Authors: PJ Skinner
Sam Harris Series
© 2014 Pippa Jeffcock. All rights reserved.
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This book is dedicated to my friend Walter without whom I would never have been able to say ‘I have written a novel’ instead of ‘I am writing a novel’. Also to my father for reviewing the manuscript with such care and attention.
‘They say that diamonds are a girl’s best friend. Are you planning to sleep with Black to get yours?’
Sam Harris looked across the table at the drunken shell of a man sitting opposite. She had waited a good hour for Pat Murphy to turn up at the hotel and when he arrived, he had barely acknowledged her presence. Instead he headed straight to a small serving hatch in the corner of the room, which opened onto a bar. He ordered a large whisky without asking her if she would like anything.
Murphy's hand shook as he raised a cigarette to his mouth, his fingers yellow and gnarled.
Had he really asked her if she was planning to sleep with her new boss, Adrian Black, CEO of Gemsite Diamonds? What sort of an interview was this? Maybe it was her tight jacket? Being unemployed was fattening; all those chocolate biscuits in the kitchen.
Earlier she had squeezed into her dark grey interview suit. She had not worn it for a while and it only just buttoned up over her newly plump body. She rummaged around in the bottom of the wardrobe for her only pair of high heels, which she knew were half a size too small for her big feet. Grabbing her handbag, she tottered down the stairs and rushed to the bus stop.
She arrived at Paddington limping in her tight shoes and found the Lancaster Hotel in a grubby back street behind the mainline station. It was a Victorian house converted into a cheap hotel. It had seen better days.
Sam pressed the grimy electric buzzer on the reception desk more in hope than expectation. She heard a faint ringing at the back of the building. A decrepit woman wheezed into view.
‘Good afternoon,’ said Sam. ‘Please can you show me the lounge? I'm meeting someone.’
The woman said nothing but pointed at a doorway before shrinking back into the gloom. The filthy carpet in the lounge made Sam’s skin crawl. She lowered herself gingerly into a greasy, stained armchair and waited.
Eventually Murphy arrived. He dumped his luggage in a corner of the room, ordered a drink and then slumped down opposite Sam. He smelt of whisky and cigarettes. She steeled herself for an hour of tricky technical questions. He didn’t ask any. Instead he kept looking at her breasts. Was it the whisky or was he always like this? She refused to rise to the bait.
‘What can you tell me about Mr Black?’ she asked. ‘I hear he's a very interesting man.’
‘Adrian Black is an alcoholic, chain-smoking, megalomaniac, obsessed with diamonds and money. He hasn’t a grain of pity or empathy in his being. And he likes girls who look like boys.’
‘I see.’ After fifteen years of working as an exploration geologist in remote sites, Sam was used to eccentric bosses, so this was nothing new. ‘When will I get to meet him?’
‘You’re to travel to South Africa, where he’ll see you in Johannesburg before you fly on to Mondongo, the capital of Tamazia. He’ll brief you and read you the riot act, as is his custom. You’ll meet Marybelle too, I imagine.’
‘His girlfriend. She’s a Filipino cleaner who worked in the Gemsite laundry before Black promoted her to girlfriend. She replaced his first wife, who produced female triplets. Not a good move when you're married to a man like that.’ He laughed.
‘And what do you do at Gemsite, Mr Murphy?’
‘I worked at Kardo, one of the company’s diamond mines in north-eastern Tamazia. It’s a shithole. But I won’t be going back. I’ve been fired.’
‘Fired?’ Sam tried to sound shocked.
‘Yes fired for no reason at all and that bastard Black said he wouldn’t pay me what he owed in salary unless I interviewed you. That’s the only reason I'm here. I don’t know why he’s employing a fucking woman. The other lads won’t like it.’
She was not surprised by this comment. It was 1998 not 1958, but she still always started from zero in the eyes of her male colleagues, whatever her role in an exploration company. No one was the least bit interested in her abilities or experience when she arrived on site. It was her gender that concerned people. She tried not to care, but fighting alone was hard when she was far from home in dangerous and isolated locations.
An almost full ashtray sat on the tatty old table in front of her. She wrinkled her nose in disgust, pushing it as far away as she could.
‘Oh, I’m sure they’ll get used to me,’ she said. ‘I don’t bite.’
