A Cold Touch of Ice: A Mamur Zapt Mystery #13

A Cold Touch of Ice: A Mamur Zapt Mystery #13

The world is changing around the Mamur Zapt, British Chief of Cairo’s Secret Police. It’s 1912 and there’s a war on that no one’s heard of. When an Italian man ...

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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


A man pushed his way through the crowd and arrived at the bar beside Owen.

‘Wahid whisky-soda!’ he instructed the bartender. ‘No, make that a double. After all,’ he said, turning to the company, ‘it’s not every day that one gets a death threat in the mail.’

‘Yes, it is,’ objected the man on his other side. ‘I get one every morning.’

‘Ah, but that’s just from colleagues or from the Finance Department. Mine,’ said the man, pulling out a piece of paper from his pocket and waving it with a flourish ‘is the Real Thing.’

‘Can I have a look?’ Owen stretched out his hand. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it’s the same handwriting.’

‘Same as what?’

‘The one I got.’

Someone peered over his shoulder.

‘It’s just an ordinary bazaar letter-writer!’ he said disgustedly. ‘That doesn’t count!’

‘Just because you haven’t got one, Patterson!’

‘How many other people have had one?’ asked Owen.

Several other people put up their hands.

‘You see!’ said the first man. ‘It’s just people who are important. Sorry about that, Patterson!’

Some had their letters with them.

‘I was going to have mine framed, so that my grandchildren will see that once upon a time I was a man to be taken seriously.’

They passed them to Owen.

‘It’s all the same handwriting,’ said Owen.

‘You mean it’s only one man? Well, that is a relief. I thought it was everybody that wanted to kill us.’

‘It’s just some nut? Well, I do feel let down!’

‘Don’t worry prematurely,’ counselled Owen. ‘Perhaps he means it.’

• • • • •

There was no doubt, thought Owen, as he sat in a meeting later that afternoon, that the British were unpopular in Egypt. The letter-writer was not an isolated case. Since the war had started, there had been a number of such expressions of hostility. Stones had been thrown, British-owned premises vandalized and solitary soldiers attacked on their way back to barracks.

And yet, for once, it was not Britain’s fault. When, a few months before, Italy had invaded Tripolitania, and Turkey, to whom Tripolitania belonged, had retaliated by declaring war, Britain sought to stay neutral. Unfortunately, that was not what most Egyptians wanted. Egypt was still, at least in theory, part of the Ottoman Empire and Egyptian sympathies were heavily with Turkey.

‘Egypt is, after all,’ Ismet Bey, the Turkish representative at the meeting, was saying now, ‘our country.’

Well, yes and no. Yes, it was true, Egypt was still formally part of the Ottoman Empire and the Khedive, Egypt’s ruler, owed allegiance to the Sultan at Istanbul. But in practice the Egyptian Khedives had been virtually independent for the best part of a century now, and for the last thirty years, in any case, the real rulers of Egypt had been the British, who had come in ‘by invitation’ to help the Khedive sort his finances out, come in and then, well, as it happened, stayed.

‘All we are asking,’ said Ismet Bey, ‘is that we should be able to move our troops from one part of His Highness’ domains— Palestine—to another—Tripolitania—through a third: Egypt.’

‘I do see your point,’ conceded Owen’s friend, Paul, who was chairing the meeting.

‘Well, that is something.’


However, thought Owen, there wasn’t a cat’s chance in hell of Britain agreeing to let a Turkish army march through Egypt. Who knows, they might even step aside to assert Ottoman rights in other respects.

‘Shouldn’t Egypt herself have a voice in this?’ asked the Khedive’s representative.

‘Egypt’s is the point of view that I am expressing,’ said Paul.

‘No, it’s not. Yours is the view of the British Administration. We Egyptians strongly condemn Italy’s action as Western aggression and would wish to do everything we could to help Turkey repel its foreign invaders.’

‘Have you thought,’ asked Paul, ‘that if you take too active a part, you could yourselves become the object of aggression?’

