The Desert Contract: A Novel

The Desert Contract: A Novel

by John Lathrop


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Written with compassion and a true understanding of the current politics and business world of the Middle East, The Desert Contract paints a dead-on portrait of Saudi Arabia’s near future and, at the same time, deftly examines what happens when passion, commitment, and loyalties collide.

Late at night on the eleventh-floor balcony of a deserted building on the Persian Gulf, American businessman Steve Kemp finds himself falling back in love with Helen—the Irishwoman he’d left more than a decade before—as bombs explode below.

Kemp returned to the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia as a last attempt to find success. Fired from his job in L.A. and divorced from his wife, he hoped to salvage his finances in a peaceful part of the Middle East. But he arrived to find a country on the verge of a political meltdown, where an explosive mix of resentment, revolt, and jihadists threatened the regime. And he found his old flame Helen, who was now married to a diplomat at the end of his career.

The overextended military props up the crumbling monarchy, buying a little time—time Kemp and Helen use to rekindle their affair. As the country plunges into violent political crisis, Kemp focuses on financing his escape with Helen. All he needs is one last big sale—their contract out.

The country enters its final descent when Kemp’s sale at last appears. The deal will be complete once Kemp visits a correspondent bank. It is standard procedure. But suddenly the picture darkens. The bank is on the wrong side of an obscure island. Helen, and even her husband, may have had a hand in the sale. And the terms may be more ambiguous—and more dangerous—than Kemp had thought.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416567943
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 12/21/2013
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A warm breeze from the Gulf blew her hair into my face; can love begin with the smell of a woman's hair? Lust certainly can, but when I tried to kiss her she pushed me away. She called me a ghost, high on the dark balcony of that deserted building where -- under different circumstances -- we'd first met. She didn't mean me. She meant our old relationship: dead for a decade. I stepped back, and the flash of the explosion far behind me lit her face. Her eyes were hard; the second, more dangerous shock hadn't yet registered. I turned in time to see the fireball vanish like a spent firework over the air base. From that distance the blast wave was only another breeze -- from the wrong direction. When I turned back Helen was gripping the balcony railing. She looked suddenly vulnerable, and I felt regret, not for having left, but for having left her.

In memory, past lovers never age. But no one ever stays the same. Earlier that evening I'd awaited Helen's reappearance after thirteen years with anticipation, but also with misgiving. When I'd left her and Saudi Arabia, she was a young Irishwoman -- she'd breeze into my apartment with a laugh and a kiss, like a gust of fresh air blown in from the Irish Sea. But I had certainly changed -- the gray in my hair was evidence. She must have changed as well. The southern shore of the Gulf is a poor long-term environment for white women.

The setting for our reunion, the Royal Orient Chinese restaurant, embodied the concept of decay. The street in front had broken and subsided and been repaired inadequately; my spirits began to fall even before I stepped in, carefully, over the uneven tar and concrete. During ouraffair the Royal Orient had been one of the best restaurants in Al Khobar. Tonight I appeared to be its only customer. Nothing had changed (except the manager -- he'd returned to Hong Kong) but everything had deteriorated. Broken plastic vines wound loosely down the room's columns. The pictures of the Swiss Alps on the walls hung flyblown and askew. Wall-mounted air conditioners roared ineffectually; my palms left a watermark of sweat on the plastic tablecloth as I straightened the place mats, the napkins, the silverware -- I like things to be in order. A layer of grease lay on every surface, and a heavy grease smell hung on the air.

I wondered why she'd chosen it. Nostalgia? We'd dined there often in the past, but she must have known it had gone downhill. Maybe she saw it as safe. The last terrorist bombing had been months ago, but I'd been warned at an American embassy meeting in Bahrain not to frequent the larger restaurants or hotels in Khobar which catered to a Western clientele. Maybe she had her reputation to consider. Khobar was a very small town. Helen was, after all, now married.

I was considering all this when the door swung open and a tall woman walked into the shadowy foyer. She was without a veil, but like all Western women in public, she wore a black silk abaya over her normal clothes. Most wore them like sacks, as if to emphasize the garment's ugliness; hers swept down from her shoulders like a fashion accessory. It was the statement of a woman who had decided she was going to look good in a garment she was forced to adopt.

Her eyes swept the room. She was still in shadow. Maybe I imagined the look of anxiety: like a woman having arrived for a meeting she'd tried to avoid (with her ex-lover? her accountant?), half hoping that a last-minute schedule conflict, perhaps even an emergency, had forced them to stand her up. Then she stepped forward into the light.

