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AUTHOR: Elyse Deschamps
TITLE: A Night On The Town
SUMMARY: A quiet drink with the lads turns into Rick's worst nightmare when he is arrested for a crime he can't quite remember having committed...
DISCLAIMER: I don't own any of The Mummy characters. Shame, that.
NOTE: The RAF was established in 1922 from the Royal Flying Corps of WW1. Winston Havlock definitely belonged to the ranks of the RFC, and we assume in The Mummy that he maintained his (somewhat dubious) position when the RAF came into being. Thus both RFC and RAF are used pretty interchangeably in this fic.
I asked a Moslem friend precisely what one would have to do to merit death by hanging. Her answer was as follows...
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A N I G H T O N T H E T O W N
B y E l y s e D e s c h a m p s
Never trust a RAF pilot when he tells you he knows of 'a nice little place for a few quiet drinks.'
Trust him even less if it's his birthday.
I considered Winston Havlock to be a friend, which just goes to show how too much drink can impair your judgement. Winston's judgement had vanished long ago, along with most of his sense, although he still managed to keep his taste for booze alive. Now, I'm not one to slander a man, and I certainly don't want to cast doubt on the sterling role of His Majesty's Royal Flying Corps during the Great War, but in my opinion, if Winston's the prime example of the Cairo division, then I'm sure as hell glad that I never met the rest of his 'laddies'.
"O'Connell!" he cried, in that voice that suggested a hernia coming on, "O'Connell, my boy, it's my birthday, and we must celebrate in style."
I winced. 'Style' has always been a relative word with Winston. Not that I'm very choosy about where I drink, but still - one has to keep up appearances. Or in my case, I shouldn't keep up appearances: not since I deserted from the Foreign Legion. I couldn't imagine that anyone would be looking too hard for me, especially since, as far as top brass back in Algiers were concerned, our whole damn garrison had gone AWOL, and none of us had exactly left a forwarding address.
Still, it pays to be careful.
"Uh, sure Winston," I said, pasting a game smile on my face. "Where d'you want to go?"
"Shepheard's!" he guffawed, flinging one arm into the air dramatically. "That's the place for a man like me, my boy!"
I didn't have the heart to tell him that the manager probably wouldn't let us get as far as the kitchens, let alone the bar, so I carried on grinning stupidly. "Sure, let's go."
Winston chortled again and plopped off his chair to go look in the flyblown mirror. God knows what he thought he saw reflected in there: not the same as what I saw, that's for certain. A fat, middle-aged wash-out with bad breath and a drink problem, wearing a tatty Bedouin riding cloak over a scruffy uniform that had gone out with the ark, and smelt like it, too. But he was still my pal, and I'd had worse-smelling room-mates out with the Legion (Beni Gabor springs to mind for some reason).
Besides, a guy in my position - on the run - can't exactly be picky about where he sleeps. It was only by appealing to our old friendship (and to his wallet) that I convinced Winston to let me bunk down with him in Fort Brydon. After all, the safest place to hide from one military organisation is with another...
We headed out onto the streets, sidestepping the camel dung and breathing in the fine evening air, redolent of... well, camel dung. Don't believe people when they tell you that Cairo is pretty, either, cos it's not true. Not the Cairo I know, anyhow. It's crowded and stinking and full of thieves of all colours and creeds. I should know, I drank with most of 'em. When you've grown up in a city like this, you never shake free of it, no matter how hard you try.
I never tried too hard. What I learnt on the streets came in pretty damn handy out in the desert, but I didn't want to start thinking about that.
"So Winston, how old are you today?" I asked, genuinely curious. I'd known him since I was a lad, when he'd been dashing Captain Havlock, a hero, a man to emulate, not just another drinking buddy.
"Rick my boy, I believe I am 45," Winston said happily. "Twice the age of the laddies I fought with in the Great War..."
"Uh-huh. Is that a fact."
As we squeezed through the narrow streets, heading in the general direction of Shepheard's Hotel, a small, rat-like Arab came sneaking out an alleyway just ahead of us. He looked pretty shifty to me, but then, so do a lot of people. I guess I'm just a cautious man at heart. He looked at us like we were his long-lost friends, and a big grin split his face.
"Hello gentlemen, may I interest you in some fine entertainment, only six piastres each..."
Normally I don't respond to such invitations, but since Winston had decided that the evening was to be my treat (after all, why should Birthday Boy pay for anything), and even a drink of water at Shepheard's was going to stretch my budget, then I thought we should check this place out.
Six piastres a head was also real cheap.
