Layover in Dubai

by Dan Fesperman

Hardcover, 287 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $25.95 | purchase

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Layover in Dubai
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Book Summary

Corporate auditor Sam Keller finds himself surrounded by Dubai's underworld violence in the wake of a colleague's murder and turns for help to unlikely detective Anwar Sharaf, a partnership that tests the dark regions of each man's heart. By the award-winning author of The Prisoner of Guantánamo. 75,000 first printing.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Layover In Dubai

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 thathe 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?

Such worries were part and parcel of Sharaf’s bewilderment over the booming new Dubai. As a young man he had embraced all of the change and modernization, even relished it. But in recent years he’d felt overwhelmed. It wasn’t just the construction binge, with a new Manhattan rising on the skyline every year, or the horrendous traffic with its cataclysmic accidents, or the profligate use of water, or even the prevailing idea that Big was the new normal, and today’s Big would be tomorrow’s Tiny. Nor did he have a particular grudge against any of the new bars and restaurants, with their free-flowing alcohol and their rules against entry for anyone in traditional local dress. It was all of those things, he supposed, plus the fresh hordes of outsiders who had flocked here to build, sell, develop, consume, and party ’til dawn.

Just the other day he had read in the paper that a million and a half people were now living in Dubai, and 90 percent were foreigners. In the workplace, the percentage was even higher, no thanks to the lazy sense of entitlement held by so many local males, his sons included. Sharaf felt as if his country was slowly being pried from his grasp, with full permission and a regal bow. Not that he had ever complained about the free land that the rulers provided, or the giveaway villas, or the manner in which the royal family had so assiduously shared the wealth—first from the oil, before it ran dry, and now from real estate— spreading it generously among the 150,000 Emiratis who could genuinely call themselves natives of Dubai.

Yet, for Sharaf, even prosperity now seemed fragile, threatened by a hovering sense of doom that grew stronger every time he saw another of those sold out! signs go up at the latest development. In this mood of floating anxiety, nothing seemed the same from one day to the next. Look at his daughter, for example, yearning to dress and act like an outsider. At times he hardly knew her. Modernizing a culture was one thing. Letting it be overgrown by an invasive species was quite another, especially when it was happening at the pace of a time-lapse nature video. Oversleep and you might awaken covered in vines. And now, with this risky new assignment, Sharaf was having to climb the beanstalk of change even as it grew to farther, more dizzying heights. Surely any slip would be disastrous.

The camel’s milk grumbled in his stomach, as ornery as the beast that had produced it. Sharaf’s palms sweated onto the pages. God in heaven. If a cryptic passage of Dostoevsky could upset him this much, then it must be time to sleep.

He shut the book and turned out the light. Amina was snoring, but the sound was reassuring, as familiar as the call of frogs along Dubai Creek when he was a boy. He massaged his belly and sought out a calming memory—his summer on the pearl boat, working alongside his good friend Ali al-Futtaim, that was a good place to start.

Amina was right. Ali was a shameless gossip. Always had been. It was part of his charm, and as an executive at the Dubai Land Office Ali was at the nexus of everything worth knowing. This had always been the nature of their friendship—Ali supplying insider knowledge and Sharaf using it to their mutual advantage. The pattern was established
on the pearl boat, when Ali was fifteen and had two years of experience
and Sharaf was a newcomer of thirteen.

The pearling fleet put to sea every May, and harvested the reefs and shoals until mid-September, when the skipper of the head boat hoisted a red-and-white flag to signal it was time to return home. During those four months on the water the daily routine never varied. Everyone slept on the deck and rose before dawn for prayers, performing their ablutions with seawater. Each diver gulped coffee and dates for breakfast. Then he plugged his nose with a pin of carved bone, placed a bucket around his neck, tied twenty pounds of India zinc to his ankles, and dropped feetfirst into the sea. He sank ten or even twenty feet while a saib, or helper, tended his rope at the gunwale, and he collected as many oysters as he could before tugging the rope to signal the saib to haul him back to the surface. Up and down he went for three hours, eyes stinging from the salt. Then came lunch—more dates and coffee, another round of prayer—followed by a second shift of diving broken only by a pause for afternoon prayer. Dinner was rice and fish, washed down with a dipperful of barreled well water.

