By Stuart Stansfield
Sergeant Taylor let out a low, breathy whistle and placed his stubby pencil on the qahwa table. He stared, dumbfounded at the words he’d written in his notebook. As his mind wandered, his eyes focused on some imaginary point in space above the page, blurring his cramped script into illegible patterns and spirals. Finally he rose out of his trance and looked across at his chief.
Inspector Morris was sitting alongside him, hunched over the table in silent reflection. Slowly, the older man allowed his steepled fingers to slide down his face to his chin, and fixed his now open eyes on the American. After what seemed an age, he spoke:
“Frankly, Mr. Kenton, I find this very hard to believe”
James Kenton looked across at his interrogators. He was getting a headache. Somehow he’d managed to get dust beneath his eye patch, aggravating the recent wound. His remaining healthy eye, unused to taking the strain of being his sole ocular device, was beginning to ache dully. The sickly sweet smoke encompassing the room and the pounding rhythms of the alatiya, clumsily playing their instruments in the corner, were not helping matters.
Kenton snapped back in exasperation, “LOOK!”
Peter Outhwaite laid a gentle, warning hand on Kenton’s forearm. Kenton stopped, and followed his new friend’s glances around the room. Here was not the place to get angry.
Morris spoke again. “I do not say you lie, James.” It was the first time Morris had used Kenton’s first name. There was a calm sincerity to his words, and a conveyed sense of understanding. The Inspector’s voice was quiet, yet cut through the tacky, westernised Egyptian percussion which accompanied the woeful belly-dancing display. Morris continued: “Simply that your tale is hard for us to take in. Even with near exact doubles, dubious governmental interference and foreign assassins! Sergeant.”
At Morris’ command Taylor flicked open his notebook. He began to recite elements of Kenton’s tale.
“So, whilst engaged on ahem ‘work’ in Zanzibar,”
“Black market smuggling, Sergeant.” Kenton interceded, helpfully, a look of slight derision on his face.
“ you were asked to meet a certain wog, umm Indian gentleman, who never gave his name, and his accomplices. He wanted you to perform a bit of work. You had the connections, the experience, and would look a whole lot more palatable than a bunch of Johnny-Turbans running around near Liverpool.”
“Yes. And they asked me to find this pendant, and the box.” Kenton said quietly, eyes staring at some fixed point in space.
“And ultimately aid some conspiracy to undermine the very Empire, as we are led to believe,” Morris used, with just a hint of sarcasm. “How much were you promised?”
“Ten thousand pounds. Mostly in uncut Burmese rubies and Ceylonese sapphires.” Kenton answered, almost nonchalantly.
“Christ almighty!” Taylor spat out a mouthful of coffee. “It’d take me well over twenty years to earn that amount!” Morris was less interested in his partner’s fiscal affairs, however, and pressed the American further.
“They must have believed all that superstition. What of Sir Archibald and his cronies?”
Kenton repeated the tale he had told them earlier. “The British government? Well, we’d run into each other in the past. Ministry agents latched onto me, and forced me into a meeting with Sir Archibald, and the other fellow, Wilson.” Kenton smiled grimly as he remembered the occasion. “I was persuaded to help them in their enquiries, and told that it would not be prudent to refuse”
“I can well imagine.” Morris conceded, as he remembered the ruthlessness with which the Ministry had apparently conducted operations in the Irish Sea. He moved a hand began to massage his tired eyes. He’d never travelled this far before, and the whole escapade had thrown him out of sorts. He was hot, bothered and so very tired. The warm Cairene air had started to dull his senses, and he could not afford to let his mental faculties slip away from him on this night.
Wearily, he continued:
“And this manuscript you read, that detailed this box, what was its name again?
“I can’t remember many of the details. But it was called something like the Wil-” Kenton thought for a moment, but he couldn’t fully remember the name. Williams? Wilforth? Whitworth?
