The document that was to change her life looked like any other official document. It was on crisp, white paper, had the royal logo emblazoned on the top, and was held together by a single staple. The words For HRH Prince Hakeem’s Eyes Only spread across the top page in a somewhat ominous manner, but then again, Hannah had seen many such documents in her six-month tenure as the prince of Syman’s personal assistant. She smiled as she picked it up off her desk and headed toward the prince’s personal chambers. It was early, not yet seven o’clock, and the prince would still be in his dressing room. All important documents were to be handed to him without delay.
She enjoyed her job at the royal compound. Syman was a fairly Westernized Arab nation, and being an island kingdom, it had many exotic coastal resorts and casinos where the rich and famous flocked to on weekends and holidays. As the prince’s PA, Hannah often accompanied him to events at the glamorous hotels and resorts and frequently shopped in the dazzling shopping malls. It was pretty much a dream job. But glamour wasn’t the only reason Hannah had taken the job. After her father had disowned her for not “doing her duty” and joining the family business, Hannah had needed a way to support herself. With what the prince was paying her, she could save enough in two years to return to London and open up her own PR firm. That was her real goal: independence—and a job she enjoyed.
The sound of her father’s disapproving voice still echoed in her mind. Evans and Sons is one of the most prestigious accounting firms in the region. It’s your duty to join the company. The only problem was Hannah didn’t want to work at the family firm. Accounting wasn’t for her. She was a people person, like her mother. A future in public relations was what she wanted, and this job was a step in the right direction. Being so involved with the Prince of Syman would look great on her CV.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Hannah turned a corner and careened straight into a cleaning lady with arms full of dirty linen. She spoke Arabic in the local Symanian dialect, which she’d learned from her grandparents as a child. It was the chief reason why the Prince had hired her over the other English- speaking applicants. The girl gasped and then dropped to her knees to pick up the discarded linen. Hannah apologized a second time and bent down to pick up the document, which had been knocked out of her grasp. It had fallen open to the first page, and Hannah’s hand froze in midair as her eyes took in the meaning of the Arabic words.
Evacuation & Measures For Civil Unrest
Unrest? There had been rumors, but nothing concrete. Her mind struggled to make sense of the heading. Without touching the document, she read on…
With civil unrest in neighboring Arab nations such as Egypt and Syria, plans must be put in place for the evacuation of the royal family and subsequent suppression of similar uprisings in Syman.
Hannah glanced around, but apart from the girl scurrying away, the passage was deserted. The plush carpets made no sound as she grabbed the document and walked into the ladies’ room instead of continuing to the prince’s chamber, as had been her original intention.
Aware that she could get into serious trouble for reading an official document, she took a deep breath and sat down on the gleaming white toilet lid. There were no cameras in here. The door to her cubicle was locked. She had to be quick so no one noticed her absence. Focusing, she read the entire four-page document from beginning to end. Afterward, hands trembling, she stared at the cubicle door, unable to get her head around what she’d just read.
Someone came into the restroom and used the facilities. Still, Hannah did not move. Her throat was dry, and waves of nausea swept over her. She leaned her head sideways against the wall and closed her eyes. What she’d read must be true, for there it was, in black and white in front of her. Yet she didn’t want it to be true. Please let it not be true…
The person left, and she was once more alone.
Move, her brain ordered, and somehow she managed to get to her feet. Opening the door, she stared at her reflection in the mirror. A shocked, white face stared back at her. In the space of five minutes, her whole reality had shifted. How could Prince Hakeem condone such atrocities? The document detailed how protests had erupted on the southern coastal area of the island nation demanding an end to Internet censorship. Hakeem had sent in his personal forces, and hundreds of unarmed people—mostly college students—had died. How could he do that to his own people? And how could she not have known?
It took her two attempts to turn on the cold tap, her fingers were shaking so badly, and then the water gushed out at high pressure, ricocheted off the basin, and covered her face in a fine spray. The mishap forced her out of her mind fog.
