Short Fiction, New World Order
We decided to go to the desert, the Empty Quarter, and try out a scheme we’d come up with for making money. This was in Dubai, a westernized city where you can play golf on real grass and have burgers and beer downtown at Thank God It’s Friday. The grass is kept living by a vastly expensive underground irrigation system, and it took two years of haggling to get a beer license from the Arabs for a place called Thank God It’s Friday. But there they were. In Dubai you could almost forget you were in the Middle East. But at twilight, when the sun lit one side of things and cast narrow shadows on the sand, it was different. Wind swept in from the Saudi Desert and blew sand into the American-style highways where there were always a few lazy camels lounging around or a lonely figure waiting in flowing robes at the side of the road.
Then we remembered. We were in the Persian Gulf, in another country, an Arab land with different rules that none of us truly understood.
We called our company Desert Adventures. You get the idea: load some Land Cruisers with a few harmless souls, drive around in the sand, pitch a night camp. We charged a few more dollars or marks or pounds for beer and wine, for arranging private belly dances.
My partner was Assad Massoud, Kenya-born, raised in Egypt, educated in Great Britain. He’d come to Dubai a few years before to race in the desert rallies. Now he was responsible for leading our trips, keeping the vehicles in shape and managing the Pakis—the local worker-ants who did the heavy lifting. I’d come to the region with an oil company from the States to help put out fires in Kuwait after the first Gulf War. By the time the fires were out I’d made enough money to stay in the region. I headed south. I’d learned about the desert and Desert Adventures was my idea.
We were planning a new excursion package, a dangerous expedition for rich adventure clients tired of climbing Mount Everest—an orientation tour with limited supplies and animal caravans skirting the off-limits Saudi frontier. We wanted all the trappings of local danger but nothing too dangerous. A scouting trip was in order.
We packed a Land Cruiser with tents, logistics equipment and a desert box with enough food for a couple of days. At the last minute I invited someone else along--the wife of a friend of ours, Carolyn Thomas.
Right away Assad had a problem with it.
“What’s wrong with you, mate? You invite a girl without consulting me? To the fucking real desert?”
We both knew and liked Carolyn and her husband, Barry, who choppered oil executives back and forth to off-shore rigs. He was on assignment for two weeks, I told Assad. I told him I didn’t think it would be a problem for us to do him a favor and keep his wife company for a couple days.
Assad’s smile came and went like smoke. “Whatever you say, pal. You’re the brains of the operation, right?”
To get to the Empty Quarter you take the Madinat-Zayed Road west, a three-and-a-half hour trip to the edge of the desert. On the way we stopped to pick up Carolyn. She and Barry had a nice place in the city--a courtyard, a few acacia trees, a pair of date palms to give it the oasis look so popular around town.
Carolyn was one of those women—British, married to a Brit—that you found occasionally among the expats. She was refined and funny. She could discuss whatever book you happened to be reading. She knew, for instance, what had to be done to cap a blasting rig fire, and how dangerous the work could be. Carolyn was tall, fair-haired, freckled. Men stared. But she had the kind of self-possession that women, especially western women, needed to survive in the Middle East. And she knew and respected the desert.
She loaded her gear and climbed into the back seat. “Hello, boys. How are you today?”
“We’re fine,” Assad said. “Although we did have a small row earlier. My intrepid business partner here didn’t bother to inform me that you were coming along until five minutes ago.”
Carolyn laughed. “Advanced planning? Martin, aren’t you the logistics expert?”
At least, I pointed out, I’d gotten around to telling him before we picked her up.
Carolyn frowned. “Oh, my. Well, Assad, I hope at least you’re happy to see me.”
Assad pulled out into the traffic. His eyes flicked up to the rear-view mirror. “Why, Carolyn,” he said, “You know I’m always happy to see you.”
We drove. First there was the city with its glass towers and lunch-hour traffic. To the east on the Creek loomed the huge Burj Al-Arab tower. It was a mountain of blue glass in the shape of a billowing spinnaker, the tallest hotel structure in the world, a testament to the city’s wealth and ambition. Leaving town the land went gravelly. Refineries, like small burning cities, spewed smoke over vast stretches of salt-flat desert. We passed trucks loaded like cattle cars with Pakis—leathery, bent men who had been imported from the Indian sub-continent as laborers. They could be seen toiling in dirty overalls across the city in a form of legal servitude. These men lived in contrast to real citizens, people of Arabic descent, who sped by in Benzes with smoked windows at 150 kilometers per hour.
Carolyn said, “I saw the most horrid thing the other day, just inside the city.”
“This place,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t know.”
Carolyn had been walking in the city near the gold souk when she came upon a commotion at an intersection. It was one of those scenes you see in the Middle East, the kind of thing growing up in London or the Midwest of the United States—or Mombassa, for that matter—doesn’t prepare you for. Traffic was backed up, a crowd had gathered at the side of the road, and Carolyn heard what could only be described as wailing.
“At first I thought someone had been run down by a car or a lorry. Another worker or child--you know that area. Got a surprise though. It wasn’t a person who’d been struck.”
Assad, who’d lived here longer than any of us, said, “Let me guess. A camel?”
“It was awful. The poor beast was struggling there alone in the road.”
“Hurt bad?” My addition.
