A RIGHT CHRISTMASDecember 23, 2007 – 20:02 GMT
The focus of the camera wasn’t even on her, but Joyce Carrington instantly recognised the woman in the photograph. There was an angelic glow to her blonde hair, lighting up the glossy paper in the dim conditions of the Wandsworth pub.
“Something wrong?” the contact sitting over at the next table inquired, sensing Joyce stiffening.
“Yes.” She pointed at the glass in front of her as she turned to the next picture. “The beer on tap here is awful. I don’t recommend it.”
Leafing through the photographs was like watching a brief stop-motion film. There was the hand being raised, the blow being dealt, and then Dawn El Faroussi, as she was apparently called now, dropped out of frame. The subject of the photographs towered over her, anger burning in his eyes. In an instant, Joyce could feel it burning in hers for him, too.
The man who had brought her the manila folder containing the slideshow of violence reached over and carefully picked up her pint, gauging her reaction as he did so. This was the first time he was acting as her liaison. A vein at his left temple throbbed when she disregarded him sniffing at, and then sampling the beer. “Do you need me to explain anything else?” he asked.
She shook her head, making sure she read every line in the attached file twice. She would personally double-check even the tiniest bit of information once she got back to her office, just to weed out any bias the service might have. But right now she felt pretty certain that she would come to the same conclusion: that the man in the photographs deserved to be harmed.
Her contact smiled through his redundancy and the aftertaste of the lager. “Right. That’s what’s convenient about black ops.” He nodded slowly when she didn’t respond, setting the glass aside. “So your team can handle this.”
“Sure,” she said, flipping over a page. “But this is a one-woman job. Besides, it’s Christmas. I gave my people some time off.”
“Oh.” His posture and inflection shifted ever so slightly. “In that case, I’m sorry to hear you don’t have any plans of your own.”
She shot him down immediately, not even glancing up from the file. “I do, but my live-in boyfriend understands.” She shut the folder and returned it to the corner of his table. “Was that all?”
“Yes.” He busied himself rearranging his attaché case to hide his bruised ego. “Get to work. Goodnight.”
“Thanks for buying.” She was already up and walking, fading into the shadows.
Two hours later, Joyce found herself suddenly shaking her head as it ground against the headboard. “…wait.”
As close as he could possibly be, her partner felt miles away, as though he was moving straight through her, his conviction greater with every breath.
“Wait.” She lifted her arm off his back and turned his head towards hers, the stubble on his chin against her palm. “What’s the rush?”
His body came to a halt, but some aggression lingered in his eyes. “I just thought I’d…” He turned his frown on her. “Where are you?”
She guiltily lowered her gaze. “Dubai.”
His knees pressed into the mattress as he raised himself. She kept her hand on his shoulder to be able to tell him to his face. “There’s a job, and I would have told them to shove it, but… there’s something off about this. I can’t come with you tomorrow.”
He rolled off her and onto his back, catching his breath. His eyes stared deep into a crack in one of the beams on the ceiling, purposely ignoring her.
A sudden chill hit her without the warmth of his skin against hers and her heart sank. “I’m sorry. I know… what we said.” Spending this Christmas with his family – a real family for her for the first time since she was thirteen – was something they had been promising themselves for years. Strangely, it meant even more to him than it did to her.
She carefully placed her fingers on his chest to prompt a reaction. He took his eyes off the ceiling and focused them on the sheets instead as he readjusted them. “What’s off about the job?”
“There’s someone I know involved.” She caressed his skin. “Which makes me think they’re testing me.”
He frowned to himself. “They didn’t say anything?”
“Neither did I. The connection isn’t very obvious… but they’re thorough. They must know.”
“Maybe they don’t,” he objected. “Maybe this is a bad idea, considering everything you’ve already been through. Maybe if you let them know…”
“I want it to be me,” she interrupted. “And I think my reputation is exactly why they want it to be me, too. I won’t live it down unless I do this the way they want me to.”
Her heart jumped when he finally looked straight at her. “I thought you were done caring about your reputation.”
“I am. Which is why I’m doing this my way.”
He smirked, in spite of himself, took her hand off his chest and brought it to his lips. It relieved her somewhat, but she still spoke hesitantly when asking, “You’ll be okay?”