Think logically. Calm down, she willed herself.
Civil war was obviously more of a threat than she’d thought if the prince’s security advisors were preparing for it now. The document listed an evacuation plan for the prince and his family, and similarly for the central government, so it could continue functioning in a secure location should the royal compound fall to opposing forces. There were several addresses listed in the document that Hannah assumed were safe houses. Two were on the east coast of the island kingdom, with direct access to the Gulf, while the other three locations were situated outside the country itself.
Hannah splashed cold water on her face, not caring if she smudged her makeup. The need to get a grip on her emotions was stronger. As the initial shock wore off, it was replaced with indignant anger that her seemingly civil employer was capable of such violence. Prince Hakeem prided himself on being one of the more modern, westernized Arab leaders in the Gulf. Obviously, the threat of losing his reign had brought out the worst in him.
The document was written by the prince’s creepy security advisor, Anwar Abdul. Hannah had never liked him. The way he looked at her made her feel distinctly uncomfortable. His eyes were dark and filled with loathing, as if he had some unspoken grudge against her, although on the surface he was as polite as any of the other officials she worked with. To think he was the architect of this…unimaginable horror made her realize how evil he was.
Suddenly, Hannah knew what she had to do. No way was she prepared to work for people like this. In the short time she’d lived in Syman, she’d come to appreciate the stark beauty of the landscape, the contrasts between the sprawling urban cities and the glitzy coastal resorts, and the modesty and humility of the hardworking city folk. She couldn’t imagine it reduced to rubble, all those people displaced or out of work, unable to earn a living for their families. No, she wanted no part in this. She would just have to find another way to raise money for her PR company.
Squaring her shoulders, she went back to her office to write her resignation letter. She buried the evacuation document under a pile of paperwork in her inbox. She was not going to be responsible for passing it on to the prince. There would be no blood on her hands.
A shout from the reception area outside her office, which sat adjacent to the prince’s official office, drew her attention. She poked her head around the door. “What’s going on?”
The receptionist, a rake-thin man with pock-marked skin named Ahmed, pointed at the television. The 60-inch screen that was always tuned to the Arab Network News showed silent images of a crowded street. Angry men with guns fired at the sky. Scared women zigzagged around them, pulling children by the hand.
“Where is this?” she snapped. Please let it not be here.
“Hamabad,” whispered Ahmed, his face paler than hers had been only moments before. The fine hair on her arms stood on end. Hamabad was the principality’s second- largest city after the capital, where she was based.
Oh my God, no. It can’t be true.
The Arab Spring had found its way to Syman. The document wasn’t a contingency plan—it was an urgent missive. Anwar Abdul must have known this was going to happen. Working so closely with the prince, Hannah was amazed she hadn’t heard about it before now. By the looks of things, neither had Ahmed. Perhaps that’s why they called it the Arab Spring, because it sprung up and caught everyone unawares. She stared at the screen. It was hard to believe the unrest she was witnessing was happening five hundred miles south of them, right now.
To hell with the resignation letter. A civil war meant all bets were off. The only thought in her head was to get as far away from here as possible. In a civil war, if that was what this was, the royal compound was probably the worst place to be. Any moment now it could come under attack.
But where could she go? The airport? Was that still operating? She had no idea and no way of finding out. Panic threatened to overwhelm her.
Think, she ordered her dazed mind.
What about the British embassy? That was on the other side of town but within walking distance. She could go there. She was a British citizen.
Her office felt strangely foreign to her now. The air conditioner still moaned in its familiar fashion, the palm trees outside her window in the landscaped garden swayed in the breeze, the way they always did—yet everything had changed.
Hannah grabbed her handbag off the back of the swivel chair. Inside was her makeup and a few other essentials, but little else. No matter. There wasn’t time to go back to her quarters for anything. Opening the desk drawer, she found her passport and letter of employment and stuffed them into her bag. If anyone asked, she had the prince’s authority to be in Syman and to act on his behalf—although that might be more of a disadvantage now than an advantage.
