He had visited more than 200 cities in 70 countries, but this was his first trip to Dubai. The plane landed at noon. Hungover and half asleep, he rode in an electric cart through the gleaming airport to the baggage claim, where a slim Pakistani man in a crisp blue suit was holding a sign that read “Brazilian.”
He climbed out of the cart. “I’m David Brazilian.”
“Thank you very much, Mr. Brazilian. Please follow me, Mr. Brazilian.”
The Pakistani turned and parted the crowd. Brazilian followed, realizing belatedly that his bags were already piled on the hand cart piloted by the Pakistani. Had the hotel requested a description of his luggage? Had he given it to them?
The limousine was waiting in a covered arcade so shady it might as well have been inside. Brazilian settled into the cool leather seat and felt his head throb as his bags thumped into the trunk.
The Pakistani driver got behind the wheel and closed his door. He apologized for letting the heat in.
“Apology accepted,” said Brazilian. “Mister—?”
“Thank you, Mr. Brazilian,” said the driver.
“Your name. I didn’t get your name.”
“Please, Mr. Brazilian, I ask that you do not trouble yourself.”
The limousine glided out of the arcade and merged with an airport road. Even through the tinted windows the sun was blinding. Brazilian glimpsed a thermometer on a billboard that read 43 degrees Celsius—easily triple digits Fahrenheit.
The sun was high overhead and without shadows everything looked flat. Flat, tan, and baked dry. They drove into the city on roads so hot and clean and smooth you could fry an egg on them and eat it too.
He had heard rumors that the government was struggling to deal with the threat posed by a terrorist group calling itself Al Qaeda in Emirates. But if this group even existed, he thought, they needed a better PR agent. Dubai looked safer than Las Vegas.
The Emir Khan Hotel had been built in the shape of a scimitar. It soared 70 stories, curving so sharply it appeared to defy the laws of physics. Skinned in mirrored glass, it gleamed as bright as polished gold. If any of its investors had concerns that Western tourists would balk at spending the night in an elephantine symbol of the Islamic faith they needn’t have worried. Rooms at the tip of the sword—where elevators were mounted on gimbals to avoid depositing passengers upside down, where the rooms dangled above the city as if held up by nothing at all—were booked solid for the next seven years.
As the limousine inched toward the Emir Khan through heavy traffic on Sheikh Zayed Road, Brazilian thought that it must look spectacular at sunset.
The lobby was spectacular, too. Its ceiling soared up with no end in sight. The rays of the sun were refracted through art-glass windows and by shallow beds of gently rippling water, reflecting onto the walls’ intricately patterned mosaics of glass tile. Rivers of plush blue-and-green carpet encouraged pedestrians to avoid scuffing the gleaming granite floor. It was like being at the bottom of the sea in an opium dream. Even Brazilian was impressed.
The Pakistani driver had given his bags to an energetic Palestinian porter, who had trailed him through the front door pulling the luggage cart. Now they were met by a beautiful young Indonesian woman whose only role seemed to be to guide Brazilian to the front desk. At the front desk, a Yemeni man offered him a room key on a silver salver.
All of them greeted him by name. None of them were wearing name tags, to his annoyance, and his attempts to learn their names were met with polite demurral. Brazilian usually relied on the easy entree of informal address; it was difficult to establish rapport with the staff when he wasn’t even allowed to say “Good job, Achmed.”
“I have every confidence of your complete satisfaction, Mr. Brazilian,” said the Yemeni. “If you should have any need at all, please ask for Mr. Mustafa. He is your personal concierge. He begs your forgiveness that he could not be here to greet you, but he is saying farewell to last night’s guest.”
Finally, thought Brazilian, a name.
He thanked the Yemeni and followed a short, caramel-colored bellhop, who had taken the bags from the Palestinian porter, to the elevators. He prided himself on being able to guess nationality at a glance, and it bothered him to be stumped by the bellhop. (After a disastrous Shia/Sunni mix-up at the ill-fated W Hotel opening in Baghdad, he no longer attempted to discern religious preference.)