He shrugged, and turned his eyes away again. “I won’t be alone.”
She shut her mouth. For a while now, she had been concerned with the company she knew he kept when she wasn’t around; three wise men giving him all the wrong advice.
“Who is it?” he asked. “You ever been to Dubai before?”
She shook her head. “No, it’s… It’s a woman I knew a long time ago. Back when we were both still girls.” Off his raised eyebrow, she added: “Second foster home.”
“Oh?” he said. He flipped onto his side when it sunk in, propping his head up on his hand. “Oh.” He knew there had been many homes, particularly right after her parents’ death, and she had punched her way out of most of them just so she could keep moving.
Joyce stared into nothing. “There’s this one image I have of her, and I just can’t get it out of my head. She’s sitting across from me at the dinner table and she’s holding her breath…” She found herself taking a deep one. “With puffed up cheeks. Like a hamster. Slowly turning red.”
It was a while before he moved, gently smoothing a lock of hair behind her ear. “…That’s it?”
She nestled against him. “Yes. That’s it.” She didn’t tell him about the sounds she remembered: the bedroom door opening in the middle of the night, Gary’s voice whispering, the lower half of the bunk bed creaking as he leaned over Dawn, the fumbling. Her own breathing, muffled by the pillow she had buried her face in. She didn’t tell him what she had done the next morning.
He kept quiet too, merely reaching up to the switch above the headboard to turn off the light.
December 24, 2007 – 23:39 Local time
“And now?” Mahmud El Faroussi asked, shutting his clam mobile phone.
“Give her a minute.” Joyce cast a look up at the thirty-story steel and glass residential tower through the tinted windows of the white stretch limousine. She had parked the vehicle in the visitors’ lot just off Sheikh Zayed Road, right after having picked up the man from the airport. “You may have beaten the obedience into her, but she can’t fly.”
“Look,” he said, his thick fingers accessing his phone again. He held up the screen so she could see the photo he had taken with it; a toddler and a five-year-old in matching pastel sweaters. They had his dark locks, and Dawn’s innocent eyes. “Whatever it is you want... please, leave them out of it.”
Joyce pursed her lips. She had difficulty with children, particularly in this age range. “May I?”
He handed her the phone. She snapped it shut and tossed it into the ice bucket of the limousine’s bar. The meltwater went to work on the circuits. “I wouldn’t worry about them.”
Mahmud sighed, visibly restraining himself. He shifted his position on the back seat. “But you want to hurt their mother?”
She was using the lower half of her vest top to rub her stomach dry. “Coming from you, that’s...” She halted. Then she sat up and slipped on her jacket.
Outside, the doors to the lobby of the tower slid open and Dawn stepped out into the parking lot, hesitantly approaching the limousine.
“Here we go.” Joyce pushed a button to make the car window slide halfway down and backed up towards the screen to the driver’s cabin. Dawn produced a nervous smile, watching her husband’s face appear.
“Mahmud?” She opened the car door. “What is this? What are you doing?”
Joyce spoke up from the other end of the limo. “What I should have done a long time ago.”
Dawn leaned down and stuck her head into the car. At the sight of Joyce, her eyes darted, trying to find a familiar element.
“It’s me. Joyce.”
A blink, but no response. She remained hovering at the car door. Mahmud frowned in confusion.
Joyce tried, “We were in foster care together.”
There was a quick, embarrassed look towards her husband. “Were we?”
“Only for one night. As it happens, it was Christmas. Bristol, 1986.”
She shook her head. “I don’t recall. In fact, that would make me nine years old at the time, so...”
“Do you remember Gary? What he did to you?”
At the mention of that name, Dawn took a seat next to Mahmud and shut the door behind her. “Did you meet her on your trip?” she asked her husband.
“She...” His anger was building. “Who’s Gary?”
“Her foster father,” Joyce said. “At least, he was supposed to be.” She looked at Dawn. “I understood what was going on. I could have said something. But I wasn’t speaking at the time. It was…” She felt silly admitting it. “…grief.”
Dawn nodded slowly. “Well, if you were mute then I can hardly be blamed for not remembering you... can I?”
