The entranceway is a giant razor clam and I imagine myself being sucked slowly in by its valves. What kind of people are these can eat after being eaten? Beneath the underwater walkway green and yellow tropical fish swim in bright blue water, teeming in glass panels underfoot. A gray manta presses its pockmarked body against the Plexiglas, mouth flapping. The restaurant proper is inside the cylindrical floor-to-ceiling aquarium whose acrylic tank, encasing the diners and providing the 360-degree fake-ocean view, holds, so our brochure says, a million liters of seawater. I can’t enjoy the scenery, being too busy praying that the bottle-thick glass withstands the water pressure. The dining room is inspired by sea-life too, floor plan a star, soft pink stools like jellyfish, lighting fixtures resembling anemones. Here you keep friends close and anemones closer. The interior light is soft so as not to disturb the marine life and the room is immersed in pale-blue shadows.
Majed Ibrahim gestures like the Wali of Swat. They say he’s related to Sheikh Mohamed so maybe he is royalty. Then again, they say everyone is related. “Sit.”
Ibrahim nods at his plate, house special Tsarkaya oyster in cucumber and apple broth. There’s a reason he’s this fat. “Tonight I recommend Alaskan king crab with foie gras ravioli,” he says, smacking his lips. “Delectable.”
“I lose my appetite here.” I tap the glass at this coral catshark scything by. “I feel like I’m on the menu.”
Ibrahim gives me that creepy giggle. “But in this world there are only predators and prey. Is this not so?”
I nod, knowing how he appreciates deference in an employee. “I just like to know which I am.”
Jellyfish contract and relax their bell margins, coronal muscles squirting miniature waves across the tank. I see moon jellies and sea nettles and upside-down jellies, any kind of jelly you can imagine and some you can’t. Their bells dappled bright blue, tints of pink and orange sliding inside the mesoglea.
“Climate change kills off most sea creatures,” I tell him. “Not these. In warmer seas jellyfish grow and grow. It’s those without backbone will inherit the earth.” I consider this. “So it’s going to be the same as it is now in that regard.”
“You read too much, Ferguson,” Ibrahim says, eyes flitting to a nearby table. “A powerful man has not time for reading.” He scowls. It’s a couple leaning in close, getting lost in each other’s eyes that way lovers do, enraptured and pathetic. Ibrahim squints at the lovebirds with toad’s eyes. They quit foreplay to sip at strawberry daiquiris.
“We can let that go,” I suggest. “She’s not one of our Instagram models.”
Ibrahim isn’t giving them a pass, waggling thick fingers at my face, big rings like knuckledusters. “Handle it.”
“Seriously?” Today’s first wave of depression hits like a tsunami and it’s barely lunchtime and I remember how much I hate it here.
“Do I look serious?” Ibrahim says, spilling an overflow of gut onto the tablecloth for emphasis. “Do we have standards?” He’s got the same dead eyes as the shark nuzzling the glass. “Are you still here?”
These would be rhetorical questions.
The couple is Russian, in their early 20’s. The boy is well built and rangy with the posture of a coiled spring. Short though, small man’s complex writ large. The girlfriend is spectacular, smooth blonde hair pulled back with a blue scrunchie. The light from the glass glints off perfect skin and her green eyes are perfect ovals and her every gesture is precise and elegant and, well, perfect. She’s a great beauty, and strangely familiar to me.
“You speak English?” They look up, startled by the interruption.
“A little.” The girl is nervous and I wonder if Ibrahim isn’t altogether off the mark. She pulls it together, flashing perfect dimples. “Can we help you?”
I explore melting into her eyes. “I’m head of security and sometimes need to remind guests that public displays of affection are not highly regarded.”
“Highly regarded?” Her expression is quizzical. Up close, there’s an interesting constellation of freckles and I’ve gone interstellar.
“It can be viewed as offensive,” I explain. “Given the culture, it’s best to be not so…” I search for the word. “. … obvious.”
“There are many Ukrainian prostitutes in the lobby,” the boyfriend says, dripping hostility. “In your lobby. We saw them.”
The smile I’ve plastered on is starting to hurt. “Like I said, there are aspects of the culture that you need to adapt to.”
