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Book Two of the Jerusalem Quartet
By Edward Whittemore
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 Edward Whittemore
All rights reserved.
The end had come. Jerusalem lay on the table. At last it was a case of winner take all in the eternal city.
The great Jerusalem poker Game for secret control of the city, the ruin of so many adventurers in the period between the two world wars, continued for twelve years before it finally spent itself.
During that time thousands of gamblers from around the world lost fortunes trying to win the Holy City, but in the end there were only three men at the table, the same three who had been there in the beginning.
Twelve years of ferocious poker for the highest of stakes after an initial hand was dealt by chance one cold December day in 1921—seemingly by chance, to pass the time that gray afternoon in Jerusalem when the sky was heavily overcast and wind whipped through the alleys, snow definitely in the air.
A cheap Arab coffee shop in the Old City where young O'Sullivan Beare sat crouched in a corner over a glass of wretched Arab cognac, a disillusioned Irish patriot who had fought in the Easter Rebellion at the age of sixteen and gone on to be revered as the biggest of the little people when he was terrorizing the Black and Tans in the hills of southern Ireland, a fugitive who had escaped to Palestine disguised as a Poor Clare nun on a pilgrimage.
A lonely hero still only twenty-one years old, wearing as an unlikely disguise that day the uniform of an officer of light cavalry in Her Majesty's expeditionary force to the Crimea, 1854, the medals on his chest showing he had survived a famous suicidal charge and been awarded the Victoria Cross because of it, far from home now huddled over a glass of Arab cognac that helped not at all, finding life bleak and meaningless on that cold December afternoon, simply that.
Dice clattered around the smoky room.
Bloody Arab excuse for a pub, he muttered. Just bloody awful, that's what. Not an honest pint in the house and no one to drink it with anyway.
A sudden gust of air struck him. The door had opened.
A tall black man in a stately Arab cloak and Arab headgear, so black he was almost blue, stood rubbing his hands after escaping the wind. On his shoulder crouched a small ball of white fluff, some kind of little animal. The man's eyes roamed the shop looking for empty tables but there were none, only densely packed Arabs sweating over games of backgammon. Then he caught sight of the corner where O'Sullivan Beare slouched alone in the dimness. He made for the table, smiling as he sat down.
Coffee, he said to the waiter.
Dice clattered. O'Sullivan Beare's head jerked back. The smiling black man had light blue eyes.
Hey what's this, thought O'Sullivan Beare. Things just aren't supposed to be like that. Someone's up to tricks again in the Holy City. And what's that little white animal curled up on his shoulder? White as white and as furry as can be, head and tail tucked away ever so nicely out of sight.
He nodded at the black Arab.
Cold out, wouldn't you say?
Yes, you're right. And who might this little friendly creature be you're carrying around to see the sights? A traveling companion, I suppose. Seems to be sleeping soundly enough despite the wind out there. Has a wicked bite, that wind.
He's a monkey, said the black man.
Oh I see.
An albino monkey.
O'Sullivan Beare nodded again, his face serious.
Sure why not, he thought. A black Arab with a white monkey on his back? Sure, makes as much sense as anything else. Why not, I say.
A few minutes later another man entered the shop escaping the wind and the cold, this time a European, his nationality difficult to place. In his hand he carried a longbow of exquisite workmanship.
Now what's this twist? thought O'Sullivan Beare. What's going on around here? More confusion and things seem to be spinning out of control already. That item's not English for sure, not French or German or anything natural. And armed with a bow no less, just in case a spot of archery practice turns up while he's out for a stroll on a dreadful winter afternoon. Some bloody devious article up to no good in the Holy Land, that's certain. By God, it's pranks for sure and somebody's bent on something.
The man took in the tables at a glance and headed directly toward the corner where O'Sullivan Beare sat with the black Arab. Slung over his shoulder on a cord was a long cylindrical case made of red lacquer. He clicked his heels with a slight nod and sat down. An unmistakable cloud of garlic fumes engulfed the table.
