The hot air washed over Kenton as he stepped off the plane into the Heliopolis Aerodrome. The journey had been long and tiring. Air travel was meant to be fast but after so many delays and diversions he would have been better off taking a cruiser and getting some rest. Almost. He hefted the small bag that was the total sum of his belongings onto his left shoulder wincing as a stab of pain reminded him that the bag needed to go on the other shoulder these days. He gently moved the bag to the right shoulder. Another wince, better then the left but not at all well. He stepped carefully down the plane steps unused to the lack of depth perception this eye-patch was giving him. Truth be told the eye patch wasn’t the problem. The mess under it was. Bruised, scratched, and maybe gone forever according to the sawbones he’d seen. But who’d trust a back street doctor more used to performing abortions on world-weary whores or desperate girls? A desperate man that’s who and he was as desperate as they come. His ragged plan was proof enough of that. But oddly he felt safer now. Back on familiar ground and if the file Morris had was any indication it seemed the British had no idea about his time in Cairo. A dangerous assumption but any air of safety was welcome after this last month. A shudder went up his spine at the mere memory of that cold morning when he’d first stared into his own dead eyes, illuminated by the pale glow of an electric lantern. Even if he had hidden it from everybody, he knew that it had shaken him to his core.
Passport control a mere formality. And he was through and out into the terminal.
He stopped short as the horde of scruffy Arabic Dragomans swarmed towards the group. The native guides and middlemen were a shock to those unprepared for the reality of Egypt. Their voices were raised offering their services in broken English all promising the best deals and claiming to know tombs not readily available, secret alley-ways where the best antiques could be purchased at unbelievable bargains and offering to die rather then let harm before their employers. And perhaps some of them were even telling the truth. The professional travel agents from Thomas Cook and son were moving the lucky few through the crowd, driving the Dragomans before them with gesture of words. Fulfilling their function of getting their customers and their luggage safely through the mob to their hotel where vastly more expensive but generally only slightly more reliable Dragomans would be waiting for them.
“A first sip of the Nile sir.” A dirty bottle with dirty water was thrust at him. One sip of that and he would spend the next week ill in bed. He knew, he’d sipped it that first time he stepped of a boat into Alexandra a green kid all those years ago.
“Bugger off” He snarled in Arabic, accented Arabic it was true, but Arabic. The Dragoman stepped back in surprise before smartly turning on his heel and peddling his wares elsewhere.
Kenton kept his eye open, looking for someone, something. And there was the little fella now. He knew all about the boy, could tell you his life story even though he’d never even seen him before. A look out kid. A watcher for one of the many pick pockets that preyed on the rich tourists. Looking for the easy mark, looking for the bumbling tourist fat with money who’d not taken proper precautions, their wallets bulging, ripe for the taking. But not today. Kenton stepped smartly up to the boy. A scruffy looking boy, a real urchin, cute enough to melt the heart of the sternest matron, but to the experienced eye he lacked the malnourished bones of a true orphan of the street.
“You speak English?” he asked.
The boy nodded. “No Dragoman, No Dragoman, Dragomans.” He said in English, waving to encompassing the horde of Dragomans that had moved off following the tourists.
“You’re hired. One job. Take me into the Waha, I wish to go to the Qahwa behind the Fountain of Alexander.”
The boy tried to hide his shock and fear and failed.
“No Dragoman, Bad part of town. Hire Dragomans. Go nice hotel. Bad part of town.” He waved at the mob that was disappearing in the distance.
“I have an appointment with Apep.” Kenton’s tone was flat and calm.
The boy blanched. Argument over. The name, his passport to the underworld had worked. Now let’s hope the passport was metaphorical, not literal.
The horse drawn carriage had drawn to a halt outside a dark and easily overlooked alleyway. The boy looked nervous even though this was his territory. The Driver looked scared.
Kenton tossed them two Egyptian pounds. Far over the odds, but they deserved a bonus and where he was going he might lose the need for money forever. He hoped of the carriage and walked down the small alleyway. Nobody stopped him. Sure they’d seen him but getting in was easy, it was getting out alive that required a miracle.
