Authors: Madge Swindells
Chris wakes in the night with a jolt of fear…first Sienna…now Ben. But this is nonsense. Ben will be back in the morning. And later she wakes muttering: ‘Bastards… Bastards…’ And still later: ‘Whoever you are…I’m coming after you.’ But how can she? Chris falls into a deep sleep only when dawn sets the birds singing. Birdsong always comforts her.
She oversleeps and has to skip her usual half hour at FI and go directly to Husam’s Provident Trust. She’s soon into the swing of things. She might have been working there for weeks instead of days. Lately, she feels more relaxed since she’s no longer afraid. Armed with a notebook, she accompanies Husam to a meeting with an Ugandan banker, and on to his gym. In between these chores they take fast walks in the park. Husam has a passion for walking and Chris is considering buying flat-heeled shoes for the first time in her life. The
prince has a love of antiques, so they arrange to attend a new French exhibition. A visiting Turkish art collection has to be fitted in, too. Husam adores London and hardly an event occurs without an invitation arriving in the mail. She sorts them and works out his timetable. Evenings he expects her to accompany him to new shows or concerts. He doesn’t seem to need sleep.
At noon, when Husam goes to a private meeting in the company’s boardroom with a group of bearded, robed compatriots, she hacks into his correspondence, his past travel itineraries, his work files and his bank details. Husam was in Dar Es Salaam when the US Embassy was bombed. Was that a coincidence, she wonders? She’ll never know unless she finds the hidden T-files. Suddenly she’s in an excitingly crazy world.
They are on the way back from lunch when Husam says: ‘A year back I bought a collection of rare sixteenth- century African maps by Livio Sanuto. They had to be slightly repaired and now we have to choose the frames. It’s not far from here so let’s go.’ He hails a taxi.
‘Antique maps are becoming very scarce,’ he lectures her in the taxi. ‘I expect to double or treble the value of my investment in two years time.’
As if he didn’t have enough already.
Chris soon finds herself facing an assortment of frames and masks. She’s expected to choose the
right colours to highlight the hand-coloured maps. This gives her an idea.
‘How can I pick out the best frames if I don’t know the backdrop? I mean, where will they be hanging, Prince Husam? What colour is the wall? Do you have antique or modern furniture?’
‘I should have thought of that.’ He takes her arm and bends his head close to her ear. ‘Don’t use my title. It’s archaic…something I don’t much care for. Besides, it’s a clear signal to rip me off. Just Husam will do.’ He steps back.
‘Of course. Very sensible. I’ll show you round my apartment soon and we’ll come back another time.’ He waves to the picture framer who is clearly annoyed by yet another delay.
‘Look. This is just a suggestion,’ Chris begins. ‘You have a private meeting with the board this afternoon. I could go and look around your apartment and meet you later at the picture framer’s.’
To her surprise, Husam hands over his keys and gives her the address. It’s all too easy. Why does he trust her so much? Chris stifles her guilt and regrets.
Husam’s apartment is disappointingly English. Ugly Victorian furniture clutters the rooms and there’s plenty of chintz and velvet, but she reckons that the maps will fit perfectly in old-fashioned, gilt frames. Chris finds his laptop in the bedroom and switches
it on. Seeing a document labelled ‘T-files’, she opens it and reads the daily notes of Husam’s work during his previous summer in East and West Africa. As she skips through pages of entries of meetings and expenditure to launch his many projects, she becomes increasingly excited. So this is where the cash projects are filed.
In mid-June, Husam flew to the west coast of Africa. She reads:
I met Moses Freeman in Monrovia, during a trip to Liberia. He sold me a million dollars of roughs at the low price of twenty dollars per carat, which is standard in the Congo, but cheap at Liberian prices. He tried to interest me in purchasing three excellent diamond pipes in the Congo, but in my opinion prices of roughs will soon drop. Buying and selling conflict diamonds is the only way to get started. Freeman is interested in running the show. I’ll check him out
She moves on to the next document: 24-04-04:
half a million dollars transferred to Freeman’s Windhoek bank account
. At last she’s making progress.