Not that I'm mean or anything, but... I think you get my drift here.
"Fine entertainment, huh?" I commented to Rat-Face.
"Oh yes, sir, you will have a good time. A very good time," he assured me, bobbing his head as he kept pace with us.
Something in his squeaky voice made me wonder if perhaps this wasn't the kind of joint I should be taking a man almost old enough to be my father.
I was watching our back, ready for any signs of trouble. I knew a common enough trick in Cairo was for a local to offer to guide a hapless Westerner in search of a good time, luring them deep into the maze of alleys and backstreets, getting them totally lost, before setting upon them with a gang of pals and robbing the Westerner blind.
If Rat-Face was hoping to do the same with us, then he was obviously an idiot. Neither Winston nor myself looked particularly rich, although he might have fancied the RAF insignia or even my boots, which were almost new.
But we were in luck. Nobody robbed us. I guess they were waiting until we actually got inside the place first. I'm telling you, I've seen places in Cairo that'd make your skin crawl just to even think about 'em, let alone drink in them, but this joint topped the lot. It didn't even have a sign hanging over its poor excuse of a door. Rat-Face led us in like it was the Ritz, and we shuffled through God-knows-what on the stairs before crossing a dingy corridor. There was a real strange smell in that corridor, like opium (not that I know much about that particular narcotic, you understand) mixed with blood. Kinda creepy, really.
Our salubrious guide finally reached another door, hidden behind a tatty curtain, and he muttered some 'open sesame' to his pal inside. The door was thrown open, and it's safe to say that Winston - and myself - were both pretty stunned.
The bar was in one of those old semi-underground houses the Mamelukes built, the ones that were so difficult to case 'cos you could never tell where one ended and the next began, and it ran out into a sunken walled courtyard. Okay, so it wasn't exactly the Mena House, but it was a damn sight better than I'd been expecting. I began to wonder if the cover charge just covered our walk down the corridor.
Conversation had stopped as we came in. That wasn't too difficult, given that there were only a few folk in the joint to start with. Over in the corner sat an old man with a beard and a dirty turban, smoking a hubble-bubble and rocking back and forth. A younger man was with him, face-down on the table. Now that was more like the kind of thing I expected from a place like this. Out by the garden, another old guy was sweeping up with a twig-broom, in a kind of monotonous rhythm. Maybe I was imagining things, but there was an air of tension as we walked in. Maybe they'd just had the tab, I don't know.
"Come in, sit down, my friends!" Rat-Face urged us, pulling out a couple of chairs from a clean(ish) table near the bar.
I sat down, keeping one hand on my wallet. When the customer goes from being 'sir' to 'my friend' within the space of half-an-hour, somebody's on the make.
Rat-Face's pal slid over to us, trying to be all obsequious but failing due to a lack of sincerity. "What can I get you to drink, gentlemen?"
Winston banged his fist on the table. It wobbled, but it didn't fall apart. I like that quality in a table. "Champagne, sir!" shouted my dear friend. "We want a bottle of your finest champagne, to celebrate my birthday, ha haa!"
"Certainly, sir," oozed the barkeep, and off he went. I tried not to think too hard about the 'champagne' we'd be served with. If we were lucky, it'd just taste like syrup. If we weren't lucky, then our genial host might just spit in it to work up the requisite bubble effect.
You think I'm joking. One day I'll tell you what really goes on in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant. You'll never touch their 'special sauce' again. But, as I was saying...
The champagne came in a pretty green bottle. I'd seen this sort of thing before, when I was in Paris the night I, uh, joined the Foreign Legion. It didn't exactly bring back a flood of good memories. Winston also recognised the brand, but he was more impressed than I was.
"Perrier-Jouet!" he gasped, pawing at the bottle like he expected a genie to pop out of it.
I glanced around. No way was this the real thing, and I sure as hell wasn't gonna pay for looking at the pretty bottle and pretending it was the real thing. Rat-Face had cleared off somewhere, probably to find more suckers like us.
Winston had no such problem. He wrestled the cork out of the bottle and gave me a fatuous grin when some of the fizz bubbled out. Man, if that wasn't the real thing, then I didn't want to know what it really was. Two shot glasses were dumped on our table. Real classy. Winston poured; it looked like champagne.
"Happy birthday, old man," I said, raising the glass and knocking it back.
Ye Gods and little fishes, it was real champagne!
Hurriedly I put the glass down. I only had thirty dollars in my pocket. Maybe we could put the cork back in or something. Champagne that good didn't come for cheap, and I should know it. Drinking this stuff before had given me a bar-tab so huge that the only way to get out of paying was to skip the country. That's where the Foreign Legion came in. I sure as hell wasn't going down that road again...
