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Authors: Charles Benoit

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BOOK: Relative Danger
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He didn’t know what to expect but he expected it to be better than this.

The street wasn’t bright and flashy, there wasn’t chest-thumping music coming from every window and there weren’t any red lights. But there were women. They were not sashaying up and down the sidewalk in clingy short dresses and seven-inch heels, they were not swinging tiny silver purses as they laughed with other hookers and shouted out racy offers to the fun-loving guys driving by in convertibles. They hung in the shadows of many doorways, backs to the wall and, while not conservatively dressed, none were dressed as provocatively as Aisha had been to go shopping. And nobody was laughing.

They weren’t even Arab women. They looked like the immigrants he’d seen from eastern European countries, thick necks, double chins and hairstyles out of the Fifties, their phony smiles heavy with kilos worth of steel fillings. Their hard eyes and expressionless faces, the monotone delivery of their offers, let Doug know that to them fucking was a job, like scrubbing floors or bottling beer, a monotonous, dead-end, when-will-this-god-damn-shift-end type of job and that sex with them would be as much fun as pumping gas. Get in line, stick it in, hurry up and finish. Have a nice day.

As he declined perfunctory offer after perfunctory offer, he wondered what shitty turn of events sent these women to these streets. They weren’t teenaged runaways tying to make it in Hollywood. The youngest was as old as Doug and the oldest—he didn’t want to think about that. Maybe they
teenagers, just turned old by the job, and that seemed plausible to Doug, who had watched himself age at his dead-end job.

But as sad and pathetic as they seemed, the men gliding by in their cars were worse. Young guys, old guys, good-looking guys, guys who looked like they had leprosy, drunk guys, guys in BMWs and guys in their wives’ Hondas, and all of them leering without saying a word, getting some sort of secret rush out of seeing women reduced to screwing for money.

But you’re here, too, Doug, he thought. Good point. Either there’s other guys here, just seeing the world like me, or I’m just like them….

Doug took his first right, off the Boulevard Hassan and onto some no-name side street. He knew he might get lost, despite the guidebook in his back pocket, but he couldn’t bring himself to backtrack up the boulevard, past the same women who would recognize and know just the kind of guy he was. And while the street got darker and narrower he kept walking. He tried hard to think of nothing.

He first noticed the two men when they startled a stray cat about thirty yards behind him. When they crossed over to the other side of the street when he did, he knew they were following him. Doug picked up his pace a bit and glanced back to see if they did the same. They were running.

He didn’t want to panic but it was coming so naturally. He bolted down one side street and then another until he was sure he was lost. They were still behind him, closer and gaining quickly.

He took another turn and knew this was it. A metal garage door stretched from one side of the narrow street to the other and the padlock on the small entrance door was visible twenty feet away. Doug spun around and waited for the two men.

They had stopped running and came around the corner with a steady and confident gait. They knew the streets and knew he wasn’t going anywhere. They were large men, for Moroccans, which made them smaller than Doug. They looked about his age but perhaps the mustaches and the dark complexions made them look older. Like the prostitutes, maybe life had made them too old too young. Their fists were clenched, which Doug was glad to see. That probably meant they didn’t have weapons and it was going to be an old fashioned beating.

As they came closer Doug planted his right foot behind him and got ready. There were two things to do in Pottsville on a Friday night—get drunk and fight—and Doug did both as well as anybody he knew. And, as back in Pottsville, he would just rather run away, but that wasn’t an option now.

The taller of the two men stepped in first and telegraphed a right hook that Doug ducked under easily, hitting the man hard in the stomach. As he pulled back the man aimed a kick at his crotch but Doug turned and took the kick on the thigh. The man got in a quick punch that caught Doug above his ear before Doug fired out two fast left jabs and a perfectly timed right that sent the man stumbling back. Before Doug could hit him again the second man charged from his right and wrapped his arms around Doug, trying to take him down. Doug had only a second to spin himself around to slam the attacker against the brick wall, bringing his knee up hard into the man’s gut. The man tried to stand back up but Doug held his head down with his left hand and got in two solid hits before the taller man, smacked him on the side of the jaw. Doug let go of the smaller man, who dropped to one knee, then slid down to lean against the wall.