“Wilmarth.” Morris finished for him. “Yes, that was the name mentioned on the scrap of paper we found on the beach. Possibly a fragment. I think it would be useful if we could find a copy... Then, and I mean no disrespect Mr. Kenton, we might know more about what we’re dealing with here”
Outhwaite, who had remained silent throughout the conversation, scratched his stubbly chin for a second, and then addressed his companions: “I might be able to help. I know a man who is experienced in these matters,”
The others turned to him expectantly. Outhwaite seemed amused by the sudden attention, and ran a hand through his lank hair before continuing.
“He’s a lecturer at the Al-Azhar University, near the markets,” he added, by way of an explanation. “Although a Mussulman, he has certain other interests, in more esoteric matters, you understand. From what you’ve said about this group, and their goals, there is a chance he might have heard of this book, or whatever it is, or know of some bloke who has.”
A ray of hope shone weakly upon the four men sat in the booth. “Now, Peter, how would you, in your line of work, be knowing a Mussulman holy man?” Morris asked pointedly, a facetious smile breaking across his face.
“Only Allah is perfect, Inspector,” Outhwaite shrugged, giving his companions a wry, winning smile. “Certain ancient academic and theological texts are markedly difficult and expensive to obtain. He recognises my abilities as an honest procurer of literary works.”
Taylor gave short laugh in reply, and took a slurp of his foul coffee. To Outhwaite’s great amusement, the Detective Sergeant had given up on the tea he ordered earlier. Tea in Egypt was not the last solace of the Englishman that Taylor had so desired when he entered the qahwa.
“He owes me a favour, I reckon,” Outhwaite continued, and glanced towards the Inspector, who had pulled out a tobacco pouch, and started to fill his pipe.
Morris nodded his consent. “Fine. Better we know a bit more about what we’re bloody dealing with before we go up against the Frenchmen and his oriental friends. We need all the help we can get.”
“Right,” Outhwaite agreed, as he stood, absentmindedly scratching one of his heavily tanned, sinewy arms as he did so. “I’ll arrange a meeting, and come by for you later, James. I should be there by 10 o’clock, at the latest.” He gave another one of his enigmatic smiles. “Should mean the buggers have finished their praying.”
Morris brushed errant shreds of Mild Black Cavendish and Kentucky Burley off of the table and back into his tobacco pouch, before answering: “Taylor, you go back with Kenton, and stay there till I come and get you.”
“Where are you off to, sir?” Taylor inquired. The eyes of Kenton and Outhwaite held the same question.
Morris paused in tamping down the tobacco in his old briar, and his eyes took on a faraway look. “To see an old friend.”
Alphonse D’Huberres was standing on the balcony of their safe house, taking in the night air. His body still ached horribly after his beating at the hands of the Ministry. He allowed himself a small smile. Archibald- a stupid name- was dead. As was Wilson. No one crossed D’Huberres and lived. Suddenly, he blinked. Every muscle in D’Huberre’s body tensed. The sweet smell of Katrina’s perfume drifted on the warm evening air, overpowering even the pungent smoke from his clove cigarettes. He could sense her presence behind him.
“I’m going out, my darling Alphonse. To see what His Majesty’s constabulary and your friend Monsieur Kenton are up to. And to speak with our friends.” Her voice was as smooth as silk.
He turned to face her, wincing as he did so. His shoulder was no longer dislocated, but torn muscle was still healing around the joint. The Frenchman stared into her eyes for but a second, then tore his gaze away. No. Stronger men than he had fallen to her spell. He started to speak, but Katrina placed a smooth, elegant finger across his lips.
“No, my dear. You must rest, if you are to gain your strength,” she said, coquettishly, her finger sliding down from his lips, across his strong chin, and onto his chest.
Then she was gone.
D’Huberres turned back to the street. After ten seconds, Katrina appeared beneath him, walking out into the street below. He watched her stride away from him for a good thirty seconds, taking in all aspects of her lithe, seductive form as she moved into the crowds. Then he was decided.