After that comes document after document of information on details of Husam’s cottage industries, most of which require massive cash injections, and finally, after a long search, there are two more transfers of cash to Freeman, making a total of 2.5 million dollars.
She’s jotting down cash payments when she remembers the time. Reluctantly she eyes the
list…hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s too easy. Suddenly she feels anxious. She must leave at once or Husam might guess that she’s spying on him. Somehow she’ll find a way to come back.
Husam is relaxed and friendly enough when they meet up again in the office. ‘How about a sundowner?’ he asks her around six p.m. ‘And I have tickets for a play. I’m hoping you’ll accompany me.’
Chris is tired out and determined to change their routine. ‘I have to type my notes and I could do with an early night, so I must go,’ she says determinedly. ‘See you in the morning, Husam.’
‘Not even one drink?’ His brown eyes search hers beseechingly.
‘Really, Husam. I need the evening off. I haven’t spent an evening at home for days. Besides, you’re not supposed to drink.’
‘When in Rome…’ He breaks off as a new threat occurs to him. ‘You have a date.’
‘None of your business. But yes, a date with an early night. How about tomorrow?’
He brightens. ‘Go on then…off you go, if you must.’
Oh God! Those eyes. They seem to be beaming a world of love at her. But that’s ridiculous. He must be lonely, Chris decides as she hurries to her office.
Jean is working late and this surprises her. Has she been giving her too much work? Surely not.
‘You’re working late, Jean. This is a surprise.’
‘I hung on to see you. For goodness’ sake call Mr Marais,’ Jean grumbles. ‘I’ll get him on the line for you.’
‘No wait. It’s too late. He’ll have left by now.’
‘He gave me his home number. Listen, Chris. I know this is awkward…I doubt he’s calling for business, but after all he’s deputising for the client. You
call him. What if he complains to Rowan?’
‘He wouldn’t dare.’
Moments later her telephone rings. Chris picks up the receiver.
‘Chris, it’s Dave. What’s going on? Getting hold of you is just about impossible. Don’t you ever call back?’ He sounds hurt, which surprises her.
‘I’m sorry, Dave.’ She gestures to Jean that it’s Dave Marais.
‘Look, I’m sorry I haven’t called you back. I’m not free to make calls from nine to five and by the time I get back here, it’s too late to call you. I come in early in the morning, well, most mornings, but you’re not at work yet.’
‘Don’t apologise,’ he interrupts her. ‘Just call me at home in future. Thank heavens you’re all right. What are you up to?’
‘Ben left me with a project to complete which involves being out of the office all day. Sorry Dave.’
‘Well, nevermind. I thought you’d thrown in the towel.’
‘Not my style. How could you think that?’ She feels annoyed by his inference.
‘Calm down. I want to take you to dinner or lunch. Whichever you feel you can cope with.’
‘I can’t. Truly I can’t. I’m not sure how long I’ll be involved with this job I’m on.’
She laughs. ‘Strictly under orders. Don’t ask, because I can’t tell you any more, except that it’s strictly short-term. Listen Dave, this is a bit of a long shot, but I need some background on a man called James Stark, an American. Have you heard of him?’
‘Unfortunately yes. Steer clear of him, Chris. He’s an ex-mercenary who’ll turn his hand to anything that pays. He’s a real con…spent a while in prison in Equatorial Guinea. It can’t get worse than that. More recently he tried to interest us in a long-term contract to purchase Angolan blood diamonds. He’s a known liar and cheat, so be careful.’
‘Thanks, Dave. I will. Be seeing you soon.’
‘Hey there. Not so fast. OK…what can I say…I’ll have to wait. I’ll be honest, Chrissie, you intrigue me. I look forward to our next meeting.’
Chris feels surprised. ‘I’ll keep in touch…promise.’
She replaces the receiver and considers the call. Dave is old enough to be her father and he doesn’t
look the type to make a fool of himself, so what does he want?
