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Authors: Dan Fesperman

Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General, #antique

Layover in Dubai (4 page)

BOOK: Layover in Dubai
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“Pretty much. He slept later than me this morning, but I saw him downstairs at breakfast.”
“At your hotel?”
“Yes. The Shangri-La.”
“And how long have the two of you been in the country?”
“Two nights now. About …” Sam checked his watch. “Thirty-six hours.”
Assad paused in his note taking and snapped to attention at the sound of a new voice from the corridor. The voice mentioned the lieutenant’s name, and Assad squinted, tilting his head like a dog who has just heard a disagreeable noise.
“Excuse me a moment,” he said, rising from the chair. He crossed the room and opened the door. It was clear from his face that he didn’t like what he saw.

 

3
When he was a boy, diving for pearls among sharks, and gambling with smugglers three times his age, Anwar Sharaf was rarely underestimated by his peers. Nowadays, in his fifties, people did it all the time. Especially Westerners, who needed only one look before writing him off as either incompetent or inconsequential.
Sharaf’s police uniform was part of the problem—green with epaulets and red piping, a canvas military belt, laced boots, a silly beret—a getup that would have been right at home in some banana republic far across the waves. He accentuated the effect with a potbelly, a sloppy mustache, and the hangdog jowls of the long-suffering family man.
Glimpse him hunched over paperwork at his undersized desk and the word “beleaguered” came instantly to mind. So did “inept” and, possibly, “corrupt.” Because surely here was an underpaid fellow who would soon have his hand out, sighing and grumbling about this rule and that until you bribed him and were merrily on your way. A harmless nuisance, in other words. A scrap of local color to liven up your texts and postcards home:
Dumbest cop ever, LOL!
The moment Sharaf opened his mouth, impressions began to change. Fluent in English and Russian (his father, hiring tutors at the height of the Cold War, had hedged his bets), Sharaf had also picked up Hindi from the streets and Persian from the wharves. That left him in command of four of Dubai’s main languages of commerce, with his native Arabic murmuring beneath them like an underground stream. His tutors had also schooled him in literature, economics, biology, philosophy—the works. Throw in his seasons of instruction on the high seas at the age of thirteen—a summer of pearling, an autumn of smuggling—and he was arguably better equipped for intellectual combat than many of his contemporaries who had gone abroad to university.
Yet Sharaf usually held his fire. For one thing, why blow his cover? Enemies were more easily disarmed when they underestimated you. For another, he was accustomed to dismissive treatment, having endured it since the age of twenty-two, when he enraged his father by refusing to take a second wife even though his first one hadn’t yet produced a child in two years of marriage. Thus did he break with a family tradition of Sharaf males taking multiple wives. Sharaf’s father refused to acknowledge the move for what it was—a gesture of rebellion by a young man determined to be “modern.” He instead scorned it as a craven surrender to foreign values and a domineering wife, and the berating continued without letup until his death six years later.
At that point, Sharaf’s wife, Amina, took up the cudgel, even though by then she was producing offspring as bountifully as Dubai’s new offshore wells were spouting oil. It wasn’t out of malice. It was part of her job as an Emirati wife, which in those days included running a household with the tyrannical rigor of a ship’s captain.
Little surprise, then, that as we join Sharaf late one weeknight he is stoically fending off the latest blow, grimacing as Amina says, “You really can be a heartless imbecile, you know, when it comes to the welfare of your sons.”
Amina had chosen a vulnerable moment for her new offensive. It was right before bedtime, when she knew that what Sharaf cherished most was a cool glass of camel’s milk before climbing into bed with a book.
He was a man of uncomplicated tastes. Whereas Dubai’s new elite favored art auctions, horse breeding, and an eclectic cuisine of, say, creamed leeks with shaved truffles, followed by poached Dover sole (which happened to be exactly what Sharaf’s top boss, Brigadier Razzaq, had ordered that very night on the tab of a British banker), Sharaf preferred shopping malls, domino parlors, greasy mutton kebabs, and, his most recent discovery, sushi bars, which he treasured for their elemental taste of the sea.
