The Fig Tree Murder: A Mamur Zapt Mystery #10

The Fig Tree Murder: A Mamur Zapt Mystery #10

Michael Pearce’s tenth irresistible adventure for Colonial Egypt’s the Mamur Zapt is fresh, funny, and “Still as fertile as your favourite oasis.” Inevitably, as the tide of Nationalism sweeps the ...

About The Author

Michael Pearce

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

Read an Excerpt



Chapter One


‘It’s called the Tree of the Virgin,’ said McPhee.

‘Virgin?’ said Owen.

‘After the Holy Mother,’ said McPhee severely.


‘It’s a sycamore, actually. Not, of course, a sycamore as we know it. Our sycamore is a sort of maple. The Egyptian sycamore is a species of fig.’


He glanced at his watch.

‘Well, if you’ll excuse me—’

‘You will call in on it?’

‘I certainly will.’

He certainly wouldn’t. For he was going to Heliopolis and getting there was difficult enough anyway. The new ‘city’ was five miles north of Cairo and beyond the reach of trams. A road was being built from the British barracks at Abbasiya but was not completed yet. Even if it had been, there would still have been problems. Arabeah, the city’s universal horse-drawn cab? Five miles? In this heat? The Effendi must be mocking. That left Cairo’s normal mode of transport, the donkey. Owen was not enthusiastic.

Consulted, McPhee had suggested the new electric railway.

‘It’s not finished yet.’

‘It’s out to Matariya. You wouldn’t have far to walk. Why don’t you ask them if they’ve got a buggy going out to the end of the line?’

‘Buggy?’ said the man at the Pont de Limoun. ‘Of course, Effendi! At once!’

Well, not quite at once. Second thoughts crossed the man’s face.

‘Tomorrow, that is. Bokra. Yes, tomorrow, definitely!’

‘Why not this afternoon?’

‘Impossible, Effendi. Some difficulties at the end of the line. Something to do with an ostrich, I believe.’

Owen shrugged and turned away.

A moment later the man came running after him.

‘Effendi! Effendi! A thousand pardons! I had not realized that you were the Mamur Zapt!’

Another man, more senior, was rushing after him.

‘A buggy, Effendi? To the end of the line? At once!’

‘I thought there were some difficulties?’

‘There are, Effendi, there are! In fact, we would be most glad of your help.’

‘I don’t know that I’ve a lot to contribute on ostriches,’ said Owen uneasily.

The man gave him a strange look.


‘Wasn’t it something to do with an ostrich?’

‘Not as far as I know. There’s a bit of trouble up there between the labourers and the villagers. And a man’s been killed.’

• • • • •

The man was lying huddled across the very last stretch of track that had been completed. Around him was a large crowd consisting equally of labourers and villagers, not, Owen was relieved to see, at each other’s throats. Among them was a foreigner in a helmet, who looked up with relief as Owen approached.

‘Monsieur le Mamur Zapt?’


He looked down at the man.

‘How did he get here?’

‘I don’t know. We found him here this morning.’

‘This morning!’

It was already noon.

‘I know! I’ve tried to get him moved, but—’

‘He’s not being moved!’ said one of the labourers flatly.

‘Just to one side. Then we could get on with—’

‘He’s not being moved!’

‘It’s taken all morning!’

‘That’s not my fault,’ said the labourer.

One of the villagers plucked at Owen’s arm.

‘Effendi, the heat—’

Owen knew what he was thinking. In Egypt, bodies deteriorated rapidly. They were usually buried the next day. The body would have to be prepared, arrangements made.

A man pushed through the crowd. He wore the white turban of the religious sheikh. He walked up to the man and stood looking down at him.

‘Pick him up!’ he said.

‘He stays where he is!’ said the leader of the labourers.

The sheikh stared him hard in the face.

‘God must be given his due!’ he said harshly.

The workman shuffled his feet uneasily but held his ground.

‘So must man,’ he said.

‘Look,’ said the foreigner in the helmet, ‘why don’t you let him have the body? The circumstances can be gone into later.’

‘It’s the law,’ said the workman.

‘He’s right,’ said Owen. ‘When there’s a death in suspicious circumstances the body has to be left untouched and the Parquet notified.’

‘Yes, but are the circumstances suspicious? Couldn’t it just be an accident?’

‘Accident!’ said the leader of the workmen. ‘This is no accident!’

‘He could have fallen, couldn’t he? Tripped over the track and—’

‘Broken his neck?’ said the workman derisively.