“Merde” D’Huberres stubbed out his half-smoked cigarette on the stone balcony rail, and picked up his jacket from the back of a nearby chair. He took one glance about the room, and then left.
And walked down to follow her, into Cairene night.
“Morris! Laddie! How’ve ye been?”
Morris hardly had time to reply as his hand was grasped in a vice-like grip. Staring across at his greeter, he felt his eyes mist slightly, and he returned the handshake with relish. He was practically pulled through the doorway and into the house of an old friend, before he fully had time to appraise the man in front of him.
Joseph ‘Bimbashi’ McPherson had aged greatly since Morris had last seen his old friend and mentor. He must have been nearly seventy now, yet age had not dimmed that bright spark in his eyes, or his strength of character. McPherson had been a keen athlete in his youth, and there was hardly an inch of fat on his lean body. Some muscle had naturally weakened with passing years, but he remained taught and strong.The lines of his face were still hard, his features purposeful and resolute, and although his hairline had receded, a full crop of thin silver-grey covered his head.
Morris, after all the trials and tribulations of the past few weeks, breathed an inward sigh of relief. Even if for just a few minutes, the cares of world could be set aside.
They sat on McPherson’s veranda, in comfortable old wicker chairs, a long drink in their hands. Beyond them lay the vista of Medieval Cairo. The landscape had changed dramatically in a few short hours. Where in the day the shmabolic buildings of this ancient city glared brightly in the sun, swathes of white, cream, russet and ochre, at dusk they took on a different hue. Shades of blue, violet and purple, formed the cityscape, punctuated by a thousand pin-pricks of warm orange light which shone in arched windows, portals to the private world of a million Cairene lives.
Neither of them spoke. Just drank and smoked in peace.
McPherson had listened to Morris’ tale for a good half an hour. He was an attentive listener, and waited on his old friend’s every word. Now he pondered on its meanings and secrets. Finally, he spoke.
“I’m sorry, but Wakely was your man for that,” McPherson sighed, smoothing his bushy moustache. “Even if he was an untalkative bugger. Being an ex-Commisioner of Police in India gives you certain advantages in these affairs, as I’m sure you realise.”
Morris nodded, and took a stronger than usual suck on his pipe. It was as he’d feared. But McPherson continued.
“As to this group you speak of, well, I’m afraid I know nothing. There have been some strange foreign buggers wandering around Cairo, though. Fucking French mostly.”
Morris’ ears pricked, and he jerked forward. Sadly, none of them matched the descriptions of their mysterious Frenchman. In this post-war and post-revolutionary world, the British and French secret services found that they were once again sparring partners, particularly in the Colonial sphere. And particularly in Egypt. Morris made a few scribbled notes in his notebook, and turned back to his friend.
“So, as far as I see it,” he sighed, as he took the pipe stem out of his mouth, We have two options. We either let D’Huberres and his friends find us, or we try and retake the initiative.
Bimbashi McPherson nodded. “But it ain’t that easy in a city of God knows how many of these heathen buggers. You need information. Numbers, names, hideouts, links for these fiends. It’s the same as London, man: you need someone who can help, probably in the Criminal Underworld, some snitch who needs your help or money.”
“I’m sure Taylor and Outhwaite have connections, but they won’t say. I’m not sure I can blame them, to be honest,” Morris replied. McPherson snorted briefly when he heard the name of Outhwaite, but he seemed to agree with the Inspector.
“Crime here is run by one man. An albino fellow named Apep. Named after an Egyptian God. Pretentious as hell, but a bit more imaginative than ‘Big Mick’, eh?” McPherson laughed heartily. They’d both run into Fenians in the past. He wiped a rheumy, watery eye, and then continued. “He’s ruthless as hell, but careful, too. He took over not too long after I’d left the Service. If I only had a fraction of the resources I had when I was working for the service…”
“Still at it, Joe?” Morris inquired, a kind smile on his face. Bimbashi McPherson used to head the British. Secret Service in Cairo. He had retired over ten years ago.
