My Stilled Life: Chapter 6
By the time I got back into the car, I was more than a little tired. It was after 3:00 pm and I asked Mr. Safe and Mr. Tarquret if they would like to stop at the Mena House for lunch? They declined, saying that it was way too expensive, but they suggested that we try Taka Chicken, an Indian fast food chain that served tandoori chicken, which Mr. Safe said was as good or better than KFC's.
We spent an hour there and the chicken was excellent. I paid the bill, which was less than a hundred pounds for all three of us, and stood. As we walked out of the establishment, Mr. Tarquret mentioned that there was a black sedan with two men in it that he believed he’d seen several times today. He wasn’t sure they were following us, but he didn’t like it.
Back at the hotel, once I was through security I made my way to the concierge desk. I explained what I needed, and after handing him an extra three hundred pounds he assured me it wouldn't be a problem. He also suggested that he'd secure a late check out for me so I wouldn't have to be out of my room until 6 pm. I thanked him with another one hundred pound note and headed for the elevators.
The room was luxuriously cool as I flopped on the sofa to review my day. Twenty minutes later I woke with a start realizing someone was knocking on my door. I peeked through the little hole in the door to see a middle aged bellman waiting. He had a message from Mrs. Hadded inviting me to have dinner with her on the pool terrace at 6:30.
I tipped the bellman twenty pounds and instructed him to return to Mrs. Hadded and tell her I was on my way. I didn’t know if it was the heat or a result of jet-lag but I’d become almost narcoleptic. In the bathroom, I took a whore’s bath, changed my shirt and headed down.
Mrs. Hadded waved me over as I walked onto the terrace.
"So good to see you again. I was a little worried that something might have happened to you," she gushed.
"Why's that?" I inquired.
"Oh, right after you left this morning, two men walked over, sat down at my table and started asking questions about you. I told them that we'd just met by chance. But they were rude, insinuating that I was lying. It was a little scary, so I called the waiter over and asked to speak with security. They gave me a grimacing smile and left. I did see the security guards speaking with them but nothing seemed to come of it," she said indignantly.
"What did these guys look like?"
"One was older, maybe in his early forties. The other guy was ten years younger. They didn't look Egyptian I'm not sure what their ancestry was.”
"Could they have been Vietnamese?" I quizzed.
“I don't know. I'm not sure what a Vietnamese person look's like.”
"It's probably nothing. Sorry, they bothered you. What are you having?" I asked in a reassuring tone.
"The Red Sea prawns and saffron rice. How about you?"
“That sounds great. I'll have the same."
The waiter came over and we ordered.
We'd just finished our dessert and tea when Mrs. Haddad grabbed my hand and whispered, " Those two men are back, the ones who were asking about you."
I smiled and waved the waiter over. When he arrived I asked if he would please have a security man come over to our table. He nodded and rushed way.
Mrs. Haddad and I were still talking when the officer arrived.
"See those two men over there?" I said as I stood and pointed at the two leaning against the far wall. "They have been harassing us all day. Could you ask them who they are and what they want?"
"Oh, the two men in black?”
"Yes, them," I answered and rudely pointed at the same time.
"No worries, sir. They are police.”
"You're sure?" I asked skeptically. "They don't look Egyptian."
"Yes, most assuredly. The manager verified that they were members of INTERPOL.”
"Then, could you ask them to join me for tea?"
As he walked over to them, I told Mrs. Haddad that it would be better and safer for the both of us if she would let me deal with them alone.
She folded her napkin, looking me straight in the face. "I'll go, but you must join me for breakfast. Otherwise, I'll think the worst.”
Before I could stop her, she'd pulled out her phone, took my photo and fled into the lobby. I stood and was going to follow her when the two gentlemen in black arrived at
"Good evening, I am Mr. Price," I made a slight gesture with my hand, “Would you care to join me?"
I could tell from the look on their faces that it was the last thing they wanted to do, but they sat down anyway.
Smiling, I asked, "If you please, who are you and what can I do for you?”
“Myself, I am Mr. Bazzi and this is my colleague Mr. Nagi. We’re with INTERPOL. The Illicit Traffic in Works of Art Enforcement Division. And what you can do for us is tell us where we can find Mai Le Price. I believe she is your sister. We would like to speak with her as soon as possible. She has been very hard to locate, and my superiors are very anxious to speak with her.”
"Well, that's a problem, because I've only met her once and have no idea where she is," I replied.
"Then what are you doing here in Egypt?"
"To tell you the truth, I'm not really sure. I came hoping to find Mai Le, but so far I've nothing to show for all of my efforts.”