“I guess I didn’t make an effort to bond with you,” Joyce said. “I wasn’t concerned with saving you. I just wanted to get myself out of there before he turned on me.” She paused. “I hurt you. Nearly broke your arm.” She watched the change in Dawn’s eyes. “Now you remember.”
“All I remember is being injured,” Dawn said. “And Gary being more than willing to play doctor.”
It took everything Joyce had not to turn away in shame. She held Dawn’s eyes for what felt like an eternity, her throat constricting with an ache.
Then it was Dawn who spoke. “Why are you here?”
Joyce regained her focus on the mission. “Let’s just say I’m an intervention, and your husband is the problem.”
Dawn and Mahmud exchanged puzzled glances. Joyce crossed her legs. “The business trips he takes probably wouldn’t have raised any concern,” she said, “but the way he handles his banking puts them in an interesting perspective.”
“What are you?” Mahmud demanded. “You’ve been tracking my money?”
“Therein lies the problem: it isn’t yours. It belongs to a group of angry, fundamentalist, jihadist, and most importantly scheming men.”
A drop of sweat rolled down from his hairline to his brow. “I was pressured into...”
She raised her hand to silence him. “You’re helping them. That’s bad. And sadly, it’s not what a group of wealthy pricks in the West would prefer to have known about an employee of a big British oil company.” She shrugged. “Anyway, it’s all coming to an end, because you just pissed off the most tightly-wound sheikh imaginable.”
He frowned. “What?”
“This limousine,” Joyce gestured, “is owned by one of the most powerful men in the Middle East, and it’s been unexplainably missing since earlier this evening.”
“What are you talking about?” Dawn asked, suddenly very aware of the flashy interior of the car.
“Your husband will never lay a finger on you again. I mean, literally.” Joyce turned to Mahmud, barely holding in her smile. “Think he’ll take your hand for stealing?”
The horror spread across his face. The sweating worsened.
“I suppose you could try to tell him you only borrowed it. But in any case, I don’t think he’ll like what you’ve been doing in it.”
She checked the photographs on the display of her own mobile. Everything she needed was in frame: his unbuttoned shirt, her hand in his neck. His hand around the bottle. The champagne dripping down from her bra to her belt. The sheikh’s initials stitched into the white leather of the seats. Moreover, she had succeeded in keeping everything she didn’t need out of frame: her Walther PPK pressed into his groin. The tattoo on her back. The scars on her lower arm. Her face, covered by a mane of her dark hair.
“Suggestion’s a powerful thing, isn’t it?” she said, holding up her mobile for Dawn to see. “Neither of us had to take our pants off.”
Dawn shivered. “What are you implying?”
“This is the last time you’ll ever see your husband.” She went on to load the pictures into an e-mail message, glancing up at Mahmud. “You can get out now. I’ll give you a head start before I send these to the sheikh. Fingers crossed you make the border in time. Two minutes sound good?”
Mahmud stared. Joyce met his eyes and stared right back. “I am not joking,” she said. “You will leave your wife, your children, your job, your home, your belongings, your ‘friends’… I’m allowing you to keep your life. If you value it, you’ll hurry. It’s that simple.”
Mahmud looked at Dawn. She tensed up, as if expecting him to explode at any minute. Then he opened the car door and looked out towards the dark of the city. He opened his mouth to say something, but finally decided against it and stepped out.
The door slammed shut behind him, and with it, all the air seemed to leave Dawn. She slumped on the backseat, watching Mahmud run off into the night.
“It’s all right. It’s over now,” Joyce told her. “You can take your children back to England. Start over.” She caught herself. “I know. It doesn’t change what I did. What happened to you.”
“What happened to me...” Dawn repeated, dazed. “You can’t even comprehend what happened to me.”
“I know what this man did to you.” Joyce studied her face. “You’re skilled at covering up the bruises.”
Dawn sprung back to life. “Whenever he disciplines me, it’s always justified.”
Joyce raised an eyebrow.
Dawn wrapped her arms around herself. “Some people around here still like to see a woman stoned for being unfaithful. Mahmud keeps me safe. He goes to a lot of lengths to keep the truth from coming out. He sees past my mistakes. Because he loves me.”
