Cairo

In the polished silence of the second floor corridor of the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior the dust of Cairo hung latent about the high brown walls. Figures moved silently between vast double doors closing with barely audible clicks in the soft haze of morning sunlight. On a long wooden bench two men sat talking, their bodies half turned toward each other: their knees almost touching.

“He went to the airport yesterday. He seemed to be waiting for someone, but no one came. He went home alone. It was nothing.” The younger of the two was speaking while wiping perspiration from his forehead with a damp handkerchief. Nadar Bin-Usef had always been a sweater; even in these huge hallways the humidity attacked him. He hated these meetings with Doumani; he always eyed him too intensely. He was doing it now. Nadar knew the older man thought him an imbecile, but still employed him and his agency, and had continued to do so for the past eighteen months. It was a lucrative contract; Nadar could take contempt as long as the money was good.

“How did he travel?” Doumani said immediately, his eyes on Nadar’s for any hint of uncertainty.

“By taxi.”

“Both ways?”

“Yes. He kept the taxi running at the airport, then took it back to El-Taufiqiya.” Nadar had learnt to keep his answers short and factual.

“Where in El-Taufqiya?”

“We lost him in the traffic”, he shrugged: the shoulders of his cheap, lightweight blue suit moving independently on his body. “He was probably just going for dinner.” It seemed no more than routine to Nadar, but he came personally to see the assistant minister because there was change in the target’s behaviour pattern. Those were his orders. He and his operatives were to watch a man, Hessnie Mazou, around the clock, and report personally to the assistant minister every Monday morning at 8 am with the logs of the week’s observations. He was also to report personally if there were any changes in Hessnie’s routine. Always deferential to the assistant minister, he resisted the temptation to offer his opinion that a trip to the airport, possibly to meet someone who never arrived, did not seem so unusual, but he simply shrugged.

Doumani Bashir had long since resigned himself to Nadar’s limited abilities, and was constantly reminded of the man’s limited education by his terrible use of colloquial Egyptian Arabic. Doumani chose to speak in carefully measured tones: precisely enunciating each word in Modern Standard Arabic. “Why would a man who lives in Misr El-Qadima take a taxi to the airport to meet someone when he could comfortably drive his car up the Salah Salem?” He paused, letting it sink in, then continued. “How many times in the last year has he taken a taxi to the airport, kept the taxi running and then taken it to El-Taufqiya for dinner?”

Nadar sank in his chair, his shirt collar dipping below the line of his suit, his expression acknowledging his inadequacy.

“When he left,” Doumani drove on with sharp questioning, “Was he quick? Did he seem in a hurry? Did he linger anywhere? Did he look back?”

“He went quickly. No, he did not look back.”

“Why not, do you think?” Doumani held Nadar with his eyes and was disappointed at the surprise he saw there; the question had not occurred to the man. Ruthlessly he pushed on, “If you were giving up waiting for someone would you not be concerned that you had missed them, or that if you left you might be leaving too early? Would you not be looking around, searching the crowd in case you had missed something?” He waited for Nadar’s expression to change. There was only surprise, nothing more, not even confusion. “Did it not occur to you that he had seen what he wanted to see? That he had achieved his purpose?” Nadar sat up then, the light dawning. Doumani continued relentlessly. “Why would he have kept the taxi running when he could have caught another within five minutes? Did it not occur to you that he was following someone?” Nadar straightened his jacket then, smartening himself before his master. Doumani stood, ending the interrogation. “Start with the hotels where you lost him. Check the birth dates of everyone arriving yesterday. We are looking for someone twenty-five to thirty, probably female, probably of Arab extraction.”

Nadar scowled, his back curved under the weight of the task before him. Doumani picked up the warning sign immediately; this man could not be trusted. “Bring me a copy of the passport photo page of everyone in that age group, and do it in the next twenty-four hours.” The assistant minister turned and swept away without a backward glance. Nadar was dismissed: his stock below the horizon.

***

Meira sat absently gazing at a large, off-white, Mercedes two rows across the traffic lanes where the driver was vigorously picking his soft brown nose. Her mind was drifting over her recent decisions and why she should be there, immobile, amid the honking Cairo traffic. It was her father’s deep-rooted interest in all things ancient that had introduced her to Egypt in he first instance, and it was her mother’s suggestion that if she was determined to go in search of him, then Cairo was the place to start. Not here though, she thought, not on a superficial tourist trip to the Giza pyramids. At the outset she had in mind libraries, and museums, where she would be talking to curates, and academics, who might have known him, seen him, struck up a conversation with a Lebanese man researching the pre-dynastic inhabitants along the Nile and its delta. Truth to tell she was tired. Even though the journey had been no more than sitting in aeroplanes and taxis, and strolling through airports, she was physically drained.