My ex-wife used to tell me I was out of touch with my emotions; I'd had reason to keep them under wraps for the past few years. I recognized Helen the moment I saw her face, and the shock immobilized me. She looked like memory come to life -- unchanged. I sat stunned as she strode to my table, smiling the fresh-faced smile I'd loved and almost forgotten, leaving the Indian waiter fluttering in her wake. Her walk was the same: impulsive, as if aiming at a target she didn't want to miss.

She held out both hands, happy and welcoming, as if I'd never left her, and greeted me with: "Dia duit!" She'd always been proud of her Gaelic. I didn't remember what it meant, but managed to stammer a hello as I rose. It's not safe to indulge in public displays of affection in Saudi, but she kissed me on my cheek, and even the smell of her skin was familiar.

"It's grand to see you again, Steven," she said, sitting down, "and at such short notice. Thanks so much for coming. I'm sorry I'm late but we were stopped twice at checkpoints. It's impossible now to avoid them."

I stared at my past sitting at the table in front of me. Of course it was an illusion. To get a grip I tried to identify the differences that a decade must have made. I tried to see her critically: looking for time's evidence. Her voice, perhaps, was not so strongly Irish. I found my own -- I had to say something, she'd mentioned checkpoints -- and said, "You're a diplomat's wife. Why would the police stop you?"

Her eyes widened. She said, "You've only been back for a few days?"

"I arrived in Manama a week ago."

"A lot's changed since your day, Steven. But one thing's still the same: this is a very small town. It would have been indiscreet to come to dinner with you in a car with diplomatic plates. I took a cab. The police took their time at the checkpoints. They like to ogle Western women."

Saudi cops ogling Western women. A detail of local culture I'd forgotten. "I'm based in Bahrain," I said, "a civilized Arab country. At least, relatively civilized."

"I'm envious. We used to go there often, to the clubs. Until the U.S. Navy pulled out, and the bombings started on this side of the bridge, and the state department included Manama on the travel advisory. Now we mostly stay on the compound. This is an outing for me." She glanced around at the stained and faded Chinese restaurant. She said, "I haven't been back here since you left. I'd heard it was getting shabby, but I didn't realize.... We'd better order. We don't have much time. The curfew's at nine."

I signaled for the waiter. The Indian shuffled over and handed us two greasy menus and two glasses of Saudi champagne (nonalcoholic), on the house. I wondered if the cuisine would be any more authentic than the decor -- or the help. Helen ordered and I followed her lead.

I couldn't take my eyes off her. After the waiter left she slipped off her abaya. Underneath it she wore a simple short-sleeved dress. Her figure had changed little. She was slender, with a column-like neck, square shoulders and breasts that were full but not heavy. Her complexion was milk-white Irish. She had sensitive hands, with long, elegant fingers, but with wide wrists. Her features were those that Americans think of as classically Irish, but which in fact represent the peak, not an average, of Irish beauty: the red hair (could it still be that naturally red?), the rectangular, firm-jawed face, the aquiline nose and bold eyes. How old was she? I remembered she was ten years younger than me: she had to be almost forty.

My career's been in finance, in risk assessment. Training took over, and like turning the knurled barrel of a lens the present came into focus. Helen sat before me: Helen in early middle age. The signs of time were there: not quite as slender a figure as I remembered; wrinkles around the eyes; a couple of lines across the forehead and around the neck, a slightly fuller face. They just completed her. She'd arranged an armistice with age. Her look was as unlike as possible the commercial Californian idea of beauty: the blond Hollywood starlet; the cookie-cutter television "personality"; the supermarket magazine cover bimbo. She was womanly. She was real. Her only fault, if it could be called that, was a small, thin-lipped mouth. But, like the rest of her, it was mobile and expressive.

"You look great," I told her. "Stunning."

Her lips rose in a smile her eyes didn't quite agree with. "You were always easy with your compliments. You're looking good yourself. You look as if the wind's been at your back."

With her faded accent the line sounded affected, like stage Irish. But I appreciated the compliment. I have what people call regular features; they hadn't yet started to deform, at least not noticeably. I don't feel older, but I try not to kid myself. During the last couple of years, before I got the job in Bahrain, I'd let things go, and my muscle tone wasn't what it used to be. I had even started smoking again.

I said, "I couldn't believe it when you answered the phone -- I couldn't believe I was hearing your voice," and she interrupted: "I couldn't believe it was you -- calling from just across the causeway. And on our residence line. The number's supposed to be unlisted."

"Your consulate operator made a mistake. I asked for the commercial officer: Harry Laird. They probably put me through to your home because I asked for him by name."

"And your accent. You and Harry are both Americans."

"I didn't realize he was your husband. I didn't know you were married, or even still here -- or that he was out of town."

