Bill Houghton intercepted Colonel Zadok as he entered the hotel. “Good afternoon Colonel. Come to check on my charges?”
Zadok stared at the Englishman he had come to regard as a ridiculously dated figure left over from a British, World War Two film: The sort to be found sipping gin in a colonial club, or, preferably, face down in the river with bullet holes in his head at the end of the first act. “I was surprised to see your name on the release Sir William. I thought you had long since retired from her Britannic Majesty’s service.”
“Once a catholic, always a catholic. Besides, one cannot do enough for a good boss.”
Zadok’s eyes narrowed. “If you are here, who is looking after the children?”
“Your chaps seem to have the place sealed up tight as a drum. Two on each floor, and the lobby positively dripping in guns and uniforms. More than adequate to contain a couple of harmless tourists I would suggest.”
“So what do you and the minister hope to gain by leaving them alone? Statements to each other are hardly helpful to any of us.”
“I thought I’d let the girl work on the hot headed Italian. Calm him down a bit. See what he’s really all about. I’m sure you’ll agree when I say I don’t think he is dangerous in any way, so I thought I’d let them work out a little plan … see what it’s intended to achieve. What do you think?”
“I think, Sir William, that you have, as always, completely misjudged the suspects, and I think, Sir William, you should never have left them alone.” Zadok waved to the two policemen and strode into the lift.
On the southern outskirts of Cairo Meira and Luca sat uncertainly in a small restaurant sipping coffee. Neither had eaten. When the driver had stopped the minibus, and insisted they get out, they thought they had been discovered and expected him to call the police. Instead he had smiled, and pointed to a café across the street, before quickly driving away. This left them confused, and rather less than sure of themselves, but the café offered the only shelter from the afternoon Sun in an otherwise closed, and shuttered, street. It was only when they were seated inside, away from the street, that they considered how little money they had. “What do we do now?” Luca was fiddling with the tiny coffee cup, the little bronze spoon, and the brown sugar cubes.
“I imagine we wait. There is little else to do, and I have a feeling Bill would not have just cast us to the wind like this.”
“Not if he had a choice.”
Meira looked up. “You think he might have been caught? That he might never have found the key?”
“I don’t know. We neither of us know. All we know is that we are here now with no contact numbers, no contacts, and no idea where we are.”
“Perhaps we should eat while we can.”
“Yes, perhaps we should.” He felt himself physically relax at the thought. She had that effect on him: a simple suggestion and the horrors of their situation seemed to fall away. Wonderful.
He heard her say, “First law of survival, find shelter, find water, find food, eat when you can.”
“Beer and tabouleh then?”
“Chin, chin? What’s that?”
“Nineteen thirties stiff upper lip stuff. We Australians are more British than the British sometimes.”
Of the few pleasures the service offered him over the years, his favourite, Bill concluded, was that of manipulating ministers, and confusing policemen. Today he had indulged himself in both. Ab’dul Aziz, a vain man, had been promoted way beyond his abilities and was therefore extremely vulnerable to suggestions that he could outsmart his fellow ministers. He had only to be primed, the right amount of powder, the right amount of shot, and he was away to do Bill’s bidding as quick as a ferret down a rabbit hole. ‘Birds in cages do not sing well, if at all,’ he had told him. ‘Let him loose, if necessary, let her loose. Watch them run, watch dear old Zadok’s face if they slip away from him. He will catch them. Give him space and time he will organise his troops, surround the city, and bring home the prisoners – a hero for having demonstrated to the tourists that the Cairo police are a force worthy of the utmost respect. In the meantime they will each have shared confidences; he will know more of her father’s activities, and possibly of her mother’s whereabouts. She will be in fear of her new lover’s life once he is again in the hands of the dreaded Zadok.’
Dear old Aziz had obliged, so now Zadok was charging about in high dudgeon and no doubt surrounding the city in search of the minibus. The children were probably holed up in a small café and standing out like a baboon’s bollocks. It wouldn’t be long before a patrolman spotted them. He’d best get them off the street to somewhere they would not be noticed.
Meira walked carefully across the Midan Ahmed Maher, timing her way through the dusty traffic. At the entrance to the Museum of Islamic Arts and the Islamic Library she paused only fractionally to locate the stone staircase and begin her steady ascent. It was a long climb up the cool, curved, stone, stairs to the upper reading rooms but a welcome change form the noisy Sun-drenched streets. She entered the fourth room without knocking. It was empty. Relieved, she sat on one of the hard chairs at the long table: her racing pulse finally slowing in the still silence, and her mind dropping a gear in the isolation of the neglected, barren room. As she sat there awaiting her fate in that dirty, soul-less, place she was suddenly overtaken by a dreadful loneliness. She cried. Hopelessly, and helplessly, she cried without reservation in her lonesome space: her lonesome heart sobbing away her grief.
After the crying, which, at one time, felt as if it would never end, she dried her face and calmed herself to be still while she waited. She was still far from safety, but for now at least, she was free from the immediate fear of recognition and arrest. Her mind started going over the events that had brought her here: to all that happened since her decision to come in search of her father. Mother, who she expected to be the largest obstacle against her setting out on her path of discovery, had offered surprisingly little in the way of resistance. She’d been reluctant to agree to her going it was true, but she had yielded more readily than Meira had anticipated. Her objections had not been the long running exchange with the ever increasing pressure she had anticipated. In fact Fiona’s had been almost a token objection: as if a formality, and now Bill was saying her mother was no longer traceable as Fiona McMahon. What did that mean? Had her mother assumed a new identity since she left Australia? Was her mother also some sort of spy? It was all too fantastic. She was only getting some of the information. Was she was being manipulated? Was Bill manipulating her? Here she was, an innocent, forced to wear disguises and hide out in libraries, while people around her told half-truths.
Come to think of it she had been telling some half-truths herself. When she decided to set out on this odyssey she had put her business on hold by explaining to her clients that she was initiating a research project into ancient jewellery. She told them she needed to devote her time to getting it started, and that she had great hopes of bringing some unique variety into her work which, would, of course, add greater value to their collections and that time would show how it would effect future sales.
Which of Bill’s explanations were, similar, half-truths? How many similar devices was he employing to fulfil his agenda? And what of Luca? What of this convenient little romantic encounter with an engineer: with a nice looking, just the right age, pyramid fanatic who played the seduction game so beautifully? It was all too contrived. Did they all think she was entirely stupid? Or was she paranoid? Difficult to tell, but she would keep examining it. She would go along with whatever she had to in order to learn more about her father’s life. After that who knows? Maybe she could find her mother in Australia. There were places to look and people to ask. She would find her.
As she held that thought, her mind temporarily in neutral, she saw the door handle turn. She felt her pulse rising, the familiar tightening in her stomach returning …