The Snake Catcher’s Daughter: A Mamur Zapt Mystery #8

The Snake Catcher’s Daughter: A Mamur Zapt Mystery #8

Someone is running a campaign to discredit Cairo’s senior police officials. Is Garvin, the Commandant, playing power games, or is he trying to get to the bottom of the allegations ...

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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 1


One evening when Owen got home he found a girl in his bed.

“Hello!” he said. “What’s this?”

“I’m a present,” she said.

“Who from?”

“We can go into details later.”

“A member of the British Administration is not allowed to accept presents,” he said, stuffily.

And not altogether honestly. For the Mamur Zapt, Head of Cairo’s Secret Police, was not, strictly speaking, a member of the British Administration but a member of the Egyptian Administration; and whereas the British, under Cromer’s strait-laced regime had not been allowed to accept bribes, the Khedive’s servants had always taken a more relaxed view.

“All the world knows about your Zeinab,” said the girl, pouting.

Owen rather hoped that all the world did not know about Zeinab and was more than a little surprised that the girl did.

“Ah, yes, but she is not a present.”

“I don’t need to stay a present,” said the girl.

“Off you go!”

“Like this?” demanded the girl, pulling the sheet back. Underneath she was completely naked.

“If that’s the way you came.”

The girl, rather sulkily, rose from the bed and picked up a dress that was lying across a chair. A European dress, but was she European? Such questions were on the whole unprofitable in cosmopolitan Cairo. A Levantine, say, and a beautiful one.

Owen began to wonder if perhaps he should make more of an effort to get to the bottom of this attempt to bribe him. Bottom, as a matter of fact, was exactly what he was contemplating just at this moment…

• • • • •

“Oh yes?” said Zeinab belligerently when he told her.

“Oh yes?” said Garvin, the Commandant of the Cairo Police Force, sceptically.

“Oh yes?” said everyone in the bar when he happened to mention it. “What happened next?”

“She put on her veil and left,” said Owen with a firmness which did not altogether, unfortunately, dampen speculation.

“Leaving her honour behind her?” suggested someone.

“I wouldn’t have thought so.”

Leaving behind her, actually, a small embroidered amulet, the sort of thing you could pick up in one of the bazaars. Inside it was a single quite respectably sized diamond. Perfume stayed on his fingers long after the girl was gone.

• • • • •

“So that is why you told everybody,” said his friend, Paul. Paul was ADC to the Consul-General and wise in the ways of the world; wise, at any rate, in the ways of protecting your back.

Owen nodded.

“People must always be attempting to bribe you,” observed Paul.

“Not so much now,” said Owen. “When I first came, certainly.”

He had been in post for nearly three years.

“And it has taken them all that time to find out?” said Paul, marvelling.

“That I couldn’t be bribed?”

“That you weren’t worth bribing.”

“Someone,” Owen pointed out, hurt, “has apparently still not found out.”

“Yes,” said Paul. “Odd, isn’t it?”

• • • • •

The next morning one of the orderlies came in great agitation.

“Effendi,” he said, “the Bimbashi’s donkey is not here.”

Owen laid down his pen.

“Someone’s stolen it?”

“No, no. It has not been here all morning. The Bimbashi has not come in.”

This was unusual. McPhee, the Deputy Commandant, always came in.

“A touch of malaria, perhaps,” said Owen, picking up his pen again. “Send someone to find out.”

A buzz of excited chatter outside his door told him when the someone returned.


“Effendi,” said the orderly, with a long face, “the Bimbashi’s not there.”

“He has not been there all night,” put in another of the orderlies.

“Hm!” What members of the Administration did in the night was their business and it was normally wisest not to inquire. McPhee, however, was not like that. He was very puritanical; some would say undeveloped. He was the sort of man who if he had been in England would have joined that strange new organization, the Boy Scouts. After some consideration, Owen went in to see Garvin.

Garvin, also, took it seriously.

“He’d have let us know if it was work, wouldn’t he?”

“It can hardly be play,” said Owen.

“He won’t be sleeping it off, certainly,” said Garvin. Owen thought that the remark was possibly directed at him.

“What I meant was, that he’s not one to let his private life interfere with his work,” he said, and then realized that sounded unnecessarily priggish. Garvin tended to have that effect on people.

