Authors: Charles Benoit
“See?” Aisha said as they raced through the airport terminal, “I told you we’d make it.”
Doug readjusted the shoulder strap of his carry-on bag and kept a vice-like grip on his passport and ticket. The grip was easy since he had had a half hour practice, gripping the dashboard of Aisha’s BMW as she made
time on the Avenue Moulay Hassan I. Somehow Aisha had had the strength to get up early enough to clean, press, and repack his luggage, drag him into the shower and maneuver through the early morning rush hour traffic. If it had been up to him, they’d still be in bed. Recovering.
But no, they were at the airport and he was about to say goodbye to the most amazing woman in the world. What he should say had been troubling him since it dawned on him that he was really leaving, just after Aisha blurred past the speeding ambulance on the outskirts of the city. He thought about that airport scene in
. The rain, the passion, Rick and Elsa, Captain Renault, the twin-engine passenger plane revving its sputtering engines. Rick didn’t get all mushy, didn’t ramble on about how she was the only woman he ever loved. “We’ll always have Paris”—“Here’s looking at you, kid.” The most perfect, romantic goodbye ever. Now it was his turn.
“Aisha,” he started, “it may be too early to say this, and I don’t know how you feel, but I just want you to know that the past few days….”
“Here’s your gate. I’ll call you in Cairo. Have fun.” She grabbed him by the back of the neck, pulled him in for a quick kiss and with that, disappeared behind the stream of other last-second boarders trying to muscle past him and onto the waiting plane.
I hope there’s a better movie on the plane, he thought.
The Egypt Air flight was overbooked by a hundred and twenty percent, standard he assumed by the nonchalant attitude of the stewards as they pulled people out of their seats and shoved them down the aisle towards the door. A male steward checked his ticket, led him to the middle seat of the middle section, between two Arab men in suits who obviously had hoped that the seat would, by some miracle, remain open. He pulled out the envelope Edna had delivered to the hotel and placed his carry-on in the already packed overhead. The steward helped by crushing the bag into as small a ball as possible, wedging it on top of a bag marked fragile, until, with a distinct snap, his bag fit.
To maximize profits Egypt Air had done away with unnecessary frills, like leg room, air conditioning, no smoking signs, and repairs to things like tray tables, arm rests, and bathrooms. To allow everyone time to get used to the conditions aboard the plane, the pilot taxied out to the middle of the tarmac and parked for two hours. This was a non-smoking flight, so children under ten were forbidden to smoke, unless accompanied by an adult. They were, however, permitted to run up and down the aisles, screaming, as the need came upon them. Just like their parents. If it was Egypt Air’s plan to calm passengers’ fears about the technical ability of their fleet, Doug reasoned, it had worked. If the plane skidded off the runway on takeoff and exploded into a fireball of twisted metal and luggage, most passengers would consider it a welcome relief.
As Doug was debating whether or not he would break his neck jumping out of the emergency exit door, the plane suddenly took off down the runway and into the midday sky. Something resembling cooled air was pumped into the cabin and the smell of homicidal rage dissipated along with the blanket of smog that had settled just above the headrests.
Doug pried his arms from his side and opened Edna’s letter, careful to keep the pages together since if he dropped them they were gone forever, like the stray shoe he could feel in the space allegedly meant for his feet.
The first page had directions to his hotel, The Shepheard, and a selection of restaurants in the area. The second page was a list of five names and addresses of people to contact. Number four on the list was Aisha’s uncle, Mr. Nasser Ashkanani. Aisha had scribbled instructions to the Ashkanani shop in the Khan on the inside of a pack of matches she got from one of the clubs they raced through the night before. If he could decipher the minuscule script he could, in theory, find the shop.
