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By Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Random House Jon Courtenay Grimwood
All right reserved. ISBN: 0553901915
Nine days before the Grand Jury met in an upstairs office at Champollion Precinct, Ashraf Bey sat through a warm Iskandryian evening, bombed out of his skull, at a pavement table outside Le Trianon, drinking cappuccino and listening to DJ Avatar wreak havoc on the words of a Greek philosopher.
The afternoon call to prayer had finished echoing from the mosque on Boulevard Saad Zaghloul and the bells from l'Eglise Copte had yet to begin. If it hadn't been for a sense of dread hanging over El Iskandryia, this could have been a Monday in October like any other.
Horse-drawn caliches, their brasses shined and wheel bosses polished, rumbled up the Corniche, from the fat seawall known as the Silsileh all the way north to Fort Qaitbey, where the ancient Pharos lighthouse once stood.
And at both ends of the sweeping Corniche, at Silsileh in the shadow of Iskandryia's famous library, and at Fort Qaitbey, groups of tourists watched as fishermen set hooks or mended and untangled nets, waiting for the evening tide.
It was a tourist who'd taken the taxi that stopped outside Le Trianon, with its window down and sound system up too loud, giving Raf the chance to hear the city's favourite DJ one more time.
"And remember . . ." Avatar's voice was street raw. "Rust never sleeps. Coming at you from the wrong side of those tracks, this for the Daddy, the Don . . ."
Most of Raf's officers thought DJ Avatar came up with SpitNoWhere on his own; if they thought at all, which Raf considered unlikely. So they happily stamped the corridors at Police HQ, humming along, not knowing that the unchopped original went, "In a rich man's house, there's nowhere to spit but his face."
Raf hadn't known that, at least not until recently, but the fox in his head did. And while the fox couldn't say why, the General's aide de camp had just delivered to Raf an engraving of hell, inscribed with the words, "At its centre hell is not hot." It had at least been able to identify the picture as late Victorian, unquestionably by Gustave Dore . . .
". . . ou know," said the fox, before all this happened. ". . . ese things, they occur."
The fox had a grin like the Cheshire cat, except that no cat ever owned so many teeth or carried its tail wrapped up round its shoulders like a stole. Come to that, few cats took afternoon tea at Le Trianon.
These things could have been Raf becoming Chief of Detectives by default, or his recent refusal to marry the daughter of a billionaire.
"Why?" Raf asked. "Why do they occur?"
But the fox didn't answer.
Sighing, Raf took a gulp of cold cappuccino to wash away the taste of cheap speed and fixed his gaze on the pedestrians who streamed past his cafe table, separated from the terrace where he sat by a silk rope and the assiduous attention of two bodyguards.
The only pedestrians to meet Raf's stare were those, mainly tourists, who didn't realize who he was. They just saw a blond young man in dark glasses, wearing an oddly old-fashioned suit, the kind with a high collar.
"Come on," said Raf, searching inside his head. "You can tell me."
He ignored his two guards, who looked at each other, then hurriedly looked away. Raf didn't doubt that they could see tears trickling from under his glasses, but he didn't much care either.
The fox was saying good-bye.
The beast had been dying for years. Its abilities limited by memory conflicts, failed backup and the fact that, these days, the animal could only feed on neon light.
Once Tiri had been state of the art. Feeding on daylight, infrared and ultraviolet, or so it told Raf. White light, black light-back then anything went. The fox sharpened Raf's reflexes, steadied his nerves and gave him good advice. It was what Raf had instead of parents . . .
A small ceramic box set into his skull behind one ear which kept him sane, sort of, and gave him a definable centre. And once, when Raf was very young and in another country, it had helped him walk out across a steel beam through flames and crumbling walls.
Only life wasn't simple; because the fox, of course, refused to admit that it existed. The fox's view was that Raf had a number of unresolved issues.
"Your Excellency . . . ?"
Someone hovered at his shoulder.
"Go," said Raf and the waiter went, grateful to have been waved away.
Raf went back to watching the tourists who fed from Place Saad Zaghloul, and headed south down Rue Missala, searching for bars and theatres or just in a hurry to get back to their hotels.