She nodded. “Its legs had been broken. You know how tall the silly beasts are. Well, the car understruck it. Just awful. Someone said it looked like its back was broken too. Some teenagers were trying to give it water but of course the owner, a citizen, wouldn’t let them near it. It was bleeding from the ears and moaning like a bloody human and trying to stand up again.” She shuddered. “A veterinarian turned up before the police and offered to put the poor thing out of its misery. But the owner just let it lie there in the sun, gasping in pain. Had to settle the blood money first.”
Blood money. This was payment—legal restitution—that had to be paid for injury or for death. It was harsh and ancient and real. If you hit someone in the road, killed or maimed someone in any way, then you were responsible for that person’s responsibilities. You paid. If the person had a family, you supported the family for good. Couldn’t come up with the money? You went to jail. Or worse. There had been plenty of problems. Men were known to throw themselves in front of cars, a quick exit to misery, a way to provide for the family. Insurance companies would cover you for exorbitant sums. But even then you were really at the mercy of the ruling families-—you might be held responsible anyway. There were different prices depending on who was injured. If you killed an Arab of status, forget it. Next came a camel. Then came western men and then women. Lowest was the working class, the true outsiders. But even hurting one of them could ruin you.
We listened to the air conditioner blowing. I said, “How long did the thing lie there?”
“Pretty bloody long. Took the police forever to arrive and the owner just stood there hovering over the poor beast and barking at anyone who came near it. I guess it finally just died and the driver, some Indian fellow, got carted away.”
Assad shook his head. “Now there’s the bastard I pity.”
But this was the place where we had chosen to live. “That’s the way it is here,” I said. “We’re in their country, not ours.”
“Correct, Martin,” Carolyn said. “But that doesn’t make it any more pleasant.”
We drove on, south past Abu Dhabi and west toward the open desert. We listened to music on the radio until the stations faded to static. We ate some sandwiches from the desert box. Toward late afternoon wind picked up from the west, blowing veils of sand. By most standards we were in the desert but we still hadn’t reached the Empty Quarter--what Assad called the real desert. There were still tiny villages, police outposts, a scattering of goat and camel ranches.
A steady desert wind was blowing by the time we reached the great dunes just beyond the Liwa Oasis. We stopped and Assad climbed out of the Land Cruiser to let air out of the tires for our drive into the sand.
This left Carolyn and me alone in the car.
I said, “I’m glad you came.”
She looked at me in the rear-view mirror for a long time then she looked away. She seemed uncertain before she finally said she was glad to have come as well.
Assad climbed back in saying he hoped the wind would die down soon. We drove out of Liwa and headed into the deep sand. There are trails out here even in the shifting dunes. You orient yourself by permanent things—a ridge to the east, a flat plateau on the northern horizon. But with the wind blowing hard it became difficult. The storm showed no signs of letting up—if anything, seemed to be getting worse. The Land Cruiser’s long shadow ran beside us and the desert was becoming orange and strange.
“I can’t fucking see too well,” Assad said. “Damn it.”
We had hoped to pitch camp just into the Empty Quarter but it was looking bad.
I said, “How do we feel about sleeping in the car?”
Carolyn laughed and said, “If we want to get bloody buried in sand.”
I turned on the radio but all we got this far out was static.
Assad said, “Martin, isn’t there a place a few kilometers ahead? A research outpost, I think. Do you know it?”
I remembered an odd little place—a last stop for oil researchers or soldiers on their way into the Empty Quarter. We decided that if the wind got much worse we’d try to reach this place.
Half an hour later it was dark and the wind was driving as in a snow storm. Weather was notoriously difficult to predict out here. Wind patterns shifted without warning and mountains of sand moved with them. We decided against setting up camp and made for the outpost. I took a GPS reading. I could only guess at the coordinates of the little outpost.
For a while it was unclear whether we’d be able to find the place. None of us was frightened exactly, but I admit we were relieved when we finally saw light—soft and diffuse, a London fog hovering in the darkness ahead. It was impossible to see the camp until we were at the edge of the natural dip in which it was located. The camp itself was a dozen or so small barrack-like huts clustered around a larger central building. A pair of lamps glowed forlornly, greenish light seeping into the darkness.
“How thoughtful,” Assad said as we descended into camp. “They’ve left lights burning for us.”
We parked. Carolyn and I followed Assad through a scouring wind to the central building, where an office light glowed. The camp’s caretaker spoke for a while with Assad in Arabic. He was a small man in traditional clothing—leather sandals, a plain white dishdasha, and the brimless embroidered cap worn by the Omani people. He greeted Assad and me, kissed us on both cheeks. He ignored Carolyn.
I told Assad that we would need separate quarters for each of us.
Assad translated. The caretaker finally acknowledged Carolyn. He frowned but didn’t say anything.
Assad’s eyes gleamed unpleasantly. “Shouldn’t the three of us board together? Save some money?”
“Tell him,” I said. “Separate quarters.”
It was still early. We dropped off our gear then met at the mess in the central building. It was a small room with a low table surrounded by hard flat pillows in the Arabic style. There was a collection of coffee urns on the wall, some rugs hanging beside them, an ornate shisha pipe in the corner. And there were two other men, a peninsular Indian, it appeared, and an American, already seated at the table. They looked young to my eye, a pair of backpackers maybe, the type you see bumming around Bangkok or Sydney. But they turned out to be researchers—geologists they said. We chatted. We told them about our scouting trip. They both looked at Carolyn, then away.
The caretaker was called Hazem. He brought a dinner of roast lamb, lentils and brothy soup.
