"Tourists are quite safe provided they don't do anything stupidly reckless," so Captain Owen, the Mamur Zapt, Head of Cairo's Political CID under British Rule, assures the press. But what of Monsieur Moulin, kidnapped from taking tea on the terrace at Shepheard's Hotel? How has Mr. Colthorpe Hartley also disappeared? No one has actually seen either victim vanish.... Are these ordinary crimes? Are they intended as deliberately symbolic blows at the British? Or are they just a means of discouraging tourism? Owen had better unravel it quickly, or else.... And where better to start from than the donkey-vous beneath the terrace, home of Cairo's humble but enterprising youths who hire out their donkeys for photographs and rides...
About the Author
Michael Pearce grew up in the (then) Anglo-Egyptian Sudan among the political and other tensions he draws on for his books. He returned there later to teach and retains a human rights interest in the area. His career has followed the standard academic rake's progress from teaching to writing to administration. He finds international politics a pallid imitation of academic ones.
Read an Excerpt
A Mamur Zapt Mystery
By Michael Pearce
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2013 Michael Pearce
All rights reserved.
Owen arrived at the hotel shortly afterward.
McPhee came down the steps of the terrace to meet him.
"Thank goodness you're here!" he said.
A cobra stretched lazily in the dirt at the foot of the steps stirred slightly. McPhee paused in his descent for a second and in that second its charmer thrust out a bowl at him. McPhee, flustered, dropped in a few milliemes.
"For heaven's sake!" protested Owen. "You'll have them all on to us!"
The crowd surged over them. Hands reached out at McPhee from all sides. Owen found his own hand taken in soft, confiding fingers and looked down to see who his new friend was. It was a large, dog-faced baboon with gray chinchilla-like fur.
"Imshi! Imshi! Get off!" shouted McPhee, recovering. One of his constables came down from the terrace and beat back the crowd with his baton. In the yard or two of space so gained a street acrobat in red tights suddenly turned a cartwheel. He cannoned heavily, however, into the snake-charmer and ricocheted off into a row of donkeys tethered to the railings, where he was chased off by indignant donkey-boys. Taking advantage of the confusion, Owen joined McPhee on the steps.
"What's it all about?"
"You got my message?"
"You'd better tell me."
McPhee had sent a bearer. The man had run all the way and arrived in such a state of incoherence that all Owen had been able to get out of him was that the Bimbashi was at Shepheard's and needed Owen urgently.
"A kidnapping," said McPhee.
"Here?" Owen was surprised. Kidnapping was not uncommon in Cairo, but it did not usually involve foreigners. "Someone from the hotel?"
"Are you sure it was a kidnapping?" said Owen doubtfully. "They don't usually take tourists. Has there been a note?"
"Not yet," McPhee admitted.
"It could be something else, then."
"That's what I thought," said McPhee, "at first."
"If it's just that he's gone missing," said Owen, "there could be a variety of explanations."
"It's not just that he's gone missing," said McPhee, "it's where he's gone missing from."
He took Owen up to the top of the steps and pointed to a table a couple ofyards into the terrace. The table was empty apart from a few tea things. A proud constable guarded it jealously.
"That's where he was sitting when he disappeared."
"Disappeared?" said Owen sceptically.
"Into thin air!"
"Surely," said Owen, trying not to sound too obviously patient, "people don't just disappear."
"One moment he was sitting there and the next he wasn't."
"Well," said Owen, and felt he really was overdoing the patience, "perhaps he just walked down the steps."
"He couldn't do that."
"Oh? Why not?"
"Because he can hardly walk. He is an infirm old man, who gets around only with the aid of sticks. It's about all he can do to make it on to the terrace."
"If he can make it on to the terrace," said Owen, "he can surely make it on to the steps. Perhaps he just came down the steps and took an arabeah."
There was a row of the horse-drawn Cairo cabs to the left of the steps.
"Naturally," said McPhee, with a certain edge to his voice, "one of the first things I did was to check with the arabeah-drivers."
