. . . Hessnie Mazou had made all preparations and was now allowing events unfold. Relaxed for the first time in more years than he could remember he was not surprised when the doorbell rang early. She would be as as excited as he – how could she not be? For nine years they had missed each other. Nine years he spent in preparation while she was cosseted by her mother and educated, and instructed, in the little things that would keep her safe. It was done. There was only this farewell ceremony: this last look at his little girl, then he could await his fate contented in the calm of a man at peace.
He had barely released the catch when the door flew back and something held his throat in a terrifying grip. He was not aware of the pain, only of the power of the grip and the ebbing of his life and the soul-deadening realisation that he was not going to see his daughter again.
Meira awoke: her eyelids heavy from sedatives holding her down. She struggled to surface, focusing on the immediate reality of the white pillows soft beneath her right cheek. Her face was turned towards the bedside table where a brass lamp stood between her and the green and yellow curtains of the hotel room. She let her eyes close again, her head drifting back into the comfort of the pillows, cushioned, dreamy, warm … then the nightmare descended. It all came screaming back in stark images, overpoweringly real, behind her closed eyelids as the lifeless body, the purple face. The face she had longed to see, the face she remembered in dreams, lay hard against the cold tiled floor just inside the door of her father’s little house.
She sat up in startled terror, and then a voice coaxing her, “Easy does it Meira. Take it slowly.” For a moment she thought the voice was in her head; a man’s voice in her head: her fathers? No. Whose? Everything was so confused. “Just lay back. Take your time. You’ve had a terrible shock.” The same voice, calming, but authoritative. She felt a hand on hers, a gentle pat. It was not in her head. It was here. It was real. She slumped back on the bed, closed her eyes. The world could wait.
Later – how much later she hardly knew – she awoke again. Reality was firmer this time: the hand no longer there. Slowly she rotated her eyes about the room: the same pillows; bedside lamp; a clock radio; water in a bottle; in a glass; the smell of flowers; the pulse of an air conditioner in the background. Gently she turned, raised herself onto her elbows, and caught sight of a man’s shoes and trousers with turn-ups. She opened her mouth to speak but all that came out was a weak groan. Her throat and mouth were so dry that was impossible to say anything.
“It’s okay. It’s only your friend Bill. You remember me.” She did. “You’ve had a nasty experience. Take your time. Breathe slowly. I’ll be here.” He handed her the glass of water.
She took it in her right hand as she eased herself up off her elbows. She took a few sips, then a long gulp before she could find her voice, “Why are you here? Why are you in my room?” Reaching over she tried to put the glass on the bedside table but almost missed. Bill gently took it from her as she took in more of the room. Fierce sunlight edged around the window shades, the room was bright despite drawn curtains. Afternoon, she decided, probably early afternoon. She turned back to face Bill. “Where is Luca? What happened?” Even as she spoke she could see and hear the answers in her own mind. Her father laying dead, as dead as a man could be with his neck mottled black and his face purple and bulging. His eyes were wider than ever they should go and his tongue was a revolting mass of bloated tissue protruding fat and shiny from his mouth. “My God, my father. My father is dead. He is horribly dead.”
Bill, moving closer, sat tentatively on the edge of the bed. “I’m afraid so, my dear. That was tough, a very severe shock. It’ll be some time before you adjust to that I’m afraid.” He laid a hand on the covers, within easy reach, and watched her carefully. He gave her a few seconds, then lightened his gaze. “As for Luca, he will be here as soon as he can. The police you know. They want to know everything.”
“The police, with Luca, what do the police want with Luca?” She felt unstable again: her mind awash with questions and the terrifying images. Slowly she lowered herself back to the soft white pillows and yielded to a big blank void where there was no pain, and no terror.
Luca enjoyed no such luxury. He had been held in a cell for fourteen hours with only short breaks to an austere interview room where a soft-spoken investigating officer kept repeating the same questions in perfect Oxford English. He had told his story, what little there was to tell, four or five times, but the officer never seemed satisfied. He had no idea what the man really wanted other than to deprive him of sleep, and drive him crazy with the repeated questions. On what he estimated to be the late afternoon of his second day in captivity his cell door was flung open in a sudden, iron rattling, of impatient anger. A large man in an immaculate black and chrome uniform stooped in, and leaning against the wall opposite his bunk stared at Luca: his heavy brown eyes taking him in, and his heavy, black, polished shoes establishing his solid, no-nonsense authority. Luca sat up, but remained on his bunk; he had no intention of standing and having to look up at this tall figure. He still had his pride.
