ALSO BY DAN FESPERMAN
The Arms Maker of Berlin
The Amateur Spy
The Prisoner of Guantánamo
The Warlord’s Son
The Small Boat of Great Sorrows
Lie in the Dark
Other Books by this Author
A Note About the Author
Sam Keller, still jet-lagged and still keeping a hand on his wallet, wondered how anyone could actually think of sex in a dump like this. There were at least three hundred people here, crammed beneath a low ceiling on a floor no bigger than a tennis court—slippery bodies wedged as tightly as the day’s catch in the hold of a trawler. They stank of sweat, cigarettes, cheap whiskey, and spilled beer. Amber lights made every face queasy, and you had to shout to be heard over the din of a talentless rock band.
All in all, about as erotic as rush hour on the Jersey Turnpike. Pay the toll, roll up your window, and keep moving.
On the other hand, seeing as how everyone here was either a prostitute or a potential customer, how could you
think of sex, especially when each passing female rubbed against you like a cat on a trouser leg. It was enough to get the juice flowing in almost any male, and Sam, being twenty-eight, still had plenty of juice.
This chamber of squalors on the rim of the Persian Gulf was a brothel bar called the York Club. Sam still wasn’t quite sure what he was doing there, other than gamely trying to enjoy the second and final night of what his business colleague, Charlie Hatcher, had billed as a free-spirited layover in Dubai. Ten hours from now he would be on his way to Hong Kong, but for the moment Sam was woozily laboring to make sense of this bizarre place seven thousand miles from home and eight hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time.
His head for numbers told him that the cover charge of fifty dirhams—nearly fourteen dollars—was outrageous. His eye for documentation was amused by the entry ticket, with its official stamp from the Dubai Ministry of Tourism. Maybe it would pass muster for reimbursement.
The women’s looks didn’t wow him, but their variety was stunning. They were from India, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Thailand, Iraq, and seemingly each of the former Soviet republics, although their relentless sales pitch was always in English:
“You want nice time?”
“You want friendly date?”
“You like we go somewhere, have fun?”
Sam found it all a bit glum, sensing that for each of them the York Club was the last lonely bus stop on a long ride of despair. Yet onward they came, even more persistent than the merchants Sam had encountered that afternoon in Dubai’s fabled Gold Souk, where brusque young Punjabi males had kept accosting him to ask: “You want fake Rolex? Nice copy watch? I give you good deal!”
Here it was the smiles that were fakes and copies, and as the 3 a.m. closing time approached, the salesmanship was turning desperate, with customers taking full advantage. Sam watched, appalled, as a drunken Brit in a smudged polo negotiated down the cost of a blow job to less than what he had paid for dinner that night at the Burj Al Arab, the famous hotel that looked like a giant blue sail. At this rate you’d soon be able to get laid for the cost of a crème brûlée and an espresso, tip not included.
Flesh was about the only bargain to be found in this eerie insta-city. Of the many places Sam had visited in his corporate travels for Pfluger Klaxon, none had been as well attuned to the quick-buck rhythms of runaway commerce as Dubai. Everything between the desert and the deep blue sea was for sale, and all of it was either going fast or being paved over to make way for more. The city’s drumbeat was like the precision throb of an artificial heart, clicking and insistent, yet cool to the touch. Expats partied until dawn, and by the time they crawled out of bed the worth of their real estate portfolios had doubled. Sam couldn’t help but wonder what would become of all the giddiness if the market ever collapsed beneath the weight of speculation. Suicide and depression, or more revelry? He was betting on some outlandish, oversized combination of the two, with a steep cover charge and a two-drink minimum.
Strange how a city so full of sun and sensation could leave him so cold. But that was Sam all over—the soul of a bohemian caged by the mind of an auditor. He yearned for new experiences, but couldn’t resist the urge to analyze them as he went along. The sort of fellow, in other words, who while being lured onto a nude beach by a daring girlfriend would be calculating how much bottled water and sunblock they would need to last until sunset.
He sometimes wondered how it had come to this. As a boy he had been a neighborhood adventurer, a ringleader of elaborate pranks, even a daredevil. At age ten, to his mother’s horror, he single-handed an eight-foot sailing dinghy the length of Lake Leland—a man-made lake, granted, and only six miles long, but the closest you could get to the high seas in the heart of rural Iowa. By the time he graduated with an MBA from the University of Chicago he had spent his previous three summers bicycling the California coast, backpacking the Pyrenees, and vagabonding the coast of Turkey.
Nor did he look particularly white-bread, thanks to a Greek grandmother on his mother’s side, who lent the bloodline just enough Mediterranean spice to at least let him
to feel at home in the world’s sultrier latitudes. That, plus an inquisitive gleam of mischief in his liquid brown eyes, left even his soberest observers convinced that he might yet act spontaneously.
But, alas, he was also the son of an accountant, with bean counting in his genes. And his employer, pharmaceutical giant Pfluger Klaxon, had little tolerance for stuff and nonsense, particularly among auditors, who were supposed to keep everyone else in line. Thus had four years on the corporate fast track subdued nearly all youthful impulse. Whenever opportunity knocked nowadays, Sam checked first through the peephole.
A moist dark hand squeezed his left forearm.
“You want date? Nice happy time?”