"I also checked with the donkey-boys."
"He surely wouldn't have —"
"No, but they would have seen him if he had come down the steps."
"And they didn't?"
"No," said McPhee, "they didn't."
"Well, if he's not come down the steps he must have gone back into the hotel. Perhaps he went for a pee ...?"
"Look," said McPhee, finally losing his temper, "what do you think I've been doing for the last two hours? They've turned the place upside down. They did that twice before they sent for me. And they've done it twice since with my men helping them. They're going through it again now. For the fifth time!"
"Sorry, sorry, sorry!" said Owen hastily. "It's just that." He looked along the terrace. It was packed with people. Every table was taken. "Was it like this?"
"Yes. Everyone out for their tea."
"And no one saw what happened?"
"Not so far as I have been able to discover."
"You're sure he was there in the first place? I mean —"
"He was certainly there. We know, because a waiter took his order. It was his usual waiter, so there's no question of wrong identification. When he came back the old man was gone. Disappeared," said McPhee firmly, "into thin air."
"Naturally you've been along the terrace?"
"Naturally I've been along the terrace," McPhee agreed.
"Friends? Relations? Is he with anyone?"
"His nephew. Who is as bewildered as we are."
"He wasn't with him at the time?"
"No, no. He was in his room. Still having his siesta."
"There's probably some quite simple explanation."
"Yes," said McPhee. "You've been giving me some."
"Sorry!" Owen looked along the terrace again. "It's just that ..."
"I know," said McPhee.
"This is the last place you would choose if you wanted to kidnap someone."
"I know. The terrace at Shepheard's!"
"About the most conspicuous place in Cairo!"
* * *
The manager of the hotel came through the palms with two men in tow. One Owen recognized as the Chargé d'Affaires at the French Consulate. The other he guessed, correctly, to be the nephew of the missing Frenchman. The nephew saw McPhee and rushed forward.
"Monsieur le Bimbashi —"
He stopped when he saw that McPhee was in conversation.
McPhee introduced them.
"Monsieur Berthelot —"
The young man bowed.
"Captain Cadwallader Owen."
Owen winced. The middle name was genuine enough but something he preferred to keep a decent secret. McPhee, however, had a romantic fondness for things of the Celtic twilight and could not be restrained from savoring it in public.
"Carwallah —?" The young man struggled and then fell back on the part he recognized. "Capitaine? Ah, you are of the military?"
"C'est le directeur de l'intelligence britannique," said the man from the Consulate.
"Not at all," said Owen quickly. "I am the Mamur Zapt."
"The Mamur Zapt is a post peculiar to Cairo, Monsieur Berthelot," McPhee explained. "Captain Cadwallader Owen is, roughly, Head of the Political Branch. Of the police, that is," he added, looking at the Chargé d'Affaires reprovingly. He wasn't going to stand any nonsense from the French.
"Politicale," murmured Monsieur Berthelot doubtfully, only half comprehending.
"We hold you responsible for Monsieur Moulin's safety," the Chargé said to Owen.
"I will do everything I can," said Owen, choosing to take the remark as referring to him personally and not the British Administration in general. The French had previously shared, under the system ofDual Control, in the administration of Egypt and had been edged out when the British army had come in to suppress the Arabi rebellion, something they unsurprisingly resented. "However, I doubt whether this is a political matter."
"Politicale?" The young man was still having difficulties.
"I only deal with political matters," Owen explained. "Assassinations, riots, that sort of thing. I suspect this will turn out to be a routine criminal investigation. The police," he simplified, seeing that Monsieur Berthelot was not entirely following.
"The police? Ah, the Bimbashi —"
"Well, no, actually."
Owen wondered how to explain the Egyptian system. The Egyptian police fell under one Ministry, the Ministry of the Interior. Criminal investigation, however, fell under another, the Ministry ofJustice. When a crime was reported the police had to notify the Department of Prosecutions of the Ministry of Justice, the Parquet, as the Department was called. The Parquet would then send a man along who would take over the investigation from the police and see it through.
