Riding home from work on the back of his donkey one lunch-time, Fairclough of the Customs Department was shot at by two men. The shots were fired from a distance and missed, and the only damage from the incident resulted when the frightened donkey careered into a fruit stall nearby and deposited both fruit and Fairclough on top of the stall holder, who, since it was lunchtime, was sleeping peacefully under the stall.
Fairclough held court afterwards in the bar of the Sporting Club, which was where Owen caught up with him.
“It was ghastly,” he declared, drinking deeply from his tumbler. “There were squashed tomatoes everywhere. Mind you, they saved my life. It looked like blood, you see. All over him, all over me. They must have thought they’d got me.”
“What I can’t understand,” said someone else at the bar, “is why anyone would want to get you anyway. I mean, let’s face it, Fairclough, you’re not exactly important, and although everyone else in the Department regards you as a bit of a pig, I wouldn’t have said that feeling ran high enough for them to want to kill you.”
“Perhaps there’s a woman in the case,” suggested someone.
Fairclough, who was a lifelong bachelor, snorted and peered into his tumbler.
“Unlikely,” said someone else. “The only female he lets get anywhere near him is that damned donkey of his.”
“Perhaps it’s an animal lover. After all, it is a very small donkey and a very large Fairclough. Perhaps after years of witnessing this unequal combat somebody has decided to take sides.”
“Miss Crispley, perhaps?” suggested someone.
There was a general laugh. Then someone noticed Owen.
“Hello,” he said. “On the job already? I see you’re starting in a sensible place. The bar. We’ve got a suspect for you. Miss Crispley, of the Mission.”
“Thank you,” said Owen. “Or shall I begin with the donkey?”
• • • • •
Beyond what he had told everyone in the bar, Fairclough had little information to give. He always rode home for lunch on his little donkey and he always went that way. Both he and his donkey were creatures of habit. Yes, that would have made it easy for anyone who wanted to attack him.
“Though why in the hell anyone should want to do that,” he said, aggrieved, “I haven’t the faintest idea.”
“You’re Customs, aren’t you?”
“What’s that got to do with it?” said Fairclough touchily.
Customs was one of the lowest ranking Departments and its members were sensitive on the issue.
“I wondered if it could be a question of wanting to settle old scores?”
“Look,” said Fairclough, rosy with heat and indignation and, no doubt, drink, “all I am is a bookkeeper. A high-level one perhaps, but basically that’s all I am. The returns come in from the ports and I put them together in a way that makes sense to Finance. It’s more complicated than it sounds but when you get down to it, that’s all it is. I have nothing,” said Fairclough with emphasis, “absolutely nothing to do with the front end of the business. Smugglers are just a row of figures to me. And that,” said Fairclough, “is the way I’d like them to stay.”
“There’s been no recent row of figures of any particular significance?”
“Not to do with smuggling, no. From the point of view of Finance, yes. There always is. But even those bastards haven’t got around to sending out shooting parties. Yet.”
“If it’s not work it could be personal.”
“Something in my personal life, you mean?” Fairclough reflected, then shook his head. “Try as I might, I can’t find anything I’ve done bad enough for anyone to want to shoot me.”
“No,” said Fairclough shortly.
Owen was trying to find a way of referring to any other preferences Fairclough might have.
“Bridge,” said Fairclough.
“What?” said Owen, startled.
“Bridge. I play a lot of bridge. And, of course, feelings sometimes run high. But,” said Fairclough, weighing the matter, “not as high as that.”
Fairclough went on thinking.
“No,” he said at last, shaking his head. “No, I can’t say that anything comes to mind.”
“Well, if it does, you’ll let me know, won’t you?”
“You bet I will,” said Fairclough. “I don’t want those bastards trying again.”
Owen could get little more out of him. He hadn’t even seen the men who had fired the shots. That piece of information had come from a passing water-carrier, who had seen two men step out from behind a stationary arabeah, fire the shots and then duck back in again. It had all happened so quickly that the water-carrier had barely had time to notice anything. He wasn’t even sure whether the men were dressed in Western-style clothes or in galabeahs.