No money had changed hands. When Brazilian made his reservation a silken-voiced young woman had informed him that because hotel staff were amply compensated, gratuities were forbidden. Normally hotel guests provided two credit card numbers and bank account access and everything else was taken care of. Until their statements arrived, they had no idea how much they’d paid.
His room was fantasic—right at the apex of the scimitar’s curve. The door opened onto a mezzanine above a short set of stairs descending to the main floor. The walls to the left and right were solid—there were guest’s rooms on either side—but the ceiling and wall ahead were all glass. A sunken spa in front of the window had a view of the man-made archipelago in the harbor.
The bellhop, who was either Nepalese or Mongolian, Brazilian decided, demonstrated how to work the control panel by the door.
“You see, Mr. Brazilian: air, music, concierge, shade.”
He pressed a touch screen and the glass turned nighttime dark. He pressed it again and the room lightened, the glass tinted just enough to take the teeth out of the sun.
“Very clever,” said Brazilian.
“Thank you, Mr. Brazilian,” said the bellhop, “for being our guest.”
Even though he wasn’t allowed to tip the bellhop, in Brazilian’s experience, bellhops always had a tip or two.
“Where do you go around here?”
“Where do the locals go? Say you wanted to get a beer. You wouldn’t drink in the hotel bar.”
The bellhop looked uncertain. “It is mostly Muslim people who live here, Mr. Brazilian.”
“You’re not, though. Nepalese?”
“I am Kazakh.”
“So you can have a good time.”
The bellhop looked confused.
“What’s your name, then?” asked Brazilian.
“It is not important, Mr. Brazilian.”
“Everybody has a name.”
The bellhop looked embarrassed.
“Thank you, Taras,” said Brazilian.
Taras left, closing the door soundlessly behind him.
Brazilian descended into the room. Star ratings had become devalued after the Burj Al Arab awarded itself seven stars, but in claiming ten stars, the Emir Khan was clearly positioned to ride out inflation. Was it the finest hotel in the world? He would be the judge of that.
He wandered the suite, appraising the furnishings: rain forest hardwoods in the kitchenette, 1,200-thread-count sheets on the California king–size bed, titanium fixtures in the bathroom. The wool carpet seemed bottomless; he couldn’t hear himself walk. The decor was tastefully minimalist: a Barcelona chair near the window, a minor Klee on one wall.
Brazilian wanted a drink. The locals may not have allowed themselves the indulgence, but he was pretty sure that sharia had been amended for the tourist industry. There was, however, no minibar. And the phone had no buttons. He lifted the handset and asked for room service. He asked room service for a Laphroaig.
“Which, please, Mr. Brazilian?” said a voice.
“Laphroaig,” he said. “It’s a Scotch whiskey.”
“But which age do you require, Mr. Brazilian?”
“Oh. Doesn’t matter.”
In three minutes he was seated at the window with a crystal tumbler and a bottle of 40-year-old Scotch. He wondered what they would have sent if he’d asked for a very old whiskey. He knew that he should be impressed. Instead he was ineffably depressed.
The day before, Brazilian had been in Cape Town. Two weeks before that, he’d arrived in Kingston for a ten-day stay. Before that, he would have had to consult his notes. He wrote for a half dozen glossy travel magazines and had contributed to more guidebooks than he could count. Specializing in luxury travel, he spent so much time in mansions and villas and walled compounds that he sometimes forgot he lived in a modest one-bedroom apartment in Culver City.
He was tired of peppering his prose with luxe, high-end, and state-of-the-art. Magazine travel writing was just another form of advertisement. The Emir Khan was comping his bill, and they would expect a very nice advertisement, in the form of a story, in return. But he didn’t want to be an adman any more. He wanted to be an artist.
Brazilian drained his glass. He poured three fingers more, then made it a full fist. The sun descended toward the horizon, still ferociously bright. There was a discreet knock at the door. He went up the steps, stumbling once, and answered.
