by Judy (Wishes)
"Mel, pst." The whisper comes from outside the tent wall.
I have been sitting at a low desk translating the Arabic text Ahmet has given me. "Duties of the Moslem Wife." My Arabic is rusty, and I've been making notes of words I need to look up later.
"Mel!" Again the urgent whisper. "Melinda, it's Janice." I unwind my long legs and rise. The unaccustomed robe winds around my ankles, causing me to trip.
I whisper to the blank tent wall. "Janice, I'm here."
There is a ripping sound as a long blade cuts through the heavy woven fabric. A small figure dressed in khaki and brown leather slips through the rent, precious wide-brimmed hat concealing hair and face.
"Ahmet is not going to like that," I comment, referring to the damage. "His mother and aunts wove the material for this tent."
"Who cares what that kidnapper 'lahks,'" Janice answers, taking a shot at both Ahmet and my Carolina drawl.
Wanting to be fair, I say, "The word kidnapper might be a little strong. . . ."
"Do you want to be here?"
"No, not really," I answer honestly.
"Didn't he force you to come here from Cairo?"
"No, coming here was voluntary. I wanted to experience the life of the nomad, the romance of the Bedouin. . . ." At Janice's glare, I stop that line of talk. "It was STAYING I objected to!"
"Your message made it sound like a matter of life or death," Janice reminds me.
"More a matter of. . . ." Knowing that I am blushing, and hating it, I turn away. Janice grabs my arm and spins me around to face her. Her expression is grim, and I feel an almost electric energy radiating from her slight frame.
"Did this Ahmet or anyone else touch you? If they did. . . ." A dangerous look appears in her green eyes.
"No, oh, no." My cheeks are burning, and I know I'm blushing an even deeper shade of scarlet. "Ahmet wants. . . .wants to marry me. He would never. . . . I mean. . . ." Embarrassed, I fumble with my glasses, a habit I'm trying to break.
"Men!" Janice huffs. "Well, let's go. I left a truck just over the next dune. Borrowed it from the British Consulate. Let's get back before they notice the loan."
She grasps my upper arm and propels me toward the new tent door. "I can't," I say, pulling back.
"You want to marry this guy?" Janice asks, keeping her tight grip.
"No, but he has something I need," I begin to explain.
Janice snorts, a very unladylike sound. "Mel, any man. . . ."
"No. No. He took something I had, and I want it back. It's in his tent." Janice glares at me, and I force myself to meet her gaze. Her eyes drop first.
"Okay." Janice relinquishes her hold on my arm and motions for me to precede her. "Where's his tent?"
"Beside this one." I grab up the Moslem head dress Ahmet has asked me to wear outside the tent. I bend over to fit through the small tear and lead the way to Ahmet's tent. A quick slit with Janice's knife, and we enter. I cluck my tongue at the additional damage.
Inside the tent, I see the small chest beside Ahmet's sleeping mat. I pick it up to try the lid and find it locked. Janice reaches out with her knife and casually forces the lid. When I meet her eyes, she asks, "What?" I open the lid and take out what I seek. It is a small, flat slab of stone, rough where it has been broken from a larger tablet.
Interest lights Janice's eyes. "Is that what I think it is?"
"Yes, if you think it's a fragment of a stone tablet or stele." I pronounce it 'stay-lay,' as my father taught me.
Janice's hands trace the carved symbols. "Where did you get it? Never mind. Escape first, talk later."
As if taking their cue from her words, angry voices rise at the back of the tent. I freeze, clutching the stone in my hand. "Move," Janice orders. She grabs the stone and sticks it in her trousers pocket. "Go!" She pushes me toward the front of the tent.
Fahdi, Ahmet's very large brother, blocks the opening. I follow Janice's glance to the back of the tent, where another large man, an uncle, I think, is squeezing through the hole. No indecision, Janice butts Fahdi in the stomach and, as his head bows within her reach, she grabs his Bedouin head dress and twists it around to cover his eyes. She grabs my hand, and we run out of the tent. Janice's eyes dart around and land on a young boy leading two beautiful white horses, horses which are Ahmet's pride and joy.
