The Camel of Destruction: A Mamur Zapt Mystery #7

The Camel of Destruction: A Mamur Zapt Mystery #7

Cairo, 1910. Captain Owen, The Mamur Zapt, is the head of Egypt’s Political CID in the heyday of British Rule. He is ultimately responsible for law and order in the ...

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Michael Pearce

Michael Pearce grew up in the (then) Anglo-Egyptian Sudan among the political and other tensions he draws on for his ...

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Chapter One

 

It was, alas, not uncommon for senior members of the Department to nod off in their offices, overcome by their exertions and the heat, so when Abdul Latif stuck his head through the door and observed Osman Fingari he thought nothing of it.

It was, however, decidedly unusual for them to be at their posts after two o’clock, when the city as a whole closed down for its siesta; so when, going round to make sure the shutters were closed, Abdul Latif found him still there at three, he was taken aback.

‘It’s not like him,’ he said in the Orderly Room. ‘He’s usually away by two.’

‘He’s usually away by half past eleven,’ said one of the other orderlies.

Abdul Latif felt called on to defend his master.

‘It’s these lunches,’ he said.

‘That’s right. Eat too much, drink too much—’

‘Drink too much?’ Abdul Latif was shocked. Osman Fingari was, so far as he knew, a strict Moslem.

‘He likes his drop.’

Abdul Latif disapproved of this and felt he should bring the conversation to an end.

‘We can’t leave him there,’ he said.

‘Why not?’

‘It’s not proper,’ said Abdul Latif firmly. ‘Besides, I want to go to the souk.’

‘Then why not go? He can wake himself up, can’t he?’

Unfortunately, this was one thing that Osman Fingari could not do and so it was that the night porter found him still there when he made his rounds at seven o’clock. A cruder individual than Abdul Latif (night porters were paid less than orderlies), and taken by surprise, he said roughly: ‘Here, come on, you can’t do that!’ and shook Osman Fingari by the shoulder.

Whereupon Osman Fingari slid slowly out of his chair and fell to the ground.

• • • • •

‘Nasty thing in one of the offices,’ said Farquahar in the bar the following lunch-time. ‘Chap in Agriculture. Found by the night porter.’

‘Heart attack?’

‘I expect so.’

In the heat of Cairo such things were not unusual and conversation passed to other topics.

Owen, sitting at a table nearby, heard the remark but did not think it worth registering. People were dying all the time in Cairo. Not in Government offices, of course, or something would have had to be done about it. He had, in any case, more important things on his mind.

‘And then the bank manager said to me—’

His companion leaned back wearily.

‘Gareth,’ he said, ‘do you read the newspapers?’

‘Of course I read the papers. Damn it, it’s my job. Part of it,’ he amended.

One of the incidental duties of the Head of Cairo’s Secret Police, the Mamur Zapt, was to read the day’s press. Actually, he read it twice; before publication, to stop undesirable items from getting in, and after publication, to realize, resignedly, that they had.

‘The financial pages?’

‘Well, no.’

They consisted, so far as he could see, entirely of numbers; and on the whole numbers were not considered politically inflammatory.

‘You should.’

‘Cotton prices, contango, that sort of thing? No, thanks.’

‘Take cotton prices, for instance. Nothing interesting about them?’

‘Absolutely nothing,’ said Owen firmly.

‘You have not noticed that they are only half what they were a year ago?’

‘No.’

Cotton was Agriculture’s concern.

‘A half, you say? That’s rather a fall.’

‘It is. And since Egypt depends on cotton, it’s reduced the whole national income. By fifteen per cent.’

‘Hmm. Well, that does seem a lot. But manageable, manageable.’

‘That’s what your bank manager’s doing. Managing it.’

‘Yes, but—’

‘It affects the government finances too, of course. In a big way.’

‘Fifteen per cent?’

‘More.’

‘Well, that is a bit tough. It explains what they’ve been doing to my budget. I thought they were just being bloody-minded as usual.’

‘A thing like this,’ said his companion, who was aide to the Consul-General, ‘gives the bloody-minded their chance. The Old Man’s hospitality allowance has been cut by half. Half! How I’m going to manage that, I don’t know. All these damned visitors! They all expect a free drink, and they measure it in bottles, not glasses.’

‘Another one?’

Owen stood up and picked up Paul’s glass. Paul glanced at his watch.

‘A little one, please. I’ve got a meeting at three.’

Owen stopped, astonished.

‘At three?’

The siesta hour, or two, or three, was normally inviolate.

‘Yes. It’s to do, actually, with the financial pages. Perhaps you should come along.’