The American, Pete-something, from Cal Tech, said he sure could use a cold beer. Desmond, his partner, had grown up in Goa, he told us, on the coast, and studied in Mumbai. This was his first trip to the Empty Quarter and the pair was planning to meet up with a research team some time later that week.
Carolyn said, “And what do you think of the desert so far, Desmond?”
The Indian smiled. “I could use a cold beer.”
We all laughed. The wind howled outside. Sand pelted the windows.
We ate and afterward we talked.
Pete the American said, “You know, our cell phones don’t work at all out here.”
Assad said, “You’re out of range of everything, mate. There’s really not much to be covered way out here.”
Desmond nodded. “We have computers, fax machines—and nowhere to connect them.”
Carolyn tipped her head toward Hazem near the kitchen. “Perhaps you could ask the concierge for a high-speed connection.”
We laughed again. On the pillow beside Desmond was a fancy-looking camera. I nudged Assad, nodded at it.
“That yours?” Assad said.
“I’d get it out of sight before the caretaker comes back around.”
Desmond’s dark eyebrows went up.
“The Arabs, they can be funny about cameras, especially way out here.”
He shrugged as if unimpressed, but put the camera back in his backpack.
Hazem brought cups of bitter green coffee. We talked some more. After more coffee we decided to turn in—there was nothing much else to do.
We stood. We said good night to our new friends. At the door of the main building we listened to the raging desert wind, a violent and desolate sound.
Assad turned to me and Carolyn before we left. He said, “Let’s make it an early day tomorrow, yeah? I’d like to get the fuck out of this place and into the desert.”
We agreed and went out into the night.
Our barracks were cane structures with thatched roofs, sturdy desert shacks of a type we all knew well. The temperature had been dropping the way it does in the desert. My hut was cold inside, remarkably quiet. The floor was covered with rugs and the bed was made of piled pillows and loose blankets which absorbed sound and light, a padded tomb.
Back outside wind shrieked over me and sand pelted my skin like tiny needles. I found Carolyn’s hut and she let me in without a sound. The camp generator had been shut down for the evening. There was no light to be had and no heat. The darkness was absolute. My hands went to Carolyn’s body. I could hear her breathing. I touched her face. The wind outside now seemed like small rain. In the dark I thought of Carolyn’s face with its thin tapering nose, the dusting of freckles, her blue eyes. It was a craving I felt for her as if for food or water—a consuming desire that seemed to communicate itself to her through some subtle chemistry of nerve or sinew.
It was cold. The blankets and rugs were rough and smelled of desert. It was difficult after a while in the darkness to tell which way was up or down; the small room became a mile wide. I cupped my hand over Carolyn’s mouth. I choked my own voice against her throat. We lay there together without sound in the dark and desert cold.
Sunlight blazed down. I had left Carolyn before dawn and slept briefly. Then I’d gotten back up, washed in the basin in my hut, dressed. I left my hut.
The wind had stopped hours earlier but the landscape was changed, wild and rich and strange. It was as if there had been a snowstorm the evening before. Sand had piled up against the west walls of the huts, their rounded backs hunched toward the open desert for just this reason. Our vehicles were beneath a shelter, not buried but well-scoured by sand. This was what most people thought of when they thought of Arabia--loose white sand that rolled like waves, the Empty Quarter, what the Arabs called the Rub Al-Khali. This wasn’t the gravelly wasteland of the Gulf coast. This was real desert.
I walked through the dazzling light toward the central building. Inside it took my eyes a minute to adjust. Carolyn was already there, sitting with Desmond and Pete over steaming tea. She was laughing, waving her hand. She too had thought of snow.
“Good morning, Martin. A fine storm we’ve had outside, don’t you think? A proper Yankee blizzard.” She smiled. “Can you believe our young friend Desmond here has never seen snow?”
“This is true,” he said, in that sing-song Indian accent.
“Well, you have now,” I said. “Basically the same stuff. Snow’s a bit lighter in color.”
“And a hell of a lot colder,” Pete added.
Sun burned in through the small window. Already it was hot and I suspected the wind might become a problem again.
Desmond poured tea.
I said, “Here’s the plan, Carolyn. We’re packing up, digging out, and heading back to the city. We’ll come back when the weather’s a little more forgiving.”
“Leaving?” Pete sipped his tea. “Just when the fun begins?”
I laughed. I said, “We’d love to hang around with you folks. But we’re out of here.”
“No we’re not.”
This was Assad. He was coming in through the door. Behind him the caretaker, Hazem, wore a grim expression.
“What do you mean we’re not leaving?” I asked. “You’re the one wants to get into the desert so bad.”
Assad shook his head. “It seems that we have a little problem.”
We were crowded around the table. We looked at him now and waited.
“There’s a pair of border guards out there, they showed up earlier this morning in jeeps. They say they’ve found a dead man back in the road. They want to know how he got there.”
I shook my head as if to clear it, as if Assad were joking. “What?”
“You heard me,” Assad said. “They’ve found a body.”
“A body?” Pete said. He looked at Carolyn, back at me. His friend Desmond was watching us as if we had the answer to some riddle. “We’re in the middle of nowhere.”
This was not precisely true. We were on the edge of the middle of nowhere. But there were enough people who might have been out yesterday or the night before--herders or local villagers less than a two-day walk from this spot. There was us.