Excuse me for interrupting your meditations, gents, but it seems this is the only table in the room free from backgammon. On the other hand it is a dreary afternoon. Do either of you play poker?
He looked at O'Sullivan Beare, who nodded without interest.
Yes, I daresay you must have picked it up in the army. And you, my friend?
The black Arab smiled pleasantly and spoke with a cultivated English accent.
I used to play before the war, but I'm not sure I recall the rules.
No? Well perhaps we could refresh our memories.
The European brought out a pack of cards, shuffled and dealt five to the black Arab and five to himself. He turned over his cards and set aside what he had, a pair of kings. Then he turned over the black Arab's cards and set aside what he had, a pair of aces.
You win, it's as simple as that. Care to try a deal yourself?
The black Arab clumsily put the pack back together, shuffled slowly and dealt. This time when the cards were turned over he had the same two aces as before, plus an additional one. The European had his same two kings and a third to go with them.
The black Arab smiled.
It seems I win again.
Indeed you do, murmured the European thoughtfully. A case of excellent recall. Munk Szondi's my name. From Budapest.
And that's the truth, thought O'Sullivan Beare. Devious pranks sneaking out of the mists of central Europe and lurking on every side. Right you are and I could see that mischief coming.
Cairo Martyr, said the black Arab. From Egypt, a pleasure. Tell me, what in the world is that case you're carrying?
Yes. The Japanese samurai used them in the Middle Ages. And that little creature asleep on your shoulder?
A monkey. An albino monkey.
The two men studied each other for a moment. Then the Hungarian turned back to O'Sullivan Beare who was slumped despondently over his glass, fidgeting with his Victoria Cross. With the eye of a professional military man he took in the rows of medals on the Irishman's chest.
The Crimean War, if memory holds.
It's holding all right. That was the one.
My sympathy, a truly appalling disaster. Pure folly, that charge at Balaklava. But you did survive it after all. And since that was the middle of the last century, perhaps the time has come to put aside the memory of your fallen comrades. Sadness can't bring them back, now can it.
No it can't, that's true. But all things considered I'm still feeling glum today. Gloomy and glum and that's a fact.
How so, my friend?
Don't know, do I. Just guessing though, I'd say it has something to do with having been through too much for my age. Excessive experience, I mean. It's worn me down until now I'm worn out. Here I am only twenty-one years old and I'm already a veteran of a war that was fought nearly seventy years ago. And that's a weight for a man to carry. Do you follow me?
I think so, said Munk Szondi. Are you Irish by any chance?
Not at all, not a bit of it, by no chance whatsoever. By strict calculations at the top, one of those incomprehensible decisions made by Himself and passed on to my long-suffering mother and father, he being a poor fisherman who ate mostly potatoes and had thirty-three sons, me being the youngest and the last. The name's Joe when said in short, but when proclaimed over a proper pint of stout it runs to Joseph Enda Columbkille Kieran Kevin Brendan O'Sullivan Beare, those being saints who came from my island, which isn't much of anyplace you'd ever want to be. The barren Aran Islands, they're called, because they're so rainy and windswept and so poor God didn't bother to put any soil on them, instead leaving it up to His believers to make the soil if they wanted it, figuring somebody in His universe should believe that much. Mere slips of rock in the Atlantic, that's all, outposts against the terrible tides and gales of the Western seas. And now that you know all that, you can see it's not just because of the weather that I'm sagging today. Although young I've had a stormy soilless life, if you catch my meaning.
How bad is it?
Very. Just so bloody awful I can't revive. To be honest, I think it's all over for me.
At only twenty-one?
That's apparent age. The spirit inside is dreadfully elderly and creaking, a regular tottering veteran of the wars at least eighty-five years old. The Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea, remember? I'd have to be more or less that old.
The black Arab interrupted their conversation, turning to O'Sullivan Beare.
Those moments of despair come of course, but they can be overcome. Have you ever heard of an English explorer named Strongbow?