The man standing in the hall was wearing a gray three-button suit with a white shirt and a crisply knotted gold tie—a full Windsor, Brazilian noted approvingly. The man was handsome but not so much as to arouse envy. His smile was professional without seeming contrived.
“Mr. Brazilian, I am Mr. Mustafa, your personal concierge. Have you found everything to your satisfaction?”
“Perfectly satisfied so far,” said Brazilian.
“Excellent,” said Mustafa. “Please consider me to be at your service. I insist that you call me if you should have any need at all.”
Brazilian realized that 4,700 miles of travel and five fingers of 40-year-old Scotch were catching up with him.
“How about a room service menu?”
“We have no menu at the Emir Khan. Our chefs are at your service. What can I ask them to prepare for you?”
Brazilian thought about it. It was difficult to choose without suggestions to choose from.
Mustafa was an expert at waiting. Nothing in his demeanor suggested that he was in a hurry to leave; nothing suggested that he wanted to linger.
“How about something simple?” said Brazilian. “For a starter, Japanese amberjack with a kalamata olive sorbet, drizzled with basil oil and maybe dusted with a little Spanish paprika. For the main course, roasted Millbrook Farm venison loin with a black cardamom mole and toasted quinoa and ash-baked eggplant on the side.”
Mustafa nodded. “Very good, Mr. Brazilian. And wine?”
“With the starter, a glass of Stadt Krems Kremstal Sandgrube Gruner Veltliner 2005. With the main course, bring a bottle of Bodega Catena Zapata ‘Catena Alta’ Malbec.”
“Better make it a 2002, just to be sure.”
Mustafa nodded. “Thank you, Mr. Brazilian.”
Even though he knew he didn’t have to, Brazilian stuck out his hand. Mustafa looked at it, hesitating. Surely Brazilian knew that this was not necessary. Still, if the customer should have need of a handshake, the customer would have a handshake.
They shook hands. Mustafa left the room without turning his back on Brazilian.
Half an hour later, Brazilian was seated in front of the window, eating. His request had been ludicrously specific, and yet here it was.
The sun was so red and hot that he expected the sea to hiss and boil as it passed below the horizon.
He drank half of the bottle of wine. Then he stretched out on the bed and fell asleep.
When he woke up, he was lying in bed, under the covers, dressed in his pajamas. He felt curiously refreshed. He had the strangest sensation that he had been masturbated to climax, then had his penis carefully washed and dried. Surely his imagination was running away with him. Even the Emir Khan didn’t offer that kind of turn-down service.
The dirty dishes had been cleared away and there was a small vase of lilies on the table. Pinpricks of starlight fought through the light pollution. There was a thin crescent moon. He climbed out of bed and went to the window. Up here, high on the curve of the scimitar, it was impossible to see the streets below. He was glad that the Laphroaig hadn’t been removed. He poured one finger and took a small sip.
It was a strange kind of suffering. He was in the world’s only ten-star hotel and the service was even better than advertised. He would extol its luxe singularity, which would secure his sentence to another assignment. He would be sent to a colony of thatched huts in Java, or to a castle in Romania, or to a penthouse in Las Vegas—or all three, one after another.
There was only one way off the treadmill: to jump.
After two more fingers of Scotch, it occurred to him that he could end his career as a hack and begin a career as hero simultaneously, using only the tools at hand. He would attempt to defeat the Emir Khan’s best-in-the-world service. Then he would turn the experience into a best-selling book. If he was biting the hand that fed him, it would be a very nourishing meal.
He looked at himself in the mirror—a paunchy, graying, middle-aged sybarite—and thought that he was, after all, very punk indeed.
He picked up the phone and asked for Mustafa.
His first half dozen requests were easily dispatched. Brazilian had been raised to be polite. Moreover, his status as a perpetual freeloader had instilled in him an irritating feeling of indebtedness. Though he had become a diner whose eyes didn’t pop at the sight of a golf-ball–size lump of beluga caviar, he had never become a diner who complained that the caviar was too warm. In hindsight, his attempts to challenge Mustafa were too timid.
