The Zanzibar Directive Table of Contents

Chapter 16 Of Bulls and Beetles

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Chapter 16

Of Bulls and Beetles

By Stuart Stansfield


“Line’s down.”

McPherson statement was simple and to the point as he replaced the telephone earpiece. “You’ll have to contact the embassy some other way. Not easy with riots bloody everywhere… you damn idiots are lucky to be alive! Worse than the bloody twenties by all accounts!” The old intelligence man known to his friends and foes alike as ‘Bimbashi’ fixed his angry stare on his guests, but none could hold his gaze. Even if they wished to defend themselves the blame their host had seemed to lay solely on their shoulders, they were in no physical, mental or emotional condition to do so.


Morris, Taylor, Thatcher and D’Huberres sat, shocked, bloodied and bruised, He wouldn’t allow them outside while half of Cairo was baying for their blood, so they remained docile in McPherson’s drawing room, a glass of malt in one hand, a foul Turkish Latakia cigarette in the other. Thurlwell was the only absentee, curled up on McPherson’s bed; a knife wound being treated by a kindly servant. The otherwise silent atmosphere was broken only by the soft swishing of a ceiling fan operated by a servant, and a slight gurgle which emanated from McPherson’s pipe, as he strode irritatedly across his domain.


“Seemingly, this Apep has it in for us. Could be the contact we roughed up…” Taylor half mumbled, as if to appease the old firebrand pacing the room before him.


“Doubt it,” McPherson interjected forcibly, with some annoyance. “No, it’ll be something else. I’ll get my people on it. Not that it’ll be easy on a night like this…” His words were clipped, their utterance rapid. Emotionless sentences rapped off in apparent unison with his hurried pacing, back and forth across the room. Old McPherson paused in his remonstrations for a moment, and allowed himself a quick peek between the curtained drapes, which covered the glass doors closing off the drawing room from the veranda. The glow of a burning car illuminated the early evening cityscape before him, the bright cornflower blue already hazing into a deep azure. Distants shouts of anger could heard above the crackle of flames, and the dull shriek of strained metal


“It’ll be your dismembered limbs floating in the Nile tomorrow if you go out in this,” he half muttered, and turned back to his guests. The city he loved was falling to pieces around him. Apep’s henchmen roamed wantonly, and he was powerless to do anything about it. But the anger was not as simply directed as it seemed, for Morris could read his old friend’s gaze well. Joseph McPherson was demonstrably angry at the way his guests and their affairs may have enflamed the situation, yes, but it was not wholly true to his real feelings. If anything it was a simple outlet for only his surface emotions. His real passions ran deeper. Fear for his countless friends in the city, pain at their loss, fury at the triumph of brutality over law. Anger at his life’s work withering before his very eyes, as Apep strode unmolested across the city; a futile fury conveniently focused on those around him.


“I’m sorry, Joe,” Morris said quietly.


McPherson looked at his friend steadily. He seemed genuinely touched for what seemed an infinitesimally small moment, a gesture Morris picked out clearly before ‘Bimbashi’ laconically shrugged off the apology in front of Thatcher and the Frenchman. He coughed, and turned back towards the veranda. His voice had lost a touch of its steeliness as he said, “Well, you can’t leave now, that’s for certain. So instead of moping around here drinking my whisky, why don’t you do something useful?”


His guest raised their eyebrows. Morris seemed to catch the change in mood, and leaned forward purposefully in his chair, filling his pipe with vigour. Some of the tiredness and despair evidenced just a moment before had been shaken off; Morris’ wits and intellect were returning. Taylor saw the change, and made as if to speak.


“So, sergeant, what have you got so far?” McPherson asked gruffly, pre-empting Taylor’s comment.