Assad seemed to read my mind. He said, “There’s this place, isn’t there, mate? So we’re not all that far from civilization.”
We followed Assad outside. The soldiers were standing beside a pair of boxy, air-conditioned jeeps. They were dressed in fatigues with big pistols hanging from garrison belts. They stopped chatting to look us over as we walked up. Their eyes fell on Carolyn. One of the soldiers was wearing mirrored glasses and appeared to be in charge. He spoke in Arabic to Assad.
Assad said, “He wants to know what we’re all doing here. And he says they’re going to want to talk to each of us separately.”
The soldier kept his hands in his pockets. He jerked his head toward Carolyn and said something else to Assad.
Assad responded, “Na’am.” Yes.
I said, "What's he asking?"
“He wants to know whether she’s married.” There was a silence. “I told him of course she is.”
The soldier must have assumed one of us was her husband. But he never once took his eyes off Carolyn, who stood to one side with Desmond and Pete, looking steadily back from behind her own dark glasses.
It was decided that Assad and I would go with the man in charge while his partner stayed with the rest of our group. We climbed into the back of his jeep which he directed up and out of the bowl, plowing through drifts toward the dirt trail. I looked back toward camp. There was the cluster of buildings below us and in front of that the smaller cluster of people huddled around the second soldier’s jeep.
We rode for a while in silence. Assad thought the men must be from a border patrol unit. Probably military, though they were being cagey about it. Our soldier had perceived us to be the men in charge of our odd little group and was taking us to the scene. The sand was deep in places and it was slow going. We drove for nearly an hour before we stopped. I opened the door. Heat struck like a blow.
A few meters off the roadside lay the crumpled body. The soldier gazed down, legs apart, fists on his hips. I saw how the dead man was dressed. The long white dishdasha and ghutra, both blood-stained--an abomination. This at least explained the fuss. The body belonged to a citizen, an Arab.
Assad took off his hat, wiped his forehead. “Christ,” he said. “What a fucking mess.”
The soldier spoke to Assad, who translated. The soldiers, he said, believed that the body had been here only a short time, had very possibly been dumped here after the windstorm, some time very late in the evening or earlier this morning.
I said, “Dumped?”
They spoke some more. The guard told Assad it looked like someone had run over the man after he was dead--the amount of blood, the way the man lay. This meant to them that someone must have left him here.
“So they think someone killed him on purpose?”
“Looks that way, mate.” Then Assad said, “Of course, we’re all under suspicion.”
The guard was watching us from behind his shades. A smile lurked beneath his thick mustache.
“Suspicion? What the fuck of? They think one of us killed this guy? This is ridiculous.”
The guard surprised me by lighting a cigarette. He spoke for a while, letting smoke stream from his nose and mouth. He had an eerie smile as he spoke. Assad answered him. He spoke again. This went on for a while.
“Now what’s he talking about?”
Assad shook his head.
Assad said, “Actually, pal, he was asking if it was possible that this dead man might be the husband of our woman friend back there.” Assad waited for my reaction. “I couldn’t tell whether it was his idea of a joke or not. I told him no, I did not believe she was this bastard’s wife.”
“This is a bunch of shit,” I said. “Tell this asshole to go to hell.”
“Shall I tell him you’re an American while I’m making demands? That should set things straight, yeah?” The guard watched closely, amused. Assad spat; he shook his head. “He wants to know where we all were last night.”
I said, “We were all at camp.”
“Yeah?” Assad said. “And where at camp were you, mate?”
The sun and heat were unbearable. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean? I was in my hut.”
“Is that so?”
I said, “Did you come to check on me?”
Assad gazed off toward the distant horizon. The guard went on smoking his cigarette. When he finished, he threw the butt at the sand and then walked to the back end of the jeep. He pulled out a plastic bag, said something to Assad and motioned with his head.
He wanted us to help get the body out of the sand. We understood: the man was testing us, watching our reactions. This was the local way. In his mind we were responsible for this dead fuck until proven otherwise. He bent over and started trying to move the corpse. I once saw a man killed on an oil derrick by a burst of gas and fire; his body had come apart like a paper doll in front of us. This reminded me of that. The body had lain in the cold through the night, then baked beneath the sun since daybreak, had become stiff and unnatural in some places, soft in others. We worked for a long time in the heat, breathing through our mouths. I sweated my shirt through. The soldier finally had to go back to his jeep for a shovel. A while later we were shoving the bag into the rear of the jeep. Then the three of us headed back toward camp.
It was afternoon by the time we arrived and the wind was starting up again, lashing at the camp, like some giant animal licking fresh wounds. Everyone had gathered back in the mess room. We sat off to one side with our little group---Desmond and Pete were there with Carolyn. Sunlight angled in through a window. The soldiers stood across the room talking in a corner with the caretaker, Hazem.
Carolyn said, “How was your little excursion, boys? Enjoyable, I’m sure.”
Assad mumbled under his breath and sat with his back turned.
I said, “It appears that our friends here think one of us might have killed a man.”
Pete and Desmond exchanged unhappy glances. Carolyn said, “Lovely.”
The guards spoke in hushed tones to the caretaker Hazem. He nodded and looked our way occasionally in a very non-committal way.
Carolyn said, “Well, I guess that explains why this policeman chap was so rude while you two were gone. Grilled us in Arabic the whole time and then got angry that none of us could understand.”