"Can you ride?" Janice asks.
"Oh, no, not Ahmet's horses," I say, understanding what she means to do. Then, "Yes, I can ride."
Janice shoots me a doubtful glance, but asks no questions. The boy is approaching, and Janice grabs the reins from his hands and shoves me toward the saddle. I mount and see Janice struggle to get her boot in the left stirrup. I'm thinking we're lucky these are Arabians, not the tall thoroughbreds we ride back home, as Ahmet's brother and uncle and half a dozen cousins come at us on the run. With colorful robes about to surround us, Janice gains the saddle at last. I swat the rump of her mount and kick my own into a gallop. We thunder past the men and out of the camp. Janice grasps the reins in her right hand and holds on for dear life with her left. Leaning low over my mount, I pull up beside her. Janice lets go of the saddle long enough to point to our right.
We race up the dune, the thick sand making the going difficult for our horses. I look over my right shoulder and see that three riders are already in pursuit.
We have reached the top of the dune, and I see the truck parked below. With some difficulty, Janice pulls back on the reins and throws herself off the prancing horse. I dismount and release my horse as Janice lets hers go as well. The horses whirl and gallop toward the camp. Janice pulls out a cannon of a pistol and, before I can stop her, snaps off three quick rounds over the heads of our pursuers. The riders veer off course to grab the reins of Ahmet's white Arabians.
We slide down the dune to the truck. Janice leaps in, and I've barely thrown myself into the passenger seat when she pops the truck into gear. Two of the riders crest the hill. The truck slides and struggles with the sand before its fat tires dig in. Our pursuers pull up level with the window on my side, and I hear Ahmet's brother cursing in Arabic. Finally we hit the hard-packed sand of the Cairo Road and leave the riders behind.
Janice keeps the accelerator floored, and the truck bucks as she shifts gears. It swerves sharply as she takes one hand off the wheel to settle her bush hat more securely. Forcing the truck back on course, Janice gives a whooping laugh, a sound of pure exhilaration.
I lean against the passenger side door and wonder if I was safer in Ahmet's camp.
End of Part 1
Having returned the truck to a street near the British Consulate, Janice accompanies me to the Royal Cairo Hotel. As we near the front entrance, Janice puts out an arm to stop me. "Is there another entrance?" she asks.
Puzzled, I say, "I don't really know."
"You can bet the help doesn't come in the front door." Janice leads the way into an alley beside the hotel. I follow, stepping gingerly over trash--and other things not to be mentioned--and we come to a door marked "service" in Arabic. "This way," Janice says, and we enter the hotel from the alley. Janice finds the stairs, and we walk to my room.
Janice immediately throws herself on the bed and stretches out, hands folded behind her head. Looking around the room, she grins. "Is this how an assistant curator at the British-Egyptian Museum lives? Do YOU need an assistant?"
I frown at the sight of her sandy boots on the gold and white bedspread, but say nothing. I myself sit on one of the replica 23rd. dynasty chairs. I'm still wearing the bright robes given me by Ahmet, but I remove the traditional Moslem head dress and lay it on the dressing table. I remove my glasses and shake out my hair.
"You look like Xena now," Janice comments.
Janice says, "I sometimes forget that you never got to see her."
"No," I retort, "I just got the bruises and sore muscles."
"It's hard to believe all that really happened," Janice confesses. "And that we were part of it."
"YOU were part of it," I say. "Then afterward you took off for the States so quickly. . . ."
"You could have come with me. I had to try to find that idiot who took the scrolls." Janice shakes her head, her expression turning fierce as she remembers the accident that cost her those hard-won treasures.
"No luck?" I ask, already knowing the answer.
"I found his family. That was an experience I'll never forget, but they hadn't seen him. He's probably still running around Europe pretending he's General Patton or something. But after the war is over, I'll find him."
Feeling guilty, I try to explain, "I'm sorry I didn't come with you after what we said about being partners. But I had already applied for this job with the museum, and when it came through. . . ."