“I am Colonel Zadok,” the tall man said eventually, his lips moist below a pristine black moustache. “I command the police forces in here in Cairo, and I have absolute authority in all other provinces of Egypt.” Luca stared back belligerently. Zadok continued, “If you wish to leave here, you must tell me everything you know about the murder of Hessnie Mazou. If you do not, I can keep you here indefinitely, and in nowhere near the comfort you are currently enjoying.”
“I have no idea who Hessnie Mazou is.”
“Why did you kill him.”
“I didn’t kill anyone. You have this completely wrong. I demand to see the Italian Consul. You have no right to detain me this way. I am not an Egyptian citizen. You have no authority over me.” Zadok stared at him for a few seconds, then turned and ducked out through the door.
Much later, when it was dark outside his high window, his cell door opened again. This time it was two officers, who did not bother with introductions. He was wrenched from his bunk and thrown head first against the opposite wall. He turned enough to avoid having his skull cracked, but not enough to prevent his ear being torn on the rough cement wall. As he hit the floor the first kick went hard into his rib cage, the second into his crotch. Pain seared through him: his nerves a jangle of electric agonies until they shut down under the shear volume of abuse. After that it was a series of body blows crushing and breaking him until he lost consciousness completely. Much later he awoke on a hard rough floor where there was no light.
“I still don’t see why they are keeping Luca in prison.” Meira was up now, pacing the room, and refusing more of the sedatives prescribed by the hotel doctor. There were questions screaming for answers. She needed her mind. She needed to stimulate her system: get the blood flowing again. “He was with me the whole time. He couldn’t have done anything wrong. And if they think he killed my father, they’re nuts. How could he have done that?”
“In a fashion, I presume, not dissimilar to the one in which he broke the burglar’s back while nearly throttling him.” Bill Houghton remained seated near the window overlooking the Corniche, and the river where boats where stirring the muddy waters of the Nile.
“My God,” Meira flared. “You think he is a killer too.”
“Not at all, dear girl, not at all. I am merely suggesting the local police’s line of thought. You have to admit he was overzealous in dealing with the burglar – if that is what he was. And the police have no way of knowing that your father was dead when you arrived at his house. In fact they have no way of knowing if Hessnie Mazou was your father. In fact all any of us have is your recognition of him.”
She turned on him: her pacing halted. “What do you mean by that? You think I wouldn’t recognise my own father?” She drew closer: her eyes wide. “And what’s all this, ‘they have no way of knowing if my father was dead when I arrived’ shit?”
Bill raised his eyebrows to meet her glare full on, “My dear, I think you’ve …”
She exploded. “Stop it. Stop it with this ‘my dear’ shit. You’re telling me my father isn’t my father. Wonderful. And what else,?” She paused, went over to stand with her back to the window – centre stage and lit from behind – her full attention focused on Bill. “And what else?” The heavy sarcasm was unmistakable now. “What else was it you said, ‘that the burglar may not have been a burglar at all.’ So if I’ve got this right, my father isn’t my father, and the burglar isn’t a burglar, and Luca is a killer, and I’m a liar, and you … what are you mister sir knight of the god damned realm?”
“My de … Meira,” Bill corrected himself quickly. “I’m simply trying to demonstrate how the police will be thinking.”
“The police!” Now she was in full cry. “The goddam police should be trying to find the killer. The police should be combing the bloody streets. The police should be analysing the body, looking for clues and rounding up the usual suspects, not playing bloody stupid games of ‘who am I?’ My God if we are all going to be in the this cheap movie, we should at least play the roles correctly.” She strode from the window, taking the front edge of the chair next to Bill, her eyes blazing. “Are you saying I am a liar? That I made the whole thing up?” She left no him no time to reply. “Because if you are, you can leave right now mister sir fucking knight. Right fucking now.” She was finding so hard to believe that this man, this intelligent, polished, elder figure, could think so badly of her, and in the wake of her father’s death. How could he be so cruel?
She wanted to be left alone. He could fuck off. If he chose not to believe her, then others would do the same. Tough shit Sheila. They could all fuck off.
Bill remained still, making no attempt to get up from his chair, watching as Meira, her anger temporarily spent, returned to stare out of the window. A heavy silence filled the room. Bill coughed. “You’re not a liar Meira.” She turned to face him, to see if he was genuine: if he really meant it. His eyes were turned down, studying the laces on his shoes, a furrow in his forehead. “I am at fault. I hope you will forgive me,” he glanced up, his eyes were steady in his honesty. “I am being hard on you I know, but there are some who would, and will be, a lot harder than me. You have to be tough.”
She looked at him, puzzled. “Tough? For what? What do you know? What aren’t you telling me?”
