by Jay Caselberg
The fog had been up again that morning, just like it was most mornings—that greasy Nile mist clinging to everything, making you wonder what strange, mystical land you might be in. Then the sound of car horns and traffic, the grind and burr of a population on the move would filter through, redolent with its own smells, none of them particularly pleasant. For a while though, you could imagine you were in another place, a place of magic and power. But then Cairo was a strange and mystical place, a melting-pot of nations and cultures bound to make you wonder what was real.
Perhaps it was that inability to pin things down that first drew me to that seedy, smelly city, heavy with its own exotic sounds and sensations. Nobody belonged in Cairo, not even the Cairenes, but it had been like that since the dawn of history. You see, the dirty and the grubby have their own particular tang. Some people like it.
Me? I’m Agamemnon Jacques. I can curse my parents for that one. Most people just called me Jacques. I preferred it that way.
That afternoon, I was sitting in a bar, waiting for a client. Not so unusual, but this was no ordinary bar. This was Harry’s Pub, nestled in the heart of the Marriott, way up on the eastern side of Zamalek, playground of the well-to-do. Next door lay the grounds of the Gizera Sporting Club and all around the marks of the wealthy. The hotel might have been a part of a chain now, but the marks of its past opulence were all around me. Even this had been a palace once. It was still full of liveried staff, still spoke swank, and in my dusty, pale street suit, I felt somewhat out of place. Still, Cairo’s pretty forgiving if you’ve got the money. So, I sat there in one corner of Harry’s Pub, listening to the voices, Arabic, German, French, trying to pick who it was I was here to meet. I needn’t really have bothered.
The woman walked into the place and owned it with her presence. She wore a pale green-blue tailored suit that shimmered as she moved. Dark hair framed a pale, high-cheekboned face, sharp and soft at the same time. There was no hesitation. She scanned the room, spied me sitting at my solitary table, and headed straight for me. As she stood across the table from me, looking down with an assessing gaze, I looked back, knowing right away that this woman was really someone.
“Mr Jacques?” she said. Her voice was deep and rich, a slight accent tingeing those couple of words, but nothing I could pick right off. Something exotic.
“Yeah, that’s me,” I told her. “But just call me Jacques.”
She nodded, pulled out a chair and flowed into it—there was no other word—all smooth and fluid in a single movement. She crossed her legs and folded her hands neatly in front of her. A drinks waiter appeared a mere breath later. I’d had to wait.
“Tea,” she told the waiter. “And whatever Mr…um…Jacques’s pleasure is.”
I lifted my glass and the waiter nodded, turning away with his tray clutched to his chest. The quick backward glance at my companion didn’t go unnoticed. So, I was not alone. She was some woman all right.
“Madame Fouad,” I started. “You said something in your call about a matter of grave importance….”
She lifted a finger to still me. “Be patient, Jacques,” she said.
This was a woman used to commanding people. I went back to my scotch, watching her over the rim of my glass. The waiter came and went, fussing for a moment with the pot and glass of tea, until she waved him away with a brief word of thanks. She lifted her glass, holding it between thumb and forefinger, took a delicate sip, and placed the glass back down. Her nails were painted the same lapis color as her suit.
She gave a brief smile. “It is amusing that we should use the word ‘grave’ I think,” she said. “It is my husband, Ossie, Mr Jacques.”
“Just Jacques,” I told her. “What about him?”
She folded her hands in her lap and looked down. “I fear something has happened to him. He has not been seen for several days.”
“And what makes you think something has happened?” People went missing all the time in Cairo. Often, they just showed up again a few days later. There were plenty of diversions if you went looking for them and you had the cash, but then you’d kind of expect that from the playground of the Middle East. There was Dubai of course, but Dubai wasn’t Cairo. Sitting there, looking at this woman, I couldn’t imagine what could make her husband want to stray.
Slowly, she lifted her gaze to meet mine. “This has happened before,” she said slowly. “I speak from experience. It’s the family business you see. Ra Industries. My brother-in-law has always been jealous. He has always wanted the greater share of what we do. Ossie has always been the one in the way of his plans. The last time it happened, it got so bad that he killed Ossie. Murdered him. It was months before we found his body and had him resurrected. I don’t think Seth has learned. His ambition drives him too much. Of course Ossie forgave him, but I think that it is not enough.”
