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First pages


Cairo, 1919


It was a day to be remembered on Ibn al-Nafis Street. Someone had finally purchased the old house of the Rifaat family, five years after the last aged member of the family had died. The death of Umm Abdullah had been news all over the neighborhood and her distant relatives had immediately started squabbling over the inheritance.

Now it appeared that those squabbles had finally been resolved. For the past few days a small army of cleaners, painters, and carpenters had been all up and down the house, making it fit to be lived in. The chatterers at the Sultan El Moyyad café watched the men come and go and gossiped over their coffees as to what great family might be moving in. Perhaps some wealthy Greeks or Armenians from Alexandria? A merchant from the south, here to bolster his fortunes in Egypt’s greatest city? Or perhaps the newly married son of an aristocratic Cairene, setting up house to start a family?

Each worker had been closely questioned, if not by the regulars at the café then by Bisam the water seller, who did good trade during the renovation work, or by Youssef the barber, who always had time to chat as he sat on his little wooden stool outside his shop waiting for customers. But none of the workers knew the name or heritage of the new owner, only that they had to be finished by the end of the week.

That the new owner had a fortune was beyond question. The Rifaat house was the oldest and biggest on the street, a fine three-story stone structure from the time of the great Sultans. No one knew how old it was exactly, but people pointed to the tidy stonework, the complex wooden latticework mashribiyya covering the windows, and the great wooden and bronze double door leading to the courtyard, cut with a smaller door for daily use, to show that this was one of the finest houses in all of Cairo. That it had fallen into disuse and disrepair had been a neighborhood scandal, and the news that it would soon be reoccupied brought cheer to the hearts of everyone who lived and worked on Ibn al-Nafis Street.

And now the day had come for the new owner to move in. The workers had all left. The mashribiyya had been repaired to ensure the privacy of the new owner’s women, all the exterior and the interior had been freshly whitewashed, and the great door’s bronze fittings gleamed in the morning sun. The stranger who would today become a neighbor was the only topic of conversation at the café, at the produce market, at the barber shop, and even among the dirty street boys who played and shouted and stole and generally made a nuisance of themselves wherever they went.

Everyone’s first inkling that their new neighbor was someone out of the ordinary came when the police showed up.

These were not the usual neighborhood police, recruited from among the poorer class of Cairenes or fellahin from the villages to crack the heads of market thieves and to separate brawling drunks. No, these were Colonial Police, dark-faced Soudanese with their blue uniforms, red fezzes, tidy rows of bright brass buttons, and freshly polished black shoes. Even for Colonial Police they were unusual, for in addition to the stout stick that, like the local police, they were well-practiced in using, each man had a holstered pistol hanging from his broad yellow belt. The idlers at the café dropped their conversation to a whisper. Youssef the barber sent up a quick prayer to protect himself, his business, and his family. The street boys stood as close as they dared and gaped.

Then came a commotion at the end of the street. Donkeys and pedestrians hurried out of the way as a long rumbling column of carts piled high with crates approached the house. At its head walked several more police, a Turk everyone recognized as the solicitor who had untangled the legal troubles with the Rifaat residence, an old Egyptian man carrying a wicker basket and…someone else.

He dressed like a European, with a suit and tie and one of those fine canes Europeans use even if they do not need any help to walk. Indeed, the man appeared young and healthy, and walked with a determined air, swinging his cane like a pendulum as if to launch himself forward.

But two details about the man kept the residents of Ibn al-Nafis Street unsure if their neighborhood was about to get its first European.

Firstly, the right half his face was covered with a thin mask. It was molded to the contours of his head and even included a false ear. The mask matched the features of the other half of his face perfectly. Too perfectly. It made his face unnaturally symmetrical, and although the mask had been painted to match the hue of a European’s skin, it had no blemish or mark like the normal part of his face did. That half of the face did, indeed, look like a European’s, with blue eyes and northern features, although with tanned skin that made his mask look pale and sickly by comparison.

If that wasn’t enough for everyone to become confused about the newcomer’s origins, the second reason gave them even more reason to wonder.

The man spoke Arabic to those accompanying him, and not just a few shouted, mispronounced commands like some Europeans did, but as fluently as a Muslim.

