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Barikah, the Barbary Coast, 1796
On the Street of the Jewelers, the pearl merchant, Abdul ibn-Mesih, closed his shop in anticipation of the singsong chant of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. Abdul had at least ten minutes to spare, but he was getting old, his bones prone to aches that slowed him down, so he needed to leave early each day. As long as he was able, he would walk to the nearest mosque rather than use the prayer rug he kept in the back of his tiny shop, unlike some of his less pious neighbors. So he was the only one on the street at this time, which was why he was the only one to witness the murder.
The young Turk and the large, black-robed man who was chasing him ran right past Abdul, not giving the pearl merchant the slightest notice. If only they had turned the corner and passed out of his sight, he wouldn't have had nightmares that night. Instead, the larger man caught his prey at the end of the street and nearly cleaved him in two with the scimitar he wielded. A quick search of the body produced a paper of some sort, and then the assailant was gone, slipping away without a backward glance, the body of the Turk left lying where it fell, blood running in rivulets down the steep cobbled street in an invitation to the flies to come and feast.
Abdul ibn-Mesih decided he wouldn't walk to the mosque for afternoon prayers today after all. As the muezzins called from the heights of the many minarets in the city, the pearl merchant was kneeling on his prayer rug in the back of his shop and thinking it had been too long since he had seen his daughter in thecountry. She was due a visit perhaps a lengthy one.
Later that afternoon, two more of Jamil Reshid's secret couriers were killed before they could leave Barikah. One was poisoned in a coffee house. The other was found in an alley with his throat cut, the bowstring wire used to strangle him left embedded in his neck.
That night, four camels raced west toward Algiers. The man in the lead was yet another luckless palace courier. The three assassins following him slowly closed the distance and finally overtook him. He died quickly, as had all the others.
The one who had felled him was a Greek Muslim, used to this type of work. The two accomplices riding with him were Arabs, brothers from an old family known for their loyalty to the Deys of Barikah, so it was natural the brothers should feel some guilt for their involvement in this night's work. They hadn't killed this courier, but the older brother had killed another one earlier that week.
They were as guilty as the Greek, as guilty as all the other assassins, and would be sent to the executioner's block if they were found out. To lose their heads for a purse of gold, to risk their family's disgrace, was perhaps the height of foolishness. But the price of corruption had been too tempting it was a heavy purse of gold. So they accepted the risk. Still, there was the guilt, but not enough guilt to make them give up their newfound wealth.
Lysander, the Greek, removed the message from the body and opened it. He had to strain to read it in the dim light of the moon, but finally he made a sound of disgust, the urge strong to throw the letter down and grind it into the dust. Of course, he didn't.
"It is the same," Lysander said, passing the letter to the older of the two brothers.
"Did you think it would not be? " the younger brother asked.
"I had hoped," was Lysander's terse reply. "There is another purse for the one who finds the true message. I mean to be that one. "
"So do we all, " the older brother commented. "But he will still want to see this." And he carefully put the letter inside his robe. "He wants every message, regardless if it is the same as the others."
There was no need to say who "he" was. They each knew. Not that they could have named him, for none of them knew his name. Nor had they ever gotten a good look at him. They didn't even know if he was the one who wanted Jamil Reshid's death, or if he was just a go-between for someone else. But he was the one who paid them so handsomely and collected each letter the palace couriers had carried.
It was discouraging, however. The Dey had an endless supply of loyal men to send out as decoys, all with the same letter, a note actually, written in Turkish, just three short sentences: I offer greetings. Need I say more? You are remembered.
The notes were not addressed. They were never signed. They could be from anyone in the palace to anyone in the world. They were more likely meant as a subtle threat for the assassins who read them, a reminder of the Dey's long arm of revenge. There might not even be a true message trying to leave Barikah in the midst of all these decoys. The couriers could simply be a ruse to confuse the assassins and delay them from making any more attempts on the Dey's life.
The first courier who had been captured had sworn before he died that he was to deliver his letter to an Englishman named Derek Sinclair. Even if that were true, if the Dey actually knew an Englishman by that name, which was unlikely, what could be the point of such a letter to him? Why waste the lives of so many men to have such a message delivered?