He looked at the Chargé for help. The Chargé shrugged his shoulders.
"It's like the French system," he said, "quite."
Egyptian criminal procedure was in fact based upon the Code Napoléon, a product of an earlier French administration.
"Ah!" Monsieur Berthelot was clearly relieved.
"Has the Parquet been notified?" asked the Chargé.
"Yes," said McPhee.
"I'd better get on to them," said the Chargé, "and make sure they send along someone bright."
He started back into the hotel.
"Tell them to send El Zaki," Owen called after him. "Mahmoud el Zaki."
"Thanks," said the Chargé, and disappeared indoors.
"And now, Monsieur," said Owen, turning to the bemused young man, "about your uncle ..."
* * *
Monsieur Berthelot was in fact able to tell them very little. Like his uncle and in common with almost everyone else in the hotel, he had taken a siesta after lunch. His had been more protracted than his uncle's and he had still been in his room when the Assistant Manager had knocked on his door. He had gone at once to his uncle's suite but found that he had not returned there after going down to the terrace. He had then gone down to the terrace and walked right along it, thinking that perhaps his uncle, unusually, had been taken up by some acquaintances.
Unusually? His uncle did not care for companionship, perhaps? Well, it wasn't so much that, it was just that his uncle generally preferred to be on his own when he got up from his siesta. He was like that in the morning, too, preferring to breakfast alone. He was always, the nephew said, "un peu morose" after waking up. That was why he, the nephew, took his time about joining him, both in the morning and in the afternoon. It worked out better that way.
And he always went to the same table? Yes, that was part of it. He didn't like to make decisions when he was still waking up. He preferred everything to be "automatique." Besides, that particular table was the one nearest the door of the hotel and he had less far to walk.
His uncle suffered from some disability? He had had a stroke two years previously which had left him semiparalyzed down one side. He was recovering, he was much better now than he had been, but he walked with difficulty. Twenty or thirty meters was all he could manage.
They didn't go to the bazaars, then? No, there was no question of that. They had seen some of the sights but always from an arabeah.
And always Monsieur Berthelot had gone with him? Well, that was the point of him being there. His uncle liked to have someone perpetually by him whom he could call on for support. Monsieur Berthelot looked a little glum.
Had his uncle ever gone off on his own before? Never! The young man was adamant. Never once since they had been in Cairo! Again he seemed a little depressed.
And how long, in fact, had they been in Cairo? About six weeks now. They would have to go back soon or they would face the "reproches" of his aunt, Madame Moulin. The young man gave the impression that this was something neither of them viewed with equanimity.
This was, then, purely a holiday? Not entirely. Monsieur Moulin had business interests in Egypt too.
What sort of business?
Contracting. Monsieur Moulin represented, was indeed a director of, a number of substantial French firms with building interests. But the chief point of their stay was recreational. Owen suspected it was as much to get away from Madame Moulin as anything else.
Had Monsieur Moulin received any messages? From his business friends, perhaps? Monsieur Berthelot did not think so, but would check if the messieurs desired. In any case, though, the friends would have come to Monsieur Moulin and not vice versa. Monsieur Moulin did not like leaving the hotel. He found the heat of the streets and the density of the crowds oppressive. Shepheard's alone was where he felt comfortable, and Shepheard's he rarely left. The young man could not understand what had happened on this occasion. He was at a loss. Surely his uncle had not left the hotel without telling him! He would never have done so voluntarily. But perhaps he had not left voluntarily.
He turned luminous, slightly protuberant eyes on Owen. The Bimbashi had spoken of kidnapping. Did Monsieur think —
No, no, no, no. Monsieur did not think. There was probably some quite simple explanation.
That was what he kept telling himself. He was sure Monsieur was right. Only ... He suddenly buried his face in his hands.
