The Donkey-Vous: A Mamur Zapt Mystery #3

The Donkey-Vous: A Mamur Zapt Mystery #3

“Tourists are quite safe provided they don’t do anything stupidly reckless,” so Captain Owen, the Mamur Zapt, Head of Cairo’s Political CID under British Rule, assures the press. But what ...

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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

 

Owen arrived at the hotel shortly afterward.

McPhee came down the steps of the terrace to meet him.

“Thank goodness you’re here!” he said.

A cobra stretched lazily in the dirt at the foot of the steps stirred slightly. McPhee paused in his descent for a second and in that second its charmer thrust out a bowl at him. McPhee, flustered, dropped in a few milliemes.

“For heaven’s sake!” protested Owen. “You’ll have them all on to us!”

The crowd surged over them. Hands reached out at McPhee from all sides. Owen found his own hand taken in soft, confiding fingers and looked down to see who his new friend was. It was a large, dog-faced baboon with gray chinchilla-like fur.

“Imshi! Imshi! Get off!” shouted McPhee, recovering. One of his constables came down from the terrace and beat back the crowd with his baton. In the yard or two of space so gained a street acrobat in red tights suddenly turned a cartwheel. He cannoned heavily, however, into the snake-charmer and ricocheted off into a row of donkeys tethered to the railings, where he was chased off by indignant donkey-boys. Taking advantage of the confusion, Owen joined McPhee on the steps.

“What’s it all about?”

“You got my message?”

“You’d better tell me.”

McPhee had sent a bearer. The man had run all the way and arrived in such a state of incoherence that all Owen had been able to get out of him was that the Bimbashi was at Shepheard’s and needed Owen urgently.

“A kidnapping,” said McPhee.

“Here?” Owen was surprised. Kidnapping was not uncommon in Cairo, but it did not usually involve foreigners. “Someone from the hotel?”

“A Frenchman.”

“Are you sure it was a kidnapping?” said Owen doubtfully. “They don’t usually take tourists. Has there been a note?”

“Not yet,” McPhee admitted.

“It could be something else, then.”

“That’s what I thought,” said McPhee, “at first.”

“If it’s just that he’s gone missing,” said Owen, “there could be a variety of explanations.”

“It’s not just that he’s gone missing,” said McPhee, “it’s where he’s gone missing from.”

He took Owen up to the top of the steps and pointed to a table a couple of yards into the terrace. The table was empty apart from a few tea things. A proud constable guarded it jealously.

“That’s where he was sitting when he disappeared.”

“Disappeared?” said Owen sceptically.

“Into thin air!”

“Surely,” said Owen, trying not to sound too obviously patient, “people don’t just disappear.”

“One moment he was sitting there and the next he wasn’t.”

“Well,” said Owen, and felt he really was overdoing the patience, “perhaps he just walked down the steps.”

“He couldn’t do that.”

“Oh? Why not?”

“Because he can hardly walk. He is an infirm old man, who gets around only with the aid of sticks. It’s about all he can do to make it on to the terrace.”

“If he can make it on to the terrace,” said Owen, “he can surely make it on to the steps. Perhaps he just came down the steps and took an arabeah.”

There was a row of the horse-drawn Cairo cabs to the left of the steps.

“Naturally,” said McPhee, with a certain edge to his voice, “one of the first things I did was to check with the arabeah-drivers.”

“I see.”

“I also checked with the donkey-boys.”

“He surely wouldn’t have—”

“No, but they would have seen him if he had come down the steps.”

“And they didn’t?”

“No,” said McPhee, “they didn’t.”

“Well, if he’s not come down the steps he must have gone back into the hotel. Perhaps he went for a pee…?”

“Look,” said McPhee, finally losing his temper, “what do you think I’ve been doing for the last two hours? They’ve turned the place upside down. They did that twice before they sent for me. And they’ve done it twice since with my men helping them. They’re going through it again now. For the fifth time!”

“Sorry, sorry, sorry!” said Owen hastily. “It’s just that…” He looked along the terrace. It was packed with people. Every table was taken. “Was it like this?”