In the evenings everyone pried open their shells, piling them in the middle of the deck while the captain collected pearls in a wooden lockbox that he slept on. Afterward, the divers rubbed themselves with the ooze of a gum tree to keep their skin from cracking. Then they finally relaxed by smoking plugs of shisha tobacco in a water pipe built from a hollowed coconut. Everyone said the evening and late prayers back-toback so they could go directly to sleep.

It was grueling work, but with Ali’s help Sharaf fared reasonably well, at least until the fleet reached the waters of Al Qarat Island,
where the oyster beds were a daunting thirty and even forty feet deep. Sharaf was terrified. With each extra foot of descent, the tropical light faded. Pressure built against his ears and chest, and the creatures of the sea turned spooky and wraithlike, peering from crevices and cracks in the rocks and coral, or casting long shadows from above. In a panic, he nearly drowned during his first dive, after underestimating how long it would take his saib to pull him up. Ali, surfacing next to him, saw right away that Sharaf was quivering like a speared fish. He reacted by breaking into a grin, lips cracked.

“Scary, isn’t it?” the older boy said, smiling hugely, as if the experience had been wildly entertaining. “That’s why the oysters are bigger and the pearls are better. That’s why you must embrace it, make love to it, like a dangerous woman who won’t let you go even when her husband is coming through the front door. Befriend the danger, the same way that an eel learns to love the shadows in his cave. Watch me.”

Ali drew a deep breath and slipped back beneath the waves. Sharaf saw his friend disappear in a trail of bubbles, and he began counting off the seconds. Four minutes passed. Then five. Then six. The captain shouted angrily from the deck at the idling Sharaf.

“Get to work, you lazy slug, or I’ll cut your share!”

But Sharaf had to see this through. Finally, after another agonizing minute, and more taunts from above, something seemed to burst loose in his chest, like a pigeon fluttering free from a cage. Ali’s rope was still taut in the water next to him. Then it shook twice. The saib began to haul it upward. A few seconds later Ali burst to the surface, laughing as he exulted in his saving gasp.

“Forty feet!” he exclaimed breathlessly. “Look at the size of them!”

His bucket overflowed with huge, encrusted shells. The lesson was like a tonic, and from then on Sharaf was never quite as fearful.

And so, as he slid into sleep with his newest doubts and concerns, Sharaf allowed himself to be carried ever deeper, as if again towed by a load of India zinc, while searching the currents of his dreams for answers he might take back to the surface.

Just as he was reaching the limit of his tether, the telephone rang.

Sharaf slowly pulled himself upward, keeping pace with his bubbles until he opened his eyes to the glowing red digits of the bedside clock: 3:37 a.m.

The phone rang again.

His cell phone, he realized, clear across the room on the bureau. Amina, right on cue, grumbled about the terrible demands of his job and rolled onto her side.

He stood, walked slowly to the bureau, and answered in businesslike fashion.

“Sharaf.”

It was the Minister. Not even Amina was privy to this new arrangement, and up to now Sharaf had always taken these calls from a room of his own at the center of the house, a windowless sanctum where he conducted family business and the affairs of his business investments. But the Minister sounded impatient. Sharaf would have to guard his language.

Amina folded her pillow around her ears, but still couldn’t block out the sound. This was the one-way conversation she heard from her side of the bed:

“The York Club? Yes, of course. Nationality?”

Pause.

“If true, that will complicate things. Who’s the attending officer?”

Pause.

“Yes, I am familiar with him.”

Pause.

“He won’t like it. But certainly, I’ll do what’s necessary.”

Pause.

“Yes, I am on my way.”

The phone snapped shut.

Twenty years earlier, Sharaf would have been off and running, forsaking coffee to hop immediately into his car. He would have buttoned his shirt as he drove, not bothering to even loop his belt or lace his boots until he reached the scene. Nowadays he knew better. He dressed deliberately and marshaled his energy, standing by the bed for a moment to let gravity ease his sleepy joints back into place. The arches of his feet ached as he detoured to the toilet for a pee, a reluctant stream. Amina, despite her misgivings about his work, belted her robe and shuffled loyally to the kitchen to brew coffee. He lingered over his cup, chewing a wedge of bread to soak up the acid.

The Minister had expressed urgency, of course, but Sharaf was better acquainted with how these things worked. A dead body couldn’t flee the scene, and in any event he would have to tread lightly, because another detective had already laid claim to the territory. It would be best to let the players get comfortable in their roles before he arrived.