"Harry's in Washington. A short business trip. He'll be back in a few days."

"I recognized your voice as soon as you said hello."

"As I did yours." She stopped, as if to avoid a conversational road she hadn't intended. She passed her hand through her red hair. "Harry and I got married about a year after you left. I met him on the rebound, in the same place you and I first met: Aysen's old apartment in Silver Towers."

"Don't tell me she's still here as well."

"She left a couple of years ago, after the first wave of post-9/11 bombings. She's kept the place just in case she ever wants to come back. I'm keeping an eye on it for her."

"So you've been an embassy wife for eleven or twelve years." I meant it to sound congratulatory -- I was honestly happy for her -- but for some reason the compliment seemed to fall flat.

"Yes," she said. "They've been good years, except for this last."

"You can't have been here since...."

"Since you left me?" She laughed -- with the hint of an edge. "Of course not. You mustn't think that. We only stayed for a year after we got married. Then we had assignments in Jordan and Turkey, and finally in Ireland. Harry thought Dublin would be his last station. It was lovely. Harry called it his swan song posting."

"Why swan song?"

"I married an older man. It's such a stock phrase, isn't it? But we were in love. He's much younger than his age. And there were advantages. He has a good position, we've had money, the opportunity to travel...."

The list of advantages ended, like a lonely tune, in a dying fall. It sounded self-consciously pat, as if she'd practiced it too long, like a child who's learned by rote their little story of achievement at school -- or their alibi. I asked her, "Why did you come back?"

"Commerce and state are recalling all the old Saudi hands they can still find. The place is such a mess, they don't want to leave it to junior officers. Harry's even put off retirement for a year. They extended his service. We should have been safely back in Ireland by this time."

"You're settling down there?"

"Harry's in love with Ireland. He doesn't want to retire to the States."

"Surely you could leave, if you wanted to?"

"In a minute. I'm practically the last spouse left. I had to fight for permission to stay."

It was an admirable example of loyalty. In my years in Los Angeles I'd found a wife, but I'd never found a woman who'd insist on staying in a place like Khobar, just to be with me. Maybe it was envy that made me dig a little deeper: "So it's been a good marriage -- no regrets?"

She frowned and for a moment I thought I'd offended her, but we'd been intimate once, and she always was an honest woman. In a soft voice she said, "We have our differences, our problems...every couple does, don't they? But no, I don't have any regrets." She wouldn't meet my eye, and we sat in silence, sipping our ersatz champagne. Finally she looked up.

"What about you, Steven? What have you done for the past ten years? What brought you back? Especially now?"

I knew it was coming, but I was temporarily saved by the arrival of dinner. The food was better than I'd expected. What province of China it was meant to represent was debatable, but it was spicy and edible. I was hungry, and after a few mouthfuls I had my equilibrium back. "You remember," I said, "what the boom was like here after the first Gulf war. When we first met. And how short it lasted. I made a lot of money selling mutual funds to expats, especially to Americans. After a year and a half, business began to dry up. In a couple of years it was over." I took a long drink to kill the spice. I'd finished the easy part. The hard part was next.

But I didn't have to tell it immediately. Sitting in sight of the door, I noticed two policemen walk in as if they owned the place (if they'd had a dime between them, they wouldn't have been cops) and call the waiter. Saudi cops, like all Arab police, don't have to look threatening; frequently they look ridiculous. It's not important how they look because everyone knows that what they say, goes, period. The waiter listened to them as he would to a judge handing down a sentence with no possibility of appeal. The police turned and left (not without a lubricious sneer in our direction; my bile rose and I wanted to wipe the sneers off their greasy faces). The waiter shuffled to our table. He gave an obsequious bow -- which could only mean bad news -- and told us that we had to leave immediately. He'd be happy to pack up our dinner.

Helen argued: it was too early, the curfew wasn't until nine. Until the waiter explained that it was a police order, an unexpected curfew, part of the crackdown on crime, on the remaining nightlife, on terrorism -- who knew?

"If it's a curfew," I asked her, "where can we go? Won't everything be closed?"

"Shit," she said, surprising me (she pronounced it in the Irish way, rhyming with "light"). "Yes, even the hotel lobbies will be cleared out."

We stood there, hesitating, while the waiter packed up our dinner in back. The arbitrary orders had come down from above -- some colonel? -- down the long Arab chain of command to the local cops on the beat, to our Indian waiter and finally to us. The orders were absolute and beyond question. Helen and I were powerless. It was like being the children of a capricious parent: a little taste of everyday Arab adult reality.

Our reunion was about to be truncated. I suspected it would be indiscreet for me to drive her back to her place, and I had nowhere in town for us to go.