He spreads his legs, protecting his breeding space, snorts like a horse with catarrh. “One of your whores offered to join us for a threesome, a special for 300 dollars.”
“Well, that sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?” I choose a point between his eyebrows and focus on it. “But then you wouldn’t be performing in public?”
I wonder if my English is too sophisticated for him. It isn’t.
“For a fee I might consider it,” he says, staring me down, a hard man looking for a square go.
Back home, he’d be asked to step outside. This isn’t Glasgow but. This requires diplomacy. I consider mentioning that there are 30,000 prostitutes in the city, not counting your Indonesian maid who has no objection to extending her duties, for a price, or your shop assistant from Tashkent in one of the glittery malls jotting her number on the back of your receipt ‘in case you need anything else,’ or your Filipina manicurist suggesting a better pedicure in the private room. I decide against it.
“All I want is that you stop. If not, I’ll have you removed. I don’t want to do that. You look like a nice couple.”
The boyfriend looks more like a bulldog chewing a wasp, but she has her hand on his, stroking a knuckle, soothing the beast. “O.K.” she says, pulling her hand away in case she’s causing further offence.
I shrug. “I know it seems silly.”
“It isn’t silly,” she says, unleashing the loveliest of smiles. “It’s the culture.”
“And you’re having a pleasant visit?” I inquire. “You’re tourists?”
“Business,” the boy spits, tracking the descent of a terrapin towards a fiddler crab. “High finance.”
“You must be one of those oligarchs. Do you know Roman Abramovich?” I present him with a big mouthful of teeth. “He owes me money.”
No one laughs. I call Hamid over. “Two more daiquiris, with our compliments.”
“Thank you,” the girl says. “Australian?”
“You are so far from home also,” she says.
Ibrahim is cramming a wad of dark brown shortbread in his gob so he can’t speak for a while. I’m not complaining. He has a dab with a napkin and re-explores the act of breathing. “Exquisite. Is that a word you say?”
“It’s a word, but not one I say.” A sea turtle scatters barracuda. That girl was exquisite. It was the word for her. “So what’s up?”
Ibrahim flares his nostrils. “What’s up?”
“I wasn’t summoned to break up the mating was I?”
“Assessment,” he sighs.
Nika gets on my case when I badmouth Ibrahim. “Jimmy-Jimmy,” she says. “You are a bad boy, so racist and so fattist!” I tell her I might be racist, but it’s definitely Ibrahim who’s fattest. She’s got a good heart Nika, that’s her problem.
“I’m happy with progress,” I tell him. “You can’t actualize a security ambassador program overnight. Exit surveys indicate staff is beginning to meet concierge and customer service learning goals and objectives. We’re in the top quartile for warm and friendly rapport.”
Ibrahim elevates an eyebrow, impressed by my facility at spewing the jargon.
“It’ll take a while,” I explain. “There’s a transitional period while you’re training staff to perform a dynamic function, when they’re used to sitting at a post. You develop customer-oriented, customer-friendly security ambassadors over time.”
“The most luxurious hotel in the world does not have time.”
“Actually we’re not that yet,” I say, malevolently. “The Burj Al Arab is.”
Ibrahim turns the same pink as the neon tetras. “But we have aspirations.”
I’ve noticed. Three hundred top-line duplex suites, four swimming pools, a private beach club, personalized butler service, airport transfer by Rolls Royce, Mercedes or helicopter, solid 24 carat gold IPads in every suite, Rory McIlroy jetting in for a million-dollar payday to smack a 300-foot drive across our helipad. All of that bespoke aspirations.
“You are good at your job, Ferguson.”
“If you treat your subordinates with respect, they respect you.”
Ibrahim regards me narrowly, wondering if there’s an implied message. There is. “About the ambassador dress you have no reservations?”
“A green tie?”
“Green reassures. It calms and disarms.” I want to add that I’m looking into hiring leprechauns for valet parking, decide not to.
“Did you do an exit survey on the color field?” This is his version of sarcasm. He fancies himself Sydney Greenstreet on a camel, not that the camel would survive the experience. “Some staff unbutton top button beneath tie.”
“I haven’t seen that,” I lie.
“Not good.” He notices my eyes straying to the Russian babe. “She is pretty, no? If I make her an offer, do you think she will accept?”