Joyce stared at her knees. That was the one bit of intelligence she hadn’t managed to collect, that could not have been gleaned from the surveillance photos that pulled her into this job. Suggestion was a powerful thing. She glanced back at the staged tryst on her mobile’s touch screen. “You cheated on him?”
“When he goes on his trips... He’s away a lot. I get… urges.”
Joyce shook her head. “You don’t love him.”
“Excuse me? You think I don’t know what love is?” She seemed genuinely hurt. “Why, because I was abused as a child?”
Joyce went quiet.
Dawn’s voice weakened. “What do you know about me? You think you know what’s best?” And then her voice turned bitter. “You think you know what’s best?”
“I’m just trying…”
“…And I’m asking you not to release the photographs,” Dawn said, pointing at the device in Joyce’s hand. “Please.”
Joyce clenched her jaw. “Do you understand who your husband is involved with, exactly?”
“He’s trying to protect our family.”
“That’s what he tells you.”
There was a desperate breath. “Delete the photographs.”
“I can’t do that.”
Joyce’s eyes darkened as they read Dawn’s. It wasn’t just pleading. It was sensing she had power and using it. “Don’t do that.”
But she cherished the button she had found to push. “Joyce…” she begged.
Joyce raised her finger, testiness building. “Don’t.”
“Shut the up.”
She did. Joyce took a breath to calm herself. “Look. I am sor–”
Dawn lunged forward, stretching past the bar like a cat. With no hesitation, she dug her nails deep into Joyce’s hand, making her lose her grip on the mobile. The device slipped to the floor, where Dawn attempted to bring down her foot onto it – but Joyce grabbed hold of her leg and pushed it away. “Take it easy!”
She didn’t, and began to swing with her arms, scratching at Joyce. Joyce brought her right arm into a keylock and flipped her to the other side of the car, making the ice bucket on the bar topple over. Chips of ice and the empty bottle of champagne rolled onto the floor. Joyce almost slipped over them in her rush to retrieve her mobile. Dawn attempted to pull her back by her legs to stop her from grabbing hold of it, but was too late. Joyce lay on her belly, her fingers moving across the touch screen faster than they had ever done.
Still Dawn kept struggling, planting her elbow hard into Joyce’s back. Joyce grunted, gasping for air as Dawn turned her over. “I’ve sent them!” She was keeping Dawn at bay with her legs now. “It’s too late, all right? I sent them.”
Dawn’s shoulders dropped as she backed off, catching her breath.
Joyce sat up. “It’s over.” She checked the nail marks in her flesh. “Christ.”
“Bitch.” Dawn nursed her sore arm.
“Just go home.”
“Like you’re going? You’re moving on to a better place again?”
Joyce had opened her jacket to put the mobile back in her inside pocket, but by doing so, she revealed the Walther in the holster under her arm.
Dawn’s eyes lit up with vindictiveness. She flung herself back onto Joyce, her fingers prying at the steel. Joyce pushed her hands up against Dawn’s chin, even now refusing to punch. They got caught in a grapple, throwing each other around the tight quarters. The car bounced on its suspension.
Unable to grab hold of the gun, Dawn snatched up the empty bottle of champagne and swung it at Joyce, who could barely shield her head in time. She diminished the impact of the blow and prevented herself going out cold, but was still dazed enough to have trouble distinguishing where the next swing came from. Dawn bluntly bashed her across the shoulder.
Biting through the pain, Joyce grabbed hold of Dawn’s wrist and violently turned it away. The bottle slammed against the ceiling, shattering from the neck down. Shards of glass slipped past Joyce’s face.
Dawn held onto the neck of the bottle, instantly recognising the use of the razor-sharp edges of the broken glass. Joyce grit her teeth when they tore though her slacks, grazing the knee beneath. She lost all her reservations in hurting the other woman, slamming both her hands around Dawn’s wrist to pivot the weapon away and kicking her squarely in the stomach.