He emerged from the passage way into a dusty square, the fountain of ‘Alexander’ nothing but a broken and rusted wreck, who know who had really had it built. A number of doors lined the small courtyard. His destination lay on the other side of the door. It stood shut, heavy wood and iron studs as old as Cairo he was once told. He pushed it open and stepped inside. The smell hit him before his foot hit the ground. The pungent smell of ma’assil, tobacco and molasses, burnt in the hookah pipe. Another deep breath and the rest of the smells filled his nose. Hashish burnt in the pipes; no undercurrent of opium, not here anyway; coffee, strong and powerful; Egyptian tea strong enough to melt steel; sweat; fear and blood, so much blood. Or was the last simply his imagination and memory. It was dark and grim, a single room with a central stove and counter. No upper class coffee house this. No airy middle courtyard, no fountain cooling the air, no tree spreading peace and shade. If it had once been decorated in the traditional bright colours it had long since been covered by smoke and the sawdust on the floor were clumps of sticky blackness.
It was crowded, as always. Egyptians at every table, old style turbans not a Turkish fez amongst them. Ancient, brass and glass hookah pipes on a bewildering variety of designs were dotted within easy reach of every customer. The favourite drink was Egyptian tea served hot in glasses not cups. It had a bitter taste that no amount of sugar could remove, a taste Kenton had never managed to acquire. The Egyptians claimed the worse the Qawha, the better the tea, so did this place serve the best tea in all of Egypt? Games of Mankaleh played with sets so old they looked like they outdated Kenton’s country, hell they probably outdated England. Played on tables where groves had been worn for the pieces by the endless games. Games played to keep the hands busy while the mouth chatted. Everyone distracted, everyone busy. Except those who simply looked busy. He’d seen them. Their hands had dropped beneath the table, reaching for knives or pistols. Subtly keeping an eye on him they waited. An unrecognised European was a walking corpse. Everybody else carried on chatting and playing, why even notice his presence when he’d be dead within seconds.
Kenton’s eyes scanned the room, desperately searching. Looking for someone, anyone he recognised. Time was running out and running out swiftly. There! As if he’d never left. Bent down at first, he’d stood up and turned round. He looked at Kenton. Surprising crossing his eyes before a frown chased it away. He spoke loudly.
“James, it’s been a long time.”
Across the room, knives slid back into sheaths and pistols were placed back into holsters. Relief flooding through him, Kenton made his way across the qahwa towards the bar. Saleem, the qahwagi of this coffee shop, looked like he’d never aged a day in all the years Kenton had been gone. Bald, smiling, showing a mouth of shining gold, a delicate maze of crows feet around his eyes that made you trust him, his eyes as cold as death. A dirty cloth in his hand, perhaps the same dirty cloth over all these years. The polished shining sarabantina kept the water ever boiling, its brass gleaming like all the death and violence of this place never even touched it. Its hissing and bubbling seemed to say ‘welcome back’ to Kenton’s tired ears.
“A drink for you. On the house.” Saleem said, pulling a coffee cup from under the counter. If Kenton had walked on water the Egyptians nearest to him would have been less shocked. On the House? Inconceivable!
“It depends. I need to see Apep as soon as possible. I’ll take the drink if I’ve got time.” The Egyptians moved away from this mad man. Nobody knew how the qahwagi would react to having his free cup of coffee rejected, this being the first time this event had happened. But nobody asked to see Apep, summoned by yes, sent to yes, asked no. Even Saleem appeared to be less then certain as to what to do.
“We’ll see.” Saleem never moved and Kenton sat for an eternity, waiting for an answer. He know better than to ask again. Suddenly an non-descript door near the back swung open, a single dull oil lamp burning illuminated a heavy black velvet curtain.
Saleem simply nodded. Kenton stood up, took a deep breath and walked into the alcove, he pulled the door shut behind him before pushing the curtain to one side and entering.
The back room was small and dark. A circle of dimly flickering oil lamps in front of him were the only light source. No other details could be made out. Kenton, familiar with the routine, entered the circle of light and lowered himself into a pile of opulent gold and silk pillows. He could now see a figure in a chair seated outside the circle. It was hard to see details save that he was fat, grossly fat, unthinkably fat. Kenton struggled to work out if he’d got fatter over the years or if the shock was simply faded memories. Apep, named after the crocodile god of Ancient Egypt who was the enemy of every sun god, undisputed ruler of the Cairo thieves guild.