Our resident moral policeman provides free buffet and drinks vouchers for the working girls and rents them rooms because of the clientele they bring in. The more high-end escorts we get, the more rich douchebags splash the cash. But public displays of affection in the restaurant are a no-no.
“You have no one in your life? No little lady waiting to tuck you in?”
I think of Nika, who doesn’t count. Ibrahim knows about her I’m sure. Makes it his business, connected like Bedouin KGB. He has the high-end executive suites wired for sound too. Leverage, he calls it. “No,” I say.
“Ah, to be young and in love.” The Sultan of Hypocrisy flops back like a beached whale. “And then we learn, too late, and so the great fall.”
The dynamite little babushka is polishing off her drink by snorkeling a straw through the ice chips. A bangle jingles up a bare arm. I sit appreciating the contours of that lithe body, so strangely familiar. Have I dreamt about her? She catches me gazing, likely open mouthed as one of the angelfish, and waves. The ray is back, bubbling around the spiracles. The whip-sleek tail, each barbed spine serrated, is a thorn-spiky mass and the teeth, long slender cusps, curve in towards the corner of its big belly mouth. “Know how she finds her prey?” I ask. Ibrahim shrugs, not caring, him not being a reader, him knowing how to find his prey already. “She uses electro-receptors called Ampullae of Lorenzini.”
“Perhaps this is how she found you?” Ibrahim stares at the ray as at a kindred spirit. “Stay with the green tie,” he says. “For now.”
I finish my shift in the second-floor center with a lower atrium sweep. I have Khalid, the techie, close in on the couple by the fountain escalator. The girl seems to stare right into the camera lens, but must be admiring the architecture. I’m admiring hers, how that pale-blue summer print dress accents endless tan legs. I zoom in appreciatively. It’s ethically dubious, but a perk of the job. “Tasty pair of strolling pins,” I observe.
Khalid asks if I think the Russians are casing the joint. I wonder if T.E Lawrence had similar staffing issues. I tell him that kind of gen is above his pay scale. The girl holds up a selfie-stick and smirks. They say the unexamined life is not worth living and now life certainly doesn’t seem worth living unless you have everyone examine it. With her camera on my camera, I pretend the smile is for me.
The hotel is on an artificial island in the shape of a palm tree and connects to the city by a long driveway across a bridge curving through white hoops of stanchions. I’ll never get used to being surrounded by this many monuments to the triumph of money over practicality, style over substance. Mind you, Dubailand, promising indoor snow skiing and an animal safari, isn’t built yet. On Sheikh Zayed Road, women in black burkas stroll past the line of sequined halter-tops and bare legs waiting to shimmy into Zinc for an evening of depravity. The city is called Sodom-sur-Mer for a reason. You get used to the contradictions, like how the call to prayer gets drowned out by the clanging bells of the Catholic Church and the pheromone-heavy mating cries of the unfaithful. Overhead looms the Burj Khalifa. I’m told the tower is so high that from its observation deck you can see the earth curve. I wouldn’t know, having no head for heights. I’d never work that gig: 160 stories of serious bother. Their security honcho says he worries every day that some moronic urban climber will try to add a notch to his belt. The problem with “build it and they will come” is that they will come and builder it. Pulling into Jumeirah Beach Residence area, where I rent my duplex, I see the cranes on Bluewaters Island swing across the skyline massacring the ‘sweeping ocean vistas’ promised in the literature. Bluewaters is another manmade island, this one to feature the Dubai Eye, tallest Ferris wheel in the world.
Soon as I’m in the door, Nika comes charging like a demented poodle, except she’s got her poodle, Kiki, in her arms and is wearing cotton slippers and not carrying them in her mouth. “Shoo, ya habibi!” she purrs in Arabic. Why she thinks that’s cute is beyond me. But it’s nice to have a person waiting in a shimmery barely-there nightie, even if lately I’ve been craving a bit more alone time.
“Jimmy-Jimmy,” she says, like the Undertones.
It’s been six months. The night I met her Nika offered me ‘everything, what you like, all night’ for £500. I don’t have an excuse. I was out with friends, or what passes for friends here and, pissed as a newt, found myself locked and loaded at 2am with this shaky young thing in a room at the York International.
“So,” she said, “what is it you want to do?”