“I just heard the bangs,” said Fairclough, “and then the bloody donkey was bucking all over the place.”
He cast a longing glance in the direction of the bar.
Owen took the hint.
“OK,” he said. “Thanks.”
Fairclough got up. At the last minute he was reluctant to go.
“It’s a funny business, isn’t it?” he said. “Why would anyone want to kill me?”
“It might simply be a mistake, of course.”
“Mistaken identity, you mean?”
“That could be it,” he said. “That could well be it.”
Privately Owen doubted whether it was possible to mistake Fairclough for anyone else. The image of a second pink man in the habit of riding home on a donkey rose unbidden to his mind. He put it down firmly.
Even Fairclough, after a moment, began to have his doubts.
“I don’t think it could be that, you know,” he said worriedly.
“I think they knew what they were doing.”
“What makes you say that?”
Fairclough hesitated. “You’ll probably think I’m being fanciful,” he said. “But—I think that recently I’ve been followed.”
“Someone behind me. I’ve never seen anyone, mind. I’ve just sensed it. There’s a sort of feeling you have.” He looked at Owen. “You probably think I’ve been imagining things.”
“No,” said Owen. “No, I don’t.”
“I thought that myself—thought I was imagining it. So I took no notice. Told myself not to be so bloody daft. But then, this shooting…” His voice tailed away.
“It’s not so daft,” said Owen. “It makes sense for them to do their homework.”
“But then—you see, that means they knew what they were doing. Knew it was me, I mean.”
“And then,” said Fairclough, taking no notice, “this following business—”
“There have been other cases, haven’t there? Recently, I mean. There’s been a lot of talk.”
“I wouldn’t believe everything you hear.”
“You see, that would explain it. The shooting, I mean. It might not be anything to do with me. Not personally, I mean. If it was—well, you know.”
“No,” said Owen, “I don’t.”
“If it was something to do with, well, the present, well—situation.”
“There’s no evidence of that,” said Owen, “no evidence at all.”
• • • • •
“I had to reassure the poor little devil,” he explained.
“Yes,” said Garvin doubtfully. “The trouble is we actually want them to be a bit scared, don’t we? So that they’ll take precautions.”
Garvin was Commandant of the Cairo Police, a big man in every sense: big in terms of physical presence—he towered over Owen, who was himself a six-footer, big in reputation with the Egyptians—he had been in the country a long time and was known in the underworld to have a special eye, big in standing with the Consul-General.
They were at the Consul-General’s now. It was a reception for a delegation of businessmen newly out from London to which the Consul-General seemed to be attaching a lot of importance. Owen could see him now at the far end of the room deep in con- versation with two of its members, both perspiring profoundly in their dark suits.
At any rate no one would be able to say he wasn’t talking to Englishmen, Owen thought. The current joke in the bar ran something like this: “Have you been to one of the CG’s receptions lately?”—“Oh no. You see, I’m not an Egyptian.”
Gorst, the man who had recently replaced Cromer as Consul-General, was deeply unpopular with the expatriate British community. Although he had in fact served in Egypt before and was familiar with the country and its ways, he was something of a new broom, put in by the new Liberal Government in London specifically to liberalize the British regime in Egypt and to improve relations with the Khedive, Egypt’s hereditary ruler.
Cromer had in fact been the man who had ruled Egypt and for thirty years successive Khedives and their Prime Ministers had been forced to submit to his iron will. His regime had been by no means a bad one. Under him Egypt’s desperate economic problems, which had brought the British to Egypt in the first place to make sure they recovered their loans, had been largely resolved and he had introduced many much-needed reforms.
But after thirty years the Egyptians were beginning to feel that they would like to solve their problems themselves. The new Liberal Government in London was more sympathetic to nationalism than the previous Conservative Government had been, and Cromer’s heavy-handed approach had not commended itself. One of their first acts had been to replace him.