"Ha haa, my boy, this is the life, isn't it!" Winston chortled, and I nodded dumbly. He topped up our glasses again. With Winston, drinking is an art form. It was almost a joy to watch him savour those first few sips of the stuff. Of course, after those first few sips, he's knocking it back like it's water. It probably is like water to him. Winston is such a lush he could pass for an oasis.
I signalled to the barkeep, who hustled over to the table with the same fixed sleazy smile.
"Uh, how much...?" I asked delicately, indicating the green bottle.
The barkeep kept on smiling. "Oh, sir, do not worry, we have many, many more bottles for you to enjoy!"
That's what I was afraid of.
Winston overheard. "O'Connell, my lad, this is a marvellous little place we've discovered," he grinned. "More champagne, I say!"
I leaned over the rickety table. "Uh, Winston, you might need to help me out with the tab," I whispered.
"Oh, sir!" fluttered the barkeep, "do not worry! It is the gentleman's birthday, so this is on the house!"
"Jolly good show!" Winston shouted, pounding the table again.
I sat back and took another drink. Nothing comes for free in this life, and I wondered what the catch was. I decided to keep my wits about me. In the meantime, it was a sin to waste such good booze.
An hour or so later, the joint had picked up. A group of Arabs had come in and joined the old guy at his hubble-bubble, and his young friend had woken up and started drinking again. For a while I thought they were giving us funny looks, but then, people do that when I'm out with Winston anyway.
Now, as any bartender in any of the dives around Cairo will tell you, when Winston gets even remotely plastered, he'll start spouting his war stories. That night was no exception. There were unfamiliar faces in the room, which always encourages him to tell the old favourites. Again. And again.
"...and so, when I saw those Turkish fellows in their little Fokkers coming at me out of the sun, I immediately looped-the-loop, and flew right at 'em, scaring the poor devils. They scattered all over the sky, and Charlie - he was a good laddy, was Charlie, he was my gunner, you know - he opened fire with the Lewis gun, pop-pop-pop, and down they all went. Ha haa, yes, those were good times..."
I nodded. Encouragement with Winston never needed to be spoken. He just took it for granted that you'd be fascinated. I took another swig of my drink for good measure, as after the tale of The Day I Shot Down Five Turkish Fighters came the equally improbable The Day I Piloted Lawrence of Arabia To Azrak, Shooting Down Eight Turkish Fighters On The Way. I often wondered if Winston's figures for the number of planes he'd shot down were in any way related the fact that he was blind drunk when he took off.
I glanced at the door as our rat-faced guide reappeared, shepherding in five American tourists, all young roisterers hell-bent on looking for a good time. Our friendly barkeep served them the posh champagne, but one of the Yanks spat the stuff out and demanded bourbon. That sounded like a good idea to me. I think by this point that Winston and I had had about three or four bottles of the fizz, and my head was starting to spin. Time to switch to the safe stuff.
"...and he said to me, "Winston, old friend, I just don't know what I'd have done without you. We would never have escaped those nine Turkish fighters without your superb piloting-"
I shook my head and tried to look attentive. The bar was really filling up now, and it was getting hot and smoky. The sickly-sweet smell from the corridor started up inside, and I turned to see where it was coming from. A skinny-looking chap in khaki was sitting in a corner, smoking a long clay pipe and humming to himself, his eyes completely blank. Opium has never been my poison, but it was a common enough diversion in Cairo. Its stench just added to my buzzing head. I knocked back a shot of bourbon and focused on Winston with some trouble.
"Hel-lo chaps!" cried a cheery English voice, the sort of voice that was born with silver spoons in it. I managed to turn, my elbow wobbling on the edge of the table so that I nearly pitched face-first onto the floor. How in the hell could I be that drunk?
"Oops-a-daisy!" continued the voice, and he neatly caught my glass as it rolled off the table. Pity he didn't also catch me, as my face followed my elbow and made contact with the table. I groaned and shut my eyes, my nose squashed against the wood. I didn't want to think what else had been on that table. Right then, it was as welcoming as a Kasbah whore in a feather bed (not that I've had much experience with that sort of thing. Friends have told me about it. Friends of friends, actually. Anyway...).
"Dearie me, Winston old bean, seems like your friend's had a drop too much," said Silver-Spoon voice. "A man after my own heart, what! Ha ha!"