They were in one of the alcoves of the grand central hall of the hotel. It had once been an open courtyard but had been roofed over with a magnificent glass dome. Traditional Moorish arches, painted and striped, gave on to recesses and alcoves screened off with heavily fretted arabic paneling. Inside the alcoves and scattered around the floor generally were thick Persian rugs, the predominant color of which, cardinal red, matched the deep red of the comfortable leather divans and chairs. Beside the divans were low, honey-colored alabaster tables and backless pearl-inlaid tabourets. Suffragis in spotless white gowns and vivid red sashes moved silently through the hall on errands for guests. Owen found the opulence rather oppressive.
McPhee stirred slightly and the young man jerked upright.
A thousand apologies! He was delaying them, and when there was so much to be done. Was there anything else the messieurs wished to know? No? Then.
As they left the alcove Monsieur Berthelot said, almost wistfully, that his uncle had always preferred the light of the terrace to the dark of the hall. "He came from the South, you see — the bright sunshine." And then there was always so much to see on the terrace!
* * *
A smartly dressed young Egyptian ran up the steps.
"Parquet!" he said briskly.
The manager hurried forward.
"Mahmoud el Zaki, Parquet." He caught sight of Owen and his face broke into a smile. "Hello!" he said. "Are you on it, too?"
"Not exactly," said Owen. "McPhee thinks it might be a kidnapping."
"A kidnapping? Here?"
"I know. But there are some odd features."
"They don't usually take foreigners."
"That's what I said."
"Odd!" He turned to the manager. "I shall need a room."
"My office." The manager hesitated. "I hope it won't be necessary to — to disaccommodate the guests."
"As little as possible. However, I may have to ask them a few questions."
The manager looked doubtful. "Of course," he said. "Of course, I was hoping — would you not prefer to talk to my staff?"
The manager shrugged but still looked worried. He led them to his office.
"I will send you some coffee," he said.
"How is it that Mr. McPhee is involved?" asked Mahmoud. "Surely they didn't send for you directly?"
"They did. A foreigner. They thought it important," said Owen.
He listened intently while McPhee brought him up to date. Then they went out on to the terrace. The tea things had all gone from the tables now, except for the one table. In their place drinks were appearing. It was already growing dark. Night came quickly and early in Egypt. The short period of twilight, though, when it was still light enough to see and yet the heat had gone out of the sun, was one of the pleasantest parts of the day and lots of people were coming out on to the terrace to enjoy the evening air.
All along the front of the terrace was a thick row of street-vendors pushing their wares through the railings at the tourists above: ostrich feathers, hippopotamus-hide whips, fly switches, fezzes, birds in cages, snakes coiled around the arms of their owners, bunches of brightly colored flowers — roses, carnations, narcissi, hyacinths — trays of Turkish Delight and sticky boiled sweets, souvenirs straight from the tombs of the Pharaohs (astonishingly, some of them were), "interesting" postcards.
The street behind them was thick with people, too. They could not be described as passersby since they had stopped passing. Mostly they gathered around the pastry sellers and sherbet sellers, who stood in the middle of the road for the convenience of trade but to the great inconvenience of the arabeah-drivers, and just looked at the spectacle on the terrace above them.
"With all these people looking," said Mahmoud, "you would have thought that someone, somewhere, must have seen something."
* * *
He went down the steps into the crowd. Owen hesitated for a moment and then decided to join him. McPhee turned back into the hotel to conduct yet another search.
Mahmoud went straight to the snake charmer and squatted down beside him. The snake charmer had rather lost heart and was trying to find an untenanted patch of wall against which he could rest his back. From time to time he played a few unconvincing notes on his flute, which the snake, now completely inert, ignored.
The snake charmer pushed his bowl automatically in Mahmoud's direction. Mahmoud dropped in a few milliemes.
"It has been a long day, father," he said to the charmer. "Even your snake thinks so."
"It needs a drink," said the charmer. "I shall have to take it home soon."
Excerpted from The Donkey-Vous by Michael Pearce. Copyright © 2013 Michael Pearce. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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