Prologue - An Honourable Man
A gentle drizzle fell outside the Palais Garnier as a metallic black Mercedes-Benz S-Class pulled up onto the kerb. It was two minutes past seven in the evening and it was dark, and there was a noticeable chill hanging in the air. From the driver's door, a small man wearing a long overcoat and a black chauffeur's hat got out of the car and hurried round to the passenger side. As he ran, he opened out a small umbrella which was just big enough for one very important person to fit under, and upon reaching the passenger door he swung it open, holding the umbrella over the suited figure preparing to exit.
"Monsieur Al Fahir, welcome to the Palais Garnier, home of the Paris Opera."
Khaled bin Sultan Al Fahir, successful property tycoon and son of the United Arab Emirates' President Sheikh Sultan, chose not to thank his driver as he stepped from the vehicle. The ride had been long and uncomfortable, and the interior of the car smelt far too leathery for his liking. Furthermore, they'd arrived late, and Khaled hated unpunctuality. He was due to meet the French President in the President's private box, and arriving late would make him look unprofessional. Just to make matters even worse, it was raining. The water was falling almost like a thin mist, but whilst it wasn't a torrential downpour it would be enough to dampen his new Armani suit and ruin his Edward Green brogue shoes. He looked for some comfort in the umbrella sheltering his exit from the Mercedes, but one look at the fabric told him that it was a far from luxury item. He made a mental note to himself to request one of his own drivers on any subsequent state visits. At least they had some class and knew how to arrive on time.
As the car door closed behind him he felt a muscular shoulder brush his own on his right hand side. He had been provided with a group of four security guards for the week's visit, each handpicked from a private firm used by the French President himself. The shoulder that touched his belonged to Ramon, the most senior member of the group, who was also serving as an aide and advisor. He was a tall, well-built Frenchman with dark skin and darker eyes. Khaled wasn't a particularly small man, yet Ramon completely dwarfed him with his sheer width and height. He was glad of Ramon's presence for two reasons; not only did he feel safe with him as a bodyguard, but he could actually talk to him and hold proper conversations with the man as, like Khaled, his English was immaculate.
"I want you close to me at all times Ramon," said Khaled, his eyes darting from side to side, scanning the scene in front of him. He'd developed a suspicious nature when conducting visits abroad ever since an attempt was made on his life by a crazed teenager in America two years prior. The attack had also furthered his loathing for the American population in general.
"Of course, sir. Shall we proceed?"
The driver holding the umbrella above Khaled's head scuttled after him as he set off towards the entrance to the opera house the guards forming a protective shield around him. Ramon kept by his right shoulder, whilst a heavily built Frenchman called Henri moved out in front. To his left was his umbrella-clutching driver, and bringing up the rear were Marco, another large French guard, and Hector, a burly Latin American figure who rarely spoke.
After only a few steps, Khaled noticed a gaggle of reporters and cameras heading straight for him. But no sooner had Khaled spotted them, the security force moved forward. They were efficient and skilled, something which he valued greatly. As the gang approached, the stocky figure of Henri strode forward with two meaty hands outstretched. As Henri moved, so did Marco and Hector, swiftly slipping round the back of the group and placing hands on the eager journalists while Ramon stayed . As one palm clamped a shoulder, the other wrenched whatever piece of equipment each person had away from them. At the front, Henri simply outstretched his arms and pressed his considerable weight against the advancing pack. Within seconds, most had been disarmed, their equipment left in a heap on the floor. Throughout the episode Ramon stayed glued to Khaled's shoulder.
"Monsieur! S'il vous plait!" Khaled turned to see a young teenager heading towards him with a tape recorder. Somehow he'd slipped out of the rabble and was now making a beeline to where he stood. "Jacques Belaire, Le Monde. If I could have a word…"
Before he had a chance to finish, a gloved palm shot towards the young man's face. As contact was made, the boy's nose erupted in a shower of scarlet blood, and he stumbled backwards with a cry of pain. It had all happened so quickly, and it took a few seconds for it to register with Khaled who had struck the boy. It was his driver.
"It is nothing, monsieur," the driver smiled, wiping the reporter's blood from his glove. "Journalists have no consideration. They are, how you say, petites merdeux." Khaled knew enough French to understand the insult and laughed.
"Apologies for the French press, sir," Ramon said as his men filtered back into position. "They are like vultures when they see a foreign diplomat."
"Your men did well, Ramon. I hate reporters."
"As do I, sir." He gestured towards the doors of the opera house, and Khaled sped up to get out of the rain and the cold, not looking back once to the young man writhing in pain on the ground.
As he entered the entrance foyer Khaled smiled. He'd been to a number of opera houses and theatres across the globe, but this in his eyes was the best of all. The Palais Garnier, a 2000-seat opera house named after its designer and architect Charles Garnier, was built during the Second Empire of France, and is the home of the world renowned Paris Opera and Paris Opera Ballet. Whilst opera performances were rarely performed there now Khaled still considered it the home of the great opera company; the new, larger venue that now hosted most opera performances in Paris, the Opera Bastille, was a modern eyesore. The entrance foyer here was amazing; he was surrounded by gold and everything shined and sparkled with wealth and authenticity.