Taylor explained all that had happened since Morris saw McPherson last, the real nature of Outhwaite, the strange insects, the mutilated corpses, the capture of D’Huberres (a stern look from McPherson to the Frenchman at this), the loss of Kenton and the strange yet deadly woman, the attack of the Arabs and the bloody slaughter of the Ministry men. He held nothing back, even though D’Huberres sat across from him. Although the Frenchman was a murderer (though they had not explained to McPherson that he was implicated in the murder of Sir Archibald), he had been as much an unwilling pawn in many events as they had been. Their flight had forged a bond between them, slight, and hated, but there all the same. When this was over, there would be scores to settle, but until then, an enemy’s enemy was your friend…


As he finished, Taylor noticed that the old intelligence hand was looking at the wax-covered dispatch case holding the papers they found, which lay on a nearby coffee table. “Have you had a look at these, gentlemen?” Bimbashi inquired. “They look interesting…”


“Not really,” Morris spoke up, having finished filling his pipe. “A brief overview at the scene, that’s all… not really time,” Morris intimated, somewhat wearily. He’d risen to stretch his weary legs, to shake some life into them, and now stood by the curtained entrance to the veranda. A slight opening in the heavy drapes his only view of the outside world. “I noticed some terms of note, a drawing of the pendent, a reference to a box… but that was all at the time. Taylor.”


Through a simple word and an understanding born of years of partnership, Taylor picked up the papers. With a careful eye, keen to prevent a reprimand from his boss in front of the drawing room audience, he ran over the inventory of the yellowed papers. “Half-a-dozen pages, crabbed tight-typed script. Heavily annotated, though the hand is pretty damn illegible. Then this… well, this is a bit weird…”


“Well, what is it?” McPherson asked, his curiosity piqued.


“I don’t know sir… looks all bloody Greek to me…” Taylor laughed, and held a paper up to a nearby wall-light, as if to get a better look.

“Pay attention, Taylor!” Morris snapped harshly, and spun from the curtains to face his sergeant. “Now is not the time to indulge in any bloody stupid apotheosis of your ignorance…”


Taylor shot a glance briefly at his mentor, hurt by the sudden vicious barb, before dropping his embarrassed gaze to the ground. He held the papers limply for a moment, and in that second D’Huberres snatched them quickly. The Sergeant made no attempt to resist.


A quiet Gallic voice broke the silence. “Inspector,” D’Huberres said through a crooked smile, “he is telling the truth. It is Greek.” The Frenchman winced as he extended the sheet of paper towards the approaching Morris. The inspector glanced at the sheet of paper thrust before him. His eyes blurred the characters slightly, a function of weariness compounded by the soft light of gas lamps burning in the drawing room. Finally the letters came into focus, and Morris made a sudden, involuntary intake of breath as he finally made out the Greek characters at the top of the page.

Critias…” McPherson’s eyes lit up, as Morris spoke the name aloud. “Indeed…

“Who the hell was Critias?” Taylor asked, confused. Thatcher had seemed to recognise the name also, but he and D’Huberres stared on with incomprehension.


“If you deigned to raise your education and reading hazards above the Evening Standard every once in a while, Taylor, you might know,” Morris muttered. Although his words were harsh, they had lost the vehemence of before.


“He was a chap in Plato,” Thatcher added. “He appears in several books, notably the Timaeus and Critias. Plato used characters like him to tell a certain particular story, to expound in a philosophical setting on some real-life moral dilemma.” His words were slow, and carefully enunciated, so that D’Huberres and Taylor, who had probably never heard of Plato till that moment, might follow.


“You mean like an allogry-type thing?” Taylor asked, some recognition in his voice. D’Huberres remained guarded. He had seen this set of papers only once before, a brief glimpse in that Zanzibar café. It all seemed so long ago now…


McPherson smiled. “An ‘allegory’, sergeant. Yes, indeed; Plato used Critias to expound upon his allegorical Athens so to speak, a nation brought low by corruption and arrogance. An island nation destroyed in a natural cataclysm of unheard proportions… a mighty civilisation swallowed by the sea…”


Taylor seemed slightly perplexed “You don’t mean…” he murmured as he turned towards his erstwhile inspector, a clear but confused question in his eyes.