“Kenton.” The voice was deep, rumbling and slow. “You’ve aged well. Your eye?”
“Recent and I’m still hoping it’ll heal.”
“Good.” A fat hand moved closer to the light, it was shockingly pure albino white. Its sausage fingers adorned with gold and diamonds in extravagant quantity. It lifted a golden goblet back into the darkness, the noise of drinking followed before it was set back down again. Kenton steeled himself, time to talk turkey.
“I’m in trouble, lots of it and I need some help. And I need to settle things once and forever with D’Huberres but I don’t just need him dead, I need information and lots of it. I know you’ll help me.” Kenton left the unspoken hanging in the air. Because you owe me and owe me big.
“This is troublesome. The people D’Huberres is working for have with most generous payment gained freedom from interference from my people. Our silence has also been brought as well as the deaths of people who intrude on their affairs.” With glacial slowness the words were released from Apep mouth. The path of each one slowly grinding the remaining hope from Kenton and leaving him dry mouthed. Kenton sat perfectly still. Any swift movement now and his death would follow from behind in the dark. The how was a mystery of the dark. But its effectiveness had been proved time and time again. Mistaking Apep for a defenceless fat man was a mistake people only got to make once. An age later the fat man spoke again.
“But the thieves guild remembers its friends and you have been a good friend in the past.” These words of hope and life were delivered in the same measured tone that Apep always spoke in. Kenton breathed again.
“Go to the one my people call Qebhsenuf.” Kenton mind raced. Qebhsenuf, name seemed familiar. Some kind of ancient god. Guardian of the dead, hawk headed. No not guardian of the dead, guardian of the organs of the dead. He tried to remember all the times he’d been listening to the latest European women rattle on about Egyptian gods feigning an interest to get her into bed.
“He has crossed paths with D’Huberres before and lived. He thinks he has no quarrel with the Frenchman but if the works of D’Huberres be exposed to the light Qebhsenuf would see that they stand opposed. And while you walk under the Qebhsenuf’s shadow my people will not touch you.”
Without a noise, without a cause, the oil lamps that illuminated Kenton suddenly disappeared and at the same moment others by the door appeared fully lit. They did not flare into life, nor build from a spark. In a single moment the darkness and the light swapped places. Another mystery of the dark. Kenton stood, his interview was over.
A lot less then he hoped when got of the plane that morning. A lot more then he’d feared a few scant seconds ago. He reached the door, his hand pulling back the curtain when, shockingly, Apep spoke again. Apep never ever spoke to anyone not in the circle of light.
“Kenton, it is less then you deserve but it is all I will give you. May Allah stand with you. I will not.”
As Kenton passed though the door he realised that Apep was scared and just how much trouble that meant he was in.
Kenton stood at the street corner and checked the scrap of paper again. Not what he’d been expecting. He checked it again. He’d emerged from the back room to have this address thrust into his hand along with a hundred Egyptian pounds. He’d quickly left, his welcome now well gone. No matter how many times he checked the address, this was the right address. With a name like the Qebhsenuf his thoughts as he left Apep behind were filled with a steely eyed son of the desert based in some dingy back street café, as mysterious and as deadly as the desert wind. But he found himself right in the middle of the European quarter, all well maintained houses and clean straight streets. The fact that it had an address in this city of wandering streets that twisted and turned like a belly dancer before a rich widower should have told him his expectations were well off. He half thought that Apep was having a joke at his expense, but since Apep had no sense of humour that was unlikely.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained he thought as he smoothed down his newly purchased suit of immaculate white cotton, cut in the latest style, matching Panama hat to finish the look. Some might consider it an extravagance but he had learned long ago that a certain class of Egyptian responded much better to a man of neat appearance. While the rest tended to give a man with a well maintained fire arm the same level of respect, and that was the bulge in the right hand suit pocket. Recently purchased from the street of Gunsmiths with Apep’s money. A fact he’d dropped in to the bargain to ensure a good weapon, not some sand blasted Great War relic.
