On a clear night in 1941, a hand grenade explodes in a Cairo bar, taking the life of Stern, a petty gunrunner and morphine addict, nationality unknown, his aliases so numerous that it’s impossible to determine whether he was a Moslem, Christian, or Jew.
His death could easily go unnoticed as Rommel’s tanks charge through the desert in an attempt to take the Suez Canal and open the Middle East to Hitler’s forces. Yet the mystery behind Stern’s death is a top priority for intelligence experts. Master spies from three countries converge on Joe O’Sullivan Beare, who is closer to Stern than anyone, in an effort to unravel the disturbing puzzle. The search for the truth about Stern leads O’Sullivan Beare through the slums of Cairo to a decaying former brothel called the Hotel Babylon, populated by unusual characters. Slowly, the mystery of Stern unravels as Whittemore explores the tragedy and yearning of one man fighting a battle for the human soul.
Nile Shadows is the third volume of the Jerusalem Quartet, which begins with Sinai Tapestry and Jerusalem Poker and concludes with Jericho Mosaic.
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Book Three of the Jerusalem Quartet
By Edward Whittemore
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 Edward Whittemore Estate
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An Australian Hand Grenade
On a clear night in 1942 a hand grenade exploded in a Cairo slum, killing one man instantly.
The explosion shattered the mirror in the half-light of a poor Arab bar, a bare room where laborers went to sip arak into oblivion. The hand grenade had come flying in through a shabby curtain separating the bar from an alley, thrown from a group of Australian soldiers who were out drinking and brawling and victoriously celebrating life, recent survivors of the disastrous battle for Crete.
Other than the dead man, no one in the bar received more than superficial injuries. And in the confusion following the explosion, amidst the shouts and screams and drunken cries of bloody wogs, the young Australian soldiers had fled into the shadowy byways of Old Cairo and disappeared, never to be officially identified in life, some never to be identified in death as well.
Such violent incidents were far from uncommon in wartime Cairo. The fierce campaigns in the Western Desert still raged uncertainly, as Rommel's powerful Afrika Korps threatened to overrun Egypt and the Suez Canal. From there the Middle East and much more would be open to the invading Germans, so soldiers in the British forces were apt to play desperately with time and darkness before going into the desert to meet the advancing panzers.
In such a situation, one stray death in a Cairo slum could be of little significance, and an Egyptian policeman quickly concluded his routine investigation.
From documents found on the dead man he was identified as a minor criminal and morphine addict, a petty gunrunner sometimes known as Stern, a vagrant with no visible means of support who had moved erratically from one poor lodging to another in various Cairo slums over the last few years.
Stern's criminal record further stated that his name was to be found in the files of a number of police departments in the Middle East, and although he didn't appear to be of Egyptian origin, his dialect was said to be flawless. It was therefore assumed that he was probably a genuine Levantine by birth, whose sordid pursuits in the 1930s had caused him to spend at least as much time in Egypt as elsewhere.
The history of Stern's criminal activities was unimpressive. In the years leading up to the Second World War he had smuggled arms to many groups in the Middle East, with perhaps more emphasis on Palestine. Yet he had never been clever enough to make any money from these operations, for his record also showed that he had lived in unrelieved poverty. On several occasions he had been apprehended and sentenced to brief prison terms on secondary charges.
Stern, in short, had lived an obscure and meaningless life, a marginal existence that had come to nothing.
Only one brief entry in Stern's file tended to contradict this uneventful account, a daring escape he had made from a Damascus prison in the summer of 1939. From the nature of the escape it was apparent it had been unplanned, and what made it inexplicable was the fact that Stern had been due for release from the prison within twenty-four hours. But then a few weeks later Hitler's armored divisions had crossed the Polish border to begin the war, so the matter had soon been forgotten, a strange and isolated episode in Stern's otherwise purposeless career.
Stern's nationality was listed on the death certificate as Unknown, lost long ago in the maze of counterfeit documents he had used throughout his life. So numerous were the aliases in his record, in fact, there was no way to know whether Stern was the dead man's true name.
In addition, so contradictory were the disguises of his background, it could not even be determined whether he was a Moslem or a Christian or a Jew.
