Iskandarah’s Meeting

On arriving in Egypt, Alex arranges a meeting with a large section of Cairo’s underworld, where her uncle is the current, reigning prince, so to speak. I had in mind something inspired by Cleopatra, but it wasn’t convenient to bring her in rolled in a carpet.

Jake was not at all sure what he expected. It was not an empty warehouse with a pale fabric screen set up at one end of the room. Some of Hassan’s men were setting up chairs in front of the screen in a parody of a movie theater. Several others tested the discreet sound system or fiddled with video cameras.

As he moved closer, he found that the screen covered a deep alcove with small windows high above the street. Three bright colored lamps rigged with quiet fans and swaying silk streamers simulated the motion of torchlight. The rest of the setup was spartan; a chaise, a potted palm, a real wok-shaped brazier for incense, and a large statue, mummiform and imposing. Everything appeared to be chosen to form an effective silhouette.

Set in the back of the statue was a small monitor that showed him a clear picture of the warehouse, with split screen covering the entrances and exits. Whatever she planned, she clearly meant to do it from behind the screen. The door behind the fake torches told him that she would not walk back out through the main room. He tried the door, but found it locked.

Ismail appeared at the curtain. “It is to your satisfaction?”

“I’m sure it is to hers,” he replied. “It’s all very clever. Where does this door go?”

“Dar Hassan. The passage loops around the building and comes out in the alley behind the shop. If anyone should follow her from here, he would have to circle the entire block. I would show you, but tonight she has the key.”

Leaving me to get out on my own should things blow up. That must have been what she meant when she told him not to come. “Are you certain there are no copies?”

He paled at the thought. “Hassan would have my head if I let that happen. No, that is the only key. Come, they are beginning to arrive.”

Jake followed Ismail out of the alcove.

“She is a little sister to us, but it is not so to some of these men. Others heard the same stories we heard and would kill you to defend her. She asked me to stay beside you, you understand. It is all she can do.”

It was a large concession on Ismail’s part, considering that he brought Hassan a wrapped blade the day before. It was also an honor that Jake had not expected. Ismail brought him to the last seat in the back near the door.

Several of the men stopped on their way in with polite and less than polite inquiry on their lips. To some Ismail murmured, “My cousin’s husband,” while he told others, “The Englishman’s son.”

If Jake thought he would see a ragged group of pirates, the men who gathered were a disappointment, although several had the stiff appearance of starched best. He gathered that this meeting had the allure of a major underworld social event. He seemed to be the only discordant note, based on the stares, glares, and stage whispers that drifted his way.

Jake did not even see the door open and close, but it must have been along the wall behind him. It fitted so tightly to the base concrete that he could not make out the edges in the gloom.

A shade flittered in the far corner. The dark, concealing garment fitted her like a child’s ghost costume for Hallow’s Eve. Every line of her drew his eyes and seemed to push theirs away. His ring winked on her right hand.

The sound of multiple conversations died as she made her way toward him and touched his arm. He wished he could see her face. It was a simple brush of fingers on shirt sleeve and it lasted just a moment, but with it she communicated in a silent, unmistakeable way, the imprint of a woman’s possession. She told them with that touch that he was to be trusted.

She moved on, slipping past along the wall to the gap between screen and alcove. One of Hassan’s men pulled the curtain closed behind her. After a moment, the lights came on, flickering and jumping on the fabric screen. She stepped into the center of the room, in front of the lights. The sweeping garment was replaced by a simple caftan that formed a semi-transparent outline in the light. Underneath she wore rough jeans and an opaque t-shirt.

He could not hold back a chuckle. Ismail grunted a word of disapproval that made him bite his lip.

She sat down on the chaise. The height was perfect for viewing the monitor on the back of the statue. He felt certain that her eyes were trained on it. Behind her, but in front of the lamps, a curl of fragrant smoke released in a puff.

“I have come for Dr. Paul. What do you have to tell me?” Alex’s voice came from the speakers positioned through out the room.

“Why are you hiding? Show us your face, Iskandarah,” A man in the front row demanded.

“Hamid. Do they still call you the Rat? I am pleased to see you here tonight. Seeing me would do you no good, however, and it might harm me. I am not the girl you knew anymore. The woman before you has a life to protect, but my old friend is in trouble, so I have come for him.” She shifted, tucking her feet up under her. The wobble in her voice was low, barely discernible over the PA system, even with treble clear enough to make a grown man weep.

“And you are wife to the Englishman’s son?” A different man spoke. He sat in the corner opposite Jake’s. He was forced to swivel so that he could watch.

The new speaker was tall and robed in grey. A hood fell over his face, but the part that Jake could see was dark, fading with almost invisible sponge marks around the ear. Streaks of a pale color faded into his uneven hair. The thin lines around his eyes were not fake, nor was the glint of chrome that marked the shape of the wheel chair beneath him.

Jake stared at him, blanching in the same way he knew Alex must be. Ismail tapped his arm and gave a slight frown. He turned to face forward.

“Last night,” she said, after a moment.

“We will leave first,” Ismail whispered, “but we will come back, around the side of the building in the door she used to come in. He will meet us there. So it was agreed.”

“When?” he gasped the question. “Have you known where he was the whole time?”

The frown came back. “He contacted us this afternoon. Quiet.”

“You are happy?” The new-comer’s voice roughened. Jake’s attention snapped back to Alex.

“If Dr. Paul is safe, I am extremely happy. They told me you were in prison.”

“And I thought you were dead. Your Dr. Paul misses you and he is furious to hear that you came in spite of his wishes.”

Her sigh sliced through the room in perfect surround sound. “You don’t play the game very well.”

“I wish you didn’t. I never wanted to hear your name spoken in Cairo again.”

“I wanted that, too. They came to where I live. They stuck a needle in my arm. They shot at me, tried to take me by force from the pyramids. What do they think I know?”

“Ask them.” The man was visibly shaken. “There have always been rumors about you. Ask them which one they believe.”

“I need to know what you believe.” She stood up in an intricate ballet of shadow and flame. “Dr. Paul is mine to protect and I am still tied to the Englishman. You know that because I said it was true. Tell me what it is that make you think I am.”

The room filled with whispers that rose to a deafening crescendo and threatened to steal the air from Jake’s lungs. She was pacing. He could see her flash back and forth across the taut screen. She slipped and slid over the fabric, briefly becoming two shadows, as if another woman strode by her side outstripping her before lagging behind.

She turned, stretching the double shadow, one from the other as they mimicked her movements. “Gamal, you want to speak?”

Gamal was a teenager. He stood near Jake, his hand on the door knob. When she called to him, he jumped as if from an electric shock. Jake grabbed the collar of his shirt and hauled him back when he would have bolted.

“I heard Dr. Paul is looking for a tomb in the valley. He asked the boys from Qurnah. Ramsay went with him. Six nights ago there was an accident. They say Dr. Paul was killed.”

“Where were they digging?” Jake shook him, surprised to hear the menace in his own voice.

“I swear I don’t know. Ask her. They say that she told him where to dig.” His arm shot out, pointing over Jake’s shoulder to the shadow on the screen.

The room went silent. Alex ran her hand along the canvas, a dark spot in the grey shadow. “Would I be here if I knew?” The question came out slow, drawn from a long breath with a force of energy behind it that defied disbelief.

“You are efreet,” some one called. “No one knows why you do the things you do.”

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