“Yes. Everyone out for their tea.”

“And no one saw what happened?”

“Not so far as I have been able to discover.”

“You’re sure he was there in the first place? I mean—”

“He was certainly there. We know, because a waiter took his order. It was his usual waiter, so there’s no question of wrong identification. When he came back the old man was gone. Disappeared,” said McPhee firmly, “into thin air.”

“Naturally you’ve been along the terrace?”

“Naturally I’ve been along the terrace,” McPhee agreed.

“Friends? Relations? Is he with anyone?”

“His nephew. Who is as bewildered as we are.”

“He wasn’t with him at the time?”

“No, no. He was in his room. Still having his siesta.”

“There’s probably some quite simple explanation.”

“Yes,” said McPhee. “You’ve been giving me some.”

“Sorry!” Owen looked along the terrace again. “It’s just that…”

“I know,” said McPhee.

“This is the last place you would choose if you wanted to kidnap someone.”

“I know. The terrace at Shepheard’s!”

“About the most conspicuous place in Cairo!”

• • • • •

The manager of the hotel came through the palms with two men in tow. One Owen recognized as the Chargé d’Affaires at the French Consulate. The other he guessed, correctly, to be the nephew of the missing Frenchman. The nephew saw McPhee and rushed forward.

“Monsieur le Bimbashi—”

He stopped when he saw that McPhee was in conversation.

McPhee introduced them.

“Monsieur Berthelot—”

The young man bowed.

“Captain Cadwallader Owen.”

Owen winced. The middle name was genuine enough but something he preferred to keep a decent secret. McPhee, however, had a romantic fondness for things of the Celtic twilight and could not be restrained from savoring it in public.

“Carwallah—?” The young man struggled and then fell back on the part he recognized. “Capitaine? Ah, you are of the military?”

“C’est le directeur de l’intelligence britannique,” said the man from the Consulate.

“Not at all,” said Owen quickly. “I am the Mamur Zapt.”

“Mamur Zapt?”

“The Mamur Zapt is a post peculiar to Cairo, Monsieur Berthelot,” McPhee explained. “Captain Cadwallader Owen is, roughly, Head of the Political Branch. Of the police, that is,” he added, looking at the Chargé d’Affaires reprovingly. He wasn’t going to stand any nonsense from the French.

“Politicale,” murmured Monsieur Berthelot doubtfully, only half comprehending.

“We hold you responsible for Monsieur Moulin’s safety,” the Chargé said to Owen.

“I will do everything I can,” said Owen, choosing to take the remark as referring to him personally and not the British Administration in general. The French had previously shared, under the system of Dual Control, in the administration of Egypt and had been edged out when the British army had come in to suppress the Arabi rebellion, something they unsurprisingly resented. “However, I doubt whether this is a political matter.”

“Politicale?” The young man was still having difficulties.

“I only deal with political matters,” Owen explained. “Assassinations, riots, that sort of thing. I suspect this will turn out to be a routine criminal investigation. The police,” he simplified, seeing that Monsieur Berthelot was not entirely following.

“The police? Ah, the Bimbashi—”

“Well, no, actually.”

Owen wondered how to explain the Egyptian system. The Egyptian police fell under one Ministry, the Ministry of the Interior. Criminal investigation, however, fell under another, the Ministry of Justice. When a crime was reported the police had to notify the Department of Prosecutions of the Ministry of Justice, the Parquet, as the Department was called. The Parquet would then send a man along who would take over the investigation from the police and see it through.

He looked at the Chargé for help. The Chargé shrugged his shoulders.

“It’s like the French system,” he said, “quite.”

Egyptian criminal procedure was in fact based upon the Code Napoléon, a product of an earlier French administration.

“Ah!” Monsieur Berthelot was clearly relieved.

“Has the Parquet been notified?” asked the Chargé.

“Yes,” said McPhee.

“I’d better get on to them,” said the Chargé, “and make sure they send along someone bright.”