She was a little on the plump side but cute as a button, except for the fact she chewed at her nails incessantly and couldn’t settle on an effective facial expression. So, for four hours, we talked. I told her right off the bat nothing was going to happen. She was worried, so I said she could tell the homicidal-looking Kazakh in the bar whatever she needed to in the morning. I’d still pony up the cash but this was her night off: she could sleep, drink, watch TV or do whatever she liked. What she liked was for us to lie in bed watching an old Bond movie with the sexy bits cut out. It wasn’t From Russia With Love. I got the whole life story in dribbles of broken English. Which sobered me up.
Nika grew up in Stavropol. Her father had a decent job and supported his family well until he fell down one. I don’t know how you fall down a well exactly, but it didn’t do her old man any good. Nika graduated veterinary college, but jobs were scarce. Pets were a big thing in her hometown, but looking after them not so much. In college Nika helped rescue a gaggle of geese stapled by their feet to the ceiling of a hostelry. No one knew who had done it or why. After two years unemployment, she went to an office offering jobs in the UAE. She assumed the office would be shut down had there been problems. Anyway, nothing bad could happen to a smart, educated girl like her. Nika said she was Umnaya golova, da duraku dostalas, which means a clever head, but given to foolishness. She signed a three-month contract working in a shop. There was a direct flight to Sharjah and she was on her way a few days later. She was met by a Chechen lady, who took her passport to put her visa in and drove her to her apartment—a modern place she would share with five other girls.
“What time do we go to the shop in the morning?” Nika asked.
“Shop? What shop?” The Chechen woman was contemptuous. “Don’t be ridiculous girl, you’re a prostitute.”
Nika demanded to be taken back to the airport, and the woman laughed. “Sure,” she said. “If you didn’t know, you can go. Call your daddy and tell him to go to Western Union. We need flight, registration and visa fees, advance rent, lost earnings and administrative charge, plus a ticket back home. That will be $14,000 please. Let me know when you have it.”
Nika’s father didn’t have that kind of money. He wasn’t a well man, at least since he’d taken a header down one. Her choice was to put him in debt to local gangsters, and risk him being dropped down a deeper shaft, or survive here three months by licking a few.
“It is what it is, but you’ll get used to it,” the other girls told her.
After three days she gave in and sold herself. Every week she called home and told everyone how fabulous everything was and since she was sending money back there were no questions. Besides the time the old Swede whacked her too hard with the riding crop and the Saudi banker raped her, it hadn’t been too bad. She’d been doing it five months and could have saved the money to get home, except she hadn’t. “I am a bad person now,” she said, sobbing buckets on the sheets. “I have done terrible things. I am what that woman said I am. I am worth nothing.”
I was going to say she was worth 500 a pop actually, but thought better of it. Nika announced she wanted to give me a blowjob just for listening and being nice, and I thought about it for a while and contemplated the moral ramifications and so on and accepted. But by 6 AM, Nika had her deadeye expression stuck on for the workday. The fleeting glimpse of that cute little veterinary student who wanted to help her family disappeared and for some reason I couldn’t stand it. Maybe I have rescue fantasies. Nika gave me her number and a week later I called. Another week and I’d conned myself into getting her a residence visa. Another three weeks and it was a residence. I suppose she’s a kept woman, although I try not to think about the sugar daddy aspect. I suspect she still sees the occasional old customer on the side for supplemental spending money, but I’m not for rocking the boat. It doesn’t do to delve too deep.
I’m feeling like a nice siesta, but in no time flat Nika, who’s been bored senseless all day, deploys her wicked wiles and has me splayed out and has climbed on top and is working me over good. I’ve got my eyes closed, partly because in the throes of passion Nika looks like she’s having an especially difficult bowel movement and partly because I’m thinking about the Russian girl, which causes me to feel guilty and so I grab Nika’s thighs to quit her thrashing around. “There was a Russian couple in the restaurant.”
Nika looks at me oddly. It is a bit of a non sequitur. “Where are from?”
“I don’t know.”
Nika says “Hmm” and recommences bobbing, but I can’t concentrate, since Kiki is started growling up at me from the carpet. “What would they be doing here? We get wealthy older Russians, men, and the girls working the hotels. But a young couple?”