The taller man tried to rush Doug into the wall but it was an old bar fight tactic and Doug was ready. He turned sideways, grabbing the man’s shirt and belt, and rammed him into the wall. Before the man could move, Doug had him by the hair and was breaking his face against the white concrete. When the man stopped struggling Doug pushed him hard to the left, trying to trip him just in case he was going to charge again, but the man fell on his own. The smaller guy was still sitting and, when he saw Doug, he cowered down, covering his head with both hands.

Doug ran out of the alley and down the road for a block or two. He wanted to run all the way back to the hotel but his pounding heart scared him into forcing himself to slow to a brisk walk. Ahead were the bright lights of a major intersection and Doug could already see the neon Coca-Cola sign he recognized from his walks near the hotel.

As he lay in bed studying the ceiling fan, a sock full of ice propped against his cheek, he tried to figure out if this trip was truly the stupidest thing he had ever done. He’d been in Morocco for three days and what had he accomplished? He’d probably caused the death of a café owner, sponged a couple of meals off a retired German, met an asshole ex-cop, bought a fake Rolex, and beat up two men. Okay, granted, meeting a hot babe made up for most of these things, but how long before the balance tipped on that one?

As far as the diamond—
Al Ainab,
or Jagersfontien, or what ever—he knew no more than what Edna Bowers had already guessed. His uncle was either an adventurous kind of rogue with the required heart of gold, or he was a psychotic killer with no soul. And in about thirty hours or so he’d be flying off to Egypt, wasting more of Edna’s money, doing nothing in yet another country.

Maybe Aisha was right, if the old lady was happy with him spending her money maybe he should sit back and enjoy it, but he couldn’t help thinking that the whole thing, the trips—the “investigation”—was a waste of time. He’d never find the diamond, he knew that, and he began to feel that he didn’t care who killed Uncle Russ.

He needed to get back to Pottsville, find a job, put his dead uncle behind him and get on with his own life. He missed his few friends, he missed the foods he grew up with, he missed watching baseball—he hadn’t even seen a box score since he left the States—he missed all of these things and it had only been three days. He was not an adventurer, not a traveler. He needed to get back, meet a girl like Aisha, and start over.

A girl like Aisha.

In Pottsville.


They think red diamonds are rare?

He mopped up the melting ice with a towel and re-adjusted his position. The tall guy had clocked him pretty good. Doug opened and closed his jaw trying to keep it from stiffening up. The four Tylenols were starting to make him feel groggy and he switched off the bedside lamp and tried to forget the run-in with the two pimps or muggers or whatever they were.

Or maybe they weren’t.

Maybe it wasn’t him in the wrong place at the wrong time, he thought. Maybe it was something else. Maybe word was out that some dip-shit American was asking all sorts of questions that nobody wanted asked. Maybe someone thought he knew more than he really did. Maybe next time they’d come better prepared, stop trying to save money and send some pros. Maybe he was just imagining too much.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Doug lay awake watching the fan as it fought to rotate the air-conditioned air back down to the bed. It’s sad, he thought. Morocco, all this shit going on, feeling lost and confused and not knowing what was going to happen next, running from God knows who down some street in a country he had no place being, wondering if the next encounter wouldn’t find him dead in an alley. It’s sad, he thought, that this has been the most exciting three days of my life.

After a long hour the Tylenol kicked in and Doug slept through the pre-dawn call to prayer that shook the windows three feet from his head.

Chapter 10

“Look at me a second,” Aisha said as she cut through traffic in front of the Hyatt Regency, her already dangerous driving made even more reckless. “Your face looks lopsided.”

“Gee thanks, and you look gorgeous too.” But she did, in a sleeveless black turtleneck, as tight as everything else she wore, a pair of oversized sunglasses, and her hair meticulously styled to look like she just woke up.