McPherson nodded tiredly. “Aye. Some freelance work, but I’m too old to be active, and trawling the streets, which is what it needs. Providing the odd bit of help to His Majesty’s minions also, which they normally ignore - stupid lot. All the worst kind of Public School boys, spindly, weak, scared of the sun, and none of them handy with a cudgel. Used to be a time when old school tie meant something! You were forged on the rugger fields of Eton, not the bloody cricket pitch. These Arab thugs respect you a lot more once you’ve bashed a few heads.”
Morris laughed. Joseph McPherson had changed little in the years since he’d seen him last. McPherson turned towards him, and said “I can work on it, but it’ll take days.”
“We don’t have that kind of time, I’m afraid, Joe.” Morris replied, and Bimbashi McPherson sank back into his private thoughts. He remained in a form of concentrated contemplation for about a minute. Then, the old man’s posture changed. He seemed to have come to some inward decision, banishing whatever demons he’d been arguing with to reach a resolution.
“If you want answers try this, laddie.” He scrawled a name and an address on a piece of paper, and handed it to Morris. “He runs the most risky bit of Apep’s operations, and is the most likely to squeal. We’ve been working on him for a couple of years.” Morris accepted the paper and took in the name and address.
McPherson looked mutely across the Cairene night sky. “He’s our best link to Apep. His vice is prostitution. Or white slavery, to be more exact. The government don’t mind the buggers killing each other, but if they lay one hand on an English rose,” he stopped, and snorted in derision. “Crime against Europeans normally brings the harshest penalties, looks good in the newspapers.” For all his bluster and cursing, Joseph McPherson was a man who loved his adopted country and all it’s people and customs.
Morris realised what this gesture would mean. If this man was Bimbashi’s best link, then as soon as he and Taylor had pressed the squeal, flushed him into the open, McPherson’s private war against Apep would crumble to dust. He moved to hand the paper back to McPherson.
“No laddie, keep it. Time to cash in the pension, I reckon. I’ve led a good life, and it seems to me that these boys you’re after are far more of a bunch of bastards than some fat albino Cairene.”
“Thanks Joe” Morris whispered as he gratefully took McPherson’s hand. “We’ll pay him a visit.”
“No problem. I’ll supply you with a couple of boys to help you out. Big Nubian buggers, too! Right, laddie, you go break some heads.”
“Is it wise to let Kenton and that Yorkshireman go off on his own, sir? I mean, Christ, we’ve come halfway across the bloody world to find him, lucky enough that we managed to achieve that, if you ask me, sir, and then you let him bugger off with that beaky nosed northerner, who we hardly bloody know, who might as soon be.”
“Taylor?” Morris interrupted the run of Taylor’s diatribe.
“Shut up.” Morris was trying to light his pipe with some substandard matches he picked up at a local stall, and failing miserably. As another match flared into life, only to die almost as quickly, he flung the box onto the dusty street floor, and turned angrily upon his accomplice.
“Damn it, Taylor, do you take me for a complete moron?!”
“No sir.” Taylor bowed his head and turned his frustration on a particularly large beetle which was scurrying across his path.
“Outhwaite owes me a favour. No, Sergeant,” he added, seeing the look on Taylor’s face, “I don’t completely trust him. But if anything happens, help will be but a second away. We simply don’t have the time or the bodies necessary to try to keep together, even if we wished to. And we can’t spend our time bloody well nurse-maiding him, I’ll leave that to a friend of mine.”
Taylor let the matter drop. “So, guv, if they’re doing the library work, what are we doing? And, sir,” his voice became a whisper, “are you sure we can trust the Darkies?”
