble onto the floor. Her attention was immediately drawn to another stamped, handwritten letter. She snatched it off the floor and looked at it with irritation. It had been OK to pass the first such letter off as nothing – but the arrival of a second indicated that there was some definite motive behind them.
Curiosity was her predominant emotion as she carefully tore open the envelope. It was another newspaper article. This time, the cutting was from the Khaleej Times, dated December 2004: page 7 of the Dubai Daily detailed the death of a 26-year-old waiter from Lebanon, who had fallen over the balcony of his twelfth-floor flat in Bur Dubai, after a night of heavy drinking.
Valda was surprised to receive this second article; she had decided to write the first off as a scare tactic of the Sheikh’s – should she be having second thoughts again. However, if this was the case, then why would another article arrive while she was in South Africa performing another “mission” at his request? It made her uncomfortable and left her in no doubt that choosing the “low road” was never free from danger.
Not knowing what to think, she wandered into her bedroom and placed the second article safely with the first. She knelt down and reached into the back of her typically messy bedside-table cupboard and out came a white book, with golden-edged pages, and it fell open where the other article lay tucked away. Valda placed the second clipping there amongst the delicate pages of her Bible, along with the first article.
As she undressed, still troubled and uneasy, she pondered over attempting a prayer; something she had not done for years. Within her heart, there was a hint of desperation and she didn’t dare to think how far down the abyss she was falling, or how quickly, for that matter. She decided against the prayer – assuming that God would show no mercy to those like her, who had eaten the apple of greed and stupidity.
You make your choices and then you pay the price – c’est la vie.