The next twenty pages came as quite a surprise—a reduced size photocopy of the
from last Wednesday. There wasn’t anything important in it, no world-shaking news first reported in Central Pennsylvania’s Largest Tri-Borough Daily. There was a story about a councilman’s attempts to get the county to cover the costs of repairing an intersection near Schuykill Haven, a story about how the high school varsity baseball team lost a close one to the team from Frackville, a “news story” on how Bill Powless’ Chevy Land on Route 80 was honored by Detroit for selling more vehicles than any other central Pennsylvania new-and-used auto showroom last month. The Piggly Wiggly was running a special on Odenbach lager, cherries, and Red Devil paints. The weather was humid and hot, with an expected high of eighty. Blah, blah, blah. Edna must have sent it to him to help him cope with the homesickness that never came. All it did was to remind him what a dull life he had left behind.
The rest—two pages—were Edna’s notes.
Doug passed on the mutton and bread breakfast offered by the stewardess, took a cup of coffee instead, and settled in, ready to read more things that would build his overall lousy impression of Russell Pearce.
“I’ve gathered together the letters and the personal reminiscences that relate to that summer in 1948. Most relate directly to the acquisition of the jewel, some do not, but I include them since you may find something in them that I missed. Everyone agrees that the job was planned by Russell and another man, and I think that other man was Sasha. This probably took place on July first. Charley was not at this meeting.”
Too busy getting indisposed, Doug thought.
“On July third, bribes were paid to some of the larger stevedores to ensure they would not show up to work the next night. This was taken care of by Sasha. On the night of the third, Charley was updated on the plan by Russell, and, as usual, Charley would be the driver and spent the late hours arranging for a car.”
Arranging for a car, updated on the plan, acquiring a jewel. It sounded more like a business meeting than a heist. Here’s the first thing you missed, Edna—these guys were bad news.
“On the night of the fourth, Russell, Sasha and three other men entered the building that housed several consignment shipping offices. There was some trouble and one of the guards shot at Russell. Even the surviving guards agreed that they had started shooting first.”
“Gosh, I wonder why?” Doug said out loud. He felt the bulk of his two fellow row-mates shift as they attempted to distance themselves from this freak that talked to himself on an airplane, without, of course, giving up an inch of the armrest.
“I had a friend who later met one of the guards who survived and she said that, according to this man, no one would have gotten hurt if the guards had only done what they were told to do. In any event, things didn’t go quite to plan after that.”
Maybe Captain Yehia was telling the truth. He didn’t mention survivors, though. He may have been mistaken. Or maybe there were no survivors and someone else was mistaken. But it was the word “survived” that said a lot to Doug.
“Charley said that the five men made it back to the car but that one of the local men was bleeding and decided to stay behind.”
We found one in an alley not far away, his face shot off.
“Charley drove the others to a second car and then on to a small house where they met Hammad Al-Kady. Besides the famous diamond there were several smaller jewels and some gold items. Hammad was given the smaller items to sell and the locals were paid off.”
We found two more bodies later….
“It was decided that Russell and Charley would get the jewel to Nasser Ashkanani in Cairo and that Sasha would catch up with them there. I have a note that Charley wrote describing the diamond: “It’s not as big as I thought it would be but it’s as big as its name.” I think this is a reference to ‘the eye,’ the real name of the famous diamond.”
Well what do you know, Doug thought, I did find something out in Morocco. He made a mental note to send her the real name of the diamond when he was in Cairo. Once he figured out which was the real name.
“Several people have contacted me over the years, each one of them claiming that Russell or Charley or Sasha secretly told them what was going to happen to the diamond next. There’re a few things that most of these stories have in common. First, they were definitely not planning on having the diamond cut. I don’t know if this had anything to do with the value of the whole stone or the demands of some buyer, but it seems clear that the plan was to keep the diamond in one piece. Next, a lot of the stories suggest that Nasser Ashkanani had buyers arranged in Istanbul or Ceylon.”
Doug had no idea where Ceylon was. A footnote informed him, however, that Ceylon was now known as Sri Lanka. Doug had no idea where Sri Lanka was.
“The stories seem to indicate something else as well. There appears to have been some sort of fallout among the partners. The exact cause of the trouble is unclear and a lot depends on who you talk to. Most of the people who have written to me over the years say that it was all Charley’s fault. Apparently there was a young Egyptian woman involved, the daughter of a well-connected pasha, and Charley was blamed for exciting too much attention. I feel this is unfair to Charley—there were other issues that put more strain on the relationship than one ill-advised friendship.”