Carolyn was tough and she wasn’t going to show anyone what she was feeling. But I knew her and I knew this talk meant she was nervous. We all were nervous now. We watched as the soldiers spoke with the caretaker.
Pete from Cal Tech said, “Listen, what can these guys do to us, I mean, really? We haven’t done anything, right? We were here all night last night.” His partner Desmond looked on.
I said, “Actually, there’s quite a lot they can do to us, Pete. None of us are citizens. None of us are Arabs. They can hold us here as long as they want. They can take our passports. They can arrest us and take us to whatever border unit they work at and hold us there indefinitely. They can exact payment, blood money, from us for that dead man out there. We’re a long way from home.”
Assad laughed. “Consider yourself lucky, mate. If this were Yemen or Saudi, they’d just try us and execute us on the fucking spot.”
Pete licked his lips. His blue eyes darted toward Desmond, then away.
The soldiers appeared to have reached a decision. They called Assad over and started explaining something. The guard we’d gone to the desert with, the one with the mirrored glasses, did the talking. He pointed our way, he jabbed Assad in the chest, he pointed back at us. Assad listened, then came over.
He said, “The caretaker is free to go; he and one of the cops are leaving. They’re taking the body away now because they’re afraid another sand storm is coming. The rest of us are staying here with our friend in the dark glasses.” Assad paused then. He pointed at Desmond. “Except you. They want you to go with them, too.”
Desmond actually smiled a little. “Me? What for?”
Assad’s jaw was set tight. “They claim to think you were spying on something out here. Our man Hazem appears to have told them about your photographic hobby.”
“What are you talking about?” This was Pete. The soldiers watched silently. “He’s here on legitimate research. What do they mean, spying? Tell them he’s not going anywhere.”
Assad said, “Feel free to tell them that yourself.”
Desmond was scared now. Pete said we couldn’t let them take Desmond.
I said, “Look, Pete, so far all they seem to want is to ask some questions. Resisting them wouldn’t be a good idea.”
Carolyn said, “Is it any better to let them split us up?”
I asked what the hell she thought we should do. She just looked on, impossible to read behind her dark glasses.
The first guard was ready to go. He spoke to Hazem, who disappeared behind some curtains. The guard pointed at Desmond, made a beckoning gesture.
Desmond looked at us, frightened. “What should I do?”
Assad suggested he do whatever they say.
The guard approached Desmond, took him by the elbow. Poor Desmond was wearing that friendly grin of his. “Please,” he said, “can’t you help me?”
Pete stood. The guard in dark glasses took a menacing step toward him. His gear--the pistol, a black truncheon--rattled on his belt. That stopped Pete. We all just stood there as the guards left with Desmond through the front door. Hazem appeared from behind the curtains with a bag. He avoided looking at us, followed the other men.
We watched through the small window as they went to the jeep with the body in it. Desmond got in and disappeared behind the dark smoky windows.
I said, “He’ll be all right.”
No one responded. We watched through the window as the guard in dark glasses went over to where our Land Cruiser was parked beside Pete and Desmond’s own vehicle. The man shouted something to the other soldier in the jeep, jimmied open the hood of the truck, reached into the engine compartment. He walked to the Land Cruiser.
Pete said, “What the hell is he doing?”
Assad said, “They’re disabling the vehicles, mate. They don’t want to make it easy for us to get away.”
Carolyn said, “Even I could figure that out.”
Huge eddies of sand danced in the wind. The guard in dark glasses went to the jeep and stood by the window. He spoke for a while to the other guard. Then he adjusted his belt and started back toward us. The jeep lurched into the gathering clouds of sand.
Pete said, “This makes no sense. It makes no sense.”
I sighed. “What makes no sense, Pete?”
“Why are they leaving us here with just one of the soldiers? Especially if they’re so afraid there’s another storm coming? What’s the idea?” Pete paused to watch the guard in dispirited silence. “What’s he going to do now?”
Soon the sky would flame out and then go stone dark. We watched as the guard stopped, took his time lighting another one of his cigarettes in the wind, then resumed his trip toward the central building.
Assad said, “My guess is he’s coming up here to fuck with our heads.”
I was hungry. The soldier entered the main building in a cloud of smoke. He threw his cigarette on the floor, crushed it beneath one of his boots. He sat in the only real chair in the room and looked at us through his dark glasses, a large man--huge actually. For some reason this hadn’t occurred to me until we were alone with him in the small room.
He spoke to Assad at length.
Assad translated without enthusiasm. “He says he’s going to be asking us questions, one by one. He’s going to start with me and then use me as a translator. Mostly he wants to know about where we were last night and what we know about the body they found.”
Pete said, “Mostly?”
The guard watched, expressionless.
“He says he has ‘a few other matters’ to raise as well.”
I told Assad to ask when we could eat something. He did. The soldier responded.
Assad said, “He’ll let us eat if he’s satisfied with our answers.”
I said, “If?”
Assad nodded. “Till then, everyone stays right here.”
The soldier said something else to Assad--something that made Assad respond sharply. You didn’t have to speak Arabic to know there was a dispute. The guard would say something with that smile of his and Assad would shake his head, no. I was unhappy with Assad and didn’t believe it was good idea to give the soldier any trouble.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Just wait,” Assad said.
They argued more and the soldier leaned to rest his elbows on his knees. Whatever he said was decisive, because Assad gave up. He looked at us, then looked away. He said, “Carolyn, this fellow wants you to stand up.”