"It was too good to pass up," Janice finishes, "especially for someone you barely knew."
I say, "You came quickly enough when I sent word I was in trouble."
"Well," Janice mumbles, "I was in the neighborhood." She sits up, all energy again, and pulls the stone fragment from her pocket. "Now tell me about this thing. It looks like an ordinary ostracum to me. Where did you get it, and why is it important?"
I lick my lips. I put on my glasses. I remove and clean my glasses. When I put them back on, Janice is still waiting. "It's from the museum. I guess I stole it."
Janice's eyes widen, and her grin returns. "You GUESS you stole it?"
"I stole it. It was in a box of ostraca I was given to translate and catalog." I look everywhere except at Janice. Whatever will she think of me?
"D'you have any more of these lying around?"
"No," I say, "just that one. The others were ordinary ostraca, limestone chips from a workers' village near Thebes. They bore records of transactions, lists of barter items, that type of thing. An interesting look at the life of the people of the New Kingdom. Kind of like memos out of someone's wastebasket."
"But hardly worth stealing?" Janice asks. She turns the piece over in her hand. It is roughly rectangular, smooth on one side, and covered with lines of hieroglyphics on the other. Janice looks at me questioningly.
"I saw right away that something about that piece wasn't right. You probably see it, too," I add.
Janice continues to study the stone. "Well, ostraca were chips left over when blocks of limestone were quarried or shaped. Then workers wrote on them. But the writing on this piece, it goes right to the edges, and some of the glyphs at the edges are incomplete."
"Right!" I agree, excitement making my voice tremble. "It was broken AFTER the hieroglyphics had been put on. It was part of a larger piece, a stele, I think. And it's not a mere list or inventory. It's part of a story. And the language the story is told in is Greek!"
"Come on, sister!" Janice snorts in disbelief. "You may, and I say may, be a better translator than I am, but I can tell ancient Greek writing from Egyptian hieroglyphics."
"Okay, those are hieroglyphics," I agree. I lean toward Mel. "But the language represented by those hieroglyphics is Greek."
"How can that be?"
"You know how hieroglyphics represent language, of course."
"I do," Janice says, "but explain as if I didn't."
"Okay, let's see. Most people think of hieroglyphics as picture writing. All writing probably started out that way, with each picture representing a particular thing."
"Pictographs. You draw a tree to represent a tree, a deer to represent a deer," Janice offers.
"Right." I smile and go on. "It probably started out as sympathetic magic, a way to gain power over the environment." At Janice's impatient frown, I cut myself off and return to the topic. "Anyway, over time, the pictures or pictographs became more and more stylized until they no longer looked like the thing they represented."
"They became symbols."
"Yes, symbols. And not just symbols for people and things, but for actions and time and place. Then the Egyptians took it one step farther. They started using the symbols to represent sounds and syllables."
"Like our letters," she says confidently.
"That's the idea, only Egyptian hieroglyphics form a more complex system. Some of the symbols represent single sounds, like our letters. Some represent whole syllables. Then there are word signs for whole words. There are even special signs that tell what kind of sign precedes or follows it." I run out of breath.
Janice studies the markings on the stone. "So you're saying that someone used the Egyptian writing system to write Greek words."
I nod vigorously and wait.
"I think. . . .I think someone was dictating in Greek, and someone else wrote the story down using the Egyptian writing system." I wait for Janice to laugh, but she doesn't.
"Who knows about this stone?" she asks instead.
Before I can answer, there's loud pounding on the door. "Open up. British Security officers!"
"Anyone you want to talk to?" Janice asks, as shoulders are placed with force against the door.
I shake my head, and I know my eyes are large behind my lenses.
"Then let's go." Janice bounds off the bed. "Take anything you'll need for a couple of days. Money would be nice."
I grab a small case that lies near the dresser and a small photograph from the night table. Shoving the photo into the case, I say, "I'm ready."
End of Part 2
Janice leads the way to the window, where I look down. "We're on the third floor," I say.