Nika is exasperated. “They say not tourist?”
“The boy said he was in high finance.”
Nika giggles. “They come to get bahbkee some way if from Russia.”
The thought screams through my skull like a cruise missile. I shove Nika off and she goes toppling over the side of the bed headfirst, knocking over a lamp on her descent and causing Kiki to fly squealing out the bedroom. I’m flying out of there too, also squealing, flipping open the laptop and mad googling. I try to convince myself I’m wrong. But “Russian girl, roofing, crazy, dangerous” does the trick. Maria Solvyov, 22. Here she is striking a pose in mirrored sunglasses kissing that little wanker of a boyfriend on the perilous parapet of this spire in Tiajnin, and here preening on the ledge of a Shanghai skyscraper in a red designer dress and heels, and here using that selfie-stick of hers, balancing mega-precariously on the turret parapet of the Sagrada Familia like she’s having a day at the beach, and here with a tennis racket in white skirt and flip flops, assuming this classic ballet pose on a crane-suspended girder jutting over the Seine, which she’s not. I scroll the vertigo-inducing portfolio, getting dizzier by the minute.
“Everything OK?” Nika asks, pawing her skull. I’m not sure how a doctor would be able to tell if she had a concussion.
I’ve linked to Instagram to find shot after insane daredevil shot, in the background the Eiffel Tower, Singapore high-rises, The Coca-Cola London Eye. Her tag is “No limit, no fear.” Death-defying urban climbs in Moscow, Kiev, Hong Kong, Berlin, like she’s on a world tour, taking modeling to new heights.
“Oh,” says Nika, looking over my shoulder. “That some scary shit.”
On Twitter I type “No Limit, No Fear” although I know what’s coming. It’s not last night’s photo from the Burj Khalifa—Maria dangling by one arm through an aperture in the roof, boyfriend Boris (he would be a Boris), straddling the gap, holding her suspended over an infinite drop—freaks me out. It’s the one from two hours ago. They must have gone through the roof of the Sky Lounge to get on the gantries like that. Where the hell is security?
Then I recall how that’s supposed to be me.
“I have to go,” I tell Nika, frantically trying to wrestle my trousers out of Kiki’s jaws. “I’ve got an issue. Let go it you damn mutt!”
“Bad doggie,” Nika says. “Leave Daddy alone.”
Soon I’m careening like Lewis Hamilton on amphetamines across the bridge onto the fake island. In the distance the lights of the Burj Al Arab, this architectural monstrosity supposed to look like a sailboat. I want it sunk. I bolt up to the control room, surprising Khalid who’s enjoying the nice siesta I promised for myself. My well-trained staff is putting the ass back in security ambassador. “Get this tie fixed,” I snarl, fingers clawing at his top button. “You look like a Paki hobo.”
“Just resting my eyes, boss,” Khalid explains, blinking crazily, trying to figure out where he is. “I was fully conscious of all events, boss.”
I scan the monitors displaying the security cameras for the helipad, turn them 360 in watery murk. Nothing. Maybe she’s gone. A helicopter hovers and lands. We don’t get choppers at this hour. Not miniature ones at any rate. We’re not expecting elves.
“See that?” Khalid asks. The red-blinking drone skims by camera 4. “Bat?”
“No, not a fucking bat you towel-head, brain-dead half-wit eegit retarded spastic dumbfuck.” I’m a wee bit irritated, obviously. “We got fucking roofers on our roof.”
I’m hearing this voice saying, “Treat your staff with respect and they will respect you.” It’s my voice and it sounds really, really stupid.
“Fixing it?” Khalid asks.
I need to redo our orientation to get us out of the top quartile for idiocy. In the slow-mo lift takes about a decade to get to the helipad I update her live feed. Yes, she’s made it all the way up our aerial tower. Maria smiles onscreen holding that stick aloft, the lights of Dubai pooling far below.
But she’s not on the aerial now. She’s by the 3-foot high metal railings ringing the helipad. Boris leans over the rail gripping Maria’s hand while she dangles off the precipice edge. I come closer, too afraid to speak. In her free hand she clutches her stick, still seeking the perfect image. She’s wearing that lovely summer print dress, heels, hair flying free, lips lipsticked labial red. She’s stunning. Then Boris lets go. Khalid cries out. I dive for the rail, only to discover her holding onto it, swinging free like a gymnast on the parallel bars. The drone circles overhead. After a catch and release, he pulls her back on the ledge. She smiles, ecstatic. I’m supposing it’s safe to speak now. “Having fun?”