‘Well, yes, he could!’ said the man in the helmet. ‘Couldn’t he?’ he appealed to Owen.

‘Has the Parquet been sent for?’

‘Yes, first thing. As soon as we got here and found him. I don’t know where they are! Taking their time, I suppose, like everyone else in Egypt!’

At the back of the crowd a woman began ululating. From across the fields came answering cries.

‘Effendi!’ said the villager worriedly. ‘The women—’

‘Pick him up!’ ordered the sheikh.

‘Leave him!’ said the leader of the workmen.

The crowd began to murmur.

‘What do we care about the law?’ someone called out.

‘It won’t help Ibrahim, will it?’ shouted someone else, a villager.

The workmen looked at their leader uneasily.

‘He stays where he is!’ said the leader.

‘You’ve got the Mamur Zapt here,’ said the man in the helmet. ‘What do you need the Parquet for? Isn’t he good enough?’

The man looked Owen up and down.

‘No,’ he said.

Strictly speaking, he was correct. The Mamur Zapt was not the Parquet. All the same, Owen felt irritated.

‘He’s a troublemaker,’ the man in the helmet said aside to Owen. ‘That’s what it’s all about, you know.’

The crowd was stirring. Villagers and workmen were separating out.

The cries across the fields were getting closer.

‘Pick him up!’ said the sheikh.

The villagers surged forward. The workmen formed up in a line between them and the body. Both sides, Owen suddenly noticed, were armed with spades.

‘Wait!’ he said. ‘There is a way of wisdom in all this.’

‘The Law of God,’ said the sheikh threateningly, ‘does not wait on the Law of Man.’

‘Break the law,’ said Owen coldly, ‘and you will feel it.’

‘If there is a way of wisdom,’ said the villager hastily, ‘why not hear it?’

Owen guessed that he was the village omda, or headman, the man who was likely to feel the law most.

The leader of the workmen shrugged.

‘Why not?’ he said.

The sheikh hesitated.

‘No one here wishes to offend the Law of God,’ said Owen, ‘nor that of man, either. For no man wishes to see injustice. And it may be that there is injustice here. For I agree with my friend’—he motioned towards the leader of the workmen—‘that there is much here that needs explaining. On the other hand,’ he continued hastily, as the sheikh opened his mouth, ‘there are requirements of decency which must be observed.’

‘True,’ said the sheikh.

‘The women have their duties.’

‘Quite right!’ said the omda, thinking he saw the way that things were going.

‘But then,’ said Owen, ‘the men have their requirements too.’

‘They do?’

‘Yes. The men of the family, and those who have worked with him, will want to know that justice has been done.’

‘That’s right!’ asserted the leader of the workmen.

‘But—’ began the sheikh.

‘In the village, too,’ continued Owen quickly, addressing the crowd and bypassing the sheikh, ‘there will be men who say: “Let us proceed with circumspection, for there are dark and weighty things here.”’

‘Yes. No. You think?’ said the omda, spinning.

‘There speaks the man of experience!’ said Owen warmly. ‘And there will be others among you, leaders in the village, experienced, wise, who will think as he does!’

‘So?’ said the sheikh.

‘So?’ said the leader of the workmen.

In the nick of time it came to Owen.

‘Such wisdom should not lightly be set aside!’ he said sternly.

‘Well, no, but—’

‘Choose three men from among you.’ That should take some time. ‘Let them sit with me and with the omda’—best to put him on the spot—‘and with the man of God’—that should take care of him—‘and then let us take counsel in front of you all.’

‘But that will take—’ began the sheikh.

‘Effendi, the body—’ said the omda worriedly.

‘Rightly spoken! There is a need for haste. And therefore let the choosing of the men begin.’

He walked purposefully aside. The members of the crowd looked at each other hesitantly.

And then began choosing.

Phew! thought Owen.

Across the fields wove a column of women in black, ululating as they came.

• • • • •

‘So,’ said the Consul-General’s ADC, as they sat sipping their drinks on the verandah of the Sporting Club, ‘you referred it to committee?’

‘Instinct,’ said Owen. ‘My years of experience with the Egyptian bureaucracy have taught me that’s what you do with a crisis. Fortunately, the Parquet arrived soon afterwards and I was able to hand it all over to them.’

‘A pity,’ said Paul, reflecting, ‘since you were already involved.’

‘Ah, but that was by accident. It’s really nothing to do with me at all. Not the sort of thing I handle.’