Jean leaves and soon she’s alone. She works all evening but Ben doesn’t call.
By midnight anxiety has gained the upper hand. Chris dials Ben’s mobile, despite the fact that it’s six a.m. in the States. There is no reply. This is more than strange. Feeling thoroughly alarmed she waits an hour before calling Ben’s sister.
‘Hello. Is that Sharon…Mrs Bronstein? Oh, hi. My name is Chris Winters, I’m Ben’s assistant…’
Sharon interrupts her with a rush of words. ‘I know who you are…Ben told us about you. Is Ben all right? He didn’t even say goodbye… Oh God!’
Chris catches her breath as she hears Sharon talking in the background. Something is terribly wrong. Her stomach quails. A man’s voice replaces Sharon’s.
‘Hello there, Chris. I’m Jonathan Bronstein, Ben’s brother-in-law. We assumed that Ben was back in London. He’s not, then?’
‘The truth is, Sharon and Ben had a disagreement. He wanted Sharon to sign away the proxy on her company shares in favour of my father. She wasn’t keen. She knows Father would vote me out of the company after what’s happened. Ben’s been helping us. He saw Moses Freeman a second time…wait a minute you don’t know…’ Jon
clears his throat noisily, but his voice was still husky.
‘I know why Ben flew to New York.’
‘Fine! Well, Ben scored. He managed to get a signed, sworn statement from Freeman claiming that the diamonds he sold to me were purchased from a Canadian mine that has not joined the Kimberley Project. Two days ago Ben had a meeting with the executives of the KP. He got back after lunch with the good news…we’re in the clear.’ Jon broke off as if expecting a reply.
‘And then?’ Chris murmurs into the static. ‘Please tell me…what’s happened to Ben?’
‘We don’t know. Sharon tried to persuade him to fly to Paris to see his wife, but Ben was adamant that he was going straight to Heathrow. He was about to leave for the airport when a driver arrived with a message from Freeman. He said that Freeman was waiting for him at a downtown cafe and that he had valuable information for Ben. Ben arranged to follow the man. He was going to drive on to the airport and drop off the hired car there.’
‘And did he?’
‘I didn’t check. Look here, Chris, there was a bit of bad feeling between us.’
Chris’s mind seems to be in two places at once. Part of her wants to burst into tears and beg this nightmare to go away, at the same time her thoughts are racing ahead of Jon’s words. Of course Ben would have called her, or Rowan, from the
airport…even if he’d taken a day off, he’d let them know. Chris feels disaster creeping up on her. It’s a strange, numbing sensation. She becomes very calm, very precise and strangely empty, all at the same time.
‘Did you call his wife?’
‘She’s in Paris. I don’t have her number. Besides, what’s the point of worrying her?’
‘Have you checked the car hire firm?’
‘I’ll call Rowan.’ Unthinkingly, Chris replaces the receiver. She tries to get herself under control as she dials Rowan’s home number.
‘Rowan, listen, we have a problem. Do you know where Ben is? Has he contacted you?’
‘No. I assumed he was still in New York.’
Rowan listens in silence while she tells him what she knows.
‘I have a few numbers I can try…his wife, for starters. You go home now. Call a taxi and charge the office. I’ll see you in the morning.’
‘Call the New York police, Rowan,’ she urges.
‘You’re right,’ he says tonelessly.
An impersonal click terminates the conversation.
Chris leaves soon afterwards. Once again she recognises the white Ford Fiesta tagging along behind her. Does he sit around all day and half the night waiting for her, she muses? And anyway, who the hell is he?
It’s a bad night for Chris. She can’t allow herself to admit that something might have happened to Ben. Positive thoughts can make things happen, she reminds herself, so for Ben’s sake she has to believe that he’s OK. It isn’t easy…and then there’s Sienna. So far the police have no clues and her fate is still unknown.