The Arabic was strange, though, with an odd accent and some words that sounded unfamiliar. Occasionally the Turk or the old Egyptian with the basket had to ask his meaning, prompting the man to say it another way.

“He is a Moroccan!” Ali declared, thumping his coffee cup down on his usual table at the Sultan El Moyyad café. Ali had been on the Hajj and had met Muslims from the Magreb to Malaysia, so he knew these things.

“He doesn’t look like a Moroccan,” ventured Mohammed, the café’s star backgammon player.

“Many Moroccans are as light-skinned as the Europeans,” Ali said.

“Do they dress like Europeans?” Mohammed asked.

“Not that I have seen,” Ali admitted. “Perhaps he is a diplomat from Rabat or Tangiers.”

“Then why doesn’t he wear a fez?” asked Anwar the waiter, whose aged father owned the café and was even now nodding off in the back corner.

Ali had no answer for that.

“Ah, I know that Egyptian with him!”

This was from Mohammed al-Hajji, the muezzin from the mosque at the corner of the street. Unlike all the others at the café, he had no glass of coffee or tea in front of him. He only drank water, or the syrup sold by some of the street peddlers, saying it helped keep his throat smooth. He never bought anything at the café although he spent much of his day there. Anwar didn’t object because of the man’s respected position, and while it was unheard of for a man to avoid tea and coffee, Mohammed al-Hajji’s voice certainly did sound like Paradise had opened up and the angels were singing.

“Who is it?” Mohammed the backgammon player asked.

“He is Sheikh Moussa el Hawi,” Mohammed al-Hajji replied.

Everyone fell silent and stared at the old man with the basket, who just now arrived at the front door with the man in the mask. Sheikh Moussa el Hawi was a snake charmer whose fame had spread across all of Cairo. Whoever this newcomer was, he was wise to hire the sheikh to clear out the house after it had been vacant for so long.

The strange newcomer and his group stopped in front of the door. His carts took up almost the entire street, although prying eyes couldn’t see any of their contents, their being all stowed away in crates. One man in the crowd studied the carts with more interest than the others—a lean, muscular young tough in a grungy djellaba. His head was shaven, and he had the sharp blue eyes and light skin that showed he was the descendant of a Circassian slave. His features could have been handsome except for the permanent scowl on his face and the knife scar down one cheek. His name was Hassan, and the whole neighborhood feared him.

The Turkish solicitor, a small man with a pencil-thin moustache, a European-style suit, and a fez, unlocked the main lock and handed the keys to the man in the mask. As a pair of policemen pushed open the doors, their hinges groaning, Sheikh Moussa opened up the basket and turned it upside down.

“He wants us to see that he doesn’t have any serpents hidden in there,” Anwar the waiter said unnecessarily.

The snake charmer entered the building, wielding a three foot long stick of strong palm wood that was forked at the end. Those crowding on the street could see a wide entrance hall that led to a large central room, and beyond that a small courtyard with a fountain. Doors and hallways led off in all directions.

As the curious throng pushed in to watch, the police shoved them back, shouting angrily. When one of the crowd tried to slip between the cordon, a policeman barked an order at him, pulled out his truncheon, and hit him.

The man shouted angrily and raised his hands. Just as the policeman was about to swing his truncheon down again, the newcomer with the mask stepped forward and grabbed the policeman’s wrist.

Everyone fell silent. The masked man’s knuckles grew white and the policeman gave out a little cry, either in shock or in pain it wasn’t clear. Perhaps both.

The truncheon clattered to the ground. The masked man picked it up and put it back in loop on the policeman’s belt without saying a word.

Instead he turned and addressed the crowd.

“Please step back and allow the learned sheikh a chance to make my home safe from serpents.”

Dumbfounded, the crowd moved back a little.

“He must be a European,” Mohammad the backgammon champion said with conviction, and took a sip of his tea. “No one else can treat a policeman like that and keep his limbs intact.”

The others nodded in agreement, except for Ali, who objected, “A diplomat from the Sultan of Morocco could get away with it.”