Morris and Taylor turned around to look at their companions, who had paused a few yards behind them. As if on cue both men smiled, great ivory half moons on their ebony faces. They were well over six feet tall, and of solid, muscular build. Bimbashi McPherson had clothed them in European working clothes - heavy cloth trousers and shirt, scuffed boots. It’d have been a miracle if he’d been able to get any jacket over their barrel-like chests.
Taylor shuddered as he remembered the story Morris had told him, about how this likely pair came to work for Bimbashi McPherson. They were brothers, and from a village far to the south. Their sister had been kidnapped, and forced to work in the Apep’s brothels, satisfying fat Europeans who wanted something a bit exotic. They had travelled to Cairo, and met up with McPherson, who as a Freelance detective was trying to close some of the brutal dens of iniquity down. Eventually, they had found their sister, and rescued her from the vile trade. Taylor had asked what had happened to the brothel owner in question.
One of the men had broken into his wide smile, opened his shirt, and pulled out a mummified body part, held on a leather thong around his neck Oh Christ
“I said, Taylor, if you’d gratify me with your bloody attention,” Morris snapped, pulling him out his recollections, “that Bimbashi is an old friend of mine. Now come on. We’d better get a move on.”
They walked for about three-quarters of an hour, through the evening Cairene streets. The oppressive bustle of the day had died down in this quarter, but the streets were still teeming with life. Or low-life, Morris thought, grimly.
Then the Inspector stopped. He took out the scrap of paper that McPherson had given him, and stuck a match so that he could better see its contents. Satisfied, he used the last flickers of flame to burn the piece of paper, and flung it into the dust. He turned to his left. A lone, narrow side street stretched off into the darkness.
This was it.
Kenton hadn’t been to Cairo in years. He’d guessed that come late evening, the market street of Sharia Muski would have quietened somewhat, that the overbearing bustle of the morning and late afternoon would have been replaced by the more sedate traffic of the Cairene night. For the past twenty minutes he’d been reminded just how wrong he was. The Khan el Khalili, the bazaar of all bazaars, knew of no official trading hours, or of any government legislation to enforce them.
Walking down the Sharia Muski which ran south the Khan el Khalili was an experience that would remain with the traveller for rest of his days. Theoretically, the bazaar itself only existed north of the road, but the vendors were ignorant of such theoretical boundaries. The real mercantile centre lay amid the teeming back streets, which ran off the Sharia Muski, but any merchant worth his salt recognised the value of having a stall on this busy artery of travel.
Only in the trenches had Kenton born witness to such a similar level bombardment on all the senses at once. A bewildering cavalcade of sights, smells, sounds and tastes assaulted the casual tourist. Even in the late evening, the soft light of torches and oil lamps illuminated a brilliant and colourful scene. Countless stalls of local rug weavers and silk merchants flanked this section of the road, intruding into dirt passageway with their wares and merchants. Pale pastel silks blended against the rich maroons, russets and ochres of carpets, offset against the white and cream robes of the Cairene hoi polloi, and the black veils and of their wives, travelling a step behind them.
Some idiot had tried to get a taxi to drive down the covered thoroughfare, pressed by some ignorant tourist, no doubt, and the sedan was now beset by a horde. Hawkers aggressively pushed their wares through the open windows, trapping the incumbent amid a horde of howling, enraged Cairenes.
The noise hit you like a wave. The omnipresent shouts of the vendors. The multilingual chatterings of tourists and natives alike. The chromatic meanderings a lone snake-charmer’s zumarra flute. The distant metallic clangs of the far-off copper, brass and gold smiths, working at night so that they may better judge the temperatures of their glowing forges. Beside him, a multi-story argument was developing between a fig salesman, enraged at the poor price offered for his wares, and a gaggle of shrieking wives, hidden in the shadows of their first floor harem. The man stood bawling in the street, howling with rage now that they had taken a pile of juicy figs and offered small payment in return. The women had heaved up the figs in basket dangled from their window, and thrown only a few coins down in return. Forbidden from entering the house or harem by Islamic law, he was reduced to a wildly gesticulatory, impotent fury.