His complaint that the television lacked a broad enough selection resulted in an instantaneous upgrade to 570 channels. Mustafa assured him that the Emir Khan had been planning to install a new satellite dish anyway and thanked him for the reminder.
He complained that he’d seen a mouse; Mustafa arrived moments later, two boiler-suited exterminators in tow (their names were Abbas and Kasim, he was able to learn), and directed a thorough scan of the room with an infrared imaging device. There were, Mustafa said with something like regret, no other mammals in the room.
He complained that his bathrobe was too scratchy; Mustafa came to the door with a selection of cashmere and vicuna bathrobes. He complained that he had stubbed his toe on a chair leg; workmen (Jahangir and Jansher) removed the chairs and replaced them with opulently padded leather loungers. He complained that Mustafa was solving his problems too quickly; after a discreet 15-minute wait, Mustafa came to his door and apologized in person.
Brazilian was getting the hang of complaining, but Mustafa was still too wily. It was as if he knew what Brazilian was going to complain about before he complained about it.
It was late and Brazilian was tired. But fear of staying locked in his gilded cage inspired him and gave him strength. He ordered a high-protein snack—organic llama jerky from the eastern slopes of the Andes—and another bottle of Scotch. Then he picked up the phone once more.
“The water in my toilet smells funny.”
Mustafa, until now unflappable, was silent for a moment.
“The toilet is clean?”
“Yes,” said Brazilian, “I flushed.”
“Forgive me, Mr. Brazilian. I meant rather the maid.”
“Oh, it’s clean. But the water smells funny.”
Five minutes later, Mustafa arrived with two workmen (Mahboob and Clarence) wearing spotless overalls. He begged Brazilian to forgive their intrusion. With Mustafa supervising, Mahboob and Clarence shut off the water and removed the Limoges porcelain commode. They scoured the pipes, replaced some fittings, then installed a new commode and turned the water back on.
When the tank had filled again, Mustafa summoned Brazilian to the bathroom.
“Forgive me, but I cannot leave until I know that you are satisfied.”
“You want me to...?” Brazilian looked at the spotless toilet, wondering how he had come up with the idea of odiferous toilet water.
Brazilian knelt, sniffing theatrically. It was remarkable—he couldn’t even detect the cleanser that Mahboob and Clarence had used to scrub their fingerprints off.
“It is satisfactory?” asked Mustafa.
Brazilian nodded his assent and stood up. Mustafa opened a black plastic clamshell and removed an orchid. Gently, he laid the orchid in the toilet bowl.
“Once again, my apologies. The Emir Khan demands that all our guests achieve the highest levels of satisfaction.”
“Very satisfactory,” said Brazilian.
“I insist that you call me immediately should the odor of the water again become too strong,” Mustafa replied.
Brazilian said that he would. He closed the door and booted up his laptop, opening a new file to make some notes. He felt giddy, amazed that he hadn’t had the idea sooner.
Until now he’d been writing for decommissioned captains of industry with wives who looked like ship’s officers in their brass-buttoned, gold-braided, navy-blue suits. His new, irreverent take would appeal to those who explored the lonely planet with rough guides. Who knew, it might lead to a television deal. After all, Anthony Bourdain had made fine-dining disgusting and now he had his own show.
Brazilian decided on the title for his book: “Ten-Star Torture.”
Putting his laptop to sleep, he poured two fingers of Scotch and downed them. The Emir Khan would be the centerpiece of the book—he could pad it out with a bunch of war stories from other assignments—but he still needed an ending. If Mustafa met every challenge, the story would have no arc and would simply be a list of incidents. Brazilian needed to defeat Mustafa.
What would Hunter S. Thompson have done? The TV-set-through-the-window was almost trite. Besides, the Emir Khan’s Web site touted its bullet- and bombproof glass.
He thought of calling a prostitute to his room—just to interview. It would give his writing the common touch, and if she could dish dirt on other Emir Khan guests, so much the better.
Of course, if he did have sex with the prostitute, who would know? He was the one writing the article. He could interview her and then have sex with her, or vice versa. Certainly Hunter S. Thompson would have had sex with her. Or was that William T. Vollmann?
