The Mamur Zapt would have treated it all as a joke if Nikos, his official clerk, had not been so insistent.
“Get out there quick,” he had said.
He had even volunteered to guide Owen to the Coptic Place of the Dead. Since Nikos was normally reluctant to take a single step outside his office, Owen had been impressed. Even so, if Georgiades had been around he might have sent him. Georgiades, however, was out on an errand of his own, or possibly still in bed. In any case, Nikos made it clear that he would not have approved.
“This is something for the Mamur Zapt,” he said.
The Mamur Zapt was the head of Cairo’s Political CID. Responsible in theory directly to Egypt’s ruler, the Khedive, he answered in practice only to the British Consul-General, the man who, since Britain had charge of Egypt’s purse strings, effectively controlled Egypt. The Consul-General, however, had taken pains not to define the Mamur Zapt’s role too closely, observing that the less he knew of the Mamur Zapt’s activities the more effective he was likely to be.
There were certain ground rules, however, and one of them was that the Mamur Zapt did not concern himself with routine police matters. Which he considered this to be.
“Police?” said Nikos, as if he could hardly believe his ears. “What good would they be?”
Owen had to admit there was something in this. The Cairo police force was recruited from country districts and consisted for the most part therefore of simple fellahin, or peasants, illiterate, underpaid and, when they got to the city, usually quite lost. Their duties tended to be restricted largely to the regulation of traffic, which, since the latter consisted chiefly of donkeys and camels, was in Nikos’s view entirely appropriate. All real criminal investigation was left to the Parquet, the French-style Department of Prosecutions of the Ministry of Justice.
“The Parquet, then?” suggested Owen hopefully.
“The Mamur Zapt,” said Nikos definitely, and put on his tarboosh and walked out of the door.
Owen put on his tarboosh too. Although he was still, strictly speaking, an army officer and merely on secondment, he considered himself now to be a civilian and preferred to dress in mufti. A tarboosh, the pot-like hat with a tassel which was the normal headgear of the educated Egyptian, was far less conspicuous than a sun helmet, especially of the heavy military sort. It was also cooler.
Not that that mattered too much this early in the morning. Later, when the sun was high in the sky and the temperature rose into the nineties, every little thing counted. Even the nature of your hat. At the moment, though, with the sun not long up over the horizon, the day was still pleasantly fresh and cool.
Owen borrowed a couple of constables from the orderly room at the front of the building and set out after Nikos.
They went on foot since their way lay through the mediaeval city, where the streets were too narrow and congested for a carriage to pass. This early in the morning the streets were not, in fact, very crowded. Almost the only people they saw were the black-gowned women drawing water for the day from the street pumps, but by the time they reached the Coptic Place of the Dead there were a lot more people around, and when Owen looked behind him he found that Nikos was not the only guide. From somewhere or other they had acquired a sizeable following of small boys and old men and others who might have been on their way to work if something more interesting had not come along.
Without assistance, although not necessarily on such a scale, Owen would never have found the house of Andrus, for it was set back from the ordinary thoroughfares of the necropolis and masked on all sides but one by huge family tombs. Once it came in sight, however, there was no mistaking it. A large crowd, mostly in the traditional dark gowns and dark turbans of the Copts, had already gathered around its front entrance. As Owen approached, the crowd parted and a man came up to him.
“This is an outrage!” the man said.
“An unfortunate incident, certainly,” said Owen smoothly. Nikos had been able to brief him on the way.
“More than that,” said the Copt, “much, much more than that.”
“Don’t let your distress—”
“They are trying to provoke us,” the man cut in.
As soon as he had spoken, he could have cursed himself. For he knew what the answer would be.
“The Moslems,” said the man. “The Moslems. They are behind this.”
It was important to stifle such ideas at birth. Cairo was an excitable city.
“Who else would have done it?”
“Yes. For a joke.”
“You call this a joke?”
“No. I say only that it is the sort of thing children would do as a joke.”
“We know who did it,” said someone in the crowd, “and it wasn’t children.”