Debt had forced me to head back to the Middle East at a time when nobody in their right mind was going there voluntarily. I'd been living since my return in a Manama hotel room. Apart from a couple of potential clients and hotel acquaintances, Helen was the only person I knew on the Gulf.

It's the most successful who take disappointment with the most equanimity, and I hadn't been that successful for a while. I wasn't ready to see the evening end yet.

I said, "Let's cross the bridge. I'll drive us both. We can catch up properly over a drink. I discovered a good bar. You've probably heard of it: the Oasis. Or, we can just go to my hotel's -- it's not bad. I'll get you home by eleven, midnight at the latest. There aren't any curfews in Bahrain."

She looked distracted. "It would take us forty minutes to get across the causeway, and another twenty to your hotel. It's too far, Steven, it would take too long."

I wanted to get through to her, to connect; I stepped closer, we were almost touching; I could smell her perfume. Gently as a caress I put my hand on her arm. Her skin was smooth and warm, like a memory of a life I'd almost forgotten. I said, "We've just begun to get reacquainted -- after how many years? I want to spend a couple of hours with you. I want to know how you really are, how you've been. Come on. Don't let them win. Come with me."

Different women show openness to intimacy in different ways. Some become wide-eyed and loud. Helen as a young woman would become quiet and conspiratorial. Irishwomen of her generation were not promiscuous (like so much else, that must have changed), and I'd been her first man. Even being taken for the first time she was quiet: holding back her cry, biting her thin lips, digging her nails into my shoulders. I hardly hoped now for her to give in, but she surprised me with a smile, close, almost secretive; she leaned near and said: "I know where we can go."


"Aysen's apartment. Silver Towers."

She took me off guard, but it was a good idea. The apartment building was just around the corner. The ambience wouldn't be the same as a hotel bar but it would at least be private. It would certainly be more comfortable than the Royal Orient Chinese. "All right," I said, "let's go."

"I still can't stay long," she said, as if flirting with a second thought.

"We'll stay just as long as you like."

So we left the restaurant together in my car.

The sun slanted over the rooftops and the heat beat down on my rented white Toyota, on the garbage littering the potholed roads, and on the concrete and stucco peeling like rot off the shops and apartments. The scene reminded me of a Mexican border town I'd once visited south of Tucson, with its cracked pavements, broken streets and suffocating heat. I turned the car's air conditioner on full, knowing that it would just start kicking in as we arrived at our destination, the oldest high-rise in town.

They'd started building two new towers nearby, but there'd been some contractual or money trouble -- or perhaps the right prince hadn't been paid off satisfactorily. In any case they loomed tall and half built, with their cranes standing dejectedly over them. Silver Towers, its sides clad in dusty fake marble, shone in the fading light. I parked in the dirt lot behind. We walked past a gang of skinny Arab kids in flapping thobes kicking an old ball, vying to knock over an empty Coca-Cola bottle in the middle of the road.

The two guards who used to sit at a table and record the names of visitors were gone. The foyer was empty. A heavy layer of dust and sand lay over the floor and over the drooping leaves of two potted palms. Palms can survive on very little water -- they prefer it dry -- but these looked near their end. One of the two elevators was out of service: its doors gaped open to the empty shaft.

"Do you remember the floor?" Helen asked me.

It had been a long time. "No, I don't."

"The eleventh. Near the top -- thirteen in all." She pressed the button and a cable shuddered; the lights above the door blinked a descent. Thirteen was an unlucky number, but we would be two beneath it. "Are you certain the elevator's safe?" I said.

She laughed. "As safe as any of the lifts in Khobar. There are stairs, but I'm afraid I'm not up to eleven floors."

"If it's okay with you, it's okay with me."

We creaked slowly upward, then jolted to a halt. We stepped out. The corridor stretched north and south the length of the building, aligned with the coast, apartments on each side. At the far end a door led to a fire escape; there was no point in considering what kind of shape that would be in. A faint light filtered through the door's grimy window, picking out the scarred tile floor and the scabby walls. I began to regret agreeing to come; almost any bar in Manama would be better than this. "The place is falling to pieces," I said.

"It's been nearly empty for years. The last tenants, an Irish couple we knew, finally left a few weeks ago. No one wants to live in an unprotected apartment any longer. But they're cheap, and Aysen's is still in good shape. Come on." She strode purposefully on, like a girl on an adventure. I felt like a character in a children's novel, a detective story, or a story of hidden treasure: Helen was the brave girl leading me (hanging back and doubtful) through a dim cavern, to...what? My own true confessions, presumably. Something I'd rather have kept in the dark.