She caught me in the process of pouring the remaining contents of my old glass into the new and I managed to slosh some scotch over the table. Slowly I put the glass back down, not really believing that I’d really heard what Madame Fouad had just said.
“He killed your husband?” I stared at her.
“Yes. Locked him in a coffin and threw him in the river. It was a very nice coffin, but it’s the principle of the thing. I have no doubt something similar has happened again.”
I stared down at my glass, toying with it as I worked out what I was going to say. “I see,” I said slowly.
Great line, Jacques. Now, you get all sorts in my business, and you hear some things, but I just wasn’t ready for this. I thought I did a pretty good job of covering what was going through my head. She was an attractive woman, seemed to be in control, someone who looked like she was used to having a handle on a situation. I was prepared to listen. Like I said, you hear all sorts in my line of work, particularly in a place like Cairo. The Egyptians generally are a superstitious lot and you can use that. I just couldn’t swallow a lot of the stuff they believed.
Madame Fouad continued, and I found myself being drawn deeper by the rich tones of her voice.
“His brother, Seth, has always had designs on the family business. With Ossie gone, his way would be clear.”
“But what about you, Madame Fouad?”
She fixed me with a firm gaze. “This is Egypt. We may have become enlightened over time, but this is still Egypt, and I am still a woman.”
I nodded. “What sort of business is it?”
She regarded me steadily with those wide, dark eyes, and I found myself having problems keeping my attention focused on the matter at hand. “All sorts of things, Mr Jacques. Import/export. Other holdings. We have a diverse range of interests. You might say we deal with bits and pieces of everything. But the nature of our business should not concern you.”
I was prepared to accept that for the time being; I could do some digging on my own.
“So why me?”
And that was the question. I could see no reason why someone like her would bother contacting someone like me. She had to have the resources at her disposal to pick anyone she wanted.
“I need discretion,” she said, her gaze unflinching. “If word of this should get out… You are someone outside our usual circles. I very much doubt you would have had previous dealings with my brother-in-law. Perhaps with some of the people he employs from time to time, but no…you are not the…usual type.”
“Hmm, you’re probably right,” I said, quite prepared to take her word for it at that moment.
“I am certain that I am,” she said, lifting her glass for another sip of tea.
I glanced around the bar, but there was no one in earshot.
“My rates, Madam Fouad…”
She gave a dismissive wave of her hand. “Are unimportant.”
And that was that. There was some more small talk and when prompted, she handed over a faded photograph showing her husband, Ossie, in traditional Egyptian garb. Maybe it had been taken at a party somewhere. He was darker than she, but a good looking man, all the same, sporting a small dark beard on his chin. I studied the photograph, then slipped it away inside my jacket. She fixed me with that deep gaze of hers, and I found myself wanting to help her in any way I could, whether she was half crazy or not…or whether I was half crazy too. She stood, apparently satisfied that our business was done for now.
“Madame Fouad,” I said. “How will I…?”
“I will be in touch with you,” she said and then turned, heading for the exit. She dealt with the check on the way out with a flash of gold.
I sat there for a while longer, savoring the amber burn in my glass while I worked out what my next move would be. She hadn’t given me a whole lot to go on and I hadn’t even thought to get her first name.
The light fell golden across the spans of the 25 July Bridge. The early evening muezzin calls floated above the city, urging the faithful to prayer. Boats cruised up and down the stretch of brown-green water before me, tinged brassy with the fading sun. I walked past the rank of black and white taxis, their drivers waiting to haggle with the well-to-do tourists, looking for three, four times the going rate, heading away from the Gizera Sporting Club, up toward the bridge.
I had two choices. It was either the City of the Dead or the Khan el-Khalili where the stallholders would be starting to set up for the evening’s trade. But the Khan was no ordinary souk. You could get just about anything you might want at the Great Khan, if you knew where to look, and me, I knew where to look.