She smiles and tilts her head. "What's your problem? Never heard of a ledge?" Mel steps out of the window and onto a six-inch ledge. She reaches her hand back inside. I look at the thick door, which shows signs of giving to the pressure against it. I grab the Moslem veil in the hand already holding my case and, breathing a small prayer, take Janice's small, warm hand.
"Aren't you going to tell me not to look down?" I whisper.
Janice's smile becomes a grin. "I figured that wasn't necessary." Still holding my hand, she leads me along the ledge. We pass one window, closed and apparently locked, and find the next one open. Without bothering to check for occupants, Janice pushes the window up and steps down into the room. A man and a woman are lying on the bed. The man looks up, a startled expression on his face.
"Pardon us," I say quietly. "Just passing through."
Janice opens the door a crack, and we look into the hallway, my head just above hers. There's a crash as the door of my room finally gives way to the weight of two bulky men. Janice grabs my hand and runs for the stairway door. We dash down the stairs and, on the lobby level, to the back hallway and the service door through which we entered the hotel. We run through the trash-filled alley and are soon on a narrow street. "Walk now," Janice says.
"Who were those men?" I ask. "Were they after me because I stole the fragment? Or was it about Ahmet?"
Janice shrugs, not meeting my eyes. We stroll on for some minutes, coming to an older, non-westernized section of Cairo. "It probably wasn't about you," Janice mumbles. "I didn't exactly enter the country through regular channels."
Before I can react, Janice enters a narrow doorway. We stand in a small room filled with delicious smells, obviously a bakery. The proprietor, a dark little man wearing a white robe and fez stands behind a low counter. Seeing Janice, he grins and comes around the counter. He greets her in an Egyptian dialect I don't recognize, then bustles back to his baked goods. Without asking any questions, he fills a small bag with items from the counter. I recognize the Egyptian hearth bread I love and the sticky-sweet rolls that can make your teeth ache.
He takes the coins Janice offers and bows his way back behind the counter.
Janice again leading the way, we turn into the alley beside the bake shop. "My landlord," Janice explains. Coming to a door in the side of the building, we enter and face a narrow flight of stairs. At the top of the stairs, we stand in a small fetid hallway with four doors. Janice goes to the second door, which bears a broken hasp and a padlock. "Locks aren't very useful around here," Janice comments as she pushes the door open.
Hot, stale air hits us, and I recoil. Janice looks at me, an emotion I can't identify on her face. She crosses the room and pushes open a wooden shutter. I stand in the doorway and survey the room: a bed, a small table bearing an oil lamp, a chair, and nothing else. Janice pulls a zippo lighter from her jacket pocket and lights the oil lamp. "No electricity in the Arab part of the city," she explains. She motions me into the room and closes the door. I perch on the wobbly chair. "So this is your home in Cairo?" I ask.
Janice glares at me briefly, the only reply my question deserves. She has pulled the single blanket off the bed and is using her knife to remove threads that hold the top of the mattress to the side binding. She reaches inside and pulls out an old khaki knapsack. She plops on the bed and turns her attention to me. "What do you have on under that robe? Anything you can wear in public?"
In answer, I remove the Bedouin robe and head dress to reveal a simple blue cotton shirtwaist. Janice shakes her head. "Don't you even sweat?"
My own voice sounds apologetic. "I grew up in a warm climate."
"Yeah. Here." She takes a sticky roll and throws the sack to me. I take a piece of hearth bread. It's quiet for a few minutes as we eat.
Wiping her hands on the blanket, Janice says, "So finish the story."
I swallow and dab my mouth with my handkerchief. "Story?"
"The stele." Janice hold the stone in her hand, and I wonder if I'll ever again hold it in mine.
"Oh, well," I say, continuing the story from the point of the interruption. "I noticed that the hieroglyphics rendered Greek, or as close as that writing system could come. There are no vowels, you know. I mentioned the fragment to Dr. Krykos."
"My superior at the museum."
"And he said?"
"He didn't seem too interested, just said to check the index number on the back."