What is about the British that makes them say 'ha ha' after every sentence? I opened my eyes and rotated my head as far as I was able to, without lifting my skull off the table. My hair was in my eyes, but I could see Winston's new friend with the posh voice. Forget silver spoons, he looked like he'd swap them for nickel-coated spoons as soon as his doting parents' backs were turned. I thought disreputable was my middle name, but then, I hadn't had much of a repuation to ruin in the first place. This guy looked like he had, and then some.
Now he was helping himself to some of my bourbon. The hell with that! I levered myself up from the table's embrace and snatched the bottle back off him.
"I say..." he began.
"Winston," I said, my tongue trying to remember how to talk, "Winston, who the hell is this limey sap?"
Winston chortled. "Ha haa, O'Connell lad, you must know who my good friend here is!"
I shook my head - slowly, though. It was too soon for vigorous head-shaking.
"Well, everybody knows him," Winston beamed. "Everybody! Friends with every bartender in Cairo, isn't that right, laddy!"
The limey nodded, inching his hand out towards the bourbon again. Like I wouldn't notice that! I slapped my glass down, hard, on his knuckles. He yelped, and gave me a real dirty look. Like I cared.
"Who is he, then?" I asked, pouring another shot of bourbon.
Winston scrunched up his face. "He's... erm, he's... Whatsit!" He seemed very pleased with this. "Yes, Whatsisname is called Whatsit."
Whatsit laughed like this was the funniest thing he'd heard all day. Maybe it had been. He patted Winston on the head and swiped his drink with the other.
"So, Whatsit, who are you really?" I asked again, managing to support my head on one hand while I rested the other across my pocket. I'd seen guys with his shifty eyes and nimble fingers before, and drunk though I might be, I was taking no chances.
"Oh... my name is Howard Carter," he said finally.
Was I the only one to notice that slight hesitation before he'd said the name?
Winston smacked the table again. "Yes! Howard, little Howie, good laddy! Have a drink with us!"
"Don't mind if I do," said Whatsit Howard Carter, reaching for the bourbon again. This time I let it go.
"Didn't you used to have a beard?" I said mildly.
"Me? No, old chap, you must be confusing me with - oh, hang on, yes I did. Just for a few months, though. Didn't really suit me, you know." Our new friend Whatsit grinned inanely at me then swigged from the bottle. I really hate it when people do that, so I called for a new one.
"What a marvellous little place this is," Whatsit said appreciatively, glancing around. "Just the place to come for a good time."
"Speak for yourself," I mumbled. So far I wasn't having that much of a good time. I guessed there'd be some fun and games when the bill arrived, though.
Winston had just started telling Whatsit his latest war story when there was a stir, a ripple of awareness in the crowd. I moved my head just enough to look beyond the bar at the garden area, where a couple of musicians were shuffling into the courtyard. The barkeep leapt up and motioned to the hubble-bubble smokers to shift themselves, and their places were taken by the musicians. One had a hand drum, the other had a pipe, and the third started to clap his hands and drone in a nasal whine.
"Ah, the entertainment!" Whatsit said with some satisfaction. Obviously he'd been spun the same line as we had. I paid a bit more attention to the courtyard. I hoped there'd be a belly-dancer. I'm quite fond of belly-dancers. I got a lot of nice memories about belly-dancers, in fact, but that's a story for another day...
The drummer picked up the beat, and we all leaned forwards as the curtain across the door was flung aside.
"Good Lord," said Whatsit.
I buried my nose in my drink. She was a belly-dancer alright, monstrously fat and wearing more pink chiffon than was humanly possible. It was probably a good thing. She undulated to the centre of the courtyard and opened her mouth. The sound that emerged was probably heard in Timbuktu. Even Winston winced.
The Arabs clearly loved it. As I lifted the bourbon again, I caught the eye of one of the Americans. He grimaced, and I nodded. Fellow sufferers. The only Westerner in the joint that seemed to like the din was the opium addict, but then, there's no accounting for taste.
Pink Chiffon got loud applause for her act, then as she wobbled off like a plate of blancmange, a young, slender girl crept out. Most of the Arabs turned away, but us Westerners perked up. I had the hazy thought that the barkeep was a clever man, to appeal to both types of his clientele. The drummer began the beat again, tapping out a slow rhythm as the girl started her dance.
I leaned back in the chair, swinging on its back legs to get the full view. She was something else, in that silver and black bikini thing with the sparkly silver chains chinking and jingling as she moved.
"Good Lord," said Whatsit again, this time in a whole different tone of voice.