Of course, he would have to concoct an excuse for being there at all, one that didn’t involve the Minister.

“Anwar, what is it?” Amina stood by the stove, frowning. “What’s happening with your job? Something’s changed, hasn’t it? Who was on the phone just now?”

“No one you need to know about. Trust me. It should all be over in a few weeks.”

“Well, don’t wait too late to ask for help. Even if I’m the only one left to ask.”

“Thank you.”

She lingered in case there was more, and for a moment Sharaf considered telling her everything. It would have been a relief. But it would also have been a hazard, mostly for her, so he said nothing. She turned toward the bedroom, resigned to his secrecy. He swallowed the last of his coffee, grabbed his keys, and went out into the cool darkness of the wee hours.

Sharaf drove a Camry, same model as every taxi in town. Cheap and unassuming, but you could hit a hundred if necessary. Practical, like the old ways. Incredibly, after only a few miles he ran into a backup at an underpass, due to yet another cataclysmic accident. The previous week, twenty-one people had been killed on the roads in a span of only three days. This time a Ferrari F430 was wrapped in a fatal embrace with a concrete abutment. A crumpled Jaguar XKR, spun sideways, smoldered next to it. More than a million dirhams worth of rubble. Sharaf crept past with the window down. The traffic police were supervising, an all-Syrian crew as far as he could tell from their accents. From his familiarity with the courthouse schedule, he knew that any survivors would be arraigned later that morning before a Palestinian judge. Oh, well. Someone had to keep the damn country running.

When he arrived at the York, a nervous barmaid with circles under her eyes directed him to the corridor where all the action was. Sharaf looked through an open door and saw a sprawled pair of legs in dark trousers and black Italian loafers jutting from beneath a cluster of white-smocked evidence technicians. The opposite doorway was shut, but he heard voices behind it. One was unmistakably that of Lieutenant Hamad Assad, asking questions in his Exeter College English. The answers were barely audible, but from the accent Sharaf guessed it was an American with some polish and education, not a backpacker or some vagabond kid. And in the York, of all places. If the dead man across the hall met the same profile, then this case could be rife with complications, just as the Minister had guessed.

He entered the open door and shouldered past a technician. A flutter went through the group. They sensed immediately that he wasn’t supposed to be there. Sharaf ignored them. The room smelled of blood and vomit, but he was focusing on the body, because he could already see that the Minister’s suspicions had been realized. The cut of the suit and the make of the watch said this was a businessman, and a prosperous one. Some high-paying position that required him to sit in boardrooms and scurry through airports.

Just behind the man’s head, arranged as neatly as a burial offering, was a pile containing his wallet and a stack of credit cards. An American driver’s license from the state of New York was perched on top. No cell phone, smart phone, or BlackBerry. Curious omissions, unless Assad had already confiscated them.

Sharaf stooped forward and nimbly plucked a business card from the middle of the pile, like a magician whipping a tablecloth from beneath a crystal setting. The name, embossed in black ink, matched the one on the driver’s license:

Charles R. Hatcher
Quality Control

It sounded familiar. Wasn’t this the fellow who had made such a fuss at the Cyclone a few months back? A humorous story, if true, but nothing to suggest this sort of fate. Above the name, embossed in bloodred, was the well-known corporate logo of Pfluger Klaxon. That would also get the Minister’s attention. Pfluger Klaxon meant lots of clout at the palace, and lots of backup from home. They’d be sending their own people, and soon.

He paused a moment to watch the forensics team do its work, while paying special attention to the chatter. Already he had picked up useful information, especially considering that Assad probably wouldn’t share his report.

Scanning the room, Sharaf spotted something on the carpeted floor near the far wall, just to the left of the doorway. Stepping closer, he took a pen from his lapel pocket, leaned down and used the nib to pick up a 9-millimeter shell casing. Based on what he had already heard, he was guessing it had been ejected by a Makarov semiautomatic, a model favored by dubiously employed Russians with military backgrounds. A second casing lay nearby.

“Sir, I need to bag that.”

A technician stood behind him. Sharaf rose, knees creaking, and tilted his pen to let the shell slide into the fellow’s gloved hand.

“They eject to the right, so make sure to note the location,” Sharaf said, knowing it would piss him off. “What more can you tell me about the two men in black sport jackets?”

The technician turned toward his supervisor, a Yemeni named al-Tayer, who shook his head with an expression of warning.