We walked to the end -- I could smell her perfume as I followed her -- and she took out a key and opened the door on the left. She entered first; I followed into an even darker hallway. She switched on a light.

An overhead fluorescent flickered, then lit up in garish relief the living room where Helen and I had first met at one of the hundreds of parties after the first Gulf war. Red afghan carpets lay strewn over the floor. A living room set of overstuffed beige furniture sat at convenient angles away from the walls, facing a glass-topped table. Smaller Indian tables of intricately carved dark wood supported Chinese vases and other artistic bric-a-brac. One particularly valued carpet hung from a wall; two bookcases stood against another. There was a slight smell of dust. I recognized nothing from a decade earlier, but everything looked vaguely familiar: a mummified, preserved memory of a certain kind of comfortable, semi-artistic expat lifestyle in Saudi Arabia.

Helen threw her abaya over a chair. "I have a woman give it a clean every month. It's not bad, is it? I don't know how much is still here from your -- our -- day. Aysen redecorated a lot, but somehow everything always looked pretty much the same." She slipped into the little kitchen, turned on a light and pulled open a cupboard. "Which would you like," she asked me, "some sid, or some homemade wine? I'd advise the sid."

Saudi is officially dry; you can't buy liquor in public. It was yet another reason, besides security, for me to stay headquartered across the bridge in wet Bahrain. In Khobar you could, with the right connections, purchase home-brewed wine, or, if you needed something stronger: moonshine -- sid, short for the Arabic sidiqi: friend. Sid rotted your guts faster, but it was easier going down. I told her I'd go with her recommendation, and crossed the living room to unlatch the sliding-glass doors leading to the balcony. She joined me, holding a glass in each hand.

We stepped out. The balcony ran the length of the apartment. We had a bird's-eye view of the side of town facing the long desert toward Riyadh; from the far end we could see the northern coast. Seen from above, Khobar looked even smaller: a little, down-at-heel Arab town on the southern shore of the Persian Gulf. None of the flashiness of the capital far inland. But this was where the oil, the wealth of the country, came from.

We walked to the end of the balcony and stared at the Meridien Hotel in the distance, a lonely landmark on the shore. The setting sun flashed on the hotel's sign, and I saw that the giant M was askew, one of its moorings broken.

"Look," I said, "remember how it hung crooked before, and how they fixed it, right after the first Gulf war? Victory brought success. Business was roaring, everyone had a new car, everything got a face-lift. Look at the place now. I don't get it. Oil's been at record highs for years, but except for a couple of new malls outside of town, the place is dilapidated."

"You've been away so long. This isn't Abu Dhabi, or Dubai. The country was on a decline for twenty years, and the good times you remember, after the first war, didn't last. You remember that -- it's why you left. In real terms, oil's still lower now than it was twenty years ago. Sure, the royal family's flush, but the average don't reverse thirty years of recession overnight." I thought: She's well informed; it's a plausible analysis. But she is the wife of a commerce officer. She continued, "This last war didn't bring us prosperity -- it brought us bombs in Riyadh, murders here in town, and hatred on the streets. You said on the phone you were selling investments. Who to?"

"Saudis. Businessmen. They've got the money, I'm sure of it. They're just not investing locally. I don't blame them. I wouldn't either, in their shoes. They're looking for somewhere safe, somewhere offshore." It sounded like a sales pitch, even to me. But I believed it.

The sun was setting and we turned to the east; the last rays lit her red hair like a halo of fire. She saw the way I looked at her, and said, "Let's go in. Tell me about LA." Back inside she took the sofa; I sat on a chair opposite. It felt like an interrogation -- but friendly, without harsh lights or thumbscrews.

"You left me and Saudi," she said levelly, "because the boom had run its course. You went back to California. And then?"

I took a drink and a breath. "I'd been good to the company, and it was good to me. The nineties were a great decade once they got started -- once Clinton got elected. Pretty soon I was a senior manager. I got married in '97." I looked down at my glass. It was too soon to take another drink.

"The firm got heavily into venture capital funding. I was a lead in opening that line of business, particularly with Silicon Valley start-ups. It was the height of the boom. Then the dot-bomb hit. Within a year our venture capital business collapsed. They brought me back into mutual funds, but by then everything was heading south. We were pretty aggressive trying to keep the company afloat...maybe too aggressive. I was one of the last to go before it went under. I'd been out of work for a while when the market finally picked up and I talked myself into this job. I sold them on the idea that there's flight capital here, looking for a safe spot to fly."

Translation: I left you because the job was over; I had a few good years; the dot-bomb washed me up; I'm broke and I came back because it was the only job I could find. It was a summary that left out a lot, but I didn't feel that confessional. By a certain age most of us have periods in our life, and things that we've done, that we'd prefer to forget. I'm an American. I believe in optimism. I believe in looking forward, not back.