‘Why does he want you out there?’ Murphy sat back in his rickety chair, as if expecting a long explanation.
‘The position is called New Projects Manager. It’s based in Mondongo. I’ll be living there most of the time. The lads at Kardo will see very little of me.’ Thank God. Murphy looked her up and down, leering.
Instinctively she crossed her arms over her breasts.
‘I can’t understand why a woman like you would go to Tamazia. Mondongo’s a slum, and people in the rural areas are still fighting a de-facto civil war.’
‘I've been told that the capital is quite safe,’ she said. ‘I'm taking my tennis racket.’
The bravado sounded hollow, even to her, but she desperately needed this job. Being unemployed on a regular basis was par for the course as an exploration geologist. But even when there was work available, as a woman, Sam got the tail-end jobs in the remotest sites with the worst pay. The job in Mondongo was manna from heaven.
Murphy snorted. ‘Tennis? Ha! You’ll be lucky. It’s not a bloody holiday camp. If you want to survive, don’t answer back to Black. And don’t glare at him like that with those feline green eyes. He likes subservience best. I should know. I’m off to bed now.'
He staggered from his seat to the bar. Without a backward glance, she was dismissed.
‘Thank you. Enjoy your freedom,’ said Sam, with no trace of irony.
Am I doing the right thing? Sam was on a flight to Johannesburg, South Africa, to meet her new boss, Adrian Black, before going to Tamazia, a country on the verge of civil war. There were far more pitfalls to this job than were first apparent when she read the advertisement in the Evening Standard newspaper for a ‘
New Projects Manager required to work in a diamond mining company in Africa’.
She had sent her résumé by fax and had been invited to a first interview in a derelict part of Vauxhall, which looked like one of London’s last remaining bombsites from World War II.
A small Asian man with a shiny comb-over had answered the door of a building resembling an air-raid shelter.
‘Are you Sam? Good, good,’ he said without waiting for an answer. ‘Come in, won’t you? I’m sorry it’s not very luxurious around here.’
‘Gosh, um, it’s fine, really.’
‘Let’s sit in here, shall we?’
He led her into a glass-sided office which contained a metal desk and two folding chairs. ‘My name is Mr Shah. I'm the logistics manager for Gemsite in London. Please sit down’
‘Thank you. Nice to meet you, Mr Shah.’
As they both sat down, the metal chairs screeched on the floor.
‘So,’ said Shah, ‘where should we start? I don’t think I need to ask you any technical questions and anyway I wouldn’t understand the answers. The CEO likes your résumé and he has asked me to see if you're suitable for the job.
Mr Shah informed her that the job was with Gemsite, a diamond mining company based in Mondongo, the capital of Tamazia in West Africa. The perks were single accommodation and a company car, and, the best bit, a large tax-free salary.
The size of the pay packet was the main reason that Sam was travelling on this flight and had not been put off by the next part of the conversation with Mr Shah.
‘I expect you have questions about Tamazia?’ he said. ‘Did you know that the country has been at war with itself for nearly forty years?’
‘Yes, I saw a documentary about it and it does come up on the news sometimes.’
‘Well, I think it’s important that you know something of the history before you consider taking a job there. Tamazia won its independence following the collapse of the Portuguese empire at the end of the 1950s. Within months, the PPFM and MARFO were fighting each other for control of the diamond mines, which were the source of all income and power in the country.’
‘I know that MARFO are the rebels. But who are the PPFM?’
‘You are right about MARFO. The PPFM are the People’s Popular Front of Tamazia. The civil war between them went on for thirty years until a temporary peace was brokered and elections could be held. The PPFM were the clear winners, but MARFO refused to accept the results or to disband its army. To all intents and purposes, the civil war started up again in the late 1980s and sporadic fighting has gone on ever since. But the capital Mondongo is safe. That is, there has never been any fighting in or near the city.’
‘Will I be able to move around Mondongo and is there a country club or somewhere I can go to relax?’
‘I believe there are some tennis courts but it’s very hot there, about forty degrees. You will have to play at dawn.’
Sam was sure that the tennis courts would turn out to be mythical or at least historical but she still used them to pacify her mother, who took a predictably dim view of Sam’s new job location. Sam was economical with the truth when it came to her parents. She knew the location concerned them and many aspects of this job sounded challenging, especially the CEO
‘Mr Black ’s a dynamic young man,’ said Shah. ‘The same age as you, I think. The company is his and he's the only one who gives orders. He's a little brusque at times.’ Shah looked embarrassed.