In his reading he was far more adventuresome, a seeker of exotic riches from every hemisphere. He was particularly relishing tonight’s offering—Dostoevsky’s
Crime and Punishment
, in the original Russian. A copy had arrived in the afternoon mail and awaited him on the bedside table. Sharaf was hungry for its insights, especially since certain Russians had lately been much on his mind. But now he would have to fight his way to sanctuary.
He set down his glass of milk with deliberation. He knew better than to answer hastily to such a skilled opponent. Early in their marriage Sharaf had enjoyed a clear advantage in these verbal contests, mostly because Amina’s all-girl school had valued piety and deportment over rhetoric and quick thinking. But she had a sharp mind, and in raising their five children she had honed it on the whetstone of their daily stratagems and evasions. Sharaf, meanwhile, had steadily dulled his by going up against oafish criminals and sleepy desk sergeants, to the point that on the home front he was now sometimes overmatched.
“So suddenly it’s a hardship if Yousef can’t fly business class to Paris?” he answered.
“It’s seven hours. He needs the legroom.”
“He’s five-eight. He only wants it for the free booze.”
“Anwar!”
“He drinks, you know. Ali said his son told him. Saw him in London once, in a pub. Maybe we should start checking his credit card receipts.”
“As if you didn’t already. And Ali’s a shameless gossip. Yousef doesn’t go near that sort of thing, and you know it.”
“Not here, at least. I’m not saying he’s a fool, just a profane opportunist.”
“Says the Muslim who loves bacon and spareribs.”
The pork story again. A mistake to have told her. It had slipped out the week before, while he was sharing fond memories of a boyhood tutor: Gregor, half bear and half man, a roaring Muscovite who had served bountiful lunches with his verb conjugations and Euclidean geometry. The best part of those meals was the most succulent goat meat Sharaf had ever eaten. Deliciously fatty, redolent of smoke. Gregor had explained that it was an exotic breed, imported from the motherland. The feasts continued until the day Sharaf described the pleasures of this “imported goat” to his skeptical father, who quickly got to the bottom of things. The boy got a beating for his gullibility, not to mention a skinny new tutor who served only bread, olives, and hummus. But his memories of the flavor were still so vivid that he sometimes slipped into the forbidden pork sections of the local Spinneys supermarket, justifying his unauthorized presence among the foreigners with a furtive wave of police credentials, as if he might be checking for narcotics among the slab-cut bacon and inch-thick chops. He never bought any. A glance was sufficient. Even now his mouth was watering, so he conceded the point and moved on.
“Okay, let him fly first class. But where’s he staying, and for how long?”
“He didn’t say.”
“Some five-star hotel, no doubt. Four hundred euros a night if it’s a franc.”
“They don’t use francs anymore.”
“I know, dear. It’s a figure of speech. I just wonder if our son knows, since he never pays the bill, even though he’s twenty-five.”
“Twenty-six. And he’s a student.”
“Now and forevermore. What he
ought
to be is someone’s employee.”
“See? Next you’ll start in on Hassan.”
He wouldn’t actually, even though at age twenty-three Hassan also ought to have a job but instead was studying overseas. Nor would he mention their third son, Rahim, who was living in the house next door, scandalously single at the age of twenty-nine. Or even Salim, the eldest, who also made his home within the high stucco walls of the Sharaf family compound. Salim inhabited the largest of the family’s houses, yet he was constantly agitating for a bigger one. Salim needed more room because during the previous year he had symbolically joined forces with Sharaf’s dead father by taking a second wife. You could now hear the family arguments from the street. Salim’s growing brood had become as noisy and chaotic as a clan of Bedouins and all their goats.
Only on the subject of their daughter, Laleh, were Amina and Sharaf generally in agreement, mostly because she still lived under their roof. Right down the hall, in fact, where she was probably eavesdropping at this very moment.
Even when Amina was inclined to take her daughter’s side, she generally didn’t need to, because Laleh could hold her own. Father-daughter arguments almost always concerned issues of personal freedom, such as Laleh’s scandalous wardrobe—business casual, she was now calling it, even though she supposedly covered everything with a black abaya—or her longest-running grievance, that as a single woman of twenty-four who ran her own business, she was somehow entitled to live in her own apartment. Fat chance of that, even if she did operate a small marketing firm in the shimmer and sprawl of Media City, one of Dubai’s newest office parks.