Ignoring the scene on the street outside, Sheikh Moussa stood at the center of the room and made some clucking noises with his tongue, followed by a loud and lengthy recital from the Koran. The more learned among the watchers, once they recognized the surah, recited along with him.

The sheikh struck his stick gently on the flagstones. A gasp rose from the crowd as a long black serpent slithered out from a dark corner.

As the serpent approached him, the snake charmer’s voice fell, and he started muttering in a low, quick voice words that the onlookers could not hear. The snake drew closer, then stopped when the old man pointed two fingers at it as if he were a Christian giving benediction. The snake raised its head, flicking its tongue in and out. Calmly, Sheikh Moussa took a step forward and grasped it just underneath its head. The snake slowly coiled around the sheikh’s arm, who carried it to the basket and placed inside. The sheikh put the lid on the basket and went back into the house. He turned a corner and passed out of view.

The strange man with the mask and the Turkish solicitor stood waiting, ignoring the stares that were now directed back at them.

A few minutes later, Sheikh Moussa emerged carrying another snake, which he placed in the basket with the first.

“I knew there would be snakes in there,” Anwar said as he wiped an empty table clean with a cloth. “You can’t leave a house abandoned for years like that. I bet they hid because of all of the bustle and noise the workmen made, but they would have come out for him the first time he tried to sleep in his new house.”

“May God grant the sheikh success and protect our neighbor,” Mohammed al-Hajji declared.

“God is great,” several of the café goers added.

“What if it turns out he really is a European?” Anwar asked.

“Then God preserve him from what is coming.” Ali said in a low voice.

“No politics right now, Ali, there are police in the street,” Anwar whispered.

“I would never raise a hand against a neighbor, no matter what his faith,” Ali said, “but as for others…”

Ali finished with a shrug.

Sheikh Moussa came out a third time with another snake and placed it in the basket with the previous two. He fastened the top of the basket by shoving sticks through loops on the lid and the sides and then lashing them all together with a thick rope. Despite his age, he worked the rope with strong, gnarled hands that were sure of their work. Once he had finished, the masked man pulled out a wallet like the Europeans use and handed him some notes. The sheikh bowed in thanks, lifted the basket on top of his head, and walked down the street, the street boys following him.

“Oh Sheikh, may the Almighty’s blessings be upon you!” Mohammed al-Hajji called with his sweet muezzin’s voice. “Come join us. Let me have the honor of inviting you for a cup of tea and to make your acquaintance.”

Anwar’s eyebrows shot up. Was Mohammed al-Hajji actually going to order something, even if only for someone else? This was indeed a day to remember!

After the snake charmer had been made comfortable and the street urchins had been shooed away, everyone introduced themselves and asked after each other’s health and family. Hassan sat down at a table far enough away that he wouldn’t be obliged to take part in the conversation and near enough that he could hear it. He gave Anwar a scowl that brought the waiter hurrying to his table. Hassan ordered a tea and then looked off into the distance, pretending to watch the passersby in the street while actually listening to what the sheikh had to say about the rich newcomer.

The greetings, of course, took some time, so it was a good half hour before the regulars got to ask the question foremost in their minds.

“So who is this man? Where is he from? And why is he wearing a mask?”

“His name is Sir Augustus Wall and he is an Englishman. I do not know why he wears that thing on his face and I thought it impolite to ask.”


Others had no such reservations. A couple of hours later, the small door to the main portal of the Rifaat house opened and the Englishman stepped out. Ignoring the stares of everyone on the street, he locked the door behind him. Then he made his way down the street, swinging his cane in time to his steps.

Within moments he was surrounded by a crowd of laughing boys.

“Do you really speak Arabic?”

“Yes,” the man said, not looking at them.

“He does! Where are you going?”

“To see someone.”


“None of your business.”

“Why do you have that on your face?”

“None of your business. Go away.”

The Englishman sped up but the boys kept pace. One of the shopkeepers shouted at the urchins to leave him alone but they didn’t listen. The Englishman cut between a donkey and a fruit stall to avoid them, but they tailed him, some ducking under the donkey. One boy scampered under the table and snatched an apple as the vendor stopped another boy from doing the same.

