Thursday, 6 August 2015

The Scales of Anubis: Death in the Desert

“I’m sorry about your brother,” called out Granger Stewart from the bathroom of his suite at the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo. “I really am. He was a top fellow. Known him since fifteen. Got me out of many scrapes. Saved me life on more than one occasion! A damn shame, if you’ll excuse my language!”

“Do not worry about that, Granger. You must be distraught. I know you two were close,” replied Caroline Cooper. She stood on the balcony looking down at the funnel of a Thomas Cook steamer moored up below the hotel.  In the distance the Pyramids were visible beyond the tip of  Gezira Island; dark against the red and amber sunset.  She sighed.   The warm evening breeze caught the hem of her silk peignoire, revealing a pale, well-turned calf.  Her hair blew across her eyes briefly.  It was the same burnished copper colour as her brother's, hence his nickname.  She stepped back into the room and crossed the floor to the bathroom, kicking off her local, embroidered slippers as she did so. 

 “Closer, I am afraid to say, than I was with him. A fifteen year age gap, of course. He was always overseas, too. Still, Daddy will be heartbroken!” She smiled to herself. With her odious brother gone she should now inherit everything. When her brother had been born her family were not well off but after her mother died giving birth to Caroline her father had married an older, rich Canadian widow and they suddenly had money.  Her brother had joined the army almost immediately after his father's remarriage.  He did not like their stepmother.  Her stepmother had died ten years ago. All Caroline had to do was make sure her father didn’t leave everything to that appalling Italian soprano he had embarrassingly installed in his town house in Knightsbridge. She was the same age as her for heaven's sake! 

Stewart stretched his legs in the bath and winced. His whole body hurt where he had taken the impact of some falling stones on the recent mission. His legs hurt the most, however. If he had just been able to cross the ground more quickly he wondered if he might have got to that tomb first then ‘Copper’ Cooper, his former batman from the King’s African Rifles, would still be alive. But then, he reasoned, he might be dead in his place. At fifty he was getting too old for this sort of escapade. Next time it could be him struck down by some other-worldly horror. Caroline dropped her peignoire to the floor and stepped into the bathtub with him. Reluctantly, Granger pulled his feet up so that she could sit down at the other end of the bath.  “So what happened? How did it all go so wrong?” she asked him. 

Those were exactly the questions the Brigadier in charge of the Cairo Brigade had asked him earlier that day. He had been sat in the brigadier’s office in the Kasr-el-Nil barracks, just across the road from the Semiramis hotel, where he and Caroline were now. He recalled his conversation with the brigadier. “Well we had had a tip off from one of our local agents and so Copper and I had assembled the troops you had attached to us, in the desert. We took Professor Marx, one of our P.I.T.H. boffins. He is on loan from the Palestine Exploration Fund so knows his way about the desert,” said Stewart, gently agitating his whisky so that the ice swirled around the glass. 

“Never trusted anyone called Marx. Always associate the name with Bolsheviks, intellectuals and other undesirables!” said the Brigadier. “All this 'all men are equal' nonsense. It is patently absurd! Some people are just born stupid! Like my cousin James, for example. Went to Cambridge, which tells you everything about their standards! Thick as a plank! I’ve observed more intelligent monkeys at London Zoo!” 

“Well, this Marx is alright. We’re pleased to have him. Anyway we made our way to a small temple entrance and as we went inside we must have dislodged something as the head of one of the statues fell off and clipped me as I went in. Trap or accident I cannot tell. Fortunately, I recovered quickly and Professor Marx said the inscription we discovered inside was part of a direction to the location of the fulcrum of the Scales of Anubis we were after. It was after this that I sent poor old Copper off towards an archaeologists’ dig we could see through the ruins. The Prof and a couple of the soldiers went with him.  I shouldn't have split the team but we were in a race!" 

"Can't fault your tactics!  You did the right thing!" said the Brigadier.

"Meanwhile, I proceeded to another temple entrance that the prof had indicated. It was here that we came under fire from a bunch of ratty looking Bedouins. My chaps returned fire and we got into a right old scrap. The Arabs offered a truce and skulked off, enabling us to find another clue as to the whereabouts of the fulcrum. Anyway,” continued Stewart, “that’s when it all started going wrong. Firstly, as I later found out, Copper and Marx entered the archaeologists camp only to discover a putrid rotting sort of smell!” 

“Dead bodies? Had they been massacred?” asked the brigadier reaching for the whisky decanter again. 

“Lunch. They were cooking,” replied Stewart. “They were French!” 

“Good Lord! You don’t mean…?” The brigadier paused, appalled at the prospect. 

“Yes. Garlic! And lots of it!” said Stewart as the Brigadier wrinkled his nose in horror. 

 “Added to that, one of the archaeologists was an attractive woman and you know what old Copper was like with the ladies. Quite taken with her he was, according to the Prof, who was busily decoding the instructions he had obtained from the Frogs. The Prof said she reeked of cologne with that undercurrent of slightly stale scent of rancid, unwashed body that French women often have!” 