"D1338G," she says without looking at the piece.
"Yes. I did look it up and found out it was part of a tablet or small stele found at Dakhla by Gruner in 1938 and which was broken when it was removed from the site. There were a total of four pieces, this being the smallest."
"Dr. Franz Gruner?" Janice asks. "Swiss Egyptologist?"
"Don't know him. Go on."
I blink, but continue. "There was a notation that the stele had been photographed in situ. A copy of the photograph and this piece were shipped by Gruner to the museum."
"No information about what happened to the other pieces. And the photograph was missing."
Janice studies the fragment as if concentration will reveal its secrets. "Did you talk to your boss about what you found out?"
"Yes. And he still wasn't interested. He said that lists of materials received from digs are often in error."
Janice holds out the fragment, and I rise to take it. The stone is warm to my touch. "What does it say?"
Now that we've come to this part, I feel a familiar knot in my stomach. What if she doesn't believe me? "It's difficult because the Greek doesn't render exactly from the Egyptians sounds. And then to translate them to English. . . ."
"And there are no vowels," Janice says. "Just read it. Close as you can come."
I adjust my glasses, clear my throat and begin:
woman and her companion. bandit standing. Just then comes the chokes both man and beast That night a babe is born. Its mother hands my son to his father. Here is my seal. Take the newborn. The seal, a ring, she puts on message or of the bloodlines of the child. The storm has scattered camels and horse friend walk on. They save the water for the Finally, the smaller stumbles, says, No more and save the child, carried snug within her of water and a promise to return. The babe brought to Pharaoh's city, to the the story told. Prince Osorkon gives Pharaoh's stable, to return and
"There's a little of the next line, but not enough to make it out. That's the best I can do from this one piece." I've taken off my glasses, and I pinch the bridge of my nose. When I put them back on and dare a look at Janice, her green eyes are boring into me. She leans forward and snatches the stone fragment from my hand.
"Show me 'woman and her companion,'" she demands.
"'Friend.' And 'smaller.'"
I point twice more.
She sighs. "It's not much to go on. Any hint about the period?"
"Not from this piece."
"Gruner found the whole stele at Dakhla? In what year?" she asks, her voice not quite steady.
She nods and seems to come to a decision. "You have money?"
"Good. Put anything you want to keep in my knapsack, and I'll sew it back into the mattress. NOT the money. Then we'll go."
End of Part 3
I've never been in a place like this. The closest parallel I can think of would be a speakeasy, something that had been described to me by an older friend when I was in school. It's in a basement and is so dark and filled with smoke, I can't tell its dimensions. But it is crowded and filled with strange smells and sounds. Looking at the exotic and abbreviated dresses of the other women, I feel as out of place in my staid blue dress as Janice in her khaki and leather.
There are many more men than women. Some appear to be Arabs, but all are in western dress, no traditionalists here. I feel their eyes on us as we walk across the room.
Janice and I head to a corner where there's a small table. Janice moves a chair so her back is to the corner and looks out into the room. "Why was that man at the door so careful about letting us is?" I ask. "Why did I have to pay him?"
"Call it a cover charge." Janice laughs. "Really it was a fee for sending a message, kind of an Eastern Western Union. As for his being careful, this is a Moslem country, even if the British are in charge. A nightclub like this is a sore point with a lot of the Arabs. The owners have to be careful. This place is treated like it's a secret, even though everyone knows it's here."
A young woman in what looks like a harem outfit is standing at my elbow.
"Scotch or whiskey," Janice says, "anything western, no local brew."
The girl nods and looks at me. Water, I think. I say, "Whatever she's having."
Janice studies me but doesn't comment. Then her eyes rove the room.
"Do you know anyone here?" I ask.
"I recognize a few. Cairo, playground for spies." Before I can ask what she means, the girl returns with two glasses of amber liquid. Janice looks at me, and I pay. "Bring us another round," Janice orders. "Then go away."
The girl is back quickly. I pay her again, and she does go away.