“What was he doing yesterday?” asked Garvin. “Was it something he was likely to get knocked over the head doing?”

Apparently not. The office had been quiet all day. Indeed, it had been quiet all week. The weather, hot always, of course, had been exceptionally so for the last fortnight, which had brought almost all activity in Cairo, including crime, to a standstill.

“You’d better get people out looking for him,” said Garvin.

Owen didn’t like Garvin treating him as just another deputy. The Mamur Zapt reported—in form, of course—to the Khedive and it was only for convenience that Owen was lodged in the police headquarters at Bab-el-Khalk. However, he quite liked McPhee and wasn’t going to quibble.

Garvin, in fact, was genuinely concerned and wasn’t doing this just as an administrative power game.

“Get them all out,” he said. “They’ve got nothing better to do.”

It was now nearly noon and the sun was at its hottest, and this was therefore not the view of the ordinary policeman. If turned out now they would probably make for the nearest patch of shade.

Besides, what were they to look for? A body? There were thousands of places in Cairo where bodies might be lying and usually it was simplest to allow them to declare their presence later—in the heat it would not be much later—by their smell. There was, however, an easier solution.

“You all know the Bimbashi’s donkey,” said Owen. “Find it.”

• • • • •

“Look for a donkey?” expostulated Nikos, his Official Clerk.  “You can’t have the whole Police Force out looking for a donkey!”

“Why not?”

“It sounds bad. Have you thought how it would look in the pages of Al-Lewa?”

Owen had not. He could just imagine, though, what the Nationalist press would make of it. The newspapers would be full of it for weeks. He stuck doggedly, however, to his guns. Nikos changed tack.

“How much are you offering for information?” he asked practically.

“It’s McPhee, after all.”

“Five pounds?”

“Good God, no!” said Owen, shocked. “We’d have the whole city bringing us donkeys if we offered that. One pound Egyptian.”

“I thought, as it was an Englishman—” suggested Nikos.


“And in the police—”

“Two pounds,” said Owen. “We’ll make it two pounds. That is my limit.”

“It ought to be enough,” said Nikos, who believed in value for money.

Word went out to the bazaars by methods which only Nikos knew and Owen sat down to await results. They came by nightfall.

“What the hell is this?” said Garvin.

Owen explained.

“It’s like a bloody donkey market,” said Garvin.

Owen went down into the courtyard to sort things out. Nikos watched with interest. Believing that decisions should be taken where knowledge lay, which certainly wasn’t at the top, Owen enlisted the aid of the orderlies, whom he stationed at the entrance to the courtyard.

“You know the Bimbashi’s donkey,” he said. “All the others are to be turned away.”

Within an hour the usual torpor of the Bab-el-Khalk was restored.

By now it was dark.

“You stay here,” he ordered.

The orderlies, appeased by the prospect of a few extra piastres and full of self-importance at their newly-significant role, were quite content to stay on. Meanwhile, Owen went down to the club for a drink.

“I gather there’s some problem about McPhee,” said a man at his elbow.

“Maybe,” said Owen, non-committally.

“Not been knocked on the head, has he? I wouldn’t want that to happen. He’s a funny bloke, not everyone’s cup of tea, but I quite like him.”

“I dare say he’s all right.”

His neighbour looked at him. “Like that, is it?”

Owen gave a neutral smile.

“You’re not saying? Fair enough. Only I hope he’s all right.”

Owen, who had previously regarded the eccentric McPhee as much with irritation as with affection, was surprised to find that he felt rather the same.

“What’s happened to the drink this evening?” he asked. “It’s bloody lukewarm.”

“It’s the heat,” someone said. “Even the ice is melting.”

Owen decided to go back to the Bab-el-Khalk. He put down his glass and headed for the door, spurred on by hearing someone say, “Sorry I’m late, old man. Couldn’t get here for the donkeys.”

There were, indeed, a lot of donkeys outside the Bab-el- Khalk. Since they were refused entry into the courtyard, they congregated in the square in front of the building, blocking the road. Garvin was just leaving the building as he arrived.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” he said.

Unaccountably, there were about half a dozen donkeys inside the courtyard.

“What are they doing here?”

