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Authors: Christopher Buckley

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Florence of Arabia

BOOK: Florence of Arabia
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Christopher Buckley
FLORENCE
OF
ARABIA

Random House N
ew York

This is a work of fiction. All incidents and dialogue, and all characters With the exception of some well-known historical and public figures, are products of the author's imagination and are not to be construed as real. Where real-life historical or public figures appear, the situations, incidents and dialogues concerning those per
sons are entirely fictional and are not
intended to depict actual events or to change the entirely fictional nature of the work. In
all other respects, any resemb
lance to persons living or d
ead is entirely coincidental. (G
ot that? Any questions? It's all made up. Okay? Whatever.

Copyright © 2004 by Christopher Taylor Buckley

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United
State
s by Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House. Inc.. New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

Random House and colophon are reg
istered trademarks of Random H
ouse, Inc.

Printed in the United
State
s of Ameri
ca on acid-free paper Random H
ouse website address:
www.atrandom.eom

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32]

PROLOGUE

T
he official reside
nce of His Excellency Prince Bawad bin-Ru
mallah
al-Hamooj,
ambassador of the Royal Kingdom of
Wasabia to the United States oi' America, perches expensively on $18 million of real estate overlooking a frothy rapid of the Potomac River a few miles upstream from Washington, D.C. The emblem on the front gate of the palatial compound displays in bright gold
leaf the emblem of the Royal House of H
amooj: a date palm tree, a crescent moon and a scimitar, hovering over a head. Viewed close up, the head does not bear a pleased expression, doubtless owing to its having been decapitated by the above scimitar.

Historically speaking, the head belonged to one Raliq "The Unwise" al-Sawah, who, one night in 1740 or 1742 (historians differ on the precise date), attempted to usurp the authority of Sheik Abdulabdu
llah "The Wise" Walfa al-Hamooj,
founder of the Wasabi dynasty and future king. According to legend—now-taught as historical fact in the country's schools—Rafiq's severed head attempted to apologize to the sheik for its perfidy, and begged to be reattached. Sheik Abdulabdullah, however, was in no mood to hear these entreaties. Had he not treated Raliq like his own brother? He ordered the still-blubbering mouth to be stuffed with camel dung and the head tossed to the desert hyenas.

The event is commemorated every year on th
e anniversary of the Perfidy of
Raliq. Adult male citizens of the kingdom are required to place a token amount of camel dung on the tongue, as a symbol of the king's authority and a reminder of the bitter fate that befalls those who attempt to und
ermine it. In practice, only H
amooji royal palace staff and the most conservative of Wasabis re
-
enact the ritual literally. A hundred years ago. an enterprising confectioner in the capital city of kalla devised a nougat that gave off the telltale aroma of the original article, enough to fool the
m
ukfelleen,
the religious police who sternly enforce the precepts of the
Book of H
amooj.
Wasabis could pop one onto the tongue and walk about ail day with a showy air of piety. Alas, the trickery was discovered, and the unfortunate candy-maker forfeited not only his license to manufacture sweets but his tongue, right hand and left foot. On assuming the throne in 1974. King Tallulah decreed that a symbolic piece of dung would suffice. This ca
used much grumbling among the W
asabi mullahs and
Mu
kfelleen
but vast relief among the adult male population.

A few minutes past midnight on the crisp fall night of September 28, the gates on which the royal emblem was mounted swung open and let out th
e car driven by Nazrah al-Bawad,
wife of Prince Bawad.

Nazrah's exit would have gone more smoothly had she spent more time behind the wheel of an automobile.
W
asabi women were not permitted to drive. However, being both enterprising and spirited, Nazrah had, since she was a teenager, been begging various males, starling with her brother Tamsa, to teach her the mysteries of steering, brake and gas. Taking the wheel of their father's Cadillac in the open deserts of Wasabia was not so complicated. In Washington, she would importune (that i
s. bribe) reluctant Khalil, her chauffeur-bodyguard-minder,
to let her drive on certain half-deserted streets, and in the parking lots of such royal hangouts as Neiman Marcus and Saks fifth Avenue. She had progressed to the point of almost being able to park a car without leaving most of the paint on the fenders of the ones in front and behind. Khalil had. in the process, earned a reputation within the residential household as a driver of less than perfect reliability.