He started back into the hotel.

“Tell them to send El Zaki,” Owen called after him. “Mahmoud el Zaki.”

“Thanks,” said the Chargé, and disappeared indoors.

“And now, Monsieur,” said Owen, turning to the bemused young man, “about your uncle…”

• • • • •

Monsieur Berthelot was in fact able to tell them very little. Like his uncle and in common with almost everyone else in the hotel, he had taken a siesta after lunch. His had been more protracted than his uncle’s and he had still been in his room when the Assistant Manager had knocked on his door. He had gone at once to his uncle’s suite but found that he had not returned there after going down to the terrace. He had then gone down to the terrace and walked right along it, thinking that perhaps his uncle, unusually, had been taken up by some acquaintances.

Unusually? His uncle did not care for companionship, perhaps? Well, it wasn’t so much that, it was just that his uncle generally preferred to be on his own when he got up from his siesta. He was like that in the morning, too, preferring to breakfast alone. He was always, the nephew said, “un peu morose” after waking up. That was why he, the nephew, took his time about joining him, both in the morning and in the afternoon. It worked out better that way.

And he always went to the same table? Yes, that was part of it. He didn’t like to make decisions when he was still waking up. He preferred everything to be “automatique.” Besides, that particular table was the one nearest the door of the hotel and he had less far to walk.

His uncle suffered from some disability? He had had a stroke two years previously which had left him semiparalyzed down one side. He was recovering, he was much better now than he had been, but he walked with difficulty. Twenty or thirty meters was all he could manage.

They didn’t go to the bazaars, then? No, there was no question of that. They had seen some of the sights but always from an arabeah.

And always Monsieur Berthelot had gone with him? Well, that was the point of him being there. His uncle liked to have someone perpetually by him whom he could call on for support. Monsieur Berthelot looked a little glum.

Had his uncle ever gone off on his own before? Never! The young man was adamant. Never once since they had been in Cairo! Again he seemed a little depressed.

And how long, in fact, had they been in Cairo? About six weeks now. They would have to go back soon or they would face the “reproches” of his aunt, Madame Moulin. The young man gave the impression that this was something neither of them viewed with equanimity.

This was, then, purely a holiday? Not entirely. Monsieur Moulin had business interests in Egypt too.

What sort of business?

Contracting. Monsieur Moulin represented, was indeed a director of, a number of substantial French firms with building interests. But the chief point of their stay was recreational. Owen suspected it was as much to get away from Madame Moulin as anything else.

Had Monsieur Moulin received any messages? From his business friends, perhaps? Monsieur Berthelot did not think so, but would check if the messieurs desired. In any case, though, the friends would have come to Monsieur Moulin and not vice versa. Monsieur Moulin did not like leaving the hotel. He found the heat of the streets and the density of the crowds oppressive. Shepheard’s alone was where he felt comfortable, and Shepheard’s he rarely left. The young man could not understand what had happened on this occasion. He was at a loss. Surely his uncle had not left the hotel without telling him! He would never have done so voluntarily. But perhaps he had not left voluntarily.

He turned luminous, slightly protuberant eyes on Owen. The Bimbashi had spoken of kidnapping. Did Monsieur think—

No, no, no, no. Monsieur did not think. There was probably some quite simple explanation.

That was what he kept telling himself. He was sure Monsieur was right. Only…He suddenly buried his face in his hands.

They were in one of the alcoves of the grand central hall of the hotel. It had once been an open courtyard but had been roofed over with a magnificent glass dome. Traditional Moorish arches, painted and striped, gave on to recesses and alcoves screened off with heavily fretted arabic paneling. Inside the alcoves and scattered around the floor generally were thick Persian rugs, the predominant color of which, cardinal red, matched the deep red of the comfortable leather divans and chairs. Beside the divans were low, honey-colored alabaster tables and backless pearl-inlaid tabourets. Suffragis in spotless white gowns and vivid red sashes moved silently through the hall on errands for guests. Owen found the opulence rather oppressive.

