Chapter Twenty Four
‘A witness?’ Lara asked with surprise.
Lara was confused. She knew what had happened and that there could have been no witnesses to the actual murder, so she wondered what exactly this witness had seen. Despite the fact that this was a worrying development, which had the potential to cast doubt on her whole story, Lara decided that she had better display some excitement.
‘Yes, the DS is interviewing her right now!’
Her! thought Lara in alarm. ‘That’s great news, Faroukh, thank goodness some information has finally come to light!’ she uttered with feigned enthusiasm and relief.
Faroukh immediately made his excuses and left. Lara sank back onto the bed, puzzled and concerned; she was unable to fathom out who this mystery female witness was. She wondered briefly if Valda had returned and was making up some story; she wondered if someone who knew Valda had spotted her at the airport leaving Dubai; theories abounded in her head and she craved another blue pill to make her racing mind stop. She did not see Faroukh again that day and it was some of the other policemen who brought her food and accompanied her to the courtyard. She read nothing in their deadpan faces.
Lara’s sleep was troubled and restless and she was still trying to sleep, when Faroukh arrived with her breakfast and to tell her that she was going to be interviewed by the DS in the next half-hour.
Lara sat at the interview table, her head pounding. She had a splitting headache, she was pale and she had dark circles under her eyes. She had not seen a mirror since that fateful day itself and she had no idea how gaunt and depleted she looked.
The DS sat opposite her, sorting his papers and notepad; he had informed her that this session would be brief.
‘Now, Miss Kramer, what do you know about Ahmed Atwan?’ he asked, leaning forwards.
Lara paused momentarily before answering; she tried to recall everything that Valda had told her about Ahmed. ‘He was the Sheikh’s … uhm … minder,’ she answered quietly.
‘Did you know him well?’
‘Not really.’ Lara shook her head, adding, ‘He was always with the Sheikh or hovering in the background.’
‘Did you ever have a conversation with him?’
‘No, not really. Nothing more than “hello”, “how are you”, that type of thing.’
‘Did you ever see him on any occasion other than when he was with Sheikh Abdullah?’
Lara did not answer immediately, she needed to think, to scan every bit of her memory. ‘Yes, there were one or two occasions when he delivered an invitation for me for dinner with the Sheikh.’ Lara refrained from elaborating; her tactic, as usual, was to keep all her answers short and to the point.
‘You mentioned that Sheikh Abdullah visited you on two occasions in your apartment.’ He sat forwards earnestly.
‘Yes, that’s right.’
‘Where was Ahmed on those occasions?’
‘I didn’t actually see him, but I assumed he was somewhere nearby.’
‘Did the Sheikh ever mention Ahmed to you in conversation?’
‘Thank you very much, Miss Kramer, that will be all for today.’
The rest of that day and the day that followed were routine, but for the absence of Faroukh, who Lara assumed was having some time off. The hours crept tediously by and Lara had given up on her hypothesising. She was neither optimistic nor pessimistic and she held no regrets, she only maintained her belief that there must be a reason behind it all and that somehow, those mysterious puzzle pieces were fitting together.
It was two days since her interview with the DS, when she heard the key in the door. It was morning and she assumed that her breakfast was arriving. She was lying in bed and did not make the effort to sit up or even to look around.
‘Valda?’ called Faroukh, who, to Lara’s surprise, was standing in the doorway, empty-handed, but wearing a huge smile. He motioned for her to get up, ‘Come with me!’ Lara was quickly on her feet and she followed Faroukh into the passageway.
‘Where are we going?’ she asked eagerly.
Faroukh, still smiling, held his finger to his lips.
Lara’s heart was now beating faster and faster, but she dared not to raise her expectations. She was led through the familiar security doors, but instead of walking in the direction of the interview room, they walked down a long hallway and then climbed some stairs and entered a part of the building Lara had not seen before. The change in decor was dramatic; there were pot plants, carpets, concealed lighting, vending machines and art on the walls – it was like another planet. Faroukh was tall and athletic and he walked very quickly and Lara was out of breath, trying to keep up with his pace. As they passed through a set of wooden doors, Lara immediately noticed the DS, who was standing with a tall, blonde man.