“Yes, indeed!” said the Brigadier remembering his escapades in Paris after the War. He smiled and then frowned. 

“Well, all in all that party were delayed by the Frogs for some time. In the meantime we were making our way through the ruins when the pesky Bedouins opened fire on us again!” said Stewart. 

“I thought you had a truce with them?” asked the brigadier.

 “So did I! Anyway, they held us up for some time. Meanwhile the Prof reckoned he now had enough information to locate the fulcrum, which was under a statue on the plain below.  So he and Copper headed towards the cliffs which enabled them to descend from the plateau. Unfortunately, at this point, a couple more Arabs appeared from below the cliffs and attacked our chaps. For some reason they thought Copper was a girl.” 

“What? With a moustache like that?” said the Brigadier, although an image of his great aunt Philomena, looming over him as a young boy at Christmas, came into his mind and he shuddered. 

"Anyway, Copper and Marx got past them and down the cliff but two of our troops were downed!” continued Stewart. 

“Those dastardly Arabs!” said the Brigadier. “Still miffed about Sykes-Picot I suppose!” 

“What we hadn’t appreciated up on the plateau was that a right old scrap had been going on down below between the Americans, the Huns and the Brotherhood, so our chaps scrambled down the cliffs into a hornet’s nest. As the Huns advanced on the Bedouin camp our local agent made a run for it towards Copper and the Prof but was brought down. His job was to try and collect the inscription the tribesmen were holding but I suspect he got wound up chatting with his cousins. When the bullets started flying he just kept his head down and did nothing! Still, Copper made it inside the tomb and was about to collect the fulcrum when something attacked him!” 

“Something?” asked the Brigadier. 

“Well, the Prof was standing in the doorway to the tomb and swore that something emerged from the sarcophagus and attacked poor old Copper. Something wearing wrappings!” 

“Good Lord, a mummy! Far too many of these dashed things have been popping up lately! We had reports of one elsewhere in the desert a few months ago!” said the Brigadier. 

“Then one of the Huns piled in too and poor old Copper went down. Marx was lucky to escape when he did, as by then the tomb was also infested with Arabs. 

Anyway, the. Germans made off with the artefact, leaving us with three casualties including poor old Copper!” 

“So what now? Your chaps at P.I.T.H aren’t going to be too happy!” 

“Yes. I hope they let me go after the Germans! Next time I’m going to suggest that I take Copper’s sister Caroline.” 

Well, I thought you already had, thought the Brigadier. According to the gossip in the bar at the Shepheard’s anyway. “She’s just a gel!” he said, recalling the tall redhead he had met at a dance in the Continental-Savoy a few weeks before.  Not his type at all.  Far too assertive for a woman.  And too tall.

“Yes, but she is a crack shot, fit as a fig and game as anything. Also, she will want to avenge her brother!” said Stewart, recalling watching her race up the Great Pyramid the previous week. She can certainly shoot better than the useless soldiers the brigadier had provided, he thought. He knew he should have held out for some Sikhs. 

“Well, we’ll support you, of course but the Nazis may have spirited the thing away! To Berlin!” said the Brigadier. "They seem damned good at spiriting artefacts out of Egypt!"

“Probably on its way to the Neues Museum as we speak!” agreed Stewart. 

He had left the barracks to meet up with Caroline and give her the bad news about her brother. He was surprised by her indifference as Copper always seemed to be very proud of his younger sister. There had been, however, some sort of incident between them at some point in the past, he gathered. “So, that’s the story!” he said. “I’m afraid we couldn’t recover his body. Hopefully the Germans will have seen him right.” 

“I would not bet on that!” said Caroline. She had had a poor opinion of Germans following a visit to Kiel two years ago to watch the Olympic sailing competition. They tried too hard to win, she decided. 

“So, are you going after the Germans? I’d like to help!” she said.

“As a member of the Palestine Exploration Fund yourself I can, of course recommend you to my masters in P.I.T.H.” he said. 

“Can or will?” she asked stroking his haunches with her toes. 

“Your abilities are not in question. Feminine wiles are unnecessary!” he smiled. 

“I thought you enjoyed my feminine wiles,” she said. 

“Well, it is not certain that P.I.T.H will use me on their next mission. The next part of the Scales of Anubis could be located anywhere on earth!” He had seen a report about South America. 

She frowned.  Was he putting her off?  Putting her off because she was a woman? She would not take that!  “Perhaps I need to go to London!” she said. She could take the Imperial Airways flying boat from Alexandria and be in London in two days. She could see her father and try to distract him from his Italian piece. 

 “Well I’ll miss you if you go!” said Stewart, relieved. 

“How sweet. Now why don’t you wash my front?” she said picking up the soap and handing it to him. 

“Don’t you mean your back?” he asked. 

“Well, that would be a lot less fun!” she declared.