"Not thirsty?" Janice asks, reaching for her second drink. I take a swallow of my first. Liquid fire hits the back of my throat and flows to my stomach. I gasp.
"Better stuff than usual, huh?" Janice says, as if knowing we are in complete agreement. "Uh-oh."
"What?" I inquire when my vocal chords work again.
"U-boat at 10:00." I follow her gaze. A neat little man in a dark blue suit has entered the room and walked to the bar. "Conrad Breen," she says. "Abwehr, I think. Maybe OKW." At my raised eyebrow, she explains more succinctly, "Nazi. Bet his passport says Swiss though. I wonder why he's talking to Zeppie."
"That tall man in the evening clothes?"
"Yeah. That's Antone Zepp. Playboy of the Mediterranean. He thinks."
"Is he a Nazi, too?" I ask, wonder and anxiety warring for control of my voice.
"Zeppie? I'm not sure he's smart enough to know what a Nazi is!" Her tone turns thoughtful. "It's strange that Breen would bother with him though. Oops, here comes Zeppie's object for being here."
A beautiful woman enters and seems to dominate the room. Tall and lithe, blonde hair cascading down her back, she, like the waitress, wears a harem outfit, but hers sparkles and is impossibly sheer.
Janice smiles. "Liquor isn't the only objection the devout have to this place."
Music starts, and I have to guess there are musicians somewhere in the darkness and fog on the other side of the room. The woman undulates to the complex rhythms. Her hands and fingers describe graceful movements. Every eye is on her as she bends backward until her head touches the floor. Dance finished, she runs off, and Antone Zepp follows.
Draining her second glass, Janice arches one eyebrow and says, "See? I was right. Zeppie was here because of Tereise."
"Tereise is the dancer?"
"Dancer, ex-schoolteacher. Mainly, she's a Zionist spy."
"Is there anyone here, besides this Zepp and us, who isn't spying for someone?"
"Yep," Janice says, "and here he comes."
A short, squat man in a badly fitting western suit, but with a fez atop his bald head, threads his way to us. At every step, he glances around. He reminds me of a small dog among the big hounds.
When he reaches our table, Janice kicks out a chair for him, and he sits down. "Mel," Janice says, "I want you to meet Tekmet. He's not a spy. He's a thief."
"So glad to meet. Missy Janice make joke. . . ."
"Tekmet, since your English is better than mine, what say you drop the act?" Janice asks. Turning to me, she explains, "Tek used to work for my father, a little extraction and export work."
"Shh," Tek cautions, his eyes darting around the room before settling on me.
"Oh," Janice says, "don't worry about Mel. She's a thief, too."
Tekmet studies me with a bit more interest, then laughs. "I did work for Dr. Covington, the older Dr. Covington, for a number of years. Miss Janice was just a child then. She still enjoys teasing me, as well as others."
"You notice that Tekmet still has two hands and ten fingers," Janice observes. "In a country ruled by Moslem law, that would at least mean he's a GOOD thief. Of course, the British control the allowable punishments now. When they leave, and, after the war, I think they will have to leave, things will be different."
Tekmet's eyes plead with her, then his shoulders slump. "What do you want, Janice?"
Janice grins. "I'm looking for a few things. I want you to help me find them. There could be a sum of money, a small sum, involved."
"What are you looking for?"
"The rest of this." She carefully holds the stone fragment just above the table top, where Tekmet and I can see it, but no one else in the room can.
"Oh, no," Tekmet says, vigorously shaking his head. "Not antiquities. No, this is not a good time for that. Too much pressure from too many people."
"What people?" I ask, aware that the very piece in front of us is stolen.
"Egyptian government, British Consulate, Wadh Party. . . ." He starts to tick them off on his precious ten fingers.
"How about the Nazis?" Janice asks. "They usually don't mind theft, as long as they get their cut."
"No Nazis in Egypt," Tekmet insists. "Out in the desert there's Rommel. If Rommel takes the country, which he might, then there are many Nazis. Not now."