The boy who took the apple, who seemed to be the leader of this grubby little band, cut in front of Augustus. He looked about twelve, clad in a filthy and patched djellaba that might have been white at some early point in its history. He had wavy, unkempt black hair that stuck out in all directions. Like the other boys he was barefoot.

“What is that on your face?” he asked, munching on the apple.

“It’s a mask, you little idiot.”

“I am not an idiot! I’ll show you!” he shouted, and then switched to broken English. “Hello, what country?”


“I am English!” the boy said in badly mispronounced English.

“No, ‘you are English’,” Augustus corrected.

“Your name is Faisal. What is my good name, sir?”

Augustus switched back to Arabic. “Lesson over. You’ve failed your exam. Now go away, the lot of you.”

The boys all laughed at Faisal, who stuck his tongue out at them.

Augustus cut down a side street that would lead him to his destination. It was quieter here, with no crowd, and the boys were able to surround him. They started getting underfoot and Augustus had to take care not to stumble.

The boys laughed. Faisal offered Augustus some of the apple by shoving it in front of his face. Another boy used the distraction to reach into the Englishman’s pocket, only to get rapped on the knuckles by his cane.

That only made the boys laugh harder. Dancing around him, they grabbed at his pockets and his watch. It was all the Englishman could do to keep them from taking anything.

Someone tripped him up, and as he stumbled, Faisal snatched the mask away from his face.

And immediately dropped it, backing against the nearest wall in wide-eyed terror.

The face beneath that mask was missing. Where the cheek should have been was a cavernous pit of scar tissue, leaving the eye, surrounded by a thin strip of flesh and poorly healed burns, almost hanging suspended. Veins stood out red and livid, and the flesh around where the ear should have been was pockmarked and crisscrossed with the scars of sutures. Part of the cheek was gone and the man’s teeth, which were too white and perfect to be anything but false, were exposed to view like those of a skull.

The boys screamed and ran off as Augustus Wall got to his knees and grabbed his mask. Faisal stood frozen with his back to the wall, his little fist against his mouth.


“The little bastard cracked it.”

Sir Augustus Wall examined a tiny fissure in the bottom edge of his mask and hoped the whole thing hadn’t been weakened. He’d have to go all the way to France to get another. A team of artists had made them as gifts for seriously disfigured veterans at the end of the war, using old photographs to guide them. His own, he had to admit, was a good job, but it made him look like some circus freak. At least he could go out in public. If he went out without it, the entire street would have run off as quickly as those boys.

Augustus grunted, put the mask back on, and uncovered his mirror. He examined his reflection. No, the crack wasn’t too visible. After combing his hair he covered the mirror again and went out into the main hall.

The spacious room was filled with antiquities. Statues and mummy cartonnages took up much of the space, some of them still in their packing cases. Long shelves along two of the walls held smaller artifacts such as shabtis, amulets, and weapons. Another long shelf and the floor below were dedicated to inscriptions and sculpture fragments. A couple of mummified crocodiles hung suspended from the ceiling. Coptic textiles covered the walls in various spots. One corner was dominated by the prize of his collection, a perfectly preserved eight-foot statue of a crocodile-headed god with a hieroglyphic inscription inscribed along the side and around the base. Augustus gave the statue a friendly nod and got busy unpacking the rest of the crates.

The pounding of the heavy brass knocker on his front door stopped him an hour later. Cursing under his breath at the interruption, Augustus checked that his mask was in place and went to answer it.

He opened the door to see an old beggar and the street urchin who had knocked his mask off. The boy stood on tiptoe, his head at an angle as the beggar held his ear in a tight grip. In the beggar’s other hand was a gnarled old cane.

The beggar did not focus on Augustus. His eyes were clouded with blindness.

“Peace be upon you,” the beggar said. “I hear you speak God’s language.”

“I do,” Augustus replied curtly, unwilling to return the traditional courtesy.

“I am Osman ibn Akbar ibn Mubarak al-Hajji. This boy’s name is Faisal and he has come to apologize.”

The beggar twisted the child’s ear a bit more. Augustus stared in fascination. He didn’t think an ear could be manipulated in such a fashion without coming off.

