The Isle of Blood
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“They’re Belgians, Mihos; they don’t care for nothing. Sit; sit, in the corner there, where we cannot hear their cries of pain and sorrow. But this is terrible; where has my mind gone? I will bring you some tea—I have Darjeeling!—and a lassi for William.”
“I’ve really no time for tea, Fadil,” said my master politely.
“What? No time for tea? You, Mihos? Then, your business in Egypt, like mine, must be truly terrible.”
The monstrumologist nodded. “In nearly every aspect.”
“What is it this time? Smugglers again? I told you to stay away from those scum, Mihos.”
“My trouble has to do with scum from an entirely different pond, Fadil. Okhranka, the czar’s secret police.”
“Russians? But this is terrible! What have you done to the czar?”
Warthrop smiled. “Let us say my interests conflict with his.”
“Oh, that is not good—for the czar! Ha!” He leaned his forearms on the table; his eyes glimmered eagerly. “What can Fadil do for his good friend Mihos?
“There are two of them,” the doctor replied. He described Rurick and Plešec. “I managed to avoid them in London and Venice, but they can’t be more than a few hours behind me.”
“And their boat will stop here to take on coal and supplies.” Fadil was nodding grimly. “Leave everything to me, Mihos. These two have seen their last sunrise!”
“I don’t want you to kill them.”
“You don’t want me to kill them?”
“Killing them would only bring you more trouble. In a week Port Said would be drowning in a plague of Ruricks and Plešecs.”
Fadil snorted and smacked his fist into his open palm, an Arabic gesture of contempt. “Let them come. I have no fear of Russians.”
“You’ve not met these Russians. They are sons of Sekhmet the destroyer.”
“And you are Mihos the lion, guardian of the horizon, and I am Menthu, god of war!” He turned his sparkling brown eyes upon me. “Who shall you be, son of James Henry? Your father was Anubis, weigher of men’s hearts. Shall you be Ophois, his son, who opens the way to victory?”
Warthrop said, “What I need is time, Fadil. A fortnight would be good, a month would be better, four months would be poetic. Can you give me that time?”
“If you would let me kill them, I could give you eternity! But yes, I have friends in Port Said who have friends in Cairo who have friends in Tewfik’s court. It could be arranged. It will not come cheap, Mihos.”
“Von Helrung will wire you whatever’s required.” The monstrumologist checked his watch. “There is one more thing,” he said briskly. “We are on our way to Aden, and I shall need transport from there to our final destination.”
“What is your final destination?”
“I cannot say.”
“What is this, you cannot say? This is me, Fadil!”
“I need someone who can be trusted to keep his mouth shut and who isn’t afraid of a little risk. A fast ship would be helpful as well. Do you know anyone like that in Aden?”
“I know many people in Aden, though not very many I would trust. There is one man; he isn’t so bad. He doesn’t have a fast ship, but he will know someone who does.… What is it that you hunt that would interest the czar of Russia and that would keep you from trusting your old friend Fadil? What manner of monster is it this time?”
“I don’t know,” replied the doctor honestly. “But I intend to find out or die in the attempt.”
Fadil insisted upon seeing us off, and it seemed everyone on the crowded streets knew him. Cries of “Fadil! Fadil!” followed us from the doorway of the café to the gangplank. The doctor flinched at every “Fadil!”—he had wanted his presence in Port Said to go unnoticed.
“When your terrible business is done at this place you cannot say, after your hunt for what you do not know is consummated, you will come back and tell me what the czar may know but Fadil may not! We shall feast on fasieekh and kofta, and I shall introduce my daughters to William—or should I say Ophois? Ha, ha!”
He clapped me hard on the back, glanced about furtively, and then pulled a small object from his trouser pocket. It was a scarab beetle carved from alabaster and fashioned into a necklace. He pressed the amulet into my hands, saying, “A kheper, my new young friend, from the Tenth Dynasty. In ancient Egyptian its name means ‘to come into being.’ It will bring you luck.”
“And several years in prison if the authorities should catch you with it,” added the doctor drily.
“It came to me honestly, in a game of hounds and jackals with a very drunk Hungarian viscount who had purchased it from a street urchin in Alexandria. Now, do not insult me by refusing my gift.”
He embraced Warthrop, topped off the bear hug with a kiss—a sign of friendship in Egypt—and sent me off with one as well, right on the lips. He found my startled reaction extremely funny; his robust laughter followed us all the way up the gangplank and onto the ship.
“You should not have accepted it,” Warthrop said to me, referring to the scarab. “Now you’ve taken his luck.”
He smiled wanly. The remark, I think, was only partially in jest.
It took the French ten years to build the Suez Canal, and it seemed to take that long to traverse its hundred miles. We chugged along at a pace a snail would scoff at, and the scenery, if it could be called that, offered no pleasant distraction—desert to the left, desert to the right, and above a sky on fire, the sun an arm’s length away. The only sign of life outside the boat were the flies, whose painful bites tormented us anytime we stepped on deck. The doctor overheard me cursing them, and said, “To the ancients these flies represented tenacity and viciousness in battle. They would be presented to victorious warriors as symbols of valor.” It was a historical footnote that probably would have been more interesting in our parlor on Harrington Lane. In the moment, the flies seemed more symbols of madness than valor.