“Nor was it a joke,” said the man who had spoken first. “It was done to provoke us.”
“So you say.”
“So I know,” the man retorted.
“How do you know?”
“This is not a thing in itself. It is part of a pattern.”
“There have been other things?”
“Attacks on Copts in the streets. Women jostled on their way to church. Our priests spat on, children stoned.”
“These are all bad things,” said Owen, “but that is not enough to make a pattern.”
“What more do you want?” asked the man. “Someone killed?”
“In a pattern,” said Owen, “there is design.”
“There is design here. Do you think these things happen by chance?”
“Women have always been jostled. Boys have always thrown stones.”
“But not like this,” said the man. “Our women dare not go out. We keep our children at home.”
“There have been many such incidents?”
“Every day and increasingly.”
“In one part of the city or in all?”
“At the moment,” said the man, “in one part of the city only.”
“And that is?”
“We are from the Mar Girgis,” said the man. The Church of St. George, in the old part of the city, Owen thought. He had walked past it on his way to the cemetery.
“It is around there, is it?”
He became aware that the man was watching him closely.
“If you do not do something about it,” the man said, “we shall.”
The crowd went quiet. Owen suddenly noticed how much it had grown. It must be over two hundred. And with that realization came another. Not all of them were Copts.
“We have endured too much too long,” the man said. “It is time to make an end of it.”
“That is not for you,” said Owen coldly. “It is for the Mamur Zapt.”
This was ridiculous. To flare up over a thing as trivial as this! But he knew that was how things did catch fire in Cairo, and also that once started the fires were hard to put out.
“I will do something about it,” he said.
“Do so!” said the man. “And do it quickly. For we will not wait.”
The Mamur Zapt did not reckon to take this kind of talk from anyone, and he looked round for the police. But there were only two of them, huddled uneasily behind him. For the moment he could do nothing.
But he would have to do something. He couldn’t leave the crowd like this. For the moment, the man seemed to have them in hand, but he could as easily incite as restrain. And if he did so, what would become of the Moslems present? There were only a few of them compared to the Copts. And what the hell were they doing here, anyway? You’d think they’d have enough sense to get out, fast.
He knew what they were doing. Watching the drama, like all Cairenes.
The thing to do was get this out of the public forum, get the drama off the streets.
He turned to the man who appeared to be the leader.
“There is no reason why you should wait,” he said to him. “I am ready to hear what you have to say. Only not here. Can we go into the house?”
“Of course!” said the man.
He stepped aside and made a gesture of invitation.
“It is the house of Andrus,” said Owen. “Where is Andrus?”
“I am Andrus,” the man said.
The crowd opened and they walked through.
As he pushed past, someone in the crowd cried out. Owen looked up quickly but it was only an idiot, and he was a Copt, anyway. His head sagged to one side and his lips drooled. He called out again and this time Owen heard what he said.
“A death for a death!”
Owen turned in a flash, caught hold of him and threw him to one of the constables.
“Take him away, for Christ’s sake,” he said.
The constable’s hands closed round the idiot as round a rabbit. As the boy was borne away he cried out once more: “A death for a death!”
“The boy is crazed,” Owen said to those round about him. “To talk of such things when the only death in the affair is that of a dog!”
“So far,” said Andrus.
• • • • •
Owen had hoped to disperse the crowd by going inside, but it didn’t work. They followed him into the house. Cairenes had no sense of privacy, and they all wanted to know what was going to happen next. Owen was used to the publicness of Egyptian life and didn’t really mind, especially now that the tension seemed to have eased, though he would have preferred fewer bodies in the room.