A quick search of his room revealed that, not only were there no advertisements for escorts, there was no yellow pages with a well-thumbed E section. All calls went through the switchboard. Brazilian breathed deeply. Asking for more fragrant toilet water was one thing; asking for a prostitute was another.
Then he had an even better idea. He picked up the phone again.
“Mr. Mustafa? This is very embarrassing.”
“Mr. Brazilian, the embarrassment can only be ours.”
“There was a... young lady... in my room. A local girl.”
He paused, feigning reluctance.
“Please go on, Mr. Brazilian.”
“Well, we were having a good time and... everything consensual, you understand... but things got a little bit out of hand.”
“The girl was hurt?”
“I’m afraid it’s worse than that. An accident, of course. But my reputation. And the Emir Khan’s. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you... “
“Of course not, Mr. Brazilian.”
“I just don’t know what to do.”
“Mr. Brazilian, please make yourself comfortable. I’ll be there presently.”
Four minutes later, Mustafa was at the door. With him were two bellhops, Taras and another one who only reluctantly gave his name as Nursultan. Mustafa wore surgical gloves while the bellhops wore yellow elbow-length rubber gloves. They pushed a chrome cart that was probably used for catering but that was long enough to be pressed into service as a coroner’s table. Brazilian couldn’t imagine how they’d gotten their hands on a black rubber body bag so quickly.
Mustafa scanned the room. “Is she in the bathroom?”
“I’m so relieved,” said Brazilian. “I don’t think I’ll be needing your help here after all. I thought she was—well, you know what I thought. At any rate, she managed to leave on her own.”
The slightest furrow creased Mustafa’s brow. “The young lady is... ambulatory?”
“Still, you must require cleanup.”
“Honestly? I was able to take care of most of it with a box of tissues. You can have the maid finish up in the morning.”
“If that is all.”
Taras and Nursultan raced out. Mustafa seemed reluctant to leave, but Brazilian began closing the door.
“Thank you so much.”
Brazilian closed the door and leaned against it. Had a previous guest actually killed a hooker and gotten away with it? Or had the Emir Khan merely anticipated such an event?
It was 1:45 in the morning. Brazilian was exhausted, but his workday was not yet done. Mustafa had looked as fresh as the moment they first met.
To fortify himself, Brazilian ordered two dozen Humboldt Bay Kumamoto oysters and steak tartare made from grass-fed Argentinean beef, and washed it all down with more Scotch.
He picked up the phone. Go time.
“Mr. Mustafa? I don’t know where to start.”
“Wherever you feel most comfortable, Mr. Brazilian.”
“Well, I’m a heroin addict, and when I travel I take methadone instead—less legal unpleasantness. Unfortunately, I left my pills in Cape Town. I’m beginning to experience the symptoms of withdrawal. So I need some methadone—or even a little bit of heroin—just to tide me over.”
“I’ll contact the house pharmacist at once, Mr. Brazilian.”
Ten minutes later, Brazilian was looking at a small enamel tray on which were piled both a half-dozen aspirin-like pills and several grams of cakey, sand-colored powder. There was a glass of water, a spoon, an eyedropper, a syringe, a lighter, a razor blade, a candle, several cotton balls, and a three-foot length of rubber tubing. Mustafa had presented the drugs with a small bow and quickly closed the door behind him.
Brazilian had smoked pot, snorted coke, swallowed ecstasy, and, on several occasions in college, eaten magic mushrooms, but he had never tried heroin. Now that he was a gonzo journalist, shooting up was practically in his job description.
Knocking back a pinkie of Scotch, he sat down at the table. He had watched enough art-house films to have a pretty good idea of how it was done, but it took several Web searches before he was certain. First, he taped the needle of the syringe to the eyedropper. Then he scooped up a small amount of heroin in the bowl of the spoon and held it over the lighter flame until it bubbled and liquified. After drawing the liquid through a cotton ball into the eyedropper, he was ready. He knotted the rubber tube below his biceps, slapped his left arm until a vein swelled, and then stuck the needle in and squeezed the bulb.