Well, the paper said round the back, up the stairs, the green door. What any European would have called number six. House numbers never being a particularly strong point of the Egyptians who claimed to have trouble remembering street names, preferring to offer instruction based on where the Uncle Ali had his stall of fine merchandise. Kenton knocked sharply twice and waited.
The door was opened by a curious fellow who failed to meet a single one of Kenton’s expectations but for who the name Qebhsenuf suddenly seemed so very, very understandable.
He was a smallish European man, looked about forty, all whipcord muscle and weather beaten skin. He was simply dressed in trousers and shirt with his shirt sleeves rolled up and a pair of undone braces resting on his shoulders. His hair was cropped short and noticeably starting to recede despite the severity of the hair cut. He was clean shaven but running to stubble right now. His left ear lob was missing, old scar tissue showing where it had once been. His face was plain, but his eyes were a feature. One blazing emerald green and the other an ice clear blue, a feature that would have dominated any other face. But all this was noticed afterwards once Kenton found the will power to tear his eyes away from the man’s long, angular, harsh, pointy and, if one were feeling charitable, beak like nose.
“Hallo.” His accent was some sort of regional English but Kenton had never really managed to figure them out.
“Are you Qebhsenuf?” Kenton asked somewhat hesitantly. It seemed almost rude to use the nickname at this point, or with a nose like this was Qebhsenuf as good as a nickname got? The beak nosed man started laughing.
“Only that bugger Apep and his boys call me that. Name’s Peter Outhwaite, friends call me Pete. What can I do you for?” An amused tone of voice.
Kenton stood amazed, any man who called Apep, the Pharaoh of the dark and lord of the Egyptian underworld, a ‘bugger’ with nothing but joviality in his voice was not a man to scare easily.
“Apep told me to come to you, he said you might be able to help.” The small Englishman raised an eyebrow at that but opened the door further and waved Kenton in. A small apartment kitchen, bedroom and lounge all rolled into one, recently painted, it was a mix of European and Egyptian, curious only in this city in that it showed restraint and taste. A small desk sat in one corner under a window. Books piled high on and around it. The bed was a pile of crumpled sheets with a long, smooth, well rounded, very feminine, Arabic leg sticking out of it. Outhwaite dropped himself into an armchair, while Kenton lowered himself into the settee he noticed with amusement would had matched Mrs Merriweather décor almost perfectly.
“Do you want a drink?”
“Anadil, hey Anadil yer lazy cow, get us a cuppa.”
The crumpled sheet moved and slowly turned into a young, highly attractive Egyptian women with sleepy eyes who, wrapped in the sheet, made her way over to boil the kettle. As she filled the kettle behind them Kenton leaned forwards.
“Look, this is pretty confidential stuff and even without Apep giving me any real choice I’m still unhappy about telling you let alone your lady, is there anywhere we can go to speak privately.” he said in a low tone of voice. Another amused grin from Outhwaite, not the expected reaction.
“No need to bother about that lad. See, young Andy there is…” His words were cut short by a shrill screech. Both Outhwaite and Kenton moved.
Kenton’s hand dropped to his pocket. Fingers curling around the butt. Up and out. Eyes darting, looking for danger. Outhwaite moving as well. Diving, rolling, a gun from somewhere. Under the table! Both guns snapped up into position. Kenton’s gun taking the chequered flag but only by a second, maybe less. The thought ‘I’m still injured’ flashed defensively across part of Kenton brain for a brief second before vanishing under the adrenaline surge. The high pitched scream ended.
The girl started moving towards Kenton, looking like she was going to dive on him, but she suddenly stopped short as she saw the two pistols levelled at her. There was a tense pause and then Outhwaite and Kenton started speaking together their voices filled with questioning tones.
“Andy?” said Kenton
“Uncle Kenton?” said Outhwaite.
They both stared at each other for a second, before smiling and putting their guns down. Kenton stood up and looked the lady over.
“Little Andy?” His tone more confident. She nodded smiling. “You’ve certainly... grown.” She suddenly looked embarrassed to be wearing nothing but a sheet and flitted behind an intricate carved wooden screen in the corner of the room.
“Well that would make you the great Mr Kenton. I’m sorry I never recognised you but from her description I expected some ten foot tall Adonis with lightning crackling around him.” Outhwaite’s tone was sardonically amused, till a long lobbing throw from Andy caught him square in the face with a pair of her unmentionables.