“You will have to ask the detective in charge,” al-Tayer said.

“And that would be Lieutenant Assad?”

“If you already knew, then why did you—”

“Thanks for your help.”

Sharaf eased into the corridor. He had shaken this hornet’s nest enough, but was weighing the value of an additional poke when the
door across the hall opened.

“Sharaf. Why are you here?”

As always, Lieutenant Assad was impeccably creased and starched. He was one of the few officers who actually made their uniforms look dignified. Or maybe it was that the lettuce green color complimented the chestnut brown of his eyes. Assad’s reputation was exalted, especially among those who mattered. Prominent tribal family, well spoken. In recent years he had helped whip the waterfront customs police force into shape at the port of Jebel Ali as part of a crackdown on smuggling. Now he was making a name for himself as a detective specializing in vice and homicide. His clearance rate was the department’s highest. Which meant he was either very good or very efficient—they weren’t necessarily the same. He was one of those up-and-comers who, like Sharaf’s sons, believed his natural calling was supervising dozens of others from behind a vast desk in a well-appointed office, dues paying be damned. He probably resented being called here at this hour, and would therefore be more prickly than usual.

“Same reason as you, I suppose,” Sharaf answered. “Responding to a late-night summons. Obviously someone got his wires crossed and got the wrong man.”

“A reference to yourself, I hope.”

“Of course. But as long as I was here, I figured why not take a look? I should have realized you would have matters well in hand.”

“Very well in hand, yes.”

Sharaf peeked behind Assad at the second American, who had stood up and was edging forward for a better view. Definitely another specimen of the business breed, but younger, and minus the customary vulpine cast that made so many of them seem acquisitive and lurking. Or was the fellow simply in shock, having so recently discovered his colleague dead on a whorehouse floor? Except this wasn’t really the whorehouse part of the operation. It was an office, a place where records were kept and deals were cut. To Sharaf that suggested complicity, involvement, in a way that a mere sexual tryst never would have. Innocent victim? Perhaps not.

The young man seemed on edge. His right hand kept straying protectively toward his wallet. Given what Sharaf knew of some of his police colleagues, maybe it wasn’t a bad idea.

“Hello, sir. I am Lieutenant Anwar Sharaf. And your name is?”

“Sam Keller.”

Lieutenant Assad’s features darkened at this further intrusion.

“A pleasure to meet you. I only wish it could have been under better circumstances. The deceased was your friend?”

Assad tried to steer Keller back to the chair, but the young man held his ground.

“Yes. And a business colleague. We were traveling together.”

“And he was showing you a good time?”

Keller’s mouth dropped. He seemed affronted. Fine with Sharaf, who had hoped to make an impression, even if one of callousness. Lieutenant Assad again intervened. This time Keller let himself be herded back to the chair.

“I hope the rest of your stay in Dubai is not so unfortunate,” Sharaf said.

The door shut in his face.

Any sort of run-in with Assad was potentially troublesome. But Sharaf supposed it was inevitable, because he was already thinking he wanted to pursue this case further. Unofficially, of course, just the way the Minister wanted it. This might well be the opening they had been seeking—a suitable spot for diving deeper, so to speak, to see if there was anything worth retrieving from the seabed. A few oysters, perhaps. Maybe even a pearl or two. And the Minister wouldn’t exactly be sorry if Assad was involved, seeing as how they were from rival clans. That was an aspect of Dubai that outsiders never quite fathomed. They might all dress the same, and draw wealth from the same pools of oil and real estate, but deeper loyalties were still sometimes determined by
long ago battles in the dunes.

Sharaf’s only reservation had to do with whether he had the guts to take the plunge. Not only were the waters potentially deep but he already sensed fins breaking the surface, mostly due to the personalities involved. For every minister in his corner, surely there would be at least two on the other side. Perhaps he should simply embrace the danger, as Ali had once counseled. But that was not so easy for a man who had come to value contentment above all else.

Whatever was down there, Sharaf felt certain that the best secrets would be hiding in the trickiest locations, right there with the eel in his cave. Make a move now, and he might have to hold his breath for a very long time. He only hoped the Minister would remain steadfast up at the gunwale as the seas turned rough, prepared to haul Sharaf to safety at a moment’s notice. Anything less, and he might never resurface.

Just thinking about it made him a little short of breath. Or maybe he was just tired. He sighed deeply, shut his notebook, and headed for the exit.