The smells washed over the traveller also. The smells of fruit, both rotting and fresh. The pungent whiff of dyed leather. The more familiar noxious hues of coffee and ma’assil. The musty aromas which emanated from the carpet sellers’ wares. Snatches of oriental spices and perfumes. And then the far less savoury ones that you could not escape in this teeming mass of humanity, those of stale sweat and faeces.
And Taste. The air had a hint of cinnamon, which caught on the tongue. A ripe, rich fig was placed against his lips by some figure, blurred in the crowd. The dust, stirred up by the masses, settled in his mouth, drying his tongue. And finally, you could feel the market. Kenton’s bare forearms constantly brushed against the environment around him as he made his weaving way through the crowds. The coarse dusty robe of a hawker. The rough fabric of woven rug, its mis-stitch testament to the fact that only Allah was perfect. The cool swathes of silk, indolently fluttering in the night air. The soft tassels of a rolled carpet.
Kenton took a long draw off his Camel as he sidestepped a steaming pile of mule dung. “Do you think it was a good idea not telling them anything about Apep?” Kenton’s tone indicated that he wasn’t so sure. He remembered sharply Outhwaite’s kick under the table as he was about to divulge a couple of facts about his arrival in Cairo. The Yorkshireman obviously thought that it was best to keep certain things quiet.
Outhwaite shook his head. “Morris is as sound as a copper comes, but he’s still on the Force. No telling what he might do if we start blabbing about that albino and his arrangement with the Frog’s people.”
He stopped for a moment, and placed a restraining hand on Kenton’s shoulder. Kenton met his gaze, and was surprised by the look of sincerity he found on Outhwaite’s normally sardonic features. Outhwaite addressed him quietly, “If you’re, we’re, going to come out of this crap-heap alive, we’d better play both sides very carefully. And that means not telling Morris and Taylor that you’re mates with the bleeding vice lord of Cairo, and met me through him.”
His face softened into grin. “They tend to get all bloody righteous. How are they going to react to ‘Yeah, sure, my mate Apep knows about it’ Hmmm? What’s he do? ‘Oh well he’s into opium and hashish smuggling, white slavery, casual torture, child prostitution and murder. I’ll take you to meet him’.”
The Yorkshireman broke into a sarcastic laugh at his humour, and shoved one of the more over-enthusiastic hawkers out of his path. The last strains of the muezzin calls to prayer faded into the noises of the markets flanking the Sharia Muski, defeated at last by the mercantile hordes, who seemed very unconcerned about their Salvation this evening.
“Any luck, and the buggers’ll be done by the time we get there.” Outhwaite said hopefully, looking at the teeming hordes they’d have to pass before they reached their destination. Seeing that Kenton still seemed worried, he tried to reassure him.
“Better if they start snooping around the criminal underworld, not us. In fact, I know an old-school copper when I see one. I bet they’re raising all manner of bloody hell this moment.”
The two large Arabs had gone down quickly. One whimpered in a corner, a swift quick in the groin had momentarily incapacitated him, before his attempt to reach for a knife had resulted a thrown Nubian blade through his hand, cutting bone and mutilating his carpial muscles. The other had taken a few seconds longer - long enough to get a sound hit in on Taylor’s chin, before his brass knuckles had left the Arab’s nose a mass of blood and torn cartilage. A few place kicks from the Nubians after they’d fallen ensured that the two guards would take no place in the present conversation, with the owner, Rashid, who was now held up against the wall by the two Nubians. A large damp stain appeared on his robes near his groin, and began to spread. A trickle of urine ran down his leg, and on to the stone brothel floor. Taylor, heart still beating fast, recoiled for a moment in disgust. “Christ, sir, he’s bloody pissed himself!”
Morris ignored his the distraction and kept his eyes focused on the “Now Rashid, are you hampering the enquiries of His Majesty’s police?” he asked.