They look at one another and laugh. Maria clambers back up on the railing.
“Not yet,” Boris says, although it could be nyet. Different words, same meaning.
Maria does a perfect yoga backbend on the metal, sheer chasm below. Boris snaps a photo. “Bol’she,” he says, and she arches.
“You think you psychos could quit now?” My legs are trembling, like I’m the one balanced on the edge of reason.
“Am I in trouble, Scottie?” Maria asks, smirking.
“How’s Roman Abramovich?” Boris inquires.
She descends, settling on the metal rim and swinging her long legs, like a child in a swing. “Nothing usually happen to me,” she says. “When police come and I wear a little skirt I smile and say ‘I’ll never do it again’ and ‘I’ve done a very bad thing.’ And they feel sorry and let me go.”
“I’ll let you go if you come down from there,” I tell her.
“One time they drop me off at home and gave me cherries.” Maria levers herself upright and performs a perfect handstand. “This in Moscow,” she says, upside down.
“Fuck’s sake,” I say.
Boris regards me with amusement as his girlfriend performs an arabesque on a ledge so many miles from earth. “One minute,” he says, “and we’ll have all we need.”
“I thought you were in high finance.”
“But I am.” He looks offended. “We go very high and have many sponsors.”
Maria flips with gymnast’s grace. “Sometimes I climb without camera for a sunrise or sunset, something beautiful,” she tells me. “But this is my art.”
“Scottie, imagine an artist alone in her studio, painting, painting, painting for years until she is drowned in her work. And she thinks: who am I doing this for—is there any point? Artist must have audience. My mother walked ropes in the circus, yes? But no more circus today. The camera gives me audience. Look at your phone, Scottie!”
She’s on that screen too, flirting with death in a summer dress. A life with purpose, a life making art. I look from her to her. “Aren’t you scared?”
“Of what? Death will come. You will not escape it, Scottie. So do something by which they remember you.” It sounds like a Russian philosophy to me. “Come,” she says, extending her hand. “Stand on this side.”
“I’ve no head for heights,” I say, cold-wet tremor running the length of my spine.
“Nothing will happen,” Boris says. He’s busy dismantling the drone and stuffing it in a hold-all. “You will be safe with her.”
“You look at me, in my eyes.” She’s summoning me to the brink. “Never down.”
Khalid paws at my shirtsleeve. “Boss,” he says, seeing my daft expression. I feel bad for being so mean and racist to him now that he doesn’t want me dead.
“Up this high,” Maria says, “everything beautiful, a sunset, a streak of smoke, a black sea so far.”
I walk to the rail and look out at a crepuscular sky, dark blue water with the sheen of moonlight on it. White stars reeling in that vast blue. Pebbles buried deep in a stream.
“Biggest emotion you feel is when you come down and say, ‘I did it. I challenged my life.’” She smiles knowing all there is to know.
I hesitate. It’s not like I’m completely mad.
“Maybe you can think how you come to save me from myself?”
I can’t explain why I do it. I don’t look down. I challenge my life. I walk into that blue infinite and she takes my hand and I step up and over and am with her on the brink. I look deep into oval green eyes and know she is death and for now that’s enough for me.
“Boss,” Khalid calls, plaintively.
He wants me to come back. And I will, but not yet. Cold steel rail chills my spine. A sky shiny as wet tar, constellations whirlpool. I teeter on the verge of nothing. I need a fucking new job.
“If I slip,” Maria whispers, “I take you with me, Scottie. We go together. It’s a long way. I could tell you a story as we fall down and down.”
I don’t want to hear the story. I think of my Nika, worrying in our apartment. Waiting at home for me. Nika, my true love. Maria draws a delicious laugh from the back of her throat and I think: oh and so this is how death laughs, isn’t that interesting?
“So,” she says, a night breeze up from the Gulf whipping her hair. There’s a tang of salt on my lips and stars drift to infinity in the blue. “What is it you want to do?”