He had spent the morning doing nothing, writing a few postcards, tracking down a seven-day-old
USA Today
to read about a Pirate’s game he had watched at a bar at Pottsville. He found a guidebook for Egypt, just in case he couldn’t sleep on the plane, and bought his mother an ashtray that said
on it, not that she smoked but she would expect something. In his concierge role, the manager went over Doug’s plane tickets, point by minute point. Doug was sure Edna had already taken care of the tip but slipped the guy a few bucks anyway. Aisha called at twelve and told him that she’d pick him and his bags up around six. He reminded her his flight was not till the morning. “I know. Make sure you get a receipt when you check out, we’ve got plans for tonight,” she said.

When he came back from a final look around the souk, the doorman informed him that the manager had signed for a letter from North America and that he could pick it up with the concierge. Doug waited while the man took off his doorman’s fez, walked over to the front desk, removed the manager sign and placed the brass concierge sign in front of him before he asked for his package. Doug opened the cardboard Airborne envelope and saw a small stack of pages paperclipped together. Edna’s yellow Post-it note said that he should read this before he got to Cairo. When he got to his room he packed the envelope in his carry-on bag. He’d read it on the plane. At that moment he had better things to do. Like fantasize about Aisha’s plans.

The Al-Kady mansion was empty, everyone at a family dinner in Rabat. “They go every week. I go once a month,” she explained. The living room was as large as the lobby of his hotel but decorated like a gaudy version of a European palace, with carved and gilded chair legs, velvety fabrics, and carpets with patterns so detailed they hurt your eyes. She walked him through the house back to the poolside patio where they first met. Set between two chairs was an elaborate water pipe like the kind he had seen in every café in the city.

“The coals are still hot,” she said as she poked around in a small brazier behind the chairs, “it’ll only take a few minutes.” She removed the long brass neck of the pipe from the glass base. She filled the base with water from the outdoor bar, tossing in two handfuls of ice cubes before she reassembled the exotic contraption.

“I’m assuming you smoke
,” she said as she opened a small box on the table half filled with what looked like wet, sticky tobacco. A red-brown juice dripped from the small ball she made with her fingertips. She put this in the clay head of the water pipe and covered the opening with a piece of tin foil. She used a sharpened pencil to poke holes in the foil, the point of the pencil dyed red from many such uses.

Although he had drunk gallons of mint tea, Doug had not yet tried one of the water pipes. The smoke at the cafes smelled different than the smoke from stale cigarettes he was used to in bars back home. Tobacco, yes, but with a hint of something sweet, like smoking a strawberry.

Aisha sifted through the coals with a pair of long metal tongs until she found four pieces she liked, each half the size of her little finger. One by one she set them on top of the tin foil, carefully blowing on each till most of the coal showed fiery red. She attached the flexible hose to the brass neck, midway between the coals and the ice. The hose was wrapped in different colored cords and finished in a flourish of tassels and beads knotted around a hand-carved wooden mouthpiece.

Aisha put the wooden mouthpiece to her lips and drew in a long, deep breath. The ice tumbled in the base as it filled with a light gray smoke. She exhaled a cumulus cloud of smoke, her face hidden behind the billowing screen. She could make everything erotic, even the way she dabbed the corners of her eyes as she passed him the wooden handle.

“You’ve got to draw harder than that, Doug,” she said, adjusting the coals. His second attempt brought a lungful of smoke down his throat, but it was smooth and definitely pleasurable. “Try not to exhale it out so forcefully, just let it slide out.” Doug took another draw and did as he was instructed, handing the pipe back to Aisha.

“One of the things I missed most when I went to school in New York was sitting outside, smoking
, watching the stars cross the sky. When I was younger I couldn’t do it enough. As I got older I learned to appreciate the subtle pleasure of it all and now know it’s one of life’s great treats. You don’t get it often, but that’s what makes it special, like hot fudge sundaes and multiple orgasms.”