“B-b-but, I am protected! I am protected!!!” Rashid shouted in vain towards his attackers.
“I don’t think you understand, Rashid,” Morris spoke calmly, as he filled his pipe. “We’re not from Cairo. And we couldn’t care less how much you’ve paid Apep. As far as we’re concerned, you’ve already told us all we want to know. You’re a paragon of virtue. Your kind help to His Majesty’s police will be printed in all the newspapers, you might even get an official commendation.”
“B-but, I haven’t! No! No, you can’t do that! Apep will kill me!”
“So perhaps you’d better tell us what you really know, then we can help protect you from Apep, Rashid.” Morris said smoothly, idly tamping down his tobacco. He reached for a match, and looked expectantly at the procurer.
“No-one is safe from him - no-one!” Rashid’s cries grew pathetic. He squirmed in the Nubians’ grip. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and ran in rivulets down the creases his protestations were forming on his face.
Morris slowly shook his head. “I don’t see that you have a choice, Rashid. Is Apep going to trust you after you spend twenty minutes with us? He knows that you’re weak. And greedy. So - what do you know of this American, Kenton, and this other group. Have they been asking after him?”
“Course he knows, sir these filthy bleeding orientals stick together!” Taylor hated this pathetic specimen, and let it show.
“English bastarrgghh!” A blow to the stomach from one of the Nubians cut short Rashid’s curse.
“I-I don’t know!” he pleaded as he regained his breath.. “Only Apep dealt with the group - I know nothing! They are as swift as the night wind! And as invisible! The American – he, he came to see Apep when he arrived!”
“And since then, Rashid? who has been looking into the affairs of the American?” Morris glanced at one of the Nubians and nodded, almost imperceptibly. The Nubian tightened his grip on the Arab and forced him higher up the wall, almost tearing Rahid’s shoulder out of his joint as he did so.
“Qebhsenuf!” Rashid screamed, in agony. “He went to see Apep two nights ago! He said that if Kenton arrived, Apep should direct the American to him! He said he and some friends needed to speak with him, that Apep owed Qebhsenuf that much!”
Morris grew impatient. Of course, he thought, we were the ones who asked Qebhsenuf to make inquiries! “Get to the point”
Then he stopped.
His mind focused on one point. One simple point that they’d both missed. A conundrum, hidden amongst Kenton’s strange tale, and Outhwaite’s timely help. In the qahwa earlier they hadn’t had time to pry into Kenton’s affairs once he’d reached Cairo, they didn’t seem important. There was still much to puzzle over from their time in England. Outhwaite had simply told them that he’d make inquiries using his contacts, and Kenton had magically appeared. It had not seemed important exactly how Outhwaite knew how to find Kenton at the time.
Now a piece suddenly slotted into the puzzle.
Two nights ago.
Taylor looked mutely at Morris. The blood, aroused by the skirmish, was slowly draining from his cheeks. His mouth opened slightly, but no words emerged. They didn’t need to. Morris read the confused question in his companion’s eyes.
But we only met Outhwaite this morning!
The Al-Azhar University loomed before them. Their timing had not been quite perfect. The buggers had finished, but were now streaming through the Gate of the Barbers to join them. Kenton and Outhwaite were almost bowled over in a wave of robed, bearded, turbaned and tarbouched humanity. At least, following the ritual washing, the wave was a moderately clean one, and there was none of the Sharia al-Muski. Outhwaite smiled grimly at the situation, and forged his way through the crowd. He beckoned Kenton to follow him.
After several minutes of wrestling through the crowds, they had reached the building. A guard in the fore court looked apprehensive that two infidels were approaching, and was about to summon a guide, but a couple of quick, quiet words from the Yorkshireman stopped him. The guard nodded, and let them both pass.