As Khaled studied the intricately designed entrance hall, a smartly dressed concierge approached their small group. He greeted them with a smile which was detectably false.
"Bonjour monsieur Al Fahir, may I welcome you to the Palais Garnier. I am Gaston, and I will be your host for the evening." It was clear that Gaston was trying to put on an upper class accent to impress Khaled, but it didn't have the desired effect and Khaled didn't even turn to face him or bother replying. Instead, Ramon stepped in.
"Monsieur Al Fahir would like to be taken to his reserved box immediately."
"Of course," replied Gaston, the falsified smile flashing onto his face once more. "Follow me sirs, it is right this way."
The group of six were lead by the concierge to the fourth floor where they were shown to the French President's own private box. The President was set to arrive at ten past seven, where the pair would discuss international affairs and foreign relations until the evening's ballet performance Sylvia began at eight o'clock.
"May I bring you a pre-performance drink, monsieur?" inquired Gaston.
"Yes. Disaronno on the rocks. Make it a double." Khaled came from a strict Muslim family, and, despite being twenty-five, back in Abu Dhabi he wouldn't dare to touch a drop of alcohol for fear of what his father may do. But a different country meant different rules, and he always took the opportunity to sample this forbidden pleasure on foreign trips. Gaston, despite his knowledge of Islamic laws regarding alcohol, was not going to argue with Khaled.
As Gaston left, Khaled settled back into one of the cushioned chairs in the box. He could hear Ramon giving orders to the other guards. Stay outside the door. There must always be at least one person on the door at all times. Remove any suspicious items. Remove any suspicious people. Don't get drunk. The orders were like music to his ears. He liked things done a certain way; efficiently, with no bullshit. Don't talk around a point. Say what you've got to say and get it done quickly. That's how Khaled liked to do things, and Ramon clearly liked to do things that way too.
After a few minutes, Khaled checked his watch. The time was almost ten past seven and with the French President being noted for his punctuality he didn't expect to be waiting much longer. He'd checked his emails twice already on his Smartphone since arriving but did so again, more to waste time than anything else.
Just as he was sliding the gadget back into his suit pocket he heard a knock at the door of the box. Turning to look, he saw the door open a crack, just enough for Ramon's head to squeeze through.
"Sir. A waiter has arrived with your drink."
"Thanks Ramon. Send him in." Khaled had half forgotten about the drink he'd ordered, and although he wasn't particularly thirsty he knew he needed it to calm his nerves.
The man that entered with his drink was not Gaston as Khaled had expected. He was taller than the French concierge and would have stood taller that Khaled himself if he had been standing straight. Instead, he stooped slightly and his bald head was bowed over the silver tray holding the glass of Disaronno. Probably, Khaled thought, as a sign of respect to an honourable man.
"Your drink, monsieur. With compliments." The man spoke rather slowly, pronouncing each syllable with the same level of stress, and his accent was hard to place. From the way his mouth formed the sounds of the words Khaled suspected that he was from a country in Eastern Europe, or perhaps Russia, where he would have been taught to speak English from the grammar textbooks as opposed to the way one learns their native tongue. His movement when placing the drink onto the small table by Khaled's chair was controlled and precise. No sooner had the man entered the room he was gone, leaving Khaled alone once more. After the door had closed he sat back in his chair, picking up the glass and holding it lightly between his thumb, index finger and middle finger. Another check of his watch told him that the time had just gone twelve minutes past seven. The President would be arriving any moment now. Khaled looked down at the golden-brown liquid inside the glass and swilled it around the two large ice cubes before bringing the tumbler up to his lips. He paused for a second in anticipation and inhaled the strong, sweet, alcoholic scent. Then, in one swift motion, he threw pack his head and drank the Disaronno. The immediate sweetness of the liqueur was soon overpowered by a sharp almond flavour that to him seemed similar to marzipan.
As he finished swallowing the bittersweet nectar he stood up in readiness to welcome the President. The aftertaste of almond left in his mouth was stronger than he remembered it, and he was starting to feel the onset of a headache forming around his temples. He could also feel a large amount of perspiration that had formed on his brow. Where was the President? Khaled brought up his hand to wipe the sweat away from his forehead, and as he did he noticed his palm shaking. Uncontrollably. All of a sudden, he began to feel light-headed and drowsy. The pain in his head had intensified, and the taste of almond was getting sharper, almost to the point of burning his mouth. He tried to move backwards to his seat, but his leg wouldn't follow the order of his brain and, in contrast, he felt like he was falling forward. The sensation was a reality, yet his impulses seemed to have shut down. His arms would not move out in front of him to break his fall. And he could see the carpeted floor hurtling towards his face. With nothing to suppress his fall, he thudded onto the ground with a heavy, jolting force.
As he lay gasping for air on the floor he saw the glass tumbler rolling into his dark and blurred vision. Sitting in the bottom of the glass, he saw what he now realised, painfully too late, were the last few drops of his cyanide laced drink.
Hope you enjoyed the prologue of my story. Please feel free to review it with any feedback you have, positive or negative. I really appreciate the people who take their time to review my work so thank you in advance to those that do :) more chapters hopefully up soon :)