Friends & Foes

 

Looking back on the incident she wished she had done no more than that initial scream. It was enough, after all, to bring out the beast in Luca, and what a beast he turned out to be, and it clearly immobilized the intruder. He was not going to make anymore trouble, and would probably have left chastened, and empty handed had she not picked up the phone and yelled at the concierge.

 

Chapter Three

For her own modesty, as much as Luca’s, that she draped a towel over his hairy nudity as two anxious maids peered around the door. They circled the scene, but made no attempt to clean up, so it was not until the security guards arrived with popping eyes, and cautious authority, that Lucca finally relaxed his hold on the miserable soul now turned blue from pain and partial suffocation. Clasping the towel as he stood Luca, with what she could only describe as Latin panache, gracefully returned to the bathroom to dress. Not so dusty Luca Marello, she thought. Not a dusty performance at all.

It was much later, in the relative silence that was the aftermath of the chattering maids, the stern commands of manhandling guards, and the ever obsequious soothing of the duty managers, that she stepped quietly into the hissing shower. As she soothed in the vapours she gave thought to the hotel manager’s pleaded invitation to his office, and his request for help in completing his report. Carefully assembling her recollections of the sequence of events, and of her feelings at the time, she developed a mild confidence in the orderliness of her memory so it was surprise that her confidence later sagged: that she found herself on the defensive.

On entering the manager’s hallowed quarters in the prime, south-western, corner of the second floor her self-assurance began to fade as she was greeted not, as she expected, by the hotel manager, but by Ab’dul Aziz, a polished representative of the government Department of the Interior. Her confidence faded further on seeing the tall, senior, police officer with the bristling moustache who, she felt sure, was too grand a person to be taking an interest in an hotel room burglary.

The office itself though, was everything she had expected: large, with an oversize desk of little purpose other than that of impressing the impressionable. The carpet looked dusty; the glass display cabinet, with only a few shabby relics: two silver cups and an old sword, also looked dusty. On the desk the pen set, and leather bound blotter, were unused and dusty. The men in attendance, however, were not; they were not the least bit dusty. The hotel manager looked sharp – though rotund – in his bright, spotless, dark grey suit complete a with pocket handkerchief to match his perfect blue shirt. The policeman was even brighter in his dark blue uniform festooned with chrome pips, bars, buttons and chains. He was brighter than a new pin. His face was clean, and close shaven, and his hair was so evenly dark as to appear dyed.

Aziz’ light grey suit, and white shirt, looked quite dull beside the others. He rose gracefully from heavy wooded chair with an ornate, carved, back, when she entered, and lowered himself again only after she settled opposite on a lower, but clearly more comfortable, chair. He was distressed to hear of her experience, and was so glad someone was at hand to defend her. It was really not the kind of thing they wished upon tourists, or anyone for that matter, but tourists in particular because tourism is their life-blood. They are no longer a nation of traders and shopkeepers, as once described by a famous Englishman, and they are not blessed with a wealth of minerals for which to dig. They are simple museum keepers, guardians of the ancients, and wished only peace and enlightenment for their visitors. If he could be of assistance during her stay … how long would that be? His office was at her disposal. If there was anything in particular she wanted to see, somewhere special she wanted to go, someone she wished to consult, visit, he, and his staff, were at her command.

She thanked him for his consideration, then, while they all sat silently, she came to feel the full force of the attention these influential men of Cairo could bring to bear upon a young female. If they were waiting for her to say something, to offer something, they would be disappointed. She was already feeling too exposed, too accountable for her presence. Finally the manager moved behind his desk: establishing his authority by taking his time. In response she stood, strolled to the window to gaze out on the Cairo streets, then turned so he was forced to talk to her against the glare of the midday Sun. He faltered from his controlled stare, blinked, then gathered himself again in fresh concentration.

“How did the intruder get into your room, Miss McMahon?” He had seated himself and was taking up pen and paper. “Did you hear him enter?”

She did not, she told him, them, as she realized she was being formally interviewed by police and government, and was beginning to wonder why all the interest in one, young, female, tourist who interrupted a burglar. She told them she did not hear the door open, or see anyone come in. She was reading the paper, and suddenly there he was.