Friendship. She had a way with words.
“There were other rumors, but there often are in that line of work. I can only confirm one: Charley was planning on running off with the diamond but had a change of heart once they arrived in Cairo. This may have been the cause of the bad blood arising among the partners.”
Doug blew the steam off his boiling coffee and thought about the kinds of things that would lead to bad blood in partnerships. He decided that a double-crossing bastard would be one of them.
“The last thing really has nothing to do with the diamond. When they were sailing from Morocco to Alexandria, before Charley’s alternative plan came to light, Russell talked a lot about his life in Pennsylvania. This often happened when he smoked hashish. He used to like to stand on the aft deck, throwing lumps of coal at seagulls. One afternoon, close to sunset, he told Charley that his favorite memory of his whole life was playing baseball in his senior year of high school, just before he left home. Charley remembered it clearly since this was the only time Russell ever talked about his family. Russell’s team was playing against a rival team late in the season. It was apparently important that they win this particular game, but I don’t recall exactly why. Russell made several key plays and made a final throw that won the game. He was very proud of that throw and the poor seagulls along the North African coast probably suffered every time he told that story. What he was most proud of, however, was the fact that his parents and his brother Eddie were in the stands to see him make the play. This was one of the few times, I gathered, that his family took an interest in his sports activities. He left home soon after this. He said it was the best thing he could do for Eddie, to leave him with a good memory of his brother, and he liked to pretend that this is why he chose to leave at that particular time. But he also liked to tell how he was caught that night having French sex with a sophomore named Caroline and her father threatened to kill him. That was Russell, an angelic side he seldom showed and a devilish side that everyone knew.”
Doug had never heard those Uncle Russ stories before. And he never heard anyone refer to his father as Eddie. Must be an older brother’s prerogative, Doug thought, since everyone else called his father Ed. But everyone, it seemed, had always called his mother Caroline.
“Sitting on that aft deck one night, Russell wrote a long letter to his family. He put it in an empty gin bottle and dropped it overboard. ‘I write,’ he told Charley, ‘but they never write back.’”
Doug reread the entry. He thought about all the times he had asked his parents about Uncle Russ. No wonder his father had felt the way he did, no wonder his mother always looked away whenever his name was mentioned.
So this is the gang that stole one of the most famous jewels in history. And that was the uncle he had grown up idolizing. Doug watched as his still scalding instant coffee was snatched up by the flight attendant. Breakfast, apparently, was over. He tried to slide the papers back into the envelope without waking his sleeping neighbor, who had settled comfortably onto his shoulder, but he woke up nonetheless and glared at Doug for his unbelievably inconsiderate behavior. The only seat in the airplane that fully reclined was directly in front of Doug and, after a few minutes of hopeless squirming to find a position that didn’t cut off blood to his legs, Doug leaned his head back and prayed for sleep. After twenty minutes of begging, it finally came.
“Surprise,” a voice whispered in his ear as a hand patted his knee. He had been dreaming of Aisha. She was naked, of course, smoking that big water pipe as she sat on his chest, her crotch inching forward, and for a moment the word and the patting blended seamlessly into his dream. But that wasn’t her voice. And that certainly wasn’t her hand. Doug spun as quickly as he could in his seat. “Sergei,” he said, almost shouting, “what are you doing here?”
Sergei gave Doug’s knee one last sharp slap. “Like I said, surprise.” Sergei smiled. “Oh, Douglas, you should see the look on your face.”
“Well, I can imagine. What the hell are you doing here, I thought you were staying in Casablanca for a few more weeks.”
“One of the great things about being my age is that you are allowed to suddenly change your plans without looking immature.” He looked around the seat vacated by Doug’s neighbor and his smile withered into a polite grimace. He put one finger on the seat back in front of him, feebly trying to keep it from reclining any further. “You should have flown First Class.”