She tied her headscarf under her chin. Although the dress code was relaxed in the office environment, she wore the scarf every time she left the compound. Being a westerner with pale skin and light blond hair drew enough eyes as it was. Today, she needed to blend in.
She cast one final look around the office in which she’d spent every hour of every working day for the last six months. Never in her wildest dreams had she pictured it ending like this. Her gaze fell on her inbox. Should she take the evacuation document with her? It contained dangerous information. Information that the regime wouldn’t want falling into the wrong hands. She could simply leave it on her desk, where it was when she’d come in this morning. The prince might assume she hadn’t read it. Might. But if she took the document with her, she’d be committing treason. A crime punishable by death in most Middle Eastern countries. Did she want that hanging over her head? On the other hand, the prince knew her too well. If he thought she’d read the document, she was as good as dead. Plus, she needed it to talk her way out of the compound. Aware that the next step would implicate her, Hannah retrieved the document and tucked it under her arm. Then, offering some lame excuse to her colleague, who was still transfixed by the television, she left.
Whenever Hannah’s job took her outside the compound, she was accompanied by her designated driver, Aneez, or the prince’s steward. Both were male. A woman was not allowed to enter or exit the premises unescorted. Except now she had no choice. It would not be long before the prince discovered she was missing. She played the likely scenario through her mind. He’d get to his office at eight o’clock. The prince was never late. She glanced at her wristwatch. Seven forty-five. Heavens. The events of the last forty-five minutes had flown past in a nanosecond. When she didn’t bring him his morning coffee, he’d inquire where she was. The receptionist, if he’d come out of his stupor by that stage, would inform His Majesty that Hannah had gone out half an hour ago and not returned. The prince wouldn’t be immediately suspicious, but he would be puzzled. It was unlike Hannah not to be at her desk. She was a model employee.
In fact, over the last few months, she’d become indispensable to her royal boss. She controlled his diary, ran his errands, shopped for him and for his wives and children, remembered the names of all the parliamentary officials, and managed his official life seamlessly. Prince Hakeem, in return, showed his gratitude by granting her far greater freedom than most of his other employees, despite Anwar Abdul’s reluctance. It was that freedom that might be her saving grace.
She had half an hour at the most. Then they’d look at the security cameras. Every exit and entrance was manned by the latest in surveillance technology. The visuals fed through to security staff housed in the central compound admin building. Here, the prince’s security police waited patiently, should they have to stop someone coming in or, in her case, prevent someone from leaving the premises. The thought of those burly men with their dangerous weapons coming after her made her shiver.
Basically, there was no way to get out unrecorded, so Hannah didn’t even bother. Her main priority was sweet- talking a guard into letting her leave unaccompanied. It was a palace rule that all women leaving the compound be accompanied by a male companion or supervisor, to keep the palace employees that the prince and his guard saw as most vulnerable from being kidnapped and interrogated. She assumed this was for security reasons, although she’d never questioned it.
Aneez, her driver, was most likely having a leisurely breakfast, since he wasn’t needed until midmorning. She doubted he’d help her escape.The chauffeur was a traditional man, intensely loyal, and would know that she was acting unofficially.
Bougainvillea swept over the tall archways that bordered the garden to the side of the compound and offered a small degree of coverage. Hannah walked as fast as she dared to the pedestrian exit the staff was required to use. It was behind the complex, near the employee living quarters and out of view of the main building. The majestic front exit was for official business, and she was only permitted to use it when accompanied by His Royal Highness and his entourage.
There were four guards on duty at the staff gate. Unlike the front gate, this one was permanently open, but the silver spiked columns extending into the cobalt blue sky suddenly seemed ominous. Hannah surveyed the guards. Two of them she’d never seen before, so she discounted them. The third had made a suggestive comment toward her about a month ago and she’d turned him down, so he wasn’t going to help, either. Desperation threatened to consume her. Time was running out. She had to get out of here and fast.
