“The dog is dead! The dog is dead!” mumbled Mostafa as he rushed into ESCO’s Alexandria office. He hastily slammed the door with a loud thud, waking the other employees from their mid-day slump. He power walked through the labyrinth of desks, cabinets, and files to the farthest north door. The employees looked on in amazement as Mostafa silently blazed by without offering his customary beaming smile and Al Salam Alaykoum greeting. They were astounded with this unlikely behavior. Yet, when he paused at the office of the Customs Clearance Director, they knew there was a problem with one of his shipments. They shrugged and returned to sipping mud like Turkish coffee. Mostafa peeped through the glass panel in the door and saw Mrs. Hoda occupied with work. Managing the customs clearance department of an Egyptian freight forwarding company was taxing. Hoda was constantly on the edge of her nerves. This was 2006. President Mubarak’s five year prosperity plan was in high gear after stagnating for a quarter century. Prosperity was long overdue. The plan had been extended, or as the government worded it, renewed five consecutive times with the promise of fortunes to come. Two years prior, Ahmed Nazif took over as Prime Minister and rumored economic growth slowly surfaced from the shadows of haphazard development. Technology sectors and call centers boomed over night with three mobile carries competing in the already saturated market. Factories emerged in industrial parks east and north of Cairo. Riches were steadily, yet slowly, dripping down Egypt’s chin. Freight forwarders benefited enormously from this period of economic steroids. Raw materials originated from Asia and the Mediterranean, while finished goods departed to every realm of the globe. Textile and cotton garments went to the US and England. Potatoes and citrus flew to Germany. PVC pipes shuttled to Nigeria. Marble floated down the Red Sea en route to China. As Egypt’s GDP blossomed, local shippers accumulated enough experience to deal with temperamental customs authorities and tumultuous supply chains. The Egyptian Shipping Company – ESCO was one of the early adopters.
Hoda was on the phone with an irritating and irritated client who demanded specific attention, always following up on shipments and flirting with female employees. Every so often, Hoda came to the rescue and handled his calls herself. Her patience was wavering as Mostafa hovered at the door. She beckoned him to enter. Too nervous to sit, Moustafa stood before Hoda’s desk with his hands clasped together, intently examining his shoes and repeating the mantra, “The dog is dead.” From the grim look on his sweat drenched face, Hoda knew that Mostafa was harboring bad news. She regarded the stout man and silently debated whether her nerves could handle more trouble. She delayed addressing Mostafa, prolonging the phone conversation. She finally stowed away the handset. Mostafa’s lips parted to explain his quandary. Hoda raised a palm in a stop motion bringing him to a halt as she finished recording the issue. She laid down the pen, slid back into her chair, crossed her legs, took a long calming breath, smiled, gestured to Mostafa to sit , and said,
“Yes Mostafa. Tell me, what’s the matter?”
Mostafa was too apprehensive to reply. His intestines expanded with nervous gas. He contracted his buttocks to trap the odorous gasp of air. Sweat leaked through his shirt. He was thankful to his navy blue polo for concealing the perspiration. He had a cramp in his left calf and a twitch under his right eye. He took off his glasses, wiped the invisible dust and placed them back on his face. Mostafa, too, wanted to delay the discussion. This wasn’t like any of the numerous problems he encountered during his seven year tenure. This was a dead dog stewing in the humid summer heat. Temperatures were in the high thirties, thirty eight degree Celsius to be exact, the hottest of the season. Mostafa positioned himself in one of the faux leather chairs opposite Hoda’s desk. He chose the one to her right, he wanted to be on her good side, the side of the Angels.
“I’m waiting Mostafa. The sooner you tell me, the sooner we can deal with it.”
“The dog is dead!” He exclaimed.
Hoda stared in confusion, “What are you talking about?”
“The dog is dead! The dog we are shipping to Manchester. It is dead. The dog that belongs to Mr. Mohamed’s friend, is dead. It is dead! What can I do?”