"The stele this belongs to," Janice reminds him. "There may be photographs or documentation that goes with it. I would like to see those things, too."
"Where is this piece from?"
She turns it over so he can read the index number on the back. "Do you want to write it down?"
"I'll remember," he says. "How much money?"
Janice looks at me, and I shrug.
"We'll be fair," Janice says.
Tekmet nods. "I know, Janice. Where can I contact you?"
"Suud's Bake Shop in the old quarter."
"Trust you to stay near the pastries!" He rises. "It was nice to meet you," he says to me and makes a formal bow. And to Janice, "I'll always miss your father."
Janice says, "Me, too."
After Tekmet leaves, Janice is quiet. She glances at my second drink and then at me. Since she shows no effects from the first two, I nod. She reaches for the glass just as the lights go out.
End of Part 4
The darkness is punctuated by both shouts and laughter. I feel a small hand in mine and follow the tugging, my other hand trailing along the wall. My sense of direction is good enough to know we are not leaving the way we entered. The touch of the hand in mine is comforting, and I wonder why I trust this odd woman.
I bump my knee against metal; a stool? I cry out. "Shh!" I cover my mouth and think an unladylike oath. We continue on, still in darkness; now, with no wall to guide me, I feel blind, totally dependent on the one who leads me. Then we are out a door, and a bright moon lights the alley well enough to reveal that my companion is not Janice.
I pull my hand away and look into the brown eyes of the dancer Tereise. I look around wildly, but there is no Janice. Tereise motions for me to follow her and, without waiting to see if I do, she starts to run. Seeing no options other than following or standing alone in the alley, I run after her, my long legs quickly making up the distance between us.
As we reach the corner and turn down another alley, I hear running feet behind us and dart a glance over my shoulder. Janice struggles to catch us, her arms and legs pumping frantically. I whisper, "Wait," and Tereise stops, looking poised for further flight.
As Janice reaches us, the dancer throws herself into that small woman's arms. Janice hugs Tereise to her, then pushes her away. "Zepp's meeting us. Hurry!" Janice says before taking off again, Tereise and I now in her wake. A large dark car blocks the alley ahead, its front and rear passenger doors open like wings. Tereise jumps in the front, and, when I hesitate, Janice shoves me in the back and leaps in beside me. Before she can slam the door, the car jerks into motion and, without headlights, speeds through the narrow, blacked-out streets of Cairo.
When the car stops at last, Janice reaches across me and opens the door. When I don't move, she says quietly, "It's okay." I slide out, with Janice right behind me. We are parked by the Nile, near the delta, I guess. The moon reflects off the still, black water. Tereise walks around the front of the car with a tall man dressed in evening clothes. I recognize him as the playboy, the man Janice referred to as Zeppie.
"Antone Zepp, my friend Mel Pappas," Janice says. The man is tall enough to look me directly in the eye.
"Good evening, Mel Pappas," he says, with a slight bow. In the nightclub, I had thought him to be Egyptian. Now, as I look into his glittering black eyes, just a hint of a smile around their corners, and listen to his English-accented voice, I wonder. "Ladies, my humble barge awaits," he says, the words sounding both gallant and ironic.
Tereise leads the way across a small gangplank. Following her and Janice, I gaze in wonder at the "humble barge." She's at least fourteen feet across, and I judge her length to be close to 40 feet. A single mast, sailless, but rigged, juts up about half the distance of her length. The deck we are standing on is teak, dark and lustrous, and all the trim is the whitest white.
"What is she called?" I ask Zepp as he steps aboard.
"Hatshepsut," he replies.
"Wonderful design. She draws only, what, five feet of water?"
"Four, Miss Pappas." He smiles, showing even white teeth.
I look up the length of the mast. "Do you sail her up the Nile?"
"Since the war, the British won't allow pleasure traffic on the river." He glances at Janice and Tereise, who have walked to the bow, where they stand arm-in-arm, apparently engrossed in conversation. A soft murmur punctuated with laughter drifts back to us.
"Have you known Janice long?" Zepp asks.
