Cometh the Hour, Jeffrey Archer

Hakim Bishara climbed the aircraft steps, feeling his journey to Nigeria had been a complete waste of time. He was a patient man but on this occasion even his patience had been stretched to the limit. The oil minister had kept him waiting for five hours and, when he was finally ushered into his presence, he didn’t seem to be fully briefed on the new port project and suggested they meet again in a couple of weeks’ time, as if Bishara’s office was just around the corner.  Bishara left fifteen minutes later with a promise that the minister would look into the matter and get back to him. He wasn’t holding his breath.

He returned to his hotel, checked out and took a taxi to the airport.

Whenever Hakim stepped onto a plane, he always hoped for one of two things: to be seated next to either a beautiful woman who would be spending a few days in a city where she was a stranger, or a businessman he normally would not have come across and who he might be able to interest in opening an account with Farthings. He corrected himself, Farthings Kaufman, and wondered how long it would take him to think it without thinking. Over the years, he’d closed three major deals because of someone he’d sat next to on a plane, and met countless women, one of whom had broken his heart after five idyllic days in Rome when she told him she was married and then flew home. He made his way to seat 3A. In the next seat was a woman of such extraordinary beauty it was hard not to just stare at her.  Once he’d fastened his seatbelt, he glanced across to see she was engrossed in a novel Harry Clifton had recommended he should read.  He couldn’t imagine how a book about rabbits could have any appeal.

Hakim always enjoyed trying to work out a person’s nationality, background and profession simply by observing them, a skill his father taught him, whenever he was trying to sell a customer an expensive carpet. First, check the basics, her jewelry, his watch, their clothes and shoes, and anything else unusual.

The book suggested intelligence, the wedding ring, and even more obviously, the engagement ring, spelled understated wealth.  The watch was a classic Cartier Tank, no longer in production. The suit was Yves Saint Laurent and the shoes Halston. An untutored observer might have described her as a woman of a certain age; a discerning one, like Sky Masterson, as a classy broad. Her slim, elegant figure and long fair hair suggested she was Scandinavian.  He would’ve liked to begin a conversation with her, but as she seemed so engrossed in her novel and didn’t give him as much as a glance, he decided to settle for a few hours’ sleep, although he did wonder if he’d later regret it.

Hakim drifted out of a shallow sleep. He blinked, pressed a button in his armrest and his seat straightened up.  Moments later a stewardess offered him a warm flannel. He gently rubbed his eyes, forehead and finally the back of his neck, until he felt half awake.

“Would you like some breakfast, Mr. Bishara?” the stewardess asked as she removed the flannel with a pair of tongs.

“Just orange juice and a black coffee, please.”

He glanced at the woman on his right but he could see that she only had a few more pages of her book to read, so he reluctantly decided not to interrupt her.

When the pilot announced they would be landing in thirty minutes, the woman immediately disappeared into the lavatory and didn’t reemerge for some time.

Hakim concluded that there had to be a lucky man waiting for her at Heathrow.

Hakim always liked to be among the first passengers to disembark, especially when he was only carrying hand luggage and wouldn’t be held up in the baggage hall. His chauffeur would be waiting for him outside the terminal building and, although it was a Sunday, he still intended to go into the office to tackle the mountain of unanswered mail that would have piled up on his desk. Once again, he cursed the Nigerian oil minister.

Since he’d become a British citizen he was no longer held up at passport control and didn’t have to endure the lengthy nonresident queues. He walked past the baggage carousel and headed straight for the green channel as he hadn’t purchased anything while he was in Lagos. The moment he put his foot in the corridor, a customs officer stepped forward and blocked his path.

“Can I check your bag, sir?”

“Of course,” said Bishara, putting his small overnight bag on the low slatted table.

Another officer appeared and stood a pace behind his colleague, who was systematically going through Hakim’s single piece of luggage. All he found was a wash bag, two shirts, two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks and two silk ties; all he’d needed for a two-day visit. The customs officer then unzipped a small side pocket that Hakim rarely used. Hakim watched in disbelief as the man  extracted a cellophane bag packed with a white substance. Although he’d never taken a drug in his life, he knew exactly what it must be.

“Does this belong to you, sir?” asked the officer.

“I’ve never see it before in my life,” Hakim answered truthfully.

“Perhaps you’d be kind enough to come with us, sir.”

(Cometh the Hour, Jeffrey Archer, pages 325-330)