‘We would take care of that,’ said Ismet Bey.

The British Commander-in-Chief coughed modestly.

‘I think,’ he said, ‘that the presence of a British army in Egypt is all the guarantee that you need against foreign invasion.’

Ismet Bey sighed. They had been here before in the last few months: many times.

‘At least,’ he said desperately, ‘allow us to move supplies.’

‘Medical supplies, certainly,’ said Paul. ‘As you know, the Consul-General is anxious to provide whatever humanitarian help he can.’


‘I’m not sure that counts as humanitarian.’

‘You always used to allow passage.’

‘Limited passage. To allow unrestricted passage would be to prejudice our position of neutrality.’

‘It’s not even limited now,’ protested the Bey. ‘You’ve stopped passage altogether.’

‘That’s because you were sending so much.’


‘If we include what you’ve been smuggling.’

‘Smuggling?’ cried Ismet Bey. ‘How can we be smuggling when it’s our country?’

‘Exactly!’ said the Khedive’s representative. ‘And if it’s not his country, then it’s certainly ours!’

There was a long pause.

‘I’ll tell you what,’ said Paul conciliatorily: ‘there’s clearly a problem here, and it seems to me that it can best be resolved by appointing someone to regulate the arms traffic whom we can all trust.’

‘Well, that sounds very reasonable,’ said the Bey, surprised.

‘The Mamur Zapt.’

‘What?’ said Owen, waking up.

‘Mamur Zapt?’ said the Khedive’s representative.

‘Yes. A faithful servant of the Khedive.’

‘But he’s a faithful servant of the British too!’ cried the Bey.

‘Oh dear, Ismet Bey!’ said Paul, beginning to gather up his papers. ‘What a shocking suggestion!’

• • • • •

There was, alas, some truth in what Ismet Bey had said. One of the first things the British had done when they arrived was to install their own man as Mamur Zapt, Head of the Khedive’s Secret Police, the man ultimately responsible for political security in Cairo. Successive Mamur Zapts had therefore found themselves serving two masters; something which had hitherto not presented much of a problem to Owen, the present incumbent, since he had happily played off one against the other. Lately, however, that had been getting more difficult. Since the new Consul-General had taken over, relations with the Khedive had become strained and the two were often now pulling in different directions.

• • • • •

This evening, though, he was putting such difficulties behind him. An Egyptian colleague had invited him round for coffee. Owen was pleased, because although he had known Mahmoud for nearly four years now, this was the first time he had actually been invited into his house.

The reason for this was partly, he knew, that Mahmoud didn’t really have a home of his own. Although he was now in his thirties, he still lived with his mother. Mahmoud’s father, a lawyer like himself, had died young and Mahmoud had taken over responsibility for the family. Being the man he was, he had probably taken it too seriously, as he tended to do with his work at the Ministry of Justice. Owen doubted if he ever got home much before midnight. He seemed to have very little life apart from his work.

Mahmoud was, in any case, as Owen had learned over the years, an intensely private individual. Owen was certainly his closest, perhaps his only, friend, but in some respects he felt he had never got to know him. He was delighted now that one of Mahmoud’s defensive walls seemed at last to be coming down.

The house was a tall, thin, three-storey building just off the Sharia-el-Nahhasin. Across its roof, surprisingly near, he could see the minarets of the Barquk and, yes, that other one was probably the Qu’alun. The street was towards the edge of the old city, balanced precariously between the new Europeanized quarters to the west and the bazaars to the east.

There was a servant but Mahmoud himself came impatiently to the door and led Owen upstairs to the living room on the first floor. It was a large, sparely furnished room with box windows at both ends, one looking down into an inner courtyard, the other out on to the street. There were fine, rather faded, rugs on the floor and one on the wall, and three low divans, arranged round a brazier, on which a pot of coffee was warming. On the little table next to it were three cups.

‘The third is for my father-in-law,’ said Mahmoud.

