Star of Africa, p.1Scott Mariani
Star of Africa
Published by Avon
An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd
1 London Bridge Street
London SE1 9GF
First published in Great Britain by HarperCollins 2016
Copyright © Scott Mariani 2016
Cover design © Henry Steadman 2016 Photography: Man © Roy Bishop / Arcangel; Ship © Benoit Stichelbaut / Nature Picture Library; Lightning sky © John Lund / GalleryStock; Waves foreground © Todd Gipstein / Getty Images; Dakota Plane © Graham Bloomfield / Shutterstock.com
Scott Mariani asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
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Source ISBN: 9780007486205
Ebook Edition © May 2016 ISBN: 9780007486397
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Table of Contents
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About the Author
By the Same Author
About the Publisher
Hussein Al Bu Said stood at one of the tall, broad living room windows of his palatial residence and gazed out towards the sea front. The sunset was a mosaic of reds and purples and golds, cloaking its rich colours over the extended lawns and terraces of his property, reflecting gently off the surface of the pool behind the house, silhouetting the palm trees against the horizon. Beyond the landscaped gardens he could see the private marina where his yacht was moored, its sleek whiteness touched by the crimson of the setting sun.
Ice clinked in his crystal glass as he sipped from it. Pineapple juice, freshly pressed that day. Hussein was a loyal and devout Muslim who had never touched alcohol in his forty-four years. In other ways, he knew, he had not always proved himself to be such a virtuous man. But he tried. God knew he tried. Insha’Allah, he would always do the best thing for his family.
He smiled to himself as he listened to the sounds of his children playing in another room. Chakir had just turned twelve, his little sister Salma excitedly looking forward to her eighth birthday. He loved nothing more than to hear their happy voices echoing through the big house. They were his life, and he gave them everything that he had been blessed with.
‘You look as if y
‘And you look very beautiful, my love,’ Hussein said as she came to join him at the window. Najila was wearing a long white dress and her black hair was loose around her shoulders. She put her arms around his neck, and they spent a few moments watching the darkening colours wash over the ocean.
Nobody had to tell Najila she was beautiful. She was his treasure, soulmate, best friend. Hussein was a dozen years older, but he kept in good shape for her and was still as lean and fit as the day he’d spotted her and decided she was the one to share his life with. They’d been married just weeks later. Hussein was also about twice as wealthy as he’d been then, even though he’d already been high up in Oman’s top twenty. Their home was filled with the exquisite things he loved to collect, but Najila was by far the most wonderful and precious.
Hussein set down his glass and held her tight. He kissed her. She laughed and squirmed gently out of his arms. ‘Not in the window,’ she said, glancing through the ten-foot pane in the direction of the cluster of buildings that were the staff residence where the security team lived. ‘The men will be watching us.’
‘I gave them the night off, remember?’ Hussein said. ‘It’s Jermar’s birthday. The three of them went into town to celebrate.’
‘You’re too nice to them. What’s the point of having security men if you let them go off partying all the time?’
Hussein smiled. ‘All the more privacy for us.’ He drew her in and kissed her again.
With typical timing, their embrace was interrupted by the twelve-year-old whirlwind that was Chakir blowing into the room, his sister tagging along in his wake. Chakir was clutching the handset for the remote controlled Ferrari, his favourite of the many toys he’d had as recent birthday presents. ‘When can I get a real one, like yours?’ he was always asking, to which his father always patiently replied, ‘One day, Chakir, one day.’
‘Please may we watch TV?’ Chakir said.
Hussein knew Chakir was angling to see the latest Batman film on the Movie Channel. ‘It’s nearly time for dinner,’ he replied. ‘You can maybe watch it later, after your sister has gone to bed.’
Chakir looked disappointed. Salma pulled a face, too, and it was obvious that her brother had got her all worked up about seeing the movie.
Najila bent down and clasped both her daughter’s hands. ‘Why don’t you go and look at that nice picture book your father bought you?’
‘I can’t find it,’ Salma said. She had the same beautiful big dark eyes as her mother, and the same irresistible smile – when she wasn’t pouting about not being allowed to watch TV.
Najila stroked her little heart-shaped face and was about to reply when a loud noise startled them all. It had come from inside the house.
Najila turned to Hussein with a frown. ‘What was that?’
Hussein shook his head. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Did something fall over?’
Hussein thought that maybe a picture or a mirror had dropped off the wall in one of the house’s many other rooms. He didn’t understand how that could happen. He started towards the living room door that opened through to the long passage leading the whole length of the house to the grand marble-floored entrance hall.
Then he stopped. And froze.
The door burst open. Three men he’d never seen before walked into the room. Europeans, from the look of them, or Americans. What was happening?
Najila let out a gasp. Her children ran to her, wide-eyed with sudden fear. She wrapped her arms protectively around them. Little Salma buried her face in her mother’s side.
Without a word, the three intruders walked deeper into the living room. Hussein stepped forward to place himself squarely between them and his family. ‘Who are you?’ he challenged them furiously, in English. ‘What are you doing in our home? Get out, before I call the police. You hear me?’