He dropped the works and opened his laptop. Then he thought that it would be nice to have a breath of fresh air first. He stood up, fell forward, and thunked his head on the floor-to-ceiling window. He felt as if he were continuing to plummet even after the plush carpet broke his fall. He saw the star-pricked sky as if through the wrong end of a telescope. His stomach hollowed and dropped and then a warm euphoria flooded his veins.
His body was dissolving. No, not dissolving, reconstituting itself. Becoming one with the bottomless carpet, with the hotel. Future guests would be startled to find his motionless body on the floor of their suite, but Mustafa, in his urbane way, would explain that they were looking at not just any body, but that of Brazilian, the famous writer. In fact, he would continue, many guests requested this suite specifically, to enjoy the delicious irony of lodging in luxury in the presence of the very man who’d made his name by skewering the luxury they now enjoyed.
Faces appeared in the stars, as if fleshing out hidden constellations. Mustafa. Mahboob and Clarence. Taras. The Indonesian greeter—he never did get her name. And then darkness dropped like a curtain.
He had seen guns up close before, of course. But they had always been mounted above doorways or behind glass, ornate relics that would not have been operational without black powder, wadding, and musket balls. This one, painted flat black, looked as if it had rolled off an assembly line in China.
Also, none of the other guns had been pointed at him.
It was the first thing he saw when they took the bag off his head. Then the video camera. Then the words they wanted him to read.
He had seen this room before, or one like it: the pitted concrete wall, the too-bright lights, the flag. In most of those videos there had been masked men standing behind the captive, too. The perspective was different, of course, looking toward the camera.
Brazilian thought of a children’s TV show he had seen once where a little boy climbed into his TV set and found himself on the set of his favorite program. The feeling of unreality, however, was undercut by the wire that burned into his wrists and ankles and bound him to the chair.
It was hot in the room. He craned his neck, looking for a way out. Someone thumped him on the back of his skull, making his eyes water. He stared straight ahead, at the camera eye and the light as bright as sunrise on the desert.
Mustafa operated the camera. Jahangir held a trouble light with what must have been a 200-watt bulb. Jansher guarded the door with an AK-47. The hooded men behind him were probably Mahboob and Clarence.
Responding to a terse command from Mustafa, Taras lifted a cue card covered in block capitals. Brazilian scanned the text and learned that he was a prisoner in the war against the infidel and that he had been chosen because he was a playboy who drew a road map for other playboys who wished to rape all that was sacred to Allah.
He read farther and saw the demands: a few hundred terrorists released from jail, U.S. troops out of the Middle East, all Americans beating their breasts in a great cry for forgiveness. Otherwise Brazilian would be beheaded.
Brazilian couldn’t believe his luck. Only a few dozen Westerners were kidnapped each year—and most of them, unlike Brazilian, had no tools with which to capitalize on the story.
The big demands were just a smoke screen. Everyone knew that the U.S. didn’t negotiate with terrorists. But the Emirates would do everything in their power to ensure that tourists continued to deplane at their beautiful new airport. The big demands gave the terrorists street cred, but they would be happy to smooth everything over in exchange for the release of a couple of comrades from the local pokey.
Brazilian would be released, bearded and dehydrated, and booked as a Very Special Guest on Oprah. The bidding war for his unpublished manuscript would be fought with whatever publishing houses used in place of IEDs.
Another reason he knew they wouldn’t kill him was the rapport he’d established with the hotel staff. Yes, his demands had been somewhat extraordinary, but—
Wait. Why did terrorists usually wear masks? To remain anonymous, so that when they released the hostages, the hostages couldn’t identify them.
And there was Mustafa, adjusting the controls on the camera. And there were Jahangir and Jansher and Taras.
“Oh shit,” said Brazilian.
That they would do this to him even after he had taken the trouble to learn their names.
A red light started blinking on the camera. Mustafa nodded at Brazilian.
“You are very fortunate,” he said. “You will be a hero to your people.”v