He stopped.

‘Already?’ he said.

‘Actually,’ said Paul, ‘that was what I wanted to talk to you about.’

• • • • •

Salah-el-Din, the mamur of the new city, was waiting for him at the gate of one of the few houses that had been completed. It was a surprising house for an inspector of police, large, white-stuccoed and Indo-European in style. But the Syndicate had insisted on the house being in keeping with the character of the others in the development.

The new city was targeted at the very wealthy, who, apart from benefiting from the purity of the air, would also benefit from close proximity to the ruler of Egypt, the Khedive, who had a palace at Kubba.

The city was not built yet and it was pushing things to appoint a mamur this early, but the syndicate behind the development had requested it in the interests of community relations, which was very splendid, and had offered to pay the mamur’s salary for the first two years, which was even more splendid.

They had gone so far as to put forward Salah-el-Din’s name. Garvin, the Commandant of the Cairo Police Force, was normally against that sort of thing, but Salah was a bright young chap and due for promotion and they would need someone special for the job anyway. The Khedive could be relied on to make difficulties; and the Syndicate’s wealthy clientele would certainly feel that they merited especially sophisticated policing.

Salah-el-Din, it was suggested, was just the man for the job. Unusually for an Egyptian, he had trained abroad, not, it was true, as a policeman but as some sort of lawyer (he had come unstuck in his examinations, which was why he had descended to become a policeman) and spoke French well enough to be able to liaise with the Syndicate (which was Belgian).

Owen knew very little about him beyond the fact that he played tennis. Rather well, in fact, as Owen had discovered a few weeks ago when he had played against him during a tennis party got up by the Consul-General.

‘Where did you find him?’ he had complained afterwards to Paul.

‘His name was suggested by the Baron.’


‘The one we’re sucking up to this afternoon, silly!’

Consulate tennis parties were rarely without political purposes. The Baron was the wealthy Belgian behind the Heliopolis Syndicate. Wealthy financiers who took an interest in Egypt were much to be encouraged.

A week or two later Owen had been invited to make up a doubles at the Sporting Club. The invitation had come from Raoul, a Belgian he had met at the tennis party and who was something to do with the Syndicate, and the other two were Paul and Salah-el-Din. It was then that Salah had issued his own invitation to Owen.

‘Come over,’ he had said, ‘and you can see how it’s all developing. The tennis courts should be ready by next week—they’re building a big new Sporting Park. Why don’t you come and christen them?’

Why not, indeed? And Owen had been on his way the day before when he had been so annoyingly diverted.

He made his apologies.

‘Not at all, my dear fellow!’ cried Salah-el-Din, leading him through the garden and up on to the verandah, where a jug of lemonade was waiting. ‘It was all very nearly rather nasty, I gather?’

‘Not so much nasty as irritating,’ said Raoul, already sitting at the table. ‘We lost a whole day! Actually,’ he said, correcting himself, ‘it could have got nasty. We have the Mamur Zapt to thank that it didn’t.’

He gave a polite half-bow in Owen’s direction.

‘What was it all about?’ asked the other member of the party carelessly. He was, Owen gathered, the son of a Pasha.

‘Trouble between the labourers and the villagers,’ said Salah-el-Din.

The Pasha’s son sat up.

‘Villagers?’ he said. ‘Have they been making a nuisance of themselves?’

He probably thought the villagers belonged to him. Which, until recently, they may well have done.

‘No, no,’ said Raoul. ‘It’s our own men.’

‘Actually,’ said Owen, ‘it was a body on the line.’

‘They could have moved it, though, couldn’t they?’ said Raoul, turning to him. ‘From what I gather, that was at the root of the trouble. If they’d let them take the body away there wouldn’t have been any bother!’

‘They were thinking of legal requirements, I believe,’ said Owen.

‘They were thinking of how they could get the day off!’

‘Put a body on the line?’ said the Pasha’s son.

‘No, no, I wouldn’t go so far as that. But make the most of it when there was a body on the line.’

‘They’re up to all sorts of tricks,’ said the Pasha’s son.

‘Well, I wouldn’t put it past them. We’ve been having some real problems with them lately. That’s where we’re hoping you’ll help us,’ he said to Owen.

‘I don’t reckon to intervene in labour disputes,’ said Owen.

‘What do you do?’ asked the Pasha’s son. ‘I’ve often wondered.’

‘I handle political things.’

‘But this is political!’ said Raoul. ‘There are some agitators who’ve got amongst them and we want you to root them out.’