We fed the flies until sunset, when the sky changed from blue to yellow to orange to a velvety indigo blue and the first stars poked hesitantly through the firmament. Then a quick trip below to feed ourselves—quick because the heat above was nothing compared to the ovenlike temperatures achieved inside a coal steamer in the desert—then back on deck to revel in the cool night air. There were no settlements along the canal, no lights twinkling on the shore, no sound or sign of civilization anywhere. There were the stars and the water and the lifeless land we could not see, and the ship’s bow slicing the wakeless surface, as silent as Charon’s ferry in the stygian dark. A feeling odread came over me, a vertiginous sensation of being acutely aware of every breath and yet feeling unmoored from my own body, a living ghost, a shade who has paid his silver to the ferryman for the passage to the underworld. I might have turned to the man beside me for comfort—as he had turned to me on the train to Brindisi, as he had turned countless times in the past, when swamped in what he called “the dark tide.” I might have turned to him and said, “Dr. Warthrop, sir, I am afraid.”
I did not, because I dared not. It wasn’t his temper that stayed my confession. It wasn’t that he might belittle or judge me. I had grown accustomed to the point of boredom to those things.
No, I held my tongue because I feared he would abandon me again.
The stars above. The water below. The lifeless land on either side. And, over the invisible horizon, its approach marked by each beat of our hearts, the thing we both longed for and feared—the magnificum, das Ungeheuer, the summit of the abyss.
Chapter Thirty: “I Will Come for You”
There were two telegrams waiting for the doctor upon our arrival at Steamer Point in Aden. The first was from New York:
ALL QUIET. JOHN BULL ASKED IF WE
FOUND HIS LOST DOG. TOLD HIM
TO ASK IVAN. EMILY SENDS HER
LOVE. GODSPEED. A.V.H.
“John Bull?” I asked.
“The English,” the monstrumologist translated. “The missing ‘dog’ is Arkwright. ‘Ivan’ is the Russians. Von Helrung must have had a visit from British intelligence, looking for their absent operative, and he has pinned the blame on Okhranka. But who is Emily, and why does she send her love?” He pulled on his bottom lip, puzzling over this, to him, enigmatic phrase.
“Emily is Mrs. Bates, sir, Dr. von Helrung’s niece.”
“That’s odd. Why does she send her love to me? I’ve never even met the woman.”
“I think, sir…” I cleared my throat. “I think she is sending it to me.”
“To you!” He shook his head as if the notion baffled him.
The second telegram was from Port Said:
NO SIGN OF SEKHMET’S SONS.
WILL KEEP DOOR OPEN FOR THEM.
“Not what I expected, Will Henry,” Warthrop confessed. “And I don’t know whether to be heartened or troubled.”
“Maybe they’ve given up.”
He shook his head. “I’ve known men like Rurick; he is not the sort to give up. I suppose they could have been ordered back to Saint Petersburg or replaced after their failure in Venice. It’s possible. Or they’ve taken an alternative route… or Fadil’s men missed them somehow.… Well, there’s no point in worrying about it. We will be vigilant and hope for the best.”
He attempted a reassuring smile and achieved a Warthropian one; that is, a smile that hardly rose above the level of a grimace. He was troubled, clearly, by the telegram from Port Said that had been waiting for him and the one from Venice that had not. There’d been no reply from Veronica Soranzo.
We stepped outside the telegraph office. It was around ten in the morning, but already the day was stiflingly hot, nearly ninety degrees. (By that afternoon it would hover around one hundred.) The quayside was humming with activity—Somali porters and Yemeni hucksters, British colonialists and soldiers. The British controlled Aden; it was an important stopover and refueling point between Africa and their interests in India. Local boys dressed in thobes, traditional long-sleeved tunics, waited along the shore with donkeys to take passengers into the nearby town of Crater. Or, if you were a person of less modest means, you could hire a gharry, an Indian one-horse cab that resembled an American stagecoach.
The doctor picked neither donkey nor gharry, for our destination was within sight of the wharf. The man recommended by Fadil was staying at the Grand Hotel De L’Univers on Prince of Wales Crescent (named in honor of the royal visit in 1874), a street that curved gently away from the sea toward the barren dun-colored hills that brooded over the beach. It did not appear to be a long walk, but all walks are long in the cauldron heat of Aden. On our way we passed a huge coal depot, where scores of shirtless men, Somalis mostly, their ebony torsos shining like obsidian, heaved heavy sacks of coal to the discordant jangle of tambourines. Occasionally a man would drop out of line to roll upon the blackened planks, using the coal dust to soak up his sweat. What dust didn’t coat the workers or the ground hung about the depot in a choking fog. The scene was hellish—like a purgatorial dream—and it was beautiful—the way the harsh sunlight cut through the spinning cloud of dust, the larger particles sparking and spitting golden light.