Andy emerged from behind the screen, dressed simply a mix of European and Arabic that could just pass for both without scandalising the Arab too much. Looking even better then before. For once Kenton’s libido failed to respond to a stunning women. Looking carefully at her, Kenton could see the face of that child he’d saved all those years ago. How much of his life had flowed from unwittingly saving Apep’s niece was a matter left to the philosophers.
Kenton smiled to himself. Lots of things now fitted into place, why Apep would send him to Outhwaite, why no member of the thieves guild would touch Outhwaite and why Outhwaite could be expected to help a man in such a desperate situation. But then doubt crept in, did he have it the wrong way round? Maybe Andy was with Outhwaite simply because he was not scared of Apep? Only a man the thieves guild would never touch could sleep with the Pharaohs of the dark’s niece? And maybe he was just the kind of man who would help a desperate person? But above all, Apep would never placed his niece in danger, which made Outhwaite capable of handling something that scared Apep. A terrifying thought.
“I suppose I’d better tell you why I came to you.”
“Reckon you had. Tell me all and spare me no details. From the look on Andy’s face I’m in this now no matter how bad it is, so you’d better tell me everything.”
Kenton reached into his pocket and pulled out a Camel. He offered them to Outhwaite.
“No thanks. Gave them up in the trenches, killed too many men while they smoked to ever feel comfortable lighting up myself.”
The kettle whistle blew and Andy started pouring the tea.
“But start with whatever happened to your eye Uncle Kenton!”
Which made the telling all the easier.
The sky was black as finest ebony set with diamonds more beautiful then Solomon himself had ever seen. Stretching as far as the eye could see, not a cloud obscured the glory that was the Cairo sky at night. Not a single gas light obscured an ounce of its glory in this neighbourhood. Which was just the way Kenton liked it. He lay there, letting the cool night air wash over his body, cooling and healing his body and soul. The other roofs were empty tonight, the locals only needed to do it in high summer and the tourists would never think of it. So there was just him and the stars. The only way. He’d given up trying to explain this to women years ago and so no longer bothered waking them up whenever they shared his bed.
Outhwaite was a curious man. Able to arrange this house at a moment’s notice, for a bargain price without using a Dragoman. And no white man ever got anywhere in this city without using a guide, that was an immutable law. His Arabic was better then Kenton’s even if his, he now know it to be, Yorkshire accent did make it sound strange. Smart and perceptive too, asking all the right questions.
But hopefully not smart and perceptive enough. Kenton had hidden some information from Outhwaite and Andy, like all good liars he’d mixed the ash of lies with the honey of truth. Dodged round what he’d been doing for British Intelligence before this affair blew up. Made the dead double out to be no big deal, not really tricky. Talked about his confusion over the whole affair, mostly genuine as well, explained his decision to bail when it became clear that Archibald was treating him like a sacrificial pawn, not the rook in this game he’d been promised. His decision to take the amulet, a spur of the moment thing when opportunity presented itself to him. The sudden appearance of D’Huberres in his tale drew an exchange of glances between Andy and Outhwaite. He detailed his trick with the sovereign, pulling the medallion out of his jacket to show them, the gunfight, the escape, the attack from the air and how it drove home Archibald’s opinions of his value. The death of Charlotte, pulled out of his grasp by the surging currents and his decision to come to Egypt.
Why Egypt? The need to know the who, the why and the whatever behind why somebody with his face was gunned down on a beach near Liverpool. The need to know why one minute Archibald was dancing a jig over owning the medallion, the next leaving it lying around so he could lift it and the moment after that trying to send it to the bottom of the sea. Knowing that D’Huberres would run back to Egypt like he always did and knowing that in Cairo he’d have the friends so he’d be the one calling the shots not D’Huberres nor Sir Archibald - an idea that had failed to survive even the first day.