Hoda blinked nervously as she recalled the shipment details. Mohamed El Nazir, a managing partner, oversaw port authorities and customs relations. Although a wealthy educated man from an upper middle class family, when angered his good breeding evaporated as he’d burst into fits of fury and fling curse words. A week prior, he approached Hoda about a shipment. His friend, an English expat, wanted to send his dog back to the UK. Mr. Mohamed asked her to personally handle the request. Hoda found this odd since she managed the customs clearance process and had no experience in exports. Mr. Mohamed explained that the shipment demanded specific paper work and handling. He believed she was better suited to deal with the government red tape. Pleased with the acknowledgement, Hoda accepted the task without hesitation. She contacted the client and arrange for the dog, Alfred, to be transported to ESCO’s premises. Hoda amused at the client insistence that she take extra care of Alfred and make sure he was treated well. She couldn’t believe he referred to the dog as “he”. Foreigners relocating to Egypt spared their pets no expense. They spent thousands of pounds transporting cats and dogs. Alfred in particular had been to Singapore, Dubai, Lagos, and now Alexandria, while Hoda had never been outside of Egypt. The proud pet owners happily incurred enormous amounts of money for their furry friends’ upkeep. Imported pet paraphernalia stocked supermarkets shelves across Alexandria. These domesticated dogs lived better than half the Egyptian population. Hoda ensured the client that Alfred would be safe with ESCO. She assigned her best broker, Mostafa, to take care of the dog. And now Mostafa stood before her claiming “The dog is dead!”
“Tell me what happened. I want you to give me all the details. How did the dog die?”
“Mrs. Hoda, it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t kill the dog. Please tell Mr. Mohamed that it’s not my fault, please. I can’t lose my job. My children, Mrs. Hoda, how will I feed my children with no job.”
“Mostafa! Relax. No one’s going to lose their job. Take a deep breath and tell me how the dog died.”
“Well, Mrs. Hoda, I sent Ragab, the driver, to the address you gave me, the villa in San Stefano, to collect the dog. He swears by Allah that the dog was alive when he put the crate in the van. Ragab was very careful driving back to the warehouse. He avoided speed bumps so he wouldn’t disturb the dog. We carried the crate into the building. I prepared a nice place for the dog to stay. The customs clerk even agreed to come to complete the inspections at the office. The dog was sleeping, so we left it in the crate. But after two hours, I got worried. I opened the crate and looked inside. The dog…”
“The dog is called Alfred”
Bewildered by this statement but not wanting to contradict his manager, Mostafa corrected, “the dog, Alfred, was just laying there, covered with a blanket. I tried to nudge him awake, but nothing worked. He was stiff and cold. I immediately knew he was dead. I locked the carcass in the warehouse refrigerated area and came directly to you. What are we going to do Mrs. Hoda? Please, I cannot lose my job. I need my salary to feed my children. Please Mrs. Hoda, you must help me.”
“Wait a minute. Did you say that Ragab picked up Alfred in the van?”
“But Mostafa I deliberately told you to use the company car for transporting the dog because it is air conditioned. Why did you use the van?”
“Well, Mrs. Hoda you see, when I called to confirm the pickup time, the house keeper informed me that the dog, I’m sorry, I mean Alfred will be inside his crate. It is too big to fit on the back seat. Besides Mrs. Hoda, Alexandria is full the stray dogs and cats, they don’t need air conditioning, so why is this dog any different? Was it sick Mrs. Hoda? Because, if the dog was sick then it is not our fault. He must have died of sickness. Yes, Mrs. Hoda, Alfred the dog died of sickness.”
Hoda stood up and walked to the window. She needed time to think. She gazed out onto the vast Mediterranean sea. The office was located in a residential building along Alexandria’s main street, El Cournish. A huge sign with luminous red letters spelling ESCO over looked the wide asphalt lanes traversing along the Egyptian northern shore. Every window in the building exposed the tranquil azure waterscape. The prominent location aimed to impress customers and intimidate competitors. Hoda considered the view from her office a privilege, a sign that she had achieved excellence. She liked her job, she liked her office, and wasn’t going to allow a dog to cost her either. After a moment of reflection, Hoda turned to Mostafa and said,
“Don’t worry Mostafa. Everything’s going to be fine. Take me to see the dead dog.”
“You mean Alfred”, Mostafa corrected.