Here, tonight, Nazrah found herself maneuvering with difficulty. Exiting the gate, she sheared off the rearview minor and left a scrape down the side of the $85,000 car that would cause the most stoic of insurance adjusters to weep. Her intention had been to turn left, toward the city of Washington. But, seeing the headlights of a car coming up the country lane from that direction, she panicked and turned right, deeper into the deciduous suburb of McLean.

In truth, N
azrah was not thinking clearly. In truth, she was drunk. Drunk, as one might explain to a magistrate, with an explanation.

After more than twenty years in Washington, her husband, the prince, had announced his intention of re
turning to Wasabia. along with N
azrah and his three other wives. His uncle, the king, had decided to reward his decades of smooth service by annointing his nephew foreign minister. This was a big promotion that came with an even bigger palace and share of Wasabia's oil royalties.

The news
was less than joyous to Nazrah,
the youngest, prettiest and most independent-minded of the prince's wives. She did not want to return to Wasabia. Her years of living in America—even under the watchful eye of Shazzik, Prince Bawad's stern, neutered (so it was rumored) chamberlain—had left Nazrah with an appreciation of the role of women in Western society. She was in no hurry to return to a country where she would have to hide her lovely features under a veil, and in even less of a hurry to return to a country where women were still being publicly (logged, stoned to death
and having their heads cut off
in a site in the capital city so accustomed to the spectacle that it had earned the nickname "Chop-Chop Square."

Nazrah had been planning to inform the prince of her dec
ision to remain in the United St
ates that night after he returned home from his dinner with the Waldorf Group, a very influenti
al group indeed, consisting of e
x-U.S. presidents, ex-secretaries of state and defense, ex-directors of the Central Intelligence Agency, excellent folks, all—and what contacts they had! Since its founding ten years before in a suite at the Waldorf
-Astoria Motel in New York City,
the Waldorf Group had invested over $5 billion of Wasabi royal money in various projects. This made for close relationships all around. Many of the Waldo
rf's board of directors also sat
on the boards of the companies in which all the royal Wasabi money was being invested.

Today's Waldorf board meeting concerned a desalination project. Desalination was always a hot topic in Wasabia, owing to its geographical peculiarity. The country was entirely landlocked. Its lack of a single foot of shoreline was a grating historical vestige, the result of a moment of bibulous pique on the part of Winston Churchill when he drew up Wasabia's modern borders on a cocktail napkin al his dub in London. King Tallulah had been uncooperative during the peace conference, so with a few strokes of his fountain pen, Churchill had denied him seaports. Thus do brief brandy-saturated moments determine the fate of empires and the course of history.

Wasabia's population was booming, owing to the fact that every man could lake up to four wives. You were hardly considered manly unless you had twenty children. As a result, it was an increasingly young and thirsty nation.

At the board meeting, Prince Bawad told the assembled Wald
orf directors, dear friends all,
that the kingdom would be pleased to invest S1.2 billion with the group. The group would in turn hire the necessary Texans—kindred desert people—to build more desalination plants and the requisite pipel
ines into perennially parched W
asabia. At the critical moment during the meeting, the chairman of the board, an
ex-president of the United Stat
es, would scribble a number on a piece of paper and slide it over to Prince Bawad. The number on the piece of paper represented Prince Bawad's "participation"—such a nicer word than "skim" or "take"—in the profits.

This ritual usually went smoot
hly. But this time Prince Bawad, who was building a 150,
000-square-foot ski lodge in Jack
son Hole, felt that the sum was well, inadequate. He stared at
the ex-president.