The room occupied the whole ground floor of the house. It wasn’t a proper house but one used exclusively for visiting the dead. Coptic religious practice required attendance at the cemetery on specified nights of the year to remember and honour the dead, and many of the wealthier Copts kept “houses” in the cemetery just for that purpose. Like most such houses, this one consisted of two storeys, although the ground-floor room, a large room rather like a council chamber, was carried through in the middle of the house into the floor above. At this point a heavily ornamented balustrade ran round it creating a narrow promenade from which arches gave onto the apartments beyond. The upper floor was reserved for the women. As Owen made his way across the ground-floor room he was conscious of veiled, dark-gowned figures peeping down at him discreetly from behind the arches. The lower room had, as was common in well-to-do Egyptian houses, a sunken floor, at one end of which was a raised dais with leather cushions. This was where Owen was taken.
As he sat down, people pressed round him. A turbanned head craned intimately over his left shoulder, and as he slightly adjusted his position he found himself rubbing bristly cheeks with another head which was inserting itself on his right-hand side. The lower room was now so packed that people had opened the shutters in order to lean through the windows. All were entirely engrossed.
Andrus had sat down on the cushion opposite him. He was a thin, severe man in his late fifties with a gaunt face and prominent eye-sockets. His eyes looked very tired, which was not surprising if, as Owen supposed, he had spent the whole night at his prayers.
“Well, Andrus,” he said, “let us begin. And let us begin with what happened last night. Speak to me as one who knows nothing.”
Andrus paused to glance round the ring of onlookers, as if to make sure they were all attending.
“We came here to pass the night of the Eed el-Gheetas,” he said, “as we usually do. You are aware of our custom, Captain Owen?”
Owen registered, as he was intended to, the correct use of his name and rank.
“We come here on feast days and also on some other occasions to honour our dead. I was especially anxious to come on this occasion as it is the anniversary of my father’s death. He died four years ago. We spend the night in the house—”
“Not in the tomb?”
“Not in the tomb, no. We go there in the morning. First we have to prepare ourselves. We do that by keeping vigil.”
“All through the night?”
“All through the night. We start at dusk.”
“Did you go straight to the house? When you arrived, I mean? Or did you visit the tomb?”
“The others went to the house.” There was a touch of disapproval in the words. “I went to the tomb.”
“And you saw nothing untoward?”
“Not at the tomb, no.”
“Or anywhere else?”
“There are always Moslems about in the necropolis nowadays,” said Andrus coldly.
“But they weren’t doing anything untoward?”
“No,” said Andrus, with the air of one making a concession.
“How long did you stay at the tomb?”
“Not long. I paid my respects and then went on to the house.”
“Where you stayed all night?”
“And again you saw and heard nothing untoward?”
“We were praying,” said Andrus tartly.
“Of course. But you might have—”
“We did not.”
Ordinarily, Owen would have probed but there was an impatient finality about the words. He moved Andrus on.
“Then in the morning—?”
“We went to the tomb.”
“Where you found—?”
Andrus made a gesture of disgust as if he could hardly bring himself to speak of it.
“Where you found—?” Owen prompted again.
“A dog!” Andrus spat out. “At the very door of my father’s tomb!”
He glared round dramatically. Totally involved, the crowd gave a sympathetic gasp.
“I feel for you,” said Owen tactfully. “I feel for you. But…” He hesitated and chose his words with care. “Is there not a possibility—I ask only to make sure—that the dog came there by accident?”
“Accident?” said Andrus incredulously.
“There are lots of dogs in the cemetery,” said Owen, “and some of them are old and sick. Might not one of them, knowing that its time to die had come—”
“Have dragged itself across the graveyard until by chance it arrived at my father’s tomb?”
“—and then, with its last breath, climbed up a flight of six steep steps and forced open the heavy door that was barred against it? Pah.”
Andrus made a gesture of derision. The crowd laughed scornfully.
“First, it was a joke. Now it is a fairy tale.”
Owen went patiently on.
“The door was barred?”
“I unlocked it the night before when I came first to the tomb.”
“But left it barred? Are you sure?”
“Surer of that,” said Andrus, with a sidelong glance at the crowd, “than that the dog lifted the bar itself.”
The crowd laughed with him.
“The point is important,” Owen insisted. “If the door were open, the dog could have come there itself.”
