The Midas Touch – thriller extract

The workboat had brought the body to the drilling platform Kansas City, so that it could be taken to the shore by helicopter. The corpse lay on a stretcher in the shadow of the drilling derrick. Someone had covered it with a cotton sheet.

In the hot sunshine the white-helmeted men watching the helicopter arrive could see far beyond it the Company’s shore base at Sitra, the huge de-gasifying plant and the tank farm, like toys, and beyond, the yellow, ragged flare-off of the sulphuretted hydrogen separator. Nothing else but sea and sand, unless the eye followed the shoreline to the far-off minarets and mud walls of the city, the great new apartment blocks and the tall square building of the Al Falaj, shimmering above the heat mirage. Someone brought a can and splashed water over the cotton sheet. At temperatures of over a hundred, decay sets in rapidly.

As the heavy beat of the helicopter became audible no one spoke, but waited tensely until the craft drifted sideways between the lattice towers, turned round and settled gracefully on its pneumatic floats in the centre of the platform above their heads.

The passenger door opened, and a man in tropical police uniform of khaki tunic, shorts and stockings stepped out and came down the steps to the main deck, carefully holding his gloves and malacca cane of office in his left hand. George Grant, the Commissioner, had served all his career in hot countries. It had been a distinguished career and he lived for his work, a confirmed bachelor, a strict disciplinarian, a man who liked rules and regulations. Cold grey eyes looked out beneath the braided hat; a grey military moustache gave emphasis to a firm mouth. Not an engaging face, perhaps, hut Grant was well-liked as well as respected. Walter O’Connor, the production manager of the Jubayl Oil Company, went to meet him.

‘I’m sure glad we could find you so quickly, George.’ he said hurriedly. ‘For Jesus’ sake, tell me I’m wrong. He looks like the other guy, but I scarcely knew him. Just met him the once, when he came here yesterday.’ He took Grant to the sheeted form on the stretcher, from which little trickles of water crept out across the hot metal, to dry immediately. ‘You knew him well, of course?’

‘Did I not?’ The chief of police bent down and folded back the sheet, looking down at the young, bearded face. Someone had closed the eyes. Grant undid the buttons of the qamees and examined the wound in the left breast, washed empty of blood, and pale. He felt under the sheet and brought out the right arm. On the third finger of the brown hand was the deep mark of a heavy ring. The nails had been bitten almost to the quick.

Grant sighed. ‘There’s no doubt whatever, I’m afraid, although his uncle’s ring is missing—which doesn’t surprise me. It was an expensive item. You’re right, Walter, it’s Sheikh Yusif. I ought to know; he was my boss. Not a bad chap, either.’ He replaced the sheet slowly, thinking, and straightened, looking at the American. ‘The Emir will have to find a new Head of Security.’

O’Connor swore, a complicated Texan oath that did little to relieve his mind. ‘He’s not going to like this, is he?’

Grant smiled grimly. ‘You can say that again. He’s a wise and good ruler, and I have a lot of respect for him, even when he appoints his favourite nephew, without any experience at all, to run his security services. After all, it’s the custom in these parts. But don’t forget he’s a Bedouin. He’ll calm down, but not before he’s made it clear to everyone that the murderer’s got to be found, alive, and soon. And I’m afraid that’s going to involve you as well as me, Walter.’

‘But for Christ’s sake, we can’t be held responsible. Come down here, Martin.’ The helicopter pilot, who was still standing beside his machine, came slowly down the steps. ‘Tell Mr Grant what happened when you took the Sheikh ashore yesterday.’

‘He’s already told me,’ said Grant, ‘but I want to hear it again, now I know who is involved. Shall we go inside, Walter?’ He took off his hat and wiped his sweating bald head. ‘And could you get the cadaver moved to some place where it’s cool? The lab, perhaps. After we’ve had a talk I’d like to take it back in the chopper, if I may. It’ll be simpler than lowering it down to the launch.’

‘O.K.’ O’Connor spoke to two of the roustabouts, who picked up the stretcher. Then he took Grant to one of the ground-floor offices of the living quarters building, known simply as ‘the quarters’.