Sam knew exactly what he meant. ‘Brusque?’ she said. ‘That’s okay, I can do brusque.’ They both laughed, Shah giggling like a girl as he smoothed out his comb-over.
‘The truth is that Black is a despot and if you want the job you must accept the way he is and fit in with it. Just let him talk. Don’t contradict or interrupt. If he likes you, you will be allowed to speak after a while. It’s up to you. I guess you need the job or you wouldn’t be here.’
That hit the nail right on the head. He continued. ‘Have you worked in a male-dominated environment before? Gemsite has never had a woman in senior management. Does that worry you?’
‘Not in the least Mr Shah. I have worked as the lone professional woman in many projects over the last fifteen years and I have dealt with prejudice of many types. Most people came around to working with me in the end.’
A flight attendant’s hand on Sam’s arm brought her back to the present. She rolled her shoulders to release the tension.
The attendant placed a plastic tray in front of her. ‘Are you all right, dear?’
‘Yes, just miles away. Can I have an apple juice please?’
Sam knew she must learn not to let other people’s prejudices get to her. She tended to deal with it in a passive way that she knew was not healthy, sucking it up while she had to and only showing her steely inner core under extreme circumstances. It was a strategy that made her isolated and lonely at times but she was resilient and still held out the faint hope that her gender would one day become irrelevant.
Her thoughts returned to Vauxhall and Mr Shah. ‘What language do they speak in the office?’ she asked him.
‘In Mondongo everyone speaks English. If you visit the mines you'll find that the expats speak English and the locals speak Portuguese and there is little overlap, with the exception of Jorge Ramos, the mining engineer. I believe you will fly in with him from Johannesburg.’
Sam had picked up some Portuguese in Brazil but she did not mention it. Mr Shah had also asked her if she had worked with alluvial diamond deposits before. She had fudged her way around the truth, which was negative.
For the next few days, she played back the interview in her head, wondering if she had said enough to impress him. But then, to her relief, Mr Shah rang her and set up the interview with Murphy.
After her in-flight lunch Sam slept for a few hours. She woke up with a jolt as the aircraft landed on a blanket of fog so thick that it looked like a snowfield. Had she gone to the Antarctic instead of Johannesburg?
On the airport tarmac, the morning air was chilly and damp. It was winter in South Africa. She hoped that she had the right gear for Tamazia, which was not too far away.
She expected a long queue for customs and immigration, as the border staff were notorious for slowing passengers down as much as they could, looking for an opportunity to get some money from them somehow before they left or to remove something from their luggage as ‘tax’. But the whole process was over very quickly and she left the airport within the hour.
She was collected by a car organised by Mr Shah, in which she was driven at breakneck speed through the fog. The car arrived at Sandton, one of Johannesburg’s wealthier suburbs. She was dropped off at a hotel.
During her registration, the receptionist handed Sam Adrian Black’s telephone number scribbled on the back of a cigarette packet. She would call him straight away in case he had a tight schedule. As soon as she was in her room, she picked up the telephone by the bed, asked the operator for an outside line and then she dialled Black’s number. After a while a sleepy-sounding female voice answered the call.
‘Can I speak to Mr Black, please?’ asked Sam.
There was a long pause followed by a voice laced with disbelief, presumably that anyone should call him so early in the morning. There was muttering in the background.
‘Is that Sam Harris?’
‘Mr Black is still asleep. He will call you when he wakes up.’
The woman hung up the phone before Sam had a chance to say anything else. Having had indications from both Mr Shah and Pat Murphy of the extent of Adrian Black’s bad manners, which clearly extended to his companion, Sam was not surprised by this reception. She hung up the telephone, lay down on the bed and quickly fell asleep.
Later that afternoon, Sam’s telephone rang. She sat up straight on the bed as she answered.
‘Hello, Sam Harris speaking.’
'This is Adrian Black. I'm staying at the Crown Hotel in Sandton. Take a taxi. I will wait for you at seven in the downstairs bar.’
‘How will I recognise you?’ asked Sam.
‘Just look for a guy in a scruffy jumper.'