“I am terribly sorry sir,” the boy said, his voice coming out strained. He kept his eyes down.

“I hope that teaches you not to get too curious,” Augustus grumbled. “You bring shame on your grandfather by acting this way.”

The blind beggar snorted. “God is compassionate and merciful. He would never curse one of his faithful servants by giving him such a grandson.”

“I am sorry to make presumptions on your noble family, sir,” Augustus replied in his politest Arabic. “Thank you for making the boy see right.”

The beggar let go of the boy’s ear and swung his cane down with startling accuracy on the boy’s backside, bringing forth a yelp.

“Making this boy see right would be like moving a mountain, but he meant his apology.”

“Well, apology accepted then,” Augustus said, turning to the boy.

But the boy was already gone.

Augustus gave the man a coin, which the beggar accepted by bowing and touching it to his brow, closed the door, and got back to work. He wanted to open for business within the next couple of days, and he had much to do. The front hall, main room, and courtyard would act as his showroom, with the side rooms on the ground floor as storage. The first floor was for his own use, while the second he would leave vacant. He hadn’t really needed such a large house, but its fine architecture and remoteness from Cairo’s European quarter had appealed to him.

After several hours of work, he went out for his customary evening stroll. The men in the café across the street stared, and hidden behind their latticework windows the women of Ibn al-Nafis Street no doubt stared too as Augustus started on a brisk walk through the neighborhood, swinging his cane in long sweeps ahead of him and tapping it on the flagstones. Only the newer quarters of Cairo had electric street lamps. The main streets here still used gas. Their soft light illuminated the intricate facades of the Bahri period mosque at the end of the street with a soft glow, and turned the dark wood of complexly latticed windows of the homes a deep golden brown. For a time he relaxed, admiring the beauty of the scene and wondering what lay down the dark side streets and alleys. There were some architectural jewels in this quarter and he looked forward to studying them.

His serenity was interrupted by a young voice beside him.

“Where are you going?”

It was that urchin again.

“Oh, it’s you.”

Augustus quickened his pace, looking around to see if the brat had brought along his pack of little monsters. He didn’t see any. Nevertheless he kept an eye on doorways and the openings of alleys in case some of them leapt out and tried to rob him. This one, at least, was keeping a respectable distance.

“I’m Faisal,” he said.

“I believe you mentioned that.”

“I’m sorry,” Faisal said, putting on a glum face.

“So you say.”

“Thank you for not beating me.”

“I was sorely tempted, trust me.”

“Osman ibn Akbar gave me a good thrashing,” Faisal grumbled, kicking a stone so that it skittered down the street.

“Glad to hear it,” Augustus replied with a satisfied nod.

“Where are you going?” the boy asked.

“That is none of your concern.”

“Why don’t you live in the European quarter?”

“Because there are too many Europeans there.”

“Yes, that’s why they call it the European quarter.”

Augustus turned and faced the boy, who stopped and took a step back.

“I live here because I want to be left alone.”

Augustus continued his walk. Faisal paced him.

“Then why don’t you live in the desert?”

“I can’t run my business in the desert.”

“What is your business?”

“Selling annoying little boys to the Turks.”

Faisal laughed. “You don’t really do that!”

“I might start.”

Faisal didn’t reply for a time. Augustus glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. The boy bore a serious look.

“You should be careful in this neighborhood. There are many thieves.”

“Yes, you and your friends tried to rob me this afternoon, remember?”

“Oh, we only did that because you are European. But we won’t try again, because you are different than the other Europeans.”

“I wasn’t always,” Augustus murmured.

Faisal blushed. “Oh, I didn’t mean that. I meant because you are a Muslim.”

Augustus cocked his head. “Why do you say that?”

“You speak Arabic.”

“I’m not a Muslim. I learned Arabic from a Moroccan officer in the French service while we were both convalescing in hospital. I taught him English in exchange for his teaching me Arabic. I also spent a year in Alexandria. People didn’t leave me alone there so I came here.”

Another long pause. Augustus began to hope the boy would get bored and leave. Faisal stared at him with big brown eyes that seemed to absorb his every detail.

“Did you get attacked by a jackal?”