There were also no associates to question. Stern, or whoever he was, had not only worked obscurely but lived his life alone, without family or friends, without acquaintances or neighbors to remember him. To all appearances, without anyone at all. Yet when the time came to dispose of the body, done quickly in Cairo because of overcrowding among the dead, a shabbily dressed woman turned up at police headquarters saying she wished to make arrangements for a burial. The woman carried a Greek passport and the story she told seemed plausible.
She had first met the dead man about a year earlier, she said, in a small neighborhood restaurant where she sometimes took her evening meals. Subsequently they had fallen into the habit of eating there together on an irregular basis, never more than once a week and often no more than once every two or three weeks. It had been company of a sort for both of them. She had known the dead man only as Stern, and he had called her by her Christian name, Maud. Although she was an American by birth, she had lived in the Eastern Mediterranean for years.
Since Stern had never known more than a day in advance when he might be able to come to the restaurant, he had left notes there saying when he would show up. She had gone to the restaurant every day to check for these notes, even when she wasn't planning to eat there in the evening. She didn't know where he had lived or what he had done. It was wartime and people came and went. Explanations were pointless, reasons meaningless. She had assumed he held some kind of minor clerk's job, as she did.
Why do you say that? asked the policeman behind the desk.
Because of the way he dressed.
How was that?
Like me. Trying to make ends meet.
Did you speak Arabic together?
No, you can hear I don't speak it well. We spoke in Greek or in English.
The policeman switched to French, which he was studying in the evenings to promote his career.
Did he ever talk about the past? What he used to do?
The woman was trying hard to control herself. She looked down at her worn shoes and suddenly clenched her fists in despair.
No. I just assumed he was from somewhere and had done something once. Isn't everybody from somewhere? Hasn't everybody done something once? We never talked about the past. Can't you understand?
The woman broke down and quietly began to cry, and of course the policeman did understand. The Balkans had been overrun and Greece had fallen and there were refugees everywhere in Cairo, people who didn't want to remember what they had lost.
So he saw no need to go into the matter further. If this woman wanted to bear the expense of burying a man she had hardly known, out of whatever personal reasons might be involved, that was her affair. Nothing would be served by telling her that Stern had been a petty criminal, a minor gunrunner and morphine addict. Obviously she wanted to bury someone, and it was no concern of his how she went about wasting the little money she had.
I'll just be a minute, he said, and went to make a telephone call to her office to prove that she was the person she claimed to be. The connection was made, to some obscure British department having to do with the Irrigation Works, and it took surprisingly little time. He returned and filled out the release papers, copying down the entries from her passport and marking her A friend of the deceased. He took the forms to be signed and told the woman where to obtain the body. She thanked him and left.
Whereupon the case was closed so far as the Egyptian authorities were concerned.
The policeman who had arrived at the Arab bar after the explosion had remained there for about half an hour, but most of that time he had spent helping himself to drinks. Another ten minutes or so had been spent by his superior at headquarters, the following morning, glancing through the dead man's file. And not much more time than that had been required for the interview with the woman that morning, to release what was left of the body.
In all, then, no more than twelve hours had passed since Stern had been killed at midnight. In just such a brief period of time were the formalities of his death concluded, his life forgotten. But there was one minor curiosity that seemed to have been overlooked.
How did it happen that this casual acquaintance of Stern, this shabbily dressed woman of American birth, had come to police headquarters in the first place?
Why had she turned up so suddenly when she was only accustomed to receiving notes from Stern once a week, or every two or three weeks, in a small neighborhood restaurant?
How, indeed, had she even known that Stern was dead?
For there had been no mention of the event in the newspapers, nor would there be. Such incidents occurred and it was generally known that they did. But the British censors still had no wish to see displayed in print the fact that Allied soldiers, drunk on occasion and facing possible death themselves, relieved their tensions by tossing hand grenades into Arab bars.