The orderlies looked embarrassed.

“We thought they might be the Bimbashi’s donkey,” they said.

“You know damned well they’re not!”

“It’s not always possible to tell in the dark,” muttered someone.

“We brought them in so that we could see them better.”

Owen knew exactly why they had been brought in. Their enterprising owners, eager for the reward, had slipped the orderlies a few piastres.

“Get them out of here!”

He heard the arguments beginning as he turned into the building.

• • • • •

Nevertheless, it worked. The following morning it was reported that the Bimbashi’s donkey had been seen grazing unattended on the edge of the Place of Tombs. The informant had not actually brought the donkey—which told in his favour—but was confident that it was the Bimbashi’s donkey. He had seen the Bimbashi on it many times and, yes, indeed— astonishment that anyone could suppose otherwise—he did know one donkey from another. Owen decided to go himself.

“Why don’t you send Georgiades?” suggested Nikos, less confident than Owen that this was not a wild goose chase.

“Because he’s probably still in bed.”

“He spends too much time in bed if you ask me,” said Nikos. “Especially since he married that Rosa girl,” he shot after Owen’s departing back.

Owen gave a passing wonder to Nikos’s own sexual habits. He had always assumed that Nikos cohabited with a filing cabinet, but there had seemed some edge to that remark.

He picked up the informant, one Ibrahim, in the Gamaliya and went with him to the place where he had seen the donkey. It was among the mountainous rubbish heaps which divided the Gamaliya district from the tombs of the Khalifs. The tombs were like houses and some of the rubbish came from their collapse. The rest came from houses in the Gamaliya. This part of the Gamaliya was full of decaying old mansions. From time to time, especially when it rained heavily, a mud-brick wall would dissolve and collapse, leaving a heap of rubble. The area was like a gigantic abandoned building site. Coarse grass grew on some of the heaps of rubble and it was here, contentedly cropping, that they found the donkey.

Even Owen, who was not particularly observant, especially of donkeys, could see at once that it was McPhee’s little white animal. He went up to it and examined it. That was certainly McPhee’s saddle. It was one of those on which—if you had a good sense of balance—you could sit cross-legged. Apart from that, he could see nothing special; no bloodstains, for example.

He made a swift cast round and then, finding nothing, sent back to the Bab-el-Khalk for more men. If McPhee were here, he would be lying among or under the rubble and they would have to search the area systematically.

Ibrahim himself knew little. He passed through the area every day on his way to work and the previous morning had noticed the donkey. Although a worker in the city now, he had, like very many others, come originally from the country and distinguished between donkeys as later generations might distinguish between cars. He had seen at once that it was the Bimbashi’s donkey but had not felt it incumbent on him to do anything about it until word had reached him about the reward. He had seen nothing untoward, nothing, indeed, that he could remember about the morning apart from the donkey. He did, however, say that it was not a place where one lingered.

“Why is that, Ibrahim?” asked Owen sympathetically. “Are there bad men around?”

Ibrahim hesitated.

“Not bad men, effendi—”

He looked over his shoulder as if he was afraid of being overheard.


“Bad women,” he muttered, and could not be persuaded to say another word.

• • • • •

The search went on all morning. By noon, heat spirals were dancing on top of the heaps of masonry and individual slabs of stone were too hot to lift. He gave the men a break in the shade. He hadn’t quite abandoned hope of finding McPhee alive, he didn’t let himself think about it too much, but he was growing more and more worried. As usual on such occasions a considerable crowd had gathered and he took the opportunity of the break to go among them making inquiries. He also sent some men around the neighbouring houses. None of it produced anything.

He put the men back to work. By about half past three they had covered an area a quarter of a mile wide on either side of the donkey and found nothing. How much wider was it sensible to go?

He made up his mind. It was a long shot—in fact, bearing in mind McPhee’s prim, if not downright maidenly nature, it was so long it was almost out of sight, but he had to try anything, and Ibrahim had said—

“Selim!” he called.

One of the constables came across, glad to escape for a moment from the relentless searching among the rubble.


“Go into the Gamaliya, not far, around here will do, and ask for the local bad women.”

“Ask for the local bad women?” said the constable, stunned.

