Hot Chips and Sand
Copyright © 2012 Mary Hughes
All rights reserved
She hadn’t even ordered a drink when two men arrived. According to their name tags, they were with the Music Educators convention but their twin MIB suits shouted secret service. They walked with that alert power too, and when they greeted her it was with the pass phrase Kulinahr had written: “The ship is in the harbor, but the dogs only smell pepper.”
“They sneeze and run away.” She stifled a smile.
One nodded. “Ms. Johnston? Please come with us.”
She followed the twins outside to a black Mercedes saloon with smoked windows. It was almost a parody but she couldn’t quite suppress a shiver as she slid into the plush air-conditioned backseat. She half‑expected a blindfold and was grateful when the two men got in front and ignored her through the entire drive. She did not recognize any of the streets they traveled anyway, having been to
Montreal only in her childhood.
The car pulled to a stop in front of a nondescript house in a quiet residential neighborhood. One man, possibly the one who had spoken before but she couldn’t be sure, turned to her.
“Knock on the door three times. Tell the person answering the door your name and your mother’s maiden name.”
Great, she thought as she got out. They’re not Middle Yemeni secret service. They’re from my bank. But as she knocked she couldn’t dampen a thrill of anticipation. A housekeeper admitted her and led her upstairs to a small room on the second floor.
The deposed ruler was alone, seated at a writing table. When he saw Vickie, he rose with a smile. “Vickie Johnston. How good of you to come.” He met her with a warm handshake.
“Prince Kulinahr. It was kind of you to see me.” She followed him to a small grouping with settee, coffee table set with silver service, and chairs.
In some ways he looked better than the last time they had met. He was neatly barbered and his clothes were impeccable. But there was more gray at
and when she got closer she saw the lines in his face, deep grooves that only
come from fatigue and worry.
He gestured at the settee, took a chair across from her and poured them some coffee.
Vickie sat and took her tasse gratefully; it had been a long day and difficult flight. She sipped.
Her eyes snapped opened like abruptly retracting window shades. The liquid was thick and grainy, just short of chewed coffee beans
in water hot
enough to scald her tongue.
“The coffee does not agree with you? Would you care for something else?”
Blinking fast, Vickie carefully swallowed. “No,” she began hoarsely. She cleared her throat. “No, this is fine. It just takes some getting used to.”
Kulinahr smiled slightly. “My English university friends also found the taste somewhat unusual. I would understand if you did not want to finish.”
Vickie grimaced and tried another sip. It was not much better, but now she was determined. “No, it’s good.” She sipped again. “You went to a Western university?”
“Yes. Education is prized in my country, and all members of the royal family attended
University in England. Each of us was assigned
their course of study. My brothers were set to work at engineering, finance and
education. My cousin studied medicine, and is now director of the main hospital
in Misr.” His pride shone in his smile.
“And you ran a country. Impressive family.”
Kulinahr’s smile faded and put his cup down. “Yes. Ran. I no longer govern my people.” His jaw clenched. “They are in the hands of that madman, Fahrrad. And I trusted him. I believed him. I made him my guest!”
Vickie set her own cup aside. “What happened?”
“It began less than a year ago. As a small country trapped between many larger ones, we always have our share of external problems. But suddenly we began to have internal issues as well—bombings, kidnappings, and acts of horrible violence right on the streets of Misr.”
“That’s terrible. Did you find out who they were?”
“They said they were freedom fighters, trying to liberate the oppressed in my country. I was furious. Who had I oppressed? They were an affront to my pride.” Kulinahr sighed, and looked into the small cup in his hand. “I now think their purpose was to distract me from my true enemy.”
“Fahrrad.” Kulinahr’s jaw worked. “Hafez Fahrrad was well known for eliminating terrorist threats in his own country of Kalifad. As that is just across my border, I was particularly aware of his reputation. I sent an emissary to him, to ask for his assistance. I should have known… I should have seen…the man was a dinosaur in his own country. Decades past the age of perestroika, Fahrrad is a staunch Stalinist.”
Vickie grunted. “Did you know that then?”
“Yes. I did not worry, however. I thought our country was far too progressive to give him a handhold. But I did not take his desperation into account.” Kulinahr fell silent, his eyes fixed on some point deep within.
Odd, she thought. He’s a modern day ruler, yet he
looks like some of the
ancient patriarchs must have looked. The more things
When the job had first come up
Vickie had researched Middle Yemen . Driven by Kulinahr’s ambition to eradicate poverty
and ignorance among his people ,
the nation had risen from a poor, squabbling
country to one of peace and prosperity in just a few decades. She
considered it from Fahrrad’s point of view . The
rising prosperity of his neighboring country
probably looked like a cash cow just over the fence. “How did it happen, then?”
Kulinahr sighed. “I’m not saying he completely took me in, but he painted a very pretty scene of a repentant Communist. And though my citizen’s militia is very good, they cannot be on watch all the time.” Kulinahr shook his head, as though he still could not understand it. “All he had to do was help us keep guard while we waited for the security system to be designed and built.”
“Security system?” Vickie’s ears pricked. That sounded like the project that had started all this. Fahrrad had also been looking for a security system.
Vickie nodded and picked up her coffee again. It was a little easier to drink now that it had cooled.
Kulinahr rose and started pacing. “That is how I met Cliff.”
She frowned. “In connection with Fahrrad?”
“No, in connection with our defense. He came to me and proposed a system unlike any I’d seen, a marvel of advanced technology. Moreover, he wanted to build the component manufacturing plant in Middle Yemen. In one stroke, we’d double our protection and our revenue.”
“Cliff is a businessman?” Vickie’s mouth fell open. “But…but I thought he was an international spy or something.”
Kulinahr’s cheeks folded in a smile. “He has some rather, ah, unexpected skill sets. He knows things no mere businessman would. He warned me that Fahrrad intended to overthrow me. Alas, I did not believe him.”
“If he knew Fahrrad was plotting against you, why didn’t he do something?”
“He did. He saved my life.”
“Yeah, but couldn’t he have done something about Fahrrad?” Vickie shifted uncomfortably on the couch. The dictator’s chilling smile, his constant reaching for her hair, still plagued her.
“I don’t believe you understand how much he did just saving my life. Fahrrad brought his own guard with him. They are, like the Colonel himself, ruthless. The entire palace staff…friends and allies…was murdered.”
His eyes were bright with unshed tears.[MH2] “If not for the bravery of my personal
servant and, of course, Cliff, I would not have made it out of the palace
alive. As it was, I had to remain constantly on the move in the desert highland
to avoid capture. It was only later that I could return to the city long enough
to stow away on board that ship.” He slid his hands out of hers and patted hers briefly
before rubbing his eyes.
“Now I am in exile.”