This was a two-storeyed construction placed across one corner of the triangular platform, leaving space at the sides for access to the ‘bows’ and the steel housing through which one of the lattice legs passed, towering up two hundred feet above the deck with an even greater length jutting downwards through the fabric of the platform till it reached the spud-cans imbedded deep in the sea floor. There was one of these legs at each corner of the rig. From the middle of one side, the drilling derrick stood up like a miniature Eiffel Tower, with its top almost as high as those of the slender legs.

The main building was air-conditioned, as were the three decks of crew quarters, machinery and stores below. As they went indoors, Grant could hear behind him the interminable work of a big exploration platform beginning again—a ‘string’ of drill pipe was being raised, the cranes were shifting stores, stacks of five-inch pipe were being strapped down to the deck. O’Connor went to the cold-cabinet in the office and brought out bottles of grape juice. ‘Sorry,’ he said with a wry smile, ‘but as you know American platforms are dry. And that goes for me, too.’

Grant threw his hat on the desk and sat down, wiping his face. As Grayson and the production manager drew out chairs he looked calculatingly at the young pilot’s sullen face. He wasn’t going to be a good witness, that was for sure. Grant shook cigarettes out of a pack and offered them. Grayson took one and lit it, sitting on the edge of his chair, tight-lipped.

‘Go on, Grayson. Let’s hear it all again, if you don’t mind.’

‘O.K. I was in, the canteen at Sitra, doing damn all—’

‘This was yesterday afternoon. What time?’

‘The Ayrab was late. Didn’t turn up on time at three, but ten to four. Kept us waiting. Couldn’t be bothered to stick to schedule, I suppose. It’s just like them.’

‘He’s dead, Martin,’ said O’Connor. ‘Just tell your story.’

‘Well, Mr O’Connor called me—I was kitted out—and I met this Sheikh and took him to the chopper, standing all ready on the heliport. Helped him to get in—he wasn’t very quick on his feet—and strapped him into the rear passenger seat. Mr O’Connor in front, with me.’

‘Didn’t he have guards with him?’ asked Grant sharply.

‘I didn’t see them.’

O’Connor explained. ‘Sheikh Yusif Sent them away in his car, as soon as he’d got out. I thought it was for petrol or something, but later—well, you’ll see why.’

‘How many guards?’

‘There was only one,’ said O’Connor, ‘an ugly-looking thug, pock-marked, carrying a machine carbine across his lap. Just him and the chauffeur.’

‘I see. Well, Mr Grayson?’

‘I flew them there, checked my instruments, and went down to the canteen for a Coke. I talked to some of the off-shift boys, and about an hour later I was told the Sheikh was getting ready to leave, but Mr O’Connor would be staying on the rig until I got back. Apparently, the Sheikh wanted to be shown one of the well-heads, number ten, and then be landed at the gates of the old oil camp, where his car would be waiting.’

‘Did you land on the well-head?’

‘Sure, he said he wanted to see the control room. He had a look round, didn’t say much, and I flew him to the camp.’

‘Where did you touch down, exactly?’

‘On the concrete road that goes through the camp, just short of where his car was waiting. The road is covered in sand but O.K. for a heavy car and no problem for the chopper, of course. The guard came to the aircraft and helped the Sheikh down, took him to the car, which left in a hurry; I waited until they’d gone, because of the dust the chopper raises, then flew back to the rig to collect Mr O’Connor.’

‘Which way did the car go?’

‘To Jubayl.’

Grant turned to O’Connor. ‘Did he say why he wanted to land there?’

‘He’d got an appointment in the, city, and it was quicker. The well-head is only eight miles out to sea, opposite the camp, so it did save time, if he had to see what a well-head looked like. Which is what he said.’

‘I see. Grayson, did you see the dead man’s face just now?’

‘Not now. You’d covered it up. But I had earlier.’

‘It was your passenger?’

‘Yes, I suppose, so.’

‘Why aren’t you sure?’

‘Oh heck, I am sure, though there’s so little to go by. He wore dark glasses—most of them do—so I hadn’t seen his eyes, even if I’d wanted to. Then there was his beard. And they all dress the same.’

‘You’d never met him previously?’