He greeted her with a smile and an outstretched hand. ‘Aah, Miss Kramer, I would like you to meet Mr Robert Stelling!’ said the DS.
Lara held out her hand out to shake both Mr Stelling and the DS’s hand.
‘Please come into my office,’ invited the DS as he shepherded Lara and Mr Stelling into a spacious, modern room. Lara noticed nothing about the office, all her attention was focused on a beaming Jodie, who was standing in the centre of the room.
‘You are being released, they’ve made an arrest,’ she squealed with delight as she threw her arms around Lara. Lara embraced Jodie enthusiastically, but looked around for confirmation from the DS.
‘Yes, indeed, you are now free to go. In fact, Mr Stelling and Ms van der Velde will fill you in on all the details, while I go and sign the release papers,’ announced the DS as he closed the door and left Lara, Jodie and Robert alone in his office.
Lara was overwhelmed with excitement and also questions. She wanted to know who had been arrested; she needed to understand all the details, before she could allow the relief and joy to permeate her body. She looked around for a chair to collapse into, while Jodie and Robert looked on with concern. She put her hands over her eyes, composing herself for a few seconds, before looking up at Jodie and gasping, ‘Oh, my God, this is so wonderful! Thank you, thank you!’
‘You look terrible, but don’t worry, we’re going to take you for a big, fat meal and a shopping spree as soon as we leave here,’ reassured Jodie cheerfully.
‘Who did they arrest?’ enquired Lara.
Jodie could not contain her own excitement and began to rattle off the details with enthusiasm. ‘Well, lucky for you, you have a very nosy neighbour – Mrs O’Neil?’ She paused for a second and Lara acknowledged that she knew who Jodie was referring to. ‘Anyway, she came forward a few days after the murder as a crucial witness. On the day of the murder, she was waiting for a phone call from her son in Boston, when she heard noises in the hallway and decided to investigate by looking out of her peephole. This was at about one o’clock. She saw two men matching the descriptions of Ahmed Atwan and Sheikh Abdullah entering your apartment. She claims that about fifteen minutes later, she heard your door slam; she looked out again and saw Ahmed leaving. Incidentally, she said that she had seen Ahmed “lurking” outside your apartment on another occasion as well. She said that she was suspicious. The next thing she saw was you arriving home at about two twenty, a time which was backed-up by the garage security system, which logged your key code. She left shortly after that in order to do some shopping.’ Jodie stopped to catch her breath and Lara silently reflected on her good fortune; nosy Mrs O’ Neil had missed Valda arriving home at one thirty. Jodie continued, ‘The police had been suspicious of Ahmed in any case, but after Mrs O’ Neil’s evidence, they decided to search his flat. Robert will have to tell you the rest, as it gets quite complicated.’
Lara looked towards Robert; she was enthralled by the way things had fitted together. Robert had waited patiently for his turn, but he was equally raring to tell his story. He pulled up a chair and sat forwards, facing Lara. ‘When they searched Ahmed’s flat, they found an archive of old newspaper articles dating back fifteen years. Bear in mind that Ahmed had worked for the Sheikh for seventeen years. All the articles pertained to seemingly accidental deaths, which had occurred in Dubai at various intervals over those past fifteen years. Taken together, it was easy to see the similarities: all the deceased were men, all were immigrants, all had worked for the Sheikh in some capacity and all were fairly well off prior to their deaths. None of the deaths were considered suspicious at the time. The post-mortem showed that Sheikh Abdullah was a cocaine addict. The police deduced that in view of the strict drug laws in Dubai, it was hard for him to feed his habit and so over the years, he had enlisted the help of various employees to smuggle coke into Dubai for him. He offered handsome rewards. In order to cover his tracks, however, he would have his couriers wiped out after a few months. The police are convinced that Ahmed carried out all the murders and they believe that further investigations and forensic evidence will prove this beyond a doubt, especially as far as the more recent deaths go.’ As Robert took a breath, Lara once again marvelled at her luck; the police had ostensibly overlooked the fact that, apart from being a woman, she – or Valda, rather – fitted into exactly the same category as all the deceased couriers.