The drummer crouched low, hands a blur as the tempo increased. The dancer went into a series of vivid grinds, clicking her fingers sharply and spread-eagling herself in the air. No prizes for subtlety here, but I wasn't complaining. She moaned and shuddered, her lithe body giving a final ecstatic writhe, and she was out of it, twirling about on the ground like a spinning-top. A muscle of my own stirred in sympathy for her.
There was a thump as Winston finally passed out. I guess the combination of fine wine, cheap whiskey and sultry Egyptian dancer had done for him. Unfortunately, it also did for the table, which split down the middle, spilling our drinks everywhere, sending Winston crashing through it, and sending me rocking back on my chair to collapse on the floor.
The drummer never missed a beat. Guess he saw it all the time.
I lay on the floor a while, waiting for the room to stop spinning. I could hear my fellow Americans laughing themselves silly, then a pair of shapely feet stopped beside me. I looked up. Shapely ankles followed the feet, then a pair of knock-out legs, all oiled and glistening with sweat, then those silvery knickers and... Well, I thought I might as well just stay on the floor when the view was that good.
"Hi honey," I grinned at the belly-dancer.
She smiled back, then knelt down beside me, her long black hair sweeping across my chest and neck as she leaned over. She smelled of some heavy spicy scent, and I watched a few droplets of sweat run down from her collarbones into the valley between her breasts. Really, a man couldn't wish to be in a better position than on the floor of a sleazy dive in Cairo.
She straightened up. "Is this yours?" she asked, her English heavily accented. In her hand she held the little golden puzzle box I'd found out in the desert. I'd been meaning to hock the damn thing a few days ago, but Winston had advised me to offer it to the Museum of Antiquities first.
"Uh, yeah," I said, reaching out for it.
"What is that?" Whatsit asked, snatching it from the dancer's hand before I could get it back.
"Just some worthless tat I found," I snapped, sitting up.
"I say! Is that gold?" Whatsit was turning the box around like he was some sort of expert, frowning at the wiggly patterns on the outside. "Crikey! It says -"
"Never mind." I grabbed it off him and stuffed it back into my pocket, giving him a glare. "You see to Winston," I ordered, then I clumsily righted my chair and sat back down, beckoning the belly-dancer over and patting my knee. "Here, honey, sit down with me."
"Oh, please!" sneered Whatsit. I think he was jealous.
The other Americans certainly were. "Hey baby, don't waste your time with him!" one shouted, and another waved a wad of cash. I noticed the sudden interest of the Arab crowd when the money was displayed. Poor fools, I thought. Serves them right.
The dancer slid onto my knee and curled her arms about my neck, smiling down at me. I grinned again. I won't say I was tongue-tied or anything, but I'd been away from women for a long time. Being in the Foreign Legion might sound romantic, but it's not when you're stuck in some remote part of Libya with a bunch of other sweaty degenerates. Well, it could be if you liked that sort of thing, I suppose, but I'm strictly a ladies' man, and this little miss was all woman. It's hard not to notice these things when she was wearing so very little.
"Will you get for me a drink?" she asked, her little pink tongue poking out between her teeth as she gazed at me.
"Sure." I waved a hand in the air, and the barkeep hurried over.
"Champagne," the little minx purred, and I nodded.
After another bottle, life looked very good. My head was spinning so much I thought it might fall off, and I was having a hard time seeing single images. Everything was slowly splitting into two, merging together, then splitting again. It really was quite funny. I couldn't remember the last time I'd felt so drunk.
"You are having a good time, yes?" my belly-dancer asked.
"Sure honey, a very good time," I leered at her.
"Shall we make it better than very good...?" she asked, rising to her feet gracefully and holding out her hand.
Now this was more like it! "Whatever you say," I said, stumbling out the chair. She laughed as I stood there, weaving on my feet. Funny how you can feel absolutely fine one minute, then bloody awful the next. And funny how you still feel happy even when you fall down, and it's almost hilarious when you pass out...
When I came round, the bar was closed. Thank God, I thought, I've missed last orders.
I was lying where I'd fallen, in an untidy heap beside the broken table and amongst the wreckage of the chair. I sat up groggily, head swinging, and I managed to hawk enough saliva into my mouth to spit onto the dirty floor. It felt like some small rodent had crawled inside my head and used it for a toilet. My eyes were sticky, and there was bourbon in my hair. At least I hadn't puked over myself. There was a God.