“Did a bandit cut you with a sword?”


“Did you—”

Augustus rounded on him. This time Faisal took two steps back.

“A German shell exploded in the trench my friends and I were hiding in. They were all killed. I was less fortunate.”

Augustus turned back around and continued his walk. To his greatest annoyance, he noticed Faisal still dogging him.

“The Germans are very bad people,” the boy declared.

“Are they now?”

“Very bad people!” Faisal repeated, this time emphasizing his point with a loud spit. “I hate them.”

“Have you ever met a German?”

“No, but they are bad people because they kill the English and the English are very good people. I hate the Germans.”

“Well, I don’t hate them.”

“But they are your enemies!” Faisal cried in obvious astonishment.

“Not anymore.”

Faisal stopped abruptly and grabbed the Englishman’s wrist.

“Unhand me!” Augustus shouted, pulling away.

“Shhh. Look.”

Augustus followed the boy’s frightened gaze and noticed a shadow move back and merge with the darker obscurity of an alleyway ten yards ahead.

Augustus glanced around, suddenly aware that they were alone on this street. Being alone on a Cairene street in the middle of the night was not a healthy situation.

No, not alone. There was that shadow in the alley ahead, and the faintest sound of movement in a doorway behind.

Augustus gripped his cane in both hands. He moved to push Faisal to the cover of a shuttered shop entrance but found him already there, looking uncertainly in either direction.

“You stay there, boy,” Augustus said, moving to shield him and glancing in either direction to try to watch the alley and the other doorway at the same time.

Silence, just for a moment.

Then the shadows burst into motion. Three Egyptian men leapt out of the alleyway and charged him, while a fourth, a tough-looking brute with a shaved head and a scar down one cheek, came out of the doorway behind. All carried knives or cudgels. They didn’t bother to brandish them, obviously thinking their mere appearance would make their intended victim throw his money to them and flee in panic.

That did not happen. Augustus ducked to the left and lashed out with his cane, tripping the foremost attacker and making the man just behind him fall over his friend. Then the Englishman swung his cane in a vicious backhand that cracked the third man on the back of the neck and sent him crashing down onto the other two.

Augustus spun to face the fourth man, the one with the scar. The attacker came in slow and cautious, his knife at the ready. Augustus grasped the end of his cane, twisted, and withdrew a hidden blade a full two feet long. In the same motion he brought the other part of the cane, which acted as a metal scabbard, smacking down onto the skull of the most awake of the three thugs at his feet. The impact made the man crack his forehead against the ground.

Augustus chuckled and looked at the thug facing him. “Perhaps you might like to reconsider?”

The thief said nothing. He feinted to the right and then made a quick lunge to the left. Augustus spotted the movement just in time to parry, the two metal blades screeching as they ground along one another. The Englishman circled his blade, which while thinner was longer. The blades screeched again as Augustus twisted his sword cane into position and thrust for his opponent’s head.

The Egyptian ducked out of the way and immediately ducked again to avoid a swing from the metal shaft of the cane, nimbly circling around his foe. He hacked at the blade of the sword cane, trying to break it, but it was made of strong, high quality steel and didn’t even chip.

But it did lower enough to allow an opening. He slashed at Augustus’s wrist and the Englishman barely managed to move his hand in time.

Augustus backpedaled, jabbing his blade into the hand of one of the downed men as he tried to rise. The fellow hissed in pain and fell back to the ground, but the thrust left another opening for the gang leader, who dove in to slash at the Englishman’s throat.

Augustus was ready for it, and with a nimble movement slapped at the man’s hand with the shaft of the cane and made his knife fly into the wall with a clang, missing Faisal by inches.

Augustus brought the tip of his blade up to the leader’s throat. The man froze, but he did not tremble.

“If you kill me, Englishman, my friends will avenge me.”

The sound of quickly receding footsteps did not make that threat seem imminent.

“Your friends just abandoned you.”

“They will be back, when you are not so ready. They will watch you and follow you and bring more men with better weapons. My cousins will come too, and since they are family they will not rest until they have killed you slowly. This little goat turd here can tell you the truth of that.”

Faisal nodded, his eyes wide. “Everyone knows Hassan’s cousins are killers.”