After a hundred and eleven days in the city, Raf could now identify tourist groups as clearly as if they wore labels: waddling Austrians, dark-haired Frenchmen, the odd bunch of shore-leave Soviets in mufti and, rarer still, an occasional pink-skinned Englishwoman with silk scarf and sensible shoes. But mostly Iskandryia got nice couples, as befitted a famously romantic city.
The fuck-me singles, with their piercings, tattoos and trailer chic, came out only after dark, and then only in closely defined areas. Places like PeshVille, where Scandinavian kids hosed lines of coke off toilet rims, while girls shuffled, in darkened corners, on the unzipped laps of boys too blasted to know they weren't safely hiding out in student halls back home.
But that wasn't really Iskandryia, just how it went, with the limo-delivered international DJs as interchangeable as the clientele. It could have been Curitiba or Berlin, Punta del Este or Kota Baru. And anyway those clubs weren't Raf's business. The tourist police dealt with that stuff.
"You in there?"
Raf counted off the seconds, listening carefully for an echo inside his head. One winter night, when he was maybe ten and feeling sorry for himself, something that happened less often than Raf remembered, he'd asked the fox if he (Raf that was) had a soul . . . And the fox had gone all silent.
That was the weekend Raf refused to go to chapel. For five weeks he'd been made to run round a field in the sleet at the back of his school, while the others sang hymns in the dry. And the fox's only comment, months later, had been to point out that he should have waited until summer to lose his faith.
Maybe it was one of his schools that first put the fox in his head. Or perhaps it was his mother. Alternatively, just maybe the fox was right and it didn't exist, maybe it had never existed outside of Raf's imagination.
Raf sighed. "Do I get an answer?" he demanded. "Or do I sit talking to myself like an idiot?"
"Your Excellency?" It was the ma"tre d' this time. Raf tried to wave away the thin man but the ma"tre d' stayed rooted to the spot, urgency winning out over embarrassment. "The General is on the line from New York . . ." In his hand the man held an old-fashioned telephone. "He says it's very urgent."
Raf shook his head and almost laughed as shock flooded the ma"tre d's face. No one refused to talk to General Saeed Koenig Pasha, not even His Excellency Ashraf Bey.
"What do I tell him?" The ma"tre d' begged frantically.
Raf thought about how to answer for so long that the thin man holding the telephone actually began to squirm with agitation.
"I know," said Raf finally. "Tell him my fox is dying."
An early tram rattled up Rue Moharrem Bey towards Misr Station, jinked around the silent taxi rank at Place Gumhuriya and continued west along Boulevard Sherif, passing the open front door of the al-Mansur madersa.
On the madersa's second floor, in a small room in the haremlek, a nine-year-old girl, nicknamed Hani, slept badly while a Catholic cook watched over her. The cook spoke just enough Arabic for her closest friend to be the skeletal Sudanese porter who sat, cross-legged, on worn stone steps at the front of the house talking slowly into an ancient cell phone.
"Yes, Hamzah Effendi," he said, watching the almost empty tram go by. "I know where His Excellency is. He's still at Le Trianon." Khartoum listened again. "Wrestling with evil djinn," he answered and broke the connection.
Two of the tram's fares were tourists late home to bed, the other three Iskandryian, headed to work. A short-order cook, a chambermaid, a stall holder from a minor souk. Travel was cheap in the city. For most of those who worked in the service industries it needed to be.
At some hours of the day gulls could be heard everywhere across the city, but this early in the morning they circled tightly over the Shambles, rabid for any entrails that might be tossed from gutting table to harbour.
Years before, when the women with their razor-edged filleting knives had been children, or maybe it was when their mothers had been children, the Khedive had declared it illegal to discard the guts and tailings of each night's catch. Every scrap not sold had to be ploughed into the barren edges of the delta to improve the soil. Then came the first flu epidemic and with too few felaheen to gather in crops that lay spoiling in the existing fields, increased maize yields ceased to matter. So now the entrails went back into the water.
And when the gulls finally dispersed and first light finished staining the horizon, the sun rose out beyond Glymonopolo Bay and another Tuesday morning began.
Shutters were opened, doors unlocked. In red-brick tenements everywhere, middle-aged women looked at potbellied men and remembered dark-eyed boys, marriage vows and lost virginity. Men mourned the slim-hipped girls they'd married and, catching sight of themselves in the mirror, wondered how they'd never noticed they'd become someone else.