The soldier was still leaning forward--the whole scene mirrored back in warped refection by the lenses of his shades.
“All right,” I said. “ This is enough.”
Carolyn said, “No, it’s okay.”
She stood. The guard watched. Through Assad, he told her to remove her dark glasses. She did. For the first time her composure wavered. There was something vulnerable about her without the dark glasses hiding her thoughts. Her light hair was pulled back, her head uncovered. Her blue eyes seemed to shine in the darkening room. Assad stared down at the floor. Pete had his eyes closed and was rubbing his forehead.
For a long time the soldier just looked. Finally he said something to Assad, never once directing his gaze away from Carolyn.
“He says give him the glasses.” Carolyn did as she was told. The man leaned forward to take them. Assad said, “He wants to be able to see your eyes.”
The wind was raging again and darkness had fallen. We were hungry and with the sun down it would soon grow cold inside the unheated hut. The guard had taken Assad into a side room to question him. We could hear their muted voices, the harsh and unsettling tones of spoken Arabic. I was sitting with Carolyn and Pete around the little table where we’d had tea that morning.
Pete said, “Look, there’s got to be a way out of this place. A back door or through a window or something.”
Carolyn said, “And then what? Run through a sandstorm to a bunch of cars that won’t start? To drive off on a road that’s covered with sand and leave Assad back here alone with that scary chap?”
Pete said, “There’s the soldier’s jeep.”
I said, “How far do you suppose we’d get in an Arabic military vehicle, Rick? Besides, do you have the keys?”
Pete was rocking back and forth on his knees, looking at the table. He shook his head. “Well, we’ve got to do something. Just sitting here isn’t making things any better and I sure as hell don’t trust that soldier out there.”
His slow unraveling made me anxious. I told him the best thing to do was just sit tight. We had no reason to mistrust the guards or think this was anything other than routine questioning. I didn’t believe it myself. But it sounded better than panicking. I suggested we simply wait until this thing played itself out.
“Wait? For what? Do you really think they’re going to bring Desmond back safe and sound in the morning, tell us this was all just a crazy mix-up and send us off on our merry ways? Do we wait till they decide I’m a spy or that you’re a killer and cut our goddamn hands off or some crazy shit like that?”
I said, “Come on, Pete.”
He looked at me with an unpleasant smile in the half-light. He said, “You know, I can’t even remember your fucking name, man.”
I said, “I’m Martin. This is Carolyn. We’re friends. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Pete.”
There was a strained silence.
Carolyn said she was hungry. Then she laughed. “I’d have eaten a larger breakfast had I known we’d be taken hostage this afternoon.”
I was thinking about the food we’d brought in the desert box in the Land Cruiser. I thought maybe we could have Assad tell the guard we were hungry. Take a time out, a snack break from all the fun. I mentioned this. Carolyn shrugged. Pete wasn’t listening. I said, “Also, I’ve got to go to the bathroom.”
Pete stood up. “Look,” he said, “I don’t know what you people are doing out here. For all I know you did dump that body out there. I don’t really give a fuck. But what I do know is that we’re in serious trouble, all of us. As far as I’m concerned, it’s that guy out there against us.” He said, “Just listen to me.” You had to feel for the poor guy--a million miles from home, his pal marched off to God-knew-where. If the room had been large enough he would have been pacing. But he couldn’t even do that.
I said, "Pete..."
He stared at me. “There’s three of us here, man.” He pointed at Carolyn. “Four if you count her and just one of him. I don’t care what kind of weapons he has, we’ve got him outnumbered.”
“Please, Pete,” Carolyn said.
He waved his hand. “He’s gonna finish talking to your friend out there and come through that door for one of us. When he does that, we’re rushing him.”
I said, “No we’re not.”
Pete said, “Yes, we are.” We glared at each other, him standing, me sitting on one of the huge pillows beside the table.
Carolyn said, “I feel like I’m in the sort of movie I wouldn’t care to see.”
Pete was tall and athletic, had probably played some aggressive sport in college. Thinking that there was some action to take, however ill-conceived, made him feel better. One-hundred-percent all-American.
He smiled. “If I rush him, get him down on the ground, you and your friend will jump in. I know you will. Then we can go get the cars started and we’ll be out of here.”
Now I stood up. “Are you out of your fucking mind? If we do anything to that prick we really will be in trouble. All you’ll manage to do is get yourself or one of us killed.”
Carolyn said, “Boys...”
We turned. Assad was coming in through the doorway looking at us. The guard stood behind wearing that scary grin of his.
Assad said, “What’s all this?”
I looked steadily at Pete. “Nothing,” I said. “We’re just having a discussion. About food.”
Assad looked weary. “He’s done with me. I told him why we’re here, but he doesn’t seem very convinced. Seems to think we’re all up to something together.”
Pete nodded as if this confirmed what he’d been thinking all along. The guard was leaning against the door jam watching from behind his shades. He hadn’t taken them off once and I got to wondering what was behind them--empty black orbs perhaps or just smaller versions of the dark shades? Then for some reason I got it into my head that he had eyes like a lizard, double-lidded, with vertical slits for pupils--some kind of desert-man, not human in all his parts. I found myself choking back dark laughter.
Behind me Carolyn said, “Doesn’t this fellow ever get hungry?”
I said, “Or need to pee?”