Then she saw him. The fourth guard on the far side of the gate. His name was Ibrahim. He, like most of the compound staff, knew who she was, but there was the added bonus that she’d helped him fetch his child from school one day when his wife was ill, so he owed her. Feeling more confident, Hannah made a beeline for him.
“Hello, Ibrahim. How are you and your family?” She greeted him, as always, in Arabic.
“Hana,” he replied, using the Arabic form of her name. “Everyone is well, thank you. Where are you off to today?” He glanced behind her, expecting to see an escort. When
none materialized, his confused gaze returned to her face. “You know I can’t let you out alone. Palace rules.”
Hannah bit her lip and put on a goofy grin. “I’m afraid I’ve done something silly, Ibrahim. I forgot to deliver this very important document to the mayor’s office yesterday. I want to run it down there before His Majesty discovers my foolish mistake.”
She waved the official stamp under his nose, hoping he wouldn’t see the For HRH Prince Hakeem’s Eyes Only typed across the bottom. Her hand was partially covering the text.
He registered surprise. It was unlike her to forget something this important. She smiled sheepishly, hoping to garner his sympathy. A reprimand from the prince wouldn’t be pleasant.
“Please, Ibrahim. You owe me,” she bit out, when it looked as if he might refuse.
His shoulders slumped, and Hannah knew she’d won. “Okay, but be quick. If you’re discovered, we’ll both get into trouble. I can’t afford to lose my job over this.”
“You won’t,” she said. At least, she hoped he wouldn’t. Ibrahim was a good man. It was regrettable she had to lie to him. Glancing around her, she realized none of these men had any idea about what was happening five hundred miles away. They would soon. It was only a matter of time. She gave his arm a quick squeeze. “Thank you. You’re my savior.”
More than you’ll ever know, she mused as she hurried away from the gate and merged into the pedestrian traffic on the busy suburban street.
Prince Hakeem’s military advisors would have informed him of the revolt in Hamabad by now and Anwar Abdul would be arranging an emergency summit to discuss the situation.
Hopefully, they’d be too distracted to worry about her— at least for a while. Worst-case scenario, she had roughly forty-five minutes before she missed her morning meeting with the prince and they figured out she’d left with the document—and mobilized to come after her.
Forty-five minutes to get to the British embassy.
She turned off the busy street and down an alley away from the compound, trying not to draw attention to herself. Every strand of blond hair was tucked away under her scarf, so with her head down to hide her paleness, no one would notice anything unusual.
Syman City, the administrative capital of the island kingdom, was a pretty, sprawling town, situated in the northeastern part of the island. It consisted of a core financial district and then various sectors that spread out around it like the spokes on a wheel. The palace compound lay to the north of the city center, while the embassy lay to the west. The only way to bypass the center was to cut through a busy market area situated between them. This was not a bad thing. The markets, or souks, opened early, and Hannah hoped the crowds would conceal her from the police that were sure to come after her.
She turned out of the alley and onto a road flanked with shops selling everything from olives and vegetables to clothing and materials. The pungent smell of incense
thickened the air. The colorful market stalls and their exotic produce were one of the things Hannah loved most about Syman. Shoppers, mostly women, scurried around, packets in hand. They wanted to get back to the safety of their homes. Hannah didn’t blame them. She’d rather be anywhere else but out here on the street.
Head down, she marched on, ignoring the activity around her. The main market was two blocks away. Then she heard it. The sound she’d been dreading. Sirens. Her heart leapt into her throat. They’d viewed the tapes, seen her leave with the document. It was happening faster than she’d anticipated. She’d hoped for—no, needed—more time.
The road was cobblestoned and thankfully too crowded for a car to pass. Hannah stepped out of her shoes and broke into a run. The rough ground tore through the thin material of her pantyhose and the skin of her bare feet, but being able to move quickly was more important than the pain. The souk would be busy with dimly lit aisles that crisscrossed each other, and clothing and fabrics hanging from railings obscuring the view. She’d be safe there, temporarily.