‘What?’ said Owen, stunned. This was the first he had ever heard about Mahmoud being married.

‘My father-in-law to be,’ Mahmoud amended.

He seemed a little embarrassed.

‘You are getting married?’

Mahmoud nodded.

Owen had never expected this. He had always taken Mahmoud to be one of nature’s celibates. In all the time Owen had known him, he had never shown the slightest sexual interest in any woman they had met.

Owen pulled himself together.

‘Congratulations! Well, this is a surprise!’

‘It is to me, too,’ Mahmoud admitted. ‘But my mother felt the time had come.’

‘I see. Yes.’ Owen couldn’t think what to say. ‘Have you known each other for long?’ he ventured tentatively.

‘About a week. Of course, our families have known each other for much longer.’

‘I see.’

‘She lives locally so I must have seen her about in the street. But I can’t say I ever noticed her.’

‘Well, you wouldn’t.’

Not in a veil, and covered from head to foot in black.

‘But I must have seen her going to school.’

‘Going to school?’

‘She’s just finished at the Sanieh.’

How old could she be? Fifteen? The Sanieh, though, was something. It was probably the best girls’ school in Cairo.

‘I said she had to be educated.’

‘Quite right. Companionship, and all that.’

‘She seemed very sensible.’

‘Oh, good. You have—you have met her, then?’

‘Oh, yes. Once. After my mother had made the contract. She seems very suitable.’

‘Oh, good.’

‘You’ll like her father. I know him quite well.’

‘Well, that’s important, isn’t it?’

‘Yes. As a matter of fact, that’s partly why I invited you. I wanted him to meet family. I know that, strictly speaking, you’re not family, but…Well, the fact is, we don’t actually have many male relatives…’

‘Glad to do what I can—’

It was no business of his. Mahmoud was old enough to arrange his own life; or, rather, to decide to let others arrange it for him. And if that was the custom of the country—

All the same, he felt bothered. In a way it was his business. Mahmoud was a friend of his and he didn’t want him to get hurt. As a matter of fact, he didn’t want her to get hurt, either, a mere schoolgirl. But what could he do about it? And who was he to interfere, anyway? Jesus, he couldn’t even sort out his own life, the way things were between him and Zeinab—

When the prospective father-in-law arrived, he felt a little better. Ibrahim Buktari was plainly such a nice man. He was short and wiry, with close-cropped grey hair and an open, intelligent face. They embraced warmly in the Arab fashion.

‘You have something in common,’ said Mahmoud, pouring out the coffee.

‘Oh, yes?’

‘You were both soldiers.’

Ibrahim Buktari’s face lit up.

‘You were?’

‘Well,’ said Owen, ‘briefly.’

‘I was with Al-Lurd,’ said Ibrahim, ‘in the Sudan.’

‘With Kitchener?’

‘That was before he was a lord,’ said Mahmoud.

‘And now he returns to Egypt!’ said Ibrahim. He shrugged. ‘Well, at least we have as Consul-General a man who knows something about Egypt.’

‘He knows it only as it was twelve years ago,’ said Mahmoud.

That was something that all the Egyptian newspapers had said when the appointment was announced. Especially the Nationalist ones. When Kitchener had been here before, Egyptian nationalism had been in its infancy. But a lot of things had changed since then and among them was that there was now a Nationalist movement which touched almost all parts of the population, especially the young professionals. Like Mahmoud.

How would Kitchener handle it? Would he try to work with it, as his predecessor, Gorst, had done? Or would he—and this was what was feared in Egypt, given his recent record against the equally Nationalist Boers in South Africa—try to suppress it? Was that the point of putting a general into what had hitherto been a civilian post? Was that why Kitchener had been made Consul-General?

When Kitchener had been here before, at the time of his conquest of the Sudan, Owen had been just a junior subaltern on his way out to India to take up his first posting.