‘No, thanks. No-o, thanks.’

• • • • •

On the outside wall of the Governorate was a stout wooden box in which from time immemorial the humble folk of Cairo had deposited petitions, denunciations and information which they wished to bring to the attention of the Mamur Zapt.

The Mamur Zapt was no longer the powerful right-hand man of the Sultan he had been in the seventeenth century—indeed, there was no longer a Sultan—but lots of people did not know that and still insisted on writing to him.

They wrote to him about all sorts of things: the price of bread (risen a lot recently); which of the traders was giving short measure (all, but some more than others); the sexual habits of figures prominent in the city (entertaining and quite possibly accurate).

In among the grimy scraps of paper there were often brief, scribbled messages which were of great use to him in his secret service work.

These were the items to which he turned first: but the items he turned to second were the petitions, of which there were usually quite a lot. Many ordinary Cairenes, completely flummoxed by the Egyptian bureaucracy, which was of an Ottoman labyrinthineness, preferred to make use of the more personal mode of address which the Mamur Zapt’s box represented.

Owen insisted on handling all petitions himself. Often there was little he could do but he always made sure that, so far as they could be, issues raised were followed up. This was very popular with the ordinary folk of Cairo but less so with the bureaucracy, as Nikos, his Official Clerk, pointed out.

It was one of Nikos’s duties to empty the box every day and lay its contents on Owen’s desk. He did not like doing this as it meant going out of his office. He preferred to keep his distance from the hoi polloi.

That went for the contents of the box, too, which he was quite happy to leave to Owen to deal with. Occasionally, though, Owen needed his help; as this morning.

‘Read this. I can’t make head nor tail of it. If it’s a dowry, I don’t want anything to do with it.’

‘It’s not a dowry,’ said Nikos. ‘It’s a waqf.’

A waqf was, Owen knew, a religious bequest or endowment. And that was nearly all he knew about it, except that the waqf fell under Islamic law (and was therefore nothing to do with him) and was extremely complicated.

‘I still don’t want anything to do with it.’

Waqfs were quite common. They were a traditional legal arrangement for the giving of alms. A waqf was an assignment in perpetuity of the income from a piece of property for charitable purposes, the upkeep of houses for the poor, for example, or the maintenance of mosques or hospitals or schools.

It could also, however, be used for the benefit of the founder’s family. The founder could provide for a salary to be paid to a member of his family to act as administrator or stipulate that surplus income be given to his descendants as long as they survived.

Such a system was, of course, open to abuse and over the centuries most possibilities for abuse had been thoroughly explored. From very early days it had been necessary to regulate the system and now, such was the number and scale of waqfs, that task was undertaken by an entire Ministry, the Ministry for Religious Endowments.

‘Not for me,’ said Owen firmly.

‘I will tell you about it,’ said Nikos, disregarding him.

‘It’s from a woman, whose husband benefited for many years from a waqf. He was a schoolteacher and ran a kuttub for small children. It had been in his family for generations. Anyway, he died and she expected the benefit to pass to their son. It didn’t.’

‘I thought these things went on forever?’

‘So did she. Apparently, though, someone invoked a clause she’d never heard of whereby on the death of her husband the benefit passed to a distant male relative. The relative turned out to be senile and was, she says, tricked into selling the benefit to a rich man who now wants to kick her out.’

‘I don’t think I can handle this. I’ll put her on to somebody in the Ministry.’

‘She’s already tried them.’

‘Well—all right, give me the letter. I’ll think about it.’

‘There’s just one other thing. She says several other people in the neighbourhood have recently lost their benefits in a similar way.’

‘The same man?’

‘She doesn’t say.’ Nikos handed back the letter. ‘It would be easy to find out. A walk round the neighbourhood. But, then, that’s something you like doing, isn’t it?’

• • • • •

The phone rang. It was Paul.

‘Gareth, the Old Man would like you to take a look at something. ’

‘Yes?’

‘A man died in one of the offices last night.’

‘Yes, I think I heard someone say something about it in the bar.’

‘Did you, now? It’s certainly got around.’

‘What’s special about it?’

Owen, as Mamur Zapt, or what in England would be known as Head of the Political Branch, did not reckon to concern himself with routine crime, if this was a crime.

‘We don’t know there is anything special about it. It’s just that there’s been a reaction to it. A political reaction.’

‘Ah! Well, isn’t that something for you to bother yourself about, not me? I mean, if it’s just a heart attack—’

‘They’re saying it isn’t.’

‘Who are they?’

‘Ali Maher, Abdul Filmi, Al-Nukrashi. And others.’