Of course, you don't always take all your old friends and acquaintances forward with you. If you confess a failure to a friend, and they look pained or embarrassed, it can be a proof of sincerity. But an attempt to hide a smile is a confession of envy: of your money, your job, your car -- maybe even your wife.

Helen looked compassionate. She said so softly I hardly heard her, more to herself than to me: "I remember now -- you were always an honest man." She was talking about someone from her past, but it was a compliment and I murmured my thanks. Then she said, "Returning to Saudi, especially now.... Didn't you have any doubts? The security situation -- you must have kept up on it."

"I did the research. The stats could be worse. The government signed on to the War on Terror. They've rounded up hundreds of suspects. And they're trying to liberalize: the local elections, for instance. Last year about ten Americans were killed or injured. With something like ten thousand of us left in the country that's a point-one percent chance of anything happening -- at least to me. There haven't been any bombings on the coast for a couple of years. And I don't even live here. I live in Bahrain; I only drive over for business. So the odds," I finished with a little grin, "aren't bad."

She stared as if trying to discern whether I was serious or just making a bad joke. She said, "You're mad. Completely mad. Steven, do you remember Westvillage -- the compound you used to live in?"

I remembered. "Of course."

"They cut the throats of four Americans there. Less than two years ago. How do you convert that to a statistic? The threat's real. And you can't predict when or where the next attack's coming. I wonder how much you really know about this place -- or how much it's changed."

"I've kept up. CNN, Fox News, the LA Times...."

"CNN, Fox?" Her eyebrows rose, then her voice. "That's entertainment, not news -- and vulgar entertainment at that. You'd do better to watch Irish dance. At least that's real. Your American news shows have no idea what's going on here -- or they're not interested in reporting it. Or maybe they're afraid to cross your government -- it doesn't matter. I don't think you know what's going on here: the hatred, the politics."

"Politics don't interest me. I'm here to make money, that's all."

"Politics is what this place is all about. It's why we're here. America considers this country its great regional ally. What is Saudi Arabia, really? An absolute monarchy. A police state. A police state where probably forty percent of the youth are unemployed -- and, most of them, unemployable. The government's pro-American, but the people, certainly the young, hate America. When the news of 9/11 hit the radio, car horns started honking. They loved it! I doubt that made CNN or Fox, did it?"

"Helen, I'm not here to sell investments to the unemployed. I'm dealing with businessmen. Responsible businessmen. Politics doesn't enter into it."

"Would the Arabs want to send their money to your country -- a country most of them hate -- if they thought it was safe to keep it in their own? We're all involved in politics, whether we like it or not."

"Not me. I'm not involved."

"We all are. We live here."

"I live across the causeway, remember? I'm not here to solve anyone's problems -- except their investment problems. I'm interested in local politics insofar as they stay favorable to outgoing investment. Other than that, I don't give a damn."

We'd both become a little intense -- over what? Something that wasn't our business, that neither of us could do anything about.

She sat farther back on the deep sofa, farther from me, in silence. After a few moments she asked, "Are you working for an American firm?"

"Yes. Winston Investments, in LA. A mutual fund company."

"How does Harry fit in? You called this morning for him, not

for me."

"Your husband's the local U.S. commercial officer: the bishop. I need his imprimatur."

"What do you mean?"

"The federal government's scrutinizing funds leaving the Middle East, particularly funds from Saudi. All part of the War on Terror. I need Harry to vet my Saudi investors, at least the biggest ones. He needs to give them his blessing. And, of course, I'm hoping he'll be able to refer some clients."

She said softly, "I thought it might be something like that." Watching her, I recalled one of her mannerisms: she always looked troubled when giving bad news.

She said, "When you called this morning, I panicked. I asked you to dinner for a reason. I wanted to tell you that we couldn't meet again, after tonight -- socially or any other way. It's not that I don't want to see you. It's been wonderful seeing you again. But this is such a tiny town, and the expat community is so very small, much smaller than you remember. There are still a few people here from when we knew each other. We run into them at parties. I'm married now, Steven. It may not be the happiest marriage in the world, but I value it. I don't want anything, even a faint hint of an old rumor, to disturb it. I don't want any rumors, even ancient ones, to reach Harry. You understand, don't you?"

Of course I understood. She'd said she remembered my honesty, but I've never believed in telling everything. Too much truth can be corrosive, even in the best marriage. I'd never mentioned Helen to my wife. And in any case, what's deader than a dead affair, a dead romance -- whatever you like to call it? But with her sitting there, the memory of her taste still in my mind, it was hard not to feel a little disappointment, even resentment -- although I'd had plenty of practice in keeping that in check. "I understand completely," I said. "I'll even find someone else to vet my Saudi clients. Someone at the embassy in Riyadh."