Hoda and Mostafa stood over the dog’s corpse, privately wishing for a miracle. There was no doubt in Hoda’s mind that Alfred was indeed dead. She was relieved to see that it was a Boxer Mix and not some exotic bread like Chihuahua or Shih Tzu
“Who else knows about the dog?”
“Have it properly disposed. Call a veterinarian and make the necessary arrangements.”
She took several photographs of Alfred. Mostafa found this quite peculiar. They frequently photographed damaged cargo for insurance claims. But Alfred wasn’t shipped yet. None of the paper work had been issued, least of all shipping insurance. So, why was Mrs. Hoda documenting the dead cargo? Mostafa knew better than to question the judgment of his superior. He simply looked on as she circled Alfred with phone in hand, zooming in and flashing away. She knelt down and removed the dog’s tags and leash, then turned to Mostafa and commanded,
“Guard the dog until the vet arrives. This is my personal phone number. Call me if anything happens.” She handed Mostafa a business cards with a number scribbled on the back as she aimed for the door.
“Where are you going Mrs. Hoda?” Mostafa frantically inquired. He feared she was abandoning him to suffer all the blame.
Hoda flung a pair of Persol sunglasses on her face and said, “I’m going to see a man about a dog.”
With keys in the ignition, Hoda immediately reached for her mobile. “Hi Samir. This is Hoda…. I’m doing fine. I need a favor. I need to buy a dog. I’ll send you a picture.” She texted Alfred’s photographs while simultaneously navigating the congested narrow roads on her way back to the office. Samir Wasif, Hoda’s bother in law, was a street smart Alexandrian. He owned a chain of striving coffee shops. To replenish menu items, Samir got the best deals on meat, lobster, Belgium chocolate or saffron. If it was legal, he had a supplier for it. His establishments were notorious for their hookah pipes, shisha. They served an assortment of tobacco selections displayed in dessert menus. A variety of strawberry cheesecake, apple strudel, and pina colada flavored tobacco appealed to the growing upper-class female clientele of shisha smokers. Hoda was confident that Samir would hunt down an Alfred look-a-like. He didn’t ask any questions and simply replied, “I’ll see what I can do.”
Hoda busied herself with work while waiting for Samir’s call. It was easy to get distracted. There were always incidents and issues regarding customs clearance, delayed shipments, and missing documentation. Port officials overestimated tariff amounts to intimidate under the table payments. ESCO implemented a strict no kickback rule and thus custom clerks placed every obstacle in their path. The timely release of shipments with reasonable tariff costs was Hoda’s responsibility. It took her fifteen years to learn the ins and outs of the shipping industry. She would be damned to let a dog cost her the job she has earned with endless days of hard diligent work. She texted Samir, “Any news on the dog situation?” He didn’t reply. She called him but he didn’t answer. Samir’s number flashed on her phone seventy five minutes later.
“Okay, there’s guy who has a few Boxers. I’ll send you the address. I wasn’t sure about the size or weight, so you’ll have to select one that fits the description. It’s going to cost fifteen hundred pounds. You’ll have to pay him in cash.”
“Thanks Samir. I owe you big time.”
“Don’t worry you will pay me back. I’ll meet you there.”
Hoda had an uneasy feeling that she’d just sold her soul to the devil. Maybe this was the dog’s revenge. The first traces of regret manifested into her conscience. She wondered if she was making a terrible situation worse. She could incriminate Mostafa and Ragab, but the dog’s fate was ultimately her responsibility. With mortgage payments and two young daughters in private school, Hoda needed her salary which was double that of her college professor husband. No household in Egypt survived on a single income. All hesitation disappeared upon realizing that her family’s salvation lied in Alfred’s resurrection. She grabbed her purse and heeded out to buy a dog. Too nervous to wait for the elevator, she climbed down the stairs. Descending the marble slabs, Hoda breathed in a medley of dinners. Her stomach grumbled to the aroma of baked fish sayadeyia, fried garlic taeleyia, and stuffed cabbage leafs. She hadn’t eaten all day. No time to eat when you need to bring back the dead. She texted her husband to inform him that she would not be home for dinner.