Doug coughed out the smoke he was trying to pull in. “You’ve got a way of putting things, Aisha. You pick that up in the States?”

“There I was too conservative, here I’m too liberal. In college I was a tough date and in Egypt my uncles think I’m the Whore of Babylon. I need to find a place sort of in between. Maybe Malaysia. Bali’s nice too.”

Doug pictured an island beach. White sands, crystal clear water, palm trees swaying just a bit in the warm breeze, and Aisha, wearing a grass skirt, no top, and a huge orchid in her black hair. Would she still smell like vanilla there or would it be coconut? She’d step out of her skirt, set the flower on the sand, and walk out until the waves slapped at her ass, her dark brown legs just visible beneath the surface.

“Speak up, my hearing always goes when I smoke
,” she said as she tapped him on the shoulder with the wooden handle.

“Oh, sorry, I was trying to figure something out. So this is
. What is that, some sort of cured flavored tobacco?”

is what we call it here. It’s grown up in the Atlas Mountains and you mix it in with some flavored molasses. The word comes from some Berber dialect, but it translates pretty easily. I think in the States the current term is weed but we called it pot at Bard.”

“This is marijuana?” Doug said, rather startled. “Isn’t this like major illegal over here?”

“It is in the U.S., too, I recall,” she said, fishing a beer out of the small cooler under her chair.

“I mean, can’t we get like killed here for this? Don’t they execute drug users here?”

“None that I know. I can put it away if you’d like,” she said, but her voice indicated that killing the pipe would not be what she would like.

“No, it’s okay, I mean it’s good, it’s just that I’m just surprised is all.”

“I would hope that I wouldn’t run out of surprises in just a few days, Doug,” she said, taking the pipe handle from him with the same hand she was handing him a beer. “I’ve got a whole night of surprises lined up for you. Cheers.”

At dinner—an Authentic Californian Bristo the sign said—Aisha introduced him to a dozen of her friends, whose names he never caught. It seemed that everyone she knew was chic, witty, and painfully good-looking. He felt painfully average. But Aisha had a way of making everyone seem more interesting, more exotic, than they really were. She introduced Doug as a private detective, just in from New York, which, technically, was sort of true. He was transformed, suddenly mysterious and dangerous. As for good-looking, Aisha’s beauty seemed to spill off onto whomever she was sitting next to. He was good-looking by association.

Doug didn’t remember who did the ordering, who paid the bill, who passed around the bottle of Jack Daniels, who handed him the cigar. But it was Aisha who was rubbing his leg under the table.

Dancing at the club was a sweaty blur of Euro music that he never heard before and lights like a science fiction movie. It was well past two when Aisha pulled him close, drove her tongue down his throat and after shouted in his ear, “Let’s get out of here.”

In her brightly lit room, she pushed him backwards onto the bed and climbed on top, straddling his stomach with her legs, her jeans unzipped but still hanging on her hips. She kissed hard, pressing her lips against his violently. Her hair was everywhere. Her heavy breathing had no rhythm and a bead of sweat rolled off her nose onto his cheek. She threw herself back, pulling her shirt off in one motion. “Get your clothes off,” was all she said.

Aisha’s long legs pinned Doug down, her hands pressed hard into his shoulders. Her flawless body, one shade of honey brown, constantly moved, undulating powerfully. He was amazed that he was able to hold out for as long as he did. It certainly didn’t slow down Aisha, who slid her body down to his thigh, apparently trying to grind through his flesh to hit bone. Doug watched as she rode his leg, tossing her head around, gasping for breath, shouting things in a half dozen languages. And, when she sat up suddenly, taking fingernails full of his chest with her, her wild hair framing that face, their sweat glazing her chest and tight, flat stomach, and she sucked in all that air for one final, high-pitched moan, Doug never felt happier.

An hour later, she was back on top of him again.

The third time, she just went right for his thigh.

Doug woke just before dawn when Aisha whispered in his ear, “Just lie there,” and snaked her legs around his.

BOOK: Relative Danger
12.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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