McPhee stirred slightly and the young man jerked upright.

A thousand apologies! He was delaying them, and when there was so much to be done. Was there anything else the messieurs wished to know? No? Then…

As they left the alcove Monsieur Berthelot said, almost wist- fully, that his uncle had always preferred the light of the terrace to the dark of the hall. “He came from the South, you see—the bright sunshine.” And then there was always so much to see on the terrace!

• • • • •

A smartly dressed young Egyptian ran up the steps.

“Parquet!” he said briskly.

The manager hurried forward.

“Monsieur…”

“Mahmoud el Zaki, Parquet.” He caught sight of Owen and his face broke into a smile. “Hello!” he said. “Are you on it, too?”

“Not exactly,” said Owen. “McPhee thinks it might be a kidnapping.”

“A kidnapping? Here?”

“I know. But there are some odd features.”

“They don’t usually take foreigners.”

“That’s what I said.”

“Odd!” He turned to the manager. “I shall need a room.”

“My office.” The manager hesitated. “I hope it won’t be necessary to—to disaccommodate the guests.”

“As little as possible. However, I may have to ask them a few questions.”

The manager looked doubtful. “Of course,” he said. “Of course, I was hoping—would you not prefer to talk to my staff?”

“Them too.”

The manager shrugged but still looked worried. He led them to his office.

“I will send you some coffee,” he said.

“How is it that Mr. McPhee is involved?” asked Mahmoud. “Surely they didn’t send for you directly?”

“They did. A foreigner. They thought it important,” said Owen.

He listened intently while McPhee brought him up to date. Then they went out on to the terrace. The tea things had all gone from the tables now, except for the one table. In their place drinks were appearing. It was already growing dark. Night came quickly and early in Egypt. The short period of twilight, though, when it was still light enough to see and yet the heat had gone out of the sun, was one of the pleasantest parts of the day and lots of people were coming out on to the terrace to enjoy the evening air.

All along the front of the terrace was a thick row of street-vendors pushing their wares through the railings at the tourists above: ostrich feathers, hippopotamus-hide whips, fly switches, fezzes, birds in cages, snakes coiled around the arms of their owners, bunches of brightly colored flowers—roses, carnations, narcissi, hyacinths—trays of Turkish Delight and sticky boiled sweets, souvenirs straight from the tombs of the Pharaohs (astonishingly, some of them were), “interesting” postcards.

The street behind them was thick with people, too. They could not be described as passersby since they had stopped passing. Mostly they gathered around the pastry sellers and sherbet sellers, who stood in the middle of the road for the convenience of trade but to the great inconvenience of the arabeah-drivers, and just looked at the spectacle on the terrace above them.

“With all these people looking,” said Mahmoud, “you would have thought that someone, somewhere, must have seen something.”

• • • • •

He went down the steps into the crowd. Owen hesitated for a moment and then decided to join him. McPhee turned back into the hotel to conduct yet another search.

Mahmoud went straight to the snake charmer and squatted down beside him. The snake charmer had rather lost heart and was trying to find an untenanted patch of wall against which he could rest his back. From time to time he played a few unconvincing notes on his flute, which the snake, now completely inert, ignored.

The snake charmer pushed his bowl automatically in Mahmoud’s direction. Mahmoud dropped in a few milliemes.

“It has been a long day, father,” he said to the charmer. “Even your snake thinks so.”

“It needs a drink,” said the charmer. “I shall have to take it home soon.”

“Has it been a good day?”

“No day is good,” said the charmer, “but some days are less bad than others.”

“You have been here all day?”

“Since dawn. You have to get here early these days or someone else will take your place. Fazal, for instance, only he finds it hard to get up in the morning.”

“And all day you have been here on the steps?”

“It is a good place.”

“They come and go, the great ones,” said Mahmoud.

“Yes, they all pass here.”

“My friend—” Mahmoud indicated Owen, who dropped into a sympathetic squat—“cannot find his friend and wonders if he has gone without him. His friend is an old man with sticks.”