I wiped the back of my hand across my mouth and slowly eased my aching neck and shoulder muscles with a groan. I really had to stop sleeping on the floor. It was making me an old man before my time. I patted down my pockets, giving a rueful little grunt when I realised that my wallet had been lifted. No doubt my charming belly-dancing companion was long gone with it. I wished her much joy of it. My grin faded when I discovered that the little bitch had also taken the gold puzzle-box. I felt cheated. The money hadn't exactly been mine in the first place, but that stupid trinket box had been all I had left to remind me of that little adventure in the desert with my garrison.
Maybe it was better that she'd stolen it. I had no real fond memories of those guys anyway. And who wanted to be reminded of the absolute terror of being stranded in the scorching midday heat, with a pack of wild Bedouin tribesmen watching their every move?
I shivered, then forced myself to attend to more immediate things. Like, getting out of there. With a groan, I got to my feet and steadied myself against the ruined table. I scraped my hair from my eyes and looked around. I was the only person left in the room. That was good. Then I realised that it wasn't good at all. Where the hell was Winston? He'd been totally cut, and I remembered him passing out some time before my own memory became a blank.
I knew Winston. I'd seen him pass out before, and there was no way he'd be waking up before eleven o'clock at the earliest. I lifted my wrist to take a look at the time, then swore when I realised that the dancer had lifted that, too.
I shambled outside into the courtyard and leaned against a date-palm to look up at the sky. It was that murky half-light before dawn, and I estimated it was about five o'clock. So where was my blotto pal? I wondered if Whatsit had taken him off somewhere, but I couldn't remember exactly where Whatsit had gone to. He seemed the kind of guy who'd leave his friends in an unconscious heap anyway. I know I would, with friends like mine. Likewise, I couldn't imagine the barkeep or Rat-Face being kind enough to take care of Winston.
I clutched the palm tree a little harder, trying to remember all the details of our night out. The drinks were free. That was important. Free drinks means trouble. And it looked like Winston was in it up to his fat head.
I pushed away from the tree and staggered across the courtyard, peering up at the shuttered windows. "Winston!" I shouted. "Hey, Winston!"
Not a sound.
I went back indoors. My head ached like hell, and my stomach grumbled with hunger. I ignored both, getting worried. Something was very, very wrong here. I crossed the room to the door behind the curtain, and tugged at the latch.
It was locked. Now there was a surprise. The bad feeling increased.
I punched the door. I got a splinter. Sucking my knuckles to draw the splinter out, I wandered around the room looking for another exit. The little door behind the bar led to a wine-cellar, stocked with dozens of bottles of Perrier-Jouet. The barkeep hadn't been kidding when he said there were plenty more. I wondered vaguely where he got them from.
I went back outside to the courtyard and looked around again. If I climbed the palm tree, I could probably swing across to one of the rooms on the upper storey, as long as I could kick the shutters in first. It seemed as good a plan as any, so I started to shin up the tree. I was pleased with my almost-new boots; they gripped the husky bark pretty well, although it took me a good five minutes to reach the big, jagged-edged leaves at the top of the tree.
I could see over the top of the wall on the other side of the courtyard, and admired the view for a moment. There's nothing like tenements. And I recognised them, too: for all our backtracking through the alleys yesterday, we'd ended up close to where we first met Rat-Face.
I clambered a little higher, into the leaves, and felt the tree sway dangerously beneath my weight. I rocked back and forth, sticking my head up over the thrashing leaves as I aimed the tree for the nearest window. It didn't quite reach, but it'd have to do. I wobbled the tree again, then swung forwards like a demented Tarzan, my feet kicking out at the shutters.
The wood splintered and crashed open, and I let go of the tree and grabbed for the sill. Great: more damn splinters. I pulled myself up into the room and rolled onto the floor, nursing my hands. Winston had better appreciate this, I thought uncharitably.
The room was empty, a store-room of sorts, full of boxes and crates. I got to my feet and tried the door. It opened, and I slipped out into the corridor.
"Winston!" I called again. Still no reply. I wondered where the barkeep and his pal were. I was making enough noise to wake the dead - although obviously, not enough noise to wake the drunk. I stumbled on, trying every door I came to, my headache getting worse by the second. Where the hell was he? This dump couldn't have that many rooms!
"Winston!" I paused, listening hard, but all I could hear was the pounding of my hangover. Then I heard something else: a gargling, spluttering sound. I knew that sound. I'd had to listen to it night after night over the last few weeks: the sound of Captain Havlock snoring.
"Winston, you chump!" I shouted, heading for the noise, down a flight of rickety stairs. I stopped as I realised I was in the same corridor we'd entered the club from, last night. It still smelt the same, opium and that indefinable something nasty. That gravelling snore came again, and I all but kicked down the door that it came from, relief washing over me as I saw Winston's bulk flat-out on the bed, his mouth hanging open. "Winston -" I began, then I stopped.