Anyone following Cromer would have had a difficult time. Gorst, with his new brief and new ways of doing things, soon ran into trouble. He was thought to be too pliable, too soft, too keen on the Egyptians. Personally, Owen thought he was all right. It was just that, new in the job, he lacked Cromer’s certainty, with the result that scruple and circumspection was easily misinterpreted as weakness.
There was something of a political crisis. The old Government had fallen. With all its faults it had been a good one. Its leader, however, had been a Copt. In a country where the bulk of the population was Muslim, a Christian Prime Minister could be only a temporary phenomenon.
So Patros had fallen. But who was going to take his place? Among the veteran politicians the jockeying was intense. Factions at Court combined and recombined, lobbied and blocked. The Khedive could not make up his mind—had not been able to make up his mind for six weeks now.
“Can’t you get the stupid idiot to get a move on?” Owen had complained earlier in the evening to one of the Consul-General’s aides.
“We’re trying to. The trouble is we can only suggest. He’s the one who has to actually make the appointment. It’s his big moment and he’s savoring every instant of it.”
“Well, it’s making things bloody difficult.”
Because as the days went by it wasn’t only the tame politicians at Court who began to maneuver. In the political vacuum created by the interregnum other political forces began to stir.
For the first time there was an openly Nationalist Party, small yet but growing in support, growing fast enough to alarm the other political groupings, which began to take on a protective nationalist coloring too.
And beyond them were other groups, less orthodox and less open: fundamentalist groups, bitterly resenting the imposition of a Christian as Prime Minister and determined to prevent it happening again; revolutionary groups eager to throw off hereditary class rule, the rule of the Pashas, as well as the alien rule of the British; the extremist political “clubs” and the secret “societies.” Cairo in 1909 was a hotbed for such groups; and in the growing political tension they saw their opportunity.
Incidents began to occur. Hitherto peaceful demonstrations spilled over into violence. Stones were thrown. Bystanders attacked. Vehicles belonging to foreigners were damaged. There came the occasional report of a shop, usually belonging to a Copt, being broken into and set on fire.
There was a more sinister development. One or two senior people reported that on their way to and from work they had been followed. Nothing more than that. Just followed. But in the increasingly jumpy atmosphere that was enough.
Reports of followings flooded in, not just from the British but also from senior Egyptians. In the bar it was muttered that things were getting out of hand. The Consul-General should do something. He was as weak as water. Thank goodness the Army was standing by.
And now had come the thing Owen had been waiting for and fearing: the first shots.
“It might be nothing to do with it,” said Garvin. “Why would they pick on Fairclough? There are much more obvious targets.”
“They’re usually guarded.”
“Only people like the CG and the Khedive. One or two of the Ministers. You don’t have to go as far down as Fairclough. Any Adviser would do.”
All the big Ministries had a British “Adviser” at the top of them, looking over the Minister’s shoulder. It was one of the ways in which Cromer had consolidated his power.
“The clubs don’t always think like that. From their point of view any Britisher would do.”
“They’d have to have some reason for choosing him. What reason could there be for choosing Fairclough? Political, that is.”
“Or any other. The nearest I’ve got to a reason so far is enmity at bridge.”
Garvin laughed and tilted his glass in the direction of a passing waiter. One of the advantages of this being a reception for a European delegation was that alcoholic drinks were being served.
“I don’t think it will be that. And I don’t think it will turn out in the end to be political either. Go on digging and you’ll find something else.” There was a touch of condescension in Garvin’s voice.
“Even if you’re right on this, you won’t be right for long,” Owen insisted. “Things are hotting up. It’s only a question of time. Can’t we get the Khedive to get a move on?”
“I’ll pass on your views to the CG,” said Garvin and drifted away.
Putting Owen in his place.
• • • • •
The next day as Owen was walking home he had a distinct feeling that he was being followed.
He told himself that he was a fool, that he was imagining things. But the feeling persisted. He stopped beside a drinking fountain and as the water played into his cupped hands covertly looked behind him. He could see no one. There was only the long, dusty street of the Sharia Masr el Atika, completely deserted in the noonday sun. Nevertheless, the feeling persisted.