They looked as if they didn't believe me but stood up anyway. “Here's my card, if you find her, please have her call. We believe she's in danger. Several of her neighbors and colleagues are dead or missing. The ones we've found looked to have been tortured. They have nothing in common except your sister. So we are anxious to speak with her. We are hoping she can shed some light on these matters."
"If she shows up in the next few hours I'll let her know, but you should be apprised that I am traveling south to Aswan tomorrow night.”
"You're going by train?"
"Yes, I'm a romantic and I hate the hassles of traveling by air. If you will excuse me, I need to finish packing and get some sleep,"
They thanked me for my cooperation and I stood up. We shook hands, testing our grips while smiling back at each other.
Back in my room, I went into the bathroom to wash my face, but in moments I began to feel woozy. I just barely made it to the bed before the room began to spin and blackness enveloped me.
The next morning I came back to myself with someone banging on my door again. My head was splitting and it was hard to recognize the blur on the other side of the door as Mr. Safe. I swung the door open and staggered back to the bed.
"Mr. Price, sir, you’re late for your appointment at the museum. I have spoken to Dr. Wazir and rescheduled, but you need to be there within the next hour.”
"Ok, Ok, just give me a few minutes to get ready.” I started to dress but the room continued to move and I knew I needed to shower out the cobwebs. Mr. Safe turned his back as I stripped off the clothing I’d slept in and used the wall for balance as I made my way haltingly into the bathroom. I turned on the shower and let the water warm as I made my ablutions, then stepped into the gloriously hot water.
After 10 minutes Mr. Safe again knocked on the bathroom door telling me that I needed to hurry. I shut off the water and half way dried and walked into the bedroom to find something to wear. As I began to dress I realized that someone had been through my stuff. My wallet was on the floor. Nothing was missing but I was sure that it had been scrutinized. It took me several minutes to check and make sure that my money and travel documents were still intact.
I was just pulling on my pants when a knock came and Mr. Safe answered it. Room service was delivering tea and sweet rolls. I thanked Mr. Safe for this thoughtfulness and stuffed a roll into my mouth as I tied my boots.
"Are you not feeling well, sir?"
"Someone must have drugged me last night. I no sooner got back to my room and I was out. Also, it looks like someone’s been through all my stuff. I don't think they've taken anything but they sure know my itinerary and what I have and what I don't have."
"Should we call the police?"
"No, but I'm going to have to watch my step even more than usual.
Downstairs we left the hotel by the rear entrance and walked over to the museum, which was only a hundred yards or so away. Mr. Safe questioned who might have had the opportunity to put something into my food, and that set me to question if Mrs. Hadded was an innocent as she appeared.
The Egyptian Museum is a dark maroon relic of British and French influences that dominated Egypt's archaeological history during the last century. Little has changed in the museum since it was built in the early nineteen hundreds.
Mr. Safe and I joined the entrance line behind a myriad of tourist that had just been bused in from the Red Sea for a quick two-hour visit to the famed repository. Once we got through the security screening I made my way to the employee's entrance while Mr. Safe found a seat in a shaded section of the garden to await my return.
I approached the reception area and informed the guard that I had an appointment with Dr. Waziri. I again was patted down, my camera bag inspected and I was asked to take a seat inside the reception area until the doctor was available.
After a suitable time had elapsed, I was greeted by a hurried man in his mid-forties. Like most museum curators working in Egypt, Dr. Waziri is overworked and underpaid. We retired to a small room that he shared with half a dozen other museum staffers. We were served the obligatory very hot sweet tea in small clear glass tumblers. As custom dictates, we made small talk for a quarter hour then walked into the museum to find the statue.
The statue of Taweret is located on the first floor in Hall 24. Not many visitors visit this section of the museum because most tourist and tour groups are on a restricted timeline. So they head up to the second floor where the treasures of Tutankhamun are housed.
I stood in front of the Goddess of the Nile and Child Birth in her formalized dark beauty and Dr. Wazir snapped a couple of pictures with my camera and then used his phone to grab a couple more. On the way out, the doctor had to run interference with the museum guards because guests are no longer allowed to have cameras in the museum.
I thanked Dr. Waziri and he asked that I give his best to my sister. I said I would, if I ever found her.
When I left the employee's entrance I found Mr. Safe waiting.
"Ready?" I asked.
"Yes, of course, sir."
We had an uneventful walk back to the rear entrance, where we parted, agreeing to meet in my room at 5:30 later that afternoon. He said that he knew a fine restaurant where we could while away a couple of hours before we need to be at the train station.
As I walked through security Mr. Safe yelled, "Be careful, sir."