As he lay there staring at the stars drifting off to sleep memories began to mix with dreams. Killing his first man and seeing the life drain from his face. Hot coffee cooked off the engine of his armed car just over the Belgian border. Losing his virginity to an ancient Parisian whore too drunk to take his money. Charlotte’s face as she sank beneath the waves crying for her mother as salt water washed into her throat. Seeing the medallion for the first time, a long time ago and not in an English boarding house. A coffee house in Zanzibar, shaking as he read a document that managed to take his innocence forever. A wooden box and golden lock opened by the heart’s blood of a bull, the lock drinking the blood deeply before opening to show... Running across the sand. Light of the moon. Heart pounding in chest. Distant explosions, far behind... Back exploding into agony. Collapsing, coughing, lungs filling. The realisation of the futility of the acts of man as he stood in a primordial cathedral of stone seeing the grandeur the nature could create without effort dwarf the twisted metal remains of a monument to mankind’s hubris. Seeing himself walk away, leaving him still born on the cold floor shivering and unable to move. A whirling dance of masked figures each wearing Kenton’s face pulled into a grinning smile and whispering his name again and again. And sleep claimed him and who could tell where memories ended and dreams began?
He awoke as the noon sun beat down on Cairo and nobody moved. Fortunately he’d managed to wake up enough to get to bed last night or right now he’d be burned to a crisp. A cold shower, a lunch of fruit and, come the relative coolness of the afternoon sun, Kenton was ready to face Cairo again. There was a knock on the door. Gun up, back to the wall next to the door. He inched the door open. A small Arab urchin looked up at him. He thrust a small piece of paper into Kenton’s hand and then waited patiently.
Kenton opened it. The penmanship was scruffy.
‘Got a break. Have found someone willing to talk about your business. Eight o’clock my place. Send replay with my messenger. Don’t tip him. Outhwaite.’
James searched his pockets for a pen. Not finding one he looked up to see the urchin holding out a broken pencil stub. Kenton quickly jotted ‘Fine’ on the back before handing paper and pencil back to the urchin. They both vanished somewhere on the urchin’s body and the hand reappeared waiting for his tip.
“No tip. Outhwaite says so.”
“Fair ‘nough lad. Can’t blame me for trying.” Outhwaite board accent coming from the child was a shock. The boy ran off leaving Kenton laughing to himself. Leaving Kenton at liberty to sit and relax for the first time since leaving Mrs Merriweather’s boarding house. But caged tigers don’t relax and Kenton simply paced back and forth across the flat, pondering getting out in Cairo and getting the feel of the place in his blood but rejecting it as too risky until it was time to leave and make his way to Outhwaite’s.
Kenton and Outhwaite descended the stairs to the meeting place. A fake quiahib not far from Outhwaite’s house. It was fake because it was European. Run by a European for Europeans. A pale imitation of the real thing. Perfect for bloodless tourists who might find a real brush with a Quahib too unnerving. It lacked more then anything an authentic smell and, no matter how good she was, no belly dancer, her hips gyrating to the music could change that. And she wasn’t even that good. Kenton hated the place, it offended him, everything it represented offended him. They made their way across the room, heading towards some booths at the back.
“These guys really wanted to met us here?” His tone said it all. How could anybody who frequented this kind of place be any use to them?
Outhwaite looked over at him.
“You’ve got to admit that D’Huberres is going to be lacking ears in a place like this. Might be cleverer than you think. Just give them a fair listening to.” Outhwaite’s tone warned Kenton that something was not quite right a moment too late. Outhwaite turned and indicated a corner booth. A round table, a cheap gaudy modern Hookah pipe sitting in the middle of it. The booth was deep in shadows which made getting any details on who was waiting for him all the more difficult, all he could see was that two Europeans, their features lost, were waiting for them. The hands curled around there coffee cups were slightly pinkish, the early signs of sun burn.
“I think it’s time we had a long talk, tried to clear things up between us. Don’t you?” said a familiar voice.
Kenton looked stunned. He looked, horrified, at Outhwaite. Who replied with a shrug.
“Sorry my friend, I owe him a lot of favours. More then I care to imagine. Came by first thing this morning.”
“Don’t worry he’s not sold you down the river. Quite the opposite. We’ve given our ministry minders the slip tonight.”
Eventually Kenton spoke.
“How?” His tone spoke volumes - how, how have you found me?
The duo leaned into the light. The shadows resolved into the all too familiar features of Taylor and Morris.
“Because there are times when Taylor amazes even me. Won’t you sit down?”