I might just have given Madame Fouad’s statement more pause for doubt, but to be honest, I needed the work. The flash of gold goes a long way to shutting up that little voice in the back of your head, and in Cairo the dead are as much a part of everyday life as the living. Look at the City of the Dead. The locals have taken up living among the tombs and mausoleums. Not only among, but inside them too. The dead have a life of their own in Egypt, and had done since the dawn of time. It was a part of their culture. And I thought I could live with it, especially if someone like Madame Fouad was footing the bill.
So, I stood there on the banks of the Nile, the wash of garbage and traffic wrinkling my nose, the shouts and car noise swelling around me, and the only question running through my head was where I should go first. Maybe that was wrong. Maybe I should have listened, but there’s so much noise in this grand old city that sometimes you don’t know what might be the little bit that counts.
A little way up the street, I hailed a cab. He wanted too much, clearly taking me for a foreign tourist, and I walked away. I fared a little better with the next one. He only wanted double the standard rate, but this was Zamalek so I agreed and climbed into the front seat next to the driver as was the custom. In my western garb I was going to stand out anyway, but anything you could do to mark yourself as not too removed could only help.
The driver was good at what he did. Meandering in and out between the trucks and buses, his hand pressed flat against the horn. Sometimes I really wished they’d use their lights in the burgeoning dark or late at night, but I just had to trust to the fact that this cab was probably more valuable than the driver’s life. It was in his own interests to keep us in one piece.
On the way, I pulled out the faded photograph and studied it. A good looking Egyptian guy looking like he was out of his proper time. I hadn’t heard of Ra Industries before, as far as I could remember. Ossie was a common enough Egyptian diminutive, but Seth, now that was different. Maybe their parents, like so many others of their class, had had them schooled abroad, wanting them to move above and beyond their roots. Sometimes a name is a simple enough step upon that path. I slipped the photograph back into my inside pocket and tried to avoid watching the near misses as we wove in and out of the traffic. Maybe, just maybe, Madame Fouad had been speaking metaphorically. It didn’t make sense though, at least not then.
My driver dropped me at the Midan Hussein and I left him there with a quick shukrun. I could have entered the Khan further down Al Azhar Street, but I liked the long walk up Muski, past the perfumers and the costumes and the bits and pieces designed to trap the unwary tourists. The scents, the sounds, gave me a transition into that canvas-covered other world which is the Khan proper. My goal was further north, but walking up past the twinned mosques, past the goldsmiths and copper shops of al-Muizz li-Din Allah took me away from modern Cairo, leading to another time and another place. Everywhere there was noise; the hawkers, the touts, the blare of radios and other music. Everywhere was the smell of another era, another reality. It was almost as if I had stepped into another age.
I had a couple of contacts in the Khan. One was back in the narrow winding streets that sold antiquities, real and fake, but my main guy, Ismail, plied his trade up in the street of coppersmiths. Keeping one eye open for pickpockets, I headed in that direction, pushing past the streams of native Egyptians and tourists both. I was looking out for familiar faces, too—signposts to the subtle trade that might be going on around me, beneath the veneer of market commerce. I’d learned the faces, the ones that mattered, but on that evening, most of them were strangely absent.
I stopped in front of Ismail’s tiny store, peering inside at the shelves of burnished copper, the piles of pots and jugs stacked haphazardly in the front. There was no sign of him. As if sensing my presence, a stained curtain twitched in the back, and then a familiar pock-marked face peered out.
“Zhaik, Zhaik, it is you, my friend. You come to see me.”
I glanced up and down the street, then grinned. “Ismail, you old crook. How are you?”
A big yellow grin greeted my statement. “Allah willing, I am well, Zhaik.”
Ismail rocked his head from side to side. “Ah, you know.” He came to the front of the store and peered round the corner. He glanced across at the stall across the street with narrowed eyes, tossing his chin at the stallholder opposite. The man gave a quick nod and after a quick glance up and down the street, Ismail beckoned me inside.
Behind the stained curtain sat a simple table and a couple of chairs. A dirty stove sat with a pot of tea upon it. Ismail pulled down a couple of tea glasses, wiping them with the hem of his robe as he gestured to one of the seats. He planted the glasses down, pushed a bowl of white sugar lumps into the center and reached up to turn on a radio that sat atop a battered fridge in the corner. Satisfied, he poured two glasses of tea and sat, pulling his off-white galibayah around himself.