And on the edge of Glymonopolo Bay, in a stuccoed villa as arrogant as any conquistador's palace, a barrel-chested industrialist turned off his phone, sighed heavily and picked up a revolver.
In front of Hamzah Effendi was a naked angel, wings spread wide and breasts full, like those of a distantly remembered mother. Except that the angel was pale and fair-haired and elegant, things untrue of anyone in his family.
She hovered within a page torn from a book, written in a language he couldn't read and inscribed on the back, "Only here will you find peace" and "Apollyon." General Koenig Pasha had penned these in his immaculate copperplate just below a half-title that read "Divina Commedia di Dante Alighieri: Paradiso."
With the engraving came a gun. They were the governor's answer to Hamzah's desperate plea for help.
Shooting himself would ruin his looks, Hamzah knew that. Regretted it. A long succession of twentysomething mistresses had assured him that he had the dark eyes of a hunter, the mouth of a poet and the profile of an emperor: the founder of a dynasty, not one of those weaklings that came later, slope-chinned and nervous, the kind who got strangled with a golden rope as they slept.
Hamzah's chin jutted so proudly that the eye almost slid past his heavy jowls and neck. His face had a flabbiness now that business partners seldom recalled when they thought back to meeting him; somehow imperfections got forgotten, leaving only a memory of his strength.
A gulp from his crystal tumbler later, Hamzah put down the gun.
Alcohol tells the truth. "I didn't mean it," that's the lie. People do mean it, every time. Hamzah did, even if the person at which he swore was himself. Of course, he'd have preferred to bawl out Ashraf al-Mansur but the recently appointed Chief of Detectives wasn't taking calls.
Downing another gulp of neat Laphroaig, Hamzah topped up his glass and carefully hid the bottle in the bottom drawer of a burr-walnut desk. Alcohol was illegal in Iskandryia, except for tourists and in certain bars attached to the bigger international hotels, or unless one had written permission from the General. It was a prohibition of which Hamzah heartily approved since one small sliver of his diverse interests involved supplying illegal alcohol to illegal clubs, many of which he owned anyway.
There were no early memories for him of a high-breasted, thin-hipped girl. Any more than his wife had memories of a smouldering-eyed boy who turned her body to fire. Their marriage was arranged and the only thing odd about it was that, in theory at least, Hamzah did the arranging. Rahina's useless father had owed him a debt and she was part payment.
Hamzah would have preferred the money.
He wondered, but only briefly, how well his wife would cope as a widow. Maybe her life would be improved? Money would be no problem and Villa Hamzah had never been Rahina's first choice as a home, so his guess was that she'd leave the city entirely. Either to live on a country estate in the delta or else move to Tunis or Algiers, where his disgrace might not follow her.
Hamzah ran through the checklist in his mind.
Will, signed and witnessed.
Accounts, doctored obviously; the real ones were bleached to NSA standards, overwritten and bleached again.
Deeds to the villa.
Share certificates . . . Those were mostly for Hamzah Enterprises, the Midas Refinery, Quitrimala Industries and the offshore and Sudanese oil fields. The French and the Germans had recently offered to buy him out, but any deal could be done with his executor.
Bank accounts, both known and previously hidden.
Suicide note. Words had always given Hamzah trouble. So he'd quoted from a poem he learnt once, long ago beside a river, when he was a boy. "I loved you so I wrote my need across the night in stars . . ." He'd probably got half of the words wrong, but they'd expect that.
Everything was in place for what came next. Shares in Hamzah Enterprises would dip on the Bourse but bounce back. Oil prices were rocketing and the Midas Refinery would continue turning crude to cash, whoever owned it. Only in the illegal clubs, brothels and dance halls would there be a fight for succession, and that would have happened someday, whatever . . .
The revolver he held stank of oil, which was his own fault. Every gap in the previous week he'd spent cleaning and recleaning the .38, until the rifling shone metal-bright and the cylinder spun as cleanly as if the weapon was new rather than a hundred and twenty years old.
Now was the point for him to suck silence from its muzzle.
Only he couldn't.
He'd been maybe ten years old when he acquired his first gun. Felaheen back then didn't know their ages. Often they didn't know their families either.
Excerpted from Effendi by Jon Courtenay Grimwood Excerpted by permission.
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