‘The employers always think there are agitators,’ said Owen. ‘There seldom are.’

‘There are this time!’ declared Raoul. ‘We can identify them.’


‘Oh, I know what you’re thinking. But we can prove it. There have been meetings between them and known Nationalists.’

‘Even if there have,’ said Owen, ‘that doesn’t constitute a crime. Nor, actually, does agitation.’

Raoul looked disappointed.

‘I must say I was hoping you’d take a different line. This development is very important to us. And to the country.’

‘Damned right!’ said the Pasha’s son.

‘We’ve spoken to your boss, the Consul-General—’

‘I work for the Khedive,’ said Owen.

‘We know all about that. As I say, we’ve spoken to the Consul-General—’

Government in Egypt was a thing of shadows. The formal ruler of Egypt was the Khedive and he had a government which answered to him. But since the British Army had stepped in, thirty years ago, to assist him to put down a rebellion, and then stayed, behind every Minister was a British Adviser and behind the Khedive was the British Consul-General himself. Government was a thing of shadows; but which was the substance and which was the shadow?

‘Yes,’ said Owen, ‘so I gather.’

‘Well, then—’

‘I’ll look into it.’

‘Thank you,’ said the Belgian, relieved. ‘That’s all we ask.’

‘However, I must repeat: I don’t reckon to involve myself in labour disputes.’

‘We’re not asking you to look into the labour side—’

I’ll bet, thought Owen.

‘It’s the Nationalist connection that worries us.’

‘The Nationalist Party is usually in favour of development.’

‘Ah, yes, but it’s not in favour of foreigners doing the developing.’


‘The fact is, Captain Owen—Gareth, may I call you—?’


‘The fact is, we’re not against Nationalism. Far from it. But we’ve been aware for some time that someone is trying to stop this development. And we’ve got a pretty good idea who it is.’

‘I hope you’re going to put something stronger in this lemonade,’ complained the Pasha’s son.

Salah laughed.

‘After we’ve played!’

He clapped his hands and a young girl came out on to the verandah.

‘Some more lemonade, my dear.’

She bowed her head submissively and picked up the jug.

The Pasha’s son watched her depart.

‘Who’s that?’ he said.

‘My daughter.’

Owen was astounded. In all the years he had been in Egypt he had never been allowed to see a host’s womenfolk.

‘We try to bring her up in the modern way—having lived in Europe, you know.’

‘Damned good idea!’ said the Pasha’s son, eyes lingering.

Owen reckoned she was all of fourteen.

She returned with a fresh jug.

‘Fill me up!’ commanded the Pasha’s son, holding out his glass.

The girl walked straight past him and filled Owen’s glass.

‘Amina—’ began Salah-el-Din.

‘Don’t take it out on her,’ said the Pasha’s son. ‘I like a bit of spirit.’

Owen caught the girl’s eye as she went past. Fourteen she might be, but submissive she was not. In fact, from the look she had given him, he was having doubts about the fourteen.

‘I still don’t like it,’ complained Owen. ‘I don’t reckon it’s my job. It sounds like a straight labour dispute to me.’

‘Probably is,’ Paul agreed. ‘All the same, the Old Man would like you to take an interest.’

‘It’s not political.’

‘Listen,’ said Paul, ‘if someone as rich as the Baron asks the Old Man to do him a favour, then it is political.’

• • • • •

‘So you didn’t go there?’ said McPhee, disappointed.

‘Well, no, I’m afraid not,’ said Owen guiltily.

‘A pity. You were so close to it. And it’s a site of considerable religious interest, you know. The Virgin and Child are said to have rested under the tree on their flight into Egypt. In fact, according to some chronicles, Mary hid herself from Herod’s soldiers in its branches. There is a tradition that a spider spun its web over the entrance to her hiding place so as to conceal her.’


‘Interesting, isn’t it? Echoes of both Robert Bruce and the spider and of King Charles in the oak! Extraordinary!’

‘Fascinating! Well, I must go, I can hear the phone in my office—’

It was from someone on the staff of the Khedive.

‘We understand you’re taking an interest in the progress of the new electric railway?’

‘A certain interest, yes.’

‘Quite a lot of interest, we hope. His Royal Highness is very concerned that the line is not advancing as rapidly as had been anticipated.’

‘I’m sure that the contractors will soon be on top of any problems.’

‘Technical ones, yes; but what about the political ones?’

‘Political ones?’