Mr. Safe parked the Toyota in the adjacent lot and we walked over to the Pharaonic facade of Giza's train station in semi-darkness. A crowd of travelers just offloaded from a tour bus and loaded down with baggage were bottlenecked at the station's entrance. It took a while for Mr. Safe to work us up to the entrance and through the security inspection.
I'd guess there was just under a hundred passengers waiting on the platform. It was uncomfortably hot and muggy. The closeness on the platform was putting me a little on edge, accentuated by the sweat running down my back. I was biding my time by drinking an orange soda I'd purchased from one of the platform vendors. He was sold out of Coke so I was making due. I noticed Mr. Safe was keyed up, eyeing everyone near us.
On the drive over, he’d advised me that once I was on board and the train was moving I could visit the club car if I needed a snack, but once the attendant had turned down my bed, I should lock my door and be cautious about who I opened it up to.
When the train arrived half an hour late, I thanked Mr. Safe for all his help, hefted my bags and got in line to board the train. I had to wait my turn while the imposed-upon attendant led each individual to his or her compartment.
Once ensconced in my compartment I was feeling less vulnerable than I had on the platform. The attendant placed my bags on the luggage rack and I tipped him as he closed the door. The compartment was much more compact than I would have had imagined.
It took a couple of tugs for the window blind to rewind up into its housing. But once up, it revealed a tableau of those rushing to board and those hoping for a fleeting moment to say a meaningful goodbye. I noticed Mr. Safe still standing watch, alert and perusing all, making assessments of those arriving to board the train. When the conductor gave the signal for the train to move and the first tug from the engine gave us all a jostle, I looked out to see Mr. Safe give me the thumbs up.
Once the train was moving I closed the blind, divided my valuables between my person, my briefcase and my camera bag. I locked my duffle bag, that contained only my clothing to the luggage rack. Carrying both my briefcase and camera bag I awkwardly made my way up forward to the Club Car.
The Club Car was nearly empty when I first arrived. Somehow, its shabbiness made it feel homey. I ordered a Coke without ice and some french fries. They didn't offer ketchup so I made due with a little extra salt. By the time I was finishing my second Coke the car was full and I had had a couple of nice conversations. The first was a very nice lady from Ürümqi in Western China. She bragged that Ürümqi, which means "beautiful pasture,” was in the Guinness Book of Records for being the most remote city from any sea in the world. She was traveling because she wanted to get away from the racial tension and riots that had overtaken her home town.
My second conversation was with a couple from Stockholm, Sweden. Both he and she were Nordic beauties, with the requisite blond hair and blue eyes. What made their beauty less oppressive was that they were so nonchalant about their flawlessness. They also astounded me with the fact that the population of Sweden is under 10 million, much less than my hometown metropolis of Los Angeles.
It was funny, everyone I spoke with viewed California as a country unto itself. A place where the future was now. I simply smiled and agreed.
I stopped by the restroom on the way back to my compartment. It was awkward trying to stand, hold both bags and aim, as the car rocked back and forth. I finally gained enough stability to void the contents of my bladder, but I really needed to wash my hands after.
About 10 pm the attendant knocked, turn down the bed and said that he'd wake me around 5 am and serve breakfast around 5:30. After he left I double locked the door and sat on the bed wondering what the fuck had happened to my life. With the light off I opened the window curtain and watched as the landscape of Middle Egypt passed by. It was amazing just how dark the agrarian countryside can be. Every now and then the train passed a road crossing with flashing lights, but outside of that nothing stirred. As my reflection faded in and out in the window I came to fear that I was on a wild goose chase. I had no clear endgame and no tangible goals. The same kind of quagmire that had bogged down America in every war since WW2. My father was right about one thing, wars today are unwinnable. No nation was willing to do what it takes to win a war; they're too damn worried about social media. Unlike the Romans, who would breeze in, kill everyone, salt the earth and go home to a dinner of spaghetti and red wine.
Due to the train's constant shimmy and shake and my brain doing "What If Scenarios,” sleep eluded me. So when the porter knocked at 5 am I was already up, dressed and ready to go, having visited the gentleman's convenience around 4:30. I used the small basin in my compartment to finish washing up and combed what was left of my hair. With disbelief I stared at my jaundiced looking reflection in the mirror, hoping that it was just the mirror that was so distorted.
Once the train arrived in Luxor there was a rush to exit. Several dust-covered tour buses were waiting to gather up most of my fellow travelers. When I finally got outside all the cabs were gone. But just as I was starting to walk, a cab pulled up. Without a moment's hesitation, I jumped in.
All materials copyright 2017 Ronald Gary Dunlap