Valda was sitting outside at a terrace restaurant in Dubai Marina. It was almost November and things had cooled to the extent that it was only just bearable to be outside. She lit a cigarette and took a drag, whilst simultaneously wrenching the envelope out of her back pocket. Cigarette still in mouth, she ripped the remainder of the envelope open and eased out the familiar newspaper article. It was dated 4 March of that year:
Jumeirah Beach Tragedy: The body of a young British woman Claire Townsend-Phillips was discovered early today on the beach near Jumeirah Beach Park by two Swedish holidaymakers. The police have conducted enquiries and it is believed that she was the victim of a tragic speedboat accident – there is no suspicion of foul play. Claire was living and working in Dubai as a nightclub hostess. Her family will be flying out from England.
The so-called article was no more than an insert, sidelined in a column for news that was not important enough to warrant more valuable space. An entire life reduced to seventy-three bland words. Valda immediately thought of Lara. She was about to reach for her phone, when she heard its familiar jingle, so she snapped it open and answered.
‘I was just about to ring you!’ Valda launched straight in.
‘Mental telepathy, huh! Listen, I have to speak to you, are you working tonight?’
‘No, I’m not working while Richard is here. What about this afternoon; now even?’ asked Valda impatiently.
‘What about three, at my place!’
‘Fine. By the way … I received another one!’ Valda hoped that Lara would catch her drift.
‘I thought you may have; anyway, we’ll discuss everything later. Ciao.’
Lara barely had a chance to open her front door, when Valda pushed right in. She had a cigarette in her mouth and without any ado, she handed Lara what was now a rather scrunched-up newspaper article.
‘Someone slipped this under my front door last night!’
Lara regarded it briefly, before directing Valda to the coffee table, where she had prepared tea and some cheesy snacks.
Lara set the piece of paper aside. ‘I did some trawling online and I found the same article: it was the only one that appeared in the Dubai press. I did, however, find that the UK papers reported it more extensively. The Daily Telegraph, for example. Blonde, very attractive. Apparently, she was an Oxford Uni grad; did a degree in history and was working in Dubai during her gap year, to pay off her student loan. Now here’s the crunch: she did work at Flanagan’s!’
‘No surprise there then,’ muttered Valda as she took a sip of tea.
Lara sat down on the couch opposite Valda.
‘Her parents were not impressed with the rather non-existent enquiry into her death. The autopsy revealed there had been a head trauma, but concluded that death had occurred as a result of drowning. There were no witnesses and it was surmised that she had been hit by a motor boat, even thought there was absolutely no evidence to support this. As for the last person to see her alive,’ Lara shrugged, ‘some guy she met at a bar two nights before! Her parents were petitioning for an inquiry of sorts, but I doubt anything came of it. The newspapers soon dropped the story.’
‘But none of that really tells us anything new, does it?’ she paused to take a bite of her cheese cracker.
‘Sure it does,’ Lara sat forwards, concerned. ‘The timing! You received the articles in chronological order; Claire is the most recent victim and the first female one. Whoever is sending these things is getting more urgent, plus, he even sticks it under your door to get your attention this time.’
‘Are you thinking that whoever is behind this is trying to help me?’
‘Could be, but either way, don’t piss around any more, OK!’
‘I know, alright!’ smirked Valda, before continuing, ‘By the way, I had an impromptu dinner date with His Lordship the other night!’ Lara raised her eyebrows without comment and Valda proceeded to provide a sketchy account of the conversation. She was surprised at the way Lara suddenly sat forwards, her eyes lighting up. ‘What is it?’ she demanded.
‘I have a new theory – it came to me last night and what you are saying confirms it.’ If Lara wanted Valda’s full attention, she now had it and she eagerly continued, ‘What if this whole thing was never about the drugs; what if the whole drugs thing was a charade, a way of getting you into his game?’
‘And what is his game?’ Valda sounded sceptical.
‘White slave trade.’
‘You can’t be serious,’ mocked Valda, ‘that’s urban legend stuff!’