"Several weeks," I say, omitting the fact that we've been together only a few days during that time.
"So this is the only Janice you've seen," he observes.
"What do you mean?"
But Zepp has moved away from me and toward the other two women. "Come, my ladies, join me below for a late dinner. We'll see what the djinni has left us."
Zepp leads the way to an open hatch and the short stairway that ends in the salon. Aunt Helen and I took the Grand Tour the summer after I graduated from Ashley Hall, and this room seems a smaller version of the elegant salons on the ocean liners. There are mirrors and curtains and a rich brocade on the walls. A shining mahogany table and chairs to seat 6 dominate the room, but there is still space for a bar and bookcases. My mother's family is what we in the South call comfortable, but this room indicates true wealth.
There is a full place setting at each place at the table, and Zepp seats each of us with a flourish, Janice and Tereise on one side, and I on the other across from Tereise. "I'll return with whatever Anha left us," Zepp says. "She always leaves me a late meal."
Zepp returns quickly and carries plates of cold fowl, soft white bread, glazed vegetables, and fruit. Crossing to the bar, he returns with a bottle of pinot blanc, which he serves each of us. Stepping to the head of the table, he offers a toast. "To renewing old friendships and making new ones." We drink to his toast, Janice draining her glass as we sip. The food is delicious, and we all toast the talented Anha with the next glass.
"What brings you to Egypt, Janice?" Zepp asks when we have all agreed we can eat no more. "You won't find much fun or digging here right now."
"No fun?" asks Janice. "Then what are you doing here, Antone?"
"Ah, Tereise won't leave, and I cannot bear to go away alone," Zepp says dramatically. "Besides, London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, none of those places can be enjoyed these days. And your homeland, ladies? Too serious, too earnest even in the best of times, which these are not."
"War can be so damned inconvenient, Antone?" Janice asks.
"Yes, inconvenient. I knew you would understand, old friend. There was a time you knew more about the enjoyment of life than digging in musty tombs."
I look at Janice, but she changes the subject. "Antone, I saw you talking with Breen at the club. What could you have to discuss with that Nazi?"
"Breen? A Nazi? Oh, no, Janice, you are wrong. He's a businessman, Swiss, I think, or perhaps Austrian. We exchange pleasantries when we meet."
Tereise rolls her eyes. I remember that Janice has called Tereise a Zionist spy. I wonder what Zepp knows about that. And what he might have told Breen.
"Antone, we all know you're a fine judge of character," Janice says. "There was that incident with the 'actress' in Munich before the war."
"All that talk about Madeline was pure speculation," Zepp begins.
Janice laughs. "Speculation, perhaps, but not very pure!"
"Don't forget sweet Katie in Paris," Tereise adds.
"Yes," agrees Janice, "HE was quite sweet."
"Not fair!" protests Zepp. "I wasn't the only one who was fooled."
"That's right." Janice nods, a wicked gleam in her eyes. "By the way, did Katie ever return your diamond ring?"
The three continue on, Janice joining forces against Zepp, with the man seeming not to mind at all. I feel I am watching a sport the three friends have practiced for years. Zepp is the picture of careless elegance and style. Tereise, brown eyes shining, laughing and tossing her mane of white-gold hair is beautiful. I glance at Janice and realize she is as lovely as her Tereise, and that she looks far younger than I feel.
Gradually, as Zepp brings another vintage to the table, the talk turns to other friends. "Have either of you seen Manny since we were together in Turkey that last time? You all sailed up on Zeppie's old boat, what was it called, and came to Dad's dig near Ashira. . . ." Janice sees the look exchanged by Zepp and Tereise. "What? Oh, no, not Manny!"
"He went back to Berlin to get some people out," Tereise begins. "When was it? December of '40?"
"Beginning of '41, I think," Zepp gently corrects.
"I didn't know," says Janice. "And Saddler. You know about him."
"Yes," says Tereise. "Burma. Colter, too. Damned British always think they have to volunteer!"
No more is said, but they lift their glasses in a silent toast to absent friends.
End of Part 5