My buddy Winston wasn't alone.
The shape next to him on the bed was distinctly feminine, all lush curves beneath the clinging bedclothes, but she clearly hadn't had a good time the night before.
She was dead.
I tiptoed into the room, closing the door behind me as quietly as I could. God knows why I did that; I mean, I'd been charging about the place like a herd of elephants, and now I was worried about a creaky door-hinge. I took a step closer to the bed, and whisked the cover from the woman. Immediately I wished I hadn't. The funny smell that I'd noticed in the corridor had its origin right here.
The girl had had her throat cut, and her blood had pooled where she lay, stiffened into the sheets. Her eyes still stared lifelessly at the ceiling, great dark orbs that crawled with flies. I waved my hand over her face, swatting the bugs away, and the flies rose in a little buzzing cloud from her corpse. I fought the urge to be violently sick, and carefully, trembling, I reached out with one hand and closed her eyes.
Her skin was cold and clammy. I pulled my hand back and wiped my fingers down the side of my trousers, shuddering. The girl was not my belly-dancer friend of the previous night, but she looked a lot like her. My eyes followed the spray of arterial blood up the wall and across the ceiling with detached interest. Not a clean way of killing, that, but always effective. I'd seen it done plenty of times when I was with the Legion. I pulled the covers back over the girl, then turned to my drunken friend.
Winston hadn't killed her. That much was obvious. The girl had been dead before we'd gone into the bar yesterday, and although there was some blood decorating Winston's tatty uniform, it had got there when he was dumped on the bed sometime last night.
Now, what the hell was I going to do about this mess? It all added up now: the free drinks, the belly-dancer... Rat-Face had managed to pick up a motley crew, and it was obvious that one of us was going to be set up to carry the rap for this murder. The Americans had stuck together, Whatsit must've scarpered, I was too hard-headed - which left Winston. The fact that he was a serving member of His Majesty's Royal Air Force was probably a bonus factor. The Egyptians never made much show of liking their former imperial masters, and their new independence still sat pretty uneasily with them.
I edged around the bed, looking down at Winston's blissful features. I wondered how I was going to wake him up and explain the situation to him calmly. If he woke up next to the girl, he'd probably have a stroke right there, then I'd have two stiffs to deal with. There was also another problem. We'd been set up, and so here we were: the victim, the context, the drunken sot - now all we needed were the police breaking down the door.
The house was still quiet. I guessed that the barkeep wanted to stay well clear of the premises when the police bust came. I felt the same way. I badly wanted to hightail it out of there, but Winston was my buddy, and I couldn't leave him to be the stool-pigeon.
I shifted round the bed again, an idea coming to mind. If I could shift the girl, maybe just under the bed or into a closet, then I could wake Winston and hustle him out of there, and he'd be none the wiser. All I needed was for him to get a whiff of this and he'd start turning it into one of his tall tales at the drop of a whiskey tumbler. I looked around hopefully, and found another blanket folded onto a shelf nearby. I shook it out, disturbing the moths, and draped it over the girl beneath the sheet. Then I tucked it clumsily around her body, and, holding my breath, I lifted her up in my arms.
Let me tell you, rigor mortis is deeply unpleasant. I've seen and felt many appalling things, but that's gotta be the worst thing I've ever had to do.
Even worse, the blood beneath her throat was still wet, and when I moved her body, it leaked out and ran over my jacket, splashed down my trousers, and spattered onto my almost-new boots.
Nausea clawed at my stomach, and it was all I could do not to drop my repulsive burden to the floor. I kept telling myself that she'd been a warm, beautiful woman only twenty-four hours ago, but you try holding that thought when all you can smell is death.
I had just put her down as gently as I could onto the floor when I heard the sound I'd been dreading.
"Police! Open up!"
On the bed, Winston sat up suddenly with a snort. "Whasgoinon?" he mumbled, bleary-eyed.
I popped up from the floor, trying for the cheery approach. "Hey, Winston, how're you doing?"
He stared at me for a moment, still groggy with booze. "Rick, m'boy, what are you doing here? What am I doing here? Where is here?" He looked towards the window in a daze, and I quickly flicked the covers back over the worst of the blood. I just hoped he wouldn't start looking at the wall behind him, or the ceiling.
I jumped up and stepped over the dead girl, my grin still in place. "Come on, Winston. Time to go," I coaxed.
"I don't feel too good," he complained. "My head hurts."