Relief spread across her features, a relief so open and simple I could have been again with a girl too young to worry about who knew about an old affair; a girl without the need to keep an older husband in the dark, to know what not to tell. She got up, stepped closer, knelt on one knee and put her hand on my arm. "I thought you'd understand. I don't want there to be any hard feelings -- and I'm sure you don't, either. Now do me a favor" -- her tone was that of a mother trying to cheer up her child after administering a mild rebuke -- "tell me about your wife."

"My wife?" The transition was too sudden. And some failures aren't amenable to the gentle approach. "We divorced shortly after I lost my job."

She recoiled as if I'd sworn at her. She said, "I'm sorry."

Silence fell between us. One can receive too much sympathy. Helen had given me the message for which she had set up our meeting, and I'd given her the reassurance she wanted. Our reunion was over. I got up. "I'd better be going," I said, "and you have to get back to your compound. I can call you a taxi -- unless you'd care for me to drive you?"

She hesitated. "I'm not sure you should...."

"Of course not. I'll call you a cab." I looked around for a phone, but she exclaimed, "Oh, Christ, I can call one myself." She took my arm, and said, "Let's try and part friends. Come on, have one more drink. Let's take it outside and get some fresh air."

So I went back out on the balcony, in the dark now, with the lights of Khobar burning beneath. They stretched up the coast to my right, and ahead to the desert's edge, but on my left they stopped halfway to the horizon, as if a chunk had been bitten off the town's perimeter. It was the air base. The Saudis like their security installations dark.

Helen joined me with our drinks, and asked, "Do you remember the parties Aysen used to have here?"

I thought back. "Yes, I do."

"They were so cosmopolitan. Turks, a smattering of Africans, you remember Roberto, the Mexican?"

"Yes," I answered, and we both laughed at the memory. "We had a lot of fun. I met Aysen through investments. I've forgotten how you got to know her."

"She thought I saved her life. We met on a boat trip -- you remember them -- the trips out on the Gulf? She almost died of seasickness. I did what I could for her -- I was still a nurse, then -- and she never forgot."

For a moment the years slipped away, and I was back in another kind of expat community: one of parties, friends, lovers; one without fears, without worries, where a major crisis was -- a case of seasickness. "It was a good time," I said.

"It was a grand time." She stood beside me, staring down into the night. "I think I was in love with you. Do you remember?"

"I've never forgotten."

"Why didn't you come back?" She spoke into the night air. "Everyone -- including me -- thought you were returning."

It was the question that had hovered unspoken all night.

She said, "Did you never think...."

"Of you? Of course I did. Often. But you and this seemed like a dream. Like a place from a different planet, a different time." Even in the darkness I could see her face had fallen. I never wanted to hurt her. I thought, There's still time to sweeten it a bit -- and there's truth in it, too. "I was a fool," I told her. "I missed you. I had to make myself forget."

"I missed you so much."

She sounded on the verge of tears.It was an unlikely place for romance. But she was an affair from my past come alive again, and I'd been so long without love. She wore honesty like a child's innocence, without being aware of it. After what I'd gone through in LA -- the business illegalities, the failed marriage -- her honesty was as sweet as her perfume, as the taste of her skin. And perhaps the sid was having an effect. I set my glass somewhat shakily on the balcony, placed my hands on her waist and drew her to me.

A warm breeze from the Gulf blew her hair into my face; I brushed it aside with one hand, to reach her lips. For a second she yielded, but then pushed me away. She said, "You're like a ghost, Steven. I won't be haunted."

The flash far behind me lit her eyes. I turned in time to see a distant fireball on the edge of town vanish into the air like some piece of trick photography. I turned back to find Helen gripping the balcony railing. She looked vulnerable, and I felt the need to protect someone, to keep them happy -- like a pain I never expected to feel again.

The sound of the explosion was as faint as a sigh. A whisper of air from the shock wave ruffled the curtains.

"Jesus," she said, "it's the air base. The Saudi air base."

We looked in its direction, but there was nothing to be seen. It was too far; everything was lost in darkness.

"What was it?" I asked.

"Maybe an accident. Maybe a bomb. I'll call the consulate. The duty officer will have heard something."

We stood staring out at nothing for another minute, then I noticed that traffic at the base of our tower was increasing: cars were speeding toward us and turning in to park in the vacant lot opposite the rear of the building. A police car, with its lights flashing, sped up and joined them. No one was parking in any order. From the eleventh floor they looked as random as dice thrown into a box.

