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THE sheer opulence of Al Kabibi airport stunned Bethany. The acres of glossy marble floors, the huge crystal chandeliers and the preponderance of gold fittings made her blink and stare.
‘Pretty impressive, eh?’ Ed Lancaster remarked in the slow-moving queue to Visa Clearance. ‘And yet five years ago there was nothing here but a set of concrete sheds and an unrelieved view of the sand-dunes! King Azmir pumped the oil but he stockpiled the profits. His tightfisted attitude caused a lot of resentment, not only with the locals but with the foreign workers as well. Conditions used to be really primitive here.’
The American businessman had joined their flight at a stopover in Dubai. He hadn’t stopped talking for thirty seconds since then, but Bethany had been grateful to be distracted from the grim awareness that, had her departmental head not decreed that she centre her research on this particular part of the Middle East, nothing short of thumbscrews and brute force would have persuaded her to set one foot in the country of Datar!
‘When King Azmir fell ill the crown prince, Razul, took over,’ Ed rattled on, cheerfully impervious to the fact that Bethany had stiffened and turned pale. ‘Now he’s a different kettle of fish altogether. He’s packed fifty years of modernisation into five. He’s an astonishing man. He’s transformed Datari society…’
Beneath her mane of vibrantly colourful curls Bethany’s beautiful face had frozen, her stunningly green eyes hardening to polar ice. All of a sudden she wanted Ed to shut up. She did not want to hear about Prince Razul al Rashidai Harun. Nor did she have the smallest urge to admit that their paths had crossed quite unforgettably during Razul’s brief spell at university.
‘And the people absolutely adore him. Razul’s like their national hero. They call him the Sword of Truth. You mention democracy and they get real mad,’ Ed complained feelingly. ‘They start talking about how he saved them from civil war during the rebellion, how he took command of the army, et cetera, et cetera. They’ve actually made a film about it, they’re so proud of him—’
‘I expect they must be,’ Bethany said flatly, an agonisingly sharp tremor of bitterness quivering through her.
‘Yes, sirree,’ Ed sighed with unhidden admiration. ‘Although this divine cult they’ve built up around him can be painful, he is one hell of a guy! By the way,’ Ed added, pausing for breath, ‘who’s coming to collect you?’
‘Nobody,’ Bethany muttered, praying that the monologue on Razul was over.
Ed frowned. ‘But you’re travelling alone.’
Bethany suppressed a groan. Actually, she hadn’t been alone at Gatwick. A research assistant had been making the trip with her. But, with only minutes to go before they boarded, Simon had tripped over a carelessly sited briefcase and had come down hard enough to break his ankle. She had felt dreadful simply abandoning him to the paramedics but, aside from the fact that she barely knew the young man, work naturally had had to take precedence.
‘Why shouldn’t I be travelling alone?’
‘How on earth did you get a visa?’ Ed prompted, suddenly looking very serious.
‘The usual way… What’s wrong?’
‘Maybe nothing.’ Ed shrugged with an odd air of discomfiture, not meeting her enquiring gaze. ‘You want me to stay with you in case there should be a problem?’
‘Of course not, and I see no reason why there should be a problem,’ Bethany informed him rather drily.
But there was. Ed had just moved off with an uneasy wave when the Datari official scrutinised her visa and asked, ‘Mr Simon Tarrant?’
‘According to your visa, you are travelling with a male companion. Where is he?’
‘He wasn’t able to make the flight,’ she explained with some exasperation.
‘So you are travelling unaccompanied, Dr Morgan?’ he stressed, with a dubious twist of his mouth, as if he could not quite credit the validity of her academic doctorate. That didn’t surprise her. Female children had only recently acquired the legal right to education in Datar. The concept of a highly educated woman struck the average Datari male as about as normal as a little green man from the moon.
‘Any reason why I shouldn’t be?’ Bethany demanded irritably, her cheeks reddening as she was drawn to one side, the embarrassing cynosure of attention for everyone else in the queue.
‘Your visa is invalid,’ the official informed her, signalling to two uniformed guards already looking in their direction. ‘You cannot enter Datar. You will be returned to the UK on the next available flight. If you do not possess a return ticket, we will generously defray the expense.’
‘Invalid?’ Bethany gasped in disbelief.
‘Obtained by deception.’ The official treated her to a frown of extreme severity before he turned to address the other two men in a voluble spate of Arabic.
‘Deception?’ Bethany echoed rawly, unable to credit that the man could possibly be serious.
‘The airport police will hold you in custody until you depart,’ she was informed.
The airport police were already gawping at her with blatant sexual speculation. Even in the midst of her incredulous turmoil at being threatened with immediate deportation, those insolent appraisals made Bethany’s teeth grit with outrage. Sometimes she thought her physical endowments were nature’s black joke on the male species. With her outlook on the male sex she should have been born plain and homely, not with a face, hair and body which put out entirely the wrong message!
‘You are making a serious mistake,’ Bethany spelt out, drawing herself up to her full height of five feet three inches. ‘I demand to speak to your superior! My visa was legitimately issued by the Datari embassy in London—’ She broke off as she realised that absolutely nobody was listening to her and the policemen were already closing in on her with an alarming air of purpose.
A sensation new to Bethany’s experience filled her. It was fear—sheer, cold fear. Panic swept over her. She sucked in oxygen in a stricken gasp and employed the single defensive tactic she had in her possession. ‘I would like you to know that I am a close personal friend of Crown Prince Razul’s!’
The official, who was already turning away, swung back and froze.
‘We met while he was studying in England.’ Her cheeks burning with furious embarrassment at the fact that she should have been forced to resort to name-dropping even to earn a hearing, Bethany tilted her chin, and as she did so the overhead lights glittered fierily over her long torrent of curling hair, playing across vibrant strands that ran from burning copper to gold to Titian in a glorious sunburst of colour.
The official literally gaped, his jaw dropping as he took in the full effect of that hair. Backing off a step, his swarthy face suddenly pale, he spoke in a surge of guttural Arabic to the two policemen. A look of shock swiftly followed by horror crossed their faces. They backed off several feet too, as if she had put a hex on them.
‘You are the one,’ the official positively whispered, investing the words with an air of quite peculiar significance.
‘The one what?’ Bethany mumbled, distinctly taken aback by the staggering effect of her little announcement.
He gasped something urgent into his radio, drawing out a hanky to mop at his perspiring brow. ‘There has been a dreadful, unforgivable misunderstanding, Dr Morgan.’
‘No problem with visa. Please come this way,’ he urged, and began to offer fervent apologies.
Within minutes a middle-aged executive type arrived and introduced himself as Hussein bin Omar, the airport manager. His strain palpable, he started frantically apologising as well, sliding from uncertain English into Arabic, which made him totally incomprehensible. He insisted on showing her into a comfortable office off the concourse, where he asked her to wait until her baggage was found. He was so servile that it was embarrassing.