Assad ignored us. “Look, he’s going to talk to each of you now and I suggest you just tell the truth. Don’t try to say anything fancy or clever. Just tell the entire fucking truth and we might get out of this in one piece.”
I took this little speech to be aimed at me and was about to respond when a blur leapt before me. Assad was frozen in surprise as Pete landed a blow to the soldier’s jaw, knocking the dark glasses askew. The solider raised his truncheon in one practiced motion and struck Pete near the throat. There was the sound of a melon being dropped from a height, then another and a third. Pete dropped the way a fighter does, straight down, head first. Then the guard had his pistol drawn, pointing it at Assad. He said something in a low growling tone, then turned the gun on me.
He stepped toward me. The barrel of the pistol almost touched my face. I’d never had a gun pointed at me before. My nose and lips went tingly; my mouth dried up and my knees felt watery. A twitch, a whim and my life was over. I stood there alive at the pleasure of another man, a strange soldier whose eyes were masked behind mirrored glasses. I had no idea what was going to happen next. I could think only of getting the gun out of my face.
Carolyn said, “Is he breathing?”
Assad said, “He bloody well doesn’t deserve to be.”
Carolyn had placed one of the pillows beneath Pete’s head. She was leaning over him trying to figure out whether he was still alive. The wind was blowing as hard as it had been the evening before and the darkness outside was a velvety black shroud. A bulb burned in the anteroom of the mess hut, where the guard was drinking something from a canteen he’d brought in from his jeep. I wanted something to drink.
After the soldier had finally pulled the gun from my face, I’d felt a strange elation, a surge of gratitude that made me want to thank him or cry. He told me and Assad to tie Pete’s hands behind his back with plastic cuffs. We did it. He watched us work, telling Assad he would shoot all of us as if there was another incident like that. Assad translated. We assured him there wouldn’t be any more incidents. The soldier waved more cuffs in our faces. I could imagine us lined up beside Pete, hands lashed behind our backs, shot in the head one by one. Pete lay in a heap, motionless.
I said, “It smells like tea.”
“What?” Carolyn said.
“What the guard’s drinking. It smells like tea.”
She said, “I don’t think he’s breathing.”
“He’s alive,” I said. There were nasty trickles of blood from both his ears. “I think I saw him breathing.”
Assad was sitting on one of the pillows, eyeing Pete as if he were a heap of laundry. “This idiot might well have handed us our death sentences,” he said. “I’m tempted to finish him off myself.”
The curtain separating the rooms parted. The guard stepped through, wiping his mouth. He nodded toward me. He said something to Assad.
Assad sighed, climbed to his feet.
I said, “Now what?”
Assad said, “It’s your turn, mate.”
We went through the curtains into the side room. A single chair was pushed up against the wall. The guard told me to sit. I could hear the wind behind the wall and imagined drifts of sand piling up, hiding things. If only the body had been hidden for another day, I thought. If only the soldiers hadn’t happened by when they did. If only we had gone ahead into the desert or had just stayed back at home. Carolyn was in the mess room behind us all alone.
Circles had grown beneath Assad’s eyes. His stomach growled. The guard lit another cigarette. Smoke curled from his nostrils. He spoke.
Assad said, “He’ll be watching you close to make sure I’m not coaching you. Answer naturally. He’s saying he wants to know what we’re doing out here.”
I explained about our tourism business--that we were on a harmless scouting trip, something we did frequently. Two men and a married woman in the desert on a scouting trip. It sounded outlandish, as the truth often does. The guard smiled as he listened. I said it was all very legal, we had all the necessary permits.
The guard responded---you could see he didn’t believe a word we were saying.
“He doesn’t care about our permits,” Assad said. “He says he wants to know why we crossed over the border into Saudi..”
“Saudi?” The word sounded exotic even as I said it. I shook my head for the guard’s benefit. “We never crossed into Saudi. We know the limits, we stopped at this camp to avoid getting lost and going over the border accidentally.”
Assad translated. The guard cut him off before he was done. Assad said: “He thinks you’re lying.”
“So, tell him I’m not.”
Assad did. “He says they can prove we went over the border into Saudi.”
I had no idea why he was asking these questions about crossing the border--to scare me and Assad? I told him it wasn’t possible that he had proof because we hadn’t gone there. I wondered why he wasn’t asking anything about the body they had found. I wondered what he knew that we didn’t. I said, “We never crossed over into Saudi. That’s that. Maybe he’s thinking of that guy Pete and Desmond.”
The guard was leaning against the wall watching me. He said something. Assad said, “He wants to know where you were last night.”
I told him I was here, in the camp. Just like everyone else.
Assad spoke but the guard was shaking his head. He didn’t mean that, he said, through Assad. I knew what he meant; he meant where was I, precisely.
“In my hut. Sound asleep.”
The guard spoke. Assad looked at me. “He says that’s funny. Because Hazem claims to have gone to your hut last night after lights out with some questions about the vehicle.”
I said, “Then I must have been so soundly asleep that I didn’t hear him knocking.”
Assad just smiled. “According to this fellow, Hazem let himself into your room. He claims the bed set was still made up and you were nowhere to be found.”
I smiled tightly. “Then Hazem must be mistaken. Or lying.”
“For God’s sake, he was with me last night.” Carolyn was standing in the doorway, watching. Her face was slightly drawn but she looked calm enough. She said, “He didn’t cross the border and he didn’t go out and kill anyone. We were together.”