Chris hears Rowan out in silence as he tries to reassure her and himself. ‘We’re not Ben’s keepers. There’s every chance that he’s taken a couple of days off to be with his family.’ He let out a loud, comforting laugh, a sure sign that he’s nervous.
‘So there’s no news as yet.’
‘As I said…’
‘What about the police?’
‘They haven’t come back to us yet.’
It’s seven a.m. Chris has dropped into the office hoping for news of Ben. She’s late this morning, having fallen asleep at dawn after lying awake for hours. She arrives at the Provident Trust half an hour late to find Husam pacing his office looking upset. He tries to hide his shock at the sight of her and this worries her. Did he think that she wasn’t coming back? Something’s gone wrong.
‘I overslept. I’m sorry.’ She manages a quick, decisive tone.
He doesn’t answer, but his eyes reproach her.
‘Don’t look at me like that. I work all hours. Last night I couldn’t sleep.’
‘What’s wrong?’ He looks as if he had a sleepless night, too.
‘It’s irrelevant.’ She sighs as she sinks into a chair, although her mind is racing over every second of their previous day together. They parted as friends. Surely nothing can be wrong.
‘No, tell me.’
‘A colleague…that is, a former colleague…from way back…well, he’s disappeared…or so it seems… I’m sure he’ll arrive back in the office…with apologies all round.’ She tries out a smile, but it fails.
‘You look so forlorn. Are you fond of him?’ His eyes are glittering, but why? With hurt?
‘Yes, I am fond of him, but not in the way you’re implying. He’s a happily married man.’ Or was! The thought of that makes her flinch. ‘What’s bothering you?’ She speaks aggressively, feeling unfairly blamed.
‘Circumstances have changed. I’m going to have to spend more time in Tanzania…on and off, of course. I expect you to come with me.’ He waits, but not expectantly.
‘Oh, I don’t know about that. I don’t think so. I’m no jungle bunny.’ She manages to laugh convincingly.
His eyes are fixed on hers. There’s a message
there, but Chris can’t work it out. Something is wrong. Is this a ploy to get rid of her? Inexplicably she feels let down, which is silly since she’s only days from quitting. Later, he dumps some files on her desk to sort and file, but for the rest of the morning he ignores her. Finally, at noon, he comes in to say he is going to lunch.
‘I have a meeting this afternoon. It might take hours. Why don’t you go to the picture framer’s and order the frames.’
‘Just like that? It’s you who has to live with them, not me. Well, all right,’ she goes on, since he doesn’t comment. Luck is on her side.
She looks around her desk and in her briefcase. ‘Damn. I’ve lost the measurements. I think I’ll go back first and measure the spaces again. Best to be on the safe side. I didn’t have a ruler so I had to guess last time. We can’t have a heavy gilt frame hanging in a small space.’
He takes his keys out of his pocket and puts them on his desk. ‘Leave the keys with the security desk on the ground floor. I might be late back…very late, in fact.’
Why is he lying? There’s no meeting. It would have been in his diary and besides, she would have known about it. Why does he look so uncomfortable. He’s setting a trap for me! The bastard! Her suspicions are unwelcome and hurtful, but she might be mistaken, and if she doesn’t go he’ll wonder why.
She makes her pilgrimage to the picture framer and returns to the office. The telephonist confirms that Husam left early and isn’t expected back, so she works for a while. Later she gathers her courage together and walks to Husam’s apartment, wondering why she feels like a thief.
She’s had enough, she decides, waving to the security porter who knows her face by now. More than enough, she decides as she ascends to the fifth floor in the escalator. Who would have imagined that taking on a business investigation could lead to spying in someone’s private home. It feels wrong. But why does he keep half of his accounts at home in his bedroom? If he kept them in the office, like everyone else, she wouldn’t be here. Chris pauses at the bedroom door, longing to flee, but that won’t help her to find where Sienna is imprisoned. Thoughts of Sienna and Ben harden her resolve.