Morris nodded imperceptibly as he held his sergeant’s gaze. His words were clear but deadly quiet, little more than a whisper.


“Yes, sergeant, he means Atlantis.”


McPherson had been animated for some while now. His previous ill mood had vanished, replaced with an almost boyish eagerness to solve the problem at hand, or delve into this curious branch of the investigation that had presented itself. Outside, the sky grew darker as the sun edged its way towards the horizon. The riots that had followed Apep’s call to arms, clashes arising to cover his private war against the Westerners and the Chinaman, or out of a simple native desire for butchery against the rich westerners oblivious to their hovel-like existence, were falling.


McPherson had already sent several scouts out into the city, men from his now dwindled chain of agents who spread far and wide amongst the narrow Cairene streets. One had returned already; Apep’s operatives had not followed them here. In a stroke of luck, Morris and his comrades had evaded their pursuers in the end, and After the exertions of the day, the warm, still evening air had sated themsleves. Soon it would be safe to leave, before the shadows of nights once again covered all, the cool evening restored and the knives could shine brightly under the moon.


Morris stared blankly into space for a moment, his eyes blurring the scene before him. They were still perched in McPherson’s drawing room. Still the drapes screened them from the outside world, but at least the old man had allowed them a clean change of clothes. Ill-fitted the fresh linen may have been, but it was wonderfully cool against his hot skin. He thought of Kenton, the American whom they had been forced to leave in the clutches of that mysterious yet deadly woman, whilst they had bolted like rabbits to their burrow. He had never felt much for the American, but was now concerned for his safety. A raise in anticipation in McPherson’s voice snapped him from his reverie…


“Hold on… ah, here we go… Spence. Lewis Spence.” Old Bimbashi casually threw the copy of ‘History of Atlantis’ on top of a stack of books, which were piled precariously atop a dark varnished wicker side table. The basketwork creaked under the extra weight.


It was quite a pile of pulp esoterica which endangered the wickerwork’s structural integrity. Sir James Frazer’s own 1922 abridged version of the ‘The Golden Bough’ rested on top of an old folio edition of Negris’ 1905 ‘La question de l’Atlantis de Platon’, one of the finest present translations of Plato.


Morris looked at his old friend, with an element of slight incomprehension.


McPherson smiled, a slight hint of embarrassment toying on his expression. “I’m too old to bash heads, so I read this nonsense, okay? I did read philosophy at Corpus Christi, after all! Atlantis always fascinated me, even then…”

“…And that which is now only a name and was then, something more than a name, orichalcum, was dug out of the earth…”


Morris snapped awake quickly; he checked his watch. Only twenty minutes had passed since he last remembered checking the time, since McPherson had taken to his demented library work. He cursed himself for falling asleep at this crucial juncture, but a quick look at his companions, showed their total obliviousness to his supposed misdemeanour. McPherson, Taylor, Thatcher, and even the dour D’Huberrres, were flicking through heavy hard-backed tomes, easing pages back and forth in their search for some vague term of reference, a search driven by a curious mantle of giddy enthusiasm which had enveloped old Joseph McPherson.


The voice that had awoken him had been D’Huberres, but the words were those of Plato’s Critias. Taylor replied with surprising eagerness to D’Huberres’ utterance. Christ, mused Morris with a raised eyebrow, he’s actually getting into this…


“Orichalcum again…” Taylor muttered, intrigued, “what is it?”


“Mountain copper, to use a literal translation,” Thatcher answered. His words were somewhat dispassionate; Morris noted that he was obviously less engrossed than the others in their present endeavour. “It’s Latin… comes from the Greek oreikhalkon. Probably brass…”


His last sentence was cut short by a stinging, disparaging look from old Mcpherson. “Well, if our evidence as to the nature of the pendent is to be believed, it is not mere brass, Mr. Thatcher,” the old man scolded; a vague nod from D’Huberres seemed to fortify his words.