The oldest of the three men was the one in the middle, solid, muscular, not tall, in crisp jeans and a US-Air-Force-style jacket over a dark T-shirt. His hair was cut very short, and greying. Probably prematurely. He probably wasn’t much older than Hussein, but he had a lot of mileage on him. His features were rough and pockmarked and his nose had been broken more than once in the past. A very tough, very collected individual. He was giving Hussein a dead-eyed stare, unimpressed by all the angry bluster. He reached inside the jacket and his hand came out with a gun. The men either side of him did the same thing.
Najila screamed and hugged her terrified children close to her. Hussein stared at the guns.
‘Now, Mister Al Bu Said, this doesn’t have to be hard,’ said the greying-haired man. ‘So let’s take it easy and do it right, and we’ll be out of here before you know it.’ He had an American accent. He was very clearly the boss out of the three.
‘I … What do you want?’ Hussein stammered.
‘I want item 227586,’ the man said calmly.
Hussein’s mind wheeled and whirled. How could these men even know about that? Then his eyes narrowed as it hit him. Fiedelholz and Goldstein. This was an inside job. Had to be. He should never have trusted those dirty Swiss dogs with his business. Now that he’d changed his mind about selling, the bastards were betraying him. It was unbelievable.
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
The man sighed. ‘Sure you don’t. Oh well, I guess some people have to be difficult.’ And he shot Hussein in the left leg, just above the knee.
The blast of the pistol shot sounded like a bomb exploding. Najila screamed again as she watched her husband fall writhing to the floor, clutching his leg. Blood pumped from the wound onto the white wool carpet.
The other two men stepped over Hussein. One of them put a pistol to Najila’s head and the other grabbed hold of twelve-year-old Chakir and ripped him away from his mother. The boy kicked and struggled in the man’s grip, until a gun muzzle pressed hard against his cheek and he went rigid with terror.
‘Now, like I said,’ the older man went on casually, gazing down at the injured and bleeding Hussein, ‘this doesn’t have to be any harder than it needs to be. You got a safe, right? Course you do. Then I guess that’s where you’d be keeping it, huh?’ He reached down and grasped Hussein by the hair. ‘On your feet, Twinkletoes. Lead the way.’
‘Take what you want,’ Hussein gasped through clenched teeth as he struggled to his feet. The agony of his shattered leg had him in a cold sweat and his heart felt as if it was going to explode. ‘But please don’t hurt my family.’
‘The safe,’ the man said.
‘Tell this bitch to quit howling,’ said the one with the gun to Najila’s head. ‘Or I’m going to put one in her eye.’
Hussein looked at his wife. ‘It’s going to be all right,’ he assured her. ‘Just do as they say.’ Najila’s cries fell to a whimper. She closed her eyes, tears streaming down her face, and clutched her trembling daughter even more tightly to her.
Hussein limped and staggered across the room, leaving a thick blood trail over the carpet. The safe was concealed behind a $250,000 copy of a Jacques-Louis David oil painting on the living room wall, The Death of Socrates. It was a big wall, and it was a big painting, and it was a big safe too. Sweat was pouring into Hussein’s eyes and he thought he was going to faint from the pain, but he managed to press the hidden catch that allowed the gilt frame to hinge away from the wall, revealing the steel door and digital keypad panel behind it. With a bloody finger he stabbed out the twelve-digit code and pressed ENTER, and the locks popped with a click. He swung the safe door open.
‘Please,’ he implored the leader of the three men. ‘Take what’s in there and leave us alone.’
‘Oh, I’m going to take it, all right. Out of the way.’ The grey-haired man shoved Hussein aside and Hussein fell back to the floor with a cry of pain as the man started searching the shelves of the safe. Stacks of cash and gold watches, business docu
He found it inside a leather-covered, velvet-lined box on the upper shelf. When he flipped the lid of the box and saw what was inside, his dead-eyed expression became one of amazement. You had to see it to believe it.
‘Bingo,’ he said. He took it out and weighed it in his hand for a second, keeping his back to the other two men so they couldn’t see what he was holding. He slipped it into the leather pouch he’d brought with him, then slipped the pouch into his pocket. It would be transferred to the locked briefcase later that night, before they got the hell out of Oman, never to return.
‘Now you have it, go,’ Hussein gasped. The agony was burning him up. He was losing blood so fast that he felt dizzy. The bullet must have clipped the artery. The white carpet all around where he lay was turning bright red.
The man stood over him, the gun dangling loose from his right hand. ‘Pleasure doing business with you, Mister Al Bu Said. We’ll be out of here in just a moment. One thing, before we go. I need to ask – you wouldn’t even dream of calling the cops and telling them all about this, now would you?’
‘No! Never! Please! Just go! I promise, no police.’
The man nodded to himself, and a thin little smile creased his lips. ‘Guess what? I don’t believe you.’
Star of Africa by Scott Mariani / History & Fiction have rating 1 out of 5 / Based on2 votes