I have. I've heard some fanciful reports on more than one occasion and some whimsical allegations too. But the truth is, he never existed. Couldn't have, impossible on any account. No Englishman was ever that daft. A myth in the neighborhood pubs of the Holy Land, no more. Mad tales conjured up by the local Arabs when they're high on their flying carpets, which is most of the time. Opium, it's called. No offense meant to present company.
The black Arab smiled.
And none taken.
Good, we're right then. Now why this reference to the mythical Strongbow who never existed?
The black Arab was about to answer when the Hungarian interrupted him. He also turned to O'Sullivan Beare.
Poker, my friend. That was the subject at hand, not Levantine fables from the last century. And speaking of the last century, why not put your painful Crimean experiences behind you and try your luck today with a spot of cards in Jerusalem? Who knows, it might well be a way of getting things started again. Well what do you think? Will you join us?
Started? said Joe. I was by way of thinking I already had started here, and what it amounts to is heavy lifting that's bloody hard on the back.
He looked down at his hands, rough from handling the giant stone scarab he used on his smuggling trips. A few days ago he had arrived back in Jerusalem with the huge scarab, its hollow bowels stuffed with a secret shipment of arms for the Haganah. And soon there would be another clandestine trip, another load of dismantled Czech rifles, more English pounds for services rendered.
Anyway, he had nothing to do that afternoon.
But there was something else that intrigued him, another possibility. The black Arab was undoubtedly a Moslem and the Hungarian must be a Jew, the Star of David in his lapel showed that.
So just what did they think they were up to in Jerusalem? Working out a little private deal between themselves, was that it? Imagining they could do in a poor Christian just because the weather was cold and gray and bloody awful, not at all what it was cracked up to be in the land of milk and honey? Just doing a quiet little turn by themselves in the Holy City? Pranks and tricks and thinking they could leave him out of the game with their albino monkeys and their samurai bows and arrows?
Hold on, said Joe, I'm in from the beginning. But shouldn't we be giving ourselves a time limit then? Just to keep the winner honest?
Cairo Martyr seemed not to care one way or the other. But Munk Szondi was evidently pondering the matter as he picked up Joe's glass, sniffed it, made a face and poured it out on the floor. He ordered three empty glasses and filled them with cognac from a flask he was carrying in his overcoat.
I just happen to have some of the real thing with me.
Of course you do, said Joe. Now what was that you were saying about a time limit? I don't think I caught it. My ears have a way of ringing sometimes, crowding out all else. It's been that way since the war.
Why? asked Munk Szondi.
That terrible tumble I took when my horse was shot out from under me during the Charge of the Light Brigade. Landed right on my head, I did, and it's never been the same since, this overworked head of mine. It seems to be under a continual siege of unknown nature, by unknown forces, and it just goes right on whistling and shouting and howling and doing all kinds of things I have no control over. But then too, that's how I survived, because my horse went down and I couldn't keep up on foot. Somewhere way back then, you see, the charge went elsewhere and I got left behind. So bless those noises in my head I say, without them I wouldn't be here. Now what manner of time limit did you mention?
The Hungarian brought out a tiny gold pocket watch and placed it in the middle of the table. He pressed the button that opened the lid and they all leaned forward.
They were looking at a blank enamel face, a full moon unmarred by hands or numbers or quarters. Munk Szondi pressed the button again and the blank face clicked back to reveal another watch, the face normal in appearance but with the minute hand moving at the speed of a second hand, the second hand a whirling blur.
I see, said Munk Szondi.
He pressed the button once more to reveal a third face, also normal in appearance but with both hands seemingly stationary. Actually the second hand was moving but with exaggerated slowness. The three men gazed at it for several minutes and in that time it had moved only a second or two.
Cairo Martyr leaned back and roared with laughter. Even O'Sullivan Beare managed to smile. With the same solemnity as before, Munk Szondi clicked all three levels closed and returned the tiny gold watch to his vest pocket. He picked up the cards and began to shuffle.
The way I see it, gents, what we have ahead of us here is a long gray afternoon. Just why we all happen to be in Jerusalem I wouldn't know, other than the obvious fact that it's everybody's Holy City. But in any case here we are on the last day of December, a cold afternoon with snow definitely in the air, a new year upon us tomorrow. So as far as I'm concerned, it doesn't much matter whether time passes slowly or quickly or not at all. How do the two of you feel about it?