They had a good relationship, the ex-president and Prince Bawad. The former had been a guest, while preside
nt, at Bawad's present hundred-t
housand-square-foot ski lodge in Aspen. Normally, he would have scratched out the number and written a slightly bigger one on the paper. But this time he did not. There had
been grumbling among the Waldorf
ians. The kingdom had been getting a bit frisky lately
in its demands. Business was, af
ter all. business.

The ex-president merely smiled back, finally. Bawad, wi
th a trace of a scowl, nodded hi
s agreement to the number on the paper. The ex-president beamed and made a little joke about what a tough businessman the prince was. The meeting was adjourned, the doors opened and in came the refreshments, and such refreshments. It was a very pleasant group with which to be associated, the Waldorf. Never in the field of human profit was so much made by so few for doing so little.

B
ack
at
the
residence.
Nazrah took a
nip from the prince's bott
le of 150-vear-old French brandy
-
. When, at eleven o'clock, the prince still had not returned, she took another nip. Then another. By the time the prince did arrive home at 11:40, she was feeling no pain.

The speech that she had so carefully rehearsed tumbled off her benumbed tongue without eloquence or coherence, and heavily redolent of Napoleon branch
-
. The prince, moonfaced, goateed and imperious, and still fuming over his inadequate participation in the desalinat
ion project, brusquely ordered N
azrah to her room.

A late-night argument between an indulged royal prince and a tipsy junior wife is not an occasion of ideal dialogue. It det
eriorated into shouts and terminat
ed all too quickly and dramatically with the prince dealing
Nazrah
a cuff across the chops with a meaty, cigar-smelling
hand. With that, he stormed off,
loudly cursing Western corruption, to the bedroom of one of his less troublesome wives.

Nazrah
, smarting and furious, went to her bedroom but not to bed.
She hurled a few things into a
Hermes overnight bag and made her way to the garage, where she could choose from eleven cars. (The prince loved to drive and was known persona
lly to most of the Virginia stat
e troopers.) She decided not to take the Maserati. Lamborghini, Ma
ybach or Ferrari, these having t
oo many buttons o
f uncertain provenance on the d
ash, and settled instead on the Mercedes in w
hich Khalil usually chauffeured her,
with whose controls she was quite familiar, including the special button on the walnut dash that overrode the
guards' control of the front gat
e.

So it was that
Nazrah
found herself roaring out the gates past alarmed guards, with the grim Shazzik and two of his men, fierce Warga tribesmen in blue suits, in hot pursuit.

But where to go? She'd missed the turn to Washington.

After nearly colliding with several trees and going through a succession of red lights, she found herself turning north on Route 123 at a speed triple
the legal limit, a fact not lost on Virginia state trooper H
armon G. Gilletts.

It was at this point, with Trooper Gillett
s's red-white-and-blue flashing
lights and urgent siren behind her. that she saw the sign announcing
george bush center for intelligence
. Any port in a storm.

The sight of a car approaching at high
speed, followed closely by a st
ate policeman in apparent hot pursuit, is not a welcome one these days at U.S. government in
stallations. By the time Nazrah
had reached the front gale of the CIA headquarters, a steel barrier had swiftly risen up from the cement. This abruptly and loudly terminated her forward progress, in the process activating so many airbags inside her vehicl
e that
the princess disappeared from sight altogether, concussed into unconsciousness.

As Nazrah dreamed of turquoise antelopes living over a boundless black desert, pursued by giant scarlet crabs with snapping golden claws—adrenaline, cognac and the punch of air bags produce the most vivid visions—the United
State
s government was waking to the reality of an incident of epic dimension.

FLORENCE
of
ARABIA

CHAPTER
ONE

W
hile Nazrah was still dreaming of psychedelic antelopes, the CIA
guards and Virginia state trooper Harmon G. Gilletts, weapons drawn, examined their catch through the ca
r's windows. All they could see,
amid the myriad air bags, were two distinctly feminine hands, the one on the left bearing enough diamonds to put all of their children combined through Ivy League colleges and law school.

BOOK: Florence of Arabia
6.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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