“That’s right,” snapped Owen. “And when you have found them, come back and tell me.”

The constable pulled himself together.

“Right, effendi,” he said. “Certainly, effendi. At once!”

He hurried off.

“Some men have all the luck,” said one of the other constables.

“Get on with it!” barked Owen crossly.

Selim took a long time, unsurprisingly; so long, in fact, that Owen went to look for him. He met him just as he was emerging from the Gamaliya. He seemed, however, rather disappointed.

“Effendi,” he said, “this is not much of a place. Why don’t you come with me to the Ezbekiya—”

“Have you found the place?”

“Well, yes, but—”

“OK. Just take me there.”

“What’s this?” he heard one constable say to another as they left. “A threesome?”

Behind an onion stall, in a small, dark, dirty street, a door opened into a room below ground level. In the darkness Owen could just make out a woman on a bed.

“Ya Fatima!” called the constable.

The woman rose from the bed, with difficulty, and waddled across to the door. She was hugely, grotesquely fat and her hands, feet and face were heavily dyed with henna. Her hair was greased with something rancid which he could smell even from outside the door. Eccentric though McPhee was—

“Would the Effendi like to come in?”

“This will do.”

“It would be better if you came in, effendi.”

The constable watched, grinning.

“This is the police,” said Owen sternly, eager for once to assert his status.

The woman’s smile vanished.

“Again?” she said angrily. “They had me over there on Monday!”

“This is a different matter,” he said hastily. “I want to know the men you were with last night and the night before.”

“Ali, Abdul, Ahmed—”

The list went on.

“No Effendis?”

“No Effendi,” she said coyly. “Not yet.”

• • • • •

All right, it had been a mistake. McPhee probably didn’t know what a brothel was. But what, then, had Ibrahim meant by ‘bad women’? And why was this a place where one didn’t linger? Why had McPhee come here in the first place? And where was the poor devil now?

That question, at least, was soon answered. Urgent shouts came from the Gamaliya and people came running to fetch him. They led him into a little street not far from the bad woman’s and then up a tiny alleyway into what looked like a carpenter’s yard. Planks were propped against the walls and on the ground were some unfinished fretted woodwork screens for the meshrebi ya windows characteristic of old Cairo. He was dragged across the yard to what looked like an old-fashioned stone cistern with sides about five feet high. A mass of people were gathered around it, all peering down into its inside. Someone was pulled aside and Owen pushed through. He clung to the edge of the cistern and looked down. McPhee was lying at the bottom. Something else, too. The cistern was full of snakes.

Owen shouted for his constables. They came, big men, forcing their way through the crowd.

“Get them out of the way!” said Owen. “Clear a space.”

The constables linked arms, bowed down and charged the crowd with their heads. They were used to this kind of situation. The smallest accident draws a crowd in Cairo, all sympathetic, all involved and all in the way.

A couple of constables stayed out of the cordon, drew their truncheons and slapped any encroachment of hand, foot or head.

Owen levered himself up on to the edge of the cistern and put his head down into its depths.

“Effendi!” said an anxious voice. It was Selim, who, previously singled out for glory, had suddenly grown in stature and now took upon himself a senior role.

“Get hold of me!”

He felt Selim’s grasp tighten and swung himself lower.

The snakes did not move. One or two were lying on McPhee’s chest, others coiled beneath his armpits. They all seemed asleep at the moment, perhaps they were digesting a meal, but if he tried to move McPhee he was bound to waken them.

“Effendi,” said Selim, “is this not something better left to experts?”

A voice at the back of the crowd shouted: “Abu! Fetch Abu!”

“Pull me up!”

He came back up over the side and lowered his feet to the ground.

“I’ve got to get him out,” he said. “Now listen carefully. Two of you, no three, it will be a heavy weight, catch hold of me. I’m going to reach down and get hold of McPhee. I’ll try and get a good grip—”

“They’ll bite you in the face, effendi!”

Owen swallowed.

“I’m going to do it quickly,” he said. “Very quickly. As soon as I shout, pull me up. I’ll be heavy because I’ll be holding McPhee. But you just bloody pull, as fast as you can. The rest of you can help. And Selim!”

“Yes, effendi?”