“I remember him,” said the snake charmer. “He comes with another, younger, who is not his servant but to whom he gives orders.”

“That would be him,” said Owen. “Have you seen him?”

“No,” said the charmer, “but then, I wouldn’t.”

He turned his face toward Owen and Owen saw that he was blind.

“Nevertheless,” said Mahmoud softly, “you would know if he had passed this way.”

“I would,” the old man agreed.

“And did he?”

For a long time the old man did not reply. Mahmoud waited patiently. Owen knew better than to prompt. Arab conversation has its rhythms and of these Mahmoud was a master.

At last the old man said: “Sometimes it is best not to know.”

“Why?”

“Because knowing may bring trouble.”

“It can bring reward, too.”

Mahmoud took a coin out of his pocket and pressed it into the old man’s hand.

“Feel that,” he said. “That is real. The trouble may never come.” He closed the old man’s fingers around the coin. “The coin stays with you. The words are lost in the wind.”

“Someone may throw them back in my face.”

“No one will ever know that you have spoken them. I swear it!”

“On the Book?”

“On the Book.”

The old man still hesitated. “I do not know,” he said. “It is not clear in my mind.”

“The one we spoke of,” said Mahmoud, “the old man with sticks: is he clear in your mind?”

“Yes. He is clear in my mind.”

“Did he come down the steps this afternoon?”

“Yes.” The old man hesitated, though. “Yes, he came down the steps.”

“By himself or with others?”

“With another.”

“The young one you spoke of?”

“No, not him. Another.”

“Known to you?”

There was another pause.

“I do not know,” said the old man. “He does not come down the steps,” he added.

“Ah. He is of the hotel?”

“That may be. He does not come down the steps.”

“But he did this afternoon. With the old man?”

“Yes. But not to the bottom.”

“The other, though, the old one with sticks, did come to the bottom?”

“Yes, yes. I think so.”

“And then?”

The snake charmer made a gesture of bewilderment.

“I—I do not know.”

“He took an arabeah, perhaps?”

“No, no.”

“A donkey? Surely not!”

“No, no. None of those things.”

“Then what happened?”

“I do not know,” said the charmer. “I do not know. I was confused.”

“You know all things that happen on the steps,” said Mahmoud. “How is it that you do not know this?”

“I do not see,” protested the charmer.

“But you hear. What did you hear on the steps this afternoon?”

“I heard nothing.”

“You must have heard something.”

“I could not hear properly,” protested the charmer. “There were people—”

“Was he seized?”

“I do not know. How should I know?”

“Was there a blow? A scuffle, perhaps.”

“I do not know. I was confused.”

“You know all that happens on the steps. You would know this.”

The snake charmer was silent for so long that Owen thought the conversation was at an end. Then he spoke.

“I ought to know,” he said in a troubled voice. “I ought to know. But—but I don’t!”

• • • • •

The donkey-boys were having their evening meal. They were having it on the pavement, the restaurant having come to them, like Mohamet to the mountain, rather than them having gone to the restaurant.

The restaurant was a circular tray, about a yard and a half across, with rings of bread stuck on nails all round the rim and little blue-and-white china bowls filled with various kinds of sauces and pickles taking up most of the middle, the rest being devoted to the unpromising part of meat hashed up in batter. The donkey-boys in fact usually preferred their own bread, which looked like puffed-up muffins, but liked to stuff it out with pieces of pickle or fry. They offered some to Mahmoud as he squatted beside them.

“Try that!” they invited. “You look as if you could do with a good meal.”

Mahmoud accepted politely and dipped his bread in some of the pickle.

“You can have some too if you like,” they said to Owen. “That is, unless you’re eating up there.”

“Not for me. That’s for rich people.”

“You must have a piastre or two. You’re English, aren’t you?”

“Welsh,” said Mahmoud for Owen.

“What’s that?”

“Pays Galles,” said a knowledgeable donkey-boy. Many of them were trilingual.

This sparked off quite a discussion. Several of them had a fair idea of where Wales was but there were a lot of questions about its relation to England.

