(Chapter 1 is here)
Chapter 07 – The Opener of the Way
Abiff threw the worn bundle of reeds over the side, grabbed a fresh handful, and resumed scrubbing the deck. It kept him busy, but unfortunately left his mind free to dwell on his problems. Traveling upstream should have been a wonderful adventure. He’d never been on a boat, never even been out of the city. But his entire life had been torn apart over the last few days, all because of that junk his father had dug up from the basement. Now he had no father, no basement, no house, no life.
“Abiff! Habibi, where are you?” The boy stood up from behind some crates where he had paused for a moment to rest. His mother beckoned to him from the small deck stove where she had been stirring something spicy-smelling in a large pot. She tucked a piece of bread into his hand. “Eat.” She regarded him for a moment with red-rimmed eyes before turning away again.
Abiff chewed the stale bread thoughtfully as he returned to his scrubbing duties. He hadn’t yet told his mother that he had hidden several small items from the basement in his bag. He wondered if he might be able to sell them. His mother worried about everything, and he didn’t want to add to her burden. If she knew about the objects, she would worry about those, too. It would be far easier to keep silent and sell the items to tourists when she wasn’t around. Tourists would buy anything from a cute little boy with a big smile. If he could raise some money he could be a man, instead of a child, fed scraps like a dog. Another bundle of reeds joined the last one, floating downstream as the underpowered boat struggled against the current.
The young acolyte stood at the corner of Kamal Farag and Al Somal Street wishing for a sign. No, not wishing. Praying. She was definitely praying, O Seshat, in your wisdom, please grant me some sign or omen, or something. Please? Oh, and please don’t let me be killed by whatever I’m supposed to be meeting…
She was hot, tired and thirsty from wandering, and she had no idea where she was supposed to be going. The message transcript she had been given was useless, in addition to being terrifying. The gloating smile plastered on Old Stick’s face as he gave her this assignment only added to her sense of doom. Looking to her right, she spotted part of the sign of her one of her favorite hideouts, a British-owned ice cream shop. If she was going to die, she might as well have a treat beforehand. It’s not like she would have a use for her allowance if she was devoured.
Fakeeh leaned in the shade of an awning, watching the door of Ha-B-B Ice Cream Parlour. He was sure that his quarry was still inside. On at least three occasions, only blind luck had allowed him to re-acquire their trail. They were truly masters at eluding pursuit. At one point, they had turned abruptly and walked right past him, the tall man giving him an almost imperceptible nod. The beautiful young woman had shot him a look of reproach as they passed, her luminous eyes saying “How clumsy to allow us to spot you.” It left him standing stunned. At last, worthy adversaries.
A teenage girl in a white dress had been wandering up and down the street for several minutes now, muttering to herself. Finally she straightened and strode through the door, as if facing a terrible fate. Probably going to meet some boy. Ah, youth…Fakeeh was glad to have left those days behind.
Zizi stood for a moment inside the shop, letting her eyes adjust after the blazing sunlit streets. She didn’t see anything especially horrible waiting for her. She walked to the counter and studied the menu board for a moment. Last day on earth? No need to watch my figure; I’m going to get the biggest bowl of ice cream they offer. With double fudge sauce. And sprinkles.
The boy behind the counter slid her the bowl, raising one eyebrow. “What’s up Zizi? I’ve never seen you order anything larger than your head.”
“Hey, are you from Per Seshat?” The voice from behind Zizi made her squeak and spin around, nearly dropping the huge bowl. A fair skinned lady was looking at her with concern in her large dark eyes. “Are you all right?”
“Seshat? Yes, I’m from Seshat. Why? Who are you?”
The lady smiled with relief. “Oh, finally! We’ve been waiting for you!” Just then Zizi noticed the American tourist at the table behind the lady. They didn’t look frightening at all. Just tired, like her. As Zizi relaxed, the boy turned his attention back to the stubborn ice cream churn. He gave it a kick, scuffing the copper casing and causing it to spew steam at him.
The American man motioned her over to the table. “As long as you’ve got ice cream, you might as well sit down and eat it before we leave. After this many hours, a few more minutes aren’t going to make a difference.” He stood and pulled out a chair for her.
The lady extended her hand. “Josephine Boone. Call me Jo. I recognized your temple garb when you came in. I serve at Per Heteret in Dendera, and the acolytes there wear similar gowns.”
As Zizi devoured the gooey dessert her new acquaintances explained how they had gotten lost looking for the temple. “You said Safekh-Aubi Street? My mother told me that was the name before the Arabs arrived. It hasn’t been called that for… what? at least a thousand years! Who in the world gave you that address? Do you still have the invitation?”
Zizi took the folded letter from AP. “This is from the Registrar. What a rat! I’m sure he did this hoping you’d never show up. I heard a rumor that… ooh, that must have been you! He threw your application out, and later that day the weekly oracle kept saying “The rejected must be admitted.” The director found out about it, and there was an argument in her office that could be heard by anyone in the hallway. There were a lot of anyones in that hallway once the word got out.” She chased a wayward sprinkle around the bowl, her spoon leaving trails through the remains of the fudge sauce. “Anyway, I really appreciate you not killing me.”
“No trouble at all. Killing a fellow student while she was eating ice cream would just earn me a bad reputation. It could be hard to find study partners, or someone to check my homework.”
Giving up on the last sprinkle, the girl tossed her spoon onto the table with a clatter. “I know a shortcut back to the temple, Johnny,” she called to the counter boy, “We’re going out the back way. See you after the Festival of Emergence!”
After having lurked in the same shadow for hours, Fakeeh suspected he was becoming conspicuous. He strolled down the street, glancing into shop windows as if he had all the time in the world. He glanced casually into the window of the ice cream shop, but the man and woman he had been following were nowhere to be seen. Hiding his annoyance behind a charming smile, he entered the shop and ordered a sasparilla float, dropping a generous tip into the jar on the counter. His quarry was gone, but the remnants of their visit still stood on the table, traces of the woman’s ambrosial perfume wafting through the air around it. Behind the counter, the teenaged British boy returned to swearing in English and kicking some unfortunate contraption. It retaliated by spraying him with something orange that smelled of mangoes.
Ignoring the foreign boy’s struggles, the assassin took in the details of the duo’s repast, the better to learn more about them. The woman had drunk coffee with cream and sugar; a smear of her lipstick remained on the porcelain cup. The man had drunk several sasparilla floats, one of Fakeeh’s preferred refreshments. Had the empty glasses been left as a message for him? A third person had joined them, perhaps the troubled girl? Could she have been following him while he was following the others, putting on a convincing act? The huge bowl had one lonely bit of candy left in the bottom, surrounded by strange markings in the remains of the fudge sauce. Fakeeh leaned down to pick up a spoon from the floor, giving the bowl a closer look, and he almost laughed out loud as the pattern of fudge in the bowl resolved into a rude word.
For the first time in his career, he had the sensation of being expertly outmaneuvered. The game had become too easy, dealing with brainless louts and he had become lazy and bored. Now he felt a thrill of danger, and dancing on the edge of it appealed to him.
His smile now genuine, he strolled back out into the street to deliver a message to his employer. Yes, a worthy adversary.