‘The attempt by certain people to use the Heliopolis project as an occasion to advance their own narrow Nationalist interests.’

‘In what way?’

‘By seeing that the project is never completed. His Highness has asked me to emphasize that he regards the success of the project as a matter of honour, both his own, and the country’s.’

‘I see.’

‘Good. His Highness hoped that you would.’

Owen had hardly put the phone down before it was ringing again. This time it was Muhammed Rabbiki, a veteran member of the National Assembly and an important figure in the Nationalist Party.

‘Ah, Captain Owen, a word with you. We understand that you’re taking an interest in this sad affair at Matariya?’

‘A limited interest, yes.’

‘But why limited? Important issues are at stake.’

‘Are there? All I know is that a man’s body has been found on the line, and that, of course, is a matter chiefly for the Parquet.’

‘Oh, Captain Owen, I’m sure you know more than that! How did the body come to be on the line? Who put it there? And for what reason?’

‘All these are, as I say, questions for the Parquet. My concerns are restricted to the political.’

‘But, Captain Owen, what if the answers to these questions are political?’

‘How could they be?’

‘Suppose the body were a plant? Designed to have a certain effect?’

‘What sort of effect?’

‘I am sure I have no need to tell you, Captain Owen. But one thing I can say with confidence, that it certainly is not intended to be in the interests of the workers, neither the workers on the Heliopolis project nor workers in general in Egypt.’

‘Aren’t you making too much of this, Mr Rabbiki?’

The politician chuckled hoarsely.

‘I’m just making sure that you don’t make too little of it, Captain Owen. And in order to make quite sure, I shall put down a question in the Assembly from time to time. We shall all be following your progress with great interest, Captain Owen.’

McPhee stuck his head in at the door.

‘About the Tree, Owen—’

‘Look, thanks, I’ve got something else on my mind just at the moment.’

‘But it’s to do with the business at Matariya.’

McPhee came worriedly into the room.

‘Apparently, there’s been a development. There’s a rather difficult religious sheikh in the village, it seems—’

‘Yes. I’ve met him.’

‘Well, he’s bringing the Tree into it.’

‘He’s what?’

‘Bringing the Tree into it. It’s a Christian site, you see, of particular interest to Copts, but not just Copts, Catholics too. The balsam—’

‘What the hell’s the Tree got to do with it?’

‘Well, he says it’s not just an accident that the man was killed at that particular spot. It’s within the zone of influence of the Tree, and—’

• • • • •

‘So, it’s become an issue between Muslims and Christians?’ said Paul.

‘That’s right. As well.’

Paul took another drink. Then he put down his glass.

‘Political enough for you yet?’ he said maliciously.

‘First, I’m going to arrest the bloody Tree,’ said Owen.

• • • • •

When Owen got out of the train, the ordinary steam-train this time, at Matariya Station, he could see ahead of him the broad white track which led to Heliopolis. Away on the skyline were half-finished houses and men busy on a large construction of some sort: the new hotel, he supposed.

Nearer at hand, over to his right, a pair of humped oxen, blindfolded, were working a sagiya, or water-wheel. Its groan followed him as he walked.

Far to his left, above the mud parapet which hemmed in the waters of the Nile, he could see the tall sails of gyassas, like the wings of huge brown birds, gliding along the river. Closer to was the great white gash of the advancing end of the new railway. It was somewhere over there that he must have been two days before.

The track led through a vast field of young green wheat, away in the middle of which an ancient obelisk thrust upwards at the sky.

McPhee, he told himself, would have loved it: both the biblical landscape and the reminder of something even older, the original Heliopolis, City of the Sun, where Plato and Pythagoras had walked and talked, buried now, perhaps even beneath this very field of wheat.

McPhee was not the ordinary sort of policeman. His interests were in the Old Egypt rather than in the New; in the Egypt of the Pharaohs and the Ptolemies and Moses rather than in the Egypt of the Khedive and the occupying British and the foreign developers.

Owen’s mind, however, was gripped more by the New Egypt than by the Old. For he was the Mamur Zapt, Head of Cairo’s Secret Police, responsible for political order in the city, and the chief threat to that order came from the new forces that were emerging in the country, to do with nationalism, ethnic and religious tension, and the growing impatience with the traditional rule of the Pashas.

If it were not for the fact that the Old Egypt had a habit of rising up every so often and giving the New an almighty kick in the teeth!

Mystery Delivered Weekly

The Poisoned Pen Press Newsletter