‘So why do they think Ahmed killed Sheikh Abdullah?’ asked Lara, perplexed.
‘Well,’ answered Robert with big eyes, ‘ten years ago, a concierge at one of the Sheikh’s hotels by the name of Yousef Atwan was found hanged in his apartment. The verdict was suicide. He was Ahmed’s brother. It’s hard to say whether Ahmed or someone else killed Yousef, but there is no doubt the Sheikh was behind it. It must have been very difficult for Ahmed to accept: Yousef was his younger brother and they appeared to be very close. By that stage, it would have been impossible for Ahmed to go to the police – he had so much blood on his own hands and who would have believed his story? The police believe that Ahmed never forgave the Sheikh and he had waited patiently all these years for the opportunity to wreak his revenge. He must have thought that by killing the Sheikh in your apartment, with your knife, you would be arrested and tried and he could walk free. Anyway, the bottom line is that Ahmed has been arrested and the DS has submitted papers to the prosecutor, who will, in time, charge Ahmed with the murder. Most importantly though, you are free to go – I have your passport and apartment keys in my pocket.’
Robert had just finished, when the DS re-entered his office with wad full of paperwork and some papers for Lara to sign. Lara was sure that any decent lawyer would be able to flag up all the gaps and flaws in the “Ahmed did it” theory, but she intended to be very far away from Dubai by that stage. She also thought back to what Jodie had said about the necessity to have this messy saga off the front pages, superseding a quest for truth and justice. She had never seen Ahmed, but she pitied him, especially now that she knew he had been trying to warn Valda all along. Lara wondered why Robert had not mentioned anything about Claire’s death; surely Ahmed had retained articles about that, too.
Jodie and Robert drove Lara to the South African Embassy and she was able to shower, wash her hair and change her clothes there. Every small detail of life from brushing her teeth to blow-drying her hair was a revelation, a luxury, something to be very much appreciated. Lara had never been a person to take things for granted, but even for her, there was a renewed pleasure in every aspect of life.
Robert, Jodie and the other staff at the embassy who joined Lara for a slap-up meal at the Burg Al Arab were ravenous for details of her ordeal, from the discovery of the body to prison life. Apparently, her story had made headline news in the papers and her news was even featured in Al Jazeerah. Lara was happy to oblige with all the details; however, her mind was constantly on the flight she would be taking to JFK the next night and what she needed to do before then.
It was a struggle to satisfy Jodie that she would be OK by herself that night, but after some persuading, Lara managed to get away by herself. She posted off the car documents and removed the final things from Valda’s flat, before returning to her own flat in Deira. She was thoroughly relieved to be back in her own flat and yet it no longer felt like home. She was also relieved to be herself again and yet the Lara she was now, felt very different to the Lara she had been when she had received that call on the “secret phone” two weeks before. After another bath and wearing a wonderfully fresh and soft pair of PJ’s, she collapsed into bed, blissfully relieved and relaxed and, moreover, feeling more contented than she had ever felt in her life.
The next morning, Lara began packing her things. She was passing through the lounge, when she saw the large paper bag Robert had given her; apparently, it contained various belongings of Valda’s, which the police had confiscated. She curiously peeled back the masking tape and looked inside. She found her own handbag, with Valda’s bank cards inside, along with Valda’s driving licence, cigarettes and lighter. She found a group of envelopes all tied together and right at the bottom was, to her surprise, the dagger. It was wrapped in plastic, but even through the plastic it sparkled with splendour. It had been beautifully cleaned and polished and looked better than ever. Lara stared at it for some time; it sent a shiver down her spine, but not for the obvious reason, there was something else, which she could not define.
Lara flicked through the envelopes: some were bills, but, more interestingly, some were letters of support from Valda’s colleagues at Flanagan’s – she saw the names of Jo, Inzie and other people, whom Valda had never mentioned. Lara smiled, knowing how happy Valda would be that people had been worried about her.
Lara knew she would have to return at some stage to sell the cars and her own flat, but she also knew that that return would be brief. She felt as if she had been reinvented as a person – she was on the first leg of a journey, destination unknown, the past unimportant.
That night as she flew over Dubai, she did not look back, not even to see the glittering lights of the magnificent desert city.