“It was brought,” said Andrus, “by other dogs. Moslem ones.”
“Where did you find the dog? Inside the tomb?”
“In the doorway. Half inside, half out.”
“Quite dead,” said Andrus.
“You say it was Moslems.”
“I know it was Moslems.”
“Did anyone see them?”
Andrus hesitated. “No one has said so.”
“I will ask. And I will ask more widely. It may be that someone saw them bring the dog into the cemetery.”
“There are dogs in the cemetery enough.”
Owen shrugged. “I will check, anyway. I will also ask those in your house.”
“I speak for them.”
“It may be that one of them heard something or saw something that you did not.”
Now it was Andrus who shrugged his shoulders.
“It may be that no one saw anything or heard anything. They came like thieves in the night.”
“It is important, however, to check. Then we might establish whether it was indeed Moslems.”
“Who else could it have been?”
“Copts. Have you any enemies?”
“Only Moslems,” said Andrus.
He seemed stuck on this. Owen could not tell whether it was some personal bitterness or whether it was the general bitterness which he knew Copts felt for Moslems. If it was the latter, he was surprised at its intensity. If that was widely shared, then it was worrying. There was the possibility of a major explosion. And any little spark could set it going.
Even the death of a dog.
He understood now why Nikos had been so insistent that he come.
• • • • •
“And what the hell were you doing while all this was going on?” asked Georgiades.
“I am in the office,” Nikos said with dignity. “I leave the other stuff to you.”
He paused impressively, looked through the sheaf of papers he was holding in his hand, pulled one out and laid it on the desk in front of Owen.
“All I can find out about Andrus,” he said.
Owen glanced at it, but then looked back at Nikos.
“Tell me,” he said. It would be sensible for Georgiades to hear.
“A zealot,” said Nikos.
“Not in your sense, no,” said Nikos coldly. He was himself a Copt. “Just very religious. You would consider excessively so.”
Nikos liked to get things exactly right.
“But not politically active?”
“No known Nationalist connections, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“I wasn’t. Not specifically. I was wondering if he was active in politics generally?”
“How can a Copt be active in politics generally?”
The Copts, although the direct descendants of the Egyptians of the pharaohs, were now in a minority in Egypt. They numbered less than a million. There were over eight million Moslems. Since before the days of the Mamelukes Egypt had been a Moslem country. Successive sultans, and the generals who had governed Egypt for them, had not even thought of sharing their rule with the Copts, nor had more recent khedives seen any reason to depart from that tradition. Even the new Western-style political parties which were springing up had restricted Coptic participation.
“You know what I mean,” said Owen. “Behind the scenes.”
But although Copts had been effectively excluded from direct participation in government they participated indirectly in very considerable measure. They were prominent in the civil service. Indeed, you could almost say that the civil service was run by them. Even in what was called in other countries parliamentary politics they were not without influence. They were energetic and skilful lobbyists. One thing they were not, thought Owen, was inactive in politics.
“I know what you mean.” Nikos caved in, having made his point. “No, he is not. He confines his public activities to church work, of which he does a lot.”
“The Mar Girgis?”
“Yes. That’s right.”
“What sort of church is it?”
“Fundamentalist. Conservative. Ascetic.”
“Yes,” said Nikos, “he’s like that, too.”
“A prominent figure in the local Coptic community. Name any committee and he’s on it. Any list of subscriptions and he’s at the top.”
“Where does he get the money?”
“He’s a businessman. Soft fruit, raisins, grapes, that sort of thing. He imports them and exports them. His main place of business is really Alexandria, though he prefers to live in Cairo himself, which is where his family have always lived and where his father built up the family business.”
“His father is dead?”
“Yes. He’d been in ailing health for some years. He suffered badly in one of the massacres.”
“Of the Copts. By the Moslems.”
“Yes,” said Nikos, “I thought you would.”