A second hand, pale as the snows of the Caucasus, took his right arm. Slavic vowels cooed into his ear.
“You want maybe two of us? Special deal just for you?”
Sam pulled free, smiled politely, and shook his head.
“No, thank you.”
A third woman—Indonesian? Malaysian?—slid close on his right, moving sinuously against his hip.
“No, thank you.
The offers multiplied anyway, and his head-wagging refusals became pleasantly hypnotic. Too many air miles and too little sleep. The music, so irritating moments ago, now seemed to insist that he at least
a proposal, if only as a pretext for human conversation, a touch of warmth. Perhaps he could take one of the more hopeless cases aside and slip her a twenty. Or would that set off a feeding frenzy? In these waters, hard currency would be like a bucket of chum.
Maybe the $9 Scotch was getting to him. Watered or not, it was his fifth drink of the night. Only his continuing concern for his wallet tethered him to reality. The tourist guidebooks had warned severely about pickpockets in joints like this, and Sam’s job had trained him to never ignore sensible advice.
Frankly, he was also beginning to worry about the whereabouts of his traveling companion, Charlie Hatcher. Twenty minutes earlier, raffish old Charlie had flashed a lurid grin and vanished down a corridor, hand in hand with a husky-voiced Slav. Charlie was in his forties, and Sam guessed the woman was, too. Up close she had looked far older than her hairstyle and makeup, although the swaying of her sequined rump had produced the one flash of genuine eroticism Sam had experienced since arriving.
He brushed aside yet another arm hold and checked his watch—a real Rolex, to the best of his knowledge. It had now been twenty-seven minutes since Charlie disappeared. Did you really get that much time for your money in a place like this? And where had they gone? The way Charlie explained it in the cab, these women took you to a nearby apartment, or upstairs to a room in the dreary old York International Hotel. Charlie’s had led him straight down a hallway toward what looked like a bank of offices. Were they humping on a fax machine? Squirming atop a pile of interoffice memos that rustled like autumn leaves? Did that cost extra?
The day had been building toward this so-called climax for twenty-one wearying hours, ever since Sam had risen at dawn for a walk on the beach in Jumeirah, a short drive from his hotel. Dazed and blinking, he had stared at the shimmer of the dredge boats as they labored in the sunrise, throwing high jets of sand. They were creating new waterfront real estate for resort islands being built offshore.
He had seen these grandiose projects from the jet on the approach the day before. One was a massive archipelago in the shape of a palm tree, miles across, each frond bearing the spiky fruit of luxury villas and posh hotels. Another mass of islands resembled a map of the world, spanning four miles from pole to pole. The in-flight magazine said it would be reachable only by boat—unless your house came with a helipad. Some rock star had purchased all of Great Britain, and Trump was building a nearby hotel—partially underwater, like the lost city of Atlantis. In fact, that was its name.
It all sounded pretty exciting. Could you really build paradise from scratch? Or was it all a mirage, an elaborate sand castle?
Sam then waded into the surf, only to find that even at 6 a.m. in mid-April the water was bathtub warm. Charlie later told him that by July, when air temperatures reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit, the sea would feel like a lobster boil. No wonder the wealthier visitors came by private jet. Only the possibility of a quick getaway could make such a place bearable.
Maybe Sam was just road-weary. Pfluger Klaxon had now sent him to twenty countries, nineteen more than his parents had ever visited (their lone foreign adventure: a one-hour crossing to Canada at Niagara Falls).
In the early going, he had exulted in his travels, using off days for treks and exploration. But things began to go wrong during a visit to the company’s most important Asian supplier. Clueless about local customs, he alarmed his guides on a day-long kayaking trip, first by indiscriminately using the unlucky number four and then by scribbling in his travel diary in red ink, a signifier that the writer was on his last legs. The guides became convinced he was either suicidal or terminally ill, a conclusion they dutifully passed along to his local business host, who in turn asked Pfluger Klaxon why a walking dead man had been dispatched to do business with them.
Sam’s boss, Gary Grimshaw, fired off an e-mail reminding him that an auditor “was supposed to clean up messes, not make them.” But the whole thing would have blown over if Sam hadn’t then proceeded to lose a company laptop, stolen while he sipped coffee in one of the city’s dicier cafés. The rattled hosts nearly canceled their contract, and Sam’s next scolding came from a far higher floor in Manhattan.
Since then, he had traveled only by taxi. He often ordered room service, and he did his drinking at the hotel bar. Forever arriving on the scene in suit and tie, he was now resigned to envying those adventuresome types he always saw at the baggage carousels—tanned fellows in bandannas and cargo shorts who would soon be bashing dunes, diving reefs, and breaking bread with the locals. Their dusty backpacks and bundled skis made his own gray garment bag loom like a sooty iceberg.
That was why Charlie’s plans for the layover had appealed to him—finally, a fleeting chance to rebuild his more dashing persona, a fresh start on old aspirations.
“We’ll cross you over to the wild side,” Charlie promised. “Forty hours of Business Class hedonism.” Although this latest stop at the York felt like a downgrade to Economy.
The fundamental flaw with this plan was that accompanying Charlie hadn’t actually been Sam’s idea. Nor even Charlie’s. Their pairing had originated in a meeting the week before, when Gary Grimshaw had called him in for a chat.