‘I’d never met him, no.’ He caught Grant’s curious glance, and went on hurriedly, ‘And there was this ring. I saw you looking at his hand. Well, he had a big emerald ring on his finger. Always fidgeting with it. Turning it round, looking at it. Thinking how much it’d cost, I suppose,’ he added, half to himself.

‘You mean it was loose.’

‘Sure thing.’

‘It was given him by his uncle, the Emir, as a sign of special trust and affection,’ said Grant, idly. He was giving himself time to think. When he spoke to Grayson his voice was friendly. ‘You do realise that the well-platform you landed him on is the one under which his body was found?’

Grayson burst out, ‘Of course I realise it. But it’s a coincidence, for Christ’s sake. Look here, it happened just like I told you. What d’you think I did, knocked him. off and dumped him in the drink because I didn’t like his face?’ He was trembling with anger and fear as he faced the impassive Grant. ‘You’ve got nothing on me, mister. You ask those two in the car—they know. Damn it, they were there when we landed. The driver and the guard. Ask them.’

‘I’d like to,’ said Grant, ‘but they’re missing. Have been since yesterday afternoon when they took Sheikh Yusif to Sitra. After they left there to go and pick him up at the oil camp nobody’s seen hide or hair of them—except you. Nor the car, either. Vanished.’ He finished his drink, tipped the last piece of ice into his mouth and crunched it between his teeth.

The young man was on his feet. ‘Oh no! For Pete’s sake, you’ve got to find them. Otherwise it’s just me—is that what you mean?’

Grant nodded. He leaned back in his chair, watchful, the cold grey eyes on Grayson’s face. ‘Tell me,’ he said casually, ‘had you any reason to dislike Sheikh Yusif?’

The pilot started. He sat down slowly and composed his face.

‘No, not ‘specially. It’s just that I don’t like these Ayrab playboys. Never worked in their lives, and they can order us about because they’re related to the Ruler. It was that way with you, wasn’t it? He was your boss. You had to do what young Yusif wanted?’ He felt the grey eyes probing, and said sullenly, ‘I told you I’d never seen him before.’

‘I can confirm that, George,’ put in O’Connor. ‘I introduced him to the Sheikh, and it was obvious they’d never met before.’

‘It doesn’t mean, necessarily, that Grayson hadn’t got some reason for hating him,’ said Grant mildly.

‘But why’ve you started this hare?’ asked the production manager angrily. ‘You’ve got nothing on the boy.’

‘No, I haven’t, and hope I never will. But it’s like this, and you’ve both got to understand. The dead man was Head of Security; under the Minister for Home Affairs, Sheikh Omar, who is the Ruler’s cousin and a very tough hombre. I’ve got to ring him—should have done it already—and tell him what’s happened. At the moment I’ve got men out on all the roads, trying to find Sheikh Yusif and his two attendants. Now I’ve got to say Yusif has been found, dead, and he was found at the foot of one of the JOC well-jackets, which he’d visited yesterday with a JOC pilot, who is the last person known to have seen the Sheikh. The Minister will be under extreme pressure from the Ruler to pull in all possible suspects and put them through it.’ He held up his hand as O’Connor started to speak. ‘So if there is anything to come out, Grayson, this is the time to tell me.’

‘I’m a United States citizen, God damn it!’ shouted the pilot. ‘He can’t touch me.’

‘Yes he can, son,’ said O’Connor. ‘Nothing to stop him. So, George?’

‘So I want to be able to tell him at once that Grayson is held here, under guard, while I search his flat and dig up any information which might throw light on what’s happened. If I can give Grayson a clean bill the Minister may agree to leave him alone for the time being, especially if those two turn up and confirm his story.’ He held out his hand. ‘Your keys, Mr Grayson, please.’

‘Give them, Martin.’

The pilot slowly felt in his pocket and produced a key-ring. ‘The flat is on the sixth floor of the Arab Bank building, number six-o-four. But you’ll be wasting your time, Mr Grant.’

‘I hope so. And now tell me why you disliked Sheikh Yusif.’

The young man stared at him for a moment. Then he said angrily, ‘I suppose your gumshoes will find out anyway. O.K. I hated his guts. But I didn’t kill him.’

‘Why did you hate his guts?’

‘He took my girl.’

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