“So, Zhaik,” he said, suddenly all business, peering across at me with yellowing, watery eyes.
“I’ve got a new case,” I told him. I dug into my pocket and drew out the photograph, slipping it across the table so he could see it. Ismail picked it up and peered down, his eyes narrowing. He shook his head.
He slid the photograph back. “Yes. I am sure. Aiwa.”
I slipped the picture away again. “Well, his wife says he’s gone missing.”
Ismail shrugged, as if this was no news, something that happened every day, and he was right.
I leaned forward. “No, there’s something about this one,” I told him. “You should see the wife. We find him and I think it’s going to be worth the effort.” I rubbed my thumb and first two fingers together in front of his face.
Ismail looked up at me, his eyes narrowed and then he grinned. “Is good, Zhaik.”
“Yes, is good,” I said. “Anyway, they’re loaded, but she wants to keep it quiet. She said something really weird though. She said her brother-in-law had killed him before and she thought he might have done it again.”
Ismail’s grin suddenly faded and his eyes widened. “What is this woman, Zhaik?”
I frowned. “Madame Fouad. That’s her name. I didn’t get a first name. Her husband’s name—the guy in the picture—his name’s Ossie.”
Ismail gave a slight shake of his head.
“Anyway, it’s all to do with the brother, or so she says. It’s all to do with the company, Ra Industries. The brother’s name is Seth.”
Ismail suddenly sucked air through his teeth and shook his head. “I cannot help you, Zhaik.”
“Come on, Ismail.”
He leaned forward, close enough that I could smell his breath, his body. “Is bad business, Zhaik. You walk away, yes.”
“What are you saying?” I said, leaning back.
He shook his head again. “You go now, Zhaik. You go now.”
I was about to protest, but Ismail sliced the air with his hand. I didn’t understand, but Ismail had been useful to me in the past and I didn’t want to upset the relationship. Whatever I’d said had struck a nerve in places he didn’t want me to be. Sometimes their damned superstitions went a little too far. I wondered what it was this time.
I bid him a quick goodbye, and left him there slowly shaking his head, not even bothering to finish my tea.
For the next few days I pursued my own enquiries. I hit a wall in every direction. I could find no record of the Fouads or anything to do with Ra Industries. Every way I turned, the merest mention of those names and the shutters came crashing down. The dusty streets and alleyways of Cairo guard their secrets well, but I’d never seen anything like it. Usually a few Egyptian pounds is enough to loosen the lips. Not this time. I was left scratching my head, grinding my teeth with frustration, dreading the call from Madame Fouad, knowing I had nothing to give her.
Two days later the call came. It wasn’t Madame Fouad. It was Ismail.
“Zhaik,” said the breathy voice at the other end of the line. “You must come. I have something for you.”
“What is it, Ismail?” There was something in his voice—no banter, all seriousness.
“You must come, Zhaik.” The line went dead.
I jumped in a cab and headed for the Khan, not even bothering to haggle over the price. Ismail was waiting for me when I got there.
“What have you got?” He looked nervous, jittery. He shook his head, beckoning for me to follow him into the depths of the marketplace. He didn’t even bother checking that someone would look after his stall.
Ismail led the way, pushing past stallholders and browsers alike. I knew the section. One of my other contacts plied his trade from a small antiques store in the very area, but the store Ismail led me to was unfamiliar. Ismail ushered me inside a small shop, cluttered with statuary, tomb fragments and papyri. He closed the door firmly behind us. A moment later, we were joined by a small, rotund sweaty man, with a thick black beard and thick glasses.
“This is Ali,” said Ismail. “This is his shop.”
“Come, come,” said Ali.
He led us into another small back room. This one was far cleaner than Ismail’s. On a small table in the room’s center, sat a bundle, wrapped in newspaper and tied up with string. Ali reached across, retrieved a knife and cut the string then waved me toward the package. Looking from one to the other, I gingerly reached forward and started unfolding the newspaper. I swallowed and stepped back. What lay revealed was a foot. I reached forward and prodded it with the tip of one finger. It was a foot all right. I peered closer. Neatly manicured nails, slightly dark skin, and a clean cut at the ankle.
“Where did you get this?” I said.
“A local fishermen. It comes from the river three days ago.”