• • • • •
Among the papers which Nikos had brought in were the office accounts. These made gloomy reading. They were still some weeks from the end of the financial year and already Owen was almost spent up. He decided he would have to see Garvin about it. Garvin was the Commandant of the Cairo Police and although not formally Owen’s superior was the man he in practice reported to. Garvin had very good links with the Consul-General.
He was also the person in whose budget, for administrative convenience, Owen’s accounts were included, so any application for an increase would have to be cleared with him.
Owen was not expecting any difficulty. The Mamur Zapt’s budget was relatively small and the work important. Since Cromer’s time, however, the Ministry of Finance had been sticklers for financial probity and formal permission would definitely have to be obtained. The British Consul-General had been brought in specifically to clear up the Egyptian financial mess and by the time he had left, two years ago, the Government’s accounts had been transformed. Some were saying, the new English Liberal MPs among them, that Britain’s work in Egypt was now completed and that there was no excuse for them staying further. It had, after all, been thirty years.
Before going to Garvin, however, Owen was anxious to check the accounts. A previous Mamur Zapt had been dismissed for corruption not so long previously that Owen could afford to ignore criticism. He was deep in calculations when the phone rang.
It was one of the Consul-General’s aides, a personal friend of his.
“Hello,” said Paul, “I was trying to get you earlier but you were out. I need some help.”
“Visitors. Important ones. Ones who need special handling.”
“I at once thought of you.”
“No,” said Owen. “Definitely not. Much too busy. Quite out of the question. No.”
“It is not I alone who thinks so. The Consul-General thinks so too.”
“You put the idea in his head.”
“We reviewed the possibilities together. I may have suggested there was a need for some dexterity. Political dexterity.”
“You rotten sod.”
“I have your interests at heart. Also my own. We don’t want this to go wrong.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve got more important things to do.”
“You haven’t. This has priority. So says the Consul-General.”
“Bloody hell! I’ve got a lot on just now.”
“Then put a lot off.”
“Who the hell are these visitors?”
“You only need to bother about one of them. Well, let’s say one and a half. He has a niece with him. He, John Postlethwaite, is one of the new intake of Liberal MPs and has chosen to make a speciality of Egypt. This is because none of the other committees would have him. Retrenchment, reform and Bolton’s backyard is all he really knows about. Oh, and accounts. He took Cromer to task over his and made something of a name for himself. That’s what gave him the idea. Of specializing in Egypt, I mean. He wants to come out and see things at first hand. The accounts, that is.”
“McPhee sounds just the man for this,” said Owen, selling the Assistant Commandant down the river without a qualm.
“McPhee? Not in a million years. This is out of his class. This is a delicate exercise, boyo, and not for the McPhees of this world. Haven’t you been listening? We need someone with some political sense. This is important, I keep telling you. There’s a lot at stake. My job for a start. Yours too, probably. It’s not trivial stuff like The End of Empire, Egypt’s Manifest Destiny, or England’s Moral Mission to Confuse the World. Christ, did I say that? I’m going to have to watch my step for the next two months.”
“Two months? For Christ’s sake, I can’t spend that amount of time.”
“You can do other things as well,” said Paul magnanimously.
• • • • •
“I’m afraid so,” said Garvin.
“But it’s going to take up hours,” Owen complained. “Just when I’m especially busy.”
“What are you busy on?”
Owen told him about the dog. Garvin, knowledgeable in the ways of Egypt, took it seriously.
“Christ!” he said. “If you don’t sort that out quickly they’ll be at each other’s throats.”
“So I can concentrate on that and get someone else to look after Postlethwaite?”
“You can concentrate on that and still look after Postlethwaite. Don’t spend too much time on him, that’s all.”
As Owen went out, Garvin said: “You’d better get it sorted out by the twenty-fifth.”
“That’s the Coptic Easter Monday. It’s also the day when the Moslems have a Moulid for some local saint or other. I think they do it just to be awkward. The problem is to keep the processions apart, because of course if they run into each other there’s all kinds of trouble, especially if things are a bit tense between them anyway. But that’s not till the twenty-fifth. You’ll have it all sorted out by then. I hope.”