“So gentlemen,” McPherson spoke, but largely for the benefit of the newly awoken Morris (he at least had noticed his friend’s slumber), “what do we have?”


Taylor rose to the challenge, “The pieces are clicking together. Orichalcum, a metal supposedly used by the Atlanteans is mentioned in the papers we found, and supposedly the pendant, and parts of this mysterious box, are made out of it…”


At this the Frenchman gave a perfunctory nod. D’Huberres had quietly followed all that his ‘captors’ had found, and even helped translate the Plato to the decidedly non-Francophone Taylor. They were letting their guard slip, Alphonse mused, beginning to ingratiate him into their circle. Even Thatcher was keeping less of an eye on him, his gun resting idly on the table beside him, no longer trained on his heart. Inwardly, D’Huberres smiled; he wasn’t going to stop them… not whilst he was finding this decidedly interesting as well…


“And bulls… bulls are important too, sergeant,” McPherson added. “Bulls were sacred to Poseidon, the patron god of Atlantis, and sacrificed to him. They were allowed to roam freely at times on Atlantis as the sacred cows do in Hindustan. Is it purely coincidental that we find symbols of bulls associated with orichalcum… like on the pendant? Or, perhaps”


Morris chuckled quietly, “Aren’t you taking this a bit far, gentlemen?”


“I mean, come on sir, the bull god Hap, and the bull cults of Orion-Apis or Serapis in Egypt; Poseidon’s Cretan Bull, the Minoans bull veneration and symbolism, the bull aspects of Dionysus; the Celtic Brown Bull of Quelgny; the Cult of Mithras; the great Bull form of the Hindu sky god Indra…” Taylor reeled off a sequence of mythical entities.


“Alright, Taylor, your cap and gown are in the post…”


“Not to mention its importance as a corn-spirit and life-giver in Prussia and the rest of Germany,” McPherson added. “Surely the bull was worshipped for a reason… and why so frequently in this aspect as a ‘sky god’? Hardly what one may associated with a horned bovine at all…”


Thatcher snorted derisively. “Bulls and cows! Damn it, man… superstitious people make gods out of everything! You have to understand the human side of this… they were pastoral societies, of course the bloody cow took on a role…”


“That is the sensible explanation, Mr. Thatcher,” McPherson said quietly. “But liquefied bodies and insects morphing through wood belie sense… As I begin to explore this case, I see less and less sensible science and allegory, and more reality buried in myth.


“Perhaps… perhaps…” Thatcher nodded, wearily, “but you seem to be implying…”


“That all modern civilisations are nought but the scions of Atlantis? Many think so… why else would the bull be so prevalent in this certain guise in myth?” He raised his hand to stop Thatcher’s comment. “It is a rhetorical question, I do not necessarily argue its anthropological reality… your point is entirely reasonable.”


“But what about in the Americas? Surely if your Atlantis lay in the middle of the Atlantic, such beliefs would travel there?” Thatcher asked, hoping to corner the old man.


MacPherson shook his head. “I didn’t say it was in the Atlantic… I don’t argue that Plato is entirely correct… but that buried in his classical allusions there may be a hidden reality… Why was there a sudden surge in culture and technology several thousand years ago, focused on Egypt and the ‘fertile crescent’, if the Egyptologists and Sumeriologists are to be believed? What caused it? What lay behind this similarity of religious symbolism?”


“But what about the beetles… the strange insects that we have encountered?” Morris asked, in the process of refilling his pipe. He stopped his actions for a moment. In a disquieting onset of déjà vu he half remembered a dream he must have had whilst he was sleeping a scant few minutes ago, where a peaceful smoke had been disturbed by a horde of milling creatures melding into and out of his pipe bowl, roasting with some foul psychic scream in the burning tobacco…


McPherson was genuinely thoughtful. “Beetles and other insects have never played much of an important role in myth and legend,” he said slowly, as if directly considering the idea, “well, not as important as other animals. They are more of an unknown quantity. The scarab, however, is different.”