A siren wailed directly behind her. A police car crawled along the road, honking at shoppers to get out of the way. Hannah risked a look over her shoulder. They were scanning the road, their heads turning from left to right. Looking for her. She darted ahead of a group of men, smoking cigarettes and talking on the sidewalk, hoping the tight pencil skirt and bare feet wouldn’t give her away as a solitary Western woman.
Finally, the entrance to the enclosed souk appeared in front of her. She hurried past, turning left and then right, trying to lose herself in the dim interior. The sirens halted. Presumably, the police were searching for her on foot. Had they seen her enter the souk? She didn’t think so, but she couldn’t be sure. Perhaps they had figured out where she was headed and intended to cut her off.
A large woman in a traditional robe, or abaya, beckoned from behind one of the stalls. She pointed at Hannah’s skirt and torn pantyhose and then at her merchandise. Traditional clothing and scarves hung from the overhead railings resembling big black bats. Hannah rummaged in her handbag for a crumpled bill and passed it to the woman. Then she grabbed a full-length black robe off a misshapen metal hanger.
“Keep the change,” she said as she shimmied into it, pulling it down over her clothes. In a dark corner, she adjusted her headscarf so it covered the lower half of her face, leaving only her eyes exposed. Prince Hakeem’s men would have a hard time recognizing her now.
She shuffled out of the souk and hurried away from the market district, keeping her head low. No one stopped her, and she didn’t hear any more sirens.
It was only when she turned into the quiet, wide avenue that circled a small park, on the other end of which was the British embassy, that she realized she’d forgotten the document back at the stall where she’d bought the abaya.
God. How stupid can you get?
She could have kicked herself. Not because she was worried about the information, that would find its way back to Prince Hakeem anyway, but because she had no leverage with which to get out of Syman. No physical proof of what was about to happen. Plus, the police would know she was in disguise.
Well, it couldn’t be helped. There was no way she was going back. Hurrying up the palm-tree-lined street, she passed a series of wooden benches, just begging her to sit down and rest. Boy, did she need to rest, but it was a luxury she couldn’t afford. Not with the invitingly bright white embassy building looming just a few blocks ahead. She propelled herself forward, ignoring the loose pebbles on the sidewalk that bit into her feet.
Sweat dripped from underneath her headscarf, stinging her eyes. Finally she turned the last corner, and there, at last, stood the front gate to the British embassy. Surrounded by a gated garden and overflowing with desert succulent plants and cacti, it offered sanctuary to those British citizens who needed it. Like her. God, did she need it.
She ran straight up to the pedestrian gate, clutching at the heavy iron bars. Her breath came in short, ragged gasps. She pulled the gate toward her. It didn’t budge. Dismayed, she looked around her. The electric vehicle gates normally stood open, but they too were shut tight. There was no one inside, the magnificently landscaped gardens eerily deserted.
Struggling to get her breath back, she called a shaky “Hello?” toward the guard hut inside and to the left of the gate. “I’m a British citizen. Is anyone there?”
There was no reply other than the wind rustling through the date palms overhead. She rattled the gates and shouted louder, “Please. Someone help me!” Still no reply. Where the hell was everyone? There were usually lots of people milling about. Could they have closed the embassy in light of the civil unrest in Hamabad?
Shouting and the roar of several vehicle engines came from the direction of the market square. She only had minutes to spare before someone came bearing down the tree-lined avenue—and she hoped against hope that they weren’t connected to the prince.
Oh God, I’m going to die out here, she thought, rattling the gates hopelessly.
There was nowhere else to go. She knew no one in town. Her job had required her to live on the compound, and the only people she’d mixed with had been the prince and his aides. There’d been very few women in the compound, so she hadn’t had a chance to make many friends. Not that she had time to socialize. The prince expected her to be available to him twenty-four hours a day, if necessary.
She collapsed in a heap before the gates. “Please,” she cried one more time. “Please let me in.”
But no one came to her aid.