‘I am!’ Lara was dogmatic. ‘It’s well documented that women across South East Asia, especially Indonesia, are lured into the sex trade in Saudi Arabia, with promises of lucrative, reputable employment. Last year, George Bush was considering sanctions against Saudi as a result of their failure to stop the modern-day slave trade in prostitutes, but that was dropped, because of the whole War on Terror fiasco. What’s more, countless Polish and Eastern European women are sold to wealthy Arab businessmen by the mafia each year; this kind of thing is commonplace!’
‘Sure, but you are talking about poor countries, where women are desperate!’
Lara held up her hand for Valda to be quiet. ‘Why do you think he is now asking you to recruit employees for him, huh? Why did someone break into your flat and look at your photos and your PC?’
‘I still think that drugs are his thing. Why does he need me to recruit for him, anyway; he could advertise; he could use an employment agency!’
‘Too formal, too long-winded!’ relayed Lara dismissively. ‘Whoever saw those photos in your flat – gala events, shows, etc. – thought the same as I did: you mixed with all the “beautiful people”. You know just the sort of people he is after.’
‘Why does he need me to recruit, when he could have a steady flow from Poland or Indonesia?’ argued Valda.
‘Why have a Ferrari, when a Ford does basically the same thing? Maybe he’s catering for a market of men who have everything money can buy, who don’t want a “desperate woman” – they want the best: intelligent; educated; talented; attractive. You said yourself, he seems to enjoy talking economics to you. Claire was obviously no slouch!’ Lara was still selling her theory passionately. ‘What young woman in Cape Town would not be lured by the promise of a great tax-free income, exotic foreign travel and the chance of opportunities in the real world? The Sheikh mentions all the buzzwords he knows to get young people going: PR, marketing, entertainment. My gosh, they will be clamouring to sign up!’
‘And supposing they do?’
‘Some will work in the usual fields, others will disappear! Some may even volunteer, I guess!’ mused Lara.
Valda was becoming more reflective. ‘Why does he need to do this, do you think?’
‘To ingratiate himself to his oil-tycoon peers, perhaps. Or maybe – as you once said yourself – everybody has to want something, else why would they bother to get out of bed!’
Valda may not have bought Lara’s story entirely, but she was certainly more pensive. ‘I know I asked this before, but why would he harm me, if I am about to deliver what he wants!’
‘But you aren’t, are you? You want out and you have often told me what a shrewd judge of character he is.’ Lara grabbed a crisp and crunched on it while she thought: I know I have been pretty emphatic today, but it’s up to you what you believe. Just ask yourself why you are so anxious not to believe it all.
Valda had to concede that Lara put forwards a convincing argument and she found it hard to answer Lara’s last question.
Lara decided not to press further – whether her theory held water or not, the essence of the matter was that Valda should leave Dubai without hesitation. They both turned their attention to the refreshments on the table and Lara decided to steer the conversation round to the other important matter. ‘So how’s Richard?’ she inquired curiously.
Valda’s eyes lit up and she was more than happy to provide all the details. ‘… which reminds me of something else!’ Valda finished off, reaching into her denim shoulder bag. She withdrew a flattish, navy velvet box of about 5 inches square and placed it on the coffee table with a flourish. ‘A thank you!’ she stated simply.
Lara set down her mug and reached slowly for the elegant box. She opened it gently and gasped as she saw the beautiful necklace inside. It was the necklace she had admired in the Blue Souk on their trip to Sharjah: a lapis lazuli heart pendant on a gold snake chain; the wide gold bail was embedded with a one-carat diamond.
‘How … did … did you know?’ she stammered.
‘You’re not the only one who can play detective!’ she said, smiling proudly. ‘I knew that something in that Sutanah shop had caught your attention, but I didn’t know what; so I went back there and lucky for me, the same woman was serving. She remembered me – no surprise – after all, I did buy that gaudy old dagger and she told me what it was that you were looking at!’
Lara was visibly choked up and all she could manage was, ‘I don’t know what to say?’
‘Well that means a lot in itself, because it’s never happened before!’ said Valda half-jokingly.