“They conquered you, did they?”

“It was a long time ago.”

“It’s hard being a subject people,” they commiserated. “We should know! Look at us!”

“The Arabs.”

“The Mamelukes.”

“The Turks.”

“The French.”

“The British.”

“We’ve had a lot of rulers,” someone said thoughtfully. “When’s it going to end?”

“Very soon, if the Nationlists have it their way,” said someone else.

That set off a new round of discussion. Most of the donkey-boys were broadly in sympathy with the Nationalist movement but one and all were sceptical about its chances of success.

“They’re the ones with the power,” said somebody, gesticulating in the direction of the terrace, “and they’re not letting it go.”

“They’ve got the guns.”

“And the money.”

“At least we’re getting some of that,” said someone else.

“You’re doing all right, are you?” asked Mahmoud.

“Not at the moment we’re not.”

“When the next ship gets in we’ll be all right,” said someone.

“When a new lot arrive at the hotel,” one of the donkey-boys explained, “the first thing they do is come down to us and have their pictures taken with the donkeys.”

“For which we charge them.”

“It’s better than hiring them out for riding. You don’t tire out the donkeys.”

“Or yourself,” said someone.

There was a general laugh.

“The children are best.”

“It’s a bit late in the year for them, though,” said someone.

“Not too busy, then, today?” suggested Mahmoud.

“Busy enough,” they said neutrally. The donkey-boys did not believe in depreciating their craft.

“There’s been a lot of excitement up there today,” one of them said.

“Oh?”

“They’ve lost someone.”

All the donkey-boys laughed.

“It’s easy enough for these foreigners to lose themselves in the bazaars,” said Mahmoud.

“Oh, he didn’t lose himself in the bazaars.”

“No?”

“He lost himself on the terrace.”

There was a renewed burst of laughter.

“Get away!”

“No, really! There he was, sitting up on the terrace as bold as life, and then the next minute, there he wasn’t!”

Again they all laughed.

“You’re making this up.”

“No, we’re not. That’s how it was. One minute he was there, the next he wasn’t.”

“He just walked down the steps?”

“Him? That old chap? He couldn’t even fall down them.”

“He went back into the hotel.”

“They can search all they like,” said someone, “but they won’t find him there.”

“You’ve got me beat,” said Mahmoud. “Where is he, then?”

“Ah!”

“Try the Wagh el Birket,” someone suggested.

They all fell about with laughter. The Sharia Wagh el Birket, which was just ’round the corner, was a street of ill-repute.

“If you don’t find him there,” said someone, “you’ll find every other Frenchman in Cairo!”

“And Englishman, too!”

“But not Welshman,” said someone kindly.

 

• • • • •

“They know something,” said Owen.

“Yes.”

Owen and Mahmoud were sitting wearily at a table on the terrace. It was after eleven and the hotel manager had just sent them out some coffee. The night was still warm and there were plenty of people still at the tables. Across the road they could see the brightly colored lamps of the Ezbekiyeh Gardens but here on the terrace there were fewer lights. There was just the occasional standard lamp, set well back from the tables because it drew the insects, which circled it continuously in a thick halo. Because of the relative darkness, the stars in the yet unpolluted Egyptian sky seemed very close, almost brushed by the fringed tops of the palms. The air was heavy with the heady perfume of jasmine from the trays which the flower sellers held up to the railings for inspection. Some women went past their table and another set of perfumes drifted across the terrace. In the warm air the perfumes gathered and lingered almost overwhelmingly.

Owen watched the light dresses to the end of the terrace. There was a burst of laughter and chatter as they reached their table and the scrape of chairs. Someone called for a waiter, a suffragi came hurrying and a moment later waiters were scurrying past with ice buckets and champagne. A cork popped.

The railings were still crowded with vendors and the crowd in the street seemed as thick as ever. Every so often an arabeah would negotiate its way through and deposit its passenger at the foot of the hotel steps. Then it would join the row of arabeahs standing in the street. The row was growing longer. There were few outward journeys from the hotel now.