“Would you have heard the door open do you think? Was it so quiet that you would hear the door open if it was done quietly … say with a key?”

She thought that unlikely, what with the noise from the street and with curtains to deaden anything coming from the room. Certainly she could not hear her friend in the bathroom.

“Ah, yes, your friend …” he paused to check the name on the sheet before him. “Mr. Marello, he attacked the man?”

“Well he knocked him over and pinned him down,” she said.

“Why? Was the man about to attack you?”

“No.”

“Perhaps he was about to attack Mr. Marello?”

“I think not.” Where was this going?

“He tried to escape? He had something of yours of value?”

“No.” He was going through my room you arsehole; rifling through my stuff.

“Why, then, did Mr. Marello attack the man do you think?”

She had not given any thought to that aspect – it seemed a perfectly normal thing to do to a burglar. Perhaps people in Cairo offer their burglars cups of coffee – black? No sugar? She grinned at her own humour, then wondered if they had seen it. “He was in my room.” She went on, having no problem raising some indignation, “He broke in and was going through my things. He should consider himself lucky he was not seriously hurt. People have been killed for being where they have no right to be.” Christ, the cheek of these bastards. Are they trying to say Luca attacked an innocent local citizen? Her blood was up now; she was not going to take shit from suits and shiny shoes for defending her property.

“He was hurt, Miss McMahon. He has a quite serious back injury, and his throat is so badly bruised and swollen he cannot eat. Why do you think Mr. Marello was so forceful?”

Forceful. Forceful. I would like to have been so forceful. I’d have strangled the little fucker. “I imagine he was scared. I was scared. He might have had a knife, or a gun. He might have been a karate expert, a trained killer. When someone breaks into your room you are scared. Wouldn’t you be scared if someone broke into your room like that?”

“But he did not break into your room. There was no sign of a forced entry. He did not have a key, and he did not have anything in his pockets that he could have used to open the lock. Either your door was open, or someone let him in.”

What was he saying? She let him in? She was careless and left the door open? Or was he thinking she had two men in her room and they were fighting over her. Is that what this jumped up little prick was saying. That she had men galore and brought this trouble on herself. She stared at the manager, at the gold nameplate on his ridiculous desk: Mr. Hanhar Ben Habib. What a nasty piece of shit.

Her horror must have been obvious because he quickly changed tack, “Have you known Mr. Marello for a long time, Miss McMahon?” Was that another slight? Further implication that she invited numerous strangers to her room and let them fight it out for her favours. She looked around at the men in the room, their eyes steady, passive, as if in judgement. These slimy men were judging her against their repressed little wives, devoid, most of them, of the most basic of human rights. She felt sick; she wanted to throw up there and then, which might not have been such a bad idea given their immaculate suits. Perhaps she could spread it evenly over their jackets and trousers so they would all leave here stinking of her digested food and all the booze she put away over the last fourteen hours.

She stood, barely able to control herself, but was surprised how calm she sounded. “I will check out of your hotel immediately. One is not only robbed in this hotel, one is insulted – this management is hostile to women. You can be sure I will speak to the tourist agencies about it. Goodbye Mr. Habib.”

Habib glanced quickly at Aziz, and then the policeman to whom she was never introduced. “Please,” he said, rising and coming around the desk to intercept her. “Please forgive me. I was carried away by my own line of questioning. There was no intention to offend you. Please, please, do not leave. There will be no charge for your room. Please stay for the rest of your time in Cairo with the compliments of the hotel. It has been a most unfortunate incident. We are all a little upset.”

She paused, catching her breath, the blood slowing in her neck and cheeks. Habib looked extremely contrite, holding his hands before her and looking up because she was the taller; she had power over him. “Please, charge your meals to the room, it is the least we can do,” his eyes were beseeching, as if he was under threat himself. She would have to have been stubborn to refuse; besides, she was thinking, a few nights on the house might not be so bad. It would give her time to find out what happened to Luca in all this.