“All in good time, but first we must contact your mother. Will you let me try?”
He had wanted to call her mother before. She had refused to give him the number; it was a job too personal to hand to a stranger. There was so much to be said, so much unsaid; only she could speak to her mother, but she had been unable to, and she was mystified. Why could she not call Fiona? How many times had she spoken to the hotel operator, and how many times has she been told there was no such number in Brisbane, and the Australian, international, operators, how many times had they told her the same thing? How could that be? Was she so deeply in shock that she could not perform the simplest task? Were the drugs still weighing that heavily on her system? Reluctantly she wrote the number on the phone pad and handed it to him. “Don’t tell her anything. Just get her.”
Late the following morning Bill settled himself into a stillness developed in years of diplomatic training, and the discipline born of eight years in the misery of British public boarding schools. Before him, on the large white sofa in her hotel room sat Meira and Luca, the latter wary, his eyes told of a man who had tasted real fear for the first time. Meira held him; her arm was wrapped about his, their shoulders touching. Without preamble, affectation, or the slightest physical gesticulation, Bill set about bringing his protégés up to date.
“The simple truth is,” he paused, not so much for effect, but to emphasize the simplicity of what he was about to deliver, “is that you both find yourselves involved in much larger issues than you ever anticipated. I’m sorry you have become involved, and I feel sure you had no intention of complicating your lives in this way, but it is the undeniable reality. Your mother, Meira, is now untraceable as Fiona McMahon. That will be hard for you to accept, I understand. Please also try to understand that it is not so unusual in the business for which I was trained.” He gave Meira a second or two of eye contact, but left it at that. “Luca you have fallen into something you could never have anticipated, but, again, it is the reality, so you can either accept it, or fall by it. Colonel Zadok and his people, you probably realize by now, can have you for breakfast and the world would not see a trace of saliva on their lips. The issues however, are bigger than Zadok and the Cairo police. The issues are bigger than your father Meira.” He focussed on her again. “This is the greatest loss your young life has experienced, and you have my deepest sympathy, but it means little, either to the people who killed him, or to other people with an interest in his activities.”
He had their complete attention, and was pleased that they had not interrupted with irrelevant questions. “I only know a little of what this is all about, but my old diplomat’s nose tells me there is much at stake here. Right in the front of my mind is the key you mentioned Luca.” He turned his attention on the younger man. “In the fridge you say?”
“Yes. On the bottom, the lowest shelf, I saw a bronze key there when I went to find water for Meira and I meant to go back for it but I forgot it until now. Foolish of me. I am sorry.”
“Not at all. It was extremely wise of you to leave it there. Had you picked it up … put it in your pocket … well the police would have it, and our only chance to discover what Meira’s father was trying to tell you would be gone.” He sat upright: leaning forward to capture their complete attention. “Understand now, both of you, that Hessnie Mazou, Absalom McMahon, your father Meira, was trying to tell you something.”
Meira looked up, held Bill’s eyes for a second or two. “You are implying that he knew he was going to be killed.”
“Yes. I think he knew his death was imminent.”
“Why?” She was crying now, the tears were almost perpetual, but she was learning to cry and function at the same time.
“He was living under a false identity. He was wanted by the Cairo police, the Lebanese police, and the French. The American CIA, and the Australian Secret Service, also have a file on him. He associated with known criminals and some small time terrorist groups. A man living in such a world would constantly anticipate his demise. He had no contact with you for nine years, yet the moment you arrive in Cairo he pops up. There has to be a reason.”
Meira sat wide eyed, the information about her father was steaming through her mind like a locomotive through a wheat field, while her stomach churned and twisted into ever tightening knots. It didn’t make sense: the man of her childhood; the man who taught her in his workshop; who pushed that crazy swing that went in all directions in the garden, and who held the bicycle as she gabbled and chattered to him while learning to ride, couldn’t be part of the underworld. He was so honest, so warm, so gentle … but he left her. He left her and her mother high and dry so something was going on. She sat quietly while her mind and body adjusted to the new reality, and as it did, as each little piece of the jigsaw dropped into place, came the increasing awareness that something profound was taking place; something earth moving was going on in her life: pulling her through the misery of her losses.
Her mother, her nurturer, mentor, companion and friend, had disappeared without trace: as if she had never been. Her father, warm, interesting, and the nicest person she had ever known, was an international fugitive. He was not exactly accused of a crime, but police kept files on him in five countries, and he was brutally murdered by professional killers the moment she arrived in Cairo. Had she brought about his death? Could her presence here be the match that lit the fire? She was sweating now. Perspiration ran down her sides and dampened the small of her back. She felt nauseous.