Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE), April 2018
Miguel looked into the eyes of his opponent and knew he was in serious trouble. The man’s stoic face betrayed nothing as he sat across from him waiting for Miguel’s move, casually holding the object of Miguel’s demise in his hands. His team had been systematically eliminated; first Alberto, then Maria and finally Alex. He was the only one left. He should have backed out when he could; when he had a chance; but he didn’t. Now it was too late—he had to see it through. A bead of sweat glistened on his forehead as he summed up the situation. He couldn’t see a way out; somehow he knew this is it. He could not win, and his opponent, Fayad al Musan, somehow knew it; knew he had the upper hand. Miguel moved forward in the chair, trying to disguise his nervousness, not taking his eyes off Fayad, who now wore a smirk on his face. He knows. He knows he’s in the driver’s seat. He knows he has me beaten.
It’s now or never, Miguel thought. I have to make my move.
“Call,” said Miguel.
Fayad laid his cards on the table.
“Three kings,” he said triumphantly.
“Damn,” said Miguel as he slammed his two pair of queens and tens on the table. “That’s four hands in a row.”
“My lucky day,” said Fayed as he raked in the pile of coins on the table, amounting to less than $5.
“Another round?” said Miguel. “Sometime, your luck’s gonna run out.”
“Sure,” replied Fayad, scanning the table for the other players’ acknowledgements. Alberto, Maria and Alex tossed in their quarter, followed by Miguel and Fayad.
The door flew open. A man, dressed in the traditional thawb, burst in and scurried over to Fayad, whispering in his ear. Fayad’s face took on a look of surprise as he listened to his aid.
“Looks like our quarry is on the move,” he said as he got up from the table. “Let’s go.”
The sounds of multiple chair legs scraping on the tiled floor permeated the space as Miguel and his team got to their feet, grabbed their satchels and followed Fayed out the door.
“So, what’s the scoop?” asked Miguel.
“We believe he’s heading to Dubai for the transaction,” said Fayed. “My aid’s brother, Emil, says he’s driving a white Toyota Land Cruiser and he is tailing him now.”
They entered the elevator and the cab swiftly descended to the parking level. The doors opened and Fayed led them to the Land Rover Discovery HSE that was already running with his aid holding the door open for Fayed. Miguel hopped into the passenger seat while the other three team members squeezed into the rear seat, Alberto and Alex flanking Maria. Fayed crushed the accelerator, and the vehicle leaped forward, causing squeals from the tyres on the acrylic floor coating. They emerged into the blinding afternoon sun, reflecting from the glass facade of the Etihad Towers across the street, as both Fayed and Miguel donned their sunglasses and pulled down the SUV’s sun shades. Fayed turned right onto Corniche Road and when he reached the traffic circle, traversed it until he was heading north-east in the opposite direction toward Highway E10. Fayed punched the voice button on the steering wheel and said, “Emil.” The disembodied voice said calling Emil.
“Emil,” the voice came through the vehicle’s speakers.
“Fayed. Where are you now?”
“Heading toward E12. I am three cars back from the Toyota, crawling through traffic.”
“OK, we have just left the hotel and will catch up with you soon. Do you have a plate number in case we lose him?”
“Sure do.” Emil recited the number.
“Thanks,” said Fayed as he pressed the end button.
Miguel jotted down the number on a receipt he pulled out of his wallet as they made their way through the crowded street, Fayed passing cars where he could to the sound of angry motorists’ horns. They reached the E12, known as the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Sayed Highway, and turned north-east onto the four-lane thoroughfare. It was easier now for Fayed to make up time and catch up with Emil, using his horn and flashing headlamps to get drivers from hogging the outside lane. Before long, Fayed recognised Emil’s blue Camry and pulled in front of him. He saw the white Land Cruiser three cars ahead and stayed in his lane. The highway turned east and passed by the iconic red roof structure of Ferrari World, a theme park boasting some of the fastest roller coaster rides in the world, then turned onto the E10, heading north-east again. Occasionally, the SUV changed lanes and back again after passing a slower vehicle. Fayad maintained the number of cars between him and the Land Cruiser because there were few turnoffs and little likelihood of losing him. As suspected, the Land Cruiser turned onto the E11, Sheikh Maktoum Bin Rashid Road, which led to Dubai.
“He’s slowing and pulling off,” Miguel advised Fayad.
“Where the hell is he going?” said Alberto from the back seat.
“I’ll drive past and pull over down the road. Keep your eye on him,” said Fayad.
The phone rang and the dash display showed Emil was calling.
“Yes Emil,” Fayad said after he punched the talk button.
“Do you want me to follow him?” said Emil.
“No, we’re pulling over to see where he goes. He may have made the tail.”