Three days ago? It looked recently removed. Very recently removed.
“What’s happened? Where has it been kept?”
“Ali has had it here. I hear about it. I talk to him. I call you, Zhaik. He has it here maybe two days, I think.”
But that was impossible. Sitting wrapped in newspaper for a couple of days in the Cairo heat, it wasn’t going to look like that. I reached out and folded the newspaper back over, swallowing back my disbelief.
“At least put the damn thing in a fridge,” I said.
There was nothing to say this was who I was looking for, but somehow, deep inside, I knew it was. I turned away from the table and turned, one hand massaging the back of my neck. One foot didn’t a body make. This was probably a matter for the Cairo police, but I didn’t want to involve them yet. I turned back to Ismail.
“Get him to keep it here. Ask around. See if anything else has shown up. Until then…I don’t know.”
The next thing to turn up was a head. There was no doubt about who it belonged to. I couldn’t deny the possibilities any longer.
Right on cue, that evening, the call I was dreading came. I heard her voice on the end of the line and my heart sank.
“I have some bad news,” I told her.
“Yes, what is it?” she said, her voice calm, her tone even.
“We think we’ve found your husband.”
“We? What is this ‘we,’ Jacques?”
I paused at that. “I use a couple of contacts, a couple of people who work for me, Madame Fouad. I can trust them.”
“All right. So tell me.”
“Well, we haven’t exactly found all of him.”
“I see. What have you found?”
“So far, only a foot and his head. I’m sorry, Madame Fouad.”
Her next statement blindsided me completely. I expected tears. I expected wailing. “Ah, very good, Jacques,” she said. “You have truly earned your fee.”
I held the phone away from my ear, staring at it in disbelief. Slowly I brought it back to my ear.
“Did you hear me, Jacques?”
“No, I’m sorry…”
“Make sure to keep the pieces you have safe. Continue searching. I have faith in you, Jacques. I will be in touch to arrange collection of what you have.”
The connection went dead and I lowered the phone.
Over the next couple of weeks, the word went out, and one by one, pieces of the body turned up. A cowherd brought in one. A local farmer another. A tourist guide yet another. Every piece, wrapped in leaves, or newspapers, or blue plastic bags were all in the same perfect condition, as if they’d been severed from there owner mere minutes before. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t really want to. Ismail, his pockmarked superstitious face filled with knowing, seemed to accept it as it was something that happened every day. Every couple of days, Madame Fouad called, monitoring the progress.
Of course we paid. We paid in bits and pieces for the bits and pieces and the word spread. By the end, we had fourteen individual parts. We had the whole Ossie Fouad in pieces, all except for one. Maybe he didn’t need that piece any more. After all, they already had a son, a healthy young man called Horace, all set to take over the company when his own time came. I met him when they came to collect the pieces.
A good looking young man, with his father’s skin, he leaned in close to me as they bundled the neatly wrapped pieces of his father’s corpse into the back of a truck.
“We cannot thank you enough, Mr Jacques,” he said. “But I would keep out of sight for a while. Your fee should look after you. After my father’s resurrection, my uncle will not be pleased. He doesn’t take kindly to failure. I would give you this word of caution. My Uncle Set does not forget and his reach is long. Watch for him in the darkness.”
Set? I had thought she’d said Seth.
I looked over at his mother, watching me with her dark, intelligent eyes, the barest smile upon her lips, and I felt a chill despite the evening’s heat.
I heard a few rumors later that the Fouads never did find that missing piece. I wonder from time to time how Ossie might feel about that. Ismail told me that she, Madame Fouad, had had a replacement fashioned from gold, right down the street from his little copper shop. Maybe that was true, maybe it wasn’t, but I wasn’t going to take the trouble to find out.
All I knew was that somewhere inside Ra Industries, there was a man called Set Fouad, a man who didn’t forget easily. I didn’t know any more if he was even a man, but I knew I didn’t want to meet him any time soon. For now, I was keeping my head down. Maybe I’d move. Maybe Alexandria. Maybe Athens. Somewhere like that. I needed to raise the cash first. If I never heard the name Ra Industries again, I’d be happy.
Do you know what a jackal sounds like in the fog of a Cairo dawn?