She locks the door from the inside, fastens the chain just in case, and walks across the spacious hall to the bedroom door. Glancing at her watch she notes that it’s half past six. Time for cocktails. Then dinner and still later dancing. That was his routine. Would he bring his date back here? Who cares. She’ll be long gone.
It’s like delving into Pandora’s box, she decides, as she sifts through the fascinating contents of folders and documents. Massive amounts of cash are being withdrawn and dispensed with all over Africa. The payments are filed under wages, sundry
items, building materials, maintenance, there’s no shortage of creative thought here. But what if these workshops and cottage industries don’t exist at all? What if it’s one big scam and the cash is to purchase blood diamonds?
She pushes that thought away for another day and concentrates on the job in hand, which is copying all cash transactions and putting them on to another folder. This will be transferred to a disc which she has in her bag. There’s masses of material.
Glancing at her watch later, she sees that it is half past eight. Good God! She’s been there for two hours. She should be out of the flat by nine p.m. If she hurries she can make it. She starts to transfer the data on to her disc…just in case.
She’s startled by someone knocking on the outside door. For a split second of shocked horror she remains as if frozen to her chair, then the sound of someone unlocking the door throws her into a panic. Panting and shaking, she transfers the data, throws the disc into her bag and switches off the laptop. Someone is banging the door against the chain. Thank heavens it’s holding.
‘Chris. It’s me. Open the door.’ Husam’s angry voice booms down the passage.
Panic-stricken, she races to the bedroom, tears off her clothes and dumps them on the chair. Flinging her bag on the floor, she rumples the
bedclothes and the pillows and flings back the quilted silk duvet. ‘Fuck…fuck… fuck…’
She grabs his silk dressing gown and puts it on. Stumbling to the door she peers through the opening.
‘Oh, Husam. You’re so late. How was your meeting? I was waiting for you, I wanted to surprise you, but I must have fallen asleep. What time is it?’ Fumbling with the chain, she opens the door. So many emotions flicker in his eyes, but lust wins.
Moments later she’s picked up and carried to the bedroom.
He is all those things she had hoped he would be, but better. He is skilled, and romantic and beautiful, but later he turns his back on her and lies staring at the moonlight shining through the branches of the trees.
‘Are you awake?’ she whispers. ‘What’s wrong? It was good, wasn’t it?’
‘Decadent English girl…I thought you were different.’
‘I am different. I don’t want a commitment, but with you I’m safe. We never had a future. You know how I feel about you…but…’ She gives up. Words are not the only way to communicate. She wraps her arms around him and holds him close and after while he falls asleep.
At five a.m., when he is sleeping heavily beside her, she slips out of bed and tiptoes to the bathroom.
When she returns, Husam is sitting up and the television is switched on.
‘Come back to bed. You’ll catch cold.’
‘I must get home before my mother wakes. I’ll get dressed.’ He bounds out of bed and grabs her wrist. His hand is as strong as a bear trap. She can’t free herself as she is pulled to the bed.
‘No, Chris, we’re going to watch movies.’ He tucks the duvet around her and a pillow behind her and she, stunned and shocked, makes no effort to fight him.
‘Let’s see now. This one is dated September 1st.’
Her first day at work. She watches as he slides the video into the slot and presses a button on the remote control, at which the screen lights up with a picture of herself, looking formal and dutiful, as she works away at the computer.
‘Very industrious,’ he murmurs, ‘except that you were supposed to be reading the files I gave you. You had nothing at all to do at the computer.’
Everything about him predicts danger. There’s no warmth in his glance, merely a blank stare. She is all too aware of her nakedness under his cold scrutiny.
‘I have a video like this one for every moment that I was out of the office. Whatever work it is you do, you’re not very well trained. Why didn’t you look around? An expert would have spotted the security cameras. I want you to know that I don’t blame you…you have to earn your living…but
perhaps you will indulge my curiosity. You have a another job, yes? Your boss, Ben Searle, is in the States and you are helping him with his enquiry.’