Lara was still staring at the necklace and Valda could not see her reddening eyes and so she was rather startled when she noticed the tears steaming down Lara’s cheeks. Valda suddenly began to feel very emotional as well, but her emotions were all trapped on the inside, chaotic and confused. She was relieved when Lara reached over to give her a huge bear hug; indeed, more than relieved, it felt very good, very comforting: it was like experiencing the mothering she’d had never had.
‘I wanted to say a special thank you for everything you have done for me!’
‘I couldn’t have done it alone, it was all fifty-fifty. I try to help many people, but most of them just want easy answers: you really listened, took things on board, you changed your way of thinking. You are one of the few clients I’ve had, who sincerely wanted help – most are just into gratuitous moaning!’ she chuckled as she finished her sentence.
Lara lifted the necklace carefully out of the box and tried it on – it was the most beautiful and unusual piece of jewellery she had ever seen.
‘Why don’t you join Richard and I for dinner tonight!’ suggested Valda.
‘You sure?’ asked Lara sincerely.
‘Absolutely, we’ve discussed all the sensitive stuff. We won’t have a showdown in public, so don’t you worry about that!’ she laughed out loud.
‘OK, I never say no to a meal out!’ Her eyes twinkled before becoming serious again, ‘But promise me you won’t leave it any longer before you leave Dubai: even if we don’t know why those other men died, we know for sure that Claire was closely acquainted with the Sheikh and for whatever reason, she is now dead.’
Valda was pleased to have Lara there with her and Richard: she was the type of person who knew something about everything from politics to sport and she found it easy keep the conversation flowing. Although she felt neither anxious nor downcast, she was not in the mood for chat: she needed to think, although she was not sure about what. Her face displayed an interest and yet mentally, she was tuned out of the light-hearted banter of her companions. She thought back to her first few days in Dubai: they now seemed so far away and yet conversely, she felt that her time in Dubai had flown by. Her previous life in Cape Town felt like just that – a previous life! Valda noticed with an amused detachment the glint in Richard’s eye as he focused on Lara and she smiled inwardly.
She continued to sit there, surrounded by the general restaurant buzz, yet strangely disconnected in her own bubble. She was deep in thought about nothing and she was surprised to note that she felt more relaxed than she had ever remembered being. She thought back to what Lara had said about leaving the page blank and she understood; she, too, now felt as if she had a blank page in front of her. Dubai had not been a new start, but a halfway house, and now she was really ready to start a new journey and she felt wonderfully contented at the thought.
She wondered about Lara and whether she would continue living in Dubai. Initially, the thought of Lara carrying on as usual – as she had before they’d met – had seemed preposterous to Valda and she questioned why on earth Lara would want to stay on. Slowly, Valda began to recognise that perhaps she was projecting her own restlessness and maybe even overestimating her own importance in Lara’s life. Valda pondered over Lara’s comment about her fate being intertwined with that of the Sheikh; she wondered if hers and Lara’s fates were also woven together in some way. Lara had remained an enigma, despite her openness.
Richard would be leaving the following evening after a full day of meetings and so Valda would have the day to finalise her arrangements. She would see Richard off and the night after that, she, too, would be on the plane, jetting away from Dubai. Valda was suddenly impatient to leave; she felt no sentimentality or nostalgia. The time had come and she was totally ready.
‘Flight EK 763 is now boarding at Gate 56.’
‘That’s you!’ Valda flung her arms around Richard and gave him a big kiss.
Richard immediately responded by warmly embracing her and he held on to her for some time, his face buried in her hair and his arms wrapped tightly around her. It was some time before they slowly separated and when they did, there were tears in both sets of eyes.
‘I wish I had done that years ago!’ said Richard poignantly.
‘It still means as much as it would have then!’ Valda was sincere and reflective. The moment was interrupted by another boarding call for his flight. ‘C’mon, you’d better get going, you still have to do the passport control thing!’ urged Valda.