The Land Cruiser pulled off the highway onto the sand and drove to the top of the dune, then disappeared over it. Fayad slammed the Land Rover into reverse, backed up to where the Toyota had turned off and followed his trail up the dune. Everyone’s mouths dropped when they got to the top. It was one of the Dune Bashing assembly areas and there must have been twenty or more white Toyota Land Cruisers.
“Holy cow!” said Miguel. “How are we going to find him amongst that lot?”
“I think that’s him,” Fayad said as he pointed to one of the Land Cruisers about to disappear over a dune. He selected all-wheel drive and mashed the accelerator, tearing down the side of the dune and up the other. It was the only vehicle moving of the myriad of white Toyotas, so it had to be the target vehicle.
“Maybe a diversion if he is in contact with one of the other vehicles,” Miguel pointed out.
“Maybe,” said Fayad and punched the voice command again, summoning Emil.
“Emil, I guess he is making a run for it, but there are twenty or more Land Cruisers here. Stay put and follow him if he comes back that way.”
“OK,” Emil said and Fayad severed the connection. They reached the top of the dune and saw the Toyota sliding down the other side of it and clambering up another, wheels throwing sand in all directions as the driver fought for any form of traction. Fayad punched the accelerator and the powerful Land Rover HSE’s engine churned up sand as it flew down the side of the dune in pursuit. Their downhill motion and the Toyota’s uphill climb caused them to gain on the vehicle. As the Toyota reached the top and faded from view, Miguel read the licence plate, comparing to the one he had written.
“That’s him,” he said.
“Good,” was Fayad’s reply. “Make sure your seat belts are tight,” he shouted above the roar of the straining engine.
They reached the top of the dune as the Land Cruiser was tackling another one, this time clambering up the side, rather than tackling it head on. The vehicle seemed to stall with all four wheels churning but eventually made it to the top and ran along the crest to Fayad’s right. Fayad followed suit and tried to shorten the distance by traversing the side of the dune, but the centre of gravity of the high-riding SUV was such that the vehicle began to tip.
“Right wheel!” Miguel shouted as he reached for the steering wheel, but too late. The Land Rover’s right-side wheels dug into the soft sand and it toppled.
“Hang on!” shouted Fayad as the vehicle rolled onto its side, then roof and back on its wheels in the dune’s trough, engine still running.
“Everyone OK?” Miguel said, looking around the cabin.
“We’re fine,” came the chorus from the back.
“No offence,” said Miguel, opening his door and getting out, “but let me drive.”
Fayad was still shaking as he willingly handed over the reins to Miguel. They exchanged seats and Miguel selected drive, stomped on the accelerator pedal and continued the pursuit. When they reached the top of the dune, the Land Cruiser was nowhere in sight.
“Damn!” Miguel cursed as they scanned the horizon for the elusive SUV.
“There!” shouted Maria. “Three o’clock.”
Miguel saw the vehicle top another dune, then he mashed the gas pedal and tore down one side and up the other. Each time the vehicle was on the verge of tipping, Miguel turned the wheel in the same direction, much as one does in a skid, preventing the tip. Several other white Toyota’s filled the landscape making it challenging to keep an eye on the correct one. But, with the Land Rover’s superior power and traction, they managed to lessen the distance between them.
A sound coming from behind them drew Alberto’s attention, and he turned to look.
“There’s a helicopter coming up from behind,” he said.
The helicopter roared above them, narrowly missing the Land Rover’s roof racks.
“Holy crap!” said Miguel. “He’s buzzing us.”
The helicopter banked and turned, then headed straight for them.
“He’s crazy,” said Alberto. “Does he think he can win a fight with over two tons of iron?”
The occupants instinctively ducked as the skids of the helo barely missed the windshield as it flew over them.
“Son of a bitch,” said Alex, “he is crazy.”
Miguel kept on with his pursuit of the Land Cruiser. The helicopter passed over their heads once again and flew toward the Toyota.
“He’s landing,” said Fayad.
The helo descended to within a yard of the ground, stirring up clouds of sand with its rotors. Three men exited the Toyota and ran toward the helicopter, shielding their faces. As they reached the open door and clambered onto the skid, an arm extended, grabbed them and hauled them inside the cabin.
“Son of a bitch,” Miguel said. “I guess we’ve lost him now.”
“We found him before, we will find him again,” said Alberto.
“Let’s get back to the hotel,” said Fayad. “We should check out and move our operations to Dubai.”
* * * *
Earlier, Miguel and the team had flown into Dubai after tracking the abductors of a sheikh’s son from Costa Rica. They met with Fayad al Musan, a member of the UAE’s newly-formed intelligence agency DarkMatter, patterned after, and trained by, members of the CIA. DarkMatter covered matters of security from cyber to terrorism. When they discovered the abductors had landed in Abu Dhabi, they drove there and checked into the plush Emirates Palace Hotel, considered one of the most expensive hotels in the world.