Perhaps it was her body calling for rest after that bad business with Rodger, and the leaving of Hong Kong, and of course one more round of the old fight with mother. Whatever the reason she was treating this day as a day off: one in which should could sit back and allow herself to be amused by others, but a minibus trip to Cheops? Whatever happened to hairdos and facials, or spas, for Chrissake? A soak in coconut milk followed by a wax job and pedicure would surely do better than this. Was she feeling so guilty that she had to start right away despite her irrational fatigue and so took this soft option just to be near her father’s work?

Logic and rational thinking had long told her that he left of his own accord: that it was his decision, his fault, and that he was the deserter, not her. So why was she here, in this smelly bus, in frantic search of someone who didn’t want to be with her? Because, stupid girl, she reminded herself, you need to know. You have to find him, and tell him about the pain. You have to tell him about the lost nights, the days wondering by the river, the tears and the heartache and the rotten misery of her life since he dumped her. Damn, she was crying – in this bus full of strangers she was crying.

She sniffed her mind back to her immediate surroundings, distracting herself by focusing on the antics of the Mercedes driver who seemed to have almost finished cleaning the inside of his nose. Quietly she regained control of her emotions but her thoughts were still on her father: what she would do; what she would say, when she found him. Would she scream at him? Maybe she would hug him. Whatever it took she would let him know about her pain. God she actually wanted to embrace the bastard who deserted her and her mother. It was absurd, she told herself. To have all these ridiculous emotions churning around was absurd.

She turned her attention to her fellow passengers: a tour group complete with what looked like a Japanese honeymooning couple; two mature, American, men who, judging by the crass safari outfits and matching belts and cravats, were a gay couple, and assorted other pairs who were the regular fare for such a tour. Cameras abounded along with Sun hats and the stifling aromas of insect repellent and suntan lotion. Conversations, over loud, and childishly exuberant, bounced around her but, having no neighbour on her seat, she was happy to remain a quiet observer.

A young man in front of her, further down in the opposite aisle, also seemed to be in his own world: fiddling with some kind of shiny metal instruments. Could he be an engineer, or an archaeology student? His swarthy features were not Arabic, more likely Italian, or French. She could only really see his profile, and his eyes, as he kept turning the metal objects: examining each one carefully. His dark eyes were thoughtful: deep in concentration.

Behind her was the man she had noticed at breakfast, in her hotel, pouring over a newspaper. Tall, lean, early sixties she guessed, he had wisdom in his face, and his blue eyes were bright but he retained a look of failure: as if he had been overtaken by events. He was dressed in a cream cotton suit that gave him the appearance of a 1940’s stereotypical English gentleman abroad. Did people really still dress like this? Obviously some did.

Inside Cheops the passage to the upper chamber was too low for her comfort: the flow of people travelling in the opposite direction rather frightening in its speed, and volume, as if the returning people were in a hurry to exit. It was almost as if there was something undesirable behind them. The young Italian man, she decided on Italian rather than French, had forged ahead as soon as he could free himself of the thin-lipped, bright red lipstick, ever busy tour guide. This, she realised, was a feat in itself for the woman was clearly fearful of losing someone, and possibly her job, so was constantly counting her group. The Italian though, had managed to slip by this young mother hen with all the adroitness of a magician’s assistant. His busy, dark, eyes clearly relieved at the prospect of individual progress as he turned to check, then dashed away up the passage. There, she decided, was a man with a purpose.

Content to stay with the crowd shuffling uncertainly into the depths of the huge structure Meira was never-the-less thankful when they emerged into a higher walled plateau where she could stand straight, and breathe more easily. From there they could either descend towards the lower chamber, or progress upward, via a gently turning stairway. She chose the latter but was disappointed when at the end of an arduous climb in the stagnant, airless interior, she found herself in what appeared at first glance to be an entirely unimpressive room.

She stood, waiting as her eyes adjusted to the poor light from the one, grimy, florescent in the far corner. As they did she realised the room was larger than she first thought; it was around five or six metres square and the ceiling two or more metres high. Curiously running her hand along one wall she found its surface to be impressively smooth, and flat, and the four corners of the room appeared to be at perfect right angles. She drew comfort from that. It implied order, intelligence, and a high level of technology. She moved forward, towards the centre of the room, her eyes adjusting, her vision improving. She let her eyes scan slowly around the walls: taking in the flatness, and the symmetry of it all. She had nearly completed her orbit when she stopped suddenly, and for a second or more her heart stopped in unison. She adjusted her gaze as she took in the image of what appeared to be a body, a man’s body, or at least the lower half of it, hanging deathly still from a hole in the furthest wall.

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