It was, actually, not uncommon for Owen to be followed. There would often be someone who wanted to have a word with him, to present a petition, make a complaint or lay information against somebody who was too shy to enter the imposing offices at the Bab el Khalk where Owen worked, preferring to wait until they could approach him in the time-honored manner of the East, face to face, in public, in space which was common and where neither was at a disadvantage.
But this was not like that. Anyone like that would walk just a few paces behind so that the great one would become aware of their presence and when he was so minded turn and address them. But there was no comforting shuffle behind him, just the empty street. And yet the feeling that he was being followed burned into his shoulder blades.
An old woman was sitting in the dust under the trees, guarding a huge heap of oranges. She was an old friend of Owen’s and he always greeted her, usually stopping to purchase a few oranges to make a drink with. The oranges were large and green and gave off a pungent smell.
“You’re a strange man,” she said today.
“It’s a strange man who has two shadows.”
Owen thanked her for the warning, bought his oranges and went on.
He left the trees behind him and was walking now between old Mameluke houses. Their walls rose directly from the street in a steep unbroken line until high overhead a row of corbels allowed the first floor to project out over the heads of the passers-by. Higher still, heavily latticed oriel windows carried the harem rooms, where the women lived, a further two feet over the street.
At ground level, though, there was only the high, unbroken line of the wall and the occasional heavy, studded door barred against strangers. All the doors seemed shut. There seemed no escape from the street except that far ahead he could see a break in the line of the houses.
He suddenly felt an intense prickly sensation behind his shoulders.
Just ahead of him he could see a door which was not properly shut. He slowed down, hesitating.
The prickly feeling suddenly became overwhelming. He pushed at the door and then, as it swung back, leaped through it.
The door crashed back against an inside wall and then swung out again. As it closed he jammed his shoulder behind it and held it shut until he could pull the heavy wooden bolts across.
Then, sweating and feeling rather foolish, he stood looking into the inner courtyard.
At this time of day, with the sun directly overhead and the walls offering no shadow, it was, of course, deserted. Along one side, though, was a takhtabosh, a long recess with a carved wooden roof supported in front by pillars, which gave it a cool, cloisterlike effect. This was where superior servants might be expected to sit and Owen was slightly relieved to see nobody there.
He walked down the takhtabosh to the other end. As he had hoped, there was a smaller door leading out on to a street beyond. It was one of the oldest tricks in the game in Cairo for a thief pursued by the police to dash in at one door and then immediately out at the other while the police were still requesting permission to enter by the first. Owen had often been thwarted by it himself.
The street beyond was a small back street in which there was nothing but one or two donkeys, hobbled and left to doze. The sand here was worn so fine that it was almost silvery and reflected the sun unbearably into his eyes.
Again Owen hesitated. It would be easy now to slip away through the side streets. But the Mamur Zapt, Head of Cairo’s Secret Police, ought to be of sterner stuff. Reluctantly he turned left and went back parallel with the way he had come.
After a little way a narrow alley ran back between the houses. He leaped straight across it and braced himself against the opposite wall. Nothing happened. The alleyway was empty.
He began to walk deliberately along it, noting in passing anything which might offer protection, but keeping his eyes steadily on the daylight at the other end of the alleyway. If anyone looked into the alley he would see them first and the second or two it would give him, while their eyes got used to the darkness, would be all that he would have to get out of their line of fire.
He himself was unarmed; a situation which, he told himself fervently, he would remedy as speedily as possible, if he ever got out of this.
The light at the other end of the alleyway came nearer. He found himself sweating profusely.
It was getting so close now that if anyone appeared, his best chance was to jump them. He tensed himself in readiness.
He was at the entrance into the alleyway now. Directly ahead was the broad thoroughfare of the Masr el Atika.
For a moment he listened and then cautiously, very cautiously, he stuck his head out and looked up and down the street. At first it seemed deserted. But then, at the very far end, he thought he saw, just for an instant, two men. He had time to notice only that they were in European-style shirts and trousers, and then they were gone.