Ibrahim began to question Owen eagerly about campaigning conditions in the North West Frontier. Seeing them getting along well together, Mahmoud, who had in truth been slightly apprehensive about his prospective father-in-law’s visit, sat back happily and let them talk.

The conversation was still in full flow when the door opened suddenly and an elderly woman came into the room. She was very agitated and wasn’t even wearing a veil.

‘Mahmoud!’ she said. ‘You are needed. Sidi Morelli has collapsed.’

Mahmoud sprang up and hurried out of the door.

‘Sidi Morelli?’ said Ibrahim, standing up too. ‘Perhaps we can help,’ he said to Owen.

‘It was in the coffee house,’ said Mahmoud’s mother, lighting them down the stairs.

Owen had noticed the café as he had turned into Mahmoud’s street. Indeed, he could hardly help noticing it, for its tables and chairs spread out right across the street and into the Nahhasin also. Now there was a large crowd gathered at the corner, their faces all strange in the light from the café’s vapour lamps. He could see Mahmoud bending over a man lying among the tables.

‘Has anyone sent for an ambulance?’ asked Ibrahim Buktari.

‘We have, Ibrahim, we have,’ said someone. ‘But it is taking a long time coming.’

‘All the ambulances are at the front,’ said someone, ‘because of the war.’

‘A hakim, then?’

Mahmoud looked up.

‘There is no need for a hakim,’ he said.

Someone in the crowd gasped.

Mahmoud straightened up.

‘Cover him,’ he said.

Several people at once stripped off their long outer gowns and laid them over the body.

Mahmoud glanced round.

‘It didn’t happen here,’ he said.

‘It happened over there, Mahmoud. Just round the corner!’

Some of the men took him by the arm and led him a little way along the Nahhasin to where an alley snicked off among the houses.

‘It was here, Mahmoud. I found him here,’ said one of the men, distressed. ‘I nearly fell over him. I didn’t see him, it was so dark.’

‘And then I called for help, Mahmoud,’ said another man, ‘and we carried him back to the coffee house.’

‘We laid him down,’ said someone else, ‘and then we saw— saw that it was Sidi Morelli.’

‘Sidi Morelli!’ Some in the crowd had clearly not realized previously who it was.

‘But he had been here!’ said the patron of the café, bewildered, ‘only the moment before!’

He pointed to a table at which three elderly men were sitting, stunned.

From further along the street there came the sound of a bell and then a moment later someone crying: ‘Make way!’ A covered cart, drawn by two mules, was trying to work through the crowd.

‘Make way for the ambulance!’

Somehow it forced its way through the mass of people and drew up alongside the coffee house. A short, thickset, youngish man, Egyptian, but dressed in a suit not a galabeah, began organizing things.

‘It is good that you are here, Kamal,’ Mahmoud said affectionately.

‘I had just got here. I was still shaking hands—’

He seemed, for all his efficiency, bewildered.

The body was lifted, passed over the heads of the crowd and laid in the back of the ambulance.

‘To the death-house,’ instructed Mahmoud. ‘Not to the hospital.’

The crowd watched sombrely. Many of them were weeping. Owen was surprised; not at the crowd, for if there was anything that drew a crowd in Cairo, it was an accident or a fatality, but at the extent, and sincerity, of the feeling.

‘Sidi Morelli, Ibrahim!’ The man beside them shook his head as if in disbelief.

Everyone here, thought Owen, appeared to know everyone else.

Ibrahim Buktari seemed suddenly to have aged.

‘I shall go home, I think. Excuse me!’

He shook hands with Owen.

The efficient young man whom Owen had noticed earlier appeared beside them. He put his arm round Ibrahim Buktari’s shoulders and led him gently away.

Mahmoud touched Owen’s arm.

‘I am sorry,’ he said. ‘We shall have to end our evening early. Another time, perhaps.’

‘Of course!’

The crowd was breaking up.

‘I have work to do,’ said Mahmoud.


‘He did not collapse. He was strangled.’