“Please, Amina,” Sharaf said, bidding to de-escalate. “You know our schedule. We argue about Hassan on Tuesdays, Rahim on Thursdays.”
He smiled to make it seem more like a concession. Fortunately Amina smiled back. The creases on her forehead eased. With any luck he’d be reading in five minutes.
“What about Wednesdays?” she replied. “Don’t tell me that’s an off night.”
“That slot is reserved for Laleh. She’s been asking again about traveling by herself to New York.”
Amina rolled her eyes. “Out of the question.”
“That’s what I said.”
“Then you can fight that one on my behalf. Single combat, weapon of your choice.”
She pinched his belly, which she had been doing since the days when he didn’t have one. He reciprocated with a quick kiss, and then retreated behind the kitchen table for the final swallow of milk. Rich stuff, camel’s milk. Too rich for bedtime. But repetition had trained his stomach to handle it.
“What will we ever do if she marries?” Amina said, following him to the bedroom. “She’s our last frontier.”
“I fear we’ll never have to worry about that.”
“Don’t say that! She’ll hear you. Besides, I don’t want to think about it.”
He knew now he was in the clear. Amina never wanted to probe too deeply into the subject of Laleh’s marriage prospects. It had been that way since their daughter had turned eighteen and they had bowed to her wishes by not arranging a match. Their break with tradition hadn’t seemed momentous at the time—plenty of families were doing it—but six years later it was beginning to feel like a miscalculation. A husband would have kept her in line far better than they could.
Sharaf switched on the bedside lamp, puffed his pillows, and settled in, propping himself against the headboard in a comforting pool of light. He opened the book, enjoying the pulpy smell of the new pages. He flipped past the scholarly introduction, which would have told him all the things he wanted to figure out for himself, and began acquainting himself with the tormented young Raskolnikov. A real piece of work. Not at all like the Russians he had come across here. Sharaf could have spotted Raskolnikov’s brand of guilt from a block away. Remorse was wonderful that way, although in Dubai it was in short supply. Criminals of the new breed didn’t have an ounce of it. Nor were they poor, like the threadbare Raskolnikov. Wrong place, wrong century, he supposed.
Sharaf turned the page and sighed, resigning himself to the prospect that the book might not hold any lessons for him, after all. Literary enjoyment would have to be its own reward. But twenty minutes later a paragraph jumped from the page that made him reconsider. It was a cryptic flash of insight from Raskolnikov at the end of chapter 2:
What if man is not really a scoundrel, man in general, I mean, the whole race of mankind—then all the rest is prejudice, simply artificial terrors and there are no barriers and it’s all as it should be
.
This was more like it. Disturbing. Baffling, too. Was he saying that man was his own God, setting his own rules, and therefore even our crimes and self-made disasters were according to plan, if only because we were making up the plan as we went along?
It was an intriguing concept, because this was how Sharaf was beginning to feel about his latest assignment, a puzzle in its own right. He had been commissioned to quietly look into the activities of a few of his fellow officers and their possible relations with certain Russians about town. Scoundrels, indeed.
One of the job’s most daunting aspects was the lofty rank of the assigning officer. Not Brigadier Razzaq, who ran their department, nor even the brigadier’s boss, who ran the entire police force and had a seaside villa the size of a castle. It was one of the ministers in the royal cabinet, who technically wasn’t supposed to be in touch with a mere detective inspector. Yet, Sharaf and the person he called “the Minister” now conversed regularly, although never on a landline and never when Sharaf was in his office or the Minister was in his.
This meant Sharaf had to work on his own time and his own dime, while still meeting his official obligations. It was new ground, and it already felt alien and unsafe. No rules other than the ones he made up along the way.
Oddly appropriate, Sharaf supposed, because that was how Dubai’s newest criminals operated. Except their rules were backed by more money and muscle. The Minister had implied from the beginning that he had backing from the very top, but who could say for sure when Sharaf wasn’t allowed to ask, and when all their conversations occurred in the shadows?
BOOK: Layover in Dubai
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