Yet these questions concerning the American woman, as it turned out, were of little importance. Elsewhere, the real enigma behind the killing was already being studied by intelligence experts, and for them even the simplest facts involved in Stern's mysterious death, and his equally mysterious life, had begun to suggest a vastly disturbing puzzle that might decide the outcome of the entire war in the Middle East, and perhaps beyond.CHAPTER 2
The Purple Seven Armenian
The names of four witnesses appeared in the brief report drawn up by the Cairo policeman who had investigated the hand-grenade incident, the other customers having fled the bar immediately after the explosion at midnight. Of the four, one was the Arab owner of the bar and two others were glassy-eyed Arab laborers who had heard nothing of the world since sundown, due to the effects of opium.
The fourth witness had produced a passport that showed he was a naturalized Lebanese citizen in transit, an itinerant dealer in Coptic artifacts. The name of this fourth witness was unmistakably Armenian. And although the policeman at the scene had carefully noted that the Armenian's status was in transit, he had failed to determine where the Armenian was in transit to, or from.
Teams of British enlisted men routinely checked every name that appeared in any Egyptian police report, no matter how insignificant the case might be. They checked these names against master lists, which gave no indication whether the name listed was that of a deserter or an alleged informer, a male or female prostitute suspected of infecting lost battalions of soldiers on leave, or belonged to any of the other categories of people that might be having an adverse effect on the war.
The Armenian's name appeared on such a list. The facts were duly forwarded to Special Branch, where a further check was made against names listed in various color codes. The Armenian's name was found under the highly sensitive Purple Code, which required that the information be sent at once to Military Intelligence.
There, the significance of the name was accurately defined by locating it on the select list known as Purple Seven, the briefest of all the lists and also the only one of the many secret color codes to merit the ultimate British classification for speedy handling in the Levant.
Most Most Urgent:
Here we go again, old boy.
Let's forego tea and keep the Hun on the run.
At once, a goggled officer courier signed for the packet of information and climbed into the sidecar of a powerful dispatch motorcycle, driven by an expert heavy-diesel mechanic who was fluent in Malay, also goggled and armed with a Sten gun, two automatics, three throwing knives and a hidden derringer. The courier's destination was a drab building housing the Third Circle of the Irrigation Works, an obscure civilian department that happened to be under the direct control of the British commander-in-chief, Middle East Forces, seemingly due to the strategic value of water. But actually the drab Third Circle was the headquarters of a secret British intelligence unit colloquially referred to by specialists as the Waterboys.
And thus by noon that day a sickly-looking British agent, a Cairo pimp and blackmarketeer with a bad liver and a certain low-level reputation along the riverfront, was flashing his stained teeth as he strolled through a filthy slum of the city, his jaundiced grin meant to welcome anyone who might be in need of illicit services of any kind.
To fortify himself against the swindles ahead, the yellowish blackmarketeer decided to stop off for a glass of cheap Arab cognac. And the café he chose, by chance, happened to be only a few doors away from the bar that had been damaged the previous night by a hand grenade.
Gently the pimp eased his swollen liver under a table. He rubbed his eyes and casually turned his attention to the next table, where the owner of the damaged Arab bar, a neighborhood celebrity for the moment, was dramatically recounting for the hundredth time his experiences from the previous night. The bar owner had been doing so since sunup, speaking breathlessly to anyone who would listen, but more especially to anyone who would buy him a drink in exchange for the whole truth about the war and the world and history.
By now the Arab bar owner was thoroughly drunk and his account had taken on the proportions of a major battle in the ongoing struggle for Egyptian independence. Like many of his countrymen, he viewed the British as colonial oppressors and was more than ready to welcome the Germans into Cairo as liberators.
In fact it was precisely because of his well-known patriotism, he said, that the cowardly British had sent an elite platoon of masked commandos to attack his bar under cover of darkness. But he had valiantly repulsed the assault and was to receive a medal from Rommel when the invincible panzers entered the city.
By the weekend, he said, his eyes glittering from the noontime rush of gin in his veins. By the weekend, according to the secret information he was privy to.
There was no need to boast, he went on, but there was also no need to hide the truth any longer. Not now, after the British had showed how much they feared him by mounting a regimental assault at night with their very best antitank weapons.
He lowered his voice and adopted the manner of a dedicated revolutionary. Awesome nationalist victories and the great personal sacrifices that led to them, he noted, deserved the deepest respect.
The whole truth? he whispered. The whole truth is that Rommel no longer writes to me through intermediaries. Now when he asks for my advice he does so in his very own hand, on Afrika Korps stationery.