“The Scarab is of great import to the Egyptians… it is a symbol of rebirth. Within the dung beetle’s life cycle they saw mirrored their own daily cosmic progression. Once they had removed the organs from a dead Pharaoh, a scarab took the place of the heart in the mummified corpse, so as to ensure the progress to the afterlife. The Egyptian god Khepri was often depicted as a giant scarab, or Scarab headed man…” Taylor enthused gladly, taking the whole process to heart.


“The beetles have seemed to follow us everywhere…” Morris mused, failing to see any direct relevance at the moment of Taylor’s newfound Egyptological knowledge.


“Exactly!” McPherson exclaimed, as if remembering something he had been attempting to recall for the last minute. “The beetle is linked in homeopathic magic with the idea of observation, scrying and control, the concept of a link via the beetle to some person. In the old days if some Arab had a runaway slave, he would draw a magic circle and place a nail in the centre,” McPherson smiled, and placed a pin in the table by way of example. “He would then take a beetle, and attach it to the nail by a piece of thread. As the beetle wandered,” he illustrated this with a circular motion of his finger around the pin,“the thread would wrap ever tighter around the nail, drawing him ever inward. This was thought to draw the slave back to his master. Perhaps there is some real reason the Arabs used this ritual… some ancient example?”


“Wait a minute… are you saying this is magic, English?” D’Huberres asked, a hint of concern in his voice.


The old man shook his head. “Not necessarily magic, no; what is myth but a catalogue of earnest attempts by humanity to understand that which they cannot directly explain, but see in their everyday lives before them? Behind the allegory, the myth, often lies real truth; not all is pure superstitious symbolism. Buried racial memories… how many civilisations possess the myth of the Great Flood? Of a few survivors who left their drowned lands to seed the races of the world?” McPherson wet his throat his a sip of whisky, before continuing:


“I do not imply magic or religion, but real science enshrouded in primitive misunderstanding… Real science not necessarily of this world…


“Now hold on, Joe…” Morris started.


“Come now, Morris old friend. These bodies you saw. Surely you have seen nothing like this before? What man can hold such power? You have spoken of these strange creatures, which can travel through wood, leaving not a mark. Did you not hear the words of Taylor? Khepri, the Scarab god he spoke of rode across primordial chaos in a ‘boat’… what is that an allusion to? The primordial waters… is that the sea… or the universe?”


No one had any answer.


“Are you not familiar with the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead?” McPherson asked…


"I have flown up like the primeval ones, I have become Khepri. . ."


A chill spread across the room for a second. The doors to the veranda had forced themselves open, and a cool evening breeze brushed the occupant’s exposed forearms, raising hairs and blanching the skin. The drapes flapped with the influx of air, surprisingly strong on such a mild evening. McPherson smiled, and read a single passage from a particularly old tome he had been perusing:


“Hap… or Apis to the Greeks… the bull-god, was a special deity, with a special duty. For he was the messenger of the gods, carrying their words and will to their minions on Earth, and escorting select humans as they made their way to the lands of the Gods in the afterlife.”


For a few seconds, no one spoke. Then Taylor asked the question, “Where did the gods live?”


“The realm of the gods? The afterlife of the Egyptians was not on some ethereal plane, nor some abstract concept,” McPherson said quietly, “no it was very real. Very tangible; discernible with the naked eye.” A conspiratorial grin spread across his aged face. “Come, I’ll show you.”


With a new vigour, the old man walked to the end of the room, and with a dramatic gesture wrenched aside the flapping curtains, then cast fully open the twitching doors. Led by McPherson, the party walked out onto the veranda into the already cool Cairene evening. The sky was a deep blue now, and one could just begin to make out the faint twinkling of the stars in the sky. McPherson smiled.


“There, gentlemen. There is the realm of the gods.”


And he pointed to the stars.


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