Cairo Martyr laughed and cut the pack once. O'Sullivan Beare smiled despite himself and cut the pack a second time. Munk Szondi put aside his bow and arrows and the first cards of their twelve-year game went down on the boards in the Old City, in a smoky Arab coffee shop, where it all began.
Early in the game it became apparent the playing styles of the three founders couldn't have been more different.
Cairo Martyr's was the most unorthodox, since he never looked at his cards until all the betting was over, relying instead on some private law of averages to bring him his winnings. Of course he had to be always bluffing, but outsiders found it next to impossible to outguess a man who could honestly say he didn't know what he was holding.
Munk Szondi used his unique knowledge of Levantine commodities to make money. According to the rules of the game, anything of value could be used in the betting. Thus when a pile of Maria Theresa crowns and chits representing Egyptian dried fish futures were on the table, Szondi would overplay his hand simply to get the fish.
For Szondi invariably knew that Persian dinars were due to weaken in the next few days in relation to dried fish, and that a handsome profit would be his if he discounted the Maria Theresa crowns in Damascus, doubled the value of his fish futures by buying dinars on the margin in Beirut, sold a quarter and a third of each in Baghdad as a hedge against customs interference on the Persian border, and then saw to it that his courier with the fish futures arrived in Isfahan on Friday, a market day, when the fish futures would be most in demand.
Excerpted from Jerusalem Poker by Edward Whittemore. Copyright © 2002 Edward Whittemore. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword: "Edward Whittemore (1933–1995)" by Tom Wallace,
Introduction by Lesley Hazleton,
1. Jerusalem 1933,
2. Cairo Martyr,
3. Cheops' Pyramid,
4. Solomon's Quarries,
5. Munk Szondi,
6. St. Catherine's Monastery,
7. Haj Harun,
8. Joker Wild,
9. Nubar Wallenstein,
10. Sophia the Black Hand,
13. O'Sullivan Beare,
15. Sheik Ibrahim ibn Harun,
16. Venice 1933,
17. Crypt, Cobbler,
Afterword: "An Editorial Relationship" by Judy Karasik,
Preview: Nile Shadows,
A Biography of Edward Whittemore,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Of the 5 Whittemore books this one is the best. It is an amazing book and 1 of my all time favorites.
"¿..Mummy dust. Trading in futures, Religious symbols.With that kind of backing, the three men seemed unbeatable. Year after year, they stripped visitors to Jerusalem of all they owned, bewildered emirs and European smugglers and feuding sheikhs, devout priests and assorted commercial agents and pious fanatics, every manner of pilgrim in that vast dreaming army from many lands that had always been scaling the heights of the Holy City, in search of spiritual gold, Martyr and Szondi and O'Sullivan Beare implacably dealing and shuffling and dealing again" 2nd in the quartet and a nice place to start. A place where harsh surrealness(?) meets whimsical reality. Where a 12 year poker game is played for the control of Jerusalem and an insane millionaire alchemist who tries to destroy them destroy what?. Or it¿s a story of three (four?) lives, unreliable narrators all.For the characters at first loom larger than life before we scratch underneath and find them unerringly human before the heroism bleeds back in and it goes full circle. Myths and legends deserving of the sweep history from the garrulous, gun running Irish man, saved by the dancing baking priest to Harun defender of Jerusalem for 3,000 years, wearing his rusty helmet and tattered cloak living in the slipstream of memory or maybe just insanity. It doesn¿t matter much which, there is a different truth here.Of all the four it has most contrast and I think therefore most interesting. It has the myth but also heavy history and these play on each other wonderfully. Whittemore really draws you in to care about the characters. It¿s not perfect in a reread, I guess because the tension of who wins the poker game is lost, but the 1st time I was blown away. So just be prepared to relax and enjoy the ride, as he does wander off track. It's a brilliant, utterly unique book and if you go in open minded it might just break your heart. Highly recommended.