Owen could understand now. The names were those of prominent politicians. Only one formally belonged to the new Nationalist Party but the others were Nationalist in sympathy and always ready to make the most of any issue which might embarrass the Government.

‘But surely the post-mortem—’

‘There isn’t going to be one. Unless someone says otherwise. A doctor has signed the certificate in the normal way. Natural causes.’

‘Then why—’

‘Ali Maher says it’s a fix.’

‘What do the family say?’

‘They want to get on with it. You’ll have to move fast. The body’s being buried this evening.’

That was not unusual. Speed was necessary in the heat.

‘You want me to order a post-mortem?’

Paul hesitated.

‘I want you to take a look at things. Order one only if you think it’s really necessary. We don’t want this to get bigger than it needs to. That would be playing into Ali Maher’s hands.’

• • • • •

Owen, representing the British Administration, went to give his condolences. The family were surprised—they had always known Osman Fingari to be important but hadn’t realized he was that important—but flattered.

‘We knew he’d been doing well in the last year, of course.’

‘He’s had the house altered a lot.’

‘The mandar’ah! New marble entirely.’

‘And not the cheapest!’

‘Oh, he’s done well, all right. But then, he’s had to work for it.’

‘Yes, never home till late at night.’

‘Of course, it took its toll.’

‘Well, yes, that was it, of course, wasn’t it. In the end he paid the price.’

‘You could say he sacrificed himself for his work.’

‘Much appreciated,’ said Owen. ‘Much appreciated.’

They were in the funeral pavilion, which had been erected in the street in front of the house, greatly to the surprise of traffic which had intended to pass by. The tent was crowded, mostly with men in the stiff collar and dark suit and little red pot-like hat, the tarboosh, of the Egyptian civil servant.

‘Would it be possible to pay my respects?’ Owen asked one of the relatives.

‘Of course!’

They pushed their way out of the tent. The street was equally crowded. Apart from onlookers, and as the average Cairene was a great believer in onlooking there were plenty of them, those more intimately involved in the funeral procession were beginning to assemble. There were the blind men, the boys, and the Fikis to chant the suras. There were men with banners and men with torches, for this was evidently going to be a funeral in the old style.

The relative led Owen into the house. From one of the upper floors came the sound of wailing. Owen thought at first that it was the paid mourners but then a door opened and some black-clad women filed down the stairs. The wailing continued up above and he realized that it came from the women of the family.

He followed the relative up the stairs. Outside a door two Fikis were squatting reciting passages from the Koran. The relative pushed open the door and led Owen in.

The body lay in a bier with a rich cashmere shawl draped over it.

Owen advanced and bowed his head. He stood like that for a moment or two and then touched the relative on the arm.

‘May I look one last time on the face of someone who was dear to me?’

‘Of course!’

But, as he bent over the body, there was really no need to look; the smell by itself was sufficient.

• • • • •

‘It was straightforward,’ said Owen, ‘if you set aside nearly causing a riot, antagonizing the Ulama, provoking the Kadi, irritating the Khedive and raising uproar in the National Assembly. Not to mention upsetting a rather nice old couple still in a state of shock after losing their son.’

‘I’m sorry about that,’ said Paul. ‘The others I can live with.’

‘And was it worth it, I ask myself? So he did take poison; where does that get us? Does it matter if he took poison? That’s his business, isn’t it?’

‘Well, not entirely. Why did he take poison? That’s the question they’re asking.’

‘How do I know? Girlfriend, boyfriend, personal problems, fit of depression, overwork—yes, and while we’re on that subject, can I just mention that I was up all last night trying to get the quarter to calm down.’

‘You poor chap! And can I just mention that I myself was up half the night trying to sort out something that was much bigger.’

‘What was that?’

‘The stupidity of bankers.’

‘Heavens, you’ll never be able to do anything about that. My bank manager—never mind my bank manager, what about this chap commiting suicide, what are we going to do about him? And, incidentally—’a ray of hope gleamed—‘why am I doing anything about it at all? It’s nothing to do with me. Suicides, murders—that’s the Parquet’s business, surely?’

In Egypt responsibility for investigating a suspected crime did not lie with the police but with the Department of Prosecutions of the Ministry of Justice, the Parquet, as it was known.

‘The Parquet will have to be involved, certainly. It’s a crime, of sorts, and they’ll have to be notified. They’ll check on the circumstances, etc., etc., and make a fine pig’s ear of it, no doubt, but their part of it really is straightforward. No, no, they can be left to get on with that bit. It’s the other bit—’

‘What other bit?’ asked Owen. ‘It sounds as if it’s just a question of managing the Assembly and that’s something you and the Old Man can do, surely? You’re doing it all the time!’