• • • • •

In Cairo at that time investigating a crime was not the responsibility of the police. Nor, most definitely—with the exception of political crime—was it the responsibility of the Mamur Zapt. When a crime was suspected, it was reported to the Department of Prosecutions of the Ministry of Justice, the Parquet, as it was known, and the Parquet would appoint one of its lawyers to conduct an investigation. Ordinarily the appointment would come first. Mahmoud being Mahmoud, however, he had seen a responsibility waiting to be taken and had been unable to resist taking it, with the result that by the time—the following afternoon—that he was actually appointed to the case, he had already been pursuing his inquiries for some hours.

A bearer had brought Owen a message from him about midway through the morning asking him to come to the Morelli house. Owen had been a little surprised, for it was not normally the habit of the strongly Nationalist Parquet to involve the Mamur Zapt in its investigations, and this was particularly true of Mahmoud, who, despite their friendship, did not believe that there should be a Secret Police at all, let alone that it be headed by an Englishman. However, Owen knew that he wouldn’t have sent for him unless it was important and, as there was nothing particularly to detain him in his office, set out almost at once.

When he arrived at the house Mahmoud was somewhere else in the building and he was received by the dead man’s widow, Signora Morelli; and this was another surprise, for he had not realized, the evening before, that the dead man was Italian.

‘Italian?’ said Signora Morelli. ‘Of course we’re Italian! And Egyptian, too. We’ve lived in this country for forty years. In Cairo for thirty. In this very house! Everyone knows us here. Our children grew up here. This is the place they look upon as home. We, too. We have made our lives here, we were happy here—

‘And now this! How can it be? How can they do this to us? He was their friend, everybody knew him. Everybody loved him. He used to go there every night, to that café, and play dominoes with Hamdan and Abd al Jawad and Fahmy Salim. Every night! For years and years. They were inseparable. People made a joke of it. They were the four corners of the house, people said. Take one away, and the coffee house would fall down. That’s what they said. And now—now they have taken one away.’

She poured it all out.

‘And it is all because of this stupid war. It must be! There can’t be any other reason. He never did anyone an injury.

‘This stupid war! But it’s not our fault. We were against it from the start, we were appalled, like they were. And they said: “No, no, Sidi,”—that is what they called him, Sidi—“you cannot be blamed. The politicians are mad. They always are. They are mad here, too. No, no, Sidi, you are one of us.”

‘And he thought he was one of them, too; I thought I was. This is our home, this is our country. Why should it turn on us? We have loved it, we have worked for it. We thought we were Egyptian too.

‘And now this. How can it be? How can they turn on him? What harm has he ever done them? What harm has he ever done anybody? Why should they turn on him, their friend, the man who has lived among them for years? How can people be like that?’

Mahmoud had come in and was standing by the door expressionlessly. He caught Owen’s eye and Owen followed him out.

• • • • •

‘I see,’ said Owen. ‘So that’s why you called me.’

‘No,’ said Mahmoud. ‘We don’t know yet that it was a political crime.’


He led him off through the house. It was tall and thin, rather like Mahmoud’s own, and, like that one, had an inner courtyard. They went across the courtyard and out through a door on the other side. It led them into a great, cavernous, hall-like building which seemed to serve as a warehouse. It contained a bewildering diversity of goods: divans, tables, rugs, great copper-and-silver trays, a lot of brassware—there was a whole corner of the elegant brass ewers called ibreek which the Arabs use for pouring water over the hands, along with the tisht, the quaint basins and water-strainers that went with them. There were, too, oddly, piles of clothes: finely embroidered shirts which might have belonged to sheiks, lovely old Persian shawls, hand-worked as close as if they were woven, filmy rainbow-coloured veils worn by dancing girls.

Mahmoud led him across to a huge stack of bales of raw cotton. The stuff of one of the bales had been torn, probably in transit, and through the tear there appeared the gleam of something black. Mahmoud pulled more of the cotton aside, put in his hand and tugged. Even before it came out, Owen knew what it was: the barrel of a gun.

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