The donkey-boys had stopped all pretense of expecting business and were absorbed in the game they played with sticks and a board. They threw the sticks against the wall of the terrace and moved broken bits of pot forward on the board depending on how the sticks fell. The scoring appeared to be related to the number of sticks which fell white side uppermost. The dark sides didn’t seem to count unless all the sticks fell dark side uppermost, which was a winning throw.

“Yes,” said Mahmoud, “they know something. But how much do they know?”

“They know how he disappeared.”

“Yes,” Mahmoud admitted, “they might know that.”

“They said he didn’t come down the steps.”

“They didn’t quite say that. Anyway, I believe the snake charmer.”

“The charmer said the old man had been helped down. We haven’t been able to find anyone who helped him.”

“Not on the hotel staff. It might have been a guest.”

“We could ask around, I suppose. It won’t be popular with the hotel.”

“A crime has been committed,” Mahmoud pointed out. When in pursuit of his duties, he was not disposed to make concessions.

“We don’t know that yet.”

“At least we could try the ones on the tables nearest him.”

“If we could find out who they were.”

“The waiters will have a good idea. They’ll be intelligent in place like this. I’ve got them making a list.”

“Even if we knew,” said Owen, “would it help much? I mean, it might have been just a casual thing. Somebody saw him trying to get down the steps and helped him out of kindness.”

“We’d know definitely that he came down the steps. It would confirm the charmer’s story.”

“And challenge the donkey-boys.”

“Yes. We would be back to the donkey-boys.”

“But they’re not talking. Why aren’t they talking?”

“Why should they help the authorities? Especially if they’re not their authorities.”

“Well, hell, they’re the only authorities they’ve got.”

“The one thing Egyptians have learned over the centuries,” said Mahmoud, “if they’ve learned anything over the centuries, is to keep clear of the authorities, never mind who they are. Anyway,” he added, “there’s probably another explanation.”

“Which is?”

“They’ve been paid to keep their mouths shut.”

“Like the charmer?”

“No. He’s not been paid. He’s just frightened.”

“You think someone’s frightened him?”

“Possibly.”

“And paid the donkey-boys?”

“Possibly.”

“So you think it was a kidnapping, then?”

“I haven’t got that far yet. I’m waiting for the note.”

• • • • •

It came just before midnight. McPhee emerged from the hotel and walked slowly across to them. He was carrying a slip of paper in his hand which he laid on the table in front of them. Owen read it by the light of one of the standard lamps. It was in the ornate script of the bazaar letter writer.

Mr. Yves Berthelot,

Greetings. This letter is from the Zawia Group. We have taken your esteemed uncle. If you want to see him again you must pay the sum of 100,000 piastres which we know you will do as you are a generous person and will want to see your uncle again. If you do not pay, your uncle will be killed. We will tell you later how to get the money to us.

Meanwhile, I remain, Sir, your humble and obedient servant.

The Leader of the Zawia Group

“Zawia?” said Mahmoud. “Have you heard of them?”

“No,” said Owen, “they’re new.”

“Taking tourists is new, too,” said McPhee.

“Yes. It doesn’t look like the usual kind of group.”

“I take it you’ll have nothing in the files?” said Mahmoud.

“I’ll get Nikos to check. I don’t recognize the name but maybe he will.”

“How did it come?”

“It appeared in Moulin’s pigeonhole. Berthelot found it when he went to check the mail. I’ve had him checking it at regular intervals.”

“Presumably it was just handed in?”

“Left on the counter when the receptionist was busy.”

“He didn’t notice who left it?”

“No.”

Mahmoud sighed.

Owen looked along the terrace. The conviviality at the far end had developed into quite a party. Corks were popping, people laughing, suffragis bustling with new bottles. The general gaiety spread far out into the night. At the intervening tables people were sitting more quietly. They were mostly in evening dress, having come out into the cool air after dinner. They looked relaxed, confident, immune. But from somewhere out in the darkness something had struck at these bright, impervious people: struck once and could strike again.

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