Paul did not reply at once. Owen hoped he was having second thoughts. He wasn’t.

‘I think you’d better stay with it, Gareth,’ he said.

‘Doing what?’

‘Asking yourself why Osman Fingari committed suicide. And why Ali Maher and Co. are so interested.’

There was, then, going to be not one investigation but two. This was, actually, nothing out of the ordinary, for Egypt was a country of parallel processes. There was, for example, not one legal system but four, each with its own courts. Knowledgeable criminals played off one court against another. If they were very knowledgeable, or rich enough to afford a good lawyer, they could often escape conviction altogether.

A similar parallelity could be observed in Government, though here there were only two Governments and not four. One, the formal one, was that of the Khedive; the other, the real one, was that of the British, who had come into Egypt twenty years before to help the Khedive sort out his finances and were still helping. Every Minister, Egyptian, had an Adviser, British, right beside him. The Prime Minister did not; but found it politic to draw abundantly on the wisdom of the Consul-General before adopting a course of action. The system worked surprisingly well. From the British point of view, of course.

Mohammed Fehmi, the Parquet lawyer appointed to handle the case, was an experienced hand. The following morning he called on Owen in his office.

‘Coffee?’

‘Please.’

‘Mazboot?’

Mohammed Fehmi, like most Egyptians, preferred it sweetened.

‘About this case now—’

‘Sad.’

‘Oh yes. Very sad. But straightforward, I would think, wouldn’t you?’

Mohammed Fehmi’s alert brown eyes watched Owen sharply across the cup.

‘Oh yes. Straightforward, I would say.’

‘I was wondering—’ Mohammed Fehmi sipped his coffee again—‘I was wondering—the nature of the Mamur Zapt’s interest?’

‘General. Oh, very general,’ Owen assured him. ‘I wouldn’t be thinking of taking, um, an active interest—’

‘I would always welcome a colleague—’

‘Oh no. Quite unnecessary, I assure you. Every confidence—’

Mohammed Fehmi looked slightly puzzled.

‘Then, why, may I ask—?’

‘Am I involving myself at all?’ Owen saw no reason why he should not speak the truth. ‘It’s not so much the case itself—that I leave entirely to you—as the possible reaction to it. Politically, I mean.’

‘A fonctionnaire? Civil servant?’

Mohammed Fehmi was still puzzled. However, he shrugged his shoulders. This was evidently political in some strange way and politics was not for him. He was not one of the Parquet’s high fliers.

He had picked up, however, that Owen was leaving the conduct of the investigation to him, and visibly relaxed.

‘After all,’ he said, ‘a simple suicide!’

‘Exactly.’

‘The post-mortem—quite definite.’

‘Oh yes.’

‘I’ll just have to find out where he got it from. And why he took it, of course.’

‘Up to a point.’

‘Oh yes,’ Mohammed Fehmi assured him swiftly. ‘Only up to a point. Otherwise you find yourself into personal matters, family matters, even social matters, that are best left alone.’

‘Quite so.’

‘No,’ said Mohammed Fehmi, finishing his cup and sucking up the last mixture of coffee grounds and sugar, the sweet and the bitter, the taste of Egypt, ‘no, the only puzzling thing about it is why the doctor signed the certificate in the first place.’

• • • • •

Owen called the doctor in. He was a small, shabby man with worried eyes and a lined, anxious face.

‘How did you come to miss it?’

‘I didn’t miss it.’

‘You wrote the certificate knowingly?’

The doctor shrugged.

‘You know, of course, what this means?’

The doctor shrugged again. ‘You do it all the time,’ he said quietly.

‘Sign certificates you know to be false?’

‘It spares the family.’

‘You know why we have the system of certification?’

‘Of course. To prevent abuses.’

Egypt was a country of many abuses.

‘And you still thought you would sign the certificate?’

‘The parents are old. He was their only son. The shock of that was enough without the other.’

‘The other?’

‘Suicide.’

‘Are you sure it was suicide?’

‘What else could it be?’

• • • • •

‘The Under-Secretary,’ said Nikos. ‘The Ministry of Agriculture.’

Owen picked up the phone.

‘Captain Owen? I understand you’re handling the Fingari case?’

‘Well, of course, the Parquet—’

‘Quite so, quite so. But—I understand you’re taking an interest?’

‘Ye-es, in a general way.’

‘Quite so. I was wondering—the circumstances—a bit unfortunate, you know.’

‘Yes?’