The tone did not invite more questions. Black hung up.
Sam called down to the reception and ordered a taxi for six thirty. After a quick shower, she dressed in a dull khaki uniform of chinos and a short-sleeved shirt. Before leaving the room, she glanced at herself in the full length mirror on the wardrobe door. Just like a geologist without a beard.
Downstairs, the doorman showed her to her taxi. She had an anxious feeling in the pit of her stomach as she hadn’t signed her contract yet. What if Black changed his mind about hiring her? She remembered the last time that Mr Shah had called her.
‘Hello Sam. I'm ringing to tell you that you got the job. If you accept, you’ll go to Mondongo via Johannesburg to meet Mr Black in two weeks’ time.’
‘Really? That’s fantastic. Yes, I accept.’
‘Very good. I will fax you the full itinerary and details of where to collect your airline tickets. The firm will pay for you to send two boxes of possessions by airfreight. Just let me have them before you go and I will organise that.’
‘Excellent, thank you. Do you have a list of things that I will need?’
‘I’m afraid not. Pack for all eventualities. There isn’t much you can buy in Mondongo except beer and mangoes. Certainly not any women’s products you might need.’ He cleared his throat, embarrassed.
‘Understood. Will you send me a contract soon?’
‘I’m sorry but I haven’t been able to get a copy. You'll have to sign it in Mondongo. The phone lines are atrocious and the fax in Mondongo isn’t working.’
‘Good luck, and be careful in Johannesburg. That place is really dangerous.’
Sam was amused that he had apparently confused Johannesburg with Mondongo but she did not comment.
‘Thanks for everything, Mr Shah. Goodbye.’
Sam looked out of the window of the Johannesburg taxi. Although the area was obviously prosperous, with wide avenues and attractive detached houses, every property had a wall with barbed or electric wire around the top. Most houses also had a hut outside with an armed security guard in it.
‘Why are all the houses surrounded by walls and electric fences?’ she asked the driver.
‘There are a lot of violent criminals in Johannesburg,’ he answered. ‘If they get inside the house, they not only steal everything, but they quite often murder the inhabitants for no reason. You won’t meet many people here who don’t know someone who was murdered by robbers or muggers.’
Sam sat back in her seat. How could anyone live here? It was like being in prison. She understood now why Johannesburg was supposed to be more dangerous than Mondongo.
The taxi whisked her across Sandton and arrived at a very similar hotel to the one in which she was staying.
Sam entered the dark interior of the hotel bar and looked around in the gloom. There was no man sitting on his own. The only man who fitted Black’s description was sitting with a very attractive, slim, tall Asian girl with waist-length hair that swished when she turned her head. She looked stoned and had a big sleepy smile that she directed at her companion whenever he addressed her.
Sam walked up to the man and stuck out her hand. ‘Hello, I’m Sam,' she said. ‘Sam Harris.’
‘Adrian Black,’ he replied, ‘and this is Marybelle.’
He did not elaborate. They sat down together at a table that was knee high and surveyed each other. Sam wondered if she should speak or wait to be spoken to. The table dug into her knees as she sat forward in anticipation.
Before they could start a conversation, Black’s mobile phone rang. He walked across the room, gesticulating and swearing into the phone. He was shouting at someone in the office in Mondongo, who was not getting much chance to reply. The harangue went on for about fifteen minutes. Swearing punctuated every sentence, and veins bulged on his forehead and neck.
Sam took the opportunity to inspect her new boss at close quarters. Black looked like a cross owl with a hangover. He had a rotund body balanced on top of sturdy looking legs. His right forearm had an open sore near his elbow. The skin around the sore was red and angry and made her feel quite ill. The index and forefinger of his right hand were stained yellow from nicotine like Murphy’s. He chain-smoked, screwing up his eyes to glare at her through the fug with his dirty round glasses. It was hard to believe that he was the same age as her. He had a very second-hand air, as if he'd been reincarnated and they had forgotten to give him a new shell.
Realising that Black’s mood was unlikely to be improved by the conversation he was having, Sam decided to tread very carefully. Black and his companion had brought along a map of Tamazia and the two women looked at it together. Marybelle pointed out the locations of the different mines and the capital Mondongo on the coast. Sam assumed that Marybelle had come to this meeting to check her out as possible competition for Black’s affections.