Sighs and shrewd nods passed through his audience. At that moment his unemployed listeners undeniably had the hard knowing eyes of determined men. From the next table, the yellowish blackmarketeer leaned sideways toward the bar owner.
How's his Arabic? he whispered.
Excellent, of course. The Germans aren't stupid like the British.
I never doubted it. But next weekend, you say? Rommel is going to be here as soon as that?
He told me so himself, answered the bar owner.
The blackmarketeer looked suddenly pained. He eased his fingers down over the right side of his abdomen and tried to prop up his liver.
Then I'm in trouble, he whispered. The Germans drink beer, strictly beer.
Of course, and here I am with this left on my hands. I thought it was going to make my fortune, but now it's turned out to be useless.
Your liver? whispered the bar owner.
The blackmarketeer shook his head and reached down for the valise he had with him, opening it just enough for the bar owner to peek inside. What he saw was a new bottle of Irish whiskey, its seal unbroken. The valise was quickly snapped shut again.
Direct from Shepheard's Hotel, whispered the blackmarketeer. Stolen at great risk and at the cost of many bribes. But now I'm doomed by God's will.
How much? whispered the bar owner suspiciously.
Cheap. Absurdly so, in view of God's will and Rommel's arrival.
God speaks in mysterious ways, countered the bar owner.
Assuredly, He does. And only those who are deserving hear His voice. Now as one revolutionary patriot to another, I suggest we retire to your damaged premises to inspect this despicable destruction wrought by a division of cowardly British paratroopers hurtling down from the heavens under cover of darkness.
Excerpted from Nile Shadows by Edward Whittemore. Copyright © 2002 Edward Whittemore Estate. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword: "Edward Whittemore (1933–1995)" by Tom Wallace,
"Nile Shadows: The Improbable Art of Edward Whittemore" by Ben Gibberd,
1 An Australian Hand Grenade,
2 The Purple Seven Armenian,
3 Hopi Mesa Kiva,
15 The Sisters,
16 Two Candles,
19 A Golden Bell and a Pomegranate,
20 A Gift of Faces, a Gift of Tongues,
21 Purple Seven Moonlight,
22 Bernini's Bag,
23 Nile Echoes,
Afterword: "An Editorial Relationship" by Judy Karasik,
Preview: Jericho Mosaic,
A Biography of Edward Whittemore,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Just here in the shadows in the strong quiet sounds of their being.. Nile shadows after all, the shadows of the world raging. But those strong quiet echoes of the river are within us too, thank God, going right on and never to be still.. Egypt during WW1, with Germany fast encroaching is a place full of spies. A chaotic whirlwind of double dealing and confusion. In amongst them is the Monastery, headquarters of the secret, secret British service, where the tough decisions are made, where the most secretive espionage is done. Brought into this mix is the garrulous Irish Man of Jerusalem Poker, his task to find out the truth of Stern. A double, triple agent? Fighting for peace, but whose? And at what cost?This, I think is the most difficult book of all the Quartet. Not just, because in stark contrast to the previous books it so very dark but because it¿s filled with dialogue. Action is light and happens between the lengthy conversations as characters bleed their life story onto the page. It's worth hanging on though, the payoff is good, all that listening has drawn you into the tragedy unfolding (Don¿t worry no spoiler it starts at the end). I say good, I admit I was in tears and unlike before there is no obvious truth here to comfort, well apart from that, life is murky after all.It¿s a powerful book and I don¿t recommend starting here. If it doesn¿t sound like you, you can probably skip to the last book but it would be a shame, it¿s a intense book, but a good one."Revolution, said Stern. We can't even comprehend what it is, not what it means or what it suggests. We pretend it means total change but it's much more than that, so vastly more complex, and yes, so much simpler too. It's not just the total change from night to day as our earth spins in its revolutions around a minor star. It's also our little star revolving around its own unknowable center and so with all the stars in their billions, and so with the galaxies and the universe itself. Change revolves and truly there is nothing but revolution. All movement is revolution and so is time, and although those laws are impossibly complex and beyond us, their result is simple. For us, very simple. Relentlessly plunging Jerusalem into its greatest turmoil since the First Crusade."