‘The Office. The Ministry.’

‘I don’t quite—’

‘Bad for the Department. A bit of a reflection, you know.’

‘Well, yes, but—’

‘I was wondering—just wondering—if it could be moved. Out of the office, I mean.’

‘Surely it has been moved?’ said Owen, startled. ‘It was taken for post-mortem. And before that, the funeral. I saw it myself—’

‘No, no. I don’t mean that. Not the body. The—the incident, rather.’

‘I don’t quite follow—’

‘Moved. Out of the Ministry altogether. Somewhere else. Into the street, perhaps. Or at any rate another Ministry. Public Works, perhaps.’

‘Finance?’

‘Yes. No, on second thoughts. The follow-up could be, well, unfortunate. No, no. Public Works would be better.’

‘Well, yes, but—’

‘You will? Oh, thank you.’

• • • • •

‘An apéritif, perhaps?’

He had met them, as they had suggested, in the bar at the Hotel Continentale. There was an Egyptian, who must be Abdul Khalil, a Greek, Zokosis, presumably, and someone harder to place but definitely a Levantine of sorts, who would be Kifouri.

The waiter brought the drinks: sweet Cyprus wine for Zokosis and Kifouri, a dry sherry for Owen and coffee for Abdul Khalil.

‘As I mentioned over the phone, Captain Owen, we’re businessmen who have quite a lot of dealings with Government Departments. I think you’ll find that Mr. Stephens would be prepared to vouch for us—’ Stephens was the Adviser at the Ministry of Finance—‘and I think it is a mark of our standing that the Minister invited us to join the Board. I mention this so that you will know we are bona fide and also that we are not the sort of men who would want to waste the time of a busy man like yourself.’

Owen bowed acknowledgement.

‘In any case, our concern is, what shall I say, marginal, peripheral, which is why we thought it best to meet informally rather than call on you at your office.’

Owen muttered something suitably non-committal.

‘You are, we understand, taking an interest in a recent sad case of suicide. A man in one of the Departments.’

‘Yes.’

‘Well, now, we naturally wouldn’t wish to interfere in any way, believe me, in any way, with your conduct of the investigation—that would be quite improper—and our interest is, as I have said, marginal. However, we knew Mr. Fingari and quite recently have been having a number of dealings with him—’

‘Dealings?’

‘A businessman’s way of talking. Conversations, rather. Yes, conversations. Mr. Fingari, you see, represented the Ministry on the Board. And naturally, in view of recent developments—’

‘Yes, recent developments,’ echoed the others.

‘That, actually, is why we wanted to have an informal word with you. You see, negotiations are at a critical stage—’

‘And it’s important to carry the community with us. The business community, that is.’

‘And with confidence so low—’

‘It is really a very inopportune moment for him to die.’

‘Most difficult.’

‘Now if only he could have died a day or two later—’

‘You don’t think that could be arranged by any chance, Captain Owen? After all, it makes no real difference. He’s dead anyway, isn’t he?’

‘The family—’ Owen began.

‘Leave that to us. I’m sure that could be arranged. We’ll talk to them, Captain Owen.’

‘But—’

‘Look at it like this; it’s actually giving the poor chap a few extra days of life. Don’t be hard-hearted, Captain Owen. Don’t deny him that! Think of the poor fellow, think of his family—’

‘You want me to alter the date of his death?’

‘Well, that would be most kind of you, Captain Owen. Most kind.’

• • • • •

‘It’s the family, you see.’

‘Distressed, naturally.’

‘It is a very respectable family,’ said Ali Hazurat earnestly. ‘Otherwise Mr. Hemdi would not wish his daughter to marry into it.’

‘But—’

‘The arrangements were all made. The wedding contract was about to be signed. My nephew was looking forward—’

‘A dowry?’

‘Considerable. It was a great opportunity for my nephew. And now, alas—’

‘But surely the wedding can go ahead? After a suitable period, of course. Your nephew was not that closely related to Osman Fingari.’

‘It reflects on the family, you see. It’s making Mr. Hemdi think again.’

‘Well, I’m sorry about that, but—’

‘It’s the shame, you see. Suicide! No one will want to marry into a family with suicides.’

‘I’m afraid I really don’t see what I can do—’

‘Couldn’t you,’ pleaded Ali Hazwat, ‘just call it something else? An accident, perhaps?’

‘He took prussic acid.’

‘By mistake! Couldn’t it be by mistake? He thought it was something else. The wrong bottle—’

• • • • •

‘Well, at least there’s going to be no doubt about the circumstances,’ said Paul.

‘No?’

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