Richard grabbed her arm and after another short kiss, added, ‘I’ll never forget these last two days. You know that I am simply crap at talking about emotions, but I realise that I was very lucky to have spent seven years with such an exceptional woman. A woman who I’ll always love.’ He paused and blushed, ‘I may be back in Dubai in a few months time.’
‘Oh, Richard, I haven’t told anyone yet, but I have something in the pipeline and I may be moving away soon,’ she stopped momentarily to give his arm a squeeze, ‘but wherever I am … you’re invited!’ Richard’s eyes opened wide,
‘London,’ she stated, as if there was no doubt at all about her future.
She could tell Richard was slightly envious, but he concealed it behind a magnanimous smile.
‘Well, keep a room for me, because I go there on business, too!’
They embraced once more, before Richard headed towards the first series of security checks. He looked back frequently and Valda stayed where she was until he was out of sight.
It was eleven o’clock and Valda was on her way back to her apartment. Her journey across Dubai that day had been motivated out of a desire to give the GT a run out for the last time.
Driving across Dubai Creek, she had little time to notice the landmarks she now knew so well; her mind was totally focused on the last-minute details. She was fully satisfied that she had transferred the bulk of her money into Lara’s account and in addition, since it was the end of the month, she had been able to draw her salary. On Lara’s advice, she would be heading for London – via some city or other in Europe – and Lara had provided her with details of all the “ropes”! Valda’s confidence had grown in Dubai and with the substantial wad of cash and practical advice from Lara, she was dammed sure she could make a go of it. She felt incredibly excited about the future and at the same time, relieved that the Sheikh would soon be only a distant memory.
Valda was astonished at how much she had collected over her eight months in Dubai. Most of her favourite clothes and valuables had been stored at Lara’s and the only things remaining at her flat were towels, bed linen, crockery, toiletries and unwanted clothes. She had packed a small overnight bag to take on the plane and some last bits and bobs for Lara to look after. Lara was due to pick her up at four that afternoon to take her to the airport.
She was running ahead of time and so she decided to stop off at her favourite haunt in Jumeirah – Izzie’s – for some lunch. Waqar the owner was thrilled to see his favourite customer and was quick to share his good news. Apparently, Waqar was opening a new branch of his restaurant in Deira City and he hoped that Valda would be a regular and moreover, that she would sing at the grand opening. Waqar was a real character and his banter had lightened her mood many a time while she had lived in Dubai. She was sincerely pleased for him, because she knew that the past few months had not always been the smoothest business-wise. His enthusiasm for his new venture mirrored that of her own and so she was not inclined to quash his enthusiasms by revealing that she would be leaving Dubai for good. One of the waitresses Chanaudi also had good news: she was to be married in December. Valda sat back enjoying a drag; it seemed that that day, everyone had good news to tell: it felt like graduation, with everyone excitedly talking about their plans for the future.
It was one thirty when she arrived back at Concorde Towers. A large, four-wheel drive was about to drive through the gates and she lazily squeezed in behind him before the gates closed, to avoid having the schlep of finding her own keys and poking her electronic key into the machine. After she had parked, she walked around the Mini and the GT as if to say a final farewell and for the first time that day, she was struck by a pang of sadness: there were things about Dubai she would miss. After one last look, she turned and headed with determination towards the lifts, not looking back.
Five minutes later, she arrived at her floor; the building seemed very quiet, although Valda was not sure why she had even noticed that fact: it was always fairly quiet; she hardly ever saw any of her fellow residents, apart from nosy old Mrs O’Neil opposite, of course. She glanced at Mrs O’Neil’s flat as she slipped her key into her door. Suddenly, her attention was drawn to her door; she had heard no click as she had turned the key, although, of course, she may have just missed it. She pushed the door open and walked into her entrance hall, heading towards the table where she always dumped her keys. As she placed the car keys on the table she was suddenly struck by the most eerie sensation and an icy feeling of dread began to develop in the base of her chest. Her back stiffened with fear as she turned slowly towards the lounge. She couldn’t help but gasp as she saw the familiar yet menacing figure of the Sheikh standing there in the centre of her lounge.