It might have been because of the hunger she had failed to recognise until she had left the manager’s office, or it might have been because of her new, inner, determination to take full advantage of Habib’s offer and effectively punish his slimy behaviour, that she became so completely immersed in the menu. Whatever the reason, she had failed to see the tall Englishman approaching until he was at her table effectively hovering over her. “Please excuse my rudeness,” he began, “but I believe I can be of assistance.”

She looked up, quickly taking in the image before, her and was immediately struck by thought that if he had a hat to raise, he would have raised it there and then to complete the picture. As it was he just stood there, and she just stared back, struggling to understand his offer. “Thank you,” she said automatically, “but I think I can order my lunch – even at this hour.”

He smiled, and nodded graciously at her Australian directness. “I know something of matters of security,” he offered, “especially in hotels, and more especially here in Cairo.”

Still she did not understand his purpose. He was too elegant and mature to be trying to pick her up, yet there he was hanging about for an invitation to join her.

“My name is Bill Houghton,” he went on. “I consult to businesses on matters of security sometimes, and I could not help hearing of your burglar.” He placed a hand on the back of a chair, giving her another chance to invite him to sit. When she did not he said, “Do you mind?” and began pulling out the chair across from her. She did not object, so he sat with unobtrusive elegance. “Burglaries are rarely conducted randomly,” he continued. “There is usually a purpose – some planning at least.” He reached in his jacket and pulled out a white card and presented it smiling, as if by so doing he had justified his claim.

She took the card smiling similarly to say she was enjoying the game. Reading slowly her grin deepened at the pretentious name, but was brought up by the KG after it, and the British Government portcullis in the corner.

“Are you a knight?” she asked. “Sir William?”

“Bill will be fine,” he said, his smile firmly in place. “I was hoping I could be of assistance.”

“You were on the bus to Cheops.” She watched as he smiled in acknowledgement. “But you did not go inside.”

“You are observant.”

“Well hardly. There were only eleven of us on the bus, and most of them were couples of some sort.” Her eyes were all over him as he silently acknowledged her observations. “So why would you go, and not go, as it were, or have you seen all you need to see of the inside of Cheops?”

“Indeed I have seen the inside of Cheops many times. Only now am I learning of the outside. Did you know it reportedly had three white sides?”

“As a matter of fact I did,” she grinned mischievously. “And that the white sides were finished in highly reflective marble and granite, and that the black side was probably obsidian.”

“Well, well,” he retreated. “I am clearly before an expert. Can I move onto safer ground, like the menu?”

She ordered a banana shake and a club sandwich while he took tea, over which she confessed to the fact that her knowledge was newly found through Luca and that despite her father’s interest, she found it rather dull stuff. He picked up on her reference to her father: to her surprise she let him in. Not to his absence, she would not go that far, but to his wealth of knowledge of the Arab World, his passion for precious stones, which she shared, and to his devotion to her education, for which she was now grateful.

He switched subjects, “How did it go with old Aziz?” It caught her unaware. For a second she fumbled, then caught the ball.

“Aziz was oily, and that old bastard Habib wanted to lay it on me.” It was out of her mouth before she realized. She clamped her lips but it was too late; this was not at all how she should be speaking to a knight of the British Empire. He was disarming though; he had a warmth, and a powerful reassurance about him that made her want to open up. “It was a reception committee. Aziz from the ministry of something, and what looked like a high ranking policeman. If they were there to intimidate me, they succeeded. They looked like heavy hitters.”

He nodded knowingly, and appeared genuinely concerned for her feelings. “Tell me about the policeman.”

“He was tall,” she reflected. “Well built, dark moustache and enough pips and bars on his uniform to sink a ship.” She looked at the eyes across the table where Bill waited: listening. “He didn’t say anything though. Just sat in the background. Apart from the ministry man’s opening speech, Habib did all the talking.”

“Sounds like Colonel Zadok. You have stirred them up.”

“A knight, and now a police colonel. What have I done to deserve such attention?” She was being flippant she knew, but it was not the way she was feeling. Inside she was scared and very glad this Bill person was on her side. “Would you like some more tea? Perhaps something to eat? It’s on me, or rather it’s on the hotel. I am to charge everything, including the room.”

“My, my, what did you say to them?”

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