Assad looked at the floor. “You fools,” he said, as if to himself. “You fucking bloody fools.”
The guard understood. But he made us explain ourselves through Assad anyway—that we were not husband and wife, where her husband was. He enjoyed it, and when we were through he sat back in judgment to finish his cigarette. No one spoke. None of us looked at each other. We might not have been guilty of murder. But we were admitting to something that to him was nearly as bad. And we had come to this frontier, to his land, to carry out the deed.
Finally he spoke with Assad. He listened without looking up, as if had decided he was no longer involved in what was taking place. He said, “This man says he will expect us to make some kind of restitution.
I said, “Tell him to let us go so we can get some money.”
Assad shook his head. “He doesn’t want blood money.” His raised his eyes to indicate Carolyn. “He wants her.”
After a pause I said, “Tell him he can’t have her.”
“You don’t think I already thought of that, mate?”
The soldier’s hand was resting on his holstered gun. Carolyn was off to my side, her face was obscured in shadow.
I saw that Pete had been right. We were going to have to fight him--all three of us. It was us against him. I began to explain this to Assad with the guard standing right there in front of us.
Carolyn interrupted me. “Assad,” she said, “I want you to ask this man something.”
She said, “After we pay—after I pay—is he going to let us go?”
Assad said, “I’m not going to ask him that.”
She told him to ask the question.
“We can’t bargain with this man,” I said. “We can’t trust him, Carolyn.”
She ignored me. She said, “I don’t believe he’s going to let us go unless he gets what he wants, Assad. I believe that we’ll end up like that poor man out there.”
There was a silence during which to think about this.
I said, “Carolyn, I’m not letting you go with him. I don’t care whether we do get shot.”
She exhaled sharply, a sound bordering on laughter. Her face was still hidden in shadow. “I do care,” she said, “so please, Martin, shut up. Assad, ask him the question.”
The guard made Assad and me sit back-to-back then lashed our wrists together. We didn’t speak or offer any resistance.
When he opened the door the wind roared and sand blew in. He slammed it shut and was gone with Carolyn. The plastic cuffs dug into my wrists. My hands went numb. I imagined them turning blue, then black like the night outside. I said, “We can’t let this happen, Assad. We can’t let this happen.”
Assad said nothing.
I struggled until I couldn’t struggle any more. My wrists felt bloody. After a while, I cried. I thought of Assad’s words over and over: bloody fucking fools.
Outside the wind blew. More time passed and it began to get cold. I could no longer feel my hands. Assad and I were joined together like a single pathetic animal. He spoke only once in the night and I was shocked that when he did he woke me from a dark sleep. “I’m thirsty,” he said.
The wind stopped some time before dawn, leaving a mournful stillness as it had the day before. I thought of having left Carolyn’s hut that morning, going back to my own following the storm, now a memory from years ago. My shoulders were on fire. I tried to move my fingers but couldn’t.
Morning arrives suddenly in the desert. The first rays of sun came through the window, blood-colored, then full daylight broke so bright it hurt my eyes. My mouth was parched, lips chapped and swollen. From where I sat I had a clear view into the other room where Pete lay. I could see the bottoms of his legs and his boots. He hadn’t moved all night.
Soon it began to get hot. After what seemed to be a very long time I heard some sounds at the door, then I heard the door pushing open. The guard walked in with Carolyn behind him. At first they were just two dark figures, silhouetted before the blazing light. Then the guard scraped the door closed. I said Carolyn’s name but she didn’t answer, just hovered somewhere near the door.
A tool in the soldier’s had became a knife. After everything, I thought, this was what it came to: he was going to cut our throats right there in front of Carolyn.
He bent over us. When he did, I finally saw her. She was dressed as she had been the day before in her khakis and boots; her hair was pulled back again. Her hands were buried in her pockets, arms pressed tight against her sides. She looked at me for a moment, then away. A trickle of blood had dried at the corner of her mouth, and he jaw was deeply bruise. I felt as desolate as the desert outside.
The soldier cut the restraints from our wrists then stepped back.
Assad climbed to his feet. The guard spoke to Assad, who nodded his ascent, then spoke to us without raising his eyes.
“He says we’re free to go.”
The soldier made us put Pete into his jeep, our second body in two days. But it was true--we were free to go. The man looked on as Assad reconnected the Land Cruiser’s distributor and we got in. The desert was still, like a lake back home in the hot mid-summer. Assad sat rigidly behind the steering wheel as he directed the car away from camp, deep blood-toned marks on his wrists. Some time later we passed the spot where the body had lain the day before later still we passed the tattered carcass of a camel resting against the side of a great mound of sand.
For a long time no one spoke. Then Carolyn asked what time it was. I looked at my watch, answered her.
“Somehow,” she said, “it seems much later than that.”
She wondered aloud what time it would be in London. Then she said she wondered where Barry, her husband, was right then. She doubted whether he would even be awake yet.
There was a silence.
I said, “We’ll have to make them pay somehow. They have to pay.”
After a long time Assad said, “Yes, Martin. We’ll go directly to the authorities.”
Carolyn had turned to the window. Her reflection hovered in the glass, a ghost gazing back at her.
She said, “It’s strange in the morning, the desert, isn’t it? It’s really the strangest place.”
I followed her gaze outside to the lonely landscape--sand, then blue sky, blank and pitiless, stretching upward before fading into something darker. We sat in silence on the long drive back to the city.