Dawn gasped for air but kept going, wrestling Joyce down onto her back. The shift in their weight made them lose control of the bottle’s neck, causing it to scrape past Dawn’s. Joyce watched as though it happened in slow motion. “Ffff…”
There was no mistaking she had nicked the artery. A rush of red bubbles spurted out, like champagne from a bottle that has been shaken too wildly. Joyce tried to cover the wound with her hand, but the blood just seeped through her fingers, running down her wrist and trickling down her sleeve until the warm drops reached her elbow.
Dawn grabbed for her own neck too, going limp on top of Joyce. The blood gushed onto her stomach, where minutes before the Cristal had been flowing. But the warmth of the blood brought her even worse chills than the icy liquid had done.
Joyce pushed and sat her up, trying to find some way to stabilise her and minimise the effects of her injury, but Dawn moaned. A shiver went through her body. She puffed up her cheeks before spitting out the blood. It ran down her chin as she choked, and then she went still.
Trembling, Joyce backed off her and surveyed the interior of the car. Shards of ice and glass covered the floor. The purple LED light lining the ceiling was busted, giving off a faint flicker. The white leather was sprayed and smeared in red so extensively it was sickening to think Dawn hadn’t even bled out entirely yet.
Joyce didn’t turn to look at the body again. Feeling nauseous, she made the screen to the driver’s cabin slide down and flipped herself up and over, rolling behind the wheel.
Close by, the Palm Jumeirah peninsula, the artificially created three square miles of land in the form of a palm tree, was still mostly under construction and therefore only sparsely inhabited. Joyce drove the limousine to the tip of one of the ‘leaves’, bringing it to a standstill on the private beach of one of the many villas nearing finalisation. There, she doused the interior of the car with some cognac from the bar and used the cheap BIC lighter she always carried. While the flames spread, she did her best to wash the blood off her face and hands with a bottle of Evian, praying that her partially soaked clothing would call little attention upon returning to the city centre. Then, when the fire had consumed the traces of her presence as well as the handbrake line, she watched as the limo slowly rolled down into the water.
She wasted no time getting back to her hotel, where she showered, changed, and tested the limits of her limberness by stitching herself up as best she could.
The shock only began to wear off in the back of the taxi taking her to the airport. Suddenly she was back in her body, leaning with her head against the window as it hit her: the children would be placed into foster care.
The taxi driver ignored the sound of her palm hitting the window, the gasps for air coming from her constricted throat. He even turned his rear-view mirror away so as to not witness her struggle to hold in the tears.
The wave of disgust died down. She took a moment to get her breathing under control, making sure to exhale through her nose. The Dubai cityscape rolled by, looking more artificial than ever. She hoped she would never come back. She picked up her mobile, accessed the speed dial, laid back her head and closed her eyes.
The sound of a crackling fire reached her before his voice did. “Hey.”
There was a heaviness on both ends of the line, and they both took a moment to let each other feel it.
“Job done?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said hollowly. “You?”
“Barely. I had to unbutton my trousers to make room for dessert.”
“I’m so sorry I couldn’t be there.”
She could swear she heard him pick up a bottle to take another swig. It made the tears come back up. She cleared her throat. “You know, we should get married?”
It was as though his face dropped across the microphone. There was a pause in the connection, making her words hang in the air. Then he said, “You know better than to joke about that with me.”
“I’m serious,” she said. “I love you. I want to be with you… more. Closer. And I’ll die before I’ll take your last name, but we should be one. Officially. So let’s get married. Now.”
“I’m on my way to the airport. I could be touching down in the afternoon. If you get things set on your end…”
His throat produced a series of croaks. “I’d have to pull a whole lot of strings.”
She snorted. “Please. That smile of yours is golden.” She could hear him put down the bottle and exhale. “That’s the one.”
“A Christmas wedding. Does sound nice.” He paused. “You’re sure?”
She cradled the phone against her cheek. “I’m sure.”
“And you don’t mind my family running rampant with this? Because you know they will, even with the time constraints. I mean, there will be flowers. Even more food.” His voice dropped to stress the severity. “There will be a priest.”
She smirked. “Anything will be great. As long as we seal this.”
“Okay.” He laughed. “Okay, I guess I’ll see you soon then.”
“Get some sleep first.” She made to hang up, but stopped herself. “Babe? One thing.”
“I’m not wearing white.”