Ben. Oh God! At the unexpected sound of his name her eyes fill with tears. ‘You’re talking nonsense. I told you that I worked there for a day. Then I left. I’ve been doing some typing of my own. You didn’t give me much to do. I was bored.’
‘But Ben has disappeared and you said you are worried about a missing colleague.’ Almost before she realises why, her arms are pricking with
. How does he know that Ben is missing…unless he has something to do with it? Her fear turns to anger.
‘They still take messages for you, or Jean does. She’s your secretary, I believe…or yours and Ben’s. I knew Ben well once. I suppose he told you.’
‘Yes, yes and yes…to everything.’ She tires of the inquisition. ‘I’m cold. I’m going to get dressed.’
‘Ben had only to ask me. I would have told him whatever he wanted to know. I have no secrets.’
‘Oh yes, you do. You like to think you’re a saint, but I happen to know better, having gone through your files pretty thoroughly. Don’t think I don’t know that your aim is to stop the West from honing in on Africa’s oil and minerals.’
Her anger has got the upper hand. She longs to stop her flow of rhetoric, but she can’t. ‘All that high-minded talk about Africa for Africans was based on self-interest. You really had me fooled. It
was oil…and gold…and platinum…and all those strategic minerals scattered over the continent. You’re as hypocritical as everyone else.’ She says much more, but later she can’t remember what she said. Panic, rage and a sense of loss have combined to open the floodgates of her emotions. But why is she feeling so hurt? Husam means nothing to her. He’s part of the investigation. Nothing more. Who cares if he falls off his pedestal. She already has.
‘Tell me why you are buying illicit diamonds. How many cheques have you made out to Moses Freeman? You, who supposedly love Africa, are helping insurgents to fund civil wars, lay mines, kidnap young children and turn them into zombie fighters. Moses Freeman is the reason why Ben went to New York. So tell me…how did you know that Ben is missing? No one knows. We aren’t even sure…I mean we’re hoping…’
She breaks off and makes an effort to pull herself together.
‘I’ll tell you why, if you listen. Massive quantities of diamond roughs are removed from Southern Africa on a weekly basis. They are sold in London and most of them are cut and polished in Amsterdam and Tel-Aviv. The Western mining houses refuse to let Africans learn to polish rough diamonds, although this could provide a massive secondary industry leading to thousands of jobs. Even those countries’ governments must buy roughs at exorbitant London prices.’ He sighs
melodramatically. ‘I’m trying to change all that.’
There is a long and ominous silence. ‘I’m going. Don’t try to stop me. If you touch me I’ll scream the place down.’ She scrambles out of bed, pulls on her clothes, grabs her coat and bag and makes for the front door. It’s not even locked. He must have forgotten last night. A woman from the flat next door is picking up her newspaper. She looks amused as she stares blatantly.
Chris backs into the room and shuts the door gently. She returns to the bedroom. Husam is still sitting on the bed. When he looks up she sees sadness in his eyes. It’s then that she realises that it wasn’t he who set the trap for her, but someone else.
‘Who did this? It wasn’t you. You trusted me.’
‘I was a fool.’
‘Naturally I have a security team at the bank. My security chief showed me the videos when I arrived early yesterday.’
That figures. She’d noticed the icy atmosphere.
He sighs. ‘You’re just doing your job. I assume you’re investigating diamond laundering. The problem is…you’re going to make someone very angry and that won’t be healthy for you. Give it up. Go back to law.’
‘Is that a threat?’
‘It’s a warning. Give up your job, Chris. Leave it alone.’
Shock waves send her eyes watering and her fury mounting.
‘Don’t! There’s nothing you can say except goodbye.’
‘Damn you. You should have stayed on your bloody pedestal.’ She can’t hold back her tears.
As her feet pound the pavement, images race towards her. So many good times packed into a week. He’ll make someone a hell of a husband, she tells herself. Until he takes his second wife…and the third. That thought brings her longing back into perspective. By the time she reaches the office she’s shrugged off her guilt, but her anger remains.