"We all got our little problems today, haven't we, Winston," I said.
"Open the door! Police!"
Winston turned his rheumy eyes towards the noise. "By Jove, who's making that row?" he demanded peevishly.
"Oh, I think we didn't pay the bill last night and so the landlord has sent the police after us," I improvised wildly.
That did the trick. "Bill? But I thought you were paying!" he said, eyes accusing.
"Well..." I grabbed his arm, shoving him towards the window. I looked out into a narrow alley filled with trash. "C'mon. Through here."
Winston struggled to his feet. "My God, O'Connell, what's that awful stench?"
"The bins," I lied, although they did smell pretty bad once I'd opened the shutters.
The pounding on the outside door got louder. Any minute now and they'd be breaking through. "Come on, Winston, time to go!"
He took a few steps towards me, then stopped, looking at me in horror. "Laddy, you're covered in blood! Are you hurt?"
"Yes!" I hissed, propelling him towards the window. "Just go, Winston!"
The outside door crashed open with splintering force, and I shoved Winston out of the window with all the energy left in my body. He toppled out with a muffled shout, and landed in the rubbish. I stuck my head out of the window, motioning him away. "Go! Go!"
The police were in the corridor now, exclaiming at the smell.
I turned back to the window and heaved myself up onto the sill, preparing to drop into the alley below, when a hand grabbed my ankle. I sort of hung out of the window stupidly, like a fish on a line, then I was pulled slowly back inside until I landed on the floor with a thud.
I turned over, and someone kicked me in the ribs.
Cautiously, I looked up. Six of Cairo's finest stood there, staring down at me with curious expressions of satisfaction on their ugly faces.
"And where do you think you're going?" the leader asked.
"Hey, don't mind me," I grinned weakly. "It's not like it looks, honest."
Then the one closest to me hit me again, and I fell back into the darkness.
When I came round this time, I was lying in a pile of straw that smelt like camel dung. Or maybe that was just me. I rolled over, my bruised rib ached, making me catch my breath. If that bastard had broken it, I'd...
A pair of boots in front of me. Dirty boots, no pretty ankles and sexy legs this time. Just dirt and grime and filth. I looked up at a fat little man in grubby clothes and a truly rancid fez.
"I am Gad Hassan, Chief Warden of this fine establishment," said the man with a broad grin, displaying an advanced state of gum disease.
"Bully for you," I said, showing him my own even white teeth.
He didn't seem too impressed. "What were you doing in that place?"
I rolled my eyes. "I was just looking for a good time."
"You went alone to seek this good time?" the Warden asked, suspicious.
"Hey - you think I'm the kind of guy who'd let my buddies watch?" I replied with a knowing leer.
Gad Hassan clicked his tongue, a look of disgust on his ugly face. "So. After you had your good time, you could not pay her, and so killed her? Right?"
I sighed. "No! I didn't kill anyone!"
"That is not what I am hearing from my contacts. They say you had a very good time. And she was a married lady, wife of an important merchant -"
My head jerked up. Shit! That was the first I'd heard of that. No wonder I was in the clink. "Hey, uh, I think this is all just a big mistake," I said. "A real big mistake."
The Warden leaned against the door and began to pick his teeth idly. "Yes. Perhaps it is."
"Anyone with eyes in their head can see it was a set-up," I continued hopefully. "The girl was already dead... They just needed a sucker."
"Which you were only too happy to provide them with, my fine American friend," Gad Hassan finished for me.
Well, that was true enough. I smiled in what I hoped was a winning way. "All a misunderstanding, see?"
The Warden nodded. "Yes. But it will not be so easy to free you. If you were to... offer me a small donation, I would be quite happy to sign the necessary documents."
I blinked at him. "Money? You mean - a bribe?"
The Warden looked mortally offended. "A token of your appreciation."
I glanced around the cramped cell with its soiled straw and miserly bowl of bread and water. "Yeah, I'm real appreciative." I looked up at him again. "I don't have any money. Not on me. If you'll let me out, I can -"
"Oh dear!" Gad Hassan threw his hands in the air like some ham actor. "If you have no money, then I'm afraid you must stay here. Be of good cheer, though, my dear American. Your stay here will be of only a small duration."
I didn't like the sound of that, and I didn't like the way he was grinning at me, either. "Why's that?" I asked, slowly.
The Warden's grin threatened to bust right off his face. "Because, my friend, in two days, you will hang."
That was the last time I'd ever go looking for a good time with Winston. Now all I needed was a miracle to get me out of there.
But that, as you know, is a whole other story...