“So Hassan here has a bit of a local reputation, has he?”

“His family will take vengeance,” Faisal said, “and they already know where you live.”

Augustus’s blade didn’t falter. “But if I don’t kill him, how do I know he won’t come back for a second try?”

Faisal shrugged.

Hassan’s mouth curled in disgust. “I promise.”

“Swear by God,” Augustus demanded.

“I swear by God.”

“You did that too quickly. I suspect you’re even less of a believer than I am. Swear by your mother’s name.”

Hassan’s eyes narrowed.

“I swear by my mother’s name.”

“That’s one thing you can always rely on with Arabs,” Augustus said with a grin, “even the lowest street thug is a mama’s boy.”

The Englishman pulled back the tip of the blade from Hassan’s throat and sank it an inch into his shoulder. Hassan grimaced, gritting his teeth to keep from crying out.

“Something to remember me by. If you cross me again I’ll kill you. If I catch you loitering near my house I’ll kill you. Be out of my sight by the time I count to three or I’ll hunt you down and kill you. One.”

Hassan fled so quickly that Augustus didn’t bother continuing to two.

After Hassan was safely out of sight, Faisal leapt into the air with a whoop.

“That was magnificent! No wonder the English win every war.”

Augustus gave Faisal a smile. “We generally win because of our native allies. Thank you. I might not have seen them but for you.”

Faisal grinned and scooped up Hassan’s knife, admiring the keen blade.

Augustus snatched it out of his hand.

“That’s not a toy for a little boy.”

Faisal puffed himself up.

“No, it is a weapon for a man.”

“That’s precisely why you shan’t have it. And don’t pick up that other knife either.”

“I helped you! I deserve both of them,” Faisal whined.

“Out of the question.”

“OK, only one.”

“Here.” Augustus fished a few coins from his pocket.

Faisal raised his hands. “Oh no! I can’t take money, not this time. I was bad to you. Now we are even, so the next time I save your life you can pay me.”

“That seems fair enough,” Augustus chuckled, and then grew serious. “Did I do wrong in letting him go?”

Faisal thought for a moment before shaking his head. “I don’t know. Both choices were dangerous.”

A long, mournful wail lilted through the night air, bringing words of flowing Classical Arabic from a voice as pure and as beautiful as the paradise it promised.

“Allah is most great. Allah is most great. I testify that there is no god except Allah…”

Faisal’s eyes widened. “I nearly forgot. It’s time for the night prayer! I need to lead Osman ibn Akbar to the mosque. Don’t get into any more danger tonight; I can’t save you until tomorrow!”

With that, Faisal ran off in the direction of Ibn al-Nafis Street. Augustus watched him go, then gave a little shrug and collected the other knife, which he put in his pocket before continuing his walk.


About me

Sean McLachlan is a former archaeologist who has excavated in the Middle East and Europe. Now he writes fiction, travel, and history. Sean’s busy with two other fiction series: Toxic World (post-apocalyptic science fiction) and Trench Raiders (WWI action). He's traveled to 35 countries, interviewing nomads in Somaliland, climbing to clifftop monasteries in Ethiopia, studying Crusader castles in Syria, and exploring the historic old neighborhoods of Cairo.

Q. What did you learn while writing this book?
Quite a lot! I spent several weeks in Cairo and Giza researching this novel. I learned about tomb curses, the Egyptian independence movement, how to navigate your way through the labyrinthine alleyways of the Old City, and the best way to break into a traditional Egyptian home.
Q. This book is part of a series, tell us about your series.
I'm off to Cairo again in December to research book two. Each book of the series will be a standalone novel, following the adventures of Augustus, Moustafa, and Faisal as they solve mysteries related to the antiquities trade. You'll also see lots more of Zehra, which will make Augustus happy!
Q. What books are you reading now?
The Queue, an excellent dystopian novel by Basma Abdel Aziz, who is Egypt's answer to Kafka. The Chest by Mohammed Mrabet, sharp short stories by one of the Moroccan masters. Hired Pens by Ronald Weber, a detailed look at the writing trade in the U.S. from the earliest days to the end of WWII.