“There’ll be snakes on him. Maybe on me, too. Now, what I want you to do is to catch hold of them—”

“Catch hold?” said Selim faintly.

“And throw them back.”

“Look, effendi,” began Selim, less sure now about the glory.

“Do it quickly and you’ll be all right.”


“I’m relying on you.”

Selim swallowed.

“Effendi,” he said heroically, “I will do it.”

“Good man. Remember, speed is the thing.”

“Effendi,” said Selim, “you cannot believe how quick I will be.”

“Right.” Owen put his hands on the edge of the cistern and braced himself. “Get hold of me.”

In the background, he heard Selim say to one of the constables:

“Abdul, you stand by me with your truncheon!”

“If I strike, it will make them angry.”

“If you strike, you’ve got to strike them dead!”

“But, Selim,” said the worried voice, “it is not easy to kill a snake. Not in one blow. It would be better if you just caught hold of them and threw them.”

“Thank you very much, Abdul,” said Selim.

“Selim!” said Owen sternly. “Do it the way I told you!”

Just then a girl ducked under the legs of the cordon and came up beside Owen.

“What are you doing with our snakes?” she said fiercely.

“I’m trying to get him out…Your snakes, did you say? Who the hell are you?”

“I’m Abu’s daughter.”

“He’s the snake catcher,” said someone.

Light dawned.

“They’re your snakes?”

“Yes.” The girl looked down over the edge. “What’s he doing down there?”

“Never mind that. Can you get him out?”

“Of course.”

She swung her leg up on the edge.

“What about the snakes?”

“I’ve milked the cobras.”


She bent down, seized one of the snakes by the neck and held it up for Owen to see. It opened its jaws.


The snake’s mouth looked much like any other snake’s mouth to Owen but he didn’t feel inclined to examine it closely.

“Er…yes,” he said.

The cobra tried to snap at him but the girl was holding it too firmly.

“Selim,” said Abdul’s worried voice, “shall I strike?”

The girl tossed the snake back into the cistern and then dropped down after it. Owen saw her flinging the snakes aside. She put her hands under McPhee’s armpits and lifted his shoulders.

“Can you take him?”

Owen grabbed hold of him. Selim, bold, reached over and caught up McPhee’s legs.

They lifted him down to the ground.

Something moved under his shirt. A snake put its head out. The girl plucked it out and threw it nonchalantly into the cistern.

“It’s the warmth,” she said. “They like to go where it’s warm.”

“Warm?” said Owen, and dropped on his knees.

McPhee was still alive. Alive, but very unconscious. Owen tipped his head back and looked at his eyes.

The girl knelt down beside him.

“He’s overdone it, if you ask me,” she said. “Taken a bit too much this time.”

“Someone else gave it him,” said Owen harshly.

He tore open McPhee’s shirt and put an ear to his chest. A strong, snaky smell, a mixture of snake and palm oil and spices, clung to the shirt. The girl caught it, too, and looked puzzled.

The heartbeat was slow but regular. Owen looked around. The tiny yard was packed to overflowing. He was suddenly conscious of the extreme heat and lack of air.

“We must get the Bimbashi to the hospital,” he said.

There were no arabeahs in that part of the city so the constables improvised a litter out of some of the planks lying against the wall. They had just pushed their way out into the street when the owner came rushing after them.

“Hey!” he said. “What are you doing? You can’t take those!”

“Mean bastard!” said the crowd indignantly.

The owner stepped back and hurriedly changed tack.

“It’s not seemly,” he said. “He’s a Bimbashi, after all!”

This was an argument which weighed with the crowd. And with the constables, who stopped uncertainly and lowered the litter to the ground.

“Come on,” said Owen, “we’ve got to get a move on.”

The crowd, however, now grown to even larger proportions, would not be moved. A lively debate ensued, the outcome of which was that an angareeb, the universal bed, was produced and McPhee laid gently upon it. The whole crowd then accompanied them to the hospital, which Owen could have done without.

• • • • •

“But what was he doing there?” asked Garvin.

“I’ll ask him when he wakes up,” said Owen.

McPhee, having awoken, did not respond at once. He seemed to be thinking about it.

“I don’t think I can say, old man,” he said at last, rather stuffily, “I really don’t think I can say.”

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