"What do you think's going on?" I said.

"I don't know. They can't live here. The police are probably trying to find out." But as we looked down, more cars, with more police among them, appeared from the west, forming a ragged convoy heading in our direction. In a few minutes the perimeter was clogged with vehicles. We had a confused picture of men moving beneath the streetlights toward the base of the building -- and vanishing inside.

"Could we be on fire?" I seemed to be asking all the questions.

She gave a short, mirthless laugh. "That's not the fire department." She slipped past me into the living room and pulled a cell phone out of her purse. I lingered for another minute looking out over the balcony. Cars continued to arrive. Now they were having to park down the road.

"The consulate line's busy," she told me when I walked back in. "Why don't you take a look at the lift."

"What for?"

"To see if anyone's coming up. You can tell from the indicator lights."

Her expression was calm but her posture rigid. We stared at each other for a moment, then I walked out to the corridor. It was empty and almost pitch-black. In order to see, I picked up a small vase and used it to prop open the apartment door. The elevator at the far end seemed very far away.

I saw the lights blinking on the panel on the wall before I was halfway there. The elevator was on its way up; it had already reached the fourth floor. As I watched, the fifth light blinked on. The sixth blinked on, and stayed on. The elevator had stopped.

I looked around. Behind me was a door with a sign indicating a stairway. I pushed it open. In the gloom stairs led up and down from a landing. An obnoxious smell rose from the well. A dead cat, maybe, or a rat that had gotten lost and trapped. I let the door close and heard, faintly, the slap of cables. The lights blinked: the elevator was ascending again. Past the sixth, past the seventh floor, continuing on up.

I started walking back to the apartment, keeping an eye over my shoulder on the indicator.

The eleventh light switched on, then winked off. The twelfth flashed, then the thirteenth.

In the living room Helen stood staring out the window. "Are they coming up?" she asked.

"They've gone past us. Right to the top -- the thirteenth floor."

"Whoever 'they' are."

"Did you get through to the consulate?"

"No, the line's still busy."

"Where did I put my drink?"

She reached down and handed it to me. Our fingers touched.

"I'm sorry," I said, "about what happened out there...I didn't mean to upset you."

She just shook her head and punched in a number on her cell phone again. This time she got through.

"Bill, it's Helen. I'm stuck in town. What's going on?" She listened for a minute, then told him where we were, and mentioned the crowd below and in the building.

"How should I know," she said, "what the police are doing?" And then, "Do you think it's safe?" A pause. "That's almost certainly impossible. They're all over the place." Her voice fell: "They're bound to see us." After a moment she gave him her cell number, then hung up and turned to me. There was a slight tremor in her voice.

"That was the political officer. He said there's a rumor that something's happening at the air base. One or more explosions. He's trying to find out, but he's swamped with calls. He told me to get out of here and get back to the consulate."

"We're supposed to just walk out?"

"He suggests we avoid the police."

"Why? What's the problem?"

"He said there might be unreliable elements...he doesn't know what's going on, Steven. No one knows."

Unreliable elements. It sounded like jargon, a state department term, a euphemism for something. Or for nothing. Two words from a foreign language you needed a code to decipher. "Well," I said, "the police are hardly working for Al Qaeda, are they?"

Her voice was low. "I've no idea. I hope not."

"Oh, come on...."

"Bin Laden's a Saudi, Steven. And there're thousands more just like him out there, in the streets."

A society in which you can't trust the police: it was an equation that didn't add up, like a fraudulent balance sheet. Normally I would have considered the idea alarmist. Now it just froze me, mentally, in my tracks. But it was ridiculous to stand there, immobile. I said, "Let's figure out a way of getting out."

"The lift's no good."

"There's the fire escape."

"Eleven floors down?"

"If it's dark enough. Let's just give it a look." I stepped back out -- the corridor was still empty. We were at the end, and the emergency exit door to the fire escape was just to my left. I put both hands on the bar and pushed down, but it wouldn't move; I put my weight on it and it shot down. I pressed my shoulder to the door. It creaked open a few inches; a sprinkle of dust fell from the jamb onto my head.

We heard a faint bell, and turned together. At the far end of the corridor a shaft of light spilled out of the open elevator. A group of men spilled out with it, five in all. Three wore thobes; two were in uniforms. I thought I saw one rifle.

They were talking among themselves. In the dark they hadn't spotted us. Helen slipped without a sound back into the apartment's doorway, and holding her finger against her lips, motioned me with her other hand to follow. I'd almost made it when, behind me, the fire exit door gently closed, the bar jerking up as the latch snapped into its socket with a clang.

Copyright © 2008 by John Lathrop

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