Assisted with a vet report of Alfred’s specification, Hoda selected a close enough proxy. Happy with her purchase, she packed the animal into her car. She secured the tags and leash around the dog’s neck and took to calling it Alfred. It didn’t respond to the name. She worried that this little detail would unravel the entire plot. Since Alfred II would not come into contact with his owner until arriving at Manchester, Hoda decided not to worry. She smiled for the first time that day as she arrived at the warehouse. Waiting in the court yard, Mostafa was surprised to see Alfred’s reflection, afraid the dog’s ghost would haunt him for life. He thanked God when pseudo-Alfred barked as Hoda coaxed him out of the car. She didn’t need to explain the scheme, Mostafa knew what to do.
“Take care of this one. Get him on the first flight out. I don’t want to ever see that dog again. Do you understand?”
“Oh, by the way, you owe me five hundred pounds. That’s your share. You can give me the money at the end of the month when you get paid.”
Hoda didn’t wait for a response. She turned around, got in her car, and drove away, leaving the dog in Mostafa’s custody. In a moment of synchronized serendipity, both Hoda and Mostafa sighed a breath of relief.
Hoda had a restless night, unable to relax until the canine nightmare arrived at its final destination. She arranged for a guardian, Mai Elshazly, to accompany Alfred. There was nothing Hoda could do to make the time pass swiftly. She could only wait.
A number flashed on Hoda’s phone. She immediately answered to Mai’s panicked voice,
“Mrs. Hoda, the client refused to collect the dog. He’s saying that this isn’t his dog.”
“Put him on the phone, I’ll talk to him.”
“He left. He got very angry and shouted ‘Where’s my Alfred?’ and just left. What am I supposed to do with the dog, Mrs. Hoda?”
“Don’t worry Mai. I’ll take care of everything.”
Hoda frantically stifled through her contacts, trying to locate the customer’s number. Mr. Mohamed was approaching her. Her heart sunk. She was about to lose her job and her dignity in front of the entire staff. Mr. Mohamed opened the door and stepped into her office, he was smiling.
Mohamed took his time addressing the situation, elated to see the concern in Hoda’s raised brows and wrinkled forehead. He didn’t particularly like her. She was one of those tough women who spoke their minds and didn’t tolerate condescension for anyone, least of all from him. He wasn’t happy when Hoda first joined the customs clearance department. Women belonged in the kitchen not a sea port. A woman couldn’t deal with rough customs brokers and crude port officials. Hoda proved him wrong and eventually earned his respect. Yet, he still liked annoying her whenever the opportunity presented itself. It was warranted. It was pay back to every woman who belittled him. He intended to excruciatingly torture Hoda over the dog debacle. He silently sat across the desk from her, took out a cigarette, lit it, dragged a breath, exhaled the smoke out of his nostrils and calmly asked,
“Where’s the dog?”
“The dog? What dog?”
“Alfred. The dog you were supposed to ship to Manchester. Where is it?”
Hoda stared back at Mr. Mohamed, stalling for time, her confidence not wavering. Mohamed admired her tenacity. ‘Big pair of balls on this one’, he thought. She rummaged through her files and picked up a random piece of paper. She looked Mr. Mohamed in the eyes and stated in a matter-of-fact manner,
“Flight MS 830 landed at MAN airport at exactly 8:00 am Cairo local time. The dog has been safely cleared through customs. At the time of this report, Mai was on her way to the hotel. She will send an e-mail with a signed copy of the delivery order once the dog is collected. So, we can safely assume that the dog is at the hotel with Mai.”
“The customer called. He claims the dog isn’t his.”
“I’m sorry Mr. Mohamed but I don’t understand. What does he mean the dog isn’t his? We shipped the dog that was collected from the address stated in the file. How can the dog not be his?”
“Hoda, I think the guy can tell his dog apart from others. He’s saying that the dog with Mai isn’t Alfred.”
“Why does he say that? What’s different about this dog?”
“This one’s alive!”
Hoda’s calm and collective demeanor melted away. She went pale, her mouth hung ajar and she blinked frantically as she struggled to comprehend what was happening. How could the client possibly know that Alfred suffocated in the hot van?
Gloating with a smile of sheer delight in Hoda’s predicament, Mohamed decided to put her out of her misery, “It was quite a sock when my friend saw the ghost of his dog in the hotel lobby because Alfred died a week ago. He was shipped to Manchester to be buried.”