The air inside was cool as they crossed the large, open space of the mosque’s Sahn el-Gami. Kenton gazed in wonder at the tall marble columns, lovingly inscribed with the verses of the Koran by craftsmen hundreds of years ago. Reaching the edge of the inner court, they moved onwards, through a forest of marble pillars, and into a dimly lit corridor. The air here had a distinct chill to it.
Finally after twenty yards, Outhwaite stopped. He pushed aside a black cloth curtain, and entered and disappeared. Warily, Kenton followed him.
It was a small room that he entered, with only a low study desk. Racks of musty books and scrolls adorned the shelves on the walls. The room was illuminated by a simple oil lamp, which hung from the centre of the ceiling. The glass was tinted, framing the room in shades purple and violet.
Across from the study desk, on a pile of cushions, sat a short, stocky man. He was heavily tanned, and his features seemed more like those of a native of northern Persia than an Egyptian. It was his eyes that were most distinctive. They were bright, cheerful and alive. They seemed to possess the cunning of fox along with the wisdom of an academic. Slowly, a grin spread across his broad, bearded face.
“Greetings, Mr. Kenton. Please, you look thirsty; help yourself to a drink.” He motioned towards a small cabinet on a far wall.”
Gratefully, Kenton walked over. The glasses were as clear as crystal and sparkling clean. He looked that selection, and poured himself a scotch. No ice - not in Egypt, anyway. Quite a drinks cabinet this Mussulman had here: iced water, chilled lemonade and whisky? In an Islamic university?
The unmistakable sound of a pistol being cocked. Kenton froze. Slowly, arms fixed to his sides, he turned around. The jovial holy man was facing him, pistol in hand. Kenton’s eyes narrowed as he stared at the gun.
“Tokarev. TT33,” he stated, half under his breath. “Standard issue for the Russian Army, not Mohammedan holy men.”
The man facing him simply smiled, his eyes never leaving Kenton’s. Kenton frowned. “OGPU, foreign section?” If the man was working with D’Huberres, this didn’t make any sense. There were a ton of weapons you could gain more easily on the black market than newly issued Russian pistols.
“Your are perceptive, my friend.” The man used his gun to wave Kenton to a spare cushion.
As he sat, Kenton turned on Outhwaite, hatred in his eyes. Outhwaite shrugged nonchalantly. “Sorry mate,” he said, as he moved to pour himself a scotch. “It’s nothing personal.”
Kenton brusquely interrupted him: “I thought Morris said you owed him a favour?”
“Yes, but I owe someone else a bigger favour.”
Kenton glanced at the man with the gun.
“No, James,” Outhwaite said quietly, “Not Vassily. Myself.”
Vassily smiled. “Comrade Piotr has long been a friend of mine, Mr. Kenton.”
James Kenton gritted his teeth. “Get it over with.”
“Oh no, Mr. Kenton,” Vassily cheerfully countered, “We do not wish to kill you! Quite the contrary. We have, as your Americans capitalists might say, a business proposition for you!”
“Don’t worry James,” Peter Outhwaite said past a wolfish grin, “You’re not the only confused foreigner wandering around Cairo, I think D’Huberres and his friends may be in for quite a surprise as well.” To the American’s surprise, Outhwaite was staring past Kenton, at the entrance to the room.
Kenton turned towards curtain. It had been drawn back. Framed in the light of the corridor was the tall figure of a woman.
The American did not think that he had ever seen a woman so beautiful. Or so obviously deadly. She was dressed in a simple khaki shirt and trousers. The shirt was tied about her waste, emphasising her considerable figure and exposing her smooth midriff. Her skin was tanned and unblemished, not yet harmed by the rigours of the dry climate and desert winds. Short blonde hair, bleached by the sun, was held back from her face in a loose pony-tail, except for a single strand which dangled playfully in front of her brown, almond shaped eyes. Although she stood near motionless in the doorway, every slight movement bewitched and aroused James Kenton. For a moment he forgot about his plight. And then her voice reminded him.
“Hello James,” she whispered, seductively. “My name is Katrina.”
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